Some thoughts on infinite music and the cognition of life in 2012
By Zac Nichol
Adam Harper, blogger and writer for The Wire magazine, published a book in Nov 2011 called Infinite Music, in which he - among other ideas presented, which I won’t discuss much here - compares the seemingly infinite sonic potential of 21st century electronic music to that of 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg’s experimental form, “Serialism”. He argues that each of these “moves away from the strictures of tradition, progressively tearing them away piece by piece and leaving them behind as it travel towards an ultimately infinite potential for musical variety. In doing so”, he continues, “it enhances the ways in which we perceive, imagine and live in the world”.
This is upside-down in my view. Certainly, huge advances in technology have opened up the potential to create basically any sound imaginable - and some that probably no one imagined before they stumbled upon them. And what’s more, the technology (laptops, free software, the Internet, for distribution as well sharing of techniques and ideas…) is widely available to the population, not just specialists. But does the pursuit of these never-before-heard permutations “enhance the ways in which we perceive, imagine and live in the world”? Not by itself! Only inasmuch as the artists cognize and communicate truths about really existing phenomena do they enhance our living in the world through their works, and only inasmuch as the “strictures of tradition” no longer apply to our modern world may they be cast aside without paying a price.
In 2012 the world is in deep social and economic crisis. Social relations are unbearably contradictory. The president of the USA orders assassination of US citizens via flying robot; government agencies spy on essentially all telecommunications traffic, and infiltrate, entrap, and physically beat down protests against social inequality; trillions of dollars are provided to prop up the criminal financial elite while wages and social programs are being slashed for the working class, impoverishing them by the millions; endless wars for natural resources and geopolitical domination are administered behind the backs of the populations of the aggressor nations, the mass media is bought and paid for and serves to obfuscate and justify the situation, the population overwhelmingly opposes cuts to living standards and the drive to war, but can find no expression in official political channels, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. But to what degree is this presently cognized in popular consciousness? And how does it find expression in art and music? Does the most “advanced” music reveal truths about what it was like to be alive in 2012?
Looking at modern western electronic dance music broadly (what we play on Crush Collision), an over-arching trend seems undeniable: it is often fantastic and escapist or otherwise willfully vague in content, at best capturing a broadly felt emotional state, but rarely making more than superficial reference to human experience, let alone providing insights. This itself is a reflection of the state of popular social consciousness. Of course a certain amount of recreation and light-heartedness is necessary in life, and dance music does fill this role particularly well, but I hope after reading these reviews (especially the top 3) that you’ll agree that much more is possible. Techno originator Juan Atkins continued to release music this year, but has he, or anyone chasing sonic infinity, produced anything as on point as this in 2012 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgcgkrcNHso? (If you know something I don’t, tell me!)
This isn’t to blame artists. The situation is poorly understood by most everyone. The general lack of (and successful stifling of) substantial class struggle during the entire age of techno music certainly has something to do with it. Bound up with this are dominant ideological trends which cynically take for granted the eternal nature of the reign of capitalism, as well as the impossibility of uncovering objective truths about the nature of society.
For much of 2012, I was not yet considering these types of issues, I was mostly in the Infinite Music camp. I was interested in what kinds of far out sounds and rhythms and feelings were possible to conjure up with our amazing technologies. A lot of the music described below has mainly subjective appeal: sonic content that I found personally fascinating, moods or grooves that I found personally pleasing or fun, etc. But some exceptional works did, in my opinion, catch on to something universally true and vital about life in 2012 and can truly claim to enhance the ability of listeners to live in the world.
Disclaimer: This round-up is by no means exhaustive. Though in 2012, through WCBN and Crush Collision, I was personally able to engage with electronic music to a far greater extent than I have ever done before, I of course didn’t listen to, or try to listen to, everything being produced. That’s increasingly impossible anyway, as the general lowering of barriers has created quite a deluge of material. Really, my focus is on the American and UK scenes, which are most accessible to me. And I didn’t spend much time listening to music this year that wasn’t either technology or dance oriented. I’m also hardly an expert, but the ideas put forth here show the direction I’m headed in as we move onward with Crush Collision in 2013. I welcome your comments!
The reviews are organized roughly along a continuum from appealing fluff to more substantial, sophisticated or relevant work. I start out with the small stuff and work my way up. So if you’re unimpressed with the first tracks, or if my comments seem slight, scroll down I guess.
With all of that in mind, here is Zac’s favorite music of 2012:
K.W. Griff feat Porkchop - Bring in The Katz [Night Slugs, September]
The silliest party jam of the year. It came out of the Baltimore club scene before this year, originally included on DJ Enemy’s excellently titled collection “The Grown N Sexy Pt. 8 (Strictly 4 Tha Club Edition)”. But after gaining underground popularity, it was finally released as a single in 2012 by Night Slugs records in UK. The song is ridiculous: prior to each drop MC Porkchop shouts “Hey Griff! BRING IN THE CATS!”, and then “OH!” and “YES!” repeatedly, orgasmically as they are apparently brought in.
Emptyset - Core [Raster-Noton, October]
A Bristol-based duo. This one’s in 15/4 time in case you’re trying to figure it out. Don’t worry if you’re bored at the beginning, it gets to the point. I played this recently on CC and I tripped over the power cord to the whole rig during it. You couldn’t ask for a better song to absorb 5 seconds of dead air in the middle.
Julio Bashmore - Au Seve [Broadwalk, July]
Fair warning, this *will* be stuck in your head. It’s scientifically catchy. Crank it or don’t bother, though. A banger with no further ambitions.
Jeremih - Fuck U All The Time Ft. Natasha Mosley [Weight Up, August]
Jeremih, pronounced “JeremEYE”, is the guy who brought us the hit R&B single “Birthday Sex” in 2009. You know, the one that was censored into oblivion on the radio version, “Birthday Tricks”? Well anyway he’s back with a free mixtape featuring this goofy cybersex anthem on some zeitgeisty, bassed-out, pitch shifting production techniques. Swoon/laugh as multiple Jeremih’s seduce in three octaves, with lines like “Facetime when I’m gone, she give me dome from a distance/And she love to climb on top cuz she love to walk off limpin”. It’s pretty funny and it sounds fantastic. Good vocal science especially, which I supposed references network latency with it’s stuttering.
Hot Chip - Night and Day [June, 2012]
Live in BBC Studio - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34Nk98Yk9B0
Probably the best pop-dance track played on mostly “real” instruments in 2012.
SKYWLKR - Toxic (instrumental) [self-released, November]
SKYWLKR is the 19-year-old Detroit DJ/Producer of 31 year old rising star Detroit rapper Danny Brown. He did about 1/3rd of the beats on Brown’s breakout LP/Mixtape “XXX” which came out summer 2011 for free on the internet, and on white vinyl for Record Store Day 2012. They toured together, played the boiler room, wrote more music for the upcoming Danny Brown LP. SKYWLKR is a beat making machine and in 2012 he’s released a lot of stuff for free on the Internet, including instrumental versions of beats that he has made for Brown and other rappers, as well as years-old material that had never seen a wide audience. Some of his tracks are very Dilla-esque (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P61Hb0AIMp8), some give TNGHT a run for their money (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLY4snXHC4s) (and this came out first!), others are pretty original (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fixeKuzkOG4).
Toxic, whenever it was written, saw the light of day in 2012 when it was used by comedian/rapper Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino on his mixtape ROYALTY, but in good form SKYWLKR released the instrumental for free later. It’s made from Brittney Spears’ “Toxic”. It’s “fucking awesome” and guaranteed to put a smile on your face/murder your dancefoor.
Yung Gleesh - City Full of Dust [I don’t’ know the label, July]
Gleesh is out of Washington DC and this track is from his mixtape called Cleanside’s Finest. Danny Brown recommended this track via twitter a few months ago, and I listened to it and it stuck with me. Otherwise I don’t know anything about him.
It samples seminal goth 70s Brit post-punkers Siouxsie & the Banshees for the hook (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hMagNuhLkk) and is about living a life of crime and selling drugs. It’s a pretty amateur production and on the surface appears to be macho trap music, but the lyrics show Gleesh considering the morality of social causes and effects: “I’m sorry that I gotta take it/I’m not sorry that I DID take it” and other moments. The frantic way he goes from moral questions about his role in society, right into machismo and lyrics about mugging, and at the end into hope for escaping the cycle of violence and building a brighter future, without ever pausing his rapid flow; it paints a maddening picture in which Gleesh is scrambling for orientation. Not a brilliant work but one in which some truth and humanity shows through where you might not expect.
Le1f - Emulator [Greedhead / Camp&Street, April]
New York rapper Le1f released a sonically impressive free mixtape this year called Dark York.
Le1f is a talented rapper and works with many fine producers on the tape, and the sound is slick and unique. He’s funny and sometimes relatable. I like some of his one liners, like “Get addicted to my realness like it’s Internet”. While the mixtape is mostly flirtatious and party-centric and avoids overt politicking, Le1f nonetheless refers to his racial and sexual identity constantly, and advocates shallow celebration of the self nonstop. His M.O. takes many cues from - and his lyrics directly reference it as well - New York’s “Ball” culture (as seen in the documentary film Paris is Burning http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Is_Burning_(film)).
He notably has a song called “Infinity” which seems to take the same attitude toward identity and lifestyle as Infinite Music advocacy does toward music, equating progress with superficial experimentation.
But on Emulator, Le1f forgets his identity for a moment and, appropriately enough, flirts by challenging his target to videogames.
BRANKO - Goin in Hard feat. Dominique Young Unique (French Fries Remix) [Jeffries, May]
This one is a freestyle by 19-year-old Tampa, FL rapper Dominique Young Unique, original beat by BRANKO (of UK), remixed by French Fries (Scotland). Dominique has some very underrated singles under her belt, including Show My Ass (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBf0r7Vae2E) (which never got a proper release as far as I can tell, I play a version I ripped from Youtube), Music For Millions (https://soundcloud.com/dominiqueyoungunique/09-music-for-millions), and Get Out My Shoes (https://soundcloud.com/national_student/dominique-young-unique-get-out). They are also spread across several mixtapes of mostly filler, though. The model-pretty teenager’s lyrics are almost universally empty-headed and vain, but her rowdy, fun-loving energy saves the day on occasion.
In this case, it is Monsignor Fries who saves the day, transforming the stupid and forgettable original into a zany, chilled-out brain twister. It’s very much in the style of James Blake’s Harmonimix series: spine of rap vocal, eye of newt, err I meaning you build a song around the vocal flow, using it as the rhythmic anchor and building tense harmonies and wild atmospherics on top. Her boasts are so nonsensical and stream-of-consciousness that nothing else would have worked.
Joe - MB/Studio Power On [Hemlock, September]
Studio Power On - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt4HQMaMiQM
The 2 tracks on this 12” are hard to describe. “odd, fun, smooth”. MB opens with a gong, then comes a slinky, lounge-y naive melody played on a rubbery lead synth and a one-note-bending plucked violin? Handclaps and bass eventually take over for a funky shuffle while the rest of the arrangement goes for a swim. Triangles chime once per measure on the breakdown. Hmmm. Studio Power On’s spine is composed partly of breaking glass, and saws (I mean the rhythmic sound of sawing through wood, not a sawtooth wave, nor a person “playing” the saw). a purring, cooing robotic pet of some sort (why not) sings the chorus, until a flitting arpeggiator pesters it away like a bee. The song is like sawing away on a big log while your robotic cat is attacked by a bee. But then you all dance.
I like Joe’s style a lot, it’s just pleasant and fun to move to.
(Hudson Mohawke and Lunice as) TNGHT - TNGHT EP [Warp/LuckMe, July]
Producers Hudson Mohawke (Scotland) and Lunice (Quebec) team up with the stated goal of making the biggest-sounding hip-hop instrumentals with the most minimal arrangement. The consensus is that they’ve hit it out of the park.
For me this “big sound” musical trend, variously incarnated as “trap” or “wonky” or I don’t know what all else, highlights the stark contradiction between infinite music and limited outlook. Whether it’s Chief Keef’s infantile lyrics on “I Don’t Like” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WcRXJ4piHg) or the litany of tracks that featured a syncopated chorus of ornery thugs (“[pause] EY! [pause] EY!”), too often this sound is used to express anti-social menace, binge-ism, self-aggrandizement and little else. TNGHT sheds most of that, partly just by not having almost any lyrics. They manage to refine a thrilling cavernous bombast that seems bigger and simpler than all the rest (rather like Sleigh Bells just a couple of years ago did to indie rock http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfGtB6K8q8k#t=1m58s). Nicely done I guess. But can it inspire MCs to be anything but mindlessly belligerent? Captain Murphy (the rap pseudonym of producer Flying Lotus) did a psycho-misogynist version of Bugg’N called “Shake Weight” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4cT5mLu2ME). Not too impressive.
Will anything of significance be said in 2013 with this spectacular new sound? For now, with few exceptions, the best of it is cheap thrills in the most literal sense.
James Ferraro’s 2012 mixtapes, as Bebetune$ / BODYGUARD [self-released]
James Ferraro, a New Yorker, tends to work in audio caricature, accentuating his target’s features, sometimes unflatteringly, at once satirizing and reveling in them. Last year he turned his ear to the new sounds of 21st century everyday life, making an album entirely out of computer and consumer gadget interface sounds, his best work. This year he’s put out two free mixtapes online under the pseudonyms Bebetune$ and BODYGUARD, and he’s toured as BODYGUARD playing the material. On these he takes on two current musical trends - #1) trap, and #2) hazy, computer assisted R&B - with funny and/or gorgeous results.
Oneohtrix Point Never - I Only Have Eyes For You [self-released, May]
A strange, beautiful transformation of the standard, recorded first in 1934 and many times since (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Only_Have_Eyes_for_You#Covers). I welcome thoughts on this one. It’s not dance music but it’s related, and I’ve played it on CC. Just listen.
Oneohtrix Point Never is New York City artist Daniel Lopatin, and he’s released lots of various experimental electronic music under a few different names, and also scored an honest-to-god *flying robot ballet* this year (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cseTX_rW3uM).
Why They Hide They Bodies Under My Garage? - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mR6zmSTDNE
Tuesday’s March - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ybvkn6X-tk
Clattering, Knocking, Purring, Sputtering, Scraping, Shrieking, Rattling, Creaking, Growling, Thudding Techno. Blawan hails from Scotland, has K I C K D R U M tattooed on his knuckles, and has put a unique stamp on hard techno this year with several strong and adventurous releases. On the “His He She and She” EP, the frightening sound palettes and urgent, pounding rhythms make you feel like you’re running to escape a serial killer, but two of these tracks feature growling rap-along vocals for a funny twist. The “Long Distance Open Water Worker” EP is, as you might guess, deeper, but more or less still feels like a murder on a submarine. I wouldn’t call his work “cinematic” at all; formally, it’s pretty comfortably just “techno”, but it’s the way it all sounds like banging your way out of a sealed coffin to find yourself in a dank cellar, and… well, you take it from there.
Fiercest of all perhaps is the track Tuesday’s March, which was included on the collection Minutes In Ice. It shudders with palpable nightmare energy, like a swarm of locusts wrecking up a catacomb, or maybe cannibals banging femurs against jars full of teeth. But, you know, still 4-on-the-floor techno with sensible songwriting. Run!
(Blawan is also collaborated with producer Pariah in 2012 under the name “Karenn”. It’s more of the same kind of ting.)
Death Grips - NO LOVE DEEP WEB [self-released, October]
I reviewed Death Grips most recent album NO LOVE DEEP WEB for the world socialist website (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/12/13/deat-d13.html). The album is largely about being made so hopelessly debased and anguished by modern society that the best thing to do is mass murder/suicide attack, thereby asserting some kind of power through vengeance while at the same time checking yourself out. The review was published the day before the Newtown school shooting.
You can read it there, so for here, let’s just take the song “Pop”, whose title refers to the sound of heads exploding in MC Ride’s crosshairs. World-shaking bass; galloping rhythms; synths that alternately evoke missiles, tractor-beams, glittering head rushes; it really feels both war-like and orgasmic, while Ride taunts “i lit up the rock you live under/ass backward motherfucker”. The album gives spectacular expression to terminally destructive social impulses.
I can’t help but take note of these guys. They’re shocking, but not at all alien. Death Grips bear tortured witness to the unbearability, and untenability, of a modern society run by murderous and exploitative forces, no matter how much the actions are covered-up or abstracted from daily life. The real limitation is that they themselves don’t make these broader connections. In interviews they seem more interested in mysticism and the illuminati.
Boddika & Joy O (& Pearson Sound) - SUNKLOFREE [SunkLo, July]
Nil (Reece) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz6x8FMIn5U
SunkLo is an ongoing series of 12” records released as a collaboration between UK producers Joy O (Patrick O’Grady) and Boddika (Al Green [not *that* Al Green]). This one’s hard to pin down for me, I welcome others’ thoughts on it. It’s very sophisticated stuff, first of all. These tracks are completely dancefloor oriented but the production is understated and immaculate, and begs close listening. Wonderfully wrought. The first two releases (SUNKLOWUN and SUNKLOTU) seemed like a happy enough marriage of techno’s traditional machine grooves/vibes and UK style production flair.
