Wreath Lectures 2011: Club Beats From The Digital Ether
, December 14th, 2011 10:57
This year, as artists have turned up the heat on the murky, semi-structured stew of post-noise pop, argues Rory Gibb, dancefloor shapes have started to emerge from beneath the clearing vapours
As temporal distances between creation, distribution and consumption of music shorten to mere hours, the web's presence as the great leveler of time and space lends it the alchemical ability to smash together ostensibly separate sounds with all the force of Cern's finest 17 mile hunk of metal tubing. Over the last couple of years, underground dance music and the heat-haze of (mostly) US-borne post-noise pop have been getting cosier with one another, limbs gradually entangling, skin seeking skin. Relatively straight-up house and techno producers have been drowning tracks in murk and decay and, more noticeably, beats have begun to take shape from post-noise’s indistinct, no-fidelity sound spaces. 2011 has been the year when these two worlds have finally indulged in a furtive, pheromone-soaked tryst, bodies fully pressed together and exchanging genetic information. From the perspective of a fan of both, it's been an exciting liminal zone to delve into, and one that looks set to yield new riches in the not-too-distant future.
At Krakow’s Unsound Festival this autumn, which featured artists from both sides of the fence, there was a definite feeling that shared space had been reached. Not Not Fun/100% Silk label head LA Vampires delivered a set of disco-leaning house in collaboration with Ital, dragging sullenly hungover limbs into rapturous physical motion. Arriving the afternoon after Leipzig's Kassem Mosse had provoked exactly the same response in a midnight rave crowd, it gave the sense of a circle being closed. Laurel Halo and Hype Williams arrived at similar aesthetics from two completely separate positions (Brooklyn and London, respectively), sharing a stage with Rustie's rushy overloads and Hyperdub boss Kode9. Stellar OM Source played a set of silken proto-techno, drawing blissful four-to-the-floor from the beatless New Age soundscapes of her earlier music. Manchester's Andy Stott melted his once body-bashing techno down in a bathtub of battery acid, dragging dancers through knee-deep, 100bpm sludge.
Convergent sensibilites between the two sides have been present for quite some time. It was inevitable that dance and post-noise artists would find much to draw from in both worlds, and begin to meld the two. Both operate with shared goals - tactile engagement, immersive soundworlds, the need to turn off the incessant mind-chatter of surrounding reality - and both use similar approaches with which to effect these changes: repetition, volume, force.
James Ferraro and Spencer Clark's work with The Skaters last decade distilled those ideas into a potent brew, one that proved influential on an entire successive generation of artists. Their no-fi recording approach, junkshop transcendentalism and paranoid vocal mantras rolled outward, both into their subsequent solo work (Ferraro is usually prolific, shifting between guises with dizzying pace) and into the work of others. Last year, a number of releases on Not Not Fun and Olde English Spelling Bee were closer than ever to projecting that shimmering-hot sound onto a pop/club friendly frame: the barmy calypso of Clark's latest Monopoly Child Star Searchers album Bamboo For Two; Ensemble Economique's frantic Psychical; Sun Araw's psych epic On Patrol. Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal, meanwhile, shifted like techno stripped bare of beats. Undertow removed, dancers were allowed to drift free in its lazily drifting curtains of synth, no longer slaves to the rhythm.
But it was LA Vampires & Matrix Metals' glorious, sultry So Unreal, released towards the tail end of last year, that set the precedent for 2011. Still the finest record Not Not Fun have ever released, it set Amanda Brown's vocals to dilapidated, Chic-referencing dub-disco, blared rudely from a street corner boombox. Looking back at So Unreal now, it formed a clear bridge between NNF's 2010 output and the launch of sister imprint 100% Silk at the start of 2011 - all the way down to its opulent artwork, depicting Brown clad in eighties shades, headband and black leather jacket.
100% Silk, launched to be NNF's club-centric companion label, has been a major point of reference for this crossover zone. Its presence has provided a focal point for wider attention over the course of this year, and its output merits far more love than the critical masses ('hipster house' has been thrown around as a pejorative term) might suggest. Contextualised from the off as a dancefloor label, the energising serotonin blast to NNF's billowing clouds of bong smoke, early signs admittedly weren't entirely promising. Silk's first few releases last winter - Ital's Ital's Theme among others - were decent and sometimes great, but they lacked punch, somewhat counterintuitive for a label with eyes supposedly fixed on club floors.
But by the summer some real club rumblings were beginning to stir, and more recent releases have felt ready to slay dancefloors: Octo Octa's Let Me See You EP, Sir Stephen's By Design, Malvoeaux's recent Broken Anthem. Ital, meanwhile - one half of Mi Ami, who also records fractured, noisy pop as Sex Worker - released one of the finest house tracks of the year in the shape of 'Culture Clubs'. He recently signed to seminal label Planet Mu for his upcoming debut full-length Hive Mind, which forsakes his slightly flimsy earlier work for hefty, live-sounding jams a la German analogue house prodigy Kassem Mosse or NY heavyweight Levon Vincent.
