Ici d’ailleurs – IDA111
That some hail Semtex as one of the most influential drum & bass albums of its time is entirely understandable – perhaps more so with two decades to reflect on its groundbreaking achievements. 20 years on, it sounds staggeringly intense.
The album is appropriately named: an aural explosion, it still sounds like nothing else. That they don’t make ‘em like they used to may be true, but then, they never made ‘em like this, ever.
There’s a primitive quality to the recordings, in that the tracks are all drenched in a thick sonic smog. But while the dense layering of the sound adds to its appeal, and its enigma, as you lean closer to strain for the hidden details, the nuance, the very soul of the songs, there’s also a sense that the unusual production conveys intense, ear-splitting, tinnitus-inducing volume. This is one of the album’s major assets, and in many ways, it’s perhaps as well, in that it gives some vindication to Matt Elliott’s devotion to a most basic but equally uncompromising approach to the album’s realisation: as the bio notes, Semtex was mixed ‘with headphones way too loud’, which resulted in the artist suffering permanent hearing loss at around 3 khz.
In some respects, it’s a product of its creation: after all, necessity is the mother of invention, and the material was recorded in a squat which Elliott shared with Matt Jones from Crescent, on a-4 track recorder borrowed from Dave Pearce from Flying Saucer Attack. It’s the sound of long hours spent obsessively channelling creativity, and wrestling with the conundrum presented by a vast concept and ambition countered by limited kit and technology.
The press release is on the money when it reminds us that ‘the result is brutal and uncompromising, and features a mix of noisy ripped up guitars and hectic drum machines’, and that ‘Semtex is the antithesis of electronic dancefloor music . It’s head music, and it’s headfuck music. It juxtaposes dreamy soundscapes with violent sonic assaults, and operates on so many levels, conscious and otherwise.
The original album featured six tracks. This staggeringly comprehensive reissue features a bonus disc containing a further eight, and there’s a download code for additional material giving a total of 29 tracks and some three hours of music, including the 28-minute ‘A Silent Longing’ and 34-minute behemoth ‘Voyager’.
‘Sleep’ starts the album with a squalling dissonant noise that’s sharp and shardy enough to keep even the most chronic narcoleptic awake, assaulting the senses with a nightmarish wall of sound that’s very much geared toward the higher frequencies. Even when pulling back on the aggression, as on ‘Still Life’ and the dreamy drift of ‘Next of Kin’, the tracks are driven by a barrage of percussion, mangled, gnarly and hyped-up industrial-strength beats. The cavernous crawl of ‘Once When I Was An Indian’ marks a change of pace and amps up the atmospherics as it detonates outwards into space in slow motion.
The wealth of bonus material displays manifold different facets of TEF: from the looping motifs of ‘Alarm Song’, which, even with its crunching beats, is more overtly accessible, to the ambient abstractions of ‘Shard’, there’s a lot to explore and digest.
Broadly speaking, the idea of an anniversarial reissue smacks heavily of industry and nostalgia, but this release conforms to neither. It’s certainly not a cheap cash-in with a bunch of b-sides and outtakes to bolster the package. What it is, is a retrospective of sorts, which encourages and facilitates a fresh appraisal of the work in a new context. And it needs to be heard.