Monday, May 19, 2008

Energy Flash column #4, SonicNet, October 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Imagine, if you will, a dance record that everybody liked. A tune that was massive in all sorts of divergent and seemingly incompatible scenes. A track that simultaneously worked as a rave anthem, a club classic, an underground monster, a mainstream chart smash. Impossible, you say, no way not in this post-rave era of micro-scenes, niche markets and endless genre subdivision.

Timo Maas' remix of "Dooms Night" by Azzido Da Bass is that impossible crossover track, the border-crossing smash of the year 2000. Massive in Ibiza, Spain, this past summer, it still rules the pan-European trance scene. Fatboy Slim has declared "Dooms Night" his favorite track of the year, and it was the anthem of Berlin's Love Parade (Westbam, the German equivalent of Paul Oakenfold, opened his set with the tune).

But as well as with the whiter-than-white trance, big-beat and progressive scenes, Maas' remix has scored hugely with urban audiences. "Dooms Night" was ubiquitous at this year's Notting Hill Carnival in London, a million-strong Caribbean street party traditionally dominated by black sounds such as reggae, soca, jungle and garage. The track has been embraced by London's two-step garage DJs as if it came from their own ranks, and has even been cited as a seminal track for the two-step breakaway genre called "breakbeat garage." London's pirate radio stations are rocking a number of two-step bootleg versions of "Dooms Night," including a dancehall-flavored one called "Punanny Da Bass" and another that mashes the track together with the booty/bounce/bass hit "Whoop, There It Is" by Tag Team.

The story behind the remix itself is kind of bizarre. Maas, a well-regarded but not huge progressive trance DJ/producer from Hanover, Germany, got the commission from Azzido Da Bass' record company, Clubtools/Edel (Edel being the parent label and roughly equivalent to K-Tel), and was paid the far-from-princely fee of 5,000 deutsche marks (approximately $2,200). All that his remix shares with the original Azzido track (by all accounts, a pretty negligible piece of work) is a small sample of the flatulent, elephantine bass sound first heard on Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat", one of 1999's mega club hits owing to its use in the cult "Flat Eric" commercials on European TV.

Maas' remix came out in the summer of 1999 and didn't cause much of a stir initially. Gradually, its reputation spread, winning converts across the post-rave spectrum. To date, it has sold 80,000 copies and been licensed to 40 compilations. The single is about to be re-released in Europe with several re-remixes, all based on Maas' version rather than the original track. One revamp features Slarta John, the deranged-sounding ragga MC, on Basement Jaxx's awesome "Jump 'n' Shout."

Although "Dooms Night" is almost certain to be a top 10 pop hit in Britain and Germany, and a massive club track across the world, Maas won't see an extra cent from all the hoopla. Don't shed too many tears for him, though. Thanks to the track, he's one of the most in-demand DJs and remixers on the planet (Madonna reportedly has asked for a remix). Already a prolific fellow he's produced and remixed nearly a 100 tracks in the past three years. Plus, he's just got residencies at superclubs Twilo in New York and Cream in Liverpool, England. So the guy's not exactly starved of cash.

But what, you ask with mounting frustration, does "Dooms Night" actually sound like? The easiest way to hear it in North America is Timo's Music for the Maases, where the DJ builds a double-CD mix almost entirely out of his reworkings of other artists' tunes, plus a few of his own productions (under such aliases as Orinoko, Mad Dogs and Kinetic A.T.O.M, as well as his own name). "Dooms Night" is actually pretty hard to describe, precisely because it's so transgenre and in-between-sounding. The rhythmic feel merges the funkiness of breakbeats with the hypnotic, frictionless glide of trance. Chugging along at around 130 beats per minute, it actually sounds like a marauding, slightly overweight monster negotiating treacherous terrain (the beat seems to slip and stumble and stagger while remaining determinedly on the warpath). The two hooks are a continuous, uninflected whump-whump-whump acid riff set against a thick, squelchy, sculpted fart of a bassline, creating an off-kilter tension that's funky as sin. There are lots of clever production nuances that emerge with repeated listens, but its core of sheer instant-ness will hook you first time around.

"Dooms Night (Timo Maas Mix)" is an all-things-to-all-people kinda deal, versatile in its applications. Clinical yet dirty, dark but in a joyous, life-affirming sort of way, capable of working as both a run-of-the-mix DJ tool and as a peak-of-set T.U.N.E., it could be a brand-new genre birthing itself, or just a one-shot masterstroke. Judging by Music for the Maases (groan-worthy title, eh?), the rest of Maas' work isn't quite so amazing. He calls it "percussive wet funk" and it sounds like a more muscular, in-your-face version of the "progressive" style Sasha & Digweed play--the output of such outfits as Hybrid and Breeder, or, indeed, Sasha's own productions "Rabbitweed" and "Belfunk."

Maas' "Better Make Room" (released under the name Mad Dogs) has amazingly intricate drum & bass-style rhythm programming folded into the progressive trance matrix, and throughout the double CD his production is relentlessly sharp. It's pumping, meaty stuff, for sure, but it's also a tad hygienic, and has the typical downfall of progressive, Sasha-style music: a peculiar textural sameness, like the palette of timbre colors is restricted. Mind you, on a massive Twilo-esque sound system, this stuff makes the earth move, I'm sure.

Thing is, Timo Maas doesn't need to make another record as fabulous as his "Dooms Night" remix. It's his meal ticket for life, the laurels upon which he could rest in perpetuity, if he wished. Most producers never come close to making something so undeniable. Like Josh Wink with "Higher State of Consciousness," or Joey Beltram with "Energy Flash," Timo Maas' place in the Rave Hall of Fame is assured.
Energy Flash column #3, SonicNet, September 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering when the Next Big Thing in dance music is going to turn up. It's long overdue. At the same time, it's really hard to imagine what it could possibly be.

Every day, it seems more likely that the initial onrush of rave culture carried the music to its furthest stylistic extremes by the mid-Nineties. By 1996, say, drum & bass had taken rhythmic complexity as far as conceivable or desirable; gabba had gotten as fast, punishing, and distorted as the human nervous system could cope with; minimal techno had stripped itself down to the barest bones of bangin' beats and abrasive textures. Subsequently, dance culture has advanced not by expanding its boundaries but by developing the territory within those already-reached frontiers. The difference here is akin to the difference between explorers and settlers. So instead of pushing the envelope, you get "internal hybrids". For instance, the UK micro-genre "nu skool breaks" is a fusion of Big Beat and drum'n'bass, basically deploying the latter's neurotically intricate production techniques at the former's more dancer-friendly 130 bpm tempo.

All this is why, for the foreseeable future (until someone invents a new technology, or a new drug) we're going to see a succession of Next Medium-Sized Things, rather than a singular Next Big Thing that installs itself as the leading edge and eclipses everything else that's going on. One defining characteristic of a NBT is that its novelty is incontestable, even by those who can't stand it. Jungle, for instance, was patently a great leap forwards--nobody had made beats so frantic and chopped-up, nobody had invented a music with an internal split-tempo (basslines running at half the velocity of the sped-up breakbeats). You could hate it, but you couldn't fail to recognize its unprecedented nature.

The hallmark of a Next Medium-Sized Thing, though, is its "plausible deniability" (to adapt a phrase hitherto associated more with IRAN-CONTRA and White House skullduggery). The innovativeness of these micro-genres is all a matter of perspective: you have to be immersed in dance culture, or even immersed in the particular parent genre, to perceive the difference and feel the impact. I first noticed this with speed garage back in 1997--the fusion of jungle bass and house beats had massive implications and reverberations in UK clubland, but it was hard to persuade American listeners that it was more than just a slight twist on ye olde house.

