Alton Miller - Headspace EP (Forbidden Dance, 2020)
For Forbidden Dance 002, the label invite iconic Detroit producer Alton Miller to captivate us all once more with a truly outstanding EP that touches on so many facets of melody and groove.
When looking back through the times, we begin to see all kinds of networks, crossroads and convergences cropping up when it comes to music. Contextual boundaries crossed, contrasting stylings fused, passions cross-referenced, genres birthed and then even re-birthed, music remains such a rich tapestry of influence and incorporation, a instantaneous flow that fluidly moves between scenes, people and place, taking in all that it sees fit to welcome under its banner. As we gaze back in this manner, we start to see narratives and journeys crop up everywhere, where threads and stems begin to highlight themselves via discographies or label outputs, or when individuals particularly stand out for their sounds identity, meaning and feel. These kinds of threads stand out because they seem to dictate a stand out ideology, a meaning in the music being pushed that still to this day feels and sounds excellent, with that thread continuing to sound just as meaningful due to the people behind it still looking to push their sound in the most ground breaking of ways. They remain the gatekeepers of sort, the retainers of relevancy, the producers of excellence and feel, weaving and dipping between the lines to demonstrate their dedication to the cause. Within dance music in particular, there has been an near unfathomable amount of micro evolutions throughout the years, where genres and styles have cropped up seemingly over night, and yet when looking deeper within the progression within the prevailing sound, we see patterns emerge that sing true to the magical rhythms that inspire and teach, of visionaries who shine forth from within with their intrinsic and iconic audial tendencies. Their prevailing ideals and productions become bedrocks for which others follow suit, where the foundations they have spent a significant amount of time perfecting and expanding upon provide platforms and inspirations for many others, not just music makers but enthusiasts too. They become the guides who point us in new directions, encourage us to delve more and explore more, to see music as interconnected and embedded in context, to understand where and how the rhythms move and bind us to the flows that be. Their narratives only swell with time, for those who seek both a contemporary view but also people looking to understand how music felt at the time of its release, with the tunes helping us to vividly release and understand the passions of it all.
In many ways, Alton Miller embodies the spirit of the connector, the network creator, the producer and music maker who has knitted together one of the engaging and intriguing narrative threads in house music. Born in Chicago but raised in Detroit, Miller embedded himself very firmly indeed in the exceedingly rich musical history of the city, that has moulded so many god like talents in the past few decades, with his introduction into music coming through Djing via the godfathers of Chicago house, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. Miller founded the Music Institute with Chez Damier and George Baker, which although short lived became a legendary venue within the Detroit techno scene, before moving into music making which would then define the rest of his brilliant career. Miller's style remains very much in the groove, an understanding that brings together varying influences which are distilled within an ever shifting soundscape of keys, drums and bass. House remains the over-aching guide, but Miller clearly spent countless hours exploring what the genre meant to him and his sound, with each record he pushed differing in feel but feeding into the previous and the next with ease and pleasure. Not only does the width and diversity of his sound making for highly enjoyable listening, but its the technical application that always shines through, with Miller's talent shining through constantly within the progressions and the delicate keys. All of this makes up for house music that feels informed very much by the context and the music flowing through Detroit, but it comes across as distinctly Miller, a identity forged through sonics that remains as appealing today as it did 20 years ago. In many ways, Miller's audial narrative comes across so strong because his work output has been absolutely immense since his initial releases in the early 90s, with very few breaks taken between releases which mean there is no broken chains, no dips in form, simply a continuation of his passions and ideals. His music touches on many facets of the emotional scale, catering for the introspective moments when we wish to be solitary, or the time when we embrace social settings, or the deep and powerful scenes we experience on the dance floor, Miller's style touches on all moods you can possibly think of, such is the depth and substance of his sound. This spectrum is shown across his varying release threads, which primarily consisted of the almighty amount of records released under his own name, with his Afrodisiac/Aphrodisiac alias being used as the other primary output, along with a sole release under the Man Friday name, with the Alton Miller productions more jazzy and sublime and the Aphrodisiac releases being slightly more up tempo and heavy hitting. From under his own name, there is so much goodness to pick from, with our favourites including both the 'Rhythm Exposed' and 'Stories from Bohemia' LPs are essential deep house tomes, which demonstrate the true scale of Miller's talents, with the records dropping in 2000 and 2003 respectively; the fantastic vibes that groove right into our hearts that are found on the 'Its Gonna Be Alright' record, a joint venture with producer Patrice Scott under his Scott Project name, that landed in 93; the sensual and highly powerful 'B-Line' record, that will make the world spin with its elegance, that landed in 94; the masterclass in varying tones, tempos and styles that is the epic 'Jazzin' it', that arrived in 97; the truly superb cuts that reside on the eternally deep 'Blue Funk' record, that landed in 97; the interwoven jazzy tones that weave and dip through the 'Untitled' record, that arrived in 98; the timeless futuristic sounding progressions that reside within the 'Progressions/Time & Space' EP, that also arrived in 98; the enriching and vibrant sounds that dwell on all levels of the 'Soundscapes & Vibes' record, that arrived in 2002; the excellence in melodics that abounds with glee from the 'Nu Forms' EP, that arrived in 2003; the amazing 'From The Vaults' record, that showcases some of Miller's finest tunes, that arrived in 2016; the excessively groovy (and korg filled!) 'Orbit 03' record, that arrived in 2017; the gorgeous tonal excellence that abounds from the 'Way Of The Drum' EP, that landed in 2018; the depth and scale of experience found on the wonderful 'All Things Good' record, that arrived in 2018; the deeeeepness that slides into view on the 'Infinite Experience' record, that arrived in 2019; and finally, the equally progressive and emotional journeys found on the 'Amazed' EP, that also arrived in 2019. Under the Afrodisiac/Aphrodisiac name, some favourites include the rhythmically expressive progressions that jump right out of the Afrodisiac debut single 'Dusk', that landed back in 1993; the effortless groove that resonates from the 'B-Line' release, that landed back in 94; the excellence in sonics that dwells within the 'Pressure Drop' record, that arrived in 1995; and finally, the raw yet delicate tones that persist on 'The Rare Source' record, that arrived in 1996. Be sure to check out the sole Man Friday release, 'Touch The Sound', which rounds up Miller's sound pretty expertly with some choice deep house cuts. Its the consistency and the drive that strike first, then the expertly place melodic features that reach out and induce pure joy, and finally its the totality of the sound, the identity that dwells deep within Miller's music. A true tour de force of house music and dance music in general, a person who has invested his roots, his context and his vision into the most extraordinary of releases. Maybe its time you took a break from your day to day operations for a moment, and engaged in the blissed out pumped up excellence that Miller's back catalogue has to offer........
And now we arrive at his latest offering, 'Headspace', that arrives via the Croatian imprint Forbidden Dance. From the word go, its all Alton Miller, with his signature warm and fuzzy melodic sequences leading the dance over equally soft and intricate percussive segments, with the flows and progressions on show something to truly marvel at. Miller takes the time, as always, to allow the listener to soak it all up, from the sunny top layers through the deep driving core, and right down to the sub base, where the pulse keeps the momentum ticking over. It just goes to show how comfortable Miller is in residing within his own musical identity, so at ease with his craft that the vibe feels incredibly breezy and easy going, with moments of pure emotive wonderment along the way that capture the heat of the moment so very well indeed. So, without further delay, lets jump into this latest slice of gold from the maestro himself.....
Up first comes 'All We Have', and its the sultry drums that swing right into view on this one. The rhythm is highly enriching, with the kicks and claps underneath holding the fort, as somewhat off kilter elements add intrigue and the varied layers of consistent cymbals and associated percussive features reside in the top end of proceedings. Whilst we revel in the immediacy of the beats, a key line starts to flicker on top, its singularity matched by its tone and texture, aligning itself within the sea of percussion to then introduce the main melodic hook, which consists of wonderful chiming keys that rise up and down with the motions. More features are added in as the track flows onwards, with a bass line added in for good measure alongside additional key lines and percussive elements, all of which contribute to the groove moving onwards and upwards. Its the subtleties that serve the cut so well, inviting the listener to engage with all aspects of the transitions, a design choice that is exemplified by the peaking of the signature key lines, that drift in and out of view at just the right moments, teasing us with their snapshots but overall permeating through enough to add to the overall progression. Its a masterful application, as this melting pot of continually interchanging lines and sequences move and flow around one another, never standing still for one moment but instead weaving and probing for space, with the original continuation building into the next phase of the track. The high line keys from before become more regular, with chiming notes reaching across the spectrum of sound to arrive in the middle of our consciousness, with deep pads swirling from underneath to the surface, crafting one final time for us to appreciate the song and all it has to offer. What an opener. 'Shine On Me (Rollin To Detroit Mix)' arrives next, and this one begins in more mellow surroundings, with Ricardo Miranda featuring on edit duties. The main chordal line pivots around a central anchor point, as it extends out and greets the parameters of the audial experience, as the vocal sample slots within its rhythmic pulses. The drums arrive soon after, and the track takes on the most curious of dynamics, as the drums and keys work in tandem to seemingly slow and break up the flow with their off kilter placement, creating a beautiful space in which we are most welcome to reside. The drums fall away for a moment to provide space fo the melodies to shine once more, before it all comes right back in with the piano riff leading the line into the next phase. The main drivers go through the motions once more, endearing us further to the sounds found within this absolute groover, before descending once again into the melodic breakdown, where the deepest of wells feels that little bit deeper, with the vocals occupying the upper echelons of the cut, and before we know it we are right back into the thick of it. The vocal line extends out to longer lines, creating a wonderful interplay between the rich keys and drums, the three features operating as one to provide a deep house experience unlike no other. The depth here is truly extraordinary, with there being still plenty of time for a few more phases that compartmentalise the track into differing tones that highlight just how strong the features are by themselves. And when they are together, its nothing short of excellent.
Up next comes the title track, and the tempo comes down a little bit further for this one. The drums are distinctly spacious, free flowing in a slowed fashion that provides a strong as hell basis for the keys to begin weaving their way into the view, and the view is one filled with colour and meaning. From the bass line sweeping under the kicks, through to the sequences of groove laden keys, and the regulated key lines that pulse along within the rhythm, it all makes for one masterful set up, and thats exactly when the kicks come sliding into view. In full flow the song takes on a new form, carrying over the feel of key sequences from the previous segment with ease as it powers onwards through the haze and out the other side, crafting a soundscape of vast proportions in the process. The track descends into its first back down, as all manner of feel and tone abound from the groove, with Miller's textured key lines making for highly smooth listening, with an almost hypnotic feel to proceedings as varying sequences swirl and ascend on the mind. The kicks return as the track enters into its final phases, as its influence can still be felt in our hearts and our minds. To wrap things up, we have 'After the Rain', and we descend into further mellow territories with a fitting end to a wonderful record. The keys slide in and out of our view, collecting up all the emotive tones they can as the chords sweep across the spectrum, and before long they have an excellent beat to chime along with. The track doesn't spend any time in introducing elements later on, simply jumping right into proceedings with the bass and keys working over time to keep the momentum flowing very high indeed. There's plenty of room for aspects of noodling here and there, as Miller intricately crafts the soundscape via intuitive key lines and gorgeous sequences that rise and fall, moving through the lines with a breezy feel that keeps our minds very much engaged with the comings and goings on offer. The track then shifts into a cymbal heavy segment, where the drumming patterns craft a dense underbelly of sound that is highly enriching to the soul, soft and tender to the touch and contains an enormous amount of warmth and tenderness. Its food for the mind, streaming the notes and tones into our consciousness as we drift within a cosmos that brims and gleams with so much vibrancy and creativity, an oasis that breaks through the softest horizon line, a timeless flow that nurtures and touches on all facets of our audial senses. Truly remarkable.
There are few musicians today in house who carry their sound as well as Alton Miller, and that's testament to the passion and the drive he clearly applies into every single micro detail of his tunes. On this record, we see care and attention seeps out of every corner, every nook, each space and segment cared for and adored over, a waltz through the cornerstones of house from a producer who spent a significant amount of time reinforcing and nurturing those cornerstones. Its just another pit stop on the unwinding narrative that Miller has spent his career doing, brilliantly navigating listeners through the seas and sounds that inhabit his music, threaded together by a creative mind that feels at one with his visions. Its a astonishing record, filled with little intricacies that keep the mind ticking over, as we leave the experience feeling completely enamoured and wanting to dive right back in. Deep house at its most thought provoking, most pure, its most accommodating, and to be honest, we wouldn't expect anything else from a bona fide legend. Simply glorious.
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