Under the Influence – Trip-Hop

At the height of the Brit-pop explosion and subsequent exportation to the States (’95-’97), there was a renewed interest in all things English among the musical press. People couldn’t enough of those crazy Gallagher brothers, or their feud with Blur. Bubbling underneath the ’60s influenced sounds of Oasis, Travis and (god help us) Kula Shaker, there was a movement afoot in a small coastal town in England. It was more cerebral, introverted. It had the qualities of trance, but there was a direct quality. It was the sound of the streets, to be sure, but those streets where countries and decades apart. Billie Holiday, Serge Gainsbourg, and Grand Master Flash could all be heard separately and together in this time warped collage of musical influences called trip-hop

Dance culture was firmly entrenched in the U.K. music scene since the late ’80s. While the idea of the DJ as rock star became a revolution of sorts in the U.S. by the late ’90s (Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers), but it was already an accepted institution across the pond. One of the more popular DJ collectives of the eighties was The Wild Bunch. It’s members are a who’s who of the trip-hop scene, including Nellee Hooper, Adrian Thaws (a.k.a. Tricky), Robert “3D” del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles. When the Wild Bunch broke up, 3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom decided to continue on as a trio, calling themselves Massive Attack.

Holing themselves up in their home base in Bristol for a year and recorded Blue Lines. The album should have been called “Blueprint,” because that is exactly what it became in regards to the sound of trip-hop. Countless layers of hypnotic and visceral samples piled on top of trippy beats, it is a classic from start to finish. The friends and acquaintances connected with the band, loosely associated with the formation of the album, would go on to release their own material that would shape the genre as well. Those names include Adrien Utley, Geoff Barrow, and the aforementioned Tricky, who’s raps on the album got him considerable notice and landed him his own recording contract.

Before Tricky would release his phenomenal debut Maxinquaye, another Brighton group got signed and released an amazing debut. Geoff Barrow teamed up with Adrien Utley and a local jazz singer named Beth Gibbons and formed Portishead, and released their first album in 1994. Dummy is one of the greatest albums of the nineties and high on the list of greatest debut’s ever. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of emotions wrapped up in jazz samples and wrapped in a noir-film atmosphere. Beth Gibbons, an almost reclusive introvert (She would, on occasion, break down on stage while performing), bellows out these songs of frustrated isolation and enraged helplessness over Barrows masterful production.

In 1996, American DJ Shadow released Endtroducing (which just recently got the deluxe reissue treatment), considered by many to be the artistic peak of trip-hop. He is the only non-Bristol alum to put a serious mark on the genre. By this time, the music press had begun to take notice about the burgeoning trip-hop scene. Sneaker Pimps scored a radio hit on both sides of the Atlantic with the Nellee Hooper remix of “6 Underground.” Tricky’s second album, 1996’s Pre-Millenium Tension, charted high in the UK and had a minor U.S. hit with his single “Christiansands.” He was put on the main stage for the Lollapalooza festival. On a commercial level in the United States, that was as high as it got.

Tricky’s next album, Angels with Dirty Faces, was a lackluster album (excluding the PJ Harvey collaboration “Broken Homes”) and slowed trip-hop’s momentum. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Portishead’s self-titled second album, however, lived up to expectations. Then after that, nothing. Almost instantly, the genre faded from memory. While the innovators were taking long sabbaticals, no one stepped to the plate and released anything of worth or substance.

The main setback was that it was a regional scene that happened to succeed on a global scale. Many artists felt that they could put their stamp on the genre, and that is how we got Supreme Beings of Leisure. Many pegged trip-hop as nothing more than slowed down drum break over a jazz sample but there was an aesthetic, a mood, that couldn’t be captured easily. A handful of artists did, and when those artists took extended break, trip-hop went with it.

The key particulars from the scene are still kicking around the musical map. Massive Attack, now just down to 3D, released an album last year to mixed reviews. Tricky has been steadily releasing music, but has failed to capture the attention he had before. Former lover and musical partner of Tricky’s, Martina Topley-Bird released her debut in 2003 and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Beth Gibbons released a solo album, Out of Season, played to her jazz strengths while maintaining a contemporary edge.

Of the artists connected with that original Bristol scene, only Allison Goldfrapp (who was featured on Tricky’s Maxinquaye album) is still in the spotlight. Though her debut Felt Mountain (with help from Adrien Utley) carried many of Trip-hop’s hallmarks, her later work has moved towards a sexed-up electronic vamp. Just recently, it has been announced that Portishead is working on their first album of new material in over six years. In 1998, they released a fantastic live album, PNYC, which featured the band working with a small orchestra. It probably won’t spur a renaissance of any sort for trip-hop, but it is highly anticipated. I for one can’t wait.

I think because of its rather abrupt conclusion, trip-hop will hold a power to it that will persist through time. It is a timeless music that can’t be dated to any one time.

What’s Going Around

Ozzfest Second Stage
– In prepping for the Ozzfest this year, I have been listening to the bands that will be gracing the second stage. I have always been a bigger second stage fan, especially when it used to run concurrently with the main stage. They were wilder, the pits were crazier, and the bands had something to prove. Disturbed, Static-X, Slipknot, Incubus, and many others cut their teeth there before moving up in the world. This year’s second stage lineup is the best in years, featuring Mastodon, The Haunted, and Bury Your Dead. I can’t wait.

Islands
– There have been a couple of official mp3’s floating around in blogdom from this Montreal group, featuring remnants of the underrated Unicorns. For those who mourned the untimely passing of the ‘corns, rejoice. The two tracks available (“Abominable Snow,” “Flesh”) are in spirit of their previous band but with a more poppy approach.

M83
– A couple of readers reminded me that missed on two crucial things last week as it pertains to shoegazer and the best albums of the first half of 2005. Their second album (now only comprised of Anthony Gonzalez, as collaborator Nicolas Fromageau left the group) Don’t Save Us From The Flames, has a heavy shoegazer atmosphere, made all the more intriguing by the fact that guitars are all but nonexistent. I must admit that I forgot about the album entirely, which is a shame as it a great album and is in another atmosphere in relations to their debut, Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts, a very good album in its own right.