By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Despite the acknowledged truth that the roots of electronica lay in America in Chicago and Detroit and NYC the movement gained, and continues to gain, its momentum in Europe. It's where the most popular acts reside and where the boundaries are constantly being pushed. Sure, there are a few amazing techno and electronica scenes over here (most notably the vibes coming out of Miami's Chocolate Industries and Schematic camps), but in simplistic terms, we've got the hip-hop, they've got the techno, and each works off the advances of the other to the point where the twain shall soon meet (and we'll see a remarkable, rejuvenating explosion).
So the idea of Astralwerks Records, home of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, Air and dozens of other bankable European artists, dipping their paws into the American electronic underground comes as a welcome surprise; because the only respected American labels releasing the music concentrate on Europe, it's wonderful to see one of them turn their gaze inward. What's even nicer is that the results, though highly uneven (and occasionally downright boring), are intriguing enough to, with luck, pique the interest of smarty-pants Yank label heads interested in filling a market niche heretofore underexamined.
The obsessive geeks among us will note that Unknownwerks consists mainly of a few strands of modern electronica: Big Beat and techno, with an occasional dabbling in house. But any such hairsplitting only serves to scare away the curious souls who don't know their trance from their ghetto-tech. All one should concern oneself with when popping on the CD is the following: It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it.
From those simple prerequisites, the artists collapse into a silicon world of beats, scratches and samples. The constant is that hard beat, of course, and though it manifests itself as different textures with varying degrees of complexity, it's this what you'll hear first and last. From there, it's all texture, and as it progresses, the collection melts into one extended mix. Like any mix, it has its peaks: Bionic (San Francisco) kicks out a machine-gun drum & bass rhythm that manages to remain combustible throughout, and Milwaukee's Shiverhead, already signed to Astralwerks, is crammed with sampled energy, voices pushing through the rhythm from every direction. It has its valleys: Le Pimp (Los Angeles) sounds tired and uninspired when stealing a "Hollywood Swingers" riff, and SJP (Costa Mesa, Calif.) is pure generic tedium. But these peaks and valleys aren't any more dread-inducing than any similar Euro-collection.
Can you hear America in here? Is there a certain flavor to the collection? No. But one of the remarkable things about the new wave of electronic music, something that is a pure sign of Our Wired World, is the music's immediate globality; with e-mail and the Internet, it's possible for a German artist to cut a track in his basement, post it to a Web site that night, and have a dozen artists from all corners of the world download and be influenced by it within moments. These artists can burn a CD of it, carry it to a club and bang it out for a packed dance floor, thereby rendering regional differences moot.
So don't expect provincial pride to sprout within Unknownwerks; it ain't there, and, like any collection of like-minded artists' work, the CD gets a bit repetitive. But as a taste of the gradually growing American electronic movement, Unknownwerks works.