“If you want an example of mid-90s liquid this is it; lush, warm and beautiful. Not claustrophobic like today’s 4-minute ‘slam bam’ drum & bass tracks. It has a nice sense of pace. Nothing sounds rushed, which is a homage to late 70s jazz funk. To me this is their finest moment. The thing here is the breakdown. Complex chords change, filled with atmospherics and probably the best use of a female vocal of all the intelligent d&b from that golden age. On par with the wonderful ‘Being With You’ by Foul Play. Much lauded yet still underrated. One of the very best examples of that exotic mix of Bukem’s cosmic vibe and Creative Source’s more stripped down funky essence, superb.” – Fabio
It’s been exactly six years since the premiere of the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’, however its conception dates further back. I’ve always had this vague idea of keeping a musical diary to capture those moments that defined my journey in electronic music and drum & bass in particular. Although the scope of the series has been expanded also to more recent titles, as well as non-d&b material, my affinity for the formative years of drum & bass has been repeatedly stressed, hence themes and features often revolve around this axis.
Intrigued, inspired and seduced by the faceless mystique and the self-reliant attitude of so many artists and labels exploring this bold new cultural form in the early 90s, I have tried to reflect in the series that experimental fearlessness, where no approach was off limits. Tracks with long intros, string sections, artful vocal fragments and long emotional breakdowns, which sometimes had been met with cynicism, became an art form with an elevated degree of musicality.
This month’s installment has been one of the first editions I had sketched for the series. For one reason or another I postponed it for too long, but it’s finally here; a belated celebration of the blog’s 8th year anniversary. There are so many Intense tracks I wish I’d written, but I’ve always known which one has had the biggest emotional impact upon me.
Intense are one of the most innovative and exciting production outfits that have graced the genre. From their UK hardcore origins to their live PAs accompanied by a full band under their brand name, their sound has been rich with ingenious and ground-breaking ideas, even when electronic dance music was limited to standard analogue sounds. Their unique studio approach, the polar opposite of calculated austerity, mapped jazz free form sensibility into a drum & bass context, sprinkled with the stardust of avant-garde ambience and nouveau funk, ripping the seams of technology and recasting the fragments into new alluring shapes and structures.
Intense were founded in the early 90s by school friends Dan Duncan and Simon Vispi. After completing his engineering course at Kingston Polytechnic, Dan started working at the famous RAK Studios in London. After four years of intensive work he was promoted to in-house programmer working with iconic bands like ‘The Cure’ and ‘The Stone Roses’. Dan used all this knowledge and experience to start his own musical projects and Intense were born.
After a couple of releases on Great Asset and their sub-label Underground Level Recordings, (joined by DJ Eclipse doing the scratching) Intense became a production trio. Beau Thomas, who was introduced to Dan and Simon by a mutual friend, used to bring his turntable and records over to Intense’s studio at a basement in Earl’s Court, opposite the Exhibition Centre. From an integral advisory role he soon became the third member of Intense. In 1993 they launched their own platform Subliminal Records for the Intense side-projects (Babylon Timewarp/The White House Crew). Under the Babylon Timewarp alias they released the classic hardcore anthem ‘Durban Poison’ garnering wide attention and praise.
Transitioning from the hardcore confines to the emerging drum & bass sound, Intense made a statement of intent applying a cinematic outlook to their productions for Rugged Vinyl (‘Paradox EP’, ‘The Genesis Project EP’, ‘Ecstatic’, ‘Chronicles of Intense Vol. 1’, ‘Dusk Till Dawn’). Drawing inspiration from a wide palette of sounds, from cult sci-fi and horror films (‘Predator’, ‘Army of Darkness’) to Enya’s dreamy pop, Aaliyah’s and Mary J Blige‘s diva vocal lines, they forged an idiosyncratic yet distinctive musical profile, which cemented their reputation. However, it would be their jazz and rare groove aesthetic influences that would open the door to fame and a worldwide audience.
‘Speed’ has been a weekly club night at London’s West End that lasted from late ’94 to the summer of ’96. Set up by LTJ Bukem, Leo Roche and Sarah Sandy from Groove Connection at the ‘Mars Bar’, off Tottenham Court Road, with resident djs LTJ Bukem and Fabio alongside prestigious guests, the ‘Speed’ nights have been pivotal to the evolution of drum & bass, representing a focal point for the mellower side of the spectrum and showcasing new music that was not essentially aimed for the dancefloor in a ‘safe’ and more intimate space away from the Jungle arenas. The tagline on the flyers enveloped the ethos: ‘deep, beautiful, rollin’ drum and bass’.
