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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Daniel Avery's Drone Logic
Alex Maiolo , December 8th, 2023 09:15

Daniel Avery's debut album was a product of its time, completing the circle of dance music's relationship with rock and shoegaze, but still stands up today, says Alex Maiolo

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake left Los Angeles residents literally and figuratively shaken. Legendary songwriter and super-producer Desmond Child decided he needed a change of scenery, so he decamped to Miami with his partner and future husband, Curtis Shaw. There, they bought a relatively cheap house, turning the garage into a recording studio. Unlike previous spaces where Child had worked, there wasn’t room for a console or tape machines. Taking a chance on emerging digital audio workstations, aka “DAWs,” he decided to forego the gear, opting to record ex-Menudo star Ricky Martin’s new material on a computer. ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ would not only become a number one, multi-platinum smash hit, it was the first track in history to be recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely on software, or “in the box.” Usually, when Billboard requested a song’s tech list of recording console, tape machine, and mixing desk, it would read something like “Trident A-Range, MCI JH-24, Neve 8038, Studer A820,” but engineer Charles Dye proudly answered every category with “Pro Tools Software.”

Plenty of classics have been created outside of proper studios. McCartney recorded his first solo album in a spare room, armed with minimal gear and a giant bag of weed. Mitch Easter skippered R.E.M.’s Chronic Town sessions in his parents’ kitted out garage. Indie touchstones by Sebadoh, and Guided By Voices, were dubbed straight to cassette, on consumer-grade 4-Track machines. The sonic qualities of these masterpieces vary wildly, and often “real studios” were booked for the finishing touches. They possessed a rawness and charm the big-budget numbers lacked, but they weren’t slick. ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ changed all of that. Soon, anyone with exceptional ideas and a decent computer could compete. The fidelity gap had narrowed considerably, and things cracked wide open.

Congruent with this computing power explosion were the last days of a certain type of music tribalism. Enduring the scrutiny of a clerk straight outta High Fidelity became optional, owing to file sharing, and the ability to discover most of the world’s music from the privacy of one’s own home. Trips to the record store were often driven by international chat group recommendations, rather than bottleneck tastemakers, some of whom were benefiting from payola schemes. This new paradigm is the world in which Daniel Avery would come of age.

By the time Avery released his debut album, Drone Logic, in October of 2013, he had been in rock bands, and active in a scene that would greatly influence the music he’d eventually make. This included DJing at large clubs, like Fabric, releasing mixtapes, but also working shifts at London’s Pure Groove Records store, where the team of Kelly Lee Owens, James Greenwood (aka Ghost Culture), and Avery assembled into the robust, three-legged stool of mutual support that still exists today. The three have been deeply involved with each others’ output. In every way, Drone Logic feels like the culmination of this input, while also marking the beginning of something new.

At this time, arguably a lot of electronic releases were getting, perhaps, a little too “in the box.” Effects, virtual instruments, and software meant to replicate the sounds of ye olde circuits were being used exclusively. Songs became too quantized, tempo mapped, and corrected to the point of blandness. The last bits of soul were deemed absent in DAW projects, particularly those aimed at commercial radio. Desmond’s child had become an enfant terrible.

To what degree this drove Avery’s decisions when he started working on Drone Logic is unknown, but the driving mantra to “make this music sound as human as possible” is part of the album's creation story. Of paramount importance was getting out of the box, when it would have been all too easy to rely on free drum machine programs. Every Mac released since 2004 has shipped with Garageband, a simple DAW packed with virtual instruments, loops, and effects.

Instead, Avery relied on long out of production synths like Roland’s SH-101 and Korg’s Mono/Poly for not just melodies, arpeggios, and bass lines, but drums as well. Pioneers like Jean-Michel Jarre, Giorgio Moroder, and of course Kraftwerk, had done this during the early days of synthesis, when gear was wildly expensive, but also limited. However, other than the occasional kick drum or white noise snare, most of the rhythms used on now-classic electronic tracks a 90s kid would have been exposed to had been created using drum machines, or with sampled loops. Avery often opted to dial in percussion sounds on his synths, playing them freehand.

The importance of the DAW lay in the fact that this system offered Avery substantially more tracks than tape would have. Plus, the best takes were easily cut, copied, and pasted on a whim, not terribly different than on a word processor. Bursts from a self-oscillating Roland tape echo could be threaded together into a clever motif for a song like ‘Knowing We’ll Be Here’. A few stabs of a chord memory bass line, played with the right amount of swing, could be repeatedly dropped into place throughout an entire song, then processed. Whole sections could be edited, moved, pondered upon, abandoned, and revisited. Multiple tracks of synth percussion, and recorded live sounds, were arranged, nudged, locked to a grid, or aggressively swung in the other direction, then mixed to a single rhythm track with no complications. Overdubs weren’t destructive, and no decision was permanent when Control-Z could instantly take you back in time. Methods like these were both high and low tech at the same time. The confluence of HiFi and DIY.

This would have been borderline impossible in the tape era. Editing to that degree would have both destroyed the medium, and cost an ungodly sum in studio time. Much has been written about musicians like Brian Wilson “using the studio as an instrument” but that was the domain of mega-privileged, considering the price tag of studio day rates. With DAWs, any idea could be rendered quickly and for nearly free. Replacing clock-watching and budgets were non-billable time and the burden of choice.

