Saturday, December 20, 2003
Listening again to Dom & Roland's Industry again and thinking about techstep. Saying that Industry is my favourite techstep album is possibly cheating because a) I don't have No U Turn's Torque compilation, and b) Source Direct's hefty Controlled Developments EP is maybe equal in my affections. Nonetheless, for what it's worth, Industry is my favourite techstep album.

Listening to techstep (or rather, the best techstep, cos there's a lotta drudgery out there) is always a curiously powerful and gripping experience for me, although it's hard to pinpoint why exactly. Maybe it's that this music feels like it's staring over a precipice into... something. It's sorta true to say that jungle hit a partial dead-end with the techstep/neurofunk axis and just sorta stopped there (ie. we are still living in the age of techstep, regardless of whether specific d&b tracks themselves try to sound like funk or house or 'ardkore or whatever). But such a statement generalises so much that it misses the secret break that occurred sometime in '97-'98, after which jungle in fact went through what is arguably its biggest change since it emerged out of 'ardkore.

What I would contend is that, with the arrival of techstep and the subsequent popularisation of the rigid two-step d&b beat, jungle's obsession with groove confusion came to an awesome conclusion (in both the sense of ending and also completion, destination). On the one hand, there is this almost invisible point where the rhythms in drum & bass records ceased to be as exciting, as dangerous as before. On the other, some of the records right at the edge of this point appear to be among the most exciting, most dangerous in their deployment of ruthlessly impacting grooves in jungle's history. What happened?

The answer to this conundrum lies in the occassionally glossed over (including by me) fact that jungle's rhythmic power was never just about complexity. One of the slightly odd things about the Soundmurderer-et-al amen mash-up revivalism over the past year has been the way that nuttercore explosions of beats (even of a dancefloor-suited variety) has often been presented as an end in itself, rather than a method among many by which jungle producers approached a certain underlying purpose of jungle.

In truth, though I like 'em a lot, I don't know if that many ultra-kerazy mash-ups would really make it onto a shortlist of my nearest and dearest jungle records (records like Dillinja's "The Angels Fell" and "Tear Down (Da Whole Place)" and DJ Hype's "Rrroll the Beats" and Size & Die's "11.55" and Omni Trio's "Thru The Vibe" and Deep Blue's "The Helicopter Tune" and DJ SS's "The Lighter"). And that may be because quite frequently such mash-ups elevate the spectacle of rhythmic complexity over the deeply-felt physical impact of what I'm calling rhythmic danger. The breaks are so spasmodically serrated that their effect bypasses the body altogether; the endless cacophony of beats merely provide an aurally exciting context for a rather more straightforward form of pogoing. A lot of the time it's the simpler amen mash-ups, or those that forground a central boshing rhythm (eg. "The Lighter" with its boom-boom-boom-boom bass section), that tend to win my more affections more easily.

Techstep's decision to simplify the rhythms was perhaps initially a pledge of allegiance to such a boshing rhythm - that thread of beats running through a jungle track that you actually dance to, the moments where you stomp your feet and pound your body so hard you're surprised you don't start to break into pieces. In doing so, it realised that the secret to making a jungle rhythm that confuses the dancer's body (in the best possible sense) is not so much complexity as internal conflict. The rhythm has to sound like it's at war with itself, the jagged and unexpected spaces between the beats and the sudden contrasts in timbre and spatialisation disrupting the dancer's flow and sense of security.

Hear the effect on tunes like Doc Scott's early techstep anthem "The Unofficial Ghost", where a fairly straightforward quasi-2-step beat erupts into sudden scythe-like flashes of amen snares. The amen fragment is detuned, slowed down rather than sped up so that what was initially a funky little roll becomes an aerial attack of grainy snare-blare whose "rhythm", if it can be called that, exists entirely at odds with the rest of the track, a malformed surgical transplant glowering evilly at the end of each measure.

Dom & Roland's "Connected" intensifies this effect, its torturous detuning of the amen transforming the rhythm's thunderous friskiness into a baleful mechanical clanking that spurts and shudders painfully, creating razor sharp spaces of silence and sudden rushes of noises like the auto-catalytic collapse of an iron smelting factory. Industry is indeed a perfectly titled album, because there is frequently something a little too crude and jagged about Dom Angus's production here for it to neatly fit into the clean-lined cyberoptics and computer age thematics that dominated techstep and neurofunk at around that time.

