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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

the language of new

I expect you've noticed that Greil Marcus * has a new book out.

I haven't got very far into The History of Rock 'n' Roll In Ten Songs - been dipping in and out (amazing bits on Beyonce, on Joy Division / Control / "Transmission"....)

One bit that particularly struck me, though, is the opening section, which is titled "A New Language". It addresses, and stresses, the sensation of out-of-nowhere that rock'n'roll transmitted -  what you might call a true illusion ....  in so far as it didn't come out of nowhere, of course... in dreary historical fact it had an extensive tangle of roots and precursors **...  but equally, if  perception and reception can be admitted as historical facts too (which they should, surely)....  if feeling and seeming makes it so....  then it did come out of nowhere.

Marcus writes:

"Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else - and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It's that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language - which though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before - that speaks. In rock'n'roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself"

He returns to make the same point, more or less, a little later, talking about Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs's 1960 hit "Stay":

"... The record seemed to turn the radio upside down. It was the invention in the music that was so striking - the will to create what had never been heard before, through vocal tricks, rhythmic shifts, pieces of sound that didn't logically follow one from the other, that didn't make musical or even emotional sense when looked at as pieces, but as a whole spoke a new language....   The ear of the new audience was fickle, teenagers knowing nothing of where the music came from and caring less, and why should they care? It was new, it was different, and that was what they wanted: out of a nascent sense that the world in which their parents had come of age had changed or in some deeper, inexpressible manner disappeared, a sound that made the notion of a new life a fact, even if that fact lasted only a minute and a half. To make that fact - to catch that ear, to sell your record, to top the charts, if only in your dreams - you had to try something new. You had to find something new"

Reading this, I nodded inwardly. Even though I wasn't alive when rock'n'roll happened and by the time I became properly aware of pop music, somewhere between "All You Need Is Love" and "Hot Love",  50s r'n'r already seemed ancient, like it came from another era altogether - the only exceptions really being "Summertime Blues" and "Shaking All Over", played by Radio One as Golden Oldies but still seeming contemporary in their starkness. So much "new" had occurred in the subsequent decade or so, it made Elvis et al seem quaint. It shoved them back into  The Past.

Reading "A New Language", I was also reminded of something I'd realised only quite recently, which is that, strictly speaking, in demographic terms I'm a baby-boomer. I just make the tail end of the baby boom generation (its cut-off point is 1964).  (Marcus incidentally was born in 1945,  one year before the baby boom's official onset, and on June 19 - same date as me).

So I'm teetering on the edge of Generation X and can understand its irony, can empathize with its feelings of belatedness and inferiority, etc. But at heart I don't really belong with that cohort. Deep in my fibres, my outlook is baby-boomer. I grew up into this idea of the New that Marcus writes about, absorbing it from a cultural atmosphere glowing with the fall-out from recent irruptions and still subject to their regular visitations.

Neophilia is native to me. It's my birthright. My mother tongue.

It's my truth, my illusion.

* Expect you have also noticed the existence of Greilmarcus.net  - a trove of Marcus writings from across six decades, an unruly archive set up by Scott Woods of rockcritics.com to coincide with the release of The History of Rock 'n' Roll In Ten Songs. I'ts full of surprises. For some reason I thought Marcus would despise Devo, but here is joyously celebrating the sheer poptastic thrills of their debut album.  And who knew GM ever wrote about dreampop? (Albeit focusing on The Cranberries and The Cranes, rather than MBV or Slowdive).  Or that he squeezed out some thoughts on the subject of The Verve! (I don't think "Bittersweet Symphony" is "whiny" but otherwise found much to agree with there).  I am waiting for Scott to dig out GM's favorable Village Voice review of Dire Straits's first album. 

