Friday Night Tune: 5th Birthday Special.

Five years, particularly in our strangely whacked-out world, feels a lot longer than it sounds. When I wrote the first of these way back at the start of February 2014, I had no real idea what I was going to do, except to blurt out a few disjointed thoughts about some electronic music I liked. I wasn’t even sure whether there was any worth in a blog beyond that of a slightly massaged ego. Did people really read blogs? Did I care if they didn’t? I’d always told myself I was doing it to get back into writing again. What else mattered? Well, The fact I read mattered.

I read. I find blogs and devour the content, one post after another. In the year before I started this I went through places like MNML SSGS, Little White Earbuds, Infinite State Machine, and others with the sort of ferocity that only gets going when it’s got the teeth of a new obsession to chew things apart with. I’ve always been a sucker for music writing, and the teenage me, trapped in a bedroom behinds piles of Melody Maker, and NME, and Sounds, would have probably blown something important in his brain had there been access to blogs. Even now, when a lot of my reading time is taken up with panicking that I’ve just written another review of a record I might have covered a month before, I like to lose it in blogs whenever I can.

I like the feel of blogs, the way they provide something off on a spiky tangent from the smoother, and better adjusted, Resident Advisors and Mixmags of this world. Too young to have any real memories of punk the first time around, blogs always felt to me like an extension of that genre’s fanzine ethos – cooked up by nobodies and thrown out into the world to see what would happen. And the fact that they do seem to exist in a strange half-light between the underground and the mainstream further heightens the appeal.

But covering something as unwieldy as electronic music can be annoying. It’s impossible to keep up with everything that happens; the way genres split away, forming new and every more niche shapes, has been both a fascinating process to watch, but also a slightly fraught one. It’s one of the reasons I need to excuse myself when I hear people talking about ‘the community’ as if it’s some overarching, exquisitely formed, hive-ethos. If there ever once was such a thing, it is surely long gone, at least in any honest sense. And the idea of a community stretching from Moscow to Detroit, or from Capetown to Chicago frequently feels designed to flatten differences which should be celebrated. Again, the cynic in me tends to think of this as a sort of pan-global form of gentrification, a techno-Macdonald’s in every venue. It sometimes seems a device for bestowing the power to dictate direction, to decide tastes, and enforce authenticity, none of which really promise more than frothy argument in a world of infinite ideas and intentions. The billion or so forms of house, techno, electro, jungle, dubstep, and Lord knows what else, don’t really need to care about where they came from, they only need to know where they’re going, and watching how they react to each other, the tensions growing, the common interests blossoming, is all part of the fun.

This endless, shifting, mass of sounds and ideas is the real reason we all get excited, though, even if there is simply too much for one person to go through in a single lifetime. Occasionally I worry that the sheer availability of the music I like – both new and old – makes it far too easy to stay put, to gorge myself on familiarity when I could be exploring. It’s a danger, to be sure, and is another reason I doubt the idea of a monolithic dance music culture. The crossover is increasingly rare, and once the movement comes to a halt, even for a moment, it is startlingly easy to lose track of what’s going on. In a world which caters to all tastes we quickly alight on the ones which appeal the most, and as the gap between genres and styles widens, we end up on separate islands and evolving down separate paths like those cool flightless parrots in New Zealand. Wait, did I write a parrot metaphor? Erm….

But none of this should be cause for existential teeth gnashing. Electronica is a wonderful organism, flickering with countless colours, and vibrating with a trillion basslines. It doesn’t matter if you’re locking yourself into a bunker with an armload of doom-heavy euro-techno, or fluttering between the brightest lights with only the vaguest understanding of the way they are all strung together, because it’s all just people finding what they like and, perhaps even more importantly, what they don’t. Forget community, and think about what people are actually doing. The scene in Glasgow better be different from the ones on Detroit, or Berlin, or Sheffield, or Bristol, because different movers, different histories, different politics, and different tastes have all played a part in creating them. Ignore the official histories. Chicago may have birthed the sound, but the acid that comes from Manchester, or Liverpool, or London is no less authentic, even if that authenticity has been sparked from different sources. Embrace the differences, Enjoy the clashes. Pay due where it’s due, but never listen to spokespeople, or ‘voices of the people’: they’re always playing the angles. And especially, definitely, particularly, ignore any ageing blog writers who try to convince you of anything. They’re just in it for the fame, and the occasional promo. If I’m still here in five years, somebody come round and unplug the computer. Cheers for reading.