It’s also unlikely a 20-something would have been encumbered by the discipline that came with training in classic studios on expensive gear. This presented a rules-free environment, where failure wasn’t costly, label recoupables weren’t considered, and happy accidents could flourish. Why not try… anything?

All of this made low budget, high quality records like Drone Logic possible for the first time in history, generally speaking. It’s probably not the first post-democratization record to be made this way, but it’s arguably the first to be so creative and cohesive.

Avery’s projects up to this point had shown he possessed great gifts and good taste, which was essential when it came to fabricating new artistic freedoms into something meaningful. Drone Logic certainly channels a great number of influences, but how they manifest themselves is another story. Cuts from it sit comfortably next to tracks by Autechre, Aphex, anything off of Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series, and early techno, but also early shoegaze. That lo-res Thames Valley warble is still in use, appearing on his latest LP, Ultra Truth.

It all feels like the closing of a circle, when you consider the impact electronic music had on bands like My Bloody Valentine, Seefeel, and Slowdive. Likewise, guitar music is intrinsically linked to the output of Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, and Future Sound of London. These boomeranged back into the works of Daniel Avery and his contemporaries. The common thread is all of this music, and what it ultimately spawned, is positively mind-bending. Drone Logic can be classed as electronic, or even techno, but above all it is a psychedelic record. It’s a new entry into that history, even if it doesn’t warrant the biggest chapter. It certainly felt like Avery was destined for great things, meriting a “most likely to work with Alessandro Cortini” caption in the yearbook.

Related, the influence of Andrew Weatherall, a guy with feet in both the rock and electronic worlds, can’t be overstated. His fearless boundary smashing and “above all, be yourself” modus operandi clearly inspired his progeny. While Drone Logic feels curated, it also lacks pretension. It’s music for connoisseurs, but in a modern sense, the way food writing has recently become less rarified, and more about enthusiastically sharing news about the high quality goods.

Sure, ‘These Nights Never End’ couldn’t exist without the acid tracks that preceded it, but coupled with sidechained ambient noise, and Basinski-style oxide flake warble, it becomes something unique. Like most of the constructions on Drone Logic, it honours references not by copying them shamelessly, but rather adding to the conversation. This is exceedingly rare with anything that doubles as dance music. Much of modern techno has become an exercise in minimalism; pure Jet-A designed to fuel an entire night of meccanik dancing. Tracks like ‘Free Floating’ and ‘Water Jump’ feel like songs, inspired by the first two waves of techno, when funk was still part of the deal.

That’s until the disorienting smears reminiscent of the glide guitar on Isn’t Anything and Loveless show up. The album’s 120 bpm title track grooves hard, with “pea soup-pea soup” hi-hats. Wait, is this disco?

Any four-on-the-floor beats are complemented with ghost rhythms and animated accents, avoiding cliché entirely. Passages shift from reverb-soaked to bone-dry, then back, not just to emphasise a lyric, but to change the entire feel of a song on a dime. This sets up the first few bars of ‘Need Electric’, foreshadowing where it and its companion, ‘All I Need’, are about to take us. It’s a production technique employed as a leitmotif, and incredibly effective, transporting the listener back and forth between the bedroom and club in a flash.

Even when the beats are straightforward, like the dotted eighths-driven ‘Naive Response,’ eventually something has to give, so a new idea will surface. The groove isn’t broken, it just gets weirder. While softer interstitial moments on diverse records lazily classified as techno aren’t unheard of, few stand up as well as ‘Platform Zero’, which sounds like Tangerine Dream’s attempt at a lullaby, before it self-destructs. Much of the second half of Drone Logic is an introspective affair. Presenting itself like the winter section of an album that’s possibly developing into a song cycle, things then reawaken with the motorik kinetics of ‘New Energy - Live Through It’.

One characteristic that makes acts like Underworld top-notch is some rockists can get down with them too. The naysayers are easily identified when they drop the gaffe label of “electronica” after uttering “I don’t like…” When the “but” drops, though, it’s usually followed by a list including DJ Shadow, Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack and the aforementioned Essex-based duo. Daniel Avery seemed destined to be a member of this crossover coterie out of the gate. Many of the songs on it are pocket-sized adventures, not unlike ‘Cups’, or ‘Juanita’. It’s why Drone Logic is one of those records that nudged people who “don’t really like dance” from exclusively being UNCUT readers to “checking out this Resident Advisor thing I keep hearing about”.

There is a confidence stitched into Drone Logic that is unusually mature for a first full-length, giving it the feel of a concept record, intentional or not. The digital age has allowed track sequencing to follow the path the creator desires, unfettered by running time, and album side length restrictions, but that’s not always a good thing. It’s incredibly ambitious to drop a debut that’s well over an hour long, but at no point does Drone Logic stray from the plot, or become tedious. Terms like “modern classic” get tossed around pretty liberally, but Drone Logic qualifies. It portended a new wave of genre bending, rooted in electronics. It’s a product of its time, which couldn’t have existed prior to it, and has aged exceptionally well.

Drone Logic is reissued by Phantasy today