** "dreary historical fact". Marcus differentiates his approach from an "official" historical account of rock / pop as an evolving form ("there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovators, to follow the supposed progression of the form) and  instead proposes and pursues an irreponsible, anachronological history. (As he has for years, at least since the "secret history' of Lipstick Traces).  There's a  parallel with Kodwo Eshun's "discontinuum," where the new breaks through into the present like a ghost from the future. But unlike Eshun, GM's "new" is not indexed to technology or even necessarily breakthroughs in what can be done with sound. The emphasis is very much new language - on song writing,  song as a drama, a stage rather than a space.  Or as Will Stephenson observed in his Oxford American review of Ten Songs: "He views songs as documents of physical effort rather than as abstract, sonic experiences. He’s never shown any real interest in the recording studio as an instrument, in aura, artifice, or pure sound.... production for its own sake is of no use to his critical approach, which is built on public action.”


dredge too far #2 - the anthologist-archaeologist explains

Nick Soulsby, the chap behind Soul Jazz's No Seattle compilation of ultra-obscure North West US grunge-adjacent bands, explains the thinking behind the project:

"Basically, "No Seattle" was my idea. The kind people at Soul Jazz took a look at the music and felt it was worth hearing - that aural quality was the first consideration they had alongside a desire to see a story, a reason behind a release such as this. I'd always loved how their releases have a tale to tell, something to be read not just heard, that seems to bestow great respect upon the music they release and the choices they make

"Why these bands? Well, there's a website called www.nirvanaguide.com. I had become fascinated by all these forgotten bands rubbing shoulders with future 'Godheads' so went and found them. I created a book to be published by St Martin's Press next March - an oral history of Nirvana told via the tales and experiences of 170 of the bands they played with. The book is called "I Found My Friends" because the emphasis became one focused on community and a shared life - right to the end Nirvana treated their fame as something to be shared with their friends and those they admired and my interest was more in these people helping, supporting and creating with one another rather than in the oh-so-overdone trials and tribulations of being famous. 

"Throughout, people kept sending me music and kept surprising me; "wow! I know a lot of the North West musicians were adverse to engaging with 'the business' and actively hated 'the media' but how tha heck did no one ever notice this?!" I kept hearing things I thought were genuinely good. I decided to take a chance, wrote to the label and proposed they do a release about the bands who weren't sold by Sub Pop. Why? Well, in a region receiving so little attention it was easy for an awful lot of bands to slip below the radar - name a North West U.S. label of that time? Basically, Sub Pop is the only one to sell and that's because it sold a very packaged product, mimicked mainstream rock and then bought a ticket for a U.K. journalist to come visit them. If it wasn't for Nirvana even Sub Pop would be as obscure to most music consumers as Alternative Tentacles, Touch & Go or New Alliance...Or more pertinently, as obscure to most as Kill Rock Stars, K, PopLlama, Rathouse, eMpTy, C/Z, Velvetone...

"An interesting point you raise is what criteria should decide whether something can be the subject to a retrospective? There seems to be the suggestion in what you write that being noticed by the media at the time is the crucial factor - but then that would seem to get us into Van Gogh territory whereby if an unknown doesn't make it 'at that time' then there can and should be no resurrection for them. It also seems to suggest (I'm not saying intentionally) that not even coming close to 'making it' is a higher arbiter of value and worth than any musical quality or interest it might possess? Perhaps that's Velvet Underground territory - unless an individual's later success retrospectively resurrects the value of their earlier work (not a ludicrous idea at all.) 

"In this case, Bundle of Hiss are the direct predecessor of Tad; one individual goes on to be Mudhoney's drummer; Seattle's uber-producer Jack Endino plays on the record and is producer for a number of pieces; three of Nirvana's drummers are on the record (the aforementioned individual from Mudhoney plus Aaron Burckhard and Dave Foster); a gentleman from Nubbin goes on to work with Yoko Ono; Starfish are recorded by Bob Mould and released by King Coffey of Butthole Surfers; Patty Schemel of Hole plays with Small Stars...In terms of linkage to bands and artists featured more in the media glare there's plenty...But of course there are plenty of further questions to be asked regarding what role or instrumental contribution could or should legitimately command attention... Or which phase of a band's existence someone should be present for in order to be worth remembering... 

"I felt there was a story to tell about a region that wasn't noticed at all until 1989-1990, that managed to sell one single style of music to the world and only became remembered because a particular band blew up. You're right that I feel there's a gap for a properly comprehensive and respectful study of the origins and peak of the grunge scene, the bands immediately behind Soundgarden/Mudhoney/Nirvana on the Sub Pop roster - but that opportunity wasn't one I had open to me. I saw a lot of good musicians, in a region that lacked the infrastructure to bring them to mass attention, who broke up for all the usual reasons bands brake up and who varied significantly from the 'grunge template'...It doesn't mean it's 28 tracks worth of Smells Like Teen Spirit uni-glory, it does mean that there's 28 tracks memorialising a region that had a lot more going on that just "long greasy hair, stubble, sloppy Black Sabbath and black n' white cover shots (no girls allowed.)" That alternative felt worth showing - the 'Seattle sound' could have been something very different and maybe the counter factual has some points of interest... "

Friday, September 19, 2014

retro-quotes # 13851 + #13852 + #13853

retro-quotes: a series of germane remarks, by others, plucked from all over the place, and from all over the time # 13851  + #13852 + 13853

 “In wishing to preserve what had been valued, classical societies in time found themselves valuing what had been preserved....  Value itself became the exclusive province of the past and the present was transformed into something resembling a vast association of museums.....  The ‘crisis’ of the ancient world, so much talked about and fretted over in later historiography, can be sseen to have lain most fundamentally in this steady accumulation of the past within all the spaces of the present, so that to live must have in time become to have been lived, to be the abode of ghosts"

                   -- Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of An Epithet, 1975

“... We have to ask ourselves whether or not we who are alive today are not fatally saddled with the past, carrying it around on our collective shoulders; are we not ‘old’ before we start?”

                  -- Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of An Epithet, 1975

“The belief that there are periods in the arts when, after a brilliant flowering, decline sets in and an erstwhile robustness lapses into debility and enervation [is misguided].....  Powerful art does not ‘give way’ to weak art, turning into it like an organism running down, although what we think of as strong art may indeed be succeeded by the weak....  That there have been and continue to be times of great artistic vigor and assured style followed by ones of depleted energy and uncertain manner, and that periods of imitation often succeed ones of notable originality, is scarcely to be denied.... Now, imitation in art may be bad (Ortega y Gasset called it “nothing”, a principle of emptiness) but to call it decadent is to abandon the word’s only plausible meaning”. For if ‘decadence’ means a ‘falling down’ or ‘away’..... then the imitative by its very nature could hardly be decadent, since its repetition of what has been validated and sanctified in the imaginative realm is proof of its respect for, its unquestioning acceptance of, the norm. One may argue that the imitative might be considered decadent because it falls away from an ideal of originality, but this is not how critics or academics... have ever argued. In any case, imitation is its own condemnation and has no need for ‘decadence’ to inform us about itself”

--- - Richard Gilman, splitting hairs a bit, Decadence: The Strange Life of An Epithet, 1975

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

a dredge too far?



1. Starfish — This Town
2. Vampire Lezbos — Stop Killing The Seals
3. Nubbin — Windyyy
4. Saucer — Jail Ain't Stopping Us
5. Machine — Blind Man's Holiday
6. Medelicious — Beverly
7. Hitting Birth — Same 18
8. Nubbin — Wonderama
9. Crunchbird — Woodstock Unvisited
10. The Ones — Talk To Me
11. Pod — 123
12. Thrillhammer — Alice's Palace
13. Yellow Snow — Take Me For A Ride
14. Helltrout — Precious Hyde
15. Bundle Of Hiss — Wench
16. Starfish — Run Around
17. Thrillhammer — Bleed
18. Chemistry Set — Fields
19. My Name — Voice Of A Generation Gap
20. Small Stars — It's Getting Late
21. Shug — AM FM
22. Treehouse — Debbie Had A Dream
23. My Name — Why I Fight
24. Soylent Green — It Smiles
25. Kill Sybil — Best
26. Calamity Jane — Magdalena
27. Saucer — Chicky Chicky Frown
28. Attica — The System

Well, I lived through this era, wrote quite actively about underground American rock in the late 80s and early 90s, read zines like Forced Exposure...  and I never heard of any of these bands. Pond, yes, but Pod?

