To mark two decades of the incomparable Planet Mu label, we revisit the best releases from each of their 20 years in business
In Pine Effect
From 1995 to 1997, Planet Mu operated as a subsidiary imprint of Virgin Records. Essentially, it was a home for records by μ-Ziq, Mike Paradinas’ most well known alias. ‘In Pine Effect’ was the third μ-Ziq album and the name of the game (of course) is experimental electronica – raw and distorted drum tracks with sticky analogue melodies that oscillate between haunting and playful. For the first few years of its life, the Planet Mu sound was simply the Paradinas sound.
Mike & Rich
‘Expert Knob Twiddlers’
Ace collaboration between Paradinas and Richard D James. Not strictly a Planet Mu release, but one that is difficult to miss off this list. Unconfirmed, but the album was allegedly cranked out over three days on a diet of strong hallucinogens. The wacky cover art is a good indicator of the contents – two friends mucking about and producing a cheesy lounge music album for acid freaks, all jazzy breaks and slowed down techno. The most purely fun record either producer has put their name to.
The compilation that ultimately led to the formation of Planet Mu as we know it today. Drum ’n’ bass is the guiding theme, but the producers gathered here use it as a jumping off point for their own uniquely distorted visions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the suits at Virgin didn’t have a clue how to market it and Paradinas made the decision to strike out on his own.
ZIQ001. The first independent Planet Mu release and a damn good EP at that. ‘Pitbull’ is the best thing here – it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be blunted hip hop or white knuckle breakcore – but the other three tracks do a lovely job of shuttling between drill ’n’ bass, skewed electro, and plaintive electronica.
‘Full Sunken Breaks’
Paradinas at the reins yet again. For a good while, this was the highest selling Planet Mu album. There’s a real funky twist to many of these tracks and some particularly pretty melodies, but more importantly a sense of intensity and a cohesion that lifts ‘Full Sunken Breaks’ above many of his other fine releases. A surfeit of ideas works to the album’s advantage – you’ve barely got your head round one section before another bend appears.
‘The Motorbike Track’
Another of Mike Paradinas’ many production aliases, the Tusken Raiders records saw him casting an eye towards the dancefloor. The third and final Raiders release before George Lucas’ lawyers got involved was the best of the lot, offering two tear-out club tracks with zero concessions to subtlety. Wobbly acid basslines and a relentless jungle beat make a strong case for the pairing of drum ’n’ bass with electro.
Tetlow’s ‘Beauty Walks A Razor’s Edge’ album from the same year also comes highly recommended, but this two-tracker sums up the Planet Mu dichotomy perfectly. ‘Cyrenic’ is a sparse, drifting tune with a heavy-hearted piano line, while ’And God Created Manchester’ possesses an equally beautiful melody (this one a syrupy new age job) that’s almost drowned out by thrashing percussion. Very different on the surface but with a surprising amount of common ground – just how Paradinas treats his label roster.
‘Higgins Ultra Low Track Glue Funk Hits 1972-2006’
After Paradinas, Aaron Funk is the artist most closely associated with Planet Mu. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been too hard to fill this whole list with Venetian Snares records because Funk releases material at a phenomenal rate, almost all of it worth checking for. ‘Higgins’ stands out for its range, mixing frenzied drill ’n’ bass with a plethora of styles. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s worth trying to unscramble these 10 signals and there’s beauty amidst the noise.
‘The Housebound Spirit’
One of the most immediately striking Planet Mu albums – and that’s really saying something. It was conceived by producer John Burton as an escape from the outside world during a period of serious agoraphobia following a violent attack. Burton’s love of pure sound and control of his palette is phenomenal. The album jumps between genres, as glitchy sketches nestle up against electro-folk pop songs, but for such a seemingly cluttered work, nothing feels accidental or out of place.
‘Full English Breakfest’
The recipe for ‘Full English Breakfest’? Ludicrously fast breakbeats plus tough ragga vocals plus hilariously incongruous samples. No compromises. Children’s TV themes sidling up next to Rage Against The Machine. Happy hardcore for the digital generation. This album is just such a joy from start to finish, a riotous mess of musical and pop culture references underpinned by a devout belief in the power of the Amen break.
