Issue #175: Baxter by Baxter
August 19, 2019
Released On September 15, 1998
Released By Maverick Records
It begins with an almost alarming synth tone. You relax a little with the gentle notes of a xylophone and there are only hints of tempo and percussion. An airy voice, stripped of its low end and isolated, begins to sing and then at the 1:12 minute mark, you’re hit with a flurry of beats which — quite remarkably — does not seem to change the somber and mellow tone of the track. I don’t want to be that person who’s insufferably nostalgic and sometimes it seems like a big ask to point out a record from so long ago and ask someone to find the time to consider that there may be a masterpiece that was missed. But that, dear reader, is exactly what I am about to do.
1998 is almost distant enough to be beyond the memory window of most of the music consuming public. Though it was primarily known as a musical era fueled by a defiant backlash against the excesses of ’80s glam rock and stadium hair metal to the far grittier and ‘real’ sound of grunge and punk, there was also a backlash against the pop machine that wrought countless formulaic boy and girl bands — a corporate marketing industry standard which survives to this day. A similar thing was happening on the dance floors not just in American but all over the world. In their own ways, indie and underground artists all over were digging a little deeper and trying to bring something new to the table. In the UK and countries like Sweden, the underground clubs and the end of the rave scene were giving rise to little-known sub-genres like dub, garage, 2-step, jungle, and drum ‘n’ bass. None of this music aimed to cater to the accessibility requirements of the pop music audiences, but that’s precisely why these scenes were gold mines for artists who wanted to push the envelope and experiment a little. If you want a new and innovative sound, check in periodically with your local underground scene to see which way the current is pulling. In Stockholm, you’d have found a club called, DubDeck, run by Ricky Tillblad, as well an electronic music label called “Primal” which Tillblad ran along with Carl Herlofsson and a chance meeting with the vocalist and guitarist of a local rock band they hired to do some graphic design work. While the two men had already been releasing dub and drum ‘n’ bass productions for their label, it wasn’t until they met Nino Ramsby that the trio began experimenting with introducing his more traditional pop vocal to an already potent and excellently engineered drum ‘n’ bass sound. Their innovative contribution? … what if we could do a whole drum ‘n’ bass record with genuine, unsampled lyrics and vocals?
There was a moment back in the late ’90s when the influence of drum ‘n’ bass almost surfaced in mainstream music. If you blinked you might have missed it, but it surfaced in Madonna’s “Frozen” and similarly in Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug.” The chopped up, 170 beats-per-minute abstract rhythms of the “Amen Break” were popping up in various forms in genres of music ranging from industrial to pop and even Slipknot’s self-titled metal LP in 1998. It worked well. “Frozen” got the attention it deserved and while the often-described “cold” sound of drum ‘n’ bass worked perfectly thematically for “Frozen,” it wasn’t a direction that Madonna would pursue beyond that single. Trent Reznor would sort of continue to dabble in drum abstractions and high tempos, but also never really found drum ‘n’ bass sticky enough for more than one single. Our Swedish trio, however, produced what was probably the first trip-hop / drum ‘n’ bass crossover album to feature 10 tracks built on top of the rattling abstract breaks of drum ‘n’ bass alongside moody horns, dark, breathy synth pads, and lyrics and vocals about politics, love, and relationships. Massive Attack and Tricky had already paved the way for the mood and aesthetic which Baxter was perfecting here, but this album was one of the first which found a groove and used it to full effect from end to end. It’s as though the trio knew they had hit on something amazing and set about exploiting it for everything it was worth. Though Baxter would later release 2 follow-up albums, both attempted to broaden the scope of their electronic sound into more of a pop-oriented direction, but neither had the lasting impact of their dark and brooding debut.
Baxter is a record for late night drives, reflection and introspection. Though drum ‘n’ bass is typically considered a form of dance music, I wouldn’t want to be dancing at the sort of club that wallowed in the self-pitying, slamming snares and horns of “Love Again.” It would be a lonely and sad experience and it should be. “Possible” begins with a piano melody worthy of the most heart-wrenching ballad and while the band could easily have unleashed any form of dramatic strings, or melodies to help drive home the feeling of being “down here again”, they chose the stark, stuttering minimalism of the drums and simple tones in the breakdown. This album is the result of 3 people who understood the sound of drum ‘n’ bass and rather than fight against what is typically a high tech and bleak or angry sound, they embraced it, wrapped it in a sort of hope and when Nino gently meanders his sweet introspection through “Ballad Of Behaviour,” the otherwise cold breaks almost sound optimistic.
In 2019, drum ‘n’ bass is making a comeback, and in some cases, particularly in the UK, occasional tracks in the genre are making it into the mainstream pop charts. Unfortunately, the vocals seem to still either be sampled or written in the rather banal, trite, ‘serve the song’ method that is typical of EDM and dance music. Fluffy platitudes and hollow uplifting sentiments designed to drive energy and thwart the mundane repetition of looped samples are the norm. An artist who brings the lyrical songwriting-first approach to the drum ‘n’ bass genre is a rare find. Beats, and particularly breakbeats, are as timeless and ubiquitous a musical tool to electronic music as guitar riffs to rock n roll. But Baxter’s Baxter sounds as good in 2019 as it did more than 20 years ago, a testament to excellent foresight, amazing production, and the haunting vocal prowess of an underrated vocalist. It’s one of the era’s best records and, unfortunately, one of its least appreciated.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Swedish electronica trio blurring the lines between sub-genres with their own sublimely anomalous sound.
I was sold on Baxter after the first song because I’m a sucker for ’90s electronic music. Baxter’s sound splits the difference between drum ‘n’ bass and trip-hop, and it scratches an itch I didn’t know I had. That’s always a pleasant surprise. What I especially like about this record, though, is this: Generally speaking, music has a way of distorting your perception of time. With Baxter, however, that idea goes a bit further. This music is dangerously hypnotic and it acts like a siren song that pulls you into a disorienting fog. There’s a push/pull effect between the tense production and the gentle melodies that further disrupts reality once you’re inside. It’s like when you don’t know if the image in your head is a dream or a memory. It’s just hazy enough that both are equally likely. Nino Ramsby’s vocals, then, are a kind of lighthouse that’s your guiding light and saving grace. It’s gentle and soft. It’s comfort amidst the chaos. The matter-of-fact lyrics are akin to the thoughts you tell yourself as you suss out what’s real and what isn’t. It’s not that Ramsby needs someone, but instead “seems” to need someone. The use of “Never thought it was possible” and “I wish I had” as jumping off points suggest an alternate reality, or at least a dissatisfaction with this one. It all adds up to an album that envelops you while making you feel all alone. This is inviting music in the most paradoxical of ways, and I totally dig it.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Most of the children I know are not all that interested in creative and appropriate naming of their toys. Doll babies are called “Baby,” stuffed cats are “Kitty,” and so on. Maybe there’s some variation once the child gets a little older. White cats are now “Snowflake” or “Snowball,” and black ones are “Shadow,” maybe “Midnight.” It’s hard, naming something, settling appropriate weight and gravity and thought into a name that feels like a snug sweater for the wearer. Hitting the right one, though, can stick out in the minds of others while at the same time feeling like a point of identity for the person. Hypnotic, dark-edged trip hop that fills the album feels too good to just now be hearing about until you look to the band’s name. Baxter, hardly distinguishable, the name of a bunch of other bands and a really good movie with Michael Showalter and Michelle Williams (seriously) and a really fantastic name for a dog (could not be more serious) and a scary movie about a killer dog (you can’t make this stuff up). Because of the nonspecific name, added to its overseas production, even the Warner Bros. label seems to not have been enough to pull this record more into the mainstream. The smoky, jazzy undercurrents of this album, though, are too good to miss. First, there’s the electronica of the album, with its ambient, moody, industrial but lighter tones that pulls you straight into that rainy dark parking lot from the album cover. Layered on top are these hurried drums, quick lines that play against the darkness and keep you moving forward, keep you up swaying on the porch, eyes half-closed, somehow not spilling that drink in your hand because you just can’t bring yourself to quit just yet. Driving the whole thing home, though, are the reserved, quiet vocals from Nino Ramsey. Understated but compelling, the combination of his tone over the push/pull in the background make him feel like a loner, separate from the sea swirling behind him but not unaffected by the tide. Though produced in 1998, Baxter, with its conflicts and energy, feel just as relevant to uncover today.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
“Just tell me once again if you have dreams of me becoming you,” Nino Ramsby sings in “I Can’t See Why,” a few songs into the debut album by Baxter, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a seduction or a threat. The backing, with moody Lynchian (Badalamentian?) strings married to rattling drum ‘n’ bass rhythms, doesn’t help much in that regard, but my twisted mind has me leaning towards seduction — maybe in the same way Bridget Fonda unwittingly seduces Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female. The song is also emblematic of Baxter at their best, which tends to be when they drift into darkness, with Ramsby and his bandmates Ricky Tillblad and Carl Herlofsson assembling variations on the same sonic landscape, sometimes adding a noirish trumpet. It’s only on a song like the “Ballad Of Behaviour,” which has lines like “Seems that I need you, seems that I do” that you realize how limited a singer Ramsby is — but he’s too cool a character to act that needy anyway. Having one weak song only makes you realize how magical it is when Baxter allows the sum of their talents to exceed their individual strengths — which is the best reason to form a band in the first place. This fine album escaped me back in 1998 — if the same thing happened to you, correct that situation ASAP!
