In 1994 an album came out that nearly put a class of DJs out of work. Those manning the decks at so-called chill-out rooms in countless clubs had good reason to fear Global Communication's 76:14 (Arista), for its lush, emotive melodies and almost infinite attention to detail maintained the excitement that surrounded electronic music at the time while fostering a desultory, languid mood. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard were the two British producers behind Global Communications, and almost 15 years later Middleton is releasing his first solo album, Lifetracks (Big Chill Recordings/Six Degrees).
Despite the iconic status that 76:14 has achieved, Middleton denies that it has cast any sort of shadow over his ensuing productions or been any kind of burden during his subsequent decade-plus of production, including more work with Pritchard as Jedi Knights (whose nü electro New School Science [Universal, 1996] inspired the likes of the Prodigy) as well as solo remixes for acts as varied as Britpoppers Pulp and New Jersey house legend Kerri Chandler. "I'm very proud of 76:14 it was a very rewarding experience creating it with Mark," Middleton wrote via e-mail before a live performance for Lifetracks in London. It "has some amazing moments for me personally and is a constant reminder to make music from the heart and not get concerned with the restrictions of markets, tempo, or genre."
Lifetracks reflects its creator's frank lack of fear when it comes to making beautiful music. My inner jaded hipster might have initially cringed at both the yoga-evoking title and the unabashedly emotional strings of "Prana," but there's no way I could hate on the subtle production flourishes and the expert arrangement that builds to the expected yet still fulfilling climax. Other songs like "Sea of Glass," with its pulsing woodwinds, and "Enchanting," with its deliberate repetition and inversion of patterns point to Middleton's appreciation of musicians well beyond the boundaries of dance music. "I enjoy many of Steve Reich's conceptual sound experiments and recordings, particularly from the late 1970s and into the '80s. Over many of his contemporaries he still manages to produce music that is intrinsically 'pleasant' and 'easy' from a listening perspective. It might be the slow evolving cyclical nature, or the gentle phase shifting in harmony that really does it for me." At the same time, Middleton professes admiration for composers Sir John Williams and Vangelis, who exist somewhere between the canons of popular and classical music.
While Middleton may be best known for his more introspective work and Lifetracks is not exactly full of cuts headed to the top of the Billboard dance charts, the producer does love a good party and has no shame about using the tools that are needed to get people on the dance floor. When pressed for a few of his recent favorite tracks that go well together, Middleton caught me completely off guard with his recollection of a pair of reedits that fit together nicely for his weekly residency at Manumission on Ibiza: "Eurythmics' 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' mashed up with Pink's 'Get the Party Started' [mixed] into a glitchy electro remix of Paul Simon's 'You Can Call Me Al' mashed into Prince's '1999' for some reason they just all flowed into each other really well and created the ideal first two tracks to set up the party vibe for the whole night." This from the man who fondly recalls a sunrise over Mount Fuji for the way it reminded him of a Katsushika Hokusai woodblock he studied in art school. It is clear that Middleton is much more than a one-trick pony.