Thursday, March 29, 2018

Grebo fondly dismembered

Close to the Noise Floor: Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984

Close To the Noise Floor: Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984
Cherry Red
Pitchfork, 2016

by Simon Reynolds

The evolutionary arc of the synthesizer has a completely different shape to the trajectory of the electric guitar. With a few exceptions, the guitar started out as a crude generator of exciting noise and dance energy: a fundamentally teenage sound. Then it gradually became an ever more subtle expressive implement, with a huge textural range.  Synths, in contrast, started out prog: they cost a fortune and were challenging to operate, and this made them the preserve of established performers generally of  virtuosic and artistically ambitious bent. Either that or synthesisers belonged to institutions like universities and were accessible only to composers with equally lofty purposes in mind.

The primitivist phase of the synthesizer came after the sophisticated start. In the late Seventies, cheaper machines like the Wasp became available; they were also compact, portable, and relatively user-friendly compared with their bulky predecessors. This democratization of electronics happened to coincide with rock’s own self-conscious return to juvenile basics in the form of punk. All of a sudden the synth was competing with the guitar to be the true instrument of do-it-yourself.  For many the synth won that contest handily: you didn’t even need to learn two chords, you could riff out abstract blurts of nasty noise or play one-finger melodies.  Furthermore synths and the rudimentary drum machines that were also newly available encouraged a “non-musical” (at least in rock terms) approach. Rather than jam your way to a song through the intuitive logic of groove and feel, tracks could be built up through addition and subtraction, using a hypnotic but uninflected machine-beat as a grid for the assembly process.  

Compiled by Richard Anderson, Close To the Noise Floor is a four-disc survey of the excitingly messy birth of British electronica during the late Seventies and early Eighties. One of the maps Anderson used is “Wild Planet”, a celebrated three-part feature written by Dave Henderson  for the music weekly Sounds. The 1983 article spawned a regular Sounds column dedicated to the cassette underground of tiny labels like Flowmotion and Third Mind.  Henderson contributes a short but vivid memoir-style introduction to this box set and also features in his musical guise as a member of Worldbackwards, a group whose ambition was to sound like “Throbbing Gristle on Tamla Motown”.

“Minimal synth” works as a shorthand tag for Close To the Noise Floor’s remit, although the scope of the trawl is actually wider and more disparate than what that term tends to signify, taking in electro-punk, industrial, synthpop, dark ambient, and more.  Rather than use generic focus as an organizing principle, the anthology achieves coherence through sticking with a single country – Britain – when it could have easily have swept across the equally active European scene or harvested the scattered but significant American exponents like John Bender and Nervous Gender.

The national focus makes sense historically, in so far as the UK scene was catalysed by half-a-dozen native outfits who released debut singles within a few months of each other in mid-1978: The Normal, Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Thomas Leer, and Robert Rental.  The combined impact of these singles – respectively “T.V.O.D.”, “Being Boiled”, “United”, Extended Play EP, “Private Plane” and “Paralysis” -  was as galvanizing as Buzzcocks’s “Spiral Scratch” had been for scrappy DIY guitar-groups a year earlier.

Noise Floor’s first disc concentrates on the children of Throbbing Gristle and “Warm Leatherette” (the more influential B-side to The Normal’s “T.V.O.D.”).  No spacey ripples or groovy Moogy sensuality here: the synth is used aggressively and obnoxiously. One gem in this vein is Storm Bugs’s “Little Bob Minor”, with its ear-itching drones whose texture resembles a comb-and-paper kazoo.   Vocals, when they appear, are usually screams or creepy spoken-word soundbites, as with the cut-up voices from a radio interview with prostitutes that appear on We Be Echo’s “Sexuality”.

The stand-out track on the first disc, though, is a bit of an anomaly: Thomas Leer’s “Tight as A Drum,” from his fabulous EP 4 Movements. By 1981 Leer had left behind the gratingly foreboding ambiences of The Bridge, his collaborative album with Robert Rental, and absorbed the mutant disco influence of New York’s ZE label.  4 Movements also sounds like he’s letting back in some of the banished musicality of pre-punk rock, figures like Island Records folk-blues minstrel John Martyn. “Tight As Drum” swings because although the percussion is electronic, Leer played it by hand on pads; the intricate weave of synth-melodies over the top sounds vaguely Middle Eastern in its ornamented filigree. The song seems to reach your ears through the heat-haze coming off a sun-baked road. A snapshot of a moment of tension so exquisitely taut it’s a kind of ecstasy, “Tight As A Drum” features the briefest of spoken-not-sung lyrics: a depiction of a young man stretching himself, silhouetted against the morning light streaming through a window.  

Embracing mainstream ideas of melody and musicality doesn’t work so well on the second disc, which mostly features groups who reach towards pop but don’t get even as close as The Human League did on “Being Boiled” (included here). Performance art duo Schlelmer K’s “Broken Vein” suggests Soft Cell sans the soaring voice and heart-swelling tunes; Native Europe’s “The Distance from Köln is a lo-fi cousin to Berlin’s Eighties radio staple “The Metro”; lyrically if not so much sonically, Cultural Amnesia’s 1981 anti-Thatcherism ditty “Materialistic Man” comes over like  a dry run for Depeche Mode’s  “Everything Counts”.  The better tunes come from those who actually managed to make it as pop stars.  “A New Kind of Man”, an unreleased solo single by ex-Ultravox singer John Foxx, features a vocal that – typical for the emerging synthpop genre – sounds glacial and torrid at the same time, plus lyrics like scraps from an abandoned and torn-up screenplay: “an underwater kind of silence/humming of electric pylons/”don’t forget me” fits of static/another scene began.”  Heard in its superior 1980 album version rather than original incarnation as B-side to their debut single “Electricity,” Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark’s “Almost” sounds like a spindly North-of-England Kraftwerk: graph-paper rhythm, sobbing synth. Possibly the best thing OMD ever did, the song seems to express obliquely the hidden hot tears of a cold fish technocrat who’s outwardly all impassive Dr Spock logic:  “always making statements and moving step by step/always acting theories/I will regret.”

Livening up the second disc – otherwise a bit of slog – are specimens from the post-punk mini-genre of parody.  The late Seventies erupted with cover  versions that swapped reverent reinterpretation for willfully goofy travesty – think Flying Lizards’s deadpan take on “Money”, or The Dickies’s punked-up “Nights in White Satin”. The idea, I think, was to show just how much distance there was now between Old Wave and New Wave – or, if the cover was of a contemporary hit, how far from chartpop convention you could push the song.   That’s the nature of the game with British Standard Unit’s deconstructive molesting of Rod Stewart’s “D’Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which became a John Peel radio show fave in 1979 with its grotesquely sped-up voices and anti-disco jerkiness.  B.S.U. was just one of numerous guises worn by ex-Mott the Hoople keyboard player Morgan Fisher for a covers album project called Hybrid Kids. “Gerry and the Holograms” by the group of the same name isn’t a cover but a lampoon of the emergent synthpop genre itself, wreaked by two members of the cult band Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (whose output consisted almost entirely of parodies such as their punk-mocking Snuff Rock EP). “Gerry and the Holograms” has been identified as the melodic source for New Order’s “Blue Monday,” but to these ears sounds more like The Stooges’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” covered by BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In a word, awesome.

That pair of whimsies could equally have been squeezed onto the last disc of Close To the Noise Floor, which corrals an array of unclassifiable oddities. Although electronic in feel, more often than not the sounds here are achieved via conventional instruments subjected to heavy treatments. Here the forebears, if any exist, are The Residents and Cabaret Voltaire (who in their early days used effects-processed flute and guitar more than synths).  Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Dying Inside” sounds ripe for sampling by Kanye West on Pablo II. Unable to afford synths, the duo used effects pedals to render their instruments and voices as inorganic and alien-sounding as possible.  Alien Brains’s “Menial Disorders” has a great back story (the project started in the physics lab at the group’s high school and mainly deployed a “Loopotron,” a self-cobbled tape-echo machine that used the erase head to alter the sound) which is matched by the sound itself : a cloud of mechanical gnats circling around your head, fizzing zig-zags of hi-hat, corrugated crumples of  texture, rhythm like bed springs pinging inside a giant reverberant cistern.  

Most of Noise Floor’s contents are shaped by twin prohibitions. First and foremost, the goal was to sound as un-rock’n’roll and un-American as possible (which is why the vocals, when they appear, are usually absurdly English – stiff-backed, groomed-sounding, somehow short-haired).  But there was a secondary impulse at work too: to break with the conventions of synth-based music established in the first half of the Seventies by groups like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, who favored long-form compositions (often taking up an entire album side) and an atmosphere of celestial serenity. 

Now you might have noticed that I jumped right past this box’s third disc. That’s because in some ways it’s the most intriguing of the four, precisely because it’s full of postpunk DIY that still took its bearings from the pre-punk electronic cosmonauts.  Maximal Synth, you could call this stuff:  operators like Sea of Wires, MFH, and Mark Shreeve, who, rather than ape “Warm Leatherette” or Cabaret Voltaire’s “Silent Command”, parallel the billowing pulse-scapes being made at that same time by Manuel Gottsching on albums like 1978’s Blackouts. This sound – late period kosmische drifting towards New Age or proto-techno – has in recent years enjoyed a measure of renewed currency thanks to Emeralds and their ilk, but generally it’s been written right out of history.

One of the groups included on Disc 3 are actually a totally pre-punk proposition.  Zorch took their battery of EMS Synthi As and lightshow to free festivals all across England, including the very first Stonehenge Festival in 1974. Hearing their “Adrenalin” made me wish for a time machine so I could experiences its spaceship-landing whooshes panning around the megalithic columns and frazzling the minds of the gathered long-hairs.  In a similar amorphous vein, Ron Berry’s “Sea of Tranquility” is an elegaic homage to the Moon Landing. But “Triptych” by EG Oblique Graph (Bryn Jones, later better known as Muslimgauze) is less beatific, recalling the sensory-deprivation aesthetic of Conrad Schnitzler: insidiously hissing percussion and color-leached tones, like a wintry after-dark walk through a Berlin pedestrian underpass. 

Despite the omission of obvious classics like “Warm Leatherette” or Fad Gadget’s “Ricky’s Hand” (presumably because the Mute label archive was off-limits to the compiler) Close To the Noise Floor provides a fascinating overview of the formative years of British home-studio electronica: groups who were precursors in spirit, if not direct lineage, to the techno and IDM artists of the Nineties.  Still, with the cult for “minimal wave” now a decade old, it almost feels like another task has become urgent: the rediscovery of the groups that did the groundwork for the outfits on Disc 3 of Noise Floor. Time, perhaps, for a box set that does justice to major label synth-rock of the Seventies: figures like Tomita, pre-Chariots of Fire Vangelis, Michael Hoenig, Ralph Lundsten, even Jean Michel-Jarre.  Rather than the underground, which enjoys a healthy complement of dedicated curators and salvage operators, it’s the mainstream of that era that is truly lost, that in a stragne way seems even more exotic and remote in time.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Kate Bush (2014)

KATE BUSH and her Never Never Pop
The Guardian, August 21 2014

by Simon Reynolds

In 2014, there is something unbelievable about the idea of Kate Bush as a pop star.  Did it really actually happen, that run of singles so strange and yet so strong they rose to the higher reaches of the hit parade, rubbing shoulders with Showaddywaddy and The Nolans on Top of the Pops?  How did such an unearthly voice and unleashed imagination ever infiltrate the mundane mainstream, get play-listed on daytime Radio One, profiled on Nationwide, parodied on Not the Nine O’Clock News?

The string of hits from “Wuthering Heights”  to “Cloudbusting” is almost unrivaled  for sustained brilliance and escalating oddness  - only The Beatles, from start to finish, and Bowie, from “Space Oddity” to “Fashion,” surpass it.

Some high points, year by year...

1978:  “Wuthering Heights” .  Gothic romance distilled into four-and-a-half minutes of gaseous rhapsody, this was released as her first single at Bush’s insistence in the face of opposition from seasoned and cautious EMI executives;  wilfulness vindicated by the month “Wuthering” spent at Number one. 

1979: “Them Heavy People” (the radio cut from the On Stage EP). Namedropping the Russian mystic Gurdjieff and Sufi  whirling dervishes,  a celebration of  being intellectually-emotionally expanded: “it’s nearly killing me ... what a lovely feeling”.

1980: “Breathing,”   a chillingly claustrophobic sound-picture of  slow death through radiation sickness after the Bomb drops:  “chips of plutonium/ are twinkling in every lung.”  Swiftly followed by “Army Dreamers”: perhaps the best,  certainly the most subtle of anti-war songs, inventing and rendering obsolete  Let England Shake a couple of decades ahead of schedule.

1981: “Sat In Your Lap”. Avant-pop stampede of pounding percussion and deranged shrieks, a sister-song to Public Image Ltd’s “Flowers of Romance”, but lyrically about the quest for Knowledge:  “I want to be a scholar!”.

1982: “The Dreaming”, Bush’s first real flop, but artistically a triumph: inspired by Australian aboriginal culture and music, it’s a Fairlight fairy-tale that used smashed-marble for percussion sounds and prophesized a completely alternate future for sampling-based pop than what would actually transpire.  

