Guy talks about pretentiousness in social/cultural theory. I agree with him that often meaningful, important things are lost in endless waffle (like the Foucalt quote), or indeed endless waffle is used to hide an absence of any meaning at all (the other one). I suppose that's why I've been drawn to a lot of explicitly activist social theory of late, despite my general preference for engaging with ideas in isolation rather than in regards to their actual application (except where I stand to gain, ho ho).
Often though activist literature can be wonderfully compelling (and generally far more inspiring than activists themselves) because the writers, in their need to get their ideas across as quickly, simply and powerfully as they can, distill their thoughts into concise dewdrops of inspiration (memes I suppose, or theoretical soundbites if you will) which I often find powerfully memorable as much for their poetic resonance as for their arguments and reasoning. eg:
“A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” - Radicalesbians, "The Woman Identified Woman"
Reading the rest of "The Woman Identified Woman" (taken from the influential 1970 feminist publication Notes From The Third Year), which I would highly recommend, the essence of the argument being put forward by the Radicalesbians group becomes clear: that women cannot escape oppression within a patriachal power structure until they can create an identification and conceptualisation of womanhood which is not dependent upon men for validation. By eliminating men from the picture, lesbianism undermines and renders void the typically patriachal power structure within relationships and/or sexual conduct, and is thus seen to be an integral and ultimate expression of freedom from an oppressive male-imposed and female-internalised conception of women.
For me, this general argument (described more succintly by one feminist in these terms: "Radical feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice") is problematic, in that it a) ignores the possibility of power structures and assumed gender roles within some lesbian relationships that would be seen by Radical Feminists to perpetuate and mitigate systemic gender inequality; and b) disallows women in general and feminists in particular from finding liberation outside of a lesbian relationship (as feminist Anne Koedt notes, what if a woman who does want to arrive at a self-identified understanding of herself simply isn't attracted to any other women? What if she does not feel the desire or need to be in a relationship at all?). Furthermore, the implication that all lesbians have arrived at their sexual orientation and identification through a political or ideological rejection of heterosexual norms is clearly a fallacy.
The fact remains though that the intensity of "The Woman Identified Woman" renders it very powerful to me. Certainly I'll remember it long after I've forgotten some of the somewhat detached subjectivist or post-structuralist essays I've read which probably closer matched my own conception of the world. And it blows the usual dry, stuffy positivist approach right out of the water. Like Marxism and all other purposive analyses of society, feminism offers a (necessary) distortion of reality in order to reveal fundamental "truths" (which are distinct from "facts" or "realities"). But this distortion, while occasionally making it immensely frustrating, is also at the core of what makes feminism such a compelling social force.
I'm going to post a follow-up entry regarding how this relates to music tomorrow morning hopefully. Otherwise you'll see it probably this time tomorrow night. (or whatever the time is in your wacky land).
So you probably already know that this is the best hip hop single of the year so far. And why (summary: it combines the fractured rhythms of Timbaland and the infectious energy of bounce with the sonic bombast and righteous fervour of Public Enemy circa. "Welcome To The Terrordome"). Which is pretty much all you need to know to convince you to go out and nab this song right now. Or at least napster it.
Which places a limit on the usefulness of this review, except that I can't stop from falling all over myself in praise of the beats being used here, which find that rare middle ground between production virtuoso and visceral effect. At once frisky and rigid, complex and pummeling, all by themselves they warrant the Bomb Squad comparisons going round (though I suspect that such comparisons are actually inspired by the cluttered arrangement and mid-song shifts).
I suppose that won't make sense if you don't believe like I do that often a hip hop beat alone will set the attitude of the music/song/narrative it's framed within, from the lazy, hypnotic flow of Dr. Dre's menacingly laidback g-funk sound to Swizz Beats' stiffly mechanical ironman aggression. The feeling that the hotwired, wiry drum programming serve up here by producers Organized Noize is one of affirmative aggression. By which I mean that instead of the destablising brutality of Swizz Beats' productions, or the death by pins and needles snare attack of Mannie Fresh's work for Cash Money, these beats are hard not crippling. In their rolling complexity, they don't seem to encage the music or the rap so much as propel them onward and upward.
On a purely technical level the rhythms are interesting. Despite obviously being constructed one painstaking beat at a time, there's a sort of natural funkiness that reminds me of jungle's chopped up breakbeats rather than the robotic sound of Timbaland or bounce. The closest example I can think of would be The Neptunes in their hip hop guise (especially the boneshaking drums they fashioned on Noreaga's "Superthug" from '98, which is well worth nabbing also), only unlike The Neptunes and their fondness for rigorous one bar loops, "Bombs Over Baghdad" is as rhythmically diverse (and perverse) as any Fresh production. Which puts it at the very forefront of the programming revolution currently sweeping hip hop. Hooray.
All this is completely ignoring the other factors that make "Bombs Over Baghdad" a stellar single, but should give you some indication of the song's overall excellence.
Guy has come to his senses and relaunched his blog, now entitled "Sunday Morning and Stumbling". Ironically, despite my previous rant against Guy's decision to close down Blahness, the short break seems to have done a world of good, as already the new blog is ten times better than the old. Is it just happy coincidence? Has Guy changed, as he suggests in one of his posts? Or have there been changes in me which make me more receptive to what he's talking about? Over the last few months I've been moving from the position of smugly cynical spectator to something less disengaged, and a conclusion that while moral truths are impossible, sometimes moral fictions are necessary. Which is not necessarily a better position, but is a development nonetheless.
This guy has interesting tastes. Yes, it's another "best albums of the nineties" list, this time collating one hundred and fifty of the writer's personal picks in alphabetical order. Somewhat surprisingly, I own 52 of them. Extra kudos for including personal crusades like A Guy Called Gerald, Omni Trio, Puressence, Layo & Bushwacka, The Underground Lovers, The Aloof, Jane Siberry and of course Insides.
Too bad he also includes Orgy's Candyass, and elsewhere enthusiastically proclaims Krust's Coded Language to be "one of the best jungle albums ever!" Er, yeah, whatever you say mate.
By the way, I haven't posted much because I'm sick. Again.
Oh yes. Local outfit Gersey release the second in what I hope will become a trifekta of excellent Aussie albums this month when I pick up A Little Easy by Philippa Nihil (ex-Underground Lovers) soon. Gersey's debut full-length Hope Springs is the best "rock" album I've heard since Piano Magic's Artist's Rifles, and perhaps even surpasses that wonder.
