05 February 2005


I've been enjoying the 'old skool inter-blog discourse' between Reynolds, Jess and Ronan this week, especially as it's a subject that often plays on my mind. Jess's piece emits a particularly thought-provoking view, and is a fascinating insight into how dance music is perceived in the States, regardless of how accurate Simon thinks his observations are. Unfortunately, I'm currently lacking the mental energy required to pitch-in with my own in-depth response to all this, but I can see bits of truth in all their observations. I can appreciate Simon's perpetual need for a 'shock of the new' fix, but can also understand that revisiting older forms can be equally valid. The crucial point for me though, is that music of any genre that derives nearly all it's energy from past glories (shameless revivalism in other words) is definitely not to be encouraged. But I can see that borrowing and blending from older forms can still produce worthwhile music. To use Primal Scream as an example, it's the difference between "Loaded" (which was inspired) and "Rocks Off" (which was fucking shameful).

The thing about technologically-driven music is that, during those certain 'white heat' phases, it develops and mutates at such a ferocious rate that sometimes you feel that the original ideas didn't get a chance to be fully explored, as with Darkside Jungle. I spent nearly fifteen years telling anyone who would listen that the synthpop/futurist* period circa 1978-82 was ripe for fresh exploration. The ideas behind the likes of The Normal, early Fad Gadget, John Foxx, Visage etc etc etc seemed to me like a massive potential resource for pop's future. There's so much music from that era that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Yet when the revival actually began, I was horrified by the majority of it. Most of the modern electropop I've heard sounds like a bad joke, a tasteless pastiche, devoid of originality or grace.

Perhaps the problem is with me. I find it impossible to listen to music without contextualising it. To make overtly referential synthpop now is as heinous as being a Beatles clone band as far as I'm concerned. What was hot in 1980 cannot be replicated in 2005 without sounding completely naff. Futurism happened, and it can never happen again in that form. But we can learn from it and incorporate elements into other approaches. So it's conceivable that, for example, a record that fuses Futurism with House (and a big dollop of inspiration) can be valid.

Likewise, I wouldn't be satisfied with a record that simply homaged '88 Acid. But I can feel it when someone like Luke Vibert combines mid-tempo 303 squiggles with easy-going breakbeats and Jean Jacques Perrey synth motifs. Blend the strengths, I say. Right now I'd love to hear the melodic textural lushness of '93-95 intelligent techno over some brutal Grime riddims.

Having said all that, occasionally I'll hear something, like the latest Guy Called Gerald material, that manages to sound very retro (in this case mid-90s Technophunk) but still transcend obsolescence in some way. If it sounds as honest, heartfelt and just plain surprising as this then you can believe in it. Sometimes it is possible to find a fresh spin within an established genre. Whilst I would never claim that there was much originality in Alt.Rock Americana in general, I find plenty of things by artists like Will Oldham, Bill Callaghan (Smog) or the late Elliot Smith interesting. They're able to find those little furrows within Folk, Country and Rock that can still be mined for fresh creativity, even though they're beyond the remit of this particular blog (haven't you realised yet that what I leave out is as important as what I put in?). Perhaps it's all down to what motivates an artist - if it's simply a case of nostalgia then I'm likely to get a bit edgy.

I get a similar feeling of unease when listening to Aphex's new Analord EPs. Don't get me wrong - I've been really enjoying them - but there's that sense that this music is too retro. Listening to "Laricheard", I find myself on the one hand gently moved by this undoubtedly sincere homage to Fingers Inc.'s "Can You Feel It", but on the other wondering if this is the sort of thing a self-styled cutting-edge pioneer should be releasing. Although I would completely respect James making this track for his own enjoyment, surely he should be releasing all those amazingly advanced tracks that he sometimes hints about in interviews. To be fair, the tracks on the first EP, aka "Microcomposer MC-4 Tracs", are not Acid House re-hashes, they're a return to the sound of 'Cornish Acid', a distinct sub-genre created by James and his mates back in the day, so he's basically homaging himself. Whilst most of the content here might conceivably come from the Universal Indicator period or "Analogue Bubblebath 3", it could be argued that James is simply taking a little time-out to reflect on past achievements, going back in order to move forward. For any Aphex-skeptics out there who still haven't decided whether or not to invest in these platters, here's a track from Vol. 1 for you...

MP3: AFX - Where's Your Girlfriend?

I guess I'm a difficult bugger to please sometimes. This is a real purist project and listening on headphones I detect what sounds like tape hiss, which suggests that James has extended the analogue concept to encompass the entire process of recording, mastering and releasing the music, which is not an unattractive idea, and certainly quite novel in 2005. Bereft of any digital 'taint', the vinyl originals have a warm, milky glow, particularly on the more mellow, melodic offerings on "Mix 2", which slip-down like a hot cup of Horlicks before bedtime. It's also pleasant to hear him working with 'regular' beats again, no doubt necessitated by the limited capabilities of the built-in step sequencers on those old Roland machines. To be honest, I was never that enamored by James' drum programming in the post drill'n'bass period; it never quite achieved the fluidity of Squarepusher's beats, which manage to sound shattered and groovy at the same time. Anyway, for now it's a cautious 'thumbs-up' for Analord, with a few ideological reservations.

* Whilst I'm on this subject, just thought I'd mention the new Q magazine special edition, The Story Of Electro-Pop. Never thought I'd be recommending anything from Q here, but this isn't a bad little read, even for those (like myself) who think they know it all already. Worth it for all the cool glossy photos alone! Plus you can have fun spotting the mistakes, like they don't seem to be able to tell Martyn Ware from Ian Craig Marsh and they're still perpetuating the myth that Martin Rushent created "Love And Dancing" after being inspired by American dance music, when in fact it was the other way around. Still, it's generally a well-compiled stab at documenting the genre, breaking it down into four phases from Kraftwerk to the present day, and as far as I can see just about everyone gets at least a brief mention (apart from Landscape!) . Charles Shaar Murrey's retro-review of Bowie's "Low" adds a bit of extra credibility too. Four pages devoted to John Foxx/Ultravox? K-Punk must go out and buy it first thing tomorrow!!!