But on SUNKLOFREE, they really come into their own. It’s still solidly techno/house music, but it’s hard to think of what to compare it to. Listening to the individual sounds and elements of the tracks, it’s as hard to describe the parts as it is the whole. The sounds are “believable” but totally weird.
On “Moist”, the breakdown throws the beat completely out the window to show off a particularly neat fluttering knob-twist instrument. Pearson Sound guests for a rare 3-producer combo-attack on “Faint”, which after the drop gets sucked into a roaring jet engine / nether realm and doesn’t come back. ”Nil” does the vague-as-a-mission-statement vocals thing. But actually the songwriting is sensible, and its not as difficult as it might seem on paper. These guys know the rules and break them with style and diplomacy.
Terrence Dixon - From the Far Future Pt. 2 [Music Man, August] & Actress - R.I.P [Honest Jon’s, April]
Vision Blurry - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnT5nmrD6VU
Holy Water - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMyytJgEisA
Reviewing these together as they’re two far-out and DEEP releases that I’m still getting the hang of.
Actress (Daniel Cunningham), from London, brings us depictions of heaven and hell and other scenes from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. If Dixon’s album is based on anything specific he hasn’t shared it, but track titles like “Auto Factory” and “Dark City of Hope” suggest an ode to his hometown of Detroit. Cunningham has cited Dixon as a major influence (From the Far Future Pt. 1 came out in 2000).
Of all the music on this list, these two releases are probably the hardest for me to describe. This is deep music that ignores convention. Dixon’s tracks often reference jazz (the Switch) or disco (Horizon) or even the sounds and feels of industrial production (the Auto Factory), but it mostly seems quite alien. I can’t explain how the horns on The Switch seem to duck in and out of different dimensions, for example, or maybe get smothered by different things. He also has no use for time or key signatures, phrasing, dynamics, suspense. Layers start and stop arbitrarily. I suspect he has no formal musical knowledge at all. In any case I’m not sure what he’s on about.
R.I.P’s style and sound isn’t much easier to quantify, but it seems more sophisticated and it’s certainly more inviting. It references rave, but mostly I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s somehow both crystal clear and dreamlike. I never considered what the sound of dripping crystals might be, but Holy Water nails it. Shadow of Tartarus is a lot of fun, and sure sounds like a shimmering, throbbing torrent from heaven and/or hell. Caves of Paradise is slightly Burial-esque with it’s pitched down moaning vocal, but otherwise I’m struggling to make comparisons. I’ll have to read Paradise Lost.
Anyone else have thoughts on these releases? I came upon these both late in the year and have spent relatively little time with them.
Hessle Audio (label) - Released four 12” singles this year (and one LP which i didn’t listen to yet and isn’t included in this review)
The A-sides in chronological order:
Objekt - Cactus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XU6DnRMrZo [January]
Elgato - Zone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daWgpI1bZb4 [April]
Bandshell - Dust March http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5l-50OIyY0o [June]
Pearson Sound - Clutch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52TfqP6-o38 [September]
Hessle Audio was the label that got me really into dance music and its infinite possibilities in the first place, in 2010 when I heard James Blake’s first EP The Bells Sketch and then was lucky enough to get to see him and the Hessle crew all DJ on a boat in Bristol, UK.
The label is run by DJ Ben UFO (pictured above at home) and DJs/producers Pearson Sound and Pangaea, out of UK. They also do the Hessle Audio radio show on Rinse FM, and they’ve developed a large online following and have toured the world extensively in 2012. I want to say they’ve been instrumental to the cross-pollination of contemporary styles over the past few years. Ben UFO especially is known for his wide-ranging taste, including a love for outre-sounds, funk music, as well as soulful classic house, hard & weird techno, and of course dubstep. I recommend checking out their show/podcasts, on http://rinse.fm
The Hessle label got going during Dubstep’s golden era in 2007, and has grown from those roots into sort of a dream-catcher of a label today. They’ve said in interviews that they get loads of tracks sent their way, and they only release stuff that they couldn’t imagine ever coming out on other existing labels. What they do release then is inviting, consistently brilliant body music that tends to break the mold, but nonetheless is also very structured and utilitarian, even to the point of being referred to as DJ tools by some.