“I do remember us always going down to ‘Speed’ on Thursdays at the Milk Bar in London and being super-influenced by what was happening there with Fabio and LTJ Bukem; a lot of jazz and musical vibes that we very much related to. We wanted to contribute and we met up with Sarah at the Groove Connection office in Brixton, after Fabio said he wanted ‘Breathless’. This is what also opened many doors for us to other labels like Good Looking.” – Dan Duncan
Introduced by Kemistry & Storm to the legendary club night, the vibrant melting pot where ‘beautifully weird’ music was being played (as Beau described it), Intense – as well as many of their peers – were inspired to write music for Fabio and Bukem. Taken from the blog’s archives, the following accounts by Voyager and DJ Crystl capture the musical impression and the importance of ‘Speed’ to the progression of the drum & bass sound:
“To say it was an inspirational weekly event is a huge understatement; I wanted my tracks to be played there. I wanted to create a track that was going to fit into those sets perfectly and capture the vibe that was there every week, so that the deep, melodic, slightly melancholic musical direction, that I was putting into a lot of my productions at that time, fitted perfectly for ‘Hypersleep’.” – Voyager, Tracks I Wish I’d Written vol. 6
“Well, I remember very well the same evening that I and Pete freaked out when ‘Hypersleep’ got dropped. My track ‘Mind Games’ got played as the last track of the night. I can picture it now. Club was still heaving, people freakin’ out. Me and Pete smiling ear to ear, watching people jumping around as the bassline dropped. It really was the best feeling in the world. That was my drug; hearing my track loud on a sound system, watching people’s reactions. That’s all you need as a producer. That’s pure approval right there. People loving what you make; it’s mission accomplished …” – DJ Crystl, Tracks I Wish I’d Written vol. 11
After a slow and timid beginning, the event moved from Mondays to Thursdays and ‘Speed’ gained momentum and media attention. Fabio launched Creative Source; a record label and platform to promote new talent and showcase the side of the d&b spectrum represented at ‘Speed’. An unpremeditated fusion of Motown soul, nu jazz and 70s funk with the instinctive, raw edge of drum & bass, Creative Source complemented (rather than overlapped with) the atmospheric, cosmic vibes Bukem and GLR were championing. Intense captured that venerated early Creative Source aesthetics with two seminal 12”s (‘Breathless/Streams of Thought’, CRSE003 & ‘Only You/Natural Progression’, CRSE009). ‘Positive Notions’ and ‘Only You’ were written at the same time with the intention to give the former to Fabio and the latter to Bukem, assuming that they would fit each label’s profile, but counter-intuitively the tracks ended up the other way round. Soon after, Intense completed the singles with ‘Careless Minds’ and ‘Natural Progression’ respectively.
Intense – Only You (Creative Source, CRSE009, 1996)
Like a love letter, ‘Only You’ is a piece of music that is emotionally draining and redemptive at the same time. Intense’s dalliance with vintage synthesizers is prevalent in their productions and here they have made an exemplary use of the ‘Roland JV1080’ extensive features and presets. The mesmerizing opening synth pad (JV1080 ‘Dawn 2 Dusk’) and a signature drum loop (contrary to popular belief, it’s not the Commodores’ ‘Assembly Line’ break) ignite a slow-burning fuse for 90 seconds and then the magic starts. A heartbreaking Vibraphone line (JV1080 ‘Warm Vibes’) is introduced until the first breakdown, followed by additional layers of strings and a chord (sampled from Jamiroquai). The lead solo that comes in on the breakdown and octaves up on the 2nd drop (JV1080 ‘Edge Boost’) foreshadows the apogee at the 4:30 mark, when the world stops for a second. A captivating female vocal hook encapsulates the very essence of writing music: to aim (at least) at your own idea of perfection. I’d argue that an ordinary phrase, found in countless love songs – albeit within different contexts – has a confessional and powerful nuance here, highlighting a moment of romantic connection that transcends time and places. The sentimental repercussions echo long after the last bass note. I have tried to identify that elusive vocal source, sadly to no avail. Perhaps, it should remain a mystery, something that seems at your fingertips but is always out of reach.
A prolific period followed for Intense with releases for the Basement offshoot Way Out Records (‘Motions’/’Sax Lick’), Vibez (the immaculate ‘1st Contact’ b/w ‘Visions’), Parallel (‘It’s All Gone Sideways’ with Dr. S Gachet) as well as a string of brilliant remixes for Earl Grey, Skin Divers, Forces of Nature and Subject 13.
The culminating point of an electronic musician’s career is a live performance. Combining their sound design, engineering and technological expertise with live instrumentation – the sax crescendos of Dan’s father Malcolm (Molly) Duncan on ‘Positive Notions’, ‘Sax Lick’ and ‘Westside Blues’ were only teasers for the ultimate live d&b experience – Intense enlisted an array of accomplished artists and a range of instruments inexorably linked to the long line of styles that inspired the album.
Logical Progression Level 3
Debuting at a special Logical Progression event at the Brixton Academy on the 18th December 1997, the recorded session secured them a contract with Sony Japan and Intense embarked on an extensive global tour to promote the album.
Saxophone: Malcolm (Molly) Duncan (founding member of the Average White Band 70s funk giants)
Bass: Toni Cuenca
Drums: Killian Madden (Psyne)
Guitar: Tim Cansfield (session guitarist for Steve Winwood and James Brown)
Keyboards: Intense (Beau Thomas, Dan Duncan, Simon Vispi)
Vocals: MC DRS, MC Conrad,
The day after
Regrettably, the halcyon days of Intense ended rather unceremoniously at the turn of the new millennium, but this is a story for another day.
At some point in 1999, Dan left UK with his parents to live in Mallorca, Spain. A chance meeting on a flight to Mallorca with Igor Tchkotoua, evolved into a musical partnership a couple of years later. Pig & Dan are now one of the most acclaimed techno outfits in electronic music. Read the background story, discography highlights and their current activities here.
Around the same time Beau was offered a job by the renowned engineer Shane McEnhill at Heathmans Mastering, which kick-started his mastering/vinyl cutting career. Followed also by a brief stint at Masterpiece Mastering, Beau created his own mastering studio Ten Eight Seven in 2012. Fast forward to the present, he’s now one of the most in-demand mastering engineers across a wide range of electronic music styles. Take a sneak view into the inner workings of a mastering studio here.
Simon and Beau wrote two more tracks for Good Looking (‘Black Ice’ & ‘Timecode’), but it definitely wasn’t the same without Dan. Simon carried on mixing down and programming tracks for clients for a little while, but then decided to get a job in IT industry, where he stills works.
Soundtracks, Represses and features
Two early Intense tracks (‘Time Space Continuem’, ‘Journey To The Unknown’), albeit with film dialogue snippets recorded over, featured on the OST of the cult British flick ‘Cradle of Fear’, a visceral story of vengeance inspired by 70s anthology horror films.
In 2009, Sublogic Recordings released ‘Sublogic Dubplate Vol. 2’, featuring two Babylon Timewarp unreleased gems (‘Harmony’, ‘Green’) as well as ‘Para Time Continuem’ a hybrid track with elements from Intense’s ‘Paradox’ and ‘Time Space Continuem’. In 2015, the Sublogic successor Keeping Vinyl Alive published a triple pack limited edition vinyl with ten of the best Intense tracks spanning the period 1993 – 1997, which sold out twice. Find the detailed press release here. Both records re-mastered and cut by Beau Thomas. The quotes in the run-out etchings are taken from the 1987 film ‘Robocop’.
‘The Quickening’ featured on the centenary edition of the ‘Fabriclive’ series in 2018 (Fabriclive 100, compiled and mixed by Kode9 & Burial).
Twenty years later, their loyal fan-base is a testament to Intense’s musical legacy. Their productions have set a benchmark and are still well sought after, reaching eye-watering prices in the second-hand market. It would be at least naïve to try and capture such an eventful recording career in a single blog feature, so perhaps a follow-up will take place at some point in the future.
My gratitude and special thanks to Beau Thomas (background story, edits, the Logical Progression tour photo gallery, technical details) and also to Dan Duncan and Fabio for their comments.
In memory of Malcolm (Molly) Duncan (1945-2019)