Tuesday, July 25, 2000
What with the techno kick that I've been on recently, I decided to pull out my copy of Speedy J's Public Energy No. 1, which had been lying on my shelf for about a year and a half. When I first bought it I was aware of hardly any "serious" dance music, and was deep in my expansive guitar rock phase. Go figure, I was intrigued but ultimately a little scared, and consigned it to the shelf after three listens. I thought it was time for a reassessment.

Let it be known that Tom dislikes Speedy J, apparently (and correct me if I'm wrong here, Tom) because the guy tries too hard to be difficult and intelligent, in the process hamstringing any talent he might otherwise have for making enjoyable music. When I first read Tom's review/rant, I thought "Ah, so that's why I didn't get it." Now that I rather like the album, I'm forced to reassess my attitude towards the guy who made it.

Public Energy is quite openly, even self-consciously, a piece of "intelligent" techno. Furthermore, it belongs to the "parasitic" school that Simon Reynolds discusses, stealing ideas and techniques from populist dance genres, reappropriating them in such a way as to strip them of their original value. Thus the most instant track on the album "Patterns" uses the main hook of an undanceable but vaguely junglist breakbeat, which Speedy has manipulated in such a way that it's also something of a bass riff. Hovering somewhere between bass and beat, it doesn't function as either, impacting neither at your hips or in your chest but rather somewhere at the back of the neck. If that wasn't enough, he then progressively mixes it further down in the mix until it's just a distant rumble, a vague sense of discomfort.

As if in compensation, towards the end of the track Speedy introduces some sparkly synthesizer harmonies that in the proper context (a straightforward uplifting trance track for example) would be anthemic. Against such a punishing and awkward backdrop though, they only sound incongruous. I could take the view that such musical misanthopy is just pointless posturing and a waste of good source material, but instead... I like it, in spite of itself, and maybe in spite of myself. On one level, by making the attraction of the break's rhythmic dexterity and the synthesizer's spangly textures harder to just appreciate, Speedy makes the listener grasp their inherent value even more.

On the whole Speedy's work here isn't too afilliated to drum & bass (or even drill & bass), and is generally closer to Autechre's brand of hyperkinetic industrial electro. And when Speedy wants to, he can be really good at this sort of thing. On the double whammy of "Pure Enegy" and "Haywire" he constructs streamlined beatbusting electro machines out of waves of distortion, at times reminding me of Destiny's Child's awesomely mechanistic "Jumpin' Jumpin'". While I could ask here why I should bother listening to this when Destiny's Child can do it as well, I'm actually impressed that Speedy managed to fashion such unweildy elements into something that would remind me of a pop song.

The most impressive track for me is the closer "As The Bubble Expands". Here Speedy contrasts a harrowing bell toll with a booming bass and the bizarrest percussomelodic break I've ever heard. It's sort of gamelan - there's definitely an oriental feel to it - but it's gamelan gone over to the darkside, verging on unpleasant as it morphs into indecently high treble tones. I don't think that I like this track really, but I'm definitely fascinated by it.

The real problem with Public Energy is the wheat to chaff ratio: the ambient interludes are limpid and indistinctive, and some of the dirge-grooves stretch on for too long or meander into impenetrable cul-de-sacs. But the parts I like are enough for me to consider this a good album, and one which carves out in its own niche in my musical understanding. I certainly don't think that Speedy J deserves any special status, or that he has some added insight by being removed from the dancefloor. Conversely though, I can't think of a good reason why dancefloor-based experimentalism is inherently preferable to armchair experimentalism. Attempts to raise one over the other generally lead to contradictions and unexplained exceptions to the rule anyway - if Autechre and FSOL are pretentious and isolated, how is Aphex Twin any different really?

I'd like to be able to choose one side though, to have some polemic running through my musical tastes, if only so I could save money on purchases. As it is, I've come to the slightly distressing conclusion that the criteria by which I like or dislike music are largely illusory. Of course this is true - we all respond to music instinctively and then explain it logically afterwards. In that sense I guess my musical taste is a bit like physics: I don't understand it, but based on the evidence I can come up with theories, which are then replaced by better theories the more music I come across.

Still, it makes coming up with cohesive arguments for these posts bloody difficult.


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