Something has been troubling me for a little while. I’ve often commented on the speed at which electronic music reinvents itself, splintering off into different forms whenever some weird and subconscious collective consensus begins to assert that it has grown bored or jaded with the status quo. I’ll be honest: this strident aural Darwinism has always been one of the things I’ve loved most about electronica, and I’ve long been fascinated that a form of music that – in its major state at least – is primarily seen as party music should be so driven to constantly change itself.
What’s been nagging at me is the possibility that things are cooling down, that the changes which once seemed to come on an almost weekly basis are happening further apart. Even more importantly, those alteration to the base DNA seem and feel smaller, less evolutionary. Of course, no movement can maintain forward momentum forever. Ideas gradually coalesce and fresh avenues of approach eventually show themselves to be cul-de-sacs.
That appears to be the case now. The major seismic aftershocks which spread out after the birthing of house and techno appear to have settled, to have grown less fierce. Where we once went from the original Chicago form to a myriad of mutated types which included acid, jungle, hardcore and a host of others, in a very short period of time, we seem to now be more interested in the slowing evolution of existent genres. A few weeks back Bandcamp ran an interesting round-up of lo-fi house. What stood out, regardless of how you feel about that particular strain, was that, essentially, it was detailing a scene which has been around for a few years now, and may even have already reached its peak, a scene which exists as a splinter of something larger. Once again, evolution rather than revolution.
Electronica has now, finally, reached a point where it can’t easily be dismissed as a niche musical form any more. This maturity manifests itself in various ways, many of them not entirely about the music itself. Fan bases grow and harden around specific scenes, and there is perhaps so much music now, spanning so many different genres, that people tend to follow specific threads instead of the whole ball of wool. It may also be true that it is easier now for the industry to settle on a few more commercially favourable flavours than take risks with something which shifts the paradigm too far from ‘what people want’.
Has the time when you felt as if you could wake up to an entirely new style of sound on what seemed to be a daily basis now past? Perhaps. I don’t think that major new forms such as drum & bass or dub step are going to be coming around as often any more. Perhaps, ultimately, this change may prove rewarding in a different way. We bitch and moan about the underground a lot these days, and the truth is that the underground is a radically different place from even a decade ago. But maybe there is a growing space for the underground to finally re-establish itself. Maybe it won’t exist as the hot bed of true musical invention it once was, but instead act as a mirror to the rest of electronica, become a Platonic ideal representing the very best and artistically important of electronic music always pushing to see how far it can take the vast mass of sound. Some will say that is what the underground has been all along, but I don’t think it was. Too often the underground was a hiding place for stuff which wasn’t good enough to be picked up elsewhere, almost as if there was kudos in failing to energise itself. When the scene was small, and niche, everything (even the very largest acts) could reasonably be described as underground. Not any more, though.
In some ways Vintage Future’s Antimatter Premium Unleaded represents a blast of invention from a time which has always had a similar feel to right now. When it was released back at the end of the nineties, it was a time when the rules were really beginning to become codified, when many records were beginning to share more than a few hallmarks in sound. Electro was slowly becoming dominated by the Detroit techno-bass sound and by the frostier European electro-noir and the underground filling up with music that, while full to the brim with the right sounds and moves, felt like brittle copies of the true originals.
Antimatter Premium Unleaded, though, seemed something different. From the Detroit styles it seemed to take just enough to inform what still feels like a thrillingly stark, almost empty shape, with a mean swagger which accented the fact it owed a debt to an older form of electro, something even closer to the genre’s roots. It eschewed much of techno-bass’s usual tones, and completely refused to have any truck with what was going on in Germany or Holland or the UK. At the heart of the tune is that huge bumping bass line which sounded like a pulse from deep space. It marshals the rest of the track with it pummelling, white-hot focus, and it drags not only the music, but the whole genre into the light and says ‘this is what we can do.’
I don’t think electronica is in a worse state now than it used to be. In fact, I think the opposite is true. But while there is more music than ever before, more people creating than ever before, we’ve lost something of the corrective blows to the system we used to get, the sound which forced us out of our happy zone and made us realise there is always more than we were aware of. We’ve reached electronica’s comfortable middle-age, and more than ever before we need something like Antimatter Premium Unleaded. We need something we can hold up and say ‘this is how we do it right’.