Sunday, 23 September 2012

Caught in the eternal present - more poststep

There has been a lot of talk about the lack of a clear genre name for all the stuff going on in the post dubstep territory, and as always people seem obsessed with the relationship between clearly defined stylistic signifiers and equally clear names for sets of signifiers sufficiently coherent to be seen as a style in itself. Whether the lack of solid styles with solid names is seen as a positive sign, suggesting a state of becoming, a not-yet-there flux just waiting to finally develop, or as an ill omen of a permanent, retromanic lack-of-vision where everything is half assed magpie microstyles, never containing anything forceful or groundbreaking enough to last longer than an instant, at least people seem to agree that this is somehow the crucial point. Which is a shame, because it get us stuck in the same old template for thinking about electronic (dance) music – i.e. whether  it's developing through organic step-by-step scenius interactions, as most people now seem to agree that it should, if it is to be classified as proper “authentic” street level electronic dance music.

Well, that's not how this stuff is developing, and that's a big part of what makes it great, and interesting. As a big fan of everything from acid to gabber to jungle to wobble, I certainly understand why that dynamic is important and fertile, but it gets so incredibly tiresome that it's always the way people are thinking about it, almost as annoying as rock critics using their old templates of auters and album statements to judge rave music. And it's why it's really a shame that post dubstep seem to be slowly disappearing as a catch-all phrase for this music (the snappier poststep never got a chance it seems), only to be replaced by the ridiculous and pointless “bass music”. Because what actually made it a truly useful name was exactly, as the post punk comparison should make clear, that this is not music to be understood like previous electronic dance music, or – and this is probably the most important point – as that music’s “listening” counterpart, was understood. The old rave/IDM-divide does simply not exist in post dubstep, the producers are not thinking in those terms anymore, they're making music that – on a track to track basis - might or might not be danceable, but it’s not a central part of the musics identity. Which is also why it is a misunderstanding to suggest that poststep is somehow the “new IDM”, even if it does fit that description in a lot of ways.

What proper, popular rave sound would post dubstep be in opposition to (or be leeching on), like with the old IDM vanguard and rave/hardcore/jungle? Wobble? Well, there's a small contingent of first generation “true dubstep”-heads that might fit this description, but they're more like detroit purists than IDM people really, and to the degree that they're actually part of post dubstep (rather than just, well, making die hard old school dullstep), they're a pretty negligible part. The rest seem either completely removed from wobble (neither defining themselves as opposition or trying to copy it), or, in a few cases, actually make wobble (Taz Buckfaster, Doshy, Akira Kiteshi etc.). What about UK Funky, then? Well, it's pretty much a small connoisseur scene, not a big popular rave form, and there's certainly no opposition between it and (most parts of)  poststep; I often find it impossible to distinguish it from the larger poststep-map – more and more I'd say it's similar to something like 2tone within post punk. Bassline? If there have been any relationship – hostile or parasitic – between bassline and poststep, I've never encountered it. Juke/footwork? See UK Funky, except even more so: totally not a popular rave form, actually pretty much an avant garde in itself, so the relationship between, say, Kuedo/Distal and juke is much more like the relationship between Contortions/Blurt and free jazz, rather than between Plug/Squarepusher and jungle. Plus, it actually seems like at least partly a two way connection.

What I'm trying to say here, then, is that not only is the stupid dance/”intelligent” divide something that only an old guard of electronic-dance-critics - plus perhaps a few younger ones schooled in that line of thinking - look for, while producers and listeners of the (post) dubstep generation doesn’t even seem to think, let alone care, about it, but it is also exactly why the lack of clear, sharp genre lines is not an indication of uncommitted, cheaply eclectic postmodernism. Rather, it signifies poststep as a polymorphous, constantly evolving mass of genre-goo, where that very characteristic – the morphing instability, the frantic drive to change and reorganise, is the core of the music, rather than a lack of core. Which is where – once again – the post punk/poststep analogy comes to the fore. Because really, isn't it odd that post punk is seen as this pinnacle of creativity and radical formal invention, when it was every bit as unfocused and incoherent as what is going on in poststep today, exhibiting the very characteristics – a myriad of momentary not-quite-genres, a fractured overall messy-chaotic aesthetic, rampant and bordering-on-dysfunctional mutations of frontline contemporary dance music – that are identified everywhere in poststep, except that there it's seen as the very proof of the scenes inability to be truly innovative and significant. It's tempting to call this a double standard, but most likely it's simply due to the historical perspective – rave history have conditioned rave critics to think in scenius terms, whereas that line of thinking has played very little role in relation to rock.

