Retrograde Space Opera
Released: Oct 13 2014
Concept albums! Whyyyyy. It’s 2014, is there any need? And a sci-fi one that’s also a dance album? Did Jeff Mills, great as he is, not kill that hoary old idea dead with a single ambient snooze-button blow? Suffice it to say I was not ready to embrace Distal’s latest album like a long-lost relative emerging from an escape pod crash landed on a desert planet. But like a plucky young loudmouth discovering that his main squeeze is actually his sister, here we are, and there ain’t much to be done about it.
The basic jist is that we’re plunked into an apocalyptic future where the uber-rich have fled our dying planet and we’re under constant surveillance, when we’re not fleeing the predations of ruling tribes of gangsters. There’s a lavishly illustrated website to poke through if you want to dig deeper, but personally I’m more than satisfied with knowing the thrust of things and making up the rest through the music. Largely because the music is so very, very good.
The worst thing a dance LP can be is track-y. Nothing gets boring quicker than a disc, even one with great jams, that happen to be sonically similar and presented without any kind of arc or structure. Retrograde Space Opera obviously has a structure, but just knowing that the structure is there, even in an abstract sense, makes for compelling listening. Early in the disc, cuts like “Sewers of Gattaca” balance shimmering, hummable synths with brutal barrages of drums that are less beats than they are collections of light slaps in the face. ” The ultra-hard kicks and snares pile up like the best recent grime a la Mumdance or some of the Night Slugs guys, but with a better sense of form – you always feel like the beat is taking you somewhere, and there’s a natural funkiness that a lot of other producers can’t get across while they’re doling out total screwface ruffneck business. It’s kind of amazing how listenable “Jaws of Delroy” is, given how abrasive its component parts are.
The second half of the disc is less grime than straight-up techno, and Distal pulls off both sounds as easily as a farm kid bulls-eyeing womp rats. “Don’t Need Her” is soulful despite the almost footwork-like repetition and whip-crack snare sound – if DJ Rashad had lived, I wonder if that’s what his stuff would one day have sounded like – and “Holding Pattern” and “Look Mom No Hardware” would have a Detroit purist actually cracking a smile if they came on either side of a 12-inch with a picture of a robot on the sleeve. (Not if the robot was smiling though, that would just wreck the mystique OBVIOUSLY.) The palette is consistent throughout, all haunting synth pads and prickly hand claps, so again, it’s almost miraculous how he makes it all work together.
Some records I feel like I need to be high to fully appreciate. I don’t think the drugs have been invented yet that would make Retrograde Space Opera make sense, in a “holy shit, the lunatics are on the grass/Dorothy is walking the fence” Dark Side of the Rainbow kinda way. But you don’t need to understand it to bug the fuck out to it. I’m living proof!