Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Rock Beyond

Post-Rock, published as "The Rock Beyond"
director's cut version, Village Voice, August 1995

by Simon Reynolds

What to do when the industry calls the underground's bluff (all those complaints about  unresponsiveness, denial of access) and in the blinking of an eye mainstreams the entire Amerindie matrix of attitudes, sounds, tropes and traits? After punk reintegrated with metal to form a populist all-American hard rock (that's GRUNGE), how to revive la difference, resituate "us" on the other side of the pale?
Lo-fi was the US underground's response: a weak response, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values.  As the ersatz folk culture of used vinyl store clerks, record collectors and fanzine editors, lo-fi was always gonna prove a stylistic and cultural dead end (which won't stop Pavement, the genre's REM, from taking the sensibility into the mainstream, four albums down the line).

In Britain, grunge provoked the jingoist backlash of 'Britpop', whereby bands like Blur, Suede, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Gene ad nauseam rallied around a fetishized
Englishness. Beatles and  Pistols,  Who and Jam,  Buzzcocks and Smiths, have all been boiled down into an insular amalgam of anthemic choruses, tinny production and lashings of attitude; a white power-pop that symbolically erases not just America (grunge), but Black Britain (jungle, trip hop) and pan-European prole pop (rave).

But for other, smarter Brit bands, grunge provided the impetus to make a final break with rock.  In America too, the underground is rustling with the cogitation of a new breed of guitar-based experimentalists trying to think their way past the impasse of lo-fi's  retro-eclectic obscurantism.  Together they form a loose trans-Atlantic movement: POST-ROCK. The 'post' signifies a break with both the formal traits and the ideological premises of rock'n'roll. Post-rock means bands who use guitars but in non-rock ways,  as a source of timbre and texture rather than riff and powerchord (Main, Flying Saucer Attack, Skullflower, LaBradford, Stars of the Lid). It also means bands who augment gtr/bs/drms with digital technology such as samplers and sequencers (Techno-Animal, Scorn, Disco Inferno, Laika, My Bloody Valentine), or who tamper with the trad rock line-up but prefer antiquated analog synths and non-rock instrumentation (Pram, Stereolab, Tortoise, Long Fin Killie).

Post-rock has its own sporadic but extensive history, which these bands draw on as much for the suggestiveness of its unrealized possibilities as for actual achievements.  In terms of electric guitar, the key lineage runs from the Velvet Underground, through Krautrock (Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster et al) and Eno/Fripp, to such late '80s proto-postrockers as Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and A.R. Kane.  Bypassing the blues roots of rock'n'roll, the VU melded folkadelic songcraft with a wall-of-noise aesthetic that was half Spector, half La Monte Young. In the process Cale & Co invented 'dronology', a term which loosely describes 50 percent of today's post-rock activity.
Main offers a perfect illustration of the way post-rock emerges from rock's  chrysalis. Main-man Robert Hampson used to be at the helm of Loop, a bunch of  long haired acid-freaks with a fetish for the wah-wah pedal. Hampson's desire to go beyond the Stooges/MC5 matrix expressed itself through covers of  Can's "Mother Sky" and Pop Group's "Thief Of Fire",  but Loop never quite made the break with rock'n'roll. Forming Main, Hampson shed both his lank locks and, step by step, every last vestige of rock'n'roll: first riffs and song structure, then backbeat, eventually even distinct chords.

Main isn't so much a band as a studio-based research unit dedicated to exploring the electric guitar's spectrum of effects-wracked timbres and tonalities; said research is made public via EP's and LP's of bleakly bewitching ambience, dub concrete, and homages to electro-acoustic composers like Stockhausen and Berio. Appropriately, where Loop played gigs alongside sub-Hawkwind biker-psych bands, Hampson is now to be found collaborating with experimentalists like Jim O'Rourke, whose work in Brise-Glace and Gastr del Sol bridges the gap between Sonic Youth's 'reinvention of the guitar' and the 'prepared instruments' of avant-garde classical.
A clutch of American bands--Sabalon Glitz, Jessamine, Bowery Electric--are currently poised to cross the brink between neo-psychedelia and ambient, following in the footsteps of Loop/Main, Spacemen 3 and its sequels Spectrum and Spiritualized, and Skullflower and its offshoot Total.  If Sabalon, Jessamine et al finally lose the backbeat, they'll probably levitate into the stratospheric vicinity of The Stars of The Lid, Dissolve, LaBradford and Flying Saucer Attack: lustrous, meditational noisescapes, permeated with dub's echo and reverb but devoid of any audible traces of Jamaica

The other major strand of post-rock endeavor has jettisoned the dronologists'  guitar-fetish. It also avoids the potential aesthetic cul de sac that is pure ambience, by looking outside rock for different forms of  kinetic energy. Some use the looped beats of hip hop and rave (Techno-Animal, Scorn); others merge live funk and programmed rhythm (Laika, O'Rang, Moonshake).  On their seductive debut "Silver Apples of The Moon" (Too Pure/American), Laika blends hands-on playing and sequenced riffs, sounding  like they're equally influenced by Can at their fizzy flow-motion peak circa "Soon Over Babaluma" and by the jungle streaming out of London's pirate airwaves. Another Too Pure band, Pram, is releasing two brilliant albums via American this year, "Helium" and "Sargasso Sea".  Less technophile than Laika, (it prefers antiquated synths, home-made theremin, the wheezing respiration of the harmonium), Pram nonetheless often sounds like trip hop irrigated with the folky-jazzy fluidity of early '70s cosmonauts like Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt circa "Rock Bottom" and John Martyn circa "Solid Air".  Completing this Too Pure triumvirate, Long Fin Killie's glistening braid of pulses, tics and chimes warrants terms like 'systems folk' or 'Celtic gamelan'.

Tortoise is the closest American parallel to the Too Pure acts' fluent rapprochement between studio-magick and real-time improvisation. Its self-titled debut of last year
offers an unclassifiable all-instrumental hybrid of organic jamming and dub-wise aural anamorphosis, sounding at times like the missing link between Slint and Seefeel. With this year's "Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters", a collection of drastic reworkings of tracks from the debut, Tortoise has plunged headfirst into the remixology that's all the rage in England (where God, Scorn and Main have gladly offered their work up for butchery).  Other American groove-oriented combos--Cul de Sac, Ui, Run On--shun sweatless studio trickery and instead locate models of post-rock dynamics in the flesh-and-blood rhythm-engines that powered Can and early '70s Miles Davis.  Another sub-strand of post-rock activity (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Six Finger Satellite, Medusa Cyclone) aligns itself with the metronomic pulse-beat of the motorik aesthetic, as coined by Kraftwerk and Neu!, who
bridged the gap between the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and Giorgio Moroder's Eurodisco.

Although these strands of post-rock stretch across the Atlantic, there are real and telling differences between British and American post-rock, and most of them revolve around British bohemia's susceptibility to the influence of black music, whether African-American, Caribbean or homegrown. US post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of hip hop.

Dub's vast impact on British left-field rock goes back to the late '70s, to the kinship punk rockers felt with Rastafarian reggae's spiritual militancy and millenial imagery of exile and dread. And so The Clash covered Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" and Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time", while Johnny Rotten went from the metallic KO of Sex Pistols to the anti-rockist Public Image Limited, whose "Metal Box/Second Edition" introduced a significant segment of his following to Lydon's true loves, dub and Can. Brit-bohemia's enduring open-ness to the Jamaican sound-world, from ska to dub to ragga, explains so much of what's bubbled up from UK subbakulcha in the last two decades: you can trace the reverberations of Jah Wobble's bass through Killing Joke and On U Sound to The Orb, or witness how Specials-fan Tricky ended up collaborating with  Mark Stewart (formerly of '70s avant-funksters the Pop Group,  later a solo artist with On U).

