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Plug - Back On Time

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Artist: Plug

Album: Back On Time

Label: Ninja Tune

Review date: Feb. 22, 2012

Back on Time is a collection of dusted-off 1990s tracks from Luke Vibert’s alter ego Plug. Fifteen years is the ideal span if one is trying to be maximally unfashionable. And sure enough, these tracks feel like their natural home would be spinning inside a Sony Discman. It’s a pleasing set on its own terms, but it’s just as interesting as a contrast to contemporary electronics, to hear what traits and effects have faded as its evolved so rapidly.

“Mind Bending” is a good example. After Moby saturated the market with “can I get witness” gospel samples, the clip at the start of this track still sounds a bit hackneyed. That sample only serves as the wind-up, though, just one of many vocal clips that decorate falling bass and breakbeats. The standout sound is a hippy shouting about “Acid House” in a goofy voice. If that’s also dated in its own way, the feel of the whole is refreshing. Loops layer and halt, disembodied, floating just above the frantic drum breaks. There’s a rigidity that’s missing from the burnished software arrangements of today. One can feel the traces of Vibert triggering banks of audio hardware. It’s like a player-piano roll cut by stride piano master — the medium adds a mechanical chop to the message.

The variety and jazziness of the samples is also refreshingly past-due. The plunk of acoustic bass is a great contrast to the small sounds of Amen breaks. Vibert (and Amon Tobin, and a lot of others) were still coming to terms with what had been wrought by De La Soul and the Dust Brothers. Draping disco strings over Elmer Bernstein was a game of finding a few bars commonality, rather than the jokey contrasts of all-out mashup. The squeak of a Cuíca drum sounds a piece with the squeak of a saxophone — neither sound was intended to be psychedelic, but they both become trippy when they’re looped.

The title track of Back on Time, a real gem, does just that sort of dance club mind-melt. With a ground floor of drum ‘n’ bass basics — funk shouts and beats no human could hit — the long running time is a tussle between the sinister creak of crime jazz and the Lear Jet slickness of ’70s soundtracks.

In the last decade, software-sculpted reverb has fueled much of the shift away from the feel of Back on Time. Acoustic sounds and LP samples can be blurred beyond recognition. Tweaks to each layer of a mix can move any isolated sound forward or backwards, erasing the seams of stitching together disparate sources. Contemporary producers are loathe to have any tone in their work recognized as default setting, as rigs have shrunk from a tabletop of tangled cables to a choice between just a few dominant audio software packages. Back on Time captures a jigsaw puzzle when only the straight side had been assembled.

By Ben Donnelly

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