Thursday, 3 August 2017

hidden reflections of a dysfunctional world

If a golden age of musical originality and innovation happens and no one builds a movement and narrative around it, did it actually create anything new? Did it even happen? The last 5-8 years I've done my best to argue for and document the existence of a golden age of deeply original, shockingly new electronic music being made in the wide field opened by dubstep – hence using the overall term poststep. Apparently, though, very few seem to feel the same way. Arguably people like Adam Harper or Joe Muggs are to some degree on the same page, but mostly the consensus is that for the last, what is it now, 20 years I think, electronic music (as well as all other music) has been stranded in an endless wasteland of not being the ideal, shock-of-the-new-delivering frontier of cultural innovation.  

First and foremost, this considered a symptom of the postmodern “end of history” declared by neo-liberalism. If the dizzying development of music during the 20th century is the very manifestation the human spirits thirst for the future, its visionary will-to-re-imagen, to grow and develop, then the lack of anything new, the endless, retromanic harking back to older forms for inspiration, obviously expose our current inability to imagine any alternatives – let alone a future being different from the present. But in that case, shouldn't we perhaps expect music to start moving again, now that the end of history is clearly over – indeed, shouldn't this already have happened? As far as I can tell, it hasn't. Or rather: In the last couple of years, music hasn't begun to move forward any bit more than it has done the previous 5-10 years. The twist, of course, is that I happen to be one of the few people who think, within electronic music at least, that those 5-10 years actually offered a cornucopia of musical invention, originality and brilliance fully on par with the progressive period of late sixties/early seventies or the post punk years, and close even to the early nineties golden age of rave-derived electronic music.

With last year being a kind of return to form for the poststep musical frontline, after a couple of years with a slight lull, I'm not quite sure if the golden age is still going on, or just offered a last outburst, but the interesting thing is that this doesn't change how things are seen, or can be seen. If you're in the camp arguing that everything is completely, retromanically stuck and doing nothing but recycling the past, then I see nothing happening now – and that hasn't already been happening the years before – that should make you change that point of view: Music hasn't suddenly started to be a way for todays youth to address and tackle the graveness of the times, despite living in a world that is seemingly falling apart. If, on the other hand, you've thrilled to the amazing stuff created from, say, 2008 to 2015, then you could still get just as thrilled in 2016. Perhaps this is a clue to what is going on: Not just that the feeling of being in a golden age or in a wasteland can be how the same music is simultaneously interpreted by different people, but also that these divergent interpretations might seem just as valid to both parties even though the zeitgeist is changing violently. You'd think it would change everything – that's how it's supposed to go – but apparently not.

So why is that? Well, there's obviously many different layers to this, but I think crux of it all is that something is indeed missing: Not the ability to create new and inventive stuff, but the ability to recognise new stuff – somehow were getting more and more unable to feel the thrill of the new, even when directly confronted with it, and as a part of this: We seem unable to construct the surrounding narrative of innovation and upheaval necessary for this. Which is why we're not getting that narrative even now, when it would seem bound to pop up. Remember how it was possible for a lot of people to take even grunge as some kind of forward-pushing “movement”, despite being largely a media construct, and practically consisting entirely of reheated rock leftovers? Even if there weren't any even remotely new music around now, it certainly seems like it should be possible to construct narratives of boundary-pushing musical subcultures in the current political climate – but alas, it hasn't happened, even with actual boundary-pushing music around.

The narrative of endless retro-stagnation has become so internalized that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy by now – the very lack of anything truly new is pretty much presented as established fact by most leading critics, of which the best, most convincing are most likely Simon Reynolds and the sadly late K-punk. With the latter, cultural stagnation was an integral part of his Capitalist Realism-analysis, and it certainly makes sense: In a culture unable to even imagine the world being different, how is it possible to create something new? If a culture has completely internalised the notion that all it can do is pick n mix the riches of the past, how can it do otherwise? Well, first of all, I think it's pretty clear that a lot of electronic artists actually don't accept that recombining previous innovations is all they can do. Instead, they’re often very actively looking for strange new openings, trying to make something “fresh” The way hordes of hipster beatmakers immediately and eagerly tried to utilise (and twist) the innovations of more “authentically” grown styles like wobble, footwork and trap, clearly shows the thirst for something novel, and the sheer, almost exhibitionistic delight many producers took in creating unrestrained-bordering-on-dysfunctional musical weirdness suggests that it was crucial for them to pledge allegiance to electronic music’s heritage as the frontline of innovation.

If anything, I think many of the producers of what I've been calling poststep were fighting a desperate battle to prove that they were indeed still making new things, not least because they were constantly told not only that they weren't – as old farts have always told young turks creating genuinely new stuff – but, more crucially, that they simply couldn't, that it was historically impossible! And as a result, you often get the impression that they didn't even believe themselves that what they were doing was as amazing as it was, they never got into celebratory mode, never rode a crest of victorious excitement. Instead they constantly had to fight, never able to prove to the retrologists that they were creating the shockingly new, and consequently, they were never allowed to feel that what they did was exactly that. But, you might say, if it really was so great, shouldn't they simply be able to not care what the old farts were thinking? Well, this is where I think the suffocating effect of the end-of-history mindset sets in – I'm not questioning that it's there –, it's just that its result is not in an inability to create something new, it results in an inability to recognise and believe in newness, to be exited by it and letting it ignite a broader, culturally significant movement.

