Thursday, 28 December 2017

a futile resistance?

Some time ago Simon Reynolds did a quite long (especially with the endless youtube clips) piece in response to the last one I wrote, with some interesting points – some of them in the comments – and I've wanted to make a response for quite some time, but got sidetracked by real life as so often before. So, as a not-exactly-exiting post step-year is nearing its end, I'll try and write something before it all gets completely forgotten – if that is not already too late.

As expected, he didn't buy that the poststep stuff is as great as I'm claiming it is. The interesting thing in this respect is the claim that he actually has tried (as stated in the comments), but it just doesn't click. In a way this takes the problem to a different level, not about poststep per se, but about how we react to music, what it means for someone to really get something, and not least: whether really feeling, or not feeling, something, is really an argument for its merit or lack thereof? Personally, there's a lot of stuff I know I ought to like, but that just doesn't do anything for me; which seems pointless and uncommunicative (in the derogatory sense Reynolds is using here – I certainly find some deliberately uncommunicative music deeply fascinating). Something like Velvet Underground could be a good example. All right-thinking people seem to agree that this is simple the most important and amazing rock music ever made, but nevertheless, it leaves me completely cold. Sure, it's mildly interesting when I'm listening to it, but not to a degree where I'm not also slightly bored, and afterwards, I have no wish to ever hear them again. That doesn't mean that I can't see its historical importance – tons of stuff I love (krautrock, post punk, noise rock and dreampop) are deeply indebted to VU, might not even have existed without them. But just because something is revolutionary on a technical level, it doesn't make it the best example of the trend it started. The noise/avant garde-element is still very rudimentary and one-dimensional (not enough Cale), and Lou Reed’s song writing is mostly just dull. And yet, even though I've tried “getting” Velvet Underground for many years, and still barely remembers any of it, I'll accept that they are, in a way, “objectively good”, I just don't find them subjectively good. I'll grant that they have an important place in the historical archives. There's just many other parts of those archives that I'd much rather like to spend my time with. Such as the best post step, which as far as I see it, isn't just subjectively good, but truly objectively good as well.

The question then is: by what objective criteria? Well, most likely not by how influential it has been (probably the best argument for VUs “importance”), as I doubt most of it will have much influence at all. But then, I think most of us have favourite records that have had very limited subsequent impact, and which we yet would consider truly “good” by some other criteria. Most obviously, I think it should be about originality – creating musical structures that have not been heard before, and yet truly is “structures” (which is what makes it work as music, makes it relatable and fascinating), rather than just pure randomness. But already there's a problem here, because judging if something “has been heard before” or creates a “relatable structure” certainly involve some quite subjective elements. One person’s deeply engaging structural originality is the next one’s empty indulgence, and as I talked a lot about last time, it's highly relative how “new” something will sound to different people. That said, it seems that Reynolds is acknowledging that there is some formal newness going on in post step, it's just that, as he doesn't connect with the music, then obviously something else must be amiss (and there has to be something wrong with it when he's not feeling it – much like I just tried to explain what is “wrong” with Velvet Underground, because it doesn't seem to be satisfactory that it’s simply be a matter of taste whether you're getting something that is “objectively good” or not).

So what is missing, according to Reynolds? Sort of the usual rockish suspects, I guess: Social energy, functionality (being useful), viscerality, bursting-into-the-world, smashing-up, cutting loose, “brocking out”. I think there's a least two questions to consider here - 1: why should it be a problem that these elements are absent? And furthermore - 2: are they actually absent? Or rather, in what way can we determine that they’re absent, except whether we simply feel them being there?

