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!