Thursday, November 12, 2015

trance versus jungle

The Wire, late 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Tastemakers are unanimous: when it comes to the scattered tribes
of the post-aciiied diaspora, trance is where it's at.  And 'ardkore
is held in universal disdain: junglist breakbeats and squeaky vocal
samples are regarded as risible signs of rave's degeneration into
'nuttercore', 150 b.p.m. kiddy-kartoon nonsense for E'd up hooligans.
For trance purists, programmed beats and all-electronic textures
indicate pure-blooded ancestry, rooted in the 'golden age' of
Detroit, as passed down through illustrious scions like Warp.  But in
music as in genealogy/genetics, purity is over-rated: it engenders
inbred enfeeblement. Miscegenation, mongrelisation and mutation are
the very stuff of evolution. So I'm here to hail rave's wayward,
RUFF-ian son, jungalistic hardcore, and direct some overdue
scepticism towards trance.

By any reckoning 'Trance Europe Express', Volume's double CD of
state-of-art techno, is a superb compilation: 24 tracks including
offerings by most of the prime movers in the field.  Nonetheless, the
comp has something of the air of epitaph about it: this is a genre
that's reached a dead end, etiolated by its own oppressive
tastefulness.  Trance's critical hegemony goes hand in hand with
textural homogeneity: the 'infinite possibilities' fanfared by
technophile critics too often boil down to a rather uniform and
impoverished array of 'cosmic' synth-timbres. While the best
exponents here (Orbital, Aphex, Bandulu) are opening up a new genre
of electronic composition, the lesser units (Psychick Warriors Ov
Gaia, The Source, Cosmic Baby) are little more than Tangerine Dream
or Vangelis with a modern beat: funkless, Aryan mood-muzak.

The alleged superiority of trance over jungle relies on the
questionable desirability of such an entity as 'armchair/intelligent
techno'. Is sedentary and contemplative somehow intrinsically a
higher, truer response than sweaty and mental?  This is simply
prog-rock snobbery.  Like the earnest conceptualists of the
Seventies, trance signifies its 'progressive' intentions by taking
its bleedin' time: at best (say, Orbital), this is an aesthetic of
sensuous ebb-and-flow (rather than ardkore's blipvert blitz).  Too
often, it means longeurs galore.

In fact, listening to trance can be a bit like going to church.
The genre does give itself pseudo-spiritual airs (hence the angelic
choral samples on Scubadevil's "Celestial Symphony", or the fact that
the top London club for trance is called 'The Knowledge').  Whereas
jungle is more pagan and voodoo. Its vulgar, indiscriminate approach
to sampling makes me think of cargo cults - hallucinating the sublime
and otherworldly in all manner of trash and pop-cultural jetsam.

Where trance's sampling is tasteful, discreet, a fusion-puree, jungle
is fissile: you can see the joins and that's so much more postmodern
and exciting. A typical jungle track is an epileptic/eclectic mish-
mash of incongrous textures (spooky ectoplasm rubs up against
gimmicky cartoon gibberish) and incompatible moods (mystic, manic,
macabre).  Jungle's cut'n'mix aesthetic owes as much to hip hop as to
techno; tracks have a machinic/organic, cyborg quality that recalls
the days before rap's slide into plausible, 'realistic' grooviness.

If you think 'ardkore means The Prodigy (who's great, anyway, The
Sweet of the 90's), you should really check out 'The Joint'. Label
compilations tend to be patchy, but this one excels because it's a
collaboration between two of ardkore's most innovative labels,
Suburban Base and Moving Shadow.  Most of the tracks have a schizoid
quality, flitting back and forth between jungle's two current modes:
happy'n'hyper and dark'n'demonic. Foul Play's "Open Your Mind"
oscillates between clammy synth-tones and billowing soul-chanteuse
harmonies.  Omni Trio's "Mystic Stepper" also has an unnerving
oxymoronic vibe, a sort of mournful euphoria: the "feel good" chorus
aches with a strange desolation. DJ Hype's "The Chopper" starts as a
pure rush (ricochetting hi-hat and Uzi-rattling snare, faecal-squirts
of bass-flatulence), then forlorn soul-diva ether wafts into the mix,
introducing an incongrous note of poignancy. DJ Krome & Mr Time's
"The Slammer", by comparison, is pure 'happy hardcore', a gorgeous,
fuzzily-reverbed piano figure entwined with a chorus that gushes
'dancing we dancing we losing control'.

The looped breakbeats + recognisable samples method initially
resulted in a deluge of white label mediocrity, provoking
proclamations of rave's death.  But Reinforced's recent sampler-EP
"Enforcers 4" shows that this aesthetic has matured; jungle has
thrived on media neglect.  Like the Moving Shadow & Suburban Base
crews, Reinforced's roster pile on the rollin' breaks to form a
sophisticated mesh of polyrhythms; beats are treated, reverbed,
'timestretched', even run backwards (on Manix' 'The X Factor'),
inducing a eerie feel of in-the-pocket funk and out-of-body delirium.
Over this roiling syncopation, ecstastic vocal plasma is molded and
modulated, an inner-body choir of sighs and whimpers that simulates
E's 'arrested orgasm' sensation.  Meanwhile, instead of basslines,
jungle's low-end has devolved into a radioactive ooze that impacts
you viscerally rather than aurally.

Ultimately, it is all down to a gut-level response, whether you
prefer trance's clockwork-regular Kraftwerk/Moroder pulse-grooves or
jungle's staccato, thrash-funk judder-quake.  It's whatever gets in
your pants, works your booty and your imagination.  But putting on my
critic's cap, I'd say that jungle's uproarious schizo-eclecticism is
paying greater dividends than trance's solemn purism. At its best,
jungle is like a gutternsnipe Can (same James Brownian rotorvation,
similar 'flow motion' ethos). Jungle is the bastard child of the John
Cage/Byrne & Eno/23 Skidoo avant-disco tradition, shunned and scorned
where the supposedly rightful inheritor of that tradition,
trance/ambient, is feted. But illegitimate heirs tend to lead more
interesting lives.


Pearsall said...

Trusting the current consensus of cool people is always a dicey business, as the early 90's dance cognoscenti treated prog house as inherently superior to hardcore/jungle ... look which genre history has been kinder to! (Hell, just compare prices on Discogs - you could buy a whole box of early Guerilla releases for the price of one 94/95 Source Direct record)

Pearsall said...

I do like trance, though! Not all of it by a long shot, but I've always loved the mental fast stuff, like this: