FAVES AND OVER-RATED OF 1997
(from Blissout website aka A White Brit Rave Aesthete Thinks Aloud)
Faves of 1997
TIMBALAND AND MAGOO
"Up Jumps Da' Boogie"
Welcome To Our World (Blackground/Atlantic)
"One In A Million" (Blackground/Atlantic)
"Sock It To Me" b/w "Supa Dupa" (Elektra)
"No Diggity" (Interscope)
"Man Behind The Music" (Interscope)
The most sonically astonishing and pure-pleasure-intensive music coming out America in '97 was the stuff spawned in the rumpshaker interzone between uptempo pop rap and hard R&B/swingbeat. Teddy Riley and Timbaland outshone, out-avanted and outfunked "proper" hip hop (and revealed The RZA to be a one-trick pony), while the videos's sub-hallucinatory ultra-vivid colour-schemes, fish-eye distortions and Dali-Barbera surrealism made hardcore rap's monochrome fetishisation of the "real" seem drab and done-to-death overnight. (Busta Rhymes, take a bow also). From Big Beat to speed garage, Puffy to Missy to nouveau ska, this was a year of good times music; overnight, the entire darkside paradigm of pre-millenium tension and blunted paranoia was jettisoned, consigned to the pop-historical scrapheap, leaving the likes of Wu Tang, Tricky and techstep looking like Jeremiahs out of work and out of step with the Zeitgeist. Maybe it's just a knock-on effect of the economic boom, or just an inevitable reaction against post-grunge/post-rave gloom, but the pleasure-principled party-hard ethos felt like a blessed relief, a welcome injection of energy.
Highlights: Aaliyah's Timbaland-and-Missy produced "One In A Million", with its jungle-at-ballad-tempo stop-start beats twisting your torso and stuttering triple-time kickdrums pummelling the solar-plexus. (And Aaliyah's thankfully restrained when it comes to swingbeat's cardinal drawback, excessively nuanced and melismatic singing); Blackstreet's "No Diggity", a sublimely inventive blend of roots 'n' future, featuring the most exhilirating enunciated utterance of the year--Queen Pen's "we be the baddest clique" (a slice of super-slurred slanguage so succulent she just had to slip it to us one more time on her solo debut "Man Behind The Music"). Above all, Timbaland & Magoo's "Up Jumps Da' Boogie"-- every cranny of the mixscape infested with eerie nuances, grating drone-loops, lewd squiggles and funky quivers; cyberfunk as an animated audio-frieze of gratuitous grotesquery. And let's not forget that strange subliminal lyric that goes "see the white man scared/of the black man's power". This R&B/swingbeat/urban contemporary stuff is the blackest shit on the planet, with the possible exception of ragga--no white producers, no white influences; wigga rap fans who get off on the radical chic of Wu-Tang just don't get it at all. As a white bohemian/lapsed socialist, I still find the designer-label commodity-fetishism and conspicious consumption, the Hennesy-swigging and Rolex-brandishing element, a bit hard to handle--but even that gives it a weird sort of transgressive late-capitalist edge, a la Bataille's sumptuary-expenditure-without-return/will-to-extravagance.
"Lantau" b/w "Macao"
VARIOUS ARTISTS [group name!]
(all the above on Chain Reaction)
"No.8/No.8.5/No.9" (Fatcat Records)
Porter Ricks(Mille Plateaux)
Zauberberg(both Mille Plateaux)
"Twelve Miles High" from "Las Vegas, Pt 2" EP (Harvest)
Chain Reaction and CR-style "heroin house" is house pared down and distilled to its essence. No songs (at the end of the day house music is not going to be remembered for its contribution to the sum of "great songs"), no vocals(ditto), no melodies, sometimes even no beats. Which leaves just dub-space, texture and rhythm. Or rather, texture-rhythm as an indivisible prima materia--articulated as scintillator-riffs, smeary timbre-vamps, glow-pulses and flicker-stabs. Texture-rhythm molded and extruded to form an enfolding plasma-scape. (This is some chora/semiotic pulsions/body-without-organs bizness, dig?). That velcro-stickiness of sound that seems to suction-cup your skin surface, tantalising your goosebumps erect and tugging at your blood like a lunar-magnetic tractor beam. That becoming-porous, becoming-vapor feeling. It's like MDMA sensations put through an abstraction-machine and transformed into a kind of crinkly, shimmery audio-fabric; the quintessence of that shiver-up-the-spine, champagne-for-blood feeling encoded in sound, a bliss-space you can access at any time, immerse yourself in and then leave without cost or comedown. Heard at its utmost and outermost in Various Artist's "No. 8" and Resilient's drum-less "1.2": the latter being my favourite track of 1997, a slow-mo tsunamai of vein-suffusing, ego-melting, body-boundary haemorrhaging bliss. A soundtrack in waiting for the first zero-gravity nightclub.
Plans & Designs(Nuphonic)
Could the producers, arrangers and song-doctors of Philly and Salsoul have ever, in their wildest, most self-aggrandising dreams, imagined that one day there would be such a thing as "classicist disco"? That's what Faze Action's Robin & Simon Lee (brothers, not a typo) are. Like Brian Jones and Keith Richards poring over their blues records, Faze Action are purist scholars of the form -- for them the Salsoul Orchestra is Howlin' Wolf and Walter Gibbons is Muddy Waters. Plans & Designs's near eleven-minute title track-- an art-disco percussadelic symphony of tremor-rendous timpani and melodramatic violas, violins and cellos--is the best thing of its ilk since Dinosaur L's "Go Bang" (Arthur Russell at his Van McCoy-meets-Steve Reich peak). Cool CD packaging too, with the silver disc coming in an inner cardboard sleeve just like a vinyl 12 inch.
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
Dig Your Own Hole(Junior Boy's Own/Astralwerks)
All year long I've heard and read the accusation levelled at the Chems by Everyhipster --that they're a middlebrow soft-option for student discos, that they're cliche-peddling cheese-vendors pandering to low-com-denom party-hard instincts, that (like The Prodigy) they represent the rock-ification of techno. But if the snotty-minded actually heard the best bits of Dig Your Own Hole in another context (i.e. not Big Beat or Electronica), heard them unidentified, I bet they'd be rushing up to the DJ booth shrieking 'whatdafuck is that amazing toon?" and craning their necks to get a glimpse of the label. "It Doesn't Matter", for instance, is an awesomely monolithic mantra-stomp of EQed-and-filtered-to-fuck house that compares very favourably with the raw-to-the-core underground "trackhead" house of DJ Sneak/DJ Rush/Gene Farris et al. Admittedly there are a tad too many tracks on Dig Your Own Hole that cane to death the fastbreaks-phatbass-acidriffs-oldskoolrapvocal formula that Rowlands & Simons perfected with "Loops Of Fury"; hence the self-parodic hackwork of "Block Rockin' Beats'. But the second half of "Elektrobank", with its roiling maelstrom of dying-walrus-howls distortion, sounds like a breakbeat Butthole Surfers. And even the explicit lapses into ye olde rock songcraft and neo-psych guitarwooze--"Setting Sun", "The Private Psychedelic Reel",and "Where Do I Begin"--are brilliant, especially the latter with its Beth Orton post-E disorientation vocal/lyric. In a year in which post-rock dwindled into noodly, no-fun inconsequence [see Over-Rated of 1997], the Chems and the Skint acts offered post-rock'n'roll--the we-wanna-get-loaded-and-get-our-rocks-off, teenage kicks and cheap thrills spirit of rock'n'roll intensified and abstracted by being fed through rave culture's desiring machinery.
Homework is patchy, but at its high points (and in its wonderfully wonky live reinterpretation --which I caught at the Roseland Ballroom this fall), this album offers the purest distillation of the rush. The kitschadelic aspect ("Around The World", "Da Funk") wears thin quite rapidly, in my experience; the pure science (those itchy subdermal MDMA-simulator sounds they use on "Rollin' & Scratchin' and "Rock'n'Roll") is more compelling, triggering fleshy-flashbacks to nights of XTC. But why wasn't "Musique"--their finest, wild-pitch-iest moment--included on the album?
Better Living Through Chemistry (Skint/Astralwerks)
BENTLEY RHYTHM ACE
Bentley Rhythm Ace (Skint/Astralwerks)
See 'Skint Alive' piece elsewhere on this site for full appreciation of the Skint messthetic. Here let me just add that Norman Cook (Norman fucking Cook of all people!!!) and BRA have proved that being clever and being stupid-fresh fun are not incompatible. Better Living contains some of the most craftily designed and consummately executed audio-japes since... prime Madness, really. "Punk To Funk" is not only a barrel of laffs, it's one of the most peculiarly constructed grooves I've heard in years. For a small eternity, just chunky breaks and obese bass wobbling like love handles at a Weight-Watchers disco, until the slow fade-up of that cheese-tastic Carry On.../Man About The House horn section, huffing-and-puffing and blowing the roof off the sucker. The highpoint of BRA's album is "Return of the Hardcore Jumble Carbootechnodisco Roadshow": simply one of the best productions of the late Nineties, with every element there to put a smile on your face and a wiggle in your hips. Like some dream fusion of The Eyes's "When The Night Falls" and Josh Wink's "Higher State Of Consciousness", like Primal Scream's "Loaded" fed through the proto-jungle amphetamine-frenzy of SL2's "On A Ragga Tip", this track sounds at once out-of-time and of-the-moment, 1966-freakbeat meets 1997-bigbeat.
Could this be that oxymoron-in-waiting, "intelligent big beat"? Req is the brainy, arty wallflower in Skint's company of lagered-up jackanapes and jesters. An old skool skolar with a background in graffiti (Req = "wreck" = old B-boy slanguage, geddit?), Mr. Req sees his music as the audio extension of his aerosol activities. If all this sounds alarmingly close to Mo' Wax style fetishism (all those faded trainers and fusty breaks), at its best req: one resembles an ambient version of Schoolly D's first album. A second album is due February 1998, apparently.
"Two Masks" b/w "Black Domina"
"Call & Response" b/w "Computer State"
"Enemy Lines" b/w "Capital D"
Controlled Developments US-only mini-LP (Science/Astralwerks)
Why do I so much prefer Source Direct to Photek when they are both so patently "clones" of each other (as Goldie put it). The pick of the litter of their '97 output --"Enemy Lines", with its poison-gas pall of amorphous synth-doom--is as dank and lugubrious as anything on Modus Operandi. But SD's brittle, full-kit fracture-funk has a neurotic exuberance to it that Mr. Parkes has only achieved on "The Water Margin" and his remix of "Still Life". And I like the way Source Direct give props to rave and talk about wanting people to go mad on the dancefloor like they did at the hardcore parties they threw as teenagers.
Electronic Sound Constructions (Snapshot)
Infinitely superior to the muddy first LP, this Bristol-nexus unrock/postrock outfit (allies of FSA, Amp, Broadcast, Third Eye Foundation) here sound variously like Sun Ra's "Disco 3000" versioned at the Black Ark, like the missing link between Tago Mago-era Can ("Augmn", "Peking O") and Miles Davis's "He Loved Him Madly", like DJ Shadow walking through the Valley of the Shadows. Alright, maybe not that good, but the ague-riddled analog synths and cavernous echo-box malaise make for an appealingly odd slice of lo-fi electro-acoustica.
VARIOUS ARTISTS/MR C
Electronic Warfare (Plink Plonk)
At its best (God of the Machine's "Fog of the Unknown" --great title, or what?--and "Nude Machinery"), this tech-house stuff is so spangly-clean and pearly-pert, so crisply produced and shimmervescent, you feel like you've already done an E. At its not-infrequent least, though, tech-house is the most redundantly refined, cheese-less and subtlety-riddled blend of Detroit-pietism and UK house connoisseurism yet heard, the deadest of deadening ends.
The Sound Of The Hoover: Energy Anthems 92-97 (TEC)
A comp that covers a similar three-or-four year timespan as Electronic Warfare, this is the perfect antidote to tech-house's insipid tastefulness. It's shamelessly bangin', slammin' and kickin'. Mining a seam of sound whose existence I'd barely suspected--call it trance-core, but don't confuse it with the happy hardcore subgenre of the same name--the best tracks here (Illuminatae's "Tremora Del Terra", Trope's "Amphetamine", Nexus 6's "Tres Chic", Commander Tom's almighty "Are Am Eye", stuff by Sourmash, Demonic Emotions, Karlton and TDV) join the dots between "Mentasm", "Hardtrance Acperience", Arpeggiator's "Freedom of Experience" and the kind of butt-bumpin' Nu NRG they used to play at Trade. Although the "Hoover" in the title pays homage to the Brooklyn-Belgian hardcore of 1991--Human Resource's "Dominator", T99's "Anasthasia", Frank De Wulf, 80 Aum, Beltram and Mundo Muzique--there aren't actually that many hoover-riffs or mentasm-stabs to be heard. What you do get is trance without Goa's ethnodelic filigree or Megatripolis-style "taking you on a journey" cyber-twaddle; trance whose priorities are making you rush your fucking bollox off.
Spirit World (Virgin)
Toop has recently retired from what he reckons is the "absurdity" of criticism in order to devote all his energy to the "potency" of experimental musicianship. Hmmm --see, I thought the problem was actually the other way around: too much "good" music about, not enough visionary writing to make it all seem like it matters. Rather than an ancillary, supplementary, parasitical adjunct to the "real creativity", the leading edge of music-writing (of which Toop is definitely a component) has always been for me as much of a trip as the music itself. Still, if he's dedicating himelf to creating oneiric, polytendrilled, timbral extravaganzas like this one, good luck to him.
THE THIRD EYE FOUNDATION
Sound of Violence EP (Domino)
Derek Bailey meets Squarepusher; drill & bass as torture chamber (I'm gonna get medi-eeval on yo ass") rather than whimsy-mired buffooneery. My only problem with Third Eye's appropriation of jungle is that at heart he's an industrial musician: as white, expressionistic and faux-transgressive (I mean "Sound of Violence" -- "intense" or what?) as Trent Reznor (whose jungle-ish "Perfect Drug" was almost great, only marred by the anthemic chorus). If you slowed down TEF's 200 b.p.m. woody-woodpecker snare tattoos, you'd find beats as rigid, rectilinear and funkless as Einsturzende or Test Dept. Still, some truly horrible and distressing sample-tones--kittens being boiled alive?--make up for any dearth of da funk.
TO ROCOCO ROT
Sort of Seefeel-meets-Sakomoto; brittle melodiousness, vulvatronic pulsescapes of trembly timbres, glitch-riffs and chime-tics. Post-rock that's so post- it isn't really anything to do with rock anymore. Almost good enough to slot alongside the Chain Reaction lot.
Teen Riot Gunther--Strackture (Morbid)
Austrian quirk-funk in the vicinity of the Sabotage neo-Dada zone, this album is one of the most entertaining and polyfaceted oddities I've heard this year. One minute they're fusing pre-disco DAF with La Dusseldorf, the next they're moog-riffing and Rhodes-vamping like the kind of Seventies jazz-funk obscurities that inspire jazzstep junglists like Flytronix, Dave Wallace and Jacob's Optical Stairway. They do an electro/LFO/bleep & bass track based around a Faust loop! Only the Germanic races can get away with this kind of whimsy.
The Dance(Reprise; VH1 live show)
The goddess Stevie vindicated, and visibly basking in the glory. Her "Silver Springs"--equal to anything on Rumours but relegated out of spite to the B-side of "Go Your Own Way", her estranged lover Lindsay Buckingham's fuck-you ditty--finally has its day, audible everyfuckingwhere--radio, supermarket, clothes boutiques, and on endless repeat play on VH1 --where her searing, dagger-eyed performance directed at Buckingham utterly convinces that sparks still fly, wounds are unhealed and issues remain unresolved between the starcrossed lovers. And of course she's playing for the cameras, hamming it up something glorious. But it's pop mythology at its most potent and compelling. And what a song!
Funny how nobody has the slightest interest in the marital vicissitudes of John and Christine McVie, isn't it?
New Forms(Talkin' Loud/Mercury)
"New Forms (Roni Size Remix)/Share The Fall (Grooverider Jeep Mix)" (Talkin' Loud)
For sure, New Forms is to '97 what Timeless was to '95 and Logical Progression to '96--the year's drum & bass consensus album, the double-disc magnum opus garlanded with critical acclaim and hyped with the dubious sales-pitch "if you only buy one jungle album this year....". That's reason enough for some to hate the record, dismissing it (often, I suspect, without actually hearing it) as mere coffee table jungle-lite. Winning the Mercury Prize award ought to be the death knell for Reprazent's underground cred. And it is an exceedingly pleasant-sounding, cleanly-produced record that pays a little too much deference to jazz and the ideal of live musicianship.
But then white bohemians (myself included) have never truly grasped why the likes of LTJ Bukem glimpse utopia in the jazz-funk of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, why Goldie flips out for the fuzak of The Yellowjackets and mid-Eighties Miles Davis. New Forms is a timely reminder that elegance can be a form of rebellion for the black working class (rather than a straightforwardly upwardly mobile aspiration to conventional notions of "class"). From Earth Wind and Fire and Chic to today's G-funk, swingbeat and speed garage, the regal panache and sheer slickness of sound communicate a kind of fuck-you defiance, a refusal of your allotted place in the social pyramid. Like "Big Willie"/Notorious BIG/playa rap's commodity fetishism (Hillfiger, Cristal, Rolexes, Hennesy, Lexus et al), the trappings of sonic luxury --stand-up bass, lush strings and jazzed cadences--that infuse New Forms proclaim: "nothing's too good for us".
When electronic musicians attempt a synthesis of sequenced sound with "musicality" ("real" vocals, "live" playing), the result is usually an embarassing mish-mash; witness the worst bits of Timeless. If New Forms mostly escapes that dire fate, it's because Size/Reprazent are minimalists where Goldie is a maximalist. Reprazent understand that the real "jazz thing" going on in drum & bass doesn't involve sampling electric piano licks or hiring a session-musician to noodle out a sax solo. Rather, it resides in the rhythm section--the tangential relationship between the hyper-syncopated breakbeats and the roaming, ruminative but always visceral B-line. Strip away the stereo-panned streaks of abstract tone-color and the Pat Metheny-style guitar glints from "Matter of Fact", for instance, and the track is basically a rimshot-ricochetting, paradiddle-palsied drum solo (albeit one constructed painstakingly over days of red-eyed computer-screen toil rather than played in real-time and real acoustic space).
The first disc of New Forms contains all the "big tunes", as well as the most overt nods towards jazz: the double bass driven "Brown Paper Bag", the title track with its tongue-twistingly sibilant scat-rap from Bahamadia (which was psychedelicized and susurrated even further on the superior Roni Size remix released as a single), the gorgeous singles "Heroes" and "Share The Fall" (both graced by the torch-song croon of Onalee). "Share The Fall" isn't as good a song as "Heroes", but it's better jungle: singing inside your flesh, the beat is the melody, its rolling tumble of rapid-fire triplets making you step fierce like a bebop soldier.
Disc Two of New Forms is more cinematic and soundtrack-to-life oriented, achieving a widescreen feel and Technicolor sheen rivalled only by Spring Heel Jack. "Trust Me", for instance, sounds like it might be woven out of offcuts from Dudley Moore's symphonic jazz score for his Sixties movie Bedazzled. Truer to the anonymous funktionalism of "real" jungle, the tracks on Disc Two strip away song-structures and "proper" vocals to reveal a music of lustrous details. Drum & bass is an engineer's art, oriented around specifications and special effects, timbres and treatments. So what you listen for is the sculpted rustle-and-glisten of hi-hat and cymbal figures, the contoured plasma of the bass, the exquisitely timed placement of horn stabs and string cascades. You thrill to the music's murderous finesse--intricacies and subleties designed to enhance the ganjadelic mind-state but which are so nuanced and three-dimensional they stone you all by themselves.
In Reprazent's music, the clash between the ghettocentric exuberance of the breakbeats and the opulent arrangements generates oxymoronic mood-amalgams: tense serenity, suave unease, fervent ambivalence. Tracks like the eerie, menthol-cool "Hot Stuff" modulate your metabolism like the impossibly refined neurochemical engineering and designer drugs of the next century. New forms, for sure--but Roni Size/Reprazent are also forging new emotions.
Overrated Records/Artists/Phenomena of 1997
(plus one Ambivalence of 1997)
Describing jungle as "overrated" is a misnomer, really. Most of my jungle
buddies have been grumbling all year. The media has cooled off noticeably, and
betrothed itself with indecent haste to the new cool in town, speed garage. Even
a back-in-the-day scene stalwart like Dan Donelly of Suburban Base has swapped
allegiances, and now devotes his energies to Sub-Base's "yookay undagrahn
garidge" sub-label Quench (mind you, he was always a shrewd business-minded
geezer --remember "Sesame's Treet"?).
As for myself --well, only a year ago, writing these words would have been like
cutting chunks out of heart. Jungle has been my supreme passion and crusade de
coeur for so long--six years, nearly a fifth of my life--and yet nowadays I feel
a serene indifference to its aesthetic vicissitudes. The state of jungle no
longer feel so intimately distressing, such a personal source of dismay and
disillusion. And that's a strange relief.
Jungle has had three years in the limelight--a good run, really--and before that
three exhilarating years of emergence (always the most exciting phase of any
sound/scene). Those first three years--1992/93/94--constitute the most exciting
motion I've ever witnessed in my pop life; a runaway process of explosively
autocatalytic evolution that by the end of '94 had pretty much mapped out all of
the music's future pathways (ragga-jungle>jump up; ambient hardcore>intelligent
drum & bass/jazzstep; darkside>artcore>techstep>neurofunk).
