Two reissues from the Manchester veterans track the progress of their post-punk/disco fusions into the 1990s and 2000s—an uneven path, but their freewheeling energy still charms.
“My heart was just an open sore/Which you picked at ’til it was raw/It bled away my existence/Shriveled under your insistence.” Who writes lyrics like these? Nihilist poets, emo singers, hyperliterate teenagers, sure—but a disco group? Dance music has often addressed themes of alienation, pain, and loss, but rarely has a band been both as enticingly funky and harrowingly bleak as Manchester’s A Certain Ratio. In their first decade, ACR made some of the most seminal yet underrated post-punk, avant-pop, and tweaked funk of an era filled with hybrid explorations. Early tracks like “Knife Slits Water” and “Do the Du” ruthlessly deconstructed the pleasures of the flesh while simultaneously urging listeners to succumb to them. Part of the fun remains in trying to decide if ACR were, at heart, party boys who couldn’t get out of their heads or overburdened cultural theorists looking for an escape hatch. As they moved into the 1980s, this binary juxtaposition would fall away in favor of a more expansive approach to dance music: brainy, jazzy, adventurous, yet keenly aware of exhilarating developments in the Top 40.
The group had intimate ties to their hometown’s “Madchester” scene, a community of musicians and DJs clustered around Factory Records and its legendary nightclub, the Haçienda. Alongside fellow Mancunians New Order and the Happy Mondays as well as Leeds’ Gang of Four and Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire, ACR were a historic example of the spontaneous groupthink Brian Eno dubbed “scenius.” These artists exemplified the rushing development from punk’s snotty three-chord “fuck you”s into the nuanced, multifaceted expressions that defined underground music in the ’80s.
By 1996, the dance music revolution that ACR & co. once anticipated had come to fruition beyond anyone’s expectations. House, techno, ambient, downtempo, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, IDM, and their various subgenres (not to mention hip-hop) had exploded across the globe. During their late-1970s/early-’80s peak, ACR’s output was neck and neck with historic releases like Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the Upsetters’ Blackboard Jungle Vol. 1, and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” But now the funky futurism of the ’80s sounded quaint compared to the blink-and-you-missed it developments in Berlin, London, Detroit, and New York. Change the Station was the band’s first effort in five years—an eternity for dance music at that time. In the meantime, artists as game-changing as Björk, Aphex Twin, Goldie, Underground Resistance, and Basic Channel had all brazenly recalibrated dance music’s DNA.
It would be unfair to expect ACR to have kept up with the hectic pace of this next generation, but revisiting Change the Station today, it feels like the group was flagging. The album goes full Balearic, with lots of smooth downtempo breakbeats, soulful vocals, and unhurried saxophone. Soul II Soul’s 1989 smash “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” is a loose template, itself a commercial success story for the kind of multikulti, house-adjacent pop that ACR had been exploring 10 years prior. What Change the Station lacks is the sense of hyper-intelligent, nervy dissonance that brought depth to earlier albums. Even at their grooviest, ACR maintained an edge—the fun never came entirely free. The band who once asked “Who sold that knife to me?” here blandly implore you to “listen to the sound.” Ok, we’re listening. Now what?
The sound of the album is in fact one of its central flaws. ACR’s songs often functioned more as energy fields than as clear narratives—sonic mobiles rather than roller-coaster rides. This practice was aided by tweaked timbres and attention to texture and effects. The production values on Change the Station are wholly professional, yet they lack strong personality. It feels like a mock-up for the record it should have been, its elements stock stand-ins for more riveting performances that never arrive. It’s unfortunate, because the core concept might have worked. The late 1990s were rife with jazzy, laid-back electronic music of all sorts, from A Tribe Called Quest to Massive Attack. But Change the Station’s session-musician sheen keeps these tracks at arm’s length. Play it in the background of your sushi restaurant all you want; it’s hard to imagine another scenario where it would thrive.
After Change the Station, ACR retreated once again. It would be another 12 years before they regrouped to record 2008’s Mind Made Up in loose sessions guided by a spirit of openness. Compared with Change the Station, the later album embraces the band’s rock roots, shifting perspective from ecstasy-tinged inclusiveness to aloof, knowing narrations of modern ennui. The tasty RHCP-esque lick that opens “Way to Escape” suggests a slow-mo strut down the avenue, past junkies, businessmen, hustlers, crooks, and their victims. Mind Made Up feels rooted in a rotting metropolis, each expression of hope balanced by something dour. But this isn’t protest music—ACR are level-headed observers, thriving and surviving amid the chaos of modernity, smart enough to comment but powerless to change. “Just try stay funky/Just try to be cool,” sings Denise Johnson on “Rialto 2006,” nearly buried by waves of horns, guitar squall, and echo. Good advice.
Overall, Mind Made Up is an improvement on its predecessor. The group allows itself to experiment and stretch out, and that alone gives the album a spark. It suffers from some of the dad-friendly blandness of Change the Station, particularly when the band attempts a driving groove, but their freewheeling energy is not without its charms. “Teri” is an awkward but affecting ballad built around a simple piano figure, while “Starlight” tries to manage a bit of the throwback disco that Hercules and Love Affair had recently reinvigorated.
Both albums close with tracks that are notably stronger than anything on their respective LPs. Change the Station wraps with “Groove (E),” a beatless reprise of opener “Listen to the Sound.” By clearing out the arrangement, the song shifts gears from overeager to sensual. It’s not a masterpiece, but it has a smoky, penetrating vibe. Meanwhile, Mind Made Up finishes with the tumultuous “Very Busy Man.” Roiling and formless, it feels like a jam bashed out at the end of a long, frustrating day in the studio. Bass accents are cribbed from Miles Davis’ On the Corner, while the drums splinter into rolling waves of energy.
Deep into their career, ACR’s strengths lay in the extreme ends of their personal spectrum: “Groove (E)” draws you in with a whisper while “Very Busy Man” lunges. One wonders the albums would have looked like if these last tracks had been the jumping-off point for a new direction. Neither Change the Station nor Mind Made Up could be expected to accomplish what their first records had done; few artists surf the zeitgeist so gracefully even once, and for most a second shot is unheard of. In these moments, though, it’s good to hear traces of that fevered energy—the razor’s edge of pleasure and pain that once made ACR one of the most vital bands of their time.
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