Saturday, April 18, 2015

gloomcore and harshstep, 1998

Spin dance genre-watch column, June 1998

By Simon Reynolds

Once, there was just "hardcore"--rave music at its most flipped-out and
euphoric-aggressive fierce. Then, circa 1992, came the great parting of the
ways. English hardcore DJs mixed in hip hop breaks 'n' bass to create a
hyper-syncopated bedlam that eventually evolved into jungle. The rest of
the world stuck with techno's monolithic 4/4 stomp-beat and kept upping the
b.p.m's to ever more punishing extremes. For a while, the Dutch--in the
form of the Rotterdam sound called "gabba"--were harder than the rest. Then
other outposts--labels like Brooklyn's Industrial Strength, Milwaukee's
Drop Bass Network, France's Gangstar Toons IndustryAustralia's Bloody
Fist, and many more--took it further still.

By 1996, though, hardcore was banging its head against a brick wall
of  shlocky ultraviolence and 250-300 b.p.m. velocity. The more astute
producers took a step sideways from this braindead end. One escape route,
followed by Frankfurt's PCP and its sister-labels Dance Ecstasy 2001 and
Cold Rush, involved a style that just cries out for the absurd oxymoron
"ambient gabba": an atmospheric, slightly slower sound, heavy on cavernous
reverb, glacial textures and sorrowful melodies. Following awesomely
desolate dirges like Renegade Legion's "Torsion", the PCP crew have reached
something of an aesthetic pinnacle with Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never",
the tenth Cold Rush release.

Pilldriver is one of many pseudonyms (see also The Mover,
Mescalinum United, Alien Christ) used by the mysterious Marc Acardipane,
probably hardcore's most visionary producer. "Apocalypse Never" harries the
listener with synth-stabs that sound like a swarm of bat-winged and
trident-wielding demons, while the unrelenting 4/4 kick-drum is so cleverly
inflected you never register it as monotony. For more glorious gloomcore,
check out the PCP compilation Bigger Bolder Better, plus Superpower,  a
six-track EP collaboration between PCP's Hypnotizer and New York's Oliver
Chesler, on the latter's Things To Come label.

Another increasingly popular "step sideways"  involves mixing
gabba's Teutonic terror-riffs with techstep jungle's paroxysmic breakbeats
and murky bombast.  From Drop Bass Network's sub-label Ghetto Safari and
Frankfurt's Chrome to the Paris imprint No-Tek and London's Ambush, this
new hybrid--known variously as  "splatterbreaks", "hardbreaks" or
"harsh-step"--is the emergent renegade sound at squat-raves.

Superficially, harsh-step seems to have much in common with Alec
Empire's Digital Hardcore, which also combines gabba's killer-bee drones,
sped-up breaks and fuzzguitar-like midfrequency noise. But unlike Digital
Hardcore's adrenalizingly one-dimensional scree, the Ambush producers
leaven their  assault with a superior sense of dynamics and space. Jackal &
Hide's Escape From South London EP is a lo-fi holocaust of industrial
effluent, eardrum-shredding snares and low-end turbulence. Aphasic & Scud's
Welcome To The Warren EP sounds like metal-bashers Einsturzende Neubauten
getting on the good foot. Best of the lot is the Give Up EP by David Hammer
(a.k.a DHR artist Shizuo), who interweaves different kinds of distortion
with a sensuous awareness of  audio-tactile texture.

Although Ambush's sound verges on outright avant-gardism, DJ
Scud--who recently played New York's Soundlab alongside DJ Spooky, Alec
Empire and Manhattan's own harsh-step crusader I-Sound--says his real
inspiration is the populist rave of 1991. Scud wants to bring back "the
madness and intensity" of early hardcore, "but not its happy-happy,
hands-in-the-air vibe". Hence the dystopian aura and abstract  militancy of
Ambush's four releases to date.

Sidestepping DHR's full-frontal approach
(sloganeering harangues), harsh-step's anarcho-politics are more subtle
--articulated in  techno-theory zines like Break/Flow, Datacide and Scud's
own Fallout, hinted at in the paramilitary imagery of track titles and band
names, and most of all, incarnated in the music itself. At once savage and
sophisticated, harsh-step is the sound of insubordination--not just against
sonic stagnation but against cultural lockdown too: the urban politics of
gentrification and ghettoization, the insidious normalization of
surveillance. If gabba was techno-as-heavy-metal, harsh-step is new
millennium punk-funk.


No comments: