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μ20 Bob Cluness , September 22nd, 2015 12:53

It's intriguing to think today just how much Planet Mu, the label that has been run unwaveringly on the independent fringes by Mike Paradinas for 20 years, has been an important beacon for many in numerous electronic music genres. For me at least, taking a cursory look at my recent music purchases seems to highlight just how much Mu has come to feature in my decisions on what I buy. The last month alone saw me buy RP Boo's Fingers, Bank Pads, And Shoe Prints, and Ekoplekz's Reflekzionz, while a week before at a yard sale, I came across a good vinyl copy of In Pine Effect, the 1995 album by Mike Paradinas aka µ-Ziq and one of the first release on the label, while it was still a subsidiary of Virgin Records.

While the breadth of Planet Mu's oeuvre over the last two decades is frankly staggering, you can point to at least three phases in the label's history. The first saw Mu as a guardian and curator of rave and hardcore's legacy, releasing music from artists such as Jega, Venetian Snares, and Shitmat, as well as Paradinas' own recordings as µ-Ziq. The second phase, through Mu's 2003 reissue compilation of Remarc's Sound Murderer, saw the label moving into the world of grime and dubstep, with releases from Mark One, Vex'd, May Anne Hobb's Warrior Dubs compilation and 12"s from Darqwan, Pinch, and Benga. The current phase sees Mu being the vanguard in the impact that footwork has made to electronic music over the last half decade, from the label's Bangs & Works compilations of juke and footwork producers, to artists whose music has felt its influence, such as Kuedo, and Machinedrum. At the heart of all this is Paradinas himself, exerting a level of individual quality control and far reaching insight towards releasing artists not seen since the days of 4AD's Ivo Watts-Russell.

With 20 years under its belt, we now see Mu release μ20, a 3 CD, 50 track compilation of artists who've released on the label, along with a special 100 page book on the label's history written by Rory Gibb. As with the Mu's idiosyncratic nature, μ20 is a compilation that eschews the usual rules of the compilation game. Instead of being a mere "greatest hits" package, Paradinas sifted through hundreds of unreleased tracks from artists, selecting cuts that range from the newly produced to obscure selections from the artist's dusty archives. μ20 also doesn't go down the chronological route-as-evolution in the track selection. The first 2 CDs are pretty much a map of the label as it is now and where it looks to be heading, while the 3rd CD (available in the deluxe version with the book), concentrates of some of the artists who released music on the label in its first year of existence.

You can hear the vast scope of the musical terrain μ20 is trying to cover the first two CDs alone. While footwork is one of the main underpinning sounds to be heard - with tracks from RP Boo, DJ Diamond, DJ Nate, Traxman, and Jlin – the compilation take pains to display the diversity of the label's roster over the last few years. Among the jungle, footwork and breakcore on CD 1 for example, there is a 3-track sequence that highlights much of the oneiric quality that marks Mu's current output, with phantasmal murk of Mr Mitch, the corroded dubs of Ekoplekz, and the faded melancholy of Claude Speeed. Other tastes and sounds are also catered to, such as techno (Ital's 'Digi Dub'), synth pop (Miracle's 'Strange Taste') and grime (Terror Danjah's remix of Swindle's 'Airmiles'). Out of all these tracks, it's John T. Gast's original version of 'Congress' that really makes your ears pick up; its gnarly, warped sounds and discombobulated vocal samples making me go back and listen to his Excepts album again in full.

The actual footwork on offer in μ20 is surprisingly a bit of a mixed bag. While DJ Diamond's 'Dozin' isn't that impressive, RP Boo's 'Azzoutof Control' keeps it old skool simple, Jlin & Fawkes' 'Ankou Celeste' blends Fawkes' chopped, elegiac female vocals with a swinging rhythm to devastating effect. There is also very little actual dubstep in the compilation, with Vex'd's 'Firestar' making a lone appearance (along with Mark One's 'Dirty Birds' on CD 3).

With CD 3, there are some really interesting nuggets being dredged up from the catacombs. The opening track, Jega's '103', is a spindly, narcoleptic version of his track 'Nia' which, considering that was produced at breakcore speed, is merely slowed down to a brisk skip. From there we have the pulsing, vibrant beats of The Gasman's '2Teq-10', and the heavy Aphex vibes of Remano Eszildn's 'Contax', and Mrs Jynx's 'Coral Face'. Hrvatski's 'Glass' and Ed Laws' 'Chain 1 & End' meanwhile are both terrifying examples of electroacoustic manipulations and grimy musique concrete.

As with everything concerning Planet Mu, μ20 sees Paradinas personal productions feature heavily, through his alter ego Frost Jockey and his group projects Heterotic and Slag Boom Van Loon. He also has two tracks on the compilation as µ-Ziq, one from his early days (1997's 'Improper') and one he made last year ('Cherk'). The difference between the two is staggering. While 'Improper' contains stuttering drum syncopations and off-kilter string and brass keyboard sounds, 'Cherk' is a fully fledged 4-to-the-floor techno thumper, albeit with the same uncanny approach to sound atmospherics

It's fair to say with such as varied collection of sounds from disparate sources, µ20 doesn't make it easy on the listener. After spending two hours of being buffeted by a dizzying array of beats and sound textures, listening to the third CD, with its wilful experimentalism, was almost too much on the first listen. It took me a little while to properly adjust. But this is a testament to the dogged determination and personal taste that Paradinas has applied over the years with Mu. While other labels that have survived from that period, such as Warp, Ninja Tune and XL, have, for the most part, settled into a careful, almost stately form of artisan taste management, Paradinas is still out there on the frontiers, a seeker for the singular and the outlandish, artists whom we often find ourselves gushing over a few years after Planet Mu has given them their first exposure. µ20 does as good a job as it can to articulate such a mind-set.