Wednesday, December 31, 2003
"Perspex Sex" and the housification of electro (slash electrification of house) is part of a broader trend that I would really like to see take flight in 2004. Reynolds predicts that next year will see the fall of mutant disco and microhouse and the rise of nu-beat, hi-nrg and "macrohaus". As I implied in the previous post I'd go further and say that the early nineties are also ripe for the picking (although I've maintained this ever since my early-nineties themed 21st birthday party). I was out at a gay club a few weeks ago where the music was above average in the we-play-more-than-screaming-divas kind of way - a really nice selection of retro-into-modern from the eighties to now.

But what was far away the best and most vibiest track of the evening was Crystal Waters' "100% Pure Love", a great song obviously but above and beyond that the skippy snares sounded marvellous, a laser beam of gorgeously rudimentary machine funk. Delicately programmed snares are pretty much my thing right now: I've been playing and replaying Underground Solution's "Luv Dancing" all week, just for that gorgeous little rhythmic hiccup just before the vocal hook.

But if we're about to embark upon a period of mid-eighties, late-eighties or early-nineties revivalism, I hope it's not at the expense of all the sonic tricks that electroclash and the other "passe" revivals have reintroduced to dancefloors. That said, people who expect electroclash to suddenly vanish from dancefloors under the unslaught of new hipster touchstones are distorting the manner by which dance music - and particularly the staple club sounds we can lazily call "house" - engages with the past. Rather than digest historical influences sequentially, dancefloors tend to accrete them, like layers of sedimented rock. Eventually some layers become indiscernible (and then, after a decent silence, they become ready to stage a comeback), but a snapshot of house music at any given moment in time will reveal a layered topography of a couple of years' worth of ideas.

In keeping with this process, some of the best and most exciting house records of late have emerged from out of the aftermath of French House. It's true that "pure" phased disco is quite often some of the most tedious stuff around now (see again "Make Luv"), but Daft Punk's Discovery has sparked off a miniature tradition of producers trying to make new and interesting sounds using the tools that phased disco left behind. In fact one of the exciting things about French House currently is that it really is a "post"-genre, an overhanging cliff edge that at any moment might break off and send its artists plummetting to... where?

It's the "where?" that is interesting, of course. Archigram's Stooges-biting "Doggystyle" and the Buffalo Bunch's remix of Audio Bullies' "We Don't Care" suggests a switch to muscular minimalism - a metallic, rockish sonic churn that bears no small resemblance to the steroid-pumped hard electro-tech sound of Vitalic. On the pop end, Linus Loves' "The Terrace" sprinkles phased-house glitter-dust all over the central riff from Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back", and the result is halfway between the glorious eighties-cheese of Daft Punk's "Digital Love" and the open-hearted rave E-motionalism of Cosmos's "Take Me With You". These are minor adjustments, of course, which only the minutae-minded could take much notice of, but they are small and subtle pointers to the possibility of something broader happening.

What I would like to see is for all these trends to start engaging and interacting with eachother - electro riffs, phased disco sounds, skippy snares, shuffle beats... and while we're at it, why not early Warp basslines, New Horizons raggatronics, trancey chord progressions, techno grind? If microhouse started off as a paring back of house to its most basic elements, why cannot "macrohaus" be an unabashed celebration of all of house's cheesiest/vibiest components? If we're going to have dancefloor revivals, why should we limit ourselves to one revival at a time?

Saturday, December 27, 2003
But for the technicality of it being a 2002 record, Ewan Pearson's remix of Freeform Five's "Perspex Sex" would definitely be one of my records of the 2003, at least top five. It's awfully crass bigging up electroclash this late in the game, but what can I say? Well, a fair bit probably. In many senses electroclash probably is over - I doubt we're gonna see many more Ladytrons, or if we do they're not going to register much. The problem is with the Ladytron Model (not Ladytron themselves mind) is that it's vision of electroclash is one of exclusion, evoking the 80s by surgically removing any impulse within the music that might be confused for being anything else. Hence: stiff pre-house beats, monochromatic electro textures, deadpan vocals, "Blue Monday" to the power of 10.

