Various Artists: Sonar 98

various artists
Sonar 98
Advanced Music/So Dens import

WHAT DOES IT mean when 1998's most consistent and pleasing electronica album is an experimental, five-hour-long blowout? Maybe it means that, for all its elitist posturing, even the most aggressively "out" techno can connect like pop music, with hooks, melodies, and lyrics replaced by texture, rhythms, and sonic invention. Both Top 40 pop and underground techno inspire us by connecting with our interest in subtle distinctions. We fall for stylistic innovations, sonic ripples that feel minimal to the curious and cataclysmic to cognoscenti. The difference between early Chicago house and lo-fi disco is as pronounced to technoheads as the difference between Lee Ann Womack and LeAnn Rimes to country lovers. And this wonderful four-CD set runs the gamut of futurist disco possibilities--historically and philosophically--to function both as a primer for the mildly interested and an air-freshener for old-school heads.

Which doesn't completely account for the success of its sampling of artists from 1998's Sonar seminar, an annual experimental dance-music conference in Barcelona. It's one thing to put together a first-rate collection of good underground artists, but the mere act of sustaining a flow for four records is remarkable to say the least. The last attempt at such a feat--Mo' Wax's 1996 Headz 2--attempted to define the subterranean aesthetics of experimental DJ music and ended up drowning in its own ambition. By contrast, Sonar is simply a sampler of 54 artists, and, despite its length, it's less a crawl through the underground than a fantastic voyage, like a trip to a World's Fair on Mars.

DJ Vadim and Daniel Pemberton's "Beyond Thought" is chilling noir-hop that the RZA would appreciate. Jimi Tenor contributes a sweetly demented trippity keyboard freak-out. Jeff Mills's muted, minimalist techno track "The Bells" and Jay Denham's ironic compu-track "Glitch" drive you through long, dark tunnels and leave you smiling at journey's end. Ambar and Max Brennan surf the sine waves with deliciously melodic results, while Farmers Manual and Signal gleefully wreak havoc.

But the obvious winner here is the second disc's inclusion of Whirlpool Productions' "From: Disco to: Disco," a strange, sensual, lo-fi track whose off-key vocals and narcotic groove recall Loose Joints' stark disco classic of 1980, "Is It All Over My Face." Appropriately, that disc opens with a track by an equally legendary early-'80s New York disco remixer François Kervorkian, whose playful, expansive "Time & Space" is nearly as gorgeous as Whirlpool is sexy. And it all retails for $35--amazing for a four-CD import and a hell of a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Spain.

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