Sonic Insomniac - Scorpio (New Religion, 2001)
One of UK Techno's most influential figures showcases what his sound is all about on this superb EP that grooves out to the cosmos and links together across the urban constellations.
The incoming of the 21st century was certainly an interesting time for many genres of music, and certainly within the realms of dance and electronica, the flames of creativity were still burning bright from the previous two decades of seismic creative leaps. Whilst the sounds of house and techno had sky rocketed to the top of the charts globally, many still kept their pulses firmly tuned to the underground, that continued to oversee a multitude of excellent sub genres jump forth and multiply, with new strands and strains still shining through a ever increasing sea of releases. There was still so much expressionism left to give, with many producers referencing their initial adorations for the pioneers with sounds that infused all the pillars into a fresh contemporary setting, helping to draw the lines between the axis that had been formed between Detroit, Chicago and the rest of the world with new rhythmic expressions and emotional high rollers. The undefinable essences of the initial wave of electronica still had the power to inspire, its energies and life forces still a draw to those who absorbed all that was on offer, continually drawing power from the source to provide us with new directions that to this day still feel revolutionary in regards to their sonics. In the UK in particular, there's a rich tradition of producers who shaped and formed the nation's interpretation of these genres, which began during the late 80s before exploding during rave culture, that spawned so many off shoots, legendary parties, scenes and sub genres, as the then current generation couldn't get enough of this new electronic soundscape. It certainly left its mark on so many, a platonic shift in thinking and experience that took a firm grip on the aspirations of many producers who felt awakened in their creative wills, looking to eagerly interpret a feel which at the time must have felt like a thousand revelations all at once. It was a time when certainty had no bounds, and endlessness reigned supreme, defined loosely by the soaring synths and powerful sounds that resonated so brightly from Chicago and Detroit, which in turn provided the catalyst for changes and experimentation as subscapes became the new norm for exploration. Techno certainly had its fair share of enormous steps forward during this time, as the cosmic and socially led statements of intent resonated so much with the world, as likeminded sonic travellers found the time to churn out tunes that carried the formulas over into brave new territories. Seemingly everywhere came new interpretations, concepts and ideals, all of which fed into the enriching and expanding melting pot that only served to further techno's horizons, where the axises formed prominent bonds with scenes that idolised and respected the originators with sounds worthy of their influence. It was a time of great steps forward, steps that slowed going into the 21st century, but there were some who only just got started around this time, keen to flourish like so many before in finding their room to grow within the vast universe of electronic brilliance.
Of all the people to throw their names into the hat of progressing dance music to new heights of quality and creative application, Salford based producer Dave Ball perhaps made the biggest waves of all, particularly around the time he started out on his production journey. Transfixed with the previous 15 years of pioneering excellence that resonated from Detroit, Ball felt compelled to craft music built largely within the traditions of maintaining the axis with the Motor City, in turn crafting one that indefinitely linked Manchester there with his own unique blend of purpose, grace and technological feels. His sound remains one of the UK's most intriguing contributions to Techno's over arching ideologies, with its inherently deep feel contrasted beautifully with deft appriciations for progression and mood, with Ball equally at home crafting endless ambient driven soundscapes as he was with crafting up tempo tour de forces that pounded the urban fabric. This was very much a tradition that began in Detroit before being exported else ware, but with Ball's music its as if he bided his time to soak up the UK's reactions to techno and house before applying himself, anticipating the years of experimentation before drawing power from both scenes in order to make utterly compelling and unique music. His sound remains one of the absolute strongest of any producer outside of the Motor City, a beautifully considered sound that speaks on numerous