PS, I was going to choose a record from the last five years that really meant something to me. But, well, I sort of couldn’t be arsed, so here’s a bunch that I quite like instead.

Friday Night Tune: Vatican Shadows – Church Of All Images (Regis Version)

It’s a strange truth that dark times don’t tend to produce dark music. As a species we tend to reach upward when events try to pull us down, as if something locked deep within our genetics is always attempting to turn our face towards the sun instead of the shadow. Jazz grew strong despite the horrors of the early 20th century; a music alive with the euphoria of rhythm and movement and sound. The chaos and corruption of Vietnam led to the music of the counter-culture – a reactionary music, certainly, but one which dreamt of a better world.

Even punk, growing out of the exhaustion of a bruised and broken era, was ultimately positive; The nihilism worn like Sta Press gear bought from a shop on the Kings Road. It was life affirming music, played with pigeon chests pushed out, and three chords ringing in delight. And, of course, house music and techno and acid: birthed in the sudden collapses of the 80s, a glimmer of light below the ghoulish spectres of Reagan and Thatcher and mass unemployment – a fight back which began inside the mind, eschewing lyrical calls-to-arms in favour of wild frequency and beats rolling out wherever the outside world ceased to matter.

Dominic Fernow’s Vatican Shadows project, however, has always taken a different approach, one that seems to soundtrack the whirr and crackle of state and media apparatus. There is little emotion; It’s a dispassionate report from the edge of modern human experience. And somehow that makes describing it as dark music somewhat trite. It’s far more chilling than that.

See, the thing is, our world is dissolving. We can beat around the bush as much as we want on this one, but the fact is the jig is up. We have been screwed by our own hubris.

In some ways, there is a similar narrative here to what Pressure of Speech were doing more than 20 years back – an examination of a world that was only then beginning to come into true existence. Pressure Of Speech was about grainy, tiny, images culled from the CCTV’s which glared voyeuristically into the dead spots of British towns and cities – the empty lanes and desolate car parks. Observation, we were told, for our own good, for our own safety even though we knew, we knew, there wasn’t a chance in hell these cameras were for any other reason than making you behave.

With Church Of All Images even that new world is changed, remade from archive footage, from sneering, baiting, ledes. And from smoke and bone and blood. September the 11th saw to that, Even thought the first cracks appeared long before that day. Those acts, finally, irrevocably, took us down a different road.

This isn’t blurry video of a figure breaking into parked cars at the edge of a council estate any more. Nor even a CNN camera whiting out at the detonation of a nocturnal cruise missile strike. Instead the world has become cell phone footage of stumbling, screaming figures emerging from a shroud of masonry dust as buildings and worlds collapse, and the soulless visual feedback of a Predator drone as it harvests life. It is dangerous men in gucci body armour hunting on the downward crest of the 24 hour news cycle. This is the background hum of rallies full of the angry and the incurious bellowing ‘lock her up’ as a poisonous toad-king chuckles out his bigotry, of ancient belief wrapped up in the flags of Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. And, at its heart, as it always has been, it’s the breathless death-rattle of old, rich, powerful men sending everyone else to die for causes they can’t even bring themselves to believe in.

This is the heart of Church Of All Images. More than the madness, more than the dissonance, more than the seething, manufactured hate. It is the cynicism, and the distraction from reality, rather than reality itself, which leads us into this ultimately empty world. It is the narcissism of fundamentalism whether its old men and stone age religion, or young men stained by the corporations who’re destroying the world to rebuild it in their own image. I don’t think anyone comes closer to sound tracking this nihilism than Vatican Shadow, and I think that Regis’ version of Church Of All Images, Its relentless, breathless terror, its splintered beats, and its strange, terrible, beauty, which does it best of all.