At this point, I suppose I should probably try to back up my claim that an abundance of thrilling newness actually was created during the last 5-10 years. How do you really determine how “new” or inventive a piece of music is – after all, even though I hear some music this way, many others clearly don't, so it's obviously not enough just to listen and say whether you think it “sounds new”. Specifically, Reynolds actually did listen  to some of the stuff I've been raving about, but even though he did find some of it exciting, he couldn’t “quite hear” the formal originality that had been blowing me away, deeming it basically just a combination of existing things. Obviously, the sensitivity to whether music has reached mutational escape velocity can be very differently calibrated, but the question is why

A possible critique of Reynolds is he is obviously, at least to some degree, a man with a theory he wants to support – if his conclusion is already that things are not moving anywhere, he might very well scrutinise anything
supposedly delivering something new, deliberately looking for the recognisable, pre-existing elements (which all music obviously contain), while at the same time underrating the things that are different from post forms. I suppose this is why it took him so long to recognise the new thing going on in dubstep, for years maintaining that nothing really was going on, until it eventually became undeniable with full on wobble. Similarly, his critique of the new wave of “art grime” seems weirdly to mirror “real punk” evangelists moaning about middle class art wannabees not keeping it real, making pretentious (and, I’d certainly say, “superficially jagged and challengingly ugly”) art rock – as he himself describes in Rip It Up, where he's fully on the art-wankers side. But grime shouldn't be abstract or emotional or have any other kind of arty pretentions, because the style is by definition meant to be raw, functional backing tracks for MCs delivering its one true essence - its street cred approved will to succeed, to break in to the pop mainstream and take over. Heaven forbid that anyone would think of doing anything different with this music.

All that said, I think it's not so much a matter of deliberately ignoring evidence contrary to the retromania hypothesis, but more of being a victim of the same internet glut that is usually seen as the reason young people can't create anything new: Having all of music available all the time, they're simply stunned by too much inspiration, as well as by the feeling that everything has been done before. But why shouldn't the same be the case with critics? If by 1980 all you had heard before had been mainstream rock and pop, it would be easy to get blown away by Pere Ubu, DNA, Cabaret Voltaire and the early Scritti Politti, thinking it must be the most insanely inventive, radical stuff ever. If, on the other hand, you were already familiar with Conrad Schnitzler, Faust, Henry Cow and the early Red Krayola, then you could certainly say that the new stuff of the post punk years wasn't really that new - that is was a combination, not a direction/mutation. I'm not saying post punk wasn't an amazing cornucopia of invention and originality, but it certainly must seem much more mind blowing and shockingly new if you haven't heard the predecessors. Personally, I clearly remember being deeply underwhelmed when I finally got around to hearing Throbbing Gristle and Suicide – often not easy stuff to obtain in pre-internet days. As someone well acquainted with Schnitzler, Schulze and sundry electronic avant garde, these legendary artists sounded slightly poor and uninspired by comparison.

This is further illustrated by the way K-Punk use music to argue for the overwhelming cultural stasis under capitalist realism, here taken from “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”-essay:
 ...faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back to, say, 1995, and played on the radio. It's hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listener. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.

I think there's both a correct and an incorrect assumption here, with correct one probably being the best demonstration of why I think the overall conclusion is misleading. First the incorrect one: It is simply not right that you could take any record from 2012 and play it in 1995 and it wouldn't sound weird, new or unrecognisable. There was nothing in 95 that sounded like what Jameszoo, Starkey, Montgomery Clunk or Jam City were doing in 2012 – to take just a small selection of that year’s most original posstep riches. But, some might counter, all that is just, like, updated IDM or hipster club-music – not essentially different from the original strands of IDM and experimental techno already developed by 1995. Well, perhaps, but only in the same way that post punk was basically just updated fringe art rock and avant garde electronics – not essentially different from the original strands of astringent prog, kraut and cut up experimentalism. In both cases, you can identify the tradition and the predecessors – if you know them – but that doesn't mean that things are the same, or that it isn't blindingly obvious that this is new stuff. You can find lots of dysfunctionally weird beats and mangled soundscapes in nineties IDM, but again: None of them sounds even remotely like the fractured syncopations and hyper-coloured structures of the aforementioned 2012-artists. Or at least, if anyone does, I've certainly never heard them.

Of course, you could probably take most current or 2012 mainstream pop records and they wouldn't seem particularly weird in 1995, just as you could take a lot of different underground music – both rock and electronic – and it would be almost the same in 2012 as in 1995. But then again, you could also beam back the majority of mainstream 1993 pop, as well as a huge selection of underground music (indie rock, chill out/ambient, house, early minimal techno), and it would be readily recognised by the people of 1989. Heck, a lot of it would certainly make people 17 years earlier wonder how so little could have changed. Just like the forefront of the current deliberately-trying-to-be-new stuff is more or less unknown to the vast majority, so was most jungle and rave music in 1993, to say nothing of the most out-there post punkers in their heyday. It's connoisseur stuff. Sure, sometimes it really crosses over into wider audiences, and most people will know about it, but it doesn't mean they listen to it regularly, let alone feel any particular future buzz (rather, it's often something like: “is this absurd noise really what people call music these days?!”).

