Monday, February 19, 2007

Music is just sound

Slayer can only slay your ears, not helpless children. The nastiest metallic riffage is never more than unphysical sound, a mere representation. Metal, rock and roll, Wagner, jazz, they may have the power to move us but that doesn’t make them a literal proposition. There may be some muscular process in the playing, but it is us making the conversion for reasons far more complex than the simple implication of the music: through the senses we can activate and incorporate the sound. Bliss has suggested this in his notes about the ambient/d-step/metal nexus: despite rock’s claims to the contrary all music is ambient, a figment in our minds. Sorry guys, but rock is not like the rock in the ground. Rockers, it seems, are not grounded in soniculture to appreciate this, they take their impression of the sound and the signs around it and literalise. In short, they like to live through their hollow, inherently empty musick, scarcely realising that the noise is just a tool producers turn up or down as the times dictate. Right now, noise is all over mainstream rock and never has it sounded less rocky, or more flaccid.

With the changing nature of the listening experience, digital bites inputted via personalised pipes from a computer and human-machines reprogramming to rave or rock out in an ergonomic chair, this is perhaps why many bloggers don’t tend to go for the obvious mainstream rock options, why it sounds so neutered to them and in-credible on the terms it sets itself. As rock continues to seek to become even more primal, it distracts through parody. By contrast, the failure to realise this is why adolescent minds with ripe bodies still see guitar-based rock as an essential visceral tool to which the impulse is uncontrolled spasms and jerks. To an extent, the vocal element of rock is just supporting the will to move. Rockists who go past the initial fascination realise the fallacy, developing Noise as a theoretical objet, noise pour le noise. Rock’s theoretical triumphs of the 80s – the new metal of Metallica et al, the truncated howls of Napalm, the power electronics of Whitehouse, the compressed, strained grunge of early Dinosaur Jr, the art-rock posturing of Sonic Youth et al and finally the postrock of MBV and co – also marked its end as an interesting form. The post-punkers have currency in this context – Joy Division/New Order and The Cure’s selection of the bass as the lead instrument and the treatment of the guitar not as a big tool but as a contributing fabric was vital in undermining rockist impulses at a time when punk speed freaks were still impelled to pogo (goth at its best was particularly good in using rock’s tools to re-emphasise atmosphere rather than physical feeling).

Our physical relationship to dance music functions differently, and needs none of this qualification. Whereas rock is all about the reaction against it, like you’re being punched in the stomach or someone has clipped your legs, dancing to dance music is an intrinsically connected experience. Microcosmic changes on top of the rhythm never dominate the whole (this is why all these minute changes in much modern euro techno succeed, purely because they don’t take over our ears). As the beat pumps so do you, locked in far more tightly than you can ever be in the convoluted quasi-chaos created by hard rock riffs (this is ironic given the charge of Dance’s artificiality). Keep it up of course and we dancing robots can “lose it” probably more genuinely than with rock, where all the motions are quickly codified even among new and developing genres, so we need those breakdowns and return of the human voice. Yet the importance of repetition is still lost on the traditional rockers, who crave multiple phases and phrases in even a three-minute conventional song structure. The impressionistic approach can last.

This is why indie and dance remain uncomfortable bedfellows, despite the latest round of hype. They are asking us to do different things, react in different ways; successful collisions, like the Rapture’s House of Jealous Lovers where both elements are in the ascendancy, are rare. Usually the best tracks from, say, LCD Soundsystem are where one element is privileged over the other, and the track can be demarcated as rock or dance. And it’s why Fool’s Gold is still so good all these years on – it found a groove and sublated everything to that; the rockers took flight in their flares. This doesn’t stop producers from trying to bridge the gap between ravers riding on the plateau and rockers bouncing off each different element. For similar reasons, rock with its reactive qualities and rap with its narrative relation on a danceable backbeat have seldom worked well together. Rock doesn’t want to ride the rhythm and react to changes, like a spoilt kid it wants to be centre-stage. Rock may claim to being the primal musical force, but in reality it is the genre that is more artificial.

But dance can kick like a mule. In our minds at least. Those searing arpeggiated synth riffs, which we first heard in Saunderson’s Tronik House hard techno and Cybersonik’s Technarchy, was the star of the rave abortion Dominator and has been a regular fixture of tech step, grime and now electro-house, can take the cartilage off your skull (why is there is still no definitive name for this sound?). Then there’s all these digital bleeps and bumps which leave the ears ringing, and the growl of the sub-bass. Too much of those and the ‘dance’ track stutters, because we’re reacting against it rather than grooving with it. Check supposed wunderkind Switch’s horrific reworking of the Black Ghosts new release, or another reworking of Spectrum’s Kinda New, with the inappropriate digital noise quotient up another annoying notch. A lot of this grates, and now we’re wondering whether dancers have become too well listened for their own good and are following rock’s dangerous path of more is more, of misguided experimentation. Previously, ‘dance’ music has got it wrong – industrial music wasn’t industrial, it was just using those motifs. And Leftfield’s Guinness Horse tune, though an undeniably powerful electro thrust, gets its wrong, excessively foregrounding the physical impact of the drums so it fails as a functional dance track. Rewire it, take some of the low end out, and it hits the spot.
There is a third way. Music like reggae, pre-pimped hip-hop and I guess pop as the modern popular folk music – use the riddim to not only make you dance (not rock out) but as a template for wordplay, true representation and true knowledge of music’s role as something that is not naturalistic.

It’s up to the individual, and his or her mood, whether they treat music as what it is, a temporary surround sound installation, or as a transformative engine, or as a vehicle for story telling. In dubstep and elsewhere, they’re doing the former: it’s time to move less and to think of the sound in more cerebral terms, to treat the concoction of different elements as one sound that gives a suffusing ambience, and to let the brain identify first. The genre’s digital mystics are getting sufist on your arse. The city is already like a rock gig now, all that jostling for position at the sandwich shop and the squeeze on the train-cum-moshpit home, so why should we man machines want more of that physicality in our musical downtime. This is also why the tablas, bongos and other exotic percussion usually so badly tacked on to dance are now being used much more as they were intended, to drive the trance through subtle repetition rather than induce us to chuck some new shapes. Keep going as you are. And it’s why dubstep has created a space for trip-hop-like ‘dope’ beats to make a comeback; turns out it doesn’t have to be for tacky samples and cheap jazz licks but as a motor for imaginative instrumentation and suggestive echoes. This time around, we understand the function of the beat much better.
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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hero worship overheard

Couldn’t help chuckling at someone in the office (which I am about to leave!), proclaiming: “I know I'll remember where I was the day Paul Weller dies".

What a fully paid up member of the Woking Men’s Club! There's a severe tension between the present and future in that memorial for not yet dead Weller. When will he cark it? I need to know so I can prepare a floral Mick Talbot, while nothing less than an orchestral rendition of A Town Called Martin will suffice, when it happens (if it hasn’t already – it’s difficult to tell whether Weller is sentient beneath the feather cut).

other potential teary flows for as-yet undead false prophets:
Ian Brown (horrible tears quotient 7)
Judge Jules (how could you: 18.6)
Dave Mustaine (what a mega death – four into six).
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