Friday Night Tune: Robert Hood – Unix

The heavy mass of genres and styles which have influenced electronic music are well known, and we’ve been subjected to plenty of guff about it over the years. I used to be surprised by the amount of producers willing to spraff on about their affinity with hairy-arsed, self involved, proggy bollocks in interviews, or the sort of harsh krautrock which sounds like a psychology experiment gone wrong. You don’t see so much of it nowadays. I don’t imagine this is because there is any less desire to out oneself as a fan of the sort of music which makes you question your life choices, but more because – simply – the years have rolled on enough that the influences have changed in a way which allows this stuff can be consigned to the past.

There was, I think, another reason for it. By claiming a lineage to music which had undeservedly gained a reputation as somehow intellectually and musically superior, you are sticking your own flag in that endlessly trodden ground. In the earlier days, when you could get yourself into pointless arguments with all sorts of indy knobs and snobs once it was known your tastes in tunes ran to stuff that went doof and squelch, it was natural to adopt a defensive position, to pretend that your taste was important.

It was the same reasoning which led people down that boring little road where they squirted all that pish about 126 bpm being at the same speed as the human heartbeat, as if they were welding their love for acid house to a shamanic tradition which predated the fall of Atlantis. It’s interesting to note that although this sort of thinking had thankfully been battered around the head over here, as even the indy kids realised that electronic music wasn’t some weird virus that would turn you into one of those day-glo rave clich├ęs you used to see upsetting farmers and Tories on the 9 0’clock News, the growth of EDM across the pond has fostered a resurgence. I imagine the circumstances are the same. As electronica fans over there have begun to admit it, they’ve probably been having to explain it to the sort of people who still think Rage Against The Machine are the cutting edge of underground music.

Still, that’s by the by. I’m lucky enough that both the prog rock and the dodgy heart based symbolism were things I missed. It’s not that I didn’t have arguments with Neds Atomic Dustbin fans who were strangely angry I liked techno, but more that I never realised I was supposed to be embarrassed about liking it. I did, however, find moving on to house and techno a natural progression from the music I had already been listening to. While nowadays we tend to remember the role disco played in the evolution of so much electronic music, we remain a bit reticent about giving soul its due. It’s there, though; particularly in the development of Detroit techno, for obvious reasons. In Britain these links were perhaps even stronger – the Northern Soul movement of the late 60s and the 70s was in many ways a massive precursor for rave and acid house, and the two are tied together in a common heritage.

But it was punk that I found to be the closest. Perhaps not in sound, nor in the popular meaning. It’s a difficult task to recognise the symbolism of peace and love and unity in the hard cynicism of Nation Of Ulysses or Scratch Acid; it’s virtually impossible to draw a line from Barbara Tucker’s luscious vocals to Steve Albini’s harsh sneer (and I bet that’s the only time in history you’ll see both of those names in the same sentence.)

It’s there though, the common heart, and the energy. And when I listen to a lot of Robert Hood’s earlier music it jumps out at me. I’ve written about Hood’s minimalist take on techno plenty of times before, the way he takes a tune and pares it down until nothing is left but a lean and furious groove. Many people tried to imitate him, but very few got close. There was always the need to throw something else into the mix which alleviated the almost terrifying starkness of the sound. And when that happens, the music loses its edge.

Rather than house, or even the great mass of techno (Detroit or otherwise) I’ve always felt that Hood’s tunes have a kindred spirit with the hardcore of Fugazi. The DC band often showed a similar take on sound, even though they came at it from a very different direction. Their own militancy, their anti-authoritarian stance, and fierce independence echoed something of Hood’s first band, Underground Resistance, and their music contains that same approach, the same stripped down, lean grooves powered by a compressed rage and potent, erudite, take on the world around them. That their tunes were largely powered by some of the greatest bass and drum patterns in rock music has often been overlooked as people focussed on Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s sharp lyrics, but Brendan Canty’s drums, and Joe Lally’s bass provided direction, and control, and – most techno of all, perhaps – a strange, alien sense of melody and completeness.

I’ve often felt that Fugazi’s seminal Repeater – one of the greatest records of the 90s – is what Hood may well have come up with had he been into punk instead of techno. Sometimes we look for links in places which are too direct, too obvious to really make sense. Often its only when we get past the surface noise and concentrate on the energy, the vibe, and the meaning, that we begin to realise that inspiration, influence, rarely comes from where we expect it too, and that sometimes we have far more in common with those who are supposed to be strangers than with those we are supposed to recognize as our own.

Friday Night Tune: Goldie – Inner City Life

Generally with electronic music, it’s easy to follow the threads of DNA right back to the slurry of the original gene pool. Even today, all these long, cold, years on, we can trace them from their beginnings, slender filaments of light illuminating the creation of the genres. We can see the paths from soul and disco, from jazz and rhythm and blues, from primitive experiments on archaic synthesizers and drum machines which sounded like a child beating a tin can against the future. And we can see the eras webbed together, common highways always running forwards from their yesterdays and into the big bang of house and techno and everything else, and onwards. What ever other data might be hidden away in the invisible flow, there will always be the knowledge of the ways in which A became B.

There are gradual changes; tiny, cellular alterations which provide the foundations for the next step. It took time for Detroit techno, for example, to morph from its earliest forms, to exchange its experiments with house for a wider approach, and to slowly tighten the sounds, adding weight and philosophies, until the musical style the mid 90s bore few surface similarities with what Juan Atkins and others had being doing more than a decade earlier. House, too, took time to evolve. From disco to acid, to the interplay with harder European forms which sharpened the music. A slow change, played out over a decade and a half, led outward to a larger world. What is worth pointing out though is that the beginnings of house, like techno, are recognizable to the outsider, to the stranger whose interest in the music may be no deeper than the aural wallpaper of a club on a Saturday night. They know the rules to this stuff, they understand – largely – where it came from, even if they don’t realise it or care. The DNA forms deep, scarlet, channels through the chromium surface, as visible as the sun on a bright day.

With Drum & Bass, however, it’s not always so easy follow the paths. It’s not because D&B appeared suddenly from a vacuum, an emergent organism born out nothing more than an act of sheer will. The roots are there, the DNA is there. D&B grew just as organically as the rest, shoots of growth rising out from hardcore’s fertile garden of Eden, and bringing with it rave, and breakbeat, dub and sound system culture. Like all the others, it is a child of many parents.

Yet what astonishes even now is the speed it grew; virtually fully realised in the womb it arrived as something almost complete. When placed in its original time, amongst the other electronic brats, it seemed almost alien. It felt like a profound break with the past. The other genres, as futuristic as they are, are continuations, variations on a theme. D&B, though, was a year zero, its history curtailed, its growth accelerated. And the xenomorphic nature of the sound, the flexing, razor-edged, tendrils of its breaks, the curling, twisting bass, the interface of raw fury with delicate beauty, separated it from the others who were still finding their way. It was that rarest of things: something genuinely new.

There will be many people who don’t like Inner City Life, that it doesn’t embody the right stance, the right ethos, to represent a genre. Maybe they’re right. After more than twenty years I’m still a tourist when it comes to Jungle, skirting the land and looking for a way in. I’m a lightweight who remains happy to hear what there is to hear. What I know about it all you could write on a stamp. Even so, I think of this tune as something defining, something that encapsulates all of what I’ve just written. It’s easy to be cynical now, so long after the start, but when you get back to it, what remains shocking about Inner City Life is how beyond almost everything else it seemed to be. I don’t just mean house and techno, yet to break away from the worlds they lived in, but against the backdrop of the larger musical world, the charts, the rock, the pop. The language we developed, all the concepts of underground or overground, were essentially meaningless because this was music which existed in a time and place entirely of its choosing, with little regard for what came before or what would come after.

The shockwaves contract, change becomes ever more gradual, and it might be that Drum and Bass will eventually be remembered as the last true explosion of invention within electronica. Techno was always supposed to be the embodiment of a science-fiction mindset as music, yet here was a sound that really was all that, and more. it didn’t wear it on its sleeve; it simply was. An echo from a far future. And whatever else might happen, within its rolling thunder it made it possible to remember that regardless of how important the past, we always need tomorrow too.

