Nightmares On Wax

Smokers Delight – 25th Anniversary Edition

There are those albums that arrive at the perfect time and effortlessly encapsulate it, like, say, the first Daft Punk album, or Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’, which heralded the start of the technological 80s with spooky, unnerving foresight. Then there are those whose presence in the pantheon of greatness and significance in the development of music is less immediate, slowly materialising over time and with the benefit of hindsight.

‘Smokers Delight’ is very much in the latter category. Surfacing towards the end of 1995, it peaked at a modest Number 84 in the charts, despite other Warp artists regularly scaling the heights of Top 40 at the time. It’s perhaps understandable when you remember the Nightmares On Wax name was, until then, a pivotal part of Warp’s bleep techno brigade alongside LFO, Forgemasters, Sweet Exorcist and Tricky Disco.

‘Smokers Delight’, with its downbeat mixture of instrumental hip hop beats, dub basslines and sparingly used soul embellishments could hardly have been a bigger departure, at least within the wider confines  of dance culture.

These days, of course, no list of 90s trip hop classics is complete without ‘Smokers Delight’, the work of Leeds-based producer George Evelyn. But while it appeared on the shelves a year after Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ and the same year as Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’, it had little in common with either. 

Where the array of blunted beats, in both these cases, were vehicles for spectacular vocal performances, ‘Smokers Delight’ gave centre stage to the scratchy textures and dusty samples, hitching psychedelic head music to the trailer of b-boy culture. A more clued-up assessment might, instead, note the album’s sequential proximity to the early work of Mr Scruff and Luke Vibert, who were both similarly happy to give their grooves the room  to breathe, expand and luxuriate rather squeezing them into traditional  song structures.

Also worth noting is that ‘Dummy’ and ‘Maxinquaye’ both seemed wrapped up in the paranoia and exhaustion of herbal over indulgence and its inevitable comedown. But ‘Smokers Delight’ is, just as it says on the tin, delightfully contented, gently stoned rather than thoroughly baked.

Take the track ‘Bless My Soul’, which arrives just after the halfway point in the original 16-track selection, as a random example. It’s supremely relaxed, to the point of being understated, coasting along on a crest of bongos and funk-derived breakbeats. Voices, one male, one female, whisper in your ear, and the odd frequency-tweaking sound effect keeps things perky. It’s the aural equivalent of stepping out of the cold into a warm, friendly room. Music with a generous grin on its face.

And that’s very much the vibe across the board here, with a suitably unfussy approach to rolling out wonderful loops and samples and letting them ride. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the kind of variety of textures  and moods that you’d expect from a crate-digging DJ at play.

After ‘Nights Introlude’, the widescreen epic that marks the album’s opening, the LP’s second track, ‘Dreddoverboard’, showcases the kind of natural combinations in evidence. It sounds effortless, but a forensic examination reveals a lot of hard work and joining of musical dots.

It starts with a shuddering reggae bassline, after which a dub siren and snippets of electro percussion join forces over hip hop beats, a smattering  of jazzy brass joining the party towards the end.

Later on, ‘Mission Venice’ and ‘What I’m Feelin’ (Good)’ employ the snazzier textures of easy listening and exotica. This was the year that Mike Flowers Pops scaled the Top 10 with a version of ‘Wonderwall’ and prepared to tour with Gary Glitter – a different time if ever there was one – but this is a million miles from irony, an altogether more loving co-option of a certain lushness and sonic opulence.

This anniversary package comes with four bonus tracks, with three unreleased new tracks, that could have easily sat comfortably among the original tracklisting, and a nicely loosened up live version of ‘Nights Introlude’ that’s a joy to behold. 

It’s a cliché, of course, but the big surprise here comes when you remember you’re listening to an album that’s a quarter of a century old.  In many ways, to return to our initial point, it sounds more modern now  than when it first came out.

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