ALBUMS / Digital technology: it's no fluke

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Six Wheels On My Wagon

(Circa CIRCDX27)



(Warp CD16)

THESE two substantial offerings represent the current high-water mark of modern ambient groove, showing that although this mode has effectively become the future sound of Europe, it's rarely effected as well on the continent as here: some things never change.

The Sabres Of Paradise is top DJ / remixer Andy Weatherall, with a couple of studio chums, making his own music instead of fiddling with somebody else's. The eight instrumental pieces on Sabresonic are mostly long and leisurely, Weatherall & Co strolling through a sonic landscape unlittered by verse, chorus and middle-eight. Instead, recurring cycles form a more open-ended structure: 'Clock Factory' is 15 minutes of whirring clockwork noises, pitch-bent synthesiser lines and a bell whose envelope has been reversed. Other tracks, likewise, make a virtue of simplicity and lack of clutter, the Sabres resisting the temptation to build up a dense thicket of overdubs.

Much the same applies to Beaconsfield combo Fluke. This is music born out of the groove: sooner or later, a kick drum is likely to make its presence felt, though not usually as harshly as in hardcore techno. There are subtler forms of persuasion in operation here: the dominant factor in the drum program for 'Slid', for instance, is a sound somewhere between brushed snare and hi-hat, a pulse which drives the track along with far less effort than usual.

The actual tones and timbres of the music, too, can be of an infinite subtlety, as with the merest breath of melody at the heart of 'Slow Motion' - a sound at once fragile and luminous, virtually spectral yet totally dominant. It's in this sophistication of palette that digital music technology has such a great advantage over analogue methods, enabling musicians to compose in a manner comparable to the 'morphing' we see so much of in advertising: instead of settling for a saxophone or a trumpet when the composition demands something between the two, it's possible to invent the saxpet and trumpophone.

For that matter, if you want to cross a guitar with a Harrier jump-jet, you can, and whatever comes from the union can be further customised to fit your needs. When the resulting sound is then given the familiarity of repetition, it tickles hitherto unglimpsed pleasure receptors - listening to Six Wheels On My Wagon, one is constantly surprised by sound in a way which simply doesn't happen in the confines of analogue. It's this hedonistic, sensuous pleasure which makes modern ambient-groove music sound like easy- listening some of the time.



(Rykodisc RCD 10270)

WHICH is not to say, of course, that the analogue world isn't capable of surprises. This folk-roots 'supersession' is one: in Norwegian Jonas Fjeld and American Eric Andersen, former Band bassist Rick Danko has found partners whose grainy, lived-in voices combine with his almost as movingly as did Levon Helm's and Richard Manuel's. Right from the opening 'Drifting Away' (a first cousin to The Band's magnificent 'It Makes No Difference'), the three conjure the kind of hickory-smoked ambience that brings a big lump to the throat.

Both Andersen and Fjeld seem well primed: it's not just the presence of Garth Hudson's wistful accordion and Danko's half-choked vocal that makes Andersen's 'Blue River' so reminiscent of a typical Band ballad. Fjeld, taking lead on songs like 'One More Shot', has developed a fine Olde West timbre of his own. He's also brought a Nordic folk sensibility to the proceedings which gels well with Danko's Canadian roots, but has its own surprises: when the Hardanger Fiddle is added to the mix, it brings a strange Eastern flavour to the usual Appalachian style.


Be Bop Or Be Dead

(Axiom 314-518-048-2)

AS PRIME mover with The Last Poets, Umar Bin Hassan has claims on being the first political rapper, and his new Bill Laswell-produced album shows him to be still the most articulately angry. The usual Laswell production crew - a few P- Funkers (Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell), a few Afro-Latin percussionists (Foday Musa Suso, Aiyb Dieng), and jazz-rock drummer Buddy Miles - is present, but it's Hassan who piles on the pressure.

A couple of old raps ('This Is Madness' and 'Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution') are given new settings, though the drum- heavy backdrops and chanted backing vocals are firmly in the spirit of the originals. Words come in torrents of outrage; elsewhere, Hassan applies an almost holy- rolling euphoria as he eulogises significant figures from black culture in the biographical 'Malcolm' and 'Am', a rap which attempts to get right to the heart of jazz: 'Miles was our gators and lizards / He was our silk shirts and hickey freemans / He was our cool slow walks into the wind / He was our delicious smile in the face of extreme and bitter rejection.'


Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger

(Paisley Park 7599-25518-2)

BOOTSY and Bernie turn up again on George Clinton's latest album, along with sundry Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Steeles, Prince, Herbie Hancock, and virtually every rapper in the known universe: Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Humpty, Yo-Yo, Flavor Flav, and our very own JC-001 are just a few who make their presence felt.

Though it's effectively a straight rap album - save for the misplaced ballad 'If True Love' - it does tend to sound remarkably familiar, perhaps because on some tracks Clinton is sampling his own old material, from 'One Nation Under A Groove' to 'Atomic Dog' and even his last Paisley Park outing 'The Cinderella Theory'. But since everybody else is, why shouldn't he? Even the new tracks sound old: 'Get Satisfied' is sinewy, skeletal funk in classic James Brown manner, while 'Way Up', with its fat horn sound courtesy of Prince's saxist Eric Leeds, is in typical P-Funk style. It's more of more of the same, and though it might be getting tired, it clearly ain't broke yet.

(Photograph omitted)