Monday, February 25, 2008

director's cut, New York Times, March 7, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Big Beat, a boisterous hybrid of hip hop and house music, is currently the most popular dance sound in Britain. The genre's leading artist, Fatboy Slim just scored a UK number one single with "Praise You". And although Big Beat has yet to make its commercial breakthrough into the American pop charts, you can already hear the music in countless television commercials and on movie soundtracks ( Fatboy Slim's other big hit "The Rockafeller Skank" is featured in both She's All That and Office Space, while "Praise You" appears in the forthcoming Cruel Intentions). Big Beat works well in TV ads and Hollywood movies because it's good times music, peppy and upbeat. It's also catchy as hell, sampling hooks and riffs from early rap, disco, raunchy arena rock and Sixties frat-party sounds such as garage punk and surf.

Because of the genre's retro-nuevo aura, even Big Beat's fiercest supporters admit that it's not especially original, innovative or intelligent. Yet the music made by Lo-Fidelity Allstars--who emerged from the Big Beat scene and share the same UK label, Skint Records, with Fatboy Slim--exhibits all three of these attributes. The band's debut album How To Operate With A Blown Mind (Columbia) exudes a harrowed and haunted atmosphere strikingly at odds with big beat's cheery rumpus. Where a producer like Norman Cook of Fatboy Slim lifts samples from old school Eighties rap and disco for their tried-and-tested crowd-pleasing power, Lo-Fidelity Allstars's sonic plundering achieves a more poignant effect. The band's dense mish-mash of samples--which encompass Eartha Kitt, James Last, Rick James, Lalo Schifrin, and The Three Degrees, among many others--conjures a sense of contemporary pop consciousness as polluted by the past, infected by nostalgia for eras never directly experienced.

Lo-Fidelity Allstars call their style "punk paste," shorthand for a merger of rock attack with the cut-and-paste techniques of DJ-driven genres like hip hop and house. The word "paste" actually works even better as a tag for the way the band transcend mere eclecticism and blend its diverse sources into a lumpy but distinctive puree. Partly this stems from the fact that the Allstars are a proper band capable of performing live onstage, rather than a solitary DJ/producer making records at home using a computer. Lo-Fidelity Allstars also write songs with lyrics, rather than tracks peppered with sampled vocal hooks (as is the case with most big beat).

Vocalist Dave Randall-- who quit the band shortly before the delayed US release of the album--belongs to the English lineage of technically limited but charismatic "non-singers" that includes Public Image Ltd's John Lydon, The Fall's Mark E. Smith and Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays. Like Smith and Ryder, Randall sings in a baleful, bilious drawl and pens imagistic, cut-up lyrics. The album's title track, for instance, is a stream of semi-consciousness that vividly evokes drifting disorientated through the squalor and sensory overload of small hours London: "the air's alive with daggers and poisons... severe mental fog... the man's a monster in his own time... hydra-headed fear is all around here."

Often, it's hard to decipher what Randall's ranting about, because his voice is distorted through studio effects, making it sound like a megaphone, or stretching out the final syllable of a line into a distended smear. In fact, most of the instrumental sounds on the album--cantakerous basslines, bubbling clavinet synths, chickenscratch guitar riffs--are warped, contorted, and fuzzed-up. Lo-Fidelity Allstars's music flirts with chaos but never succumbs to it, echoing the old Public Enemy aesthetic ideal of hip hop as "organised noise". Indeed, The Allstars proclaim their affiliation to old school rap by using scratching, electro-style drum machine rhythms, and samples from Eric B & Rakim, Just Ice and Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force. Randall's sung-spoken delivery could be heard as a uniquely English form of rapping.

Ultimately, though, Lo-Fidelity Allstars are shaped more by British rave than American rap. Song titles like "Blisters On My Brain" and "How To Operate With A Blown Mind" suggest that Randall is drawing on inside knowledge when he documents the darkside of the dance-and-drug lifestyle. A glitterball surge of disco percussion and synths, "Blisters" sees him gibbering about "injecting a rush/sniffing lunar dust" and getting "scrambled" on the illegal stimulant Ecstasy. Long term, excessive hedonism can lead to paranoia and burn-out, a state of mindwrecked confusion and numb despondency gestured at in the album closer "Nightime", where 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 now 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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The expanded/updated anniversary edition of Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture is out now.

With six extra chapters and 40 thousand added words, the remixed Energy Flash--a.k.a. Generation Ecstasy--takes in developments in dance music in the decade since its original 1998 publication: the trance explosion, 2-step garage, filter house, the nu-Eighties electro sound, microhouse/minimal, grime, breakcore, dubstep, and more.

Further information here