Meat Beat Manifesto/Empirion

Purple Turtle, London - 7 April 2011

"I am Elektro!"

As an evening of blasts from the past this night would be hard to beat and was too tempting to ignore. I last saw Essex techno bovver boys Empirion supporting Front 242 at The Astoria in Charing Cross Road (now demolished to make way for a Crossrail station) sometime in the mid 90s. The two bands went on to remix each other and Empirion carved out an modestly impressive niche for themselves infecting their heavy-hitting, bombastic dance music with industrial influences.

Their music having always been engineered very much for a club setting, this was frequently great in parts but too samey. Like too much straight dance music, there’s not a great deal of structural progression. Once they’ve found their groove and tempo they tend to stick with it. However, a major advantage Empirion do have over most regular dance music exponents is their tracks being largely instrumental. The few vocals/voices they do employ are far from the bland, faceless female session singers so prevalent on the dance music scene.

I’d not seen or heard from Empirion for some years, indeed didn’t realise they’d reformed (they'd officially disbanded back in 2005 after original third member Bob Glennie died prematurely of cancer). Since then, founder Oz Morsley has been building a name for himself in the electro field under the Kloq moniker. Youthful followers of who are quite possibly unfamiliar with Empirion. Though a different proposition, the crossover appeal of Empirion remains and whatever Morsley and Jamie Smart choose to do with the brand, I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty of fans delighted to welcome these particular old schoolers back to the scene.

I first got into Meat Beat Manifesto in the early 90s when a pen pal in Japan used to airmail me mix tapes of stuff she liked. MBM's 99% album was one of them. ('Home Taping is Killing Music' oldies need have no concern, I subsequently went out and purchased a copy of the album on CD.) Unfamiliar with their ear-popping convergence of dance music, industrial and dub I was instantly converted, but was never fortunate enough to have seen them live. Having believed driving force Jack Dangers had long since decommissioned service of MBM, when Flag announced this gig, the date went straight into the calendar. That 90s pen pal from Japan joined me at the gig, but this time as my wife.

Not only are Meat Beat Manifesto still active, they’ve just released a new album Answers Come In Dreams, so tonight was not just a nostalgic trip into the past it was a chance to hear what Dangers and co had to say now, having set the bar for themselves so high when they were at their height. The newer material, though less dance orientated, was no less creative. Those familiar traits of depth of sound, multi layered sampling, the combination of technical dexterity with a deep-rooted feel for music, shot through with Dangers’ trademark sharp sense of wit, were apparent throughout.

These days, MBM are Dangers and Mark Pistel and, despite a false start on the first track that had them jokingly walk off-stage only to immediately return and start again, a couple of tracks in and they seemed relaxed and enjoying being up there almost as much as the now packed audience were in seeing them. Representative of the new material, were Quietus and Luminol. Restrained perhaps in comparison to their more youthful outings but compelling for different reasons, meaning the quality of the writing remains noticeably high. Another couple of tracks – one about microphones and one about drumming (that long-running obsession of theirs) also provided an eye-opening insight into just how smart these guys are in the studio.

Take the drumming song, they gradually introduced drumming samples, neatly overlaying each on on top of what's gone before. Everyone's familiar with a bit of beat mixing where the beats and BPMs of two different tracks are introduced at the same time and then create a new, blended pattern. DJs have done that sort of thing ever since there were DJs. But even multi-turntableist Ken Ishii at his height would have been impressed by what Dangers and Pistel pulled off here. Throughout the song, the visuals demonstrated just how clever what we were all hearing was. Each time a new sample was overlaid, the source clip was projected behind the band. It got as far as five clips and drum tracks simultaneously playing at once; but not only did they not clash, they actually transformed into a whole new dimension of drum pattern. Incredible skill – and it sounded great too.

I’ve seen a lot of live visuals in my pretty extensive gig going life and although I knew those used by Meat Beat Manifesto earned them much praise in the past, I still managed to be seriously blown away by what we saw tonight. Mirroring the work goes into the production of their music, the visuals too were a multi-layered affair and emphasised the complexity of the music and revealed sources for many of the bands samples – some of which I’d never even realised were such. This was a terrific nights entertainment and a genuine multimedia affair. As VJs alone Meat Beat Manifesto deserve the highest praise. That they continue to provide some of the most multifarious and creative soundtracks you’re ever likely to wrap your ears around, only confirms that MBM remain a fountainhead of creativity still at the forefront of their craft. 8/10 

Rob Dyer