Proving to be a master at marshalling dirty industrial sounds, the French techno stalwart’s seventh album is a pleasure for cool hepcats and cold androids alike
Most vintage jazz albums had liner notes, and most of these liner notes consisted of streams of dated slang terms. Pick up your favourite Blue Note or Prestige classic, and although the music might now be celebrated as some of the best of the mid-20th century, the sleeve is liable to sound like an awkward ageing uncle, exclaiming, “Hey, even on a relaxed blowing session, this cat is cookin’. They don’t just have chops, they have soul. Check out the spicy licks as the trumpet and drums trade four-bar passages”. The music has aged far better than its context, the one still feeling fresh and relevant, the other quaint and archaic.
We’re witnessing a similar change in attitudes regarding techno. If Terence Fixmer’s seventh album had been released as little as 20 years ago, you could expect press releases banging on about a dispassionately anonymous producer wielding unfeeling technology. This earlier era of electronica may not have seen the full Nat Hentoff approach – “Hey, even on a white label remix, this faceless producer is facelessly producin’. They don’t just have all the manuals for their devices, they have an utterly robotic absence of humanity. Check out the ineluctable, emotionless high-pass filter as the synthesiser and drum machines repeat the same four bars for 12 minutes” – but it was certainly bigger on cyborgs and fractals.
It’s great that we’ve reached a point where we can listen to a strong album like Shifting Signals for its musical qualities, rather than as a sci-fi signifier. This is doubtless partly because computers are now something we carry in our pockets, rather than the domain of tech wizards, and the idea of a dance producer connecting and sequencing actual hardware seems as charmingly whimsical as a skiffle band with a tea-chest bass, but also because a near 40-year-old genre which has so clearly influenced the mainstream no longer sends shocks (regardless of how much the guitarist at your local pub’s Sunday jam session witters on about proper musicians being threatened by this new-fangled stuff). Shifting Signals makes clear nods towards specific moments in techno’s history, such as the mournful Aphex Twin horns hovering behind a rubbery loop on Reset, the almost funky bounce and muffled vocals of The Way I See You which recall Baby Ford’s terribly under-rated BFORD9 album, and the minimal Jeff Mills march of Automaton (OK, there are still the odd nods to robo-chic in techno’s DNA, that could have been a Model 500 title from 1985).
Although there are moments of sonic sleekness on display, such as the shiny burnished hum of The Passage, the album is at its best with grimy textures, and Fixmer proves himself to be a master at marshalling dirty industrial sounds. Corne De Brume – or Foghorn, in English – opens with a wavering static buzz resembling a detuned telly being spun on a rotary washing line, and is topped by some rusty distorted notes. They could be cleaned up and airlifted into a different track as euphoric ravey airhorn blasts, but here they sound as if there was a loose connection in the studio, adding a rough glitchy texture. Roar Machines is built on a similarly scuzzy baritone synth line, which is tweaked and twisted throughout. It almost sounds as though it was based on speech patterns… though if you hear actual words, maybe it’s time to remove the headphones and go and get some fresh air.
A couple of tracks are less memorable, but the only real mis-step is lead single Synthetic Mind, a plodding track whose simple piano part was influenced by John Carpenter, but which recalls the ponderous coffee-table techno and dolphin holograms of Cosmic Baby; but even this is enlivened by long descending synth tones, which could have soundtracked Hans Gruber falling from the Nakatomi building had Die Hard been set in the Jet Set Willy universe. To return to the glory days of jazz, this meticulously constructed record might not be the work of a trailblazer like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but it sits alongside the thoughtful craftsmanship of Horace Silver and the gutsy kick of Cannonball Adderley: a pleasure for cool hepcats and cold androids alike.