Monday, May 14, 2018

The Mover + Sick Music / gabba + drum & bass in the 21st Century

THE MOVER
Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber
Planet Phuture / Boidae
VARIOUS ARTISTS / SICK MUSIC
Sick Music 2018
(Hospital Records)
The Wire, April 2018

by Simon Reynolds


In 1990, the German producer Marc Acardipane released “Reflections of 2017” under the name Mescalinum United – the first of many aliases, among them Pilldriver, Alien Christ, and most famously The Mover.  “Reflections” was the flipside of “We Have Arrived”, a blaring stampede that laid down the blueprint for gabba: the crazy-fast, ultra-hard style of techno that stormed to popularity across Northern Europe and established outposts of fanatical followers all over the world. “2017” would remain a leitmotif in Acardipane’s work, appearing in track titles like “Lightbringer (Escape from 2017)” and as the catchphrase “see you in 2017”.  Back in the early Nineties, 2017 must have seemed far off, a mind-swirl of dystopian mise-en-scenery out of Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator.  Fans could imagine the Mover as a faceless rave equivalent to Snake Plissken from Escape from New York: a lone-ranger anti-hero making his way through the chaos of a collapsed society or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Flash forward to the present: we have arrived, indeed we’ve overshot. The future-now of 2018 is dystopian and apocalyptic, for sure, but in ways we could never have imagined back in the Nineties. Compared with that decade, when he released hundreds of tracks through the Frankfurt-based family of labels he co-founded – PCP, Cold Rush, Dance Ecstasy 2001, etc - Acardipane had a quiet 21st century. His output oscillated between gestures towards credibility (a 2003 album for Tresor) and panders to the remaining gabbers in the Netherlands (plentiful enough to propel him into the pop charts). But there were long silences too. Then last year The Mover remobilized, with high-profile “living legend” style deejay appearances at raves and the remastered reissue of his greatest tracks. The plan was for an all-new album to come out in 2017 – completing the circle – but it got bumped to this year.

The ungainly album title Undetected Act from the Gloom Chamber suggests a certain  awkwardness about returning to the fray. Which would be understandable, in so far as The Mover’s ästhetisch / weltanschauung is built around a foreboding futurity that we’ve in some sense gone past. Almost inevitably, Acardipane picks up exactly where he left off. All the things fans like me love, hallmarks of the style some of us call gloomcore, are amply present: the sky-darkening swoops of raven-black synth, the parade-ground snares and thick thuds of kickdrum; the cold cavernous reverb; the piteous melodies and macabre jeering sounds.  Highlights include “Stealth,” an electro-tinged track bounced along by giant smacks of clap and a backwards bass-lurch like a tank’s caterpillar tread churning helplessly in mud, and “Doom Computer,” which drapes sickly drooping melody-riffs over a trudging march beat like a renegade legion of orcs on a dastardly mission.   

The Mover’s first album came out in 1993 and bore the title The Final Sickness; earlier there’d been two Frontal Sickness EPs. That’s my segue to Sick Music 2018, a compilation on Hospital Recordings, for some time now drum and bass’s leading label. Every so often I ponder, as a long lapsed D&B believer, how the genre has carried on for a full twenty years after I stopped paying close attention: a timespan four times as long as the genre’s original heyday of 1993-97. I wasn’t the only one to switch off. Once D&B commanded the attention of magazines like this one, as well as ideas-hungry pop stars like Bowie and Bjork. But now you’re more likely to see a review of a hauntological facsimile of 94-era jungle or darkcore-circa-93 in these pages, than a current exponent of the genre that is the extension of those sounds.

Not that the D&B scene cares particularly. Nor has it suffered from the external neglect. Arena-scale raves still happen regularly, scene elders like Andy C persevere and prosper, new DJs and producers replenish the field.  A stable fixture in the genrescape, D&B has also stabilized as a form, “the full circumference” (as they used to call it) of its stylistic variants long since set out. Andy C’s defiant comment that D&B “isn’t going anywhere” could be read in a less flattering way. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to give the genre a break, forgive and forget its promises to keep always moving forward. Why judge it any more harshly than all the other vanguard sounds that have slipped into a steady-state?

Sick Music contains a fair amount of the head-banger style that drove me out of the scene in ‘98, although after a long period of abstinence a track like Unglued’s “Bootstrap Bill”, a clattery battery of growling bass and bad-boy beats, sounds rather invigorating. But the freshest stuff by far here expands upon the “musicality” moves of the mid-Nineties: the easy-rollin’ heights (or Haigh-ts) and cruise-control bliss of prime Moving Shadow. The core of Hugh Hardie’s gorgeous “Nightingale” is a reverb-smudgy piano lick whose effect is like a cinematic dissolve, a twinkle in time. Modulating this curl of liquid smoke as if rolling a sip of wine across the palate, Hardie braids the keyboard chords with vocal murmurs, fast-flicker hand-percussion, and soft spasms of double-bass. Who’s to say a stone classic can’t happen during a genre’s middle age, rather than its youth? 

Several of the best tunes here could be designated “lover’s jungle”.  London Elektricity’s tingling and tremulous “Just One Second (Mitekiss Remix)” features a lyric about freeze-framing a moment of rapture - “if this second was my life / I would happily die” – delivered with that characteristically Scandinavian singer’s quality of cold-water clarity by Elsa Hedberg. Kubaiko’s “Playing Tricks” wordlessly transmits a similar butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation, twining a sprite-like vocal sigh with silvery whooshes of texture. Meshing an Amen-break like a bounding antelope with trance-style pulse-work, Seba x Physics’s “Innocence” is repeatedly split apart by the awe and gratitude of a diva’s “you show me how to love.”  And Urbandawn’s “Spare Life” laces dewy synths and unexpected groans of shoegaze guitar over a midtempo groove.

Listening to Sick Music, it struck me that “drum and bass” seems almost a misnomer these days, directing attention as it does to what are now the least interesting aspects of the genre.  The drums and the bass do their job efficiently enough: the former skittering briskly, the latter either supplying pulsing warmth or slicing crossways across the beat as blaring stabs.  What holds and caresses the ear now is everything else going on in the arrangement and production:  keyboards, orchestrations, the wisps and whispers of unidentifiable instrumentation, the overall shimmerglow of the sound design.  Really, a better, more telling name would be “melody & mood.” 

If both these releases show that an elder artist and a no-longer-young genre can still generate strong, exciting, and in many ways absolutely valid music, there still remains a lingering sense that both reached their apotheosis around 1996-7. The Pilldriver anthem “Apocalypse Never” would be both Acardipane’s and gloomcore’s abyssal apex; Adam F’s “Circles” and “Metropolis” arguably stand as twin peaks of D&B’s musical and monstrous directions.

The point of “see you in 2017” - or jungle’s tropes of “living for the future,”  “we bring you the future” etc - wasn’t really about how tomorrow would actually be, sonically or otherwise. The year-date or the amorphous image of  “phuture” created a quickening in the present, as if you and the music being pulled taut by a line attached to that distant destination.  Propulsive linearity was the feeling that ran through all the dancefloor electronica of the Nineties - trance and techno as much as jungle and gabba. A hurtling teleology, a ballistic sense of purpose, felt as a physical sensation: beats got ever more brutal and fractured, tempos accelerated, textures escalated in abstraction and noxiousness. Hearing them through a sound system was an onslaught and an ordeal: a test for dancers, forging new flesh.  And each individual track was a microcosm of the entire culture’s fast-forward drive. Rave was a movement, in the martial sense of a modernist vanguard, but with a hint of political mobilization too. Another reason why The Mover was such a perfect name.

But in the 21st Century, for the most part it feels like development in electronic dance became lateral not linear: sideways journeys across the genrescape, combined with a deepening of sound design and a textural thickness afforded by recurrent upgrades in digital technology.  Although you hear this laterality most in nu-millennium styles like micro-house and post-dubstep, you can hear it in Acardipane’s new work and in Sick Music’s nu-skool D&B producers.   Structurally, in terms of what the beats and riffs are doing, the music has not really advanced. But the sound has a high-definition gloss and dimension to it that’s 21st Century. The the architecture is Nineties, but the interior décor and exterior paint-job are totally now.

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