When a Thought Becomes You: Journeys With Techno

I was already into my thirties when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It really wasn’t much of a surprise. Even so, I had still spent several of the previous years bouncing between anti-depressants and psychologists before somebody finally suggested I might be on the spectrum. To be honest, I think it was an attempt to get me out of their office where, thanks to the infinitely dubious wonders of Seroxat (the medication I was on), I was probably sweating, swearing, and being insane at terrifying speed.

I wish I could say that the diagnoses changed my life, but I can’t because it didn’t in any useful way. Having had it so late-on meant that I had already created a number of coping strategies, even though I still didn’t know what I was trying to cope with. By the time it finally arrived I could pretty much pass for sub-clinical, or – as one of my doctors described me with all the alleged riches of his profession’s bedside manner – as ‘almost normal’. There was a certain amount of relief to be taken from the fact that not everything was my fault, that there were certain patterns of behaviour which I had essentially little control over ( even if I could, though experience, mitigate many of the more extreme variances). But all of this was tempered with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to get ‘better’, that there was no pill or operation which was going to add to me the basic, fundamental, ability to be like everyone else.

In many ways I am lucky: my autism has never been too debilitating and, save for a handful of gold-medal winning public meltdowns, it has never been overly obvious. None of which is to say I haven’t struggled, sometimes quite profoundly, with the whole social interaction thing that is a hallmark of Asperger’s. I’ve spent a large part of my life feeling like an alien trapped inside a human’s body, never quite getting what comes naturally to everyone else. Not that the normality or naturalism of other people improves anything; While Aspies might well struggle with things like recognising irony, or the subtlety of language, it doesn’t exactly help that most of you neurotypicals are so ass-skinningly awful at both of them.

Back in the days when I was still going to clubs and DJing on a regular basis it could be a nightmare, possibly made worse by the fact I still had no idea what the issue was and tended to blame myself for every little bit of strange disconnection, every miscommunication. Christ knows how others saw me; intense and pretty weird, I expect, and prone to gabbling utter shite out of a need to do or say something. Luckily this was the nineties and virtually everyone else, in every single club, would be gabbling utter shite by two in the morning.

I struggled at parties too, not because I am shy, but because dealing with human beings I haven’t known for 20 years, who I know how to communicate with and who know how to communicate back, can be incredibly difficult to do. Theoretically I understand human interaction. In practical terms trying to pick up on every one of those little signals you lot take for granted is knackering.

The real problems came from crowds. I hate crowds. I know that I would make a lousy promoter because, almost without exception, I prefer an empty club to a full one. Crowds don’t scare me in and of themselves, but I struggle to cope with the flood of sensory data; the noise, the movement of the flock. Every attendant change to its attitude and stance feeds in on top of older data, building up until it reaches a point where it floods nerve endings and neural nets with white noise. I hate crowds because it is impossible to keep your eye on every thing and everyone without going insane, and sensory overload is painful. More than that, it is exhausting.

But the music…..Oh man, there was always the music. …..I’m still not sure whether my quick seduction by electronic beats was locked in from the start. Certainly there was something in the movement and sound which captivated me before I even understood it. There was a profound similarity, in my mind at least, with classical music; a sort of wider understanding of the world and the cosmos than one tended to find in, say, rock music with all of its pungent humanity. Not that I don’t listen to rock, of course. It has been, and remains, important to me. But its subconscious emphasis on things I don’t quite get has always forced a little distance between us.

Electronica opened up for me in a way rock music never did. Long before I had even heard of Asperger’s I was drawn to something in it that I couldn’t really find anywhere else. I think it was the machine in the ghost, rather than the ghost in the machine; there is a certain amount of unhumanity to electronic music, a sense that the tunes I love the most could be hymns by sentient AI, soul music by xenomorphs; tranmissions from a singularity beyond the edge of time and experience. The meaning placed on rhythms, on patterns (especially, for an apsie, the patterns), on pure sound, wired the response differently. It worked not only on the physical level, or the intellectual, but also drew meaning from somewhere that grew from pure imagination. The music seemed to arrive from the depths of a very different existence, and carried within itself the light of other ways of being. For someone who never quite seemed to connect with the world they were a godsend, and proof that music could be more than it was allowed to be. Proof, in fact, that I could be too.

Of course, electronica is no less human than rock, or jazz, or skiffle. It is made by people: some amazing, some twats; some creating for their career, others creating to get the taste of a long, hideous, working day out of their mouths, some because it is all they can do to not create. Electronica, like being somewhere on the spectrum, is humanity coming at things from a different twist. It rides a deeper, perhaps stranger, road than some of you are used to, but it seems to go to the same place. It’s my music in a way that it’ll never be yours, just as it’s your music in a way that it can never be mine. I like that, not least because it actually allows me to feel a bit closer to the great consensual hallucination which forms humanity, and you’ve no ideas how hard that sometimes is.


Four Years

No wonder I’m tired.

Here we are, four years on with just over 500 posts in the tank, and I still have little idea what I’m trying to achieve. Sometimes I wonder whether the nature of the subject makes writing about it redundant, or that the fierce evolutionary speed of the music turns any attempt at documenting it into a smear of words across time’s windscreen.

It’s lucky for me, then, that the music remains as exciting, infuriating, weird, and life affirming, as it always has. It’s heading towards thirty years since I first heard acid house – a late night blast of high strangeness on the radio (I can’t remember where, maybe the John Peel Show). That first dose was beyond my understanding back then; it hovered irritatingly in my mind for days, but never came close enough for me to begin to make sense of it. I didn’t realise that it was already working itself deep inside, rewriting the code and preparing me for when I really started to get onboard. A couple of years later when I first started taking my first tentative steps into a larger and brighter sonic world, I was primed.

Electronic music is the music of my generation. Not only my generation, obviously, but when we love something that consumes us it’s natural to feel possessive about it. I still – mostly – feel like that, and I find I can be more precious about it than I perhaps once was. I think this is a reaction to the ephemera which seems to have built up around electronica over the years. A calcification of nonsense and bollocks which has crusted over the actual point of it all and makes getting to the good stuff underneath just a little bit more difficult than it used to be. And when you dig on through you and finally get your hands on the stuff that matters to you it’s difficult to loosen your grip.

None of that shit matters. It never has. It’s always been there, even though the rose-tinted memories of the old team would have you think differently. Going to a club to listen to loud, banging, music is much the same now as 20 years ago (and the floors are just as sticky); there were more than a few whining, overpaid DJs back then too, and plenty of music that deserved to be lost to a bin fire. Old bastards like me can spin the prose about what a golden age it was, but it was a golden age because we were there and living through it, experiencing it all for the first time, believing it could never be bettered. But it’s the experience that’s the important bit, not whether it could be bettered, because it can and should.

The fact is that I am frequently blown away by music I hear now. And that fact is often chaperoned by the odd sense of incompleteness I feel when hearing old music that I once loved sound lost to the years. I’m sometimes surprised by some of the stuff which is returned to this insane future, amazed by strands of the electronic DNA which seemed an evolutionary dead-end only for them to bloom into new and crazy shapes. Occasionally I don’t get it, and feel confused why you would bother to dig up sounds – which weren’t even that great then – when there is so much good music now. But it is perhaps one of the fundamental truths of the present that the past is now as malleable as the future.

So, yeah, I still don’t know what I’m trying to achieve, but I expect the answer is up there in all the mad toss I just wrote. I’ve tailed off the blog a bit in recent months due to the outside world and the slight suspicion I keep repeating myself, but spring is coming, and energy levels increasing. Let’s hope there’s some good music too. Thanks for reading, across four bizarre years in the life of this alien machine music. I’ve stuck up four tunes from the last four years that wormed their way into my brain and never escaped. If there are four tunes in the next four years that I’ll love as much I’ll be happy.

The Maghreban – Pots and Pans (Zoot); 6D22 – Dragon’s Path (Midnight Shift)

The Maghreban – Pots and Pans (Zoot)

It’s been quite a while since I last reviewed anything by the Maghreban, but I’ve tried to keep an ear on whatever Ayman Rostom has been cooking up. The former hip hop producer’s track record with house has largely been a great education on what house music can sound like when it really does come from the left-field, instead of claiming to do so just because it uses tape saturation.

What has always made Rostom’s take on the genre so listenable is the way it barely seems connected to any academic concept of what house is supposed to be. Frequently revelling in strange and expansive moods, the music is often a tapestry of alien qualities which accent Rostom’s taste for oddball skank. What has always elevated it away from the hordes of cookie-cutter outsider house producers, though, is the way he brings with it a fuzzy humanism which tempers the esoteric vistas he creates.

Pots and Pans further enhances this reputation with three tracks which duck and drift through some warm sonic landscapes. In some ways the tunes on offer hold a similar vibe to Barry Adamson’s sonorous, post-modern, soundtracks to non-existent movies. This is particularly true of both Elka and Martha where the beats are shepherded by a fat bass you can imagine being thrummed out by some heavy 70’s dude replete with thick moustache and royal-blue polo neck. In actual fact, the grooves on both pieces work in a subtlety different manner than you might expect. It’s less about moving the body, but the imagination, and both rock with a heady air of drama, evoking a strange landscape where the deep fog is more of a physical presence than the ground it rolls across. Martha is perhaps the more effective of the two; a slow mover, it takes a good while to really get itself into place, building up a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere before the broken, maudlin, occasional, melody of a piano cuts a path back towards the fresh air.

Pots and Pans itself is more upbeat and less concerned with the minutiae of mood as it works up a lather with clipped polyrhythms and simple, unfettered joy. It does little more than circle itself, and offers no more than it has to give but it comes out the other side feeling like that is more than enough. A great, smiling, little tune which should help see you through the long, cold nights of turkey ahead.

6D22 – Dragon’s Path (Midnight Shift)

If I’m remembering correctly, I opened this year’s Pattern Burst with a review of Giorgio Luceri’s 6D22 project so it seems weirdly fitting that the last review of the year goes to him too. Back then, it was his Istar release on Zeinkalli we were discussing. This time he’s on Midnight Shift with a collection of tracks inspired by the far east.

Firstly, it’s easy to see why Luceri has been a bit of a fixture on Jamal Moss’ Mathematics Recordings over the years. Dragon’s Path combines a resolutely old school techno flavour with something a little more detached and cerebral, and a lot of the time it evokes a sense of that point when balearic beats began to give way to something that would eventually become trance.

But just as there is an old school techno feel, it works a similar trick with those trancey moves. It’s closer to Jam and Spoon in execution – a sense of house music which has gone off on a tangent, drawing in a heavy mood of strobes ‘n’ ice, and building towards a vast heaven through simple melodies and rhythms built upon each other.

The three original tracks are bigger tunes than you might at first expect. Tianlong and Huanglong on the A side are a pair of shimmering climbers, both of which lock down their moods and movements early on and rise upwards relentlessly. Tianlong bleeds away excess energy towards the end, swapping it for a more delicate sense of tone and texture. Huanglong really pushes the early 90s big room vibe towards a logical conclusion. It’s all thunder and whispers; coaxing one moment, the next pushing you forward with both hands towards a bleary, hyper-real sunrise.

Longwang is from a similar place, but slower and more content to blur the motion with a feel of mysticism and some profoundly trancey 303s which bubble away seductively behind the veil of the melody. Once again the mixing of house like movement and techno rhythms provides a foundation for Luceri to build some tight complex sounds on top off, and the pulsing strength of the combination pushes towards some very old school hands-in-the-air moments.

Longwang’s remix comes from the fertile mind of the one and only Heinrich Mueller. Yep, That Heinrich Mueller. And, as you’d expect, it’s just about as far a deviation as you’d be able to get. Heinrich Mueller has created bit of a thing over the last few years from creating tunes that aren’t really tunes, where their obtuseness, their de-constructed qualities, have begun to drag the music of in strange, sometimes awkward, but often exciting directions. And he does that again here, transforming Longwangs effervescent brightness into a minimal, internalized stab of serrated, compact madness as if he’s taken the original’s nervous system and mounted it outside its skin. As most of you probably know, I’m not that fussy for remixes unless it something new or unexpected. This is a pretty good example of the art. Borderline terrifying and bleak, it’s as if the ghost in Longwang’s machine has crawled out of its mouth and gone on a rampage. Truly demented, excellent stuff.


Review: L-R – L-R EP (Null+Void Recordings)

I was determined not to describe this record as a release by an electro supergroup because, well, calling anything that tends to elicit images of old, beardy men knocking out tired versions of 70’s country rock with extra noodling. With a supergroup the general vibe seems too often to be that of a jam session gone feral. It’s not usually a term of endearment.

But, hell, that’s what I’m going to describe L-R as, seeing as it contains Johnny Oakley of Monoak and Freerotation, Simon Lynch of London Modular Alliance, and Keith Tenniswood of Radioactive Man and Two Lone Swordsmen fame. That’s a heck of a pedigree right there, so supergroup it is.

I shouldn’t have really worried though, because any imagined Curse Of The Supergroup is only really noticeable by its absence. What the L-R EP brings us is actually rather difficult to define; this certainly isn’t straight forward electro, and in that, interestingly, it shares musical space with several other current producers who are perhaps using the freedom created by the genre’s new-found kudos to push outward from a common source towards new world.

While electro certainly provides part of the foundation, you get the feeling that it is really present as one of many different coloured threads which make up the fabric of the L-R sound. Where a lot of the current scene has explored unimagined depths of, uh, deepness, or woven old-school fury over new school bones, L-R have driven right on. Aside from the more obvious influences, there is a breadth to the music which draws on a welter of textures providing styling and concepts which help to expand the ideas at the centre of the music.

In fact, it’s possible to split the EP into two parts. The first, containing Tigerstripes and Fruitcakes are closest to the genre we know and love. Tigerstripes in particular welds a tight, jackhammer beat to a shimmery, shadowy, realm which slowly grows not only in intensity but also in a dark humour which feeds the stormy clouds of bass and chattering fills, and helps to propel the track into a place reminiscent of a time when UK electronica was often defined by a subtle (actually usually not so subtle) mix of menace and cheekiness – a very different type of attitude which long kept it distinct from what was happening both in the States and mainland Europe. The vocal sample, buried deep enough in the mix that it remains blurred and unsettling, accentuates and tightens that mood very nicely indeed.

Fruitcakes, a wide-eyed burst of insanity, is perhaps even more fun. The same mood is mounted here on something that is perhaps a little more obvious – a sort of more classically technobass feel that takes you quickly in hand before slamming you against the wall. The little touches are flavoured by the Detroit of Underground Resistance and Drexciya but are never as overt as that, and the tune works a grubby, delighted, magic through suggestion, the ghosts of those Motor-city ideas rather than the sounds themselves, as it ramps up the heat. It feels like a lost tune from UR’s classic Interstellar Fugitives compilation album with a similar nervous yet righteous energy acting as both guide and pacemaker.

The other half of the EP resets everything, and it benefits from you resetting yourself as well. On Land the breaks vanish, replaced by a straightened, precise, and cybernetically 4/4 drive which paces itself beneath swirling half-colours. The tune evokes an older form of electronica, one that dates from before house music had made its full impact. It’s not so much in the unfurling sounds, for there are elements there just as at home in early, woozy, minimalist techno, but in the way the lazy, gentle, melody travels with the breeze kicked up by the shifting tide of the beats, and predicates its insistent warmth on a measured introspection.

Aesop, finally, blends many of the previous approaches and ideas together into a stark exploration of modern machine soul which drapes an almost R&B-like vibe over a graceful, half-stepping beat which locks the track down into a sinewy but unhurried groove and evokes the feel of something synthwavey refracted through far eastern ears. At times thick and rounded, at others almost spectral, it fades away into the haze far too quickly, leaving you hunting in the silence for any lingering embers. Always the mark of a great tune, and a great summation of a record which takes real pleasure in rewiring your expectations, and furnishes us with further proof that electro is slowly, but irrevocably, beginning to evolve into a brand new form.


Review: Hodge and Peder – All My Love (Peder Mannerfelt Productions)

I’ve written this damn thing about 30 times now, and each and every attempt falls apart on the second paragraph. I started arse-over-tit by beginning with some conclusions that could only be borne out with some primo-grade reality bending, and now I’ve decided that honesty is the best policy. I know: you don’t get this sort of thing in the Wire, do you? It’s amateur hour around here.

So, at the risk of seeming a little off, here’s what you need to know: Hodge and Peder’s first collaboration pretty much came out of nowhere and did a number on my brain. I had meant to draw cunning and sophisticated allusions to hardcore and rave culture, to avoiding homage and smash ‘n’ grab nostalgia runs back to the early 90’s but the fact is that all of this sort of thing just slides off the music as if it’s wearing teflon armour. Yes, the tunes are coloured with a certain hue of day-glo insanity but All My Love isn’t really a nod to the current (and admittedly welcome) trend for snarling, compressed, rave bombs from yesteryear. There is a lot more going on here than that.

If I was trying hard to stick to that theme, I suppose I could describe All My Love as less of a reworking of classic genre influences, and more of a re-imagining. While certain tones and ways of movement will be familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in these genres, the way the music rises up is very modern and absolutely without any interest in revisiting the past as you might know it. There are moments it bolts away from all your preconceptions entirely, veering close to a sort of mayhem that KLF once described as ‘stadium house’. At other times it evokes the heavy swirl of the sort of dirty, acrid, techno which seems to be very much in decline these days, a form of techno which simply does not give a toss what you think about it, a form of techno which exists for the sole purpose of making you dance and shout and sweat.

Bird Chant on the flip hits all those switches almost from the start, stumbling on its beats like it’s been shot up with vodka and gravel and hasn’t washed in a month. It pulls hard on the feet, channelling itself by means of a riff so huge and heavy it has its own gravity well. And while the riff dominates proceedings, little, equally fierce textures spiral around it, congealing and feeding the brutal movement. Inside the Rain is a necessary palette cleanser, a mind-wash of fractals and pinches of disorienting dreams which seethes and surges downward, drawing the light away until the shadows billow.

But All My Love itself is the king in this broken place. It’s immense – a summation of darskide vibe. The hardcore leanings are at their most obvious here, but Hodge and Peder compress them, and keep compressing them until the breaks take on an almost tribal shape before being blasted further by hoover bass. The vocal ties it together, bonding the explosive martial kicks with a demented, majestic, anxiety. Unbelievably, wonderfully, nasty and one of the stand out moments of the year so far. Hardcore for the 21st century. And the 31st. Yas.