In addition to this, the huge differences between post punk and poststep as more overall zeitgeist representatives is obviously also part of the reason why the comparison is rarely explored, and the same characteristics is seen as groundbreaking innovation in one case, and as retro-regressive dabblings in the other. Post punk was loudly conscious of and outspoken about the fact that it wanted to be groundbreakingly innovative and have some impact on society, as well as just generally conscious and outspoken, really thinking about what it was doing and its relation to the world around it, and it wasn’t afraid to talk about that. Poststep doesn't seem to have any ambitions in this department, but perhaps this is exactly a reflection of the zeitgeist. After all, it would be pretty weird if there was a 100% matching post punk-poststep correspondence, considering that things have changed so much as they have. Rather, the amazing musical inventions of poststep could perhaps shed a little light on a rarely explored aspect of post punk, namely that its relentless formal creativity didn't just happen because a bunch of radical people wanted to create radical music – it also happened because it could, because the formal potential was there. Suddenly, vast stylistic possibilities – avant garde techniques more or less unexplored in rock, the ambitiousness and formal infidelity of prog - were up for grabs by the post punk do-it-yourself freedom and perpetually-change ethos. However, if all that had already happened before, no amount of will-to-be-radical would have made it possible to be as inventive with rock music ever again - as rock history ever since clearly shows.

With poststep, there's certainly an intent to invent, it's just not driven by the politically charged matter-of-life-and-death determination that post punk had, it's more like a stumbling and confused attempt to reflect the ever-fracturing, ever-reforming maze we're all stuck in today. Nevertheless, just like with post punk, the invention is happening because it can: huge untapped potentials have now suddenly become available, and as a result, the poststep aesthetic is just as weird and disturbing and plain now, as much a distorted and yet true reflection of our time, as post punk was in its time, whether it’s the synthetic surfaces (OMD, Japan, Rustie, Jam City) or the twisted mess underneath (Pere Ubu, The Pop Group, Burial, Dam Mantle), or everything in between. And the potential right now comes from possibilities opened up by the dubstep generation dissolving techno and rave-cultures age old dance/not dance-divide. Abstraction and complexity is not in opposition to popular physicality any more. Poststep certainly can be as chilled and un-physical as the most self-consciously anti-hardcore I-think-therefore-I-ambient-IDM/electronica (newer Kuedo and Zomby-stuff, the Tri Angle-label, if that counts as poststep), but the crucial point is that it doesn’t set it apart from - and isn’t meant to set it apart from - the rest of the poststep community, just like softer, more ethereal post punk records like The Raincoats Odyshape, The Flying Lizards’ Fourth Wall or The Durutti Columns LC, were still unquestionably part of post punks cornucopia of invention, even if they didn’t share the harshness and sharpness usually associated with it.

The point is perhaps best illustrated when comparing post punk with progressive rock: In a way post punk pretty much re-established the prog quest for stylistic experimentation and shattering of rocks established norms and boundaries, but any “official” connection with prog was definitely not a part of the program, it was rather something that had to be disowned by the practitioners, much like the current poststep vanguard is eager to stress their unironic love for every possible street beat style out there, thus trying to avoid being called “the new IDM” - something that would taint them with associations to drill’n’bass’ jungle-mockery or po-faced pseudo-academic click-scapes, and therefore something that has to be avoided as much as post punk had to avoid being called prog. And there are differences, of course, post punk wasn’t simply prog part 2, but rather progs artistic ambition reborn without the cult of technical difficulty, an experimental impulse driven by an emphasis on primitivism, roughness and open ended everyone-can-do-it avant garde strategies, rather than traditional “skills”. Which is pretty much mirrored in poststeps relation to IDM: Poststep might be brain-music, but it does not, unlike first generation IDM, assume that dance music is by definition not brain music, and thus something that has to be either rejected or “improved”. Instead, poststep recognises the potential complexity and strangeness inside dance music and uses it as a starting point for further experimentation, creating weird mutations by force, test tube anomalies that wouldn’t develop “naturally” by the usual ‘nuum dynamics, rather than using dancefloor signifiers as window dressing, like IDM did with drum’n’bass. In this respect, as much as a new IDM, poststep resembles a whole generation of the kind of outsiders that almost every popular rave scene always has (4 Hero, T-Power, The Speed Freak, The Mover, Oliver Lieb, Terror Danjah etc.), trying all sorts of stylistic experimentation from within. Except, of course, that poststep simply hasn’t got an actual stable rave scene to use as base.