Gersey's style - a mash of contemplative indie rock, mournful slowcore and post-rock expansiveness - fills the racks of your local indie store like an incumbent plague. What makes these guys special? Perhaps it's nothing. Perhaps my concentration on dance music this past year (the last indie release I bought was the Bedhead/Macha collaboration) has insulated me somewhat from the masses of music just like this, and I'm just giving this distinction because it's Australian.
But I reckon there is something special about Gersey's music; a sort of resilient plaintiveness that characterises every moment of this record. The singer's vocals fall halfway between the pessimism of Disco Inferno's Ian Kraus and the gentle resignation of The Go-Between's Grant McLennan. Even the surprisingly rock-flavoured cuts like "Then There's Sirens" (think discordant Sonic Youth drones and The Chameleons' contrast of surging and fragile) have an element of wry fatalism to them that prevents it from venturing towards either over-earnestness or miserablism.
There's flickers of so many brilliant bands throughout the album - Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, The Underground Lovers, early Stereolab, Low, Mogwai - that there's the threat of simply being reminded of superior practitioners of the art when listening. On their debut ep Bewilderment Is A Blessing from last year they overcame this through lurching, curiously stunted arrangements that were endearingly original. It's very easy to hear a huge jump in confidence since then. While one of that release's many charms was its sense of self-effacement (I think I described the single "The Floor Came Up To Caress Me" as one of the humblest epics ever), the focus, assertiveness and ambition of the new album just lifts it to a whole new level, on par with those it attempts to emulate.
I could cite here the way "So Long Silver" smoothly moves from country lament to an extended, glorious drone with a perfect trumpet climax. Or how "Gallantry & Grace" is happy to be an anthemic rocker (albeit a gleaming single-chord chug of a rocker) that the band's almost wimpish first incarnation could never have pulled off. Or how the amazing finale "The Beautiful Look City Today" gathers itself from a sad ballad to a tumultuous, impossibly bombastic guitar maelstrom, then manages to switch back to sad ballad and back again to climax without sounding forced or deliberate.
But I won't start, because I'll be here all day. So this is another one of those "just buy it" reviews. I know it gets annoying when all my reviews are insanely positive, but until I break my winning streak there's very little I can do about it.
Somewhat disappointingly my mother has decided to commence her American Beauty-like rediscovery of her old favourite albums with some unwise purchases of old Eric Clapton. Cream, Blind Faith, you know the score. I tried to explain to her why Clapton and his ilk are detestable (anal white boys reappropriating all the wrong aspects of blues etc. etc.) but the more successful campaign (launched by my generally unimpressed sister) was one of shame. "Mum, I can just imagine you in the back of a rainbow-coloured Kombivan smoking pot to this." (Think of Homer Simpson's flashbacks in the "Homerpalooza" episode, and if you know my mother, insert her in there and laugh evilly) As adults are far likelier to be embarrassed about their past history rather than take seriously their child's intellectual rejection of their generation's music, it was at this that she went red and put on Led Zeppelin instead. As if that made a difference.
The scary thing is that one day we'll be like this, reminiscing about the days when radio stations weren't afraid to play something edgy like Destiny's Child rather than "this pop shite". Our kids will rubbish our techno records with references to ecstacy and bad raver fashion. It'll be interesting to see what will be regarded as our contribution to "the canon", the music synonymous with our generation that will be played on the "classic" radio stations. A few years ago the answer would have automatically been "grunge", but now it's a bit less clear. Of course, as the continually stillborn eighties revival has proved, there's no guarantee that our music will have any mature cache, that we won't just move on from this generation's underground heroes to the next generation's Celine Dion without even realising how far we've fallen.
Like the onset of balding, the ossification or deterioration of one's music tastes is something that no-one wants to admit is happening to them. You either embark on a desperate game of attempting to remain cutting edge or you exalt the period of your own youth as a timeless moment that will never die. Either way, you're aging disgracefully. Perhaps that's why so many do the equivalent of "shaving it all off" and just switch wholesale to classical or jazz.
Aw, shucks! A big sloppy kiss to everyone who bagged me the number 2 spot on Tom's website poll. I'll try and live up to your bizarre and irrational faith in me. I'm interested to know though what exactly it is you're enjoying (or not enjoying, as the case may be). The blog has been very music-focused lately, as opposed to the broader cultural dissections from earlier on. I don't know if this is a good or bad thing. Generally I just write about what I can, and I guess I've been spending less time on the net or watching tv of late, which goes some way towards explains the shift. But send me your thoughts, please!
Excellent album alert:2020, the new album by Australian electronic duo Biftek, is something of a revelation. Not only because it's an Australian dance album that for once doesn't veer towards either indistinctiveness or blatant rock sell-out, but also because it takes its target style (minimalist tech-house, I guess) and makes it fresh, fun and, well, pop. Which is weird and wonderful, and utterly necessary for an area of music which is usually defined by its anal rententiveness.
The influences this band wear on their sleeves are almost too many to list: Kraftwerk, 60's exotica, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Moroder, electro, Chain Reaction/Basic Channel in general and Monolake in particular, Sheffield bleep'n'bass, Daft Punk, the cutesy Warp techno of Boards of Canada and Plone and some breakbeat. However, in spite of these many influences, Biftek's shiny retro-futurist sparkle has an incredibly distinct personality, helped enormously by the intensely thematic nature of the album, the cover of which features a chic cartoon agent-gal talking into her watchphone against the backdrop of a halcyon 23rd century skyline.
There's an undeniably kitschadelic element to the music here - just check songtitles like "Doctors and Nurses", "Modern Women", "Japanese Game Show" and "Suzanne" - but importantly Biftek's endearing post-modern/post-feminist humour is always contained within a broader dedication to lustrous, spangly grooves that quickly lodge themselves in your brain. My favourite moment here is "We Think You're Dishy", which combines a minimal acid bassline with metronomic drum machines, disco strings and whispered vocals in a compelling Moroder-inspired groove. It's cyborg-house, but it's also a pop song, and did comparatively well on the local charts.
New single "Wired For Sound" (a cover of the 1981 Cliff Richard track) goes one step further, having Julee Cruise sing girlishly over a backing track that sounds like a Chain Reaction release on fast forward. And there are quite a few similarly pop-focused moments, though thankfully the more abstract second half holds up just as well. I'll stop here I think, because I want to write a full review later on, but suffice to say that 2020 comes highly recommended.
So says another Tim at Sink, a charming blog Mike discovered. It is cool to hear an intelligent voice actually defending authenticity without falling back on the usual cliches, but I can't really agree with this. Aren't melodrama and escapism actually older than concepts of "soulfulness" and "emotion"? It's hardly as if the former are merely the latter-plus-raised-eyebrow - I don't see much post-modern ironic posturings in the opera I see, for starters. As far as I can tell, the sole reason for the existence of authenticity as a criterion within music was that music journalists needed something to write about when they couldn't come up with anything about the actual music of the artist in question.
It's not so much that inauthenticity is a quality, but rather that the issue shouldn't really have to come up. Choosing melodrama over soulfulness is not necessarily definining yourself against authenticity so much as not considering it. Sure, I'd agree that there has been a lot of "soulful" or "authentic" music that is also actually good, but in ninety-nine percent of cases this would be where said soulfulness and authenticity were not a conscious aim of the musicians (ie. "keeping it real" in a non hip hop sense), but rather an unmeditated byproduct subsequently grafted onto the music by the ideological boxing of critics. And even then such unconsciously authentic music can never be inherently superior to inauthentic music.
Why? Because the "truths", if they exist in music, are hardly ones which need relate to life. These are pop songs, and even the most grittily realistic will only hold true for as long as the song is actually playing. I like music because of the effect it has on me, at the time that I'm playing it, and if I can still get teary-eyed listening to "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" although I know full well that I'd never throw myself in front of a bus for my friends, it's hardly going to matter a jot to me whether Morrissey did or possibly might at some stage carry out his promise.
I promise I will finish that rant I started at some point soon. It just seems pretty daunting and tiring right now. This week has already been somewhat hectic and filled with "issues" (1) I'm being told that I should run for the position of Male Queer Officer at Monash University for 2001. How did I get to here after only three months? 2) Hi Matt), so, um, yeah, apologies. Oh, and, like, lucky me is working five days of eight/nine hour shifts in a row starting from Thursday. Which may not seem strange, except for the fact that I am also at uni full time and trying to run a blog. Sigh.
Meanwhile, for Tom and all other uneasy lovers of Dubnobasswithmyheadman, try The Aloof's Sinking, which shares its spacy grooves but jettisons the occasionally pretentious artwank vocals in favour of properly sung reggae-tinged depression (reggression?), like Horace Andy coming over all Ian Curtis.
Garage anthem of the year, apparently.... As Robin pointed out, this has one of the most fantastic tension-building repetitive intros ever (including a somewhat smug Soul II Soul reference), a thrilling combination of pizzicato strings, timekeeper hi-hats and ominous vocals. Unfortunately after that it rather awkwardly segues into a sentimental house/soul ballad in the vein of Joe Smooth's "Promised Land", which is of course very nice and even rather great by the chorus, but not a patch on those first forty seconds, which remind me a lot of the beginning of Armand Van Helden's "Conscience" (although that manages to actually build on the tension for the rest of the track).
It seems a shame that Wookie's productions have been growing progressively less challenging. With "Scrappy" he sort of set himself up as the 2-step answer to New Horizons, using weird, gloopy bass and bizarre, not-quite-tuneful reggaematic melodies. Flipside "Down On Me" was and is the highpoint of his career so far - a disorienting darkside hallucination with compulsive She'kspere snares and distraught divas, it is perhaps the most neurotic groove that garage has yet thrown up.
"What's Going On" was great of course, but by comparison it was much more straightforward, and "Battle", with its self-consciously housey keyboard burbles and full-on vocals, streamlines Wookie's sound that much further. It's an excellent track, but it would be a shame if his forthcoming album revealed him to simply be MJ Cole in disguise. I still reckon it's going to be the definitive underground article among the countless garage albums set to descend this year, but if not, there's a whole host of talented producers (Stanton Warriors, Zed Bias, The Wideboys, Groove Chronicles) just waiting to take his place.
MJ Cole = Roni Size. Hmm... Well, yes I'll concede that this argument, which has been bandied around an awful lot lately, is true in regards to one very real similarity - Sincere has been nominated for Mercury Music Award, just like New Forms was. And, further similarly, these nominations represent a slightly misguided attempt on the part of the judging panel to come to grips with an urban form they're not really familiar with in order to gain credibility. But to say that Sincere is to garage what New Forms was to jungle is a grossly inaccurate reduction, and suggests certain presumptions about both albums which are just plain wrong.
One accusation leveled at both is that they've made the styles they represent palatable to a certain audience that isn't prepared to engage with the harder, grittier realities of each respective scene. And sure, in MJ Cole's case I can certainly see where his critics are coming from. Tracks like "Sincere", "Sanctury" and "Crazy Love" really do downplay all of the roughness that make so much of UK garage exciting in favour of a sort of garage/classical/acid jazz hybrid which is undoubtedly "fresh", but not particularly threatening to the stylish dilettante. I myself criticised the guy earlier this year for "representing an attempt to turn the style into a critically viable but creatively redundant subset of the US Garage/Deep House genre of quality dance sounds".
The problem is that my fears have been patently unrealized. Unlike within jungle between '95 and '97, there has been no conscious desire among the garage scene to ascend to some sort of East London bar culture dominance. Whereas jungle had a whole number of record labels revolving around this central aim (see Good Looking, Moving Shadow, Creative Source, early Certificate 18, Modern Urban Jazz), in the garage scene MJ Cole stands alone amidst a counter-urge towards a different sort of acceptance: commercial crossover success.
In fact, to tease out the jungle/garage comparison further (and it holds up incredibly well, all things considering), the mainstream success of garage can be viewed as analogous to a sort of alternate history for jungle, where the initial success of M-Beat's novelty smash "Incredible" was not followed by internal recrimination and calls for reaffirmation of the scene's artistry, but rather a hedonistic celebration and various mercenary attempts to capitalize on the original hit's success.
By embracing pop, garage has neatly sidestepped the need for middle-brow validation from the danceworld cognoscenti, and thus the sort of values implicit within an MJ Cole track are not indicative of a broader movement within the scene. Lots of producers check for the guy, but it's generally not an oppositional respect (ie. "I like MJ Cole because I'm sick of all those bassline-and-ragga-chant tracks") - rather its a simple acknowledgement of the man's occasional flashes of brilliance. Which is pretty much how the scene has avoided splitting in half. Of course there are people outside the scene who use that sort of rhetoric (and they're the sort that the Mercury Prize panelists were probably listening to), but their opinions, when they can be heard over the piles of Glasgow Underground compilations surrounding them, are hardly going to influence the scene itself.