1985: “Running Up That Hill,” an ecstastic protest against the limits of identity and empathy, preempting Prince’s similarly inspired “If I Was Your Girlfriend” by a couple of years.  Swiftly followed by “Cloudbusting”, a song/video about the psychologist-turned-mystic Wilhelm Reich’s attempts to build a rain-making machine, as seen through the faithful eyes of small son Peter.

As words and as music, not one of these screams “hit single”.  But all but one of them were. 

Bush’s preeminence as the Goddess of  Artpop makes perfect sense, then.  It’s hardly surprising that her name gets reeled out, with varying degrees of appropriateness, as the ancestor for any new female artist trying to merge  glamour, conceptualism,  innovation, and autonomy. Sometimes there is a direct influence, or an undeniable resemblance:    Grimes, Julia Holter, FKA Twigs.

Strange as it may seem, though, Kate Bush was not always impregnably cool. In fact, despite her massive record sales and mainstream fame, she was not taken seriously or afforded much respect by critics or hip listeners in the late Seventies. 

This was partly a matter of timing. After a year of being developed by EMI (who funded her while she “grew up”, expanding her horizons and honing her craft) Bush emerged into a British music scene transformed by punk.  Both her sound and her look seemed conventionally feminine when juxtaposed with ferociously confrontational performers like Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene, who shredded expectations of  how the female voice  should sound and who shatttered taboos with their lyrical content and appearance.   Bushs’  fantastical lyrics, influenced by children’s literature, esoteric mystical knowledge, daydreams, and the lore and legends of old Albion, seemed irrelevant and deficient in street-cred at a time of tower-block social realism and agit-prop.   Her odd combo of artiness and artlessness, and the way she came across in interviews—at once guileless and guarded—made her a target for music press mockery, for  crude and cruel dismissals of her music as a middlebrow soft option, easy listening with literary affectations.

Despite being as young or younger than, say, The Slits, Bush seemed Old Wave: she belonged with the generation of musicians who’d emerged during the Sixties (“boring old farts” as the punk press called them). Some of B.O.F’s were indeed her mentors, friends, and collaborators: David Gilmour, Peter Gabriel, Roy Harper.   Growing up, her sensibility was shaped  by her older brothers, in particular the musical tastes and spiritual interests of Jay, 13 years her senior and a true Sixties cat.

Punk often sneered at “art” as airy-fairy, bourgeois self-indulgence, but its ranks were full of art-school graduates and this artiness blossomed with the sound, design and stage presentation of bands like Wire and Talking Heads. But Bush’s seemed the wrong kind of “arty”: ornate rather than angular, overly decorative and decorous.  It was the sort of musically accomplished, well-arranged, album-oriented art-pop that EMI had been comfortable with since The Beatles and had pursued with Pink Floyd, Cockney Rebel, Queen. They signed Bush expressly as the first major British female exponent of this genteel genre.

And that’s where Kate Bush was situated on The Kick Inside and Lionheart, her first two albums: somewhere  at the cross-roads of singer-songwriter pop, the lighter side of prog, and the  highbrow end of glam. Like Bowie, she studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, took classes in dance, and made a series of striking, inventive  videos.  EMI’s Bob Mercer hailed Bush as “a completely audio visual artist” and spoke of the company’s intention to break her in America through television rather than radio (this, several years before MTV even existed).  Her one and only tour was a theatrical mega-production in the rigidly choreographed tradition of Diamond Dogs, all dancers and costume changes and no-expense-spared staging. Reviewing one of the 1979 concerts for NME, Charles Shaar Murray typified the general rock-press attitude towards Bush at that point, scornfully describing the show as a throw-back to “all the unpleasant aspects of David Bowie in the Mainman era....  [Bowie manager/Mainman boss] Tony DeFries would've loved you seven years ago, Kate, and seven years ago maybe I would've too. But these days I'm past the stage of admiring people desperate to dazzle and bemuse, and I wish you were past the stage of trying those tricks yourself.” Spectacle, in the immediate years after punk, was considered a narcissistic star trip, fundamentally non-egalitarian.

Abandoning the live arena altogether, Bush plunged deeper into the studio, exploring its capacities for illusion-spinning: a theatricality of the mind’s eye, conjured through sound.  Her music got more challenging, harder to ignore or deny, as she gradually assumed total control.  On 1980’s Never For Ever, Bush co-produces but is clearly calling the shots: the result is like the missing link between Laura Ashley and Laurie Anderson.  Two years later, the production and arrangement entirely in Bush’s hands, came her  wholly unfettered mistress-piece: The Dreaming.

Bush reveled in the empowerment, declaring that “the freedom you feel when you’re actually in control of your own music is fantastic” but giving the emotion a distinctly female inflection:  “as soon as you get your hands on the production, it becomes your baby. That’s really exciting for me, because you do everything for your own child” ”

Integral to her seizing  of the means of musical production was Bush’s ardent embrace of the Fairlight Sampler,  at that time a very expensive play-thing reserved for an elite of art-rock superstars such as  herself and Peter Gabriel. Years ahead of The Art of Noise or Mantronix, she became a sampling pioneer, at a time when very few women outside the realm of academic electronic composers  were involved with cutting-edge music-making technology.

Armed with the Fairlight and other state-of-the-art machines, Bush took her existing maximalist tendencies and pushed them further still, to the brink of overload.  It’s this too-muchness – the intricate excess of layers, details, twists, treatments – that makes The Dreaming such a delirious, head-spinning experience. Paradoxically, the effect of unruly profusion and rampant frenzy was born not through spontaneity and randomness but conscientiously focused assembly and obsessive-compulsive meticulousness.  It took a control freak to create such a freak-out.

Particularly arresting were the new uses Bush was making of her voice: tracks like “Pull Out The Pin” and “Suspended In Gaffa”  teemed with a panoply of exaggerated accents and jarring phrasings, as Bush applied demented thespian emphasis on particular words or syllables, and developed a whole new vocabulary of harsh shrieks and throat-scorched yelps. Emotions clashed or merged into hybrids  impossible to parse. And all this was before she let rip with the studio effects and the stereophonic trickery, as on “Leave It Open”, with its birds-on-helium twitters and  its main  vocal phased and plaited into infolded shapes.  Pretentious in the best sense of the word, Kate Bush in the early Eighties became one of those artists, like The Associates or Japan, that caused Radio One day-time deejays to titter nervously, or be openly derisive.

As the postpunk era gave way to the glossy, over-produced Eighties, suddenly Bush’s sumptuous soundscapes made more sense than they had during the era of 2-Tone and Joy Division.  Hounds of Love was both a commercial and critical smash.  For the first time, really, Bush was hip, raved about by music journalists without any hint of apologia or reservation. With bands like the Banshees and the Bunnymen opting for lavish orchestrations, Bush seemed less like a throwback to pre-punk times and more like a sort of posh auntie to the Goths.  Indeed she had spawned from the very same southern-edge-of-London suburbia as Siouxsie.

