Rheji Burrell Presents: The Utopia Project - The 'V' EP (Running Back, 2020)
One of the absolute pillars of the 90s house scene serves up some brilliant new cuts that simply solidify his position as house music royalty.
It's always so wonderful when a light gets shone once more on one of the greats from a genre, and with house music there are many legends which the spotlight can fall upon. As House became a certified maintstream success during the decade, there was much occurring in the underground that looked to prove what the genre was truly capable of - the aesthetics, the mood, the progressions and the contexts in which House began to develop is truly staggering, with its now global appeal leading to much in relation to groundbreaking sound design and composition, with the 4 on floor formula really being pushed to its absolute limits. Producers weren't afraid to imprint their own visions within their tracks, be it coming from a more deep view of things, through to minimal and dubbed out stylings, or even the harder spectrum that blended the power of 2nd wave techno with the driving consistency of house, you really began to see all manner of representations begin to shoot up and take root. Unlike its 80s predecessor that largely revolved around a tried and tested formula, producers in the 90s were willing to really break the mould beyond the original excellence that inspired it all, and you could argue that without all these differing representations of the genre we really wouldn't be at the place we are at with house in general. As a result, so many icons emerged from this glorious era for the genre, where endless joys and pleasures began to wash over a listening base that became used to deep tonal excellence across the board, with all manner of scenes across the globe taking root. Boundaries suddenly felt less constrictive, impossibilities developed into realised concepts, and the depth and scale of house tracks became these plains of emotion and groove, which they always had, but now the shift had moved into both moments of euphoric heights and thought provoking lows. House still remained a feeling, but it had drawn much more into its spectrum of flavours, with jazzy tones, different groove steps and a wider vision for melodic features coming into play, much like the vast majority of 90s dance music. For those who bridged the gap between the two slightly differing eras, it truly was a time to innovate and bring to the table elements and features that would ultimately push things forward into a new era, and the figures who resided within this wonderfully expressive time are the ones who stand the test of time in regards to their significance and brilliance.
One of the figures to emerge from this period of timeless outputs was a certain Reginald Burrell, who along with his brother Ronald would do as much as any other figure to build the foundations of a new generation of house music producers, and set the benchmark for excellence in what was to follow. The siblings are intrinsically linked with the legendary NYC label Nu Groove, a label founded by the brother's managers Frank and Karen Mendez primarily as a vehicle to release records for them, and oh boy did they craft some magic together as a team in the 4 short years the label was active for. Nu Groove isn't just revered for its excellent content, but for what it meant for dance music during that time in New York - with the Paradise Garage closing the year before and the classic era of Chicago drawing to a close, the genre began moving and flowing down multiple new strands of thought and mood, with all the possibilities in the world seemingly within reach. Enter Nu Groove and the Burrell brothers, who spent the entirety of this period crafting some of house's most enduring moments, where quality and vision collided on such a scale that the ripples are still felt to this day. Reginald and Ronald crafted some moments that truly resonated in all contexts, as they captured the vibe of the previous eras and translated it into the new structures that began to emerge around the turn of the decade, a proper understanding of the established spectrums but always finding the time to amaze and surprise in equal measure. Listening back to a lot of their records, you see foundations and bases being developed all across the board, from the blend of stylistic features, through to progressions, and flowing right onto the inspired use of drumming structures, their music was a kaleidoscope of feeling and texture, representing what would become a very bright period for house indeed. Their music explorations lie very much at the heart of that, and means that their name is never far from being mentioned when discussing those individuals who created truly groundbreaking moments in the genre. Both brothers spent the time crafting multiple alias in which to express their varying threads of house music flavours, and that certainly worked in their favour by offering up such variety via each release and differing name, with some designed to rock the club whatever the time, whilst others remained more laidback and evolving in their delivery, but what remained throughout was quality in the balance and tone of keys and drums. Their hallmark sound helped to define the Nu Groove imprint as much as anyone else on the label, and in turn helped to cement the bridges into the new decade, with the Burrell Brothers firmly in the mix in helping others on their own paths to excellence. Looking back through Reginald's discography, there is a lot of genius releases to unpack, with some of our favourites including
the classic old school sounds of the 1988 'Angel of Mercy' record, that arrived under the Metro name, and the amazing 'Feel The Luv' release that landed under the Tech Trax Inc name in the same year; the sheer power of the 'APT' record from perhaps our favourite alias of his, N.Y House'n Authority, that arrived in 1989; the incredible, truly incredible 'Instrumental Ward' record, that arrived 1990 under his Asylum name; the emotive grooves of 'File #1', that landed via the Utopia Project in the same year; the expressive vocal led wonderment found on 'Somebody Skat'n / C'mon', from the Avant Garde name, that came out in 1991; the grooves that overflow with goodness from the 'Secret Code' record via his Jazz Documents name, that landed in 1991 also; the mesmerising, quite ahead of its time feel of the 'Yeah, Shout' record from the Dance Lessons name, that arrived in 1993; the big room majesty of the 'Work It' release, under the S.R.O name, that arrived in the same year; the choppy morphing flows of the 'On The Move' record, that arrived under the Simple Simon name and also landed in 93'; and finally, the up tempo vibes of the self titled Track and Feel Events record, that landed in the same year.
He also collaborated with his brother in the groups A.B.T, who released the powerful 'I Desire You / I Need It' in 91'; B.M.E, with our favourite of theirs being the 'BME Project' record from 93'; and finally Burrell, which featured their debut wicked self titled LP in 1988, which arrived prior to linking up with Nu Groove. As much as this might seem like a lot to explore, you never ever get tired of getting through all of his releases, with such a depth and narrative to come across the journey never deviates from delight and joy, with so many solid gold classics across the board you will spend hours and hours gushing over both Reginald and Ronald's truly genre defining discographies. Take a dip into some classic house, why don't you?
And now we arrive at Reginald's latest offering, one of two new records to be released via Running Back this year, 'The "V" EP', which arrives via his alias Rheji Burrell and The Utopia Project. Burrell has been most active of late under the Rheji Burrell name, with releases on Rush Hour and Fly By Night arriving earlier this decade, but in these two new records - the other being a reviving of his N.Y. House'n Authority alias in the form of the 'Out Of Body Experience' record - we get some fresh new material to vibe to, and the contents of both are truly remarkable. Turning our focus to todays review, 'The "V" EP' represents a tremendous return for one of house music's titans, with as much sharp focus and attention to detail regarding mood, tone, melody and progression as ever before, each cut crafting its own little world to flesh out and make its own. A magnificent addition to his discography, and a record that demonstrates vision, when placed in the right direction, will never lose its power, with the feeling that flows from this record hard to ignore and very very easy to fall in love with. So, without further delay, lets get into this.
Up first comes 'Destiny', and we jump straight into proceedings with the fullness of the melodies opening up to us. The chords operate on two levels, with the rising swells of the fuzzier chords rising from below and moving up high, as shorter stabs interject before becoming full at the crest of the melodic wave, and before long the squelching baseline moves into view underneath. The piano then aligns itself within the track, crafting a intro filled with vibrancy and texture, the final expressive few keys the icing on the cake, and after all that melodic brilliance its time to shift gears, as the impeccable beat strides in to take us away. The kicks and hats carefully fill the space between all the melodies on top, never taking away from the layers of feeling, which swing between differing arrangements in order to keep the track moving in the right direction. The track moves between building up the melodic layers before reverting to more sparse sections of drums and bass, as the movement back into chordal features happens once more. The flow into the break, where the drums filter away in draw focus to the keys, is pretty magical, and from that point on the track looks to play itself out into the stars, with the bass line becoming all dubby, leading us to believe that the end of the track is nigh, but Burrell takes us through a few more sequences of excellence before drawing things to a close. Just epic. 'Epiphany' arrives next, and we are greeted by the main crux of the melodic undertones from the off. The chord line is full and vibrant, filling the space in the backdrop with all the scale in the world, as little keys begin to permeate in all manner of spaces between, the bass line too doing much to add further depth to proceedings, as the drums continue to develop with kicks bringing the groove to life. The bass thuds along with such exuberance, as the kicks and toms do much to elevate the beat a little bit extra, with the track then flowing into a focus more so on that excellence groove, with melodic features cutting in and out of time, crafting a real spellbinding feel that is hard to deny. The keys then come back into the mix with more gusto this time, flowing through a few more sequences as the track gracefully flies away into the distance. Up next comes the aptly named 'Euphoria', which once more lands us square in the middle of the melodic sweetness that is going to unravel before our eyes. The piano line leads the way in the backdrop, with the drums not far behind, which share similar characteristics to the previous cut, but its the additional melodic features that move this track through the gears. The fuzzy lead synth line and delicate arpeggios flicker on top of the core piano groove, doing all they can to add flavour to proceedings, with the high line singular chord piercing right through the middle, as the track continues to swing between varying arrangements and layers with ease and feel. The light vibraphone line that comes in the mid section is a joy, and resurfaces towards the end of the track for one final expression. A real beauty.
Up next comes 'Gifted', and the kicks and light key work start us off on this one. The choppy stabs add a real sense of dynamism on top of proceedings, with the bass line moving into view not soon after, crafting a wave of rhythmic bliss for which to push the track forward into new realms of feel and emotion. The track pauses for a second to introduce the dense pad, that moves between points in time to craft a real mesmerising feel to the track, and alongside the swelling chord that chimes in from time to time, the depth to the dynamism gets that little bit more compelling. The track takes time to focus briefly on the interplay on the playful keys, before swinging back into it with, with the cut moving with such ease between differing layers and feels, so self contained and inherently groovy beyond belief. To finish up this wonderful record, we have 'Karma', and oh yes this is the one. The bass line makes itself known straight from the off, as twinkling keys descend from the heavens above and gently lie on a bed of developing sound, as the swelling synths and piano make themselves known underneath, signalling at great things to come. The soft key line goes through one sequence by itself, before moving straight into the crux of the groove, the kicks and bass line moving the track into new realms of forward momentum, as the melodic features begin to make themselves known. Burrell moves to the light key line as this superb bookmark within the track, a transitional element that works so well to move between musical structures, with its second run through leading into a melodic break from the gods, with additional synth lines adding so much more to the experience. The track then moves between its ever changing line up, which is a feature that extends across the whole record, testament to Burrell's skills at interchangeable and control in relation to mood and tone. All the tracks have such dynamism and interchangability to them, not content to remain rigid in their formation but willing to switch up the formula to take the listener to places of unfathomable emotive experiences. A true masterclass.
A record that'll have you thinking about it long after the needle has stopped playing, and that lies in its substance and application. Never for one minute to do you feel comfortable in rigidity, more along the lines of going along for the ride, and its a beautiful one, with Burrell pulling out all the stops in order to give you the most enriching audial experience possible. The flows between structures are wonderful and tantalising, the grooves are expertly on point (as ever), and the overall feel is one of evocative vibrancy, our hearts racing and our bodies not content to remain still for one damn second. A record that has true significance, and ensures that Burrell will have many many more fans a result, his craft and application so easy to appreciate and his music extremely hard not to fall in love with. A powerhouse of a record, one to listened to by all, from a true legend of the genre.
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You can check out his other release, 'Out Of Body Experience', here: