“Musically it’s the same button we’ve been pressing since day one, trying to find that particular and delicate place between sadness and hope. We rarely find it, exactly, but we come close sometimes. It’s like what they say about jazz players, always trying to find the ‘lost chord’ …” – Interview for UKF, November 2016.
A common trait among music fans is their ability to recollect little details regarding their musical icons. A series of coincidences and seemingly unrelated events acquire a whole different gravity in hindsight. Although I firmly believe in the maxim “Don’t meet your heroes”, happily enough, meeting Blu Mar Ten has been a distinct exception to the rule and I feel quite honoured to have known them in person and consider them friends.
I accidentally discovered Blu Mar Ten in 1996 and I have closely followed their musical career path ever since. Their sophisticated approach, art and literature connotations, eclectic taste and cinematic aesthetics have never ceased to amaze me. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their discography debut, Blu Mar Ten recently released their 7th studio album entitled ‘Empire State’. What follows is a retrospective, but not exhaustive account of their career from my biased perspective, emphasizing on releases, which I have associated with fond memories and have had a profound impact on me; an array of reminiscences printed on vinyl grooves. Browsing through my record collection, I also present my personal highlights from each LP, instead of a track-by-track review, trying also to deduce and identify their creative influences. This is essentially my own perception and an attempt to capture the essence of the album narratives, which is completely arbitrary and probably nowhere near Blu Mar Ten’s actual vision and purpose. Nonetheless, I believe that the value of an artistic product is to create different emotions, thoughts and interpretations.
The early days
I still remember vividly a casual visit to a record store in Athens on a Saturday morning back in 1996. During that period I had become temporarily obsessed with the collection of records (white labels, promotional copies, test presses) with barely any information about the artist or the record label, other than the etchings on the run-out groove. I attribute it to the rush of discovering something new and the vanity that very few would also have it. On reflection, I would gladly exchange almost all of them for full artwork releases. While browsing the shelves, I stumbled upon a record from a label I wasn’t familiar with (Way Out Records), which included a press release insert. The artist name Blu Mar Ten seemed quite catchy and the release information intriguing. When I first listened to the main theme of ‘Lunar’ and spotted the Future Sound Of London sample I was pleasantly shocked.
The Good Looking days
Shortly after the first release on Way Out and their remarkable remix of Erykah Badu’s ‘On And On’, Blu Mar Ten were offered a long-term deal with LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records (GLR), which ended some years later in controversy. The partnership culminated in a string of exquisite singles for GLR and its satellite sub-labels, features on the ‘Earth’, ‘Logical Progression’ and ‘Progression Sessions’ series, a dedicated artist EP, as well as their own installment of the ‘Producer’ artist compilation series, cementing their position in the label’s roster and their reputation as originators of fine and complex atmospheric music.
Attracted like a moth to the light, I was hunting down avidly any record with Blu Mar Ten inscribed on the record label/sleeve and their productions for Bukem’s labels include all-time favourites in abundance. If someone had my arm twisted to pick the tracks I am personally attached with, the sound and image projections that instantly spring to mind, without further contemplation would be: the sax lick over the amen assault of ‘Future Proof’ on a proper sound system, the staggering bass and hypnotic tempo of ‘Butterflies & Moths’, the nuanced intro of ‘Global Access’, which somehow reminds me of school playground cheers, the oceanic bliss of ‘Adrift On Deep Water’ and the romantic nostalgia of ‘Blush’ from the ‘Everglades’ EP, the track that foreshadowed their impeccable second studio album. The ‘Everglades’ sleeve design is by Nick Purser and Chris Marigold; abstract female portraits being a recurring theme in Blu Mar Ten artwork.
Life after GLR
Entering the new millennium, Blu Mar Ten quickly grew and mutated beyond the confines of the jungle into lush experimentation with downtempo, ambient, house, breaks, techno & left-field. After leaving GLR, the obscure ‘Tea & Sympathy’ on the one-off ISW (standing for ‘I’m Still Waiting’) imprint, marked an interval, away from drum & bass, as they carried on producing breaks for Rennie Pilgrem’s label TCR and Danny Macmillan’s In-flight label, 2-step garage for Lime, tech-house for Guidance Recordings and left-field downbeat for the Big Chill, Exceptional Records and Naked Music. They have also taken on remix duties for Terry Lee Brown Junior, Joey Negro, The Ananda Project, Annie Lennox and The Roots. The remix for The Roots is a stellar d&b adaptation of the song ‘You Got Me’ featuring mesmerizing vocals by the soul diva Erykah Badu and rapper Eve. A thousand (beautiful) single-sided copies were issued, which disappeared instantly and the record is highly sought after ever since. Six years ago, Blu Mar Ten decided to give away the digital version of the track in exchange for a donation to the ‘Cancer Research UK’ foundation. The noble cause appears still active and you may find more information here.
As part of Good Looking’s grandiose project, each main artist of the label’s roster would be given creative freedom and artistic management and control over a GLR offshoot. The sub-label assigned to Blu Mar Ten was meant to be Deep Structure; however, a series of disputes prompted the termination of their partnership in late 2000. Deep Structure did eventually launch in 2002 by Blu Mar Ten, to accommodate for their downtempo, electro, breakbeat and house music explorations, as well as for new d&b material. The ‘abstract network’ label logo had initially appeared on the front cover and record label of ‘Global Access/Myriad’ (LGR013, 1998) superimposed on a world map. With guest appearances from Blame and Social Security, the label operations were suspended after 8 releases. The highlights of a soul-searching period are the bass-driven ‘The Feeling’, the electro-influenced ‘Fitness’ and the aptly named ‘Blurunner’; the latter being their d&b homage to Vangelis’ ‘Blade Runner Blues’ theme.
The Six Million Names Of God
In the second half of 2003, Blu Mar Ten released their brilliant album entitled ‘The Six Million Names Of God’, on Exceptional Records. The LP represented collective ambient and downtempo work, written between 1997 and 2003, shifting away from the dancefloor-oriented material they had been recognized for. Featuring collaborations with Blame, Nor Elle and Fink, as well as two stunning covers co-produced with Paradise Motel (‘Drive’ and ‘Hollywood Landmines’), the album is a colourful mosaic of acoustic influences. ‘Apnea’, a Greek word which loosely translates into suspension of breathing, encompasses the literal meaning for almost 3 minutes. The melancholic guitar riffs of ‘Home Videos (The Map Of Love)’, the desolate saxophone and flute samples of ‘The Date’, ‘Simon and Lisa’ a track written for and dedicated to a couple they’re friends with, the breakbeat variant of ‘Trauma’ (another Greek word which translates into wound, in a metaphorical sense this time), as well as the short interlude ‘Stone Lonely’ are all emotionally draining.
I was living in London at the time and it was around my Name Day (December 12th), when me and my flat-mate visited HMV in Oxford Street for music shopping. They had a small vinyl section and I started browsing rather absent-mindedly, as we had no record player at the flat. In the ambient/downtempo self, a record with minimal but very stylistic artwork and a familiar artist name on the front cover drew my attention. I initially thought it was misplaced, so I picked it up and quickly read the credits on the back sleeve. Not drum & bass clearly (during a period when I was discovering a whole new world in the Mecca of d&b and had been quite ‘militant’ about my musical choices), but I purchased it anyway for future listening on Xmas holidays, when I would return to my home country. Fast forward a couple of weeks later, I placed the record devoutly on my record player. The growing anticipation turned into an epiphany; it is and will always be an item of the utmost sentimental value.
Return to drum & bass
In 2004, Wyndham and Marigold were joined by Michael Tognarelli, who as a teenager in Manchester, had worked in Eastern Bloc and Spin Inn record shops with Marcus Intalex and Sappo. They soon picked up where they had left off, and the next two years Blu Mar Ten as a trio henceforth, returned to producing drum and bass for a plethora of prestigious labels like Hospital, Nookie’s Phuzion Records, Friction’s Shogun Audio, John B’s Tangent Recordings, Renegade Hardware, Subject 13’s Vibez Recordings, Doc Scott’s 31 Records and Phil Wells’ Basement. Their contribution to the latter is an exceptional remix of Architex’s ‘Altitude’, which at an older interview for the blog (here) Chris had claimed that it’s been a track he wished he had written.
September 2007 saw the release of their third album ‘Black Water’, which contained non-d&b material; re-works of a couple of older Deep Structure tracks, stunning ambient interludes, as well as appearances from guest vocalists Alexis Strum, Kameel and Ernesto. The singles were released around the launch of the album and included remixes by Tom Middleton, Sabre, Kubiks, Cicada and Blu Mar Ten themselves. The CD booklet contains beautiful photography in accordance with the cinematic aesthetics of the LP. In random order, my personal favourites are ‘2046’, ‘Silk Road’, ‘Ghost Trio’, ‘Sunday Water’, and ‘Turtle Beach’.
Their track titles have been quite imaginative, concealing obvious, funny (‘B.R.O.’, ‘Lyssakses’ for instance) and sometimes profound and cryptic messages. ‘Free At Last’ implied healing, closure and the anticipation of fresh pastures.