As for the first question, one of the returning themes in my writings on post-step is that I think it's a huge fallacy to measure it by a 'nuumologically calibrated brock-o-meter. The social chemistry of cutting-loose-on-the-dancefloor is not the point of this music – or at least most of it –, and saying that it is lacking in this department is a bit like saying sixties electro-acoustic avant garde is “lacking” the passionate social interaction of tango or waltz. I mean, it certainly doesn't have that element, but then, it's not really something it ought to have. It's not that I disagree with the point that “with dance music you want to be getting your rocks off”, but most post-step is simply not meant to be heard as dance music – not supposed to belong to the same continuum as Foghat and Slipmatt, but rather – if anything – the same as Subotnick and Schnitzler, Mouse on Mars and The Black Dog. Or, I'd say, as Chrome and Wire. Because once again I think post punk is the obvious analogy – do post punk belong in the cerebral “listening” department that Reynolds have no problem with in itself, or as part of the “brock continuum” that he identifies as running from garage rock all the way through punk and rave to present day hip hop? Post punk is conspicuously absent from his long youtube brock-list, with the quite rock-ish Killing Joke as the only example. Which is not to say that you couldn't find a few more brocking post punkers if you wanted to, but wasn't it exactly the whole point of most post punk to question and deconstruct that very (b)rockist “essence”. Huge swathes of it was self-consciously arty and cerebral, deliberately esoteric and dysfunctional. Sure, a lot of them worked with groove-based black music, and had a lot of physical propulsion (as do a lot of post-step), but there was almost always a mind game element as well, they were never really “cutting loose” in the same way as 'nuum music and “pure” rock, funk or disco is, if for no other reason than it was always articulated, always subservient to some larger artistic goal (trance-states, confrontation, subversion, ritual).

Well, some might point out, doesn't goals like “confrontation” or “ritual” - even though they might be self-consciously constructed – show a strive for social energy and interaction, exactly the kind of thing that is lacking in post-step? And with that I would, at least mostly, agree. It just doesn't mean that post punk is “brock” music. Rather, it shows that social energy can take many other forms than just “getting your rocks off” on the dancefloor. I think placing post punk in the 'nuum would require a lot of creative shoehorning, but then again, I don't see any reason it should be there. Of course, it isn't straight up ethereal “brain music” either, there's still very much a physicality to it – if anything, I would say it's a part of both those worlds (and therefore not really belonging to any of them). And I would say it's the same with post-step. Which gets us to the second question.

Not only do I not have a problem with post-step not belonging to the 'nuum, it's even been one of my points all the time that it's the wrong lens to view it through. But does that mean that there's no visceral element to it, no “cutting loose” or “bursting-into-the-world”? Absolutely not. I must say that Reynolds inability to feel the visceral energy of post-step – and it does seem to have been a point of his right from the start – is really strange to me, because that was exactly what pulled me into it in the first place, what made me a believer. I did not – as suggested in the comments of the Energy Flash post – have to force myself to believe. What I did was accepting that here was something worthy of belief, without the safety net of post modern doubt and constant how-new-or how-good-is-it-really-questioning, saving me from having to defend what I love, and being ridiculed for claiming – how absurd, how na├»ve – that here is again something worthy of history. But I obviously wouldn't have accepted it if the music wasn't so overwhelming in the first place – and what overwhelmed me to begin with wasn't the more subtle and understated forms (of which there is many), because those are always easier to reject as “just more moody head music” - its originality doesn't demand your attention like the heavier stuff.

How anyone can listen to early poststep tracks like Slugabeds “Gritsalt”, Suckafish P. Jones' “Match Set Point”, or Eproms “Shoplifter”, without getting blown away by the sheer physical force, the explosive energy, the visceral freshness, that is a mystery to me. After all, a lot of the first post-step (and especially what I've called bitstep) was pretty much a reaction to the challenge of wobble – not a “turning back” to “true dubstep” or neo-2step (aka funky), though there sure as hell were a lot of that crap too. Instead, the bitsteppers seemed to ask what the next step after wobble should be – how could you take this music even further out, make it even more mad and grotesque. It was pretty clear that it couldn't be done with just more convoluted twists of the wobble bass itself, the limit had been reached there (and as a result, big wobble producers moved into much more melodic, EDM-crossover territory), so instead post-step producers added cascades of multicoloured sound splinters, absurd syncopations and mangled structures, like treacherous vortices pulling you in several different directions simultaneously – and always with massive force.

The best bitstep delivered on wobbles promise, transforming it from a potential dead end to a gateway into a new world. And when it had opened my ears to the strange and wonderful new things going on, I discovered plenty of other forms of post-step that was equally unique and amazing, even though the brilliance wasn't as in-your-throat-energetic as with bitstep. Though indeed there were many other forms of hyper-physical post-step too, sometimes even downright groovy (at least for a definition of groovy that includes something as weird as Can – as Reynolds’ brockout list does) – the brutally twisted cyberfunk of Debruit and a lot of skweee had a massive, propulsive power, while the freaked out maximalism like DZA, 813 and Eloq is among the most over the top explosive stuff I've ever heard, and avant-trap like TNGHT, Krampfhaft and the later Starkey should be able to work a dancefloor as effectively as any classic rave music. Heck, despite being incredibly cold and dysfunctional, a lot of the current “cybermaximalism” (like Brood Ma, Wwwings and Amnesia Scanner), is also deeply visceral music.