Of the ethereal-girl artists emerging in the mid-Eighties, Elizabeth Fraser was the most clearly indebted – indeed the frou-frou side of Cocteau Twins could be traced to a single song on Never For Ever, “Delius (Song of Summer)”.  Bjork’s starburst of vocal euphoria likewise owed much to Kate. Enya, formerly of Clannad, followed in Bush’s footsteps in her explorations of synths and sampling, as well as taking vocal multi-tracking to the dizzy limit.

The Nineties saw the arrival of Tori Amos, whose piano-driven confessionals blatantly drew on Bush’s  ornate early sound. But there were less obvious inheritors, too.  Touring their first album, Suede liked to air “Wuthering Heights” immediately before going onstage: Brett Anderson placed Bush in his personal trinity of utterly-English ancestors, alongside Bowie and Morrissey.  Esoteric-industrial duo Coil hailed Kate as “a very powerful witch”, possibly knowing about – or simply sensing – the Bush family’s shared enchantment with the ideas of Gurdjieff, who amongst other things explored the magical effects of  particular musical chords. Closeted fans started to emerge from the unlikeliest places: Johnny Rotten, for instance, gushed about the “beauty beyond belief” of Bush’s music.

But even as her deity status in the alternative-music pantheon gained lustre, Bush’s creative ouput dimmed:  album releases became sporadic, the gaps between grew longer and the impression made on public consciousness with each record fainter.  Just about everybody knows “Wuthering” and “Running,”  but how many common-or-garden pop punters could sing, or even name, a single off The Sensual World or The Red Shoes?  In the 2000s, Aerial and 50 Words For Snow, quiet records both,  received admiring notices, the kind of “glad you’re back” reviews that Iconic Artists receive as a  reward for a lifetime of achievement and the cumulative gratitude and affection  inspired thereby.
Meanwhile, as any kind of public figure, Bush virtually disappeared. 

It is striking how little we know about Kate Bush, how completely she’s preserved her privacy.
During the critical phase of their rise to fame and often for a long time after it was strictly necessary,  figures like Bowie, Eno or Morrissey made an art form out of the music paper interview, using it as a forum to expound ideas, to hone or extend the public persona, to engage in mischief or mystique.  But Bush never shone in that context. Interviews are a chore, a distraction from her real work, a waste of her time.  Faced by a journalist’s microphone,  Bush is reserved, dry, ungenerous – the exact opposite of how she is faced by a microphone in a recording studio.

I interviewed  Bush around The Red Shoes and found it a frustrating experience. It’s not that she was terse or tetchy; she answered every question, mostly at decent-enough length, and got evasive only       once or twice. But there was a glazed quality to the conversation,  in the sense of trance-like and mechanical, but also “glazed” like a ceramic film forming an invisible barrier.  There was a sense of non-encounter. I would attribute it to my own failings as an interviewer, except that my wife, far more adept at getting people to open up, had the exact same experience a month later. Fred Vermorel, the author of not one but two brilliantly unorthodox biographies of Bush, has written about the way “she will neutralise you by dissolving her presence in a polite fog." And if you look through the archive of her interviews, it’s clear she’s been doing that for years: it is striking how little of the vividness and exuberance of her music is allowed into the interviews.

In a 1993 TV doc, Bush spoke bluntly and almost disdainfully of her discomfort with interviews, her feeling that everything she has to say is in the work and that there it is said more eloquently than she could ever be in speech.  But the real issue, I suspect, is that to consent to an interview is to allow oneself to be framed and interpreted, to have your utterances snipped up and shunted around the page.  The obvious analogy would be a singer-songwriter who laid down the vocal melody but handed over the arrangement and production to someone else.  There’s a loss of control there. 
Still, it’s hard to think of an artist with such an amazing body of work who has produced such a small collection of quotable remarks. (Her only rival in this regard might be Prince). Here, to close, is one she gave me that’s not bad as a encapsulation of the spirit of Kate Bush and her Never Never Pop. 

"That's what all art's about - a sense of moving away from boundaries that you can't -  in real-life. Like a dancer is always trying to fly, really - to do something that's just not possible. But you try to do as much as you can within those physical boundaries. All art is like that: a form of exploration, of making up stories. Writing, film, sculpture, music: it's all make believe, really."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Warp Influences / Classics / Remixes

Warp 10+1 Influences
Warp 10+2 Classics
Warp 10+3 Remixes
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

UK rave started out as that strange thing--a subculture based almost entirely around import records. In 1988-89, British DJs had several years backlog of  feverish house classics to spin,  plus fresh imports from  Chicago, Detroit and New York every week. Homegrown tracks, mostly inferior imitations, couldn't compete. All this changed by early 1990 with a UK explosion of  indie dance labels and the emergence of a distinctively British rave sound  that merged house with elements of hip hop and reggae. Based in the Northern English industrial city Sheffield, Warp was the greatest of these dance independents, and one of the few to survive the era. Released to commemorate the label's tenth anniversary, these three double-CDs showcase the sharp ears and canny self-reinvention skills that have ensured Warp's longevity and continued relevance.

Warp's first phase of cool came as the prime purveyor of  "bleep-and-bass"--a style that owed as much to electro's pocket-calculator melodies and dub reggae's floorquaking sub-bass as it did to acid house's trip-notic compulsion. Much of Classics sound like a direction Kraftwerk could have followed after 1981's Computer World. Sweet Exorcist's "Clonk," for instance, is like Ralf und Florian lost in the K-hole, an inner-spatial  maelstrom of  weird geometry and precise derangement. Ranging from Tricky Disco's cartoon-quirky almost-pop, through the cold urgency of  LFO and Forgemasters, to Nightmares On Wax's proto-darkside disorientation, Classics is a fabulous document of a forgotten era of UK dance culture. Fortuitously, bleep-and-bass sounds fresher than ever today, chiming not just with the electro renaissance within techno (i/F, Ectomorph) but with the dry, drum machine beats, geometric stab-riffs, and chilly-the-most synth-tones audible in recent rap/R&B--Cash Money bounce boys like Juvenile, Ja Rule's "Holla Holla", Timbaland/Missy/Ginuwine.

Influences mostly consists of  sinister acid house from the import-dominated era of Brit-rave. But two inclusions locate the blueprint for early Warp more precisely in that late Eighties phase when twilight electro merged with the harder, tracks-not-songs side of  house. New York outfit Nitro Deluxe's  1987 "Let's Get Brutal" is a vast drumscape underpinned with tectonic shock-waves of sub-bass and topped by a shrill, staccato keyboard vamp made out of a vocal sample played several octaves too high. Kickstarted by the hilarious vocoderized mission statement "we are the original acid house creators/we hate all commercial house masturbators," and motored by a miasmic bassline that recedes into the  mix then swarms back to subsume your consciousness like malevolent fog,  Unique 3's "The Theme"  was actually the first bleep tune; as their old skool name suggests, the group was a North of England B-boy crew turned ravers.

Where Influences works as a superb primer in early house, Remixes intentionally fails to document the post-bleep Warp that most people know-- revered home of Aphex Twin, Black Dog, Autechre and Squarepusher, those godfathers of IDM  (Intelligent Dance Music, or dance music you can't really dance to). Instead, the double-CD  aims to capture the shape-shifting spirit of  the post-rave network (with its one-off collaborations, multiple aliases, and omnivorous eclecticism) by subjecting some of  Warp's finest to remixes from a host of  suspects usual and unusual.  UK post-rockers Four Tet, for instance, take a track from Aphex's Selected Ambient Works Vol II and turn what was originally as lustrous and near-motionless as crystals forming in a solution into a frisky work-out reminiscent of an over-caffeinated Tortoise. 

Highly listenable, the double-CD nonetheless suffers from the cardinal drawback of modern remixology--rather than enhancing the beloved original or locating some latent potential within it, the remixers almost invariably replace it with an all new track containing only a token trace of the ancestor. In that sense, Warp 10+3 Remixes  effectively evokes the present moment in electronica, where too many producers have got so infatuated with technique, they've lost contact with the dancefloor. Whereas Classics captures a lost moment of perfect coexistence between auteurism and popular desire, when experimentalists (like Sweet Exorcist's Richard H. Kirk, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire) briefly got on the good foot.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Next Medium-Sized Thing ("Energy Flash" column for Sonicnet, 2000)


"Energy Flash" column, Sonicnet, September 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering when the Next Big Thing in dance music is going to turn up.  It's long overdue.  At the same time, it's really hard to imagine what it could possibly be.  Every day, it seems more likely that the initial onrush of rave culture carried the music to its furthest stylistic extremes by the mid-Nineties. By 1996, say, drum & bass  had taken rhythmic complexity as far as conceivable or desirable;  gabba had gotten as fast, punishing, and distorted as the human nervous system could cope with;  minimal techno had stripped itself down to the barest bones of  bangin' beats and abrasive textures.  Subsequently, dance culture has advanced not by expanding its boundaries but by developing the territory within those already-reached frontiers. The difference here is akin to the difference between explorers and settlers. So instead of pushing the envelope, you get "internal  hybrids". For instance, the UK micro-genre "nu skool breaks" is a fusion of  Big Beat and drum'n'bass, basically deploying the latter's neurotically intricate production techniques at the former's more dancer-friendly 130 bpm tempo.

All this is why, for the foreseeable future (until someone invents a new technology, or a new drug) we're  going to see a succession of Next Medium-Sized Things, rather than a singular Next Big Thing that installs itself as the leading edge and eclipses everything else that's going on.  One defining characteristic of a NBT is that its novelty is incontestable, even by those who can't stand it. Jungle, for instance, was patently a great leap forwards--nobody had made beats so frantic and chopped-up, nobody had invented a music with an internal split-tempo (basslines running at half the velocity of the sped-up breakbeats). You could hate it, but you couldn't fail to recognize its unprecedented nature.

The hallmark of a Next Medium-Sized Thing, though, is its "plausible deniability" (to adapt a phrase hitherto associated more with IRAN-CONTRA and White House skullduggery).  The innovativeness of  these micro-genres is all a matter of perspective: you have to be immersed in dance culture, or even immersed in the particular parent genre, to perceive the difference and feel the impact. I first noticed this with speed garage back in 1997--the fusion of jungle bass and house beats had massive implications and reverberations in UK clubland, but it was hard to persuade American listeners that it was more than just a slight twist on ye olde house.

Here are a bunch of Next Medium-Sized Thing contenders that people are talking about, followed by what doubters will probably say to dismiss them as hype:

(a/k/a nu-jazz, broken beats---semantic profusion is a hallmark of the Next Medium-Sized Thing; the slighter the claims to novelty, the more names there'll be for the alleged genre)

IG Culture/Likwid Biskit/ New Sector Movements,  Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, Modaji, Bugz in the Attic,  Alex Attias/Mustang/Plutonia, Domu.

People, Visons Inc., Main Squeeze, Laws Of Motion, 2000 Black, Bitasweet.

What is it exactly?
An Afrodelic boogie wonderland land where Alice Coltrane, Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, Rotary Connection and Fela Kuti mingle with 4 Hero, Masters At Work, and Carl Craig. In other words, a fusion of old skool fusion (Seventies stuff) with Nineties fusion (arty drum & bass, deepest house, the jazzier side of Detroit techno) to produce a brand nu skool of fusion. There's so much fusing going on it's getting confusing. Phusion hallmarks include a passion for time-signatures other than  four-to-the-floor, a mix of acoustic/analog/digital textures, and a quality of hand's on feel and fluency to the music even when it's computerized. West London connoisseur shit, dig.

What the sceptics will say:
It's just acid jazz with samplers.


Laylo & Bushwacka!/Matthew B., Mr. C., Nathan Coles, Pure Science, Terry Francis, Charles Webster

Plink Plonk, Pagan, Wiggle, Eye for Sound

What is it exactly?
Like the ungainly name suggests, this micro-genre occupies the not exactly vast sonic hinterland between Detroit techno and Chicago house, juicing up the former's austerity while shunning the latter's vocal element. The result is sleek, shiny, propulsive,  tastefully trippy, and cunningly poised to be just "deep" and  "progressive" enough to keep out the riff-raff (i.e. ravers) while not losing the dancefloor appeal.

What the sceptics will say:
There's always been techno-tinged house and there's always been house-leaning techno -- it's hardly worth starting a movement around.


Stanton Warriors, Donna Dee, Headtop, So Solid Crew, Reservoir Dogs, DJ Dee Kline, Phuturistix, El-B, Second Protocol, Zed Bias

Pulse, So Solid Beatz, Ghost Trax, Mob

What is it exactly?
Provisional name (in circulation while people think of something snappier and more evocative) for a subgenre some believe will soon break off from UK garage, and marked by an even more tangential verging on non-existent relationship to the garage/house continuum. Sheds UK garage's girly vocals, bump'n'flex grooves, and shuffling hi-hats in favor of looped breakbeats, cheeky/cheesy samples in the spirit of hardcore rave and jump-up jungle (ie. soundbites typically referencing weed-smoking or martial arts movies), and stomach-churning bass that often has an early Eighties electro  flavor. 

What the sceptics will say
Isn't this just jungle slowed to 130 b.p.m?
(NB: Breakbeat garage's slowed-down jungle often overlaps uncannily with nu-skool breaks's slowed-down jungle, showing how people increasingly end up occupying  the same "internal hybrid" zone even though coming from different directions).


Anne Savage, Pete Wardman, Lisa Lashes, BK, Rachel Auburn, Lisa Pin-Up, Brainbashers, Fergie, Steve Thomas,  Baby Doc

Tidy Trax, Tinrib, TEC, Nukleuz, Tripoli Trax, Duty Free, Rock Hard, Fever Pitch

What is it exactly?
Both the name and the music it describes have been around for some time, but recently the style has refined itself down to an incredibly narrow strip of sound: a concussive concoction of banging kick-drums, hoover basslines, synth-stabs, and belting diva vocals. Hard house's no frills thrills are increasingly displacing fluffy Euro-trance as the pill-head's favorite soundtrack to nights of XTC--which is why it's getting a lot of press in the dance mags.

What the sceptics will say:
This stuff is the pits. In all decent, discerning company, it should be unmentionable. It doesn't deserve a name at all.

bonus beat - on hard house - from the great Tony Marcus

this was published in a weekly dance magazine whose name I forget but seems to have attempted to ride the absolute boom-time peak of interest in dance culture (where there were about four or five dance-dedicated monthlies and various ex-fanzines also)

that bubble burst soon enough

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mo Wax compilations

Royaltie$ Overdue
(Mo Wax) 
Melody Maker,1994

by Simon Reynolds

On the evidence of this sampler, the Mo Wax roster is
evenly divided between the brilliant and the bland. The best
stuff here--DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob, DJ Krush--is ambient hip
hop in the vein of Massive Attack and Tricky.  The rest tends
towards a tasteful but insipid composite of 'connoisseur'
musics (fusion, jazz-funk, rare groove), i.e.  precisely what
you'd associate with Straight No Chaser, the 'jazz'-zine that
Mo Wax boss James Lavelle writes for.

Nonetheless, the good parts of this curate's egg of a
comp are very tasty indeed.  The stand-out is DJ Shadow's 12
minute epic "Influx", a panoramic early '70s groovescape
whose sombre strings, lachrymose wah-wah and fusion flute are
like the missing link between The Temptations' "Papa Was a
Rollin' Stone" and Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly".
Ghostly shards of liberation rhetoric drift by on the breeze-
-"people's power", "it's only a matter of time", "FREEDOM"--
making "Influx" at once an elegy for the lost ideals of the
'60s and an allegory of today's slippin' into darkness vibe.

The best stuff on "Royalties Overdue" reimagines Miles
Davis circa "In A Silent Way" as a pioneer of ambient to rank
with Eno and King Tubby. The cold-sweat paranoia-funk of DJ
Krush's "Slow Chase" really implodes with a wah-wahed trumpet
solo worthy of Miles' 'lost in inner space' early '70s coke
phase.  (After this, Palm Skin's pointlessly accurate hip hop
cover of "In A Silent Way" can only seem pallid and polite).
Despite their nauseating name, La Funk Mob are smart enough
not to strive to sound like a live band (which is where other
Mo Waxers slip up).  Instead, on "La Doctoresse" and "Motor
Bass Get Phunked Up", this cyberfunk unit use the studio to
situate their piano vamps, horn-parps and percussion licks
throughout a honeycomb of dub-space.

As for the rest, the hashed-out, smooth-grooving fluency
reeks of the kind of self-congratulatory goateed twats who
once thought the sleevenotes on Style Council records were
cool. It's muzak that falls foul of the fallacy that 'mature'
= mellow. The Federation retread rare groove; Monday Michiru
is Sade, basically; DJ Takemura vibes-flavoured kitsch is
worthy of the late unlamented el label (whose Marden Hill
also feature here); Bubbatunes offer Digable Tunes B-sides
for all those who haven't yet figured out that gangsta is
where it's at.  Only RPM's groovy if scarcely groundbreaking
hip hop, reminiscent of Main Source, distinguishes itself.

Treasure the highpoints of "Royaltie$ Overdue", then,
but keep your finger poised on the remote so you can vault
over the troughs.

Headz 2 
(Mo Wax)
Village Voice, 1996 (remixed slightly for Faves of 1996)

by Simon Reynolds 

In the age of compilation gigantism, Headz 2 dramatically ups the ante. Mo 
Wax's latest anthology consists of not one but two separately sold double-CD's  (or two quadruple albums, boxed like Wagner's Parsifal), which contain nearly five-and-a-half hours of music spanning not just trip hop but leading innovators in drum & bass, techno, art-rap and electronica. Before I even saw these dauntingly oversize collections in the stores, I was put off by the air of hubris and self-congratulatory connoisseurship hanging over the project. When I saw them, the deluxe vinyl sets instantly reminded me of those calfskin-bound, gilt-inlaid editions of Dickens (sold through mail-order ads that appeal to "your unstinting pride"), which remain unread on the shelf but testify to an 
interest in being cultured. In Headz case, the word is subcultured. 

Despite their garish abstrakt covers, the vinyl Headz also resemble headstones, 
perhaps because Mo Wax supremo James Lavelle has herein constructed a kind of mausoleum of late '90s "cool". Appropriately, the music itself is sombre and 
subdued, mostly cleaving to the trip hop noir norm: torpid breakbeats, entropic 
sub-bass, dank dub reverb. (When it comes to non-junglistic breakbeats, give me the rowdy, rockist furore of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and their amyl brethren, any day). The same Mo Wax kiss-of-def that resulted in Luke Vibert's only uninteresting release to date affects contributions from the likes of Danny Breaks, whose abandons his normal hyper-kinaesthetics for the idling headnooding tempo of "Science Fu Beats". (Perking the track up to 45 r.p.m improves this, and several other tracks, considerably). 