Looking back, the writing was on the wall in early 1994--when Moving Shadow
started its "2 on 1" series of "experimental" 12 inches (one side by a producer
on the roster, the other by a guest luminary). The funny thing about "2 on 1"
was that, with a few exceptions, these "experimental" outings were far less
radical and infinitely less exciting than the label's "populist" output (Dead
Dred's "Dred Bass", Renegade's "Terrorist", Deep Blue's "Helicopter Tune"). "2
on 1"'s self-conscious seriousness spread like a virus throughout the scene,
eventually infecting even the most obdurately unassimilable bastions of
raw-to-the-core jungle like Hype/Ganja and Andy C/Ram, who this year succumbed
to the hyper-technical hygienic-production ethos and scientific rhetoric.
In hindsight, it was the journey out of 'ardkore drug-noise towards "musicality"
(1993/1994) that was thrilling, not the ignominious arrival. My favourite jungle
tracks ever (Foul Play's "Open Your Mind", Omni Trio's "Vol. 2" and "Vol.3", 4
Hero's "Journey To The Light EP", Rufige Cru's "Darkrider/Menace" EP, Bukem's
"Atlantis", Hyper-On Experience's first three EP's) are those in which the first
stirrings of musical ambition are still filtered through the rave-drug
sensorium, still conditioned and contaminated by rush-culture. But when the
E-memories finally wore off, too often what was left was jazz-funk with fast
In terms of jungle's waning outsider chic, you can count down the death-knells
starting from late '94: Speed; Moving Shadow's "audio-couture" slogan; Fabio
hagio-ed for the cover of Muzik; the million pound ad campaign for Timeless;
Kiss FM's jungle show and One In The Jungle; Logical Progression and Bukem
playing the house superclubs; Volume doing for jungle what they did for trance,
with the Breakbeat Science series of double-CDs + booklets crammed with
trainspotter-friendly facts. The final death-blow was Mixmag's "A-Z of Drum &
Bass" cover story in March 1997--a surreally tardy endorsement of jungle's
cutting-edge status, conferred only a couple months before speed garage blew up!
In America, jungle has gone from ultra-cool obscurity to omnipresent subliminal
banality (used everywhere in adverts, MTV links and as
get-the-viewer's-pulse-racing, newsflash-coming background music on TV news
programmes), without any intervening period of pop breakthrough or even hipster
None of this would matter, of course, if the music was still regularly
delivering the shock of the now. But jungle's muse has been erratic since early
1995; I've been fighting the onset of gloom for three years now. Hopes were
revived at the end of 1995 by gangstadelic techstep, by the jump-up exuberance
of Hype/SS/Andy C/Ray Keith/Dope Dragon/Swift/Zinc/Aphrodite, by dark
revelations at AWOL. But then techstep rapidly degenerated into drone-dirgey
noir-by-numbers (Dom & Rob's "Distorted Dreams" being something of a nadir),
before veering off into neurofunk's anal-retention zone. As for jump-up--would
it be asking for more than two ideas per track, guys?
Speed garage's usurpation of "London underground" status may be the best thing
to happen to jungle in a while. It takes the pressure off the scene, and the
humiliation may act as a timely corrective to the genre's inflated sense of its
own cutting-edge-ness. Jungle is now free to be just another post-rave genre,
like techno or house. As such it will produce some great tracks every year, a
broad wedge of well-produced "quality tunes" that mainly appeal to DJ's, and an
immensity of mediocre material that doesn't even work as DJ-tools. (Hopefully
there'll be a long-overdue culling of lesser lights and unnecessary labels, as
average sales drop below 1000). Like techno and house, jungle will go through
periodic phases of resurgence and self-reinvention. There's also the possibility
that the next phase will come from outside London, or even outside England
(although I'm sceptical, given the infrastructural importance of pirate radio).
Whatever the case, jungle will always remain a favourite form of music for me,
but it's no longer a creed or cause celebre. Like everybody else, I'm waiting
for the next convulsion.... and in the mean time, listening to loads of old
Even if Vanishing Point was half as good as it's cracked up to be (and it's
not), I'd have serious problems taking Bobby Gillespie's latest aesthetic
turnabout seriously. From their first album's
it's-1967-again-acid-child-fragility to the second's cocksucker-blues, from
born-again house fiends circa "Loaded"/"Higher Than The Sun" to raunchy
rock'n'soul fundamentalists circa "Rocks Off", the Primals have changed their
tune one time too many. Now they're supposed to be into trip hop, dirty dub and
pre-millennium tension; hence the embarrassing faux-Tricky drug-paranoia lyrics.
Maybe it's heart-felt, an organic evolution, "we just happened to be hanging out
at those sort of clubs, digging that vibe"... who cares? Where is the aesthetic
spine to this band? I have more respect for the Black Crowes, who've at least
stuck with the music they believe in.
The problem with Primal Scream is that they're not really a band, in the sense
of having a sound that evolves, a rhythmic engine. Primal Scream is an elaborate
support-system --extending beyond the singer's musical sidemen to encompass
record company bosses like Alan McGee, A&R men, press officers, producer pals
like Weatherall and music journalist allies like Kris Needs--designed purely to
accommodate Bobby Gillespie's fantasies about being a rock star. The musical
component of this support-system has no aesthetic integrity but fluctuates in
accordance with Gillespie's record collection and current hang-outs. That so
many people collude in maintaining this ego-massaging milieu around Bobby I can
only attribute to his winning personality and the fact that he's such a
passionate fan of music. So these people want to believe he can pull off his
fantasies, and they sort of identify with him (being themselves fans rather than
artists, collector/curators rather than creators).
