Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Syro, scenius, 'stasis - and the "saming change"

"Has Underground Culture's obsession with the past endangered its future?' * asks Joe Zadeh at Noisey , using Aphex Twin's Syro as springboard for a survey of the panorama of "same old shit" that is the present   

I don’t think it’s necessarily retromania when an established, much-loved artist returns after a long period of inactivity.  There’s plenty of examples of people in all kinds of artistic fields who just disappear – get burned out or feel like withdrawing from view – and then their passion to create reignites or they start craving a bit of attention and admiration.  And it’s to be expected that their forlornly devoted audience will go into raptures when they return.

That said, it could be taken as significant and symptomatic that by far the biggest excitements of 2014 so far concern the return of Legends after Long Absences - Kate Bush and Richard D. James.

Zadeh's assessment of Syro --  "a time-travel through a meteor shower of eighties synth-funk" interspersed with "fond, self-referential glances at the career of Aphex Twin", resulting in "a sound unlike anything else this year" but "quite a lot like everything from the past thirty years" -- seems accurate and fair. 

But on the question of whether this means he's disappointing our expectations of a new breakthrough, I have to wonder: was Richard D. James ever really an innovator as such? Did he lead the way and point to the future, or was he just very alert and quick off the mark? For if you look back over his discography, for the most part he's gone along with the general direction of techno. His earliest stuff was basically banging 'n' slamming hardcore: strident percussion + caustic ear-punitive sounds, not far from what labels like Rabbit City and Rising High and PCP were doing then, but more accomplished. He was at the forefront of the drift towards floaty, dreamy idyllictronica but he wasn't alone: Carl Craig and The Black Dog were heading that way too, among others. Likewise the shift towards darker abstract atmospheres with Selected Ambient Works II: you could sense a reaction against first-wave ambient brewing, as it got too aqueously placid and pseudo-spiritual serene, such that Kevin Martin pulled together the Isolationism compilation. Then jungle and drum & bass shook everything up - once again James was one of a number of IDM artists (Vibert, Squarepusher, Paradinas, others) who recognised the new cutting edge of micro-edited breakbeat hyperkinesis, who embraced it and pushed it to an absurdist extreme. 

He's a genius, for sure, but where it comes into play is the melodic invention, harmonic and textural subtlety, emotional depth...  and an overall level of musical accomplishment. Also personality and whimsical humour. It's these things that made Aphex's work stand out in a crowded field of fundamentally similar and equally of-its-time music.

A genius who surfed the breaking waves of scenius. 

Generally with electronic music, the evolution is driven by much more wider and impersonal forces – what the technology makes possible, what the dance-floor audience is responding to. 

Perhaps the long silence - unbroken except for the overtly retro, back-to-analogue, back-to-my-roots Analord -- of Aphex since Drukqs just reflected the lack of a dynamic, incontrovertibly innovative and where-it's-at direction in 21st Century electronic music. **

Syro itself doesn't provide that missing direction - there's nothing here for others to imitate, I don't think.  

What it does do is exemplify the alternative strategy that reigns today in most fields of sonic endeavour: archaeological expeditions through relatively recent music history. 

In some ways, it's easier to construct a quirky, idiosyncratic sonic identity by combining past elements, simply because there is such a rich, diverse set of pasts to draw upon. (Ariel Pink's imminent Pom Pom exemplifies this, as all his best work does).

Conversely, when there is a clearly defined cutting edge, it creates homogeneity (think of the effect on the radio of Beatles/Stones, Chic, Timbaland). Innovation seems to promote swarming behaviour, it works as a centripetal attractor, it depersonalises. In the absence of time-defining sounds or sceniotic factors, retro-eclecticism and quirky individuality dominate. 

Personally I prefer a changing same to a richly differentiated stasis. 

Or perhaps I mean, a saming change - the innovation that enforces its across-the-board adoption, the makes the scene move in lockstep.

Not sure what I really make of Syro as yet.  There is a lot to digest. Almost literally - it reminds me of an overstuffed sandwich, or a burger with too many toppings.   The music seems to ooze out at the sides. There's a kind of lateral excess - all the squelchy bass-texture wobbling and wibbling – that interferes with the linear propulsion of the grooves.  It's different, for sure -- no one else is doing anything like it at the moment -  but I don't  quite love it as yet. 

Gonna keep trying, though - it's Richard D. James! The Aphex Twin!

* The headline in itself triggers a twinge of deja vu pour moi, or perhaps deja pensee.

** What, during the dozen years since Drukqs - in itself reflecting the sputtering twilight of late 90s ideas - could RDJ have latched onto, been spurred into action by? The wobble/bro side of dubstep, perhaps. And currently, maybe, certain things going on in EDM production. But that would be leap too far for RDJ. So instead of digital maximalism, with Syro he's opted for analogue maximalism.

Monday, September 29, 2014

future ennui / the glancicle

Ian Bogost in The Atlantic writing about  about the Apple Watch and how we've become numb to future shock, exhausted with and by innovation: 

"Technology moves fast, but its speed now slows us down. A torpor has descended, the weariness of having lived this change before—or one similar enough, anyway—and all too recently. The future isn’t even here yet, and it’s already exhausted us in advance.
"It’s a far cry from “future shock,” Alvin Toffler’s 1970 term for the post-industrial sensation that too much change happens in too short a time. Where once the loss of familiar institutions and practices produced a shock, now it produces something more tepid and routine. The planned obsolescence that coaxes us to replace our iPhone 5 with an iPhone 6 is no longer disquieting, but just expected. I have to have one has become Of course I’ll get one. The idea that we might willingly reinvent social practice around wristwatch computers less than a decade after reforming it for smartphones is no longer surprising, but predictable. We’ve heard this story before; we know how it ends.
"Future shock is over. Apple Watch reveals that we suffer a new affliction: future ennui. The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really) has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance....

"Our lassitude will probably be great for the companies like Apple, who have worn us down with the constancy of their pestering. The poet Charles Baudelaire called ennui the worst sin, the one that could “swallow the world in a yawn....  When one is enervated by future ennui, there’s no vigor left even to ask if this future is one we even want. "

Maybe the problem isn't so much the "pestering" frequency of the changes and upgrades causing us to succumb to boredom, but the triviality of these changes - how they enable us to do what we already did reasonably easily anyway, even more easily.... 
These devices don't look spectacular, and they don't promise or threaten spectacular changes in the way we live our lives -  just increments of convenience.  Access to information that we probably didn't really need, in unmanageable quantities.  Images and (vicarious) experiences we quickly forget, that don't make much impression because we're hurrying to the next image and (vicarious) experience....

Bogost touches on this with his reference to how the Apple Watch heralds "the emergence of a new, laborious media creation and consumption ecosystem built for glancing. The rise of the “glancicle,” which will replace the listicle. The PR emails and the B2B adverts and the business consulting conference promotions all asking, is your brand glance-aware?"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

classic rock versus classical

In an archivally-overloaded atemporal age, with all eras of music equally "present", classical can be as hip - or hipper - than pop/rock, Paul Morley argues in The Guardian:  
"If you are going to go back to the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to find music that still sounds new and challenging – because then it was an actual risk to look and sound a certain way, whereas now it is the norm – you might as well go even further back in time, to the beginning of the 20th century, to the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. Now, with all music available instantly, and pop more a nostalgic, preservative practice rather than one anticipating and demanding change, classical music comes to fresh, forward-looking life.

"The alluring, addictive sound of pop does still evolve, but what is sung about remains more or less the same; the poses, controversies and costumes repetitive and derivative. It is machines that are now the new pop stars, the performers and singers like travelling sales workers whose ultimate job is to market phones, tablets, consoles, films, brands and safely maintain the illusion that the world is just as it was when there was vinyl and the constant, frantic turnover of talent, genre and style. There is today a tremendous amount of sentimentality in making it seem as though things are as they once were, a desperate future-fearing rearrangement of components that were hip 40 years ago. But pop and rock belongs at the end of the 20th century, in a structured, ordered world that has now fallen apart.
"For me, pop music is now a form of skilfully engineered product design, the performers little but entertainment goods, and that is how they should be reviewed and categorised. The current pop singers are geniuses of self-promotion, but not, as such, musicians expressing glamorous ideas.
"Most rock is now best termed trad. I like a bit of product design, even the odd slab of trad, and have not turned my back completely on entertainment goods, but when it comes to music and working out what music is for, when it comes to thinking about music as a metaphor for life itself, what tends to be described as classical music seems more relevant to the future.
".... Now that all music is about the past, and about a curation of taste into playlists, now that fashions and musical progress have collapsed, discernment wiped out, classical music takes a new place in time, not old or defunct, but part of the current choice. It is as relevant as any music, now that music is one big gathering of sound perpetually streaming into the world."

Morley has been writing about classical music with fiery energy over at Sinfini for a couple of years now... Indeed the Guardian piece seems to be something of a remix of this manifesto-like oration (his keynote speech at the 2014 conference of the Association of British Orchestras) as well parts of this 2013 appreciation of Holst's The Planets. *

It's quite a self-reinvention. One that appears to date back to the extraordinary impact on him of The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross. (See also that learning to be a composer TV program Morley made).

Except it's not really a self-reinvention, in fact it's the same Morley as ever. Read the whole of that Guardian article, look at the Sinfini columns, and you'll notice that he's simply transposed the way he wrote about JoyDivisionSmithsAutechre onto DebussyMozartShostakovich, barely adjusting the style or approach. And showing once again how unabashedly subjective his writing always has been.... how the real music here is the "song of myself" that is his life's work...  The writing is really about the places that music takes his mind, the journeys on which it propels his thought, the effect on one individual's consciousness of organised sounds....  and not so much about pointing to intrinsic properties or features that the music might have in and of itself.... 

That's not a criticism.    

That's what we all do to, to some extent. He's just more honest about it. 

The Planets was actually my favorite classical work as a boy, rivalled by Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony maybe. Used to lie on the coverlet of my parents double bed, bathed in the sunlight streaming through the big glass window, and drift off as  "Neptune, the Mystic" wafted out of our old-fashioned wood-encased radiogram. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

this was(n't really) tomorrow - slight return

Bruce Sterling acerbic in Artforum on the art of Omni magazine, as compiled in a new book called The Mind's Eye

I think this stuff looked camp, or just naff, even at the time.

It's sort of airbrush Dali  meets sword'n'sorcery paperbacks meets preview of the more cyberdelic rave flyers on the US West Coast

Amazed how long it went on as well, all through the Eighties and into the Nineties

Can't recall if I ever bought a copy - definitely saw it around, flicked through it at . W.H. Smiths I should imagine.

You can find a bunch of old Omni's archived online here and here