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Photek's Form & Function

By Matt Ashare

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  The new Astralwerks release from British drum 'n' bass auteur Photek has a typically austere minimalist/modernist title -- Form & Function -- and offers a selection of the artist's seminal yet hard-to-find UK singles coupled with half a dozen more up-to-date remixes. Of course, the remixes (by Photek, Digital, Peshay/Decoder, Doc Scott, and J Majik) can't be that up to date because, as anyone even remotely familiar with the hyper-competitive constantly mutating world of UK electronica will be painfully aware, the very fact that a drum 'n' bass track has made a transatlantic trek means that it's so six-months-ago back in English clubs -- hell, Roni Size's New Forms had been around long enough to win a Mercury Prize by the time it came out in the US. And in the time it takes for a junglist to put together a full-length like Form & Function, drum 'n' bass might easily have experienced several major "mind-blowing" permutations.

Now it's true that the severity of these permutations often appears to get blown out of all proportion by beat-addled minds. In fact, the changes are sometimes so subtle as to be all but inaudible to the untrained ear -- which raises the tantalizing possibility that the whole thing may just be an elaborate, maddening hoax, sort of like those twice-a-year laundry-detergent upgrades that promise unquantifiables like "more whitening power." And how much more "whitening power" do we really want or need from our laundry detergent?

"One of the main reasons I put together this compilation is because I've gotten further and further away from what people call drum 'n' bass," explains Photek, whose given name is Rupert Parkes and who will be spinning at the Karma Club this Wednesday, over the phone from his home in London. "I don't really like what I hear when I go out to UK drum 'n' bass nights anymore. The music isn't soulful. It's harder and noisier, like European techno. That harshness has got its place in some of my music, but for the most part I like to keep things more subtle. I think Form & Function may be able to bridge the gap between where things are now in the clubs and where I am. And I imagine that this compilation might be able to work in a pop context."

In other words, Form & Function -- in keeping with its Art History/Modernism 101 title -- could be an accessible introduction to the world of Photek drum 'n' bass. Which I won't bother comparing to other variations on the British breakbeat science except to say that whereas some junglists (Goldie's Metalheadz crew) have responded to the music's pop-ularization by throwing noisy metallic tantrums, and others (like jokester Plug) are already creating cluttered satires of the genre, Parkes is still looking for places to take the music without subverting the strange appeal of its hectic calm. Form & Function opens with a Photek remix of "The 7 Samurai," an old Photek single that's also included on the disc in its original incarnation. What's striking is how little formal resemblance there is between the two cuts, and yet how much functional similarity remains. Although both are defined by essentially the same incidental sound effects -- a vaguely Oriental percussive click and a sampled gong splash -- each track is based on a different drum pattern. And the walking bass line of the original "The 7 Samurai" has been wholly excised on the remix.

Changing the drums and the bass in a music that's called drum 'n' bass would, you'd think, be a pretty big deal. But the result is two tracks each of which conjures exotic images of the Far East over an intensely syncopated electronic groove that's infinitely softer and subtler than the crashing fours and thump-thump rhythms of techno, house, and the big beats of Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. It's chilled-out music you can dance to, with a rapid beat that creates a deceptively slow groove.

When he embarks on his first US DJ tour this Friday (in DC), Parkes will bring with him a case full of dub plates (i.e., limited pressings) of his latest drum 'n' bass creations. And those tracks will likely be the backbone of the set that he spins at Karma. "I have a lot of music that's fresh for me so I'm going to play it. Usually, when I DJ, 30 to 40 percent of what I play is my music, but on this tour it's going to be more like 80 percent. I'm not really concerned with demonstrating mixing skills. It's really just a way for me to showcase for my newest music" -- music that will be so six-months-ago by the time it's commercially available.

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