SQUAREPUSHER/DRILL & BASS
The only outraged reactions I got from the 1996 Over-Rated list were from
'Pusher fans, so it's partly out of malicious perversity that I'm nominating him
for the second year running, and partly out of a simple desire to clarify my
objections. When drill & bass first reared its head, I was admittedly quite
enamored--I really liked the first two Plug EP's and Aphex Twin's "Hangable Auto
Bulb" efforts, and was generally enthused by the notion that these artists were
freer because they didn't belong to the drum & bass community, didn't have to
service DJ's and dancefloor. But Squarepusher was a turning point. Partly
because so much of his stuff sounds irritatingly daft to my ears (that said,
there were three tracks on Hard Normal Daddy that sounded engagingly strange),
but mainly because of the attitude of his supporters--the sheer arrogance of
these folks who just assume that Tom Jenkinson's programming is so much more
radical than "formula-ridden" junglists. This assumption, I strongly suspect,
stems from the fact that they've never actually heard mad-sounding mash-ups like
DJ Hype's remix of Remarc's "RIP" or Dillinja's "Warrior". These records are
"avant-garde" and fucked-up but still manage to make you dance--to me, a much
greater achievement than just freaking out all over the shop. In a lot of
Squarepusher-related discourse, the underlying assumption is that if something
has no funktional aspect, it's somehow more radical; that this makes it
food-for-thought rather than mere dance fodder. Which would seem to replicate
the old Cartesian mind/body split, a la prog rock, no?
Another turning point was going to various freestyle/"eclectro"/illbient type
clubs in London and New York, where I was struck by the absence of "vibe"
compared with more "blinkered", tunnel-vision clubs that cater to very specific
tastes (jump up jungle, 'aving it house, gabba, and so forth). Partly the
vibe-less thing is down to the absence of drug energy, partly the absence of
class-based energy/antagonism. But I also think it stems from the very rhetoric
of border-crossing, style-hopping, "united mutations"--which tends to attract a
rather uncommitted consumer: the proverbial
chin-scratcher/head-nodder/trainspotter. Having been that sort of margin-walker
myself for so long, I've kind of gone to the opposite extreme: the belief that
the apparent "samey"-ness of jump up jungle or gabba or hard house actually
produces something very strong and undeniable: a consistent mood, a highly
charged affective atmosphere that truly pulsates with "meaning" (for want of a
Where you fall in terms of allegiances depends a lot on how much you value the
concept of "being an individual". Squarepusher's stance depends on maintaining a
disdainful distance from the jungle scene while parasitically pirating and
caricaturing its ideas (I've read Jenkinson actually talk of his relationship
with jungle as similar to the difference between "those who lead and those who
follow"--ARSEHOLE!!!). This attitude is reflected in many Pusher-fans reluctance
to get involved in club culture, seemingly based on the rather adolescent notion
that being an individual means refusing to lose yourself in the crowd.
Where you fall in terms of allegiance also depends on what you are fundamentally
looking for pop music. If you just want weird noises to play on your stereo at
home on your lonesome ownsome, then the margin-walkers artists are the ones
you'll go for. But if your fix is that whole subculture-matrix where music is
part of "a way of life" (e.g. jungle with the MCing and the pirate radio and the
crowd rituals etc.), then ostensibly more formulaic scenes and sounds just seem
My ultimate beef with the Squarepusher-type drill & bassologists is that they've
decontextualised the music, stripped away all the aspects that give it resonance
and affect and subcultural meaning. They've responded to jungle's complexity
rather than the feelings it induces and the struggles it embodies. In true
prog-rock fashion, they've taken that complexity (the breakbeat science) and
turned into a baroque form of virtuosity. It's a typical white boho
progressivist syndrome, from freeform jazz to prog rock to avant-funk---turning
a popular dance music into an unpopular head music. And so those
super-accelerated, pitch-shifted, scratchy-rustly-scrapy breakbeats that
Squarepusher over-uses work as a trebly timbre element that you listen to,
rather than funktional, kinaesthetic beats that work your body. But the real
give-away about Squarepusher is what he does with the bass (possibly even more
crucial to jungle than breakbeats), i.e. replace the low-end seismology with
noodly Jaco Pastorius slap-bass. How anybody who'd ever viscerally experienced
jungle sub-bass in its true context (at massive volume through a huge low-end
intensive sound-system) could prefer Squarepusher's frilly filigrees of
bass-twiddle to the "real thing".... Well, it beats me.
Underground Resistance deserves its legendary status, and Mills' two Waveform
Transmission albums are pretty fuckin' intense, but the last couple of years
worth of Purpose Maker "DJ tools" and concept-burdened Axis tracks are purist
techno at its most austerely anhedonic. (Anhedonism being an inability to derive
joy or pleasure from anything, and one of the major symptoms of depression that
Prozac alleviates). Worse still are the legions of Mills copyists churning out
minimalist techno by the yard, music crippled by its sobriety and sublety. The
truth is that UR were best when they sounded just like Belgian hardcore, all
ravey-davey oscillator-vamps and fuck-off riffs a la Cubic 22 and Set Up
WU TANG CLAN
The RZA is capable of flights of inordinate genius--"Glaciers of Ice", "Cold
Cold World"--but most of the time he has hammered flat-as-a-pancake his hip hop
noir formula: phat bass, simple and unchanging looped break, off-key piano motif
left deliberately unresolved to create hair-raising suspense, maybe a bit of
strings or a shrieking diva. The critical canonisation of RZA-as-wizard and Wu
Tang as rap saviours represents a kind of morale-raising spiritual bulwark for
hip hop patriots on both sides of the Atlantic, a reason to keep on believing in
hip hop in the face of G-funk slickness and Puffy's Eighties retreads.
What continues to blow my mind for at least half of Forever, though, is the
lyrical invention and rhymin' fluency--the density of imagery, the lateral
leaps, the martial metaphors, the cinematic vividness. But for most of the
album, RZA's soundscapes are just barely funktional parchment, as it were, for
the textual miasma.
