Dom Phillips introduces us to the phenomenon of progressive house, as originally published in Mixmag in 1992.
FOUR geezers go to a rave. It's Saturday night a couple of months ago and they park the car with some trepidation. Deservedly. One is a hip hop head and sometime DJ, one is a garage DJ who'll swing towards deep house, and neither are expecting to hear anything they like tonight. The other two will dance to anything, but need to get a lot more out of their heads before they can get into the bog-off, psycho rave nosebleed turbo nutter that's bleeding through the venue walls. They shrug. It's Saturday night, they're guested up, there's nothing else on. Nervously, the four laugh and head for the entrance. One hour later, four geezers are joyously surprised. The main hall is mental, but here in a big side room the DJ is entrancing the crowd with hard, banging but tuneful house a full-on trancey house set like they've never heard before. The hip hop head hasn't stopped swaying, the garage DJ is jealous as f***k, the other two are all smiles. In the main hall a couple of thousand teenagers are going mad to hoover music. We stay put, have a great night, can't remember the last time we enjoyed a rave so much. Down this part of the world it's psycho rave or downtempo jazz and soul. Suddenly it seems safe to go out again.
Put it like this. Once upon a time house music was a happy, simple thing. Once upon a time you put on your dungarees, you put your hands in the air and you danced all night. Since then things had splintered, and it often seemed like if you weren't into road drill nightmare noise or disco pub Italian piano screamers, then there was nothing put plod-along garage for you. Things are changing. There's a new breed of hard but tuneful, banging but thoughtful, uplifting and trancey British house that, while most at home with the trendier Balearic crowd, is just as capable of entrancing up a rave crowd. Once again, it's possible to go out and hear mad but melodic music that makes you want to dance. Progressive House we'll call it. It's simple, it's funky, it's driving, and it could only be British. The names are Leftfield, DOP, Soundclash Republic, React 2 Rhythm, Gat Decor and Slam. The style is a music that builds on layers of percussion, that loops simple, funky riffs over and over. It's music for the open road, house that flows not judders, miles more mature than the ready-made riffs and the got-this-down-Kwik-Save 'uplifting' breakdowns of much rave. Much more energy and fun than the serious, reverentially regarded dubs of American garage.
Where rave often pushes all the easiest emotional and musical triggers -hammer that riff, then give 'em the sweeping strings. Progressive House works your brain and your body and your soul. Where garage plods along on a bass drum, a handclap and another soulful singer, Progressive House lifts your spirits and moves your legs and hypnotises you. It all started, some say, with Leftfield, the ultra-cred remixers whose dubbed up remakes have revitalised If?, Ultra Nate, Inner City and The Sandals, to name just four. Last year they put out the seminal 'Not Forgotten', a track that still gets played now, but the ideas have long been there, deep in the Balearic scene where ideas have much more currency and where DJs like Andrew Weatherall, always out on his own, plough their own, unique furrow. Deep roots and experimentation, coupled with dis-satisfaction with current dance music. From fringe to centre stage then, but this is not just a progression, this is a new breed and what makes Progressive House different is that the sound is uniquely British.
One recent Progressive monster is Gat Decor's 'Passion' track -a one-sided white label that's been burning up all kinds of clubs. Simon Hanson, who created the track with fellow Naked Lunch DJ Lawrence Nelson, is convinced there's now a new movement in British house. "Definitely, and I'm really pleased," he says. "We've always been playing American and Italian records and we've finally got our own sound." The making of 'Passion', now remixed by fellow Naked Luncher Darren Emerson, was motivated by their own needs. "What we wanted to make was what we couldn't find anywhere. Something quite trancey but quite uplifting."
Orde Meikle of Scotland's Slam team is a little more cagey. "I would have to say, yes, there is a new movement, but it isn't at a stage where you could point to any instigators;" he says. "There should be. We've had enough of people copying the Americans per se." He doesn't believe, though, that you can separate influences away from more obscure American and European labels, like Italian Oversky, and Beat Club, and tribal, dubby Italian tunes like Double FM's'lIlusion.'
For Dick O'Dell, whose Guerilla label is putting out some of the finest Progressive (DOP, React 2 Rhythm, Spooky for instance), the new breed is more of an evolution. "It's a totally natural progression from what's gone before. Because house music must progress and take elements from other types of music."