Here are a bunch of Next Medium-Sized Thing contenders that people are talking about, followed by what doubters will probably say to dismiss them as hype:

(a/k/a nu-jazz, broken beats---semantic profusion is a hallmark of the Next Medium-Sized Thing; the slighter the claims to novelty, the more names there'll be for the alleged genre)

IG Culture/Likwid Biskit/ New Sector Movements, Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, Modaji, Bugz in the Attic, Alex Attias/Mustang/Plutonia, Domu.
People, Visons Inc., Main Squeeze, Laws Of Motion, 2000 Black, Bitasweet.
What is it exactly?
An Afrodelic boogie wonderland land where Alice Coltrane, Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, Rotary Connection and Fela Kuti mingle with 4 Hero, Masters At Work, and Carl Craig. In other words, a fusion of old skool fusion (Seventies stuff) with Nineties fusion (arty drum & bass, deepest house, the jazzier side of Detroit techno) to produce a brand nu skool of fusion. There's so much fusing going on it's getting confusing. Phusion hallmarks include a passion for time-signatures other than four-to-the-floor, a mix of acoustic/analog/digital textures, and a quality of hand's on feel and fluency to the music even when it's computerized. West London connoisseur shit, dig.
What the sceptics will say:
It's just acid jazz with samplers.


Laylo & Bushwacka!/Matthew B., Mr. C., Nathan Coles, Pure Science, Terry Francis, Charles Webster
Plink Plonk, Pagan, Wiggle, Eye for Sound
What is it exactly?
Like the ungainly name suggests, this micro-genre occupies the not exactly vast sonic hinterland between Detroit techno and Chicago house, juicing up the former's austerity while shunning the latter's vocal element. The result is sleek, shiny, propulsive, tastefully trippy, and cunningly poised to be just "deep" and "progressive" enough to keep out the riff-raff (i.e. ravers) while not losing the dancefloor appeal.
What the sceptics will say:
There's always been techno-tinged house and there's always been house-leaning techno -- it's hardly worth starting a movement around.


Stanton Warriors, Donna Dee, Headtop, So Solid Crew, Reservoir Dogs, DJ Dee Kline, Phuturistix, El-B, Second Protocol, Zed Bias
Pulse, So Solid Beatz, Ghost Trax, Mob
What is it exactly?
Provisional name (in circulation while people think of something snappier and more evocative) for a subgenre some believe will soon break off from UK garage, and marked by an even more tangential verging on non-existent relationship to the garage/house continuum. Sheds UK garage's girly vocals, bump'n'flex grooves, and shuffling hi-hats in favor of looped breakbeats, cheeky/cheesy samples in the spirit of hardcore rave and jump-up jungle (ie. soundbites typically referencing weed-smoking or martial arts movies), and stomach-churning bass that often has an early Eighties electro flavor.
What the sceptics will say
Isn't this just jungle slowed to 130 b.p.m?
(NB: Breakbeat garage's slowed-down jungle often overlaps uncannily with nu-skool breaks's slowed-down jungle, showing how people increasingly end up occupying the same "internal hybrid" zone even though coming from different directions).


Anne Savage, Pete Wardman, Lisa Lashes, BK, Rachel Auburn, Lisa Pin-Up, Brainbashers, Fergie, Steve Thomas, Baby Doc
Tidy Trax, Tinrib, TEC, Nukleuz, Tripoli Trax, Duty Free, Rock Hard, Fever Pitch
What is it exactly?
Both the name and the music it describes have been around for some time, but recently the style has refined itself down to an incredibly narrow strip of sound: a concussive concoction of banging kick-drums, hoover basslines, synth-stabs, and belting diva vocals. Hard house's no frills thrills are increasingly displacing fluffy Euro-trance as the pill-head's favorite soundtrack to nights of XTC--which is why it's getting a lot of press in the dance mags.
What the sceptics will say
This stuff is the pits. In all decent, discerning company, it should be unmentionable. It doesn't deserve a name at all.

Energy Flash column #2, SonicNet 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Trance rules the world's dancefloors with a white-glove fist. Occasionally, though, voices of dissent pipe up to insist, "that's not real trance, that's Euro". Uttered with a disdainful wrinkle of the nostrils, the E-word is code for “cheese”, for dance music that's too close to conventional chart-pop . And these grouches have a point--the original early Nineties trance was harsh, trippy, and coldly cosmic, and it almost never featured vocals or normal song-structures. Although it was drug music and people raved to, in ways the first-wave Teutonic trance from Berlin and Frankfurt was born as a reaction against rave--or what rave had degenerated into (all goofy kids TV samples, pianos, anthemic choruses). As much as purist Detroit techno or progressive house, the original trance was intended as a stripped-down, somber, cheese-purged purification of techno.

