AN APPRECIATION OF LUKE VIBERT
If I had to single out one individual artist who has consistently brought unadulterated pleasure into my life over the past decade, it would have to be Luke Vibert. He's someone I feel like I've 'grown up' with, and his particular esoteric tastes and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for music from a variety of genres seem to uncannily mirror my own. With the release of his latest EP on Planet Mu, I thought it was time to celebrate Vibert's career by looking back over his past achievements and take a brief look at what the future holds for him. This is in no way intended as a definitive discography - that would make this post even more ridiculously unwieldy than it already is - I'll just be focusing on the major releases that chart his development.
It helps to have friends in high places, and when you're trying to start a career as an electronic recording artist it helps a great deal when one of your friends happens to be Richard D. James. Having started on his musical path as a drummer in a conventional indie-band, Vibert was one of the many Cornish teenagers seduced by the amazing self-made music that James was handing-out to his mates on c90 cassettes in the late '80s. Pooling his limited resources with friend Jeremy Simmonds, Vibert began to explore the joys of drum machines and sequencers, which eventually led to "Weirs", a collection of techno-primitive workouts released by Rephlex in 1993. Although the production values aren't particularly high and some of the music tends to meander in a directionless state at times, this album does have a lot of character and certainly shows that the duo were determined to strike-out with their own brand of machine-funk. The centerpiece is "Reservoir", twenty minutes of analogue synth tweaking that starts with formless bloops and blips until, after three minutes, a deft twist of the resonance knob transforms the track into a heavenly landscape of cascading arpeggiated melody, with Vibert (or Simmonds?) determined to squeeze every last tonal possibility from the synths. Elsewhere, "Aple" echoes the brutal yet soulful simplicity of early Chicago House whilst "Path T'zdar" employs Aphex-style distorted percussion against eerie, sweeping drones. At this point though, it would've been easy to assume that Vibert would remain a marginal figure, carried along by the benevolence of his more talented friend Mr. James. But Luke was destined to take a very different road.
Breaking-away from both his partnership with Simmonds and the benefaction of James, Vibert's first venture as a solo artist came in 1994, after he signed to Rising High Records. When I met Luke for the first and only time at the Lakota club in 1995 he explained that this partnership came about after Casper Pound had approached him and asked him if he made any 'ambient stuff', which was all the rage at the time. Luke immediately replied 'yes', even though he didn't, and then had to somehow come up with some music that would fit the brief. The result was "Phat Lab Nightmare" under the new alias Wagon Christ. I've always imagined that the tracks on this album are sequenced in the order they were created. The first two pieces are minimal, atmospheric ghosts, the sort of thing that Luke probably imagined was what Pound wanted to hear. But then next is the title track and Vibert can't help but inject some electro-fied 808 beats and vaguely acidic riffs. Then comes the "Aerhaart" suite, which briefly drops back into beatless reverie, before introducing a 4/4 undertow and eventually leading to a stoned breakbeat groove. With each section the music seems to lead ever closer towards what we would come to expect from a Vibert record. By the final two tracks, the aura of deep contemplation has been completely transformed into a playground of catchy melodic hooks and imaginative rhythms. Having started in ambient deep space, by the final moments of "Dances With Frances", Vibert has surreptitiously set his own agenda.
But this was all just a warm-up exercise. What came next was undoubtedly a career-making move in the form of "Throbbing Pouch" which, for me at least, was a complete revelation. Seeming to break almost entirely with the trends within electronica at that time, this album was a sampledelic tour-de-force that seemed to take more inspiration from Hip Hop, Funk and Easy Listening, rather than the established reference points of his contemporaries. Whenever I see things like DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing" or Portishead's "Dummy" in 'classic album' lists I think, "sure, fine, but what about Throbbing Pouch, for fuck's sake?!". There's a particular aura that pervades over this album that still sounds like nothing else. Maybe it's the muffled loops lifted from old cassette bootlegs adding a subtle patina of murkiness (an inadvertent premonition of Boards Of Canada's deliberate methods of 'distressing' sounds through repeated tape duplication?), but there's something almost "Twin Peaks" about the whole thing - an unreal, dreamlike quality that occurs when one has stayed awake for too long. Indeed, Vibert would often work for days on end without sleep during this period, dosing himself up on caffeine and rich food, which must certainly have contributed to the vibe. If you've never heard this album I strongly recommend you track down a copy, but make sure it has the "At Atmos" bonus CD included! Also of particular note is the "Rissalecki" EP that came out around the same time, featuring the Peter Cook-sampling "How You Really Feel", which still sounds remarkably 'out-there'.
