The White Room / Justified & Ancient
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USA EDITION : With 5 rare BONUS tracks, including the Tammy Wynette team-up "Justified & Ancient"! Watershed 1991 album from the UK pop-art kings features "What Time Is Love?" and "3am Eternal".
A crazy experiment in music-industry manipulation, the KLF remain one of dance's more groundbreaking acts. Having already scored hits as the Jams and the Timelords, Bill Drummond and Jimi Cauty christened the KLF with Who Killed the Jams? Though they were originally considered part of England's acid-house scene, the KLF's high-energy mix of disco-diva vocals, rapping, breaks, and samples was truly club-friendly pop. The White Room contains three of the group's greatest moments, the top 10 hits "What Time Is Love?," "Last Train to Transcentral," and "3 A.M. Eternal." Amid their success, Drummond and Cauty retired from the music industry, deleting their back catalogue in the process. The White Room is a fitting (if somewhat short) epitaph that stands the test of time. Its futuristic musical themes are somewhat silly, but genuine musicianship makes the songs themselves quality fun. --Liisa Ladouceur
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It was kind of a funny time. Techno music sounded big, strident, and exciting, but it didn't have much to say. The KLF used some spiritual terminology (cf. "Church Of The KLF") and used high-sounding words like "justified," "ancient" and "eternal," but they had no real message, expressed no coherent beliefs. One of the weirdest things about The White Room is the complete disconnect between the loud, anthemic sound of songs like "What Time Is Love?" and "3 A.M. Eternal," the stadium-sized roar of drums and sirens, the insistence that Something Big was happening...and the completely nonsensical, lazy lyrics, such as "love and hate / war and peace / they've all been tried before." After a couple of listens, one really starts to notice that "Last Train to Trancentral" endlessly repeats "this is what KLF is about" without ever saying what "this" is.
Tunes were good, though. The production tricks used in The White Room may have been worked to death in the last 20 years, but the album as a whole still sounds interesting. It's hard not to get excited when that deafening hook first appears on "What Time Is Love?" or when the blissed-out chorus of "3 A.M. Eternal" elegantly wafts up over the pounding rhythms. There's a reason why these techniques became the blueprint for techno and house music. And hey, once in a while, even the meaningless lyrics credibly sound sort of poetic, on lines like "fishing in the rivers of light."
What's more interesting, though, is that some of the best parts actually occur outside of the Big Singles. "Make It Rain," the simple placeholder between "What Time Is Love?" and "3 A.M. Eternal," is actually a very pretty song. That 1-2-3-4 rise/fall synth line has been used in almost every techno song ever, but it still sounds thoughtful and poignant. The chopped-up saxophone sample still sounds original, and really emphasizes the generic singer's exhortation "please won't you make it rain." Maybe, deep down, there was more to acid-house than drugs and bad fashion!
This was also still the golden age of sampling, so the KLF were free to subvert other music to their own image. The crowd noise on the singles is sampled from a U2 live album (the song titles say "live," but it's not true), easily faking the feeling of a huge party. The riff in "What Time Is Love?" is preceded by a fierce shout from "Kick Out The Jams," an even better lead-in here than in the original. Also, I'm pretty sure the harmonica punctuating the thoughtful mood of "Build A Fire" came from Bowie's Low.
Some of the best and most creative ideas on The White Room appear only very briefly, as asides. "Church Of The KLF" ends almost immediately after its protracted intro, which is that silly monologue about love and hate with non-descript airy keyboards. But right after that, the song unexpectedly kicks into an incredible techno groove with a low-key, reverberating synth pulse over the house beat. It could have made a great single, a hard techno number that still had a bit more restraint and atmosphere. But it ends almost immediately after it begins.
Then, the best part of the title track is the chanting call, "Talk to me, talk to me," which only appears twice. I don't even know why. The hardest part of writing about techno music is explaining why one tiny snippet of sampled vocals is effective, while another one is not. But this one is. Maybe there is something inherently dramatic about putting a small plaintive note in between loud proclamations of happiness.
Unfortunately, they do run out of ideas by the end. The original version of the last song "Justified And Ancient" is almost unlistenably boring, a pastoral recitation of the KLF's embarrassing catch phrases and mythology. Again, there's a seemingly forceful statement of intent, "if you don't like what they're going to do / you'd better not stop them 'cause they're coming through," that fails to convey anything about exactly "what" it is that "they" plan to "do." Fortunately, the CD release tacks on the "Stand by the JAMs" twelve-inch single version of this song, which totally tears off the roof with a funk-infused dance stomp and an ultra-anthemic chorus (with Tammy Wynette on guest vocals, foreshadowing the celebrity guest singers of Gorillaz), which of course goes, "All bound for Mu Mu Land." The album sounds a lot better if you program this song right after "No More Tears," and end there.
Half curio, then, but half inspired. In a way, something this overtly silly sounds bolder without the safety of irony. The first album by The Orb (co-founded by KLF member Jimi Cauty) probably works better as a Musical Statement, the same inventive sampling but with less blatant pseudo-philosophizing. But the free-spiritedness of early techno also shines through on The White Room.
On to the techincal: The CD/album reviewed here is (as mentioned above) the 1992 Arista re-release (the UK catalog was in fact deleted by the KLF in 1992 - when they "retired" from the music business - and the Arista version is the only version widely circulated nowadays). The recording is typical of early 90's tape transfers: some faint tape noise, adequate use of the dynamic range (no DRC), no clipping, etc. Audition in headphones does reveal some harshness, perhaps due to filtering (from the digital transfer) but overall I'd rate the recording quality as good to very good.
To conclude, the White Room, regardless of how we think of it - immaginative or silly (or both), a work of genius or the ultimate prank - its music does have substance, and it is here to stay - and as far as I'm concerned, it is an unlikely masterpiece - 5 star.