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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Moving Shadow
Joe Muggs , June 21st, 2023 08:19

Moving Shadow's entire catalogue has finally made it to streaming services. Here Joe Muggs offers ten points of entry into this groundbreaking hardcore, breaks and drum & bass label

The story of Moving Shadow is a triumph, but also a tragedy. It captures the best and worst aspects of the rave, hardcore and jungle explosion. On one hand, the white heat and unbelievable pace of innovation, the opportunities for outsiders to be recognised as creating true art, the camaraderie and breaking down of social barriers – but also the derangement and sketchy dealings that came with music which by its very nature was tied up in excess and lawlessness. All of which caused things to get very messy, very quickly.

In 1992, a university friend played me the then brand new LSD EP by Kaotic Chemistry and, eyes flashing with amphetamine urgency, told me, “This is the first British working class music genre of the modern age.” Of course you could argue this one out forever, but as he spelled out that rock, metal, ska, punk were all beholden to America or Jamaica I had to admit he had a point. The music on Moving Shadow was certainly not being made anywhere else in the world, it sounded like nothing before, and what’s more it kept sounding like nothing before as it evolved again and again.

Moving Shadow’s real glory years were short, covering barely more than half a decade. It began in 1990, in a bedroom in Stevenage, Herts, with its first release – Psychotronic EP by Earth Leakage Trip – released the following year. It’s no coincidence that many crucial nexus of hardcore rave – Boogie Times / Suburban Base in Romford, Basement Records in Reading – were in the capital’s satellite towns, occupying the liminal zones touched by the orbital raves near the M25 during 1989 and 1990. This was especially true of that north-of-London zone – Luton, St Albans, Stevenage, Milton Keynes, radiating out towards East Anglia and the Midlands – which was very fertile ground.

Budding producer Rob Playford started in classic rave style selling his own white labels out of the back of a BMW – he borrowed a book on starting a label out of the library, following it step by step. Two Hertford skate & BMX buddies and keen young DJs, Si Colebrooke and Sean O’Keeffe pestered Playford for studio time until he relented, and the three very quickly became both 2 Bad Mice and Kaotic Chemistry, producing epochal breakbeat rave anthems. From then on everything accelerated, with Colebrooke and O’Keeffe joining the label office, and an extraordinary family of artists falling together – then creatively pushing each other to new limits.

Local boy Gavin Cheung aka Nookie and Cloud 9; Blame and Justice, who met at college in Dunstable; the Northampton trio Foul Play; Suffolk’s JMJ & Richie aka Hyper-On Experience aka E-Z Rollers; Essex teenage scratch DJ prodigy DJ Trax and his group Mixrace; Hertford Virgin Megastore manager and sometime Nurse With Wound associate Rob Haigh aka Omni Trio. All these and more were experimenting with constantly-accelerating breaks and deeper bass through 1991, 1992 and 1993 – then segueing neatly into the jungle explosion of 1994 and 1995. By this time, all of these artists were making tracks with mind-boggling finesse.

From 94 onwards, Playford was also partnering with Goldie on his Rufige Kru releases, then on the immense Timeless. But the pressure of trying to follow that album up – and the money plus industry politics flooding around drum & bass, among plenty of other factors – led to friction with the rest of the Moving Shadow family, and in 1997, just around the time they reached their 100th release, there was a split, with Playford taking over running of the company single handedly, and the rest of the staff and most of the artists drifting away. MS continued for another decade, with E-Z Rollers and techstep heavyweights Dom & Roland staying in the fold and the occasional highly notable release by experimentalists in the scene like Noisia and Exile. But things petered out by 2006.

Subsequent attempts at reconciliation or reunion have been made, but Shadow’s legacy remains sadly split: Playford claims ownership of the catalogue and recently managed to get it on streaming services, but several of the artists are in dispute with him over this, while almost the entire original roster are now releasing new music along with younger artists on the Over/Shadow imprint which the other 2 Bad Mice founder members run. Over/Shadow’s quality is so great that it feels a shame that it’s separated from its parent label. It’s hard to shake off a yearning for the continuity group and the original brand to come back under the same umbrella. But unfortunately, it seems getting The Smiths and Talking Heads reformed and touring together is about as likely as closing this particular schism. Still, we can dream – and in the meantime, there is still this incredible music to explore.