levels to listeners and ravers alike, who both appreciate the lighter touches that craft euphoria and deep thinking in equal measure. It remains very much his sound, one that reminds us of others yet never feels as if its intimating, simply following a natural course that comes from listening and dedication to music that Ball clearly had for techno. Its a audial plain that has been tweaked and manipulated to perfection, a idealised conception of the UK sound and Detroit's merged together in expert harmony, a duality of concepts and visions intertwined within Ball's overarching view of what the music meant to him, and that adoration reaches out and touches all that is present within his cuts. The uniqueness spreads itself across Ball's discography, which is mostly spread between the Sonic Insomniac alias, and the D Ball name, with the two bodies of work very much inter mingling at differing moments in time between house, techno and everything inbetween, with Ball applying differing sides to his sonic spectrum within each release. Ball initially released music between 2001 til 2004, before a 11 year hiatus would see him bring out some truly excellent new music that made it feel like he had never left, including his excellent debut LP 'Unconditional' in 2018. Ball's discography is small yet unbelievably refined, with each record contributing significantly in every single conceivable facet to the overall feel of his sound, ensuring that every single record is worthy of highlighting. Starting off with the D Ball name, the debut EP came in 2002, entitled 'Slack', which showed a slower yet utterly infectious side to Ball's sound, with housey synth lines and drumming pattens weaving themselves around his core techno roots; then, 'Guidance' and 'Elements were put out in 2015 and 2016 respectively, and both looked to further the morphologies found on the debut with an increased techno feel but maintaining all the melodic excellence found within the wider discography. Moving into the Sonic Insomniac name, we begin with the utterly transfixing ambient techno found on the self titled 2001 EP, that built on the sounds in the SI debut to move listeners into wide open plains of technological bliss; the 'Tareth' EP came next in 2002, which incorporated elements of tech-house within a series of groove laden melodic excellence; 'Temper', which landed in 2003, moved into more softer territiories, with the keys and synths less dense with the focus drawn to the spaces between arrangements and sequences, all of which came across with an impeccableness that only Ball can really achieve; and finally, the 'Impermanence' record, the last of Ball's original period of releases, which delivers up on the IDM infused techno front with gusto and bravado. In all, Ball's music remains continually shifting, moving between the lines with an effortlessness that is hard to pull off, but it comes so naturally to his methods of production. The tracks contain moments of sheer euphoria, a feeling that is balanced out so well with the exqusite drumming patterns that help to transcend us even further. Its intelligence and sublimeness applied to the peaks of their potentials, with Ball harnessing every single last moment of glory that can be squeezed from their cores. We implore you to get to know this master's works, to revel in it all, and come away feeling that a door to new possibilities has been opened in your mind.
And now, we turn our focus to the subject of today's review, his debut record as Sonic Insomniac, 'Scorpio', that arrived in 2001 on the New Religion label. Here we find the blueprint for what is to come within three glorious cuts that showcase a masterful producer in his prime, and amazingly that prime hadn't even arrived yet. The confidence in blending, the morphing of foundational elements with individual flair, the crafting of sonics so bewildering and mesmerising that you feel he had been doing it for decades, as debuts go there really isn't much better, with many still referring to this EP as Ball's best (and honestly, that's saying something). Having such a refined yet purposeful and diverse sound early on certainly helps to allow for wider explorations to occur later on, and as we see with his future releases it can all be linked back so succinctly with this record. The vibe glows and engulfs your consciousness, inviting us to embark on a journey through the cosmos to places we acknowledge as familiar but can know look upon with a new set of eyes, emboldened by the music soundtracking our wonderment. Its an EP for the ages, and a worthy contender for some of the best techno and deep house released by a British producer, and with that statement its time to take a deep dive into the world that 'Scorpio' so vividly encapsulates......
Up first comes the title track, which begins in the shimmering haze of some star kissed future, a soundscape of glittering promise and unfathomable depths. The arpeggios drive through the middle of the cut, with filtered hats and percussive features building around the core rhythm which help to build a sense of progression expertly, with the spectrum of sound filling out the space in which we stand as the walls grow rapidly as our mind expands to reach all corners of possibility. That's when the kicks arrive, and its pitch perfect, as their presence adds weight and context to the rhythms of the melodic side of things, with their placement growing into the richness flawlessly. The bass line follows soon after, and Ball is quick to craft subtle melodic touches here and there that add enormously to the ongoing dialogue, with these touches helping to aid in the ebbs and flows of the cut as it swings through differing dimensions of colour and sound. The drums move away for a moment in order for the structures to reset, and as they come back into proceedings we move into an intensely dubby environment, where the bass line becomes the main focus as we move onwards through a plateau of sound that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. The filtered top ends that occur within the melodic sequences drive the track through differing textural spaces and tones, adding further to the compelling driving notion that is continually built upon as we pass through the membranes of techno tinged environments. The boundaries continue to move and flux with the times, as the drums remove themselves once more in order for us to get to know the sub structures just that little bit better, with the fluidity on display meaning the transitions between moments are blurred and considered with flair and technical application. The final chapter of this odyssey sees the key lines becoming more prominent, leading the charge as we move further into the deepest abysses of the mind, content to allow the wonderings to occur as long as this track is the one pushing us in all kinds of directions. Who knows which planet this track resides on, but we know for certain it takes us to that imagined place every single time, and its absolutely glorious. 'Develop' arrives next, and it begins with a similar sense of pulse and rhythm. The keys are the lead drivers in this, as the warm fuzzed out pads wash over the soft cymbals that chime along at the foundation level, and before long the kicks arrive and lift off is certainly achieved. The movement into the core section is quick and highly pleasant, as the chordal exchanges keep the momentum going on top of a brilliantly groovy beat, with the two elements combining expertly to keep that journey to the stars going at full throttle. As the bass line joins in with the narrative, we again are drawn to all the little elements here and there that keep cropping up, the slight key line here, the sonically charged sounds there, it all helps to draw focus in different directions, keeping the vibe revolving around a core groove but providing little flickers of melodic brilliance that tug at the heart strings and channel impulses between our neurones. Absolutely stunning.
To wrap things up on this seminal piece of music, we have 'Every', and this one begins in similar territories to the previous cut. The intro is heavily melodic, as a couple of repeating synth lines move in and around each other hypnotically, drawing us from the peripheries and closer towards the core essence of the sound, as the kicks and percussive features in general begin to make their presence known. The track moves through the gears with a brooding temperament, biding its time in revealing more to us, and again its the subtle notions which keep our minds firmly in check, as Ball brings into play little key lines and flurries which add further to the ongoing narratives. The synths that saunter their way into the backdrop act as the counter balance to the seamless note sequences, a solid tone that props up the movements that occur at breakneck speed within the top sections, and before long we are joined by further key lines and cosmic sound features which further both the sense of lead elements and feed directly into the rhythmic underbelly. And, like that the fades arrive, and we are left with the memories of what just came to be. A record of high octane excellence, showcasing all that Ball had at his disposal in relation to mood, tone and environmental story telling. A release that come move mountains, and it probably did at some point in time. Breathtaking.
David Ball began his journey with this record, and with all great debut release, it hinted at things to come, but very few have introduced us to a sound to be quite as well as 'Scorpio' did. Its a record of infinite excellence, conducting itself on a sound rich in tradition but also keeping a firm eye on the future, along with occupying a space in the audial spectrum yet to really be explored. It feels as if Ball spent years dedicating himself to the sound and feel he was going for, with the music on this record so refined and executed, a testament to Ball's creative visions and abilities with keys and drums. Techno always felt like the future, and so many took their chance to interpret and understand that future, and considering when Ball released his music it feels like we have arrived at a future within a future. What Ball did to further the narrative of the genre is nothing short of extraordinary, breathing new life into electronica in general with an approach that has barely been replicated since. Sublime, timeless, euphoric, just some of the words that immediately come to mind when witnessing the full power of this release, with its presence made all the more important considering just how much it influenced his later works. Timeless gems remain somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but we consider this to be one of those that everyone would agree upon is up there with the best electronic music ever written. A solid gold classic, maybe even platinum.
Check out the record here: