This week on The Breakdown, we dive into the record store discount bin and take a look at two forgotten “full-length” albums from legendary artists of the early 90s British hardcore scene.

Hardcore is not an albums genre. This is not to say that there are not beloved hardcore albums or styles of hardcore with strong album traditions, but like most forms of EDM, hardcore is not a genre people typically come to for lovingly-crafted full-length works. And of all the many hardcore scenes to find prominence over the years, perhaps none has been less attuned to the album format than the UK, which has never managed to produce a style that both was popular and had a strong album tradition.

But while the UK scene may not be known for its albums, it’s not like artists in it have never tried to convert the sound of their 12”s and EPs into full-length records for a home listening audience. In fact, in the 90s, it was all the rage for an artist who had cut their teeth with at least a few good records to try their hand at a CD-length project. These albums were not always good; in fact, they were often incredibly mediocre, and unfaithful to what people enjoyed about the artist’s music in the first place on top of that, and for that reason amongst others the format disappeared somewhat after the new millennium. But despite these shortcomings, or maybe even because of them, these records remain a fascinating artifact of the first era of British hardcore. Let’s take a look at two examples where artists operating with cult followings in the area of breakbeat hardcore - the original and most enduring form of British hardcore - tried their hands at making LPs.

Danny Whidett is the last producer I would associate with janky, half-baked music. Although better known for his Droppin’ Science series of jungle 12”s under his main Danny Breaks alias, he first found prominence in 1991 under the name Sonz of a Loop da Loop Era with a little tune called “Far Out.” If you’re not familiar with this early era of breakbeat hardcore, the tunes are… primitive. Nobody would call breakbeat hardcore a “timeless” sound as a whole, but the first two years are something else; even tracks from stalwarts of high-caliber production like The Prodigy and DJ SS are shockingly thin and strange when you go back this far. “Far Out” is the exception, a track that was light years ahead of the competition not only in terms of helping pioneer the piano-driven sounds of early happy hardcore but also sounding, frankly, fantastic. Not only is there not a single note out of place or sample that doesn’t gel perfectly with everything else going on at any given time, but the engineering itself is clean, fat, and punchy in a way that is unbelievably impressive for the time.

While Whidett had a few other tunes out by the start of 1993, “Far Out” was still his primary claim to fame by a wide margin, so you would expect a full album under the Loop da Loop Era name to follow in its footsteps. In some ways, Flowers In My Garden LP does exactly that. One of the latter releases under the alias, the album sees Whidett proselytizing “scratchedelia,” a combination of the infectious energy of breakbeat hardcore with turntablist scratches and cuts. These elements were not new to his music - even “Far Out” was released under the “Original Scratchadelic Mix” moniker and featured the same prominent scratching - but Flowers emphasizes these techniques quite heavily, in the process getting rid of a lot of the melodic elements that fans of his biggest hit would have expected.

Flowers’s first track is also its best; “Calm Downizm” may not strongly feature the scratch part of the “scratchadelic” concept but its chaotic structure and unique synthwork do bring to mind the imposing darkness of earlier acid house that breakbeat hardcore producers were trying to channel. This is the most full-bodied track on the album and does a lot of cool things with its runtime; the sample rushes at 0:52 bring to mind the density of early Prodigy productions, while the steel pans at 1:43 have a downright whimsical Nintendo 64-esque quality and are one-of-a-kind for this era.

The great first impression the album makes is unfortunately quickly let down, and the next two tracks are pretty thin in comparison to the opener’s claustrophobic intensity. “Bust That Groove” is the first track to really showcase the emphasis on turntables of the album but does so almost to its own detriment - “Far Out” proved that a track could be relatively simple and still sound huge, but “Bust That Groove” is even simpler than that by virtue of replacing all the cool stab melodies and samples with scratching while also lacking any significant sense of propulsion. “Turntable Psyko” is also somewhat papery but much more compelling. It features a Speak & Spell-esque synth sample and goes all in on expressing the techno roots of the genre, even devolving into full-on bleep techno partway through. The back half of the track features a lush string pad that recontextualizes a lot of the earlier darkness in an interesting way.

And with that, Flowers In My Garden LP has concluded its first half. That’s right, this “LP” is a mere 6 tracks and 25 minutes long. Albums from this era often went for over an hour - The Prodigy’s debut Experience from a year earlier just barely misses the 60 minute mark while Acen’s infamous 75 Minutes LP would, as the name implies, breach an hour and a quarter the year after - but for some reason or another, Flowers is about as brisk as they come. Side two starts with “Skratchadelikizm,” my second favorite cut. It expands on the dark elements of “Turntable Psyko” even further, recalling the bubbling sound effects of Acen’s 1992 classic “Trip II The Moon” alongside a frankly crazy-sounding sample chop to disorienting effect. I wouldn’t call this or really anything I’ve heard from Whidett’s discography that overtly psychedelic but, more than any other track on this record, “Skratchadelikizm” channels the early acid feel with a sense of off-kilter freedom.

