Shaun Ryder was right: it is great when you're straight. What Mr Ryder curiously neglected to mention though was that, musically at least, it's much better when things go slightly awry; a bit odd, off the wall. Sonic rules are an arbitrary concept at the best of times: they're much like beauty, being in the eye of the beholder. But, let's face it, who wants the music we love and cherish to be predictable? Isn't it better when sounds go wrong; when everything seems to be falling apart at the seams, only for it to be rescued, superhero-style, in the last minute? Soul Mekanik
, brothers Kelvin Andrews
and Danny Spencer, have long subscribed to such a theory. Individually and collectively their musical careers have been characterised by a series of delightfully deviant acts. For instance, 15 years ago Danny, barely out of his teens and giddily fuelled by the playful spirit of the times, took The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever out of rock's back pages and squarely onto the Nation
's Balearic dancefloors – and into the hit parade – as Candy Flip.
A decade and a half later and the pair's idiosyncrasies show little sign of abating. Their latest venture, the aforementioned Soul Mekanik
, is another journey to the land of odd: a land where you'll want to dip your hips and show your funk and then go upstairs and watch the weirdos. Soul Mekanik
formed three years ago after the dissolution of their last project, the critically acclaimed but criminally overlooked Sound 5. Sound 5 had been an ambitious project at the outset: five mates getting together to forge a new pop sound, unfortunately the machinations of the industry got in the way.
"Egos came into play," recalls Kelvin. "The friendship was tarnished. In the end finishing the album was like a combination of throwing up and giving birth." Bloodied, but unbowed, the brothers decided to go back to basics and work as a duo. The sibling relationship meant that there were no games to play. "There's no bullshit," says Danny, the younger of the two. "We're made of the same stuff so it makes it easier."
Hence Soul Mekanik
, so called because as Kelvin puts it, "We liked the idea that you could call someone to fix your soul." Hiding behind the smokescreen that Soul Mekanik
were two unknown producers from Luxembourg, their initial EPs for Rip were aimed at the dancefloor, but in time they began to get back on more familiar terrain: a place where they could experiment but still craft warm, melodic and slightly off-kilter electronic body music. It's this sense of purpose that has been fully realised, with the added assistance of the local vocal talents of Clover Ray and Charmaine, on their debut album, `81'.
However, first they had to go back to 1981. Figuratively of course. "We just arrived at this concept," explains Danny. "We thought wouldn't it be good if we could go back to 1981 armed with the technology from now, and then place it in that context. Everything was in the melting pot then," suggests Kelvin. "Punk, disco, early electro and hip hop: it felt like music was progressing, there was an energy. You see mine and Danny's meeting point musically is house. Not house as in strictly club music, but house music as an idea of freedom. A freedom to go wherever we want."
Thankfully, `81' isn't some overblown, pompous prog concept riddled with delusions of grandeur. It might be Kelvin's year zero (he will talk with great passion about the era, about Ian Dury and how he brainwashed his younger brother into adopting the ethics and aesthetics), but the idea was no more than the album's skeleton, a structure on which to build. And boy does it work. Located somewhere between the expressive pop of Mylo
, the edge of Black Strobe
, the production savvy of Richard X, the then and nowness of Tom Tom Club and the sheer accessibility of Royksopp, `81' is charming Leftfield
house at its very best.
Never Touch That Switch signals the brother's intent from the off. A grinding slice of modern day electro-pop with extra R'n'B flourishes, it manages to be somehow both naïve and literate. Like the Pet Shop Boys and Playgroup sharing a studio with Annie. A34 is the first of many glorious side-steps: a mechanical funk jam bug out which captures the alluring sound innovations of early pioneers such as Pierre Henry and then distils it through an early `90s Warp-style futuristic filter. Wanna Get Wet is no less inspired. With its spoken vocal, this New York disco block party boogie has the aura of Ian Dury's Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, and is destined to be a single with its infectious chant-a-long chorus.
The twitchy, monochromatic 27/5/01 takes things to a 23 Skidoo meets Pigbag down the drug den level, while Go Upstairs is a decelerated, proto house cut that makes it's apologies early, as it talks about liking the freaks and going upstairs to watch the weirdos. Basement City samples Japan's Visions Of China to great effect. Its new wave rhythmic vibrancy sucks you in before releasing one of the album's most compelling moments. In the back straight, we get the throbbing synths and whirring dancefloor nous of Elektrik Elefant, which suggests more than a passing interest in the lush soundscapes of early Detroit techno, and the glacial cool of Robots3 is a fractured electro boogie ode to Kraftwerk
by way of Giorgio Moroder.
The melodic and joyful rave–like Take Me Home brings us home, and shows that all those years dancing in Blackburn warehouses weren't purely hedonistic, some lessons were being learnt. It's an album that expertly captures the pair's previous lives – Kelvin's successful DJ career, Danny's fondness for messing around with electronics, their remix work as Sure Is Pure – but one that, just as importantly, doesn't feel like a history lesson. On the contrary, it feels like right now. "We just created situations on a computer to see what happens," is Danny's delightfully understated take on the album.
Pop not pop, disco not disco, house not house, 81 heralds the emergence of a new sonic locale. A music that cocks a snook at convention and encourages a smile to return to that faded visage of dance music. Forget about keeping it real, as our friend Shaun Ryder will no doubt attest, it's much more fun keeping it surreal.