Thursday, October 21, 2004

Slam - Year Zero

The other day, Rajeev lamented (well, more like pointed out) how DJs always put out disappointing artist albums. Often true, and for me to counter with The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim (his first three albums are all damn good) is not a particularly remarkable observation on my part, but today I must give a little love to Scotland's finest - Slam. I have been a believer in the Glaswegians, Orde and Stuart, since 2001 when I made my first visit to Fabric (http://www.fabriclondon.com), the greatest club on Earth, and saw them bang out their distinctive mash-up of edgy techno/house (it's really somewhere in between but not tech-house, oddly enough) and whiplash breakbeats. Besides being one of the best teams of DJs to see on a night out, Slam also produces excellent remixes (check out their versions of Dot Allison's "We Are Science," Underworld's "King of Snake," and Ladytron's "Seventeen") as well as being responsible for some seminal electronic tracks along the way ("Positive Education" is on almost every single collection that chronicles the history of house).

They have recently released Year Zero, their fourth artist album. YZ may not be the greatest LP achievement by a DJ, but it is a very good disc. The strongest element is the distinctive sound they achieve; rather than the clichéd approach of making something really ambitious by trying to demonstrate how dynamic an artist can be, Slam produces 10 tracks working pretty exclusively with electro melodies and a range of rhythms. Another thing that makes it more of artist album than a collection of a few singles surrounded by ambient fodder is that there are not many obvious club singles within the context of the album. A few of the tracks might work on a dance floor, but the beats are kept low enough in the mix to emphasize a more song-based approach to the writing, an effect also augmented by the number of singers that appear on the album.

I don't love the singer by committee approach that DJs tend to use, but it can be quite effective if there is a cohesive sound pulling it together. The Chems pull it of better than most and I suspect that is attributable to a) their distinctive sound, and b) they have a few singers they like to rely on, which makes it feel all the more comfortable. Here, Dot Allison took a break from canoodling Pete Libertine and dropped some trademark smoky crooning over "Kill the Pain," which is a cross between an electro Underworld's "MMM Skyscraper…I Love You" and the beat from "Idioteque." There are a couple of other noteworthy tracks. Slam shows off an appreciation for the history of house (even though they helped write it) by opening with "This World" which sounds like a tricked out version of Frankie Knuckles' "Your Love." The hardest track on the album, the sublimely icy "Known Pleasure," is still quite understated and the song would serve as more of a mid-set builder than a fist in the air crescendo. The other song on the album that sounds most like a standard Slam choon is "Human," the album closer with vocals that can only be described as Professor Stephen Hawking doing a cover of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." Finally, "Bright Lights Fading" is a totally twisted song; an electro torch song sung from the perspective of a washed up female entertainer (the singer, Billy Ray Martin sounds like Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl) who is pleading for one more chance in the spotlight. I have to hand it to them for producing such a simple yet oddly unnerving song. A few of the other vocal tracks "Metropolitan Cosmopolitan" and "Lie to Me" are ok, but certainly not the tracks I'll skip if I want to have a Cliff Notes style session with the disc.

YZ is not a collection of hard techno, but rather a fairly sophisticated DJ artist album that doesn't try to do too much. That said, if you see that Slam are spinning at your local watering hole or velvet rope establishment, or something in between, check them out and be ready to bang.

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