Riz Maslen is possibly electronic dance music's most accomplished female artist. Neotropic and Small Fish With Spine are just a few of her aliases. She writes beautiful and uncomfortable music that bares her emotional soul to the world in the form of distorted beats and waves of moody digital ambiance. She released not one but two full albums in 1998 each showing different stylistic methods. What drives this woman to unleash her melancholy and catharsis in such an exposed forum as live performance and recordings? Tomas Palermo bends an ear to hear the truth in Maslen's tempest, the diagram to her dirge. Listen close now.

When Riz Maslen performs live it's impossible not to be transfixed on the image of her clandestine figure huddled among banks of keyboards, samplers and sound gear.

A floppy fisherman's hat obscures all but two long twisted braids that fold down like retracted antennae attached to her alien/b-girl frame. While her music is best described as sharp-edged, raw, urban and cinematic, Riz herself is one of the most down-to-earth and articulate people you'll meet. She's often clothed in baggy cargos, an oversized shirt or hoody, a pair of stealth trainers bought at slam on her feet. In the early '90s Maslen taught herself how to use a recording studio and put out her first track ("Bubble Dub" on the compilation 'Bastard Tracks') as Neotropic in 1994. From there she issued a cadre of singles and remixes culminating with an Album, '15 Levels of Magnification', September of 1996.

In watching Riz Maslen perform in San Francisco and later in New York, exchanging a few e-mails and a phone conversation, the nuance and passion of her work began to take shape. She is the blending of both disparate and integrated artistic media. Film and music collide head-on. Weather what she does shocks and annoys you or feeds your head with bliss the images she paints are remembered for a long, long while.

The title of Riz's new (and second) album, on Ninjatune's N-Tone division, as Neotropic, is an odd mouthful: 'Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock'. Many young ravers might not have heard of the late 60's acid rock group who's name Maslen borrows for part of the title, but rest assured, they played their own small part in the counter-culture's evolution towards the electronic era. Indeed, psychedelic music and the drug exploration that followed it opened new avenues for artists and those who struggled against America's puritanism and restrictions in the 1960's and 70's. Without hippies going to jail we might not have unlocked the acid house. What a thought that is!

"Mr. Brubaker" Maslen nicked from a movie bearing the title. The collation of film and music accurately suits what one sees at a Neotropic performance; the dissonant yet friendly convergence of video images run against the expressive dynamics of Maslen's music. A jarring combination it is. Riz says of this mix, "For me the visuals play a big part in the live show in that it elevates the pressure off me on the performance side of things, but also I want the listener to envelope themselves in the music and the visuals offer a way of escapism, the music is basically the soundtrack to a kind of urban reality, in both theirs and my life. I hope this makes sense."

Perfect sense. As Riz contorts her music on stage the listener is drawn like a moth not only to the mad flickers of images projected behind her but into the drone of her queen bee's hive. Occasionally Ninjatune's renowned Hexstatic video team are on hand to provide their interwoven sights for Neotropic, more often she employs her own visuals rig utilizing it wherever she tours. This a clear example of Maslen's adamant do-it-herself methodology.

Riz knows all too well that following one's own path, making challenging music, going against the grain and opposing accepted formats has it's drawbacks. I asked if it was difficult earning a living as an electronic musician, even working as hard as she does, "Yes definitely, I never have enough money, (I'm) always living on the edge wondering where the next bit of cash is coming from. But then it isn't all that bad as we suffer for our art and that can only be good, for a time anyway... the challenges are getting through each day and believing in what you are trying to achieve."

Another obstacle Maslen faces is common to women in other professions: she's one of the few female producers in a male-dominated genre. But Riz says she hasn't experienced the downsides that often, including when she's on tour with her male Ninjatune label mates or with the guys who attend her shows. Rather, she adds, she usually gets loads of positive comments and compliments. She admits there was one creepy experience with a fan at her show in Boston, a strange guy who kept following her around after her set was over, it seems not everyone in the electronic underground community is as enlightened as we like.

Generally her tours to the US have been gratifying. Riz spoke of with enthusiasm on her experiences in Atlanta'a underground scene and (of course) New York City, a natural choice for an artist who has a rabid love of Hip-Hop (lately she's been into the stuff on the Fondle Em' and Rawkus labels). Her appreciation of Hip-Hop is heard in both her music personae. To that end "Under Violent Objects" on her latest Neotropic album takes a decidedly Brooklyn-inspired approach to its beats with a hard, MOP/Boot Camp Click style of effects on the drums and horror film strings melting into the grooves. It's a tense song that has sound effects blaring like car alarms; easy listening music is not this artist's bag.

The dark elements of 'Mr. BrubakersÉ' alternate with ripples of sweetness. But light is scarce throughout many of the album's heavier tracks. I asked Riz if this appraisal was accurate. "I guess dark is a good description," she replied, "there is a little light heartedness thrown in for good measure, but at the time of writing the album I had a lot of personal shit going down in my life and this was, I guess, a form of therapy for me, vent all of my frustrations and emotions through the music, and also a good way of exorcising all those demons." Two singers, Paul Jason Fredericks and Nina berry, who worked on 'Mr. Brubaker's' compliment well the album's divergences into torch-song inspired balladry. When asked if, after years of making experimental tracks if Riz had any desire to roll out something more club-friendly, like say a dancefloor drum 'n' single, she answered, "If I were to a more straight-forward track it would probably be a Hip-Hop tune with a proper MC, but it would still have to be experimental."

Riz's tastes in music and films are broad, they act as subtle clues to the evolution of her sound. I inquired if electronic pioneers like Morton Subotnic were any influence. "Yes," she affirmed and added early 4AD recordings as music that had made an impression in her youth. The Nick Drake box set is a choice older recording that Maslen reveres. 'Baraka' and 'Bladerunner' are movies she cherishes. A composite of all her tastes filter into the sights and sounds of Riz's albums and performances; the dark motifs and drama of 4AD's 'This Mortal Coil', for instance, juxtaposed with the soothing melancholy of Nick Drake's voice are evident on tracks like "Beached" and "Saucer Song" from 'Mr. Brubaker's'. The quick, jagged clips that flash during Neotropic's live sets do recall the future-realism that both 'Baraka' and 'Bladerunner' explore.

No question this woman is masterful when she performs her music live but Riz is also known for her skills Djing, usually in more low key, lounge settings, small bars and the like. Her Dj sets layer divergent elements, a cello over a breakbeat, songs weaving in and out rather than strict beat matching which, she adds, "so many other people can do so much better." When it comes to digging for new musical treasures Maslen prefers recycling and mentions a few spots she rummages through in London, "The Record and Tape Exchange, it's a second hand store and you can take all your unwanted wax and exchange for tokens or cash, the only other store I usually enjoy shopping is probably Rough trade in Neal Street, they seem to stock everything worth checking out."

With her scope of understanding in music and a desire to do things her way it would seem natural to start her own record label. She offered, "I have thought about the idea, but I know how much work is involved, but I do help Andy at Oxygen (Music Works) from time to time sort of scouting for new acts of which I have brought him a couple of people, like Melting Pot and Paul Jason Fredericks." 'Ultimate Sushi", her album for OMW, is six vignettes of breakbeat trickery that change tempos, are infused with eerie sonic landscapes and play out like a cop-thriller movie soundtrack from the 22nd century. As 'Small Fish With Spine', Riz's attendance to beat structure is as obvious and the thematic moods of her Neotropic pieces. Between the two different projects Maslen is able to traverse more musical territory and place songs in the areas they suit best.

Geography is no impediment to Maslen. She's born to travel and explore, it's apparent in her voice both physical and musical. The same adventurousness one hears on Riz's albums is equaled in her quests to conquer frontiers and barriers of all types. Summer 1998 found her in Barcelona, Spain performing at the prestigious SONAR event. The festival gathers the most challenging and experimental new artists from around the globe in a three-day round-the-clock series of audio and visual mayhem. "I was on a panel of women composers and producers," Riz explains, "but my set started in the late afternoon and I didn't have my video set up, it was strange to be performing at that hour." A better experience was had at this year's Monteaux Jazz Festival which featured a Ninjatune showcase. "I felt like they really embraced the avant-garde stuff there plus I had my full video set up which included super-8 film transferred to high-8, it was real multi-media approach."

Riz operates with a fierce work ethic, rarely going out to clubs or bars, preferring to stay in her home studio, a bastion for her ideas and a channel for her emotions. You would expect someone who finished two albums and toured all summer to want to take a bit of a break. Instead Riz has her next moves already planned out, "At present I am working on Paul Jason Fredrick's album, helping him produce his stuff and also doing lots of promotion, tours of Europe and the UK, and three gigs in Australia, unfortunately no US tour this time but hopefully next year if I'm lucky!"

Through all the hustle Riz Maslen remains that kind of soul in the loose fitting clothes. As dark as her music gets she's never too immersed to keep sight of the simple things to have in one's life. When asked what her wish for the immediate future was, she replied in her usual genial but serious tome, "To be happy, and hope to be able to keep working with what ever is in store for me, to be able to deal with it, with my feet firmly on terra firma." Advancing towards her own uncharted worlds of future music and film, Riz Maslen is the force of balance with an explosive sound.

Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm clock by Neotropic (reviewed in XLR8R 33) is available of N-Tone/Ninjatune, Ultimate Sushi by Small Fish With Spine is out now on Oxygen Music Works.


Mush Records