To be honest I'd have thought the first step really would be to introduce today's generation to the NW bands that weren't Nirvana or Soundgarden, but were fairly renowned at the time .... like, I dunno, Tad, who I liked for a moment there.

But even that task would not strike me as the most pressing of reclamation missions...

Reminds of when - back in the actual late Eighties -  I was enthusing about John's Children to a friend who had been there, who was alert and attuned to what was hip and what mattered during the actual late Sixties .... and she was incredulous, openly scornful: "John's Children? Nobody took them seriously. They were a joke."

Didn't affect my love of John's Children one jot, of course, but 'twas bracing to encounter that perspective.

Around that time, I was friendly with another late Sixties veteran and one time we were hanging out, he mentioned the band Family. I confessed I had never heard of them. He was genuinely shocked - "Never heard of Family? Oh, they were one of the most important bands of that time".

I guess this is the Drops Away Syndrome again -  with Family as a band who had dropped away completely by the Eighties -  despite the praise and expectation that surrounded their name  all through 1968-1972, despite the several hit singles (including one #4 hit) they had, despite being high on the bill festival regulars...

But the groups on this new Soul Jazz comp, they never rose enough that one could even say they dropped away, unlike your Tads and Ponds and Leaving Trains...

retrodance (a partial flashback)

"In the last few years... that future-rush of exponential rhythmic complexification [that propelled the 1990s forward] has dissipated, reached a plateau or impasse. The most popular dancefloor sounds of the last four years- Big Beat, the "disco cut-up"/filter style of house, and the Eighties-revisionist styles known variously as electroclash or nu-wave--are retro-kitsch in flavor, imitating or directly sampling Seventies disco and early Eighties electro i.e. the pre-rave ancestors of house, techno, jungle,et al. 

This wave of "technostalgia" is reflected in recent videos, like the kitschadelic cut-and-paste of Cassius's "1999", where the pulpy visuals match the period associations of the track's disco sources: Pop Art/Lichtenstein style comic book appropriations, dated-looking typography and graphics redolent of early Seventies teenpop music annuals and heart-throb magazines, tacky sci-fi imagery, and so forth.

Similarly the video for Les Rythmes Digitales’ "Hey You What's That Sound" (directed by Evan Bernard) is a fond, knowing and immaculate parody of an early Eighties dancepop video (think the pre-megastardom Madonna of "Holiday" and "Lucky Star", or Shannon, or Bananarama). The primitive computer video effects perfectly fit Les Rhythmes Digitales's deliberately retro-futurist sound--stiff sequencer and drum machine rhythms, unwieldy geometric synth-riffs. What was once state-of-the-art retinal intensity returns under the sign of camp, signifying both bemused amusement that we could ever have been astonished by these clumsy visual tricks, and a yearning to experience once again that virgin amazement.

 by Simon Reynolds (Stylus, 2002)

Friday, September 12, 2014

infinite fungibility of the self versus collective movement forward

Choice morsels from Mark Fisher's interview at Crack Magazine

"The thing about retro is very interesting because there have been retro groups for a long time, certainly at least as far back as the early ’70s, but the thing is at least then they were positioned as retro. Whereas something like the Arctic Monkeys, there is no relation to historicity. They’re clearly a retro group, but the category of retro doesn’t make any sense anymore because it’s retro compared to what? ...  Arctic Monkeys airbrush cultural time out and appeal to this endless return and timelessness of rock"

"What we’ve got in the 21st century is a confusion of the contemporary with the modern, in fact the contemporary cannot deliver the modern...."

"... Things can’t carry on as they are on lots of levels. Politically they can’t carry on, economically they can’t carry on. Culturally they seem as if they can carry on forever. When I was watching Glastonbury a few years ago, my friend, the philosopher Ray Brassier, was saying, “this could go on for a hundred years like this”. It seems as if they can carry on forever, but I don’t believe that they will."

"What’s missing is a popular experience of newness. At the very least that is what has disappeared. But I think what’s also missing is this circuit between the experimental, the avant garde and the popular. It’s that circuit that’s disappeared. Instead what we have is ExperimentalTM, which is actually well established genres with their own niche markets which have no relation to a mainstream." 

"TV, or certainly public service broadcasting in the UK, is unprecedentedly bad. A lot of [Ghosts of My Life] s about TV as much as music actually. I think that one of the big exceptions to what I’m saying is American TV, HBO and the like, which probably has a claim to having produced new cultural forms in the 21st century. It’s good that those HBO things are happening, but I think that in the UK there’s this box set melancholy, as I call it, where you’re watching this stuff, but you don’t have the same collective experience of it as when you were watching public service television together. I think that’s why people like the X Factor because you know everyone is watching at the same time. And that’s an encouraging thing, that people are enjoying each other’s sociality and that a banal talent contest is only the pretext for that."

"My education didn’t come from school, which I hated, it came from reading NME. Which again, NME is like Channel 4 I think, if you want to look at the decline of British culture over the last 30 years look at what the NME was like then to what it’s like now. But there was that public service broadcasting via Channel 4 and the BBC, and this wider supporting culture." 

"Ostensibly there is this kind of infinite fungibility about the self, but what does that amount to? Actually it amounts to choosing from a set of pre-given options really, and the capacity to collectively produce something that didn’t exist before has radically atrophied. I think that’s what’s been underlying everything that’s been said today, that a capacity to make an infinity of meaningless choices has replaced the capacity to actually change things. And underlying this sense of infinite fungibility is that overwhelming sense that nothing can ever happen again."
"There’sa very moving piece that Jodi Dean wrote recently, which was ostensibly a review of Jonathan Lethem’s book Dissident Gardens, which bought out this thing about belonging to the Party. It would make things like the mundane drudgery of leafleting [tolerable]; when you have that narrative [of belonging to the Party] these mundane activities are radically transfigured – the whole of life is radically transfigured." 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Piece by Randall Roberts at Los Angeles Times on John Oswald revisisting / reworking  Grayfolded, his proto-mashup sampladelic expansion of "Dark Star" by Grateful Dead, 20 years after it was first released.

20 years!

Here's what I wrote about it at the time....

The Wire, 1995
by Simon Reynolds

     There are two different schools of sampling. For some (A
Guy Called Gerald, The Young Gods, Techno-Animal), there's a
fierce conviction (50 percent aesthetic, 50 percent legal
anxiety) that all samples must be masked, all sources
rendered unrecognisable.  This is the modernist school of
sampladelia: digital technology as a crucible for sonic
alchemy, musique concrete made easy as pie.  I have a lot of
sympathy for this ethos, but there's a sense in which this
approach reduces the sampler to a synthesiser, and thereby
misses what is truly idiomatic to the machine: taking the
known and making it strange, yet still retaining an uncanny,
half-recognisable trace of the original's aura.

     Canadian musician/producer John Oswald falls into the
second, postmodern camp. Sampling, or as he prefers to term
it, "electroquoting", is a highly self-conscious practice
that allows him to interrogate notions of originality,
copyright, signature and 'the death of the author'.  Long
before the sampler became available, he was using more
cumbersome, time-consuming techniques of tape cut'n'splice to
create his famous if seldom heard Mystery Lab cassettes.  But
he really made a name for himself in 1989 with the
Plunderphonics CD, which caused a major ruckus, sonically and
institutionally, with its digital vivisections of songs by
The Beatles, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Glenn
Gould etc.  Despite the fact that 'Plunderphonics' was
distributed on a non-commercial, non-profit basis, the
Canadian Recording Industry Association, acting on behalf of
its clients CBS and Michael Jackson, threatened Oswald with
litigation.  He was forced to destroy the master-tapes and
all remaining CD's.  700 remain in circulation, while the
intrigued can get bootleg copies from a number of Copyright
Violation Squads (see end-note).

     Since then Oswald has mostly confined his plunderphonic
escapades to cases where his reworkings have been solicited,
like his de- and re-constructions of songs by The Doors and
Metallica, amongst others, for a limited release CD
celebrating the 25th Annivesary of Elektra Records. An
exception was "Plexure" (released on John Zorn's Avant
label), where Oswald cannibalised the entire audiorama of
contemporary pop'n'rock in one fell swoop. The result--5000
songs 'composited' into a 20 minute frenzy of crescendos,
choruses, screams, powerchords, etc--is a bit like Napalm
Death with samplers.

     Last year, at the invitation of the Grateful Dead,
Oswald plunderphonized that band's most famous and far-out
song "Dark Star", producing the double-CD "Grayfolded".  The
first disc, "Transitive Axis" came out last year; now the
second half, "Mirror Ashes" has been added, and the whole
'Grayfolded' package is being made widely available,
following the unexpectedly warm reception 'Transitive'
received from the Deadhead community (50,000 copies sold!).

     Entering the Dead's legendary vaults, where recordings
of virtually every performance they ever made are stacked,
Oswald spent 21 days listening to 100 versions of 'Dark
Star', and extracted 40 hours of improvisatory material.  The
original plan was to create just one disc, but Oswald soon
realised he had enough good stuff for two.  'Transitive' and
'Mirror' each took three months of painstaking digital labour
to construct. The results are astonishing. Whereas the
iconoclasm (literally idol-smashing) of 'Plunderphonics' was
patently audible, 'Grayfolded' is true to the spirit of the
Dead:  the nine tracks of 'Transitive', in particular, form one seamless, fluent
monster-jam, and sounds almost like a plausible real-time
event with the Dead in unusually kosmik form.  Although
Oswald's techniques allow Garcia, Weir, Lesh et al to jam
with their own doppelgangers across a 25 years timespan, the
digital methodology doesn't really draw attention to itself
on the first disc (it gets a bit more outre on "Mirror
Ashes", though).

     One of the ironies of "Grayfolded" is that Oswald wasn't
exactly a Deadhead when he embarked on the project. "I
enjoyed 1969's 'Live/Dead', especially 'Dark Star', and might
have heard the odd C&W song or 'Truckin'', but I basically
didn't listen to them for twenty five years," he admits over
the phone from his Toronto office. "But I found what I expected
in the vaults--all kinds of great things were happening in
concert.  I also went to two Dead shows.  The first was in
Oakland, their home town, and I thought 'well, this is not
great improvising', but it was fascinating sociologically, in
so far as there's this relationship between an extremely
active, fertile audience and a very untheatrical musical
experience onstage.  A year later I went to another show in
New York, and found that musically it was quite satisfying,
almost like a completely different band. So I started to
respect the idea that an audience would follow this band
looking for these good concerts. I had got one out of two, a
good ratio."

     In the lysergic daze of late '60s acid-rock, the Dead
did weird studio-as-instrument stuff on early albums like
'Anthem of the Sun' and 'Aoxomoa', But today one associates
the Dead with a keep-it-live, jam-a-long mess-thetic,
possibly because their legacy is godawful American neo-
tie-dye bands like Blues Traveller, Phish, etc. Was there a
sense in which Oswald was making a case for digital music as
the new psychedelia, and making up for the Dead's abandonment
of the studio's possibilities?

     Actually, no. "The technique of this record--using
computers, digital transfers and stuff--is really incidental
to the illusion I'm trying to present.  People would tell me
to stop listening to the tapes and go to a concert, 'cos live
it's a totally different thing.  And I thought what
constitutes this other 'thing'? It's obviously not in the
band itself, cos there's no theatricality. Maybe it's 'cos
there's so much drugs in the air! What I found at the
concerts is there's a give and take between the audience and
band, there are audience surges triggered by certain things the
band do, or by the lighting, which is very subtle and directs
the visual attention back onto the audience every so often.
I thought 'well, we're not going to soak the CD cover in
acid, so how can I achieve what I think everybody desires--a
record that captures this feeling that Dead concerts are
magic?'  So I did things that are unnatural, like have a young
Jerry Garcia sing with an old Jerry, or have an orchestra of
multiple Dead musicians, all in order to pump up the sonic
experience so that at certain points you think: 'What's
happening? Have the drugs kicked in?'".

