Sunday, December 14, 2008

FAVES AND OVER-RATED OF 1998
(from Blissout website aka A White Brit Rave Aesthete Thinks Aloud)


Fave Records of 1998

Pulling the Faves of 98 together, I was surprised to find shitloads of records
that I liked; surprised, because all through the year, my feeling--corroborated
in countless conversations with friends and fellow observers--was that 1998 was
the worst year for a long time. (Since 1985?). Disparate delights in abundance,
but a stale odor of stagnation seeping from virtually every scene and style;
sonic narratives petering out or reaching an impasse; genres splintering into
microgenres and tiny sects; nostalgia and old skool wistfulness galore; lots of
motion simultaneous with the sense of it all going nowhere and meaning... less.
Go figure. Here, at least, is the unexpected cornucopia of sounds that aroused
me the most in 1998.


2-STEP GARAGE

The book's verdict on speed garage was that it's "a composite (house plus
jungle) where drum and bass was a mutant (hiphop times techno)", that where
jungle "twisted and morphed its sources; as yet, an equivalent warp factor is
barely audible in speed garage". 1998 was when the warp factor really began to
make itself heard, with producers reasserting the breakbeat legacy of jungle and
creating the strange nu-funk style called 2-step--basically slow-motion jungle,
something for the ladies massive.

At the same time as being lover's jungle, 2-step is also like a UK response to
American R'n'B. Timbaland's twitchy hypersyncopation has long been widely
attributed to a drum and bass influence, something steadfastly denied by Tim 'n'
Missy. All through '98 you could hear that imagined (?) compliment being repaid
by the children of jungle, in the form of 2-step. Dropping the four-to-the-floor
house pulse and replacing it with Timbaland's falter-funk kick drum, producers
like Dreem Teem, Dem 2, Chris Mac, Steve Gurley, et al are basically making
smoov R'n'B filtered through a post-Ecstasy sensorium: midtempop bump'n' grind;
sped-up, succulent cyborg-diva vocals; a playa-pleasing patina of deluxe
production. At the same time, 2-step is geared towards the UK polydrug culture
(where cocaine has usurped E as the paradigm drug, the vibe-setter), so
alongside the sexed-up, VIP opulence there's all these dark-but-sensual elements
(warped vocal ectoplasm, convulsive hypersyncopations) that hint at coke
psychosis on the scene's horizon.

More on this in a thinkpiece in the April 99 issue of The Wire (it'll also later
get posted in director's cut form on the site--footnotes galore!). Right now,
the specifics--in no particular order, my fave 2-step tunes of 1998.


DEM 2--Destiny (Sleepless) [Locked On]
--Destiny (New Vocal Mix) [Locked On]
U.S. ALLIANCE --Grunge Dub/All I Know [Locked On]
GROOVE CONNEKTION 2--Club Lonely (DEM 2 Don't Cry Dub) [Locked On]

Dem 2--Dean Boylan and Spencer Edwards--are the outfit whose music makes the
most convincing argument that 2-step is a brand nu-funk for the Nine Nine. One
listen to "Destiny (Sleepless)" is enough to tell you it's not house music; it
barely has any relationship to garage as hitherto known. So deceptively simple
is its groove (every element--and they're all simultaneously
melodic/rhythmic/textural--dovetails with a Zen perfection) that it's almost
impossible to describe. It doesn't sound overtly avant-garde or abstract, but I
defy you to name a record before 1998 it resembles or owes much to: the
tremulous, heartbroken cyborg vocal faintly recalls Zapp, the darting and
stinging synth-lick recalls Gary Numan, there's an electro flavor in there, but
that's about it. Crisp and juicy, joyous yet tense, "Destiny" is one of those
key records in the hardcore/jungle/speed garage continuum, like 2 Bad Mice's
"Waremouse", Renegade's "Terrorist" or Gant's "Sound Bwoy Burial", that
announces a paradigm shift, codifies a new style, sets the blueprint.

Dem 2's "Don't Cry Dub" of "Club Lonely"--like the original "Destiny", released
way back in late '97--has a similar do-androids-weep-electric-tears? feel. Here
you can really hear Dem 2's virtuosity at the diva-manipulation techniques that
Bat from ukdance calls "vocal science." Texturally, they scintillate the voice,
fluorescize it, make it gleam and refract as though you're hearing it through
ears wet with tears; rhythmically, they shred the vocal into micro-syllable and
sub-phoneme particles--cyborg-sniffles, sounds as fleetingly iridescent as
spit-bubbles in the corner of a sobbing mouth--and make them syncopate against
the groove (pure Timbaland twitch-and-bump).

"Grunge Dub" by U.S. Alliance--a Dem 2 alias--shows the duo's darker direction
for 1999: a rhythm matrix so assymetrical, angular and stop-start off-kilter
it's almost impossible to dance to (this is 2-step's big break with house's E-d
up 4-to-the-floor egalitarianism--you have to be really good at dancing to move
to these beats), and a twisted, gibbering groan-riff of a male vocal.


CHRIS MAC--Plenty More/Get It [Confetti]

Possibly the most accomplished and inventive producer to arise out of UK garage
last year, Chris Mac is doing as much as Dem 2 to prove that 2-step is a new
thing. "Plenty More" is silky, svelte sensuality corroded with darkness: a
simultaneously brittle and supple rhythm track dominated by squishy, spongy
snares (possibly reversed), strings that slash across the stereofield like the
orchestral equivalent of a skid, and a mix so shiny you almost have to squint
your ears against its harsh gloss glare. The vocal is interesting too, plugging
into garage's rapacious appetitiveness (all those divas demanding "give me", "I
need it"). The voice is ambiguously pitched, recalling Prince's sped-up
alter-ego Camille on "If I Was Your Girlfriend"--the lyrics go "not a little
girl anymore/used to be the one I adore/but there's plenty more fish in the
sea/for me", but you're never sure if it's a diva putting down a guy and
asserting her sexual autonomy, or a playa putting a girl in her place by telling
her she's disposable, replaceable. Either way, "Plenty More" evokes the coked-up
roving eye feasting its gaze on the sexual bounty of the nightclub's babe-arama.
"Get It" is even more rapacious, transmitting an ants-in-your-pants alloy of
desperation and desire. Brass stabs and jungalistic sub-bass pressure-drops
weave around a dense web of drum some of which (in a typical 2-step sleight of
subtle avant-gardism) reveal themselves on close inspection as made of the human
voice: hiccups, chokings, winces, gasps and stutters.


OPERATOR and BAFFLED--"Things Are Never (STEVE GURLEY Remix) [Locked On]
LENNY FONTANA--"Spirit of the Sun" (STEVE GURLEY Remix) [public
Demand]

"Things Are Never" is moody. (It actually reminds me of E.S.G.'s "Moody").
Crisper-than-crisp beats, a baleful bass-drop (making your stomach plummet like
you're on a rollercoaster), a one-note synth-bleep wincing like a hypertense
vein pulsing in your temple. In the new sonic context crafted by Steve Gurley
(ex-Foul Play, a/k/a Rogue Unit), the originally romantic-heartbreak themed diva
vocal ("things are never/what they seem") becomes a more general statement of
existensial instability. The lush-but-dark vibe reminds me of Nightmares On
Wax's "Aftermath", the plinkily metallic, melodic-percussive xylophone riff
recalls Unique 3's "7-AM". There's a bunch of tunes around in early 99--like
"Slamdown" off New Horizons' Scrap Iron Dubs No. 1 EP--that have a clonking
industrial feel that harks back to the bleep-and-bass era of 1990: the first
time the British merged house, reggae and electro to make a new sound system
stylee.

"Spirit of the Sun" has the archetypal 2-step mood-blend of euphoria and
tension, retaining garage's overwraught diva histronics but resituating them
amid dynamics and drops that are totally un-house. The bit where the beat pauses
and the "shine on, shine on, shine on" chorus explodes never fails to send
goosebumps prickling up my neck. The lyric is kind of interesting too, the diva
talking about how she's going to be infused by "the spirit of the sun"--it takes
garage's traditional obsession with summer to the verge of Bataille-style
helioatry: his worship of solar extravagance and his exaltation of a "will for
glory" in the human soul "which would that we live like suns, squandering our
goods and our life." Bataille-style will-to-expenditure, aristocratic potlatch,
largesse, and garage 'n' R'n'B's luxury, commodity-fetishism and larging it --
same thing innit?


RICHIE BOY AND DJ KLASSE--"Madness On The Street (2 Step Mix)" [Stamp]

Another stunning torsion-and-treatment job on a female R'n'B vocal of unknown
(to me) provenance. "I can't stand/All this madness on the street"--this short
phrase, pretty funky to start with, is subjected to all kinds of vivisection and
resequencing over a sublime cyberfunk groove. Combining the anti-naturalism of
R'n'B vocal production with the filtering/panning techniques of late 90s house,
producers like Richie Boy and DJ Klasse fracture the vocie into tiny percussive
shards, create new accents and stresses, make the vocal haemorrhage or pulse,
fold in on itself, buckle, crinkle, or glow uncannily. It's serious posthuman
business, you're not listening to a person anymore but a passion that's being
enhanced and mutated through interaction with technology. A cyborg, in other
words.


SOME TREAT -- Lost In Vegas (JBR)

A tribute to/remake of Shut Up And Dance's 1990 (or was it even 1989?) track
"Ten Pounds To Get In," this samples the Suzanne Vega vocal-riff from "Tom's
Diner" that SUAD must have got from DNA's unoffical-then-subsequently-sanctioned
dance version of the S. Vega track. We're talking multiple levels of citation
here, serious intertextuality. On a broader level it's a tribute to the hardcore
continuum--getting on for ten years of London's multiracial rave scene, a
culture of mixing it up, of hybridising hybrids and mutating mutations; the
continual reinvention of flava and vibe. A tradition of futurism. Roots N'
Future = the endlessly fresh now.


DOOLALLY--"Straight From The Heart" (Chocolate Boy/Locked On)

A lot of people have said there's a ska element to this tune. There's definitely
a skanking vibe-- the trace of a reggae afterbeat, a strange bubbling bassline
that winds and weaves around the crisp, push-me pull-you 2-step. So irresistibly
poppy and chuneful it made the UK Top 20, "Straight From the Heart"--and its
sequel, "Sweet Like Chocolate", released as Shanks and Bigfoot--make the
strongest case for 2-step as a millenial update of lover's rock: the UK-spawned
hybrid of US soul and reggae that emerged at the end of the 1970s as
second-generation Caribbean-British women demanded songs that addressed their
concerns (love, relationships) rather than a Rastafarian agenda. As Dick
Hebdiges says in Cut 'n' Mix, rather than the fantasy of utopia through
repatriation to Ethiopia/Zion, these women's (only slightly less unrealistic?)
dream was of a caring man. A song hymning devotion, commitment and holding out
for the long-term emotional dividend, "Straight From The Heart" is also a sign
that the hardcore nation's grown up and settled down. Borderline cheesy, it
reminds me of the way hardcore could alchemize the most cheddary pop hits and
make them sublime (c.f. Goldseal Tribe's '92 push-me-pull-you pirate monster
"Only The Lonely"). Love it.



AMIRA--"My Desire (DREEM TEEM Remix) [VC/Virgin/Slip'n'Slide]
N-TYCE--"Telefunkin' (FIRST STEPS Remix) [label unknown]
JODECI VS CLUB ASYLUM--Freak Me Up (Steppers Vocal Mix) [white label]

US R'n'B gods/goddesses (and some Brit-wannabes) given the now almost obligatory
2-step remix for the London market--sometimes official, sometimes strickly
bootleg. "My Desire"--glossy gamelan clatter'n'tinkle of percussion, B-line that
hops and skips and flutters like lovestruck butterflies in the stomach, a
perpetual forward tumbling flow (pivoting around a micro-second hesitation in
the groove that makes all the difference), a trembling-with-joy vocal
re-patterned to dovetail with the groove in such snugly funky ways you'll want
to leap out your own skin. "Telefunkin'"--slow-burning, svelte menace, hilarious
love-junkie phone-sex lyrics ("I've got the fever for your flava", "I'm addicted
to you baby/tied to the telephone line"). "Freak Me Up"--simply very, very
horny.


NEW HORIZON--"Find The Path" [500 Rekords]
--"It's My House (Bashment Mix)" [500 Rekords]
--Scrap Iron Dubs No. 1 EP" [500 Rekords]

Not 2-step, but a reggaematic and rootical reinvention of house music so
marvellous and peculiar I had include it here. '97's "Find The Path" whisks a
Gregory Isaacs-style nightingale croon into a falsetto froth of melisma-plasma
that quivers and ripples like the fronds of a jellyfish; organ vamps create an
almost Gothic-dub atmosphere. "It's My House (Bashment Mix)"--"bashment" is a
dancehall patois term for the ultimate, the works--has this amazing
dissonant-verging-on-microtonal blare of drones that's somewhere between the
Master Musicians of Jajouka and the old hardcore rave blow-your-own-horn classic
"One Time For the Foghorn". Scrap Iron Dubs No.1"--killer tune is "Slamdown"--
is part of what Bat from ukdance identifies as the "latest micro-trend in
2-step... weird techno bleepy clanging noises peppered all over the trax",
further pointing out that "This is a pretty radical departure for garage, which
has stuck to the same portfolio of 'organic' sounds (real instruments, proper
singing etc) for yonks. Now we get those organic noises mixed up with all manner
of strange vleeps and metallic klungs - something I haven't heard since the
heyday of hardcore and jungle around 1994."


KMA--Recon Mission EP (Locked On)

The title declares this EP a probe into the unknown (as does the sample "this is
a line to the future/leave a message). From the outfit responsible for the dark
garage classics "Cape Fear" and "Kaotic Madness," this is one of the most
emotionally and rhythmically confused records I've heard in years. My favorite
is the third track, "Blue Kards," a hybrid of the first two: disjointed beats
that seem to stampede out of the mix, gaseous swirls of phased vocals (sung by
producer Six), stricken guitar licks, and an overwraught doubt-wracked
bluesiness of mood. Alarmingly the new KMA jam "Kemistry" is a supersmooth
four-to-the-floor tune with a full-on vocal; Six's thinking seems to be that the
only unpredictable thing left for KMA to do was make a totally conventional
garage track. Shame, but the debut album The Unanswered Question, set for Jan
1st 2000 release, might well rival be 2-step's Timeless .


ANTONIO-- "Hyper Funk" (Locked On)

Crisp-and-spry 2-stepper whose simple drum machine beat, Scritti prickle of
glossy funk guitar, and block party MC exhortation ("hype hype hype hype the
funk") hark back to early Eighties simplicity. 2-step's very own "Rockerfella
Skank"?


GROOVE CHRONICLES--"Stone Cold" (Groove Chronicles)

Crafted by rising producer Noodles, this languid-yet-foreboding track samples
just a few vocal phrases from Aaliyah's sublime "One In A Million" (a Timbaland
production which I always though was like a jungle ballad) and totally reinvents
them; Aaliyah's hushed devotional tenderness becomes the ghost-of-my-former-self
whispers of a love addict going through emotional cold turkey. The key phrase is
"desire" (phrased "deee-siyah", putting a sigh in it): in the original, it's
Aaliyah promising to do anything her beloved wants, his heart's desire; here, it
becomes a floating signifier, pure intransitive craving, and yet another sign of
garage's relentless imagery of appetite and neediness ("what you want, what you
need', "giving you what you wanted," etc). Killer moment: when the beat and the
jazzy sax solo drops out, leaving just Aaliyah's pleas and reproaches ("you
don't know, what you do to me"), then in comes the moodiest wah-wah dread
bassline ever. Goosepimples a-go-go.


RAMSEY and FEN--"Love Bug" [BUG]
--"Desire" [BUG]
--"Love Bug Remixes" [BUG]

What blows me away about "Desire" is the amazing density of rhythmic information
RAF are able to cram in without the groove feeling cluttered. The intricate
high-end percussion--shakers, hi-hats (closed and open), tambas, the trademark
RAF ultra-crisp fills and rolls --is so dazzling and glitterball spangly that
the first time I heard it the phrase "cocaine music" sprung into my mind (and
it's not a drug I know much about). Turns out that (according to Kodwo Eshun,
who heard it from Portishead's engineer) the "cocaine ear" prefers bright, toppy
sounds. "Love Bug" is similarly dense-but-groovy with weird detuned drum fills.
There's also an amazing "Love Bug" remix out any day with an electro feel--if
it's the track I heard Fen playing out, it's got a Roland 808 bass-drop driven
groove that throbs and whirs like a monstrous clockwork mechanism.


CLOUD 9--"Do You Want Me (DEM 2 Steps To Heaven Mix) [Locked On]
CRAZY BANK--"Your Love" [Locked On]

These go together in my head for some reason; "Do You Want Me" is sheer amorous
euphoria with great percussive vocal stabs, which are contorted, twisted and
clipped short to make for an exquisitely tender frenzy. Crazy Bank does much the
same but with a more desperate tinge, making the diva sound like she's about to
leap out of her own skin. There's no narrative coherence to 2-step's love songs:
sentences are left hanging, the object noun or qualifier snipped to make the
phrase fit the funktionalist requirements of the track. Here it's like the
lover's discourse in random shuffle mode.


M-DUBS--"Over Here (Sugar Shack Break Beat Funk)" [Babyshack Recordings]

A minimal 2-step roller very much in the "Destiny" mold--crisp snare-kick
groove, simple synth-vamp, great organ licks and dub-wise flickers in back of
the mix. What really makes it though is the fantastic drawling and nasal ragga
vocal from the Emperor Richie Dan, playing a ladeez-man tendering his services
("if you wanna take a chance/I'm right over 'ere") while a female backing vocals
seem to be singing "Iron Mike" for some reason.


SKYCAP--titles unknown [white label]

Two tracks in the vein of their awesome dark garage tune from '97, "Endorphin".
So wired they're dsyfunktional, they make me think the next step after
charley-spliffs might be freebasing. The best side has a gibbering and mewling
male vocal (which eventually goes into single-phoneme scatting --imagine Bobby
McFerrin reduced to a crackhead) strung around an ultra-brittle 2-step
anti-groove. The flip, also good, features a seriously overwraught and
accusatory diva and some blues-wracked guitar licks. 2-step's journey beyond the
pleasure principle should be as interesting as '93 darkcore's.


VARIOUS ARTISTS Locked On, Vol 3: Mixed by Ramsey and Fen [Virgin]
DREEM TEEM Dreem Teem In Session Volume 2 [Deconstruction/4 Liberty]

Locked On is the best UK garage compilation yet (the full circumference, 2-step
to 4-to-the-floor), and also, I'm afraid, the American reader's best chance of
hearing this stuff: a few 2-step tunes are slipping through in the speed
garage/UK garage bins, but this is a London thing, inevitably if rather sadly.
You can find this comp in American specialist dance stores and also in Virgin
megastore. Mixed by RAF, it's the bomb: alongside above-mentioned lovelies
"Destiny", "Love Bug," Amira, Crazy Bank, it includes such killers as Dreem
Teem's bubblicious proto-2stepper "The Theme," the astounding Dem 2 cyberfunk
mix of Aftershock's "Slave To the Vibe," M.J. Cole's slick, Bukem-of-2step
"Sincere" and RandF's gorgeous Latin garidge mix of The Heartists's "Belo
Horizonti." The Dreem Teem comp has many of the same 2-step classics,, plus New
Horizon's "It's My House (Bashment Mix)" and a great woozily vocalized Chris Mac
cyberballad, "Set It Off".



VOCAL HOUSE

SHANTEL-- Higher Than The Funk [!K7]
HERBERT--Around The House [Phonography]
LEILA--Like Weather [Rephlex]
BASEMENT JAXX--"Red Alert/Yo Yo" [XL]
--"Rendez-Vu/Jump 'N Shout" [XL]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Atlantic Jaxx Recordings: A Compilation [Atlantic Jaxx]

Per 2-step, most of my favorite dance records this year featured vocals.
Electronica + ethereal girl vox = bliss is a post-Bjork cliche. But the equation
has generated some of '98's loveliest listening. Shantel is a play on producer
Stefan Hantel, but is really a merger of his beat science, the tunecraft of
singer/songwriter Andrea Palladio, and the dulcet tones of chanteuse Liane
Sommers. With pale wraiths of vocal (Palladio and Sommers are virtually
indistinguishable ice queens) darting between reggae-inflected beats, Higher is
like a techno remake of Grace Jones's Nightclubbing, right down to the unusual
cover versions (here, a gorgeously wistful skank-over of "All I Want "
My Fair Lady). Highlight: the eerie, slow-mo dub-maze of "Fiercely Independent".

More (wo)man-machine magick on Around The House, this time fusing the
texturhythmic voluptuousness of Matthew Herbert with Dani Siciliano's jazzed
vocals. Possibly my favorite album of the year, and another indication that
house has quietly crept forward to become the leading edge of dance culture-as
it once was a decade ago. Assimilating the sharpest ideas from more overtly
experimental genres and resituating them in a juicier pleasure-principled
context, house producers have avoided the grimly purist rut of hairshirt
minimalism that's ensnared drum and bass and techno.

Nobody better exemplifes late Nineties house's promiscuous impurism than
Basement Jaxx, the South London duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe. On
their two recent EPs (whose four A-sides + four dub versions = an album's worth
of stuff), virtually every track creates a new subgenre. "Red Alert" is P-Funk
house: Bootsy slap-bass, G-Funk synth, a chorus of psychedelic dwarves chanting
fluent Clintonese. Flipside "Yo Yo" has been hailed as "punk garage", for the
Nirvana/Pixies heft of its fuzzed-out bass-riff. But the chorus--"you were a
prophet from above/then you came and sucked my blood"--recalls Jamie Principle's
eroto-mystic house classic "Baby Wants To Ride"; if Prince-wannabe Principle had
ever got to make his own Sign of The Times, it might have sounded like "Yo Yo."
The second Jaxx EP is even more amazing. "Jump 'N Shout" is rude'n' deadly
ragga-house, driven by a thuggishly in-your-face bassline and hectic patois
patter; Buxton and Ratcliffe have managed to come up with a totally different
dancehall/house hybrid than speed garage. "Rendez-Vu" is either "flamenco-house"
or "The Genre Formerly Known As House," meshing Castillian guitar flurries and
Zapp-style vocoder ditties with and a lush, orchidaeous decadence that again
recalls Prince (this time circa Parade). Where most dance records make a virtue
of creative thrift, Basement Jaxx stuff is maximalist not minimalist: instead of
interminable loops, you get new patterns every couple of bars, sonic
singularities, an insanity of detail. Yet Buxton and Ratcliffe's sonic largesse
never degenerates into eclectic whimsy or that multilayered-but-not-integrated
form of addititive composition that undoes so much computer-based music.
The lead tracks are so permeated with dub's spatial sorcery that they almost
render the dub versions redundant, if the latter weren't so radically creative
and almost-brand-new brilliant. "Red Alert Dub" is much more freaked-out and
millenial, with feet-defeating beats, a cthonic growl of a B-line, and panicked
screams. "Boo-Slinga Dubplate"--the remix of "Jump 'N Shout"--is a full-on
maelstromic 303 miasma, collapsing at one point into a dubby drumspace of
signals, echos, pulses, wisps and hisses. "Dreamdub" isn't actually a reworking
of "Rendez-Vu" but an all new track which the boys consider a sop to fans of
their earlier deep-housey stuff (apparently, it only took them a few hours to
knock together). It's sublime, stunning, the sound of a cup of joy
overfloweth-ing--all rhapsodic string-shimmers, angel-sighs, orgasmic gasps of
blissed horny exertion, and this only-repeated-once syncopated stop-start vamp
like your heart skipping a beat. The Atlantic Jaxx compilation is a useful
introduction to the back catagloue, covering all the duo's facets from Latinate
to the ill-sounding "Set Yo Body Free" (house music's "Third Stone From the
Sun"?).

Advance ear-glimpses of the Basement boys debut Remedy reveal even wilder twists
to the contours of house as we've hitherto known her--such as "Don't Give Up", a
quiet Sturm und Drang ballad that beseeches "don't pull the cracks in your mind
apart" beneath, billowing acid-bass and Scott Walker strings, and "Same Old
Show", which does amazing things with a vocal loop from The Selector's "On My
Radio" believe it or not. Remedy looks set to do for house what Reprazent's New
Forms did for drum and bass in '97--explode the parameters, and made the wider
world beyond wake up and pay attention.



GLOOMCORE

PILLDRIVER--"Apocalypse Never" [Cold Rush]
MARC ACARDIPANE--Marc Acardipane--Best of 1989-98 [IDandT ]
ARRIVERS--Dark Invader [Things To Come Records]
THE HORRORIST--One Night in NYC [Things To Come Records]
SUPERPOWER--The Future Crusade [Things To Come Records]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Lost Tracks [Industrial Strength]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Bigger Bolder Better [PCP/CNR]

Scene people call it "doomcore" but I'm sticking with "gloomcore"--the "gl--"
sound is more moistly morose, capturing the voluptuous melancholy of the sound
and its dankly reverberant Gothic sound. (Apparently Marc Acardipane's musical
journey began with a punk band who rehearsed in a church--in the hardcore mag
Thunder, he says "with hindsight I think that is one of the reasons why I use
full, booming, resounding noises in my records." )

This was another great year for "ambient gabba"--the atmospheric dirgecore
pioneered by Acardipane and cohort Miro (a/k/a Reign and Renegade Legion), which
has apparently turned around the Netherlands scene, brought back a hint of
melody, musicality and slower tempos. That said it's harder to imagine anything
harder or more punishing than Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never", the long-awaited
tenth release on Cold Rush (Lost 10 as H-core connoisseurs whisper in hushed,
reverential tones), my favorite single of the year, and quite possibly Marc
Acardipane's aesthetic pinnacle. "Apocalypse Never" harries the listener with
synth-stabs that sound like a swarm of bat-winged and trident-wielding demons,
while the unrelenting 4/4 kick-drum is so cleverly inflected you never register
it as monotony. Listening, I feel like I'm surging through a nebula cloud of
flame, a slipstream of silver sparks and fiery motes swathing my limbs, a real
inferno brother, subcutaneously incandescent. There's no getting round the fact
that, aesthetically (if in no other sense) this is a fascist experience, a
blitzkrieg--touching on deep nether realms of Nordic soul. Viking bizness and
t'ing, seen.

Arcadipane has now split from PCP/Dance Ecstasy 2001/etc, set up his own label
(called, bizarrely PCP-Acardipane), and taken Miro with him; early output is
good but not outstanding. If you want to catch up on his awesome body of work,
hunt down Marc Acardipane--Best of 1989-98. Right now the gloomcore torch is
burning brightest in the hands of The Horrorist, a/k/a New York's veteran gabba
producer Oliver Chesler (you can hear some of his early terrorcore stuff on
Industrial Strength's excellent gabba primer Lost Tracks). Like Cold Rush's
"music for huge space arenas," Chesler's three EPs on his own Things To Come
label are music for the kind of raves that don't exist any more (except maybe in
the Netherlands)--bacchanals in giant industrial hangars, cyber-Wagner bombast,
a lost blisstopia of Belgian brutalism. Chesler's been scarred by T99 and
"Dominator", the mentasm virus got into his nervous system and he's never
recovered. Tracks like "Dark Invader" (title track of the first EP) and "Move:
Don't Stop" (high point of The Future Crusade, a collaboration with Miro, here
aliasing himself as Hypnotizer) hark back to that moment in 1991 when the big
rave became a night rally of living E-heads--the beats got regimented, the bass
pumped militaristically.

The really interesting thing about the Things To Come stuff is that most of it
has vocals and lyrics; Chesler's into story-songs, scabrous vignettes of
Manhattan club kids up to no good ("Mission For Ecstasy", "One Night in NYC")
that make me think of the Larry Clark flick Kids, or strange
megalomaniac/paranoiac fever-dreams that suggest Oliver has a bit of a
prophet-complex (this music is the soundtrack to an as-yet-imaginary subculture,
Gothic Rave, he wants to bring into being), or alienated-but-loving-it odes to
robo-dancing in advanced states of polydrug dissassociation (the Devo-esque "Wet
and Shiny", "Flesh Is The Fever"). Breaking with the studied anonymity and
mystique of techno culture, Chesler wants to communicate: each EP comes with a
lyric sheet that also includes prose-poem writings and musings by Oliver on
drugs and "the millenium spider." Chesler wants to recruit you for his New
Direction; I for one am ready to enlist.



R'n'B

TIMBALAND-- Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment
[Blackground]
AALIYAH-- "Are You That Somebody?" (from Dr. Dolittle soundtrack ) [Atlantic]
MYA--"It's All About Me" [University/Interscope]
NICOLE-- "Make It Hot" from Make It Hot [EastWest]

For the last eighteen months, Timbaland's convulsive kinaesthetic
--double-time/triple-time/quintuple-time kicks, ultra-crisp snares, spasmodic
flurries of hi-hat-- has dominated the R'n'B soundscape. So what's immediately
striking about Bio is its failure to probe a fresh new direction; a lot of
copycat producers must have trained their ears anxiously on its contents in the
hope of finding new beats to bite, only to walk away disappointed.
Maybe you've heard of the Jamaican tradition of "version" or "one rhythm"
albums: a dozen or so tracks all built on top of the same bass-and-drum
undercarriage. Different songs, different dubs, same riddim. Timbaland isn't
quite so frugal with his creativity, but Tim's Bio does pretty much consist of
eighteen variations on that beat. But perhaps this complaint misses the point.
Ever since it lost the "-'n roll," rock has had a problem with repetition:
albums and shows are supposed to have dynamics, pacing, constrasts,
demonstrations of versatility; at a certain point, more is always less. But in
dance music, more is... more; repetition accumulates intensity, creates and
sustains that crucial intangible known as "vibe". Black dance scenes (and their
white mutations) work according to the principle Amiri Baraka dubbed " changing
same": minute variations on the same building blocks (jungle's "Amen" breakbeat,
Miami Bass's subwoofer-quaking 808 boom, dancehall 's "pepperseed" rhythm , and
so forth). Mercenary copyists and opportunistic cloners play their part, too.
For when a certain sound is doin' it, the audience can't get enough of the good
stuff. If you're in it, the slight tweaks and twists to the reigning formula
have enormous impact, whereas the uninvolved outsider hears only monolithic
monotony.

That said, Timbaland really does need to come with a new cyberfunk matrix--for
everybody's sake. Tim's Bio's self-plagiarism isn't so worrying as its lack of
really catchy tunes and memorable beats. Like, it can't be a good sign when the
only melody I can remember off the album is the Spiderman theme ripped off on
the godawful "Here We Come". Still, the production finesse is still there; it's
headphone R'n'B, catching the ear with all the stuff interwoven around the
formulaic grooves--the scurrying infestation of percussive detail, the
digitally-warped goblin vocals, the Afro-Dada grotesquerie of keyboard licks and
sample squiggles, the onomatopoeic bass-talk.

Did Timbaland peak with Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody", the most radical pop
single of 1998? That brain-confounding stereo-panning rhythm programme that
always makes me think of a skeleton playing the spoons against his femur! The
baby's gurgle! The poise and erotic tension of the peerless Aaliyah vocal!
Peerless but not pretender-less: Aaliyah-clone Mya (the names even rhyme) came
close with "It's All About Me," a track that brilliantly reworked The Art of
Noise's "Moments In Love." There's a pause in "It's All About Me", a moment when
the song seems to pivot on its axis, and it's the most ear-teasing twist I heard
all year. Also on the jailbait tip, Nicole's "Make It Hot" makes it for the
call-and-response repartee between the girl and Timbaland's deadpan
back-of-the-mix baritone.


INTELLIGENT BIG BEAT

RASMUS--Mass Hysteria [Bolshi]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Donuts [Bolshi]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Donuts 2 [Bolshi]
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE-- "The Day The Zak Stood Still" [Fused and Bruised]
UBERZONE--"The Brain", from the Space Kadet EP [City of Angels]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Brassic Beats 3 [Skint]
DR. BONE--"I Came Here To Get Ripped" [Skint]
LO-FIDELITY ALLSTARS-- How To Operate With A Blown Mind [Skint]

Even when it's not actively insulting your intelligence--as too much of the
genre does--Big Beat is patently not a music designed to engage your higher
faculties. Bypassing the ponderous conceptualism of self-consciously
"progressive" electronica, Big Beat's manic stupor appeals to raved-up ex-indie
rockers and (if it ever fufils its manifest commercial destiny in America),
binge-drinkin' fratboys. Its rampant rumpus triggers the
make-a-fool-of-yourself-on-the-dancefloor reflex.
Yet there are signs that Big Beat is entering its "mature" phase, with certain
producers and labels moving beyond the rabble-rousing cheap tricks and cheesy,
low-com-denom riffs that have served the genre so well. For instance, scene
leaders Skint has started an experimental sub-label called Under 5s, while
imprints such as Fused and Bruised and Bolshi are forging a sound that almost
warrants the preposterous oxymoron "intelligent big beat".

Even as Bolshi tracks adhere to Big Beat's party-hard line (the music's "got to
make you move and make you smile," says label founder Sarah Francis), the best
of the label's otuput glistens with an inventiveness and delightful quirkiness
that's scarce in this increasingly witless genre. Take Rasmus, a Sweden-born but
London-based sampling wizard skilled at meshings seemingly incompatible elements
into a funktional rhythm-engine. "Afro (Blowin' In the Wind")--the highlight of
Rasmus debut album Mass Hysteria-- rubs a slice of conscious rapper Spearhead's
basketball-in-the-park reminiscences and some scratchadelic frenzy [illegible].

This messthetic of incongruity is something Rasmus gleaned from 'ardkore
producers like Sonz of A Loop Da Loop Era and Jonny L.
Black sheep of the Bolshi roster, Beachcomas are even more into
mix-and-mismatch. The partnership of programmer Matt Austin and
sample-finder/"chaotic influence" Tony Freeman, Beachcomas first scored on the
Big Beat scene with their Bolshi debut "It's Eggyplectic", a glorious
squelch-funk surge of jazzy keyboard licks, burbling clavinets, and fierce acid
stabs. But the duo really started to live up to their scavenger name--inspired
by the surreal sight of a bed washed up on the mudbanks of the Thames--with
"Donuts," an off-kilter delight that became the title track of the first Bolshi
compilation (where you can also find "Eggyplectic"). Its unlikely constituents
include quaint, regionally-inflected English voices, taped from a TV gardening
program, talking about "peaches, split and juicy", "strawberries," and "nuts and
medleys"; the panting of their pet dog, who refused to bark as desired; and a
clipped guitar riff stolen from the B-side of the Mekons first single, "Never
Been In A Riot". This influence from an earlier phase of indie-dance
crossover--the punk-funk of Delta 5 and Gang of Four--carries through to the Pop
Group sample on Beachcomas' latest EP for Bolshi, the disappointingly ungainly
"Big Tuddy Session". Although I could swear it's "Where There's A Will There Has
Got To Be A Way" (the Pop Group track on the split-single with The Slits's "In
The Beginning There Was Rhythm") that gets sampled on "Waiting For The Beach"
(from the second Bolshi EP, Planet Thanet; also available on Donuts 2).
Beachcomas say it's actually a Diana Ross loop, combined with rooster noises
generated from rubbing Styrofoam together. Either way it's a killer tune, if too
rhythmically eccentric to do well on the Big Beat circuit. Right now the
Beachcomas are the group who could do most with the album format ("Donuts" was
one of the most oddly poignant tracks I heard last year, strangely reminding me
of A.R. Kane's second album) but the artist least likely to get the chance.
Other smarter-than-your-average-Big-Beat gems include Dr Bone's "I Came Here To
Get Ripped" (just a break, a sub-bass, an acid-riff, and a bit of reverb--but
really musical, tickling your eardrums something lovely) and Environmental
Science's "The Day The Zak Stood Still" (better than both their fine Skint
output and anything else I've heard on Fused and Bruised--it's 'ardkore,
basically, with a darkrave raptor-riff that swoops and hacks like a peckish
pterodactyl). Uberzone is the best producer working in "funky breaks"--America's
equivalent to Big Beat--and distinguishes himself from rivals like The Crystal
Method and DJ Icey by bringing a chilly-the-most early Eighties electro feel to
the party. As with all the best rave fodder, every hook in "The Brain" works as
both melody and rhythm: chiming tablas, brain-eraser scratching,
itchy-and-squelchy acid-house squiggles, icy plinks redolent of Unique 3-style
bleep-and-bass acts and pressure-drop B-lines.

Ranging from the cantakerous B-line rumble "Kool Roc Bass" through the
vandalized disco of "Blisters on My Brain" to the soiled supper club balladry of
"I Used To Fall In Love" (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in an abbatoir),
Lo-Fidelity Allstars's debut How To Operate with A Blown Mind is an oxymoronic
masterpiece of "darkside big beat". It documents the normalized malaise of
British polydrug culture, where clubbers no longer exalt being "loved-up" on E
but instead boast about getting "messy" on a cocktail of diverse chemicals. Song
titles like "Blisters On My Brain" and "How To Operate With A Blown Mind"
suggest that the Lo-Fis are drawing on inside knowledge: "Blisters" sees Dave
Randall gibbering about "injecting a rush/sniffing lunar dust" and "getting
scrambled on one." But the album also deals in bluer modes of spiritual
disarray, picking up where the Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher's "Setting
Sun" left off --"the visions we had have faded away". Hence the mindwrecked
confusion and numb despondency of "Nightime"--framed in Spiritualized-style
ambient gospel backing that pivots around a desolate sample from The Three
Degrees, the singer wonders "What's it all gonna mean/When audio psychosis
spills from the speaker's cones/And you can hear the music tear/Tearing through
your bones?". If you've spent the night partying like there's no tomorrow, what
happens when tomorrow inevitably arrives? If you can't somehow integrate the
blissed-out utopianism of the rave dancefloor into everyday life, you return to
a reality that only feels even bleaker than before. Lo-Fidelity Allstars don't
have any answers to these quandaries, with which many of their generation are
currently grappling. But the band's turbulent sound and dark vision indicate a
path beyond the impasses that have stalled dance culture in its tracks these
last few years--what Jon Savage, writing about "Setting Sun", called an
exhaustion within Ecstasy culture.


STUPID-FRESH BIG BEAT

FATBOY SLIM--You've Come A Long Way, Baby [Skint/Sony]
LIONROCK--"Rude Boy Rock" [Time Bomb/Concrete]
MONKEY MAFIA--Shoot The Boss [Concrete/Deconstruction]

Could it be that the best dance artist of the late Nineties is a balding former
indie-rocker without a single original idea to call his own? A DJ/producer who
eschews futurist rhetoric in favor of the self-deprecating admission "I just
like stupid noises"? Fatboy Slim's 1996 debut Better Living Through Chemistry
made a very powerful case for this seemingly preposterous proposition.
For techno/house hipsters, Norman Cook's greatest sin is making dance music
appeal to rock fans. Could it be, though, that rave has always been most
thrilling when it's been closest in spirit to rock'n'roll? Acid house got its
name 'cos it reminded its creators of acid rock; early 90s hardcore techno, with
its headbanger riffs and nosebleed bass, was dissed as 'heavy metal techno';
jungle clothed the spirit of punk (DIY roughness and speedfreak aggression) in
the flesh of hip hop. And the best Big Beat has a Sixties-into-Nineties,
freakbeat-meets-breakbeat feel. Fatboy Slim's most crowd-galvanising
anthems--"Going Out Of My Head", "Everybody Loves A Filter", "Punk To
Funk"--hark back to that pre-Sergeant Pepper's moment when all rock was dance
music. The name Big Beat itself echoes the term used in the mid-Sixties, Beat
music.

Similarly, the most immediately ear-grabbing tunes on Fatboy's new album--
"Build It Up, Tear It Down", "The Rockafeller Skank", "Gangster Tripping" --are
cybernetic simulations of the frat party, shindig vibe of garage punk and surf
rock, or the monochrome shuffle'n'sway of rocksteady and ska (see also
Lionrock's "Rude Boy Rock" and the brawny boisterousness of Monkey Mafia's
dancehall-meets-Big Beat). "Rockafeller" especially illustrates the pleasures
and pitfalls of this self-conscious unpretentious approach. It's such an instantly appealing track (long before its release it triggered audience frenzy the second Cook dropped it in his DJ sets, despite the fact most of them were hearing it for the first time) but its very instant-ness means that there's nowhere to go with it. As a genre, Big Beat has no room for "growers", it just mainlines straight for the pleasure-centres and Pavlovian party-hard reflexes. That's why it steals rock dynamics along with hip hop boombastics and house's Ecstasy-triggering skin-tingle effects: it makes sense to have the largest possible arsenal of crowd-pleaser tricks. But You've Come A Long Way, Baby does leave you wondering how Cook, and Big Beat, can possibly evolve, or even outlast the Nineties.

Cook is too cheery a chappy to go the darkside route, like Lo-Fidelity Allstars,
and he's too much of a crowd-pleaser to quirk-out like Beachcomas. Bu Baby's
highpoint, "Praise You", represents a promising and timely expansion of his
emotional spectrum. Pivoting around a gospel-derived vocal (which sounds like
it's been digitally warped to sound drug-burned, faded and tremulous) and a
Stones-gone-baggy groove redolent of Primal Scream's "Loaded," the track is a
hymn of gratitude and devotion that works as a sweetly humble paean both to
Cook's audience and to unknown loved ones in his life. If not quite the
millenial blues, it does show there's more to Norm than just a Class A-guzzling
hedonist.

As a title, You've Come A Long Way, Baby is another way of saying "what along
strange trip it's been." Panning across the entire 1987-98 sound-spectrum, Cook
nicks "stupid noises" from every major era of UK dance culture: acid's
itchy-and-squelchy licks, Madchester's chugging grooves, handbag house's
crowd-inciting drum rolls and stuttering vocal riffs, hardcore's farty
basslines, jungle's jittery breaks. It's not nearly as good as Better Living
Through Chemistry, but as a recapitulation of a decade's worth of rave'n'roll
madness, and a re-dedication to the original mission statement, Baby will do
just fine.



HEROIN HOUSE

MONOLAKE--Hong Kong [Chain Reaction]
VARIOUS ARTISTS --Decay Product [Chain Reaction]
PLASTIKMAN-Consumed [M-nus]
--Artifakts [M-nus]
GAS-- Konigsforst [Mille Plateau]
POLE -- CD 1 [Kiff; Matador]
BURGER/INK-- Las Vegas [Harvest/Matador]

When pop's final reckoning is done, house music is not going to be remembered
for adding to the sum of "great songs," nor for its pantheon of distinctive
vocalists. Its real innovation resides elsewhere--in its post-Donna
Summer/Giorgio Moroder pulse-rhythms (the neurotic-erotic beat that never
stops), and in its skin-tinglingly synaesthetic textures.
In this spirit, Chain Reaction have distilled house down to its essence: no
songs, no vocals, barely any melodies, sometimes not even a beat. What's left
after this rigorous reduction is a music made up entirely of texture, rhythm and
space. What initially sounds monotonous reveals itself as an endlessly
inflected, fractal mosaic of glow-pulses and flicker-riffs. Using
studio-processes like EQ, filtering, phasing and panning to tweak the
frequencies and stereo-imaging of their sonic motifs, CR artists weave
tantalising tapestries whose strands shift in and out of the aural spotlight.
The effect is at once sensuous--like fingertips tremulously caressing your
neck--and spiritual.

Chain Reaction have purified house to the point where it's almost lost its
funktional raison d'etre and become a meditational head-trip. While the music
mostly chugs along at club tempos and is clearly designed to sound at its utmost
and outermost when played through a massive sound system, it's hard to imagine
people doing something as profane as shaking their stuff to it.
Devoted to vinyl, the mysterious figures behind Basic Channel/Chain Reaction
established their own pressing plant. This makes Chain Reaction's series of
single-artist CD compilations--this year's crop includes Hongkong, Decay
Product, a duff effort by Substance, and a label compilation that's superfluous
for those who have the vinyl--a curious concession to the market realities of
the digital era, a chink in the label's ideological armor. Prise open the
striking tin cannisters that contain the CD's, and you'll encounter electronic
music as warmly cocooning and spongy as the lining of the womb. "Heroin house"
certainly fits the amniotic/narcotic aura of these often ten minute long tracks.
But the CR palette of timbres actually feels more like Ecstasy sensations
encoded in sound, abstracted into a velcro-sticky audio-fabric that tugs at your
skin-surface and gets your goosebumps rippling in formation.

CR music isn't all opiated oblivion: Monolake's "Lantau" and "Macau" are like
Cantonese reggae. But my favorite CR output is the stuff that offers a sublime
surrogate for MDMA experience, a bliss-space you can access at any time then
leave, without cost or comedown. That said, this music's appeal extends way
beyond ravers--anyone who's ever swooned to neo-psychelicists like Spacemen 3
and My Bloody Valentine, will find almost unbearable pleasures here.
Which might explain why indie-rock/lo-fi label Matador has picked up some of the
heap of post-Basic Channel/Chain Reaction stuff.e.g Burger/Ink and Pole.
Burger/Ink's sublime stratospheric shimmer "Twelve Miles High" is the stand-out
on Las Vegas. Konigsforest, the latest from Mike Ink's Gas project, is supposed
to be dodgy, plugging into Germany's problematic mysticism of forest, field and
mountain, that old Romanticism/Nazism slippage. The methodology is interesting:
Ink's taken small samples from German classical music, usually minor motifs and
refrains, and looped them over a muffled, changeless 4-to-the-floor beat; the
shimmery, shivery reverberance of the original orchestral recordings (sometimes
artifically added by studio engineers to simulate in your living room the
specific rates of decay, echoes reflecting off walls etc, of a cathedral or
concert hall) adds a airy vastness and natural-acoustics atmosphere to
electronic music's often dessicated ambience. The result--particularly on track
#5-- is sublimely poignant and soul-elevating, like filling your lungs with the
rare air of lofty altitudes. Nietzchean bizness and 'ting, seen?

Consumed has got me confused. The first five or six times I heard it, in all
sorts of situations, states of sobriety and hi-fi set-ups, I found it quite
brilliant; listening again on headphones, somewhat drunk, I found it boring as
fuck. Maybe it's one of those perception things like when a particular face
catches a certain slant of light and looks beautiful when generally it's
distinctly plain. Paring down his acid-techno "complex minimalism" even further,
Richie Hawtin's music is made of a thousand subtle shades of nebulosity; reverb
and echo are primary instruments, alongside the perennial 303 that's never
sounded so restrained (a world away from the
screech-riff and pseudo-guitar blare of Liberator-style filthy acid techno/Big Beat/funky breaks). Like sensory deprivation and solitary confinement, the tiniest shifts and nuances achieve massive musical impact. Maybe this stuff appeals to
acid-heads because music that has more detail, more variation, more layers, more
eventfulness, is just too stimulating; when you're tripping; the absence of
activity, extreme subtlety, become relaxing, absorbing. (Psychedelic trance,
with its polytendrilled Mandelbrot busy-ness, blows that theory instantly--oh
well!). I saw Hawtin DJ a six hour set at Twilo a few weeks ago, and felt a similar
ambivalence. At times it felt like all he was doing was making marginal
alterations in the stridency of the kick drum (which seemed to swamp all other
frequencies of the music). But when he brought in some texture, counter-rhythms
within the 4-to-the-floor, hints of skank and dub, wisps of melody, I was blown
away-- at times it sounded like the most complex, synaesthetic and spatialized
music I'd ever heard out of a big system. (I was out my gourd, admittedly). If
you'd come to the show with minimal experience of dance music or electronica, it
would have been totally mystifying: Richie provoked worshipful uproar through
the most subtle tweaks of mood and tempo.

Like Consumed (a record whose appeals utterly mystifies rockists--one former
Spin colleague of mine was heard to remark, "if this is a great techno record,
then maybe the entire genre is just bad music"), Hawtin's set at Twilo
underlined the fact that minimal techno (and minimal drum and bass) is
end-of-the-journey music. It's no use for neophytes; this is the shit you get
into after you've been through all the other stuff, after it's sensitized your
hearing to the point where the micro-tweaks and infra-nuances are exhilirating.
(Maybe that's why techno DJs always go on about being educational in their
playing-- they're really training your perceptions, giving you the acuity to
hear infinities in a grain of sound). Another way of making this point: if this
stuff had been standard 'rave' fare back in the day, I would have never gotten
sucked into the culture. It's too subtle to make converts, for that you need
something more blatant and crude. Consumed is the supremely accomplished
end-point of a trajectory--the swan-song of minimal techno?



NEO-ELECTRO

VARIOUS ARTISTS--From Beyond [Interdimensional Transmissions]
DJ ASSAULT--Straight Up Detroit Shit Vol. 5 [E.F. Distribution,
www.electrofunk.com]

Gotta a piece coming out in a few months in the Wire on Brendan M. Gillen/
Ectomorph/Interdimensional Transmissions/Star 67, so for now let me just say
From Beyond was the best compilation of the year, and that my favorite tune
wasn't I/F's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (surely the "Rockafeller Skank"
of serious techno -- great, but wears thin real quick) but instead the almost
hook-less "Roba" by Phoenicia, the Miami group behind the exciting neo-electro
label Schematic. With its bendy-limbed pretzel logic and
syncopations-within-syncopations, "Roba" makes electro's rhythmic geometry
supple and sinuous like never before.

Other electro releases--Buckfunk 3000's album, Dopplereffekt's "Fascist
State"--were good, posthuman fun. But too much of it is steeped in retro-camp
and old skool nostalgia; we may have to wait for the Ectomorph album for a
really serious reinvention of electro, rather than a mere resurrection of it.
The only other record loosely in this field that really took my head off was the
latest shower of Straight-Up Shit from DJ Assault. For the Motor City's techno
aesthetes, bass is Detroit's disgrace--it really offends them that the kids
prefer this booty stuff to their delicate electronic watercolors. That's why
there's a socio-political resonance to what Interdimensional Transmissions are
doing--refined Detroit techno producers have always shunned the ass-activating
low-end frequencies, because bass connects to hip hop, to the ruffneck youth in
the projects that the arty middle class techno-ites excluded from their parties.
Where Detroit techno seeks to transcend the mundane plane, the booty music is
all about base materialism (at degree zero, it's about bums); where Detroit
techno aspires to profundity, bass prefers profanity. It also features vocals (a
serious techno no-no), vocals as their least lofty and melodious--endlessly
jabbering with incredible rapidity and crudity about tits'n'asses.

But what sounds idiotic as an isolated record can sound incredible in the mix:
one of my most intense musical experiences this year was hearing bass on the
radio while driving around Miami during the Winter Dance Conference. The speed
of the beats and the MC-ing, the way records are pitched up so that the vocals
are chipmunk squeaky, all reminded me of (you guessed it) '92 'ardkore. Someone
was talking to me about Miami bass later and pointed out that in some ways it's
the most African-sounding music in America --just percussion, bass, and
call-and-response chants. (And the odd squiggle of synth from an old Kraftwerk
record). One night we cruised down the Miami's main drag, alongside all the
tank-like monstercars with massive speakers, all pumping bass tapes and bass
radio: all the different B-lines cancelled each other out, so instead of
individual notes you got this kind of pan-tonal, ambient field of sub-bass. It
was incredibly eerie. I kept nodding off in the back of the car--it was like the
frequencies were triggering a cut-out mechanism in my brain.

I never found a compilation to match the excitement of those Miami bass radio
shows but DJ Assault's Volume 5 comes close, megamixing 99 tracks onto a single
CD, speeding up R'n'B and new jack swing tunes, dropping in Basic Channel next
to Aphrodite next to Cybotron. My favorite sequence: tracks 18 to 21, a montage
that lasts only a couple of minutes and overlays a fierce house track called
"Searchin" with the hilariously smutty ditty called "3 Fine Hoes" (sung to the
tune of "3 Blind Mice").



TRANCE

DA HOOL -- "Meet Her At the Love Parade" (Kosmo/Logic)
BINARY FINARY--"1988" [Kinetic]
PAUL VAN DYKE--"For An Angel (PvD's E-Werk Club Mix)" on 45 RPM [Mute]
HALLUCINOGEN--live at Totally Twisted [Tsunami rave at Vinyl, Manhattan]

At a certain trendy techno store in Manhattan, I innocently asked for this
record and the guy behind the counter pulled a snooty grimace and said "I dunno,
try the cheese section". An MTV Europe smash video and a crowdpleaser in clubs
where the cool people don't go, maybe, but "Meet Her" isn't actually that cheesy
-- no vocals, no melodramatic synth-sweeps or wistful refrains, just this
insanely itchy, reticular and militaristic riff that gets inside your nervous
system. If not quite "dance der Adolf Hitler", then certainly "dance der
Bismarck" -- touching on deep recesses of the Prussian soul.

Binary Finary is progressive trance at its most cheesetastically melodious and
dewy-eyed. When I'm dealing with scenes I know very little about, I seem to have
innately populist taste; I first heard "1998" as the final song of the night at
a London club, went to the decks to find out what is was, and only later
discovered it was the biggest trance anthem of the year. Paul Van Dyk's update
of "For An Angel" is made of the same shimmery stuff as "1998" (which he
fabulously remixed as well). Getting into trance this year, I realised that it
had some of the same things I love in early hardcore: choonful melody-fragments,
euphoria-inducing effects, and lots of riffs and vamps. And I'd be dishonest if
I didn't admit the cheesiness has a purist-annoying trangressive edge which
appeals.

Getting into trance... I never dreamed I'd write those words! It's an upshot of
being a dance agnostic rather than a card-carrying junglist believer. Going to
that London club and having a really good time, I realised the music had
actually come along some ways since I last checked it out: it was pleasanter,
more sensuous and feminized, than the harsh, monotonous, and coldly cosmic
Teutonic trance I remember from 93-94. Going out of curiosity to check out Paul
Oakenfold in New York a few weeks later, I was struck by what a great vibe was
generated this incredibly cheesy, melodramatic music--scenes of blissed out
abandon and orgiastic pan-sensuality the like of which I hadn't seen for years,
people stroking each others's arms and faces, stroking their own bodies. It
seems that in America, all the kids in the honeymoon stage of Ecstasy use
gravitate to trance, cos it's the only dance music around that isn't grimly
serious and dark, that's compatible with E. Then Paul Van Dyk DJ-ed in New York
a week later and I got a high just off the sheer spangly clean energy of the
sound.

The next step was investigating Goa Trance, or as the scene insiders prefer to
call it, psychedelic trance. A sound/scene despised even by many trance-heads,
partly for its neo-hippy trappings, partly for its overly busy curlicues of
paint-wheel texture-swirl. I haven't found any records in the genre that really
blow me away on the domestic hi-fi; over a big system, though, this stuff is
fierce! And it creates a vibe that works for its audience.

At Tsunami's Totally Twisted party, Hallucinogen--a/k/a Simon Posford, generally
regarded as the most creative producer in psy-trance--hurled the dancefloor into
a Mandelbrot-like maelstrom of phosphorescent filigree. Hallucinogen is a
maximalist who's absurdly generous with his ideas; his tracks are continually
morphing, every couple of bars a new arpeggiated riff comes writhing out of the
amazingly intricate mix. Because of its Teutonic roots (Giorgio
Moroder/Tangerine Dream), trance is often justifiably critiqued as overly
white-sounding and funkless; its creativity does operate largely on the level of
melody and layering of texture, rather than rhythm. But the more adventurous
psy-trance producers like Posford are expanding trance's simple rhythmic palette
of clockwork beats and chugging basslines, weaving in dub reggae-style echo
effects, making syncopated riffs out of grotesquely distorted snippets of
sampled vocals, and even using sped-up drum and bass style breakbeats now and
then.

But at the same time I'm thinking that maybe trance doesn't need infusions of
blackness, it has its own form of rhythmic compulsion--one that's not so much
white as panglobal and post-racial. Psy-trance in particular seems to be the
Esperanto of dance music--it's popular all over the world, in unlikely places
like Greece, Israel (where it's almost a form of counterculture: a longhaired
hippy rebellion against the security state which requires youth to do national
service), Australia, Eastern Europe, Sweden, South America, Japan; I even heard
it playing in a souk in Morocco! It has the sort of droney modal melodies with
keening curlicues that you hear in ethnic folk musics all around the world, that
Celtic/Arabic continuum. Psy-trance also seems to be a genre where countries
that aren't Britain, America or Germany can excel in, rise to the upper
echelons--perhaps because it's a truly global, place-less style, with no origin
or primary location (it doesn't really come from Goa, it draws nothing from that
environment, it's just a virus hatched amongst the boho cosmopolitans who gather
there and at other nodes on the Asian travelling circuit, a virus that
subsequently spread to Tel Aviv, London, Stockholm, and now New York and San
Francisco).

But for the sake of argument, let's accept that trance is basically a white,
European sound--so what? The idea that 'whiteness' and 'European-ness' has
nothing to contribute to dance music is not only crassly PC and sycophantic
towards black culture, it's also historically unsound: without Kraftwerk and
Giorgio Moroder, would house and techno even exist? I still find the rhythmic
side of trance a little monotonous (although in psy-trance there's all these
offbeat riffs that play off the metronomic chug-athonic drive) , but ultimately
(like gabba) it's just another, and equally valid, kind of energy to
funk-derived rhythmatics.

In the book I slam trance for its prog-rockoid tendencies, but by 1998 all that
seems to have dropped away, leaving just "good honest drug music" (as Tony
Marcus described the second Hallucinogen album, The Lone Deranger). Writing the
book now, I'd have to revise my stance and welcome trance into the fold as
another strand of the hardcore continuum: funktionalist music that comes alive
in the hands of a good DJ, that's only really heard properly through a massive
sound system by an audience of drugged bodies.




EVEN MORE GOOD RECORDS

DJ FAUST--Man or Myth? [Bomb Hip-Hop]
PHONOPSYCHOGRAPHDISK--Ancient Termites [Bomb Hip-Hop]

For the last three avant-ghostly tracks of Ancient Termites and the headwreckin'
whole of Man or Myth?, turntablizm finally living up to the hype.


THE BETA BAND The Three E.Ps [Regal]

Like Tago Mago Can meets "Fool's Gold" Stone Roses, and far too many other
rockcritic type comparisons to go into here.


WAGON CHRIST--Tally Ho! [Astralwerks]

If Tally Ho! isn't quite the equal of Throbbing Pouch (on the right day, my
favorite electronic long-player of the '90s), its first half displays Luke
Vibert's abilities in full, earboggling effect: his voluptuously textured and
intricately multi-tiered beats, his alchemist's flair for morphing cheesy
sample-sources into bittersweet gold. "Fly Swat" weaves what was once probably
sub-Mantovani hackwork--piano trills and easy-listening strings-- into a
tremulous tapestry of fleeting poignancy. On "Crazy Disco Party," reverbed
breakbeats sound simultaneously crisp and hazy, and snatches of vocal are fed
through the digital mangler until they resemble a virtuoso performance on some
yet-to-be-invented stringed instrument of the 23rd Century, or the burbling
babytalk babble of a creche on an alien planet. As the title suggests, the net
effect is like the final few headspinning minutes before passing out on the
dancefloor under a disco glitterball.
It's the next three tracks, though, that really show off Vibert's
unusual-in-electronica talent for tugging on the heartstrings. With its swoony
cascades of tingly
keyboard notes and shimmervescent production, "Tally Ho!" sounds like Prefab
Sprout gone drum'n'bass, then the track goes absolutely bonkers with a wheezing
and sputtering jack-in-the-box bedlam of Hanna-Barbera jungle. "Memory Towel"'s
perfumed fog of exotica manages to give that over-used sample--Malcolm McLaren's
echo-chamber ululation at the start of "Buffalo Gals"--an alien gravitas, closer
to muezzin prayer wail than doh-si-doh. And "Shimmering Haze" is a rhapsody in
sky blue: a succulent squelch-synth motif, blossom-petal billows of flute, and a
bassline as tender as the most forgiving dub reggae, mesh sublimely, instilling
the kind of beatific calm that comes with counting your blessings.
Although the rest of Tally Ho! contains plenty of tantalising textures, cunning
beats and sonic sleights, it sometimes crosses the thin line between lightheaded
and lighthearted, levitation and mere levity. Like his weirdy-beardy geektronica
buddies Aphex Twin, Muziq, and Squarepusher, Vibert has a weakness for
wackiness, exemplified here by sniggering song titles like "My Organ In Your
Face" and the puerile porno ad skit "Juicy Luke Vibert". Occasionally, the
quirked-out sonic antics suggest jazz jester Spike Jones retooled as
one-man-and-his-machines rather than big band leader. But overall Tally Ho!
constitutes one of 1998's most potent arguments contra the tired notion that
electronic music is intrinsically cold and emotionless. At his sentimental and
melodic best, Luke Vibert is simply one of the top song writers around, it's
just that he's serenading us with beats and samples rather than his vocal
chords.


KRUDER and DORFMEISTER--The KandD Sessions [!K7]

Ditto goes for these Viennese dudes and their album of remixes of other folks
tunes, including amazing remakes of songs by Bomb The Bass and Depeche Mode.


STEVE REICH--Music For 18 Musicians [Nonesuch]

Much more lush and beautifully textured than his more famous
tape-loops-going-out-of-phase compositions, this is a fast-moving tapestry of
interlapping refrains, vamps, ostinatoes--sub-melodic threads that ebb and flow
out of the mix, making endlessly shifting multi-layered patterns. Because the
melodies are inane and childlike, the experience is more about timbre--which is
itself naively rhapsodic, little plinky-plonky plangent piano-like sounds that
remind me of Omni Trio or Orbital. Basically, there are long passages of this
breathtaking record (a remake of a mid-Seventies recording) where I just had to
exclaim: "But this is house music!"


VARIOUS ARTISTS--Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era,
1965-1968 [Rhino]

What ever way you define the essence of rock'n'roll--sex or dance or drugs, rage
to live or rage against the machine --the common denominator shared by all these
body/mind states is intensity. Rock'n'roll doesn't have to be fast or loud, but
it's gotta have that feeling of incandescent immersion in the here-and-now.
Perhaps there's never been rock music so consumed by a tense present as
mid-Sixties garage punk --that shambolic movement of white American teen bands
who bastardised the already crude caricature of black rhythm-and-blues
perpetrated by Brit Invaders such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds. The result was
a comically exaggerated hypermachismo whose barely concealed subtext was
virginity blues. Hence the volcano-of-pent-up-sperm that is "Action Woman" by
The Litter, whose singer threatens to trade in his current girl for a more
compliant model who'll provide "satisfaction" (that highly -charged buzzword of
the mid-Sixties). But although its motor is usually sex and/or sexism, the
greatest music of the "punkadelic" era achieves a kind of abstract urgency;
"content" spontaneouslycombusts in an energy-flash of lust without object or
objective.

Rhino's four-CD Nuggets dramatically expands on the original 1972 anthology.
Lenny Kaye's feat of creative archivalismsimultaneously altered the contours of
the rock canon (deposing the Beatles/Cream aristocracy in favor of the
disregarded one-hit wondersof the pre-Sergeant Pepper's era: Count Five, The
Seeds, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Standells, Shadows of Knight) and shaped
rock's no-future (Nuggets was a primary resource for proto-punkers such as Pere
Ubu and Television). Kaye's original double elpee takes up the first silver
disc; the other three scoop up a legion of regional smashes and one-miss
blunders.

Although there's a well-produced surfeit of bubblegum-psych and frat-party bop,
and not nearly enough of the inspired lo-fi ineptitude you'll find on
obscurantist garage comps like Pebbles and Mindrockers, this new Nuggets
contains way too many gems to list here: the ear-dazzling flare of Nazz's "Open
My Eyes", the lysergic oneupmanship of The Third Bardo's "I'm Five Years Ahead
of My Time," the paranoid delirium tremens of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk,"
the louche swagger of Chocolate Watchband's saliva-drooling Stones pastiche
"Sweet Young Thing." My absolute all-time fave spurt of G-punk , though, is We
The People's "You Burn Me Up And Down", which you can also find on Sundazed's
superb anthology of the band's output, Mirror Of Our Minds. A sensual inferno of
turbid fuzztone and jagged riffs, "Burn Me Up" is a hormonally-crazed paean that
shifts from the eros-tormented gasp "baby, you're learnin'" to the era's
ultimate compliment: "you satisfier!"

But this is history, right? Well, no, actually. In "Burn Me Up," I hear not just
the ancestry for My Bloody Valentine's kissed-out "Slow" but the secret
spiritual source for The Prodigy's "Firestarter", Fatboy's "Everybody Loves A
Filter", and a thousand hardcore rave anthems . Punk to funk, garage bands to
computer-in-the-bedroom junglists , you can trace a continuum of teenagers
hopped up on stimulants (or fervently pretending to be) and literally
electrified by the latest noise-toys ( wah-wah pedals in '66, samplers in '92).
If Nuggets is "educational", it's 'cos it's an endlessly renewable refresher
course in how to live like you're on fire. The guys responsible may now all be
bank managers or professors of astronomy (like the singer in Chocolate
Watchband!) but right here, right now, they're more alive than you or I will
ever be.

DERRICK MAY--Innovator [Transmat]

He may have spent the Nineties globetrotting as celeb-DJ, polishing his myth in
endless interviews, and sedulously avoiding the recording studio, but this
exquisite career anthology reveals why May has laurels to rest on in the first
place. Hi-hats whirl like butterflies in your stomach; pseudo-orchestral
synth-stabs and trite-but-transcendental piano vamps conjure a weird mood-blend
of desolate euphoria; May's drum machine gently weeps. "It Is What It Is" and
"Beyond The Dance" are roots music for a post-geographic infosphere, soul for
cyborgs. But forget for now that Derrick May and the Belleville Three invented
the future. This stuff is timeless.


ASH RA TEMPEL--The Best of the Private Tapes [Cleopatra]

All good, but mainly here for the astoundingly gorgeous and gaseous-sounding
"Wall of Sound"-- Manuel Gottsching noodling out
cigarette-smoke-through-a-shaft-of-sunlight curlicues of rhapsodic lead guitar
over a halycon proto-E2: E 4 groove. Reminds me of the more downtempo balladic
dream-drifty tunes on Neu! 75.


HOVERCRAFT--Experiment Below [Mute/Blast First]

Surging, mercury-splash instrumental space-rock trio with a fetish for FX
pedals. Faintly redolent of Blind Idiot God, Nice Strong Arm, Joy Division and
Wire. Intriguing.


NEW RADICALS--"You Get What You Give" [M.C.A.]

Trying to be the new "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video-wise (kids riotously taking
over a shopping mall) but with Anglophiliac non-grungy sonics that variously
recall The Kane Kang, midperiod Tears For Fears, Prefab Sprout, maybe even
(ugh!) Simply Red. The attitude (what The Style Council used to call "offensive
optimism") and strategy (sugared pill entryism) is pure 1982. Only thing that
mars it is he's wearing a grubby T-shirt not a suit. Everything in pop history
comes around again-- on the wrong side of the Atlantic, usually worse than
before, but in this case better. Love it.


STARDUST-- "The Music Sounds Better With You" (Roule/Virgin)

See 'Ambivalence of the Year' in Overated of 1998.

JEGA--"Card Hore" (on a Skam six-track EP)

One of the better geektronica/IDM/post-Autechre artists, Jega shows his roots in
hardcore, with a fond and truly re-inventive tribute to 1992 breakbeat madness,
which samples some obscure faves (e.g. Phantasy and Gemini's "Hippodrome"). It
sounds like the H-core renaissance (rather than mere revival) of my wilder
dreams--faster, more frenetically chopped up and frenziedly collaged than
before, as befitting 6-years-on evolution; incorporating Squarepusher/AFX type
breakbeat convolutions, but retaining and even intensifying the feeling of rush
and buzz. The rest of the EP is good Aphex-style eclectro.


ROYAL TRUX--3-Song EP [Domino]

"The United States Vs One 1974 Cadillac El Dorado Sedan" in particular is
majestic, sky-strafing (shades of Jimi) raunch'n'roll designed for the kind of
stadium rock culture that simply doesn't exist anymore. Ludes man! Ludes!

LIVE THRILLS

KRAFTWERK tour

FATBOY SLIM and CARL COX at Miami Winter Dance

CHAIN REACTION party in Brooklyn, New York

THE MOVER @ Deeday mini-rave in Queens, New York

REINFORCED crew at Speeed, Manhattan

DB old skool set at launch party for Generation Ecstasy, Frying Pan, Manhattan/

RUPERT HOWE old skool set at launch party for Energy Flash, London

JOSH WINK at South By South West, Austin, Texas


YET MORE GOOD RECORDS--IS THIS A GOLDEN AGE OR WHAT?!!

PULP--This Is Hardcore [Island]

BOARDS OF CANADA--Music Has The Right To Children [Warp/Skam/Matador]

DJ HELL--Munich Machine [Disko B/V2]

VAINIO VAISANEN VEGA --Endless [Mute/Blast First]

RASCO--Time Waits For No Man [Stone's Throw]

PLAID--Not For Threes [Warp/Nothing]

E-DANCER--Heavenly [Planet E]

JUAN ATKINS--Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1 [Wax Trax!/TVT]

ADD N TO X -- On The Wires of Our Nerves [Satellite/Mute]

VARIOUS ARTISTS--The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip Hop + Underground Dance
Classic 1980-1985, Volumes 1--4 [Timber/Tommy Boy]


AND FINALLY...

1998 CONSOLATION PRIZE FOR SLIGHT (VERY SLIGHT) RECOVERY:


DRUM & BASS.

4 HERO--Two Pages [Talkin' Loud]
JONNY L--Magnetic [ XL]
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Beginning of the End [Reinforced/Crammed/SSR]
GOLDIE--Ring of Saturn [ffrr]

For most of '98 I thought it was going to be another crap year for
jungle. Some kind of personal nadir took place in the spring--at one of the V Records Night at Twilo,bored almost literally to tears by the two-step trudge being doled out by Trace (former god Trace!) I found myself hoarsely MC-ing over the top: "Stagnant music! Stagnant music! Another acrid bassline". (Embarassingly Nico from No U Turn materialised at my shoulder as I was in mid-flow, but I don't think he heard my treason). All night, there didn't seem to be enough killer tunes to go around, so each DJ kept playing "Bambataa" and "Brand New Funk." It seemed like the scene was dying on its feet.

Or rather, entered a kind of living death--basically it has become the new techno.
Like "pure" techno, drum & bass has refined itself down to a set of sonic
conventions that its practioners tweak slightly. They talk earnest progressivist bollox about how "anything's possible" and "this music can go anywhere", but in reality they churn out tracks that are all at the same tempo, work with similar kinds of breaks, and use similar warped bass sounds,
"sinister" textures, and FX. Whereas, hardcore/darkside/jungle 91-94 really
was a chaotic possiblity space with a huge array of influences percolating through it and a truly astounding rate of mutation. Tracks that Reinforced, say, or Hyper-On
Experience and DJ Trax, put out back in 92-93 might have five, six, seven distinct segments and flit between wildly incongruous moods; ideas were thrown out with absurd generosity, rather than caned into the ground over nine minutes of locked-groove mono-mood monotony (yeah I'm talking about you Andy C).

This bygone chaos in the music and the culture also manifested itself in
the art work and logos (the sleeves of Moving Shadow, Reinforced and Suburban Base tracks were so much weirder and wittier than the sombre technoid wankwork you get on your typical d&B cover these day), in the track titles, and above all
in the artist names. Compare all the cold, clinical, quasi-scientific,
solemnly pseud names used today (Matrix, Optical, Psion, Decoder, Genotype, Biomechanics, DNA) with the humorous-but-mysterious quality of hardcore and early jungle names: Rufige Cru, Run Tings, 2 Bad Mice, Boogie Times Tribe, Krome & Time, C-Biz, DJ Nut Nut, Rude Bwoy Monty, Dr S. Gachet, LTJ Bukem, Sonz of A Loop Da Loop Era. I used to think: who are these people, where do they live, what are they like? No such mystique pertains to the sallow-faced luminaries of contemporary drum & bass. Now that the hardcore spirit --- helium-woogly vocals, rhythmic palsy--has partially resurfaced in 2-step garage, it's no coincidence that this is where you'll find the vibey-est and goofiest names: Dem 2, Ramsey & Fen, Operator & Baffled, DJ Richie Boy and Klasse, Baffled Republic, Spoony, Bubblin' Crew, MC Munchy, Swirly C.

Theory #1: when people start using correct spelling, the scene is in decline. (And I'm only half-kidding).

Theory #2: "vibe" and "cheese" are in closer proximity than you might think. In fact, "cheese" may be what "vibe" turns into when it's over-used and over-popularized (think of how the awesome vibe-factor of the early speed garage tunes like Gant's "Sound Bwoy Burial" became cliched and cheesy through being cloned and caned to death). Or how cheese-tastic Big Beat is actually a composite of elements that in their original contexts were highly vibe-full --old skool hiphop, house's filtered FX and drum'n'rolls, etc.

From the let's-release-the-same-record-again-and-again, feverish-yet-stagnant style
"trailblazed" by Optical/Ed Rush/Virus/Ram/Origin Unknown/Andy C & Shimon
("Funktion" was good On The Corner-ish bizness but Wormholes unbelievably
dull; the"Ram Trilogy" makes me think of Bill Laswell or Last Exit or something) to
the desperate rejuvenation/get-some-girls-back-on-the-floor ploy of Afro-funk (as
if drum & bass hadn't been pillaging funk and blaxploitation soundtracks for years),
this was another piss-poor year for the genre I used to love above all others. Purging "cheese" (the hip hop, reggae, jazz elements--now deemed too obvious) , they've managed to virtually extinguish "vibe". Yet there were stray glimmers of hope. Enforcers: The Beginning of the End (available in America via Crammed/SSR), a compilation of highlights from the label's acclaimed Enforcers series of multi-artist experimental EPs, starts with the present and works backwards to 1992--an unorthodox ruse that enables you to hear the future emerging out of the past even more effectively than a conventional chronology. The anthology's first half also showcases for Reinforced's "new boys"--producers like Sonar Circle, Procedure 769, G-Force & Seiji, Vortexion, Arcon 2, Torus, Nucleus & Paradox-- who resisted drum & bass's two-step tyranny and intensified breakbeat science to new
levels of polyrhythmic complexity and chromatic density. 4 Hero's Two Pages
neither exceeded their past achievements nor delivered on the is-this-the-next-Reprazent hype, but it had some fine moments--mostly on the jazzy, orchestral first disc, where "Loveless" (featuring brilliant Philly-based poet-rapper Ursula Rucker), "Escape That" and "Star Chasers" harked back to the Seventies astro-fusion and cosmic soul of The Rotary Connection, Donald Byrd, The Isley Brothers and Sun Ra's Strange Celestial Roads. Not quite as exquisite as Jacob's Optical Stairway, but close. The second disc's contorted beats and twisted sounds sounded mindblowing on the first listen, but strangely haven't drawn me back.

Jonny L continues to be the best of the neurofunkers by some margin, simply by
being so relentlessly (f)rigid and clinical; Magnetic, his swift follow-up to
last year's whatever-it-was-called, has more frantic beats too, reflecting the new post-"Bambataa"/Virus climate. The big surprise for me was the surprisingly
entertaining and non-pretentious-crappy Ring of Saturn mini-LP by Goldie. The sleevenote has a curious comment from Goldie: ""Creating rollers at club level is something we all have to do, stepping down to 2nd gear as opposed to the 5th gear that is 'Saturnz Return.'" Either this a partially concealed admission that "yeah, you're right, I fucked up by drifting too far from the dancefloor and too far up my own arsehole", or it's defiance thinly masked as capitulation: "well, alright then, I'm gonna pander to you morons, give you some dancefloor fodder, cos you're not deep enough to understand the stuff I do on the higher plane." Listening to the actual record, it seems more the case that the G-man has re-invigorated himself by listening to the first wave of dark-core, including his own Rufige
Cru and Metalheads tracks--especially on the four totally new tracks (all
co-written with a mystery dude called Mark Sayfritz--his new Rob Playford?), you hear the return of fierce stabs, convulsive beats, and on one track a direct quote from his left-hand man Doc Scott (the beyond-mentasm death-ray riff from 92's "Dark Angel"), a flashback to the days when the Reinforced crew would sample and re-sample each others tracks, collectively mutating the mentasm sound. Goldie writes that the maxi-EP/mini-LP is a bridge between Saturnz and his next album, the promisingly titled Sonic Terrorism--which again suggests a return to his old skool. But who knows?


Over-Rated of 1998


NU SKOOL BREAKS

It's Big Beat without the hooks, the groove, and the fun. It's
neurofunk/Optical-style drum and bass slowed down about 40 b.p.m., so that it
sounds simultaneously deja entendu and sluggish. It's Nu Skool Breaks, 1998's
least convincing new genre, and it's crap.

What strikes this ear is how staggeringly inept this music it is, despite its
high production values--the producers seem to have no idea how to build a
groove, how to use space, when to stop fiddling with sound or adding layers.
They pride themselves on bass, yet the low-end blare sounds bleary, muddy,
ineffectual. For all the talk of being "funky as funk," nu skool breaks is a
"zero-funkula zone" (copyright. Ian Baxter). It's laughably remote from the
original spirit of hardcore (which allegedly they're trying to update). There's
a prissiness to its "dirt", a clinical restraint to its mayhem.

Reading not too deep between the lines, it's clear this is a movement of people
who failed to make a mark in other scenes. They couldn't get a foot in the drum
and bass door (you can hear the bitterness in the interview comments re. jungle
being a closed shop, a Mafia with Grooverider as Don), so instead they
fabricated a scene for themselves.

And they have the stupidest, most vibe-free names in the business--Headlamp,
Barge Charge, Hybrid A.D., Philadelphia Bluntz, Almighty Beatfreakz, Uptown
Connection, Thursday Club, P.P.S (Progressive Sounds of South), Tsunami One. The
track titles are just as bad--"Kwicksand", "Sister Sister", "No. 43 With Steamed
Rice" (actually the only nu-break tune to pump my adrenal glands even slightly),
"Step Dragon", "Spinritrian Posture" (!). What kind of a name is Rennie Pilgrem
anyway?



MASSIVE ATTACK Mezzanine
TRICKY Angels With Dirty Faces

Massive Attack's album is turgid and torpid, Tricky's is turgid and frantic. (I
must have played Angels six times but I can't remember a single tune--always a
bad sign; Mezzanine has some nice melodies but is dragged down by the dirgey
grumbling bass and deeply uninteresting guitar). And the remedy for easing the
pre-millenium tension or escaping the "mezzanine" (a pretty oblique metaphor for
post-clubbing'n' drugging comedown paranoia at the best of times) is staring you
right in the face, guys--stop smoking so much weed.


GEEKTRONICA, A/K/A IDM (INTELLIGENT DANCE MUSIC)

This international network of home-studio-made, pressing-of-500 electronic music
is basically the new lo-fi rock. That much is clear from the fact that Matador,
home of Pavement and Yo La Tengo etc, now has a roster of seriously hip techno
(Pole, Jega, Burger/Ink, Boards of Canada) and has done a deal with Warp, the
pioneers of first-wave "intelligent techno". Then there's all these
Pastels/Mogwai/Low type bands putting out remix albums with their tracks
revamped by all the usual geektronic suspects.

I call it geektronica because the people into it have the same trainspotter
obsessive-compulsive collector mentality as lo-fi nerds, and because musically,
it's deliberately enfeebled or impaired sounding. Just as the demographic
constituency/class-base for lo-fi doesn't like rock that's too rockin' and
rhythmically muscular, similarly the geektronica audience prefers dance music
that isn't danceable. I'm not saying that good music hasn't come out of this
area--IDM's patron saints Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert are household gods chez moi
(although Autechre and Squarepusher, also patron saints, are decidely not), I
dig Mike Paradinas, Jega and Boards of Canada. But this music's strongest trait
isn't rhythm but melody (all those poignant or chipper or glum tunes) and timbre
(another thing it has in common with lo-fi, an obsession with different grains
of distortion).

Lo-fi and geektronica fans have the same commodity-fetish for wacky sleeves and
peculiar configurations of vinyl --split singles, one sided discs with drawings
etched into the other side, flexis, 10 inches and 7-inches (and soon 8 inches,
apparently), double-7inches, maxi-EPs and mini-albums. There's a whole on-line
world of obsessives who trade and hunt down rare early 12 inches on labels like
Skam and Rephlex, which sometimes fetch huge prices.

Nothing against obscurity (that would really be the pot calling the kettle black
I suppose) or unusual formats/packaging, or coveting rare records. But a lot of
this geektronica stuff has crossed the line into wilful obscurantism. With
records coming out in pressings of 250 or even fifty (with handpainted covers
etc), you have to wonder what's the threshold below which music ceases to be a
"cultural practice" and becomes mere hobbyism? As the phenomenon of music
distributed through the Internet, downloaded and CD-burned continues to develop,
this global geektronic network may well devolve into a barter economy, with
bedroom producers trading their music with other artists through the Net. Momus
recently suggested that rather than everybody being famous for 15 minutes, in
the future everybody will be famous for 15 people. That's what it's getting
like, and that's why we should be getting worried.



DANCE CULTURE

Surprised? Here's my reasons why it wasn't really that deserving of celebration
last year.

1/ TECHNOSTALGIA.
Last year, electronic dance music--soi disant music of the future--found itself
in the throes of a midlife crisis, complete with wistful pangs for lost
innocence. For the first time in a decade of dance-and-drug culture, all of
yesterday's parties suddenly seemed more exciting than today's, and nobody had
much of a clue how to take the music into the next millenium. The response: look
back to whichever lost golden age got you fired up in the first place. From Big
Beat's block-party breakbeats to the resurgence of neo-electro to the mania for
disco cut-ups, everyone was paying nostalgic visits to their own particular "old
skool." In Britain, the mood of retrospection was signalled by back to (take
your pick) '88/'91/'94 raves and by glum predictions of club culture's imminent
death/overcommercialized irrevelance. The only consolation amid all the ennui,
stagnation and where-next? confusion: without exception, all the other genres of
music in '98 were in even worse shape.

2/ GENRE-ITIS
I've no patience for rockists who complain about the proliferation of dance
subgenres: mostly they're closet discophobes who secretly believe "it all sounds
the same anyway," or beat-deaf lazybone ignorami who can't discern blatant
differences in tempo, rhythm, mood or textural palette. That said, some of the
stylistic splinter groups and subsubdivisions are getting pretty silly -- like
the Afro-funk/liquid funk initiative in drum and bass, or the trance
micro-hybrids that connoisseurs seem to believe are really worth distinguishing
in that interzone between Nu-NRG, progressive house, Liberator-style filthy acid
techno, and psychedelic trance, or the dozen denominations of hardcore/gabba
(which is getting as semantically complicated as the world of death/speed/black
metal). There's a sense of grasping at straws, a need to hallucinate novelty
where there's only been a marginal rearrangement and admixture of established
sounds.

3/ HAD IT WITH HAVING IT
When you look at the pictures of clubbers gurning or posing in Mixmag and Muzik
or that ghastly Ministry magazine, or the TV documentary scenes of people having
it piggish large in Ibiza, it's all too obvious that there is no longer any
utopian edge to the hedonism, no hint or trace of "resistance" or
"spirituality". Nor is there even much sense of madness or sensual insurrection
of the kind you got at the height of rave in the early Nineties. Just a
perfectly controlled and channelled release of energy; people getting exactly
what they paid for, and nothing more.




AMERICANA

Yeah, I'm talking about the middle aged/middle class/middlebrow consensus behind
Lucinda Williams, that 32 year old Bob Dylan record, Elliot Smith, Billy Bragg
and Wilco, Vic Chestnutt, and the rest of the retro roots minstrels. It's our
old friend "fear of the future" again; people who'd rather cling onto the tired
and true, than risk transvaluation or the terror of the incognita. But even
Lucinda Williams and Bragg/Wilco's greatest supporters admit these artists are
fluent practitioners of "a dead language." It's so obvious it's almost
sophomoric to point out the irony--that the Nineties audience for the Dylan 1966
record have exactly the same fusty phuture-phobic mindset as the Sixties folkies
who pilloried Bob as "Judas" for his switch from acoustic to electric guitar. In
1998, the electric guitar is equivalent to the acoustic guitar--it signifies
tradition, it's part of the iconic apparatus of a residual culture ("classic
rock"--just a genre amongst many genres now, despite its pretensions to
universality).

Almost as pernicious as the retrospection is the isolationism of the
neo-Americana tendency--the complacent, wilful ignorance of things not emanating
from the USA. Unless, of course, they're Brits who honor American roots music:
PJ Harvey's now tedious imitations of Nick Cave imitating Howlin' Wolf; Billy
Bragg. Now I've never give a flying fart for Billy Bragg, but I imagine his
long-term fans would be pissed off by the notion that he suddenly became
relevant when resurrecting the lost genius of Woody Guthrie.

There's lots of reasons for all this nostalgia, nativism and necrophilia:
inability to get a grip on electronic music in all its protean and mutational
forms (and unwillingness to experience it in its "real" and most engaging
context---the ravefloor); not knowing where to go next after grunge made a
mainstreamed mockery of indie-rock idioms; a perhaps understandable
squeamishness about what real white American kids are into (Korn style
funk-metal, ska, swing); a perhaps forgiveable confusion in the face of hip hop
and R'n'B's encrypted resonances and commodity-fetishing playa ethos. So where
else to go for nourishment and "renewal," then, but to the past?

A key legitimising influence on this isolationist and technophobic mindset was
Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus's book about Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement
Tapes, with its lofty, literary appreciations of 1920s country blues singer Dock
Boggs and Harry Smiths's Anthology of Folk Music. For years now Marcus has been
honing his shtick as the Last Patriot--bigging up such heartland American
rockers as John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Soul Asylum (he declared that no
English rocker could ever sing with the open-throat passion that came naturally,
organically, routinely, to the likes of Dave Pirner), and steadfastly ignoring
post-1979 Britain apart from Carter USM and the indefatigible Mekons. As for
Europe, forget it: that's the Old World, what America defines itself against. In
The Dustbin of History, Marcus disses Susan Sontag as an un-American critic, a
deracinated Europhile; presumably his House Un-American Activities Committee
(Rock and Pop) would similarly disqualify Detroit techno and Chicago house for
being inspired by German and Italian electrodisco.

Invisible Republic's chapter on "the old weird America" documented by Harry
Smith was fascinating enough to persuade me to buy the Anthology of Folk Music
when it was reissued as a CD box-set. But you know what, I've never had the
spare six hours to listen to the thing--even in a year as lame as 1998, it
seemed more pressing to try-in-vain to keep up with the flood of current stuff.
I guess ultimately I'm an "emergent" rather than "residual" kind of guy--more
interested in the weirdshit lodged in crevices of contemporary culture, the
stuff that some future Harry Smith will archive. Why pine for the days of
sharecroppers and Appalachian murder ballads when you can get your gnostic
hermetic eso-terrorist buzz from, say the recordings and mythology of
Underground Resistance/Drexciya?

1998 in some ways echoes 1968, that other flinching-from-the-electric-future
move made by rock culture: the retreat of the Stones, Dylan, Beatles, Creedence
Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead et al from the previous year's psychedelic,
studio-addled excesses, back to the "true vital source" of rock'n'roll (blues,
folk and country). 1968's retro-manoeuvre remains a pivotal moment for critics
of the Marcusian bent, its legacy today being a decidedly sniffy attitude
towards any music that abandons the live band as a model for recording in order
to explore the studio's possibilities (dub, disco, neo-psychedelia, electronica,
post-rock), and a near-total antipathy to music aesthetically warped by drug
culture. Studio-spun "texturitis" and psychedelic synaesthesia both
detract/distract from the "story, " the lyrical narrative--which is the essence
of rock art, and something that sonics should only ever embellish. Rhythm and
sound should know their proper place--supportive, a dramatic backdrop.
There's also a macro-Story, the grand narrative of rock culture, which always
comes back to the Sixties --albeit a Sixties without drugs, technology, or any
of that Marshall McLuhan stuff (Interestingly, Marcus adopted an overtly
anti-McLuhanite stance talking to Canadian cybermag Shift, declaring: "I'm not a
big believer in technology as something that fundamentally changes the way
people perceive and live in the world... Traditional culture is actually very
persistent..."); a Sixties based around middle class white kids rediscovering
rural music from the American South of the 1920's and 1930s. We're supposed to
be still engaged in an endless dialectic of reckoning with the legacy of the
Sixties (this particular version of the 1960s). But there are other 1960s--the
mainstream Sixties of psychedelia, the drug-technology interface, the
studio-as-instrument, the underground Sixties of electric jazz, minimalism and
musique concrete. It's this continuum--beginning in the 1960s and carrying on
through the Seventies in all sorts of unlikely places: dub reggae, Krautrock,
the lysergic underground disco culture of New York, Kraftwerk and Moroder,
Parliament-Funkadelic---that is the ancestral mulch for all that's exciting
today. Not "roots" so much as routes--take-off points and springboards into the
future, rather than windows on a sepia-tinted, daguerrotype past.
Last words, appropriately enough, to Harry Smith himself: "Any kind of popular
trend is infinitely more wholesome than listening to old records. It's more
important that people know that some kind of pleasure can be derived from things
that are around them - rather than to catalogue more stuff - you can do that
forever; and if people aren't going to have a reason to change, they're never
going to change." Word, Harry, word.



MORE OVER-RATED ARTISTS:

UNKLE

DEEJAY PUNK ROC

BELLE and SEBASTIAN

LAURYN HILL

PROPELLERHEADS




AMBIVALENCE OF THE YEAR


STARDUST--"Music Sounds Better With You" (Roule)

Fabulous record -- that astonishing woozy-oozy vocal, the cocaine itch 'n'
dazzle of the Chic-like rhythm guitar. And yet in its very neo-disco perfection
and near-universal appeal it seems to symbolize the reversion of rave culture
into club culture into disco; a reduction in scope and stakes; a feeling of
circularity--back where we started. It's the sublime anthem of a new
complacency, dance culture as "routinized transcendence" (Simon Frith on disco),
banalized bliss.

1 comment:

  1. HUAUHAHUAHUHUAHU when i hate the first phrash "love and sex are timeless" i thought will be a defence of greil marcus!

    ReplyDelete