I happen to work with a lot of teenagers, and there's a contingent of them into electronic music, which basically means the omnipresent EDM-trap-sound. This is perhaps the most recognisable current trend - even something a lot of people seem to know about - and not something anything sounded like in 1995. It just doesn't mean that it's what everybody is into or acknowledges as “the new thing”. By far the majority of the teenagers are basically into rock and pop, r'n'b or metal – just like they've always been – and just like they were in 1993! Sure, everybody knew about techno back them, but most people (perhaps except some places in Germany) sure didn't care for it. Where I came from, there was an OK rave underground, but it was miniscule compared to something like the indie rock underground or the metalheads. Even now, when people talk about what happened the nineties, the talk about either eurodance, or, if it's supposed to be “real music”, goddamn grunge. And when jungle broke through shortly after, it was hardly even recognised outside of England. Perhaps if you lived in London, you could feel that you were living through an incredible golden age of invention, but the rest of the world didn't notice until it filtered out through adverts and David Bowie.

To feel that you're living in an age of exhilarating future shock, you have to be both open to the shock of the new, and you have to actually encounter it. Certainly, a lot of people encountered jungle in it's heyday, but even more people didn't, and if they did, it was only fleetingly, and not something that made them think of the first half of the nineties as a pinnacle of musical innovation. However, the point is – and this is where K-Punk was definitely, unquestionably right – the first half of the nineties was a pinnacle of musical innovation. It's just that to see it, you have to focus on the places where that innovation was taking place. And if you're part of that place – even if it's only as an observer –, you're most likely not even aware that you're focussing on something most people doesn't see or care about. Yet, when you do focus, when you're aware of the unbelievable speed and wildness of the evolution going on, its magnitude is overwhelming. 

Which is exactly why K-Punk’s example is correct, but also misleading with regard to the argument he's making, because nothing is really comparable with the incredible, Cambrian-explosion-like blast of creativity that in just a few years brought forth just jungle, but also bleep, gabber, trance and first generation IDM. But jungle is of course the ultimate example of hyper-accelerated musical evolution, of something so shockingly new and unprecedented that it's practically unrecognisable. Well, to be fair, even without following the development of jungle in real time, when I eventually heard it I could certainly hear that it came from Prodigy-style break beat rave, which again I could recognise as being somehow based on sped up hip hop beats. But that doesn't change how unbelievably, unquestionably new and forward-thinking jungle truly sounded (the early Prodigy too, come to think of it) at the time, for someone thirsting for the newest, most futuristic music around.

It shouldn't be surprising that the musical developments of the last 20 years are not on the same level as what is arguably the greatest eruption ever of musical innovation, in the shortest possible time. Heck, the 20 years from, say, 1965 to 1985, doesn't really compare. Sure, an amazing shitload of innovation took place, but was anything really as jarring, as incredibly different from anything going on before, as jungle or gabber? Well probably many would disagree, but then, the point simply is: The poststep innovations made from something like 2009 to 2014 were maybe not as great as those made in the first half of the nineties, but that is a bar so high that not passing it is absolutely not a proof that nothing exhilaratingly new happened. To return to my favourite comparison: The post punk years yielded an amazing amount of newness, but almost all of it within already established traditions of experimental rock – just like poststep has come up with an equally overwhelming abundance, and almost all of it within established traditions of experimental electronics. Even if we take everything going on in account, including electro and full blown wobble-EDM, neither the postpunk nor the poststep era delivered anything as radically new and game-changing as the inventions of the early nineties rave scene.

What the most inventive post punk and poststep had in common, is that a lot of it was self-conscious experimentalism, art-for-arts sake, weirdness as a goal in itself. And listening to the music, I simply can't hear any evidence that postpunk was more successful on those terms than poststep. Take the most original postpunk creations, whether in terms of pure, extreme abstraction (say, No New York or Voice of America), or in making wild innovations workable components of highly listenable new pop hybrids (say, Remain in Light or Chairs Missing), and I'd like to know what actual musical elements made them more new and revolutionary, compared to the experimental music that came before, than the Zomby ep, Sich Mang's Blwntout, Slugabed's Ultra Heat Treated or Krapfhaft's First Threshold. That the post punk classics are seen as more successful on those terms, though, is abundantly clear. The four mentioned postpunk records are considered classics, and know to everyone interested in rock and pop history. The four poststep records are virtually unknown. But rather than drawing the conclusion that then they obviously didn't offer anything sufficiently original or interesting to make them milestones, can anyone actually point out the in-originality? What previous music is sounding so alike these poststep records – i.e. much more alike than the postpunk artist were alike their predecessors – that you could argue they're just making small adjustments to or combinations of already established forms? I can't find it, and instead I think it's more relevant to search for a reason for why the originality of poststep is unacknowledged, than to claim that it simply isn't there. 

Perhaps the history known to future generations will only be the history written by the winners, but the history written while it is happening is also written by the believers – who might eventually become winners, determining how we understand the past. Rock history is a prime example; once seen as primitive, juvenile trash, its history is now considered an important subject with its own priesthood of serious critics. And, paradoxically, the believers who eventually became winners – critics like Bangs and Christgau – reversed the values so that the juvenile primitivism became the hallmark of rock authenticity, what separated the “good taste” of true rock from what is ridiculed as tasteless, self-important trash, like prog, goth or stadium rock. In the postpunk heyday, though, that was still a revolution in progress, and if you weren't part of the theoretical front line (like the British music magazines), you might not even have noticed the fights going on. New pop might have reached the national charts, but how many “ordinary people” - i.e. not music nerds -living in the post punk years had actually heard about The Fall or The Raincoats, Pere Ubu or The Contortions? Even Joy Division was mostly a cult group (though the cult was certainly huge), as they remain today, even despite critics talking about them like it's an established, scientific fact that they were bigger than The Beatles, and at least as important – much like Nick Cave, who apparently, in their minds, is the pinnacle of human culture. 

When I recently read some old issues of a local film magazine, during the postpunk years also covering music, its rock critics acknowledged that, sure, some slightly new things were going on, but they clearly weren’t thinking they were living in some golden age of unrivalled innovation. All rock music was analysed and understood through the lens of what had gone before, and was more or less classified within established traditions, developed in the sixties and early seventies. They had the same music available as the believers of the British music mags, and yet, they weren't feeling shocked by the new, even though it was staring them in the face. Had the believers not existed, would we, today, recognise postpunk as golden age? And even though everybody now recognises some “important” central names – Joy Division, Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, The Human League – would people interested in rock history recognise those groups as just the most recognisable trendsetters in the otherwise amazingly complex, interwoven cultural upheaval described in Rip It Up, if it wasn’t for an über-believer like Reynolds? And interestingly, while Reynolds' believing sort of managed to change the focus of dance music history from singular, crossover-prone artists to the runaway inventiveness of intensity-seeking rave scenes, that shift still only happened within dance music fandom. Mainstream (popular) music journalists are still centred around “authentic rock history”, and still don't recognise that anything really happened in nineties rave culture. Sure, they'll grant that a whole heap on new dance genres emerged, but how “new” were they really when they were constructed from samples of old music? And besides, it was just dance music, just flashy fads, not dealing with important issues of the human condition – such as being an angsty, horny teenager – like rock music.

To those not invested in music, postpunk was no more an age of future shock than the present. The majority of mainstream music journalists most likely recognise it as such, and yet they don't see the golden age of rave music, K-Punks crown example, as a time of particularly future shocking music. The believers, of course, know that it was, but so far, their cause hasn't won, hasn't shaped mainstream music history. Is it because there aren't enough of them? I don't think so, it seems all kinds of nineties underground dance music has huge web communities. But perhaps that is exactly the problem: Everyone can find a group of likeminded fans, but as a result there's no need to fight for the cause in a broader public framework. Before the internet, you had to become a believer and fight publicly for the stuff you loved, if you wanted to see it succeed and prosper, and if you wanted to find anyone to share your passion. Column inches were limited, so if you didn't push your favoured genre, they would go to lesser, unworthy contestants. Now, the problem is the reverse; you can write endlessly about whatever you want – as I've been doing here – and it will make no difference. Who has time to explore, let alone discuss, unfamiliar stuff anymore, when there's already a near infinite amount of discussion available about the things you already love?

I think it’s pretty obvious that this is a part of the reason why poststep doesn't have the believers necessary to make its incredible abundance of invention and originality recognised. There's no need to be zealous when you apparently are able to reach your goal – find the community and recognition you seek – right away. But it's not the whole reason, because shouldn't a poststep believer have a bigger goal than that? Shouldn't the current producers have the same zeal to conquer the world and let everyone know that they are the future as the rave and postpunk (and prog and rock) believers had? Regardless of whether the stuff you make actually do change the world in any significant way, you should still be convinced that it will, that it has to. This is missing now, and the reason it's easy to think nothing new is truly happening – poststep producers (and fans) should by all means be backed by an unyielding belief that the music they love IS the future, IS the most out there, radical, new shit around, but they simply don't. The end-of-history narrative is so internalised, the ubiquitous presence of the past so suffocating, that they're simply unable to believe. When you see reviews of new electronic records, you'll very often have the critic trying to excuse that the music isn't some kind of completely unheard new genre created ex nihilo, say that 'yes, it is admittedly built upon elements of this or that genre, but yet it isn't just a rehash of past stuff, because there's these original touches here and there'.

Now there's obviously plenty of records that are indeed just recycled older styles with a more or less insignificant veneer of contemporary hipness, but the strange thing is that this need to explain that something actually is delivering something new is even felt when dealing with stuff that, by all reasonable accounts, are indeed deeply original and forward-thinking - I've done it myself plenty of times. Remember how Kuedo's Severant was basically considered a retro record, its claim to newness only slightly redeemed by its use of footwork and trap-elements. Despite the Vangelis influence being very clear, though, Severant didn't really sound like anything made before – the fusion of cosmic synthscapes and miniaturized ghetto beats perhaps worked so seamlessly that it didn't grab you throat by its strangeness, but it was nevertheless deeply original, as the countless records using it as the blueprint for further developments demonstrates. Compare with something like A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. The influence from psychedelic rock on that is very clear indeed, yet, as far as I know, postpunk critics didn’t feel any need to defend it from being seen as a retro record. Similarly with the afro funk and juju-elements on Remain in Light, they were seen as a part of what made that record a milestone of innovation, and not as a recombination of already known music. All these records are brilliantly using elements of older music to develop something equally original, and yet when we talk about Severant (and several other poststep records just as brilliantly utilising fragments of the past) we for some reason focus on “using older music” and feel a need to excuse it (unless we want to draw the conclusion that it’s nothing new, of course), while with the postpunk records “developing something original” is the main thing, and that it is done using older forms doesn't seem to be a problem. 

