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Boo Williams: Home Town Chicago; Heatsick: Intersex

img  Tobias Fischer

There is no such thing as Chicago house. Or at least, the genre has come to signify a multitude of different things to different people. When, in 1984, Jesse Saunders released "On and On", an eight minute barrage of madcap laughs and improvised vocals on top of a delirious drum machine beat and a playful bass line borowed from the Space Invaders video game, he'd effectively created the first techno record in history – only, the term hadn't been coined yet. Later, Saunders and his posse considered it too closely associated with the sound of neighbouring rival metropolis Detroit and consequently refused to be associated with it, thereby paving the way for the wide-spread misunderstanding about the true origins of contemporary club culture. On the other hand, the differences were about more than just denomination. While tracks from Detroit, as championed by the likes of Jeff Mills or Rob Hood, were avantgardistic outbursts of energy, filled with sci-fi references, ice-cold textures and supernatural precision, Chicago cultivated a style which prolonged, rather than broke with, a long lineage of black music tradition. Despite its radical design and daring architecture, this was soulful and sensual music carried by organic sounds and oneiric grooves, music which wrapped itself around you like a warm blanket on a cold night. If techno attacked your senses, Chicago house seduced them – and it wouldn't let go until you'd danced yourself to the point of ecstasy.

The historisation of techno may be a thorn in the side of purists. But it has been instrumental in drawing a new generation's attention to the unsung heroes of the Chicago movement. If a label like Anotherday Recordings, dedicated to "plucking forgotten classics from the sometimes murky depths of musical history", should select Boo Williams's Home Town Chicago as the first release in their roster, then there is by default a political dimension to that decision. This, after all, is not one of those long-awaited re-issues guaranteed to sell out on their day of release, but a courageous attempt at offering a fresh perspective. Nor is it, strictly speaking, a classic at all – even many intimates of the scene will have something to discover here. Rather, its allure stems from the fact that it embodies the mood and spirit of a particular moment in time with utmost clarity. When the album was released in 1996, Williams was only just starting out on a journey which would see him turn into a prolific force for the next six years, working as a DJ and producer and shaping his own sound. And yet, as indicated by the album title, his second full-length was as much about his own contribution as it was about paying homage to the cradle that fed him: In a telling gesture, one of the tracks is actually called "Old School Flavour".

Although the trade marks of his vocabulary, imaginatively programmed yet highly functional percussion tightly interlocking with equally primitive and catchy melodic spikes, are already clearly present, they are infused with a naivete which sublimates into inventiveness. Equipment is minimal, with each track constructed from a handful of Synthesizer-themes and with a 808 running in the background. Most of the former are merely a single bar short and rarely does their juxtaposition create the kind of bewildering hemiolas or trance-inducing polyrhythms that someone like Mills would cultivate at roughly the same time; Steve Reich, often cited as a major influence on the Detroit and Chicago pioneers, for one, would even be appalled. To anyone listening to Hometown Chicago analytically, it must come as a surprise that it never fails to captivate its audience throughout its eight tracks and fifty six minute duration; and that it, even more astoundingly, continues to grow rather than loose appeal over repeat listens. It's all down to Williams's mastery in loop-shaping, the way he is capable of creating mysteriously morphing sonic sculptures by little more than muting one channel and introducing another. According to DBX-legend Daniel Bell, it was all about "making sure every sound served a purpose, and creating momentum with normally mundane events". This is precisely what Williams, too, excels in.

And yet, there is an aspect which sets his style apart from Bell's: The idea that dance music could create a space to immerse oneself in, the notion that pieces did not have a distinct beginning and a definitive end, but could be sculpted, as it were, from the fabric of time. Although released a full fifteen years later, it is a thought which seems to be at the heart of Steven Warwick's Intersex-album under his Heatsick alias. Armed with nothing but a cheap Casio keyboard, Warwick's pieces are composed of even less tracks than Williams's, epic constructs of nothing but bass, a few drums and one or two melodic cells. On Intersex, the spirit of Chicago lives on long sonic excursions defying the laws of probability, textbook conventions and cliches about club music as being precise and inhuman: There doesn't seem to be a lot of quantising and some of the percussive elements are spread out across the stereo image, thus creating a slowly pulsating rhythmical field rather than a propulsive beat. According to this philosophy, one wasn't so much moving to the music, but inside of it, the mind and the body closely interacting in shaping a unique experience.

On "Ice Cream and Concrete", Warwick is taking the approach to a spellbinding acme. The Casio is laying down a latin-american-style groove, a bass line is stoically circling two root tones, synthetic strings are flirting with the infinite and a single melody is soaring high up above, repeated ad libitum for almost the piece's entire thirteen and a half minute length. Nothing changes in terms of the patterns, Warwick merely adding a rhythmical counterpoint and introducing a second theme in the later stages of the composition. Other than that, the sole transformation takes place in the leitmotif, which changes its colour, delay and reverb, transforming from a harpsichord-like timbre in the opening section to a dry synthetic tone and back again. Warwick's creativity with this sparse material is astounding – regularly, he will introduce effect-processings mid-phrase to create questioning and answering sections in the melodic line or suddenly return to the lyrical melody of the beginning after having it morphed beyond recognition, thereby creating the sensation of introducing an entirely new theme. And yet, really, his procedures are about something entirely different altogether - the mutations on Intersex don't have a goal, they can and will not be resolved.

What happens to development when it becomes neverending? It turns from being a variable into a constant. And so, Intersex is standing perfectly still, a bastion of calm composure in the torrential flow of time. The question, here, is not how long one can go with one loop. It is about finding the loop that could potentially continue forever. This is what Chicago house has always been about and what these two works, separated by ages but connected by an invisible bond, are demonstrating with breathtaking clarity.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Boo Williams
Homepage: Anotherday Recordings
Homepage: Steven Warwick / Heatsick
Homepage: Pan Records