In 2012 they released 4 12” singles by 4 artists, and I’ve linked the A-sides above. Objekt’s Cactus - which was already a breakout hit in 2011 when it was only a wee dubplate - does slamming, wiggling variations on a theme of triplet wobbles that isn’t quite techno, dubstep, or anything else. The layout of Elgato’s Zone is stunningly simple, yet again it sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. Bandshell was totally unknown outside of certain internet message boards when Hessle released his 4-track debut, featuring A1 Dust March, and guess what? Yep, it makes your hips move, your sternum buzz, and your brain go “weird!”. Label co-boss Pearson Sound’s Clutch has an exceptionally tricky rhythm that you’ll have to subdivide mentally (remember marching band basics!) if you want to sort it out, but once you do it’s the body-movingest thing.
In 2012 Hessle’s singles seem completely separated from the world, with essentially no references to human emotion or experience, engaging in music more like a sport. Hessle Zumba somehow seems logical. But we know because of the radio show that they’ve got their finger on the pulse of a broad music scene. I’m not ready to draw any conclusions on this one, still haven’t sorted it out. Your thoughts?
Cooly G - Playin’ Me LP [Hyperdub, July]
He Said I Said - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdowyVB3Y00
What Airtime? - http://www.beatport.com/track/what-airtime-original-mix/3574217
Cooly G (Merissa Campbell) has been making competent, quirky, sometimes-lovestruck dubby-house using snippets of her own voice since around 2008 (OK I’m trying to say I had never heard of her until this year, and I just scanned her back catalogue on Youtube). Playin’ Me is her full-length debut, and it continues in the same vibe, but ups the ante with more lyrics than ever before.
Not all of these are winners, but the good ones are great. He Said I Said starts things off wonderfully. Its chorus of “Sittin here across the room from you/thinkin bout what we’re gonna do” is palpably horny and relatable, a tale of unexpected attraction. I like the way she’s recorded several layers of her vocals that drift in and out, harmonizing with the main melody or completing the phrase in different ways. It packs a lot of sultriness into a short space. Come Into My Room hits a similar vibe but then just drifts suggestively in the air, the beat never dropping. Hubba.
Elsewhere Cooly is more interested in busting a move than getting it on, and non-sexual rug-cutters like “What Airtime?” and “Is It Gone?” show off a totally different side. “Trouble” is a Coldplay cover, from their twee-est, first album Parachutes (the video literally opens with cartoon birds chirping) but she flips it hard, great bassline.
There are some trite moments (Sunshine, Landcapes) that try to ride a vibe with no real content and just fall flat. And the production is a bit muddy at times. Overall it’s not as brilliantly forged as most of the rest of this list. But Cooly is charming and balanced, ringing truer to life than her more excessive or far-out contemporaries.
Burial - Kindred & Truant EPs [Hyperdub, February and December]
Ashtray Wasp - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=555XMqqDYtU
Much digital ink has been spilt coming up with ways to describe the magical aesthetic of Burial’s music. It “mourns the death of rave”, and “paints Zone 2 London”, notes Adam Harper (who I mentioned in the intro), here suggesting a different attitude on music’s responsibilities to the real world. I think these are apt observations. Burial tends to draw incidental sounds from the in-between moments of urban public life - jingling change, shuffling fabric, cigarette lighter, wet street noise, lots of metal on metal, doors, bits of conversation - and then puts the music coming from everywhere around. With deft use of effects he makes it really sound like it’s emanating from inside of buildings, from sewer vents, from windows of passing cars maybe. Everything’s distant, ethereal, dreamlike. The vocal melodies are chopped and processed so as to be unintelligible but retain their humanity and emotion, yearning mostly.