If post punk cultivated stylistic flux and radicalism as a continuation of the (presumed) punk promise - permanent revolution as the only way to avoid the (presumed) seventies rock stagnation, as well as a way to fight the political changes of the time -, poststeps constant process of dismantling, deforming and reimagining the musical landscape, could be described as an examination of the future we’re supposed to live in, an attempt to analyze the hyperworld we were promised, or an exploration of the treacherous interzone between the illusory surfaces representing that hyperworld - the only thing we ever got -, and the ever growing instability and uncertainty underneath. This is perhaps neither as heroic or as easily recognised as the fight post punk was fighting, but it’s nevertheless a valid and necessary reaction to the world we live in. The world got cold and scary at the beginning of post punk, and as a result, post punk became cold and scary music. The world got woozy and fractured at the beginning of poststep, and that is what poststep sounds like (I’m generalizing massively here, of course, given that its exactly my point that neither post punk nor poststep can be summed up by univocal terms - there’s lots of post punk that isn’t “cold and scary”, just as there’s lots of poststep that isn’t woozy and fractured).

The big problem, of course, is that by the very nature of this fractured, timeless world, it’s almost impossible for the relevant stuff to be recognised, as it’s seen as just more of the endless, coexisting post modern micro-styles recycling the past (because now, unlike in the time of post punk, experimenting with and combining different elements from styles where you don’t “belong naturally” - as well as the very fact that you don’t belong naturally to a specific style at all - is deeply suspect and certainly mean that you’re just making another post modern amalgam). And even if this wasn’t the case, the mere amount of other stuff out there, right now, all the time, everywhere, means that even the most radical and groundbreaking poststep will, at least to some degree, be drowned out. Burial, Rustie and Zomby (and perhaps Flying Lotus, if we can say he belongs here) are perhaps relatively big names, but they’re still mostly for the cognoscenti, and their influence is almost non-existent outside poststep. In this way, poststep might reflect the zeitgeist, but it’s also, by the very nature of that zeitgeist, caught in its maze of distractions and equal irrelevance of everything, and therefore unable to change and challenge it directly.

Still, as soon as you start to recognise the subversive weirdness and dysfunctionality of poststep, you’re able to seek it out, and to reject all the stuff that is just regressing to safe, tried and tested forms. And to increasingly see our current world through this lens: Monstrous synthetic shapes simultaneously silly and disturbingly unreal, glittering cascades of time-debris and half-formed digital microorganisms, haunted mental landscapes where time and space is disintegrating, blending and caught in splintered patterns, propulsion and determination constantly eroded by stumbling, queasy disruptions and unstable  gravity. It’s there and it’s amazing, but it’s also hard to discover because there’s so few championing it as the powerful vision of now, (rather than just mentioning it along all the other stuff we like), and there’s so much else around. It’s an uphill battle for these artists, but even if they’re not winning the overall war, the fact that they actually have qualified cannon fodder to send into the all consuming black hole of now, is sort of a victory in itself.

Soon, hopefully, some more concrete examples of the amazing wealth of new poststep still pouring out right now!

Friday, 4 May 2012


So, the wobble end of dubstep have won, at least in terms of popularity and overall influence, and despite all the right knowing people saying that it’ll be over and forgotten in a few years. Now, it can obviously not go on being “the new thing”, but game changing new styles never can. Jungle, as the all commanding new order, was also over in 1999, but that didn’t mean it was forgotten, or its influence gone, and I see no reason why dubstep should be - hell, its developmental curve have been so much slower compared to nineties rave styles that it already seems like the current peak have lasted longer - isn’t it already something like five years now? - than jungles peak did (was that even four years?). Not that that’s necessarily a good thing, rather it makes dubstep look slightly less vibrant and uncontrollable, but it certainly makes it even more unlikely that it’ll be forgotten - soon it’ll have been a dominant electronic style (or family of styles, rather) - in one way or another - for ten years, that’s not something that’ll just disappear.