The fact that Cole stands alone then makes his stance a lot less objectionable. In fact, with the shameless commercialisation of garage he's almost a necessary component - not because he offers a more viable alternative to, say, Posh Spice collaborations, but because he provides context for the sheer range of sounds which this music can encompass and incorporate. More importantly though, he doesn't represent a threat to the scene; by releasing his album so comparatively early, while garage is still new! and exciting!, Cole has inadvertantly ensured that his album will only be a small part of garage's process of initial self-realisation, rather than the conclusive full-stop that New Forms turned out to be in so many ways.
There's quite a bit more to add to this rant, including a long, possibly tedious discussion of Roni Size, but I'm going to have an early night so you'll get it tomorrow instead.
In a perhaps not so shocking display of good taste, Helen Razer, the celebrated Australian humorist endowed with an almost unenviably large vocabulary, has started her own blog. I don't know how much I'm actually going to enjoy it - I rarely read her newspaper column because I don't like feeling uneducated - but as a staunch advocate of pretentiousness in all its forms, I'm dutifully spreading the good word. But for some more straightforward Australian writing of quality, try here. (Ooops... this was a non-garage thread).
Fun fun fun. Last night after work I had a chance to check out the UK Garage night I was talking about. Most excellent! What was really interesting was that despite this being the only night of its kind in the entirity of Melbourne, it actually felt very much like a full-blown scene. The crowd was the most relentlessly cool I'd ever come across, I'd have to say. That's not a compliment really, although I'm not incredibly surprised.
Unlike in the UK where Garage is the urban sound de jour, in Australia you have to be either inordinately obsessed with music (like me) or a consummate hipster to even be aware of its existence. I suspect for many people there, going to Double O bar on a Saturday night is the equivalent of having the latest type of ultra-chic shoes. On the other hand, this was also the most truly multi-racial scene I've come across, with blacks, dreads, asians, europeans, indians and anglo-saxons not only mingling on the dancefloor, but within their own small cliques as well - not particularly common in Australia, even in the more mixed areas. Which was cool.
But what about the music? Ah, well, it was of course excellent. In fact if it was possible I think I would have fallen in love with the charming DJ Erica (who has apparently been pushing this sound in Melbourne for two years, and not getting a reaction until very recently) on her selection alone. Interestingly, the three best moments on the floor were indicative of garage's current scope. One was perrenially excellent "Neighbourhood" by Zed Bias, which is like one of those falsely extravagant jungle tunes from around 94 - lashings of grandiose piano and a diva's ecstatic sigh spiralling into a ragga chant over a doom-laden bassline.
Secondly was a brilliant remix of MJ Cole's "Sincere", which kept snippets of the vocal and the compressed echo-chamber backwards strings from the original, but coupled them with really choppy, almost psychedelic breakbeat rhythms and a resonant two-note bass oscillation which was so thick you could almost touch it. Again I thought of a jungle comparison, that being the current house-oriented sound of, say, Marcus Intallex (who has done his own exceedingly fine jungle mix of "Sincere"), but this sort of garage has the edge because the off-centre stutters and hesitations in a garage rhythmic matrix actually make the beats more enticingly disorienting than the comparative flatness of a straight jungle break.
And the third was, of all things, a 2-step mix of Mousse T's "Horny", which just had the most amazing bassline, basically. So: hard, floaty, and crass. Three different models of garage, and each sound fantastic. Indeed, Erica's set would veer from a sort of housey exubrance to r'n'b chill and then to a jungle style oppression with a devil-may-care attitude. Unfortunately she didn't drop any old hardcore numbers into the set as I'd heard she likes to do, but hey, I can also go back!
Anyway, I think this means that the rest of my posts for today will be about garage stuff. Sometimes you just get in a certain mood.
I don't know if this is gonna be released as a single, though it really should be. I'm blogging it anyway 'cause I love it. No, it doesn't have the personal resonance of "Born To Make You Happy", but instead demands a different sort of devotion: the vicarious thrill of hearing Max Martin up the ante once again.
Okay, so really there's nothing new here; it's just Britney's answer to N'Sync's "Bye, Bye, Bye", which itself was only distinctive for its ridiculously obvious idea: "Hey! Wouldn't it be great if we matched histrionic Swedish production with jittery bounce beats?" In that regard there's not a single component of this song, from its angry diva harmonies to its angular, shuddering groove, that isn't indicative of the prevailing ideas of pop these past two years.
What makes this so great is that it is everything you know, only more. The pounding plastic bass riffs are more brutal, the beats are more roccoco and disorienting, and Britney's vocals venture even further out into the cyborg-kitty territory she's fast making her own. "Don't Go Knocking On My Door" is fast-paced, but importantly it's also full of holes; there are moments of complete silence when the track just runs on air before once more colliding with the earth. And the whipcrack snares on the third beat of every bar are deliciously harsh on the ears.
I begin to wonder for how much longer this forward-march that pop is engaging in can continue. Surely we're going to get to a stage where the producers toil with diminishing returns? Still, even if that day comes soon, we can perhaps look back at the late nineties with a certain air of satisfaction. It seems like such a long way from "No Diggity" and "Backstreet's Back" to "Don't Go Knocking On My Door", and the music in between is enough to make this story a happy one whatever the ending.
My bad! It was actually Fred who recommended Otis Redding to me, not Tom! Which makes sense because Fred is of course our resident hard soul man, and would therefore be the natural expert on all things Otis. Why don't you go to his site and tell him I said so for me?
Music is a crutch though, which is perhaps why I was extravagant today and bought Ayia Napa: The Album mixed by Shanks & Bigfoot. "Now surely," I hear you cry, "there is a natural limit to the amount of UK garage compilations a person can have before they grow tired." Well, there should be, but obviously not in my case, 'cause I'm still planning to pick up the second Pure Silk comp. in order to have Wookie's "Scrappy", E.S. Dubs' "Standard Hoodlum Issue" and M-Dubs' "Bump & Grind" on cd. But back to the album at hand...
The big surprise is that this is actually by far the least commercial compilation I've yet come across. After "Sing-A-Long", I was expecting this to be something of a "Now That's What I Call Garage!" set, but it seems that the duo are feeling a tad guilty about their more mercenary urges, and are using the backing of the Ministry Of Sound to achieve something of a temporary volte face.
So, while the hits are present in forms both chartbusting ("Buggin", "Girls Like Us", "What's Going On") and reconfigured ("Fill Me In", "Flowers", "Straight From The Heart"), for the most part this is some of the most moody, raw 2-step action yet to be heard outside of the clubs or pirates. Even "Sing-A-Long" itself is stripped of its childlike appeal, the dub mix included here resembling nothing so much as a vaporous ghost-dream of the original, with disembodied vocals and a sickly bassline.
