Monday, 24 March 2008

IMPERIAL MARCHES OF SOUTH LONDON

I really think that the dubstep scene deserves to transcend its status as an underground “post-rave” cult and become a bigger cultural force, something that “ordinary” people actually know about, even if they don’t like it at all, just like the original strands of rave, techno and jungle. It just isn’t quite there, though, and I fear it’s because the days where anything was “there” are simply over, and all future strands of rave will have to survive as cultish scenes. Rave music will never be news like it was from the breakthrough of acid house and all the way up to the peak of jungle, because back then a lot of people – as well as the media – were caught by the very “newness” of it all, and it all seemed like a connected organism, the buzz of jungle was still somehow a continuation of the original shock and surprise when rave made its first impact and seemed like the next big thing, the new punk, or rock even. Sadly that didn’t continue for long, and in stead the countless factions became something only the devoted cared to follow. To most people, techno/rave nowadays is simply the arena trance sound, and that’s what people will go for if their rave just have to do the work, and not necessarily break new ground or challenge them.

In the light of this, I think it’s quite impressive how far dubstep actually have come, and how successful it is, not just with getting a big and more-or-less global audience, but sonically as well. And this is even more impressive when you consider how dubstep is being scorned by right thinking dance music theorists of all persuasions, accusing it of just about everything that can explain what’s “wrong” with it – that is: why they don’t feel it, or so it seems to me. To some, there’s all sort of reasons why it isn’t really a true form of rave music: It’s too self conscious, too theoretical, too derivative, too middle class, too many students in the audience, not lowbrow enough etc. etc. On the other hand, a lot of people are criticising it for the exact opposite reasons, pretty much like breakbeat hardcore was seen before it was redeemed: Too lowbrow, too primitive, too single-minded, too repetitive, too many meatheads in the audience, not deep enough etc. Take the infamous “wobblers”, the successful but formulaic dancefloor fodder routinely slagged of by dance connoisseurs. With all other kinds of DJ driven rave music, there seem to be a general agreement that it’s vital to have tons of records recycling and reworking the most effective ideas, being the gene pool for the slow scenius mutations as well as raw material for DJs to build with. With the wobblers, though, everybody is whining that they’re killing the scenes original innovative approach, dumbing it down so dubstep nights just feature a bunch of hard riffing anthems.

Not having been to many dubstep nights, I’ve no idea to what degree this is true. Maybe there is a lot of lame wobblers being played in succession, and I’m sure that’s something I’d find tiring in the long run. But then, I’d find a whole night of gabber or jungle anthems tiring, even though it’s some of my favourite forms of music. The point is that the anthemic approach is a crucial part of any vigorous rave music; it’ll excite those down with the core programme, and eventually result in some amazing long term innovations as well as some truly groundbreaking classics now and then, enjoyable for everyone else too. Unless you’re a dubstep DJ, you’re not supposed to buy all the wobblers, and unless you’re a hardcore devotee, you’re not supposed to love whole nights of them either. Basically, the wobble is the latest of a long tradition of genre defining innovations – the 303 squelch, the mentasm stab, the morse code riff, the chopped amen – immediately catchy and successful, initiating loads of copycats that’ll eventually come up with new variations and mutations. What the wobble resemble most of all right now, to my ears at least, is the amen break right before polymorphous beatcontortions and effect drenched cutting and splicing became standard with the peak of jungle. Back then, the majority of amen tracks simply had the sped up, slightly distorted break running throughout, without much dynamic or structural detail. And honestly, many of those tracks seem slightly dated and monotonous now, just like the majority of wobblers (or the majority of those I’ve heard, at least), while the tracks that anticipated the invention and complexity of fully formed jungle now stand out as the milestones of the “dark” hardcore era.


So maybe one day, hopefully not too far away (because if it’s too far away dubstep could simply petrify prematurely in the current shape), there’ll be a golden age where incredibly creative and exhilarating wobblers will be churned out in mindboggling numbers. I haven’t heard many tracks heralding such a new golden age yet, though, so it might never happen, but now and then there’s a wobble that’s just undeniably great and makes you think that there really ought to be tons of tunes build on that. Generally, the more melodically baroque and ornamentally freaked out the better. Not the mega-compressed one-note pseudo metal riffing, descended from the worst of techstep, but the ridiculously exaggerated twists and turns and firework-like explosiveness of the Prodigy/Hyper-on Experience/ragga jungle lineage. Not "Spongebob" and those headbangers, they might be ridiculously exaggerated, but they also seem unimaginative and inhibited, not really grabbing your attention or musical pleasure centres. The best wobblers ought to be in the great rave tradition of dancefloor carnival rides, and my favourite of 2007 in that respect is Bass Clefs irresistible “Cannot Be Straightened”, with its twisted horns, rattling percussion and insane bouncy-yet-stumbling bassline, like a giant rubber robot freaking out on a trampoline. Actually, the track has two brilliant basslines; first it’s a super catchy wobble-riff, then halfway it morphs into a constantly mutating rampage, giving the track even more mad energy. It’s like suddenly stumbling upon some far distant descendant of jump up jungle, if that genre had reached mutational escape velocity ten years ago, rather than a dead end.

“Cannot Be Straightened” appears on the album A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things, which I haven’t heard, as well as on the Opera-ep, which includes two other excellent tracks: “Opera”, a fast and precise arcade-wobbler (to coin a sub-style) and “Don’t ask me to forgive you”, which is simultaneously playful and lightly melancholic. None of it sounds quite like much else in dubstep, and Opera is a good example of one of the safest signs that a rave scene is in good health: There is a growing amount of excellent EPs, contrary to just white label 12”s, and often the individual records has a nice variety of tracks – some “anthems”, some moody “ballads”, some slightly experimental ones, and some in between. This is what made 2007 a really good dubstep year to my ears. The overwhelming feeling when realising just how many releases were coming out, and that so many of them actually were so brilliant that you had to choose which ones not to buy. In other words, I’m not sharing the general belief among scenesters that dubstep is getting stale and you’ll have to dig deep to find a few gems among piles of generic DJ fodder. Not that those piles aren’t there, but the gems are aplenty and all over the shop as well, and I honestly haven’t had that feeling from a rave genre since the mid nineties (I missed 2step you see, even though I’ll have to admit that, listening back to it now, I doubt I’d have felt particular impressed if I had noticed it then. Yeah, it’s clearly where grime and dubstep came from, but that doesn’t automatically make it good in itself, does it? It’s not that it’s bad as such, but I can’t really see why it’s supposed to be such a big deal – far too self-sophisticated and club-smart for my taste. But I’m digressing here, I’ll return to the topic some other time).

What’s really interesting about Bass Clef is that even though his style is very original and “different” from (what is usually thought of as) the dubstep norm, he still clearly belong to the genre. This is another indication that dubstep thrives as a rave scene: It allow the existence of slightly off-centre mavericks that doesn’t follow the rules completely, but still manage to make their own unique contributions to the overall movement, rather than being a kind of internal opposition to it. Other examples of this could be grime-tinged hybrids like Emalkay and Kromestar, Planet MU-electronica-steppers like Milanese and Boxcutter, the growing input from non-british producers who have come to the sound through different routes and with very different backgrounds, and of course Burials sorrowful dream-step.

Outside England, Germany have become a force to be reckoned with. Some claim this is because of the cross over potential of the minimal scene, but actually, it seems more like it’s the big German breakcore scene that have moved fully into dubstep territory. Three of the main breakcore labels, Kool.pop, Sprengstoff and Sozialisticher Plattenbau, all put out dubstep in 2007. Innasekts Structure/Core on Sprengstoff was a great 12” – the first track majestically gliding and melodic, the second coldly abrasive and noxious –, while Mackjiggahs On the Corner on Kool.pop was one of the most fully formed dubstep eps of 2007, managing to make dreamy/gloomy atmospheres, bouncy rhythms and straightforward tunefulness work together surprisingly well.

Not only Germany contributed to the international currents, even small countries like Denmark have entered. The danish label Kraken (brilliant deep-sea-mysterious name for a dubstep label!) put out one of my favourite tunes of 2007, Wolf Mans “Eyes of the Demon”, indeed sounding like the foreboding slow-motion invocation of an immense, abyss dwelling monster. The flip, Obeahs “Copenhagen Massive”, is slightly similar, but it also falls a bit too much into the most dangerous trap dubstep have set up for itself, the affected “authenticity” of digital dub pastiche. A similar problem appears on several tracks on the only french dubstep record I’ve heard, the compilation ep Dubstep Hors Series 3, where we’re once again treated to some horribly predictable melodica sounds. This is where I really think dubstep can fail: It’s supposed to be electronic music, and all sorts of weird and twisted sounds are available to the producers. Still they choose such lame clich├ęs again and again. Why? Well, because there’s a stupid feeling of dub authenticity to them, I’m afraid, and unfortunately there’s still a lot of producers who think they have to make their sound really “dubby”, or show some loyalty to the dub traditions, even though all the things that make dubstep exciting are those that separates it from any kind of “true” dub. I really think the best thing dubstep could do for itself would be to change the name and remove any direct reference to “dub”. I suggest substep in stead. All that said, the french ep did contain one of my favourite tracks of 2007, Cavates pompously brutal “Kobold”. It’s not really a wobbler, and its slow moody darkness is shamelessly pushing all the most obvious cyber-goth buttons, but that’s actually exactly what makes it so great.

Within dubstep, this stategy reached perfection with Vex’ds seminal track “Thunder”, and it clearly show the techstep roots – the good techstep roots, that is – in the monstrous bombast of Torque-era No U-turn. But further, it also goes all the way back to belgian hardcore (and ultimately to EBM and electro), the awesome invading-war-machines-slaughtering-humanity-stomp reminding me most of all of “James Brown is Dead” – a punishing robo-fascist drill that is also a gushing rapture, a celebration. This aspect of dubstep is pretty much overlooked, and places it in a completely different rave lineage than just the usual (and rather reductive) “continuum”. Right from the start, rave music have had this deep fascination with heavy totalitarian symphonics, and it have always been used euphorically, an immortal source of morbid jouissance where the aura of machine-army-invincibility creates a weird, demonic pleasure.
In this way, dubstep becomes a part of a long tradition of fascist imagery and para-mythology as a thrilling fantasy of dark power and primeval death drives – the reason endless documentaries on Hitler and the Nazis are continously churned out, the reason most power electronics have any kind of audience at all, and the reason everybody knows that the Empire is the real thrill in Star Wars. Dubstep-darkness is mostly on the Star Wars-level – cartoony and superficial –, and the comparison fits, because of all John Williams’ Star Wars music, the best piece is of course "The Imperial March", and that piece do indeed sound a lot like the most over-the-top dark and bombastic dubstep. It’s like there’s a whole sub-genre of processional marches, the grim pomp and circumstance of an imagined totalitarian empire ruling a future post-apocalyptic London. At its best it creates an exhilarating fascist euphoria that is not pathetically morbid like so much post-industrial noise, or ego-boosting like metal, but rather something like a self-effacing power trip, a gleeful celebration of the future cyber-despots as humanitys pure and rightful oppressors.


2007s best representative of this sound was Afterdark, releasing two brilliant EP’s that seemed to work with “Thunder”s regimented grind-stomp and noxious riffing more or less as a full genre in itself. I’ve no idea if they sold well – they certainly felt like deliberate attempts to supercharge an already in-demand sound – but they didn’t get any critical attention whatsoever. I can’t recall anyone talking about Afterdark anywhere, and yet those two practically unknown EP’s were among the highlights of 2007, reinforcing the impression of the dubstep scene as an organism out of control, churning out heaps of critically unrecognised scenious brilliance. Especially Infiltrate is a killer, two of the three tracks being potential doomstep-anthems, complete with soaring horror riffs, cheap sci-fi movie monologue and immense bombast. It’s the kind of thing that is generally seen as kitschy attempts to be serious and dangerous, and in a lot of ways it’s exactly what it is. But just like with the original darkside ‘ardcore, the cartoony quality is often a redeeming factor. This stuff is obviously not as dark and evil as it thinks, but it’s thrilling as pulpy sci fi: Total Recall to Burials Blade Runner, you could say. The tracks on the second Afterdark EP, Tags and Throw-Ups Vol. 3, aren’t quite as anthemic, more the kind of solidly built, hard-edged floor-fodder that is simultaneously generic and invigorating, and an indispensable ingredient in any healthy rave scene. Dubstep have a lot of that stuff, thriving on labels like Tempa and especially Boka, as well as the Dub Police/Caspa/Rusco-axis I guess – but I haven’t followed that one much actually. Theres just too much to keep track on.

Some critics bemoan the lack of rhythmic drive and groove in this pompstep, calling the crawling, listless plod regressive. Well, I agree that dubstep was much more rhythmically interesting in the beginning, when it still wasn’t altogether separated from grime and still contained highly unnatural, alien and bodytwisting syncopations, but even though I miss that aspect and hope it’ll make a return, I’d say that to think it disqualifies dubstep as rave is missing the point completely. Rave isn’t only about beats, it’s also about riffs, their sound and shape, and with this kind of dubstep it’s all about the hammering, fanfare-like riffs. Actually, it’s probably the first kind of rave that focus on this aspect entirely, and where beats are, if not actually absent, then practically irrelevant. I think that is a very exciting development, and it’s certainly as euphoria-inducing as many other strands of rave, even if it isn’t fuelled by a racing groove, and as such it’s a new and fascinating example of the odd shapes rave can take.

While the slow, lifeless anti-rhythms are pretty much unique to dubstep, the pseudo-symphonic processional marches are not. It’s an aspect that have always been a part of grime, and recently it have become more and more pronounced, especially on the instrumental records. At the same time, it actually seems like the only area where grime and dubstep still overlap, and where you get records that occupy some strange twilight zone in between. Take Kromestar; he’s mostly seen as a part of dubstep, but his 2007 mini-LP Iron Soul seemed much closer to current grime, with its clean, cheap-sounding production, triumphant plastic-orchestral riffs, and total of lack of towering bass-blubber. An exhilarating example of the pseudo-symphonic fascist euphoria found in so much dubstep, and yet the rhythms are much more strange, clattering and invigorating, much closer to grime. From the slightly 2steppy opener and B1s Nyman/Glass pseudo-minimalist strings, to the hysteric fanfares dominating the rest, Iron Soul could be a bloody masterpiece if it wasn’t for another thing it – unfortunately – shares with most grime, namely the ridiculous single-mindedness of the individual tracks. Most of them just oscillates between two basic riff-patterns all the way through, without any further developments or details.

A somehow similar sound, but approached in a much more varied and unpredictable fashion, is found on Jokers Kapsize ep, a great example of how inventive instrumental grime still can be. It’s like the next evolutionary step following previous grimestrumental mini-masterpieces like Davinches Dirty Canvas-series and Terror Danjahs Industry Standart Trilogy, records occupying the strange zone between dubsteps gloomy atmospheres and grimes futuristic stutter-funk, glued together by the synthetic fanfare-riffs shared by both. Kapsize and Iron Soul hint at what could be the most powerful way to forge a new and fertile electronic dance sound – combining day-glo catchiness with sci-fi doom and an immense physical impact, while simultaneously ditching the most annoying and regressive elements of each style; the attempts at hip hop or dub authenticity. In this way, and even though neither truly belong to the genre, Kapsize and Iron Soul emphasize that 2007 was a great, great year for dubstep, and as such actually also a year – one of the first in a long time – that made me optimistic about electronic music. If that optimism is grounded in anything, well, maybe 2008 will tell.

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Oh, and bassline? Maybe I’ll also get some kind of grip on what I think about that in 2008 – right now I’ve not really seen the light (a bit like with 2step, as mentioned above), but more on that later, probably.