Jeff Mills - Sight Sound And Space

  • The essential Jeff Mills starter kit.
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  • Getting to know the multi-decade discography of an iconic artist can be an overwhelming task. Like stargazing on a moonless night, it feels like there are billions and billions of Jeff Mills records out there, and probably half of them are about the moon. OK, that's not quite true—there are only a couple of hundred records by the Detroit overlord, and plenty of them are about other things: Alpha Centauri, imaginary planets, parallel universes, and more. Mills has been on this personal voyage to the stars since the turn of the century, an era during which the promise of actual space travel became increasingly hypothetical, with the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War fizzling into the past. In the last two years, however, space has been put back on the launchpad thanks to an authoritarian president and a new policy directive to send Americans to the moon and speed up the mission to Mars, a gesture of populist willy-waving sure to impress his dictator pals. Regardless of the motive—and Trump's shutdown of NASA's climate-monitoring programmes in the process—it's an exciting time for earthlings, some of whom have come to believe that colonising Mars is our best bet for long-term survival, perhaps even our manifest destiny as a species. Meanwhile, in July this year, Mills released Moon – The Area of Influence, a solo album timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. He was seven years old in 1969 and a budding sci-fi fanatic—long before the founding of Underground Resistance (which, when you think about it, sounds as much like a shadowy clan of masked superheroes as a cell of political militants), he was working his way through the glut of comic books and pulpy paperbacks then coming out of the Midwest. As is typical of Mills' recent, high-concept projects, Moon – The Area of Influence was a little bit science fact, a little bit science fiction—a fantastical vision that was also steely and precise to a fault. This careful combination chimes with his own views on our place in the universe. For Mills, space isn't quite the infinite vault of wonders we learn about through Sunday night TV and the Sagan-Cox school of public proselytisers. Space remains a profoundly confusing, unknowable territory, operating on levels that our puny, carbon-based brains may never grasp. I was talking to Mills, coincidentally, about all this the other day—it turns out he's pretty bearish on humans conquering the galaxy. The physical and mental challenges of space travel are unknown, he pointed out. Adaptability may be the hallmark of our species, but our senses and intellects are limited by our mammalian bodies. If we shoot a starship troop of primates into deep space, how will they make sense of their lives when bounding concepts like time and gravity disintegrate? And so on. So unlike Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut who brought a plastic-wrapped communion wafer to the moon, Mills is not a religious guy. Yet there's more to Millsianism than hard facts. For example: far from being cold and empty, Mills' universe is bursting with colour, quivering with the energy of unseen forces, and full of fractal detail. On Space, the third disc of a thematically organised, career-spanning compilation called Sight Sound And Space, he tries to let us hear space the way he does: through microtonal clouds and dissonant, fluctuating bodies of noise that seem flecked with ice, dust and gas. This disc gathers some of his most abstract, brain-stewing music from the last 20 years or so, arranging diverse pieces into a loosely coherent album. He also makes room for three previously unreleased pieces ("Outer Space" and two unnamed tracks) that venture into sci-fi jazz territory, their vibraphone-like wobbles and trembling percussion nodding to the glittering (afro)futurism of Sun Ra. These slot between various spacey cuts from past albums and his NTS Radio residency, as well as music made to soundtrack films, like Richard Fleischer's Fantastic Voyage and Georges Méliès' A Trip To The Moon—tall tales revealing a predilection for the fabulous and fantastic. Where Space is chilly and environmental, Sight is more propulsive. The tracks on this disc are culled from his extensive archive of soundtracks for sci-fi films, from major commissions to at-home experiments, like the paranoiac dissonance of "Deckard," imagined for an alternative cut of Blade Runner. Mills' liner notes from the accompanying booklet are a reminder of just how many such projects he's worked on over the years, from recent releases like Tatsushi Omori's 2017 film And Then There Was Light to century-old silent classics like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Woman In The Moon. "The Drive Home," from the latter, with its hypnotic churn of bells and strings, is a queasy highlight on this disc. There are also tracks from the vaults that happen to slot into this particular mood, like "Le Mer Et C'est Un Caractere," a "remix" of Debussy's "Clair De Lune" infused with the creeping terror of a Bernard Herrmann score. The most successful of the three discs is perhaps the least conceptually necessary. Sound collects some of Mills' personal favourite techno works stretching back to the early '90s. Naturally, "The Bells" is here. The classic cut was made just after he'd moved to Chicago in the summer of 1993, when he was making six to eight tracks a day—that one, led by the most identifiable four-note melody in techno, popped out in an hour. The enveloping whorl of the 1996 cut "4Art" is ageless and trippy, totally in keeping with current vogue for tough, head-spinning techno (Mills notes that it's often referred to as the soundtrack of his Axis label). And despite its obviously dated synth strings, the 2000 track "Jade" feels strangely contemporary—its delayed, gravity-spinning melodies and stumbling dub bass could appear on a Timedance 12-inch. The unreleased track here is "The 25th Hour," a rare outing on Mills' TR-808 which nonetheless sounds as hypnotic and, well, spacey, as anything he's done in the last 25 years. Thematically, Sound is the vaguest of the lot—it's all bangers, essentially—but as a brief, self-curated history of Millsian techno, it's a nifty starter kit highlighting his most enduring dance floor material. The collection is the latest release from Mills' current series, The Director's Cut, a title that suggests an artist adjusting to the return leg of his voyage, reflecting on discoveries and doing some necessary mental filing. The same themes have occupied Mills for decades, and will probably continue to provide artistic sustenance in this high phase of his career, where weekend DJing plays second fiddle to soundtracks, scores and collaborations with lofty institutions. The Director's Cut is about manicuring the details, he has said. So while there's little new here for the hardcore Millsian, for everyone else Sight Sound And Space works as a functional manual for a sometimes bewildering archive. And with humans preparing to blast back into the cosmos, a few lengthy playlists should come in handy: the flight time to Mars is 200 days minimum.
  • Tracklist
      Sight 01. Perfecture 02. Deckard 03. Le Mer Et C'est Un Caractere 04. Homing Device 05. The Never Ending Study 06. The Drive Home 07. Parallelism In Fate 08. Devices 09. Transformation B (Rotwang's Revenge) 10. Sleepy Time 11. Multi-Dimensiona 12. Descending Eiffel Stairs Sound 01. The Hunter 02. The Bells 03. 4Art 04. The 25th Hour 05. Growth 06. Spiral Galaxy 07. Microbe 08. Jade 09. Where The Shadows Have Motives 10. Flying Machines 11. Compression-Release 12. Into The Body 13. The Resolution 14. Spiral Therapy Space 01. Introduction - Phase 1-3 02. Mercury (Residue Mix) 04. Unreleased003 05. The Industry Of Dreams 06. Stabilizing The Spin 07. G-Star 08. Planet X 09. The Worker's Party 10. Daphnis (Keeler's Gap) 11. Outer Space 12. Unreleased005 13. Self-Portrait 14. Aitken Basin 15. Deadly Rays (Of A Hot White Sun) 16. Medians