Sure to turn any party or casual get-together into a serious case of “Hey, man, what’s that spinning?”, Black Label Series Vol. 1 is about as arresting an electronic/dance music compilation as you’ll find. Culled from 2005’s first batch of the German label Compost’s series of vinyl EPs, this baker’s dozen of tracks doesn’t just go beyond the refined, jazzy electronica you might expect; it goes above, below, beneath, and around it. After all, LCD Soundsystem, Tiga, and Q Burns Abstract Message can’t all be wrong, can they? And they’ve all sung their praises of the Black Label series.
One important element is the folks at Compost have established a clear direction and aesthetic for Black Label. The compilation is eclectic enough to hold even the casual listener’s interest, but never overreaches for the sake of being “weird” or “different.” It’s a tough balance to strike, and one that eludes so many careless-sounding electronica comps these days. So, while you get elements of house, funk, soul, Intelligent Dance Music, jazz, and more, it all holds together. There’s a definite late ’80s-early ’90s influence going on. The elements from Chicago house, Detroit techno, industrial, and early hip-hop are skewed and stewed together enough to shut out the “r**ro” word; still, everything sounds like it could have been produced perfectly had synthesizer and computer technology frozen around 1990. Thus, fluffy new age presets and schizophrenic Cubase editing are minimal or absent altogether. What’s left is raw, electro-infused groove music.
On Zwicker’s “Made Up”, the compilation’s one true pop song, vocalist Olivera Stanimirov gets the dispassion just right as she calls out today’s brand of female pop star/corporate construct: “Made a move, did some faking / Some fake ass-shaking…/ I can see when someone’s faking.” The accompanying laid-back electro-funk is appropriately ironic and, well, poppy. Imagine Client/Ladytron with better vocals and John Taylor on bass: Pure pleasure.
Most of Black Label isn’t that easy to pin down. Flowerz’ “All Tonight” lofts a cascading house-style piano line atop a two-step rhythm, syndrums, and simple, soulful vocal samples. Trickski’s “Hormony” starts out with a heavily phased hip-hop backbeat and adds chattering percussion and blaxploitation synth-horn bursts. Then it breaks down into a gorgeous, two-note synth line, restarts in double-time with a throbbing bassline, breaks down again into staccato synth zaps, and then puts it all together. Oh, and there’s a cowbell. In an ingenious case of musical coitus interruptus, Minus 8’s “Solaris” winds up toward what you think’s going to be the Biggest Blow-Up Ever and drops nothing but a lone synth line. Phreek Plus One’s “Boogie Beat” is straight-up Chicago House … until the wah-wah’d Rhodes and guitar kick in. That’s the kind of ride you’re in for here, and yet it’s a surprisingly easy one to take.
If Black Label is a joyride, then Tyree Cooper & Matt Flores/Goosebumpz’s “Close Life Off” is the slo-mo hill-jumping moment. Chill synths, pulsing bass, and interlocking grooves command your body while spoken-word vocals encouraging you to “view the world from a different perception” take care of your mind. If all dance music were this wickedly groovy and sublime, no one would need ecstasy. Try doing the Night at the Roxbury head-nod to this. It’s fun as hell.
A few of the non-highlights do merely mark time, albeit in a sonically interesting way. And the closing pair of jazzy numbers, meant to facilitate a comedown, are only an anticlimax. Still Black Label Series Vol. 1 is one of those rare cases when a move outside your chosen electronica/dance music niche may be necessary. Just as it defies categorization, it demands your attention.