Why is that? Partly, there's the problem of musical omniscience – the use of “exotic” sound-sources seems a lot less exotic when you're familiar with them, having all the music of the past both available and greedily consumed (there's not really “forbidden zones” like with postpunk, where the use of different kinds of hippie music might seem extremely original to the casual listener, simply by not being recognised). When you have seen the building blocks, you can't really unsee them, and unlike postpunk, poststep is probably very rarely functioning as a gateway to unknown musical riches, because the listeners are pretty much on the same omniscient level as the producers when it comes to those riches. But more importantly, the end-of-history-mindset simply doesn't allow us to believe that we're part of a conquering movement, able to change anything.

In the late sixties/early seventies, you could believe that it was possible to transform all of society in a fully positive, utopian way, and music both reflected and embodied that. When we reach punk and postpunk it's horribly clear that that hope had been completely crushed by reactionary forces, and instead we got a movement that was still trying to transform and confront society openly, but now more like a sort of resistance, subverting and destabilising the existing order from below, rather than trying to convince it nicely from above – and again, this is reflected and embodied by the music.  With rave, it is clear that this strategy didn't work either, and now the only option left to do something actively for a better world is creating short lived parallel societies, unbound by the rest of the world, but also unable to transform it in any way – the TAZ as defeated escapism. Still, the music reflecting and embodying this was by no means less inventive than the previous era’s music of victory and resistance. 

Since then, even this last refuge of belief in the transformative power of music and culture has dissolved, and even though the supposed liberal-capitalist utopia at the end of history – which never really fulfilled its promises in the first place – is now falling apart all around us, the belief in an alternative, in the ability to act, remains largely absent. And the music reflects and embodies this – you can create an endless stream of strangeness and newness, and build worldwide connoisseur communities around it, but it's all build within a parallel virtual dimension that is not only no threat or alternative to the established world order, but rather a product of it. If you want to create any kind of community around music, there seem to be no way around the online mirror maze, which will eventually absorb and assimilate anything, turning it into just another random fragment in its entertainment-and-self-surveillance-fractal.

This is the conditions under which poststep is produced, and in that light, it's a true expression of our schizophrenic, bipolar zeitgeist – its fractured structures either dissolving into entropic decay or juxtaposing absurd, hyper-agitated angles, its unreal soundscapes either summoning the hopelessness and sorrow of dead futures, or unfolding ultra-coloured, nausea-inducing stimulation-overdoses. Equally a dazzling spectacle of alien shapes and inventions, and a terrifying premonition of the reality of decay and emptiness hidden behind infinite layers of entertainment and distraction, the best of poststep offers not a music to build the belief of an alternative around, but rather a reflection of the condition under which the very ability to construct such an alternative is non-existent.

When Reynolds say that what is missing is postpunks “expressive intent andcommunicative urgency” or first-generation-grimes “social expression” and“individual hunger”, he's basically right. If that's the kind of excitement you're seeking from new music, nothing is going to deliver it. But then again, if your reference points were established in the sixties and early seventies, and you'd expect forward-thinking music to be an optimistic force, imagining positive futures, punk and postpunk probably didn’t deliver the excitement you were craving (I think Bill Martin's brilliant book on prog, Listening to the Future, is a good example of this mindset). And if you're expecting music of social importance to actively try and engage directly with the course of society, then certainly rave could very much seem more like escapism than something igniting your social excitement. If social urgency and individual hunger is the only parameters to deem music interesting and relevant, then it has definitely been diminishing returns since the early seventies. You have sort of ensured that nothing will probably be really exiting anytime soon, and that times are as dire as you'd like to think – which of course they are, only not in a way that makes truly exciting music impossible. Also in this respect, the retromanic mindset is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the end, I guess the feeling of having been stuck for twenty years can be justified. During that time there hasn’t really been a musical movement to believe in in the all-consuming, righteous way where you could convince yourself that you were part of a future unfolding in advance, being swept away by a huge contingent of people – or at least a contingent certainly feeling huge, much huger than it most likely actually is – collectively knowing that they're transforming the world around them through the power of art and imagination. Having felt this way during the nineties rave explosion, I can certainly feel the lack of a musical development so powerful that it's greater than its parts, making it seem important to be alive just to be a part of it. Nothing has really been on that level afterwards – the first wave of grime was promising, but didn't quite deliver a punk-like shock to music that many hoped for; dubstep almost got there, fulfilling its promise by turning into the inescapable noise of wobble – so undeniably original and so successful that for a few years it seemed unstoppable, known by everyone, even if they mostly hated it. Then it sputtered out, like punk, and was followed – also like punk – not by a new genre, but rather by a polymorphous patchwork of weirdness and invention, the sprawl of fluctuating, overlapping para-genres that I collectively called poststep. 

