Records Revisited: Black Dog Productions – Bytes (1993)

Sheffield in England was the hub of electronic music in the early 90s. Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner were releasing music at a rapid rate at the time and under half a dozen pseudonyms. These »Bytes« were released on Warp in 1993 under the project name Black Dog Productions.

Normally, the roles band members play are clear from the start: you play the guitar, I play the drums and him over there, he can do vocals. In electronic music, this division of labour is often clear cut as well, with the difference being that technical aspects of the production already play a decisive role in the process of creation and shape how samplers, synthesisers and drum machines are instrumentalised. 

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Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner refused to accept this strict division of roles in the early 1990s, when the turbines at Warp were cranked up and ambient, techno and IDM became a global phenomenon and spawned an entire subculture. At Black Dog Productions, all three of them took on parallel roles, designing samples, programming drum patterns, sequencing stems and bolting the individual parts together to create wildly fluorescent tracks of timeless quality. 

An early highlight from Warp 

The trio has been working together in this way under a good dozen pseudonyms since the beginning of the decade: The Black Dog, Plaid, Close Up Over, Atypic, Discordian Popes, Balil, Xeper, I.A.O. were all project titles that in many cases only came to life for two or three tracks and then vanished again into oblivion. As one part of the »Artificial Intelligence« series, »Bytes« was a compilation of three years of studio work under different names, each of which stood for different constellations and approaches. Additionally, it was a self-contained yet eclectic body of work that many considered – and still do consider – to be the first highlight in the rapidly expanding Warp catalogue. 

So verliert das Album bis zur letzten Minute nichts von seiner Energie und Intensität, egal wie weit es sich vorwagt oder wie sehr es sich zurücknimmt und zur rhythmischen Meditation wird.

For almost 70 minutes, Downie, Handley and Turner romp through all the varieties offered by that young, intrepid generation of sound inventors from the British underground of 1993, demonstrating with vehement verve what could be achieved with purely analogue equipment even back then. While musical peers like Richard David James (Aphex Twin), Sean Booth and Rob Brown (Autechre) challenged and served the intellectual can-wearing community, Black Dog Productions held their ears at least a shank length closer to the club dance floor. 

The tracks on »Bytes« hover permanently on the verge of danceability, obey agilely sequenced beat structures and often spew forth ideas like eleven Mentos in a bottle of Coke. And yet: negotiated between abstract breakbeats, sultry pads and an extraordinary feeling for melody, the productions appear equally thoughtful, almost contemplative. A balancing act that the Warp cadres popularised and perfected early on. 

Made with analogue equipment 

The opening track »Object Orient« (Plaid) immediately reveals the retrofuturistic impetus of the »Artificial Intelligence« series in every production detail. This was to be joined by releases such as »Ginger« by Speedy J or »Incunabula« by Autechre in the course of 1993. »Carceres Ex Novum« (Xeper) adds an almost ominous note to the atmosphere of nostalgic flashbacks and youthful spirit of optimism and was not played for nothing by John Peel on BBC Radio 1 at the time. 

What seemed affordable and sensible on the cusp between the Eighties and the Nineties, from FM to sample synthesis, was indeed used on »Bytes«. The first Akai MPC60, Roland’s TR-808, Casio’s megaseller FZ-1 and Sequential’s Prophet 5 transform tracks of the shimmering beauty of an »Olivine« (Close Up Over) or »Yamemm« (Plaid) into an auditory trip that could well have been produced yesterday instead of 30 years ago. 

As a result, the album loses none of its energy and intensity right up to the last minute, no matter how far it advances or retreats and turns into a rhythmic meditation. When the sweet melodic lines of »Merck« (Balil) piping into the starry sky dance with crisp broken beats or the omnipresent euphoria of the early Nineties finds its flawless counterpart in the closing track »3/4 Heart« (Balil), there are at least two ways to chronicle this album in soulful terms: Sheer joy at this unbounded and boundary-breaking music that still functions as well today as it did back then, or wistfulness at the fact that this time will never return. Both are equally justified.