I can't help but think that this is some deliberate attempt on the part of the Ministry to corner the entire garage market by so radically differentiating this from their previous, Artful Dodger-helmed Rewind compilation, which was a commercial/historical primer set for the genre. Only two tracks, the Stanton Warriors' mix of Basement Jaxx's "Jump 'N' Shout" and B15 Project's omnipresent "Girls Like Us" overlap between the two, a remarkable feat of restraint. Presumably, the "Ayia Napa" in the title implies that this album is supposed to be listened to while holidaying in Ayia Napa, and such jetsetters obviously know their garage, so most of the tracks are new and obscure.
The hits are, of course, brilliant. The Sunship mixes of Craig David's "Fill Me In" and Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers" streamline both for heightened dancefloor appeal while retaining the originals' charms. "Flowers" in particular is crammed full of vocal wizardry, with a looped octave-jumping sigh that's been the most gorgeous radio moment of the year so far. Meanwhile "Buggin" by Truesteppers aka Jonny L has that aforementioned slamming production and great chorus to recommend it.
Wookie's "What's Going On" still represents for me the pinnacle of 'songful' 2-step, though. The pouncing, salsa piano line, thick warbling bass line and helium vocals combine in an unlikely but perfect recipe for some of the sunniest pop music you'll ever hear. It's Wookie's most obvious moment, but it sounds so optimistic, so unfettered by the past that the "new Summer of Love" hysteria seized upon by the media suddenly makes sense.
Future hits come in the form of Comme Ci Comme Ca's (heh) "Summer Of Love", which is saved from a death-by-over-smoothness due to its intriguingly off-the-wall latin flavoured production, and DJ Luck & MC Neat's "Masterblaster 2000", which has similar anthemic potential as previous smash "A Little Bit Of Luck", but with a sophisticated arrangement of woven together flickers of piano and synth squiggles which hopefully ensures a longer shelf life.
Venture outside those though, and the popular formula for garage is strikingly absent, and instead we're treated to a host of dub mixes of tracks that are generally obscure anyway. A long way from house or r&b, these tracks are minimalist in both arrangement and melody. It's a more immersive type of 2-step, characterised by hypnotic breakbeats and cycling xylo-bass riffs that skip around in your head like the cacophony of an insectile orchestra.
Truesteppers' "The Finest" sets the tone about halfway through the first disc. Roughly based on Foul Play's "Finest Illusion", it revels in the kind of darkside disorientation that was previously the sole domain of Dem 2. The Break & Bass mix of The Wideboys' "Hustler" takes things quite a few steps further, overlaying slamming breaks over an amusical motorbike bassline. That's nothing though compared to Timo Maas's mix of Azzido Da Bass's "Dooms Night", originally a german techno track. Basically coming across as a hybrid of The Chemical Brothers and Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat", it doesn't actually work as a track really, but it's bizarre enough to justify its inclusion.
There's also a strong ragga influence, as shown on the boisterous "Boost Them" by Kitachi, and Richie Dan's great vocals on "Call It Fate", which has a wicked bassline and a fragile trebly glockenspiel melody - a trick that sadly seems to have been abandoned by most scenesters. The ragga aspects merely emphasise the debt these underground tracks owe jungle, a debt made explict on TKS's "Fly Bi", which samples hardstep classics like Renegade's "Terrorist", Splash's "Babylon" and MA2's "Hearing Is Believing", although in most other respects it's actually a hip hop track. The acknowledged influence doesn't just extend to jungle though; Mellowtrack's "Outa Space" is in fact a blatant remake of The Prodigy's hardcore track of the same name, and unsurprisingly goes down a treat.
Groove Chronicles chip in two charmingly individual tracks, with their mix of Sia's "Taken For Granted" (a dark cello-driven vocal track with a totally bizarre string orchestra interlude - a trick shamelessly stolen from Richie Boy & DJ Klasse's "Madness On The Street", but since they're ripping off the best garage track ever, I can hardly complain) and "Raw To The Floor", which contrasts some eerie piano work with the wordless wail of the girl from The Orb's "Blue Room" to great effect.
I already had the Stanton Warriors' mixes of both "Jump 'N' Shout" and Jocelyn Brown's "Somebody Else's Guy", though both sound just as fine here. The idea of the latter (combining vocal house with a pummelling break) is repeated brilliantly in Club Asylum's mix of Kristine Blond's "Love Shy", although its lush production is also very similar to The Dreem Teem's excellent soft-hard concoctions. It's the catchiest non-hit on the compilation.
The best track though is an utter surprise, being Shanks & Bigfoot's own remix of Kavana's "Will You Wait For Me". The duo could have gone the route of MJ Cole in making a turgid ballad even more excrutiatingly fluffy, but instead this is fabulously dark. Isolating a fleeting low, murderous croon from the original, they add a suspensful Indian woodwind-and-string drone backing, menacing horns, a booming bass line and an exquisitely assymetrical kick drum arrangement. It's utterly delectable.
As a whole the compilation is not one I'd recommend for newcomers - even I find it to be a bit alienating in its underground monochromacity at some points, although I've got to listen to it more obviously. I think it's a bit of a shame that the duo have felt the need to flit between the extremes of pop savviness and wilful amusicality, as Timmi Magic's Pure Silk: The Third Dimension proved that a successful middle ground between the two can be found.
Still, there's plenty here to please both the new fan and the dedicated collector, so if you're into the scene you should enjoy this a lot.
The problem with weighty decisions is that sometimes you have trouble sticking to them just of your own accord, let alone when someone else is determined to change your mind. Ever met someone whose powers of argument are so strong that you question your own feelings? It's endearing, but it's also awful, and it's making it difficult to even blog coherently, let alone think of writing the history essay that's due in tomorrow. So here I am, sort of maybe half-in-and-out of a relationship, and it's strangely reminiscent of how I was sort of maybe half-in-and-out of the very same relationship last week, the week before and the week before that. Matt, I hope you're having better luck with that essay than I am.
NB: this post is really just a shameless indulgence of the other Skykicking crowd.
So I'm in this pub with some friends from work, half-listening and half-grimacing through the set of "Big Deal", who are awful in that utterly prosiac way that only generic hard rock pub bands can be. All the usual mainstays of the never-say-die Australian football-pies-and-beer culture are present: "Jessie's Girl", "Brown Eyed Girl", and of course the nadir of every such evening, a turgid rendition of Cold Chisel's "Khe Sanh" (which just pips "Eye Of The Tiger" due to its needless length and insane popularity; it truly is Australia's "Stairway To Heaven").
