12 May 2004

SANDOZ - DIGITAL LIFEFORMS REDUX (objective views of a fanatic)

"I went to Haiti in 1991, which was a stupid thing to do. It was quite a scary experience because it was just before they had a revolution. Maybe I got possessed there or something but ever since then I started using a lot of African voices and rhythms. It was so uplifting, I wanted to graft some of that onto what I was doing."
Richard H. Kirk, The Wire, March 2000

Kirk had probably been harbouring fantasies of an African/European alliance through electronics for some time prior to that. Witness the spooked-out exotica of "Haiti", a brief instrumental on 1983's "The Crackdown" LP. Whatever, by 1992 (with the Cabs embarking on their final phase in the rarified orbit of Electronic Listening Muzik), Kirk's next bid for dancefloor acceptance appeared in the form of three 12 inch singles under a new guise, Sandoz (named after the Swiss acid lab.) Subsequently collected on CD by Touch as "Digital Lifeforms" and now re-issued by The Grey Area Of Mute with an additional CD of rare/unreleased cuts from the same period, these early Sandoz excursions remain some of the most accessible, funky, melodic and downright enjoyable tracks in the vast Kirk back-catalogue without resorting to the overtly Popist stance of the Cabs' EMI period. But it's difficult for me to put into words just why this collection is worthy of your time over ten years later. It's hard to find an angle on it. There's a politeness about this album that makes it, as Eno might say, "as ignorable as it is interesting". "Digital Lifeforms" occupies a zone of equal light and shade that neither repels nor excites. It simply exists...and makes a nice groovy noise.

Opening track "Armed Response" sets the tone perfectly, fusing tuff Techno drum programming (dig those snare rolls!), breakbeat shuffle, latin percussion, dub bass, breathy woodwind swoons and catchy keyboard hooks. "Human Spirit" overlays African voodoo chants against a serene Deep House backdrop. After a portentous intro of ambient synth sweeps, "Limbo" develops into an irresistible marriage of cold electro beats and mesmerising tribal percussion. "Zombie Astral" ups the tribal pressure levels further, giving a taste of mantra-induced frenzy without actually taking you to the point where your eyes start rolling back in your head; it's tasteful hints of African spirituality firmly grounded by European coffee-table chic.

Disc 2 provides the more interesting option for Kirk die-hards like myself, as it features much never-before-heard Sandoz offcuts, of surprisingly high quality. "Tribal Warfare", with it clunky electro beats and bulbous sinewave bassline isn't a million miles from Wiley's finest Eskidubs. One of only two tracks to have been previously released (on a New Electronica compilation), "Ocean Reflection" is a gorgeous, pulsating web of bleepy riffs and shimmering sustained timbres that predicts the oceanic vistas of "Closed Circuit" (Kirk's superb 1994 album as Electronic Eye). Overall, what we have here are the first blossoming foundations of Kirk's most seductive, user-friendly period that lasted roughly from 1992-95. The sort of material that you can play when you have guests in the house without upsetting anyone. No adrenalin-rush or dread paranoia here....more like a sustained plateaux of good vibes, infectious grooves and dreams of faraway places.