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Though fans and DJs had been waiting for his elusive next single for over five years, don't think of Innovator as a summation of Derrick May's production career. It's far too untidy to be the last word on this Detroit pioneer, shuttling from full track to alternate mix to production fragment, and gathering scattered versions like "Another Kaos Beyond Kaos," "Feel Surreal Begins," "A Relix Mix," and "Another Relic From the Relics." The first disc gathers several minute-long bits of tracks, occasionally vicious edits of an important track like "It Is What It Is." Yes, it's frustrating but, considering this is the only compilation available, listeners should be glad for anything they can get their hands on. Innovator begins, as it should, with "Strings of Life," the unapologetically emotional piano-and-synth-strings anthem that capped many a British warehouse party and rave during its 1988-1989 heyday. Though the mix here ("Strings of the Strings of Life") isn't quite the most famous one -- it's nearly beatless, and seems to be just on the verge of kicking in for all eight minutes -- the "original mix" is fortunately appended near the end of the second disc. Most of May's productions are tough, defiant rhythm tracks, raw but sturdy and put together better than any of his peers. There's much more bubbling below the surface than a casual listen betrays, and several tracks ("A Little Spaced Out," "Beyond the Dance," "Drama") are evocative productions from a time when little more was required of a dance track than a few skeletal beats, a bassline, and one or two samples. Best of all, several touchstones from the second disc -- "Salsa Life," "Nude Photo," and the Juan Atkins mix of "Wiggin'" -- are practically untouched. Not quite a best-of, and definitely not a new production album, Innovator is the work of a producer who, while perhaps not releasing many tracks anymore, is constantly at work on his legacy. [R&S' 1998 reissue featured two bonus tracks.] ~ John Bush, Rovi
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Essentially, May invented the style known as "Detroit techno." He wasn't the first techno artist from Detroit -- his colleague Juan Atkins, for example, recorded Clear under the name Cybotron in 1983. But May was the best of his kind. If you listen to compilations that purport to give a historical overview of early techno, like Carl Craig's Abstract Funk Theory or Atkins' Wax Trax Mastermix, you might find that most of May's contemporaries sound unlistenable today. By contrast, May's work might sound a bit crude, but it survives.
At its core, May's compositional style consists of sturdy 4/4 dance rhythms on a drum machine, with synths on top. The keyboards often play catchy melodies, but sometimes they just alternate a couple of long, drawn-out notes in minor key. Then they get switched off and the drums play for a while, then the synths come back on (with no change in the melody). Keep switching in this manner, with maybe a sample or two now and again, and that's it, that's basically the Detroit sound.
It sounds primitive, but it describes a lot of techno music. May influenced nineties albums like Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman (the pulsing thump in "Dark And Long" is pure Detroit). The IDM artists on Warp Records owed a lot to May; there's a reason why "Nude Photo" was featured on Warp's tenth-anniversary compilation. The same basic approach is still at work in modern albums like Luomo's Vocalcity or Burial's Untrue ("Raver" is an homage to early techno). Even Bjork's allegedly avant-garde drums-and-strings sound on Homogenic is basically Detroit with a much bigger budget.
I don't know, there's just something about that combination of hard drums and minor-key synths that hits the spot. The drums sound cold and dissonant, but the synths add a certain softness. May's first single "Nude Photo" is literally nothing more than a mechanical kick-snare pattern, a sample of a laughing woman, and a three-note keyboard line, but it still makes a strong impression. The melody sounds like it's being played on a cheap, low-quality synth. It has a straining, reedy sound, but that makes it kind of charming. The title seems to hint at some kind of adolescent sexual tension, and the sound of the song taps into that feeling perfectly: it's a bit awkward, but there's a gentleness in it as well. In its way, the song is a gem.
