Mark Bell, a seminal figure in the birth of British electronic dance music and beat culture, frequent collaborator with Icelandic innovator Björk and producer of Depeche Mode’s “Exciter” album, has died, according to Bell’s longtime label, Warp Records.
In a statement, the label wrote: “It’s with great sadness that we announce the untimely passing of Mark Bell of LFO who died last week from complications after an operation.”
As the co-founder of LFO with his equally inventive production partner Gez Varley, Bell’s gorgeous synthetic explorations helped put a sound to the exuberance of the so-called British Summer of Love of the late-1980s, when England spliced Chicago house and Detroit techno with English synth-pop and rock to create a unique varietal that came to define rave culture. (LFO, short for “Low-Frequency Oscillator,” is not to be confused with the British boy band of the same name.)
LFO’s landmark 1991 record, “Frequencies,” which opens with the international dance track “LFO,” is important for another reason. After the influential hip-hop label Tommy Boy blew up in the late 1980s, it started directing its energy not just at its rap acts such as De La Soul, Naughty by Nature and Digital Underground, but on English dance music.
The label signed LFO, which issued “Frequencies” at a time when American interest in the music was mostly untested. Historically speaking, this rap-EDM connection helped build a channel between two budding genres.
That album’s chill-out classic “Simon From Sydney” captured that blissful post-explosion feeling of 4 a.m. on the dance floor, after the ecstatic thrill hit its peak and a certain hum and buzz took over the brain. The beats moved out of the sound system and into the ears like plushie hammers, hitting not with testosterone but with synthetic empathy.
Echoes of Bell and Varley’s work helped codify tones and breakdowns still in use today. The minimalist drop in “Nurture” is a precursor to an archetypal maneuver you heard on Top 40 radio (but without the tons of bass and Skrillex-style distortion).
After Bell and Varley split in the mid-'90s, Bell became a key in-studio muse for Björk, working with her in some capacity on the production of all of her records starting with 1997’s “Homogenic." That includes the wondrous, era-defining track “Alarm Call.”
According to the Björk biography “Wow and Flutter” by Mark Pytlik, Björk held Bell’s work in high regard. “If I were to say who has influenced me most it would be Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Mark Bell.” The two most recently colloborated on her 2011 album “Biophilia,” specifically the song “Dark Matter."
Warp Records is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, one that was expected to honor LFO on the 25th anniversary of “Frequencies.” No word yet on how Bell will be feted, but in the interim, celebrate “Frequencies” by giving it a spin. The record is available on all the major streaming services.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit