Parallel Action’s newest eponymous album is almost 100% throwback. Everything about it smacks of late 1990s backrooms and bedrooms: slowly rolling break beats, jazz samples, moody cinema soundtrack strings, smoky atmospherics, torch songs, rap voices that are closer to slam poetry than to trap or grime... and when did you last hear a solo scratch DJ on a track? Indeed, Jude Greenaway, the man behind the Parallel Action project, is more than happy to actively call it “trip hop”, a phrase which hasn’t been that much in circulation for a very, very long time.
Greenaway is best known as producer ScanOne – rooted in the rave era, he’s absorbed the influences of subsequent developments like dubstep and grime into his productions, and over more than 20 years his productions and his Yellow Machines label have consistently built a dark aesthetic for sweaty rooms and pirate radio waves. There’s often been a retro element to these too, mind: witness the recent Yellow Machines compilation EP, BLE-EP, which harks back to a very specific period of between 1989 and 1990, when Britain was forming its own techno vision, adding soundsystem bass to US and European templates. While most of his music has been one man and a computer, though, this project is defined by collaboration. Parallel Action is an entity in the mode of Gorillaz, or perhaps trip hop forefathers Massive Attack – a legion of guests each defining a particular track, but a central vision holding it together.
It lays out its stall convincingly in the first three tracks. “Waiting on You” sets up a film noir atmosphere with Slovak singer B’licious taking on the femme fatale role. “Rawk” puts old school hip-hop credentials on display with DJs Kodac Vizualz and Lone Wolf from Sacramento and Sunderland respectively demonstrating just how musical scratching can still sound. “Colours & Chords” sets up a lush and lyrical backing for the spoken word writer Roger Huddle to proclaim his love of jazz in ultra-visual terms. His words merge whimsy and profundity, his voice resonating with the Thames Estuary poetics from the likes of Vivian Stanshall and Robert Wyatt through Billy Childish, Andrew Weatherall and Karl Hyde.
As all that suggests, there is depth to this record. It’s much more than a mere set of cultural signifiers, using the trip hop milieu to tell stories and paint pictures. Two deep threads that run through it that were vital parts of the original trip hop era but manage to still sound current: old school UK hip-hop and movie soundtracks. The voices of Charlie Boy Manson (classic small town struggle rhymes), Michael O’Neill (punky, anti-establishment tirades) and WondRWomN (poetic musings on routine and escape) are a million miles from today’s slick and aspirational UK drill / rap wordplay, but like Greenaway’s beat production, they’re deeply rooted in an earthy, dogged Brit-rap scene that has roots going back decades which still exists as a parallel world to its more modernist cousins.
The soundtrack influences are obvious especially when the strings are laid on thick, as in the collaboration with cellist/composer Laura Reid on the penultimate track “Always Future”. Greenaway, after all, is a filmmaker and video artist (often paired with his brother as Greenaway & Greenaway). Here, we get to the crux of why this is not just a museum piece, as the movie influences on original trip hop era acts like Portishead were vital. In turn, trip hop went on to influence Hollywood, as embodied by the ubiquity of Rob Douggan’s 1995 track “Clubbed to Death” in movies from The Matrix on down, setting the cues for decades to come.
Parallel Action really does play like a movie too. It may consciously look back for its sound palettes, but only because film directors use period settings for their dramas too. This is one to play late in the evening, and to give yourself over to.
Cover Image: Parallel Action
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs