Sunday, March 30, 2008

Head On (Skint)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Head On is a twisted, tripped-out brother to Les Rhythmes Digitales Eighties-
influenced Darkdancer. But where Jacques LeCont's fond exhumations of Shannon and Nik Kershaw are typical French retro-kitsch, Super_Collider treat Eighties electro-funk as a prematurely curtailed modernism. This English duo (producer Cristian Vogel and singer Jamie Lidell) pick up where Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce", George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," and Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis's "Nasty" left off. This era of dance music just before sampling totally took over fascinates because of its crush collision between trad musicianship and futurism: you can hear the players struggling to extract funk from unwieldly and unyielding drum machines, sequencers and synths. Hence the apparent paradox whereby the best Eighties dancepop still sounds amazingly modern while much
contemporary dance music sounds retro--because today's producers get their funk by
proxy, through sampling Seventies sources like vintage disco loops or jazz-funk licks.

Head On gets me flashing on the boogie wonderland of the post-disco, pre-house interregnum--the bulbous synth-bass and juicy-fruit keyboard licks of Gap Band, Steve Arrington, Man Parrish, D-Train, SOS Band. But as you'd expect from someone who records solo for avant-techno labels Mille Plateaux and Tresor, Vogel's version of bodymusic is decidedly mangled and alienated-sounding, while Lidell croons a kind of cyborg hypersoul--grotesquely mannered, FX-warped, yet queerly compelling. Head On's highlight "Darn (Cold Way O' Lovin')" has a groove that bucks and writhes like a rutting hippotamus. "Take Me Home" is robo-Cameo, featuring a digitized equivalent of slap-bass and Lidell's most blackface warbling (imagine a bionic Steve Winwood). And "Alchemical Confession" is the kind of black rock I always hoped Tackhead or Material would deliver, all acrid guitar squalls and Lidell flailing like Jamiroquai in a meat grinder (now that's something I'd pay to see).

A few years ago, Vogel released an EP called "We Equate Machines With Funkiness". Funk has always existed in the biomechanical zone between James Brown aspiring to be a sex-machine and Kraftwerk finding the libidinous pulse within the strict-time rhythms of automobiles and trains. When a band's playing has too much fluency and human feel, you don't get the tensile friction that defines da funk (which is why an excess of jazz influence sounds the death-knell for any dance genre's ass-grind appeal). Super_Collider,though, have a perfect grasp on funk's uncanny merger of supple and stiff, loose and tight.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spin, summer 2001

by Simon Reynolds

When Basement Jaxx's debut album Remedy materialized in 1999, dance music had arrived at something of an impasse. All the outer limits of post-rave music had been reached a few years earlier. It was hard to see how drum'n'bass could convolute rhythm any morer without tying dancers limbs in knots; hardcore gabba had taken concussive beats, distorted noise, and sheer velocity to life-threatening extremes; minimal techno had anorexically paring itself down to the brink of non-existence. In the absence of some new drug-technology synergy, the only way forward appeared to involve systematic cultivation of undeveloped terrain within these frontiers. Hence the spate of inbetween-sounds like tech-house, speed garage, progressive trance, nu-skool breaks, and other hybrids, which convulse committed clubbers into pro- and anti- factions, but understandably leave outsiders scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is all about.

There was another alternative: frolicing through dance music's own back pages. And so Daft Punk's brand of "filter disco" simultaneously harked back to and renovated house's Seventies roots; big beat slammed Sixties surf music, ska, and garage punk into old skool hip hop and acid house; others, from Les Rhythmes Digitales to i/F, rediscovered Eighties electro and synthpop. And it was all great fun, while not exactly delivering the future-rush and shock-of-the-now that, say, jungle transmitted in its prime. And then there was Basement Jaxx with their house-not-house cornucopia that pick'n'mixed freely across all these options and more. What's great about Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton's sound is the way they go from cartoon disco like Deelite at their groovalicious peak to sick drug-noise perfect for humid murky catacombs; from tunes that resemble Prince's Sign of the Times if he'd come from Chicago rather than Minneapolis, to samba-house beamed in from that Brazil-as-utopia that haunts the imagination of many British dance producers. And yet every track has that special Jaxx signature.

Like Prince's Paisley Park fantasy, Jaxx-music conjures the sense of a freakadelic demi-monde you'd just love to inhabit full-time for real. In that spirit, the queerly titled Rooty is named in homage to Buxton & Ratcliffe's most recent South London club. Album opener "Romeo" is so Sheila E you just have to smile, and "Breakaway" makes me flash on "Baby Wants To Ride" by Jamie Principle, a long-lost house pioneer with an unhealthy Prince obsession. With its broken beats and dirty bass, "S.F.M. (Sexy Feline Machine)" is one of the few tracks here that substantiates a rumored 2step garage direction, and it's nowhere near as full-on foray into that London R&B-meets-house style as Remedy's "U Can't Stop Me." So far, so groovy. But there's a side to Basement Jaxx that's a bit too ditzy-ditty and quirky-verging-on-twee, and "Jus 1 Kiss", I'm afraid to say, just makes me think of Wings: intricately ornamented, but as sickly and unsatisfying as a meringue. "Broken Dreams" also has McCartneyesque shades of clever-clever craft, but for some reason its confection of Spanish horns and jaunty bassline makes for a lovely slice of happy-sad. It's also one of several tracks where a weird effect on the vocal makes it sound glossy and faded at the same time--sort of like, if plastic could rust.

Midway through, Rooty takes a timely turn from silly love songs to dark dirty lust. "I Want U" has the awkward, angular almost-ugliness of Jaxx's most compelling music, e.g. Remedy's "Same Old Show". Singer Mandy's exaggerated London accent ("I've bin finking") recalls UK punkettes like Honey Bane and Hazel O'Connor. "Get Me Off" is a hot 'n' horny pummel, all panting breath and brooding oozy bass swelling and ebbing like oily surf after a tanker spill. "Where's Your Head At" rocks harder still, with a bombastic synth-riff that recalls Never Mind the Bollocks (but is actually sampled from Gary Numan's "M.E.") and a jeering thug-chorus that's pure Oi! These three brutal blasts of headbanger house make for a neat parallel with Daft Punk's inspired merger of disco and FM soft-rock (ELO, Supertramp, Frampton, Buggles) on Discovery.

After the monsterfart electro of "Crazy Girl", though, Rooty rather peters out, with the ill-advised juke-joint Dixieland flavor of "Do Your Thing", all piano comping and diva scat, and "All I Know"--winsome, wistful, slight. Despite its many delights, there is a feeling emanating from Rooty that Basement Jaxx didn't really know how to top Remedy. When you've made your reputation through impurism and hyphenated hybrids, you can't really scale back, the only way forward is further into ever more spectacular and farfetched fusion. And the risk is that you'll throw so many things into the pot you end up with the sonic equivalent of that poly-ethnic fusion cuisine so trendy nowadays. Buxton & Ratcliffe have such impeccable taste that they've mostly avoided that calamity. But Rooty's sheer brevity, at 43 minutes, suggests loss of confidence, or even that a number of tracks were pulled at the last minute owing to last-minute jitters.

If they're looking for tips, I'd say jettison any remaining Latin influences or notions of "jazzy" and instead build on the lumpen thump of "I Want U"/'Get Me Off"/"Where's Your Head At". That glorious sequence adds weight to the theory that dance music, in the absence of strong influences from or secret affinities with rock, tends to the pale and uninteresting. Acid house, after all, got its name because it reminded co-creator and Sabbath-fan Marshall Jefferson of acid rock. Indeed whenever purists get worried about dance music going awry they always raise the specter of "heavy metal house". But everybody knows clubland cognoscenti got shit for brains.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

sleevenotes to Planet Mu's compilation Soundmurderer, 2003

by Simon Reynolds

This is the story of a beat and the story of a beatmaster.

The beat is the immortal "Amen" break, originally from an early funk track called "Amen Brother" by The Winstons. Someone who should know better once described "Amen" as jungle's default option--but that's like saying the Bo Diddley beat, or the twelve-bar blues shuffle, is something people fall back on when their imagination fails. Actually "Amen" is jungle's highest common denominator: its hard core, the absolute foundation and essence of the genre. Those two bars of stuttering kicks, driving snares and splashy ride cymbal, laid down in the late Sixties in seemingly throwaway fashion, have been dissected, processed, and reassembled to create near-infinite polyrhythmic possibilities.

If you listen to the original "Amen" today it sounds kinda tepid, after all the damage that has been done to it, and with it. But the junglists heard something in that break--it's not exactly funky, it's got this surging, explosive quality--and amplified it a hundredfold, turning the snares into machine-guns, the hi-hats and cymbals into strafing shrapnel, the bass drum kicks into landmines under your feet.

Between 1993-1996, thousands upon thousands of jungle tunes were built around "Amen." And some of the absolute best were made by a young man who went by the name of Remarc. When it comes to the "Amen" break, Remarc is King of the Beat. If the "Amen" is the genetic drumcode of the junglist generation, Remarc is one of the supreme genetic engineers, dicing and resplicing that primal riddimatic DNA, and creating mutant monsters that stampeded the dancefloors of mid-90s Britain. For his ultimate burial tune "RIP" alone, he'd be assured of his place in the Junglist Hall of Fame. But what about "Thunderclap": have beats ever been more mashed, rinsed, shredded to fuck, and still funked? Catch me in the right misty-eyed mood and I might tell you that no dance music has gone further than the "Amen" tear-out circa 1994-5. "RIP", "Thunderclap" and a precious handful of others represent a pinnacle that has yet to be surpassed.

Remarc is one of those DJ/producers--see also his peers Hype, Pascal, Bizzy B, Dead Dred, Marvellous Cain, and others--who never got the puff pieces in The Face, iD or Mixmag. They never became professional faces or quote merchants. They were simply too busy--building the soundboy killers that mashed up venues like the Roast and AWOL and Thunder & Joy. People used to
talk about "intelligent drum'n'bass", but the tunes that ruled the true junglist dancefloor represented a kind of rhythmic intellect at its most penetrating and ferociously complex. Pure science. No need for wishy-washes of synth, pseudo-sophisticated jazz chords, or embarrassing attempts at "proper" songwriting. Just snare-rushes, a cyberskankin' B-line, and some sparingly used vocal samples (ragga boasts, gangsta threats, and sweet diva licks). That's all it took to put you in jungle heaven. So let's hear it for Remarc, the bashment bombardier. REWIND selecta!!!!

* this reissue dedicated to Winstons drummer Gregory Sylvester Coleman, RIP
MORE FIRE CREW, More Fire Crew C.V.
Uncut, 2003

by Simon Reynolds

Someone’s gotta coin a snappy name for the genre represented by So Solid Crew and the hordes who came in their wake. UK garage doesn’t cut it anymore, it’s misleading. Listen to the debut from Leyton crew More Fire and you’ll hear hardly a trace of house ‘n’ garage. 2-step’s swing and sensuality is banished in favour of hard-bounce riddims and punishing textures. More Fire’s primary producers, the Platinum 45 team, draw on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history: electro’s angular coldness, jungle’s bruising bass blows, ragga’s lurch and twitch.

“Oi!”, More Fire’s Number 7 smash of 2002, made for the most exhilaratingly extreme Top of the Pop appearance in living memory. For pop punters who like a nice choon and fans of Artful Dodger-style softcore garage alike, “Oi!” had the shock impact of punk: “is this even music?!?” The answer, eventually, is “yes”. But it takes several listens before what initially seems hookless reveals itself as incredibly contagious. Platinum 45’s idea of melody seems derived almost entirely from videogame musik and mobile ring-tones. Their dry rhythms connect backwards through time to Schoolly D and pioneering dancehall riddim “Sleng Teng”, and sideways across space to current rap like The Clipse’s “Grindin” (a drum machine on auto-pilot). If James Brown was a 19 year old from an E4 estate who’d mispent his youth in a purple haze of Playstation and hydroponic, this might be his idea of future funk. Factor in the rapid-fire jabber of Ozzie B, Lethal B, and Neeko, with its blend of gruff ragga grain and uncouth Cockney, and you’ve got music that instantly creates a massive generation gap.

Can this sound, brutally shorn of pop appeal, sustain a whole album? If you make it past the incomparably dreary “Intro” (in which More Fire refute the charge that they’re one-hit wonders and damn near hammer coffin-nails in their career), you’ll find an album that’s highly listenable. Alongside Platinum 45 stand-outs “Smokin’” and “Politics”, two killer tracks are guest-produced by members of Roll Deep, hot crew of the moment. Wiley’s “Lock Down” pivots around a bubble-and-squeak bassline similar to Roll Deep’s insidious “Creeper”, while Dizzee Rascal (the MC/producer to watch in 2003) contributes the asymmetrical anti-groove of “Still the Same” over which he spits rhymes in trademark edge-of-hysteria style.

Lyrically, no ground is broken. Haters are castigated, ho’s get humiliated, weed strictly high-grade) is hymned, and “soldiers, fallen” are mourned as mawkishly as Bone Thugs or P. Diddy. But the art of MC-ing doesn’t really involve opening up new areas of content, it’s about finding fresh twists on the same restricted set of themes. What we’re witnessing with this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name that More Fire Crew exemplify and excel at, is the final arrival--after many false dawns--of an authentically British rap. No longer a pale copy of the American original, different but equally potent, it’s something to celebrate.


Do you get much inspiration from American rap or are you coming more out of the tradition of MC-ing that runs through UK garage and jungle back to hardcore rave?

We've got nuff love for hip hop and it takes up most of our listening time. But the garage vibe came from jungle and the main bones of it come from heavy jungle influence--that's what gives it such a British Flavor. Our favourite jungle MCs were Skibadee, Shabba and Stevie Hyper-D.

Were you aware the word "Oi!" has this dodgy connotation, as the name of this punk/skinhead movement with a reputation for fascist allegiances? More Fire nabbing their catchphrase almost seems like a jab in the eye for the racist scum.

We didn't even know about that! That's wicked that we can change perception on something like that, turning something totally negative to a positive thing without even realising!

The whole garage-fronted-by-MCs upsurge seems unstoppable at the moment--so many crews coming through, so many new rhythmic ideas bubbling. Tempos are slowing and it seems like the music is turning from UK garage into UK rap. If so, will this sound ever break America?

It's anyone's guess where Garage is going with all the madness surrounding UK urban music at the moment. It's just not getting the support it should be. The good thing is that it's still thriving in its own way. People are still pushing the boundaries. I think a lot of UK hip hop will come through now, but with a totally British flavour through all the garage influences. The MCs coming through right now have the talent where they can rap at 90 b.p.m. or 140 b.p.m. We'll break the US soon, but we need to focus on cracking the UK market properly first. It's no good going over half baked!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

JOEY BELTRAM / THE ADVENT, Tresor versus Limelight, New York
Village Voice, November 14th, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

It's a strange notion, this idea of clubs going on tour. For what else defines a club if not the specificity of a space and the vibe generated there by resident DJs and a regular crowd? Limelight's bimonthly collaboration with Berlin's legendary Tresor seems especially bizarre, because physically the two places couldn't be less similar. Tresor's main floor—-once the subterranean safe of Europe's biggest department store—-is a low-ceilinged sweatbox, whereas Limelight's is airily voluminous, like you'd expect from a converted church.

Musically, they're more compatible, given Limelight's recent self-reinvention as home for "serious" techno as purveyed by DJ/producers like Jeff Mills and Surgeon, who've both recorded for the Tresor label. Last Saturday, the Berlin-New York alliance was inaugurated by two other Tresor affiliates, Joey Beltram and the Advent. Both emerged at a time when "techno" referred to the soundtrack of rave in its entirety, and was unashamedly bangin', kickin', and slammin'. And both have followed the logic of purism that transformed techno from people's choice in the early '90s to its current status as just one of many subgenres.

Queens boy Beltram earned his place in the Rave Hall of Fame with two eternal classics: 1990's "Energy Flash" (a foundational track for everyone from tranceheads to junglists to gabba fiends, possibly the last anthem of the era when the rave nation was one) and 1991's "Mentasm" (whose dark-swoon swarm-drone of blaring synth distortion is one of rave's six or seven immortal sounds). At some point, Beltram crossed the subtle but crucial divide between hardcore and hard techno, purging the E-rush triggering elements in his sound and settling for a more subdued but "credible" post-rave career. His Limelight set alternated between spangly filter house and minimal-but-muscular techno, and, while never as perfunctory as his old friend/foe Frankie Bones, still felt like a hard day's night at the pleasure factory. Oh, the kids dug it well enough, but gazing at their pursed lips and rolled-back eyes, I couldn't help thinking they were wasting good drugs on nothing special. From the passed-out guy on a pew to the candy-raver hypnotized by her gyrating glowstick-gadget and the clean-cut techno warriors punching the air with grim fervour, it's the same old scene(s) you've seen since the East Coast first got it on back in 1991, courtesy of Beltram's erstwhile Brooklyn buddies—-but with a little less in the way of surprise, or point, every passing year.

Recently slimmed from a duo to just Cisco Ferreira, the Advent immediately broke Beltram's deadlocked groove with some Gothic electro, introducing such barely-heard-that-night novelties as syncopation, basslines, even melody. But even in more typical pump'n'pound mode, the Advent's live set had way more internal frisk than Beltram's dour scour, changing gait from surge to lope to sprint to shimmy. Relentlessly abstract, built from loop-riffed sounds like the creak-hiss of a fissuring ice floe or a windshield's smash-tinkle, and offering few latch-points of real-world emotion, it's a sound that can only be evoked via onomatopoeia: This music grunks and rackles. But like Richie Hawtin, the Advent showed that purism doesn't have to mean imaginative poverty or deadening ends. At the set's several peaks, you could stand near a clutch of manic smiley-faced Asian kids, say, and still believe rave's the best fun in town.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

BREAKBEAT GARAGE a.k.a "Grime Ahoy!"
from Unfaves 2000 (written spring 2001)

by Simon Reynolds

When this flavour of "garage" first started to come through--must have been late 1999, with Deekline--I remember being excited by the way the sultry, swinging R&B-2step flow would be disrupted by this much more raw, stripped down and rhythmically unsupple sound that was disconcertingly similar to Big Beat: 130 bpm breaks, bulbous bass, wacky samples. But what was refreshing about these tune--"I Don't Smoke", later the more electro-flavored "Dilemma" by So Solid Crew--when they were a brief tang of different flavour, becomes tediously homogenous as a scene/sound on its own. Stanton Warriors's Da Virus" especially seems to be the drab template for a lot of this stuff, and "138 Trek" wore out its welcome fairly quick. There's some cool-enough stuff, I suppose--like Blowfelt's bippety bassline tune "Lickle Rolla"---but generally it sounds too much like jungle minus the extra b.p.m speed-rush, hardcore without the E-fired euphoria. Or worse like nu-skool breaks (alarming to see Rennie 'Stupid Fucking Name' Pilgrem reviewing 2step tunes in Muzik's breakbeat column).

That said, the last batch of pirate tapes I got, showed signs of a new twist in this breakstep (or whatever they're calling it) direction: not so much jungle-slowed-down, and more like a post-rave, drum'n'bass influenced form of English rap. On these spring 2001 pirate tapes, there's hardly any R&B diva tunes, and every other track features very Lunndunn-sounding MCs or ragga-flavored vocals, over caustic acid-riffs and techsteppy sounds, like some latterday Dillinja production. Unlike with techstep or recent d&b, there's very little distorto-blare in the production, there's this typically 2step clipped, costive feel, an almost prim and dainty quality to the aggression-- a weird combo of nasty and neat-freak. Lyrically, the vibe seems to be similarly pinched in spirit, a harsh, bleak worldview shaped subconsciously by the crumbling infrastructural reality beneath New Labour's fake grin; UKG seems to be already transforming itself from boom-time music to recession blues. The Englishness of the vocals reminds me of 3 Wizemen Men and that perpetual false-dawn for UK rap. Lots of killer tunes I can't identify, but one in particular stood out that I could: "Know We" by Pay As U Go Kartel. As I say, quite mean-minded and loveless music but sonically very exciting-- a new twist if not quite paradigm shift from the hardcore continuum.
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.
Village Voice, June 8th, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Doyen of minimalist techno, Jeff Mills is famed and feted for DJ-ing
with three turntables. His virtuosity involves taking ultra-minimal tracks (often just a beat and a two-bar loop) and montaging them together until the result sounds like... a marginally less minimal techno track. "DJ tools" rather than stuff to listen to, these records only really become music when Mills is crosshatching their most urgent passages together.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Mills played a rare New York gig, thrilling
a Twilo crowd evenly split between club kids buzzed to have an extra night to party-hard, and techno purists for whom this former member of Underground Resistance is the very definition of "subcultural capital". Dry ice made it hard to see what Mills was actually doing, and it probably requires a DJ's familiarity with the mixer to really detect when his three-turntables-at-once mode is operating full-tilt. But what came across (very) loud 'n' clear was the ferocious physicality of Mills's aesthetic, and the expertise with which he simultaneously sustained and modulated the intensity, avoiding the usual diminishing-returns syndrome of shellshocked numbness.

As the model of an "educational DJ," Mills avoids the obviously crowdpleasing--
not just rave dynamics, but anything that might connect techno to "normal" pop. So the first human voice (barking "work that body!") came 90 minutes into his set; for melody, you had to wait another half-hour. Yet this particular crowd seemed perfectly pleased with Mills's austerity, fervently greeting slight fluctuations or the jolting intrusion of a new track into the mix-scape. Denied overt tunefulness or conventionally "lovely" instrumental textures, you become engrossed by the different densities of abrasion, tantalized by the harsh sensuousness of hi-hats like aluminium feathers against brushed steel and snares that dwell somewhere in the adjectival interzone between squelchy and scratchy. (When the timbral palette suddenly shifted circa 5-AM from hairshirt to silk, exfoliate to caress, the release
was almost orgasmic). Above all, the Mills experience is about energy, the exaltation and deployment of pure dynamic forces. At its frequent peaks, it feels like your veins are infused with liquid lightning.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Psychotic Reactions: Give Peace A Dance Volume 3 (CND Communications)
Melody Maker, May 9 1992

by Simon Reynolds

A couple of weeks back, an erudite, enigmatic Backlash correspondent called TT put forth the proposition that Techno is no better than country music ; it merely reflects its audience’s worldview, offers no intimation of the possibility of change. Certainly the way hardcore is used suggests that it’s squarely in the working class tradition of letting loose at the weekend, after slogging your guts out all week working for the Man. If you wanted to take the extreme pessimistic view, you could see Techno as the dehumanized leisure counterpart of dehumanizing work, robot music for robot people (the word robot comes from ‘robotnik’, or “worker”).

But I reckon there’s potential in hardcore to become more than just a safety valve for wageslaves to let off steam with. Hardcore fans talk appreciatively of “mad sounds”. But “mad” also means angry, as in “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore”. Techno literally rages, in the same way that a storm or the sea of The Young Gods rages.

There’s an abstract anger in techno (the dancing’s more like shadow boxing than getting on the good foot) that reminds me of the apolitical aggression of rap before Public Enemy articulated it and channeled it towards fighting the power. At the moment, Techno’s all about “getting it all out of your system”. But what if it changed to getting it all into and against the System?

This CND-sponsored double LP of hardcore trax is a tentative step towards the politicization of techno. The sleevenotes play around deftly with the concept of “oblivion”, contrasting everyone’s right to find their own way of losing themselves with the involuntary oblivion of nuclear annihilation. But the writer is fully aware that techno is not the most promising medium for the dissemination of agit-prop. Titles like Apollo 440’s “Blackout” illustrate that hardcore is more about amnesia and groovy braindeath than awareness and enlightenment. 1992’s version of rave is a reaction to different, grimmer drugs and a different, grimmer reality than 1988 rave. The blissful entrancement of acid house ahs given way to hardcore’s concussion and autism (desirable states to be are “cabbaged”, “monged”, “sledgied”). PSYCHO SLAPHEAD’s eponymous track comes in an “asylum mix”, and that word’s meanings nicely bring out hardcore’s paradoxes: asylum is a place of esacpe, but it’s also somewhere lunatics are confined and allowed to rage harmlessly. And the track’s an absolute bedlam of sonic gibberish and rhythmic mayhem.

Psychotic Reactions is dominated by manic trax and loony tunes. THE HYPNOTIST’s “Ride” is a pure speed-rush, synths that sound like a brain fizzing and bass like a heart trying to leap out of its cage. Tracks like APOLLO 440 and DOC SCOTT’s “Surgery” make Electronic Body Music funky like a mutha by replacing the genre’s stiff, Teutonic stomp with hyped-up hip hop breakbeats that sound like the funky drummer playing at thrash-metal speed. SET UP SYSTEM’s “Fairy Dust” is an eerie swarm of bleep particles and a squeaky, rubbery synth-vamp that sounds like a brain eraser.

It’s not all mentasm madness. There’s a spiritual side to some techno, where futurist vistas evoke a utopian tomorrow. PIED PIPER’s “Kinetic” is a beatific Nu Day Rising of swirl-round synth and Andean pipes. ORBITAL’s “Open Mind” is even more minimal but not as hymnal as “Chime”. Like LFO, Orbital’s music casts a spell not so much melodically as texturally: their sound is a polyphony of tactile surfaces, you feel like a blind man in a fabric shop.

UBIK’s “The Truth Vibration” is sacra-mental, a digital dervish-dance. Best of all is HOLY GHOST INC’s “Jihad”, a whoosh like a brain inundated with serotonin, a bassline as agitated as a shrew on the brink of a coronary, French gibberish, tons more weirdness. The mystic title chimes in with the pagan theme in rave that runs from A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” and 808 State’s “State Ritual” through Ubik’s “Pagan” to Aphex Twin’s “Didgeridoo”. It suggests another parameter for techno: the Dionysian freak-out, the rave as a carnivalesque holiday from reality before the resumption of ordinary, orderly life.

But whether it’s the future sound of “Apoplexy in the UK” or just the latest twist on proletarian youth’s “culture of consolation”, it doesn’t really matter. Hardcore Techno is an exhilarating furore that makes perfect sense to anyone who’s ever raged along to the Stooges or the Pistols, Black Sabbath or Black Flag. And this compilation is a regular (cata)tonic.

Friday, March 7, 2008

GLITCHES WITH ATTITUDE: kid606, Matmos, Blectum from Blechdom, Lesser
director's cut of feature for Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Surveying the white-walled expanse of the Manhattan loft she's just acquired as a rehearsal studio/sleeping quarters for her band and entourage, Bjork realizes something's wrong. Her manager's making phone calls sprawled flat on his belly on the pinewood floor; her assistant's teetering awkwardly on an up-ended cardboard box. "We need chairs," chirrups the Icelandic singer, who's dressed in a tight-fitting white-leather bodice and fake-fur pom-pom slippers. Dropping into the earthy slang of her adopted home London, she adds: "And we need them now, because we're totally knackered!"

Talk of chairs missing prompts Martin Schmidt from Matmos, the San Francisco electronic duo who basically are "the band" on Bjork's forthcoming world-tour, to recall that he once made a short experimental film called Chairs In the Wind. "It consisted of: some chairs, sitting in a field, not moving," he explains, adding ruefully. "If I'd had my way, it'd have been two hours long". Drew Daniel, Schmidt's partner in music and life, leans over and kisses the top of his head tenderly, touched by the avant-garde excesses of his boyfriend's youth.

