There will be people who say you don’t mix this with that and you will say “watch me”.
– The unknown writer, Underground Resistance – Transitions
Although that Underground Resistance track didn’t come out until Symptom Records had made its first release, that line of lyric on their classic summed up our ideology pretty fucking well. Frustration, boredom and weed were the main reasons we ended up doing the whole thing. We probably didn’t even think of it as music as much as experimentation on sounds, trying to create the ultimate mind fuck without giving a second thought on if anyone would ever play it on a dance floor. Symptom Records made it’s first vinyl release in 2002. We didn’t hope to change the world, we just hoped that we would seriously piss people off.
Detroit techno really hit us in the mid-90s. We practically lived on UR, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Green Velvet, Drexciya, Claude Young, Relief Records, M-Plant, you know, the groundbreaking stuff. I can remember a period of time we bought records without listening to them if the label’s fax number had the area code 313 in it. That’s pathetic of course, but that’s how you throw yourself into something you really love. Although it’s a bullshit cliché, for us there really was soul in these plastic records. There was a vibrant warehouse scene going on, and the small enthusiastic crowd who really seemed to “get it”, meeting weekend after weekend to dance through the night or until the police came in. For a moment it probably defined us and our lives. We took in the wonderous, futuristic music and lived for the next warehouse all nighter, listening to radio shows and mixtapes in between. Anyone who was there can witness that there was a mystical sense of unity present in these parties. We are far from tree hugging hippies, but even we have to admit that living through that era was close to a spiritual experience.
So when the music started to change towards the year 2000 and in came the monotonic, distorted and aggressive looping stuff that claimed the name “techno”, you can perhaps imagine how angry it made us. These mindlessly banging, overcompressed drum loops pressed on vinyl insulted our very way of life and threathened to overrun it. Pretty soon the warehouse scene and the few Helsinki techno clubs jumped on the bandwagon and everything changed.
“I remember flashes of picture like memories of shit that happened ages ago, like: Zinzano house dance floor and lasers, dodgy entrance ways to a dodgy warehouse, popping pills, parties at homes, cops coming in to pull a plug on a rave while we’re all on drugs. That is a buzzkill, unless you are on acid. Nothing can save you then.
Also music. Just talking about tracks that were made by these weird black dudes from good income families in America. House was made by gay guys from Chigaco, and Techno from Detroit. Then there was Trance, but that was shit and idiotic, too obvious.”
This was the spark that made us found Symptom Records. First it got us to stay home on weekend nights, because we didn’t care to go out and listen to the distorted, unimaginative TR-909 drum loops kicking at 140 beats per minute. I have a hazy memory of it starting as frustrated talks about the bullshit direction techno was taking until we dropped from smoking too much weed. It went on to become an experimentation with synths and started to form a philosophy of its own, always underlining the fact that we couldn’t do anything others were doing. In the then current trend where DJs and producers were trying to make themselves superstars above the music, Symptom Records formed into a concept of anonymity and minimal release of information. Originally the vinyls were released as “Untitled” without any artist name, but as record shops and distributors needed to list them they started to call the releases after the catalogue numbers, SYM-001 and SYM-002. Probably the only reason the tracks even had names in the first place was that the vinyl plant needed to have some working names to organise their files, so we came up with calling them A1, B1 and B2 after the track order. It was all a big fuck you aimed at the scene that was forsaking its original principles and was now glorifying name DJs and producers, caring less and less about the music itself. DJs were consuming music so fast, wanting to play only the latest and hardest releases, the kind of records that were easy choices when you wanted to move a crowd. It had become a vicious circle where the producers who released the most tracks were getting played the most by DJs. When you walked into a record shop to check the new vinyls crate it seemed that every month you had to go through more and more crappy, boring DJ tools to find even one decent track. Techno had reached a saturation point with hundreds of new vinyls released per week.
I cannot quite remember the reason, but we decided to call our releases “experimental dance”. Probably because it was experimental compared to the status quo – although shouldn’t techno always be experimental by the very definition? And it was dance music – although you had to be pretty fucked to dance to it. There was something special about the best of those legendary Detroit/Chicago and Berlin vinyl releases we all loved, something more to them than just the music. As Symptom, we set out to research that unknown something. When you watch a Basic Channel vinyl spinning on the turntable and listen to the sound it produces, there’s something very hypnotic about it. You can see the patterns on the surface of the vinyl and as the needle hits the patterns, transforming them into weird sound, you can start thinking if this is a product specifically designed to cause the turntable to make beautiful out of this world noise or is it just a recorded song pressed on vinyl. It can fuck your mind up. Listening to Basic Channel on CD or from a computer just doesn’t feel the same, although their releases are brilliant no matter which format they are in. Jeff Mills and other innovators had a lot of lock grooves pressed on vinyl, these endless loops running at 133.3 BPM. The best of these loops could be listened to for minutes without even noticing it’s just a one bar loop – the length of 4 kick drum hits. We wanted to get on that level and have a vinyl pressed some day that would have some of this magical feeling into it in addition to good music. We never got that far since we only got two vinyls released due to things that would soon happen.
“It felt like music was moving forward. Right until that Swedish shit started pouring through the amplification. Schranz was the needle in the coffin. It was the time for a musical recession. To protest we made tunes that were different, and labeled it Experimental Dance. That means rhythmic stuff that suprises you. Our aim was to fuck your head in while you danced.”
We signed a distribution deal from early on with Integrale Muzique, one of UK’s biggest vinyl distribution companies that specialized in electronic music, so there were people pushing our music. Even they had serious problems trying to categorize our music. Here’s a snippet from an old promo sheet by Integrale Muzique:
ANOTHER EPISODE FROM THE ANONYMOUS SYMPTOM LABEL AND AGAIN THEY GRACE US WITH TOP ANALOGUE WORKOUTS THAT ARE GENUINELY BLOODY INTERESTING. SHARP SYNTHS AND SOME SEVERE CV ACTION THAT HITS LIKE AN ACIDIC CASE OF DEEP TECH. THEY BUILD AND GROW IN A MENACING FORM THAT KEEPS THE NARRATIVE AND COMPLIMENTS THE MIX. ANALOG FANS ARE IN FOR A TREAT AND LOVERS OF A SIMILAIR SOUND TO HYBRIDISED CHICAGO HOUSE WILL BE IN FOR A TREAT.
By the time we had SYM-003 and Virus EP (SYM-004) ready to be released, Integrale Muzique UK went down all of a sudden without much warning. Techno had serious problems and the impossibility of the whole situation was forcing it to take a reality check: hundreds of releases per week in a marginal music scene pressed on vinyl which mostly only DJs bought. The bubble burst and a lot of large techno vinyl distributors and a huge amount of small record labels ceased to exist, with Integrale and a few others officially declaring bankruptcy. We lost our earnings with the bankruptcy since we didn’t ever manage to get any money from the distributor, and a lot of our re-pressed stock was “lost” – only to be found during the next year or so from record shops around the world. I guess someone was earning money, but it sure as hell wasn’t us.
We were trying to find a new distributor but the reality was that we were out of money and stock, and the whole scene was going through a minor crisis. The existing labels and distributors concentrated on what was easiest to sell – the very kind of music we were trying our best to fight. If we felt earlier that techno had gone on a route of boring mediocrity, after the distributor crisis in 2004 it really became depressing musically. Shit, to be honest. Without distribution, there wasn’t much point in releasing new vinyls for a while so we decided to go live and get Symptom on stage. There was of course the problem of anonymity which would unavoidably be ruined as soon as someone stepped on the limelight. We solved this problem by hiring a couple of local idiots to pretend they were Symptom. We had them rehearse the live gigs so they knew the tracks and could play along, tweaking knobs and pushing buttons although everything was a big playback hoax. We continued doing this for years since it was easy money, we were anyhow producing new music and it was a good laugh. Some of us always were there for the gigs, pretending to be the roadies or whatever hangarounds.
With the live element the Symptom concept got clearer for us but also moved away from its original point soundwise. The philosophy didn’t change however. Now we had the possibility of direct interaction with the audience and could really start experimenting. The idea was simple. It had to shock the people, who were comfortably used to the easy party tracks that were being played everywhere at that point. We did fine, always clearing half of the dance floor after only a couple of minutes to the live shows, and got those people who stayed to usually jump wildly. We got them to dance to the relatively complex sounds, all mixed with mutilated Kylie and Eminem samples, or other things that people usually really didn’t want to hear on the dance floor of an underground party. During the first live performance someone from the audience threw something on the stage, trying to hit one of the fake Symptom guys. That was a pretty heavy reaction, something we were hoping to accomplish all along.
In 2007, we announced the last Symptom live performance to get a sense of completion for the whole charade.
When we fell in love with techno we always had to defend it from outsiders saying that every track sounds the same. We were fanatic and went on full defense ranting about guitars having been used on songs for hundreds of years, which was boring and sounded all the same to us. Now techno has become this huge neverending kick drum loop with some reverb sprinkled on it, without any real distinction between most of the tracks. There’s seldom any real experimentation, just a lot of copying and doing the same thing all over again. It let us down. It insults us and underestimates the people who listen to it. So why is there still a large following keeping big clubs alive? I can offer you one answer to the question: ecstasy makes you dance even to the sound of coins accidentally dropped on the floor, because your hands are sweating so much your pennies just slip through them when you try to pay the club’s entrance fee (believe me, it really does). It might be fun, but the feeling and purpose seems to be missing.
Symptom Records lived only for a couple of active years, from 2002 to 2007. After seven years we decided to put all the Symptom productions online for free – released and previously unreleased. Why, you may ask?
Because we can.
“We were a symptom of an experiment gone wrong. The next step in the musical evolution had landed on a dog shit. We were a reaction to that. Symptom Records. Music owes me Money, but fuck it. I owe music for being the catalyst of my life.”
Take a listen, although time hasn’t changed the fact that we don’t actually care what people think. For us this is a project of trying to document and figure out what we actually did, because our own memories of making these records is a bit hazy to put it mildly.