Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Next Medium-Sized Thing ("Energy Flash" column for Sonicnet, 2000)


"Energy Flash" column, Sonicnet, September 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering when the Next Big Thing in dance music is going to turn up.  It's long overdue.  At the same time, it's really hard to imagine what it could possibly be.  Every day, it seems more likely that the initial onrush of rave culture carried the music to its furthest stylistic extremes by the mid-Nineties. By 1996, say, drum & bass  had taken rhythmic complexity as far as conceivable or desirable;  gabba had gotten as fast, punishing, and distorted as the human nervous system could cope with;  minimal techno had stripped itself down to the barest bones of  bangin' beats and abrasive textures.  Subsequently, dance culture has advanced not by expanding its boundaries but by developing the territory within those already-reached frontiers. The difference here is akin to the difference between explorers and settlers. So instead of pushing the envelope, you get "internal  hybrids". For instance, the UK micro-genre "nu skool breaks" is a fusion of  Big Beat and drum'n'bass, basically deploying the latter's neurotically intricate production techniques at the former's more dancer-friendly 130 bpm tempo.

All this is why, for the foreseeable future (until someone invents a new technology, or a new drug) we're  going to see a succession of Next Medium-Sized Things, rather than a singular Next Big Thing that installs itself as the leading edge and eclipses everything else that's going on.  One defining characteristic of a NBT is that its novelty is incontestable, even by those who can't stand it. Jungle, for instance, was patently a great leap forwards--nobody had made beats so frantic and chopped-up, nobody had invented a music with an internal split-tempo (basslines running at half the velocity of the sped-up breakbeats). You could hate it, but you couldn't fail to recognize its unprecedented nature.

The hallmark of a Next Medium-Sized Thing, though, is its "plausible deniability" (to adapt a phrase hitherto associated more with IRAN-CONTRA and White House skullduggery).  The innovativeness of  these micro-genres is all a matter of perspective: you have to be immersed in dance culture, or even immersed in the particular parent genre, to perceive the difference and feel the impact. I first noticed this with speed garage back in 1997--the fusion of jungle bass and house beats had massive implications and reverberations in UK clubland, but it was hard to persuade American listeners that it was more than just a slight twist on ye olde house.

Here are a bunch of Next Medium-Sized Thing contenders that people are talking about, followed by what doubters will probably say to dismiss them as hype:

(a/k/a nu-jazz, broken beats---semantic profusion is a hallmark of the Next Medium-Sized Thing; the slighter the claims to novelty, the more names there'll be for the alleged genre)

IG Culture/Likwid Biskit/ New Sector Movements,  Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, Modaji, Bugz in the Attic,  Alex Attias/Mustang/Plutonia, Domu.

People, Visons Inc., Main Squeeze, Laws Of Motion, 2000 Black, Bitasweet.

What is it exactly?
An Afrodelic boogie wonderland land where Alice Coltrane, Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, Rotary Connection and Fela Kuti mingle with 4 Hero, Masters At Work, and Carl Craig. In other words, a fusion of old skool fusion (Seventies stuff) with Nineties fusion (arty drum & bass, deepest house, the jazzier side of Detroit techno) to produce a brand nu skool of fusion. There's so much fusing going on it's getting confusing. Phusion hallmarks include a passion for time-signatures other than  four-to-the-floor, a mix of acoustic/analog/digital textures, and a quality of hand's on feel and fluency to the music even when it's computerized. West London connoisseur shit, dig.

What the sceptics will say:
It's just acid jazz with samplers.


Laylo & Bushwacka!/Matthew B., Mr. C., Nathan Coles, Pure Science, Terry Francis, Charles Webster

Plink Plonk, Pagan, Wiggle, Eye for Sound

What is it exactly?
Like the ungainly name suggests, this micro-genre occupies the not exactly vast sonic hinterland between Detroit techno and Chicago house, juicing up the former's austerity while shunning the latter's vocal element. The result is sleek, shiny, propulsive,  tastefully trippy, and cunningly poised to be just "deep" and  "progressive" enough to keep out the riff-raff (i.e. ravers) while not losing the dancefloor appeal.

What the sceptics will say:
There's always been techno-tinged house and there's always been house-leaning techno -- it's hardly worth starting a movement around.


Stanton Warriors, Donna Dee, Headtop, So Solid Crew, Reservoir Dogs, DJ Dee Kline, Phuturistix, El-B, Second Protocol, Zed Bias

Pulse, So Solid Beatz, Ghost Trax, Mob

What is it exactly?
Provisional name (in circulation while people think of something snappier and more evocative) for a subgenre some believe will soon break off from UK garage, and marked by an even more tangential verging on non-existent relationship to the garage/house continuum. Sheds UK garage's girly vocals, bump'n'flex grooves, and shuffling hi-hats in favor of looped breakbeats, cheeky/cheesy samples in the spirit of hardcore rave and jump-up jungle (ie. soundbites typically referencing weed-smoking or martial arts movies), and stomach-churning bass that often has an early Eighties electro  flavor. 

What the sceptics will say
Isn't this just jungle slowed to 130 b.p.m?
(NB: Breakbeat garage's slowed-down jungle often overlaps uncannily with nu-skool breaks's slowed-down jungle, showing how people increasingly end up occupying  the same "internal hybrid" zone even though coming from different directions).


Anne Savage, Pete Wardman, Lisa Lashes, BK, Rachel Auburn, Lisa Pin-Up, Brainbashers, Fergie, Steve Thomas,  Baby Doc

Tidy Trax, Tinrib, TEC, Nukleuz, Tripoli Trax, Duty Free, Rock Hard, Fever Pitch

What is it exactly?
Both the name and the music it describes have been around for some time, but recently the style has refined itself down to an incredibly narrow strip of sound: a concussive concoction of banging kick-drums, hoover basslines, synth-stabs, and belting diva vocals. Hard house's no frills thrills are increasingly displacing fluffy Euro-trance as the pill-head's favorite soundtrack to nights of XTC--which is why it's getting a lot of press in the dance mags.

What the sceptics will say:
This stuff is the pits. In all decent, discerning company, it should be unmentionable. It doesn't deserve a name at all.

bonus beat - on hard house - from the great Tony Marcus

this was published in a weekly dance magazine whose name I forget but seems to have attempted to ride the absolute boom-time peak of interest in dance culture (where there were about four or five dance-dedicated monthlies and various ex-fanzines also)

that bubble burst soon enough

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