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Theo Parrish
American Intelligence Albert Freeman , December 11th, 2014 12:43

American Intelligence: there it is, right on the jacket, and behind the lettering, a portrait of the artist. On the staid front cover, he stares intently at the camera and thus at those looking at the object, while on the back he is turned to the side and head thrown back, mouth agape, perhaps a sorrowful interjection escaping his lips, or perhaps caught in the feverish, soulful expression of his music. This is after all Theo Parrish, and the obvious confrontational nature of the artwork and the title is not an isolated occurrence, but rather an increasing tendency in the work of a musician who has taken the slowest possible ascension to a well-deserved following that now borders on religious. He's been at it since 1987 as a teenager and then more prolifically from 1996 onwards after relocating to Detroit, and Theo has never shied away from confrontation, although for the first decade and more he was too little known to achieve much time in the spotlight.

Nor is it likely that this title refers solely to the music contained within. Parrish was after all one of the only underground musicians to make a vocal, recorded response to the US government's treatment of the September 11th attacks – the one-sided white label 'Major Moments Of Instant Insanity' – and to make it hit hard as well, sampling Marvin Gaye and, in a climate of chest-beating patriotism and fear-mongering, suggesting that the treatment of the issue at home had been more than a bit shortsighted and misdirected. Courage is one thing Theo Parrish has always had, and given the misguided geo-political meddling the United States government has been busy dirtying its hands in since Theo's first missive on the issue, there is a strong suggestion that the kind of intelligence he's referring to goes past the challenging music on this album and deep into the problems that increasingly plague not only his adopted hometown of Detroit, but the United States in general. For right now, he isn't going to get overly specific about it, but pay attention to recent interviews or some of his incisive track titles  ('S.T.F.U. ', 'Any Other Styles') and the agenda becomes quite clear.

Theo is definitely dissatisfied with the state of house music and DJing, and while, listening to his previous work, it's difficult to think he was ever very content with it, it's also clear that his dissatisfaction is building and taking form. It was long ago, in 2004, circa the birth of his Rotating Assembly live project, that Parrish began seriously questioning not just the forms but also the techniques of house and integrating an increasing amount of live performance into his tracks with frequent guest musicians appearing. He's not alone in this, as Detroit cohort Moodymann took a similar tact, but the results in Theo's case were far more radical, eventually finding him sitting in session with Tony Allen and creating music that, for all of its clear roots in Motown and funk, explodes the definition of what can be called house. Simultaneously, his electronic tracks have become cleaner and more sublimely arranged or transformed into whirling dervishes of demented acid with disgruntled overtones. There's no room for accident in the bifurcation going on. He's pushing the limits any way he can, and American Intelligence is the gauntlet thrown down, a long-awaited album from an artist with a thick track record of masterpieces that essentially ignores almost all current trends in dance music to deeply forge its own sound and almost its own genre. If this is Theo's idea of the future, it's a rich one, but the route isn't going to be easy.  

Similar to his already-classic 2008 album Sound Sculptures Vol. 1, there's substantial trimming from the LP to the double CD version, and in the case of 'Life Spice', and '…There Here' it can be argued the losses are substantial, especially by missing some of the more politically pointed commentary on the album. "What makes you think this country has changed? It's like a department store window… changing clothes on a mannequin… putting a new display up… Everything is for sale," intones the voice on the minimalist funk workout 'Thug Irony', a characteristically bleak assessment of American politics coming from one of the country's most blighted cities. Unusually, the LP has chosen to include a shortened edit of 'Footwork', the already-widely celebrated single from the summer whose even stronger B-side also appears on the CD. For the most part, however, the LP tracks are main substance of the album, and all of the greatest stylistic stretches are included there.  

While it's missing most of the extended instrumental break, the subdued album edit of 'Footwork' and A2 'Cipher Delight', consisting of little more than a pure drum machine workout, are a telling opening for what follows. 'Make No War' goes even further, using the endlessly repeating vocal sample 'When we go a dance/we no make no war" in a way that mimics the insistent looping of footwork, but with much more complex instrumental and musical backing that continuously shifts around the sample to pull it in and out of focus. The three side-long efforts that close the album, 'Fallen Funk', 'Be In Yo Self', and 'Helmutlamshade', and the ten-minute 'Ah', titled after its wordless vocal, stretch the structure of Theo's house music past the breaking point into sounds that, while rooted in Parrish's production background, have more in common with dusky Detroit live funk sessions from the Motown era, albeit with consistently adventurous playing on the part of both Theo and his guests. It's easy to hear the soul jazz roots in the esoteric basslines and harmonies in these pieces, an area where Theo has always has always been deeply interested but which rarely emerged as clearly as it does here. He also uses his own vocals intermittently throughout, adding yet another human touch to music dripping in organic soul and improvisatory flair.

It's not necessary to be able to cleanly pick out more recent Detroit musical developments in an album that pointedly titles itself American Intelligence; they're obviously there, and Theo Parrish is searching further back and further afield in black cultural accomplishment to create his own densely interwoven sonic tapestries. Track by track, there's more happening here than he's ever attempted before, and the rare moments – 'Drive', 'Fallen Funk', the opening pair of tracks – things land in a more conventionally recognisable house sound still launch themselves miles past what almost any of his contemporaries are capable of. Theo's music remains idiosyncratic to a fault, and especially this is more appropriately heard in environs where its myriad complexities and depth can be truly appreciated. Without a doubt it is his most difficult album to-date, and probably not the best assembled, but so far as putting distance between himself and his closest contemporaries, it could easily be another decade before many grasp the full implications of his newest accomplishments. Groundbreaking albums like this are only occasionally clean affairs, and his assessment of the current state of dance music provides an intriguing alternative view to those of the many experimentalists on the opposite side of the Atlantic gaining notice.  

With improvisation and live performance having made a forceful resurgence in electronic music, it is certainly valuable work to be making explicit the connections between current developments and historical accomplishments. The roots of black musical tradition in Detroit are very deep, and the recent pedestrian interpretations barely scratch the surface. Theo Parrish is a rare artist whose work is deeply connected with the past while remaining firmly trained on the future, and while American Intelligence will surely remain an outlier and the product of the unique mind that created it, his visionary ideas towards continuing to push music forwards, now, a decade ago, or for the foreseeable future, stand without serious doubt.

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