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Mixing trip hop and drum’n’bass into something still familiar, but wildly superior.
Baxter took me back to a cozy place in my youth. By 1998, genres like hip hop, techno, and drum ‘n’ bass had sprouted from their American roots and spread to the furthest reaches of the world. These ambient, sometimes industrial sounds were infiltrating every possible medium at the time, from television to movies to video games. Ah yes, the video games. I spent countless hours murdering the avatars of my best friends as we snaked our virtual selves through the sprawling level maps of Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64. The dark, ominous strings of “I Can’t See Why” transported me right back to the snowy pathways of Severnaya (read: my bean bag chair) where I (James Bond) had to dismantle a missile communication system. To be honest though, after so many hours of game play, I most certainly muted the television in favor of blasting some of my favorite tunes in the background. And again, Baxter floods my memory bank when I hear the subtle use of Vicki Anderson’s “In The Land Of Milk And Honey” on “So Much I’ve Heard.” Most hip hop aficionados will recognize this sample as the intro to Main Source’s iconic “Live At The Barbecue,” a tune that I still keep in heavy rotation to this day, and often utilized during my epic Goldeneye sessions. In addition, I enjoyed the incorporation of live instruments into the electronic, trance-driven sound: the live trumpet on “All Of My Pride” was a really nice touch. Baxter is a mellow, yet energizing effort, and could actually serve as a compelling soundtrack itself. I also have to pat myself on the back for not making any Anchorman references in this piece. I hope someone else did though.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
After another crazy weekend spent out of town enjoying friends, music, and maybe one too many drinks, I found myself trying to rally for yet another concert on Sunday night and looking for the perfect soundtrack for that rally. Enter Baxter by, well, Baxter for the win. The album starts with an almost haunting track that pulls you into a ten song album that is truly captivating and one that you could listen to a million times and still not hear everything it has to offer. A little electronic, indie, and a whole lot of energy, I instantly wanted to see this music performed live. There’s a very “club” vibe to it, but it’s so much more than just club music. It’s the perfect balance of pumping bass with truly emotive vocals that make you feel everything and more. The expansive span on genres that this album covers is intriguing and had me digging more into Baxter’s other releases and discovering that this Swedish band truly refuses to be put in a box and has a soundtrack that deserves to be blared through whatever speaker you listen to it through. I wish I could tell you which track was my favorite on this 1998 album — honestly, I can’t. I also wish I could tell you this album is dated at over twenty years old — but it’s not. Even with twenty years of innovation between the release of this album and now, Baxter is truly one of a kind. If you’re looking for something full of emotion, fresh, underground, and just all around amazing and unique, Baxter is definitely your album and Baxter is most certainly your band.
Langen Goldstien (@girlatrockshows)
Queen Of Everything Loud & Nostalgic
On a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you’ll find a discussion of whether Pat Boone is or is not “metal.” Really. Obviously, hard rock is not Boone’s wheelhouse, though he did record a bonkers covers album called In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. The debate around Boone’s metal-ness dealt less with the genre than it did with the adjective — the idea that metal is a state of mind, one defined by deadly serious commitment and fierce execution. It’s a how, not a what. I love that idea, and I feel exactly that way about Baxter’s self-titled album. I’ve been spinning it in all these situations where you’d assume jungle-tinged electronica has no place. I first heard “Television” while spraying the many and varied weeds that have taken over my front yard. Midday. 90-plus degrees. What a weird scene that was. A day later, I found myself absentmindedly singing and whistling “Love Again” while carting my daughter around Costco, which may be the polar opposite of the dark, vaguely menacing nightclub atmosphere I picture when Baxter is playing. Would I prefer sitting in that imaged club to buying wheat bread in bulk? I wouldn’t. Clubbing isn’t really my thing. But the Baxter vibe is so much more versatile than that — the way the rhythms make themselves at home in your body, and the way the low end adds subconscious drama. Everything is heightened. Navigating your day that way is as much a how as it is a what. I may not have sipped Goldschläger at a scary discoteque in Budapest, but I had a pretty “Baxter” weekend nonetheless, if I do say so myself.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Though Baxter was short-lived, their debut has easily weathered the test of time, sounding even bolder today than in 1998.
I’ve compared more than a few of the electronic artists that we’ve covered for OYR to T.A.T.U., so I’ll just go ahead and get it out of the way by saying: Baxter reminds me of T.A.T.U. All right, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can also say how much I’ve always appreciated music that does more to set a mood through loose grooves and layering than it does in adhering to, or establishing, a structure. With that being said, as of late, I’ve been really into writing songs that are completely structured, but allow room for improvisation within that structure — still, it’s always nice to be reminded of the interests and tastes that come most naturally. When I listen to albums like Baxter, I always wonder how the concept for the songs starts. I usually write the chord progression to my songs first, then melody, then lyrics. For the genre and style I play, that process makes sense, but I always wonder about how other artists in completely different genres write. Maybe it’s the same way, who knows? Musically, I think there’s a lot that can be learned from Baxter in terms of leaving space for the vocals. The minimalist production really allows the vocal delivery to shine through. If you dig deeper, there are plenty of layered ideas on these tracks, but they aren’t forced to fight for the listener’s attention. Hopefully, I can take some things I’ve learned from listening to this record and apply it to my own music.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
One of the things I really love about this album is how dark it is. The sound is almost haunting, especially on the track “I Can’t See Why.” With the orchestral instruments and his voice, it has this eerie, ethereal quality that really sticks out and pulls me in. The song “Ballad Of Behaviour” stuck out to me as well, especially as I took the time to really listen to the lyrics, especially the line “seems that I need you, seems that I do”. On a personal level, it kind of resonates with what’s going on in my own life, where I’ve come to a point and realized there are a certain few people that make my life what it is, and I need them there, without even realizing just how important they’ve become to me. And that’s the thing about good music, but also good songwriting. Music is such a personal thing. To the artist, but also to the person listening. All you need is to hear that one line or melody, and you feel instantly connected to it all. And it’s different for everyone, which is so amazing, because no one’s interpretation of it can be wrong. I really enjoyed just taking the time and really listening to the lyrics of this album, which were very well written through the haze of it all.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
Cutting out a space of their own between trip hop and drum ‘n’ bass, Baxter forged its own place on the sonic spectrum at the tail end of the ’90s. As of 2019 though, it’s an area that’s surprisingly still unoccupied by musicians, despite still feeling innovative and germane to this, and really any, time period. (Okay, not any time period because people in the ’30s would be treating this trio up as sorcerers and witches a la Pawnee.) Despite the crossover between two wildly expansive genres, it’s the errant connections I find myself drawn to. Connections that I’m not even sure are complete, but ones that seem clear as day in my earbuds as the drums loop around me, propped up by a moping gust of vocals. At first, I heard the intrinsic rhythm of electroclash coming through, a genre which came around at the same time, but mostly came to my attention far later with Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” and Fischerspooner’s “Horizon” standing out. These were more passing moments, crystal clear when each song on Baxter hit its peak, but obscured elsewhere. Obscuring it my mind? Radiohead. Specifically, that coalescing of post-rock and electronica that sought to tear down existing the walls of the alternative formula that had been weaponized by the late ’90s. Obviously this was less rock than Radiohead was, but all the hallmarks of Kid A, Amnesiac, and even their more recent records were there. Furtive. Labyrinthine. Deliberate. Hypnotic. But Baxter offers a change of pace for those who find themselves sucked into the trance of “Everything In Its Right Place.” Instead of vocals that are looped and primal like Thom Yorke, ones that root themselves within the music alongside every other instrument, Baxter offers vocals that are distinct and tangible, floating through the ether of each song. These vocals bring out the pensive nature of the music, as opposed to letting the looped polyrhythms sink the listener in a sea of mystery and fantasy. It allows what the band is actually singing about to come to the forefront, setting itself apart again from Radiohead, but also from trip hop and drum ‘n’ bass. Whereas those songs had messages as well, they were mostly faint or even lost while the artists dove into the deep trench of sampling and experimentation. Baxter wades down there too, but keeps a strong tether to their lyrical core, one that finds the band exploring isolation (“All alone in your room / You blew up your television / The whole world to you / And less of you is left”) and accountability (“It will take some time for me / To get the point of what / Was wrong with this”) through personal lenses that seem applicable to society at large, then and now. The end result is something that exceeds its common equation, taking two similar genres and rising above them, and others, with music that’s truly stunning.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Ranky Tanky by Ranky Tanky
Chosen By Davy Jones