Love Bytes: Artists Choose Their Favourite Music By The Black Dog

To mark the year in which Spanners was reissued, musicians such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Mike Paradinas and Call Super heap praise on IDM/ ambient rave pioneers The Black Dog

Earlier this year two key records from the deep recesses of Warp’s back catalogue were reissued: Black Dog Productions’ Bytes (1993) and Spanners (1995) by The Black Dog; the latter of which is riding high in our Quietus Reissues etc. Of The Year 2023 chart.

The Black Dog were an electronic trio formed in 1989 around Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner but they also formed Black Dog Productions as a label during the same year in order to release their own music. A clutch of groundbreaking EPs brought them to the attention of several labels, including Sheffield-based powerhouse, Warp, who released their debut proper Bytes, albeit under the name of Black Dog Productions, which, as we know, was also the name of their own record label. It’s a Black Dog album but tracks were credited to the likes of Close Up Over, Xeper, Balil, Discordian Popes and, most significantly, Plaid. [This is a name that Andy Turner and Ed Handley produced together under in parallel to The Black Dog after 1991 and it became their main creative focus after they split from Downie in 1995.]

Confused? Well, it’s arguably understandable and it’s also arguable that perhaps this use of multiple project names was better suited to a solo producer with a huge archive of pre-recorded material such as Richard D. James than it was to a new collective of three musicians. Either way The Black Dog is one of those key British electronic groups, founded at the outset of the 90s, ahead of the curve in their hybridisations, that perhaps doesn’t get mentioned in the media quite as frequently as it should.

But via a clutch of vital releases – especially their third album Spanners and EPs such as Virtual, Vir²l and Parallel – we can still clearly discern them as key, innovative figures in the (delete according to taste) IDM/ braindance/ ambient techno/ electronic home listening explosion of the early 90s and beyond. (They in fact appear on the contentious but highly influential compilation album Artificial Intelligence (1992) as The Clan, one of the many artist names later compiled on Bytes.)

We spoke to a number of musicians about what their favourite tracks and releases by The Black Dog are.
John Doran

I love it when music feels like an aerial view of an ecosystem made up of converging conversations from creatures I never knew existed! The album Bytes by The Black Dog has so many nostalgic dance vibes mixed with the sounds of lifeforms and 80s video game; all of it exploring a new level of energy. ‘Yamemm’ goes to so many places! I also love when music feels like you are voyaging through a terrain and this song does that for me; it has incredible production! It sounds so good on a hi-fi sound system. ‘Object Orient’ would be such a good soundtrack to a video game. I mix all my own music and really appreciate how well placed every sound is on this album – every time I listen to it I am internally taking notes on how to organize frequencies better.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

What even is going on in ‘Cost II’? It’s ambient, it’s got that house groove going on. It’s got this whole weird, experimental vibe, but at the same time, it’s just dripping with emotion. It’s like a massive cosmic soup of all these different sonic elements just thrown together, and somehow, it all just clicks and balances out perfectly. I mean, seriously, how do you even go about crafting a track like that?
Simo Cell

For me it was all about ‘VIR²L’ and ‘Virtual’. Around that time I was releasing material as The 7th Plain on the same label, Warp, and I remember getting the ‘VIR²L’ 12" from them and it blew me away. The piano chord/ keyboard riff and the mood of the breaks. It was quite special really. There was a lot of what was called ‘electronica’ around at the time but I always found a sense of timing and rhythm on the early Black Dog records that signalled something special.
Luke Slater

Picking a favourite The Black Dog track or record is almost impossible. I was working in a record shop when IDM exploded, and they were so important for people like me who still had a big foot in the shoegaze scene. I think if I could only keep one, it would be [Black Dog Production] ‘3/4 Heart’ by Ball, which is one of the most epic tracks – alongside ‘Psil-Cosyin’ on Spanners – from the Bytes compilation. I actually remember some of the people who bought this from us! These tracks have never really left but have been resurfacing with a new strength… just ask Vladimir Ivkovic about it. I also sometimes think their more recent stuff gets neglected; ‘Let’s All Make Brutalism’ is a great track from last year.
Ivan Smagghe

