Thursday, 4 July 2013

Exploring the poststep map - outskirts and enclaves

The most important point in calling post dubstep post dubstep – or just poststep – is that it is not a genre. It certainly is a lame name, and an exciting new genre should have a snappy, exciting name, but poststep is not an exciting new genre. It is an overall term, loosely connecting a whole swarm of exiting new developments, some of which qualify as genres in themselves (where I actually have suggested more or less snappy names: bitstep, hypergrime, wonkle??), while others are one-of-a-kind experiments. Which is the aspect of poststep that is exactly like post punk (in a lot of other ways it certainly is not, as I've argued several times). You could perhaps say that “post punk” is in itself not that snappy a name, but post punk was not a genre either. How is, say, The Human League, DNA and The Durutti Column examples of one genre? Rather, post punk was an overall term, loosely connecting a whole swarm of exciting new developments, some qualifying as genres in themselves (avant funk, synth pop, no wave), while others were one-of-a-kind-experiments.

This does not mean that you can make a complete step by step analogy between the two, but you can use the comparison to get a better understanding of what's going on right now, not least because it – hopefully – makes it clear, that this music should not be seen through the tired old “scenius/'numm” lens that have been used to judge dance/rave music for so long. Poststep is not scenius 'nuum music. If that's the only kind of contemporary electronic music you care about, well, fair enough, but then just leave it at that, it's not this musics fault that it doesn't fit your framework for judging something else. Which is where the post punk analogy becomes useful: How well would most of our beloved post punk fare if it was judged by the same “dance music”-rulebook that poststep is looked down at for not following? Not very well I'd say, post punk was certainly not “scenius” in the way the usual 'nuum ideals (acid, 'ardcore, jungle, 2step, gabber) were. On the contrary, most of it was self consciously intellectual, brainy, pretentious and elitist, often having formal deconstruction as an end in itself (being weird for the sake of it). Deriding poststep for these sins – i.e. for not living up to the noble, time honoured tradition of the 'nuum – is just like deriding post punk for not being real rock'n'roll. In both cases, the “inauthenticity” is the point, or at least a big part of it.

Given that poststep is not a specific sound or style, but instead a collection of related aesthetic strategies, most of all united by the drive to go on creating something strange and weird and unheard rather than accepting the general retromanic imperative of the times, one obvious problem do arise – and one that you will also face if you're trying to give a full, coherent description of post punk as well: Where does poststep stop and everything else going on right now begin? There's other forms of experimental music around right now, stuff that has some sort of relation to rave/dance-history, yet isn't exactly poststep - much like there was still highly experimental rock-in-opposition-style avant prog going on in the post punk years, as well as free jazz and an industrial-sounding electronics-and-sound-collage scene (Conrad Schnitzler and related travellers of the more abstract ends of krautrock). Those scenes couldn't really be called post punk – and weren't considered post punk – yet they shared a lot of aesthetic elements and the overall sensibility prevailing in post punk – the scenes even overlapped to some degree: Avant-canterbury-veterans like Robert Wyatt and Henry Cow/Fred Frith participated in the post punk milieu, while post punk artists like Pere Ubu and The Raincoats eventually approached a quirky, surreal prog style from the opposite direction; similarly with the new wave and electro-pop experiments of Czukay, Dinger and Schnitzler on one side, and the krautrock-fetish of Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound on the other; or John Zorn mingling with John Lurie and no wave - with Bill Laswell/Material somewhere in the middle.

The boundaries are similarly blurry when it comes to poststep: it's often rather unclear whether some current sound or style can be considered a part of the intermingled poststep ecosystem, or whether it's part of something else. A direct stylistic element of dubstep have nothing to do with it, just like there wasn't any stylistic elements of punk rock in, say, Ike Yard, Laurie Anderson or Young Marble Giants, it's something more vague, a sense of approach and attitude, of overall vision, and as a result, one persons poststep map may vary deeply from that of the next one. Personally, I prefer to make it very wide, while allowing huge parts of it to have separate identities of their own – much like industrial and synth pop are their very own things, with their own histories, while simultaneously being parts of the general post punk story.


Back in my first poststep piece I already touched some of the obvious grey areas as I tried to list all the distinct styles coexisting. One very straightforward example is what I called post hop, basically Flying Lotus-derived/J Dilla-esque downtempo hip hop gone weird and broken – sometimes hauntologically crumbling, sometimes elastically wobbly, sometimes 8 bit-colourful. The big question is where to draw the line between standard neo-downtempo and the real deal: How “weird” should it be to be more than just dull stoner-hop? There's no 100% clear border, some artists oscillate between regressive mush and brain melting brilliance from one record – if not track – to the next, and a lot of them annoyingly seem to have reached a style somewhere in-between; slightly twisted or ghostly, but not so much as to scare away the vast hordes of “blunted beats” consumers (and getting a piece of the cloud rap cake as well, perhaps?).  These are the most irritating; they're sort of part of the whole poststep thing, but not so much that they're really contributing anything relevant; rather, they're cluttering up that end of things.