Friday Night Tune: Space DJz – Lights

Like most people my tastes have changed over the years, often rolling from one extreme to another as experiences have washed over me. There are stacks of records here that I once would have thought of as some of the best music ever made, timeless examples of everything I thought was good in electronic music and other genres but now just sound tired and frayed, dated by the passing years, emptied and discarded like bottles of wine enjoyed long ago.

There were brief infatuations: various forms of rock and jazz I was momentarily obsessed by before quickly becoming bored; ambient records which once felt like indescribably beautiful sonic paintings which now sound like yawns timestretched across infinity; IDM tunes which soon dulled through their cleverness and lack of anything approaching passion or soul. There’s a lot of stuff in that pile. I really should get rid of some of it. I know I won’t. It’s as much a part of my musical upbringing as everything else.

There are, however, some things which I tired of but have found myself recently swinging back to. There was a long period where the idea of listening to crumbly acid techno wouldn’t have gone down well. It had been one of the staples when I was getting into all this for the first time. For what seemed an age it was everywhere; every club felt as if it was pulsing with this stuff and I slowly came to hate it. Not because of its popularity, but because, like weeds, it choked out every other sound. A little later the same thing happened with ghetto house. What was, at first, a thrillingly alien and explosive change of direction soon became the new and boring normal, and it reinforced a lesson learned – familiarity breeds contempt, and over-familiarity murders scenes. In both cases I’ve slowly returned to them, feeling sheepish but knowing that the new space around them has allowed them to shine once again.

At one point I found myself disliking fast, banging techno. Everything seemed to blur together into a beige mash where only the loudest, most strident, and frequently the most boring elements, made it through into your conciousness. I began to seek out slower music, a lot of deeper house and lush electronica. At first it was a pleasant and interesting diversion, but it couldn’t really hold my attention. Of course, the problem wasn’t really the music; having gorged myself on it for years I couldn’t stuff any more into my ears. Something had to give.

Yet faster, harder music is something I’ve also drifted back to. I think the surrounding tastes for acrid myths of deepness, coupled with a harsher world to the one I remember from even a few years back has found me seeking out something more visceral. Some people turn to sedative music when everything sharpens. I don’t. I’m not someone who dips into a Sunday reverie of gentle, good time-ish tunes.; too light a touch has always irritated my skin. Part of it is that I don’t think I’ve ever looked towards music for chills. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but I can’t really detach the music from the obsession long enough to reach that cloudy passivity. I tend to only relax when I’m utterly immersed in something, anything, be it music or reading or writing. It’s a kink in my particular make up, and I’m sure that it’s unhealthy, but I don’t care: it’s mine.

My rediscovery of Space DJz’ Lights awoke all kinds of competing emotions, as this was a tune I really did obsess over for a long time. I was already aware of Space DJz when the EP was released on Soma back in 1996, mainly because Jamie Bissmire was a name I’d followed for a while because of his work as part of Bandulu, one of the first non Detroit techno acts I really loved. The work he did with Ben Long was a different creation from Bandulu; closer to a prime time burst of speed and colour, but with enough shadows playing across the surface to provide the all important contrasts.

I used to spend entire afternoons playing Lights, using it as the basis of a mix, dragging it for hours in an out of dozens of other records. I found an old practice tape not long ago, with moments of Lights scattered across the whole 90 minutes, like a recurring motif in a long classical work. Sometimes it was a few seconds, just long enough to dip out of one tune and cue the next up, other times it was long minutes, flowing across the tape and marshalling everything else.

Lights is still a paragon of faster techno. It’s just about the perfect example. Hard techno often cuts in links with both soul and groove, but Lights is all about both. The speed of the tune – and at about 140 BPM it certainly sails along – tenses everything else; the pure born flutter and flurry of the Detroit-ish melodies, the touches of Spastik style percussion, and that strange little bass which is at once so neutral yet controls and dominates the light speed funk.

It’s a reminder that soulfulness in music doesn’t tend to come from conventional approaches, from jazzy touches and minor chords. Often, it’s the outliers which provide the real soul, and only reveal exactly how soulful when you let them get right into your face, and right under your skin. It’s also a reminder that while tastes change obsessions rarely do. The trick is to make sure they’re worth it.