Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Next Medium-Sized Thing ("Energy Flash" column for Sonicnet, 2000)


"Energy Flash" column, Sonicnet, September 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering when the Next Big Thing in dance music is going to turn up.  It's long overdue.  At the same time, it's really hard to imagine what it could possibly be.  Every day, it seems more likely that the initial onrush of rave culture carried the music to its furthest stylistic extremes by the mid-Nineties. By 1996, say, drum & bass  had taken rhythmic complexity as far as conceivable or desirable;  gabba had gotten as fast, punishing, and distorted as the human nervous system could cope with;  minimal techno had stripped itself down to the barest bones of  bangin' beats and abrasive textures.  Subsequently, dance culture has advanced not by expanding its boundaries but by developing the territory within those already-reached frontiers. The difference here is akin to the difference between explorers and settlers. So instead of pushing the envelope, you get "internal  hybrids". For instance, the UK micro-genre "nu skool breaks" is a fusion of  Big Beat and drum'n'bass, basically deploying the latter's neurotically intricate production techniques at the former's more dancer-friendly 130 bpm tempo.

All this is why, for the foreseeable future (until someone invents a new technology, or a new drug) we're  going to see a succession of Next Medium-Sized Things, rather than a singular Next Big Thing that installs itself as the leading edge and eclipses everything else that's going on.  One defining characteristic of a NBT is that its novelty is incontestable, even by those who can't stand it. Jungle, for instance, was patently a great leap forwards--nobody had made beats so frantic and chopped-up, nobody had invented a music with an internal split-tempo (basslines running at half the velocity of the sped-up breakbeats). You could hate it, but you couldn't fail to recognize its unprecedented nature.

The hallmark of a Next Medium-Sized Thing, though, is its "plausible deniability" (to adapt a phrase hitherto associated more with IRAN-CONTRA and White House skullduggery).  The innovativeness of  these micro-genres is all a matter of perspective: you have to be immersed in dance culture, or even immersed in the particular parent genre, to perceive the difference and feel the impact. I first noticed this with speed garage back in 1997--the fusion of jungle bass and house beats had massive implications and reverberations in UK clubland, but it was hard to persuade American listeners that it was more than just a slight twist on ye olde house.

Here are a bunch of Next Medium-Sized Thing contenders that people are talking about, followed by what doubters will probably say to dismiss them as hype:

(a/k/a nu-jazz, broken beats---semantic profusion is a hallmark of the Next Medium-Sized Thing; the slighter the claims to novelty, the more names there'll be for the alleged genre)

IG Culture/Likwid Biskit/ New Sector Movements,  Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, Modaji, Bugz in the Attic,  Alex Attias/Mustang/Plutonia, Domu.

People, Visons Inc., Main Squeeze, Laws Of Motion, 2000 Black, Bitasweet.

What is it exactly?
An Afrodelic boogie wonderland land where Alice Coltrane, Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, Rotary Connection and Fela Kuti mingle with 4 Hero, Masters At Work, and Carl Craig. In other words, a fusion of old skool fusion (Seventies stuff) with Nineties fusion (arty drum & bass, deepest house, the jazzier side of Detroit techno) to produce a brand nu skool of fusion. There's so much fusing going on it's getting confusing. Phusion hallmarks include a passion for time-signatures other than  four-to-the-floor, a mix of acoustic/analog/digital textures, and a quality of hand's on feel and fluency to the music even when it's computerized. West London connoisseur shit, dig.

What the sceptics will say:
It's just acid jazz with samplers.


Laylo & Bushwacka!/Matthew B., Mr. C., Nathan Coles, Pure Science, Terry Francis, Charles Webster

Plink Plonk, Pagan, Wiggle, Eye for Sound

What is it exactly?
Like the ungainly name suggests, this micro-genre occupies the not exactly vast sonic hinterland between Detroit techno and Chicago house, juicing up the former's austerity while shunning the latter's vocal element. The result is sleek, shiny, propulsive,  tastefully trippy, and cunningly poised to be just "deep" and  "progressive" enough to keep out the riff-raff (i.e. ravers) while not losing the dancefloor appeal.