Earth Leakage Trip – ‘No Idea’ from Psychotronic EP (1991)

Something that isn’t written enough into the history of the peak era of rave is just how much acid was consumed. Ecstasy was rife, and vital to the culture, yes, but the far, far cheaper option of acid and speed was just as many people’s choice. And this, the first release on Moving Shadow, was one of the most infernally hallucinatory records released in that era. The manic chant of “and the doors are where the windows should be, and the windows are where the doors should be” (from a 70s children’t record, The Happy Monsters's An Adventure In The Land Of Ooog, because of course it was) is maddening enough – but sonically its constant slurping backwards echoes and seagulls merging with synth sounds are as close to the lysergic overdrive of Coil’s Love’s Secret Domain as they are to the LFO bleep records it is most obviously descended from. It’s no surprise that one third of ELT became Crystal Distortion, a mainstay of the psychedelic Mad Max world of Spiral Tribe.

2 Bad Mice – ‘Bombscare’ from Hold It Down EP (1992)

It’s the big one – THAT organ riff echoes through to the present through so many different dance scenes, even sneaking its way into the prog and glam house scenes of the later 90s and early 00s. This one was famously written after the crew had blundered they way through some police tape into an actual bomb scare zone, and decided to capture the adrenaline rush it caused when they got back to the studio. 1992 was a grim year for IRA bombings on the UK mainland with 57 recorded attacks, so it wasn’t an exactly unprecedented experience. It’s pretty easy to read the ever accelerating and darkening strains of hardcore as a reflection of bleak realities, as the acid house dreams of the fall of the Berlin wall and Mandela’s release signalling a new era of peace gave way to the first Iraq War, rumblings of trouble in the Balkans, and recession and increased IRA activity in Britain. All that said, the scratching, subsonic throb and impeccably rolling breaks – plus THAT organ – are still defiantly celebratory.

Mixrace – ‘Too Bad For Ya (Is 180 Too Fast For Ya)’ from The Future Is Before Your Eyes EP (1992)

Mixrace were originally an Essex hip hop trio of Leke Adesoye, Dev Pandya and Dave Davies. By the time rave had kickstarted Adesoye had moved on to focus on art and design with his Aerosoul brand – notably creating the “JUNGLIST MOVEMENT” T-shirt immortalised in Human Traffic, but Pandya and Davies continued production on Moving Shadow. As with so many of the label’s mainstays it’s their hip hop / b-boy sense of excellence and technique that gave them the edge. This track, for example, takes the acceleration of hardcore to an off-the-charts extreme – even jungle, two years later, would rarely reach this tempo – but the deftness of their beat programming and snappy sample cuts and scratches means even in its total narcotic delirium there’s a wit and funk that rescues it from just being a steamhammer to the head. Davies, as DJ Trax, remained a key producer for Moving Shadow, and latterly Over/Shadow, while Pandya became Paradox, a relentlessly prolific junglist producer so skilled even Aphex Twin fawns over his drum programming.

Omni Trio – ‘Soul Promenade (Nookie Remix)’ from Vol 5 – Soul Promenade Remix (1994)

One of the key things that kept Moving Shadow distinct throughout its golden era was its preservation of the ecstatic imperative of rave no matter how everything else moved. There’s a reason that Cosmo & Dibbs’ ‘Star Eyes’, Blame’s ‘Music Takes You’, Cloud 9’s ‘You Got Me Burnin’ and Foul Play’s ‘Open Your Mind’ have never stopped being DJ peak moment go-to tracks. Maybe the most famous make-grown-men-cry anthem was Omni Trio’s 1993 ‘Renegade Snares’ – certainly you’ll still hear that in jungle-inflected sets to this day – but perhaps even more potent was this from a year later. Sex gasps, whispers of “yes yes”, strings that flow round you like warm air, descending diva vocals that completely merge sorrow and joy, bass that fills your whole body: there are few more total encapsulations of MDMA than this record. For all that people fetishise machismo and danger in jungle, this is a reminder that sensualism was everything, too.

Renegade – ‘Terrorist’ from Terrorist / Something I Feel (1994)

Colchester’s Ray Keith was already a major mover and shaker in the rave and jungle scene before he came to Moving Shadow, and only dropped one 12” with them – a collaboration with Nookie – but it was an epochal one. ‘Terrorist’ flipped the idea of piano rave on its head with a doomy, gothic line lifted from Japan’s ‘Nightporter’, plus one of the earliest uses of the oppressively droning “Reese” bass tone – offset with a funky, clonking bass line inspired by the UK street soul of Smith & Mighty. This one never stopped being a staple in jungle and drum & bass DJ sets, and its lighter, smoother flip ‘Something I Feel’ has been almost as enduring a classic.

Blame & Justice – ‘Nemesis’ from Two On One 9 (1994)

The Two On One series of split singles, released month after month in 1994, might well represent the pinnacle of production finesse on Moving Shadow – and what’s really magical about them is that this series captures the label's crew mentality. Most of the core label artists appear here, all at the peak of their powers having simultaneously graduated over the course of a couple of years from rough and ready rave to impossibly complex jungle. This, from the final release in the series, absolutely takes the piss: layers of shimmering, glassy synths and endlessly cascading showers of breakbeats practically command you to go full “cathedrals of sound” in describing it. Again it stands as a reminder that the rugged and the sensual, cyborg intellect and the potent emotion, were not conflicting drives in jungle but were part and parcel of the sound and movement. It also absolutely scrambles ravers if you play it at 33rpm, mixed into house tempo records.

Essence Of Aura – ‘So This Is Love’ from Let Love Shine Through (1995)

Part of the magic of Moving Shadow, and jungle more widely, is that such complexity and expressive depth could emerge from furious hedonism in unloved and unfunky-seeming towns. Northampton, Milton Keynes, Colchester, High Wycombe, Coventry... The latter was where the trio Essence Of Aura cut their teeth in 1990; first as a live act, cutting up breaks at raves and clubs like the notorious rave hub The Eclipse. By the time they dropped a couple of records on Moving Shadow their skills were honed allowing them to fit in perfectly alongside the established crew. This gem has all the impact of jungle contemporaries in its brutal drums, but the soul chords, harp-like ripples and Detroit techno textures somehow create a mood of stillness among it all, a capturing of those precious moments of contemplation on a dancefloor as everything is in wild movement around you.

Technical Itch – ‘The Dreamer’ from The Dreamer / Rough & Tough (1996)

By 1996 jungle as such was over and done, and was now drum & bass and splintering apart in various different directions. Moving Shadow tried its hand at the crunchy, rockist sound of techstep – for the most part it was outflanked by the crushing forces of the likes of No U Turn, Emotif and Valve records, but it definitely did it well. That included giving an early platform to Brummie Mark Caro aka Technical Itch, who stood apart from those going for maximum metallic weight by retaining a subtle funk and woodiness to his sounds even as he went for chest-crushing claustrophobia in his production. This, from his second release, captures that perfectly: it’s all about pure linear momentum at heart, but manages to keep textural fascination going on throughout.

Pulse & Tango – ‘Let The Hustlers Play’ from Let The Hustlers Play / Feeling Real (1996)

In fact, the post-1995 Moving Shadow output that sounds most impressive now is mainly the much more gentle side of things. “Jazzy drum & bass” was often scoffed at by critics looking for their fix of authentic grit, and written off as a gentrification of what had come before – but in fact it was a strand that had always been there in the mix, and contra the idea it was all for holiday adverts or dinner parties in the hands of DJs like Fabio and LTJ Bukem it still soundtracked hardcore dancing. This, from Alex Reece collaborator Pulse and the late hardcore hero Tango is the perfect example of how even among smooth Rhodes keys and sax licks, the junglist principles were still in operation. Here, the sampling is mischievous, instruments are made weird and abstract in the way the best hip hop does, and the constant shifts, rolls, flips and reverses in the breaks make it anything but anodyne.

Rob & Goldie – ‘The Shadow’ from Shadow 100 (1997)

Moving Shadow would continue under Rob Playford’s stewardship, with a fair few very fine releases in the decade that followed. But its glory days were its beginnings, its first 100 releases. And this, the 100th, kind of captures the conflict and mania that drove it, but also drove it apart. Everything about this brutal roller Playford made with Goldie is nightmarish in its tactility, it’s about horrible texture constantly moving around you, gnarled and irregular shapes whirling at inhuman velocity or slowly grinding against one another. It’s very, very dark indeed, and absolutely brilliant – perhaps a capturing of the agony that naturally came with the ecstasies of Moving Shadow, rave, jungle and drum & bass’s birth.