There is a line at the beginning of Johnny Mnemonic, William Gibson’s prelude to Neuromancer and rest of the Sprawl collection (the novels and stories set in the Boston Atlanta Metropolitan Axis), which sums it up pretty well. ” I put my shotgun in a bag and padded it out with 4 pairs of tennis socks. Not my style at all, but that’s what I was going for,” Johnny tells us as he describes getting ready for a job. “If they think you’re technical, go crude. And I am a very technical boy.”
I find this quote popping up a lot in my mind whenever I listen to electronic music, particularly over the last 18 months where we’ve seen tastes shift from the raw, ‘analogue’ sound of outsider house and bare bones electronica to something altogether more polished. Of course these genre shifts in electronic music are hardly rare. It maybe doesn’t happen as quickly or as often as it once did, but the scene can still seem a place ruled by Darwinian laws.
Electro has often seemed a more stable pool, particularly compared to house music, but change still happens. In recent years some strands of electro have begun to embrace a thicker, more orchestral sound, one which has less need for complex, clattering rhythms and prefers to weave melodies instead. Compared to the skeletal electro-noir of the music which grew up in Europe at the arse end of the nineties the modern take is larger, wider, and far less ferocious than the American techno-bass from the same period.
But one thing has seldom changed in electro. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the nineties or right now, electro has always been a very technical boy. Even the modern love of fat chords and astral melody doesn’t disguise the fact that electro has a machine soul, very different from house music’s profoundly organic heart but no less alive. There is something precise about a lot of electro; complex mathematics in the breakbeats; sharp movement and focused purpose; Skynet with snares.
Lonny and Melvin are better known as I-F and Pamétrax, the Dutch electro maestros at the head of Murdercapital and a host of other projects. Although neither of them really went down the Anthony Rother route, bringing instead elements of Kraftwerk, italo and 80’s experimentalism to the mix, they still delighted in electro’s cybernetic glamour. Even I-F’s best known tune, Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass, for all the warmth of its disco vibe, still rides on a brilliant android groove.
Suck The Box, from their 1998 record If You Want A Job Done Do It Yourself, is what happens when the technical boys get crude. And not just crude; this is a dirty tune, a matted hair and sunken eyes sort of filthy. Except for the crumbs of a vocal snip, and the swelling, dangerously unbalanced bass, there seems to be nothing in the tune except percussion. As Johnny Mnemonic goes on to say, ” these days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” That’s exactly the case here, two masters using all their skills to smash it apart. The rhythm seems to swing in and out of time, there are moments where you think there might be three different drum machines pretending to be working together, and the whole thing just seems to be constantly on the edge of falling apart. But Lonny and Melvin use the chaos to tease out a corkscrewing groove that is far tighter than it has any right of being. The imperfections are the key, the wonky gravity the rest of the tune coalesces around. Take away that vibe and the whole tune implodes. You have to be technical to do crude that well. It’s as true of electronic music as it is of anyone selling black market data in the Sprawl that when people expect you to go in one direction, it can really, beautifully, pay off to go in the other.