25 September 2008

the decade dance

i've been thinking more about big beat.

i reviewed the debut album, zeppelin 3 (har har) by philly band/dj project pink skull, using an extended comparison to the chemical brothers' dig your own hole as a central throughline - as inspired and informed by [head skull bro] julian s prcss' reference to it in this article. here are some excerpts [yes! self-quotes!]:

"Zeppelin 3 doesn't sound much like the vast majority of electronic music produced this decade, with a rough-edged, acid-washed sensibility that evinces little of electro-house's garish, '80s-refracting gleam or minimal's streamlined polish. . . . most of the album consists of highly abstract, restively mutating groove-based tracks that land somewhere in between breakbeat and acid house, overlaid with squelching psychedelic synths, percussion breakdowns, snatches of saxophone, and tortured, unrecognizable vocal fragments, and embellished with a dizzying array of effects. In other words, it's not far off from the bulk of Dig Your Own Hole..."
the comparison actually took me by surprise - this album definitely sounds more like classic chembros than anything i've heard in ages (even the chems own recent work), but the connection didn't even occur to me at first, even though i've been semi-actively searching for signs of a big beat resurgence. part of that's because i've been struggling somewhat to really enjoy pink skull - i still like them more in theory than in practice, mostly because although they fare pretty well with chemicalesque eclecticism, psychedelicity, bombast (to some extent), weirdness, and general beat science, they never really nail the pop part of the equation. [it helped somewhat when i realized that "gonzo's cointreau," which you can stream or download here, is this album's "block rockin' beats," if it has one. (it doesn't.)]

which means it doesn't particularly sound like big beat more generally - the chemical brothers, and those first two albums specifically, may have set the template for the style, but a lot of their followers (most notably fatboy slim, the genre's most visible practitioner) took things in a somewhat different direction - more overtly poppy, more streamlined, and, inevitably, more predictable (which isn't necessarily a bad thing - just, more formalized, less experimental.)

i realize that i haven't been very precise about what i mean by big beat - what exactly a resurgence would sound like. the wikipedia description is pretty accurate, i think, and i'd argue that justice, simian mobile disco, and others have been utilizing several of the elements mentioned there, though certainly not all.

this also makes me think about how truly different dance/electronica in the 2000s has been from its most prominent strains in the '90s. m. matos pointed out recently [in his review of the effortlessly enjoyable rex the dog album, which is tremendously bombastic in its fashion, which i'll probably write up tomorrow] how relatively static and unchanging things have been lately:
"Four years would seem like a lot longer ago in dance-music terms than it sounds here. It's been that kind of decade: especially compared to the '90s, the best dance records of 2008 don't sound extremely different than those of 2004, or 2000."
this has meant, somewhat strangely, a paucity of distinct subgenres: as big beat, trip-hop, downtempo, drum'n'bass, and the cut'n'paste/sampling/turntablism based style of dj shadow and the ninja tune stable (um, instrumental hip-hop?) effectively ceased to be significant forces in the broader musical discourse (or, as they lost their luster and we stopped paying much attention to them), we've been left with a far-more-thorny-to-disentangle/subcategorize array of styles (tech-house, digital disco, microhouse, electro-house, the omnipresent, near-meaningless "minimal") that share a pronounced and relatively direct connection to house, electronic disco, and synth-pop. these styles, in turn - effectively direct off-shoots of disco - were prominent in the '80s but were relatively out of favor in the '90s, when they informed merely a portion of the varied electronica spectrum, namely the slick, buffed trance and house music which fueled and dominated the rave scene and mainstream club culture (and are still evidently going strong), and the filter-house of the french touch cohort, which effectively formed the bridge to the new millennium, specifically in the form of daft punk (even as the related but more omnivorous sound of artists like basement jaxx fell somewhat by the wayside.)

of course, all of this decade-based generalizing is to some extent simplified and suspect, but it does seem to work surprisingly well. a lot of things do seem to change around the ends and beginnings of decades: like '77-79 before it, the turn of the '90s was a major turning point for music - specifically '88 (in the UK) and '91 (in the US), for different reasons, but also the early-to-mid '90s more generally - and so was '00-'02, as i'll get into in a minute.

i don't mean to suggest that all of these kinds of music haven't had more continuous trajectories: there were certainly '90s-era forebears of contemporary minimal-style techno (basic channel, for one), just as there are still some practitioners of most of the various '90s styles - fatboy slim and the chemicals still soldier on, as do plenty of others. still, at least from my perspective, as somebody who entered the techno-loving picture c. 1997-98, there have been some dramatic shifts in the relatively prominence of these various strains.

to be specific: the forms that i'm positing as prevalent in the '80s and '00s share a relatively straight-up 4-on-the-floor house/disco rhythm and a sound palette that draws heavily or exclusively on synthesizers. neither of these things is true of the styles i listed as big in the '90s, all of which have much more pronounced influences (something that barely even seemed noteworthy at the time) from hip-hop and/or rock, especially classic and psychedelic rock - in its rhythms (breakbeats, heavy funk, accented backbeats), its sounds (guitars, big boomy drums, eclectic sound effects, and vocals by rappers and rock-styled singers as opposed to soul/disco divas), and also in its song structures and overall presentation.

