Saturday, July 20, 2019

Mokum Madness

The Wire, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Now that jungle is totally assimilated, and even happy hardcore and handbag house have their apologists,  Dutch gabberhouse is the only post-rave style left to be gentrified. Gabba is the most extreme version of the ultra-fast hardcore techno that's still popular in Northern Europe and Scotland. If hardcore is derided by Detroit buffs as 'the new heavy metal', then gabba is the rave equivalent of thrash: even faster (180 to 250 b..p.m), even more macho, mindless and monotonous.

The English connotations of 'gab'---"to talk in a rapid, thoughtless manner'---are stunningly appropriate, but in Dutch, 'gabber' means 'mate, lad, yobbo'. This Rotterdam-based 'hooligan-house' originally emerged in antagonism to the more decorous Amsterdam rave scene. Originally a negative, exclusionary term wielded by Amsterdam hipsters, 'gabba'  was seized upon as a banner of underclass pride by hordes of  Dutch proles. Label names like Ruffneck and Terror Traxx, track titles like Sperminator's "No Woman Allowed" and Wedlock's "I'm The Fuck You Man!", eloquently convey gabba's  rowdy male-bonding and adrenalized aggression.

"It's just not music" is a rhetorical strategem used by those who simply aren't prepared to subject themselves to the specific regime of sensations that a particular form of musical extremism enforces. Both early UK 'ardkore  and thrash/speed/death-metal were both diss(miss)ed  in these terms (despite the fact that thrash is intensely, baroquely muso in its construction).  So is gabba music? Of course. Do you want to listen to it? Probably not. Like thrash, the sensation gabba offers (Virilio's  "becoming speed") is too one-dimensional to appeal to most.

Pure gabber is totally percussive/concussive. Every musical element--stomping kick-drum, hissing hi-hat, one note bass-thud, stun-gun oscillator-synth-- functions rhythmically, yet the rhythm is incredibly simplistic. We're talking multiple tiers of four-to-the-floor, as opposed to polyrhythmic interplay. On this Mokum compilation, Haaardcore's "Toxic" is typical, offering the same kinaesthetic rush as Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills but about 40 beats per minute faster. The effect is as astringent and soul-rigidifying as snorting sulphate cut with Ajax. Recently, however, gabba's rhythm-science has gotten less stiff, as producers like Robert Meijer and Francois Prijt (who dominate "Battlegrounds") have begun to incorporate breakbeats, albeit whipped up way beyond jungle's 150 bpm to a convulsive, trebley skitter

Another weird but fascinating development is the strange spiritual affinity between rap and gabba, whereby Dutch oiks have appropriated the rage and ressentiment of the African-American underclass (hence band names like Gabbers With Attitude or Fear of A Ruffneck Planet). "Battlegrounds" features lots of vocal samples from Public Enemy and other early Def Jam artists. Chosen Few's "Ravedome" samples LL Cool J's "think I'm gonna BOMB" from 'Mama Said Knock You Out", while Annihilator's "I'll Show You My Gun" abstracts a Chuck D combat-rap imperative (from "Mi Uzi Weighs A Ton"), transforming it into a blare of context-less belligerence. A similar mood of empty insurrectionism characterises High Energy's "Revolution", which turns around a soundbite from a Latin American demagogue.
The Public Enemy connection makes sense, since PE is the fastest of rap groups, and producer Hank Shocklee accentuated the high-frequencies in order to match the aural attack of punk. Gabba shares PE's aura of panic, imminent apocalypse, mass rally. But the music with which gabba has greatest affinities is metal. Just clock the  militaristic band names: Annihilator, Strontium 9000,  Search and Destroy. Musically, gabba's ur-texts are Joey Beltram's "Mentasm" and "Energy Flash", whose death-swarm synth-stabs evolved into the 'Belgian Hoover' sound of T99 and Human Resource (still active in gabba). Consider the fact that Beltram is a big Sabbath and Led Zep fan and the connections between HM's ear-bleeding decibellage and hardcore's 'nosebleed'-inducing
bass-frequencies start to make ghastly sense.

Thankfully, gabba also has something of metal's self-parodic sense of humour. The logo of gabba-label K.N.O.R.  is a horned demon in diapers, while the Babyboom label's mascot is a nappyclad infant giving you the finger: both images nicely blend rave's regression with metal's puerility. And the most enjoyable tracks here are the silliest. Despite its Sabbath-echoing title, Search & Destroy's "Iron Man" is a wonderfully daft collage of rave styles, cutting from sped-up ragga chants to a  snatch of the Buggles' soppy "Elstree" to a burst of Goldie/Rufige Cru's '92 classic "Darkrider" to 303 aciiied uproar to a brief interlude where the 200 b.p.m. frenzy drops to a languid 90 b.p.m. skank.  Also exemplifying the new hybrid of happy-gabba or fun-core (gabber infused with happy hardcore's cheesy ravey-ness) is Technohead's "I Wanna Be A Hippy", whose nursery-rhyme tantrum ("I want to get high/but I never knew why") is bellowed by an apoplectic Poly Styrene soundalike.
At its best, gabba is a blast.

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