This really sets May apart from the rest. He nailed that delicate balance between the soft keyboards and the loud drums. Not only that, but eventually he was able to write some really indelible keyboard hooks, most famously the blaring fanfare in "Strings Of Life," the quintessential rave anthem (though I prefer the chilled remix, "Strings Of The Strings Of Life"). His rhythms also became more varied, culminating in "Salsa Life," still not quite lively enough for a genuine Latin rhythm, but with some cool production on the drums. Also, May's production became more atmospheric, on chilled-out tracks like "Beyond The Dance" and "Chaotic Harmony," and his keyboards actually started to resemble stringed instruments ("Icon").
Additionally, I'd single out the highly unusual lead melody in "Drama," which is arranged by chopping up a sample of operatic vocals (Orbital seized on that later, but it wasn't as common in 1990), and the glorious chime/horn harmonies in "R-Theme." The latter song also has a great rolling beat, which is a lot more complex than the standard 4/4 Detroit fare. No wonder Bjork adapted it for "I Miss You."
May got a lot of recognition, and his label Transmat Records was highly respected. It seemed that May could have retained his status as "innovator" throughout the nineties, especially since he did influence many nineties artists, but instead, he all but stopped writing music, and mostly concerned himself with repackaging his legacy and reasserting his significance. Two things came of that: in 1998, this double-disc compilation of May's eighties work, and in 1999, another compilation called Time: Space that featured younger artists, plus one new song from May himself ("Beforethereafter," the only new Rhythm Is Rhythm song to be released since 1990). Both are worth seeking out, but Innovator is particularly valuable, since it's the only way to get most of May's classic work without hunting down the vinyl.
Innovator is a very good listen, and contains all of the songs listed above, but it has flaws. Unfortunately, it is incomplete. It's nice to have short vignettes like "Rest" that serve as interludes between May's famous tracks, but the compilation is missing the Rhythm Is Rhythm rarities "Emanon" and "Chaos," even though there was enough space for both of them on the first CD alone. The track listing on the back of the CD is hopelessly out of order (for example, the track labeled "Beyond Chaos" is actually "The Dance"). Also, there is a really embarrassing essay in the liner notes that grandly asserts, "It has even been said that without 'Strings of Life,' the 1988 uprising of British youth known as "The Summer of Love" may never have happened."
But although May never really started an "uprising," there's no denying his talent. He views himself as primarily an "innovator," and it's true that traces of his style can be heard in many later albums. But the real reason why his music is still enjoyable and interesting, more than twenty years later, is because he was a good pop songwriter. He wrote catchy, danceable melodies that still hold up long after his production became outdated, and that, really, is what makes Innovator worthwhile.
1. "rest" 5/10
2. Strings Of The Strings Of Life 7/10 (Classic)
3. Another Chaos Beyond Chaos 5/10
4. Freestyle 6/10
5. Feel Surreal Begins 6/10
6. The Dance 5/10
7. Another "rest" 5/10
8. Beyond Kaos 5/10
9. It Is What It Is 6/10
10. Daymares 5/10
11. A Little Spaced Out 5/10
12. Beyond The Dance (Cult Mix) 6/10
13. Original Feel Surreal 5/10
1. To Be Or Not To Be 5/10
2. Icon (Montage Mix) 6/10
3. Montage 6/10
4. A Relic Mix 6/10
5. Kaotic Harmony 5/10
6. More Phantom 5/10
7. Nude Photo 7/10 (Classic)
8. Salsa Life 6/10
9. The Beginning 6/10
10. Another Relic From the Relic 5/10
11. Drama 6/10
12. "Strings"- The Original Mix 7/10
13. Wiggin-Juan Atkins Mix 6/10
While May obviously wasn't the only producer of early "techno" he is certainly one of the most well known. Sure many of his tracks are simplistic and borrow heavily from one another, but considering what they had to work with at the time it was ground breaking. May and others paved the way for artists such as Black Dog, Aphex Twin, FSOL, Autechre and many others. Just as Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream had done previously. Innovator is essentially a techno musical history lesson that all electronic artists and enthusiasts should take note of and remember. 4 stars then, 3 stars today.