There was a time when Dillinja was untouchable for me, perhaps the greatest drum
& bass producer--there was no jazzed melancholia to compare with "Deep Love" or
"Sovereign Melody", no beats as malevolently headwreckin' and body-baffling as
"You Don't Know (Remix") or "Warrior". With "Angels Fell", "Brutal Bass", "Jah
Know Ya Big", "Muthafucka" and "Sky", the Armored D maintained the pressure and
his profile well into 1996. Wh'appen? He's gone right off the boil, as far as
I'm concerned. After all the fanfares and long delays, "Violent Killer" and
"Acid Trak" were seriously underwhelming, neither as headbangingly dirge-tastic
as No U Turn and Nasty Habits nor as neurotically accomplished as Optical/Jonny
L/Codename John. Maybe, like Roni & Reprazent last year, the D-man is holding
back all his good stuff for the major label debut, resulting in an unnatural
quality-dip. (Worrying to read him talking about working with real musicians for
the album, though....). But it might just be that like other former heroes of
essentialist drum & bass--Aphrodite, SS, Andy C, Hype & Crew--he's simply lost
I hereby disown my unpopular child (loved least, it seems, by those whose
careers it gave a massive boost, but that's another bunch of gripes altogether).
Oh, I still think it's a good idea in theory--it's just the praxis that's left
me cold these last eighteen months. Too much post-rock fails to supply what
people get from trad rock (iconicity/iconoclasm, charisma/neurosis, big riffs,
catharsis, meaning, something to look at on stage, tunes you can hum in the
bath), without ever really rivaling what dance music offers either (kinaesthetic
kicks, hedonic science, surrogate drug-sensations). The most adventurous
post-rock types --your Techno-Animals, Thomas Koners/Porter Ricks's and Third
Eye Foundations--have gone all the way into the studio-bound aesthetics of hip
hop/techno/house/jungle, and abandoned the live-performance model altogether.
The rest of the post-rock fraternity (and you can count the number of women
involved on one hand) have remained stuck in a profitless intermediary zone, a
sort of mildly dub-inflected math-rock. (And math-rock really is rock with all
its good points removed -- prog rock with the grandeur stunted, punk without the
If No U Turn are Killing Joke circa Revelations, Witchman is Alien Sex Fiend.
There's a certain strain of argument being touted in which the extremities
(global as well as musical) are where it's all happening--from freeform improv
to Jap-core noise, from NZ drone-scapes to quirked out neo-Krautrock to
Skullflower-style fuzzadelia. Apart from the insufferable cooler-than-thou
attitude that often seems intrinsic to this stance, my aesthetic objection to
all these initiatives is their tendency to end up as pure abstraction. And pure
abstraction isn't really that interesting. You can't do anything with it, or to
it--apart from just lie back and take it (in).
"A scribble effacing all lines" is how Deleuze & Guattari put in A Thousand
Plateaux, talking of the tendency of avant-garde artists to reterritorialise
around "the child, the mad, noise"--the aesthetic equivalent to such "fascist or
suicidal" lifestyle choices as heroin addiction, terrorism or joining a cult.
Musically, the quest for chaos can easily end up as a black hole of
undifferentiated, maelstromic miasma--as vast as the cosmos maybe, but in the
absence of any figure-ground perspective, it's effectively as claustrophobic as
I subscribe to the D&G/Manuel Delanda line that the most interesting work
happens "on the edge of chaos". I'm interested in abstraction where it works as
a component of a groove ('ardkore, darkside, techstep) or an element within an
architectonics of audio-space (Chain Reaction). It's the thresholds, the
intermediary zones, that are really magical -- melody bleeding into noise,
songcraft struggling with psychedelics (My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du);
distortion + raunch (Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic", Royal Trux's Cats and Dogs);
the Bataillean excess and surplus-to-requirements extravagance working within
and against the funktional minimalism (Prince, swingbeat); space + groove +
timbre (Can, Neu!, Miles Davis, Seventies dub). Punk to funk, the ethos is the
same: "restriction is the mother of all invention" (Holger Czukay).
Extremism? Well, on what scale are we measuring here? Very little out-rock,
avant-jazz, left-field electronica, etc. being perpetrated today really ranks
with, let alone exceeds, the outer limits probed by the Sixties freeform
brigades, electro-acousticians, and so forth. There's also the question of ego:
so much out-rock or avant-improv seems to partake of the Expressionistic Fallacy
(e.g. Caspar Brotzmann's scrofulously self-preening theatre of pain). This
interferes with the listener's ability to derive machinic use-value from it. You
just have to sit there and gasp in awe. It's about marveling at the Artist's
depth and intensity of feeling, rather than using the music to trigger
sensations and intensities in yourself. The impersonal, "objective" approach to
constructing rhythmic engines or kinaesthetic audio-sculptures can create just
as powerful feelings in the listener as the "subjective" school of Romantic
outpouring creativity. The idea that the former is mere artisanship whereas the
latter is true Art is, like, half a century out of date, at least. This is the
age of the engineer-poet, the imagineer.
Although drum & bass can make some preposterous claims about its experimentalist
reach, the truth is that its radicalism is always constrained with a quite rigid
set of parameters: at any given season, certain kinds of bass-sound, certain
kinds of breaks, and a specific tempo, are required by DJ's and dancers;
invention takes place within and against those constraints. The resulting
friction creates sparks. In hardcore dance scenes, constraints are a strength,
not a liability. At the very least, these parameters are no less likely to
produce strikingly listenable and intensity-productive results than the total
absence of constraints. Extremism can be as fruitless as any musical stance;
simply embarking with an experimental mindset does not guarantee results.
Leaving the rhetoric of extremity for those still interested in playing the cool
game (the fun wears off about a decade or so, lemme warn ya; there's always
something more marginal and listener-unfriendly than whatever outer limit you
set up shop upon) is a tremendous release. I can now confess that the
song-oriented Faust IV is my favourite of their albums rather than the hipper
Faust Tapes, that I prefer the boogie-fied crossover stab Clear Spot to Trout
Mask Replica, that the almost-funky Strange Celestial Roads is my fave Sun Ra,
that the Sly-and-Jimi influenced Seventies Miles pleasures me more than Ayler or
AMM screeching to the converted. I can consign those Merzbow CD's to that
cupboard marked "possibly someday, probably never".
Other over-rated bands:
YO LA TENGO
and in conclusion, here's my
AMBIVALENCE OF THE YEAR: SPEED GARAGE
Things I like about Speed Garage
1/ It's a composite of potent clichés -- the best, most effective (what some
call "cheesy") elements from the last ten years of club and rave culture mashed
together: garage's skipping, syncopated snares; house's brassy diva vocals and
EQ-ing/filtering/phasing/stereopanning effects that make sounds shiver up your
spine; 1992 hardcore's squeaky vocals (hence speed garage covers of Jonny L's
"Hurt You So", Urban Shakedown's "Some Justice", that "Sexual Feeling Is Mutual"
track); 1994 jungle's ragga-dalek timestretched chants and Dred Bass
radioactive-glow B-lines and Omni Trio-style soul-diva plasma-acapella loops.
2/ Such a simple idea--fusing the best of house and jungle--ruffing up house
just at the point when it had gotten a little too sedate and glossy, and
joy-juicing up jungle just as it lost its rude-bwoy exuberance and (with
neurofunk) became utterly desiccated and frigid, what Peter Shapiro called a
"cyber-Calvinist pleasure-free zone".
3/ Those lewd, lubricious butt-surging B-lines really erogenize your rump-zone.
4/ The Arthur Russell-like dub-spacious and percussadelic side of the sound
(artists like Ramsey & Fen) looks like it might develop into "ambient speed
garage", while the ragga-sampling and dirty-bass driven end of the scene (what
UK Dance's Bat calls "dangerous garage") has already taken over the role of
jump-up jungle. This potential split between "musical"/"experimental"
speed-garage and the rougher, darker stuff that appeals to "garage ravers" (once
a contradiction in terms) could be highly productive or highly amusing, or even
both. Either way it's going to be way more interesting than the song-full stuff
that just sounds like a slightly tuffer and faster version of New York garage.
Things I Don't Like About Speed Garage:
1/ Such a simple idea--fusing the best of house and jungle--simple, and once the
initial surprise has worn off, kind of obvious.
2/ Precisely because it's a composite of house and jungle, whereas jungle was a
mutant of hip hop and techno -- a mutant that warped all its sources (speeding
up and chopping to shreds the breakbeats, for instance). I don't hear an
equivalent factor of warpage in Speed Garage yet, I don't hear enough future.
3/ Too many tracks with the exact same beat--something you could never say about
jungle, at least until 1997 and the tyranny of the two-step trudge. I've heard
tracks that interlace and leaven the skipping, wood-chop snares with
micro-breaks and percussadelic ticks, but too much speed garage is as
rhythmically monotonous as house and trance.
4/ The "politics" of Speed Garage are so much less interesting than those of
jungle, which was shadowed by the desperation and darkside gloom caused by the
1992/93/94 recession, whereas Speed Garage is colored by the feel-goodism and
living-large of the late Major/early Blair boom. Hence its reversion to the
pre-rave clubland exclusivity of the last economic boom, the mid-to-late
loadsamoney Eighties; hence its resemblance to the playaz of post-Puffy
rap/post-Timbaland R&B, products of the Clinton boom. Same flash clothes
(literally--shiny, man-made, near-fluorescent fabrics), designer-label
we-are-the-beautiful-people/we-be-the-baddest-clique ethos. Now, I don't wanna
come across like a playa-hater, but as someone who wears trainers, and crap
trainers to boot, I resent the return of style codes and the implicit "quality
people, quality sounds" ethos.
5/ Its victory has been too easy (coming out of the London underground to
conquer the rest of the country and penetrate the Top 30 within less than a
year); its appeal too straightforward and accountable. Where's the difficulty,
Nonetheless, for the curious, here are some killer speed-garage tunes. Shake
your ass to:
Gant --"Sound Bwoy Burial (187 Lockdown Dancehall Mix)" (Positiva)
187 Lockdown --"Gunman" (EastWestDance)
Fabulous Baker Boys --"Oh Boy" (Multiply) [sampling Jonny L's "Hurt You So
D.J. Ride -- "Renegade Bass (Unreleased Mix)" from Power House Recordings
Limited Edition Part 1" EP (Power House) [sampling Renegade's "Terrorist"]
Ramsey & Fen -- "Underground Explosion" from The Off-Key Experience EP" (Very
The Hornet --"Just 4 U London" from The Hornet Presents "The Rockin' EP" (Sting
City) [remake of Bodysnatch's "Euphony" a/k/a "Just 4 U London"]
The Unofficials Vol. 1 [bootleg of Notorious BIG track]
Underground Distortion --"Everything Is Large" (Satellite)
R.I.P. Productions--"The Chant (We R)" (Satellite) [samples Lennie De
Underground's "We Are Ie"]
Ruff Da' Menace -- "Kick The Party Into Full Effect (Ruff & Menacing Mix)"
A Baffled Republic--"Bad Boys (Move In Silence)" (One Step/Catch)
Double 99 --"Ripgroove" (Satellite)