Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tech Steppin
Melody Maker, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

This superb compilation captures the state of the artcore in drum & bass. Which is a flashback to the "dark side" vibe of 1993, when snide E's soured hardcore rave's luv'd up atmosphere, and the music began to reflect the long term costs of sustained over-indulgence: paranoia, melancholy and creepy sensations of the uncanny. Back then, dark-core classics like Boogie Times Tribe's "The Dark Stranger" still oozed a sinister, sickly bliss, if only because the scene was still caning the E in a desperate attempt to recover the old happy'n' hyper buzz. Today, with Ecstasy displaced by super-strong, paranoia-inducing strains of weed like skunk (hence band names like Cronic Crew, titles like "Get Stoned), the new darkside sound is claustrophobic, constipated and curiously deadened and dispassionate. Its cold-fever beats induce a numbing compulsion-for-compulsion's sake.

This compilation is dominated by producers of the moment Ed Rush, DJ Trace and Nico, from the No U Turn label. Ed's "Check Me Out" and Trace's "The Mutant", "Haze" and "Mid Town Method" all feature the patented No U Turn bass-sound, a dense, droning miasma of low-end frequencies, as malevolent as a cloud of Cyklon B or a swarm of African killer bees. As with Ed Rush's monsterpieces of last year, "Gangsta Hardstep" and "Guncheck", the effect is entropic, miring the listener in a molasses-thick mood of paralysing dread.

That's what intrigues me about this music: the breaks are still rolling at jungle's 150 b.p.m., but they feel slow, fatigued, winded, like the music's had the crap beaten out of it. Compared with the frisky, nimble rhythms of jazzy-jungle, the new darkcore's battery of beats seem relatively stiff, inflexible, almost industrial, and that's strangely refreshing. In a weird sort of way, tracks like Doc Scott's "Machines" (not quite as implosive and intimidating as his recent "Drumz '95", but damn close) remind me of The Swans: there's a similar punishment-aesthetic, flagellation-beats, and aura of aesthetic ordeal.

I guess I haven't made Tech Steppin sound too appetising! Certainly, as a listening experience, this album is as oppressive as it's impressive. But make no mistake, this stuff is where it's at in 1996. Eschewing pleasant, placatory textures and melodious, mollifying arrangements, the new artcore noir makes the fusion-jungle likes of Alex Reece sound as tepid and timorous as acid jazz. Cutting and edgy, Tech Steppin is the SHIT.

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