Originally released in 2009. This review originally posted 15th March 2009.
My rock and roll loving friends sometimes ask me what the attraction is with electronic music. They don’t get it and I think I get why they don’t get it. Most music has something tangible to occupy the mind; verse-chorus-solo, words, images, colours even. I remember having been brought up a meat and potatoes indie kid, whelped on The Smiths and believing Modern Life Is Rubbish was the definitive record of the 1990’s, Wilde backed by the Clash. Then somebody introduced me to the Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, and my whole listening life changed. I could still get excited about normal music, still snap to the twang of The Libs, go retro with Led Zep and Sabbath or dig on the avant garde licks from Pere Ubu, but surreptitiously I was sneaking out of class. In fact, it felt a bit like taking on a mistress
Something had been changed permanently. A switch had been flicked and I knew deep down that there was no going back. Occasionally there were glitches: I recall being totally unable to get my head around the genre changing analog clicks of Boards of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children on it’s release, preferring the more stylised, clear-headed lines of Plaid, or The Black Dog. But interference like that was only ever temporary, and so I fell in love with this music/not music, with all it’s hidden inferrals (To name a few: listening stations, Egyptian mythology, murder, madness, alien abduction) and it’s design-for-the-subconscious ethics.
Fittingly then the name Miles Whittaker and Gary Howell chose for their collective is a reference to one of the country’s most infamous mass executions, a come one come all group snuffing at which ten people accused of witchcraft were hung after the seventeenth century equivalent of a show trial. It’s an arcane reference, but as the title of their 2003 debut EP Trouble At Mill proved the duo are not without a black sense of humour.
Since then the duo have used their anonymity to create an arsenal of variation across seven releases, a gamut ranging from acid soaked dancefloor jams from the fringes of hardcore to lush, Eno-esque ambience. Quite literally, they have never put a foot wrong. Self Assessment therefore arrived with a sense of anticipation for bedroom acolytes not felt since Burial’s Untrue. Fanboys and girls or not, it delivers.
Variously, it sounds like a collection of some the best records you’ve ever heard. There’s the somnambulant old skool techno spritz of Chord Calculus, layering around a warmly fuzzy deep house loop which seems gloriously endless. Ten minute closer Exigen sounds like a distress transmission from The Nostromo, industrial clatter and radioactive menace rubbing disjointed shoulders across a vintage R&S backdrop. Throughout it all Whitaker and Howell traverse a number of the splintered factions contained within modern electronic music so effortlessly, largely down to the same realisation that the alumni at Kompakt had several years ago; less is absolutely more.
But they can kick it with the dubstep kids as well. Unit 6 bounces with a grimy, rubber necking sub bass and general ear damaging menace which sounds like it was stolen from Benga’s laptop and then re-imagined in a Lancashire terraced house. But the finest moment is still a tribute to the way the Detroit-ers used to do it. Optimal flows out with subliminal grace, on a cosmic journey to the deepest recesses of your cranium and were it that drugs hadn’t been invented up to the point at which it was made, they would subsequently have had to make some. And you would have had to take them.
In execution Self Assessment is so utterly flawless it almost beggars belief, leaving the listener with the only conclusion reachable that if there are better exponents of the art of music/non-music around today, then they must be buried in micro scene obscurity. If there’s a minor complaint it’s that those who’ve been religiously vacuuming up Pendle Coven’s every release will have much of it in one form or another already. My mates almost certainly won’t get it. But you should.