Monday, May 24, 2021

"I curse-christen thee... Neurofunk! May you go forth and wither"

One of my more successful coinages - strangely - is neurofunk. Unlike the even more flourishing post-rock (a term that existed for decades prior to me repurposing it) as far as I know I came up with that term whole-cloth. And what's more - I discovered recently - I actually came up with it almost a decade before applying to a phase of drum 'n 'bass. In this live review of Meat Beat Manifesto from 1989.

"The neuro-funk ideas of the early Eighties" - well, that makes sense because one of the things that I said about neurofunk the drum 'n' bass substyle in The Wire nuum-piece is that its dank fixated aura, its clinical feel and (f)rigidity, reminded me of Cabaret Voltaire, Front 242, et al...  

So the term must have lodged itself in the back of my brain after that one use in '89, waiting latent to be reactivated when it was next needed. 

Once re-loosed into the world, the term achieved traction. And still has currency even now - I believe there is a forum dedicated to the genre online; producers make neurofunk tracks; exponents and fans debate what's neuro and what's not neuro.  

Yes, I'm as surprised as you are.

Take this discussion at the Dogs On Acid forum. This fellow Gilius wants to get a debate going on what defines the genre kicks off with the parameters of the style as he sees them. A key one is that true neurofunk expunges the Amen breakbeat from the music completely (Amens had continued to be an element in techstep, the immediate precursor to neurofunk)

"In late 1997 Optical - considered by many to be one of the greatest DnB producers/pioneers - began experimenting with what we now know to be the Neurofunk style of DnB. And it's worth mentioning that he was one of the few artists at the time to have been producing DnB music without amens since around 1994.

"Optical appears to have been the only artist to have produced Neurofunk in 1997 - perhaps in collaboration with Ed Rush. The first Neurofunk track is often considered to be To Shape The Future (or it's remix), but I personally think that only The Shining (released 10/11/97) and Funktion (released 16/12/97; with Ed Rush) qualifies.

"What is interesting about the early history of Neurofunk is that contrary to Techstep only a few artists appeared to have had the technology (what exactly?) and perhaps skill(?) required to produce such cutting edge experimental electronic sounds. This fact alone means that Neurofunk is a cut above Techstep, and so it should be easy to differentiate between them...."

There follows a long list of exponents, year by year emerging in increasing number, as well as the  key tracks ... but we'll skip that as the music is almost certainly deadening shite, and get on to the interesting bit, which is when the commenter takes issue with, well, with moi -  only the bleedin' coiner of the term!

"In 1999 Techstep began to change as Amens were dropped from most productions, but that did not mean every Techstep track automatically became Neurofunk just because they had funk sounds without Amens. Most tracks in the Simon Reynold's article (in hindsight) simply do not qualify to be called Neurofunk

"The laymen's definition of Neurofunk might be Techstep with funk sounds albeit coupled with a few more clauses:

*A whole new quality of sound compared to the "tinny" sounds of Techstep, with specially engineered bass

*An engine of "rolling" (and not so much "stepping") that is very consistent from start to finish instead of just momentary injections of funk sounds

*Predominantly non-amen

Dude then starts going into this whole golden age of neurofunk that starts when the already neuro-Euro-sounding genre gets taken up by European producers: 

"It's around 2002 that Neurofunk suddenly starts to gain tremendous popularity - coinciding with Russian (and other European) producers appearing on the scene after TAM record label was established the previous year, etc. These guys contributed so many ideas to the experimental aspect of Neurofunk, with tracks described as "Future sound", and (one might argue) too ahead of their time to even be considered for release by mainstream record labels. We are talking about artists like..."

Again we'll skip that list and later lists too:

"With so many producers on-board globally and with greater separation from Techstep than ever before, the number of productions began to soar exponentially in 2003 onwards, leaving behind a treasure trove of forgotten dubplates for the period 2003-2010 (if they were not lost to hard drive crashes).

2010/11 is considered to be the golden year of Neurofunk with tracks like "The Hammer" by Catacomb, Morebeat & Kantyze - but that would not have happened without the Eastern European involvement IMO in the years leading up to it - and it would certainly not have happened without Corrupt Souls from the US, formed out of Sinthetix, who came on the scene in 2004. The rest is history!

Note: after 2011 Neurofunk sadly began a steady decline, but there are still producers out there, and the sound has been described as evolving further into Energostep/Electrotech (unofficial terms for now).

Energostep  - good luck with that one, mate! (Although neurofunk is honestly not much better)

Of course, I hadn't noticed any of that -  the waxing and waning of neurofunk. Its prime occurred long after I stopped paying attention. I wonder if any of it could possibly be worth hearing? I'm almost tempted to check it out... but nah! 

See the joke of it is that I fastened on the off-putting clammy-sounding term - which resurfaced in my brain and seemed like an all-new word that had come to me, but clearly not, as I've discovered recently -  in the anticipation that some label would promptly issue a Neurofunk Flavas compilation and this would help to hasten the supersession of the sound, which left  me cold, and that everyone would move on to some other direction hopefully more to my liking. 

Instead, neurofunk only goes and prospers, propagates, enjoys another 13 or 14 years of vigorous and fecund life.  Pah!


As it happens, someone recently asked me about neurofunk for a project they were doing - here is my memory of how it came to be and what defined it, in my eyes / ears. 

What were the key stylistic differences between neurofunk and techstep?

Techstep, in the No U Turn sense, was a more bombastic, blaring sound  - something like “Squadron” is archetypal techstep. Doomy and with this simmering sense of latent explosion.  