But just as we were all starting to get some idea of what a Luke Vibert record was supposed to sound like, he promptly dropped the downtempo vibes and (temporarily) the Wagon Christ moniker and reinvented himself as Plug, purveyor of fine drum 'n' bass exotica. Along with Aphex Twin, Vibert now seemed fascinated by the fresh possibilities heralded by the increasingly complex breakbeat science that d'n'b had ushered in. But just like Mr. James, Vibert was intent on bending the medium to his own vision, which resulted in three fascinating EPs throughout the remainder of 1995. Along with the then emerging sound of Squarepusher, these releases cement the foundations of what we now call 'breakcore', with Vibert's penchant for adding non-conformist, esoteric samples into the mix providing the blueprint for Shitmat and a host of modern day Amentalists to build upon. The sound reached full maturity the following year on the album "Drum 'n' Bass For Papa", which toned-down the breakbeat convolutions, preferring to focus on the textural lushness that Vibert was mining from is ever-expanding collection of obscure easy-listening records. The thing to remember about Vibert is that he's like a sponge, soaking up music from a wide variety of sources, and it's the way he pieces all these seemingly disparate genres together in unique, unexpected ways that makes his music so original and appealing. Perhaps surprisingly, horrid industrial-goth whingerTrent Resnor was rather taken by the Plug material and released the album in the States on his Nothing label. This is actually the best version to buy on CD (if you can find it!), as it collects all three Plug EPs on a bonus disc.
1997 saw yet another change of direction, with Vibert leaving Rising High and briefly setting-up shop at Mo'Wax, releasing the album "Big Soup" under his own name. The tracks on this album were personally selected by label boss James Levelle, and in essence this is his vision of what a Vibert album should sound like. Interestingly it comes across more like a modern day Vibert record than anything previously released, featuring far more strange electronic 'retrofuturist' textures and amusing film dialogue samples. Perhaps the track that most clearly points to the future is "M.A.R.S.", which begins with a series of odd bloops, burps and squelches taken straight from the Jean Jacques Perrey method of bizarre Muzique Concrete tape collage. Midway through comes the whistled intro to Dick Hyman's "The Moog And Me", further revealing Vibert's new found fascination with '60s novelty electronica, an interest that would soon become an integral part of his muse.
With 'dance music' still very much big business, 1998 saw Vibert making a brief move up to the big league by signing with Virgin Records, releasing the"Tally Ho!" album, once more under the name Wagon Christ. As might be expected, this collection showcased Vibert at his most accessible and glossy, though it's still filled with many magical moments; awash with lush orchestral textures and luxurious, multi-faceted arrangements. Luke still found space for some cheeky off-the-wall ideas, like "Juicy Luke Vibert" - an orgasmic interlude inspired by a promotional record released by one of the big porno magazines. Also present is "Musical Box", one of the earliest signs of Vibert's now ongoing love of TB-303 Acid-revivalism. I'm not sure why his time with Virgin was so brief (did he leave of his own accord or was he pushed?), but Vibert soon found that he still had plenty of friends in the Independent community more than willing to give him a home...
Vibert saw in the millennium with an unusual collaborative effort with steel guitarist BJ Cole; a meeting of minds across the generations facilitated by esoteric journalist/musician David Toop. The result was "Stop The Panic" on Cooking Vinyl. They seemed to thrive off each other's approach, with Luke laying-down a choice selection of hip-hop, d'n'b and acid grooves over which Cole and his associates applied live arrangements for steel guitar, violin, cello and occasional vocals. It seemed that anyone was invited to the party, as the unmistakably fluid bass lines of Tom Jenkinson make an appearance along with percussion by Vibert's old sparring partner Jeremy Simmonds. When I first heard the intro to "Swing Lite - Alright" I had to chuckle because I recognised the loop taken from Germanic cheesy-Organ/Moog artist Klaus Wunderlich straight away - yet another example of mine and Luke's similar fondness for exploring the nether-regions of kitschtronica.