Blu Mar Ten Music (BMTM)
The new exciting chapter started in 2009 with the establishment of Blu Mar Ten Music. Wiser from their previous experience of running a label, Blu Mar Ten created a new platform for upcoming d&b material, which quickly expanded to a creative habitat, fostering and nurturing amazingly talented new producers like Stray, Frederic Robinson, Kimyan Law and Conduct. The ethos of BMTM is encapsulated in a single sentence: “We release music we like made by people we like”.
Chris Marigold reflects on the quintessence of BMT Music:
“As time went on, there were all these other artists, who were a bit too weird or a bit too unknown to get released on other labels, or they were being ignored for whatever reason and I think we realised that it would be helpful to use the small amount of weight we’d gathered to try and draw some attention towards them as well. I think it’s really important to try and bring new people through, otherwise we’ll end up with a scene full of old guys monopolising the top end and all the young people floundering around at the bottom. That’s not fair and it’s not interesting, so I think it’s incumbent on anyone who’s had a bit of luck to try and pass it on”. – Interview for ninjaninja.co.uk, August 2015
After two exquisite album samplers, Blu Mar Ten released the Natural History project in late 2009, supplemented by a remix trilogy the next year, featuring remixes by Klute, Seba, Stray, Bop, Kastle & Badmammal. The LP covers a wide range of the drum & bass spectrum. The alluring sleeve illustrations of the first singles as well as of the next BMT projects are designed by ithinkitsnice.
The selection of the opening track suggests a fresh start and is an improved version of ‘Starting Over’ (the original had featured on the 3rd volume of Hospital’s ‘Weapons Of Mass Creation’ compilation series two years earlier). The ethereal ‘Believe Me’ had already convinced me about the label’s promising future. The clinical drum arrangement of ‘God’s Lonely Man’ and the lush pads of ‘Overwhelm’ wink at fellow-producers Paradox and Seba respectively. The mood changes with the agonizing female vocal snippet ‘I drove all night’ on ‘Last Dance’ and the dark and fuzzy ‘Grey Area’, but in conclusion it is ‘Above Words’ the track that eloquently envelops the project.
A few weeks before the official release of the album, I had a casual online conversation with Chris, which turned out to be prophetic; he had been booked on late October 2009 to play Athens for the first time in light of the ‘Natural History’ promotion tour. During his set, he played versions of Skanna’s ‘Find Me’ and Bukem’s ‘Horizons’ I had never heard before, which made me rubberneck at his record box for the rest of the set :). That’s when I first met Chris in person and realized that one of my musical heroes is also one of the nicest persons in the scene.
Love Is The Devil
In 2011 Blu Mar Ten delivered their second album on BMT Music ‘Love Is the Devil’ achieving widespread critical acclaim and chart success. As per usual practice, the album oscillates effortlessly between abstract and complex arrangements, featuring collaborations with Stray, Airwalker, Intrepid, Insideinfo and sax player Mike Lesirge augmented with stunning vocals by Kirsty Hawkshaw, Jenni Potts and Rochelle Parker. From the angular corners of ‘Made In London’, to the Cocteau Twins-inspired epic theme track ‘Love Is The Devil’, to the tenderness of ‘Sweet Little Supernova’, to the dnb equivalent of a lovesong ‘Whisper’, their second LP resonated with a wider and diverse audience. 2012 has seen a series of remixes from ‘Love Is the Devil’ featuring dBridge, Marcus Intalex, BCee, Sunchase, Joe Syntax, Unquote and Sincopate.
While maintaining a busy international dj schedule, BMT focused on developing their label, as well as preparing their new album. On February 2013, Marigold played Athens for the second time, squeezing snippets in his set from BMT Music forthcoming releases. After public demand, Chris returned for another gig two months later and that was the first time I had been actually involved into the promotion of a drum & bass night, with the guidance and assistance of Innersense Productions; the promotion team, which had booked BMT already twice and have been behind the most important d&b gigs in Athens since 1996. On the same bill were two of my all-time favourite producers, Blu Mar Ten and Future Engineers. It’s been a memorable night and I feel privileged to have spent some quality time, getting to know them better, coercing them to have my records signed and having a funny misadventure (elevator anyone?) over that weekend.