But Industry is also possibly techstep's only pop album, its weeping minor-key melodies for once sticking in your head as much as the beats do. On "Chained On Both Sides" a diva's wailed "Can't you see these chains I'm in??" frame the grimly muscular beat, stimulating the sudden knowledge that grooves physical exertions are enforced: the ultimately repetitive and numbing work of gladiatorial combat.

Certainly it's not the rhythm but the lush lugubriousness of the haunting guitar-picked tune on the straight 2-step track "Time" that makes it stand out. But even such rhythmically simple tracks can seem terribly compelling here: the quasi-2-step of "Remote View" never bores because of the awesome angularity of it programming, where each snare and hi-hat seems to bounce up and down over tidal bass-surges, creating a slightly sea-sick effect that is incredibly reminiscent of shuffletech.

"Remote View" suggests that the mistake of most 2-step jungle from Jonny L's "Piper" (released in '97, a year ealier) onwards was not only its endless repetition, but also just physically familiar its snap 'n' lock groove is. It's not a rhythm that the body has much trouble processing. "Remote View", employing minor destabilising tricks, reintroduces a sense of alienness to the groove, a sense that this is, rhythmically, a foreign language.

The track's other secret is how comparatively slow it is compared to "Piper" and all the neurofunk that followed in its wake. There's a creeping malevolence to this track that just can't exist at the panicky hyper tempos that characterise most d&b post-97. I don't really understand why d&b sped up so precipitously at this point (presumably drugs weren't really involved?), but, at least insofar as techstep and neurofunk were concerned, it was a pretty disastrous move.

This brand of hyper-techstep really combined the worst of both worlds: the speed of early jungle's rhythms but without their mindboggling inventiveness, and the simple jagged beats of earlier techstep but at a tempo too fast for it to be processed as anything but a fitful spasm, a war-android's indifferent shrug. Even better examples of the style like Jonny L's Magnetic album feel physically disengaged, their frigid clinicalism feeding the nervous system but not the hips or the limbs. Industry succumbs to this tendency only once, on the dull and uninvolving closer "Kinetic".

Eventually this shift would coalesce into the new modus operandi for d&b: an emphasis on pure speed. Maybe it was this shift in speed, and not the rise of the repetitive 2-step beat, which really spelled the end of jungle as "we" knew it. For, if (as I maintain) the primary purpose of jungle hitherto had been an exploration of rhythmic danger, its selling point for the last six years or so has been the rush of acceleration, glorying in the headlong flight to nowhere.

In this way, latter-day d&b has been a partial return to the aesthetic of 'ardkore, but where 'ardkore had its own brand of internal conflicts (divas and morse code riffs and breakbeats and jittery basslines all warring with eachother for dominance), post-techstep attempts to create and complete the perfect machine, its self-enclosed momentum a monolithic rush of singular energy (this can be a great thing incidentally - check J Majick's remix of Hatiras's "Spaced Invader"). In this environment it doesn't matter what the breaks are doing any more as long as they propel you forward. A return to rhythmic complexity would not only be unlikely in this setting, but also meaningless.

Indeed it's no surprise that the quest for the perfection of rhythmic danger resurfaced in 2-step , and now grime (in light of the retreat to 4-to-the-floor by all of the garage conservatives, you could make a good case for possibility that only one genre in the hardcore continuum can carry the banner at any given time) - crucially, these styles are much slower, which allows for the radicalism of their grooves to be much more visible and clearly pronounced. And it's of course the obvious next step to note how some of grime's more out-there grooves duplicate techstep's realisation of the difference between complexity and confusion, forsaking 2-step's frisky fluency in favour of a wonderful and often quite simple anti-funk ("Icerink" has two beats in it!).

But for now I want to remember the techstep that was, or might have been, and listen to Dom & Roland's "Elektra", which is my vote for the best techstep track ever. With it's tightly coiled breakbeat (like a jack in the box that jumps out brandishing knives) and moody electro synths, the track's first few minutes are already pretty great, but soon its linear progression is derailed by cruel bass riffs and cluster bomb explosions of rattling beats over the top of the central rhythm.

Like all the best jungle, it's the interplay between these rhythmic attacks which makes the track, and the groove quickly spirals into a topographical nightmare of jagged peaks and sudden chasms, an obstacle course for the body to weave through as it endures the slings and arrows of richochet snares and unexpected bass lunges. Very few pieces of music I can think of make my body respond so powerfully as this piece of headbanging madness - but I'd need about four heads and a pretty nifty neck to do it full justice.


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