Nico the maestro / engineer of No U Turn fed the bass through a guitar-distortion pedal and some of their tunes actually remind me of the apocalyptic postpunk / Goth group Killing Joke, particularly their sound circa Revelations.

Neurofunk evolves out of techstep – the chugging, simple beat is the same – but in neurofunk it becomes more rigid  - the way it makes your body move is like jack-knifing at the waist. And the whole feel of the music is more neurotic and inhibited. The archetypal track would be Jonny L’s “Piper”.

Neurofunk also had this kind of scientific aura – you could see that shift come through in the artist names and track littles – Genetix, Virus, Wormhole etc.

If techstep has an aggressive punk energy (as well as K.Joke's doomfunk I also think of Black Sabbath, the Stooges etc), then neuro is closer to the danceable side of industrial and Electronic Body Music – groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Front 242, etc.   Lots of cold, slimy electronic textures.

I feel like techstep rocks out, whereas neurofunk is more repressed and clinical. The ultimate neurofunk name is Technical Itch. That perfectly captures the mentality of the makers of the music, and how it makes the listener feel.

 How much was neurofunk's formation and evolution away from jungle a representative of changes in society and the community that it grew up around?

Well, it feels fairly obvious and undeniable that the music was becoming whiter. You had the dropping away of any reggae element in the music (no more rolling roots reggae basslines or dancehall bouncy kind of B-lines), no more samples from Jamaican singers or ragga MCs.  But also hip hop gradually dropped away, in terms of vocals samples. The breakbeats got simpler and the whole feel of the music was linear. You also didn't get the very musical syncopated relationship between the half-speed basslines and the breaks anymore. 

 “Linear fastplod” is how I described it on my blog once. The feel was less internally turbulent and polyrhythmic, and more like an endless chase scene.  Words like “rinse out” and “mash up” no longer applied, that feeling of collapse in the music.

I think this must have something to do with the gradual demographic shift with drum and bass picking up a following among students. It also became more of a nationwide scene in the last years of the ‘90s. Before that it had been clustered in London and a few other cities with a multiracial population – Bristol, Coventry, Leicester, etc. It started to become an international phenomenon too. So you get this kind of feedback process – the DJs pick up on what the audience is responding to, and this governs both the productions they make themselves, if they produce tracks, or the kind of tunes that they make into dubplates when offered tracks on DAT by their coterie of producers. It costs money to make a dubplate, you’re not going to bother if it doesn’t sound like a track that will work in a dance. And the audience, by their reactions, govern what tunes get repeat-play. Plus it affects sales too, which is another form of feedback that influences labels in their A&R decisions and what tunes to make the A-side of a release.  So it becomes a kind of cycle -a gradually whiter audience, leads to a whiter sound, which then draws more white people (and pushes out black listeners, who might drift into other scenes that still value groove, syncopation, diva samples, licks or tonalities derived from ‘70s fusion and 80s soul-funk etc –  they migrate to UK garage, broken beat, R&B etc).

 How much has neurofunk's evolution from the late 90s to the present day been a representative of the technological shift in terms of production that the music industry has seen?

I haven’t been following drum and bass very closely in the 21st Century so I couldn’t say anything about that. It does seem like generally with electronic music, the level of intricacy in arrangement and production has gone through the roof, and there’s a huge emphasis on sound design – a lot of beats that feel 3D, like the kind of sounds you get in CGI-heavy movies or in videogames.

I am just surprised that the term “neurofunk” has stuck. I came up with it partly because I needed a name for the piece and I wanted to capture what I felt was the defining quality of the music – this neurotic, anxious,compulsiveness. While I could recognize the technical accomplishment of the music and was really impressed by a few examples of it (Jonny L’s stuff, a few things by Grooverider, Optical) for the most part I didn’t really care for it as a direction.   I think semi-consciously I hoped that someone would rip off the term and do a compilation with Neurofunk in the name – and it would help to hasten the end of that direction! 

I guess Bad Company were kind of a move away from neurofunk back to a more aggressive, riff-based sound (a bit like No U Turn but less blaring and bombastic) and the fact that they shared their name with a ‘70s rock megagroup that played arenas seemed really appropriate.  But generally it seemed like by the early 2000s your choice was either the linear fastplod sound with increasingly baroque basslines OR a much smaller scene of pretty tepid sounding liquid funk Fabio type d&B.  There was a little micro-scene of “back to chopped-to-fuck breakbeats” that recovered my interest a little, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Oh and running parallel but really a different scene altogether, there was breakcore – but that was just mostly too daft to dance to.  

 Although being founded in London, why more than any other sub-genre of drum and bass, has neurofunk found such a global appeal, particularly in Europe, while in England its appeal has stagnated?

I’m just speculating here but the fact that it's a whiter sound and connects with the sound palette and vibe of other genres like industrial, hard techno, even trance to a degree, would help to explain why it’s become international.  In a similar way, dubstep went international when it gradually lost most of its sonic connection to roots reggae and dub. It became this cold, hard sound with these blasting basslines that sounded very inorganic and 21st Century.


1 comment:

P M X said...

In the interest of historical accuracy, Sinthetix hit the scene way before 2004. I personally passed their humble demo CD-R to Kemal from Konflict in early 2001, who then got it into Trace and Nico's hands over at the mighty No U-Turn hq. Within a week, contracts were signed and Sinthetix promos were quickly in the shops. Rob F and Impulse were quite prolific in the international neuro circuit, which is worth mentioning as they hail from the very white, middle-class suburbs of Northern Virginia!