For a subgenre built around one sound, “bleep” has a lot going for it, and going on around it. Like the best subgenres, its limitations end up as its secret weapon, and when your trademark is one of the most common and pedestrian sounds in the studio, you’re pretty much granted carte blanche to do what you want. Hence the sheer range of great and startling bleep techno tracks forged from the heavy machinery supplied by Sheffield, the borough of stainless and crucible steel, and then trucked around and rebuilt across England. You can count among these pioneers the legendary Forgemasters, Original Clique, Rhythmatic, Nexus 21, Unique 3’s “The Theme,” Ital Rockers’ “Ital’s Anthem,” and LFO. Then, sometime in 1990, four odd, slim-line singles slipped onto the shelves, from Richard Barrett (a.k.a. DJ Parrot) and Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk, paired as Sweet Exorcist — “Testone,” “Testone Remixes,” “Clonk,” and “Per Clonk (Remix)”.
Those four records, plus one early, previously unreleased take on “Testone,” make up the first disc of RetroActivity. Twenty-one years later, none of these tracks have lost their power to startle. “Testone” and its five attendant versions are built around the test tone from a mixing desk oscillator, and sit somewhere between the dry and the chilling, particularly when a hoover-drone riff lurks into view about three minutes into the original “Testone.” There’s something deliberately rude about the way these tracks have been constructed, yet they’re also stealthy, coiled tightly like a viper on alert. Listening closely and repeatedly, I’m still surprised by the bravery of their essentialism. Parts of the “Testone” suite of tracks are so naked, they makes other classic bleep tracks, like LFO’s “LFO,” sound almost byzantine.
But if “Testone” is Sweet Exorcist’s trademark, listening further yields surprise, and the deeper you dig into the “Clonk” tracks, the more playful the productions become. The Freebass and Homebass mixes of “Clonk” are distressed, mechanized gamelan; “Per Clonk” is both lush and dirty, with grunts and smacks running rings around manic percussives, before a female voice, caught in a loop of compulsion, rises through the dense foliage. From here, “Samba” and “Bonus Samba” elaborate on the taut swing of A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray,” while pointing Sweet Exorcist in the direction of C.C.E.P., which takes up most of RetroActivity’s second disc.
The C.C.E.P. tracks forge such odd emotions it’s hard to grasp where they’re coming from. “Mad Jack” tickles and sways through the thicket of hair cells in your ear, with whinnying synth drops sharing space with simple organ vamps. “Track Jack” pares everything back to essence — ticking hi-hats, the clank of an 808, and the warp of plastic acid noise. “Clonk’s Coming” and “Jack Jack” both have melodic micro-riffs that bend and waver under stress from blasts of drone, vocal chants, and dehydrated rhythms. If “Testone” shocked with its minimalism, much of C.C.E.P. has an odd viscoelasticity, as though the Sweet Exorcist duo are experimenting with deformations of their material, each new version suggesting a different way the groove can flow.
The Sweet Exorcist myth, such as it is, rests on “Testone.” RetroActivity tells a slightly different and more complex story: that of a small, self-contained series of records that both articulated and disassembled a nascent form, across the time-space of a mere 18 months. Sweet Exorcist would go on to release two more records, the “Popcone” 12” and Spirit Guide To Low Tech album, and Kirk would record an even more staggering single in collaboration with bleep’s secret force Rob Gordon (of Forgemasters), “The Mood Set,” under the name Xon. Barrett would also record for Warp with another member of Forgemasters, Winston Hazel, as The Step, and Gordon’s two dubs of their “Yeah You!” single remain the furthest “out” bleep ever got. For all that extra productivity, though, RetroActivity feels somehow complete. It’s a hermetic enclave of modern electronic music, a perfect body of work, all the way from the crucible of the dancefloor to the phantasmagoric space between the headphones.