What the sceptics will say:
There's always been techno-tinged house and there's always been house-leaning techno -- it's hardly worth starting a movement around.


Stanton Warriors, Donna Dee, Headtop, So Solid Crew, Reservoir Dogs, DJ Dee Kline, Phuturistix, El-B, Second Protocol, Zed Bias

Pulse, So Solid Beatz, Ghost Trax, Mob

What is it exactly?
Provisional name (in circulation while people think of something snappier and more evocative) for a subgenre some believe will soon break off from UK garage, and marked by an even more tangential verging on non-existent relationship to the garage/house continuum. Sheds UK garage's girly vocals, bump'n'flex grooves, and shuffling hi-hats in favor of looped breakbeats, cheeky/cheesy samples in the spirit of hardcore rave and jump-up jungle (ie. soundbites typically referencing weed-smoking or martial arts movies), and stomach-churning bass that often has an early Eighties electro  flavor. 

What the sceptics will say
Isn't this just jungle slowed to 130 b.p.m?
(NB: Breakbeat garage's slowed-down jungle often overlaps uncannily with nu-skool breaks's slowed-down jungle, showing how people increasingly end up occupying  the same "internal hybrid" zone even though coming from different directions).


Anne Savage, Pete Wardman, Lisa Lashes, BK, Rachel Auburn, Lisa Pin-Up, Brainbashers, Fergie, Steve Thomas,  Baby Doc

Tidy Trax, Tinrib, TEC, Nukleuz, Tripoli Trax, Duty Free, Rock Hard, Fever Pitch

What is it exactly?
Both the name and the music it describes have been around for some time, but recently the style has refined itself down to an incredibly narrow strip of sound: a concussive concoction of banging kick-drums, hoover basslines, synth-stabs, and belting diva vocals. Hard house's no frills thrills are increasingly displacing fluffy Euro-trance as the pill-head's favorite soundtrack to nights of XTC--which is why it's getting a lot of press in the dance mags.

What the sceptics will say:
This stuff is the pits. In all decent, discerning company, it should be unmentionable. It doesn't deserve a name at all.

bonus beat - on hard house - from the great Tony Marcus

this was published in a weekly dance magazine whose name I forget but seems to have attempted to ride the absolute boom-time peak of interest in dance culture (where there were about four or five dance-dedicated monthlies and various ex-fanzines also)

that bubble burst soon enough

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mo Wax compilations

Royaltie$ Overdue
(Mo Wax) 
Melody Maker,1994

by Simon Reynolds

On the evidence of this sampler, the Mo Wax roster is
evenly divided between the brilliant and the bland. The best
stuff here--DJ Shadow, La Funk Mob, DJ Krush--is ambient hip
hop in the vein of Massive Attack and Tricky.  The rest tends
towards a tasteful but insipid composite of 'connoisseur'
musics (fusion, jazz-funk, rare groove), i.e.  precisely what
you'd associate with Straight No Chaser, the 'jazz'-zine that
Mo Wax boss James Lavelle writes for.

Nonetheless, the good parts of this curate's egg of a
comp are very tasty indeed.  The stand-out is DJ Shadow's 12
minute epic "Influx", a panoramic early '70s groovescape
whose sombre strings, lachrymose wah-wah and fusion flute are
like the missing link between The Temptations' "Papa Was a
Rollin' Stone" and Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly".
Ghostly shards of liberation rhetoric drift by on the breeze-
-"people's power", "it's only a matter of time", "FREEDOM"--
making "Influx" at once an elegy for the lost ideals of the
'60s and an allegory of today's slippin' into darkness vibe.

The best stuff on "Royalties Overdue" reimagines Miles
Davis circa "In A Silent Way" as a pioneer of ambient to rank
with Eno and King Tubby. The cold-sweat paranoia-funk of DJ
Krush's "Slow Chase" really implodes with a wah-wahed trumpet
solo worthy of Miles' 'lost in inner space' early '70s coke
phase.  (After this, Palm Skin's pointlessly accurate hip hop
cover of "In A Silent Way" can only seem pallid and polite).
Despite their nauseating name, La Funk Mob are smart enough
not to strive to sound like a live band (which is where other
Mo Waxers slip up).  Instead, on "La Doctoresse" and "Motor
Bass Get Phunked Up", this cyberfunk unit use the studio to
situate their piano vamps, horn-parps and percussion licks
throughout a honeycomb of dub-space.