With such unclear criteria and half baked practitioners, is “post hop” really (a part of) poststep at all, then? Well, given the polymorphous nature of poststep, I'd say it is, pretty much in the same way that synth pop “was” (a part of) post punk. Synth pop  was also a bit of an unclear case: it sometimes had just the right amount of futuristic sheen and angular funk to belong to the greater programme, but it was just as often a part of the most regressive end of the new pop movement, closer to straightforward new wave power pop or smooth neo soul balladeering. Both synth pop and post hop mix forward-thinking contemporary impulses (electro funk/disco and industrial-derived “subversivenes” in synth-pop; hauntological beat-decomposition and hyper-arpeggiated bitstep in post hop) with backward-looking elements that are, paradoxically, considered radical and edgy (producer-as-mastermind/pop-as-luxury-product, soul sophistication, cosmic-era sci fi synth-scapes, beat collages). The point is: Much of the synth pop/new romantics-movement couldn't really be called post punk at all, it was rather related to/intersecting with the British avant glam/art pop/mod tradition in much the same way as with post hop and downtempo, and yet, those parts that utilised post punk techniques and ideas to actually built something unmistakeably new eventually determined how we think of the style, i.e. very much as a crucial part of what made that era revolutionary. Of course, synth pop had the advantage that it was pop, and that making hits therefore was a crucial part of the game, so the best of it is still remembered as a sort of breakthrough-phenomenon. Post hop, being a much more esoteric and introspective affair, haven't got that pow-effect in its favour, but its greatest practitioners nevertheless makes it as crucial a part of the current poststep movement as synth pop was of post punk.


Another style being “part-of-poststep-yet-its-own-thing” that I talked about in the first piece was skweee, and it’s still brilliantly occupying this interzone. Back then I compared it with industrial, because industrial was also a genre that was a more or less isolated scene in its own right, but I’m not sure that comparison is all that fair, if for no other reason, then because skweee is simply a much better, and much more genuinely inventive from of music than the first wave (i.e. the post punk-era) of industrial ever was. As a post punk analogy, I’m increasingly thinking that the San Francisco scene is much more fitting, with its cartoony-creepy absurdist humour and grotesquely twisted stylistic elements from older musical forms, more or less foreign to rock (lounge/cabaret, childrens music). Skweee is equally weird, with an apparently fun-and-colourful sound that nevertheless seems oddly wrong and unsettling, its juicy synth-funk beats and quirky computer game melodies having an alien and inorganic quality. It doesn’t sound the least like anything from the San Francisco “freak scene”, but that’s the point: It’s the freakiness they share, the love of the grotesquely twisted and insidiously bizarre, rather than an actual sound.

That an analogy only goes so far (as I’ve stressed again and again), though, is made clear by the fact that outside of the shared “freakiness”, the comparison of post punk San Francisco and poststep Scandinavia is not very obvious: The San Francisco sound was mostly down to a few really big key players (basically The Residents, Tuxedomoon and Chrome), which to some degree shared an approach, but otherwise had their own personal sound. Skweee, on the other hand, is actually a great example of a “micro-scenius” genre. Even though there clearly are some indisputable leading names with recognizable takes on the style (Danial Savio, Limonious, Mesak), they’re not 100% unique entities in the way three big San Franciscans were. Instead, there’s a collective development within skweee; new names are joining and everyone’s swapping ideas and contributing, and it’s skweee as an overall sound that is idiosyncratic and unique and wonderfully twisted, and which occupies a place as crucial to poststeps jumbled cornucopia, as the San Francisco freaks were to post punk as a whole.


As for the “micro-scenius” angle, an even more obvious example is of course juke/footwork, something where I’m still on the fence as to whether it’s actually a part of (the broadest possible interpretation of) poststep as a vast genre-conglomerate, or whether it’s a completely isolated anomaly that just happen to have influenced poststep proper in a big way. You could point out that footwork is the result of a long localized development endemic to - and completely dependent on - a specific Chicago tradition, and that it’s exactly this isolation, this lack of influence from the global club community in general, and the London continuum in particular, that makes it special. On the other hand, something similar could be said of some of the most self contained and locally based post punk scenes, like Cleveland/Akron, Sheffield or No Wave. The last one is particularly interesting, because it actually seems analogous to footwork in some obvious respects - even though it’s obviously very different in others.

