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The 7th Plain - Chronicles II / III Music Album Reviews

At one point, Luke Slater’s atmospheric-techno guise sounded like the future of electronic music; a welcome new archive proves its soundscapes and grooves were prescient.

For years, the 7th Plain was the least understood alias of British electronic producer Luke Slater. In the early 1990s, he beat ravers into submission with the unrelenting techno of his project Planetary Assault Systems. Under his own name, he signed to NovaMute for albums that presented him as an electronic auteur, capable of melodic floor-fillers, Underworld-inspired alt-techno, and the occasional dalliance with electroclash. In the 2010s, he narrowed his focus on Planetary Assault Systems’ spartan purism and launched L.B. Dub Corp as an outlet for his bassier instincts. But the work of the 7th Plain—Slater’s atmospheric-techno guise, responsible for two sublime albums in 1994 and almost nothing since—languished in obscurity, even as its lush soundscapes and carefully sculpted machine grooves have proved prescient.

In 2016, A-TON—an imprint of Ostgut Ton, the label of iconic Berlin nightclub Berghain—began rectifying that disappearance with Chronicles I, a collection of the 7th Plain’s unreleased and archival material. With Chronicles II and III, curious listeners are finally afforded a more complete picture of what made the 7th Plain so special. (All three volumes are also available as a six-LP box set, Chronicles I-III.) The character of the sound leaps out: Slater drizzles his synths, as syrupy and golden as honey, on in loopy arpeggios and gloopy layers. His flickering drum programming bristles with hi-hats, rimshots, and flintlike handclaps, raining down in showers of sparks.

Stylistically, the music of all three volumes hovers between Detroit techno and early IDM, in both genres’ most lyrical modes. The lush pads and legato leads of tracks like “Time Melts” are precursors of the liquid-metal atmospheres Carl Craig would pursue on Landcruising the following year. The dubby undercurrent and wafting, wordless vocals of “Shades Amaze” could almost be mistaken for electronic shoegaze act Seefeel, while “Excalibur’s Radar” has a silvery drama reminiscent of Autechre’s Amber, IDM’s emotive peak. Foggy cultural memory around rave’s chillout-room traditions has led to a kind of oppositional thinking: music for dancing here, music for lounging there. But, aside from a purely ambient track or two, including a burbling number that could be an early Air demo, the 7th Plain’s work resists that binary. Instead, in its emphasis on groove over bounce, it finds a middle path between dance music and armchair raving. At its most electrifying, it moves like a daydream strapped into a hydraulic exoskeleton.

For longtime fans, Chronicles II has the surprises. Four of its eight tracks are previously unreleased, rescued from the old DATs and reel-to-reel tapes of Slater’s studio; three more are non-album tracks, alongside the 1994 single “Astra Naut-E,” from The 4 Cornered Room. At their best, the previously unreleased cuts expand upon his known work in subtle ways. A planetarium fantasy par excellence, “Silver Shinhook” weds gently thundering percussion to limpid piano reminiscent of Harold Budd; its surging arpeggios connect the dots between Tangerine Dream and Global Communication. “JDC” dials back the atmospherics to zero in on a wriggly, shape-shifting synth lead that’s among the funkiest things here; “To Be Surreal” sets out its shiny drum and synth baubles like miniatures in a glass menagerie.

But Chronicles III has the stronger material: With four songs from The 4 Cornered Room and three from My Wise Yellow Rug, this is the nucleus of Slater’s best and most affecting work, and the obvious place for newcomers to start. “Time Melts,” “Reality of Space,” “Excalibur’s Radar,” and “Think City” are all as good as atmospheric techno gets; in the past quarter-century, they haven’t aged a day. It’s hard not to wonder why A-TON chose this particular shape for Chronicles, cherry-picking from carefully paced albums that benefit from being heard in full rather than just re-issuing them. The tracks that aren’t on Chronicles make perfect sense in the context of their records. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to dividing the unreleased songs between Chronicles I and Chronicles II, either.

There’s more unreleased 7th Plain material still out there; his 1996 album Playing With Fools never made it past the test-pressing stage. One track was repurposed as “Railer (Further Exploration),” which opens Planetary Assault Systems’ 2011 album, The Messenger; as for the rest, says Slater, “That’s buried.” It’s a shame, as “Railer” is among the most emotional music in his catalog. The rare occasion when he has left beats behind entirely, it offers a glimpse of the ambient essence lurking inside this opulent architecture. While the shape of these anthologies might frustrate hardcore collectors, having this music available is beyond welcome. The 7th Plain never became techno’s future—at least, not in the way it sounded at the time. But today, rescued like a fistful of heirloom seeds from its neglected patch of turf, it’s ready for rediscovery.

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