As for the rest, the hashed-out, smooth-grooving fluency
reeks of the kind of self-congratulatory goateed twats who
once thought the sleevenotes on Style Council records were
cool. It's muzak that falls foul of the fallacy that 'mature'
= mellow. The Federation retread rare groove; Monday Michiru
is Sade, basically; DJ Takemura vibes-flavoured kitsch is
worthy of the late unlamented el label (whose Marden Hill
also feature here); Bubbatunes offer Digable Tunes B-sides
for all those who haven't yet figured out that gangsta is
where it's at.  Only RPM's groovy if scarcely groundbreaking
hip hop, reminiscent of Main Source, distinguishes itself.

Treasure the highpoints of "Royaltie$ Overdue", then,
but keep your finger poised on the remote so you can vault
over the troughs.

Headz 2 
(Mo Wax)
Village Voice, 1996 (remixed slightly for Faves of 1996)

by Simon Reynolds 

In the age of compilation gigantism, Headz 2 dramatically ups the ante. Mo 
Wax's latest anthology consists of not one but two separately sold double-CD's  (or two quadruple albums, boxed like Wagner's Parsifal), which contain nearly five-and-a-half hours of music spanning not just trip hop but leading innovators in drum & bass, techno, art-rap and electronica. Before I even saw these dauntingly oversize collections in the stores, I was put off by the air of hubris and self-congratulatory connoisseurship hanging over the project. When I saw them, the deluxe vinyl sets instantly reminded me of those calfskin-bound, gilt-inlaid editions of Dickens (sold through mail-order ads that appeal to "your unstinting pride"), which remain unread on the shelf but testify to an 
interest in being cultured. In Headz case, the word is subcultured. 

Despite their garish abstrakt covers, the vinyl Headz also resemble headstones, 
perhaps because Mo Wax supremo James Lavelle has herein constructed a kind of mausoleum of late '90s "cool". Appropriately, the music itself is sombre and 
subdued, mostly cleaving to the trip hop noir norm: torpid breakbeats, entropic 
sub-bass, dank dub reverb. (When it comes to non-junglistic breakbeats, give me the rowdy, rockist furore of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and their amyl brethren, any day). The same Mo Wax kiss-of-def that resulted in Luke Vibert's only uninteresting release to date affects contributions from the likes of Danny Breaks, whose abandons his normal hyper-kinaesthetics for the idling headnooding tempo of "Science Fu Beats". (Perking the track up to 45 r.p.m improves this, and several other tracks, considerably). 

Mo Wax belong to what you might call the "good music society", or more 
precisely, they belong to a specific "good music society" which dates back to 
the "eclectic" list of influences on Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (wherein PiL, 
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Isaac Hayes and Studio One coexisted in smug 
self-congratulation). The sensibility is pure fusion: "it's all music, man", 
"what kind of music don't I like? -- just bad music!". Every area of music has 
it own "good music society", its little cabal of cognoscenti, what Kevin Martin 
calls the "taste police": Junior Boys Own for deep house, Creation (in the late 
Eighties at least) for leather-trousered rock, Grand Royal for white American 
B-boyism. Each maintains a canon of cool, and as with all canons, what is 
excluded is as significant as what is included. What is excluded tends to be 
both the vibrantly vulgar and the genuinely extremist/out-there: neither The 
Sweet nor Stockhausen make it. (Although Pierre Henry, bizarrely, has been 
canonised --as a pioneer of E-Z listening alongside Jean-Jacques Perrey!!!).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ananda Project / Chris Brann

(Nite Grooves)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

In rock, you get local heroes, bands that are big in their town or region. In dance, you get the opposite. Take Ananda Project's Chris Brann: a god for house hipsters across the globe for his mid-Nineties releases as Wamdue Kids, but I bet he can walk round his hometown Atlanta, Georgia, without a nod.

