Carl Craig: Masterpiece
If there's a problem with Ministry of Sound's Masterpiece series, it's the expectations the title engenders, as setting the bar so high makes the participating artist vulnerable to criticism even before a note is heard. That detail aside, the series' idea of presenting a three-part portrait of the featured artist is a compelling one, especially when each installment allows room for a variation on the theme. Andrew Weatherall's 2012 release split its thirds into Eleven O'Clock Drop, Twelve O'Clock Drop, and One O'Clock Drop components, whereas Francois K fashioned his into Napoli, Manchester, and Tokyo sections. Detroit Techno titan Carl Craig follows suit with an inspired set of his own, with the discs' contents designed in accordance with Aspiration, Inspiration, and Meditation. Certainly their respective contents are dramatically different, with the first presenting recent tracks and remixes by electronic artists, the second material by artists who've influenced him, and the third instrumental music produced by Craig only. The second one surprises for some unexpected inclusions (Muddy Waters, DeBarge, David Lynch), while the third surprises even more for being a long-form synth-ambient suite—not the first thing that springs to mind when Carl Craig's name is mentioned.
A key figure in Detroit techno's so-called second wave, Craig followed in the footsteps of techno pioneers Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May (eventually collaborating with the latter) by establishing Planet E, issuing a voluminous amount of material under a number of aliases (69, Innerzone Orchestra, Paperclip People, etc.), doing remixes for other artists (LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Theo Parrish, Goldfrapp, etc.), and expanding his music-making into non-techno realms such as jazz, drum'n'bass, and ambient. More recently, the restless innovator has been collaborating with pianist Francesco Tristano and Moritz Von Oswald.
All of which brings us to Masterpiece, a three-and-a-half-hour set that constitutes a highly personalized portrait despite the fact that it includes a great deal of non-Craig material. Aspiration gets off to a trippy acid-techno start with Kyle Hall & Kero's “Zug Island” and Macromism's “News From Barcelona” leading the charge. Establishing the club-focused mix's steamy tone early, a muscular house groove swings into view at the five-minute mark, and bass-throbbing floor-fillers follow thereafter from the likes of Loco Dice (“Detox”), Technasia (“Bastille Days”), Ben Sims (“Straight from Bolivia”), Rick Wilhite (a Moodymann mix of “Drum Patterns & Memories”), and The Egyptian Lover (the “Trans-Europe Express”-styled “Egypt Egypt”). Hammering pulses, strings-heavy funk, and dubby, synth-smeared techno surface, and Craig also works a track of his own (a ROD remix of 69's “Poi Et Pas”) and a remix (a mix highlight, Craig's on-fire overhaul of Tom Trago's “Use Me Again”) into the eighty-minute mix.
Of the three parts, Inspiration ranges the most widely, given that it includes everything from Muddy Waters and The Temptations to Erykah Badu and Prince Jammy, though it also includes material that stylistically one would more readily associate with Craig: Moritz Von Oswald's aptly titled “Cocoon Dark Dub,” E-Dancer's (Kevin Saunderson) fabulous techno blazer “Feel the Mood,” and Derrick May's alternately gyroscopic and melancholy epic “Icon.” Appropriate to the disc's theme, the disc plays at times like a history lesson in its incorporation of older material (originally recorded in 1955, Waters' “Mannish Boy” and from the early ‘70s, The Messengers' “In the Jungle” and from 1968, The Temptations' “Cloud Nine”), which doesn't make it an uninteresting collection necessarily but does make it the least Craig-like of the three. Not all of it feels old: Prince Jammy's “256k Ram” (from 1986's Computerised Dub) sounds like it could have been released yesterday, and Lynch's cryptic “Noah's Ark” (2011's Crazy Clown Time), Badu's soulful “Fall in Love (Your Funeral)” (2010's New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh), and Melody Gardot's “Mira” (2012's The Absence) are recent productions.A dramatic change in style occurs as Masterpiece makes the transition from disc two to three. As mentioned, the hour-long, six-part Meditation is a purely instrumental creation by Craig that has much more to do with electronic ambient music than techno per se. In a generally minimal and sleek sound design, multiple layers of synthesizers and electric piano dominate and rhythms more present themselves as pulsations than club beats (though cymbals and brushed drums do emerge during one of the later parts). Often ponderous in mood, the material exudes a rather dream-like quality in its restrained flow of swirling synth patterns and lulling pulses, and could be likened in places to a less intense and vertiginous take on Plastikman's Consumed. All things considered, then, Craig's Masterpiece doesn't quite live up to its title, but it's a fascinating collection nonetheless. The first disc is the one that'll have the most immediate appeal for club-centric listeners, while the more eccentric contents of the second and third discs render them secondary by comparison. Though it would go against the very nature of the Ministry of Sound series concept, a better and more representative title for the release in this case would have been simply Carl Craig: Aspiration, Inspiration, Meditation.