Available on: Still Music LP
Rick Wilhite – aka The Godson – has been a pivotal figure in Detroit house music for two decades. Yet up until recently he’s kept a little under the radar, especially compared to his more obviously ‘legendary’ co-travelers in deep-house supergroup Three Chairs; Marcellus Pittmann, Theo Parrish, and Kenny Dixon Jnr. He’s also the guy who sold that lot their great records, having run the Vibes record store in Detroit. And he’s the guy who schooled an adolescent Kyle Hall in the ways of techno. So, we have a whole lot to thank him for. But, perhaps because he’s been so busy doing all that backroom work, he’s only now got round to putting out his debut album.
However, Analog Aquarium is no coming-out party, and it finds Wilhite still content to remain in the shadows. Fittingly for Wilhite’s modus operandi, it doesn’t grab your attention, but just busily does its own thing, almost oblivious to the very concept of pandering to an audience. This is a record you have to work at and commit to, and on first listens it makes little sense. The fractured and knobbly beats might be familiar to followers of Three Chairs (as well as those acquainted with Theo Parrish’s solo work), but – for the first half of the record at least – Wilhite takes the radical step of stripping out the sensuality and warmth in his deconstructions of house. Here, ‘Blame it on the Boogie’ is re-imagined – almost unrecognisably – as a squirming jam of silted-up synths and arid stuttering percussion, with vocals fading in and out of the murk as if bobbing up to the surface for air.
For all the restless activity of the beats (many of which are made by Wilhite’s mouth) there’s an almost total lack of forward momentum in such tracks – they just wooze back and forwards, locked in loose but curiously static patterns. But given full attention and dedication, and above all a willingness to throw yourself into the moment, Analog Aquarium becomes hypnotic. There’s an enthralling painterliness about Wilhite’s methods, as he dabs smears of melody and little pops of rhythm into huge, sprawling abstractions. ‘Muzic Gonna Save The World’ marries raw distortion, scrunching windscreen-wiper beats, and soul vocals reduced down to what sounds like mewling cats on heat. It should be horrible (and pretty much is, for the first few times), but it’s totally mesmerizing, exploring the endless possibilities of grinding repetition and unstructured improvisation, both at the same time.
The album’s second half ventures a little closer to the dancefloor, but remains almost pathologically resistant to the obvious or straightforward. Even the Moodymann-ish disco house of ‘In the Rain’ is minutely ruptured, as the sound suddenly drops out, or Wilhite lets feedback come bleeding in. Best of all, though, is ‘Cosmic Jungle’ (originally released in 2005), which bumps along on just a gutter low-slung bassline, desiccated whiplash beats and a hint of industrial malice. It’s a monstrously evil tune, cruising by with dead shar eyes. Brilliant fun, in other words.
I’m not sure, though, that Analog Aquarium quite coheres as an album. Perhaps because the tunes each demand so much of the listener, and also cover such a wide array of styles, the record feels like a collection of tracks, rather than a complete whole. But no matter; each of these tracks deserves (and needs) a whole lot of your time, in all their stubborn, awkward and willfully obtuse ways. That’s underground visionaries, for you, I guess. Never make it easy, do they?