Various Artists

When I Was Ten Comp

(AI; 2009)

By George Bass | 11 November 2009

When I was ten I remember thinking music might be more mechanical in the future, but never thinking it would break down into that made by the fantastic rabble who cause a stir in the basement bars of today (the Shamen were as far as I could tiptoe into “bands who made the record-scratching sound” back then). I also hadn’t achieved anything as cool as having twenty switched-on hardware-addicts signed up to my command, each of them pushing the techno envelope under the aegis of launching my first retrospective. In hindsight, this might be because I was a boy with a Back to the Future tape and not a pioneering millennial record label with a fetish for acts formed from radio slang (EOC, FZV, and FGB—I think that translates to first-time MySpacer at six o’clock, deploy the Zac Efron photo), but who’d have thunk it: AI is ten. I hope 2000’s technophobes are eating their hats now, furious that the initial-heavy electronic label made it this far unscathed.

Although it’s not just in credits where AI skip the rule book: their first retrospective is actually a double-slab of rare fish that took nine months to whittle down, several of its tenths unavailable outside a handful of committed trainspotters. This “B-side as best-of” tactic is a move any decent imprint can pull off with finesse, the more frugal among them often too mean to put out anything that stinks. On that score, AI pick up ten points right away; their quality control is practically fascist, with plenty still aware of them as “that London outfit whose twelves work as currency in amp stores.”

The first half of When I Was Ten is on the light side, gathering the peaks of AI’s melodic IDM and adventures with glitch and Ecstasy. Those were some good times back then and they’re promptly acknowledged with the sunrise comedown of Mike Manning’s “My Fantasy,” that being some spoken-word relaxation porn whose sensual pads and machine crackle wouldn’t look out of place on a n5MD release. The fuzzy robotics and liquid breaks wash across you like 4:55 a.m. sunlight and generally make you ache romantically for summer nights in the north. But AI are too cunning for an all-out chill-out CD (what do you think the I in AI stands for?) and after this deceptive immersion things gradually creep down in temperature, right to the marrow of FZV’s “The Other Day” with its lashings of diluted drum and bass. In between them runs a procession of diligent widgets, each one tweaked to give its own spin on Manchester ’00-‘09. “Forte” by Najem Sworb is one of the fastest-peaking dub techno tracks I’ve heard this year, its rowdy machines accompanied by what must surely be the Byker Grove jingle, while the precious mulch and pillow talk of Sinner DC’s “Glass Alley Remix” is totally M83 in a tracksuit, totally and without question. Listen in full and deny it. There’s a French accent in there I’m telling ya.

This redemptive plod darks up for side B, though, looking away from the Y2K buzz toward the shit we’ve got to clear up in the morning. This time it’s all icy waveforms and flickering plains, the rhythms, in other words, of a badly-jointed motorway as you drive the last drugs out of your system. To experience John Cranmer’s view of the future, skip to his “Tick Tock” Pathic track and drink in the trickling and sea mines. His own brand of techno is dismal and slippery, cold as the scum on the North Sea and as pretty as a grime night with aquariums for set dressing. Head honcho Jason Smith won’t let his boys fob you off, you see, and grits things further with the compilation’s have-a-go drone component: EOC’s “Departure.” This one pours low-end onto a crumbling electric fence, black as a night in a city tunnel with a foghorn that initiates overdrive.

Fortunately, hope glows and resurfaces on the Third Man’s “FGB” closer (important tip: all music/musicians named after unrelated films will usually save the day), so AI get to close their story on a suitably positive glimmer. As a label they still ooze pluck by centilitre and the alleys of Manchester are kept protected by their beats that help fend off the Londoners. While When I Was Ten is already almost sold out in vinyl (how couldn’t it with that artwork?), the sheer dichotomy of emotion in its writing might scare off the CD chancers. Luckily, the hardcore who keep these labels alive have been with them since pretty much Year Zero, and you can almost guarantee the quality won’t falter should they make it to Year Zero Plus Twenty. Like the t-shirts in the webshop are quick to point out: Quality. Electronic. Music.