Saturday, January 30, 2010

What Time Is Love?

Forget part two... I don't even remember what I was going to write about anyway.

For those of you that have been following us here at the Central Target Research and Sound Laboratory, you'll realize that while this is a music blog, it's not really about music. Music is merely the frame with which to hang a given topic on, providing an ostensible topic for the moment, but usually elaborating on whatever I've been thinking about in the real world. Incidentally, I realize fully that it's poor writing to explicitly lay your literary devices on the table within the same work you're using them. However, while to you this blog might be entertainment, but to me it's a project of "personal journalism", so let's not quibble.

The thing is, I've been very taken with certain types of electronic dance music lately, specifically the Detroit school of early techno music and the minimalist work of Richie Hawtin's Plastikman project that I have, as of late, found difficulty finding a respective perspective to latch on to.

In high school, I finally began to investigate electronic music, after years as a punk. As a media-saturated child of my age, techno and dance music seemed like a wild, colorful adult world, and based on the imagery of 1980s dance club culture, it was very, very adult. Conversely, as a boy, I spent a few years living in Vienna, Austria (with my family - I wasn't just a globe-trotting preteen). It was 1989-1992, and acid techno and house were exploding all over Europe. It was absolutely omnipresent, and there was still enough E-influenced, Day-Glo good-naturedness to it that a part of me has always believed that it really was the dawning of a new era in culture. The early 90s were a culturally cool time anyway, with the coked-out decade of greed winding down and an explosion of multiculturalism. Although I didn't understand the social framework at the time, it felt like everyone was walking around with their eyes open and embracing vibrancy for a while. I loved the squelching soundtrack of acid house music, and ever since have always had a soft spot for it. By the time I hit high school 5 years later, my tastes were a lot more elitist, preferring the jittery, brainy end of electronica (Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Warp Records) to the ass-shaking end of things.

As I've mellowed my position with age, I've noticed that there's a ton of intellect in the better dance music, and the late-80s/early-90s Detroit scene is a perfect example of this Zen minimalism. The "Belleville Three" have all made wonderful records, both dancefloor-ready, and cerebral enough to stand up to armchair listening. However, it's Plastikman (one of the several aliases of producer Richie Hawtin) that's been eating up a lot of my listening time. Minimal to the point of being subliminal, the tiniest change in the music can warp the beat into another rhythm, building brilliance out of only the barest essentials. His second album, Musik, is a masterpiece.

On the other side of the spectrum is my love of dubbed-out ambient house. The Orb, in this writer's opinion, stands above the pack as a favorite. The rubbery, intergalactic psychedelia of their first few albums is the soundtrack of an outer-space journey in your own head. Tinkling atmospherics and soft, cotton-wrapped beats eventually gave way to ambient noodling in their later years, but everything they did up to (and sort-of including) Orbvs Terrarvm is worth checking out. In fact, see if you can track down the full 39-minute version of "Blue Room", the longest single ever to top the UK charts, with a memorable TV appearance featuring the band members in space suits, playing chess in front of footage of dolphins. Trippy.

Since I've spent so much time between headphones, though, I find myself without anything to say about the music, as there is little vocabulary in the rock dictionary to capture the essence of some of this intensely introspective music. I've always looked at electronic music (dance-derived, rather than the electronic experimentation of early artists like Stockhausen) as running on a similar but parallel universe to the rock sphere since about 1977 - just as rock has developed sub-genres and stylistic diversions, so has this electronic music spawned acid house, techno, trip-hop, trance, drum 'n' bass, gabber, microhouse, and on and on and on. There's so much to dive into that with this introspection phase, I've just been cruising around in my own head for a few weeks. How do I hang my hat on that?

Realizing today that I've been neglecting my writing duties, I've decided not to change my listening from a techno and dub diet, but to dig deeper, to push further, to peel back the layers and really find something to say about this music. Maybe an album review of AFX's Analogue Bubblebath 3 (one of the greatest acid techno records ever), maybe a reflection on the co-opting of psychedelia from guitar-based rock to the mindspace of bedroom beatniks, or maybe just me blathering on and on about just how good 808 State is. We'll have to see.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Part 1: Clearing The Field

Sometimes it's easy to get complacent as a fan of anything. When you're immersed in something, it's easy to forget the boundaries, and easy to forget that there are very few innovators in any given field. I listen to a lot of music, so sometimes, it takes something extreme, something that I rarely listen to, to shake me out of my jaded state and really make me perk up. Quality is not the issue, as it's easy to hear and appreciate a great record that still fits within the boundaries of "normal" music.

I put on some James Chance & The Contortions today and it was like I'd never heard anything so aggressive in my life. Now, the funniest thing is that yesterday, I was listening to The Birthday Party (R.I.P. Rowland S. Howard), and felt the same way. I often forget that sometimes I need a brain cleansing. So many "confrontational" bands or musicians are simply "confrontation signifiers", throwing out all the established imagery, conjuring up an image of danger or confrontation without actually being so. And there's really nothing wrong with that. Art is art, it is not life. Art is a representation of aspects of life. However, when (specifically) music is authentically confrontational, there is a certain "magic ingredient" that is almost palpable, but hidden in the spaces between the notes - it can't be quantified, but it's obvious when it's present.

It's easy to get wrapped up in this world of signifiers, but it makes it incredibly powerful when dosed with the real deal. And No New York, the compilation of No Wave heavy hitters, sounds like the real deal. So does the Birthday Party's Prayers On Fire, but it's Chance and his ilk that I'm listening to right now, and it's so disconcerting that I'm having trouble keeping my thoughts straight enough to type. It's not the knowledge that early shows often ended in actual physical confrontations, sparked by Chance himself, in an attempt to shake the jaded NYC audiences out of their complacency - it's that this music often sounds dangerously close to coming apart at the seams. "Dish It Out" is the sound of frantic, sweating fear.

On Thanksgiving, my mom makes a cranberry walnut salad that I love. It's tasty, but so tart that it completely cleanses the palate... something that this raw nerve, live-wire music can do. After hearing something this harrowing, it's easy to lean back and just enjoy the nuances of something that's not so intense.

And while I'm listening to these records now 30 years out, this is not the only era to generate bands like this. However, it is a rare occurrence. If you ever spot one live (and it will most likely be live, since bands this electrifying aren't usually around long enough to properly document), take heed. Both in the cycle of rock music and one's listening habits, palate-cleansing, cranberry salad moments like this are like forest fires... clearing the debris for something new and fresh to grow. Which is why it's serendipitous when the universe draws me to music like this at the same time it presents me with the sonic alternative, which we'll be discussing next time on Central Target, in Part Two...