, May 24th, 2012 08:41
I used to know someone who was a serious connoisseur of twentieth century classical music. However, he wasn't as dogmatic as aficionados of Schoenberg and serialism can be. He didn't walk out of the pub when somebody mentioned Boulez, or threaten to thump you if you told him you preferred Cornelius Cardew's earlier work. His only real demand was that the music he listened to provided some space for contemplation, a route into an analysis of what the composer was trying to do. If it failed on this count, he'd describe a piece or performance as lacking a 'window'.
Similar accusations are often levelled at various genres of extreme music. There's a point with noise, arguably, where listening becomes less about the discernment of particular aspects or strategies and more about machismo and endurance. Such an absence of contour appears, on first listen, to afflict elements of the disconcertingly prolific Justin K Broadrick's new album as JK Flesh. Despite Posthuman's grafting of Broadrick flagship Godflesh's disciplined six-string scourge onto some particularly anxious-sounding dubstep, it seems initially as if there's little here to discuss. You could be forgiven for thinking that the record's imposing architecture of feedback, distortion, and skittering percussive top end poses a test to toughness rather than to the critical imagination.
Fortunately, Posthuman slowly reveals itself to be more subtle than that. As is the case with Broadrick and Kevin Martin's work as Techno Animal, what's often glossed as the 'brutality' of the music isn't an end in itself. Occasional Techno Animal collaborators Dälek provide a salient point of comparison here. Like the New Jersey hip-hop duo, JK Flesh employs noise to tease out the hidden character of rhythms, exploring and perhaps extending their emotional range.
Broadrick's lengthy discussion in a recent Quietus interview of the centrality of techno and dubstep-derived beats to Posthuman makes opening track 'Knuckledragger' something of a surprise. It's probably the furthest departure, in rhythmic terms, the album makes from the dancefloor, thus delaying the explicit elaboration of the main musical narrative until the second track. Above brooding, pounding drums, synth tones meander in a way that seems aimless until they converge to create jags of discordance. A vocal motif is distorted beyond intelligibility; the chaos occasionally clears to reveal an orphaned bass loop, churning away in its search for a beat to ride on.
That bass pre-empts 'Idle Hands', which both clarifies and complicates the record's relationship with dubstep. While the drum programming is unmistakably indebted to recent electronic music, its nervous precision is tracked unerringly by Broadrick's overdriven guitar. It's striking how incompatible these two main elements feel. In its most enthralling incarnation, dubstep is often defined by unresolved tension, producing an implicitly political vision of a society characterised by unfulfilled promises and vaguely-defined threats. Against this, even metal as austere as that made by Godflesh allows room for catharsis. The outcome of this discrepancy isn't a resolution to rhythmically-induced anxiety, but something like cognitive dissonance; in fact, the trebly beats reel the riffing in and lock it within their own logic of thwarted release.
By and large, that's how the force of Posthuman is generated. Broadrick's vision for the album was a Britain of 'alleys and shadows and cut-throats', and the horror of this is exacerbated by the way that rock's offer of hedonistic release keeps getting rescinded. In the title track's clacking beats, frantic bass arpeggios and off-key snatches of melody there's a palpable sense of information overload, a stress desperate for the strange relief the exacting grind of metal can deliver. But the guitars constantly get pegged back: as in the worst anxiety dreams, they are allowed only to gesture towards exits which are swiftly blocked. 'Underfoot', the eighth and penultimate song, has a little more warmth than its counterparts, but still exudes an air of defeat and exhaustion; it's the sound, maybe, of anxiety winning out. Ultimately, this is a work possessed of 'windows', but none of them reveal anything uplifting. Such bleakness is Posthuman's triumph.