If listeners and critics have found this compelling, I think it’s bound up with the current historical period. Briefly (oh so briefly): under the current system, young people today can look forward to plummeting standards of living and curtailment of freedoms necessary to maintain such social inequality; certainly they can expect a lower standard of living than their parents; yet the grand, architecture constructed at the height of progress still stands all around them, especially in places like London, Detroit, and other historical beacons of modern development now being caught in the throes of a global economic crisis; in the late 80s and early 90s there was what is referred to as “rave culture” in the UK, where thousands would gather for illegal parties and dance all night - a culture I would argue that is only tenable under conditions of general prosperity and absence of class struggle. Legislation which specifically referred to “repetitive beats” was passed to put a stop to this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criminal_Justice_and_Public_Order_Act_1994). Burial seems to reference all of this in his music, placing the signifiers of a more prosperous and hopeful past all around yet just out of reach, resonating from beneath the muck of the dour present. It seems to ring true to many. It captures broadly felt notions of “whither humanity?” that bear down persistently, if subconsciously, as part of the background, and he’s thereby touched a critical nerve. (I’ve personally only just begun to examine the history glossed-over here, so if someone wants to school me on it or just fill in some blanks, jump in!)
It doesn’t hurt that the music and production are totally gorgeous. Even the “hard” or “dark” moments have a lush warmth.
On his two EPs of 2012, Burial offers his longest pieces yet, 4 out of 5 of them are over 11 minutes long each, and the pieces contain multiple sections that may have different tempos, rhythms, melodic themes, and production treatments. He sets a hell of a scene, but then the plot is mostly up to you. I’m not actually convinced that the increased lengths add much to the experience, as it’s not like there’s a coherent story to follow. Or have I missed it?
Oh yeah also the melodies, phrasing, composition - Burial’s work is rich in traditional musical content. He’s certainly not “tearing away piece by piece” and “leaving behind” all those lamented “strictures of tradition”. How would he then be able to conjure the past so convincingly?
The ultimate limitations here are vagueness and pessimism - or more likely, the lack of perspective that leads to such vagueness and pessimism. But that’s also part of what makes it relatable to so many. “Things are getting worse! Remember before? Nobody seems to know what to do about it… Maybe we’re doomed?”
If Burial could team up with an MC as mundanely profound as, say, Mike Skinner circa ten years ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42j-ZhAwyZA), wouldn’t that be something? In any case I think that as the world economic crisis continues to intensify social contradictions in 2013, serious artists will be forced/able to make more definite statements about it.
Trimbal - Confidence Boost (Harmonimix) [R&S, September]
Don’t be thrown by the name, this is the latest release from James Blake, who’s been dropping jaws for the past 3 years with an expanding catalogue that combines a classical music training with the most advanced production techniques and an extraordinary creative drive. The word “genius” comes up a lot when talking about him, and I have to agree. He seems naturally inclined to express himself through music and has obviously acquired considerable theoretical knowledge and technical skill at school (Goldsmith’s http://www.gold.ac.uk/music/).
If I have one thing critical to say of Blake’s work in general, its that it is very inward looking and - you guessed it - vague. In fact his 2011 self-titled EP is just the epitome of vague introspection. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly moving stuff, but not because you knew what precisely he was on about.
This one’s different, and why? Because he’s grabbed a concrete and relatable bit of source material courtesy of grime MC Trim, aka Trimbal (hence the artist name. And “Harmonimix” is JB’s name for his remix series).
Blake takes Trim’s verse about persevering through widely-relatable working-class youth hardships, and constructs a sort of pop-sized 3-act drama around it, using his musical and technical wizardry to wrap each iteration of the repeated verse in a different sonic “attitude”. Trim is at first defensive and tough, then forlorn and yearning (especially dig the organ harmonies buried deep in the mix on this second section), and finally triumphal and celebratory, all without changing a thing about the lyrics or vocal delivery, as he’s only participating via looped sample.
Blake has applied his classical training and experimentally developed toolkit to take a many-sided look at a problem of everyday life. He’s made the best individual track of 2012, and it really shows the efficacy of assimilating what’s still valuable about traditional musical ideas (a lot!) while also using new advances in technology creatively but purposefully, toward a head-on engagement with real world experiences.
This track was actually written a couple of years ago and has been floating around the Internet in low quality with DJ chatter over it, but was shined-up and officially released in 2012. Its still way ahead of the curve. Blake was on a world tour with his unique live band for most of 2012. We’ll see what effect this has had on his perspective, and whether he’ll continue to reach outward in 2013.
Robert Hood - Motor: Nighttime World 3 [Music Man, September]
Whole album on youtube! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvKUWb5H5BI&list=PL4-7eLazbzYO_U_CoWMEWpTx_NHlVvypt&index=1
My favorite album of 2012 is “minimal” techno OG Robert Hood’s epic instrumental ode to his devastated hometown of Detroit, in which he offers a dozen renderings which capture some of the complex feelings of literally living in the shadow of now dormant and disused but immensely powerful productive forces upon which modern society was built. The potential versus the tragic reality.