This particular interest would reach it's zenith the following year, when Vibert was commissioned to delve into the back catalogues of various labels who produced library music in the '60s and '70s, resulting in two volumes of "Nuggets" on Lo Recordings. These releases were instrumental in bringing the incredibly Strange Music of Eddie Warner, Nino Nardini and Roger Roger to a wider audience. Around the same time Vibert signed to Ninja Tune, which is now the home for all Wagon Christ material. First came the wonderful "Musipal", and last year saw the release of "Sorry I Make You Lush", which I reviewed here.
But the ever-prolific Vibert still continues to moonlight under other guises for a variety of labels. 2003 was a particularly busy year for him with "Yoseph"( his first ever release on Warp, which I reviewed here) and a return to Rephlex for an amazing run of five EPs under new alias Amen Andrews. This material saw Luke returning to claim his Amental crown, each track featuring new configurations of the Amen break over which the history of rave/dance culture flickers before your ears in a dazzling array of half-remembered sounds and sensations. Hopefully these will be collected-up on CD eventually, but until then most of the vinyl editions are still available at Boomkat. Last year Luke continued his Rephlex association with the release of the "Kerrier District" album, on which he explored syncopated disco grooves for the first time - yet another complete reinvention and genre absorption , but still marked by that distinctly effervescent vibe that is all his own.
Vibert has occasionally released EPs on Planet Mu, the latest of which, "Lover's Acid", has just come out on 12 inch. It's another fine selection of Blissblog-baiting Acid revivalism which, with it's stripped-back arrangements, almost seems to hark back to his earliest work. "Dirty Fucker" sounds like a statement of regional pride, being a classic slice of Cornish Acid in the Universal Indicator tradition. But just when you think you've got the measure of this EP, Luke finishes with "Gwithian", who's loping breaks, soaring flute sample and layers of vinyl static could easily be a Wagon Christ number. For those who aren't into buying vinyl I should point out that all three of Vibert's Mu EPs are being collected onto one CD, which will be released early next month. Presumably they'll soon be available to download at Bleep too. Vibert also has more Amen Andrews material planned for release on Rephlex which, judging by the one track I've been privileged to hear, reveals the distinct influence of dubstep/grime into the melting pot. But as always it's shot-through with all those idiosyncratic inflections that can only be Vibert.
The other long-awaited project due for release in the near future is Luke's "MoogAcid" collaboration with Jean Jacques Perrey on Lo Recordings. Luke having referenced the grand elder statesman of Moog music on numerous occasions, it seems entirely fitting that they have come together across the generation gap to make some beautiful music together. The release date keeps getting postponed, but judging from the bits I've heard it's gonna be gorgeous. It also comes as no surprise that they've commissioned a remix from Croydon's finest Plasticman, who has brought the Moog vibe bang-up-to-date with a typically hard, bare-knuckled mix that's been rocking my iPod recently. With this release, Vibert's place in that curious pantheon of Moog superstars is assured. He even features, alongside Perrey, in Hans Fjellestad's film documentary "Moog", which is currently touring theatres across the world (the Bristol screening was last Thursday and I was desperate to see it, but it was my birthday and the family had other ideas about how I would be celebrating it. Oh well, at least I got a free slap-up meal out of it, plus the film will be out on DVD soon enough).
It's difficult to measure Vibert's influence on the development of electronica, as there are none of the seismic shocks attributable to artists like Aphex Twin, but from my point of view I think he's been subtly responsible for certain shifts in methodology. For instance, when I started putting 70's kids' TV show dialogue and 303 lines over d'n'b breaks in '96, it was instinctive (see example at the Riddim Composer), but looking back I think it was probably Vibert's influence that made me feel like I had the right to do such things (although I might've actually been thinking a little way ahead of Luke with the Acid thing!). Any dark murmerings about Vibert becoming irrelevant are misplaced, I think. He doesn't operate by shock-tactics or grand statements, but simply continues on his own private mission. When I berate artists like James Murphy for being too retro, it's because I think their music sounds uncomfortably similar to their original influences. Yet no matter how much Vibert exhumes from the past, the end results always sound like nothing else but Vibert, which is the mark of a great artist in my book. The guy is well on the way to becoming a National Treasure and frankly I think we should all be grateful that he continues to eke out a living from his music, rather than getting a proper job. Everyone should let a little bit of the Vibert love into their lives every once in a while...
Luke Vibert @ Discogs.
The Wagon Christ Source