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Post-Dubstep, Post-Olympic: On SBTRKT & "Bollocks Music"
Joe Kennedy , October 2nd, 2014 10:31

SBTRKT's new album Wonder Where We Land represents the apex of dubstep morphed into marketable navel-gazing romantic mithering. Is this closer to nu-folk than you might expect and the sound of post-Olympic Britain, asks Joe Kennedy

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Honestly, one day I’m going to stop writing heavily personalised ledes, but in this case I really don’t think there’s another way into writing about an album which really screws with my epistemology of the musically wrong. The story, which is not as made-up as some of my other personalised ledes, is about a time around six years ago when I found myself watching Later…with Jools Holland while my stepdad was doing the crossword. Bloc Party were playing ‘Mercury’, which, if you care to recall, is like a meta-version of their noughties indie disco filler and a sort-of-lament about the beginning of the economic crisis and being too old to enjoy indie discos or indie disco filler anymore. To cut to the chase, about a third of the way through the song my stepfather looked up from his puzzle and said, and I’m rendering it in its true Darlingtonian syntax so the full impact of his disdain can be conveyed, "this is bollocks music this, like".

At first this might seem like a story whose moral is to do with generational difference: hey everyone, here’s my stepdad not getting on with Bloc Party’s rad new direction! How, well, square! It isn’t, though – it actually lays out, implicitly, a sine qua non of pop criticism, namely, taken on its own terms and with literally no contextual awareness, whether or not the record or artist in question is actually any good. To say "this is bollocks this, like" is one thing, but to say "this is bollocks music this, like" is to really stick the boot in, to remind the musicians that they’re failing on the terms they’re perpetually complaining reviewers ignore in favour of high-faluting ideology critique and undergrad dialectic. Sometimes, the music simply is bollocks.

Of course, there has to be some frame of reference for bollocks-calling, which is usually other music. In the case of SBTRKT, whose latest album sees Aaron Jerome further explore the vein of having-a-post-millennial-cry, post-Hyperdub, horse-tranq pop, the frame of reference is twofold (it's a pretty bloody explorable vein, come to think of it, seeing as you can more or less whack anything into it and everyone will think it’s real creative). First, it’s Hyperdub-school dubstep itself – why are SBTRKT ‘post-‘ their main influence in any sense other than a certain stylistic borrowing? The second, and probably more important frame, is what I’m going to call, in one last attempt to define something journalistically before I’m middle-aged, the post-Olympic.

Danny Boyle’s heart is in the right place, but he’s got a fair bit to answer for in terms of how we’ve come to understand and consume popular music as a nation. The well-intentioned and conscientiously anti-classicist line-up for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 stated that the United Kingdom was not only the home of the Beatles, but also of Fuck Buttons and Emeli Sandé and Dizzee. So eclectic. So electronic. Mix all of this stuff together, moreover, and you get the ubiquitous sound of GB2014, which is a kind of nervy, at once euphoric and dysphoric, super-produced maximalism which pulls off the very odd trick of looking on the surface, in its repetitiveness and Pro-Tooled spatiality, like a form of minimalism. Post-dubstep is perhaps the most obvious instance of this false minimalism: it appropriates the drained, anxious skeletality of its source code, the music which indexed the plausible dystopo-Britain of Children Of Men, and burdens it with the paradoxically marketable overtones of purely personal crisis to produce a positivised version of negation.

SBTRKT, down to the name chosen for Aaron Jerome’s project, represents an affinity with dubstep’s compositional nudity. It retains the subtractive logic of its progenitor, leaving long, tense corridors of un-sound along which we are invited to project our postmodern dread, omitting beats in baneful tribute to the unnerving asymmetry of the deathly now. But this is death warmed up, death brandishing its CV, death who really wants to get asked to be on the next series of Skins and maybe even go to the Brits, death with an Instagram account, death with ‘regular collaborators’, death DJing in a restaurant whose premier culinary attraction is ‘slaw’. This is music which uses the sonic architecture of the twenty-first century’s digitalised angst to talk about how it really actually sort of likes the twenty-first century quite a lot, about how it’s having a fairly nice time and it doesn’t really know what everyone is moaning about.

SBTRKT’s most obvious equivalents, however odd it sounds, are Mumford & Sons. M&S also paper pop’s this-is-awful-emotionally-but-let’s-all-have-a-dance-anyway truisms all over folk, a form that once possessed genuine political currency. Both bands are also notable adherents to the law of the slurred consonant, that staple of Brit School Britain and post-Doherty naffness alike, a form of singing which unites regular SBTRKT guesters Jessie Ware and Sampha with Jamie T and Lily Allen and Kele Okereke. The slurred consonant is a vocal technique, or perhaps anti-technique, designed to obscure origin – it’s a tic that, because it belongs to no existing dialect in any form of world English, indexes placelessness and, by extension, the post-political. It simultaneously expresses emotional authenticity and insouciance, and finds its way onto the majority of the non-instrumental tracks on Wonder Where We Land (the title: more stylised postmodern placelessness).

Post-dubstep and nu-folk have more than irritating vocals in common, though. Both appropriate a very specific, embedded music to the purpose of a very abstract expression of what it’s like to be young (namely, a bit scary and a bit exciting). With post-dubstep, the appropriation is odd because what denoted dubstep – or at least that which feeds P-D’s aesthetic – as being embedded in its cultural moment was the cagily inspecific nature of its signature anxiety. What, say, Burial and Kode9 got exactly right was a depiction of how the condition of living in modern Britain is one of constant worrying about something undefinable. That kind of angst does not lend itself to marketing, but personal and romantic mithering, as ever, does. So here, it’s all Jessie and Sampha opening up about their reeee-lay-shun-ships and feeling so, so sad, disarming the negative capability (check your Keats) of much of the best electronic music to come out of Britain in the noughties by reducing it to a recognisable soundtrack of heartache. It’s all so disingenuous.

I’d list individual tracks but, seriously, this is just a big mulch of bleeps and (generally quite unconvincing) beats and fluttery synths and collaborations, endless, endless collaborations. Is there any music anywhere nowadays which is not a collaboration? I can’t help but feel David Cameron stages a COBRA meeting at the beginning of each year where he and George Osbourne and all the other lads get together and draw a big map of all the collaborations that are going to take place in the next twelve months – ‘I’ve got a spare Ed Sheeran in August, Dave!’ ‘Don’t worry, Calvin Harris can lay something down for him!’ – and then all the musicians featured go off and have a massive party round Rita Ora’s house and discuss how they’ll make it look spontaneous and natural. EVERYONE IS HAVING SUCH A BRILLIANT TIME TOGETHER! THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES ARE THRIVING! YOU’RE NOT REALLY LONELY, BROKE AND DYING! LET’S DO THE GIG RIGHT HERE! This is bollocks music this, like.

So
Oct 2, 2014 11:26am

"This article is bollocks", more like. I don't like it either, but Christ...

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Oct 2, 2014 12:29pm

What's your take on FKA Twigs?

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Oct 2, 2014 12:54pm

Coffeetable-step... I blame James Blake.

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dd44
Oct 2, 2014 1:21pm

almost unintelligible writing here

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dd44
Oct 2, 2014 1:21pm

almost unintelligible writing here

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hanx
Oct 2, 2014 2:01pm

This is entirely correct. As soon as something exciting comes along that accurately depicts how we feel it is hi-jacked and diluted by marketing campaigns. This has always happened with music but who wouldn't go for the dosh these days?

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Oct 2, 2014 3:22pm

Sometime around the fourth paragraph this article just disappears up its own arse.

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The Glitter Man
Oct 2, 2014 3:29pm

Ooooh-ooooh-ooooh-oooooh... I wanna sex you up!

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Mavis76
Oct 2, 2014 3:40pm

Mr. Kennedy has a marvellous talent for taking something as mundane as this album no doubt is and placing that mundanity very plausibly within the fast pace of post-crisis change. He is also a splendid wordsmith. At worst we can accuse him of sociological imagination. More of his writing, please. As for my fellow below-the-liners: bollocks comments section this, like.

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Loki
Oct 2, 2014 4:10pm

In reply to Mavis76:

'Socialogical imagination' yes, but I can't help but feel this album has just been used as a generic foundation for that imagination - for some ridiculously convoluted structure.

'and burdens it with the paradoxically marketable overtones of purely personal crisis to produce a positivised version of negation'

Amazing what a 'mulch of bleeps' will give you.

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Bon Mot
Oct 2, 2014 7:23pm

pseud's corner

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Bewar3them00n
Oct 2, 2014 10:53pm

In reply to hanx:

A track off Amber, the 2nd album by Autechre, was used by Orange, what? 10 years ago ? And Catherdral Cheese used a track by Devandra Banhart a few years back too, utter bastards!!! Bunch of sell outs!!! I used to love Autechre before they went all granular sugar and doing U2 stadium tours, the less said about Devandruff the better, bloody beardy hipster movement is all his fault!!!
There are no clearly defined genre walls anymore, as soon as something is defined as a movement, or a genre, it's moved on already. Good music, is good music. I quite like the latest single from Subtrkt, with the guy from Vampire Weekend singing, but the rest of the album is just aural wallpaper.
Just wait until Pye Audio Corner are used to sell pork pies, then we really are doomed!!!

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dirigible
Oct 2, 2014 11:41pm

Top article. A devastating expose of false dialectics and false syntheses in the modern music marketing machine.

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adi
Oct 3, 2014 11:05am

the fantastic pretentiousness of the writing manages to hide some valid points. i laughed though

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Josh
Oct 3, 2014 2:01pm

Agreed, I sense there's something bigger at play here. Nice idea, but the article doesn't quite get to the nub...

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Chris
Oct 3, 2014 3:15pm

"It’s all so disingenuous"

That gets to the point.

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EB
Oct 3, 2014 5:00pm

A shame his writing is even more stylistically confused and pretentious than the music he uses it to berate...

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Rampton
Oct 3, 2014 6:33pm

Sorry mate, just cos it doesn't float your particular boat, there's no need to give SBTRKT such a pretentious kickng. You sound like you've got some kind of Socialist Thesaurus stuck between yr arse and yr ears. In the words of the not-at-all-famous (apart from possibly in your gaff, cos they were hideously different) Ceramic Hobs, 'You're So Deep You Need Filling In'.

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M fizzy
Oct 3, 2014 7:34pm

This is the best piece I've read on the quietus, you are a star. LETS COLLABORATE

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M fizzy
Oct 3, 2014 7:35pm

This is the best piece I've read on the quietus, you are a star. LETS COLLABORATE

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M fizzy
Oct 3, 2014 7:35pm

This is the best piece I've read on the quietus, you are a star. LETS COLLABORATE

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Joe K
Oct 4, 2014 9:52am

In reply to Rampton:

I've left out responding to the chorus of cliches and platitudes down here (hint: 'Pseud's Corner' is Partridge grade insulting) but it's pretty classless to hide behind a pseudonym and tell someone they need to be 'filled in' for using a certain register. I've got an image of Gary Bushell in my head right now.

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twix
Oct 4, 2014 12:53pm

Really unfortunate writing here. Stream of consciousness? How embarrassing.
After reading this I get more the sense that JK is mad his favourite obscure band/s of the moment are getting no heat. But yet he keeps seeing that bollocks like tube poster all over London. right. sad desperate times for flailing desperate journo looking for attention.

did enjoy thinking about the contrast between the father and the son's language ability though.

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Oct 4, 2014 3:04pm

Nicely written piece as ever. I havent heard the album yet, so no idea if i agree, but reviews arent mirrors to be assessed on how much they corresponf to the particular reader's tastes.

Wider comment though. This is my favourite and most relied-on music site. I've discovered an ocean of stuff here. The comments though, I'd love to compare thoughts on the new Trwbador album or whatever, but the comments are always the same old shit as above - comments about sixth form essays, pseud's corner, all that wank. They can't be representative of the wider readership or the site would have closed ages back since they plainly mostly don't like it. Any idea what's going on? Is it actually worth having comments under articles?

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Max Cairnduff
Oct 4, 2014 3:05pm

In reply to :

That was my comment. Didn't mean to make it anonymous.

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Rampton
Oct 4, 2014 6:28pm

In reply to Joe K:

Joe K - slightly sorry if I offended your sensibilities, but it was a JoKe, Joe K. A play on words. As it goes, I am not personally advocating violence you plonker, just responding in a similar vein to the approach you took in dishing out your beating of the artist through your writing. If you can't take the heat mate, get out of the kitchen.

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KT
Oct 5, 2014 1:52pm

'Death now...'
Is it quite possible that real life events effect all of us? including, those who become popular in mainstream culture? if you had done your research you'd have found out that his brother had died of cancer just weeks before recording.

Record labels have a need for their artists to have social media accounts and have no choice but to market in order to sell and survive- it's not something you get out of easily.

To call it 'romantic mithering' for the sake of popularity is much too basic and not insightful opinion... Especially, when that album will most likely alienate the fans who liked the simple song structures of the first record...

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LQ
Oct 6, 2014 2:50am

not to mention the VERY awkward and unselfconsciously colonialist African mask vibe...

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Joe K
Oct 6, 2014 8:02am

In reply to Rampton:

'It was just banter, m8'. Classic excuse. There's a difference between criticising an album and saying, even as a 'joke', that someone needs 'filling in'. By the way, people who can 'take the heat', to use your macho phrasing, tend not to hide behind pseudonynms.

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Oct 6, 2014 2:11pm

In reply to LQ:

Is it 'african'?

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Oct 11, 2014 5:45am

You are an idiot!

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Baggieboy
Oct 23, 2014 4:13pm

In reply to EB:

It's a bit like looking at the Quietus best albums of 2014 and finding a band that you know or have even heard of...? The team just take pretentiousness to a new level. Who listens to all this stuff all the way through anyway? Give me ELO and Genesis and ABC any day. Just saying like...

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Nov 22, 2014 6:13am

In reply to Joe K:

Hallo again fellah, Sean Rampton here. My oh my, What a hypocrite you've turned out to be eh? You're quite something Joe K. Almost funny that I found you advocating abuse of this particular artist elsewhere recently, one might even start to believe this was something personal? Oh the irony. And interesting that you felt it necessary to delete the last comment I left in response to your attempt to dismiss me as some sort of violent dullard hiding behind a fake identity. Thought we'd cleared that up but I guess you prefer to maintain the illusion of having the upper hand in any kind of 'debate'. I think you need to be a bit more honest with your readership about the motives behind both your original article and the responses to my tongue in cheek postings. Let's face it, you basically threw a bit of a tantrum and then had a humour bypass when someone had the temerity to pull you up about it. You should try being a little less uptight - you might grow to like it!! :)

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Sean Rampton
Nov 23, 2014 10:56pm

In reply to So:

Hallo again Joe K. Interesting spot of editing again I see. Tut tut.

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