The roots of no wave and footwork - performance art/free jazz in one case, dance battles/ghetto house in the other - were quite different from the overall post punk/poststep movements, and yet both eventually became associated with those larger movements because they shared the overall attitude and approach. They both resemble outright avant garde in their sonic extremism and almost dysfunctional abstraction, but at the same time they're too visceral and primitivistic to really be “proper” art stuff. To begin with I thought of footwork simply as dance cultures equivalent to actual free jazz, in a lot of ways that seemed an appropriate analogy - footwork taking pure intuitive “body music” all the way into complete abstraction/fruitless extremism-for-the-sake-of-it, in much the same way free jazz took pure intuitive “head music” to the same lengths. Now that the scene has been noticed by the global beat-cognoscenti, though, some producers seems to work towards a broader, less hyper-functional style, in a way approaching something that resembles the same kind of fusion/hybrid-footwork that the worldwide poststep milieu is getting more and more obsessed with. And since no one would probably say that what DJ Rashad, Young Smoke or DJ Diamond is doing with footwork isn’t “real footwork”, it’s perhaps misleading to think of the style simply as the ultra abstract original version, apparently there’s actually a lot more room for complex and polymorphous structures than it seemed at first.

Consequently, footwork is perhaps, in the end, simply another part of the huge poststep family, an exciting new development going on right now, among many other exciting new developments going on right now, sometimes fusing with them or influencing them, sometimes being influenced by them, and sometimes just going its own way. Well, perhaps. I’m still not sure whether footworks relationship with poststep is more like the one no wave had with post punk, or like the one free jazz had (given that both comparisons are not eventually completely ridiculous, of course). In either case, the huge amount of footwork-influenced poststep fill up a place within poststep as well-established and diverse as the countless forms of post punk that took elements from performance art or free jazz, and used them for their own ends - Blurt, Rip Rig + Panic, late Pere Ubu, early Cabaret Voltaire etc.


The most intriguing and problematic poststep/not poststep area is what I last time called the “ghostly end of things - the grey area where poststep meld with hauntology and other post techno/post everything deconstruction strategies”.  Actually, this end of things is probably even more broad and unclear than that,  it could in theory be opened up to including stuff like Time Attendant, Bee Mask, Oneothrix Point Never or Ekoplekz, even though they all belong to an older, well established tradition, that mostly have remained completely indifferent to the dubstep revolution. I wouldn’t really classify any of those artists as poststep, but the kind of “experimental electronics” that they represent certainly intersects with stuff that I definitely do think belong to poststep. Again, there’s a very useful analogy to be found in post punk, and that is industrial. While industrial was definitely a part of post punks overwhelming impact - one of the many things happening simultaneously that, collectively, generated the feeling of out-of-control innovation and creativity pouring out of open floodgates - most of it was also its very own, isolated thing, grown out of an older and well-established experimental tradition, with multiple and tangled roots going from psychedelia and fluxus through the beatniks and all the way down to dada and surrealism - if not even further back. Industrial, and in particular the “defining” first generation (TG, Nurse With Wound, Whitehouse, SPK, Boyd Rice), was much more a product of that tradition and mindset than a reflection of the post punk times. Industrial would most likely have happened even if the rest of post punk - or punk, for that matter - hadn’t, it just wouldn’t have had the same exposure, and would have been a smaller, less noticed cult thing.

It’s worth noticing, that as industrial evolved, the name eventually covered more and more stylistic ground, without any unifying stylistic elements: The only connection between, say, Whitehouse, Nocturnal Emissions, Death in June, Test Dept. and Klinik, is one of aesthetic taste and approach, stylistically they’re different things. There’s plenty of industrial sub-genres of course (noise, dark ambient, neo folk, ebm), as far from each other as they’re from other kinds of music, and yet they’re somehow all lumped together under the larger “industrial”-label, simply because of the shared attitude (self importantly “dark and serious”, the belief that you’re one deep and hard motherfucker because you’re wallowing in gore, sexual “taboos” and the nastiest elements of human nature). Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a handy label connecting all the parts of poststep making up its equivalent to industrial, which is a reason why it’s hard to figure out what is what. A huge part of it, probably the majority, could, in one way or another, be classified as a part of the hauntology movement, but hauntology is a completely different beast as far as I can see, a conceptual approach a bit like the obsession with occult/magick/ritualistic practises that weirdly pervades much of industrial, without being in any way identical to it. (Is hauntology perhaps the occultism of futurism/modernism? Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?)