     These paradoxical sensations--a real-time, flow-motion
band suddenly transfigured and transcendentalized--were
created via an array of intensely artificial and finickety
techniques. Like 'folding', whereby Oswald took similar
material from different concerts and layered them up,
achieving a density similar to the effect Phil Spector got
from having several pianos playing the same chords. "For
instance, on "Transitive Axis" I took a really nice 12 minute
duet between Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia, trimmed out
redundant ideas and folded it down to three minutes. Yet it
still feels like a duet. Using a computer, it's easy to take
something from later in a musical sequence and slide it in
earlier, superimposing it on a different track of the mix. I
used to do that in my earlier analog days but it was much
harder to do it accurately. With computers, I can move things
by a millisecond 'til they fit exactly in the rhythmic
pocket, so you still have the 'feel' of a band.

     "After the first disc, Lesh said he would have liked to
hear even more folding, and in response I took the entirety
of 'Transitive Axis' and folded it 14 times. This created 16,
384 layers and squeezed 60 minutes into 2 seconds! It sounds
like a feedback rush or a jet engine, and I slipped it into
"Cease Tone Beam" on the second disc. It's a bit like that JG
Ballard idea that in the future people will listen to Wagner
operas that have been compressed from four hours to a few
seconds, but still have the flavour, like a whiff of

     "Cease Tone Beam" itself is Oswald's plunderphonia at
its most extreme. From the ' drumspace' sections of Dead
shows, which often segue into 'Dark Star', Oswald took a
minute and a half fragment of ultralow-end percussion timbre,
generated on Mickey Hart's custom-made aluminum beam. Oswald
slowed it down 16 times into a protracted sub-aural seism,
over which he layered progressively shorter, less-slowed down swatches
of percussion that went up in ratios (2, 4, 8) that generated a simple harmonic relationship.  The result, at once ethereal
and chthonic, other- and under-wordly, is the missing link
between avant-grunge unit The Melvins and Eno's "On Land".

     Oswald doesn't really know how the Grateful Dead feel
about "Grayfolded". Ex-keyboard player Tom
Constanten did send him a thank-you note, but the death of Jerry
Garcia left the rest of the guys "pretty preoccupied".  Diehard Deadheads
responded extremely well to "Transitive Axis", but the more
anti-naturalistic "Mirror Ashes" has stirred the first
charges of 'heresy!'.  Oswald's favourite reaction is "from a
guy on the Internet who wrote that Grayfolded makes him cry,
because it encapsulates 25 years of Garcia, and it's unreal
in a way that gave him a very visceral sensation of it being
a ghost."

     Garcia's death does shine a peculiar light on the whole
project, in so far as it suggests that a kind of involuntary
immortality for artists may soon become widespread. Oswald
has shown that a sympathetic ear can 'play' another artist's
aesthetic like an instrument. (Of course Luddites like Lenny Kravitz and Oasis
have effectively already done the same thing, vis-a-vis
Hendrix and Lennon/McCartney, by writing new songs in
another's old style).  But what's to stop an unsympathetic,
money-motivated ear doing the same thing?  In the future,
will artists copyright their 'soul-signature' and then sell
it to the highest bidder to be exploited after their demise?
Fond of visual and filmic analogies, Oswald mentions that the
movie business has been trying to devise ways of taking dead
stars and creating simulations of them to play new parts.
The mind boggles....