Nearly as important as dub as an influence on the Brit post-rockers is Brian Eno. From the early '70s onward,  Eno was connecting, in both theory and practice, the dots between the dub of Lee Perry and King Tubby, Teo Macero's labyrinthine production of Miles Davis, Can's fractal funkadelia, Cluster's Op Art guitar-tapestries, and so on.  Eno's notions--the studio-as-instrument,  recording as the architectonics of 'fictional psycho-acoustic space'--are the organizing principles of post-rock. Most rock producers strive for a glossed-up, embellished simulation of the band in performance. Dub's fluctuating mix tampers with that 'realism', makes the band's presence  hazy and mirage-like; although Tubby et al worked with live bands, they halo-ed different instruments, different parts of the drum kit, with echo and reverb, so that each strand of sound appears to exist in its own distinct acoustic space.  Following Eno and dub, post-rock uses effects and processes to sever the audible link between what you hear and the physical act of a hand striking a guitar-chord or pounding a drum-skin. Where a rock record creates a mental picture of a band onstage engaged in strenuous collective toil, post-rock offers a blank canvas for the imagination.
Sampling and a related technique called 'hard disk editing'  (where sounds are chopped up and rearranged inside the computer's virtual space) dramatically increase the possibilities for disorientation and displacement. With sampling, what you hear could never possibly have been a real-time event, since it's composed of vivisected musical fragments plucked from different contexts and eras, then layered and resequenced to form a trans-chronistic pseudo-event.  You could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence'; you could also call it 'magic'.

Which brings us to hip hop, and once again the contrast between the avidity of its embrace by British underground rock versus the hesitancy of the US post-rockers. It was the weird noises on rap records that first inspired My Bloody Valentine to invent its 'glide guitar' sound; later, the band looped beats and sampled their own feedback on "Soon" and the "Loveless" LP; currently, MBV is struggling to incorporate the breakbeat-science of jungle, hip hop's successor, into its swoon-rock tumult. Similarly, Hank Shocklee's densely layered Bomb Squad production for Public Enemy is cited as a crucial influence by the likes of Disco Inferno and Techno-Animal, while Scorn creates paranoiac groovescapes strikingly similar to those stalked by East Coast horrorcore rappers Jeru the Damaja and Nas. In Britain, staying unaware and uninfected by hip hop and its homegrown offshoots (trip hop, drum & bass) can only be achieved by a strenuous feat of cultural inbreeding (congratulations,  Britpopsters!).  But in America, where you'd think it'd be even harder to ward off rap's influence, white bohemians shy away, perhaps feeling hip hop is the cultural property of African-Americans, and not to be dabbled with lightly.
As for techno-rave having any impact on American post-rock, forget it. A cluster of bigotries form a near impenetrable barrier: the premium on live performance, the
lingering legacy of 'disco sucks', the hatred of machine rhythms. The upshot of all this is that UK post-rock outfits, influenced by various admixtures of dub, hip hop and techno, tend to be studio-centric sound laboratories for whom live performance is an irrelevance; whereas American post-rockers remain deeply committed to the band format and playing live.  Instead of drawing on contemporary black and club music, they revisit those brinks in rock history when eggheads pushed rock's envelope beyond bursting point: Krautrock, obviously, but also Tim Buckley circa 'Starsailor'; the Canterbury scene (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow etc); the freeform passages and proto-ambient lulls that punctuate the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, and were developed further by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth.


If you wanted to trace the tangled lineages of post-rock, you couldn't do much better than to check out two landmark anthologies compiled for Virgin by Techno-Animal's Kevin Martin, 
"Isolationism" and "Macro Dub Infection" (both released over here by Caroline).  Each unravels the cat's-cradle of connections radiating from the figures of Brian Eno and King Tubby respectively. "Isolationism" was conceived as a riposte to 'ambient', at least in its degraded modern version as womb-muzak for raved-out spliffheads. Returning to Eno's original idea of ambient as environmental music, and cueing off Uncle Bri's musical peak "On Land", 'isolationist' music artists create entropic hinterlands of sound;  a nowhere-vastness that externalizes the inner void left when the utopian imagination withers and dies.

 While the "Isolationism" anthology spans guitar-freaks like Main,  techno renegades like Aphex Twin and avant-droners like Zoviet France,  "Dub Infection" is even more wide-ranging, encompassing trip hop (Tricky, New Kingdom), techno (Bedouin Ascent, Wagon Christ) jungle, (Omni Trio, 4 Hero) and post-rock (Laika), as well more obvious dub resurrectionists. (Significantly, the only white American outfit to appear is Tortoise, with the awesomely peculiar sound-maze "Goriri"). Perhaps this multiracial mix prophesies the dissolution of 'post-rock' itself into a broader anti-category, a sort of perimeter region where all the post-s gather to trade ideas: refugees from rap, from rave, from jungle...  anybody who feels shackled by genre, by the expectations attached to identity and community.    


What does the emergence of  post-rock say about the Zeitgeist? If music, as Jacques Attali famously claimed, is prophecy, mirroring-in-advance future changes in social organization, then the 'post' in post-rock seem to chime in with other tendencies in the culture (e.g. computer games, virtual reality etc), ones which seem to indicate the emergence of a new model of post-human subjectivity,  organized around fascination rather than meaning, sensation rather than sensibility.

Form and ideology go hand in hand, as ever. With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to deliquesce into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the Song and the Voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller, the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom or site of social resonance. The more 'post' a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of the soundscape.  A band's journey through rock to post-rock
usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music. In the process, there's a dismantling of trad-rock mechanisms like "identification" and 'catharsis' (which is replaced by plateau-states of bliss, awe, uncanny-ness, or prolonged sensations of propulsion, ascension, freefall, immersion). In post-rock,  'soul' is not so much abolished as radically decentered, dispersed across the entire field of sound, as in club musics like house, techno and jungle, where tracks are less about communication and more like engines for "the programming of sensations" (as Susan Sontag said in 1965 of contempoary art from Rauschenberg to The Supremes). Music that's all surface and no 'depth', that has skin instead of soul.
Above all, post-rock abandons the notion of rebellion as we know and love it, in favor of  less spectacular strategies of subversion; ones closer to notions of 'dissidence' and 'disappearance', to the psychic landscapes of  exile and utopia constructed in dub reggae, hip hop and rave.  At the heart of rock'n'roll stands the body of the white teenage boy, middle finger erect and a sneer playing across his lips. At the center of post-rock floats a phantasmic un-body, androgynous and racially indeterminate; half-ghost, half-cyborg. 

For the time being, the margins must remain the zone for this future-music's research-and-development. On both sides of the Atlantic, popular taste and critical opinion clutch tightly to the certainties and satisfactions of song and singer, and their attendant fictions of community and resistance, while the biz demands 'charismatic personalities' (Juliana Hatfield! The bloke from Live!!!) as the focus of its marketing schemes.  For post-rock to go mainstream would require a Dylan figure--a Stipe or Vedder, say--shocking his folkie audience by appearing onstage with a sampler, as Dylan did when he went electric.  (And what is the electric guitar now but the new acoustic guitar, signifier of grit and earth and folk-blood?).

A final, emotionally-ambivalent thought about the difference between rock and its post-. Let's consider the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", described by  Greil Marcus, accurately, as the greatest piece of recorded rock'n'roll ever. Consider specifically the all-too-brief instrumental prequel, the way Keith Richards' soliloquy of a solo conjures a shattering pitch of ecstatic anguish and longing.  For a multitude of reasons, the historical conditions that made 'Gimme Shelter' not just possible, but of oracular significance, are gone; not only has rock's grand narrative petered out into a delta of micro-cultures, but the possibility of writing a redemptive narrative itself seems to be fading.  A post-rock band would take that intro's appalling poignancy, loop it, stretch it out to six minutes or more, turn it into an environment. Because that limbo-land between bliss-scape and paranoia-scape, narcosis and nightmare, is where we postmoderns live.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

after "Chime" - Orbital's later releases

Orbital 2

Melody Maker? 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Orbital would deserve a place of honour in the pantheon of
'spiritual techno' if they'd only ever recorded 1990's shimmering,
hymnal "Chime" and the poignant cyberdelic symphony "Belfast".  After
an undistinguished phase (a so-so debut LP, the indifferent
"Mutations" EP), the Hartnoll Bros had something of a creative
renaissance with last autumn's entrancing "Halcyon". Now this new
album (untitled, like the first) puts them firmly back in the
firmament, only a couple of clouds below The Aphex Twin.

