In 1999, Innerzone Orchestra, a full band complete with a string orchestra, released its first, and so far only, album, Programmed. The album was a heady mix of jazz amplified by a distinctive electronic sound, so much so that its final track, “Bug in the Bass Bin,” would quickly be snatched up by DJs around London, sped up, and deployed around dance floors the world over for crowds eager to hear what the evolution of drum ‘n’ bass sounded like.
Not bad for an orchestral act, and not surprising when considering the man at the center of it: Carl Craig, stalwart of Detroit techno’s second generation and the artist most actively in pursuit (and most deserving claimant) of the title of Most Protean Talent in Electronic Music.
It seems that Craig’s analog itch has struck again. The studio sessions that would comprise his latest album effloresced from a live performance he held in Paris in conjunction with Les Siècles Orchestra and Francesco Tristano, a young composer with a virtuosic streak of his own. Versus, the result of almost 10 years of tinkering with the sessions, is as much a consideration of the producer/DJ’s catalog (many of the songs are reworked from some of the producer’s most notable dance recordings) as it is the aestheticization of a series of dialogues: one between Craig and Tristano, one between Craig and his body of work and one that calibrates techno’s place in the greater musical narrative.
Contrast emerges quickly to help define Versus. Early in the album, an orchestral version of Craig’s 2005 song “Darkness” blasts with intention: the saturnine, textured strings; the percussion too organic to adequately keep time, arrayed as if to terminate any expectation of a dance album.
The songs tend to vary between stylistic exercise and long, unqualified auteur movements. For every “Coding Sequence” or “Coding Cycle” — a pair of mirroring sub-two-minute syncopated experiments — there’s a “Desire.” A club staple that Craig released under the name 69 in 1994, the reworked version explodes out of the gate, horns ablaze and bass line plucked with resounding authority. The comparatively rigid song structure that live music necessitates — these songs aren’t meant to be mixed, after all — lends it a sense of finality rare to dance music.
“C-Beams Glitter” renders as a testament to Carl Craig’s talent in liquefying his dance predilections into nuance, making the most moveable selection on Versus the one without a single drum beat, opting instead for the lushness that held together songs like “Elements” from the Psyche/BFC days. But even this pales in comparison to frisson-inducing selections like “Domina.” Replete with ambition broadcasted through the mealy texture emanating from every note of a cello’s string, “Domina” is unwieldy in its distance from the meticulously arranged norm Craig has spent his career working within. The result smacks of reflection, a consideration of the motivations behind genre. If Versus communicates anything — and it communicates a lot, sometimes too much — it’s an examination of the linear relationship between producer and listener, a warning for the artist against the magnetic allure of pontification.