If you’re a label that’s shooting for longevity in the volatile world of dance music, you basically have three choices. You can be ready to adapt to the ever-changing tastes of clubland’s citizenry; you can release such a broad range of styles that at least a few of them will always find favor; or you can zero in onto a specific sound, one that you think will stand the test of time—and then represent that genre very, very well.
That’s the tactic that Freerange, which is marking two full decades of trade with this compilation, has employed. Following the London label’s start in 1996 and a brief period of sonic experimentation, founders Jamie “Jimpster” Odell and Tom Roberts (who together also run Delusions of Grandeur) settled on a version of electronically-oriented deep house that’s frequently subtle, sometimes otherworldly, occasionally driving and, almost always, solid as hell. There’s been a real consistency in quality—no easy feat when you’ve had over 200 releases over the years—that’s as much a testimony to the label heads’ on-point taste as it is the strength of its roster, which has boasted the likes of Kirk DeGiorgio, Trevor Loveys, Pezzner, Motorcitysoul, Nils Penner, Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts, Chrissy and Jimpster himself, to name just a handful of notables.
As strong as the temptation must have been to put out a collection of tried-and-true Freerange classics, the label’s resisted the temptation to rely on past glories, instead opting for a compilation new tracks. That strategy has paid off handsomely, as those cuts are, for the most part, the same kind of no-messin’-around, easy-to-love nuggets that have taken Freerange to where it is today. That's not surprising, considering that many of the label’s big guns have contributed to the set.
Right out of the box, KiNK’s “Road” serves as a fitting calling card, its syncopated percussion and swirling keys leading to relentless, ever-modulating synth stabs. It’s almost a prototype for Freerange’s core sound—to-the-point and seemingly simple, yet cleverly designed for maximum effect. Led by shimmering piano chords—a common element in the Freerange universe—Milton Jackson’s “Songs Without Words” employs a plaintive, classical-esque melody over a spare-yet thumping rhythm, its relatively restrained ornamentation focusing attention on that melody’s inherent emotionalism.
Detroit Swindle opts for minimalism of another sort, with the Dutch duo's “Race Against The Machine” wedding swingy percussion and bass to various swooshes, squelches and, adding just a hint of tunefulness, organ; the synth-poppish bassline of Tony Lionni’s “Woman" receives added urgency push via judicious use of bongos and a swelling synth, punctuated by a compelling vocal wail; Andre Lodemann’s subdued “Last Exit” boasts quietly quivering keys, gorgeous piano work and backmask-effect strings, all held together by a nicely wobbling bass tone.
A few of the tracks on 20 Years of Freerange, while not misfires by any means, are perhaps less effective in the context of the compilation than others. We love downtempo, gorgeously jazzoid wonkiness as much as anybody—but surrounded by an array of tightly calibrated house tracks, Mule Musiq regular Kuniyuki’s “A Night In SA” feels somewhat aimless. Similarly, Squares’ “Spark’s Entry,” vaguely reminiscent of Bou-Kahn’s 1988 groover “Magic,” is lush with introspective feeling, but it feels a little low-key in these surroundings.
Of course, that’s a very minor complaint, one that’s more than made up for by numbers like “Love Taken Over,” which sees Irish producer Brian Ring layering a vocal sample from the SK Project classic “Your Love is Taking Me Over” over a Eurythmics-meets EBM bassline. Or Shur-i-kan’s “Beach Life,” graced by a majestic, hands-in-the-air-at-sunrise vibe. Or Jimpster’s own “Ceilings,” with its rotating-speaker Rhodes and squiggly synths providing the cushiest of beds for vocalist Laura Barrick’s coos and whispers. Or…well, we could go on and on, but you get the idea—this is top-tier house from one of the genre’s essential labels.
01 KiNK “Road”
02 Tim Toh & Ranavalona “All I See” (Jimpster Remix)
03 The New Tower Generation “Eyes Don't Lie”
04 Luv Jam & Jimpster “We Play Pads”
05 Andre Lodemann “Last Exit”
06 Squares “Sparks Entry”
07 Tony Lionni “Woman”
08 Sam Matters “Your Mind”
09 Detroit Swindle “Race Against The Machine”
10 Manuel Tur “Computer Chess”
11 Soul of Hex “Jynmu”
12 Lancelot “Tarantism”
13 Milton Jackson “Song Without Words”
14 Kito Jempere featuring Noteless “Finland Express”
15 Pittsburgh Track Authority “Oculus Sinister”
16 Kuniyuki “A Night in SA”
17 Jimpster featuring Laura Barrick “Ceilings”
18 Brian Ring “Love taken Over”
19 Clavis “Cydalise”
20 Shur-i-kan “Beach Life”