This four-man troupe of Manchester synthesists and sampler wizzes (who take their name from the Roland drum machine that can be heard in countless contemporary records) made its rep with “Pacific,” a soprano-sax-led instrumental dance groove that led to an unfortunate coinage, new age house. The mixture of Enoesque ambience and a solid beat proved to be a significant development in the progress of British dance music, but there’s a lot more to 808 State conceptually than one groundbreaking sound.
While the Newbuild EP (featuring acid house’s own future Rick Wakeman, A Guy Called Gerald) heralded nothing more impressive than an imaginative New Order/Kraftwerk synthesis, the release of “Pacific” (contained on the Quadrastate EP) promised much more, and the album 808:90 delivered. Expanded substantially for its American release (as Utd. State 90) by Tommy Boy, this is a brilliantly kaleidoscopic dance record that recycles a couple of basic melodic themes into trancelike variations, spicing them up with peculiar noises while maintaining a steady beat. The combination of musical minimalism with sonic maximalism is heady and witty, constantly exhilarating and fresh.
In 1990, the band produced and wrote the music for The North at Its Heights, an album by Manchester rapper MC Tunes. While most of the numbers display 808’s characteristic drollery, many of Tunes’ raps are serious indeed, depicting Mancunian street violence, junkiedom and other social ills with surprising conviction and credibility. The contrast yields a provocative sense of alienation; on lighter numbers like “Tunes Splits the Atom,” the effect is more familiarly amusing.
Genealogical footnote: Graham Massey of 808 State was the guitarist in Biting Tongues, an early-’80s Joy Division wannabe.