Between 1994, when first-wave trance's hipster credibility was usurped by drum & bass, and 1998, when trance's popularity resurged dramatically off the back of the Mitshubishi phenomenon (the return of reliably high quality Ecstasy), the music changed substantially. Borrowing elements from commercial house (hands in the air breakdowns and crowd-inciting drum rolls) and from Balearic (the spangly MDMA-friendly textures and wistful refrains popular in Ibiza every summer), trance reinvented itself as the populist softcore option---cheesy and proud of it. It became Euro-trance, and as far as connoisseurs were concerned, an abhorrent thing.

What makes it Euro? Maybe it's that's there’s too much Aha and Erasure in the mix. The hallmark of this music is an indecent amount of melody (remember, there's an inverse ratio between tunefulness and deepness in dance culture), a hint of melodrama and operatic-ness. Rhythmically, the Euro element comes in with the nu-trance’s debt to a style of music that will probably never enjoy the hipster rediscovery afforded electro or disco: Hi-NRG. Huge in gay discos all through the Eighties, this genre is defined by a butt-shaking rhythm that is best conveyed by the words "Blue Monday".

Alongside the shameless Mozzarella content, trancephobes always accuse the music of lacking "funk" and "soul"--of being too white, basically. The "funkless" accusation is pretty incontestable. It goes back to Giorgio Moroder, whose productions for Donna Summer pioneered the first all-electronic dance music: Eurodisco. Moroder deliberately simplified funk's clustered beats into an even flow of metronomically regular pulsations, all synched to the unsyncopated four-to-the-floor kick drum. Rhythmic children of Giorgio, trance DJ's like Paul Van Dyk emphasize seamless transitions between tracks, creating the sensation of surging through a frictionless soundscape. And without friction, where's the funk?

The "soul-less" accusation is unfair, though---if anything, trance can be too
E-motional. Besides, there is a European soulfulness to trance, a quality that descends from the serene glide of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" and "Neon Lights", both hymnal songs about falling in love with the modern world while in motion through it. Listen to today's trance, and you think of the pristine, hygienic beauty of a modern unified Europe--the high-speed trains, the autobahns, the pedestrian-only boulevards of city center shopping districts, the noiseless moving walkways of airports. It's why Euro-trance flourishes wherever the romance of streamlined, sterile modernity holds sway, from Hong Kong to Sao Paolo (the most European of Brazil's cities).

It's also why this music, so rootless and synthetic sounding, comes from the Old World. On a recent vacation to Tuscany, I started to understand how the ancient stuff everywhere--medieval hilltowns, cobbled streets, ruined farmhouses -- could feel oppressive to young people. I'm sure it's got something to do with why Italian kids have long favored shiny man-made fabrics and shiny machine-made music. Italian pop radio plays nothing but Euro (that, and the occasional Bon Jovi tune, pop-metal at its most glitteringly inorganic), and it's perfect precisely because it doesn't fit the picturesque landscape of olive groves, sunflower meadows, and ruined farmhouses scrolling past your car windows. In the land of terracotta, plastic has a liberating future-buzz about it

The Italian contribution to rock is negligible, but they did play a significant role in the history of house and techno. Moroder came from the Northern province of Tyrol, culturally poised between Italy and the German speaking world. The style of post-Moroder electronic dancepop known as Italodisco was popular in Detroit, where they called it "progressive"--artists like Klein & MBO and Alexander Robotnik. Robotnik's "Problemes D'Amour" was actually the first dance track to use a Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the basis of acid house and a staple of trance. Later, Italo-house--all tingly-rush inducing piano vamps and shrieking divas--by artists like Black Box and Starlight was hugely influential on the British rave scene. Even today, Italian producers like Tigino & Legato more than pull their weight when it's comes to fuelling Ibiza's midsummer blissfest.