I'm beginning to think I have this band pegged down in their awful little rut, when suddenly the drummer starts a metronomic 4/4 kickdrum pulse, and the keyboardist starts making weird sounds. Everyone looks a little confused. It takes a while to realise that the song they're now covering is, in fact, Chicane's "Don't Give Up", which is notable for both creating filtered disco-trance, and for proving somewhat unnecessarily that you can take Bryan Adams out of rock, but you can't take the rawk out Bryan Adams.
While not fantastic, the band went through the motions with a certain amount of dignity. Actually I was impressed - dance versions of rock songs are so common now as to be meaningless, but how many times do we hear rock versions of dance songs? The fact that it worked is alone worthy of some merit, while I thought in many ways the otherwise bombastic drummer's interpolations around the four-four beat were pretty damn fine, like something Hybrid would come up with if they were handed the source material to work on.
So I'm wondering, is this a trend that deserves to take off? And if so, which songs do we want to hear reshaped by a sweaty pub band? I'm thinking "Rewind", "Meet Her At The Love Parade" and "U Don't Know Me". Any other suggestions?
Thanks to Tom and everyone else who recommended I investigate Otis Redding, soul-man extraordinaire. I picked up a best-of compilation for next-to-nothing, and boy am I glad. Of course "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay" is the classic I'd heard it was, but truly every track is a winner.
My favourite right now "Cigarettes & Coffee", a mournful blues ballad that is lovingly produced, with shimmering guitar, tinkling piano and solemn horns. Otis hollers and moans throughout the whole track, and I can't think of another singer who could pull it off so convincingly - he's got the most emotive, compelling voice! What's interesting is that the melismatic-like tremors and trembles in his voice are quite similar to that of current R&B singers, only where now the emphasis is on ultra-smoothness, Otis' voice has a compelling roughness to it that is instantly identifiable.
Of course, it's kinda scary that I when I heard "Love Man" and "These Arms Of Mine" (both standouts), the first thing I thought of was Dirty Dancing. The generation gap is large, my friends.
The version of Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sing A Long" which I reviewed earlier must have been a remix for the clubs and pirates, because I just saw the video clip and that version is utterly different. No clattering drums, no groovy bassline, nothing much at all to link it to garage as a genre. Instead we have a slow-mo, Phil Spector-ish garage percussion lattice like the icing on a very sweet birthday cake - the quirky horn and woodwind arrangement reminds me of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" and "Anything" more than anything else. And like those songs, this is nursery rhyme material; even the vocals are hysterically sunny.
So, not content with making the first garage-that-is-not-garage single with "Sweet Like Chocolate", Shanks & Bigfoot have gone ahead and invented Toytown Garage. A good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, but on first listen it's wickedly funny.
Freaky syncronycity: I'd never really listened to the lyrics of Craig David's very excellent "Fill Me In" before, and had consequently assumed that it was the standard "are you fooling around behind my back?" R&B narrative. Really listening to it the other night tough caused the verses to snap into focus and suddenly I realise it's a detailed description of my life in July. Minus the jacuzzi, though.
On a related note, a frustrating discovery: the mysterious "Double O" bar have started a UK Garage night right here in Melbourne on Saturday nights. This is frustrating because: I nearly always work until 3am or so on Saturday nights. Damn.
When people say "it's just tuneless dance music, but it'd be alright in a club", they really mean "I fucking hate dance music and I don't go to clubs, but when I'm drunk I like everything, so if I was ever allowed into a club, I probably wouldn't care." Okay, maybe I'm generalising, but in my experience, not only is that phrase hackneyed and overused, but the general rule that tuneful = home listening and tuneless = club music rings somewhat false.
This conclusion was validated last night, when I decided to go home fairly early during Doc Scott's set. Granted, my decision to leave was mainly due to the fact that it was 2:30 in the morning and I had work the next morning (what's up with waiting 'till a quarter to two to appear? This is a distressingly prevalent trend among djs), but it was also motivated by the nature of the music the Doc was playing.
The warm up dj started off with some lightweight funk-based stuff but around 1am started getting into the harder, more "populist" stuff - "Hide You", "The Mutant Revisited", that excellent 60 Second Man track whose name escapes me that sounds like playing a cello with a chainsaw, and some wonderful DJ Crystal style amen mash-ups. The crowning moment was Bad Company's awesomely brutal remix of Q. Project's "Champion Sound" from '94 (for many, the classic jungle anthem), which is really just a jaw-dropping bass riff coupled with the miasmic mentasm from the original - everyone went wild, and by the time it had finished the crowd was collectively heaving.
The point is that this is pretty much the "cheesy" end of current drum & bass, if such a thing can be said to exist in a meaningful sense. They're the tracks you recognise instantly, that make you instantly perk up from whatever headnodding lull you'd fallen into. When Doc Scott came on and started playing some hard-but-sophisticated tracks with thick basslines, complex breaks and the like, my enthusiasm started to dwindle, despite the fact that it was much closer to what I would listen to at home. I appreciated the tracks, to be sure, and will try and hunt down some of them, but despite or perhaps because of that, my body was just not responding.
When you're on the dancefloor, creativity ceases to be a concern. While this means that you can listen to three virtually identical tracks and not be peturbed, it also means that things we would associate with crassness - cheap hooks, obvious tricks and cliches, melodies even - can be enjoyed without the occasional aftertaste you'd get on a home stereo.
To make a more extreme example, Fragma's "Toca's Miracle", which causes me to swear profusely whenever it comes on the radio, sounds fucking great in a club, because its sickly sentimentality, almost nauseating in real life, doesn't seem so out of place when you're surrounded by other people who are swept up in it (plus the guitar line is subtler but more lustrous than the one in ATB's "9AM (Till I Come)"). The vocals cease to be awful and instead seem touchingly flawed.
Speaking of which, has anyone seen the video to "Toca's Miracle"? Bizarrely, it's an all-girl indoor soccer match. Weird.
MJ Cole is frustratingly hit-and-miss for me. His '98 single "Sincere" was actually the first UK garage track I'd heard, and I loved its shimmeringly nebulous reversed-strings arrangement and mournfully bereft vocals. However my estimation of him went down rapidly as I came across a number of different tracks and remixes by the guy, which seemed to be distressingly smug and samey. A typical Cole track is little more than delicate atmospherics and an understated, "refined" breakbeat, with some soulful crooning on top.