Mo Wax belong to what you might call the "good music society", or more 
precisely, they belong to a specific "good music society" which dates back to 
the "eclectic" list of influences on Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (wherein PiL, 
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Isaac Hayes and Studio One coexisted in smug 
self-congratulation). The sensibility is pure fusion: "it's all music, man", 
"what kind of music don't I like? -- just bad music!". Every area of music has 
it own "good music society", its little cabal of cognoscenti, what Kevin Martin 
calls the "taste police": Junior Boys Own for deep house, Creation (in the late 
Eighties at least) for leather-trousered rock, Grand Royal for white American 
B-boyism. Each maintains a canon of cool, and as with all canons, what is 
excluded is as significant as what is included. What is excluded tends to be 
both the vibrantly vulgar and the genuinely extremist/out-there: neither The 
Sweet nor Stockhausen make it. (Although Pierre Henry, bizarrely, has been 
canonised --as a pioneer of E-Z listening alongside Jean-Jacques Perrey!!!).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ananda Project / Chris Brann

(Nite Grooves)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

In rock, you get local heroes, bands that are big in their town or region. In dance, you get the opposite. Take Ananda Project's Chris Brann: a god for house hipsters across the globe for his mid-Nineties releases as Wamdue Kids, but I bet he can walk round his hometown Atlanta, Georgia, without a nod.

A slightly pat reference point for Release: Everything But the Girl's Temperamental. "Breaking Down", with its jazzy-guitar flecks and forlorn vocals (courtesy of Heather Johnson, one of five guest singers) even sounds a bit like EBTG. But Brann's coming from the other direction: he's a trackmaster getting songful, rather than singer/songwriters getting their groove on. Release has the pump of club-oriented house, the kind of voluptuously thick kick drums that become a cocooning environmental pulse when heard through a massive sound system. But it also has the intimacy of music for home and headphones. And there can't be many house artists who put a quote from Edith Sitwell in the CD booklet.

"Cascades of Colour" is the stand-out. The plangent gravity of the melody,redolent of Harold Budd & Brian Eno's ambient albums, conjures deliciously mixed emotions---blue joy, sweet sorrow. Gaelle Adisson's multitracked vocals form a counterpoint lattice that sets your nape-hairs tingling. Close behind "Cascades" is the title track, with its "let your spirit free" invocations and pensive piano chords that suddenly roll backwards on themselves, psychedelic guitar-style, to form a seamless, timewarping Moebius Strip. 

Throughout the album, there's a blurry, miasmic quality to Brann's production, the aural equivalent of Vaseline-on-the-lens. The way Brann arranges his drums spatially is like landscape gardening, making you gaze into the distance. On the vocoderized ballad "Expand Your Mind", snares crack like thunder on the mix's horizon, while hi-hats bustle right in your face. The wispy drum'n'bass excursion "Bahia" suggests an affinity with softcore junglists like LTJ Bukem and PFM, a common quest for aquaboogie wonderlands.

As with the Good Looking guys, New Age alarm bells occasionally ring: lots of liquidly chirruping birdsong, a Stevie Nicks-esque lyric about a "daughter of the moon" on the otherwise gorgeous "Falling For You". Mind you, in these despiritualized, money-mad times, maybe we need some of that. The opulence of Brann's sound doesn't connote aspirational "audio couture" (a slogan coined by Moving Shadow just at the point the label, and the drum'n'bass scene, started to undergo gentrification) but what New Agers call "abundance consciousness"--in plain, old-timer's English, counting your blessings. Release is the kind of record that reminds you to feel grateful to be alive. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Jon Savage interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave, punk versus ambient, and "the politics of sound"

JON SAVAGE interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave
 "New Wave of New Wave" issue ofMelody Maker March 26th 1994

by Simon Reynolds

SAVAGE VERDICT: Jon Savage interviewed * on the New Wave of New Wave

Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, the first proper history of punk, is
often cited in interviews and overviews of the New Wave of New Wave. It seems
to have made the Sex Pistols adventure available to a whole new generation, just at
the point at which the saga was fading from folk memory. So does Savage, a
veteran of the original era as both participant and commentator, take any
credit for the current resurrection?

"Well, S.M.A.S.H. were very excited about England's Dreaming, and that
was very flattering. I mean, if you're a writer, that's the ultimate--to be
told that you've inspired someone else. I always intended England's Dreaming to be a kind of primer, presenting the data and saying 'this is how it's done'. The idea was not to push myself to the foreground, but to provide all the sources, the books and records that inspired the original punks. I don't know
if the book influenced the other bands, just that S.M.A.S.H. say they were
influenced. Thank God they're really good! Hahhahaha! I like S.M.A.S.H. a
lot. They've got good songs, cheekbones, short hair--a classic suburban English
mod band. Very exciting live--after I saw them live I stayed awake til 3-AM
just buzzing on adrenaline, and that's pretty late for me. And they have a
song called 'Shame', and that's a very English thing to write about."

Why are we still so obsessed with punk? Ever since 1978, most Brit-rock
activity has been conceived, and judged, as either a return to, or swerve away
from, punk--as either a resurrection or a 'betrayal'. Punk revivals have almost
been annual occurrences. Why are we still hung up on happenings 16 years time
ago--it's equivalent to the Pistols being obsessed with pre-Beatles pop, Billy
Fury and Adam Faith! Why is it that British rock culture can't bury punk, break
free of its ancient agenda?

Savage's explanation is that "the years 1976/77 are a bit like 1966/67--years of fantastic compression, too much happening too quickly. It takes years to unravel all that. And so those moments of breakthrough and upheaval always cast a long shadow. With punk, it took about 10 years to work through all that stuff. Beyond that, punk is simply a classic English archetype--with precursors in Dickens, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, in the Angry Young Men, in The Stones and The Who. And that archetype is so potent. The punk movement was very powerful, very ambitious, so it's no wonder that pop keeps coming back to it. Punk was all to do with sex, which is still a very charged phenomenon in England; it was about bondage and going into the nation's subconsiocus to bring out all the violence and filth. There's a huge gulf between the reality people live and the media edifice that's constructed over that reality. The simple fact is that all the things that were talked about during punk are still there and still need to be talked about. Nothing's changed.

"It's like with the fashion side of the current interest in punk--in a
sense, people are 'trying on the clothes' to see if they fit, and finding that
they do. The 'clothes' are all about anger, confrontation, hostility, and they
fit because there is a mood today similar to '76. The punks, and the
hippies in their own way too, posed certain questions that haven't been
answered. All great pop movements pose those questions, in slightly different
ways. Even rave culture is born of frustration, a desire to break out.
England is still a very claustrophobic, class-ridden, static society. And I'd
hate to be 18 now."

Arguably, it's much worse today than in '76. Not just economically but in
the sense that in the past 16 years all the little spaces of freedom have
contracted--what with the assault on dole culture, the impoverishment of
students, and of course, the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill with its virtual
outlawing of squatting and its draconian clampdown on raves and warehouse
parties. The government seems determined to extinguish all the bases of an
oppositional popular culture. Today it's not even a question of 'No Future',
but closer to Hendrix' lament: "ain't no life nowhere".

"If I was 18 today, I'd be incredibly conscious of the hegemony of the
babyboomer generation. Because so much of the commentary on pop is by people
from that generation, and most of them wouldn't give a band like S.M.A.S.H. a
chance, 'cos the attitude is 'we've seen it all before'. And of course that's
totally irrelevant since, as any fule kno, when you're 20 you haven't seen it
all before."