     Orbital know their drone theory, and the opening "(Time
Becomes)" reworks an idea of systems-music pioneer Steve Reich: two
tape loops of the same phrase ("time becomes a loop") run in and out
of synch. Actually, this Moebius-mantra irritates rather than
mesmerises, so it's a relief when they abandon conceptualism for real
substance, in the form of a four-part electro-symphony.  "Lush 3-1"
is a tantalising, tremulous shimmer-swirl of synth-textures that
feels as sensual as spring rain. Orbital ooze a panoply of plangent
tones that seem to sing from the deepest chambers of your heart; an
inner choir of babytalk oohs-and-aahs that resembles nothing so much
as the hyperventilating harmonies on MBV's "Loveless".

    "Lush 3-2" introduces an ethereal girl-voice whose ecstasy could
be either ecclesiastical or sexual, an unearthly horn-section, and a
rubbery bass-line that itches in your bloodstream.  "Impact (The
Earth Is Burning") slips deeper into a squelchamatic Roland 303
acieeed groove, topped with Seventies sci-fi movie dialogue.  The
symphony's last movement, "Remind", is their drastic remix of Meat
Beat Manifesto's "Mindstream", stripped of every last trace of the
original so that it's all Orbital and even more luscious than before:
a brimming, blossoming efflorescence of ever-widening wonderment, the
sound of a cup of joy overfloweth-ing. The goosepimples run riot!

     On the flip, "Planet Of The Shapes" is a hissing and clicking
contraption that could belong on LFO"s classic "Frequencies" LP. It's
dank and morbid, until the sunburst entrance of sitar chimes and
flute-twirls. "Walk Now" shimmies nicely, but the didgeridoo (which I
always thought was the ancestor for the Roland 303 acid drone) is
already a techno cliche.  The Detroit-styled "Monday" is crisp-and-
spry, glassy-and-classy, but a bit inconsequential.

    Best comes last, with "Halycon & On & On", a fully-developed
version of the last single.  Here, the tremulous New Age euphoria of
Kirsty of Opus III is modulated on a sampling keyboard and swollen
into the full-blown mystic bliss of Saint Teresa. Kirsty's breathless
gasps are looped into a locked groove of almost unendurable ecstasy,
such that your insides shimmer and shudder.  "Halcyon" is further
proof that rave culture is all about clitoris envy.  Where the multi-
orgasmic disco of Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" invited male
lust, techno's sped-up girl-vox conjure a hyper-real, supra-human
rapture that (male) ravers identity with and aspire to.  It's what
postmodern theorists call "gender tourism" (in rock terms, think of
Brett Anderson's swoony languour). As warm as plasma and as eerie as
ectoplasm, Orbital's (out-of-)body music is the true sound of

[tk - review of Snivilisation, 1994]

The Middle of Nowhere
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

            Orbital's place in the Rave Hall of Fame would be secure if they'd only ever released three tracks--1990's spangly-tingly "Chime"; its original B-side, the heart-string tugging techno-symphony "Belfast"; and 1992's "Halcyon+on+on,"  9 minutes of densely braided, wordlessly rhapsodic vocals that make you feel like you're hovering on the brink of a swoon. "Halcyon," especially, showcases Orbital's forte--melody and harmony, as opposed to dance music's real domain (rhythm, timbre and space). Orbital's beats, rarely more than adequate, are generally relegated to a relatively low position in the mix;  texturally, Phil and Paul Hartnoll favor plangent, plinky, melodious timbres that barely stray from the orchestral spectrum (pianos, strings, woodwinds, and so forth).  All of which explains why Orbital's music is simultaneously utterly lovely and yet somewhat conservative, at least from the stern perspective of  purist club fiends and avant-technoheads.
  In truth, after Snivilisation's  flirtation with jungle breakbeats in '94, Orbital lost interest in keeping up with the state of the art. The Middle of Nowhere picks up where 1996's In Sides left off--stirring soundtrack music in search of a movie. With its piping string cascades, trumpet solo and wonderstruck female vocal, opener "Way Out" recalls John Barry's James Bond scores. Throughout  the album,  Orbital eschew the infinitesmal subtle shades of the digital palette in favor of deliberately quaint synth-tones--the soundpainter's equivalent of using only primary colors. As if to signpost this deliberate retrogression, "Style" starts by sampling  instructions for playing the stylophone, an incredibly rudimentary toy-synth popular with Brit-kids in the early 1970s.

