Jess (who is thankfully blogging again) wonders if enjoying Kaito and Smallville
more than other contemporary Kompakt releases is a sign that the end is nigh for microhouse. This reminds me somewhat of my earlier thoughts that maybe "traditionalist" microhouse was nearing its use-by date as a creative well-spring. Of course Jess is talking about a much broader spectrum of stuff than I was, since he's including shuffletech in the category of "slight" whereas I was using it against
the MRI strawman (disclaimer: MRI roxx u are all gay).
I find a great deal of renewed vigour when contemplating that increasingly this broad vague area of stuff we call microhouse is defined by a certain wilfully perverse sensibility rather than any strict stylistic markers - such that I'd argue that Kaito and Smallville
should rightfully be considered to be representative
of microhouse's expansiveness rather than as an alternative to it. More than a genre, microhouse feels to me like a landscape: there's a highly spatial quality to the stylistic differentiation goin' on, and it makes me want to construct narratives wherein one record acts as a halfway house for two others, where some tracks are in high density metropolises and others are stuck out at lonely frontier outposts. The overriding emphasis is one of movement
: not only do these tracks and records (especially the DJ mixes) imply a stylistic journey from point A to B, but they also invite the imagination to go further and ask, "what would happen if we took this sound that
way?"... such that lush neo-trance or beatless ambience are or should be as natural potential components as the staple house boom-tick. With no purist plunge to the centre, the emphasis is not on the destination but the journey, and all the strange sounds on the way.
One transition we could posit: Areal Records' Bis Neun
is a response to the journey travelled from Immer
, a leapfrogging into territory that the second record looked out upon. Immer
set the benchmark for moody metallic minimalism (the existential melodrama of the romantic cyborg), all gleaming and glittering surfaces and hard angles. Perhaps in response, Friends
took this blueprint and reintroduced the possibility of the abject, of a certain sinuous slimy liquidness that Immer
had gone to great lengths to abolish (I'm thinking of the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the way it shatters, melts, and morphs back together in a manner that is neither robot nor human, but an unnerving combination of the two). Bis Neun
is a further, and more explicit, attempt to emphasise the messy physicality of the cyborg. Despite its unabashed electro affiliations, there's a certain undeniable fleshiness to its groove, a suggestion of metallic limbs encased and ensnared by roping musculature and tentacular circulatory systems. It's a vision of the post-human that's both complex and slightly inarticulable, and it makes this album endlessly fascinating.
In this sense Areal Records have done for electro what long stretches of Herbert's Let's All Make Mistakes
does for bassy minimal tech: reaffirmed its potential as music of the body. "Body" in the sense of "bodily functions" - a roadmap of all the too-intimate, uncomfortable physical processes that allow us to live. Sex (and a lot of it) obviously, but also digestion, movement, the enshrouding thump of the heart powering blood cells in complex chemical interactions. So you get a track like Metope's 'Selvsyn", which is basically a gigantic electronic shudder, jittery little synth motifs and bass burbles tightly compressed around a compulsive in-and-out reflex that could be a direct recording from the inside of a ventrical. "Selvsyn" is pretty impressive in the way that it unifies electro's divergent impulses (towards and away from the house thump) into a house groove that's about to shatter under the forces required to keep it pumping. Metope strikes me as a bit of a genius: other tracks by him range from the decaying-isotope dystopia of "Magnetic" (house groove as an deadly infectious disease) to the robots-on-quaaludes funk of "Livedriver" (with vocals by Ada), all refracted through a stylistic approach that could be described as "LFO joins the Perlon roster".