All of which brings back to my original point, the puzzling fact that the word "Euro" is an insult, when "in the beginning" European-ness was the quintessence of cool. Detroit techno, for instance, began as a scene of affluent black teenagers who defined themselves through their obsession with all things European, from music to fashion. It's not inaccurate to describe techno and house as white European music that black Americans "got wrong"---a sort of reverse parallel with the emergence of rock as a white misrecognition of the black blues. Detroit cognoscenti fetishize the obscure Italian records that Carl Craig and Derrick May spun at high school "socials" in the early Eighties (alongside tracks by Yello, Depeche Mode, Liaison Dangereues, and other Euro exotica). But they have no interest, and nothing but contempt, for contemporary Euro, which has clear ancestral links with that music.

“Deep” is a buzzword in dance culture, code for the sort of cognoscenti-pleasing subtleties that ensures the music will never cross-over because it’s not instantly appealing or anthemic enough (see also “dark” and “progressive”, two other praise terms that virtually guarantee a lack of blatant tunefulness and overt emotion). The opposite of “deep” is “cheesy”, basically anything people-pleasing. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Italians have had centuries of experience with using just the right amount of cheese--think risotto, pasta, pizza. Too much and it's inedible, nauseating. Too little, and it lacks flava. The same thing goes for dance music: “cheese” adds savor and pungency. When dance producers get too tasteful, the result is music that is completely tasteless.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Energy Flash Column #1, SonicNet, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

There's a record store in downtown Manhattan* that always strikes me as some kind of metaphor for the state of dance music. The store is choked with vinyl, chock-a-block. The wall-racks are so densely layered with 12 inch singles, the records overlap so you can only see a narrow strip of each sleeve's right side--the artist name and track titles are concealed, you can't just scan the walls to find what you want, you have to peer up close at the price label, where the store has helpfully printed the information in tiny type. The record bins are so tightly crammed you can barely extract the discs from their sections; sleeves are torn and vinyl scuffed. Underneath the shelves, there's an overflow of back stock extending so far out into the aisles that customers have to put a foot up on top of the vinyl sprawl just to get near the bins or the listening decks. And at every deck, there's a tense-looking, sweaty kid in headphones with a fat stack of new tunes, skipping through the tracks with the stylus and trying to make judgement calls based on four seconds of intro/four seconds of groove/four seconds of breakdown, all in the desperate attempt to keep up with dance culture's Niagaran torrent of product.

This record store is just about the only one left in New York that still tries to stock every kind of dance-floor oriented music, all the myriad subgenres of house, techno, trance, drum and bass, and breakbeat. (Its one concession to sanity: skimping on experimental electronica and CDs). Others Manhattan stores have narrowed their focus to just hard techno, or just deep house, or just jungle. But precisely because of this particular store's valiant attempt to encompass all the tributaries of the post-rave delta, it's getting harder to use the place, so overcrowded is it with records and customers trying to get at them. And that's where the metaphor bit comes in, because this mirrors the increasingly challenging nature of navigating the electronic dance music universe, with its bewildering profusion of styles and its hyper-productivity.

Ten years ago, when rave first started to take off in North America, it was still physically possible to monitor the best output of every subgenre--a full time job, sure, but do-able if you were dedicated and determined. There weren't that many scenes to check, after all--everything was under the umbrella of house music back then, even techno. Today, it would take all your time and energy to stay on top of drum & bass, or minimal techno, or garage, or any single genre--such is the high turnover of releases, the vast number of independent labels and self-released records. This double whammy of stylistic splintering combined with ever-increasing volume of releases is the reason why people increasingly get on a narrowcast track and become obsessed with just one kind of music. Take trance, for instance. Until a few years ago I'd always thought it was a homogenous and basically unified genre, but all of sudden, that same Manhattan store had an entire wall of trance divided up into a myriad micro-genres. Then I met this English psychedelic trance DJ and, curious whether she checked out stuff outside the psy-trance ghetto, asked what she thought of hardtrance warrior Commander Tom, progressive trance god Paul Oakenfold, and others. She just looked blank. Clearly, to be on top of your shit as a psy-trance DJ, you have to have tunnel vision focus.