            The riffs too are enjoyably oldfashioned--corrugated, rectilinear stabs that flashback to  vintage rave anthems by Cubic 22 and The Scientist, the 1991 Euro-hardcore sound  dissed as "heavy metal techno".  The guitar-laced "I Don't Know You People" actually recalls English punk bands like The Ruts and The Stranglers, right down to the thuggish bassline and baroque organ vamps. But then Orbital basically are a rock group in electronic clothing. They've played the Royal Albert Hall,  they've released a live single, and they sell shitloads of albums to a hugely loyal fanbase. In the high turnover world of dance culture, Orbital have endured, precisely through downplaying any rhythm-science that might confuse your average beat-deaf  rock fan, and concentrating instead on crafting tunes that sing in your heart. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Paula Abdul

Paula Abdul

New York Times, May 12th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Just as there are those who worry about additive-riddled junk food, so too there's an unofficial "campaign for real music."
Adherents fret about the unauthenticity of mainstream pop performers who, in the tradition of Milli Vanilli, mime to backing tapes when supposedly performing live. For these people, Paula Abdul has become the focus of the latest crisis of confidence.
The session singer Yvette Marine has claimed that the lead vocal on two tracks from Ms. Abdul's first album, Forever Your Girl, which has sold seven million copies, is a composite voice. Ms. Marine claims that her original "guide vocal" was used to beef up Ms. Abdul's singing and has filed a false-and-deceptive-packaging suit against Virgin Records, which has denied the charges.
Although the allegations are not as threatening to Ms. Abdul's credibility as the Milli Vanilli revelations were to theirs, they are timed to cause maximum embarrassment: Ms. Abdul's second album, Spellbound (Virgin 91611; all three formats), will be released this week. The controversy has reawakened familiar anxieties about the dehumanizing effect of technology on music. As pop production grows steadily more complex, it also becomes increasingly specialized. The person who sings the song is less and less often the person who wrote it, while the sound is more and more the creation of the producer.
Most songs on Spellbound consist of rhythm tracks and keyboard sequences programmed by the album's producers, V. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Lord. Session musicians were occasionally employed to lay down rhythm guitar parts or saxophone and violin solos, but they sound incongruously "organic" amid the inhuman perfection of the metronomic beats.
This way of making records was the norm in the Tin Pan Alley era of the '50s, and it has continued to be the rule in black pop and dance music. But such division of labour cuts against the notion of authenticity that emerged in the countercultural '60s, when it was expected that singers would be responsible for the meanings of their own songs. This notion is what lies behind the hostility toward manufactured pop. The fear is that the artist's style will be totally superseded by the producer's trademark commercial sound, and that the gritty spontaneity of rock-and-roll will lose out to programming expertise.
It has been a long time since pop records documented live performances; instead, their simulation of them is constructed painstakingly in the studio. No longer is it necessary for musicians to play in one another's presence. Vocals rarely take place in "real time" but are a collage of the best-sung phrases edited from numerous vocal takes. Bad notes can be corrected by altering the pitch; weak voices can be thickened by multi-tracking.
For most people, this surgical procedure seems distant from the "raw expression" of Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. It's hard to accept the fact that this techno-pop is music, but it's also unlikely that today's 16-year-old pop consumers care; all they hear is the immediacy and effervescence of the product.
Paula Abdul's unusual route to pop stardom was via her award-winning choreography for promotional videos of artists like Janet Jackson, ZZ Top, George Michael and INXS. This background makes her particularly emblematic of the state of modern pop, the suspicion being that she was given a recording contract because she's videogenic rather than a gifted natural singer.
Ms. Abdul's 1988 debut, Forever Your Girl, was clearly modeled on Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control, whose widely influential techno-funk sound was created by her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Like Ms. Abdul, Ms. Jackson has a serviceable rather than astounding voice, and so Mr. Jam and Mr. Lewis devised a breathless, dynamic electro-pop sound based around clipped, urgent hooks rather than complex melodies and soul diva singing.
Ms. Abdul's debut album cleaved to the same effective formula. The crucial difference was that Ms. Abdul replaced Ms. Jackson's soft-core feminism with a more traditional female persona, as can readily be seen by contrasting the album titles Control and Forever Your Girl.
Spellbound builds on that winning approach. Musically, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord have constructed a state-of-the-art dance pop that mixes influences from house, swing beat, rap, Prince-style pop-funk and "Euro-black" groups like Snap. Lyrically, Ms. Abdul's persona is flirty but wholesome. Although tracks like 'The Promise of a New Day' and 'Rock House' feebly gesture at the social-awareness-by-numbers of Janet Jackson's second album, Rhythm Nation 1814, most of the songs are gushing tributes to boyfriends.
New songs like 'Rush Rush', 'Spellbound', 'To You' and 'Will You Marry Me' reiterate the sexually apolitical attitude of previous hits like 'Knocked Out', 'It's the Way That You Love Me' and 'Forever Your Girl'. Even when wronged in love ('Foolish Heart', 'Blowin' Kisses in the Wind'), Ms. Abdul's persona is aggrieved but hopelessly devoted, her voice tremulously verging on a Betty Boop whine.
The best tracks on Spellbound are those that make the furthest departure from the Abdul norm. 'Vibeology' combines Parliament-Funkadelic influences and contemporary house mannerisms with results as sultry and engaging as Deee-Lite; Ms. Abdul sings dance-floor doggerel like "I'm in a funky way" in a cartoonish chipmunk squeak. 'U', one of the handful of tracks not produced by Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord, is also excellent. Composed and produced by Prince's Paisley Park organization, the track combines a military beat with a staccato, hard-rock riff and jazzy harmonies – Prince's trademark – to eerie effect. It's the best thing Prince has been involved in since his 1988 album Lovesexy.
The main vein of Spellbound, however, is precisely what one expects from Paula Abdul: brisk beats, stuttering synthesizers, stammering bass lines, nervous tics of rhythm guitar and a profusion of hooks designed to snag consumers by the ear. The music sounds spectacular; its endless crescendos and hyperactive rhythms are designed to go in sync with the rapid-fire quick cuts of the videos, the jut and thrust of the choreography.
A phenomenal number of man-hours go into each of these spectacles of effortlessness. For the videos, there's storyboard writing, makeup, lighting, interminable takes, editing, tinting, special effects. Musically, there's programming, arranging, treating, remixing and, in the case of Spellbound, processing the entire album through Q-sound, a technique that makes records sound more three dimensional, so that every snare kick hits the listener in the gut.
If it seems like there's no spontaneity involved in this process, it's best to remind yourself that this isn't rock-and-roll. Ms. Abdul belongs to the tradition of show-biz entertainment in which every inflection and gesture is choreographed and rehearsed to the point of robotic precision. She has said that it wasn't a rock or rhythm-and-blues icon that inspired her to enter the business, but Gene Kelly. What Ms. Abdul's music offers is the sterile exhilaration of a Hollywood blockbuster, where every edit and sound effect is designed to fit into the listener's reduced attention span.
Just as these spectacles are diverting at the time but leave you feeling empty afterward, Spellbound is louder than life but lacking in resonance. As with junk food, you might occasionally want to get high on all the empty calories and additives, but you can't live off the stuff.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
(Serpent's Tail)

The Guardian, the year it came out whatever dude

by Simon Reynolds

Science and spirituality have long been considered enemies. The Englightenment consigned mystical impulses into the murky netherworld of superstitious unreason. In reaction, the Romantic tradition generally rejected technology as a force of disenchantment---in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzche blamed science for banishing the mythopoeic, Dionysian spirit from modernity, while Henry Adams's famous dichotomy of the Virgin and the Dynamo presented sacred mystery and scientific mastery as mutually incompatible aspects of the human condition.

            American critic Erik Davis aims to complicate this received opposition.  The punning neologism that titles his  book *TechGnosis* condenses his core assertion--that   there has actually long been a mutual entanglement of the scientific and spiritual imaginations.  Davis argues that "magic is technology's unconscious."  For their practitioners, spells and rituals aren't mumbo-jumbo but rather (like "proper" science) attempts to manipulate laws of nature to achieve practical results. Sometimes yesterday's magic becomes tomorrow's science. Alchemy was a prequel to chemistry, a sort of proto-science that blurred the distinction between "ritual" and "experiment", "vision-quest" and "research". Similarly, mesmerism--today regarded as mere smoke'n'mirrors charlatanry--actually laid the groundwork for psychotherapy and Freud's discovery of the unconscious. In one of his most provocative feats of  knowledge archaeology, Davis traces the origin of  the complex "data architectures" of  contemporary cyberculture all the way back to the "memory palaces"  that Renaissance hermeticists  mentally constructed--a mind's eye technique that enabled these scholars of esoteric knowledge to store vast amounts of  information in their own brains. 

            The flipside of  Davis's argument concerns the way that the mystical and Romantic imagination has repeatedly seized on the scientific, technical, and engineering developments of the era as a source of metaphor.  TechGnosis's stand-out chapter, "The Alchemical Fire",  investigates the many manifestations of  what Davis dubs "the electromagnetic imaginary." These include  theories of an "electrical"  life-force (such as Mesmer's  animal magnetism and Theosophy's etheric body)  and Spiritualism's debt to the newly invented telegraph and Morse Code (the movement's leading periodical was called The Spiritual Telegraph).

            Like other paradigm-shifting innovations in telecommunications such as the telephone, wireless, and Internet, the telegraph was hailed as the advent of the New Jersusalem, an earthly paradise of peace, prosperity and global village-like intimacy among all mankind. A fifth-generation Californian, Davis tends to look on the bright side himself;  in a sense, his stance is "why can't spirituality and technology be friends?". But he's too sharp to ignore technology's darkside, its potential for control and cataclysm. Accordingly, TechGnosis explores how technology's  dystopian aspect has been  mirrored by a darkside spirituality. In Medieval times, paranoid schizophrenics expressed their dread through the demonology of witches, fairies, and  incubi; in the Modern era, technology possessed the troubled imagination. Within a few years of Alexander Graham Bell's invention,  one benighted soul suffered the delusion that his enemies were telephonically transmitting "fiendish suggestions" directly into his brain via an subcranial implant. Today, similar persecution complexes involve controlling rays beamed from satellites or  microchips implanted behind the eyes. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick based his later novels like  Radio Free Albemuth on his own paranoid hallucinations that he'd been contacted by a sort of   Cosmological Internet called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

            Davis identifies this sort of delusion as a technologized update of Gnosticism, the early Christian heresy that bypassed faith and doctrinal obedience in favor of direct knowledge of  God.  Each human soul contains a latent "spark" of divinity which can be reawakened by a signal from the higher realm--a notion Davis likens to satellite radio transponders that are designed to remain dormant until an activating transmission is received. The most recent example of  this syndrome is the Heaven's Gate cult, who shared the Gnostics' distaste for the human body  and couldn't wait to be beamed up from this fallen world by the Hale Bopp spacecraft. Then there are the Extropians--technophiliacs who believe that humans can become godlike via bionic prosthetics and smart drugs, and look forward to the day when they can defeat death by downloading their consciousness into immortal machines.

            Drawing on a slightly staggering range of erudition, and written in a  vivid style that oscillates between earthy ("the tangled noodles of the collective mind") and flowery  ("blueprints inked upon the fiery heart"), TechGnosis succeeds brilliantly in revealing the unexpected interdependence of science and spirituality. If the book has one flaw, it's  Davis's well-meant  attempt to walk a "sane" midpath between non-judgemental generosity towards the often preposterous expressions of the mystical imagination and  postmodern distrust of belief  (including the theology of science as salvation).  Endorsing Vaclav Havel's rather hazy notion of "post-religious spirituality," Davis aspires to be something oxymoronic:  "a sacred ironist or a visionary skeptic... dancing between logic and archaic perception, myth and modernity."  Yet  surely one of the things that spirituality and science share is the aspiration to truth;  both say "this is how reality/the cosmos really works."  Postmodern irony, which makes every assertion provisional, is ultimately the real enemy to the scientific and spiritual impulses,  which are both based on the conviction that we can know something for certain.