- When this album was first released 20 years ago, it was ahead of the pack. It still is today.
- Rewind is a review series, published in partnership with Discogs, that dips into electronic music's archives to dust off music from decades past.
The relationship between Vocalcity and time is slippery. The six songs seem to go in a flash, even though only one of them clocks in under ten minutes (and even then, by a mere three seconds). Despite the microhouse tag that suggests calculated austerity, there is a non-stop subliminal bustle that presents a million stories for your ears to follow. We hear a gasp immediately on the opener, but the vocal it's taken from only kicks in after the fifth minute. That's punctual compared to the rest of the record, where the hook or centrepiece moment doesn't arrive until the final third of the track. Listening back to the 20th anniversary reissue of Vocalcity, one thing about time leaps out: the album remains utterly unaged by it.
Vocalcity is both an entry point and an outlier, the least challenging and most immediately satisfying of anything Sasu Ripatti has ever made. Ripatti––whose alias Vladislav Delay became so predominant, he was once prevented from flying to Japan for a show because the promoter had sent him a boarding pass with V. Delay printed on it––outright rejects his most popular record, and dance culture at large. Reviews at the time framed Vocalcity through a prism of allure, conjuring easy pastiches: the haircuts, the sunglasses, the insouciance. Perhaps this calcified the distaste that Ripatti, an anti-clubber by trade, developed for it. Yet for anyone too young or too geographically removed from the epicentre of all that, Vocalcity circulated as the gold standard of a sound that was inviting, elastic, punchy, human and hair-raisingly tactile; an infinity pool of sounds to luxuriate in.
When Vocalcity was first released on May 23rd, 2000, it was ahead of the pack. Toward the end of the '90s, there was a subset of musicians who scratched at the seams of digital technology and recast the fragments into different forms. Markus Popp's work in Microstoria and Oval were early standouts, but this was a bubble and not yet a full-blown movement. Ripatti wasn't focused exclusively on Luomo by any means: between 1999 and 2001 he released eight full-lengths across numerous aliases. Though Multila was a latter-day highlight of dub techno powerhouse Chain Reaction, the lion's share went to Force Inc. and its family of sub-labels, including Force Tracks and Mille Plateaux, whose Clicks & Cuts compilation series began in January 2000, featuring an 11-minute Vladislav Delay song.
Force Inc. folded in 2004, so Ripatti reissued Vocalcity on his own Huume imprint the following year. By then, what we take as received history had fallen in line. Landmark releases had entered the field: Ricardo Villalobos's Alcachofa, Akufen's My Way, MRI's All That Glitters, Jan Jelinek's Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records, Isolée's Rest and Michael Mayer's Immer mix, as well as numerous compilations and standalone club hits. The etymology had changed and the sound had evolved, but by now this was an internationally renowned scene with a recognisable vibe, style and code—one that carried Vocalcity's hallmarks.
A sticker on the initial pressing of Vocalcity boldly proclaimed it as "The Next Chapter In House," and no matter Ripatti's apprehensions, the album lived up its billing. It is a triumph of alchemy, a reinforced composite of all the best parts of music that has gone before it. Yes, there is the technical trickery of clicks & cuts, but it is also resolutely soulful, with bubblewrap-popping funkiness and basslines that can step to any deep house hit you care to name. The music implies constant motion, with countless effects, licks and synth trills running about under the surface. Johanna Iivanainen's vocals light up the record as Dajae would do for Cajmere. The micro-minimal boom put a lot of purists' backs up at the time but relistening today, Vocalcity stands in celebration of house, rather than defiance of it.
I like to see the album as tracing the arc of a night out gone sour, basically channelled into an hourlong highlights reel. The busy churn of "Market" drops us into the trippiest moments of a candyflipping bender, when clocks have melted and compasses have begun to spin. The swinging groove brings to mind a particularly sharp DJ in the pocket, but the vibe is not quite right. As a voice floats over from the bar and comes into definition, we're being told: "There's nothing in the world that you can do / There's nothing that I need from you / I take everything from you." The vocals are luxe, feminine and in control. On "Synkro," there is a countering plea, this time male: "I've / got / to / keep / on / moving / with / you." The rhythm, once lithe and linear, is now pockmarked by slippage. The beat on "The Right Wing" is stilled outright for stretches, as if we're being readied for lights up. Then, some mumbled words and a maudlin drift accompanied by halogen buzz. The tingles at the end of a night. Off to coat check.
We collapse through the front door and roll into the after-scene of "Tessio," Vocalcity's crown jewel. Admittance of joyless relationships, excuses made about missed calls, pledges of half-hearted platitudes: the song feels acutely like a hand slipping out of grasp. Alloying the album's most slow-cresting, euphoric and memorable breakdown with the apologetic refrain of, "Baby, it's OK / We'll make it better," is a canny play on Ripatti's part. It's regarded as one of house music's all-time heartbreakers for a reason. Following that, "She-Center" is a wind down, incense burning and tinted with longing melancholy. Jazzy keys noodle about as daylight creeps in, before the blinds shut and we're done.
The next Luomo album, 2003's The Present Lover, was a major label misadventure that confirmed Ripatti's biases about the vacuity of the industry. BMG wanted to max out their credit card at the minimal bank of cool; he wanted none of it. In 2010, he called Vocalcity his least favourite LP, saying that he was "sick of the stigma it gave and left for the whole project." Has he turned a corner since? The unflattened difficulty curve of his discography suggests otherwise. 2020's Rakka is as unyielding and harsh as his Finnish black metal contemporaries. It's hard to place that next to the chic Vocalcity and imagine them coming from the same person, let alone the same planet.
Yet Vocalcity sounds necessary in 2020. For one, it's a perfectly executed scene of something the majority of the world can't access right now. It could also provide a guide to what comes next. There had been a growing chatter in house and techno circles before this global shutout that the ultra-massive arena sound has lost all sense of purpose, and that it was time to come down to earth again. That feels all the more true now. To nick a phrase from Orange Juice, if ever there was an opportune time to strip it back and start again, now is it. Perhaps micro 2.0 is the restarting point, and we build back out from there (you can already hear echoes of the mid-tempo tenderness and ASMR vocals in DJ Python’s Mas Amable, to pick one example). If the future of electronic music sounds as warm, generous and human as Vocalcity, we should move with it and see where things lead.
04. The Right Wing