Despite all my pronouncements of its cul-de-sac status, jungle is still the music I go out and dance to the most. Partly because there's no UK garage nights in Melbourne that I know of. Partly because there's a great jungle night at The Lounge on Thursdays, which is my big socialising night. Mainly though, it's because jungle is still such fun to dance to.
Despite being into it for about two years, I've only started hearing jungle in a dancefloor context in the last six months (age concerns, see). It's pretty much changed my perception of the music. Where originally I gravitated towards jungle suited to home listening (complex breaks, well produced, evolving tune), the dancefloor makes all the single-bar stormers which sound amusical and mindless at home seem brilliant.
This means I've been exposed to the harder end of jungle much more than I would have if I had relied solely on purchases, and while generally familiarity breeds contempt, here it seems to have promoted tolerance and, eventually, fondness. Mind-numbingly simple, stiff 2-step breaks and nasty acid basslines repeated ad infinitum? Bring it on, I say! Well, not really. Obviously as with all genres there's a high chaff/wheat ratio here, but where previously I pretty much disliked the entire modus operandi of post-techstep jungle, now I'm almost completely won over.
What struck me once as pointlessly unpleasant sounds I now realise works fantastically on the dancefloor, as if you're being moulded by the agressiveness of the music. Where before the breaks seemed depressingly repetitive, I now get off on the incredibly minute shifts in break patterns. Actually, saying "techstep" is a bit of misnomer, as the scene's being edging away from the techstep sound (metallic drones, mechanical beats, factory noises etc.) for about two years now.
The new term for the hard jungle sound is most commonly "hard rave", and a casual listen (and especially dance) will demonstrate the reasoning behind the name. There's currently a big retro vibe to a lot of the latest tracks - amen rinse-outs, ragga chanting, rave stabs, mentasms, even the occasional 4/4 kickdrum (in jungle!). The "hard" in the name refers to the fact that all of these retro/rave elements are filtered through the punishment aesthetic of all harder jungle sounds post-techstep, making this rave music that is closer to "dystopian drug-noise" than the original style ever was.
Dystopian may be the wrong word though, as while this is desperately hard, heavy music, it doesn't have the morbid moroseness of techstep or the anal-retentive misanthropy of neurofunk. It's almost happy music. You can sense that in the crowd when the DJ drops a really heavy track, 'cos the crowd beams and cheers, dancing against the noise with smiles on their faces as if they were participating in some body surfing competition with the music as the wave. Tracks by last year's scene heroes Bad Company are the hardest jungle tracks you'll ever hear, but they don't have the gloomy edge of Ed Rush and Optical, who ruled supreme in '98.
Now that jungle's audience has shrunk substantially, its audience isn't made up of those who explicitly like darkness so much as those who couldn't possibly imagine dancing to anything but jungle. That's why all the old sounds are coming back - it's a celebration of continuity in a scene which has taken the concept of the "changing same" to its logical conclusion (the brink of creative rigor mortis). I'd hate to see the amen break become the staple of each jungle track again, simply because it has been done to death, but when a small snippet is slotted into the middle of a track it gives you a little rush by triggering an instant memory of every amen you've heard before in so many different contexts.
The other thing I notice about this "hard rave" sound is how groovy it is. This is pretty much because, since the scene has contracted, all the producers have decided to realign their vision with eachother. Thus half of liquid funk is as hard as hard rave, and half of hard rave is as funky as liquid funk. The DJs tend to just play them as if they were the same style, which is in my opinion a very good thing. The bass lines groove but also sear through you, and the breaks (when not amens) are hardhitting but with a slight sense of looselimbed jazzy improvisation.
I'm not sure whether any significant new directions are going to be spawned by the current sound, but perhaps, much like house, jungle no longer needs to be experimental to be vital. The fact that the scene is actively trying to reincorporate every aspect of its sound over the last eight years suggests that is comfortable with itself, and ready to be great dance music, plain and simple.
Best track? Gotta be Dom and Roland's still excellent anthem from last year "Can't Punish Me", which I've danced to more energetically and unselfconsciously than anything else ever. High pitched synths mimicking James Bond horn stabs, compulsive breaks, pumping bass, a mix cluttered with spectral effects, and those female vocals. This could almost be a hardcore track, only it's faster and harder, but it's also a bit of a pop song as well. Check it out.