Jeff Mills: Purpose Maker Compilation

Jeff Mills
Purpose Maker Compilation
Purpose Maker/Watts

OF THE DOZENS of underground dance auteurs who've never drifted into the mainstream, Jeff Mills may be the most famous among scene aficionados: Think of him as the fattest thin kid on the playground. Part of Detroit techno's "second wave," Mills offers pulse-beats and microchip-blips as pervasively influential as those of fellow Motown-grown techno heroes Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Yet, unlike the salsafried May or funked-up Atkins, Mills provides a dance-floor fodder that doesn't swing: Instead it loosens a furiously coiled energy that never stops pushing forward. With his repetitive style, the slightest twitch--an instrument dropping out, an almost imperceptible drum fill, a three-note keyboard motif--can change the music's atmosphere entirely. Mills's legend, adding insult to obscurity, is enhanced by the fact that he refuses to perform in America, preferring massive European audiences and the equally hefty Euro-paychecks.

A determined minimalist, he presents the listener with variations on a strictly policed signature style. Mills could be techno's Ramones, with Prodigy being its Ted Nugent. Live, he'll play 20 tracks in 30 minutes, violently working three turntables and smashing records down on the decks so hard he almost carves them new center-holes. This unrelenting fury is captured on the 1996 React import Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo, which might be techno's take on The Ramones: a potent blast of incrementally varying noise so exciting that the tiniest shift in stance or sound can seem like a tectonic plate shift. By contrast, Purpose Maker is more like Ramones Leave Home: a superb follow-up to an organically conceived classic.

Though the muted atmospherica of Mills's 1997 release The Other Day is ostensibly more "ambient," Purpose Maker is a touch more listenable, and, unlike its predecessor, it'll light up any dance floor. The loopy "Alarms" is hooked around what sound like Michael Jackson's legendarily thrilling "eeps," while "Bells" is a power-surge of punishing bass drums and Latin-flavored keyboard ostinatos.

On "Paradise," Mills imagines himself as seminal New York pre-house smoothie Larry Levan reborn as an automaton, the song's ghostlike disco vocal serving as a weak link to Levan's stylish sensuality. Still, these tracks sink in--not bad for robotic, anti-humanist music without "conventional" melodies or hooks. Purpose Maker's domestic availability may be a sign that Mills is reconsidering his avowed refusal to DJ in the States. And that would serve the best purpose of all: getting him the American audience he deserves.

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