Track titles like “Drive (The Age of Automation)”, “Better Life”, “The Exodus”, “Slow Motion Katrina” (!), “A Time to Rebuild” etc. give some clues as to what it’s all about with relation to the city’s history. Detroit has seen a 60% drop in population since the birth of Motown in 1959, for reference, when “the voice of young America” was inviting the nation to dance in the streets (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcP8ov7teRU) - and the nation responded, ready for this uplifting, hopeful perspective. Detroit is now the poorest, most dangerous, most unemployed, most “miserable” big city in America, and is an internationally recognized symbol of urban decay. About half of all Detroit children live in poverty. There are about 90,000 abandoned properties, largely 50-to-100-year-old single-family homes built to house workers at the also-now-abandoned historic auto factories, from which the advanced planning and control of the assembly line initiated an age of vastly increased productivity of labor that fueled the growth of the city and changed the whole world. On the same block as the former Motown “Empire on West Grand Boulevard” now resides an urban gardening company office and a KFC with bulletproof glass barriers on the inside.
The album art cleverly casts Detroit’s illuminated night skyline as a feature-detected color-coded waveform - as will be familiar to users of certain music performance software - the burly, rounded towers of the GM headquarters Renaissance Center suggesting a cluster of Hood’s huge, bouncing kickdrums.
Motor: Nighttime World 3 is sophisticated, gargantuan and immaculate, the work of a seasoned professional artist. The way he masterfully arranges a huge palette of sounds (there’s really nothing “minimal” about this music in my opinion) while maintaining a sharp focus, seems itself to be an argument for the potential of man to wrangle immense productive forces in a rational way. These tracks are never hazy, drifting, aimless or weird for the sake of weird. Even the pair of 10-minute 4-on-the-floor workouts never become simply jammy or repetitive; they are just packed with content and proceed with purpose. Hood’s mixing and arrangements are such that the beats occupy the low and high frequency bands, leaving the middle open for lead synths with slightly sour timbres and minor key tonalities. The effect is an uneasy, empty-stomach feeling that tints the entire album, but it’s done with a light touch and I didn’t find it hard to listen to.
"Black Technician" is a great long-form techno composition. It bases itself on a persistently huge kickdrum and and a beat made of the sounds of the auto factory. While this may be almost a cliche for Detroit techno music, the sheer variety and quality of sounds used is quite compelling here. Drills whirr, robots chirp, metal components fit together - car doors slam and engines ignite somewhere distant, down the line. At first it’s a bit of a twitchy, jerky uncomfortable vibe, until a string pad enters and gradually forms a chord progression and the factory sounds lock together into a manageable and danceable beat. Eventually a wandering minor key melody of chimes completes the arrangement. To me, having worked in tedious, repetitive jobs, it convincingly evokes a day at work: begrudgingly turning your body over to mindless repetition, gradually getting into a groove where you can shut out the immediate present, daydreaming along to the rhythm of work, getting jolted out of it by something or other and then trying to get it back…
There’s much too much going on in each track to do discuss it all here. Definitely merits repeated listening, although at 80 minutes it’s rather demanding to listen to all at once. I don’t think that’s necessary or even intended. I’ll say that the one I initially kept coming back to is Slow Motion Katrina, whose title characterizes Detroit’s downfall as a long-term natural disaster. A whining synth glissandos scale-lessly up and down a single octave throughout the track, and to me evokes a an exasperated person crying in disbelief or confusion. During this, Hood shows his chops with extended minor-key jazz improvisations on clavichord and piano tones. Icy marimbas begin to clatter in discord in the distance, and a slinky bass drum groove solidifies the dance. It’s headspinningly, hipshakingly grievous.
As we enter 2013, “heading over the fiscal cliff” and heading into further military conflict, I think it’s fair to say that a global Slow Motion Katrina is continuing to ramp up, with a rapacious and parasitic ruling class inflicting social counterrevolution at an increasing pace all over the globe. In Detroit, streetlights are being removed, firestations and libraries closed, utilities cut off, public education dismantled, wages slashed. But that’s becoming the story all over - that is, in those places not already being ravaged by open military war. I wonder: as the economic crisis continues to develop in 2013, will Detroit’s music again become widely relatable?