So, I've proved my point then? After all, I've just claimed that a lot of post-step does indeed have a highly physical quality, bursting into the world with undeniable force, so obviously it does! Except... what do I base that claim on? On the fact that I feel it - to me it's undeniable. But to others, not so much, just like there's a lot of stuff that doesn't affect me the way others claim it should. And there's people who never felt rave music, or punk and post punk for that matter, found it empty and cynical, the surrounding subcultures destructive and pointless. In other words: if some music simply doesn't do anything for me, I know that this gut reaction isn't really an argument for it not being any good, I need some more objective way to measure it. But if that measuring device – say, how viscerally enticing it is – itself depends upon a gut level reaction, I'm back where I started. I guess this is why rock critics often use so much time on lyrics, more or less becoming ersatz literary critics, because words are slightly more concrete and tangible than timbres and harmonic structures. Perhaps the sociological angle used by many critics is useful in the same manner – giving them something “real” to deal with, and offering an easy measuring device: If music is worthwhile, it makes a socio-cultural impact – and if doesn't, it's not. Of course, by that standard you’d need some way to explain why, say, Celine Dion isn’t more worthwhile than Xenakis or Sun Ra.

That said, this is indeed the point where I think something is lacking with post-step – it hasn't created an active, socially transformative (sub)-culture. That I agree with, but what I doesn't buy is that this is because the music in itself doesn't have what it takes to build such a social structure. A main point from my last post was that nothing could built something like that now, the social-media-mediated reality we inhabit makes it impossible, except as in the form of virtual subcultures, existing online, of which there's as many as you could wish for. They just don't have any transformative power. Or at least not the ones based on music, the physical manifestations of which – concerts, clubs, festivals – simply seem like extensions of the socially networked existence. I don't see any actual socially transformative musical subcultures going on anywhere, and I don't think it's possible anymore. Young people still go out, and a lot of post-step is indeed played at hipster festivals, where there's some social interaction and bonding going on. But no feeling of any chance of changing anything through music – or in any other way for that matter. The modern bohemians into experimental electronics – graphic designers moving from city to city in Europe and the US – might make enough to live sort-of-comfortably with this drugs-and-music hobby, yet they never seem to have any hope or dreams of achieving anything more than that.

Take grime – I think most would agree that the first generation had the shocking formal newness and the burning will necessary to create a truly powerful, reaching-beyond-itself subculture – and yet, it didn't really happen. Countless online 'nuum-connoisseurs clearly wanted it to be the next big thing, but it never got beyond cult status, and was first taken over by dubstep, later by the experimental second wave that seems to have given up all ambitions of moving beyond small, web based communities.  In the end, I don't think any form of music will be able to be truly socially transformative in the world we currently live in, no matter how full of energy or how much it wants to. Had jungle never existed, and was then invented out of the blue today, I sincerely doubt it would have more impact than anything going on in post-step, or anything else. It could just as well be called yet another empty show of technical trickery with nothing expressed through it. Because if people are so desensitized that they're immune to the mad dynamics of the best bitstep, I can't see why jungles explosive rhythms should make a bigger impact. No matter how wild and physically powerful, if there isn't a receptive context, the social ignition isn't going to happen. And I think it's really the lack of this kind of “context” - a “practising community” (i.e “a way of life”) grown organically around the music, and vice versa – that's the reason Reynolds doesn't relate to post-step. But then again, isn't this something we especially expect from genres like rock, dance and rave? We don't usually diss the electro-acoustics for not having built a subculture of functionality and social practice around their music.

So where does that leave us? With a form of music which is as good as it's gonna get under the current conditions. And that is really, really good, as soon as you're able to accept that you're not going to get any kind of youth movement so potent that it actually makes an impact on society, as with rave and sixties rock. But you do get music that is an incredibly powerful reflection of our current conditions – and as such it's also music that is indeed having a lot released through it. Not pleasant things, mind you, but in its own way very true and overwhelming emotions. You could ask what the point of physically propulsive music is if people aren't going to use it in a social context. Now I'm not really sure this kind of post-step actually isn't used at some underground parties, but even if it's not, the viscerality is still crucial, because it reflects the psycho-somatic aspect of our supposedly purely cerebral online existence: the way it mangles our sense of time, place and identity, wears our body down and traps us in an everchanging maze of stimuli which renders us helpless and nauseas, the way the brightly coloured entertainment-fractal is simultaneously silly and terrifying, an exhilarating joyride with a sinister, insidious core of instability and uncertainly constantly lurking under the surface. To create this feeling, these strains of post-step do indeed need a to deliver a physical punch.

