Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy
More than a decade has gone by since I first saw Meat Beat Manifesto in a charmingly gritty warehouse in Deep Ellum in Dallas, but the early Meat Beat tracks still sound as fresh, funky and energizing as ever. Some of the band's fans also behave better than they used to. After being rammed and bruised by slam dancers in Deep Ellum, I was relieved to see a few no-slam-dancing circles when I caught Meat Beat last June at the Metro, a gorgeous, high-ceilinged venue in Chicago with a clean, killer sound system.
Although the Meat Beat lineup has changed over the years, Jack Dangers has remained constant as the band's creative, innovative songwriter and vocalist. The first Meat Beat songs featured bizarre spoken-word samples, urgent, aggressive breakbeats and politically charged lyrics urging fans to be active, vocal, independent thinkers. However, a lot of the band's newer, more downtempo songs from the recent At The Center lack lyrics entirely but still impress with a soothing blend of electronic music, sexy jazz and smooth, pretty instrumental layers.
After touring last year, Meat Beat is now back in the USA and will perform on February 17 at the Engine Room. This time around, the lineup consists of Dangers and Mark Pistel on samples and laptops, Lynn Farmer on drums, and Ben Stokes doing video presentations. Dangers, talking by telephone from his home studio just north of San Francisco, recalls that the crowds at early Meat Beat shows in Dallas and Houston were some of the roughest they've ever played to. He also remembers when the band had to stop playing at a Dallas show because someone got injured at the front of the stage.
"The shows in Dallas and Houston were the most -- they were out of control," Dangers says in his thick British accent. "They were the worst places for stage-diving. That was, like, back in the early '90s."
Talking about the audiences at last year's shows, Dangers observes, "I think people have grown up a bit." The old-school fans came out, but there were young people too. As Dangers observes, "It does seem that people who like Meat Beat Manifesto are in it for the long run."
Back to the 2005 Metro show in Chicago: People started cheering and clapping from the first few seconds of the intros of favorite tracks, whether it was the sexy, melodic opening that draws you into "Hello Teenage America" or the trippy-sounding "it's in my brain now" sample that builds up to the dark, stomping beats of "Helter Skelter."
When MBM rolls through Houston, fans will be able to buy CDs of that June '05 Metro show. Dangers says, "It turned out to be the best performance out of the shows we recorded, so, yeah, everything sort of came together that night. That's a good venue as well. I've always liked playing at the Metro."
A new Meat Beat track called "Suicide" (with Dangers on vocals for a change) appears on the soundtrack album to Underworld: Evolution. And Liam Howlett of Prodigy chose Meat Beat's "Radio Babylon" as one of the tracks for his Back to Mine compilation, which is being released this month in the U.K.
Dangers, who started making music in Swindon, England, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 and has remained there ever since.
Meat Beat will play a mix of old and new songs this time out, but Dangers says he's been working on creating different versions of older tunes. "The program we use is Live by Ableton which lets us change things a bit every show, and I like that."
Although Meat Beat's music tends to defy categorization, many people consider the group's early stuff, with its funky breakbeats and rapid-fire rhythms, to be the precursor of drum 'n' bass. Dangers did push musical boundaries on the RUOK? album when he collaborated with ambient guru Alex Paterson and turntablist Z-Trip, who incorporated some sick scratching and blending into the overall MBM framework. The result is a hypnotic blend of music styles, from abstract and experimental to percussion-heavy trip-hop to some quirky, minimal stuff.
Part of the charm of many older Meat Beat tracks is that they feature satisfying, thundering bass that feels like it's rearranging your innards. One unfortunate fellow attended a Meat Beat show with his jaw wired shut -- the result of a boxing fight -- and had to leave because reverberations were making it vibrate like crazy. The volume at another show was so loud that the mega-low bass resulted in fans' experiencing spontaneous diarrhea en masse...at least according to Meat Beat's Web site. Talk about sonic warfare!
Guess I'm lucky to have gotten out of the Deep Ellum show with only a few bruises.
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