|Report from Q, 22 February 1997|
Sprightly - 808 State: they invented stadium techno
"Mental" is the most promiscuous adjective in dance music, but in a world of pilled-up teenage gurners, long-time noise wranglers 808 State are the other kind of mental: thoughtful, intricate, and, nowadays, tough to get into the charts.
As the ravetastic glow of early anthems like Pacific State and Cubik faded, these serial Mancunians squandered their lead in the live arena (they were among the first dance acts to do proper concerts) and wandered far from the set texts of techno. Don Solaris, their fifth album, initially "peaked" at Number 56. But guess what, they've just fluked a hit with the delicate Lopez, sung by James Dean Bradfield, and they're coming through the resultant window like a trio of sprightly burglars.
The Astoria 2 is plenty cosier than the Brixton Academy or G-Mex, where 808 State once hosted "180k Turbo Raves", and the crowd of tatty students and elder club-heads implies that Adult-Oriented Rave will be the entertainment tonight. Bouncing into the tense, nervous energies of former single Bond, 808 State rapidly disabuse us of this notion.
While Don Solaris is dominated by the spirits of Miles Davis and Ennio Morricone, it translates live into a kind of snarled-up, heavy metal techno for angry robots: digital drum kits play bass lines, mangled clarinets bark out salsa rhythms and disco stylings adorn car-chase themes. Andy Barker and Graham Massey crouch behind unidentifiable keyboards to spin this jacuzzi of instrumentation while Darren Partington plays sweeper, battering a percussion array, or twiddling his decks with engaging superfluity, even exhorting us to sing along to Cubik, an instrumental.
They have a real drummer (Colin Seddon) and guitar appeal, too: Massey stamping about the stage with a double-necked Ibanez guitar, splaying his knees in front of the baying computers.
It takes the balmy, panoramic chords of Pacific State (probably the most sampled sound British techno has yet produced) for the crowd to get a proper grip, although 808 State are mindful of our disco needs. Relaxed enough to insert a house-style, hands-in-the-air piano breakdown into Joyrider, they even try out two fresh tunes (Goa and Relay) in a set already comprised of new stuff. At the end of 75 minutes they skip off stage, and it's clear that being 808 State is like being in 10 great bands at once.
Dosing themselves with Diet Coke backstage while Underworld's Darren Emerson eats their sandwiches, 808 State concede that they've got some catching up to do with the likes of Orbital and The Chemical Brothers.
"Our timing was great first time round," says Massey. "We did all these great big shows before anybody else, so obviously it is irksome, being overtaken."
"Someone has to lay the foundations," argues Barker. "We get people now who remember Pacific State from when they were 12 years old."
"We're not very press-friendly observes the garrulous Partington. "We're like three bass players."
Emerson shouts something rude at them and 808 State wave back chummily. They know they're good, and if they don't get a prime slot at one of this year's festivals, somebody somewhere wants shooting.