First Listen: Sweet Exorcist, 'RetroActivity'

Richard H. Kirk and Richard Barrett of Sweet Exorcist. i

Richard H. Kirk and Richard Barrett of Sweet Exorcist. Courtesy of Warp Records. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Warp Records.
Richard H. Kirk and Richard Barrett of Sweet Exorcist.

Richard H. Kirk and Richard Barrett of Sweet Exorcist.

Courtesy of Warp Records.

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"If everything's ready here on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones."

Five tones? Sweet Exorcist didn't need five tones. Two was enough to make electronic-music history, as you'll hear on RetroActivity, a double-disc compilation of the British duo's finest work.

At the end of the 1980s, Richard H. Kirk (of the pioneering U.K. post-punk band Cabaret Voltaire) was a huge fan of the twin ascension of house and techno. Cabaret Voltaire had been incorporating dance sounds since its first singles in the late '70s, but Kirk wanted to dive deeper — specifically Detroit techno, which hadn't crossed the Atlantic with the same ferocity as Chicago's house music.

So Kirk holed up with Sheffield's DJ Parrot (a.k.a. Richard Barrett), who wanted to take an antithetical approach to the recent rise of acid house. Specifically, Barrett had this crazy idea to build a track out of tones used to calibrate and test audio equipment — sine waves similar to what might precede an Emergency Broadcast System message — but to use the same funk rhythms that had been moving hips for decades with an emphasis on the one (a.k.a. the first beat). The result was "Testone," and it was the third 12" ever for the fledgling Sheffield label Warp Records.

Bloop ... Bleep ... Bleep Bloop.

While Sweet Exorcist (as Kirk and Barrett would become known) pulled in elements of house and techno, something about "Testone" sounded different. Detroit's techno pioneers had been increasingly erasing themselves from their music for half a decade, but this felt like the HAL in the coffin. What began with Robert Moog 25 years earlier had finally morphed into R2D2. Warp deemed the burgeoning sub-genre — what else? — Bleep.

Sweet Exorcist went on to release three more 12-inches, as well as the first official album on Warp Records (CCEP / CCCD, 1991), all of which can be heard on RetroActivity. Enjoy this seminal piece of electronic-music history — out Dec. 6 — and be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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