     In addition to plunderphonic activity, Oswald works as a
producer, where he deploys unique recording techniques like
his Orbital Microphone Navigational Imaging Via Echotronic
Radio Stereo Eccentricity, aka OMNIVERSE (a mic' with the
aural equivalent of a zoom lens, enabling it to do a 'tracking shot' down the entire length of a piano string).  He also writes pieces for
orchestra, and, as we speak, is putting the finishing touches
to a stage production involving 22 choreographers "none of
whom know what the others are doing". Finally, and strictly
as a hobby, he plays sax in a quintet confusingly called The
Double Wind Cello Trio.  On the plunderphonic front, Oswald has a
backlog of classical music related stuff to release, and he's
about to embark on a massive opus that will somehow
"encapsulate this first century of music recording history
that is about to come to an end".


and a later (2001) piece for Uncut on the reissue of Plunderphonics as part of a box set

Plunderphonics 69/96
by Simon Reynolds

In this "pop will regurgitate itself" era, sampling and referentiality is so par for the course, it's barely comment-worthy. Flashback, though, to a time when the debates about bricolage and (re-, mis-, and ex-) appropriation were more urgent: the late Eighties of Def Jam, the JAMMS, M/A/R/R/S, Steinski, that moment when the sampler suddenly got much cheaper. Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald had been messin' with music by iconic artist for years, using traditional tape-editing techniques, and he seized the opportunities presented by the new digital technology. The result was 1989's Plunderphonic CD: songs by Elvis Presley, James Brown, Count Basie, Stravinsky,  and others, vivisected and rebuilt into grotesque mutant alter-egos.   What was different about Oswald's approach was that each track focused on a single artist, and usually a single work. This sort of aural Pop Art mischief wasn't unprecedented, either in the academy (James Tenney's 1961 Elvis-deconstruction "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) or in pop itself (The Residents Reich'n'Roll), but Oswald's cover (per)versions were especially extreme.

Despite being scrupulous about identifying his sources, and circulating Plunderphonic on a non-commercial basis, Oswald was persecuted by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (largely because CBS were upset by his reworking of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and forced to destroy all remaining copies of the CD. For years, the only way to hear it has been to contact various Copyright Liberation outfits who'd tape it for free. But now, finally, Oswald has secured permission for all his  "electroquotes" and has re-released Plunderphonic, plus some of his earlier and later collages, in a deluxe CD box. There's an extensive booklet, which goes into fascinating detail about Oswald's techniques and diverse approaches to each different song-treatment, along with all the related issues of originality, copyright, artistic signature, etc, that Oswald is exploring.

Listening to the set's two discs, a certain Oswald "signature" emerges:   a partiality for choppy, fractured rhythms and weird time signatures. The herky-jerky cut-up of  "Hello I Love You" sounds like the Magic Band reduced to eking out an existence as a covers band, with the players uncannily imitating the Doors's instrumental and vocal timbres, but restructuring the tune in the jagged spirit of Trout Mask Replica.  Extracts from Plexure, Oswald's attempt to compress the entire pop universe into one 20 minute piece, offer a frenzy of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, etc, an FM radio inferno that spawns monstrous hybrids like Annie Lennox amalgamated with Fine Young Cannibals inna Cronenburg/The Fly-stylee.  There are also moments of beguiling delicacy, though: offcuts of Juan Carlos Joabim bossanova rewoven into a beautiful quilt of lilt; "Strawberry Fields Forever" condensed into a quintessential quiver of wistful ethereality; a varispeeded "White Christmas" that makes Bing's croon droop and ooze like a Dali dreamscape. "Pretender" is a sex-change version of a Dolly Parton song descending from only-audible-to-dogs ultra-treble to a testosterone-thick basso profundissimo, and  executed using a Lenco turntable that  goes from 80 rpm down to 12 rpm.

The most stunning of  Oswald's plunderphonic feats is "Dab", his infamous unravelling of Michael Jackson's "Bad".  Attempting to bring sorely-needed electricity to what he felt was musically lifeless, Oswald does his usual Beefheart/Zorn-style thing at first, transforming the song into convulsive cyber-funk. Halfway through, though, the remake ascends to another place altogether. Micro-syllable vocal particles are multitracked as if in some infinite hall-of-mirrors vortex, and this ghost-swarm of 
nano-Jacksons strobes stereophonically from speaker to speaker, while simultaneously billowing back and forth through dub-space. The opposite approach to Plexure's maximalist assault, "Dab" creates a new universe within a finite, not-especially-great pop song. It's one of the most cosmic (micro-cosmic?) things I've ever heard. And it alone justifies the not-cheap admission price to Plunderphonics 69/96.