A timeless record full of boundless expression and unprecedented vision, that would herald enormous shifts within electronica and beyond.
Around the time of this records release, electronic music had moved through various genres and movements already, that was amazing considering its relatively young age within the history of music. During the 80s in particular, electronic music moved from the realms of ambience and atomspheres, alongside the works of bands like Kraftwerk, Eno, Yellow Magic Orchestra etc. to being a melting pot of genres that focused primarily on synthesisers and drum machines as the embodiment of their sound. House, techno, Italo Disco, Euro Pop, New Wave, and then second wave disco, all looked to the notions of electronic sounds as fundamental to their movements and musical outputs. Around the world, people were exposed to predominantly the American genres of techno and house, and mixed with Italo, inspired many on the dancefloor and in the rave to tinker with established ideas and birth something new. This was frequently occurring within the UK and Europe where producers, inspired by DJs pumping out house and techno alongside disco and italo, would sow the seeds of genres such as UK Acid House, Rave, breakbeat and IDM, to name a few. This period heralded in the notion of experimentation within dance music; house went mainstream, along with techno to an extent, and with second waves hitting Europe, producers began to ask more of what they heard, and were inspired to combine ideas from across the spectrum. IDM in particular would churn up some incredible records, alongside dub techno, with both genres demonstrating the ideals of this new generation of more out there experimental musicians.
One genre we haven’t mentioned yet, but is intrinsic to this record, is New Beat. A genre associated with Belgium’s dance scene of the late 80s, New Beat is characterised by its slowed down yet tantalising, hypnotic grooves, with sampling and washed out synths a key part of the sound. The genre, like many others at the time, drew from the spectrum of sounds coming out of Europe and America at the time, with its core sounds having a great impact on 2nd wave European Techno. All of this! and more is found on Mappa Mundi’s only release, 1990s ‘Musaics’. A powerful blend of drawn out synths, deep and heavy set drumming patterns, out there vocal samples, this record really does leave numerous statements across the board. A certain feeling arises from each track, with each cut offering up some unusual but excellent blends of genres to get our heads around. If one was to listen to the contemporary crop of producers aiming for similar vibes, its incredible to think that this record came out in 1990. Years and years ahead of its time, its not often when you listen to a record from then and believe it could stand head and shoulders with the current generation. Many 90s records sound brilliant, but do very much occupy a space in time. Here, the joint minds of Mappa really delve into not just the aesthical qualities of 90s genres, but the true meanings behind it. Much like dub techno, it harnesses a sonic quality and beat structure that will last forever in time, a cornerstone of when electronica embraced its future as a collection of genres where everything just felt possible. No sound was to be left alone, no feeling or atmosphere or texture left undeveloped or unnurtured. Someone would find a way to replicate and build on what existed before. This record acts as the catalyst to all that, a link to the past and the future, with two feet firmly within its historical context, way before anyone else was doing it. So, lets take a dip.
The opener, ‘Urbi Et Orbi’, welcomes us with open arms. Shimmering cymbals give way for melodic organ sounding synths on top of a fresh breakbeat/hip hop beat, that slowly guides us into the world of Mappa. The synths grow slightly, as the drumming ups its ante, continuing on the groove, as the synths move away to give them breathing room. The synths come back in, a dramatic backdrop to the riddims that overflow from this track. The loop based feel of the tune wraps us up good in a vortex, comforting and utterly mesmerising at the same time. We stand still for a minute just to take it all in, the soft and the harrowing, its all here with a full spectrum of colours and lights. We feel very much ready for the rest of this record to reveal itself. Next comes ‘Sexafari’, and again we are greeted by all sorts of noises. Seagulls, birds, and a weird deep drone sort of noise, that produces some sort of harmonic element. The beat kicks in, a sweet sort of Chicago house sort of beat, electronic cowbells galore, as the drone noise is picked up as the bass element of the tune. We are treated to this layered plain, where we sit somewhere above looking down into the bowels of sound, that sub bass line cutting us deep as the drumming lightly touches our skin. The sunlight peeking through, underneath the darkness of the trees, we feel a presence, but it never quite catches up with us. ‘Serendipity (Take 1)’ comes next, and off we go into the reverbed world of blended textures and tones. A series of droning didgeridoos really hit us hard, presenting us with a absolute brick wall of sounds, that sit above a lovely trip hop beat that provides a strong as hell foundation for the perplexing sounds being presented. Then, out of nowhere, comes this fresh sounding key line, complete with ascending baselines that chime and groove beautifully. From the haze comes the groove, which was already there, but now we step from the mind of the explorer and into the realms of jazz bars and good times. The transition is beautiful, sudden and dramatic, but very soft and smooth, as if the funk was just making its way through the fog in order to find us. Masterful.
‘The Oracle’ is up next, and we are greeted by some more familiar sounds, as we get accustomed to the vibe of the record. We are greeted with some fairly ominous sounding vocals, one of which, a scream sample, will be joining us for the rest of our journey through this song. A chopped up but clean as fuck break drumming pattern moves along underneath a now sea of vocal samples, with light keys and pads coming in for good measure in the background. This cacophony of voices and sounds creates an elevated sense of mood, where we seem to feel like voyeurs through a window into an erratic, chaotic scene. The drums pound within us, giving life and a sense of urgency to the movements occurring on top, never giving up in their relentlessness or pursuit of us. Then out of nowhere, the drums move away, and the scene of singing forms itself into normality, but only briefly, as the chiming and noises we are greeted with after signal the end of the song. Intrigued would be an understatement. ‘Wolfll’ comes next, that begins out with a steady bass line accompanied by what is assumed to be German. Then out comes the 80s style b boy drumming pattern, akin to the rhymes also of artists like Super Cat too. It has that simplistic riddim to it, but the drums strike with such depth, and along with the repeating synth pad thrown in for good measure, it provides a less dense but more upbeat companion to the rest of the records’ tunes. The vocal sample just adds to the groove, the rhythm telling us a story of something happening, somewhere in time. But who are we to judge? just let yourself go in the rhythm! finally, we move on to the daddy of it all, ‘Trance Fusion’. The steady kick sets us up for the beauty that is unveiled from this singular moment. The liquid pads and swirling of all manner of sounds set the scene, as we picture the many interactions and lights of distant cities, the senses of urgency and timeless manner of urban life and dance floors. We are locked into a sensory experience we just cannot turn away from, the relationship between the consistent synths and the soft drumming taking us away to distant places. Tapping into that feeling within electronica to really expand on emotion, here Mappa explore the very perimeters of their sound, which was set pretty fucking wide, to its extreme, really extracting every single element of feeling and tone from all the notes we have the pleasure of getting to know. In one moment, we feel transported to the rave, another we are sitting alone in a quiet park, or walking in the rain to a place we haven’t discovered yet. Adventure, embracing the unknown, the pleasure of closing our eyes and smiling, all contained within this universe of treasures. Take what you will from this experience, it provides us with a spectrum to pick from. This track truly demonstrates dance music ability to provide narration for us, paint scenes, and create memories. After 10 minutes, we could do it all over again.
Mappa Mundi may have released one record, but its influence will forever be felt throughout history. Its powerful blend of contemporary stylings, mixed with new genres thrown in, provided us with a series of blissed out and at times unnaturally sounding journeys and experiences. We held out our hand and they gladly took us through the very essence, the beating heart, of early 90s electronica. Combining it all, they curated a universe of sound, where we can associate or feel indifferent towards, but always feeling content having lived through an experience that few albums from any genre can achieve. Sonicness never sounded so damn fucking good. One for the ages.
The album was reissued this year by the excellent Midnight Drive Label, curated by Brian Not Brian. Check out their Bandcamp here, and purchase the record:
Their discogs has some more records to check out too, all great! their reissue of Code 6’s ‘Untitled’, is a personal favourite: