Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Wire, end of 1993


Tastemakers are unanimous: when it comes to the scattered tribes of the post-aciiied diaspora, trance is where it's at. And 'ardkore is held in universal disdain: junglist breakbeats and squeaky vocal samples are regarded as risible signs of rave's degeneration into 'nuttercore', 150 b.p.m. kiddy-kartoon nonsense for E'd up hooligans. For trance purists, programmed beats and all-electronic textures indicate pure-blooded ancestry, rooted in the 'golden age' of Detroit, as passed down through illustrious scions like Warp. But in music as in genealogy/genetics, purity is over-rated: it engenders inbred enfeeblement. Miscegenation, mongrelisation and mutation are the very stuff of evolution. So I'm here to hail rave's wayward, RUFFian son, jungalistic hardcore, and direct some overdue scepticism towards trance.

By any reckoning Trance Europe Express, Volume' s double CD of state-of-art techno, is a superb compilation: 24 tracks including offerings by most of the prime movers in the field. Nonetheless, the comp has something of the air of epitaph about it: this is a genre that's reached a dead end, etiolated by its own oppressive tastefulness. Trance's critical hegemony goes hand in hand with textural homogeneity: the 'infinite possibilities' fanfared by technophile critics too often boil down to a rather uniform and impoverished array of 'cosmic' synth-timbres. While the best exponents here (Orbital, Aphex, Bandulu) are opening up a new genre of electronic composition, the lesser units (Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, The Source, Cosmic Baby) are little more than Tangerine Dream or Vangelis with a modern beat: funkless, Aryan mood-muzak.

The alleged superiority of trance over jungle relies on the questionable desirability of such an entity as 'armchair/intelligent techno'. Is sedentary and contemplative somehow intrinsically a higher, truer response than sweaty and mental? This is simply prog-rock snobbery. Like the earnest conceptualists of the Seventies, trance signifies its 'progressive' intentions by taking its bleedin' time: at best (say, Orbital), this is an aesthetic of sensuous ebb-and-flow (rather than ardkore's blipvert blitz). Too often, it means longeurs galore.

In fact, listening to trance can be a bit like going to church. The genre does give itself pseudo-spiritual airs (hence the angelic choral samples on Scubadevil's "Celestial Symphony", or the fact that the top London club for trance is called 'The Knowledge'). Whereas jungle is more pagan and voodoo. Its vulgar, indiscriminate approach to sampling makes me think of cargo cults - hallucinating the sublime and otherworldly in all manner of trash and pop-cultural jetsam. Where trance's sampling is tasteful, discreet, a fusion-puree, jungle is fissile: you can see the joins and that's so much more postmodern and exciting. A typical jungle track is an epileptic/eclectic mish- mash of incongrous textures (spooky ectoplasm rubs up against gimmicky cartoon gibberish) and incompatible moods (mystic, manic, macabre). Jungle's cut'n'mix aesthetic owes as much to hip hop as to techno; tracks have a machinic/organic, cyborg quality that recalls the days before rap's slide into plausible, 'realistic' grooviness.

If you think 'ardkore means The Prodigy (who are great, anyway, The Sweet of the Nineties!), you should really check out The Joint. Label compilations tend to be patchy, but this one excels because it's a collaboration between two of ardkore's most innovative labels, Suburban Base and Moving Shadow. Most of the tracks have a schizoid quality, flitting back and forth between jungle's two current modes: happy'n'hyper and dark'n'demonic. Foul Play's "Open Your Mind" oscillates between clammy synth-tones and billowing soul-chanteuse harmonies. Omni Trio 's "Mystic Stepper" also has an unnerving oxymoronic vibe, a sort of mournful euphoria: the "feel good" chorus aches with a strange desolation. DJ Hype's "The Chopper" starts as a pure rush (ricochetting hi-hat and Uzi-rattling snare, faecal-squirts of bass-flatulence), then forlorn soul-diva ether wafts into the mix, introducing an incongrous note of poignancy. DJ Krome & Mr Time 's "The Slammer", by comparison, is pure 'happy hardcore', a gorgeous, fuzzily-reverbed piano figure entwined with a chorus that gushes 'dancing we dancing we losing control'.

The looped breakbeats + recognisable samples method initially resulted in a deluge of white label mediocrity, provoking proclamations of rave's death. But Reinforced 's recent sampler-EP Enforcers 4 shows that this aesthetic has matured; jungle has thrived on media neglect. Like the Moving Shadow & Suburban Base crews, Reinforced's roster pile on the rollin' breaks to form a sophisticated mesh of polyrhythms; beats are treated, reverbed, 'timestretched', even run backwards (on Manix's 'The X Factor'), inducing a eerie feel of in-the-pocket funk and out-of-body delirium. Over this roiling syncopation, ecstastic vocal plasma is molded and modulated, an inner-body choir of sighs and whimpers that simulates E's 'arrested orgasm' sensation. Meanwhile, instead of basslines, jungle's low-end has devolved into a radioactive ooze that impacts you viscerally rather than aurally.

Ultimately, it is all down to a gut-level response, whether you prefer trance's clockwork-regular Kraftwerk/Moroder pulse-grooves or jungle's staccato, thrash-funk judder-quake. It's whatever gets in your pants, works your booty and your imagination. But putting on my critic's cap, I'd say that jungle's uproarious schizo-eclecticism is paying greater dividends than trance's solemn purism. At its best, jungle is like a gutternsnipe Can (same James Brownian rotorvation, similar 'flow motion' ethos). Jungle is the bastard child of the John Cage/Byrne & Eno/23 Skidoo avant-disco tradition, shunned and scorned where the supposedly rightful inheritor of that tradition, trance/ambient, is feted. But illegitimate heirs tend to lead more interesting lives.

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