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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Electribe 101's Electribal Memories
Joe Muggs , March 15th, 2024 09:23

A timely reissue of a UK house classic LP helps challenge rockist (and IDMist) notions of lasting worth in dance music, says Joe Muggs

It’s funny how certain truisms carry with them some pretty heavy assumptions. Take “dance music is not an album genre,” for example. You don’t hear it so much these days, now that electronic music is omnipresent and the barriers to making an album are small-to-nonexistent – but back in the heyday of acid house and rave it was a constant refrain. And why not? After all, dance culture was demonstrably built on the DJ set and the 12” single as the primary methods of consumption, with many anonymous or producer-led acts simply making a track or two then either disappearing for good or dissolving and reconvening as part of other temporary projects. For many, being “not an album genre” was something to be proud of even: the ebb and flow of mix and remix, of artist identity, of DJ being more important than performer, was all part of the postmodern fun and set the culture apart from the old ways of doing things.

But then from about 1992, along came Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy (punky, post-rave incarnation), Leftfield, Orbital, Underworld, and suddenly it was an album genre. And again, why not? These artists provided visual branding, live shows, all the stuff that allowed them to slot into existing critical frameworks. The inky press was happy and could paint it as dance music coming of age, and a canon began to form – those same few familiar LP sleeves that would pop up in Best Albums Of All Time lists for decades to come. But there was a problem with this narrative: British dance music had in fact been making great albums all along. It’s just that those albums hadn’t been made by uniformly rock press friendly acts who just happened to also be uniformly heterosexual white guys.

Between 1988 and 1991, enduringly great LPs of British dance music were made by Bomb The Bass, Coldcut, S’Express, Bang The Party, A Man Called Adam, The Grid, Jesus Loves You (the acid house alias of Boy George, and very possibly his best work), No Smoke, Coil, Yazz, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald… It’s a slightly more diverse lineup than the canonical arena-dance albums of the 90s, right? And right in the middle of that fell this album, originally released in 1990, by a quartet of Brummie club promoters and studio heads and a vocalist from Hamburg via Berlin. Birgit Dieckmann, aka Billie Ray Martin, was also singing for S’Express around the time Electribe 101 formed, and she crashed into the baggy, bright optimism of the acid era with a sharp androgynous style and Weimar cabaret fierceness.

Martin’s intensity wove perfectly into Electribe 101’s deep understanding of American house as an evolution of disco and modern soul, reasserting its innate queerness and Black roots even as the acid house explosion was establishing British dance culture as a white, mainly straight, boys’ club. But it wasn’t just an imitation; it was built with the understanding that the creators of Chicago, Detroit, New York and New Jersey were already in dialogue with European electronic music. And this wasn't just in terms of technique but in the creation of mood as well. The best early house and techno tended to be suffused with an overt bittersweetness born of a synergy between the arch post punk/gothic aspect of Euro-electronics and the deep blues of African American tradition. So it was perfect that Billie Ray Martin’s voice sat somewhere between Adeva and Crystal Waters on one side of the Atlantic and Yazoo-era Alison Moyet and Jimmy Somerville on the other. (Ironically it’s when Martin uses her highest register – which is sparsely but devastatingly deployed in Electribe 101 songs – that she is at her most androgynous as a vocalist: more 'Smalltown Boy' or 'Mighty Real' than traditional house diva.)

Electribal Memories hits that deep sweet spot of melancholy from the get go. The synthetic piano bassline that begins 'Talking With Myself' is the blues reincarnated through house music, while BRM’s lyrics, voice and melodic repetition are filled with deep, pained yearning. “With the stars so bright and the light shine down / And everything glows all around / And a wonder world and a perfect time for loving” could almost be happy-clappy, hands-in-the-air stuff but in context it’s about the way desire renders the every day strange and numinous – and there’s a melancholy to that yearning. The spiritual side is ramped up even more on the next track 'Lipstick On My Lover', which builds from a skeletal electronic start through the song to a coda of gospel-style organ. It’s warm, it’s funky, but the mood – matching the “can’t get along without your love” refrains – is complex: love always contains the possibility of loss, and ecstasy in its truest sense is a loss, a dissolution of self.

It’s like this throughout. There is a constant poetry to lyrics that make expressions of sexual or emotional love turn hallucinatory – imagery shimmers, glows, blurs, flips around, doubles up – making the familiar unfamiliar and revealing contradictions and unexpected depth. The mood is consistent, whether the tempo drops below house BPMs as they do on 'You’re Walking' and the street soul adjacent 'Heading For The Night', or when we hit the epic, psychedelic, boho-Balearic title track. The cover version of Odyssey’s 1982 disco classic 'Inside Out' is inspired; the process of deep-housification further teasing out the eeriness and strangeness of already out-there sexualised metaphors. Though the mood remains consistent like a distinctive perfume, each song reveals themes as if from a different angle, emphasising different facets. As such, it really is a proper album.

However, it is also dance music from dance culture first and foremost. The tracks are meant to be blended, extended, altered and played with, and even in its original incarnation it did pick away at the monolithic album form. Electribal Memories was different on LP and CD – that title track only appearing on the latter, along with a couple of remixes by US house gods Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard. And almost every track ended up on 12”s variously remixed, extended or edited – thus the abundance of extra material for this 4CD re-release. Those versions further extend and expand the mood, and also serve as perfect illustration of how house continued its transatlantic dialogue post-1988, not only with London and Manchester, but Leeds, Glasgow and other UK cities, joining their US counterparts in the development of the music, providing stages for the likes of Heard and Knuckles to develop their styles.

Electribal Memories has some flaws. The production is of its time. If you listen with ears tuned to modern standards the drum hits and synth patches sound occasionally thin and there’s a preponderance of signifiers pulling back towards the well of the eighties (hello “orchestral stab” presets). Indeed, as we discovered just a couple of years ago, Electribe 101 had a superior – or certainly more mature in terms of production and songwriting – album in them: the follow-up Electribal Soul which got shelved thanks to major label malarkey and remained unreleased until 2022. Nevertheless Electribal Memories is a thing of beauty, a work of true world-building, and the more you listen to it, the more those era-specific sonics fade into the background and much deeper cultural and emotional forces make themselves felt.

The quality of the many versions collected here – including lush, luxuriant takes from Heard and Knuckles, a fantastic acid version of 'Talking' by UK producers Blacksmith, and a previously unreleased Mantronix swing beat mix of 'Inside Out' – is undeniable. Whether in order, on shuffle, or playing fantasy football recreating the album running order with preferred mixes, it expands the world of Electribal Memories. In fact, experiencing these songs like this expands the world of Britain’s dance music from that era too, showing just how evolved it was. It can only be hoped that reassessment of records like this will make us appreciate our living traditions as a little richer and more diverse too.

Electribe Memories is out today