Friday, May 10, 2013

"End of the Track", albums round up column
New Statesman, February 13th 1987

by Simon Reynolds

Funk Flesh + Punk Attitude: this was the fantasy that possessed the rock intelligentsia in the early Eighties. The result was a series of creative misrecognitions of black pop. Groups like Style Council and the Redskins made soul the vehicle for their politics of affirmation. Others (Talking Heads, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio) staged a remotivation of funk, replacing its extrovert upfulness with art rock concerns: alienation, breakdown, psychosis. Typically there was fascination with both the technocratic system of Western modernity and the breaking loose of instincts suppressed by that system.

These concerns gave birth to difficult dance music, more suited to cerebral contemplation in the bedroom than mindless frugging on the dancefloor; as Simon Frith put it, “It’s still the progressive rock mentality, but applied to rhythm, as opposed to melody and harmony.’ Avant-funk was a kind of psychedelia, but oblivion was to be attained not through rising above the body, rather through immersion in the physical, self loss through animalism. Underneath it all was a na├»ve identification of Blackness with unrepression.

The genre has long seemed played out; as David Stubbs puts it: “pub rock for the 22nd century”. Strange, then, at this late hour, to encounter an unexpected validation of the genre, a pinnacle evne. Such is Skinny Puppy’s Mind the Perpetual Intercourse (Play It Again Sam). The familiar motifs and signatures as all present: Eurodisco rhythms; synthesizers used to generate not pristine, hygienic textures, but poisonous, noisome filth; Burroughs’ cut-up technique applied to found voices. But they are redeemed, renewed, by the sheer saturated intensity of their application. The beat can barely make its way through the congestion, the concatenation of impacted gristle, blistered and smeared surfaces, swarf, funk dregs. Cevin Key’s voice is extraordinary, suggesting expectoration, haemorrhage and self-immolation all at once.

The Age of Chance are also aiming for a noise/funk collision. But where Skinny Puppy is gratuitous and inconsequential, luxuriating in the voluptuousness and aggravation of sound itself, Age of Chance are one of those groups who make the mistake of starting with a theory and then attempting to live it out. Granted, they have a good point to make: their cover of Prince’s “Kiss” and The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” on Crush Collision (Fon) are pointed gestures against the introversion and anti-disco prejudice of the inbred indie scene. They want to evangelise for the adventurousness and hardness of modern black pop. But outside this indie context, the songs lose their polemical meaning; are, at best, only mildly amusing novelty records; at worst, juiceless travesties of the sublime originals. Nonetheless, thanks to a knack for slogans and a corporate image and demeanour that suggest intensive immersion in Positive Thinking and assertiveness training, they’ve managed to blag themselves the status of an Event; winning, in the process, a small chart hit and a contract with Virgin.

Their music is a case of rhetoric triumphing over substance. Fibres of meaning interpenetrate every strand of sound, so that the experience reaches us already placed in a general scheme, overdtermined and thus domesticated. Oblivion (the ecstatic obliteration of meaning) is forestalled because we are constantly made aware that the song is a statement, a reaction against. In themselves, Age of Chance are neither exotic figures nor superior technicians. But then they subscribe to the widely-held, punk-descended view that ‘attitude’ is far more important than talent. Attitude means brazenness, the will to power, to bigotry. Attitude usually boils down to--all mouth and no trousers.

The funny thing is that black pop--devoid of theory, operating outside the rock press discourses that generate scams like Age of Chance--is throwing up music that paralles and exceeds the ambitions of avant-funk. Hip hop is impelled forward only by its dynamic towards greater impact--heavier beats, more daring and alarming cut-ups, new noise quotients. Take Salt-N-Pepa’s Hot, Cool and Vicious (Next Plateau). Producer Herbie Luv Bug constructs the music by sampling from a variety of “old school” grooves and breaks. Wholly inconsistent styles and ambiences, plucked from random points throughout pop history, are bolted together (just like Frankenstein’s neck, in fact). The effect is psychedelic, because any kind of narrative continuity, focus or identity is fragmented, dissipated--affording the listener plenty jouissance, ecstatic confusion.

The Skinny Boys’ Weightless (Warlock) takes a different route to oblivion--concussion. Drum machine, human beatbox and scratch are used to make noise as mindmangling as that produced by avant-garde groups like Test Dept or Einsturzende Neubauten. “Feed Us the Beat” actually sounds like Black Sabbath.

And hip hop can comfortable match avant-funk in psychic extremity. Female duo Salt-N-Pepa practically trip out on ‘attitude’; their fantasies of triumph and revenge make Age of Chance lool like milksops. (Their riposte to rappers who ‘bite’, i.e. copy, their style is a promise to “burn you and leave your ashes smoking”!). Where avant-funk enacts a theatre of psychosis, hip hpo seems vertiginously close to its reality, possessed by the kind of predatory, paranoid self induced by drugs like PCP (aka angel dust).

Skinny Boys and Skinny Puppy are signals that hip hop and avant-funk are on the brink of total seizure, the point at which dance music snarls up rhythmically beyond any functional utility. B-Boys no longer dance to hip hop, they stand, inert, arms folded across the chest, head tilted, gaze supercilious. And they nod their heads slightly to the beat. How long before the return of wigged-out catatonia?

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