Friday, March 27, 2009

imports column, Spin, 1998

by Simon Reynolds

Once, there was just "hardcore"--rave music at its most flipped-out and euphoric-aggressive fierce. Then, circa 1992, came the great parting of the ways. English hardcore DJs mixed in hip hop breaks 'n' bass to create a hyper-syncopated bedlam that eventually evolved into jungle. The rest of the world stuck with techno's monolithic 4/4 stomp-beat and kept upping the b.p.m's to ever more punishing extremes. For a while, the Dutch--in the form of the Rotterdam sound called gabba--were harder than the rest. Then other outposts--labels like Brooklyn's Industrial Strength, Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network, France's Gangstar Toons Industry, Australia's Bloody Fist, and many more--took it further still.

By 1996, though, hardcore was banging its head against a brick wall of shlocky ultraviolence and 250-300 b.p.m. velocity. The more astute producers took a step sideways from this braindead end. One escape route, followed by Frankfurt's PCP and its sister-labels Dance Ecstasy 2001 and Cold Rush, involved a style that just cries out for the absurd oxymoron "ambient gabba": an atmospheric, slightly slower sound, heavy on cavernous reverb, glacial textures and sorrowful melodies. Following
awesomely desolate dirges like Renegade Legion's "Torsion", the PCP crew have reached something of an aesthetic pinnacle with Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never", the tenth Cold Rush release.

Pilldriver is one of many pseudonyms (see also The Mover, Mescalinum United, Alien Christ) used by the mysterious Marc Acardipane, probably hardcore's most visionary producer. "Apocalypse Never" harries the listener with synth-stabs that sound like a swarm of bat-winged and trident-wielding demons, while the unrelenting 4/4 kick-drum is so cleverly inflected you never register it as monotony. For more glorious
gloomcore, check out the PCP compilation Bigger Bolder Better, plus Superpower, a six-track EP collaboration between PCP's Hypnotizer and New York's Oliver Chesler,on the latter's Things To Come label.

Another increasingly popular "step sideways" involves mixing gabba's Teutonic terror-riffs with techstep jungle's paroxysmic breakbeats and murky bombast. From Drop Bass Network's sub-label Ghetto Safari and Frankfurt's Chrome to the Paris imprint No-Tek and London's Ambush, this new hybrid--known variously as "splatterbreaks", "hardbreaks" or "harsh-step"--is the emergent renegade sound at squat-raves.

Superficially, harsh-step seems to have much in common with Alec Empire's Digital Hardcore, which also combines gabba's killer-bee drones, sped-up breaks and fuzzguitar-like midfrequency noise. But unlike Digital Hardcore's adrenalizingly one-dimensional scree, the Ambush producers leaven their assault with a superior sense of dynamics and space. Jackal & Hide's Escape From South London EP is a lo-fi holocaust of industrial effluent,eardrum-shredding snares and low-end turbulence. Aphasic & Scud's Welcome To The Warren EP sounds like metal-bashers
Einsturzende Neubauten getting on the good foot. Best of the lot is the Give Up EP by David Hammer (a.k.a DHR artist Shizuo),who interweaves different kinds of distortion with a sensuous awareness of audio-tactile texture.

Although Ambush's sound verges on outright avant-gardism, DJ Scud--who recently played New York's Soundlab alongside DJ Spooky, Alec Empire and Manhattan's own harsh-step crusader I-Sound--says his real inspiration is the populist rave of 1991. Scud wants to bring back "the madness and intensity" of early hardcore, "but not its happy-happy, hands-in-the-air vibe". Hence the dystopian aura and abstract
militancy of Ambush's four releases to date. Sidestepping DHR's full-frontal approach (sloganeering harangues), harsh-step's anarcho-politics are more subtle --articulated in techno-theory zines like Break/Flow, Datacide and Scud's own Fallout, hinted at in the paramilitary imagery of track titles and band names, and most of all, incarnated in the music itself. At once savage and sophisticated, harsh-step is the sound of insubordination--not just against sonic stagnation but against cultural lockdown too: the urban politics of gentrification and ghettoization, the insidious normalization of surveillance. If gabba was
techno-as-heavy-metal, harsh-step is new millennium punk-funk.

Sound of the City, Village Voice, April 27th, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

The curious thing about scenes that occupy the sonic extremities is the way they splinter into microgenres as they get further from the mainstream. Like thrash/speed /death/black metal, the sound purveyed by Manhattan's I-Sound rejoices in multiple monikers: "harshstep," "splatterbreaks," "broken beats," "shrillstep." Semantic excess aside, the style basically merges the jagged breakbeat dynamics of early jungle with the blaring distortion of hardcore gabba. At Abstrakt Future Lounge (the Soundlab night at Fahrenheit) last Tuesday, I-Sound's DJ set was like an unoffical soundtrack to Jacques Attali's Noise: The Political Economy of Music: all dive-bombing scree and low-end ordnance, leavened with deft scratching and electro-acoustic burbles. Understanding that relentless din ultimately dulls the senses, I-Sound varied the breakneck pace with midtempo excursions into underground rap and roots reggae, before climaxing with DJ Scud's "Total Destruction," a shrillstep classic that thrillingly combines ragga boasts with berserker beats.

Fresh from a recording session with Scud, German DJ Panacea was the populist ambassador for this jungle-meets-gabba frenzy. He drew a crowd evenly divided between drum'n'bassheads and gabba scenesters (like Lenny Dee, whose Industrial Strength label licensed Panacea's recent Twisted Designz). With his disconcerting blind-looking colored contact lens in one eye and alarming facial piercings, Panacea's image shtick is "Overlord of Darkness." You might recognize him from Modulations, or maybe not—he's recently shed a staggering 130 pounds. Panacea's music's gotten sleeker too, scaling down the Carmina Burana bombast of his two albums in favor of the streamlined, clinical sound of current drum'n'bass (labels like Renegade Hardware). By most standards, though, it's pretty fucking fierce—180 bpm breaks, swarf-swarms of low-end turbulence, B-lines that ping like the elastic of your mind's snapped. As his own track "Motion Sickness" suggests, the effect is simultaneously kinetic and nauseous. Compared with I-Sound's shifting guerrilla tactics, Panacea's set was a war of attrition, a plateau of pleasurable punishment.

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