More than any other UK producer, Cole harks back to the golden dream of US Garage, where the more impossibly rich the production, the better. This wouldn't actually be a problem for me if Cole's formula (UK garage minus the bassline and the badboy energy) didn't seem to so thoroughly miss the point. As it is, I feel that as long as he continues to work in this mould, this undeniably talented producer will continue to bang his head against a glass wall.
"Crazy Love" is the sound of Cole hitting that wall. It's by far the best thing he's done yet, and I doubt he'll better it, a suspicion that ambivalent advance reports on the album seem to confirm. But let's talk about this. "Crazy Love" is brilliant because it forces its genteel urges to fit into a rigorous pop template, that is in fact reminiscent of The Artful Dodger's "Moving Too Fast". Like on that track and Y-Tribe's "Enough Is Enough", the vocalist here has a bit of bite and personality which rescues her from the cliches of the garage diva. It's in the way she has to really struggle to fit "This may not be what I need, but/I think I'm way past reasoning" into the melody that gets me - sometimes ungainliness overcome with grace is more impressive than grace alone.
But what really makes this track magical is that even The Artful Dodger, who are classically trained as the media constantly inform us, could not come up with something as proudly aristocratic as the sprightly pizzicato strings that bounce and skip like butterflies in your heart, even more jittery than the two-step beat. A world away from the insipid fluffiness of his other work, "Crazy Love" avoids sharing their tedium by being too impulsively joyful to be conscious of its own refinement. If only Cole could remember to forget more often.
The second pop monster on the soundtrack for The Klumps is this fab new track from the Ruff Ryders' First Lady, Eve. "Let Me Be" is her most chart-friendly release yet, all melodramatic strings and rousing, angry but smooth choruses. I don't know if Swizz Beats is still producing for her, but this track actually sounds like a Dre production, combining the futurist flair of "Forgot About Dre" with the insouciant groove and tinkly Kraftwerk-like harpsichord synthesisers of "Still D.R.E." to maximum crowdpleasing effect.
The result is similar to the still-stunning "What Ya Want" in its contrast of agression with sleek seductiveness, and its "you can't touch this" message renders it that track's thematic sister as well. While "Let Me Be" is nowhere near as startlingly off-center as "What Ya Want", it's good to see Eve regaining that balance of soft and brittle which was so crucial to the latter's success. "Let Me Be" is at once both brash and sleekly chart-bound, and the existence of both these factors prevents Eve from sliding into either the mob mentality of her album or the sunny irreverence of "Gotta Man". And Simon Reynolds is sure to get a kick out of the line about ecstacy.
Similar to Madonna, trying to find a link between the quality of a Janet Jackson track and its style is harder than you'd at first think. '93's "If" was stunningly hard, which led me to think that tough tracks were her strong point, but its '97 follow up "What About" was bad Alanis, and I'd been deliberately ignoring "Black Cat" anyway. At the other extreme, while "Again" from Janet was an awful sappy piano ballad, the crowning moment of The Velvet Rope was "Empty", which hid its balladic tendencies under layers of hyperspeed jungle beats, like an on-form LTJ Bukem writing an r&b track. On the same album though you'll find "Every Time", which seems to be a scientific experiment in magnifying "Again"'s flaws. Slow jams? "That's The Way Love Goes" was nice, but can you even remember "I Get Lonely"?
Janet's new single "Doesn't Really Matter" falls into none of these camps (although the production certainly takes its cues from "Empty") instead falling into the one vein which Janet has been consistantly poor in: up-tempo but lightweight pop. Need I remind you of "Runaway" or "Together Again"? Unsurprisingly then, this is excellent, the aural equivalent of gossamer feathers tickling your ear.
This success is the result of Jam and Lewis (I'm assuming) playing to Janet's limited strengths: her voice has always been laughably weak, so instead of trying for 'soulful' (read: distracted high-pitched mumbling) or 'strident' (read: barely audible whimper with studio-added throatiness), they've got her singing so fast and so high that it's just a pleasant silvery tinkle perfectly matched to the vaguely Oriental arrangement and wonderfully synthetic pizzicato strings. Even better, her vocals dovetail rhythmically in time to the exquisite Jerkins-style clutter-beats, putting this in the same league as "Are You That Somebody", "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Bugaboo"; tracks which are almost impressive for their inventive vocal arrangements as their amazing productions.
The beats themselves are typical of Jam & Lewis's post-Timbaland style as was established on "Empty". It's hyper-syncopated and incredibly busy, perhaps more than that of any other R&B producer, but the rhythms aren't jarring like on Timbaland or Sh'ekspeare productions. The emphasis here is not on rhythmic intensity, but rather chromatic density; the beats are relaxing rather than energising, hovering lightly around your ears instead of twisting your hips, which is probably what puts me in mind of LTJ Bukem and other "deep" junglists.
I've completely ignored the other main ingredient here: this track, although too fast to sing along to easily, is as catchy as hell. The fact that it's pushing boundaries as well is just icing on the cake.
And a page with some excellent essays on the past, present and future of feminism. I guess I should state my interest in this: as a member of a social group that has been historically oppressed (queers), I've taken a certain interest in the ways in which different oppressed social groups interact with eachother's oppression - either to counteract it or perpetuate it.
Although I'm a homosexual, I'm also a male (and a white, upper-middle class one at that. Sheesh! Stone me now) and in that sense I cannot deny that I am implicated within the oppression of women on a broad social sense, even though I'd like to think that I've avoided any personal instances of overt sexism. The trouble with growing up with only three sisters is that while it is difficult to then become sexist, it is also harder to identify the issues concerning women because I tend not to differentiate between the genders. Which is obviously a misguided (but hopefully not too hateful) worldview.
Talking with feminists, many of whom are also queer, I was surprised to realise how easily I and other male queers could activate circumstances in which these women, many of whom might be friends, would feel oppressed and uncomfortable. I've watched and taken part in a number of arguments pertaining to this crucial point: up to what point should men (straight or gay) be expected to recognise their complicity in the oppression of women?
It's a tough question because there's an ideological answer and a practical one. Ideally, men should take responsibility for their oppressive behaviour and seek to educate themselves as to how to avoid instances of oppression, regardless of whether women are asking us to or not. On a practical level though, those in control are generally too comfortable to seek to change the circumstances of those they exploit. Even men with the best intentions, who believe they are acting reasonably, can cause harm, because their beliefs of what is reasonable are based on a male-established status quo which is fundamentally unreasonable. Divorcing oneself from the status quo is difficult for anyone, let alone if that status quo is one which reaffirms and validates your superior position within society. Males need to be reminded again and again that we're behaving badly in order to overcome this.
The feminists I've spoken to have adopted the ideological approach, and thus attempts on the parts of people like myself to seek advice on what men should do to avoid oppressing women were regarded as offensive in and of themselves. This caused me much frustration at first, and I felt like my hands were tied, as were those of many other queer men who feel a connection to feminists but aren't quite sure where to even begin changing the faults within themselves. Furthermore, wouldn't a more open, practical collaboration between men and women result in better results for women in society? The standoffishness I sensed amongst the feminists subsequently seemed needlessly purist to me.
What I've begun considering though is that while some sort of compromise on the part of women might help in addressing immediate concerns, there is the broader consideration of trying to change people's perceptions towards combatting oppression - it shouldn't be up to those who are oppressed to change their situation. If we could encourage a greater sense of consideration and willingness to support eachother which exists above and beyond the frameworks of anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, we wouldn't need these vocal minorities to police us. We should all be policing ourselves.
Where is this all going? Well, I've consequently decided that I really do need to educate myself on gender theory. Hence the research links. Actually any pointers towards particularly helpful tomes would be appreciated. But don't worry, I'm still the anti-socialist pig I always was.
It's been over a year since "Sweet Like Chocolate" became UK Garage's opening salvo on the pop charts - a deathly silence for a pop or dance act. So long in fact that I'd ceased to think of Shanks & Bigfoot as garage's commercial leading lights; they'd been totally superseded by The Artful Dodger, destined perhaps to be the lost one hit wonders of the scene. With that in mind, perhaps the best thing about "Sing A Long" is how supremely unselfconscious it is, and how totally unconcerned the duo seem to be about the long pause and the countless shifting of units that stretches between that song and this one.
Actually "Sing A Long" is almost a regression, its shuffling beats and sparse production resembling a more soulful cousin to first single "Straight From The Heart", as opposed to "Sweet Like Chocolate"'s slinky panache. From the choppy beats to the bassline so familiar and reassuring I refuse to believe it's original, this track is too obviously garage to achieve a similar radical assimilation with pure pop as its predecessor, but now that even Posh Spice has gone 2-step, that's hardly a consideration.
More important to Shanks & Bigfoot's wallets is the singalong factor, which is unsurprisingly enormous. Even more than Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers", this is garage so unambiguously sunny and uplifting that if you were to criticise these guys for selling out you wouldn't even know where to begin. Is it intelligent? Experimental? Progressive? Hell no. But you will find yourself absent-mindedly singing "When it's raining down on me..." very soon. You do not have a choice in this matter. All hail the Max Martins of 2-step.
This post is primarily for Anna from Monash: check out the Feminist Media Watch, which was not only the stuff of controversy a short while back, but is also a good example of a group blog managing to work despite the sensitivity of the topic discussed. The big task of serious group blogs, or even forums: how do you give everyone a say while making sure that no-one in the group is offended?
Ultimately (and this is something that we can hopefully achieve) success comes down to consideration on everyone's part rather than the need to set down some fundamental controlling ideology. When people say "I didn't realise you'd find that offensive" or "I didn't mean that seriously", it's really a nice way of saying "I'm too lazy to take your position into account" or "I thought I'd get away with it 'cuz I'm cute." Obviously there's no need for intense self-policing in day-to-day life, but if you're in an environment where emotions are volatile and sensitivity is high, consideration should be second nature.
To everyone else, apologies for being cryptic. You might be surprised to know that feminism has been the main topic of my discussions for the past week.
Guy, who used to live here, noticed/complained the other day that my approach to music is very dry and analytical. I'll admit to the second charge definitely, and I suppose to the outsider the first would seem to be quite accurate as well. But I don't think an appreciation for details necessarily counteracts an emotional reaction to music, or a sense of awe even, which I feel frequently.
I guess that the side effect of listening to a lot of electronic or studio-based music is that having a love for sounds as opposed to "songs" becomes my default approach - you can't really appreciate dance music on any other level than the aural/physical, unless you're one of those types who grows sentimental over a track that played at your first rave etc.
Right now though I'm listening to The Sundays' Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, one of my favourite records and also one which I can't even begin to explain my love for. I know that I love love love so many things about it - the way "Can't Be Sure" delays its chorus until the end so when it does arrive its rapturous, or the giddy jangle of "Hideous Towns", or how the slightest tinge of violence keeps threatening to upset the poise of "A Certain Someone". The thing is that beyond a few sketchy ideas about Dave Gavurin's guitar-playing ability, Harriet Wheeler's shimmering vocals and the touchingly lifelike tales she spins, I can't deconstruct it further. It exists to give me joy; I exist to validate its brilliance.
Is Reading, Writing and Arithmetic therefore better or worse than the rest of the stuff I listen to? Well, it's better than a lot of it, but I don't think my relationship with is superior just because it's more emotional. Wookie's "What's Going On" produces a similar sense of helpless infatuation within me, and I know exactly why: because it rocks.
The Nu-NRG disc from the Reactivate box set is interesting. I don't know what I'd previously assumed Nu-NRG was (perhaps some cross between acid techno, trance and hard house?) but this doesn't seem to be quite it. I don't know how to define it actually, but for lengths of maybe three or four tracks at a time, I'm really liking it, as its very indistinctiveness and overt hybridism has had the side-effect of eliminating the more annoying aspects of the styles it co-opts.
How to describe it then? The problem is that there's a definite lack of stylistic consistancy between tracks, and often within them as well; the first track alone ("Shinny (Harmony Mix)" by Elevator aka Blu Peter) switches from a long housey intro to an anthemic trance peak and then takes a burbling psytrance detour. Jones & Stephensons' "First Rebirth (Red Jerry Remix)" could be a harder form of prog house, with its almost dubby bassline, but the acid workout of DJ Misjah and DJ Tim's "Access" is psychedelic trance straight out of Goa. And that's just the first three tracks.
After a while you begin to notice some similarities between the tracks: the repetition of the burbling bass lines, which really do dominate the songs more than in either earlier or current trance; the longer, more abstract, even dreamy melodies stolen straight out of progressive house; and there's the frequent snatches of helium divas, which probably explains why it was apparently a hit with the gay scene.
Other than that though, I can't really see what makes this a separate genre in its own right? It seems to be more of a composite of already similar styles than anything particularly new. Or was it simply that this stuff, which according to the liner notes came to the fore in '94, represented a second wave of trance, paving the way for the stranglehold on clubs it holds today?