Updated: Nov 24, 2020
A true tour de force that weaves and blends around so many tenants of deep house, from one of the era's most prestigious and enduring producers.
The forces that bind the essence of electronic music is sometimes hard to quantify or put your finger on, but occasionally you come across guides who make traversing its rich tapestry just that little bit easier. There are certainly producers or groups who spent as much time making music as they did nurturing and adding to the concepts and ideals that drive genres, their abilities and visions inspiring many more to craft and create their own musical futures. These kinds of music makers have been present for some time, dipping and weaving out of ever changing trends and popping up with their own interpretations and views of what that sound might be, their ability to create something special born out of experience and talent. When looking back in time to the 80s and into the decades that proceeded it, so many started out on lengthy careers that did so much to reinvent the wheels of possibility within the ever expanding spectrum of electronic music, crafting various names or labels in which to diversify their sound and tap into the rich veins that took root during this time frame. Some chose to try their hand at varying genres and styles, which made sense in that so many variations and evolutions occurred that to try something new might result in something truly meaningful and long lasting, whilst others choose to reside within the genre they felt most comfortable with, felt the strongest affinity with. In that sense, they would look to differing names so that they could explore every imaginable facet of that genre, craft avenues of exploration that led to memorable moments that echo through time, and helped to elevate that particular genre to new heights of excellence. Were it not for these kinds of figures who really set the perimeters far and wide back then, would we have such a dazzling array of styles and combinations to be inspired from today, the innovators in sound providing the foundations for which all can flow from. What also comes across via this exploration of a singular genre or a cluster of related genres is threads that develop in tone and overall compositional stylings, with the various names being utilised allowing for the identity and character of the person behind it spreading as far and as wide as possible. It binds and grips their discographies together, a network that persists to this day as one with meaning and passion behind it, our interests and intrigues only heightened by exploring and going back to see where the next door might open next.
Charles Webster was very much one of these artists who during the late 80s and the 1990s spent most of his time crafting iconic releases which contributed so much to the genre of house. Webster began his career writing tracks for The Rock City Crew and T-CUT-F, before becoming a sound engineer at Square Dance Studios, during which time he began writing his own music. It was quite the time to be immersing yourself into dance music, which had exploded in the UK via the influx of Chicago House and Detroit Techno, alongside the influences that were imported via Ibiza, The Hacienda and the rise of the rave scene. So much possibility began to emerge as a result, and with further additions in the form of the NYC House scene, much began to form in the ways of the UK interpretation of these genres, with so much concept and ideas floating about it was now the time for producers to act on their impulses and shared ideologies. Webster was very much immersing himself in the sounds of the time, and began putting out a stream of releases that are so highly regarded to this day for their depth, groove and diversity. Webster explored so many avenues within his music, where the genre of House seemed like a window into the never ending halls of the imagination, with his various aliases and group work reflecting someone who truly understood this concept of limitless sonic possibility. His music is characterised by wonderful melodic work that sweeps between rhythmic tendencies and full bodied swells, hearty vocals that look to contextualise it all, along with percussive structures that keep the fire burning til the end of days. His ability to continually evolve and his knack at conjuring up moments of pure magic has seen Webster's career remain relevant for over 30 years now, and that is done to his dynamic abilities and vision, a constant search for something new but something new which ties into his web of wonderment. Webster conjured up a lot of alias in order to release his varying records, and to go back through them has been a true delight, with some of our favourites including the superb 'Switch' record from the Natural name, that came out in 1994; the equally great 'I'll Heal Your Body' release from the same year, under the Positive name; 'Keep To The Beat' under his The Boy alias, that also arrived in the same year; the excellent 'Soothe' EP from the Furry Phreaks name, that landed in 96'; both 'The Spectrum' and 'The Strength' EPs from 96', and the 'All Systems Gone' LP from 99', all of which landed under the excellent Presence alias (perhaps our favourite of his overall); the grand 'Prove It' EP from the DJ Profile name, that landed in 1997; and finally, the mesmerising deepness of the 'Born On The 24th Of July' LP, that arrived under his own name in 2001. Not content with just releasing music as a solo musician, Webster was a member of numerous groups during his career, with key collaborators including Matthew Herbert and Massive Attack vocalist Sara Jay, and we have also selected some highlights from the group work, starting off with the Nice Psycho release 'Promises/Tonite', that landed in 1992; the excellent 'Deep Anxiety' record, released by the group Sine in the same year; the Symmetrics EP 'Drop', that arrived the year after; both 'The Theme' and 'Big Air' EPs by the unreal Hot Lizard, that are both so sublime ('The Theme' has to be up there with the best 90s eps going); the greatness of 'Instant Coco', via the group Taster's Choice, that landed in 97' (which featured Ron Trent on production duties); and finally, the greatness that is the '21st Century Blues' EP, that landed via lo:rise in 2002. All in all, there is so much here to celebrate and praise Webster for, with his works transcending house and into the realms of pure euphoria at times, but throughout all his releases you never forget you are listening to a Charles Webster record. The hallmarks always present themselves, even if the elements and structures around it sound a bit different, you always know who you're listening to. A true icon, and one we throughly recommend getting into if you want to get to know 90s house just that little bit more.
And now we arrive at the subject of todays review, the record in question being the 1996 release 'The Florida Fantasy EP', that landed on the excellent Subwoofer imprint. Webster moved to San Fransisco in 1992, where he founded the Love From San Fransisco and Remote labels, both of which are pretty seminal in relation to West Coast house music from that time period. The music found within this period of Webster's outputs has a beautifully shimmering feel to it, entrenched in the notions of instrumentalism and big sub sonic beats, a mix of his English roots and the US house culture that inspired him in the first place. Its a match made in heaven, and for us there is no better record to represent his time there than the 'Florida Fantasy' record, a release that pivots around a central chordal feel but offering such different styles and feels for each cut. Its an incredible piece of music, and in relation to Webster's discography must reside near the top of his best. From the dense drumming patterns to the spellbinding melodic work, its just all so very top notch, and we can't wait to get into this. So, without further delay, lets do just that!
Up first comes 'Fantasy 1', and we get straight into it with the drums leading the way. Choppy and dynamic, they form the crest of the wave that is about to descend on us, with layering on display that rivals any other producer's drumming pattern from that time. The vocal samples are inspired, starting off as a slight sound in the backdrop, before the 'OHH Baby!' ones begin, that leads the track into its first breakdown. Here, the sax, played impeccably across the record by Kevin Brown, begins to emerge, and before long we get the full spectrum of the melody flourishing within this sea of rhythmic brilliance. The four chord progression forms the main crux of the melodic aspect, the sax floating high on top that swings between free form soloing and structured segments, with the two providing the bridges that move between the drumming structures. The way in which the elements all weave and join together is remarkable, and by the time the chords come back in its time for the next evolution, with the dub like high end key line residing firmly within the bedrock of the drums, with this element leading the cut into its next breakdown. The bass line takes centre stage with the sax flying high through the sky on top, the two creating a near symbiotic relationship, forging their trust in one another, before the chord line swings back in once again, its feel something to really marvel at, with the drums coming back into view. The chords take a more consistent route in this part of the song, rather than falling away and reappearing they seem content to keep their place within proceedings, acting as the core element that keeps things going and going and going. This truly is something special, a beautiful piece of music. What a start. Up next comes 'Five Leaves Left (Fantasy 2)', and we begin out with the beautifully considered beats getting the blood pumping. Their feel and tone is lighter, more airy, yet the density remains via the consistent hats and cymbals, with the kicks and snares not so dominant but acting as a keeper of time. The bass line then emerges alongside another layer of hats, the track now picking up momentum, with the sax and chords following very soon after, with the overall tone of proceedings now firmly in the bag. The sax once more takes centre stage, but this time acting more like a looping tool than a free flowing element, which provides more space for the tinkling piano and additional drumming elements to make their presence known, the lovely swelling nature of the beats adding so much to the progressions. The breakdown leads to vocal lines being added in that add much to the forward momentum of the track, providing this further basis for little elements to be added in like keys and percussive features, and as the drums cut out to focus on the keys, this is where the real experimentation in terms of tone and instrumentation occurs. As the drums come back into play, Webster really plays around with the rhythmic quality of the melodic features, the sax really toyed with alongside the chordal arrangements that really hammer home the pulse, and create this really memorable and distinct audial experience for us to all enjoy.
If the previous two cuts were orientated to the breezy nights spent out by the pool, then the next cut, 'Fantasy 3', is to hammer the crowd in the club. The drums that enter into the picture are immediately dense and up tempo, and before long we are joined by a beautifully powerful bass line, alongside the looping tones of the 'Fantasy' vocal line, the track doing so much to hook you in completely from the very off. The drumming patterns here are just so damn good, highlighting little intricacies here and there, really giving much over to the sense of direction with this track, but the melodic features that come next are very special indeed. The rising up key line floods in the mid section, before Webster adds in some delicate emotive chords on top, crafting this unbelievably dense emotional mood on top of the drums, reverting the ideals of the previous chordal arrangements with gusto and grace. The sax makes an appearance, its looping feel adding more energy as the vocal sample once more joins in the fun, as dense swells come down from above, leading to one final push with this perfect set up. The keys and chords move away to reveal the drums and the bass, which is allowed to play out for a few sequences before the chords make their way back into our view, and its a very special moment indeed, their placement expertly considered and pulled off with such flair and imagination, our minds transported to other worlds. A deep chord line starts to rise from underneath it all to then dominate our vision, its ever growing intensity infectious and easy to reside within. Its this feature that sees out the rest of the track, and its absolutely glorious. A perfect, perfect track. To finish up, perhaps saving the best til last, is the tune 'Final Fantasy', and well, there might not be a better way to complete a musical experience than this slice of gold. The drums are more slow jam than the previous cuts, but no less hard hitting, with each feature doing much to hammer home the tone of the track. The chords arrive soon after, their graceful flow and prominence leading our focus straight to them, a liquid hypnotic feel is provided by the overall state of the track, sheer bliss. The additional key features that chime in and out of view just amplify the melodic brilliance on display, their textured evolution something to really marvel at and enjoy. The swelling nature of the cut keeps building and building until the breakdown, which whilst it threatens to reemerge never does, and we are left with this cosmic mind smoother of an ending, one that allows for a fully fledged moment of musical nirvana. An end to an EP that has endless amounts of creativity, feeling and groove, with moments of transition that remain as remarkable now as they did back in 96'. Simply amazing.
Webster takes the idea of four versions of the same track and really smashes it out of the park on this one, in more ways than can be easily conceivable. Perhaps its his abilities with what house can do that makes this record stand out so much from the rest, its dazzling array of vibes and styles meaning that the chordal arrangement it works around constantly remains fresh and exciting, and the tracks themselves just add enormously to the narrative found within. From laid back early evening jams through to the club orientated hit, and finally back round to the end of it all, you go on an emotional journey laden with excellent instrumentation and unbelievable progression design. Something really is found within this record, that might just be a willingness to find more, see more and listen more, to the records we may not have discovered yet. Webster remains at the gateway, his music a shining example of the very best from its time period, music that will always amaze and, most importantly, be continually relevant.
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