In previous articles, I have often written about artists who have been pioneers, who have either produced a groundbreaking album that has had huge affect on music, artists who are pioneers and innovators, leaders not followers. This article will feature another group who are pioneers, and have been credited with being one of the pioneers of progressive house music and incorporating house music with dub reggae. Over the past twenty years, members of this group have been at the forefront of electronic and dance music, pioneering new ideas and sounds. When this album was released in January 1995, I remember being blown away by it, the music on it sound fresh and innovative, unlike nothing else around then. Sixteen years on, Leftfield’s album Leftism, sounds just as good.
Leftfield were formed in London in1990 by Paul Daley and Neil Barnes. Daley wasa veteran of the UK music scene, having previously been in the Brand New Heavies, The Rivals and A Man Called Adam. Before releasing their own albums, Leftfield was a vehicle for the production and remix work. They first used the name when they released a single Not Forgotten. Barnes was responsible for the editing, arrangement and production, and Daley for remixing the track.
After spending a few years releasing singles, the duo decided to release their debut album. This would become Leftfield. It was a remarkable album, crossing musical genres. This would include house, dub, techno and breakbeat. On its release, it reached number five in the UK album charts and reaching platinum status. So well regarded was the album, it was shortlisted for the 1995 Mercury Music Prize, ultimately losing out to Portishead’s album Dummy.
Four years later, the follow-up album Rhythm and Stealth was released. Having discovered their sound, the style and sound on Rhythm and Stealth remained similar. The album reached number one in the UK album charts, gaining platinum status. Again, the album was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize in 2000. However, like 1995, the album lost out, this time to Badly Drawn Boy’s album The Hour of the Bewilderbeast.
In 2002, Leftfield split up. Eight years later, they reformed, playing a number of high profile festivals and concerts. Since then, Daley has decided to leave the group, to concentrate on his DJ commitments. Barnes has decided to continue touring, using a backing band and singers. Although Leftfield only released two albums, the albums were of the highest quality. Leftism is one of the best, and most innovative and influential albums of the 1990s’. I will now explain why.
Leftism opens Release the Pressure. The track starts quietly, as if playing in the distance, the sound gradually getting nearer. Gradually, the sound awakes, building, meandering gently, showing its beauty. Synths shimmer, distant drums reverberate, a flute plays, then Earl Sixteen’s charismatic vocal enters. Thereafter, the sound opens up. Squelching synths, echoey drums enter. The track gets louder, the tempo increases, suddenly the track is in full flow. Having taken nearly three minutes to get to this point, it has been worth the wait. So much is happening, the sound is complex, instruments drop in and out of the track, vocals are ad-libbed. You never lose interest, your always waiting to see what happens next. Once this brilliant track ends, you’re saddened, having been enthralled by this complex and infectious track.
Afro-Left has an exotic sound at the start. It transports you somewhere warm and dusty, somewhere exotic, interesting and beautiful. Djum Djum Berimbou half speaks, half sings a vocal, behind some frantic electro drums. The contrast between the vocal and drum sound is interesting. Berimbou’s vocal is slow and spacious, whilst the drums are furiously fast, with no space in the sound. If it were a race, my money would be on the drums. Almost midway through the track, the drums dominate the mix, only when they slow down slightly, does the vocal take their place at the front of the mix. Drums are really well programmed on this track, and make this a great track for any dancefloor. Towards the end of the track, percussion makes an appearance, changing the sound totally. At the end of the track, you feel exhausted, having tried to keep up with the pace of this fascinating track.
The next track Melt, has a dramatic, moody start, then synths appear adding to the almost sinister sound. A trumpet brightens the sound, then more synths appear, squelching and sweeping, building the tension. Effects like echo and delay are used effectively, to transform the sound. The tempo remains constant throughout the track. Sounds mushroom out of the mix, changing the sound, adding to the darkness. Sometimes, the mood lightens, but this is momentarily. Melt is a great track, one with a creeping darkness, where sometimes light sneaks a look through the darkness.
Song of Life begins with an atmospheric sound, voices echo in the background, a synth meanders darkly, then echoey drums with a whispery vocal can be heard. The sound is intriguing, slightly dark, but hinting at something about to appear. What appears is a vocal singing in the distance, crying joyously, then the drums increase in pace, the sound softens, the darkness has lifted. From that moment, the track changes, the tempo increases, transforming into a house beat. Towards the end of the track, another change happens. Vocals appear, the drums disappear, and when they reappear, their sound changes to a joyous beat. A great end, to a great track.
When the next track Original starts, you hear beeps, squeak and other otherworldly noises. By contrast, when Toni Halliday sings briefly, her voice is light and bright. After that the sound veers between darkness and light. The synths and drums provide the darkness, but there is an underlying melody that provides the light. When Halliday next appears, she almost reads the lyrics, and in doing so, adds character to them. Original has a full sound, so much is going on in the track, your drawn to so many different sounds and noises. Having said that, it’s a masterful track, one that is well arranged and produced.
Black Flute begins with frantic crashing drums, a keyboard plays, echoing. This is a fast track, the fastest on the album. It’s perfect for the dancefloor. The sound is repetitive, loud, the pace frantic. Unlike many tracks like this, there is variety in the drum sound, not just the constant 4/4 beat for Leftfield. They mix things up. Essentially, this is a simple track, just drums, synths and keyboards. However, it’s still a hugely impressive sounding track.
Space Shanty has a similar tempo and sound to Black Flute. The tempo is fast, the sound full and loud. Drums are loud and crisp, and sit at the front of the mix. They’re accompanied by synths that shimmer and pulsate. As the track progresses, it builds and builds, and the track has plenty going on to hold the listener’s attention. Like Black Flute, it’s a perfect track for the dancefloor, and would sound good in any DJ’s set today.
Inspection (Check One) starts with snatches of vocal dialogue. Straight away I’m hooked, intrigued to find out where this track is heading. Spacey drums enter, cymbals crash, synths produce some surreal sounds and then Danny Red toasts, like Jamaican DJ’s of old. His performance is impressive, full of character, adding to the growing soundscape. Vocals echo, far in the background, pulsating synths and sirens can all be heard. Drums and synths, come to the forefront of the mix, vocals and effects interject, then suddenly it’s over. The track ends, the aural adventure over, and you realize that you’ve had a wonderful journey.
On Storm 3000, the tempo decreases. What doesn’t change is the frantic drum sound, which sometimes, has a drum and bass sound. At the start you’re lulled into a false sense of security. A car can be heard driving along an empty road. You wonder if this is going to be a quieter, more mellow track. It isn’t. What follows is full on assault on your senses. Drums are loud and fast, synths produce a multitude of indescribable sounds, and when the track closes, thunder crashes. Excellent.
The penultimate track on Leftism is Open Up. A synth sighs, a vocal sings, then quickly, the pace picks up. Crisp, punchy drums are accompanied by synths, which together produce an infectious track. On vocal duties is John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten. His vocal is very different from his Sex Pistols or PIL days. He sings the track passionately, adding something to the track. What that something is I wouldn’t like to guess. Although not blessed with the greatest voice, he does his best. Thanks for coming Johnny. Since the album was released, I’ve always thought that maybe a better singer would have added more to the track. The vocal is the only thing that lets the track down.
Leftism closes with 20th Century Poem. It has a moody, atmospheric start. A spoken vocal is accompanied by synths, sounding broody, producing gentle waves of sound. Halfway through the track, the synth sound builds and builds. You keep feeling it’s going to break out, set off at a frantic pace. It doesn’t. It keeps building behind a really moody soundscape. It’s creepy and sinister sounding. Then just as you were enjoying see where this track is heading, bang, it’s over. All that you hear afterwards, is what sounds like the run-out groove on an old vinyl record, and that’s momentarily. The end of the track somewhat spoils it for me. It gives the track an almost unfinished feel. To me, it’s like a strange ending to a really good film. However, apart from that minor quibble, 20th Century Poem, is a really good dark and moody track.
That is the story of Leftfield’s debut album Leftism. It was a great debut album from them, one that sixteen years later, is perceived as a highly import and influential album in the development of dance and electronic music. Since then, this great album has influenced a new generation of artists and producers, and is held in such high esteem, that it is thought to be one of the most important albums of the 1990s’. Since Leftism’s release, I have loved this album, and while preparing this album, I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to it again. It’s one of these albums that I always return to, and always enjoy. What saddens me about Leftfield, is that during their career, they only released two studio albums. I’ve always felt that it would have been interesting to see how their music developed, what direction it would have taken. Sadly, that will never happen, they have gone their separate ways. Thankfully, they’ve left behind a wonderful legacy, in Leftism and Rhythm and Stealth. If you’ve never heard Leftism, I can thoroughly recommend it, especially if you’re someone who is interested in electronic and dance music. Having said that, anyone who loves good music will enjoy Leftism, a wonderful album that deserves a place in any self respecting record collection. Standout Tracks: Release the Pressure, Afro-Melt, Space Shanty and 20th Century Poem.