Even though virtually all modern music is essentially an artificial construct which runs on fads and momentary, almost random, changes in taste and direction, electronica has a habit of taking it to an extreme. It’s always been like this; no scene, no movement within the larger framework seems destined to last more than a couple of years before a Darwinian need to evolve kicks in. In many instances this is a very good thing: a natural (well, sort of) method of ensuring that nothing gets too stale, that nothing outlives its welcome. For a form of music which is largely about movement, and has embraced both technology and concepts of forward thinking philosophy (well, sometimes…) to the extent that electronica has, this rapid evolutionary nature keeps it fresh, and keeps it vital.
That’s the idea, anyway. It hasn’t always managed to do that. Generational changes within electronica are, perhaps unsurprisingly, much the same as they are in other genres. The first port of call always seems to be to raid the past but rarely does that mean exploring themes or narratives. More often than not it is simply reduced to dressing up in older styles. After all, its much easier to wear the classic trainers than to understand why people might have wanted to invent them. Sometimes a classic sound is all you want. That’s fine (although you have to ask why not just listen to the classic records if that’s what you want) but there is something regressive about this which as odds with electronic music.
Luckily we’ve always had producers who get this, who are obviously fascinated by something other than the most obvious facets. Both house and techno have benefited enormously from these people. They swim in the deep currents of tomorrow when everyone else seems content to tread water in the kiddy pool. Without them we would have had no acid house, no Detroit techno. No breakbeat. No Jungle. Without the desire to deconstruct the music to see what goes where, and how it all fits together, we’d have been left listening to vague variations on an early crop of Chicago house until everyone got bored and faded back into metal, or pop, or jazz, or wherever the hell it is we all originally came from in the first place.
My major kink is, of course, electro. As a genre, electro weathers change better than most. Where house and techno often seem overly willing to augment their own natural evolution with whatever fluff is floating through the hive mind at the moment, electro takes its time. Yes, it changes, but it is more gradual. It measures twice and cuts once. I think it allows the music a longer gestation, a stretched out development, which helps the music develop a strength of meaning and belonging which is increasingly rare in some of the other electronic scenes. Of course, there are factors which influence this, not least the fact that electro as a scene exists as a far smaller concern than either of the two dominant electronic genres thus allowing the back and forth of ideas to work without a lot of extraneous noise. For all the exposure that the recent resurgence brought us, the column inches in the big danced music journals, the bandwagon jumpers proclaiming their endless – although hitherto unnoticed – love of electro, the surge in records and pod-casts and publicity, the scene has probably not grown that much. I say this with the weight of past evidence. This isn’t the first time the outside world has sat up and said ‘wow, there is electro. Would you look at that?’ and it won’t be the last. In all those prior occasions we’ve never really seen much in the way of a permanent shift. Why should this one be any different?
If I’m honest, though, I have concerns about long-term viability – which is essentially an ugly way of asking whether enough people care about electro. A long while ago now Jeff Mills said that techno was a music for an ageing audience. I don’t necessarily think he was entirely right – for one thing, large chunks of it seem to have ended up as the music of choice for those sort of vaguely angry young men who, not too long ago, would have been smugly telling you why their love of god-awful Scandinavian death metal meant their taste in music was more finely developed than yours – but it’s a point which has always been worthy of discussion.
What really worries me about electro right now is not that it is a music for an ageing audience, but that it is a music for ageing producers. Such a large amount of contemporary electro seems to be created by a relatively small handful of producers who have been doing this forever. This isn’t an attack on any of them. In many cases the people I’m thinking about have created – and continue to create – art which occupies a place of particularly high praise in my brain. I’d no sooner be without their music than I would be without new work by Juan Atkins or Luke Slater.
A smaller scene, one that is top-heavy with producers who practically invented many of the sounds we now think of as electro, has probably helped keep the scene at a certain level. It’s certainly helped create a feeling that electro is something ‘purer’ than many of the other genres. But I fear it fosters a sort of siege mentality, one where new ideas are slow to be accepted (both by the people making it and those of us listening to it). It elicits an air of elitism where music is accepted if it follows particular rules, particularly if it is being created by those who have’t really paid their dues yet. It’s so easy, when in a minority, to believe you’re the ones in the right; it’s you against them. It cements bonds, but it also ingrains dogmatism.
It doesn’t help that the influences are often very particular – especially when we think about newcomers. Not every electro record has to sound like an out take from Drexicya’s back catalogue, nor does it have to pretend to be Kraftwerk, or technobass. And yet, that is what we hear over and over. Donald and Stintson took, I think, the Drexciyan sound to its logical end point, and it’s interesting to note that neither of them seemed to feel compelled to continue down that road with their solo material. Likewise, Kraftwerk haven’t actually done anything interesting in over three decades. The constant harking back to a long gone time and sound makes no more sense in an electro framework than a rock band deciding they’re going to start playing skiffle.
There is a real danger here. What ultimately saw Detroit techno weaken as a major force wasn’t that the guys who lived and died for the music started to make worse art, it was that in the hands of other people it became a template of sounds and chord movements which were utterly divorced from the world and the urgency which created it. It became Detroit-techno-by-numbers. Anyone can go out, by some gear, and copy Drexciya’s scratchy rhythms but it doesn’t follow that you’re going to understand why the weird pulses of grooves work.
Electro can stand to be a broader church, both in terms of influences and personnel. My worry isn’t anything to do with popularity. To paraphrase Paul Theroux, at times electro feels like owning your own dragon. Something unique and private and awesome. But for its survival it needs to open up and branch out. It needs to take what it can from elsewhere because as wonderful as its relative isolation can feel, the shallow gene pool will eventually lead it either to extinction or into a tiny, closed away world where it is at best an irrelevance.
You know what, though? It doesn’t have to be like that and, if you look hard enough, you can see the fresh shoots of new growth breaking through the earth. In part two I’ll look at some of the stuff that makes me smile for tomorrow. When that’ll be I’m not sure. Hopefully not very long. Cheers.