 

Anyway, to make things easier, I’ll cook up a name for all this stuff, even if it’ll probably end up being as unused as “poststep” or “bitstep”. Since pretty much all of this music is working with a sneaking disintegration of voices and rhythms, slowly dissolving and degrading sounds and structures, I’d say the connecting characteristic is one of entropy as an aesthetic element, and hence I offer entropic, entropica or entropical. The idea is not just to connect entropy and hauntology, but also entropy and tropical and exotica, hinting that this stuff isn’t necessarily dark or pallid, the chaos and disintegration of structure could just as well be seen as unstoppable polymorphous growth, the run amok tropical jungles of Ballards drowned world. Also, the entropic approach is first and foremost an approach, not a style, and while it seems a defining characteristic for entropic artists like Howse, Ital or Hype Williams, those artists are also quite dissimilar, much like the industrial artist were. And more importantly, the entropic approach isn’t just an “entropical” thing, it’s a set of techniques that have been around for a long time and which just happen to appeal to a lot of poststep producers in a lot of different ways (just like with industrials collage/cut up/ritual improvisation-techniques). It is techniques being used by obvious entropica producers as well as some from completely different poststep areas (bitstep, posthop), and quite a lot of artists that are close-to-but-not-quite-entropic - again mirroring post punk/industrial where artists like Factrix, Ike Yard or (early) Pere Ubu were either seen as, or pretty much sounded like, they could have been part of the “official” industrial program, but nevertheless weren’t.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the entropical/industrial analogy is that, even though both “genres” have come up with some brilliant and highly original music, they also contain some of the most regressive, backward-looking and retromanic elements of the larger contexts to which they belong, poststep and post punk. In both cases the point is deconstruction and subversion rather than innovation, and in both cases that goal is reached by using well known (if perhaps, at times, obscure) experimental traditions and techniques from the past, rather than creating something new ex nihilo. Even though the techniques were often used and combined in original ways, and even though the endless focus on “extreme” sickness and depravity somehow creates a defining feel for most industrial, there isn’t much of the music that haven’t been heard before if you’re aware of different kinds of far out psychedelia, avant garde (futurism, musique concrete, cut up collages, atonality, free improvisation), and, especially, krautrock (did the first generation of industrial ever do anything hadn’t already been done - and much better - by Cluster, Schnitzler, Faust and Tangerine Dream?). Furthermore, the styles that eventually developed directly out of industrials first wave were often pure retro stuff, mixing sixties pop, folk and psych with some “pagan” and “ritualistic” elements (already to some degree a part of sixties folk/psychedelic-counter culture). Not until the second generation, with Einst├╝rzende Neubauten and EBM, did industrial culture actually invent something new.

 

The elements going into entropic resemble those going into industrial in that they’re a weirdly mixed bag of pure experimental traditions (techniques of voice and sound manipulation found in anything from Stockhausen to the kind of minimal techno made more for art galleries than dancefloors), the weird indietronica intersection of electronic and dreampop (i.e. stuff like Boards of Canada, Mira Calix and Oval-derived dream-glitch, something that seems completely foreign to poststep, much like TGs elements of folk and cosmic psychedelia must have seemed to post punk), and not least the whole hypnagogig/hauntology-scene, that at least some entropica-artists seems to be deeply tied with. Interestingly, where industrial often didn’t do much more than recycle the ideas of deeply original predecessors, entropica often do the opposite: They somehow manage to get something original and new out of something - like hypnagogig or hauntology - that is at heart about recycling old stuff. 

Despite inspiring countless followers, the original industrial scene was composed of a few key players, whereas with entropica, there’s a huge amount of smaller names, again more of a scenius thing going on. Yet, I’d say that there actually IS one very obvious key act, seeming at least almost as central and definitive as Throbbing Gristle was for industrial, and that is Hype Williams. Highly conceptual, often with a deliberately “provocative” (if not “subversive”) agenda of “deconstructing” music as such, they seem more like an art project than an actual music group, and not least: their music is rarely as interesting or original as all the concepts and rhetoric suggests. Just like with Throbbing Gristle, Hype Williams seem mostly to use well known tricks and techniques, just used so “badly” (deliberately raw and sloppy) that it somehow comes of more weird and radical than it actually is. Like with Throbbing Gristle, Hype Williams music is nowhere near as good as their reputation would make you think, and even though it does occasionally reach a fascinating strangeness-on-the-brink-of-total-disintegration, their records - when heard as wholes - just come off a bit flat and underwhelming.  