While wobble might have shortly recreated the intensity and run-amuck excitement of rave, it
didn't recreate rave's overall sense of tearing down an old, dead regime and collective beginning the establishing of a new order, and it didn't include the sense of explosive potential for social transformation that punk passed on to postpunk. As a result, even though poststep was deeply invigorated by dubstep’s success, impregnated by an overload of ideas and evolutionary potential, it didn't establish a social excitement and individual hunger around this incredible surge of creative energy. Eventually neither poststep itself nor the dubstep movement preceding it had the ability to transform the ingrained outlook of people living through these times, not matter how much shockingly new material it delivered. I'd dare say that had jungle, or rave, or acid, or postpunk, or prog, or psychedelia, or rock'n'roll, been happening for the first time now, it would not have fared any better. All of those musical revolutions happened in times where some sort of belief was possible, although it had to be redefined as time progressed. The music didn't feel transformative because it delivered a future shock – it was delivering a future shock because it happened at a time where people were still able to be shocked.

Perhaps the lack of social urgency is felt as a bigger problem by the generations that has actually been living through previous communal golden ages, than by the generation creating most of poststep today. It's obvious that many of them really want to create something truly new and original, and feel frustrated by the overall consensus that what they're doing is not really breaking any new ground. They might actually be much more conscious than anyone before, about whether what they're doing is new or not, simply by being met by much higher standards of “newness”. And yet, just as they might strive for innovation at some points, they often seem just as satisfied with creating facsimiles of old styles, finely crafted pastiches and educated deconstructions. It's probably that, more than anything, that makes people of the generations before wary of acknowledging them any true inventiveness – if you've always associated the creation of the new with the creators utter dedication to that newness, to the future heralded by it, then the way contemporary producers just treat innovation as some sort of aesthetic game to play among many others, rather than a matter of life, death and social transformation, must give you the impression that they're not really up to it. What I think it shows is that even though poststep producers might long just as much for future shock as anyone before them, they're not longing for a socially transformative community build around it. Not because they don't want to be as dedicated to their art as previous generations, but simply because they're unaware that it can have that power, having never experienced the feeling before. To those who has experienced it, the sociological aspect is missing, and they draw the conclusion that the music just isn't sufficiently new, because otherwise it obviously should have created the same social investment in its fans and creators as rave or postpunk did.

The poststep producers most likely don't feel this lack, having grown up in a world where music simply doesn't play that role anymore. But to us who have experienced music in that way, something obviously is missing, our addiction to the future rush comes as a package where the transformative power of truly forward-thinking music should be a given. Always looking for more newness, yet each year harder to convince now we've heard it all, constantly suspicious and demanding hard proof, asking ourselves 'is this really it, the new thing, worthy of my belief in it?', rather than simply giving in and revelling in the brilliance in front of us. We long so much to be overtaken by a new musical revolution, yet dare not believe in it unless we know for certain that we'll get exactly what we long for, the whole package just like last time. So in 2010, when I finally realised that there wasn't just an unusual amount of unusually fresh sounding new music around, but that rather what seemed like a veritable tidal wave of the stuff, coming from all sorts of strange directions, it wasn't easy coming to terms with what was going on, because this unexpected arrival of a new golden age, suddenly realising I was in the middle of it, wasn't anything like I'd expected, there wasn't cries of triumph all over the place – heck, grime and dubstep had been much closer in this respect –, everything was sort of going on independently in small hidden pockets, you had to know it was there and connect the dots. 

Yet, it became clear to me that if I didn't accept this as the hidden cornucopia it was, I was simply going to miss it – the golden age was there, but I had to decide to believe in it, suspend the disbelief that had been building ever since the original golden age of rave just sort of fizzled out, so that I was subsequently always conscious about whether something was it or not. And – as soon as I did accept the bounty before me, heard it with fresh ears, it became every bit as overwhelming and future shocking as I could have hoped for. On the purely musical level of course – the sociological level never followed, and it became clear that it didn't have to for the music to be as radically new and inventive as that of earlier, more socially extrovert eras. I could just try and figure out why, all while thrilling to an embarrassment of riches unknown to those who did not let themselves be taken over.

That's where I am now, drawing the conclusion that music can be overwhelmingly, undeniably original and ground breaking without being tied into a socially urgent movement and narrative. Which should not really come as a surprise when I've been deeply compelled by the sheer futuristic strangeness of older electronic music years before rave demonstrated to me that there could actually be a thriving community around something that radically post human. Or for that matter, when I've always been into all sorts of pretentious avant-garde stuff with almost no audience – and certainly with no care for an audience –, simply because I find ridiculous musical weirdness fascinating. And yet, the impact of experiencing the rave years first hand somehow rewired me to think that a future shock in purely musical terms wasn't really relevant without a accompanying impact in the “real world”. Well, it would obviously be more amazing if it did include that dimension, but now I know that it doesn't have to to blow me away, that even under conditions stifling to musical evolution, music still evolves, and as a reflection of those very conditions, it perhaps turn even more weird and convoluted than it would otherwise have been. 

