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Solid Gold: how the beat science on Photek's 'Modus Operandi' redefined drum & bass

Rupert Parkes’ razor-sharp 1997 debut remains one of the crowning achievements of drum & bass. DJ Mag explores how this groundbreaking album used intricate programming, space, and influences from myriad genres to create its influential sound

For the last two decades, many drum & bass producers have been obsessed with being the loudest. But for a brief, glorious moment in the ’90s, the real trick in drum & bass was to be sharpest, with Photek’s production sorcery leading the field. ‘Modus Operandi’, Photek’s 1997 debut album, was perhaps the peak of this moment. A work of absurdly concentrated, razor-sharp beat science, both cerebral and body-shaking, its utter precision stretched the concept of what drum & bass — and electronic music as a whole — could be.

The roots of ‘Modus Operandi’ can be traced back to 1995, when Photek — aka British producer Rupert Parkes — released the two-track 12-inch ‘U.F.O.’/’Rings Around Saturn’. Parkes had been releasing music since 1993. Notable releases included ‘Dolphin Tune’ as Aquarius, on LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records in 1994. But it was on these tracks that he hit the jackpot. “I remember when I finished making those tracks, I really did think: These can’t be any better, these are perfect,” Parkes told FACT in 2012.

Parkes referred to the style of ‘U.F.O.’/’Rings Around Saturn’ as “really stuttering drum edits,” a description that rings true while underselling his craft. What Parkes hit on in 1995 — and continued through a run of classic 12-inches, including ‘The Hidden Camera’ and ‘Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu’ — was a style of programming that took drum & bass’ love for cut-up breakbeats and precision engineered it for maximum futuristic impact.

The drums on a track like the ‘Hidden Camera’ EP’s ‘KJZ’ (a cut that would later appear on ‘Modus Operandi’) are strident, subtle and unexpected. A homage to the art of the percussionist, their gleaming precision unobtainable for the human limb. Other producers — Squarepusher, or Venetian Snares — might mangle their drums into more extreme geometric shapes; other drum & bass giants, like Dilinja, might make their drums sound larger. But no one would come close to Parkes’ sound.

Talking to the Line Noise podcast in 2019 about his search for perfection, Parkes spoke of the endless hours spent in the studio. “There are definitely other producers who are more technically educated. But I was technically adventurous,” he said. “And I was very diligent and relentless in putting in the time in the studio and trying different things. Just trial and error. Relentlessly putting the time in.” 

An unlikely major label deal with Virgin would allow Parkes to concentrate his attention fully on ‘Modus Operandi’. “They basically wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, and they had the budget to back it,” he told FACT. “Thanks to that deal, I actually had the time to take a year and think about the album I wanted to make.”

What emerged was a conceptual work, in which Parkes laid out his vision for what drum & bass could be. Many drum & bass fans make the case for the pre-‘Modus Operandi’ 12-inches as representing peak Photek — but ‘Modus Operandi’ stands out for its theoretical and sonic consistency.

In this, ‘Modus Operandi’ resembles Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 2’. Photek had made ‘Modus Operandi’-style tracks before 1997, much in the same way that Richard D. James had experimented with ambient sounds before ‘SAW 2’. But bringing these tracks together over one monumental release served as a conceptual line in the sand for the two producers. Listeners were invited to take a deep dive into their mastery of atmospherics, with no time to come up for air.

As Photek explained the concept around ‘Modus Operandi’ to FACT in 2012: “Back then so many different people, in interviews or whatever, were asking me to define jungle,” he said. “The way I chose to define it to them was as a style of programming, a style of using sonics to make music, as opposed to using instruments to make music. This was music purely about soundscapes, space, bass.” 

Space may be the defining element of ‘Modus Operandi’. It’s a sparse record, with most songs consisting of just drums, synth and effects, with instrumentation limited to the odd double bass line or piano run. The almost total absence of the human voice enhances the album’s air of monastic intensity. 

Often in drum & bass, the impact of the drums is collective, sounds blending into each other in a vast percussive rush. But every single drum hit on ‘Modus Operandi’ counts — every strike, crash, and stutter falling exactly where it must — and that makes the album both hard to digest and inexhaustible in its appeal. One song is too much; one album is not quite enough. 

As the title of ‘KJZ’ suggests, jazz is an influence on ‘Modus Operandi’, although it comes in subtle shades and airs. ‘The Hidden Camera’, ‘Aleph 1’, ‘Modus Operandi’, and ‘KJZ’ all boast the kind of slinky double bass lines that bring to mind Charles Mingus’ effortless cool, while ‘The Hidden Camera’ also floats on gorgeous touches of jazzy electric piano. 

Detroit techno is another key touchstone: ‘Aleph 1’ has an acid synth riff and ethereal chords that could have come straight off a Carl Craig record, while ‘124’ sounds for all the world like a deconstructed club track some two decades before the genre was invented, thanks to its stuttering drum machine rhythm.

If not quite standard in drum & bass, the influences of jazz and techno were becoming widespread, thanks to the work of Roni Size and 4Hero, the latter a kindred spirit to Parkes. More unusually, Parkes brought the Asian influence witnessed on ‘Ni-Ten-Ichi-Ryu’ to play on ‘Modus Operandi’. ‘Minotaur’ features what sounds like a Japanese taiko drum, while ‘Smoke Rings’ is a cousin to ‘Ni-Ten-Ichi- Ryu’ with its razor sharp beats.

Unusual as the sonic palette of ‘Modus Operandi’ was, its tracks proved popular with the more adventurous drum & bass DJs of the time. And yet ‘Modus Operandi’ is not just a drum & bass album: ‘The Hidden Camera’ and ‘KJZ’ slink along languidly at hip-hop tempo, while the title track has a beat that nods to trip-hop in what feels like a deliberate act of obfuscation.

In opening up Photek’s generic range, ‘Modus Operandi’ set the template for the rest of Parkes’ varied career. His next studio album, 2000’s ‘Solaris’, explored deep house and techno, spawning an unlikely vocal house anthem in ‘Mine To Give’, and he eventually moved into soundtrack work, notably scoring ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and Daniel Gabriel’s documentary Mosul. 

Photek’s influence within underground electronic music, meanwhile, would be heard in the work of Burial, who sampled ‘Rings Around Saturn’ on ‘Nightbus’, and mentioned Photek in his interview with The Wire, as he explained his singular vision for music. “It’s not about things sounding the same, they’re just, I don’t know what the word would be, singular,” he said. “Like Photek used to be. The techniques hit you between the eyes because they are so fucking focused, obsessed by the same devices.”

Photek would come back to ‘Modus Operandi’ in 2012, playing a special ‘Modus Operandi’ set at a Hospital Records party at the behest of Hospital boss Tony Colman. Reflecting on what is doubtlessly his most iconic work in the FACT interview to mark the occasion, Parkes sounds justifiably proud with what he achieved.

“I remember being proud of the record when it came out because I felt I’d done something uncompromising,” he said. “I just feel like I did the best job all-round that I could’ve done. The best legacy to look back on. At the end of the day, I think I got out of it what I put in.” Sharp as a tack, as ever.

Want to read more Solid Gold? Read about how Deee-Lite's 'Groove is in the Heart' captured '90s New York club culture here

Ben Cardew is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here