Wednesday, December 28, 2022


My piece on Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo, a 2001 film partly set in the club scene of Taipei.  The piece also looks at the struggles that movie-makers have had with capturing what happens on the ravefloor - and why they've evaded it for the most part. It's for  the journal of The Metrograph cinema in New York, where a restored version of the film is currently showing as part of a Taiwanese New Wave series

Friday, December 23, 2022

"An Idiotic Rave" / version galore


Saw this while watching (very belatedly indeed) the Ken Burns Jazz doc.

The section on ragtime in the doc reminded me that the very first single I bought was Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", when it was issued off the back of The Sting and became a small UK hit. 

Retrospectively, whenever this fact swam into memory again, I'd always think it was a bit uncool to have this as your first 7-inch single, given that at the time T.Rex Sweet Bowie etc were at their height while things like "Theme from 'Shaft'" were on the radio (a fave of mine as it happens - the wah-wah always made me think of a helicopter's whirring blades... 9-year-old me had no idea what that sound was - that it even came from a guitar). 

But watching the Burns epic, I decided that it was in fact supremely cool and showed a susceptibility to dance rhythm at a tender age - okay, very early 20th Century dance rhythm but still...  

As I recall, there were actually two dueling versions of "The Entertainer" released at that time and I might have accidentally bought the less-preferred rendition - not as bright and bouncy. Nowadays there are so many interpretations of  Joplins's tunes out there it's hard to know which one to go with (the Rifkind and Strickland recordings seem to be favored by some of those who know). But there are also a bunch of piano roll versions.  

It's like the head you have to put on when delving into classical music - like, which pianist's version of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies is the one to go for? Or which conductor's take on the Pastoral Symphony?. The level of variation in feel, attack, tempo, recording ambience, clarity etc is disconcerting for someone who grew up on pop music where there is a Definitive Recording.  

Now maybe you'd think that having been through the dance music culture and lived with (indeed reveled in) the whole remix thing, that this would set you up for this approach to listening. But it's different I think - a remix makes all kinds of substantial structural alterations and adds new material, so it is easy to accept a remix as an almost new piece of music - or something that only overlaps in places with the original. But the interpretative element in classical (and this applies in a different way with jazz... and in yet another different way with showbiz's many arrangements and vocalist interpretations vis-a-vis standards) can be disconcerting precisely for being subtler: the notes are exactly the same, the duration of the song is close, the timbre palette doesn't stray much from "piano" (in the case of "The Entertainer"), but somehow that proximity makes you hyper-aware of all those tiny differences in the player's touch and timing, in the recording ambience, that pervade the entire performance.  Every note is imbued with this difference. 

Perhaps the thing to shed is the idea that you'll find the perfect version of a piece that you prefer to all others, and just enjoy the subtlety of the iterative  range.  

Yet conversely, a form of variation that I do really enjoy with music is the way a song or album can sound really quite different when heard on different formats, through different playback set-ups.  I'll hear different things in a piece heard via streamer on the car stereo, than I do listening to the same streamer but through these computer speakers. Different things again through headphones off an iPod (no really, I still have one, still use it!). And if I happen to have the piece of music on vinyl or CD, there'll be different things again if played on the proper hi-fi with large speakers. We also have a boombox in the kitchen, so sometimes old cassettes get played - another format whose sound properties have a particular appeal.

I suppose the rock-era equivalent to the "many different orchestras / conductors / recording dates"  dilemma that you get with navigating classical music recordings, is the wallet-emptying racket that is audiophilia. You can get into comparing all these different remasterings and formats. Rebuying things in the latest remix, or ponying up for one of those half-speed mastering jobs that supposedly pull more information out of the tape and then what was a single album gets turned into 2 x 45rpm platters for the deep-grooved ultra-fidelity that offers.  Another sub-game here is hunting down particular back-in-the-day pressings that were legendarily closer to the original tapes, or pressed better quality vinyl. (People even have lore on legendarily superior mastering engineers whose cut is better).  Then there's the original mono mixes versus stereo mixes done then versus stereo mixes done today dilemma - yet another game. (The whole business of hi-fi equipment, cartridges, styluses, cables etc is another game altogether, an extra level of complexification and combinational possibiltiies, not to mention wealth-extraction... I hasten to add that I don't actively participate in any of these games, but am fascinated by those who do). 

These versions galore are not new renditions in the interpretative sense; the variation happens at the level of the mix and the mastering. The fundamental audio text is stable. The format and version choices are perhaps like trying on different glasses that change how clearly you perceive what is there; they don't change what is there. 

Or do they? In rock, pop, etc, the mix is what's there; it's not some transparent overlay extraneous to the music itself. The ranking and distribution of the elements in audio space is inseparable from  composition. To make one strand of overdubbed instrumentation peek out more prominently is to change the balance of the constituent elements. 

Another analogy: painting restoration. Removing all the discolorant crud off the surface of a painting, the tarnished  with age pigment and the adulterants deposited via the atmosphere, this reveals the true colours of the original. But for some viewers, they'd actually loved the semi-obscured image, its atmospheric murkiness; that was the original painting as far as they were concerned. 

Certainly there are records that have never sounded quite right when I've heard them later in much superior circumstances than the original hearing / bonding, when it might have been a taped off a friend, or an advance cassette.  

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Electronic listening music from Warp"

A round-robin retrospective on Artificial Intelligence, Warp's landmark compilation - now 30 years old, Jesus, and being commemoratively reissued - convened by Daniel Dylan Wray, for The Quietus. I am one of the voices corralled. As you can imagine, the colloquy contains a fair amount of complaining, from various angles, about the term / genre / discourse "Intelligent Dance Music" a.k.a. IDM, which the comp unintentionally launched. "Electronic Listening Music", as flagged up on the cover itself, would have made for a much better, more neutral and non-inflammatory term (although even there's a subliminal hint still of a "music for the mind versus music for the body" dichotomy, with the implicit suggestion that people who are dancing are doing so mindlessly, they're not really listening). 

There were a few responses of mine that were not used, and being a waste-not-want-not type (a child if not of the era of rationing then of someone who lived through rationing, which lasted up until 1956, right?), here are those morsels.

Asked about the argument that IDM is a white cooptation of back music, I offered this demurral:  

"I didn’t really feel that was a factor. After all, there is a huge European history with electronic music – Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Eno. A lot of postpunk and industrial. And a Japanese history too, with Ryuichi Sakamoto and YMO. But also with most of the IDM artists, they would be the first to acknowledge being inspired by Detroit techno and the early Chicago acid and so forth. I think there was a commonality felt with figures like Carl Craig and great respect for Underground Resistance and so forth.   

"Where that became more of a thing was a bit later when you had the first-wave IDM artists adopting jungle’s breakbeat science techniques and then exaggerating them to the point where it was daft and undanceable. And there was a bit of attitude that irritated me then which was “look at us, we’re taking these ideas much further than the Junglists, who are all sheep, pandering to the dancers and the deejays”. It was an odd combo of coopting and arrogance. In fact, they weren’t taking the techniques any further than Dillinja or DJ Hype, they were just making them dysfunctional."

Quizzed about being "involved" in the IDM List and whether it was a real musical community. 

"I wasn’t involved really, I don’t think I ever commented in a thread. But I checked it out, I subscribed to the list – just to see what people were talking about and how they talked about it. Being a student of discourse and fan rhetoric, I was interested to see how this unexamined superiority complex manifested in terms of judgements about which music mattered and why.  

"I liked a lot of that kind of music – pretty much all the big names in IDM I thought were great or very interesting, and many of the smaller artists. Some of it is among the most beautiful music ever. I think its strong suit was melody and emotion. Well, you had interesting textures and sounds and atmospheres, but particularly melody and emotion was what it had to offer. If it had been called “emotronica” (admittedly a ghastly word!) then that might have been better. Not that hardcore dance musics are devoid of emotion, but it tends to be quite primary-color, unsubtle emotion, whereas in  Aphex and Boards of Canada, et alc, you have a subtle palette of feeling – it can be poignant, eerie, mystical.

And finally, thoughts on the legacy of Artificial Intelligence

"As I mentioned, I don’t think it’s that great a compilation, as a collection of tracks. There’s some good things and then as often with comps, the guest artists offer things that are maybe not their best work.  It wasn’t a record I played more than a couple of times, I shouldn’t think. It’s more the throw-down of the title and the iconic cover image – it all added up to this big statement that Warp were making. Along with some of the things that were building in ’92 through to early ’93, the release really opened up a whole area of music that just grew and grew. Up to that point, you’d a few really excellent techno/house albums – 808 State’ 90 and Ex:Cel, LFO’s Frequencies, Ultramarine’s Every Man and Woman Is A Star. But it didn’t necessarily seem like a massive zone for the future. A lot of techno artists stumbled when it came to the album.   But then I think with this comp, coming out at around the same time as Selected Ambient Works 85-92suddenly it seemed a whole new space of possibility opened up. 

From Artificial Intelligence's liner notes 

Autechre's formative influences - almost all black music but as much electro and Miami Bass as house or techno

Whereas Aphex Twin's earliest come from elsewhere altogether (Tomita!) (I was wondering who the hell Phonic Bod was and it turns out to RDJ's very first alias!)

B-12 'fess to completely Angloid roots

The Black Dog go even further back - to heathen  times! (Their more recent canon is entirely postpunk / avant-funk / industrial) 

The Orb, as you'd expect, place their sound amid a jumble of ambient, acid house, Krautrock, and dub lineages 

Here's a "Contextual Mix" that Autechre created to go with the anniversary of Artificial Intelligence - what sorts of music were happening around that time - 92-93

Sunday, December 4, 2022

feeling Gurley / the Gurley feeling

 A playlist compendium of Steve Gurley's work as Rogue Unit and as a remixer - the jungle / d&B (pretty complete selection there - please point out ommissions) and then onto the speed garage / 2step era (less complete -  he was in demand, churning the stuff out). Then in a chronology double-back, at the end there's a bit of 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and just a smidge of Foul Play ("Finest Illusion" -  I remember Brad and John saying they had almost nothing to do with that track: they went off to deejay somewhere and when they came back, Steve had made the whole thing)

The Rogue Unit remixes like "Luv Dub", "Spread Luv", "Good To U", and especially "Peace Sign" and the naughty Princess "Say I'm Your Number 1" rebootleg are so so gorgeous.... as with other nuum auteurs, there's an identifiable signature here, particular  fixtures / fixations... I don't have the technicals to pinpoint, but there's certain chord changes and harmonies he's drawn to...  Even though working with vocal samples, he consistently gives them this thinned-out, stretched timbre, so that the diva sounds weak for love, ghostly and gaseous, wavering on the edge of expiry.... 


Thursday, December 1, 2022


Well who knew there was an early "Terminator"?

(Well, I didn't)

Seems like there must be other ardkore / darkcore / jungle tekno songs titled "Terminator" or that sample from one or other of the film?

Or indeed some gabber cases