Diagnosing the dance vinyl glut, it's tempting to bandy around phrases like "cultural overproduction" or "excess of access." But it's not like the do-it-yourself boom is generating mountains of mediocrity that are snowcapped with one percent brilliance. No, the problem is there's too much good stuff out there--well-made, intelligently conceived, tastefully executed, and pretty deserving of your attention. The same cheap music-making technology that causes the do-it-yourself phenomenon to keep on mushrooming is also allowing people to make studio-quality records at home. An unexpected side effect of all this abundance, though, is a sort of optical illusion--the landmark records don't stand out so starkly against the plains of lameness. It also means it's harder for producers to make money, with average sales of a good (i.e. not a huge anthem) 12 inch in most genres hovering between 1000 and 2000 (and that's globally). Many producers only make tracks to boost their profile as DJs (which is where you can actually make some dough).

As demanding as it is for consumers faced with dance music overload, there's no turning back the clock--the DIY genie is out of the bottle. Ultimately, do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself, both as ideal and as practice, has been fantastic for music. It just means that you have to abandon the notion of keeping tabs on all the good stuff from across the genrescape, accept that you're going to miss great records. One aspect of the DJ's job--and almost a justification for the fat fees these guys charge--is their processing function: sifting through the pretty-decent stuff and finding the nuggets of genius, stringing the pearls together as a stellar set or slamming mix-CD. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyway.

Meanwhile, the last time I went to that store, the over-stuffed-racks were almost falling off the walls. I'm waiting to read about the first record retail catastrophe: Aspiring Disc Jockey Crushed By Vinyl.

* Satellite Records on Bowery. About a year later it moved to much larger premises further down Bowery below Houston St. Now it's closed.

eMusic, May 2008

by Simon Reynolds


Monday, May 5, 2008

Melody Maker, autumn 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Tresor is a famous Berlin club located in a vault that was once the safe of a department store. Maybe because the temperatures inside this strobe-blitzed sauna reach tropical levels, the techno made by DJ's and groups associated with the club (and gathered on Der Klang Der Familie) is sweat-less and cold-as-ice.

The Berlin sound as represented here has a similar clinical-but-crazed vibe to the stuff coming out of Detroit on the Plus 8 label, like F.U.S.E.'s "F.U.": basslines that pulsate in sinister wave-forms like radioactive ore, rigorous programmed beats, synth-twitches that instil a strange ectastic dread. Unlike UK hardcore's epileptic basslines and sped-up vocals exploding like fireworks, this music doesn't speed-rush forwards in blind propulsion; the repetition seems to take you deeper and deeper towards something primal and not a little threatening.

Voodoo possession is the model here, rather than the hyper-hyper exhiliration-whizz of breakbeat house. "Drugs Work" by System 01 is like venturing into a cyberdelic jungle, parting wave after wave of foliage towards some secret, pagan grove. Maurizio's "Ploy" is a cloud of oscillations and wave-forms that's almost beyond
dance. Voov's "It's Anything You Want It To be And It's A Gas" assembles programmed rhythms and grids of sequencer pulses into a percussive lattice of near-symphonic
complexity. Mind Gear's "Don't Panic" is simply symphonic, rivalling the poignant grandeur of Orbital's "Belfast". A brilliant compilation.

Planet Core Productions's Frankfurt Trax offers more German vanguard techno. Abbreviate the label's name to PCP and you get a good idea of the vibe of the Frankfurt sound: mad-as-hell, mental-as-fuck, apoplectic/apocalyptic frenzy,
all stomping 4/4 beats and gut-busting bass-blasts. Mescalinum United's "We Have Arrived" is a storm-trooper stampede with a smeared, blaring riff that'll rip your
entrails out. With its infernal bass and down-swooping drones, "Nightflight (nonstop to kaos)" by The Mover presents Frontal Sickness is like a cybernetic version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". But it's not all mayhem. Six Mullahs' "Persian Lover" is an Islam-otronic mood piece. Project AE's "Whales Alive" is an extraordinary, undulating soundscape: stereo-panning slow beats, brief arias of whale song, tidal
synths, a terra-technic bass that glows like the Earth's core. Imagine "Once In A Lifetime" if Talking Heads had been ripping off Kraftwerk rather than Can.

Another brilliant compilation.