When Shlom Sviri founded Modern Love in Manchester, England, toward the end of 2002, British electronic music was in a strange place. The global furore over mega-acts like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada had subsided in the wake of legions of copyists, while the once-thriving club techno scene had lapsed into regurgitating tired facsimiles of its American and European counterparts. Throw in the emerging digital culture, which even at that stage was threatening the conventional structures that supported what was fast becoming a highly specialised and marginal genre, and it was hard to find much electronic inspiration emanating from British shores.
As is often the case in times of apparent musical lull, however, there was something curious forming — this time around the fringes of Manchester record store Pelicanneck (and later, the popular online shop Boomkat) that would eventually blossom into one of the country’s most distinctive and acclaimed outposts of high-end electronic music. From its early days spent sporadically releasing artisan IDM, to recent far-reaching acclaim with the dark-dub drones of Demdike Stare, Modern Love’s famously tight-knit collaborative core, bleakly evocative branding and ultra-sophisticated take on modern machine music made it arguably the first great British electronica label of the 21st century. These are the releases that got them there.
The Claro Factor
Mark Stewart, aka Claro Intelecto, was an early player in the Modern Love collective, having already made a name for himself on other small labels with his dogmatic, cleanly-rendered amalgam of electro beats and abstract IDM production techniques. But in 2006, both he and the label seemed to step into a new realm of productivity, with his Warehouse Sessions series of singles heralding a more uncompromising, track-heavy vision of the techno dancefloor. The releases instantly found favor with techno's notoriously fickle bloggers and cult DJs, many of whom had started to tire of the click-clack European minimal sound that had taken over clubs across the globe. But a more personal and less functional articulation of Stewart's talents came with his Metanarrative LP, which fused the untreated melancholy of classic Chicago house heroes like Larry Heard with sharply-tuned production prowess, taking in fleeting aspects of dub, electro and even muted jazz, all sculpted around an endlessly pulsing 4/4 kick. Created, somewhat amazingly, on the much-derided and supposedly limited Reason software, it cemented Claro's highly influential role in the Modern Love family, and the label's manifest ambitions beyond the constraints of straight-up techno dancefloors.
New Blood, Classic Techno
Modern Love founder Shlom Svirsi has regularly stated that Claro Intelecto was a key facet in the revival of Modern Love from the mid-2000s onward, and what came to be known as the central circle of "new" Modern Love artists — Andy Stott, MLZ and Pendle Coven — were certainly in close proximity to him both sonically and physically, all living within half an hour or so of Manchester's city center. Stott, who regularly gigs with Stewart and makes no secret of the latter's impact on his work, nonetheless forged his own way with second full-length release, Unknown Exception, a collection of ominous, lean, minimalist works written between 2005 and 2008. Like the looming grey tenements of Manchester's famously rainy outskirts, Stott's bare-bones sound is both bleak and beguiling, incorporating snatches of rasping U.K. garage, grainy techno and overloaded dubstep basslines along the way. Taut enough for the DJs, yet abstract enough to intrigue beyond the club, he was the cleaner, snappier side to labelmates MLZ and Pendle Coven's grittier, more classically-based coin. As it turned out, all three acts converged through the musical genre that was to really send Modern Love's next major phase into new realms; at Modern Love, it seems that everything, in the end, comes back to dub.
Kingston, Kryptonite and Kafka
The influence of dub music on Modern Love had been apparent since Claro Intelecto started laying down reverbed stabs in his Warehouse Series, echoing the pioneering dub-techno fusion of Berlin legends Basic Channel in his own carefully constructed manner. But Modern Love's approach to dub was and remains reverential only to a point; Stott, Stewart and Pendle Coven may have made their love of Jamaican reverb clear for all to hear, but they inevitably made a point of putting their own stamp on it, too. With that in mind, the label's decision to release the defining album by Detroit dub techno master craftsmen Deepchord Presents: Echospace was a no-brainer. Rod Modell and Stephen Hitchell, already revered on the specialist techno scene, delivered a painstakingly constructed, multi-layered revision of the Detroit-Kingston connection that elevated dub-techno to whole new levels of creative ambition. With hypnotic layers of sound wrapped elegantly among fizzing ambience and thick, reggae-informed basslines, The Coldest Season showed that the dub-techno fusion was far from being the artistic cul-de-sac that many had presumed; and that from a clutch of overly familiar references, Deepchord Presents: Echospace could harvest an intense but gloriously peaceful masterpiece, like a silently glowing rock of kryptonite pulled from a barren quarry.
Miles Whittaker, the "DJ" of the Modern Love operation and one of the first label acts to really investigate the dubstep-techno crossover of recent years, took his fascination with dub-inspired sounds in wild new directions along with Sean Whittaker as Demdike Stare. Their 2009 debut Symbiosis hinted at the doom-tinged drones of dark ambient overlord Tim Hecker, engulfed by dub music's cavernous reverbs and bass thrums, but it was their remarkable Tryptych series of LPs in 2010 that saw Modern Love jump far away from anything that its listeners previously knew as techno or, indeed, as dub. Employing mock-sinister connotations of witchcraft and stylized Gothicism into their immaculately crafted image, the duo found themselves at the centre of the so-called witch-house movement, but Tryptych is considerably deeper, denser and more disturbed than the vast majority of acts it's been lumped alongside, sharing more in common with the bass-driven psychedelia of Shackleton and Actress than the crunchy, lo-fi hotpot of say, Salem. Across nearly three hours of music, Demdike Stare enter intense portals of abstract yet weirdly connected atmospheric sound, invoking ancient pagan repetition and hauntingly fractured vocals amid distant wailing, whispering, and whitewashed synthetic noise. Forever tunneling into Kafka-esque conjunctions of confusion, isolation, and deeply abstract emotional yearning, it's a strident, groundbreaking epic — and a fine example of Modern Love's seemingly limitless drive to extract dazzling new ideas from electronic music's most darkly beautiful perimeters.