Again like Let's All Make Mistakes
, this track and the whole mix are literally strewn with mistakes
, not the product of bad mixing but rather indicative of a taste and sensibility for messiness, for a wildly rampant and random level of uncontrollability that is characteristic of the biological. Snaky bass riffs, unidentifiable sample-snippets (dogs screaming in pain?), clattering snares and hi-hats and hastily programmed kick drums all compete for attention; unlike MRI's perfectly dovetailing arrangements, I frequently get the sense listening to tracks like Basteroid's (appropriately titled) "Aggrobatik" that all the component elements are simply doing their own thing and their interaction to form the groove is entirely coincidental. Basteroid has this wonderful propensity for squelchy snare/hi-hat arrangements that, while retaining house's requisite sexual content, have a certain overdriven aggressiveness to them belies their rhythmic precision (think of the delicious menace of many Green Velvet productions). The best example of this here though is actually on Konfekt's "Jez(Sof)", where a bone-snapping jack beat is framed by inversely skeletal synth motifs. Sort of microhouse-by-implication, "Jez(Sof)" is only "minimal" in the sense that it actually does away
with all that is delicate or lush or technical in house, leaving just that monomaniacal body-instructor: in out in out in out.
In terms of harshness, Bis Neun
isn't exactly Spiecher
, but in its own messy way it can still get pretty brutal at times. I really like this. I can be pretty guilty of over-privileging microhouse's implied femininity; to do so ignores that so much of what makes this music compelling (its sensuality, fleshiness and physicality) are not automatically feminine traits except insofar as we might imagine that the female retains some stronger connection to "nature" (whatever). If techno plugs into the mythology of the machine, there's always a reverse-but-complementary impulse within dance to regress into some sort of pre-rational realm of hyper-physicality, a dionysiac debasement of the mind in favour of the id and the body working in uninterrupted tandem. This isn't a feminine trait but rather an animalistic
one, and it leads to violence and brutality as surely as it does to sex or dancing. Right now what strikes me as vaguely unique about Bis Neun
(although that uniqueness comes with a big fucking caveat in the form of Let's All Make Mistakes
) is how it seems to unify the trends by offering a vision of the machine in the act of physical debasement, of cyborgs regressing - a vision as compelling as it is illogical.
Typically perhaps, just as I think that bar is coming into its own aesthetically, garage shows signs of possibly changing tack again by slowing down into “proper” hip hop mode. It almost makes me resent these newer, slower tunes – Sharkie Major’s “Ain’t A Game” and Nasty Crew’s “Birds In The Sky” are so obviously musical, so obviously songful that it’s hard not to imagine them having a devastating impact on the scene (in both the good and bad sense), potentially stifling 8-bar before it’s had a chance to fully spread its wings – but this approach is perhaps being a bit hard on the aforementioned tracks, both of which are pretty fabulous.
Still, conceptually I can’t get behind them as much as I can behind the bittersweet soundclashes of 8-bar at its best – perhaps because 8-bar still demands that the listener focus on the fucked-upness of the beats. Keith McDougall (the brilliant guy who’s been my supplier for a lot of this stuff) reckons that the tempo change is a red herring because the real “breakbeat science” of newfangled garage is actually “MC science”. I agree with him, but from my personal perspective it’s always been primarily the beats that have provided that element of friction, of future
that has made this music my calling-card for so long. Adjusting to an MC focus will require practice.
Anyway, the “coming into its own aesthetically” bit I’m talking about is the rush of tunes (well, I’ve heard them in something like a rush at any rate) which seem to marry 8-bar minimal template to alternately bizarre and beautiful textures and ideas in an expansion of the sonic horizon that’s pure ‘ardkore ’93. Most prominently there’s Wiley’s found-sound loops on “Ice Rink”, which takes the cardoor-slam beats of Clipse’s “Grindin’” to whole new levels of rigorous abstraction. I find “Ice Rink” and other Wiley tunes like “Eskimo” and “Snow Kat” to be endlessly listenable, their icy sheen suggesting an enigma that survives the sometimes endless repetition with which they’re used for crew freestyles. My favourite Roll Deep freestyles are Kano’s take on “Ice Rink” (Kano reminds me of Jay-Z rhyming over bounce, hence he’s fabulous) and especially the Harry Toddler version of “Eskimo”, called “Donkey Kick” – Harry’s got a totally unhinged dancehall flow, something like a cross between Sizzla and Elephant Man at their most hyperactive, and he sings about “this new dance named ‘Donkey Kick’” with a madcap fervour that almost turns camp as he sighs, “Oh, I just love
to dance!!” It perfectly matches the dark drama of Wiley’s production, which uses the 8-bar format of arrangement vs bassline to see-saw back and forth in a pressure-cooker of tension and urgency, an attribute slightly lost on all MCs to grace the tune prior to Harry.
The other great see-saw track is Jammer’s remix of The Ends’ “Are You Really From The Ends”, which cycles between Jammer’s trademark furious string riffs and an ultra-minimal stuttering dancehall riddim that harks back to the likes of “Down Down Biznizz” while still positioning itself firmly within the 8-bar tradition. This is one thing I find quite amazing about 8-bar’s development: the way in which so many the 2-step tricks which seemed to be cast by the wayside on “Pulse X” are creeping back in modified form, even more unstable and alienating than before – see also Jammer’s production for Kano’s “Vice Versa (Boys Luv Girls)”, the cheerfully cynical cousin to the black humour of “I Luv U”. All machinic clatter and clicking whirs, “Vice Versa” is the most rhythmically dense piece of garage pop since the marble rolls and military snares of David Howard’s “U & I”. “Vice Versa” replicates that track’s realisation that at some point the underlying rhythmic matrix of a dance style (2-step’s bump’n’flex, 8-bar’s bang’n’scrape) is internalised, felt even when it’s not heard, and so abandons the basic beat structure, replacing it with a much less familiar, much more compelling substitute which forces the dancer to find the rhythm by instinct alone.
The real headtrip though is the remix, which takes the original’s Spartan recorder hook and expands it into an exotic, utopian flute loop that’s flushed with Eastern promise, furnished with Oriental synths and belly dancer percussion. The 8-bar format becomes a deadly game where the gorgeous flute and a decidedly sickly-sounding bassline that mimics it chase eachother, in constant pursuit. The ultra-delicate closer (all marimba rattles and sparkling synth harmonies) suggests that the flute escaped intact, but the memory of the physically impacting bassline undermines this tune’s sweetness – danger still lurks. The tune reminds me heavily of Foul Play’s “Open Your Mind”, where the first visions of Eden are glimpsed through the gritted teeth of darkcore’s illness. In both tunes the mixture and mingling of light and dark are irresistible.
Possibly the most distinguished purveyor of Eastern charm among the 8-bar producers is Target. If much “dubstep” of late has constituted half-arsed attempts to belatedly come to grips with both 4/4 and 8-bar, Target makes good on the idea of a dubstep/8-bar by coming from the other direction, infusing 8-bar with the delicacy and intricacy of El-B and Horsepower Productions whilst retaining the menace and grit of traditional 8-bar – check how “Runaway” splices a madcap beat around precise guitar-riff slashes. Best of all is “Fresh Air” with Danny Weed: although less unabashedly gorgeous than “Vice Versa (Remix)”, it possesses a unique haunting fragility; the stately half-time bass riff and the interplay between Danny’s shuddering cash-register beats and Target’s stuttering tabla claps suggest not a martial arts display but an ancient devotional ritual. It’s not all awe-inspiring solemnity though: the duo’s other Eastern flavoured tracks, “Splash” and “Hyperdrive”, push the same formula into a zone of heart-racing intensity, all manic-to-the-max beats and jittery Orientalist riffs. “Hyper Drive” in particular stretches that line of fragile/insane to almost torturous levels of hyperactivity, putting me in mind of Horsepower Productions on heavy, heavy doses of speed.
In short, 8-bar is firing all along the gamut from hard and nasty to sweet and gentle. With so much potential left open to it, it would be shame to see its possibilities for development foreclosed prematurely. No matter how
amazing “Ain’t A Game” is.
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Sorry folks I've been away... more updates soon!