A difficult pick, this. Virus Syndicate and Venetian Snares both released albums that would have been easy to highlight. But ‘Degenerate’ is a modern classic and it also signposts Planet Mu’s emphasis for the next few years. Simply put, Vex’d do dubstep better than most. Sharper basslines, harder drums, and a harshness drawn from dark industrial records. Repeat listens strip away little of the shock factor. It’s brutal without being cartoonish and able to wreck a dancefloor while folding in influences that few dubstep producers were working with at the time.
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest dubstep tracks ever released. Strikingly brave in its simplicity, the melody is barely there but so, so affecting. The space feels like it extends forever, like flailing around in a pitch-black room where the walls keep moving further away. ‘Qawwali’ references a style of South Asian devotional singing, but you don’t need to know anything about the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sample to let this one hit you. Just meditate on the bass weight.
‘Throw Some Ds’
Slightly odd choice perhaps, but a personal favourite. By this point, dubstep’s borders had grown far beyond Croydon. Parson found the sweet spot between UK bass music and the chopped and screwed hip hop of his native Texas. The sample – Rich Boy’s ‘Throw Some D’s’, a huge anthem from the previous summer – is pitched down and slowed to within an inch of its life. The result is top class, proving that sometimes all you need is one great idea and the skill to execute it properly.
A focused and thorough exploration of the fertile territory that lies at the intersection of dubstep and industrial. Not dissimilar to the sort of ground that Vex’d were covering, but with the aggression dialled down in favour of a pervasive darkness. Some have written about a doom metal influence – and that certainly comes through in the heavy distortion and sludgy bass riffs. An underrated album that deserves recognition as one of the best dubstep full-lengths.
‘Gremlinz (The Instrumentals 2003-2009)’
While Planet Mu’s emphasis has always been on boundary-pushing electronics, they also do a neat line in retrospectives. ‘Gremlinz’ is a look back at half a decade of grime, a time capsule that remains fresh to this day. It’s evident why Terror Danjah was singled out for this treatment – his instrumentals sound just as good without MCs, giving us a new context in which to appreciate his programming chops and funky purple synths (a clear influence on Joker and the rest of the Bristol scene).
‘Bangs & Works Volume 1’
The first half of 2010 saw Planet Mu releases from the likes of DJ Nate and the late DJ Rashad, but this seminal compilation made everyone sit up and pay attention. For the next couple of years, footwork dominated the conversation, largely for its offbeat drums and bold approach to sampling, and Planet Mu were the label that helped break it outside of Chicago. As a primer for the genre, this collection is pretty much unbeatable and gets to the heart of footwork’s duality – simultaneously avant-garde pop and fuel for high-octane dance battles.
‘Bangs & Works’ opened the floodgates: Planet Mu kept releasing great Chicago stuff, but now others wanted in on the action. From Addison Groove to Kuedo, producers became entranced by the rhythms of footwork. Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, proved he was no dilettante with this hypnotic full-length, which combined the energy of footwork with soft synth pads, ambient textures, and wobbling post-dubstep bass – essentially, a completely different sound palette. Cut-up vocal samples still abound, recalling Burial and giving the album its heart.
‘Work, Live & Sleep In Collapsing Space’
Would you believe Kuedo used to be one half of Vex’d? Not on this evidence, which is a world away from the aggression of that project. Kuedo’s ‘Severant’ album from 2011 is essential listening by any standards, but this dancefloor single from the same sessions is just as good. The influence of Vangelis looms large, with ‘Blade Runner’ synths giving the track its main emphasis. This is no mere retro rehash, however. The drum patterns take this track to the next level, shifting from footwork to jungle to trap. It still sounds like the future.
‘Love & Devotion’
‘Love & Devotion’ may look like an outsider on this list, but Planet Mu have never been afraid of electronic pop. This collaboration between Mike Paradinas and his wife Lara Rix-Martin shows the couple as experts in classic romantic pop refracted through the lens of modern dance music. The album heavily features the vocals of the late Nick Talbot, aka Gravenhurst. Talbot was a master of pairing romance and darkness, and here his lyrics lean towards the related concepts of death and memory, a perfect foil for the dreamy melodies surrounding his voice.
A cursory glance at the last few years reveals the diversity of the Planet Mu roster. They continue to build on their rich history while adding new facets all the time. Paradinas is highly skilled at spotting artists who transcend their scene – and Mr Mitch is no exception. ‘Parallel Memories’ is grime hollowed out, inverted and pared down until nothing is left but a skeleton of cold synths. We may be celebrating 20 years of Planet Mu, but Paradinas shows no signs of getting too comfortable.