While techno’s heritage as a music with little interest in conforming to the past can sometimes be viewed with cynicism, you’d have to be pretty a hard judge to see it as a straight road onwards from the rules and conventions which have formed and coalesced over the centuries. While there are always going to be elements to the genre, such as scales or keys, which are inescapable (despite some brave attempts), one of techno’s real pleasures has often derived from seeing how the conventions are circumvented.
Of course, part of that is down to the music’s unique relationship with technology. Sequencers, samplers, boxes which bark and squawk and chatter, have created a playing field where experimentalism can feed the creative impulse in new and strange ways. Occasionally though, with the price of admission getting ever lower, and both gear and plug-ins subject to an ever more rapid uptake, it can seem as if the technology has become the point; that the endless opportunities to fiddle with things, to push and pull tones at an almost atomic level, have replaced old-fashioned musicianship to a heavy degree. Such an approach, where in expert hands a cerebral energy becomes the ghost in the machine can certainly pay dividends. What it lacks in anything as obvious in humanity, it is able to gain from a sort of severing of the association between man and machine. For somebody like me who happens to love this weird sci-fi type of vibe, it should be a crowning achievement – the apex of techno’s own philosophy.
Except I’m not sure I’ve ever loved that sort of style as much as I should. Part of my problem is what happens when you scrub out that human element. Too many producers, obsessed with the ever smaller details, often create work which is missing the little touches we latch onto. It isn’t the case that the music becomes too angular and abstract to be much fun – that’s rarely a problem. More often than not the tunes tend to be straight as a die and fairly boring, missing even the oddball thrum of the unexpected which would bestow some sort of life upon them. Emotion, that most obviously human of traits, tends to be the first casualty. And without emotion the music simply chugs along with all the excitement and grace of a rudimentary mathematical puzzle. Even so, some tracks manage to find a way of doing it all.
Low Res’ mid nineties classic, Amuk, has long felt a tune which brings both the human and machine elements into surreal and startling harmony. While the tune was originally released in 1995 as part of Low Res’s Thorn EP of Sublime Records, it wasn’t until the following year that it really made an impact when it was re-released on Metroplex and embedded with a trinity of remixes courtesy of label owner Juan Atkins. It says something about the quality of the original tune that, as brilliant as the remixes are (particularly Juan’s Low Res Experiment) none of them can hold a candle to their progenitor.
Low Res has featured only sparsely since then, and most of the releases which bear that name over the intervening 21 years have been part of the future jazz genre – musically interesting enough in its own way (even if not my cup of tea) but more important in that they point to something which is locked into the Amuk’s DNA.
What Amuk brings with it, and part of what continues to make it so strangely alien to the bulk of techno released both then and now, is that rather than fall one way or the other across the divide, it finds the common points between the emotive nature of eminently humanistic music – which I’ve always felt is at the heart of jazz – and the colder, more abstracted nature of machine sounds. The beauty of the tune is the way in which they have been brought together, strengthening the track, and providing a means to propel its strange energy outward.
You can hear that approach even from the opening moments, where the reverse loop of the intro is electrified by the shrill, spectral calls which sound almost as if they’ve been culled from the incidental music in Ghostbusters. Those weirding squalls – far from being gimmicky – actually inform the rest of the track, pushing the music deep into the subconscious where they ratchet up the tension. Later, they are replicated moodwise as the machines really take over; woozy, terrifyingly broken synths hack a path through the murk, following the bleeped motif (brilliantly, just about the most sane and human part of the track) as the rhythm begins to draw on an increasingly tribal feel.
But what really seals the deal is the way that both elements – the crooked machine soul and the freewheeling human sense of direction – is how both parts are ceaseless in the way they guide the ragged groove. Take away one of them and the other would flounder. The tune would become either a mass of messy electrons or pointless noodling. Amuk isn’t anything as glib as man and machine in perfect harmony. Amuk is two totally alien lifeforms existing as one, both informing and learning. And if that isn’t what techno is supposed to be, I don’t know what it is.