Are there any parallels between 1976 and 1994, in that there's an
apocalyptic vibe--a feeling that something appalling is lurking on the horizon,
the spectre of social collapse, and its corollary, the resurgence of fascism?

"I don't know if that's actually happening, but it is a very teenage thing
to think that. Also--it's like, 'hello, it's 1994, the Millenium is coming'.
Punk was a millenarian movement, absolutely."

One of the interesting things about the New Wave of New Wave is the way
it's resurrected punk's ethics of drug use, ie. speed = good (cos it increases
IQ, self-confidence, aggression), dope and E = bad ('cos they make you mellow,
quiescent and full of love). Amphetamine is the perfect drug for messianic
fervour and tunnel-visonary crusading zeal, but its downside is paranoia (which
adds to the Millenarian, Doomsday vibe) and, at the extreme, psychotic

"Well, amphetamines are very bad news. I only took it four times during
punk and it made me feel so peculiar. Whenever a pop movement gets overtly
based around one drug, it gets stupid. Speed is a dangerous drug. Several
friends of mine from the punk era ended up either psychotic or dead, because of
speed and heroin. Then again, if These Animal Men want to talk of burning for
two years then crashing, that's their prerogative. There's a grand tradition
there, a classic rock'n'roll trajectory,--Sid Vicious is the obvious example."

My reservation with these bands is that they're a too literal recreation
of punk. Really, they're like the pub rock bands that paved the way for punk:
back to basics, except that in this case "basics" means Situtationist slogans
and McLaren-like masterplans. But any real successor to punk would have to go
as far beyond 'nouveau punk' as the Pistols went beyond the white R&B
fundamentalism of Dr Feelgood et al. Another thing: the NWONW is
Nth-generation whiter-than-white rock, mod filtered through punk filtered
through the Manics. It completely ignores anything that's happened musically
since 1978: black or white, rap or rave.

"From an outside perspective, maybe that whiter-than-white rock can seem a
thin option compared to the wealth of stuff around, whether it's black-derived
or not. But why not make white-boy music? It doesn't make you racist, in

It's interesting the way that ambient techno has provided these bands with
a readymade enemy, the '90s subcultural equivalent of the mid-70s hippies. As a
punk vet whose current favourite music includes Aphex Twin, Richard Kirk,
Seefeel and Biosphere, what does Savage make of the nouveau punk critique of
ambient: that it's just aural sedatives for a defeated, spineless generation?

"I can understand their arguments against ambient. But I'm not at an age
where I need to define myself by the music I like. I've grown out of that
partisanship, cos I've been lucky enough to have lived within it. But the NWONW
is music that demands that kind of partishanship, and I can easily imagine that
if I was a kid who'd gone to see S.M.A.S.H. I might be inspired to want to
change my life..."

And throw the ambient LP's and Rizlas in the bin?

"Well, what the punk critique of ambient misses--and it's a fault shared by
all politically-engaged rock--is that there's a politics of sound that's just as important as explicit politics in lyrics. And the best ambient is streets ahead in terms of sound, the way the music makes you feel, the moods and images
it conjures. When rock gets too puritanically concerned with stripping
down to just the message, you end up with the Tom Robinson Band, who I
always had problems with--great politics, shit music. But anyway, at my age
I don't have to choose between ambient and punk. Ideally, the best of both
worlds would be great--ambient punk!"

TECHNOPHOBIA! The New Wave of New Wave versus d-generation

The great failing of the nouveau punk bands is their willful denial of the music of the last six years. The Sex Pistols had a relationship with both their era’s chartpop (glam’n’glitter like the Sweet) and its underground rock (The Stooges). Any band hoping to have the same impact today would have to take on board the innovations of sampler-based music, from rap and rave to ambient and avant-rock. A Nineties Pistols would be something like a cross between The Prodigy (this era’s Sweet), The Young Gods (this era’s Stooges) and Public Enemy (the black Clash).

Another big failing is that the NWONW’s refried Who riffs lack any kind of relationship with contemporary black music. Although the influence of roots reggae and dub really came through musically in 1979, punk had a spiritual kinship with reggae: both punk and Rasta were about exile and alienation. A Nineties punk should also have an awareness of, if not alliance with, today’s black British subcultures. And that means ragga and jungle techno, music of pre-political rage and urban paranoia. If These Animal Men are really into speedfreak music, they should be making 160 bpm ardkore jungle, which is driven by a rage-to-live that’s pure punk. THIS is the sound of youth today, whereas These Animal Men’s “This is the Sound of Youth” is the sound of youth yesterday: 1966, or worse, that year’s dismal replay in 1979, with neo-mod bands like Secret Affair and Squire.

We need real modernism, not mod revivals. So let me introduce: d-generation. As the name suggests, their music is informed by, but also a swerve away from, the music of the E Generation: “the corrupt modernism” of dark techno, jungle, ambient and ragga.

“We would have been punks in ‘77”, admit d-generation, “but today we can’t see why anyone would ignore modern music.”

They call their sound “psychedelic futurism, techno haunted by the ghost of punk”. It sounds like Ultramarine gone noir: ambient drones, lonesome dub-reggae melodica, stealthy junglist breakbeats. Like Ultramarine, d-generation deploy imagery of “Englishness”, but instead of pastoral quirkiness, the vibe is urban wasteland, influenced by “the dark, expressionist, deviant tradition” of Wyndam Lewis, The Fall and Michael Moorcock.

On their yet-to-be-released EP Entropy in the UK, ghostly allusions to punk are omnipresent. “73/93” turns around the sampled phrases “eroding structure, generating entropy… no future”. “The Condition of Muzak” (the title is from a Michael Moorcock novel) goes even further, using Johnny Rotten as a stick to beat the rave generation. A sample from the Pistols’ last performance at Winterlands is turned into a techno riff: Rotten’s famous “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated” and mirthless cackle “ha ha ha”. Perfect: if this was played at a rave, it would start a virus of disaffection that would undermine the whole subculture. So many ravers have a cheated look on their faces, sometimes cos they’ve been sold dodgy E, mostly cos they’re burned out and can never get as high as they used to.

Rave is full of submerged utopian longings (“living the dream” etc). But because they aren’t articulated, the culture ultimately functions as a safety valve, releasing frustration at the weekend then returning you to workaday drudgery.

It’s not a culture of refusal, but an anti-culture that defuses. d-generation suggest one way that a true successor to punk (rather than a mere replay) could operate: as spies in the house of the loved-up, sowing seeds of discontent, making a grim dance of our national decay.