It’s followed up by “Breaks Theme #1,” which abandons hardcore entirely for a straight exploration of turntablism showboating and early turntable-driven hip hop production. It’s a neat concept for a track, laying out the influences Whidett uniquely brought to his music bare for anyone to see, but the track’s awkward warbly synth sample and primitive beatwork make it little more than a curiosity. It’s followed up by side (and album) closer “Liferium,” which continues the theme of genuinely strange-sounding textures and sampling that runs through the album. Like “Calm Downizm,” this is a faster and denser track that features some pretty unique rapid-fire sample playback and weird MIDI instrumentation - though in this case, I find the MIDI piano to be more cheap than anything and it doesn’t really work to the track’s benefit. In the spirit of being weird, the tune also just kinda ends in a random spot where it feels like it has a little more juice left in the tank.

That feeling that there was more ground to explore extends to the album as a whole, which feels incredibly stunted at such a short length. And even if there was more, the inconsistency of the tracks contained within does it no real favors as a continuous listen. It’s easy to hear the lack of a “Far Out”-esque melody-forward tune and miss it, but the album could have still been really cool even without something like that if it had kept the same spirit of strange, vaguely psychedelic hip hop-rooted hardcore with crazy samples and odd instrumentation while also retaining the level of production quality Whidett was and still is known for. Very little information exists about this record, and who knows what circumstances may have lead to it being both incredibly short and somewhat half-baked. The unfortunate truth is that for every album like The Prodigy’s Experience that was conceptualized as an album first and crafted with love, there were a dozen more breakbeat hardcore albums that were kinda shoved out there from artists who had no business putting out a full CD and didn’t know how to adapt their sound to the format, and the genre really didn’t establish a strong album tradition until its revival decades later as boutique electronica.

For that reason, it’s not that surprising that our second subject, Nebula II’s 1998 LP Hardcorps, diverts away from the breakbeat-driven sound you would expect of them. The duo of Joachim Shotter and Richard McCormack originally cut their teeth pumping out breakbeat hardcore tunes like “Flatliners” that were among the murkiest and most complex of the first few years of the genre. Unlike many artists in the space, though, Nebula II never found a particularly mainstream audience, which might explain why they avoided the curse of the bad early 90s album. The LP fever comes knocking for everyone eventually, though, and even though they had spent the last few years making trance and techno by the time 1998 rolled around, Nebula II found themselves up to the task of putting together something for legendary American hardcore label Industrial Strength Records.

As the already chameleonesque nature of their discography forshadowed, Hardcorps resembles the particular style the duo was originally known for surprisingly little. It is instead another left turn, retaining the techno roots they had spent the last couple years exploring but departing from the mellow, groovy sound of those records in service of an aggressively baremetal acidcore style reminiscent of early Industrial Strength acts like Spy and Machines. Nebula II may have been known for making complex and highly dynamic music but Hardcorps intentionally seems to disregard that. It’s 8 tracks, 50 minutes, and for the most part each tune is both devastatingly simple and unbelievably repetitive. This is an album for people who think techno songs should be nigh-unlistenable sober.

The album makes a surprisingly restrained first impression through the creeping intensity of the title track, which starts relatively clean and builds through both increasing distortion and the gradual unfolding of its main synth line over the course of nearly 7 minutes. This track demonstrates the modus operandi of the album - songs that feature relatively few elements and really hammer them home - and it’s easy to feel like it’s almost too basic, even by techno standards. What surprised me even more than this starkness is how, despite operating within a genre which predates the mid-90s merger of British and mainland European Hardcore into one cohesive genre and community (a subject that can and will be the topic of its own article) and emphasizing polar opposite structural elements from the original breakbeat tracks that Nebula II as a project was defined by, this track - and this album as a whole - does a great job of replicating and recontextualizing a lot of the concepts of that older music. Specifically, Nebula II’s music has always been very grim and acidic, drawing directly from the textures of acid house in a way that is not uncommon for breakbeat hardcore but rarely with such direct concern for what acid house was trying to do with those sounds. Hardcorps may take a different path to get there but ultimately it’s still trying to recreate the atmosphere of a late 80s acid rave, maintaining the tonal throughline of the duo’s discography.

Past the opener, the album dives into the first of its two general categories of track: meat and potatoes traditional-ish acidcore with harsh processing and harsher minimalism. “Tremors” introduces this pivot into classic acidcore textures while reinforcing the themes of oppressively dark psychedelia, with a classic hardcore techno-style synth lead and squealing faux-acid. “Pixel Storm” is much more evocative of 1998  hardcore and the hard dance influence that was bubbling under the mainland hardcore scene at the time, not only featuring more modern sound design but an almost hard house-y bounce. I think this track, more than perhaps any other, illustrates the contrast between this album’s approach to intensity and the approach featured in breakbeat hardcore; the latter walked a line between simplicity and density, often featuring very rudimentary production techniques and thin textures but filling tracks with chaotic melodies and sample layering to create something that sounded huge and pummeling. The more hardcore tracks on Hardcorps are almost the inverse of this, full of minimalist beatwork and writing but texturally dense enough to be intense regardless.

After one more harsher cut (“Normal”), the album takes a turn for the cleaner. “Chomper Stomper” is the least distorted yet but maintains the hard house bounce of “Pixel Storm” and signals the beginning of both the album’s back half and overall pivot into music that is more techno than hardcore. “Hal & Lucy Nation” is the most technical track yet and the most likely to light a real club on fire. Despite not actually being any harder or heavier than anything else on the album, it’s perhaps the most stressful cut, layered with jittering synth lines and complex drum anti-grooves. Despite how claustrophobic the patterns are, this track demonstrates the almost live-programmed feel of these tracks. I do wonder what the process was for putting together this album, not only on a technical level but also a conceptual one. Did they intentionally seek out Industrial Strength knowing that they were working on material reminiscent of the label’s early days? Was it the other way around? This record is so unlike everything they released in the years before that it’s impossible not to speculate on the circumstances of its creation.

The last of the techno-leaning tracks is “Optimize,” which features some real “there’s something wrong with your engine” sound design and the welcome return of rave stabs to the Nebula II arsenal. This whole back half seems like it should be anticlimactic but the particular textures and the way they’re used creates a really nice contrast between “simple yet harsh” and “clean yet disorienting” that gives the record some needed depth. The final track, “What The Heck Man?,” returns to the harsher sound of the first half so as to firmly ground the album moreso in its hardcore elements and once again demonstrates the housey bounce explored in earlier tracks. I particularly appreciate the shards of chopped-up feedback that appear around the 1:40 mark, and the back half of the track features a lovely buildup that marries the complexity of the album’s latter half with the harshness of its former. It’s a strong ending and leaves the album on a particularly cohesive note.

I think it’s interesting to contrast these two records because, despite coming from seemingly similar backgrounds of producers with strong ties to early breakbeat hardcore, they take completely different routes and end up in completely different spots. Flowers In My Garden LP is, if not a watered down take on the Sonz of a Loop da Loop Era sound, at least a questionably executed one that tries to replicate the obvious things that made Danny Whidett’s music stand out but fails in less obvious ways. Hardcorps, on the other hand, avoids the more obvious elements of Nebula II’s best-known music but applies the deeper things that made that music great to a new sound that succeeds in its own way. Neither of these records are incredible and neither of them are bad either; I think Hardcorps is unquestionably the better listen - though its sheer simplicity and repetition holds it back somewhat - but Flowers is plenty listenable and certainly isn’t anywhere near the worst record to capitalize on the unexpected mainstream success of the breakbeat hardcore sound. Album listeners are really spoiled for choice nowadays with so many artists who utilize those aesthetics but work primarily within the LP format and create cohesive, well-conceptualized records that embrace its strengths and avoid its weaknesses.

Albums from hardcore producers who specialize in music for the dancefloor rather than the home are always going to be a little bit of an inconsistent venture just by nature of the scene’s general disregard for the format in favor of more DJ-oriented ones, but things have come a long way since the 90s and it’s not unreasonable to expect an artist these days to be able to put out a decent collection of bangers. I like going back to this era and looking at these older albums even if they’re not good because they’re often not good in really interesting, weird ways. It’s a good exercise in trying to understand the context of the scene and oftentimes you get to hear some really unique music because of it. Next time you find a sick tune from the first decade of hardcore, do yourself a favor and check back through the producer’s discography for any strange LPs they might have released at the time. I can’t guarantee they’ll be good, but I can give you a pretty good guarantee they’ll be worth a look in some way or another.

The Breakdown is a biweekly column about breakcore, hardcore electronic, and jungle. Written by Georgia Ginsburg, it examines the history, culture, and aesthetics of the harder end of the rave era and the modern music influenced by it.

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