Now, I don't know how many of these producers consciously went for this reality-fracturing effect, for all I know they could just have wanted to create the sickest, most colourfully synthetic party music around, and then simply followed the music’s logic all the way into the candy coloured nightmare zone. You can be a vessel for the zeitgeist without being aware of it. With the many strains of post-step that are more dark and atmospheric – directly revelling in the neurosis and hopelessness beneath the surface – the feeling of disintegration and entropic decay often seem to be a much more conscious thing, descended from the whole “death of rave”/end of history-discourse around Burial. Here, the lack of visceral force is part of the whole point of what is being expressed. Its impact is purely on the emotional level – but it's certainly still there, at its best as strange, disorienting and sometimes downright spellbinding as any, say, Young Marble Giants, Tuxedomoon or early Cabaret Voltaire. Which again brings us back to post punk: Unlike rave and sixties rock, post punk and post-step doesn't express a victorious belief in owning the future; rather, it's the sound of desperate resistance against a world where the very possibility of hoping for a better future is being increasingly crushed.

With post punk the resistance could still – and indeed, mostly did – happen through physical social interaction. With post-step it has moved to the virtual sphere, and the “resistance” is happening almost entirely on the art-for-arts-sake level. Some might say that isn't much, but considering that current music is not supposed to be able to do more than mix and re-contextualize pre-existing elements, that art is simply seen as a vehicle for tastes and opinions, I'd say it's actually incredible that something as original and overwhelming in its distillation of the zeitgeist is even existing. Never alone in the soul-destroying web of constant social media, yet isolated and paralyzed, people still dream of strange new worlds never heard before, still want to invent thrilling, absurdly twisted musical structures even if they seem to have no “purpose”, still manage to create ominous musical forms that capture the essence of the very condition that should render them incapable of creating anything of any relevance at all. That such a wealth of invention is still possible, still being made, despite all the forces opposing it (including the creators doubt in their own relevance), well to me that's at least as amazing as people coming up with good stuff under deeply fertile conditions. That stuff as inventive and vibrant as the best post-step mange to even exist now seems like an act of defiance. That it's one of the only places where I can still feel the spark of creative resistance – in a way, relevance – is all the more reason to cherish it. But of course, you'd have to be able to feel that vibrancy, otherwise, well...

After all, what do I know – to me most contemporary rap is completely pointless and with as much relevance and “promise of freedom” as contemporary metal. Or musicals. All something that command social energies and make a lot of people feel something on a gut level – just not me.

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I think this is going to be the last post-step piece of mine for some time. Have I exhausted the subject? Well, on the level of these long think pieces then yes, I guess I have – even if I still feel like elaborating, I'm already starting to repeat some things from last time. But I'm not exhausted with poststep. Sure, as for new releases, 2017 hasn't been impressive, and I suspect last year was simply a last spasm, or perhaps even the beginning of a different, more static era. Yet, I'm still listening to the older post-step records almost all the time, still not tired of it. So, what I'd perhaps like to do is to go more into some of my favourites, trying to – to use Reynolds' term – incite, making the greatness and expressive power of the music directly relatable, rather than arguing its relative newness in the larger historical context, as I've mostly been doing so far. I have a half baked theory that the lack of messianic writing about specific tracks or records is at least a part of why it's impossible to create the same level of excitement about new music as in previous eras. Back then, when it could take a long time before you were even able to listen to a reviewed record, inventive descriptions in good music writing became a part of how you heard the music, part of its greatness – sometimes the music couldn't live up to the incredible imagery, but ideally, the writing made great music even better, made you hear it in a way that convinced you of its greatness. Now, all you get is a bunch of youtube clips that you'll skip through, unimpressed. I don't think any real incitement can happen that way. I think “forcing” people to use their imagination about music makes that music more vibrant, and makes the relationship with it deeper. So that's what I'll try to do, perhaps, some time. For now, though, I need a break from thinking about post-step (if not from listening to it), and I've had one or two other things lined up for a long time, before I suddenly got caught up in this whole post-step thing, so perhaps it's time to look at them.