The Wire, May 1994
by Simon Reynolds
Like a clapped out stretch limo cranked in reverse, today's 'alternative rock' is synonymous with a retreat to one of a number of period genres from rock history. For Primal Scream think Exile On Main Street-era Stones. For Suede think Ziggy-phase
Recently, however, a smattering of British groups, energised by developments in electronic studio based musics such as Techno and HipHop, as well as free improvisation and the avant garde, have started venturing into a more financially precarious, but aesthetically vital hinterland-without-a-name. The roll call of futurist honour includes Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Insides, Bark Psychosis,
What to call this zone? Some of its occupants, Seefeel for instance, could be dubbed 'Ambient'; others, Bark Psychosis and Papa Sprain, could be called 'art rock'. 'Avant rock' would just about suffice, but is too suggestive of jerky time signatures and a dearth of melodic loveliness, which isn't necessarily the case. Perhaps the only term open ended yet precise enough to cover all this activity is 'post-rock'.
Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords. Increasingly, post-rock groups are augmenting the traditional guitar/bass/drums line up with computer technology: the sampler, the sequencer and
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The best way to get a handle on how these groups depart from the 'rock process' is to work from a rigorous model of how the traditional rock 'n' roll group operates. And there's none more rigorous than Joe Carducci's Rock And The Pop Narcotic (published in 1990 by Redoubt, with a revised edition planned for later this year). Carducci may be a bit of a reactionary, but his theory of rock is grounded in a precise, materialist definition of it as music, rather than 'attitude', 'spirit', 'rebellion', or any other metaphysical notions. Rock's essence, says Carducci, is the real time interaction of drums, bass and rhythm guitar. A group should be a rhythmic engine creating kinetic energy; 'breathing' as an organic entity.
Carducci valorises the strenuous, collective physicality of performance. His ideal rock process is opposed to the Pop Method, which is studio based and elevates the producer over the musicians. Modern music is a sterile, frigid wasteland because the producer/studio ('cold') has triumphed over rock ('hot'). With a typically American prejudice, Carducci favours the 'presence' of live performance over the increasingly 'virtual' nature of studio music, and prefers the 'documentarian' recording techniques that characterised early 70s hard rock, which were revived by Spot, house producer at SST, the seminal 80s hardcore punk label that Carducci co-founded.
If Carducci has a polar opposite in rock theory, it's that archetypal boffin in the sound lab, Brian Eno. In fact, the art rock tradition that Eno stands for an which is crucial to the development of today's post-rock, is something like an egghead version of the Tin Pan Alley pop process that Carducci detests; there's a line running from Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that leads to Eno as clearly as it does to, say, Trevor Horn. Both the Spector and Eno approaches to soundscaping involve using musicians as a sort of palette of textures, as opposed to the rock band's collective toil. Increasingly, the post-Eno approach involves dispensing with musicians altogether in favour of machines.
Another way in which Eno is the prophet of post-rock is his elevation of timbre/texture/chromatics over riffs and rhythm sections; the desire to create a 'fictional psycho-acoustic space' rather than groove and thrust. When he was invited to produce U2 (a group that Carducci reviles as the very model of non-rocking fraudulence) Eno warned Bono: "I'm not interested in records as a document of a rock band playing on stage. I'm more interested in painting pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music happens." As it turned out, this subordination of the aural to the visual was perfect for Bono's 'visionary' vocals, The Edge's stratospheric guitar and the inert rhythm section.
Throughout Eno's own oeuvre, there's a gradual eradication of kinetic energy, beginning with the early solo LPs (with their limpid, uneventful water colours and lyrical imagery of treading water) and culminating in the entropic, vegetative bliss of Ambient. The difference between the Carducci and Eno aesthetics is the difference between 'manly' manual labour and 'effete' white collar brainwork. Carducci actually calls his tradition (the blues-bastardising lineage that runs from Black Sabbath through Black Flag to Soundgarden) "new redneck". By defending the aesthetic of 'heavy' (heavy rock, heavy industry) against studio-concocted 'lite', Carducci wants to protect traditional artisan skills from being usurped by machines (which, in studios as much as factories, are more reliable and cheaper than humans). By contrast, the Enoites embrace technology that empowers the musically incompetent.
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Carducci can't make sense of the pop present, which is based in the soundsculpting innovations of dub, in disco's remixology and HipHop's sampladelic sorcery. His version of rock history also downgrades psychedelia, which was the first music to use multi-track recording to conjure fictional headspace. 'Phonography' (a term that author Evan Eisenberg coined, in his book The Recording Angel, to describe the art of recording) bears the same relation to live music as cinema does to theatre. With most rock records, the studio is used to create a simulacrum of live performance, although multi-tracking makes it more vivid and hyper-real than 'live'. But multi-tracking and other studio techniques can also be used to create 'impossible' events, which could never possibly take place in real time. The sampler, transubstantiating sound into digital data, takes this even further - different eras, different auras, can be combined to form a transchronistic pseudo event. You could call this 'magick', you could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence' - either way, today's post-rock groups are absconding into this virtual, ethereal realm.
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Post-rock draws its inspiration and impetus from a complex combination of sources. Some of these come from post-rock's own tradition - a series of moments in history when eggheads and bohemians have hijacked elements of rock for non-rock purposes (think of the guitar based late 60s music of The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd, and a subsequent lineage that includes New York's No Wave groups, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus And Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and AR Kane; or the so-called 'Krautrock' of Can, Faust, Neu, Cluster and Ash Ra Tempel; as well as the late 70s/early 80s post-punk vanguard of PiL, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire and The Pop Group). Other impulses arrive from outside of rock: Eno, obviously, but also the mid-60s drone-minimalism of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, as well as musique concrete and electroacoustic music, dub reggae and modern sampladelic genres like HipHop and Techno. Most of the British post-rock groups also explicitly define themselves against Grunge, which was Carducci's dream come true: the fusion of punk and Metal into an all-American nouveau hard rock.
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For the post-rock groups, Sonic Youth's idea of 'reinventing the guitar' really means un-rocking the guitar; sometimes the next step is ditching the guitar altogether. Disco Inferno's Iain Crause says he always wanted to make his guitar sound like "actual physical things", such as waterfalls, but in DI's early days (when the group sounded closer to Joy Division and The Durutti Column) he had to do it with masses of effects. It's been said that DI decided to go digital after seeing those samplin', rockin' Industrial muthas of invention The Young Gods live. But according to Crause, the real
The results can be heard on the astounding LP, DI Go Pop. "A Crash At Every Speed" samples Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" and Industrial Improv unit God; "Starbound" samples U2 and children's laughter; while the gorgeous "Footprints In Snow" samples Saint-Saens's "Aquarium". Not that you can tell, since Crause 'plays' these sample-tones rather than merely quoting them. Because he's using a fretboard rather than the usual keyboard, he can use all the guitarist's traditional devices - bending the strings ("It literally sounds like you're twisting the samples", he says), jamming and improvising. This results in unearthly ninth dimensional noises that bear no discernible link to the physical acts that generated them. (Perhaps even more disorient ating is the group's approach to the drums. They use a MIDI-ed up kit whose pads also cue samples. On "Footprints", for instance, the tom-toms reproduce the sound of footfalls.)
Crause sees Disco Inferno as a "virtual reality band". But what's really inter esting about them is the way they haven't totally abandoned the rock process: they combine the physicality of live performance with the wizardry of sampling. (Crause claims that DI Go Pop was recorded live, and that the group's future plans include using
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Other post-rock groups are more affiliated to Techno. Insides compose on Cubase, a widely used computer music program that functions as a sort of "virtual tape recorder", according to the group's J Serge Tardo. "Cubase allows you to 'play' things you couldn't physically play," he says. Like a sequencer, it 'remembers' a riff, motif or beat and reiterates it in any timbre, whether sampled or derived from a module (a sort of digital library of sounds, no bigger than a Kelloggs Pop Tart).
Insides' non-rock approach dates back to their earlier lo-fi incarnation as Earwig. "[In Earwig] we all played hermetically sealed patterns that overlapped but didn't gel. We'd play separately, in a sense," explains Tardo. Like systems musicians, Insides weave a tapestry of sound-threads, where Tardo's guitar features as just another iridescent filigree. In fact, he says the greatest influence on his guitar playing is Kraftwerk!
Tardo prefers "the godlike position of manipulating the soundscape from the outside [the classic Spector/Eno role] as opposed to being in the mix, like a guitarist." When the group play live, improvisation figures only in the sense that "you can have a husk of sequencer patterns that you can mutate, like in a dub mix" (an approach which has direct parallels with the live performances of such Techno operatives as Orbital and Mixmaster Morris). Performance isn't strenuous in the Carducci sense, but it's mentally draining - "Like doing somersaults in your head," says Tardo.
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Like Disco Inferno and Insides, Seefeel are one of those groups whose Year Zero coincides with the arrival of Joy Division and The Cocteau Twins, and whose aesthetic is shaped by the late 80s dreampop of My Bloody Valentine and AR Kane. The latter awoke Seefeel's interest in sound-in-itself, which gradually led them to club based musics such as Techno and House. Of all the post-rock units, Seefeel have most avidly embraced Techno's methodology appropriately, they've found a commercial niche in the 'electronic listenin g' genre (recently performing alongside Autechre and u-ziq), and a home on its premier label, Warp.
Seefeel use a lot of guitars, but only as a source of timbre (all cirrus swirls and drone drifts). If it's mostly impossible to distinguish their guitar tex tures from the sequenced/sampled material, again it's because of Cubase, which, says Mark Clifford, allows them to "take two seconds of guitar and chop it into 1000 pieces, loop it, string it out for ten minutes, layer it, and so on." Similarly, Sarah Peacock's voice is not deployed expressively but used as material; the title track of Seefeel's imminent Ch-Vox EP (a one-off for Richard 'Aphex Twin' James's Rephlex label) is composed entirely of her treated and timestretched vocal drone.
Live, the Techno process means that Justin Fletcher drums to a click-track, while the rest of the band must keep in sync with the pre-recorded parts. Not surprisingly, this is unrewarding and they'd prefer to dispense with gigs altogether. Clifford's fantasy alternative would involve Seefeel creating an aural environment but not actually being the focal point on stage, which is closer to the process of club DJing than being in a rock 'n' roll group.
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A similar fantasy appeals to Robert Hampson of
Hampson is a longtime foe of the sampler, he says, and resorted to it reluctantly. Sometimes he prefers to physically play
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Another key player in this area is Kevin Martin. He runs Pathological Records, leads the post-rock outfits God, Techno Animal and Ice, and participates in the 'supergroup' EAR (along with Sonic Boom, Kevin Shields of MBV and Eddie Prevost). From his own experience as a producer and bandleader, Martin reckons that "working with technology, you become fond of machine time and fed up with the fallibility of human time." God is his most traditional project, since it's about combustive improvisation and physical effort, "the sparks and flashpoints that come from human elements. I see God as a relic of another time, which is why we have images of burnt out locomotives on the covers."
God LPs (a new one, The Anatomy Of Addiction, is imminent) straddle jamming spontaneity and studio mixology. By contrast, Ice and Techno Animal were both conceived with no thought of live performance. For those units, Martin was (like Disco Inferno's Iain Crause) heavily influenced by Public Enemy, specifically the way Hank Shocklee's production situates a song's dynamic in the vertical, not the horizontal: "The shifting layers of frequencies, not the development of verse-chorus narrative," says Martin. "Of course, you could say the same about Jeff Mills or Stakker Humanoid. But Shocklee, on Fear Of A Black Planet, was the first to use sampling to pile on the intensities, rather than just quote obvious riffs; he took the peaks of other songs, like trumpet solos, and layered them densely."
Many of his kindred spirits on the avant rock peripheries - Robert Hampson, Mick Harris, Justin Broadrick (Godflesh/Final) - are embracing digital technology, and Martin thinks that's because digital sound appeals to control freaks. "[These musicians] are a bit solipsistic, they like to control all aspects of what they do. Also, as the audience for adventurous music c ontracts, they get less interested in playing live, it doesn't pay, and instead retreat to their home fortresses and surround themselves with machinery. I think that connects to what's going on in society as a whole - a process of atomisation and disconnection. Digital also appeals because it allows you to break down structure."
Despite the 'cold' accuracy of digital sound, Martin sees post-rock retaining some kind of primal energy. It's not physical in the Carducci sense, but "a different kind of friction, the kind that comes with people wanting to interface and integrate themselves with machinery. It's like Lee Perry saying he wanted the mixing desk to take him over, or Can talking about machines having souls. People feel outdated by machinery. So they're taking on technology, but using it to unleash primal energy."
So perhaps the really provocative area for future development lies not in cyber rock but cyborg rock; not the wholehearted embrace of Techno's methodology, but some kind of interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement. As Kevin Martin points out: "Even in the digital age, you still have a body. It's the connection between 'Techno' and 'Animal' that's interesting."