One constant of The Black Dog is that their music is indissociable from its environment. The band emerged in post-industrial post-Thatcher Britain. I grew up in Saint Etienne, France, also a post-industrial city often mocked for its sinister ugliness. As a student, I moved to Glasgow, then settled in Berlin in 2010. While these cities have different history, they share the common DNA of those who have lost so much they have nothing more to lose. All faced, at one point, the challenge to build a future from the ashes. Without giving in to hasty comparisons, it’s fair to assume that Sheffield – like Berlin, like Detroit – became a fertile playground for artists who saw beauty in the grey, and machines as potential soulmates to imagine the future. Picking one track somehow goes against what The Black Dog’s music is about, music that shouldn’t be isolated from its environment, its history, and where the changes of cast cannot be totally ignored either. Dadavistic Orchestra is a collaboration between The Black Dog and ex-Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia members and their album Document .02 is not music designed for flimsy earplugs. The bass is massive – hello Sheffield! The textures are otherworldly and the melodies masterfully ambiguous. It’s cinematic; though the term would be misleading if it implied there was some kind of plot behind the music. The sonics here are completely evanescent; they get me floating through the full spectrum of human emotions. Spanners felt like an excursion within cyberspace – entering and exiting chat rooms, riding the flux of multiple data exchanges in blissful chaos, lulled by the twisted dialogue of asynchronous modems – with bewildering time signatures and elusive melodies. Dokument .02 sounds almost like the paroxysm of that – as if it is reaching the ultimate station, where rhythmical elements have completely dissolved into abstract sonic matter, an illusion of light luring us to the final gates of the underworld, our mind’s eye plugged right into the Cerberus’ gaze.
Fantastic Twins

Arguably up there with label-mates Aphex Twin and Autechre, The Black Dog have been one of the staples of the IDM scene since the early 90s, despite being much less hyped. I have a respectful gratitude to the trio not just because of their musical output but also because they also gave birth to Plaid, perhaps showcasing a better pairing in Andy Turner and Ed Handley after having matured and evolved to an inevitable split from third member Ken Downie. While listening to Spanners, I can easily hear early Plaid, particularly in tracks like ‘Further Harm’ and ‘Chesh’. While I do not want to diminish the value of Spanners in itself, it will forever be special to me just for laying the groundwork for one of the best British electronic acts of all time. Both at its prime and in hindsight, Spanners is still the quintessential Black Dog album and a fan favourite. I hate to be obvious, but sometimes things become obvious for a reason. Despite a few dated moments, it’s safe to say that Spanners has aged rather well. After their debut Bytes, which sounds more like a body of individual projects delivered by the trio – a collection of short stories rather than a full novel – their second album is where they fully grew into themselves. It’s no mean feat, carving out a unique sound by blending elements of techno, acid, trip hop, IDM and electronica while being original, versatile and coherent. I mean, how do you explain a track like ‘Tahr’, that you could easily play at an underground Middle Eastern wedding, sitting perfectly well alongside something like ‘Raxmus’? I absolutely love what The Black Dog have done with Spanners and the punch they packed into this album.

I love that The Black Dog built their version of Björk’s ‘Anchor Song’ on the basis of a what seems to be a tiny sample of one of the horns from the original track, repeated indefinitely. It sounds really hypnotic. [When I’m DJing I] sometimes lose perspective on where the one is [where the bar starts] and I love that. Sometimes I can get too caught up in, "How will this mix with other records?" Fuck that. The music just frames the vocal in a different way and takes it somewhere much more ominous and pensive. It seems to hang somewhere. There is some threat there. I love the space, between the vocal and the extra horn parts, where the loop just breathes; and the gap in the middle, where the music stops entirely. It feels very jazz to me – as well as being techno with not a 909 in sight. It seems entirely built from samples of the original, nothing extraneous used. As a producer I enjoy those sorts of limitations. I tend to do the same when I do remixes, I set myself the challenge of seeing if I can twist what I am given to make something different without adding anything else. That makes it fun.
The Maghreban

My favourite Black Dog single is their first – the Virtual EP, which I bought from Quaff Records in Berwick Street when it was released in 1989. There was nothing that sounded like this at the time and their sound was groundbreaking, fusing hip hop influences with ambient and melodic synth sounds. It was very different from the breakbeat tracks coming out at the time which were rougher and harder. Out of all the tracks, ‘The Weight’ was closest to those other breakbeat tracks. ‘Virtual’ and ‘Ambience With Teeth’ however seemed to have a depth, melody and soulfulness that transcended club music and could be listened to at home, on headphones or played in the chill-out room. I was drawn to their sound because of similar influences – hip hop, electro and breakbeats. I remember staying up late one evening to record a Black Dog special radio show on Kiss FM where they played everything from hip hop to techno to ambient. I still have the tapes somewhere. This EP still inspires me to this day; so much so that I sampled the drum break from ‘Virtual’ for my last single, ‘My Definition Of Funk’. It was also sampled by Holy Ghost for their seminal, Sabresonic anthem, ‘Mad Monks On Zinc’.
Richard Sen

In 1993, the term "intelligent techno" was like a red rag to me as it insinuated that all other techno was stupid. It didn’t feel right, it felt patronising, elitist and counter-revolutionary. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the releases of B12, As One and Mark Broom’s Pure Plastic imprint a lot. They mostly kept their beats straight (as opposed to so much of the fidgety broken stuff that predominated the genre) and the music emanated an emotional depth that worked well in my deep house sets. I was always looking for alternative, forward-looking, stripped down takes on house music which shortly after led to my involvement in the creation of Cologne’s minimal sound. Anything on the General Production Recordings label was buy on sight for me back then. Apart from Beaumont Hannant, Luke Slater’s 7th Plain and the ever brilliant Germ it was Black Dog’s Cost II EP that ticked all the right boxes for me. That super sexy percussion theme paired with those lost-in-a-reverie harmonies, which still have the same stimulating effect on me today as they did then, 30 years ago. If I were to choose my favourite musical colour it would certainly be bittersweet, as it’s perfectly demonstrated on Cost II. A truly timeless piece of intelligent but non-condescending dance music.
Michael Mayer

‘Sleep Deprivation 3’ made me feel like I was a litre of petrol inside the tank of a car on a scorching day – when I listen to it I can almost smell the gasoline jetting down pipes to the engine. It’s like all of my thoughts have put on comfy, oatmeal-coloured robes, and are now running around in circles; but then suddenly, the gas pump clicks, and I just pour myself out. The texture of the music is constructed in the piling up of various elements while maintaining a slow, continuous, steady pulse. There’s this one drill-sounding sustain note that makes my teeth vibrate while inviting me to surrender to its many facets. It encourages a practice of embracing stillness which resonates deeply with recent thoughts I have had about the role of music and sound in healthcare settings. These thoughts concern creating a comforting space where the listener can gradually reconnect with the subtlest component sounds of the music – a gentle, continuous flow of sound which would slowly wrap around the listener. This track reminds me of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is regarded by some as among the earliest pieces of music designed to aid healing. The story goes that an ambassador friend of Bach struggled terribly with insomnia, so the composer introduced him to a harpsichordist named Goldberg who would play music all night and help him sleep. Hence the name: Bach didn’t just create one piece; he composed 28 variations on an initial theme, all aimed at calming his friend’s restless mind. Similarly, when I listen to the three ‘Sleep Deprivation’ tracks in one uninterrupted flow, I can genuinely sense the therapeutic aspect within the music. It envelops the listener in a serene and healing ambiance, almost like the smell of freshly baked bread — except this time, you become the petrol inside a tank. But who knows? After all, it’s 4:32 am.
Suki Sou

Unfortunately my Black Desert Island Dog Disc is a predictable one – ‘Virtual’. The arrangement is a slice of true, sparkling inspiration. The tracks that transcend time and repeated listening are the ones that can still intoxicate after years and years and years of going back to them. The combination of those arpeggiating strings, very brisk piano stabs used as a fill, that breakbeat and the choral voice chord stabs that echo the piano will always, forever, get me. This really is a keystone in my musical arch.
Call Super

I feel IDM is honest music. That’s what the Black Dog sounds to me. A friend once compared something I made to their music, but I hadn’t previously delved into their discography. This made me explore their work, which introduced me to Plaid. They served as the gateway to IDM and possibly the true pioneers of the genre.

The Black Dog’s music feels genuine, unpretentious and timeless. It’s characterized by its distinctive, heartfelt, thoughtful melodies. It’s quirky but cool and straight from the heart. My favourite track is ‘The Temple Of Transparent Balls’.

In 1991 I was studying Architecture at Kingston University (formerly Kingston Polytechnic) and was an avid record buyer. I would frequent Beggars Banquet and Troublesome Records, both in Kingston, for techno and rave records and make trips up to Soho for US imports, plus picking up emerging rave white labels from Black Market, Unity Records, the big HMV and other shops. The first time I found the Fat Cat I was walking around Covent Garden and saw a sign down Monmouth Street which must have said something like "Detroit Techno Downstairs". I loved Derrick May and Carl Craig but only had the tracks on compilation albums, and Fat Cat was a treasure trove of Detroit 12"s. Behind the counter were Lee Purkis (aka In Sync RIP) and Dave Cawley who selected a big pile of records for me to listen to. Among them was a record sleeve I had seen before (probably on the wall behind the counter in either Troublesome or maybe Zoom records in Camden) with a purple stone and a black D on it. (I later found out from Mark Melton who co-ran the GPR label that the EP was meant to be called Stoned Dog.) Two of the tracks instantly blew my mind with their sampled breaks and jazz chords, taking influence from jazz funk and Detroit techno it seemed. It was far removed from the toytown rave of the time and even seemed removed from the techno and house I was listening to; it seemed more reserved, kind of nerdy and had more of a b-boy influence than the American imports of the time. ‘Parallel’ was a track I would start my DJ sets with at Kingston Student Union in Knights Park to give people a taste of where my interests lay, playing the emerging IDM, Techno and rave of the day. ‘Erb’ too was slightly more restrained; I’m still obsessed with this era of Black Dog. It may have been 1993 when Mark Pritchard played me a cassette tape of demos from Ed and Andy of the forthcoming Warp album that would become Bytes, and there was an early version of ‘3/4 Heart’ which seemed superior to the released one to my ears, and I was always a great fan of, what may have been, Ed Handley’s tracks.
Mike Paradinas

The debut album Temple Of Transparent Balls by The Black Dog unquestionably left a lasting impression on me. It’s a pioneering work of techno that still holds up as a classic from its era. I make it a tradition to revisit it annually, and each time, I discover new layers of its brilliance. While it’s hard to pick a favourite track from the album, ‘Cost II’ is a standout for me. It is a thoughtful and nostalgia-inducing masterpiece. The mix bewtween a house groove and an experimental vibe creates a cosmic blend of sonic elements that somehow come together perfectly. It’s never too overwhelming; it maintains a humble and straightforward sound, but when you start analyzing the track, it reveals a surprising complexity. Genius. Here’s a fun fact: the album was originally titled Temple Of Transparent Walls, but due to label issues during the production ‘Walls’ ended up as ‘Balls’.
Simo Cell

Along with other Warp acts of that time such as RAC and LFO, The Black Dog really stand out with their experimental, left field approach. They never had any limits or any kind of rigid frameworks in their music and yet it is very harmonic. Their first album, Spanners, is still one of my favourites. The track ‘Tahr’ stands out for me with its percussive, industrial, downtempo mood. I’ve included ‘End Of Time’ in my DJ sets – its tribal arrangement and dreamy pads are perfect for opening or even closing a set. Finally, ‘Nommo’ the kind of perfectly mysterious and atmospheric track – almost cinematic – that I really enjoy listening to.
Anastasia Kristensen

Spanners and Bytes are available via Warp now

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