indeed, the rockiness of '90s electronica (and big beat specifically) seems to have had a lot to do with its success - it's no coincidence that it was the prodigy, a _band_, were the first techno act to really break in the states, and broke bigger than pretty much anyone else to date (oh right, moby.) big beat probably had more bands than any electronic style before or since except for trip-hop - lo fi allstars, lionrock, apollo 440 [and now pink skull] - though the majority of its acts were unquestionably duos (why was that?), most of them pairs of producers who enlisted MCs and vocalists on a per-track basis. (sort of like hip-hop in reverse.) as the decade went on, the lines between rock and electronica (and rap) increasingly blurred, what with high-profile fusionists like nine inch nails and garbage, mainstream (rock) artists like U2, blur, and other assorted britpoppers dabbling in (generally rather big-beaty) electronica, and armies of dabbling experimenters spanning the art-pop spectrum - beck, björk, beastie boys, cornershop, soul coughing, etc. (a sector i've discussed plenty) - all getting their remix on. one could think of all this as electronica bending itself in various ways so as to conform to rockist prerequisites and become thereby more broadly palatable. which is hardly a problem: the results were definitely kaleidascopic and fascinating - like most fusions, it was fertile territory.

perhaps it's a coincidence, but right around or slightly after the turn of the millennium, when big beat was imploding, or seemed to be, due to overexposure (shades of disco '79), staleness, and apparent stagnation, and unadultered, non-electronicafied rock was attempting to reassert itself (mostly unsuccessfully), a rising tide of anti-rockist sentiment was beginning to make the world (or at least the musosphere) safe for the re-emergence of disco, synth-pop, and the like - "pure" (or at least more roots-informed) forms of electronic dance (which, to be sure, also carried their own sort of rockist, unintentionally elitist appeal) - as galvanized by daft punk's widely lauded discovery [2001], which ended up having an unforeseeably wide-ranging influence on the decade. [ironically or not, the chemical brothers had staked out a similar direction on surrender ('99), to middling success, but they were already starting to be seen as has-beens by '02, despite the impressively fresh-sounding come with us.] all of which had the (arguably reactionary) effect of segregating mainstream rock from mainstream dance - reversing the trend of integration that had characterized the late '90s - and killing (at least for the time being, and still) the prospects of electronic music truly gaining mainstream popularity in the states.

now, as i have discussed at length in the process of attempting to genrefy it, there certainly has been plenty of rock/dance fusion this decade, but, as i've argued, it's fundamentally from the way that fusion worked in the '90s. compared to the somewhat overdetermined cut-and-paste genre-blending of the last decade (the "collage" aesthetic central to big beat among various other styles), this stuff feels like a more cohesive and organic combination, which makes sense since it's rooted in the way the genres developed together, "naturally," in the post-disco fallout of the early '80s, often obscured from mainstream scrutiny - some strains of synthpop and new wave became commercially successful, but the original dance-punk, electro-disco, and other sorts of post-disco experimentation were relatively underground until recent years.

meanwhile, arguably, jungle/d'n'b didn't so much fade from favor as segue into ukg, grime, and dubstep, effectively strengthening its connection to hip-hop and distancing itself from electronic dance music proper. as for trip-hop and instro-hop, well the avalanches were certainly fresh in '01, but shadow's sophomore alb and rjd2's debut were a good ways from the zeitgest in '02, while diplo's florida ['04] seemed like a total throwback, and this year's return of portishead felt like a completely alien occurence.

so it goes. now another decade is coming to an end, and it's hard to say what might be in store. we may see a continuation of cyclical pattern - it seems likely, though hard to exactly envision right now; things have felt relatively static of late. the only substantial new trend of the last few years that comes to mind, at least in terms of things that have potential widespread impact, is the smallish but still-burbling-along '60s soul revival [which, it just occurred to me, as it's specifically british, perhaps a decades-late upshot of the northern soul phenomenon that kickstarted dj and dance culture as we now know it [q.v. the excellent last night a dj saved my life, which i have just finished reading, and about which i'll have more to say com'n up], could be taken as yet another example, like rock'n'roll and house/techno themselves, of the brits appropriating a black american genre and selling it back to us as white, though the turnaround took especially long this time.]

anyway. the midfield general album drops here in the states next week. i certainly don't expect it to make any major waves.... but you never know. the pink skull album, which doesn't sound all that much like the general's (it's better, i suppose, from an artistic standpoint, but who cares, it's just not as fun) hasn't garnered all that much attention, but some have been hailing it as innovative and forward-looking, and i could certainly envision a similar aesthetic gaining traction in the future. i closed my review by calling it "a worthwhile and promising step in the ongoing exploration and integration of dance music's interconnected past and future." which sounds a bit clunky and vaguely meaningless, even to me, but actually sums it up fairly well, i think. maybe we'll end up looking back on 2008 as the start of another something else. nu rave, indeed. bring on the next, big, thing.

No comments: