"there are immaturities, but there are immensities" - Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
"the fear of being wrong can keep you from being anything at all" - Nayland Blake >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "It may be foolish to be foolish, but, somehow, even more so, to not be" - Airport Through The Trees
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
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
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.
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
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
(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.
post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of
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).
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.
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'.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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?).
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
ORBITAL 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
by Simon Reynolds
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
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.
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.
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.
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of
by Erik Davis
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.