October 14, 2005



This piece was published in the Voice on January 30, 1996.

Electronica Artists Draw Blood

English people are a riot. I thought electronica was a moisturizer for robots. No! To be reductive, the twin towers of dance music and the avant-garde collapsed and a bunch of fast-moving kids and crusty old seers have been making hamlets from the debris, and what they make, sometimes, is electronica. They come from all over the UK: bedroom isolates with banks of equipment, dance-floor outcasts, straight-up art buddies, old art-rockers chuffed by the theoretical implications of sampling, and so on. They row the same boat by using space-age equipment (although not exclusively), working alone outside "scenes" formed by measurable quantities of "realness" or "ruffness" (that is, until someone made up electronica), and releasing records that get sold at dance stores and used by DJs, even though some of them grizzle on microtonally with very little swing.

Jungle helped cybergrow this whole genre by creating its own organic, very wide "real," rewarding psychotic one-upmanship and doing it as dance music even though it is fiendishly difficult for the average person to dance to. With that looming over you, it's no longer okay to fart ambient synthzak or do sound installations at the ICA: the social has met the asocial, and it's time to get down.

Electronica buddies have problems, too: overproduction and isolation. It's easier to make one of those tracks (mu-Ziq's Mike Paradinas estimates between four and six hours in a recent interview) than to bang out a song with the surly losers in your band. But without someone saying "I dunno, that sounds like The Wide World of Sports," it's easy to think you're Bernard Hermann when you're Vangelis. Just check out mu-Ziq's gratingly clever In Pine Effect (Astralwerks): CD technology and ease of production mean that 3:00 epics bloom into really boring songs that beg to be sliced and diced by DJs. (Wait for the DJ in all cases of trip-hop. Do not, we repeat, do not, open package without supervision as instant nap may result.)

Maybe I like Autechre because there's two of them to watch each other and keep the tracks lean. (Kraftwerk had four robots to split up the work. Some hoary old constructs of the rock band still prove effective.) Autechre's Rob Brown and Sean Booth rarely compose by default, as machines tempt you to do. Autechre songs follow a distinct syntax, fitting each ringing sound into its neighboring puffy sound. Though they use none of the obvious hip-hop signifiers, they program beguiling alien rhythms that make you move before they make you think. This is a nod to the early-'80s electro of Afrika Bambaataa, who found the heart of the machine in Kraftwerk's firefly pulse and hooked it up to the thing that became hip-hop. The intersection between electricity and blood is where the best of this electronica stuff piles up; like "Planet Rock" meets musique concrete, or something uneasy-listening like that.

The forthcoming Autechre full-length Tri Repetae (to be released on TVT in February, in a double-CD package with two other EPs) is as hypnotic and deliberately patterned as any hip crit stuff like Jajouka or Ornette or whatever makes you feel like you're fighting the Bill Gates monopoly in your own earthy way, although, no, it doesn't conjure fire or make time dissolve or anything. Autechre know the analog to human physical and emotional processes and represent them with the right 1s and 0s. That is, if you thought "Musique Non Stop" and "Trans Europe Express" were kinda on.

The electronica buddies still linked to dance music grapple with the aesthetic problem of going compositional (make interesting music you can listen to anywhere) or staying functional (temper exploration with a constant BPM for the dance floor). Trip-hop slid off the map by choosing the latter, even though its shining moments follow the former (DJ Shadow's What Does Your Soul Look Like [Mo' Wax] and Skylab's #1 and These Are the Blues [Astralwerks]). Where hip-hop pits the active MC against the static rhythm loop to create meaning, nap-hop presents stasis and texture as mood and meaning. The average listener often identifies this problem with the word "boring." No wonder no one wants to be called a trip-hop artist.

Wagon Christ (a/k/a Luke Vibert) definitely doesn't like it, and in his case, I can see why. Vibert draws blood from hip-hop, 2001, and jungle without turning into anyone's vampire. Their/his Redone EP [Rising High US] is a tight summation (tighter than the impressive but exhaustingly unedited full-length Throbbing Pouch) of many threads: Luke's remix of his own "Reedin'" is trippy and hoppy and stringy in all the right, unboring ways; Aphex Twin's remix of "Spotlight" is some serious White Man Jungle, a stuttering handful of moire patterns made up of farty analog synth sounds; and Voyafose and Boymerang's remix of "Pull My Strings" is half trip, half junglist, and all freaky Logan's Run shit.

Finland's Panasonic bust on through with full Kraftwerk approach. These three grumpy buddies play old analog synths in real time and bleep on with some Morton Feldman monochromatic relentlessness. Their album Vakio has enough of a pulse to be sold in dance stores and rock boutiques, the latter maybe because it's on Blast First, maybe because the "fuck you" has moved off the interview page and into the music. These guys don't make things easy—tracks burp along steadily for minutes, accreting little bits of sonic detail but never letting you get so spacey you lose the taste of the burps. Kinda like how Gang of Four's funk kept you too awake to start feeling like everyday people.

Panasonic's stern waves illuminate another salient division in electronica: digital and analog sound operate very differently. In this dispute, indie rockers remain inhospitable toward samplers and other digimoves, but go dreamy about wheezy, weather-sensitive analog synthesizers (witness the current explosion of tags like "space rock" and "oscillator boogie," created to help contain this explosion). In this case, more power to them, if Panasonic's what comes up. Spartan as it is, Vakio has a stonelike depth that illustrates another advantage of electronica: you can stay in the pop culture trenches while zapping into some pretty elevated information. (House music has long combined hard church with the hard-on.) Songs, schmongs.

Posted by Sasha at October 14, 2005 04:08 PM | TrackBack