Like its parent label, 100% Silk has suffered for over-productivity this year. Not Not Fun’s release schedule sometimes feels more like stream-of-consciousness babble than a coherent aesthetic to latch onto, and you have to be prepared to dig for gems. But, like Soundstream's divine disco cut-ups, the best of Silk's output gives the sensation that the listener is actually inside the speaker cone, a pulsing entity that presses in against the body each time the kickdrum hits. What its artists bring to club music too is an overall aesthetic, both sonically (visceral intensity, scuzzy surfaces) and visually (the importance of artwork, so often overlooked in club 12”s – Silk’s sleeves are luxurious, all saturated reds and golds). They’re met in the middle by vast volumes of shared experience between 'proper' underground club music and noise: long-running DIY distribution networks, limited runs, fetishising of the physical object (vinyl for dance music; cassettes and vinyl for noise), staunch independence, devoted audiences.
It feels appropriate, then, that we also see similar stretches from the dance side of the divide. London-based label Trilogy Tapes has released mix cassettes by Kassem Mosse and Hessle Audio boss Ben UFO; Bristolian house producers Vessel and El Kid are releasing frayed house music on cassette. These are matched by strictly hardware set-ups and live sets from people like Mosse, October, Vincent, John Heckle, Underground Quality and LiveJam (admittedly most of these aren't particularly new developments), avant-house from the Modern Love stable, and UK producers harking back to older Chicago/NY house. A utopian space for free expression it may not be, but the dance music community nonetheless has the capability to be a great deal less partisan than either its indie or noise equivalents. Where tastemaker DJs go, many will follow, and there's every reason to believe it's only a matter of time before 100% Silk's output begins infecting club dancefloors alongside these current inhabitants. Together they constitute reactions against the squeaky-clean surfaces so often the norm in modern dance music.
"It's really interesting, cycles of technology, [changes in] peoples' ears and what they like to listen to," said Vessel when I interviewed him earlier this year. "They spend all this time on the digital revolution and making things perfect, getting everything louder, and then go 'No, it's too loud, it's too bright, it's too nice, we need some shit in it again.'" Tape provides a cheap and easy means to access those sonic qualities. Ultimately, digital clipping just ain't as sexy as the skin-tickling richness of analogue distortion, where everything blurs into a delightful, smeary mess every time the track peaks.
In a year when Simon Reynolds’ Retromania has loomed large over critical discourse, it doubtless deserves a mention here. With much of Silk’s output it's tough to deny that some of its pleasures lie in revisiting older sounds. That said, it seems equally a blessing and a curse to describe something as ‘internetty’, but that's exactly what much of this music is, and it forms a great basis for its appeal. Much of the music on 100% Silk is made by younger producers discovering dance music history through YouTube wormholes, and though sonically it might hark back to the past, it's unlikely that many of these tracks could have been made at any time other than now. Therein lies a beguiling contradiction that sits at the heart of much of this music: it may shrink away from digital textures in favour of older sound palettes, but many of the concerns it addresses are decidedly of the modern world.
The output of the Hippos In Tanks label has been most effective at addressing that bizarre balance in 2011. Hype Williams and Laurel Halo released two of the year’s finest records through the label, One Nation and Hour Logic respectively. Both feel decidedly internet-age, the former in particular constructing tracks from a serotonin-addled synth and samples nabbed from YouTube. Halo's synths, though, are more woozily reminiscent of early Detroit techno and electro than they are of most modern electronic music. But both’s music speaks of issues pertinent to the modern world: physical reality vs. the information ether; physical loneliness vs. virtual connectivity; utopian online ideals vs. the nagging influence of reality (perhaps best exemplified this year in the rapid, Twitter-fuelled spread of ideas and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, and the inertia and hardships that have followed in many places).
Like the 100% Silk roster, both have increasingly engaged with dancefloor modes over the last year. Hype Williams have always had a stronger connection to UK bass culture than their US contemporaries ("I grew up around it," said Dean Blunt when I interviewed him in the summer. "Sounds corny but a certain sound and rhythm gets ingrained") - one reason why their signing to Hyperdub makes so much sense. But their recent shows have further developed into drawn-out, droning rivers of sub-bass and swaggering beats that wash out over audiences, drawing torsos into soft, rocking motion. Laurel Halo's recent live performances and demos, too, find her further bubbling the beats out from beneath the Drowned World techno of Hour Logic. A little like Stellar OM Source's recent shows and Energy/Clarity 7", Halo's stunning unreleased track 'Spring' sounds as though she's turned the bunsen up to high heat beneath it, until the excess liquid evaporates away and beats simply crisp into existence like tiny crystals of salt.
Somewhat appropriately though, it's James Ferraro's one album release this year (also through Hippos In Tanks) that thoroughly cements the notion of this music as being modern, rather than retromaniac. Far Side Virtual is a painfully synthetic rush of an album, a ringtone symphony that references and critiques cafe culture, Carrie Bradshaw and high-octane digital living. It’s been followed up this week by a free hip-hop mixtape under the name BEBETUNE$, entitled inhale C-4 $$$$$, which finds him taking further steps into digital production and samplework.
Regardless of its limitations, when David Keenan coined the (oft-abused) ‘hypnagogic pop’ concept to describe Ferraro and his contemporaries, it was a means of drawing attention to the fact that their art, while referencing the past, spoke of far more than base-level nostalgia. Close listeners of Ferraro’s older music would have noticed that anyway, but that this former lo-fi aesthete has chosen to take such drastic, stylised steps into the modern world is further evidence of his relevance as very much an artist of now. Alongside Halo, Hype Williams and Daniel Lopatin, he forms part of the vanguard of a new and still forming electronic music aesthetic. It remains in a highly volatile state of flux, but the excess vapours may well clear slightly over the course of 2012. Another essay of at least this length will probably need writing in a year’s time.