That's most definitely true with Leftfield -their singularly original style fuses elements of dub and elements of pure tribalism, with a harder house. Leftfield's Paul Daley and Neil Barnes are both percussionists, who have played with bands like A Man Called Adam, and their inspirations, says Daley, are "global". "All it is is a mishmash of influences -and both being percussion players has come out in our music."
Progressive House is a fusion, but it's also a reaction to the tacky outlandishness that characterises the worst of rave and the solemn tedium of large areas of garage. Much of the makers of Progressive might come from the Balearic scene, but they didn't follow many tastemakers into garage. "I think it's crap," says Simon Hanson. "That's my personal opinion. There's no energy in it, it's just grind." Opinion echoed by DOP's Kevin Hurry. "It's just the American sound. Everything coming across just plods along."
Phil Perry is one DJ who's been playing British trance for some time. "With all the garage stuff of the last year or so, it's like a reply to it," he says. "People do want something a bit harder, but not so hard that it borders on the mad rave stuff." The intelligent, dubbier side of techno keeps crowd's interested, especially when it delves into ragga, but it's maybe time for the noise merchants to move on. "I think the hardcore thing has had its day," Paul Daley argues. "It's for the masses and it's cheapened it. All the time there's been this Balearic, more left field - as in the word, not us - kind of music and it's been on the fringes."
In a way, Progressive House is a going back to basics, to the days when house music was simple and hypnotic, to 'Jack Your Body' and other minimal classics. But like Phil Perry says, "it's more sophisticated than that." And more to the point, Progressive is definitively British -a real identity for a homegrown house music that started well enough with the simplicity of M.A.R.R.S.'s 'Pump Up The Volume' and Bomb The Bass's 'Beat Dis', but has only ever stamped its own mark with the bleeps and bass of Bradford and Sheffield. "It's taken all the influences from the Euro stuff and the American stuff and done it in a way only the British studios and DJs can," Perry argues. "They re-package it in a way that's uniquely British."
There's more going into the pressure cooker than just European and American house, though. On the harder end, React 2 Rhythm and DOP loop the glistening edges of techno over funkier house beats. "A lot of our riffs come from early 80s stuff," says Kevin Hurry. But the main thrust there is simplicity. "Minimal is the best way."
Slam work a kind of haunting, dreamy house into hard dubs. As Soma 'Eterna'/'IBO' (with their engineers Rejuvination} , as G7 - 'Soma', they put out hard, ambient-trance classics. As Slam their remixes for Kym Sims, Brand New Heavies and Voices Of 6th Avenue transform golden garage gems into dub house delirium. "We like it very percussive," says Orde Meikle, "I think that's fairly obvious in this new music. Percussive - trancey - dubby."
Over on the Leftfield side of the street, things are more percussive. London DJ Fabi Paras, on his Soundclash Republic, 'Cool lemon' EP, and more recently as Smells Like Heaven on 'Londres Strut', layers and layers Latin percussion before adding the simplest of melodies. Leftfield percussion is equally dense, but there's strong dub effect there too. "People go on about tribal stuff," says Paul Daley, "but it's just drum, bass and percussion. It's beats. People can dance to it. People find it easy to get their heads round. It's like dancing round the fire with no clothes on. Dub, as Gat Decor demonstrated, is a vital ingredient. "I like it quite basic," says Simon Hanson, "but with a lot of dub influence. A lot of echoey drums." Techno often gets cluttered, Progressive stays bare. "The most essential ingredient is space," says Dick O'Dell. "Absolutely critical." For someone like Phil Perry, and club crowds from rave to dressy, that formula works wonders. "Nice layers of percussion, subliminal noises. The all essential nice melody." As four geezers found to their delight, British house is home at last. Shall we trance?
PROGRESSIVE HOUSE CLASSIC TEN
Leftfield - Not Forgotten
Soma - IBO/Eterna
React 2 Rhythm - whatever You Dream
Soundclash Republic - Cool Lemon EP
DOP - Musicians of the Mind EP
Gat Decor - Passion
The Sandals - A Profound Gas (Leftfield produced)
8. Herbal Infusion - The Hunter
Smells Like Heaven - Londres Strut
Spooky - Don't Panic
Andronicus - Make You Whole
© Dom Phillips
Originally appeared in Mixmag, June 1992
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