A slightly pat reference point for Release: Everything But the Girl's Temperamental. "Breaking Down", with its jazzy-guitar flecks and forlorn vocals (courtesy of Heather Johnson, one of five guest singers) even sounds a bit like EBTG. But Brann's coming from the other direction: he's a trackmaster getting songful, rather than singer/songwriters getting their groove on. Release has the pump of club-oriented house, the kind of voluptuously thick kick drums that become a cocooning environmental pulse when heard through a massive sound system. But it also has the intimacy of music for home and headphones. And there can't be many house artists who put a quote from Edith Sitwell in the CD booklet.

"Cascades of Colour" is the stand-out. The plangent gravity of the melody,redolent of Harold Budd & Brian Eno's ambient albums, conjures deliciously mixed emotions---blue joy, sweet sorrow. Gaelle Adisson's multitracked vocals form a counterpoint lattice that sets your nape-hairs tingling. Close behind "Cascades" is the title track, with its "let your spirit free" invocations and pensive piano chords that suddenly roll backwards on themselves, psychedelic guitar-style, to form a seamless, timewarping Moebius Strip. 

Throughout the album, there's a blurry, miasmic quality to Brann's production, the aural equivalent of Vaseline-on-the-lens. The way Brann arranges his drums spatially is like landscape gardening, making you gaze into the distance. On the vocoderized ballad "Expand Your Mind", snares crack like thunder on the mix's horizon, while hi-hats bustle right in your face. The wispy drum'n'bass excursion "Bahia" suggests an affinity with softcore junglists like LTJ Bukem and PFM, a common quest for aquaboogie wonderlands.

As with the Good Looking guys, New Age alarm bells occasionally ring: lots of liquidly chirruping birdsong, a Stevie Nicks-esque lyric about a "daughter of the moon" on the otherwise gorgeous "Falling For You". Mind you, in these despiritualized, money-mad times, maybe we need some of that. The opulence of Brann's sound doesn't connote aspirational "audio couture" (a slogan coined by Moving Shadow just at the point the label, and the drum'n'bass scene, started to undergo gentrification) but what New Agers call "abundance consciousness"--in plain, old-timer's English, counting your blessings. Release is the kind of record that reminds you to feel grateful to be alive. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Jon Savage interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave, punk versus ambient, and "the politics of sound"

JON SAVAGE interviewed about the New Wave of New Wave
Melody Maker, spring 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming', the first proper history of punk, is
often cited in interviews and overviews of the New Wave of New Wave.  It seems
to have made the Sex Pistols adventure available to a whole new generation, just at
the point at which the saga was fading from folk memory. So does Savage, a
veteran of the original era as both participant and commentator, take any
credit for the current resurrection?

"Well, S.M.A.S.H. were very excited about 'England's Dreaming', and that
was very flattering. I mean, if you're a writer, that's the ultimate--to be
told that you've inspired someone else. I always intended 'England's Dreaming'
to be a kind of primer, presenting the data and saying 'this is how it's done'.
The idea was not to push myself to the foreground, but to provide all the
sources, the books and records that inspired the original punks.  I don't know
if the book influenced the other bands, just that S.M.A.S.H.  say they were
influenced.  Thank God they're really good!  Hahhahaha! I like S.M.A.S.H. a
lot. They've got good songs, cheekbones, short hair--a classic suburban English
mod band.  Very exciting live--after I saw them live I stayed awake til 3-AM
just buzzing on adrenaline, and that's pretty late for me.  And they have a
song called 'Shame', and that's a very English thing to write about."

Why are we still so obsessed with punk?  Ever since 1978, most Brit-rock
activity has been conceived, and judged, as either a return to, or swerve away
from, punk--as either a resurrection or a 'betrayal'. Punk revivals have almost
been annual occurrences. Why are we still hung up on happenings 16 years time
ago--it's equivalent to the Pistols being obsessed with pre-Beatles pop, Billy
Fury and Adam Faith!  Why is it that British rock culture can't bury punk, break
free of its ancient agenda?

Savage's explanation is that "the years 1976/77 are a bit like
1966/67--years of fantastic compression, too much happening too quickly. It
takes years to unravel all that. And so those moments of breakthrough
and upheaval always cast a long shadow. With punk, it took about 10 years to
work through all that stuff. Beyond that, punk is simply a classic English
archetype--with precursors in Dickens, in Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock', in
the Angry Young Men, in The Stones and The Who.  And that archetype is so
potent.  The punk movement was very powerful, very ambitious, so it's no wonder
that pop keeps coming back to it. Punk was all to do with sex, which is still a
very charged phenomenon in England; it was about bondage and going into the
nation's subconsiocus to bring out all the violence and filth. There's a huge
gulf between the reality people live and the media edifice that's constructed
over that reality.  The simple fact is that all the things that were talked
about during punk are still there and still need to be talked about.  Nothing's

"It's like with the fashion side of the current interest in punk--in a
sense, people are 'trying on the clothes' to see if they fit, and finding that
they do.  The 'clothes' are all about anger, confrontation, hostility, and they
fit because there is a mood today  similar to '76.  The punks, and the
hippies in their own way too, posed certain questions that haven't been
answered. All great pop movements pose those questions, in slightly different
ways.  Even rave culture is born of frustration, a desire to break out.
England is still a very claustrophobic, class-ridden, static society. And I'd
hate to be 18 now."

Arguably, it's much worse today than in '76.  Not just economically but in
the sense that in the past 16 years all the little spaces of freedom have
contracted--what with the assault on dole culture, the impoverishment of
students, and of course, the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill with its virtual
outlawing of squatting and its draconian clampdown on raves and warehouse
parties. The government seems determined to extinguish all the bases of an
oppositional popular culture.  Today it's not even a question of 'No Future',
but closer to Hendrix' lament: "ain't no life nowhere".

"If I was 18 today, I'd be incredibly conscious of the hegemony of the
babyboomer generation. Because so much of the commentary on pop is by people
from that generation, and most of them wouldn't give a band like S.M.A.S.H. a
chance, 'cos the attitude is 'we've seen it all before'. And of course that's
totally irrelevant since, as any fule kno, when you're 20 you haven't seen it
all before."

Are there any parallels between 1976 and 1994, in that there's an
apocalyptic vibe--a feeling that something appalling is lurking on the horizon,
the spectre of social collapse, and its corollary, the resurgence of fascism?

"I don't know if that's actually happening, but it is a very teenage thing
to think that. Also--it's like, 'hello, it's 1994, the Millenium is coming'.
Punk was a millenarian movement, absolutely."

One of the interesting things about the New Wave of New Wave is the way
it's resurrected punk's ethics of drug use, ie. speed = good (cos it increases
IQ, self-confidence, aggression), dope and E = bad ('cos they make you mellow,
quiescent and full of love).  Amphetamine is the perfect drug for messianic
fervour and tunnel-visonary crusading zeal, but its downside is paranoia (which
adds to the Millenarian, Doomsday vibe) and, at the extreme, psychotic

"Well, amphetamines are very bad news. I only took it four times during
punk and it made me feel so peculiar.  Whenever a pop movement gets overtly
based around one drug, it gets stupid. Speed is a dangerous drug. Several
friends of mine from the punk era ended up either psychotic or dead, because of
speed and heroin. Then again, if These Animal Men want to talk of burning for
two years then crashing, that's their prerogative. There's a grand tradition
there, a classic rock'n'roll trajectory,--Sid Vicious is the obvious example."

My reservation with these bands is that they're a too literal recreation
of punk. Really, they're like the pub rock bands that paved the way for punk:
back to basics, except that in this case "basics" means Situtationist slogans
and McLaren-like masterplans.  But any real successor to punk would have to go
as far beyond 'nouveau punk' as the Pistols went beyond the white R&B
fundamentalism of Dr Feelgood et al.  Another thing: the NWONW is
Nth-generation whiter-than-white rock, mod filtered through punk filtered
through the Manics. It completely ignores anything that's happened musically
since 1978: black or white, rap or rave.

"From an outside perspective, maybe that whiter-than-white rock can seem a
thin option compared to the wealth of stuff around, whether it's black-derived
or not. But why not make white-boy music? It doesn't make you racist, in

It's interesting the way that ambient techno has provided these bands with
a readymade enemy, the '90s subcultural equivalent of the mid-70s hippies. As a
punk vet whose current favourite music includes Aphex Twin, Richard Kirk,
Seefeel and Biosphere, what does Savage make of the nouveau punk critique of
ambient: that it's just aural sedatives for a defeated, spineless generation?

"I can understand their arguments against ambient.  But I'm not at an age
where I need to define myself by the music I like. I've grown out of that
partisanship, cos I've been lucky enough to have lived within it. But the NWONW
is music that demands that kind of partishanship, and I can easily imagine that
if I was a kid who'd gone to see S.M.A.S.H. I might be inspired to want to
change my life..."

And throw the ambient LP's and Rizlas in the bin? 

"Well, what the punk critique of ambient misses--and it's a fault shared by
all politically-engaged rock--is that there's a politics of sound that's just as
important as explicit politics in lyrics.  And the best ambient is streets ahead
in terms of sound, the way the music makes you feel, the moods and images
it conjures.  When rock gets too puritanically concerned with stripping
down to just the message, you end up with the Tom Robinson Band, who I
always had problems with--great politics, shit music.  But anyway, at my age
I don't have to choose between ambient and punk.  Ideally, the best of both
 worlds would be great--ambient punk!"

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tektonics and hip-house history

Various Artists


(Om Records)

unpublished review, Spin, 1999? 2000?

At a recent electronica festival I watched queasily as an English DJ played "Planet Rock" on one turntable, scratched feebly on the other, hyped the crowd with repeated hollers of "1, 2, 3, 4, HIT IT!," and then stepped stage-front to perpetrate some lame breakdancin' and backspinnin'. There is something nausea-inducing about the way that Eighties hip hop signifiers became white property (in the form of trip hop and big beat) just a few years after African-Americans moved out and onward. In a similar (if not so problematic) gentrification syndrome, turntablizm has codified old school DJ techniques into a black bohemian virtuoso art, but only when those skillz became near-irrelevant in contemporary street rap.

Which means there's a weird kind of sociocultural logic to Tektonics's alliance of mostly African-American turntablists (Disk, Rob Swift, Craze, J-Rocc) with mostly white Brit old-skool fetishists (Meat Beat Manifesto, Howie B., Freestylers, Propellerheads). The results are entertaining but hardly, pardon the pun, earthshaking. Rather than reverberating like the long-overdue collision of two sonic continental plates that have been kept unnaturally separate, Tektonics cosily recalls bygone happier days when hip hop and rave shared small patches of common ground: the late Eighties DJ collage tracks by Coldcut, M/A/R/R/S, and Bomb the Bass; the mirage/lost dream that was hip-house (Shut Up And Dance, Blapps Posse, Rebel MC), the breakbeat-and-incongruous-soundbite tomfoolery of early jungle.

The story of British rave basically is a series of compulsive attempts to merge house with hip hop, resulting in the sort of hybrids that rarely happen in the New World but thrive in the U.K. (where everything is inevitably decontextualized and therefore open to recombinant mash-up). Not that many of these collaborations achieve anything as seamlessly organic as a hybrid. Photek meets The Scratch Perverts is more like superimposition, or even defacement--the glassy surge of the former's "Water Margin" daubed with scratchadelic scribbles. It's weirdly appropriate (given that Photek's innovation/crime was to replace jungle's B-boy flava with techno's frigid neurosis) and, like graffiti on a subway train, it actually enhances the clinical original. 

J-Boogie meets DJ Imperial's "Brazilelectro" thrillingly renovates the spectral syncussion shiver of Man Parrish's "Hip Hop BeBop" and T. La Rock's "Breaking Bells". But elsewhere the mix-illogical sleights and disruptions feel deja entendu: portentous this-is-a-journey-into-sound type voices (like the smarmy voiceover from a stereo-testing LP declaring "probably the most challenging record you have ever put on your turntable" in Wagon Christ/ DJ Rob Swift's "Never Ending Snorkel"); wikky-wikky flurries that could be from McLaren and the World's Famous Supreme Team's ancient "Buffalo Gals"; overfamiliar breaks, stabs, horn fanfares, and go-go percussion loops welded together in ways that advance on West End Mob only in terms of airless digital precision. 

Fresh ain't the word, in other words.