THEY SAID IT COULDN'T BE DONE. When an artist is dissed as harshly as Moby has been, it's fair to assume you won't be hearing from them again. Of all the phoenix-from-the-ashes stories, Richard Melville Hall (his God-given name) is the least likely of protagonists. But he's back, baby. He's really back. Milling about the nightclub, yakking on their cell phones, and chatting over lattes, the tastemakers have issued the official word: It's cool to like Moby again.

For years, Moby -- who takes his moniker from great-great-granduncle Herman Melville's crappy book -- has been the laughing stock of the techno community. The rave-till-dawn set just didn't take kindly to his fiercely anti-drug, holier-than-thou-Christian-vegan stance. Sure, throw one of his early '90s rave anthems (such as "Go" or "I Feel It") on the decks, and they'll gleefully throw their hands in the air. Get 'em talkin', though, and there's just no love for Moby from the techno elite. Until now.

That's right, you read correctly: It's cool to like Moby again. When asked for their opinion on the latest Moby full-length, Play, many a techno hipster seems a bit surprised at their own response: "It's actually good." It's as if they're making some kind of shameful confession, the expression on their face somewhere between shock and embarrassment.

Who can blame them? After Moby's last release, 1997's dismal detour into rock, Animal Rights, these same bullies were sure Moby's fate was sealed, once and for all. Released at the peak of the industry's fervor over all things techno, the album set itself up for certain failure. Leave it to Moby to go the rock route when the rest of the world is in a tizzy over electronic music. The album, of course, was subsequently banished to the bottom of the charts, and promptly forgotten.

Nowadays, you can't thumb through a music rag without running into critics falling over themselves to praise Play. By pairing early 20th-century black gospel with his signature epic techno, Moby somehow struck the mother lode. It may seem an unlikely mix, but the disparate sounds form a symbiosis unlike that heard in any previous techno pastiche. Bluesy vocals provide the soul needed to counteract the chilly machine-produced sounds; techno beats deliver just enough edge to keep things interesting.

Many are calling Moby's most recent release "a departure." A departure from what? Isn't being a walking contradiction what Moby has always been about? Never one to follow the flock, he has always eschewed the trendy sound-of-the moment in favor of his true artistic inclinations. When the world was ready to crown him Electronica King at the dawn of the techno revolution, he uttered, "I'll pass," and ran headlong into punk rock. Now, when the rest of the world is reinventing their sound to keep up with the drum 'n' bass trend, Moby's running back to his first love -- techno anthems composed of grandiose symphonic flourishes. The Mississippi Delta blues do take center stage on Play, but if you listen closely, you'll hear that familiar, distinctly Moby sound that made him a household name in the first place. Who knew that techno's schtickiest guy would turn out to have the most integrity?

In some strange way, Moby is also the closest thing there is to an electronic-music Renaissance man. In a genre where narrow-mindedness is seen as an asset rather than a liability, Moby throws off the blinders to look beyond the here and now. He hasn't been afraid to try his hand at anything that strikes his fancy. Plus, you can't deny that it took balls for a white guy to dig through old gospel and pair it with his own ultra-modern sound. Moby isn't afraid to take risks. Sometimes it doesn't work, but luckily for him, this time it did.

That said, Moby also isn't afraid to do whatever it takes to produce a hit. In the case of Play, that hit is "Bodyrock." Carried by a Spoony G sample and a big beat song structure (à la Fatboy Slim), the song is currently enjoying ample airplay. Many of his peers are undoubtedly dismissing the song as a blatant sell-out. Screw 'em. It's also the song that probably got him the gig headlining the "Electronic Pavilion" at EndFest, 107.7 the End's annual roundup of whoever happens to be spinning on the station. Though you'll have to wade through thousands of pimply pubescents, it'll be worth your while to catch him here. You never know: Moby might not survive the fallout of whatever impulse sweeps him off his feet next. MUSICLIVEPREVIEW

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