Even though they’re not going to be seen as wreckers of civilisation (as nobody will anymore), Hype Williams have nevertheless managed to create a sound so woozy and lo-fi that talk about it being a pointless form-over-content-exercises or the emperor’s new clothes actually come up - and I guess that’s something of an achievement at a time when nothing otherwise seems able to be considered “too much” in this respect - perhaps a greater achievement than TGs scandals which happened at a time where it was still pretty easy to create shock and outrage. On the other hand, I doubt that Hype Williams will leave quite as great a legacy as Throbbing Gristle, because the interesting thing is that after they split, the projects that came out of TG actually made much better music than the mother group ever did (in particular Chris & Cosey, though Psychic TV were also often great, and Coil did the dark ambient thing better - even though they also made a lot of much less interesting stuff). So far, none of what I’ve heard from the solo projects of either Dean Blunt or Inga Copeland seem even remotely as promising.


As for the entropic part of poststep as a whole, the output so far has been much better than what the first generation of industrial came up with, perhaps because Hype Williams, despite being the most clearly identifiable figurehead, have not really been seen as a model or direct inspiration for the rest of the scene. Acts like Hav Lyfe or Lukid are clearly related to the Hype Williams sound (though both do it much better IMO, and Lukid also did it earlier), but then there’s records like Co La’s Moody Coup, an alien sound world where weird beats and disembodied voices fill hyper real CGI-vistas with digital spirits and inorganic tribal rhythms, or The-Drum’s Heavy Liquid, weaving labyrinthine voice-scapes into intricate and constantly morphing, yet surprisingly melodic, machine structures. And the more I listen to Ital, the less I understand why he’s sometimes said to make retro house; there’s certainly some elements of chill out/ambient house in his music, but the way they’re mangled and disintegrated makes it something new and strange, and reminds me most of all of the equally disorienting and decaying way Cabaret Voltaire mangled elements of sixties garage and psych on some of their early tracks. Would anyone call the early Cabaret Voltaire retro garage-punk?

There’s plenty of cases where it’s unclear where entropica stops and other forms of poststep begin, as well as where it simply stops being poststep at all, and once again this is much like with industrial. There’s the whole American Fade To Mind/Time No Place-scene (Nguzunguzu, San Gabriel, Fatima Al Qadiri), often overlapping with the Hippos In Tanks-crew and certainly sharing some characteristics with Co La or The-Drum. Is that entropica? Was Ike Yard or Implog industrial? Or Mark Stewart, Monoton or Dome? They sure sounded “industrial”. And then there’s the dreamy end of things, mostly centred round the Tri Angel-label and artists like Howse, Holy Other or Balam Acab, reimagining dream pop as gaseous voice-labyrinths, a bit like how industrial reimagined folk as occult ritual music. What about the brilliant new James Ferraro-LP Sushi? Unlike the deconstructive low fi/pomo-approach of most of his earlier stuff, this has a truly new and strange feel, related to both the unreal digital brightness of Nguzunguzu and Qadiri as well as the hazy dreamstates of Hype Williams. Fays equally brilliant (though much different) DIN LP is similarly caught between two worlds. Lots of weird voice science, but much more strict, spiky rhythms than with the rest of the entropics, and an almost pop-ish feel. And speaking of stricter rhythms - Actress does seem to fit in here somewhere as well - there’s certainly much of the hazy, disintegrated feel central to entropica in his music, even if the overall structure could just as well be click/glitch/minimal techno.


Things get messy when you try to map the entropic part of poststep, but industrial was equally messy, something that just happened to happen at the same time as post punk, without sounding - in its purest forms - much like what people usually think of as “post punkish”. And it’s worth noticing, that industrial was probably the only part of post punk that truly survived and thrived as the rest of the scene either collapsed or went “new pop”/goth rock. Perhaps because industrials constituting musical parts were older, perhaps more “universally” experimental than the other techniques flourishing in post punk, and therefore less tied to that specific era. The very same could be said about entropicas constituting elements, and in both cases this is probably also why both industrial and entropica doesn’t seem as fresh, overwhelming and relevant as the rest of post punk/poststep. And perhaps why entropica recently seems to make up a larger and larger part of good poststep, all while the activity on the rest of the scene have been slightly declining the last six months. If poststeps high tide is turning, it makes sense that the more universally appealing experimentalism of entropica will be what is going to remain, as industrial kept going in the mid eighties. The more familiar, agreeable forms of weirdness always win in the end I guess. The big question is whether the entropic milieu will be able to come up with stuff as inventive and groundbreaking as what the second industrial generation also had to offer: Will entropica get its own Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, or will it eventually create a bridge to a completely new future, as with EBM? Here’s hoping.