Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the midst of numerous bidding wars and publicity coups, the dichotomy between underground and mainstream in electronic music has never been more apparent. Indie labels are still small fish in a big pond, and the rule of the jungle -- whoever makes the biggest noise wins -- continues to hold true.

Laika, however, a longtime staple of England's trend-setting indie label Too Pure (who introduced us to P.J. Harvey and Stereolab, among others), appear more than content with their inconspicuous place in pop. While other bands obsess opportunistically with the here and now of music, Laika have always fixed their eye patiently on the future, bringing us the music of tomorrow today, often before we've even let yesterday sink in.

But sometimes it takes a couple of years to realize just how ahead of its time a band really is. Post-rock, trip-hop, drum 'n' bass -- Laika were all of these things and more when the term "electronica" was still in its catch-phrase infancy and those nebulous categories had yet to correspond with familiar faces. Released almost concurrently with Tricky's "Maxinquay," Laika's 1994 debut, "Silver Apples of the Moon," was no less groundbreaking, making similar and significant advances in the realm of electronic music and offering a taste of things to come.

As if their audio achievements weren't impressive enough, there's this to consider: Margaret Fiedler, one-half of Laika (she shares the workload with long-time collaborator Guy Fixsen, with whom she defected from the mighty Moonshake), remains one of the few women in techno's testosterone-driven boy's club. Never ones to exploit such obvious publicity ploys, Laika remained stoically within the mysterious, sheltered realm of the indies, proudly letting the music speak for itself. As the fates would have it, Laika's debut was released just before the massive industry hype machine set its scanners on techno, and the band's subsequent two-year hiatus further deferred the amount of attention their music warrants.

That won't change with "Sounds of the Satellites," another subtle masterpiece that smoothly refines the chaotic blast of creativity that formed Laika's first album. Drawing from a number of popular influences, from dub to jazzy exotica to Joy Division, Laika infuse their drum machines and samples with such organic vibrancy that each song sighs with the breath of new life. From the sensual urban squall of "Bedbugs," with its urgent, car-alarm hook, to the dream-like "Breather," Laika pull a number of rabbits from their hat, augmenting the programming with the occasional snap of former P.J. Harvey drummer Rob Ellis, Louise Elliot's gliding flute, and Lou Ciccotelli's increasingly integral percussion. Rarely do such complex, odd-time workouts seem so natural, so fluid.

It's this relaxed, expansive atmosphere that distinguishes Laika from their more amped-up contemporaries. In a musical world where the beat is all-important, Laika directs its energies toward the studio rather than the stadium, hypnotizing with their headphone grooves while other electronic artists fire flashy sonic pyrotechnics like it's Independence Day. From the loping sway of "Prairie Dog" to the spooky soundscapes of "Dirty Feet + Giggles," Laika capture both the elusive sound and vision of the next wave, easing pop music into the 21st century, fuss-free.

By Josh Klein

Josh Klein is a regular contributor to Salon.

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