Famous Lost Words
Later that year Blu Mar Ten published their third album on BMT Music entitled ‘Famous Lost Words’. The production is meticulously looked after and is an exceptional addition to their impressive back catalogue, showcasing their artistic maturity. Feelings of sadness and choked melancholy, broken or unfulfilled promises are distilled and diffused throughout. Featuring an all-star collaboration with Seba and vocal contributions from Robert Manos and Lithuanian songwriter Agnė Genytė, the album is a collage of micro-contradictions. In spite of ‘flirting’ with the dancefloor, emotion and musicality are retained without sounding like a creative stretch. Apart from the popular highlights ‘In Your Eyes’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Hunter’, my personal favourites are all omitted from the vinyl version and border as usual on the leftfield side of the album: the theme track ‘Famous Lost Words’, ‘Remembered Her Wrong’, the heart-breaking ‘Break It All Apart’ and the brilliant ‘Night Shift’.
Traditionally, BMT commissioned a ‘Famous Lost Words’ 3-part remix series, with re-interpretations from Break, Frederic Robinson, Kid Drama, Anile, Conduct, Nuage, Kimyan Law and Ulterior Motive. BMTM published one part each month from August till October 2014. On December 2014 however, emerged an elusive fourth part in a head-turning fashion. Life is going in circles, as the electronic music luminaries Future Sound Of London, whom BMT sampled on their discography debut and looked upon at the start of their career (obscure or disguised FSOL samples are present on other BMT tracks along the years), returned the favor with the breathtaking ‘Night Shift’ remix.
Although Seba and Blu Mar Ten had been active for almost 20 years, the first time they appeared on the same bill wasn’t until November 2013 for a Secret Operations event in St. Petersburg, Russia alongside Paradox and Robert Manos. On December 27th, 2014 they were both booked to dj in Athens, a much anticipated night with two of the city’s favourites. However, things in life usually don’t turn out as hoped or planned; adverse weather at Arlanda airport in Stockholm resulted in all outbound flights being suspended that day, so regrettably Seba couldn’t make it. Chris Marigold compensated the avid audience with a memorable set, including an hour with Seba’s finest musical moments.
On September 2015, I finally met with the other two members of BMT, Leo and Michael, at a social event in Greece. Michael was about to relocate to New York and Leo had recently left Singapore for Tokyo. Despite living now in three different continents, Blu Mar Ten emerged in 2016 with their latest offering ‘Empire State’ delivering some of their most interesting work to date.
“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, a crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many …” – Excerpt from the modernist poem ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot, appearing on the Empire State LP press release
The cinematic scenery is set in the metropolis of London – hence the artistic illustration of the London tube on the album cover and the poetic reference on the press release – amidst political turmoil worldwide, during times dubious and divisive. Blu Mar Ten have resorted to their endless toolbox, revisiting old techniques and sample libraries, in order to reconstruct a bleak and evocative environment with concealed yet smoldering glimmers of hope. Robert Manos and Kite provide the vocal parts of the album, which underline the emotional setting.
“Musically it’s the same button we’ve been pressing since day one, trying to find that particular and delicate place between sadness and hope. We rarely find it, exactly, but we come close sometimes. It’s like what they say about jazz players, always trying to find the ‘lost chord’. We’ve deliberately made things more lo-fi on this album, and used old sounds and methods, deliberately quoting them, even.” Interview for UKF, November 2016.
The dystopian ‘Last Life In The Universe’, which was initially released on the Med School’s ‘Blood Pressure’ compilation in 2012, (samples also appear on ‘Remembered Her Wrong’ from the previous album) sets the tone. ‘Fall From Grace’ is a stunning take on the 85/170 template with Kite’s spell-binding vocals on top. ‘Immortal Beloved’ is a modern exercise on the ‘do-the-do/Kid Caprice/Horizons/Circles’ break with chord progressions that loosely reminded me of one of my favourite GLR tracks (‘Futureshock’ by Lacarno). ‘Monologue’ is a brilliant interlude and a personal favourite; thought-provoking with subtle, eerie vocals and percussions bordering on nu-jazz. Snippets from ‘Big Shots’, which appeared on the previous album, are recognizable in ‘Dilirium’. BMT nod to 90s aesthetics with the vintage keys of ‘Signs Of Life’ and ‘Rollcage’ (perhaps an implicit reference to the PS Game series with the Moving Shadow soundtrack); the latter being the album’s finishing touch, a wave of noir over the ‘think break’.
The last few copies of the ‘Empire State’ LP bundle are available to purchase from the Blu Mar Ten official web-store here.
Instead of an epilogue I will borrow the title from the Annie Lennox song, which Blu Mar Ten remixed in 2003 and inspired this feature: A Thousand Beautiful Things …
- Ninjaninja interview, August 2015
- UKF interview, November 2016
- Event Posters courtesy of Innersense Productions