Review: Carl Cox, Black Rock Desert
Carl Cox is DJ who has been on the scene since the early rave days in the UK. He played at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 2008, dug it, and returned to play again in 2009. Black Rock Desert is a two CD collection of mixes that are based on the sets he played at Burning Man in ’09.
Cox is widely known as a techno DJ and Black Rock Desert is a techno mix. How well you like the set is going to depend on how much you like this type of dance music. Techno is fundamentally about rhythm and techno tracks have a tendency to feature a prominent equal-emphasis quarter-note rhythm with various rhythmic patterns intermixed and laid on top. Rhythm licks fade in and out and melodic content is often limited and simple. In hands less skilled than Cox’s, you can end up with thudding music that seems to plod along with slowly and aimlessly modulating rhythms. But you’re in Cox’s hands here and he rarely lets the mix stagnate in a rut. Disc one gravitates toward tracks with a tribal feel early on which would seem to synch right in with the crowd at Burning Man. Compared to something like Radio Slave’s Fabric mix the tribal groove is pretty tame but it’s there and Cox works it into his techno mix very smoothly. He gets away from it fairly quickly, however, which is a shame.
Another aspect of techno that can give it the feel of being repetitious is that it tends to rely very heavily on synth drums, basses, pads and leads. While the genre is also known for the creative use of effects and new sounds, the heavy reliance on synths results in an artificially limited timbral palette. Cox can’t completely avoid this but he does a nice job of mixing sounds, effects and timbres up so that the inherent limitations in the soundscape rarely become intrusive. We have a fairly nice sound system with quality speakers and a clean signal path in our main listening room and while Black Rock Desert sounds terrific there, I get even more out of it when I listen through studio monitors.
I find that I can easily forget about the music on Black Rock Desert and let it fall into the background. If I do this, the insistent emphasis on a quarter-note rhythm pattern and the unrelenting use of synths to produce much of the sound you hear can become annoying. However, with Black Rock Desert I also find that if I stop and listen there is a lot going on in these two mixes. Cox knows what he’s doing and if you give him the time and attention he will entertain you from start to finish.
Black Rock Desert comes in an elongated package that includes an extended essay about Cox and Burning Man along with a lot of photos taken at the festival. It’s a nice package but the dimensions of the thing – it’s a bit more than the height of a plastic CD jewel box and about two jewel boxes long – mean that it isn’t going to store easily in a place where you’re likely to keep your CDs. Why labels package their products in ways designed to annoy customers is a mystery to me. If the idea is to give the consumer something they can’t get with a digital download, why not give us something useful like an alternative mix designed to sound good on a decent sound system as opposed to music that’s been mixed to sound good as an MP3 heard through ear buds?
Lance Blaise & Rod B., “Faaktree” from Black Rock Desert disc 1
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