But while electroclash has frequently been received as (and in many instances actually has taken the form of) a rejection of many of the properties that we associate with dance music - chiefly overt danciness - this has hardly been the whole story. In fact there is a parallel counter-story that runs through this scene, an impulse towards inclusion that marks it out as one of the most unpredictable revivalist genres. Maybe the earliest and best summation of this impulse is DJ Hell's Fuse Presents Hell mix from 2000, which lays out the blueprint for electroclash while simultaneously disrupting it. Yes, Les Liasons Dangereuses are present, as are Frankie Goes To Hollywood (though, as I've noted before, the theatrical histrionics of "Two Tribes" marks it out as something distinctly anti-Ladytron), but so is a hefty, almost dominant brace of early nineties New York house - an Orange Lemon track, some Bobby Kondors, Phuture's marvellous "Rise From Your Grave" etc. plus some early tech-trance from Speedy J.

There's no sense, however, of any real juncture or dischord between the two eras; instead what Hell's mix emphasises is the sense of continuity: the abrasive quasi-industrial textures, the so-stiff-they're-funky beats, the awkward songfulness, the eerie post-human narratives. These attributes have never been the exclusive preserve of electro, or EBM, or acid house, or techno, or ruff New York house, or... but you know the rest. As Green Velvet demonstrated admirably, in Chicago and New York the eighties never went away - they just learnt some new tricks. This is electroclash-as-inclusiveness: the embrace of post-disco pre-house influences not so much a rejection of house as a reassertion of its capacity for machinism in the face of the lame post-French House disco-retread tedium that now dominates the popular conception of what house music is (something to examine another time: was Room 5's "Make Luv" the worst record of 2003? Yes of course it was).

And it doesn't require an antiquarian DJ set to lay out the formula either: Fuse Presents Hell also contains what remains my favourite International Deejay Gigolos track ever, Foremost Poet's marvellous "Pressing On". A remake of their wonderfully gritty early Nu Groove classic "Reasons To Be Dismal", "Pressing On" is like The Juan MacLean with hips, its sexy low-end boom engaged in a love-struggle with blaring electro synths while that endlessly fascinating deadpan voice from the original counts out the manifestations of his bad luck. The track amply demonstrates how much electroclash can relearn from early house - there's a warmth to its brutalist bass undercarriage which gives the track's surrounding coldness an impacting physicality and sensuality that is irresistible. As with much of the actual Nu Groove back-catalogue, "Pressing On" defies pigeonholing by decade; it also sounds tres hot right now (as Matt from Woebot noted a while ago).

What Ewan's remix of "Perspex Sex" does is intensify both ends of its electro-house hybridisation: the pulverising central electro riffs tears through your chest with a terrifying brutality, but the swinging snare pattern, while brutal, is gloriously and unashamedly sexual, an open invitation to shed your clothes. As such it not only straddles that pre-house/house divide in much the same manner as "Pressing On", but in fact makes exploring this divide its entire purpose. There are few more vital artistic impulses within dance music than the attempt to combine sex and robots (especially if the result sounds like sex with robots) because such attempts have the capacity to capture and conflate both ends of one of dance music's most central oppositions - the choice between machinic ossification and lustful interaction. Dance music can be punishing, isolating, its sonics causing the body's surfaces to coalesce and harden into brittle armour. But its hazy blur and sensual friction can also dissolve these same boundaries until the body feels viscerally in touch with all those around it. Enmeshed and enfolded in the robot's embrace, the body feels engaged, engorged and connected, while crushed in a suffocating metal confinement.

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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Alexander Kowalski - Response
Some people like the very knowledgable Siegbran on ILX are saying this is the techno album of the year, and perhaps of any year. Like I would know! But it's really excellent, even if it sounds more like dubby tech-house to me, albeit of an occasionally more urgent strain - imagine MRI's first album or SCSI-9 on a low-level dose of steroids. Hi-hats positively sizzle, the bass glows menacingly, the synth patterns run round your head with jittery abandon. The slightly increased tempo and more upfront physicality that results from the emphasis of the "tech" in the tech-house equation makes this sound refreshingly climactic in contrast to microhouse's slower and more subtle pleasures. There's something gloriously anthemic about tunes like "Response", whose dubby overlays and swirling melodic effects are by now familiar but rarely deployed with such tense stridency. For that reason, while Response seems quite similar in both style and consistency to SCSI-9's Digital Russian, I've found it much more compelling listening.

But Kowalski is also adept in locating his softcore center, and I adore his softer melodic diversions. "Belo Horizonte" is shimmering and sensuous detroit techno like nothing since "Jaguar", all lush overlapping bleepy melodies and sensititve latin percussion in the background. It kinda reminds me of prog house too, but in a good way! I've always had a soft spot for Spooky's "Little Bullet". Meanwhile vocal tracks "Lock Me Up" and "...And I Will Find You" come the closest of anything I've heard to capturing what I love about Luomo's The Present Lover (so y'all probably won't like it!). "...And I Will Find You" is luxuriantly deep dubby house, all shimmering atmospherics and whispered declarations of fidelity, like a half-remembered dream about an unrequited love.

"Lock Me Up" boasts gorgeous lazer-gun synth melodies, a rattling snare pattern and a simple bass progession that could have come from Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, while the vocalist gets all "Bizarre Love Triangle" in his romantic self-abegnation. I suspect that the difficulty so many people have with The Present Lover is not knowing how to (or why they should) listen with different ears, to forget the great sonic strides Luomo made with Vocalcity and really connect with his new, simpler approach. "Lock Me Up", sandwiched between two tracks of relative hardness, rearticulates the appeal of this brand of openhearted techno-pop with visceral effectiveness. For me, this music is all about the discovery of the capacity for love in the heart of the (dancefloor) machine. There's a directness to this stuff ("Sick and tired of these games we play!" the vocalist sighs on "Lock Me Up"), with its enormous heartstring-tugging synth riffs and propulsive, inviting 4/4 beats, which speaks to our lovelorn romanticism rather than our sonic receptors, saying "Lose yourself in the music, by all means, but don't ever forget to reach out and touch someone..."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003
Currently really really loving the Mad Instruments riddim (see Elephant Man's "Nah", Beenie Man's "Me Nah Like Yuh Neither", Vybz Kartel's "Real Bad Man). Like Coolie Dance, this is dancehall at its most carnivalesque - I could imagine hearing it at a Rio street festival actually. It's cheesy as hell: glitzy synthetic horns, a burbling bass line and a clattering rhythm halfway between Coolie Dance tribal drums and Diwali handclaps. One of the curious aspects of dancehall's ongoing sponge-like absorption of just about every sonic trick in the book is that dancehall seems to be edging closer to its Carribean and South American counterparts rather than further away. Riddims like Mad Instruments, Coolie Dance, Fiesta and Spanish Fly are informed by the technicolour pangenre adventures dancehall is currently embarking on, while all the time remaining resolutely islander. They also tend to comprise the most relentlessly upbeat stuff around (although for really upbeat check out Elephant Man's marvellous Christmas single "Bad Man Holiday", which improbably bites the melody from "Ding Dong Merrily On High" for maximum hilarity). I really enjoy the positive energy that runs through a lot of dancehall at the moment, probably more than the darker stuff. I guess I get so used to the undertone of grimness that underscores so much grime, hip hop etc. that it's a real shock to come across stuff that is so unabashedly uplifting, perhaps more so than anything since the glory days of rave.

The dancehall track I'm particularly in love with at the moment though is Sean Paul's "Head Fi Toe" (on the ultra-prolific Donovan "Don Corleon" Bennet's Trifector riddim). Sean's done a lot of brill tracks this year, frequently coming up with the best version of a riddim (see the should-be-number-one anthemic brilliance of "Close To Me" on Rebirth, or the undertaker intonations of "Feel Alright" on Coolie Dance), and he does it here again, his imploring singjay performance subtly turning the already hectic and frenetic indian vibes of Trifector into something even more delectable: a gloriously swirling and rapturous pop song. This, like a lot of my favourite stuff from this year, sounds too intense, like it's about to faint from heatstroke. There's a delirious wooziness to the shimmering Indian strings and woodwinds which Sean's intentionally strained-sounding performance matches perfectly, both he and the groove struck down (if not dumb) with mouthwatering lust.


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