So, despite what is missing, I
do consider myself lucky: not ending like the rock journalists that missed rave. By recognising that a golden age of poststep was going on around me, and subsequently going all in, trying to catch as much as possible, gave me five of the most exiting years of new, ground breaking music I've ever lived through, all being made right here and right now, an exuberant buffet of excitement and surprise that I wouldn't have dared to even dream of when dubstep started taking off in the mid noughties. Whereas those explaining away every new exhilarating thing as lacking either in content (not really new enough) or context (no social combustion around it), well, they just got five more disappointing years of nothing exiting happening. At least, hopefully, people will one day be able to discover the riches the same way I discovered the riches of postpunk - long after the fact. If not, it'll be their loss.

Monday, 17 April 2017

poststep still standing

At the end of 2015 it seemed like the golden age of poststep was fading fast, so it was quite a surprise that 2016 turned out to be one of the best poststep years ever, perhaps, in terms of completely exhilarating new releases, second only to the peak year 2010. Sure, 2016 didn't have the overwhelming abundance of weirdness and newness that made the years 2009-2013 so incredible, the constant presence of multiple fronts of innovation each developing its own amazing sound. Rather, most things were just further developments of the two already established frontiers of new electronic experimentalism (in contrast to the many older forms of electronic experimentalism still going on – IDM/glitch, dark avant-ambient, minimal techno/industrial noise hybrids etc.), namely abrasive, icy-digital maximalism and various takes on weird hyper-grime, from the neon coloured to the almost vaporwave-weightless. More or less, this was also the main developments in 2015, but in a scattered way that gave the impression of lingering pockets of resistance rather than a frontline moving forward. In 2016, though, that was exactly what happened: The amount and versatility of brilliant new releases made it hard to keep up with just the very best of them.

It actually leaves me confused, as I had already prepared to think of poststep as something that had run its course, and all that was left was to analyse the remains in further depth, figuring out what it was all about and why it didn't get the recognition it deserved. Now, the problem is even more complex, because this unexpected bouncing back seems pretty unprecedented – looking back at other golden ages, the pattern should be that once the rot has set in, it's only going to be diminishing returns from then on. Sure, slight resurgences happen, but only after the golden era is over – that's why it's resurgences, a conscious effort to keep the dream alive that pays off for a while. In retrospect, that's what something like breakcore was, and why it never felt completely convincing as a new development, and perhaps that's also what dubstep was until it unexpectedly turned into wobble and horrified the original true believers. With post dubstep, though, all the great new stuff coming out in 2016 felt like powerful, necessary unfoldings of developmental paths still far from exhausted, rather than attempts to keep poststep going through refining (like with early dubstep) or hybridization (breakcore). And who would try to do that anyway? If there's any “true believers” in poststep, they're rare, nonpartisan and probably has completely different opinions on what constitutes the great stuff and the golden age. But then again, perhaps this is exactly why the style was able to come back in 2016: It had no idea it was finished, because it wasn't even aware it existed in the first place. Which once again brings us back to the question of what the hell post step was and why it didn't get a whole generation exhilarated to be living through such incredible times, musically. Recently I've come further towards thinking this problem through, and hopefully I'll get around to writing it all down soon. Meanwhile, here's a belated “best of 2016” list – heaps of incredible stuff that everyone should own:

Fatima al Qadiri: Brute (Hyperdub)
In terms of formal innovation, Brute didn't add much to the style Qadiri established with the Desert Strike-ep, but instead it offered plenty of what you could call emotional innovation, creating a truly terrifying slow motion-vision of a world falling apart, permeated by supressed fear and violence lurking just below a surface of ghostlike exhaustion. Each time I listen to it, it seems to become more overwhelming and ominously prophetic. In a league of its own really.

Foodman: EZ Minzoku (Orange Milk)
Also in a league of its own, but a completely different beast, this album exists in its own disturbing grotesque-comical unreality. At times resembling a swarm of cartoon microbes skittering about, writhing and mutating in a sonic petri dish, at times exhibiting an oddly compelling – albeit also thoroughly bizarre and alien – sense of groove and melody, but first and foremost simply not sounding like something a human mind could ever have created, or even imagined.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD (Big Dada)
Where most experimental grime is ethereal and atmospheric, this amazing EP twists and exaggerates all the most euphoric and deliberately synthetic grime elements into unrecognizable mutant shapes. As explosive, colourful and hyperactive as old Hyper on Experience-records.

Murlo: Odyssey (Mixpak)
Every bit as original and relentlessly inventive as Darq E Freaker, yet also a completely different, much more playful and quirky take on hyper-coloured neo-grime. The melodic structures are as odd and unpredictable as they're catchy, and the overall sound is deeply inorganic in the most compelling way, like a virtual playground overrun by living, neon-coloured plastic toys – fascinating and slightly insidious.

Ískeletor: Lurker (Blacklist)
To some degree working within a mini-tradition of raw and ugly experimental grime – where we have previously found Filter Dread, SD Laika and Acre – but also making it much more loose, loud and visceral. Refreshingly different in a year where most forms of post dubstep were dominated by polished digital sounds and shiny virtual surfaces.

Wwwings: Phoenixxx (Planet MU)
Infusing cyber-maximalism with a weird sense of para-organic grittiness and unusual melodic twists – often making it downright catchy or touching –, Phoenixxx is simultaneously a disturbing reflection of a fractured present, as well as a deep sci fi-experience that sounds like rave music made a thousand years from now, by war machines faithfully continuing humanity’s carnage long after humanity itself has been wiped out.

Amnesia Scanner: AS EP (Young Turks)
In many ways inhabiting the same post human virtual space as Wwwings, but making it even more brutally mangled, at times almost doomcore-heavy, and at the same time taking it in a much more bizarre and surreal direction. Deeply fascinating in its utter strangeness and sheer originality.

Brood Ma: Daze (Tri Angle)
As for gloomy cyber-soundscapes, Brood Ma was probably the purest and most fully fledged of 2016s many virtual maximalists. Perhaps not being quite as strange and forward-sounding as Wwwings and Amnesia Scanner, Daze nevertheless worked brilliantly as an integrated, atmospheric whole - claustrophobic, apocalyptic, and yet often surprisingly beautiful.

DJ NJ Drone: Syn Stair (Purple Tape Pedigree)
Taking digital maximalism to the most abrasive, pummelling extreme, Syn Stair is pretty much an endless staccato structure of hydraulic stutter-beats and hyper-digital rave sounds processed into ear-slicing treble-terror. With only the slightest, most dysfunctional hints of melody or groove, this is one ugly, brutally inorganic record – and it's all the more fascinating for it.

NA: Cellar (Fade to Mind)
Appropriately named, this is dark, dank and slimy underground-tunnel-grime, at times recalling the gloomy imperial marches of early dubstep, or even PCP-style doomcore, but recreated fully within the current hyper-inorganic, cyber-maximalist aesthetic.

Halp: Polar (Golden Mist)
Clearly building on the compositionally complex and subtly orchestrated ghost-grime of Fatima al Qadiri, but adding a hearty dose of the twitchy hydraulic rhythms usually associated with the Jam City/Brood Ma/Rabit-lineage of cybernetic maximalism. A very obvious hybrid, in other words, but one that works brilliantly.

Loom: European Heartache (Gob Stopper)
Oscillating between crass, hyper coloured intensity and melancholic beatless ambience, this EP not only span the furthest extremes of experimental grime – it somehow also manages to make them complementary elements of a broader sci fi-vision.

Rushmore: Ours After (Trax Couture)
Weightless trap and new age grime at its most floaty, airy and almost impossibly lithe. The affected emo-vocals of the title track are hard to stomach, but the rest of the album has just the right transparent, untouched-by-human-hand quality to give it a genuine – albeit discrete – futuristic sheen.

Yamaneko: Project Nautilus (Local Action)
Consisting almost entirely of icy bleep-patterns glittering like pixilated crystals in an endless empty blackness, Projet Nautilus is as cold and bleak as the most puritan minimal techno, yet also inflicted with an original sense of abrupt, weirdly structured melody – the last traces of grime in what has now become something completely different.

Ash Koosha: |AKA| (Ninja Tune)
Containing some of the most captivating melodic material of 2016, |AKA| often seems like a hybrid of “new synth” (Oneotrhrix Point Never et al.), glitchy EDM and dreamy indietronica. Still, it's all filtered through an entropic poststep-prism of digtial ghost sounds and disintegrating structures, creating a feel that is simultaneously contemporary and sort of timeless.

Lolina: Live in Paris
The kind of broken aural dreamscape that shouldn’t really sound “new”, using well known elements like messy rudimentary beats and minimally palpitating sequencers, manipulated samples and aloof narration. Nevertheless, it’s put together in such a thoroughly weird and idiosyncratic way that it's almost impossible to describe, simply not sounding like anything you've heard before.

Patten: Psi (Warp)
Combining a hazy sense of loss and sadness with blurry elements of rave and club music, Psi could perhaps be seen as belonging to the ongoing hauntological trend of “rave deconstruction”. The actual result is a much stranger beast, though, like an AI trying to recreate what we used to think the future would sound like, based on assorted scraps and fragments found in decaying memory banks. Cod futurism gone so awry that it's actually sounding genuinely weird and futuristic.

Sinistarr: Naine Rouge (Exit)
Where most recent footwork mutations have tried to make the style more intricate and atmospheric, Sinistarr takes it in the opposite direction, back to the original raw febrility and then further into something even more weird and twitchy visceral, with the hackneyed ghetto clichés thankfully absent.

Zomby: Ultra (Hyperdub)
Despite being perhaps a couple of tracks too long, Ultra contain lots of brilliant music, often pushing the patented Zomby-style in slightly new directions, and offering a bleaker, more splintered and icy cold take on the sound. Makes it clear that he's still a force to be reckoned with, and at this point perhaps the most enduring of the original poststep key players.

Debruit: Debruit & Istanbul (ICI) 
Usually Debruit’s ethnotronic funk is bright and playful, but this time he's both darker and more introverted, and the sound more raw and organic (and, unfortunately, traditional) – which makes sense, given that it's a collaboration with a bunch of Turkish musicians, recorded on location in Istanbul. Intense and timely stuff, if perhaps not as uniquely Debruit-ish as before.