Great Electronic Albums: Strange Cargo Hinterland

Shoreditch doesn’t exactly bring to mind transcendental synth-drenched sonic landscapes.

Yet the working-class district in London’s east end which is its geographic namesake is where electronic music composer and producer William Orbit (née Wainwright) was born in 1956 and grew up after the area’s decimation during the Blitz in WWII.

Perhaps Wainwright’s moody electronic songwriting work tends to the ethereal and beat-driven since his formative years were spent in an rough-and-tumble area hard hit by the collapse of local industry. Known for impoverished, crime-riddled conditions in the ’60s and ’70s, Shoreditch didn’t seem to hold a lasting attraction for Wainwright who abandoned his formal education at the age of 16 and struck out on his own.

The next few years saw him getting by on odd jobs until a switch was thrown that triggered a creative reaction to music. This occurred when he was exposed to the production process while a roommate was opening a recording studio.

The rest is history. Wainwright parlayed his talents into a recording contract with IRS Records and went on to collaborate, write and produce work for the likes of Queen, Kraftwerk, Beth Orton, U2, Prince and Madonna to name but a few. Wainwright’s efforts sold more than 200 million recordings globally, which has secured him a page in the annals of downtempo, ambient, electronic and dance music along with a number of Grammy Awards.

While perhaps not as well known for genre-defining works as Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow, or Brian Eno, Wainwright nonetheless is a musical craftsman of the highest order and his production skills in the studio are obvious in the listening.

It is his 1995 work Strange Cargo Hinterland – which is the fourth in a series starting in 1987 with Strange Cargo, followed by Strange Cargo II (1990) and Strange Cargo III (1993) – that we find ourselves settling in around today thanks to the Qobuz 16-bit/44kHz FLAC version.

The hour-long LP spans 12 tracks and is not only a truly inspiring listen, but one that is superbly recorded, engineered and mastered. It was only released on CD in the United States, the 2xLP reserved for UK audiences with a rare German test pressing selling one time according to Discogs. I first heard it on a mix tape my father’s brother had sent him not long after its initial release.

“Million Town” opens Hinterland with a synth wash, a litany of vocal and electronic instrument samples and subtle guitar riffs well back in the mix before the drum machine kicks in (reminiscent of the Bernard Purdie intro on the Melvin Bliss’ B-Side “Synthetic Substitution”) and a haunting downtempo, minor key piano melody is laid down over top of it all. Then the big bass beats come in and Orbit gets heavy on the backing organ notes underpinning the hypnotic current that this cut winds downriver to.

Keeping the pedal down and kicking hard into the bass drum, “She Cries Your Name” comes next which pours on the sexy guitar with languid and multi-tracked vocals over one of the cleanest and weighty-est rolling bottom ends in high fidelity – sure to be in heavy rotation at an audio trade show near you soon. This cut punches a wide swath in the 3D-axis of sound stage with the recorded event forming not only a Deep-V down the middle between the speakers like old school mono, but spreading out well beyond the transducer boundaries to the left and right and crowding the 12-foot peaked ceiling of my living room.

With his head on straight and determined to keep the beat moving forward, Wainwright drops the bass and kicks up the BPM with “Montok Point” which keeps the juicy, rubberband of 808-influenced deep-house percussion plumbing the depths with more meat on the bone than I’ve heard underpinning an electronic track since 1989’s “French Kiss’ by Lil’ Louis. Not only is this an ambient, electronic album – it is most certainly a dance one too.

While not every track demands your attention and gets it like the first three – several are true ambient and seem to allow breathing room between the other more focused cuts further down the song list, which allows for a more balanced and cohesive full-album experience – the ones that Wainwright poured it on for stand out during playback and I found myself queueing the album up for back-to-back in listening sessions because nuances and details in the structure of the songs kept both surprising me and pulling me deeper into the realization of superb timbral accuracy of strings and guitar. Tonal weight and color in various keyboard and piano sections relayed not only spatial consistency, air and decay around the highest notes but solidity to the foundation of the sonic image, real gravitas to the explorative notes amongst the lowest octaves.

A work that is best taken in with an entire listen, much like a concept album, Hinterland strikes a unique balance between production masterpiece and dance-floor heavyweight, while never forgetting that the music is always first. An album that those who consider themselves audiophiles might have overlooked because of Wainwright's dance-music pedigree, perhaps not taking into account anything by him for an ability to push high fidelity systems to their limit or being capable of earning critical-listening playback chops. Regardless, it is an LP that 24 years on still holds up to modern electronica, yet also perfectly captures a slice of time in the genre’s development during the mid ‘90s.