Matmos are prime movers in the next-wave of electronica, a bunch of mischief-makers who are disrupting techno's cult of impersonality with quirky characterfulness and punk attitude. The duo are especially tight with the cluster of misfits surrounding the Tigerbeat 6 label in San Francisco: Lesser, Blectum from Blechdom, and kid606, the label's founder. With Matmos's critically acclaimed A Chance to Cut Is A Chance To Cure and Lesser's Gearhound both coming out on Matador, kid606 remixing the back-from-the-dead Depeche Mode, and now Schmidt & Daniel's link-up with Bjork, this genre-without-a-name--laptop punk, glitchcore, and emo-tronica are all contenders--is inching closer to the mainstream.

Bastard children of left-field electronica's first wave (the Anglo/Euro pantheon of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Oval, etc), the Tigerbeat 6 crew work from their precursors's innovations (mad Tex Avery beats, exaggerated digital effects, glitchy-twitchy riffs), but lively up the studio-science with passion, polemic, and a kick-ass approach to live performance. US rave culture and its home-listening adjunct IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) have always looked across the Atlantic for guidance. But now, with Tigerbeat 6 and other glitchcore labels like Schematic, Phthalo, BetaBodega, Carpark, and Plug Research, there's a real sense that America is leading the way.

The Old World has perked up its ears: England's leading IDM label Warp just signed two Schematic producers, Richard Devine and Scott Heren (a/k/a Prefuse 73), while the Frankfurt label Mille Plateaux gleaned the cream of California's crop of glitchtronica for its clicks_+_cuts compilations. Renowned for her ardour for left-field techno, Bjork was so enchanted by Matmos's 1998 album Quasi-Objects--whose tracks are all based on single-source samples, ranging from balloons to "amplified crayfish neural tissue"--she bought 20 copies to give to friends. Now she's persuaded the duo to take a year-long sabbatical from their day-jobs (Schmidt is an assistant manager at the San Francisco Art Institute, Daniel is doing a PhD at Berkeley) and traipse around the world with her.

Right now, Daniels and Schmidt re adapting the album into something that can be played live--a complicated and protracted process, given the range of technologies and programming languages that Bjork's multiple collaborators have used. While the singer and Daniels talk fluently in the jargon of soundfiles and MIDI, Schmidt takes a sofa-break and nurses his hangover, a relic from last night's group outing to a rollerskating rink. Bjork's play hard/work hard regime seems designed to encourage cameraderie and maintain morale. Not that the pace of activity in this uber-IKEA loft is especially frantic. "The truth is, when B's here, not much gets done," Martin confides in a whisper. "It's too easy to have fun, so fun is what we have."


Fun--having it, making it--is what Tigerbeat 6 is all about. Kid606 and friends have an almost Tourette's Syndrome-like compulsion to deflate the po-faced pomposity that too often surrounds electronic music. "Not taking yourself too seriously is something we take very seriously," says Kevin, one half of the androgynously-named female duo Blectum From Blechdom. Lesser calls himself a "jackass," and it takes a while before you realize he's not being self-deprecating: it's his highest term of praise, reserved for people like his hero Steve Albini. kid606--real name, Miguel Depredo--litters his music with in-jokes and wisecracks: titles like "Matmos Are The A-Team of Electronica," the Ma$e-sampling "It'll Take Millions In Plastic Surgery To Make Me Black," and tracks like "Buffalo 606--the morning after" and "Catstep" that testify to his twin obsessions with Christina Ricci and felines.

Only 21 years old but surprisingly mature and burly-looking--born in Venuezuala, he could pass for a Latin American dissident, albeit one wearing braces--Depredo has carved out a career as a thorn in the side of IDM. Inspired by Warp's concept of "electronic listening music," IDM was originally an Internet mailing list for Aphex Twin fans but has since developed into a subculture of geeky obsessives. "It's just that indie-rock, lo-fi mentality transferred to electronic music," says Depredo scathingly. "The word 'intelligent' is a way of flattering the audience that they're superior to people mindlessly shaking their butts on the dancefloor---as if to make music credible, you have to take the fun out of it! "

Although kid606 uses many of the same techniques that have become IDM mannerisms--dementedly micro-edited breakbeats, the digital hiccups of the post-Oval genre called "glitch"--he also injects the party-hard energy of a whole array of Stupid Dance Musics: gabba's piledriver beats and blaring riffs, the booty-shake appeal of Miami Bass, gangsta rap, and dancehall. All these sounds make you jump, rather than stroke your chin ruminatively. "I like some cheesy-ass shit, and I'm not ashamed of that. In fact, that's the shit that enables me to do my shit. And if I only listenened to the Warp catalogue, I'd be shit."

Although hip hop is a major passion for Depredo and Lesser (kid606 organized a tribute album to NWA called Attitude), punk rock is the real shared heritage that informs Tigerbeat 6's sensibility. Matmos's Daniel put out a punkzine called Conqueror Worm in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky, while Schmidt was involved in the early Eighties Los Angeles hardcore scene. "We used to buy our speed off Will Shatter from Flipper!," he grins. As kids growing up in San Diego, Lesser progressed from the Metallica cover band Creeping Death to making electronic noise for local punk label Vinyl Communications, while Depredo says he was profoundly influenced by San Diego emocore groups like Heroin and The Locust.

One result of this is Depredo's compulsion to wear his heart on his record sleeves, with titles like "Fuck You Sarah," PS I Love You, and Soccer Girl, all inspired by relationships. "I got tired of the way electronic artists wouldn't put their emotions in the music. It's all part of that faux-art attitude. There's too many records where the font used on the sleeve is the most expressive thing about it."

By contrast, with kid606 and cohorts, you're always aware there's a flesh-and-blood person behind the music. "In electronic music, everyone's obsessed with having a distinctive sound, but I'd much rather have a voice that people recognise," says Lesser. "Instead of 'oh, it's got that Lesser sound', I'd rather people would go 'oh, it's the jack-ass again.'"

Defining himself against IDM's prissy neatness, Lesser calls his approach "anal-expulsive"--the opposite of anal-retentive. The word fits Blectum from Blechdom even better. Their quirky-scary music (imagine The Shaggs if they'd had laptops instead of guitars/bass/drums) drags the listener into a surreally scatological world populated by verminous critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. On record, Kevin and Blevin relate adventures from this macabre wonderland via between-track skits and mini-dramas, shattering techno's decorum with deranged girlish laughter and Monty Python-style funny voices. As Kevin unfurls the grody details--snauses live in toilets, bite people's toes off, and have a single 'bitch-hole' through which they pee, poop, eat, breathe, and fornicate; a scientist called Mallard experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverse pleasure---it starts to resemble the hallucinations of a ketamine-head channel-flipping between Discovery, porn, and Alien 3. According to Blevin, it actually started as a doodle, a private joke, 'that took on a life of its own. It's like we couldn't stop joking".

The odd couple originally met at Mills, the Oakland college where they were studying avant-garde electronic music. They threw raves in the dirt-floor basement underneath the 1930s concert hall, and in the process got to know many players in San Francisco's electronic scene. But with their "messy aesthetic", Blectum felt isolated until the arrival of Lesser and Depredo from San Diego a little over a year ago. Fans of bad music (they sample Men At Work's "Down Under" on one track), and the grisly children's stories of Jim Copp & Ed Brown, Blectum have no time for IDM's hipper-than-thou ethos. "There's something about absurdity and ridiculousness we like," says Kevin. "A lot of so-called good music is about presenting yourself as cool and smooth, but the reality of how we feel is kinda psychotic and all-over-the-place. So if you can accept bad music and grotesque things, it's like accepting yourself."

Matmos's A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure goes even further into "euuu, gross!" territory--it's a concept album of lopsided house music largely composed from the sounds of cosmetic surgery and other medical procedures. Following the rootsy, organic sound of their Americana-inspired album The West, Matmos wanted to make something "cold and machine-like, yet still visceral," says Daniel. "When you know it's the sounds of stuff being done to human bodies it makes you flinch, you're more invested in those sounds, 'cos these are things that could be done to you." One track is based on their friend Monica Youn's laser eye surgery. I get to meet this "human sample" in the eerie flesh when Matmos are briefly billeted in a SoHo loft that she's house-sitting from Princess Olga of Greece. "Luckily there were complications, and I had to have the operation done again," Youn says, wryly. "Lucky for Drew, because his first attempt at recording the surgery were spoiled by background interference." Other samples-- liposuction, chin implants, nose-jobs--were procured in shady fashion, without the patient's knowledge. "They'd be out cold, under anesthetic, and then the doctors snuck me in," says Daniel. He admits that this was ethically "dodgy"--not so much because it's an invasion of the patient's privacy, but simply for insurance reasons. "The surgeons who allowed us to do this were putting themselves at risk... Imagine if I'd tripped and stumbled into them mid-operation..." Schmidt completes the thought: "Coulda cut the nose clean off!."

Although Matmos have yet to release anything via Tigerbeat 6, they are very much part of the crew, not least because Lesser is their third member when they play live. It's as much a hanging-out thing as based in musical affinities. "For a while, we'd have these soldering socials," says Lesser. "We'd all get together and bring crappy synths picked up from thrift-stores, and all solder together and discuss the best techniques." This closeknit clique is almost literally incestuous, in that intermarriage within the tribe seems to be compulsory. Kid606's goes out with Kevin, Lesser is dating Blevin. The two couples plan to make a record together as Fleetwood Mackintosh.

Schmidt and Daniels' eight years strong relationship began when Martin spotted Drew "dancing in his underwear on the bar" at Club Uranus in San Francisco. Discovering from a mutual friend that Daniel wasn't just "way cute" but made electronic music too, Schmidt approached and used the come-on line: "wanna come back to my place and learn how to use a sequencer?'." Romance blossomed between the drum machines and analog synths. Quips Daniels, "It was like a dream come true to meet Martin... from a software point of view.


Taking this home-studio culture to the stage has always been problematic. There isn't a performance vocabulary of gestures and stage moves like there is with rock'n'roll; electronic artists who do put on a show, from Moby to the Prodigy, are regarded suspiciously by techno hipsters as sell-outs pandering to trad-rock tastes, or as egomaniacal exhibitionists. Wary of these dangers, the Tigerbeat 6 crew nonetheless find the IDM live performance norm--a geeky dude motionlessly staring into his laptop and clicking a mouse every so often--to be "unacceptably dull", as Schmidt puts it.

Synth, a regular IDM night at San Francisco chic bar the Blind Tiger, clearly aspires to be the kind of hiptronica club you might find in, say, Cologne---monochrome geometric patterns projected on the wall, an aural backdrop of "clickhouse" (a slick, subdued version of glitch). Given that the promoters are aiming for such a tasteful downtempo vibe, it's rather surprising they've booked kid606 and friends to bring da ruckus.

IDM has always been an Anglophile/Europhile scene: fans try to work out the secrets of Autechre's "granular synthesis" techniques, they fret about the dearth of new Aphex product. In reaction, the Tigerbeat 6 stance is defiantly patriotic. Track titles like Lesser's "Markus Popp Can Kiss My Redneck Ass" and kid606's follow-up "Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass" are playful desecrations of IDM sacred cows (Oval's Popp pioneered glitch, while Vibert was an early exponent of the jungle-parody style of absurdist breakbeat science known as drill'n'bass).

Synth's wannabe Euro-cool is shattered by the first Tigerbeat 6 performer, Gold Chains, a new recruit to the label who crush-collides the hitherto separate universes of The Source and XLR8R, Jay-Z and Jeff Mills. Swarthy and balding, Gold Chains raps hoarsely about "sipping your pussy like champagne" over pounding hardcore techno. A circle of white "hipno babes" throw themselves with ironic fervor into the role of ho's to Gold Chains's mack daddy: jiggling what their mamas gave them, chanting his name, squealing at choice couplets like "your beats are wack/at least that's what your girl said in the sack," and generally acting like project chicks in a Cash Money video.

Next up is Lesser, looking pointedly American in his old-timer's Derby hat and handlebar moustache (you almost expect his coat to fall open to reveal a Colt 45 in holster). Hunched over a laptop, he unleashes a barrage of shredded breakbeats closer to a guitar solo than drum'n'bass. One track features a Motley Crue sample and Lesser's own stab at death-metal singing.

Dressed in matching Pokemon T-shirts and orange foam headbands, Blectum from Blechdom showcase the new pop direction of their forthcoming Bitches Without Britches album: doubled girl-group vocals, mad fairground muzak, a mood midway between twee and psychotic. By now the crowd is an unstable mixture of hipno chinscratchers and Tigerbeat's following, characterized by Lesser as "a good blend of dork and troublemaker". A scary-looking Scottish expat is chanting "you're gonna get yer head kicked in/you're goin' home in an ambulance" for no apparent reason. And a sleazy fellow is telling me how he finds that playing Boards of Canada--IDM at its most wistful and ethereal--makes the girls wanna fuck all night.

Finally, kid606 steps up for his headlining spot. Transfixed by his twin laptops, Depredo's fingers fly over an orange square called the Chaos Pad, which allows him to warp his music through real-time DSP (digital signal processing). DSP extremism is a Tigerbeat 6 hallmark, the reason why their drums sound like a fireworks display of ultravivid timbres. "It's like the way Jimi Hendrix played feedback--we're basically playing effects," is how Lesser explains it, adding "Not to compare genius or anything!". But there is something Hendrix-like about the way melodic refrains--snatches of TLC's "No Scrubs," a Snoop Dogg hook from a Chronic-era Dr. Dre tune--flicker and dissipate in the maelstrom of kid606's music. Dancing in the front row, Kevin from Blectum rocks with her eyes blissfully closed as her boyfriend savagely tweaks the EQ. She leans over and says, dotingly, "it's so cute the way Miguel's cheeks go red when he's really concentrating." At set's end, the Kid leaves his machines running to his spur-of-the-moment remix of 2step garage anthem "Flowers, and joins the crowd to dance.

Not everybody appreciates this mystique-smashing approach to live electronics, though. At the after-party (held in the Compound, a studio containing the 13 channel audio-video system invented by local music eccentric Naut Human), Kit Clayton, one of the SF scene's leading glitcherati, expresses his doubts. He uses the word "pornography" to characterize our quaint hankering to see the "real person" behind the music. "Electronic music is like cinema," he argues. "People don't go to movies and expect to see the film edited in front of them--they're happy to see a finished artwork, not the process of construction." It's a powerful argument for the purity of the techno approach--anonymity, perfectionism, the artist as sound-designer or architect, as opposed to the voyeurism involved in more rock approaches to showmanship.

The Tigerbeat 6 mob have a less purist attitude: both Matmos and Blectum bring a performance art element to their live shows (the Blectum girls often play encased inside a gigantic two-person body suit), while Lesser is wont to indulge in stage-diving mid-set. But it's another Tigerbeat artist, Cex (Baltimore teenager Rjyan Kidwell) who takes the "let me entertain you" ethos to the limit. "Rjyan has just got gold teeth made that spell CEX," marvels Depredo. "He'll strip at shows. I'd almost say Cex is a threat to me, if I gave a shit."

Asked what he calls Tigerbeat's music, Depredo pauses for a second, and then says, "it's all rock'n'roll, really, in the end, isn't it?"

CEX, live
Village Voice, May 2 - 8, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Cex, a/k/a 19-year-old Baltimore-based Rjyan Kidwell, is an infamous figure in the world of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). A recent IDM digest contained an open e-mail to Kidwell and mentor kid606: "Do not bowdlerize our subculture just so you can finally get your goofy looking nerd asses laid." Their crime? Bringing too much showmanship to live performance, which left-field electronica purists believe should be faceless and abstract. The trouble with the purist line is that IDM, because it's not dance oriented, can't count on involving the audience through physical participation; in the absence of visual stimulation, it runs the risk of lapsing into background ambience.

On April 23, a kid606-and-friends night at Tonic showcased various strategies for avoiding the laptop musician's nightmare scenario: that "all is lost" switch point when the audience chatter gets louder than the music. kid606 held the listener rapt through sheer density of sonic events per second (and was helped not a little by Kurt Ralske's ravishing improvised video projections). Matmos usually incorporate an eye-catching performance-art element in their sets, but tonight they simply played tunes from their new plastic-surgery-themed album (A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure) against a backdrop of discomfiting close-up footage: ear canals, eyes, hair follicles, and the like.

Opening the night, Kidwell took the most radical approach. Instead of playing what he puts out on record (plaintive, melodious electronica perfectly suited to the IDM palate), he's got a totally different live set based around the premise of Cex as "#1 Entertainer in the Game." Naked save for his fashion briefs, he looks like an emaciated computer programmer but sounds uncannily like Eminem, his rhymes oscillating wildly from professions of alpha-male omnipotence ("I know you're stressed/cos there's only one Cex/and your girlfriend's pissed/cos it's not you") to touching admissions of terminal dorkhood. Often he's rapping over purloined grooves (like the Neptunes-produced instrumental track from Jay-Z's "I Just Want to Love U"), and like a rap CD, he does between-song skits—like his hilarious fantasy about going to the MTV Awards "the year minimal techno blew up."

"Representin' for fun" versus art-techno solemnity, Cex reminded the audience, "You got booties, let's use 'em," and then vowed to "take your maturity/eat it up, spit it out" (this accompanied by cartoon-raptor gestures of devouring/regurgitation). Surprisingly, the audience lapped up Cex's wiggatronica shtick, avidly participating in call-and-response and throwing hands in the air on cue. As an in-joke/polemic within the cloistered IDM context, Cex's Apple Mack Daddy persona is inspired, although you do wonder how a real rap audience would respond to his not-exactly-fluent freestyles. Then again, only the sternest purist (techno or hip-hop) could fail to chuckle at Cex's adapted-for-PC booty song, which starts by exhorting "Ladeez in the house, get the fellaz in the house, to take their balls out," then extends its equal-opportunity agenda to the inanimate: "Objects in the house, get the people in the house, to take their balls out."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Snauses & Mallards/de Snaunted Haus
The Wire, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Most experimental electronica is anal-retentive---every glitch and click prissily placed just-so. In contrast, Blectum from Blechdom are "anal-expulsive" (to borrow a coinage from their San Francisco comrade Lesser). But this female duo, who lurk behind the aliases Kevin and Blevin, aren't just sonic messthetes: they're positively obsessed with all things faecal. The sleeve of their Bad Music and Buttprints EP featured the imprint of their own hindquarters, and toilet humour is upfront in their name: Blectum echoes "rectum", while "blech" is the gagging sound American kids make to indicate revulsion. The music itself often sounds onomatopeiac, its squits and ploops practically demanding titles like "Audio Stool" and "Shithole".

Those two come from Blectum's debut EP Snauses and Mallards, whose nine tracks make up the first third of this CD. Vaulting past the Ars Electronica prize-winning album The Messy Jesse Fiesta, the rest of the record takes in all fifteen tracks from De Snaunted Haus, their most recent release. Here, Blectum usher us into an Ubu Roi-like fantasia of grotesque scatology and depraved sexuality, populated by unwholesome critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. Snauses are vermin who live in toilets and ambush people at their most vulnerable, biting their toes off. They have a single "bitch-hole" through which they eat, excrete, breathe, fornicate and reproduce. Then there's Mallard, a scientist duck who experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverted sexual research.

The macabre adventures of this bestiary---seemingly hallucinated by a ketamine fiend channel-surfing between wildlife documentaries, porn, and a Cronenburg movie---are recounted via between-track micro-dramas, performed by Kevin and Blevin in exaggeratedly thespian tones and sometimes fed through vocal treatments for added delirium. Breaking techno's taboo about using the human voice (one track is pointedly titled "In case you forgot, we talked on this record"), Blectum shatter glitchtronica's cool with goofy girlish glee and Python-esque daftness. But the effect goes well beyond Ministry of Silly Voices, frequently becoming genuinely unnerving and creepy.

The earliest Blectum performances took place at clandestine raves thrown by the duo in the basement beneath the concert hall of Mills, the Oakland, California music college where Kevin & Blevin are students, and whose illustrious alumni include Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnik. Blectum music reflects this high/low incongruity: toytown tekno riffs, shredded jungle breaks, and bursts of house's hi-hat/kick rhythm, are meshed disjointedly with musique concrete-style smears and scumbles of sound-goo. Tracks like "Bastard Child" recall 4 Hero at their 1993 darkcore peak: vocal samples like melted candles, loops that unspool like glaucous intestines, angelic-demonic shriek-riffs. It's a sort of devolved rave music, suggesting the alternate route London pirate radio might have taken if jungle had never solidified as a genre, and instead the first Generation E kept on taking the bad medicine while the music got iller and iller. Sheer insanitary insanity, Haus De Snaus is an infirmary of sound, teeming with sickly melodies, fever-dream apparitions, degenerative nerve-disorder twitches, and wizened noises as perturbing as the plates in a medical text-book.

Blectum use a lot of dinky-sounding mechanistic melody-riffs suggestive of music-boxes, carny-shows, or player-pianos (Nancarrow is one of their favorites). It's a flavour that evokes the uncanny aura of automata and clockwork toys, making me flash on the the sharp-fanged demon-dolls in Barbarella, or the kitsch animatronic companions built by the prematurely aged android-designer in Blade Runner. Electronic musicians usually evoke childhood's idyllic-ness--Mouse On Mars's ice cream van tinkles, Boards of Canada's faded photo poignancy. Blectum, though, plug into the imp-of-the-perverse side of pre-pubescence: the sheer appetite for destruction that inspires surreal acts of vandalism or grossness, like smearing dogshit over the swings and slides at the local playground. The between-song skits recall the comic play-lets you might have tape-recorded as kids, complete with giggles and muffed lines. It's revealing that the only word for this kind of mischief and humour we have is gender-specific: puerile. Yet Blectum's scatomania seems somehow distinctly female, perhaps tapping into the same energies of body-disgust and self-abjection that fuels extreme practices like bulimia. If the girlfriend in Devo's "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')" ever got to tell her story, this music might be her riposte.

Probably an inspired aberration, Blectum nonetheless strike me in potential at least as harbingers of a sort of riot grrrl for electronica. With their private jokes, lo-fi approach, and brattiness, they're a bit like Huggy Bear if they'd been influenced by early Prodigy rather than early Pastels. More than anywhere in electronic music, they probably belong to the lineage of outsider rock: The Shaggs, the Residents ("Going Postal" could be straight off The Commercial Album), Royal Trux's ultra-primitivist Twin Infinitives.

In this art brut spirit (and their cover art does recall the compulsive doodles of insane artists like Wolfli), this CD closes with "Bad Music", one of two previously unreleased tracks. A Christopher Cross-like ballad, just piano and erratic vocals, "Bad Music" is genuinely awful. But it does serve as a Blectum manifesto, expressing both their accept-yourself ethos (like riot grrrl, they're anti-cool, pro-nerd) and their willingness to sample absolutely anything ("Right Time Right Place" trumps V/Vm by using the ghastly flute-riff from Men At Work's "Down Under").

"Good music," almost by definition, can only confirm and conform to established notions of quality and distinction; besides, there's simply way too much fine music in the world already. "Bad music," though, still has the capacity to surprise and delight, through its deformity or simple failure to reach its own aspirations. It's also true that pathbreaking genres (like darkside jungle in '93) often initially sound plain wrong. Self-consciously walking the diagonal between beauty and ugliness, art and trash, is a difficult act, but Blectum have pulled it off. Sadly, this CD might be the duo's final release, as the partnership, always volatile, is now in trial separation. But here's hoping Kevin & Blevin make up, and give us more of their jolie laide genius.

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Fishin' in Front of People
KEVIN BLECHDOM, The Inside Story
KEVIN BLECHDOM, Bitches Without Britches
Village Voice, June 26-July 2, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

Experimental electronic producers love to talk about incorporating mistakes and digital dysfunction into their music. Listen to their records, though, and it's hard to imagine anything less messy: Pristine and prissy precision rules, with every last glitch and blerkkkpt fastidiously placed just so. But where 99.7 percent of electronica is paradoxically anal yet sterile, Blectum from Blechdom are fecal and fecund. Not only is this female duo's music full of loose ends and soiled sounds, but like some transgender IDM version of Beavis and Butthead, they're obsessed with all things abject and icky. Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum used paint and their own posteriors to personalize the sleeves of the early Blectum EP Bad Music and Buttprints, while the mini-album De Snaunted Haus relates the unsavory adventures of critters called snauses: toilet-lurking vermin who scuttle out to bite off people's toes. There's also a character called Mallard, a depraved scientist who like some cross between Donald Duck and Mengele biologically engineers snauses with extra orifices for . . . oh, I'll spare you the grody details. Suffice to say, The Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry it ain't.

The first time I heard De Snaunted Haus, I immediately thought of the movie Heavenly Creatures, the true story of a pair of excessively imaginative schoolgirls whose private fantasy world becomes so absorbing that it snowballs into shared psychosis. According to the duo, the snause stories started as a private joke that took on a monstrous life of its own. Likewise Blectum's music seems peopled with mangled and misshapen life-forms: mutants spawned in the audio lab, gargoyle gurgles as horribly compelling as the plates of growths and goiters in a medical deformities textbook. Sounding at times like the Residents gone rave, Blectum have coined one of the most idiosyncratic and enthralling sonic vocabularies in the vastly oversubscribed realm of left-field electronica.

An album of live material, Fishin' in Front of People (Pthalo) mostly documents the early Blectum phase before De Snaunted HauS's between-track skits and mini-plays. So there's less macabre whimsy and fewer silly voices to distract you from the experimentation (Kevin and Blevin are actually students at Mills College in Oakland, California, through whose portals such avant-icons as Morton Subotnik and Pauline Oliveros have passed). Shunning MIDI and sequencing software, Blectum hand-trigger their loops and beats, creating a disjointed anti-seamlessness that's real funky, albeit in a lurching, three-legged sort of way. They like textures that feel tacky to the ear's touch, tallow-waxy like intestines moistly unspooling, and they're big into vocal science, warping some unnamed diva's a cappella funhouse-style across the octaves on a sampling keyboard.

All this creative alchemy is based in the duo's passionate, rather volatile friendship. Right now Blectum from Blechdom are in a weird possibly-split-up, probably-gonna-reform limbo. In the meantime, there's a welter of solo activity. Picking up from the duo's love of dinky/plinky music-box-style melody-riffs, Kevin Blechdom's three-inch CD The Inside Story (Tigerbeat6) offers nine player-piano-like miniatures, ranging from charming clockwork naïveté to carny-show grotesquerie. Conversely, her imminent solo album for Chicks on Speed's label takes the vocal element and taboo-tweaking of Haus De Snaus to the dizzy limit. Up against Inside Story's instrumentals, Bitches Without Britches (those Blechdom gals sure love alliteration and internal rhyme) comes off a mad-catchy song-fest: Kevin's high reedy voice fluting over ornate-but-thin synthesized orchestration and dementedly overdriven drum machine. Imagine some three-way collision of Tori Amos, the Frogs, and Stephen Merritt, operating with a studio outlay restricted to under $100. Kevin is clearly the Blechgirl most infatuated with the idea of transgressive bad taste, and on Bitches she goes for the Yiddish triple whammy: schlock, kitsch, chintz. Covering Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" is a low blow indeed, but pales next to her paean to boyfriend kid606 a/k/a "Mr. Miguel." Trilling like some helium-huffing composite of Enya and Kiki Dee, Kevin rhymes "heart" with "private part" and sings choice verses like "Mr. Miguel/we're doing just swell/and it's only getting better/because my pussy's feeling wetter."

Where Kevin goes for full-frontal crudity, Blevin has a more oblique slant on the basic Blechdom sensation of things-not-quite-right-here. The cover of her superb solo album Talon Slalom (Deluxe) captures this, with its cheesy-yet-creepy painting of a woman wearing fur-trimmed ski goggles. Expanded to its full dimensions on the inner sleeve, the image is revealed as a found object: a bizarrely ill-conceived optician ad depicting an eagle's giant talons gripping the skier's skull (the bird of prey, seemingly confused by the fur, has swooped down on what it thinks is a tasty mountain hare). Things are no less awry on the CD itself. "Rockitship Long Light Years" samples an awesome female voice (Wanda Jackson gone lounge?) belting out what might once have been a raunchy double entendre: "come and take a trip/in my rocketship." The clanking, creaking groove makes me think of a coal-powered spacecraft from some steampunk parallel universe, puffing and straining as it struggles to reach escape velocity.

"The Way the Cookie Crumbles Straight From the Horse's Mouth" is the first of no fewer than four songs dedicated to boyfriend/musician J. Lesser. Chopping, time-stretching, and generally fucking with some classic blissed-out house-diva samples—phrases like "my vision is clear" and "feeling good" — Blevin makes the sort of sonic Valentine's Day card that a glitch-fiend like Lesser would appreciate. Like "Mr. Miguel," it's touchingly indicative of Blectum from Blechdom's distance from the IDM fraternity that they'd wear their hearts on their sleeves (or discs) so flagrantly.

published under the headline: Endangered Feces
and with the subhead
Blectum From Blechdom: They Came, They Saw, They Rectum
--all praise editor Chuck Eddy!
HERBERT, Let's All Make Mistakes (Tresor)
Uncut, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

British house's great eccentric, Matthew Herbert made the album I've listened to
more than any other these past two years: 1998's Around The House, a voluptuous amalgam of the innovations of US auteur-producers like Mood II Swing and Deep Dish, infused with a quirky charm that's uniquely English. Plugging the gap
until that long overdue sequel arrives, here's Herbert's superb mix-CD Let's All
Make Mistakes
. It's oddly titled, not least because it's the most seamless mix
I've ever heard on disc. Not in the tedious sense you'd associate with, say
progressive trance DJs like John Digweed---who typically holds two equally
characterless tracks in the mix so long you don't notice the transition. No, on
Mistakes, each tune sounds singular and discrete, but it's meshed with its
predecessor and successor in such an intimately entangled, organic manner that
the result recalls the chimera of ancient myth (a creature formed out of body
parts belonging to different animals).

If anything unites Herbert's 22 selections, it's that same uncanny blend of
supple and rigid that characterizes his own music (of which you get six examples
here). On a typical track, crisp, dry, just-this-side-of-grating textures enfold
little internal oases of lush loveliness. Herbert's own "Tasteful Dub Mix" of
Moloko's "Sing It Back" is plain lovely, a spongy groove that emits a soothing
amniotic glow. Other parts of Mistakes, like the sequence that runs
Pantytec/Errorsmith/DBX, strip away song-flesh to reveal house music's inner
organs, the grotesque gurgles and base bubblings generated by its
gastro-intestinal plumbing. This kind of ultra-minimal house has a lot in common
with experimental electronica, especially "glitch" with its aestheticized
mistakes and malfunctions. In both styles, the musique-concrete-like timbres
create a cornucopia of sounds that can only be evoked by onomatopoeia: ploots,
crickles, schlaaps, grunks, etc . But unlike glitch-techno, Herbert-style house
always keeps the groove pumping. Even at its most tic-riddled and tourettic,
there's an unmistakable wiggle to its walk, a hint of bump'n'grind.

HERBERT, Bodily Functions
Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Is this a trend or what? Swiftly following Matmos's cosmetic-surgery-sampling A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, here's British producer Matthew Herbert with his own album of glitchy, off-kilter house built from sounds of the human organism. Not only do both records feature tracks using laser eye surgery noises, but Matmos's Martin Schmidt actually makes a cameo appearance on Bodily Functions as a sample source. Herbert's no trend-jumping opportunist, though--if anything, he built this particular bandwagon. His last album, 1998's Around The House, subtly wove domestic found-sounds into its voluptuously textured grooves, and in his more avant-garde alter-egos like Doctor Rockit and Wishmountain he's been messing with musique concrete for years.

Pushing vocalist Dani Siciliano's smoky croon into the spotlight and weaving in vintage-jazz acoustic instruments like horns and double bass, Bodily Functions is more languid and torch-songy than Around The House. It's not quite as instantly ear-grabbing either, but it does represent a definite advance in terms of production finesse. You'll need headphones to really revel in the obsessively micro-managed arrangements on tunes like "Suddenly"---an intricate honeycomb of chambers-within-chambers and muezzin-riffs that writhe in spidery spirals. As accomplished at piano as he is at Pro-Tools, Herbert has pulled off an exquisite merger between traditional manual musicianship and today's digital virtuosity. On "I Know", for instance, the jazz drummer's repertoire of rimshots, drags, flams, and cymbal splashes mesh imperceptibly with radical processing and computer editing.

Herbert is one of house music's most visual-sounding producers---his music seems to make you listen with your eyes, or peer with your ears. Gurgling and
gelatinous-sounding, "Foreign Bodies"--the track featuring the pulsing blood-flow of Matmos's Schmidt--fits the album concept: you feel like you're travelling in a microscopic submarine through the arterial system, dodging flotillas of white corpuscles, virus shoals, and treacherous clumps of chloresterol. Mostly, though, it's kinda irrelevant how Herbert procured his sounds. Because effects are dance music's primary instrument, it's doesn't really matter if the hi-hats are "really" scrunched-up chip packets, or just hi-hats treated to sound like someone crumpling a Doritos bag. What does count is Herbert's flair for marshalling his menagerie of creaks, crinkles, burps, scrapes, rustles, and hiccups into sensuous grooves. The result is house music sublimely poised between ungainliness and elegance.
MATMOS, A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure
Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Matmos's fourth album brings a whole new slant to the notion of body music. This San Francisco glitch-techno duo--Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt--have made an entire record where each track is partly based on the sounds of medical technology, with special focus on plastic surgery. Opening track "Lipostudio... and so on" isn't musique concrete so much as musique liquide, bubbling with abject squelches and slurps that make you visualize cellulite being siphoned out of sagging butt-cheeks. "L.A.S.I.K.", based around laser eye surgery, teems with unnerving hissing noises that suggest a white-hot beam burning through your cornea, plus grisly, gristle-y * whirring that evokes mechanical saws perforating bone and cartilage.

You don't need to know Matmos's modus operandi or sample-sources to enjoy the music, though (indeed the "euuuh, gross!" factor might make ignorance a blessing). Several tracks offer body music in the traditional sense--grooves to make you move. The partially erased skank of "Memento Mori" recalls Pole's dub-techno, while "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qui" is pounding Herbert-style glitch-house riddled with itchy creaking sounds, like everyone on the dancefloor's dressed in rubber and tinfoil. Like their SF-based friend kid606, Matmos are adept at digital signal processing (DSP), the texturizing techniques that electronica producers use to make drums sound like buckling metal or fireworks exploding. DSP virtuosity, and Matmos's ability to sculpt real-world samples into compelling musical shapes, are why Bjork invited the duo to collaborate on her new album.

If there's a problem with modern left-field electronica, though, it's that all the editing and processing software allows for almost infinite degrees of tweaking and treatment. The challenge is to create a structure to guide the listener through what might otherwise be a chaos of intricacy and nuance. On "California Rhinoplasty", the disparate sonic debris from a nosejob is given coherence thanks to the hypnotic groove, whose muffled pumping bassline is like the calm anesthesized heartbeat of the human being whose face is undergoing voluntary vivisection. Influenced as much by Dadaist collage artist Kurt Schwitters (Schmidt teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute) as sampling culture, Matmos have captured with uncomfortable vividness the sheer surrealism of the modern vanity industry, the Medieval tortures people gladly submit to in pursuit of physical perfection.

MATMOS, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast
Observer Music Monthly, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Electronic music is generally a sound-for-sound’s sake proposition, offering either functional grooves for dancing’n’drugging or abstract bleepscapes for chilling ‘n’ drifting. San Francisco duo Matmos are pioneers of a micro-trend that goes in the opposite direction. You could call it “conceptronica”: experimental techno that comes laden with content, often political. This kind of thing can get a bit ponderous (indeed Matmos’ last album The Civil War practically required footnotes for the listener to get every last allusion). But happily The Rose Has Teeth first and foremost captivates the ear sonically, with the album’s Grand Theme--each track is a “sound biography” of a dead gay icon--simply adding an enjoyable bonus layer of intrigue. Most of the inspirational figures are avant-gardists or radicals of one sort or another. Groundbreaking gay sex chronicler Boyd McDonald, for instance, is commemorated with a woozy, mellow track that resembles a jazz-rock album warped after being left in a car boot on a hot summer day, while “Semen Song for James Bidgood” is a voluptuous and fantastical as the photographer/film-maker’s cult erotic movie Pink Narcissus.

Like Herbert, another concept-heavy electronic musician, Matmos are famous for using real-world sounds as their sample-sources. “Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein” sounds like a squelchy dance track, but it’s made almost entirely from the sounds of dried roses being scrunched, the shoveling of manure, extracted wisdom teeth being ground together, and various noises derived from cows and geese. The duo, Drew Daniels and Martin Schmidt, are prepared to suffer for their art: “Germs Burns for Darby Crash” features the sound of Daniels’ flesh being burned by one of the Los Angeles punk legend’s former band-mates. But, as with the conceptual aspect, knowing the peculiar provenance of the noises on The Rose Has Teeth is actually supplemental to one’s enjoyment of this suite of homo-homages, which amply stands alone as an enthralling aural experience.

* these reissues in homage to Drew Daniels's enthralling anatomy of Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats for Continuum's 33 1/3 series.
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

You should hear the things people say about The Avalanches: "Basement Jaxx meets the Beta Band," "Stardust crossed with Stereolab," sample-based music with the freshness of Foxbase Alpha and the playful wit of 3 Feet High and Rising. With such mouthwatering parallels bandied around, you're almost set up to be underwhelmed by this Australian outfit's debut. Amazingly, Since I Left You lives up to the hype. At the end, you feel dazed and bemused, partly because you're concussed by its tumultuous on-rush of non-stop brilliance, but also because it's hard to put your finger on why the Avalanches are so special, so different.

It's not that there's anything unusual about the group's modus operandi (the album was assembled out of samples from 600 records scavenged during 18 months of field research in second-hand vinyl shops). Wagon Christ's Luke Vibert is no slouch at alchemizing stale cheese into soulful gold and even claims to prefer "shit records" as sample-sources; Bentley Rhythm Ace scour car boot sales for kitschadelic treasure; electronic jesters V/Vm bulk-buy unsellable CD singles and hilariously deface the oeuvres of Shakin' Stevens and Russ Abbott. Nor is it the case that Avalanches do anything especially complicated or technically advanced with their raw material: they loop the samples, layer the loops, drop them in and out of the mix, twist them into strange little riffs. So why is Since I Left You such a relentless loop-da-loop rollercoaster of thrills? Could it be because the group's delight at the sonic jetsam they've salvaged is palpable in every bar of the record? (You can just imagine the exultant whoops when they unearthed the soundbites about a chap called Dexter--same name as the Avalanches singer--who's "criminally insane" and "needs therapy"). Or is it just the sheer un-restraint and gratuitous generosity with which they pile it all on thick?.

Composed out of approximately one thousand "good bits" from other records, Since I Left You rarely feels bitty. The Avalanches's forte isn't technical so much as the art of listening and spotting compatibilities between disparate sounds. For it's one thing to take three or four sampled elements and make them work together, and quite another to take twenty or fifty (which is what many songs here sound like) and making them mesh them together as a plausible, integrated composition (while still retaining that uncanny sampladelic see-the-joins quality). Drawing on exotica, surf music, animal noises, film scores, Francoise Hardy-style Gallic girl-pop, and chartpop from the last five decades, Since hits hardest in the tingly treble zone: your ears are dazzled by acoustic guitars, Radio 2 strings, flute-twirls, harp-ripples, piano trills, dulcet snippets of la-la-la-ing female vocal, tinkling vibes, twinkling electric piano, bursts of heavenly choir. Into this wafts explosions of merriment, dinner table hubbub, football terrace fervor, foghorn blasts, and glorious non-sequiturs like "he also made false teeth." Gorgeously goofy hookphrases like "I got the bubbly/bubbling through me" pop to the surface, momentarily crystallising the music's effervescence. "Tonight", one of the few downtempo lulls, sounds like a Shirley Bassey ballad played on badly warped vinyl. And if tunes like "Frontier Psychiatry" (the one with the Dexter-is-a-loony samples) and "Flight Tonight" verge on Big Beat wackiness, others, like "Etoh" and "Summer Crane," evoke near-mystical feelings of tenderness and rejoicing, sensations of existensial buoyancy and the dizzy bliss that ensues when you lose count of your blessings.

Since I Left You is experienced as one long flow. Structurally (its onion-skin layers of crescendo, the absence of gaps between tracks) and emotionally (an almost painfully plangent euphoria) the record it reminds me most of is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But really The Avalanches are the southern hemisphere's Daft Punk. Since I Left You makes a superb companion to the latter's own kitschadelic masterpiece Discovery. If the French house maestros have a slight edge it's only because their own particular brand of cheese---the Seventies shlock-rock of ELO, Frampton, 10 CC, Buggles--is slightly more unusual and piquant than Avalanches's EZ-listening and novelty pop. But unless we're very lucky and other contenders miraculously enter the fray, it'll be these two jostling for Best Dance Album 2001 at year's end.

Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

When it comes to music, misery has a monopoly on credibility (just ask Thom and Trent), and a furrowed brow and tormented soul are essential if you aspire to "deep". "Happy" is a tough act to pull off without seemingly smugly serene (post-Astral Weeks Van Morrison, say), irritatingly jaunty, or simply simpleminded. There are exceptions, of course--Al Green, Brian Wilson, most Krautrock. Now Australian dance six-piece The Avalanches join this illustrious company. Just as the Eskimos have 30 words for different kinds of snow, The Avalanches revel in a thousand subtle shades of joy.

Dance music's own version of "deep" is the way connoisseurs use "dark" as a term of approval. "Dark" typically refers to genres where bass frequencies dominate and treble's been purged (along with melody, the human voice, and general pleasantness). On Since, by contrast, you barely notice the basslines (except when the groove from Madonna's "Holiday" frolics into the fray), while the pounding house beat is more rudimentary than even Daft Punk's. Instead, the Avalanches sound is all about the high end: swirling strings, spangly harps, billowing flutes, twinkly trickles of electric piano, dulcet feminine harmonies, plus the occasional male vocal pitched up to sound angelic. This densely layered cornucopia of radiance and rhapsody (a 1000 samples from around 600 records) is the result of a year spent combing Sydney's thrift-stores for used vinyl. On tracks like ""Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" and "A Different Feeling", the Avalanches tweeter assault resembles Stereolab's Francophile EZ listening crossed with Stardust's French filter disco. Treble not only evokes light, it creates lightheadedness. Since makes you feel dizzy, fizzy inside---a champagne-for-blood sensation captured on "Diners Only" with its catchy whispered chant "got the bubbly/bubbling through me/sparkling sparkling".

With no gaps between its eighteen tracks, just a non-stop groove, Since I Left You is so madly glad, it's demented. But it's not all relentless rejoicing. There are exquisite bittersweet tints to tracks like "Etoh", a sense of heartbursting euphoria shadowed by the intimation that all things must pass. And the downtempo "Tonight" is almost blue. But glumness is instantly banished by the following "Frontier Psychiatry", a Big Beaty jape dotted with wacky soundbites like "that boy needs therapy" and "he also made false teeth." "Summer Crane" ripples religiously like Steve Reich on X. As its title hints, the album's underlying concept is about unburdening yourself--shedding the dead weight of personal history, cutting loose the ties that hold you back, floating off to some exotic elsewhere, or into the ecstatic ether. ("You can book a flight tonight" goes one sample, which could refer to taking a vacation, or a drug). Gravity, in every sense, is abolished. The Avalanches ethos is a sort of positive irresponsibility, dereliction as a duty you owe yourself.

DAFT PUNK, Human After All
director's cut, Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

For every great band, there’s a moment of optimum ripeness, the point at which they deserve to conquer the world. Daft Punk reached it with 2001’s Discovery, on which they deliciously wove elements of Seventies FM radio soft-rock into their trademark French disco-house. The result was beauties like “One More Time" (electronica’s “More Than A Feeling”, a hymn to the redemptive power of music itself) and “Digital Love” (this decade’s most poignant love song so far). By rights Discovery should have shifted Thriller-level quantities, but instead it sold a merely decent half-million in America. After such a (relative) rebuff, even the most fanatical sonic visionaries might find it hard to muster renewed passion for the aesthetic battle. Sadly, the most powerful sensation emitted by Human After All is of a group going through the motions. Everything burstingly ecstatic and open-hearted about Discovery has been replaced by an archly ironic dance-rock that feels desultory and numb verging on autistic. It’s as if the duo--Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo--have retreated into their studio playpen to lick their wounds.

Discovery alchemized its shlocky sources (ELO, Supertramp, Van Halen) to achieve a splendor of sound that felt almost religious. This time round, the endless vocoderized man-machine vocals feel about as fresh as a post-Comes Alive Frampton album,. The clipped and clinical-sounding guitar riffs distil the air-punching aggression of a thousand sports stadium anthems and the four-square beats are about as funky as The Scorpions. When Daft Punk do come up with a great lick--“Robot Rock,” “Television Rules The Nation”--they don’t go anywhere with it, just wear out its welcome through deadening reiteration.

Human After All does improve with repeated listens. Every track contains a couple of cool sounds (often strange metallic gurgles like a cyborg with indigestion). “Steam Machine” is so plodding and cumbersome, its ugliness becomes strangely compelling. “The Brainwasher” raises a smile with its opening parody of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” “Technologic” cleverly replicates the neurotic restlessness of the computer age with its looped vocal running through the endless options that “enhance” our lives: “plug it, play it, burn it, rip it, drag and drop it, zip - unzip it,” ad infinitum.

Revealingly, though, the most endearing track is the least robo-rockin’. With its mellow piano and idyllic guitar-picking conjuring a mood of sensuality tinged with sadness, “Make Love” could almost be a Bruce Hornsby loop. It’s the only time this album approaches the bittersweet bliss of its predecessor Discovery. Mostly, Human After All is the proverbial diminished return. If you’re already a fan, you’ll most likely learn to love this album. But once upon a time Daft Punk looked like it was going to be so much more than merely a cult band.