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Mike & Rich
Expert Knob Twiddlers (Reissue) Lottie Brazier , October 9th, 2016 08:38

The sly decision to abbreviate ‘intelligent dance music’ to IDM – presented in the early ‘90s as a much needed alternative to and reaction against rave and repetitive dance music – carefully hid a kind of elitist superiority of its champions. Both Mike Paradinas (u-Ziq) and Richard D. James (better known as Aphex Twin) have openly criticised the use of the term, and the goofy, pleasantly psychedelic humour of their co-produced Expert Knob Twiddlers is a conscious rejection of electronic music as something overly dry or sober – though not without its moments of clever-clever.

Expert Knob Twiddlers was described by Paradinas in a 1997 interview (to paraphrase) as not being particularly important to him; he’d rather have a second pass, he said, at another Mike and Rich album. But, while that never came to pass – excluding its remastering and the inclusion of new material – reissues like this one also work to show us how an overlooked album in an artist’s backcatalogue can look, while not necessarily modern, fresh in the sense that it provides in retrospect a new way of looking at the musical history that it was part of.

But, given that Richard D. James brought humour to his electronica as Aphex Twin, there is the question of what makes Expert Knob Twiddlers in any way distinct from that output. The difference here, with the added and strong presence of Mike Paradinas, is in its sonic illusion of lightness – the humour found in the pronounced acid jazz, lounge and in some ‘70s electronic influences – where the funny side of Aphex Twin material was always more visual or linguistic, the musical content leaning toward ambient melancholy regardless of the beats underpinning it. While, on Expert Knob Twiddlers, humour is the garish musical centrepiece it is important to stress that this is a surface illusion: the fact that James and Paradinas can make what is going on here sound easy is a result of musicianly skill.

Like other albums by James under Aphex Twin, Expert Knob Twiddlers draws in part from the sonic palette of Krautrock’s electronic artists, RDJ referencing Tangerine Dream as an early influence on his teenage self. And, although those bands may well have had an influence here, this is an album more comparable to Cluster’s Zuckerzeit. Listen to ‘Eggy Toast’ flitting between tinny synths and a double bass sample: it’s not too distant from the squeaky, nauseating analogue synth on Zuckerzeit’s ‘Caramel’; the chirpy swing of innocent-sounding melody on ‘Rosa’; the comic detuning of guitar on ‘Caramba’, and not to mention the album’s gummy pink typeface.

It’s not too much of a reach, then, to say that Cluster gave the poppier side of electronic music its roots in syrupy mirth, an interest in kitsch and a European acceptance of styles that Anglo-American rock musicians might have found too elevator-ish for their tastes. You might think “They weren’t using the same synths to make these albums!”, which is true – but it’s the ethos and approach to playing that carries over. Although more structured musically than their experimental influences, Expert Knob Twiddlers sounds, as the saying with Modern art goes, as if a child ‘could have done it’ - or rather two child prodigies: Mike and Rich, with their own twin-logic.

The duo play out these improvised melodies on a colourful, dated range of analogue synths, including the quickly discontinued Memorymoog. If Mike and Rich are ever showing off in skill, they are doing it most obviously on ‘The Sound of Beady Eyes’, which features a winding, funky synthesised clav melody. The juxtaposing of a ‘non-serious’ quoted melody within a complex improvisational piece is a jazz trope, with Sonny Rollins quoting ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’ with competitive undertones on Miles Davis’ Collectors Items. Although Mike and Rich do not musically quote themselves, they too juxtapose their musicianship with unexpectedly silly sounds.

During the early nineties, easy listening and jazz influences within electronic music were less of a faux pas, flaunted with early Ninja Tune releases like DJ Food’s Jazz Breaks series. This crosses over into Mike and Rich’s drum samples and horn stabs, especially on ‘Winner Takes All’. So, rather than this aspect of Expert Knob Twiddlers being unconventional at the time of its release, it was probably using sounds and ideas that would have been familiar, but choosing to go further than most of its contemporaries in terms of eclecticism; the jazz influence less opaque, executed with a greater range of synthesised, analogue sounds.

Some of the new material here was recorded at the same time as the album and a couple of tracks are new mixes. ‘Portemento Gosh’ has more of an Aphex Twin-style melody, but with the same palette of synthesised sounds found on other Expert Knob Twiddlers tracks. ‘Clissold Bathroom’, though, might as well be an Aphex Twin track. The new mix of ‘Vodka’, titled ‘Vodka (Mix 2)’ utilises different percussion samples that have a lower bass end, and this revision is a notable improvement on the original – the textures are more interesting here, but with respect paid to its original feel.

The rework of ‘Jelly Fish’ is less effective, the new beats louder in the mix, making other instrumentation less clear: although more contemporary sounding, the spontaneity has been overshadowed. Although perhaps more scatty, the original track builds in a more novel, less predictable way – the keys less prominent; more in the background. Perhaps what this reveals is less an error and more an anxiety – a worry that the album, in its original form, has dated. And it might have done a little, but there has been enough time since this release for it to sound unfamiliar in its focus. Especially considering how experimental electronic music has changed considerably since its first release in 1996, with noise, unconventional use of harmonics and drone taking over as trends from sampling, synth pads and emphasis on melody.