Anyway, it feels good that it went the way it did, wobble almost lived up to all the hopes I had for it, I love the way it pisses of all sort of old guards (within dupstep or otherwise), and the fact that its bloody everywhere, with tons of crap being pumped out. That’s how it should be, a sign that it truly have made an impact. I can’t say the current dubstep mainstream (“brostep”, or “EDM”, apparently) does that much for me, but then, I haven’t expected it to do so. Rather than bandwagon jumping drum’n’bass producers, the wobble aesthetic now seem to be fusing with electro house, to form a new all purpose rave music, much like punk rawness/intensity eventually ended up as a part of a wider “real rock” sensibility in the eighties. It’s all about the Skrillex/ Deadmau5-axis, of course, and while Deadmau5 doesn’t seem all that exiting to me, Skrillex is actually pretty good. Sure, he might not have that many tricks up his sleeve so far, and the electro house part of the equation is a bit of a drawback, but he’s nevertheless really good at using wobbles potential for catchiness and dynamics, redefining it to meet his own ends. It would be tempting to go all the way and see him as some sort of, I dunno, dubsteps Sex Pistols, but that would be taking it too far. Perhaps something like Metallica is probably a better comparison, if a historical comparison have to be made.

While Skrillex have made several great tracks, and while he certainly is ten times as exhilarating as venerable “dubstep legends” like Mala or Scuba, the best of the pioneering wobble tracks that paved the way for his current success are much greater, and deserve some exposure. And interestingly, even though a few of critics are waking up to wobble (still a minority compared to those mocking it as a degenerate fad), I have so far not seen anyone trying to create a guide to some of the best tracks around. So, I guess I should do it then, given that I’ve believed in it right from the start. Of course, given the scenius nature it will only be some of the best ones, I’m sure there’s a lot that I’ve missed. Also, it might seem a bit regressive to do it in terms of ten records, after all only a minority of wobble ever made it to vinyl. But I guess it’s showing the dedication of this supposedly short lived throwaway-music: Vinyl was probably absolutely unnecessary for the development of wobble, but it was still being made, the people involved in the scene had a strong enough sense of connection and belief in this music to want physical, enduring objects of it, no matter how inconsistent and functional it was conceived. So here you are, some of the greatest rave music of the last five years, ten immortal wobble objects for posterity:

Stenchman: 2MuchKet! (True Tiger, 2008)
The True Tiger-label was a significant player in the transition from early proto-wobble to the real thing, a transition that is almost complete here, with Stenchman being one of the first big names in the “filth” end of dubstep, complete with stoopid/”wacky” juvenile humour and a recognisable “sick” image – performing in a gimp mask and having a bit of a cow-obsession. All the things, in other words, that the old, right-thinking dubstep guard hated. “2MuchKet!” is still not quite as hyperactive and pompously extravagant as wobble would eventually be, but it’s a blast nevertheless, and the b-side is also looking ahead with “Dubnet”, an early example of the later fad of wobble cover versions (basically – taking a well known theme and playing it with tear out wobble bass, a joke that got pretty thin really fast), and “Cut in Half”, which takes the development of pure wobble-centric madness a couple of steps further than the title track. It would be the absolute standout track of the ep if it wasn’t for the lame and far too long joke-sample in the middle.

It’s interesting to compare
2MuchKet! with Sukh Khights equally awesome Born Invincible, a slightly earlier True Tiger release, which is arguably just exactly on the other side of the border between the minimally brooding early wobble and the real rave deal: it’s staunch and punishing, but not really letting loose with the unhinged derangement that makes later wobble so thrilling. In between them, the two eps creates a perfect snapshot of this crucial dubstep transformation.

Nevamis: Nevamis EP (Down South Dub, 2008)
Pure rave-step of the kind that uses wobble-bass as a massive, underlying propulsion throughout, but never as actual rhythmic or melodic focus. The wobble is there, deliciously heavy and rubbery, but the infectious, sky-soaring, almost hands-in-the-air-trancey rave riffs are the most obvious hooks. Not an example of the wobble aesthetic being cultivated on its own terms, in other words, but a brilliant demonstration that it can just as well be used as a catalyst for creating exhilarating new kinds of straightforward rave music.

Akira Kiteshi: Pinball (Black Acre, 2009)
With his fake japanese name and colourful sound, scottish producer Akira Kiteshi was one of the most promising of the early wobble producers, yet after a couple of minor anthems  (this being the best of them) he seemed to change strategy and went into more experimental poststep territory as A.K.Kids. Not a completely surprising development, given that “Pinball”, in all its freaked out rave madness, was almost dysfunctionally twisted, and had a sharp 8bit-edge not a million miles from the rave/poststep/bitstep-intersection (Eprom, Taz, Suckafish P. Jones), while the b-side, “Noglitch part 1&2”, pretty much went all the way into woozy, wonky territory. Eventually, perhaps stimulated by the Skrillex' succes, he have now returned more or less to the wobble fold with the Industrial Avenue-album, which contains some good tracks (both full on wobble and some more poststep-leaning ones), but nevertheless is a bit... well... uneven overall. The irresistible insanity of “Pinball” is still the best he's ever done.

Ebola + Face 2 Face: Galash (Lo Dubs, 2010)
An odd but really excellent EP where former breakcore producer Ebola remixes “Galash” by Face 2 Face – sort of a french afro-grime vibe combined with heavy wobble-sludge, and delivers three more tracks with an awesome combination of grumbling, grunting zombie rhythms and borderline-melodic bass-riffs, embellished with samples, rave-effects and 8 bit bleeps for good measure. It's not exactly your “archetypical” wobble, even though it's not that easy to put your finger on what gives it its unusual edge, but on the other hand, wobble is definitely what is. As such it's a brilliant example of the degrees of invention actually possible within the wobble aesthetic, at least at the time.

Downlink/Vaski: Biohazard/Zombie Apocalypse (Rottun, 2010)
Usually I'm not a big fan of the Rottun-end of the wobble scene, it always seemed to be the part of it most clearly just being contemporary drum'n'bass-producers joining the bandwagon, complete with painfully clich├ęd techstep-meets-heavy-metal graphics. Nevertheless, this split 12” is surprisingly good, with inventive, constantly morphing riffs and ridiculous, almost playfully pompous fanfare-melodies. As brilliant a mastery of rave dynamics as any.

Doctor P: Big Boss/ Black Books (Circus, 2010)
There has to be some Doctor P in this list, but I guess by now “Sweet Shop” is so ubiquitous that it doesn’t make much sense to choose that - it’s pretty much the wobble anthem. You’d think Doctor P would use his success to produce a heap of “Sweet Shop”-clones, but his output is actually pretty slim, with just two proper 12”s and a bunch of split records/collaborations/compilation tracks. Perhaps because of this, the quality is really high, the “Sweet Shop” b-side “Gargoyles” is pretty much just as good as the hit itself, as is both tracks here. All remnants of “proper”, brooding half step-dubstep are completely gone, and instead we’re treated to a rollercoaster ride of catchy melody shrapnel, constantly interchanged with hysteric midrange-noise and bleep cascades, and driven by an almost rock-like beat that is so straightforward that it’s practically unnoticed. As rave, and as now, as it gets.

Borgore: Borgore Ruined Dubstep part 2 (Buygore, 2010)
I’ve always wanted to like Borgore, I love how he goes out to deliberately annoy the old guard of “real dubstep” defenders and even takes pride in having “ruined” the sound (all in the punk/“it’s just not music”-tradition), and it would be great if this guy, so universally hated by all the right thinking people, was actually great. Sadly, as a wobble producer, he is often a bit mediocre, his riffs not really different from any other run-of-the-mill-wobble-producer, and what have mostly made him noticed is his overall funny/“provocative” image, which, except for the dubstep ruining part, is actually pretty lame. The predictably ironic gangster/misogyny-image have never really been that funny, and by now it’s such an old and tired trick that it’s utterly embarrassing. Still, Borgore at least made one really great EP, so he can be included here, as he really ought to. 

Interestingly, what makes Borgore Ruined Dubstep part 2 great is not in the full on wobble department that most people associate with the guy. The A side, “Kinder Surprise” - a collaboration with Tomba - is a nice enough metallic wobble attack, but not exactly exceptional. Instead, it’s the two, slightly poststep-ish b side tracks, “Afro Blue” and “Money”, that really makes the difference. They’re still using typical wobble-tricks (mostly melodies being played with those tearing mid range sounds), but at the same time they’re doing completely new and unexpected things with them. “Afro Blue” is a really unique track, almost a sort of wobble torch song, but not in the usual pop sampling sense: Instead it uses an odd, dragging melancholic melody (not completely unlike those amazing early Darkstar-singles), oscillating between introverted sadness and explosive mid range aggression. “Money”, on the other hand, is almost a sort of circus-wobble, combining a cartoon-silly (and irresistibly catchy) 8 bit melody with metallic grunts and ramshackle beats (plus annoying ironic rap at the beginning, but that’s easily ignored). Intriguing to ponder what would have happened if Borgore had dedicated himself to this style instead, seems a bit like a lost potential.

Tomba: Brace for Impact EP (Buygore, 2011)
Interestingly, Borgores much less know co-conspirator Tomba did the pure, full-on wobble-horror much better, at least on this little gem of an EP, a tour de force of hyperkinetic riffs and all sorts of thrilling rave tricks. The title track is overflowing with almost trance-like euphoria, “The Goblin” is all metal-gothic gloomcore-pomp, while “Seven” is the greatest example I’ve heard so far of the weird pairing of smarmy pop vocals and punishing power-wobble - something that have become increasingly popular all over the scene the last couple of years (and which is, of course, a big part of Skrillex’ sound). In particular, the ep excels at the “grunt-step” wobble variety, like a horde of towering, Godzilla-sized pig-robots marching through a nocturnal megapolis, crushing everything in their way while puking out cascades of green ooze through writhing hydraulic cyber-snouts. I guess people who look down upon this stuff - which is ridiculous to be sure, but also so far out and exaggerated that it’s absolutely exhilarating - deserve their boring retro garage.  
Silent Frequencies/Document One: Game Over EP (Neostep, 2011)
A split sitting somewhere between the overly melodic style of the Circus-camp and a more straightforward wobble architecture, and the result is just incredibly great. Especially the two Document One tracks are arguably some of the best, most thorough rave I’ve ever heard, in any genre, as relentlessly inventive and explosive as anything by Hyper-on Experience or the early Prodigy.

Tim Ismag & Ibenji: Shock Out/ Choose Your Destiny (Wicky Lindows, 2011)
I could fill half of this list with Wicky Lindows-records, the label have put out an impressive series of releases which combine the most catchy and hard hitting wobble-tricks with some of the most ridiculously bombastic and complex arrangements out there. 'Nuum-purists would sniff and dismiss it as busy, inauthentic pseudo-rave, as “fake” as IDM-drill'n'bass, unlike the “true” and “real” sound of the “streets”. Even the label name, referencing Aphex Twins “Windowlicker”, seems to make this point. But I've never bought the idea that 'nuum music should be “real” and “true”, that's the kind of rhetoric used around the most mind numbingly dull legacy detroit techno, and whenever I hear it used I know there's a good chance that the stuff being defended (“real dubstep”, retro garage) will be hopelessly boring and tasteful, while the stuff being attacked could very well be fun and exciting, which is just the case here. 

The Windowlicker-reference makes sense in a completely different way: That track came out in 1999, and for a lot of the current wobble-step producers, it might simply be one of their first exposures to far out electronic madness. Sure, it was sort of a parody, but if you didn't know the context and history, and just was exposed to it out of the blue, it might very well have seemed world shattering (and the “real stuff” would perhaps seem a bit pedestrian if you only came around to it afterwards). As always, it's a sign of health that new generations doesn't have a submissively humble relationship to the great (real or imagined) ancestors, it's moving things forwards that they don't know the “right” classics and don't try to pay homage to them. And in any case, the element of insane, unhinged bombast and complexity have always been a part of rave music: With machines you don't have to be a prog virtuoso to make that kind of over-the-top stuff, anything can be done, so why not go all the way. In this way, the best Wicky Lindows-tracks remind me (again) of Hyper-on Experience, not by sounding like them, but by having the same sort of mad, exhilarating inner logic, a paradoxical combination of locked-on-target-linearity and constantly morphing, ridiculously baroque structures. This one is a great example.