How to realise an accurate distillation of twenty years in the game? Despite sounding like the dry working title of a business-tech conference, Structures & Solutions marks two decades of Blueprint Records with an acknowledgement that looks to both veteran compatriots (Oliver Ho, Karl O’Connor, Luke Slater’s Planetary Assault Systems, Mark Broom) and recent cohorts (Randomer, Blawan, Tessela) for an ambitious assessment of what James Ruskin’s label has managed to achieve in this time and where its next explorations lie. Solely comprised of new material, it avoids the pitfalls of nostalgia and commemoration that these affairs are often subject to by continuing headlong into the militant and hypnotic soundworld Blueprint have become known for. But as recent years have attested, the boundaries of this robust and resilient sound have been richly expanded upon by the likes of Samuel Kerridge, Lakker and Sigha. Structures and Solutions observes both Blueprint’s history and its future revealing a label which - in integrating an older guard that shows little sign of stagnation (Ho, O’Connor, and Ruskin & Broom’s The Fear Ratio are all on good form here) with a newer crop of artists who’ve incorporated different elements and sounds into the label’s territory (Lakker in particular) - has reached the twenty-year hallmark as expansive and productive as they’ve ever been. It feels like more of a casual acknowledgement proposing more of the same quality that people have come to expect rather than a complacent victory lap.
To take us back a little bit, Blueprint was founded in 1996 by Ruskin and Richard Polson and its first forays came under Polson and Ruskin’s Outline banner, a series of records that were staunch and unrelenting in their Millsian velocity. The key touchstones of Blueprint’s DNA were informed by Steve Bicknell’s LOST club night, a 90s London institution which incubated a concentrated scene which influenced many (Appropriately enough, Bicknell features here contributing a relentless sub-bass banger in the form of ‘Disguise of Beings’) Convivial connections with the likes of Tony Surgeon and Karl O’Connor and subsequent visits to Birmingham’s House of God club nights in the mid-90s gave Ruskin enough impetus and inspiration to nurture his own endeavour. Initially the lion’s share of Blueprint’s early releases stemmed from Ruskin and his respective collaborations however the label’s ranks were eventually augmented by the addition of Oliver Ho who Ruskin had met after they had attended the same sound engineering course together in Westminster. After hard-edged, bristling techno in the 90s, Ruskin continued to release his own material on the label into the mid-2000s along with the likes of Ho and The 65D Mavericks, a collaboration between Polson and Nick Dunton of Surface Records. However, the label reached a point of impasse when Polson unexpectedly and tragically passed away, prompting a period of hiatus and reassessment in which Ruskin debated whether the label could carry on without the input of such an important associate and long-time friend.
Fortunately, the difficulty of processing such an event seems to have been acknowledged and overcome and since 2009 Ruskin has exhibited a healthy work ethic, adding collaborations with O’Connor (as O/V/R), Mark Broom (under their own names and as The Fear Ratio) and a host of other new names to the labels discography. In this time Blueprint has arguably transitioned into a cleaner, deeper but equally heavy sound; techno detonated less by grubby hisses and Detroit-edified minimalism and more by industrial magnitude and sleek, cinematic atmospheres.
On this 20-year retrospective those latter inclinations really come into their own and O/V/R’s ‘Metal Slipper’ sets a suitably imposing introductory tone, initially full of slipstream washes and expectant build before a dark, disembodied acid holds sway. Lakker’s effort, ‘Chain of Combs’, remains in a midtempo mood sticking to a halting momentum but veers into a deep space dread which fortifies the introduction given by O/V/R. It’s an introduction which suggests Blueprint’s sound in its current incarnation lends itself to home systems as much as club rigs and peak time intensity, owing to multidimensional atmospheres and patient, almost reticent escalations which show just enough to spike an interest but not too much that they’re reduced to bluster.
A similar sense of discretion informs Ruskin & DVS1’s ‘Page 1’ which with vacuum ambience and an insistent scale of modulation, threatens to tear into full tilt culmination but relents, only ever hinting at that kind of energy. Admittedly there is an emphatic shift in gear with Makaton’s ‘Slur’, with the Rodz-Konez mainstay venturing into heads-down territory, but there are too many errorist waylays for it to be considered a conventional source of full on euphoria, it’s more multifaceted, and by the end all that remains in the sparse fadeout are crooked chimes and metallically treated distortions.
It’s left to Luke Slater’s famed Planetary Assault System alias to provide an impactful consolidation of the anticipatory atmospheres revealed and opened out in this first segment of the compilation. Kraftwerkian hiccups and a rhythmic industrial insistency delivers the first instance of hardcore uplift, and along with Regis’ ‘Party Spoiler Too’ there’s the sense that the compilation is operating under the same auspices as a club night, with a slow build laying the groundwork for an unrelenting midway point before more climactic moments and an eventual conclusion.
Yet the principle that first initialized, then revived and has since sustained Blueprint isn’t an easy adherence or negotiation of set impulses and familiar arcs. What’s kept the output interesting isn’t down to anything strategic. Just as things seem to settle into a pulverizing constancy, Randomer’s ‘Sheen’ swirls with monolithic conviction, aligned more with the recent sound design savvy noise of Abdulla Rashim’s Northern Electronics imprint or Copenhagen’s Posh Isolation than anything he’s had out on Hemlock or L.I.E.S. Although noise techno is a noted lingua franca now, this is hard to dismiss as formulaic bandwagon fare, similar in its compound to Oliver Ho’s Broken English Club material if less indebted to post-punk and its descendants and more to the demands of a contemporary techno context. Although all of these influences aren’t far away from where Blueprint has come from, it still adds diversity to a compilation that could have easily rested on the laurels and history of the label and churned out monotonal, functional techno fit for monthly DJ lists and mixes and little else. A closer listen will reveal there’s something more going on in many of the tracks that feature.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Truss’ effort, ‘Wonastow’. Again it’s in keeping with the established heft of much of Blueprint’s material, but manically spun vocal samples and a blown-apart half-stepper rhythm situate this in Mumdance territory were he to meet the industrial blasts of Perc Trax in the middle. It recalls his ‘Kymin Lea’ release last year but in this context adds a different dimension to the more direct tunnel vision momentums of Ruskin, Regis and Slater.
Rumah and Progression’s ‘Speak & Spell’ keeps things checking over but does little to stand out above the rest before Ruskin’s ‘6teenth’ picks up where Truss left off, in as much as it poses more bass bin disorientation, departing from the fixity of something like Tessela’s ‘Rub’ which follows in its wake. Still, Ruskin and Tessela’s efforts work well in sequence, playing off each other effectively, with ‘6teenth’ essentially serving as a set up for ‘Rub’. Rommek’s ‘Off The Radar’ continues at much the same rate as Tessela, but churns and expands, positioning itself firmly in the mould of Sandwell District. You can see why it was included, considering Ruskin’s links with the collective. Although Rommek proves compelling enough Blawan’s ‘Passer By’ does more with a similar palette, plummeting a spasmodic vocal tic into sub-aqueous pressure and adding more space and dormancy into the equation, before letting the immersion and propulsion of a dub techno expanse take hold.
After a number of efforts originating from newer faces it’s fitting that the closing moments of Structures & Solutions finds familiar peers at their best. Although the Broken English Club project – a dystopian vision that subsumes everything from JG Ballard to Throbbing Gristle to Napalm Death – is ostensibly proposed as a separate entity to Oliver Ho’s solo material, you can’t help feeling that the invigoration such a project has provided has spilled into his other guises, in this case, his work under his own name. Although it’s hard to differentiate between BEC and his more recent solo ventures, this feels like the natural outcome of a strong sonic world being created in BEC’s dissonant dereliction rather than a lack of differentiation and ideas. A case in point being ‘The Serpent Devours Itself’, probably the strongest, most striking moment on the compilation, one that dials up the tension to almost unbearable levels with evacuation alarm bass tones and colossal grinding signals.
In The Fear Ratio’s ‘Lonor’ and Lakker’s ‘Orange’ the notion of a Blueprint sound existing both within and beyond the dancefloor is confirmed in two concluding tracks which place downcast resolution and serene atmospherics above the intensity and momentum of Ho’s contribution and the many others that compliment it. Both tracks have a strong Warp Records flavour to them, like Autechre and Boards of Canada given over to a more direct character, less manic subversionary processing and haze hued halcyons and more sombre curtain call for an extended, anniversary tribute to a label who’s style of techno – through many years and adverse circumstances - has remained myriad but cohesive. Structures & Solutions is a necessary verification of Blueprint’s distinction.
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