I rediscovered the music of Phil Western with a real sense of joy (or whatever you want to call the feeling you get with music as sophisticated and sometimes somber as Phil’s solo works could be). But the future cEvin Key collaborator and partner in Download and PlatEAU first came to prominence with entirely different sort of project in the mid-1990s. Off and Gone, Phil Western’s collaboration with Dan Handrabur, released one record on Tranquility Bass‘ LA label Exist Dance, which is how I knew them, and a series of singles with the kind of genre-agnostic experimentation which was very common then and is frequently judged career suicide now. Off and Gone roamed the expansive sound of early American electronic music like few others: a single release might contain a 12 minute experimental jam on the A-side, Tresor-style techno on the B-side and a measured dose of psychedelica and percussive delirium spiking every groove on the record.
This catholicity carried over to their eclectic debut (and until last year, only) album, Everest, which was released on Harthouse in 1996 — a year before Harthouse went bankrupt and a new group took over the Sven Vath label’s trademarks and future direction. By the end of the year Handrabur and Western had gone their separate ways, ending Off and Gone and their other two projects, “Floatpoint” (whose Beam Error album is also quite worthy of a retrospective) and “Landhip.”
New Door Opening was released a few months before Phil Western’s death, and haunted his fans with its aesthetic, its fragile ambiance and its disturbingly prescient song titles, such as “Goodbye Love (The Last Waltz)” and “The Stages of Grief.”
“After that our lives took different turns,” Dan wrote in the liner notes of a previously unreleased Off and Gone album uncovered from the archives and released last year, “and we were each concerned with producing and releasing solo works.”
For Phil Western this previously unreleased Off and Gone album was unfortunately a posthumous release. The prolific Canadian musician died last year of what was said at the time and has since been repeated as a verdict in obituaries as a “suspected accidental drug overdose.”
Phil had gone on to create a staggeringly large discography, including collaborations on several from projects generated from the loose group around cEvin Key of Skinny Puppy, such as Download and PlatEAU. His Bandcamp page lists 46 records, most of them his solo works and many of them full length LPs and a chilling final release. New Door Opening was released three months before his death, and haunted Western’s fans with its aesthetic, ambiance and even its song titles. “Phil, you really meant it when you named this one,” one wrote on his Bandcamp page of the shimmeringly beautiful but exceptionally fragile “Goodbye Love (The Last Waltz)” and “The Stages of Grief.”
That’s all there would be of this story if there weren’t shockingly good music behind it. Time and again as I’ve gone through Phil Western’s discography (all of his Bandcamp releases including several of the ’90s releases are available for just $30), I’ve kicked the walls and tried to see if I was in fact just living in a bubble. The records from Off and Gone were on par with some of the better releases of the era — you could easily see these guys opening on the Chemical Brothers’ groundbreaking club tour or sharing a bill with Freaky Chakra at a quirky West Coast full moon rave.
“Sigma Receptor” was the duo’s only single on Harthouse; it grabbed three of the most dancefloor-friendly tracks from the Everest album with very little augmentation. The title track is a choice cut of ’90s techno, built around a hyperactive 303 loop and what sounds like a highly agitated Geiger counter jostling for supremacy in the mix. “Phosphenes,” a stretched out techno track is presented in a “live mix” and is the only divergence from the original album mixes.
Hitting this record is like hitting some choice sort of dope. There’s a disorientation and dissociative effect that frequently takes place here. Off and Gone tracks feel insanely longer than their run times. It’s partly because of complex arrangements and melodies that evolve slowly but dramatically, giving the impression of listening to an entire show in the span of a few minutes.
“Kopli” is the real saga on here and the crowning moment of Off and Gone’s brief career, clocking in at an epic-length 12 minutes of PA-ready dub percussion and dizzying effects.
It’s interesting to imagine where Off and Gone may have gone after this, though I suppose we hear some of it on Handrabur’s solo work on Map Music and Phil Western’s enormous back catalog. It’s never clear why some records become classics (or even just cult classics) and others in their immediate proximity, with similar merits and a comparable sound, sink into the obscurity of the $1.09 price tier on Discogs. But it happens and it happened here, on this fascinating artifact from the volcanic eruption of ’90s electronica.
Artist: Off And Gone
Title: Sigma Receptor
Release Date: 1996
A1. Off and Gone: Kopli (12:18)
B1. Off and Gone: Sigma Receptor (7:49)
B2. Off and Gone: Phosphenes (Live Mix) (8:15)