Monday 14 July 2008


With all the great ep- and 12”-action around, you could almost forget that 2007 was a great year for dubstep albums. Despite the rave roots, dubstep have already produced several brilliant albums, and have showed itself much better equipped for working with that format than, say, jungle ever did. There were at least three dubstep albums from 2007 showing this, if we can call Burials Untrue a dubstep album at all, and maybe we can’t, but then, what we call it is actually not my point this time. The second one is Pinchs Underwater Dancehall, or rather the instrumental version. The use of guest vocalists is exactly the kind of thing that suggests that a rave genre is not really able to grasp the album format on its own terms, but the instrumentals were mostly great examples of introverted micro-step, and despite being released even later than Untrue, the album got quite a lot of coverage towards the end of 2007. Most people with just the slightest interest in the genre should have heard about it. Unfortunately, that's not the case with the last one, which came out very early (it was originally supposed to be released in 2006, I think), and seems to have been more or less overlooked by everyone. There have been practically no discussion of Distances My Demons, no opinions about it, and that’s really a shame.

Released over half a year apart, no one tried to compare Untrue with My Demons, and that’s also a shame, because even if Underwater Dancehall is a good album, it’s the other two that are the real deal, 2007s defining musical outposts, and it’s quite interesting to compare the different ways they’re dealing with what is, to some degree, the same core material: “atmospheric dubstep” saturated with the unreality, sadness and hopelessness lurking deep down in the shadows of the postmodern mind. I suppose one of the reasons My Demons’ not being acknowledged is because of the almost ostentatious sci fi-darkness, a very obvious urban dread of the kind that is often seen as a po-faced claim to authenticity in music that considers itself “serious”. Where that kind of cartoony grimness is usually accepted in cheesy rave, because it's not music that's supposed to take itself too seriously anyway, it's rejected as pretentious and self important when it looks like it's meant to be “deeper”, as in this case. Distance, however, is one of the rare artists that manage to work with the cheap and obvious and make it yield a weird, alluring “deepness” of it's own.

The Mover of Frontal Sickness is probably the greatest example of this. In Simon Reynolds review of Planet MUs 200-compilation he writes: “Dubstep’s downside? That would be the remorseless fixation on turgid tempos and sombre moods, an ominousness as unrelieved as it’s corny. Living in the city ain’t that bleak, boys!” This sounds very much like a description of Marc Acardipanes “darkness” to me, but Acardipane is apparently OK because he's making cheesy rave for the masses. Yet a lot of his stuff isn't really that ravey or cheesy, and especially Frontal Sickness seem very self-consciously “deep” to me. To some degree, My Demons could be a contemporary heir to Frontal Sickness, both records inhabit a strange grey area that is too subtle and “musical” for the functional rave scenes they belong to, yet also too cartoonishly exaggerated in their gloom to be taken serious as arty “listening music”. And both are really fascinating and exciting exactly because of this, even if My Demons is clearly no match for the league-of-it's-own greatness that is Frontal Sickness.

When comparing Distance and Burial we'll come upon another interesting example of someone caught in this grey area between cheap teen functionalism and serious art music. As some may recall, Burial is often heralded as a kind of post-rave Joy Division, and if Burial is Joy Division, then you could ask what Distance is. Some would probably point out that this question is taking the analogy too far – Burial is compared with Joy Division because of the quality and emotional impact, not because dubstep as a whole is comparable with post punk and Distance therefore also must be compared with someone from that era. I think the question makes a lot of sense and have an obvious and quite interesting answer, though: Distance is the post-rave Cure. Where Joy Division is still considered endlessly deep and important, their gloom and introspective misery never seen as self-important navel gazing, The Cure have not been remotely as canonized. Admittedly, they have a solid base of supporters, even among traditional rock critics, but it's mostly down to the later records where they discovered positive pop and generally became emotionally versatile rather than one-dimensionally depressive, and you can still see their early records routinely rejected as pathetic teenage self-pity. OK, maybe I'm mostly thinking of Reynolds' suspiciously effortless dismissal of them in Rip It Up – “Smith's forlornly withdrawn vocals, the listless beat and the grey haze guitars made for some of the most neurasthenic rock music ever committed to vinyl” – but you definitely never see The Cure getting the same universal praise as Joy Division. If anything, their depressiveness is perceived as a somewhat immature trait, whereas it's considered the very essence of Joy Divisions deepness and vision. But isn't this simply because Joy Division were better, their death drive genuine where The Cures was just a cheap pose? Well, as probably one of the only people in this world who are ready to admit that I actually think The Cure, at their best, were better than Joy Division ever was, I obviously think not.

The main difference was that Joy Division managed to give the impression of a darkness that was deeper and more true, and here I'm not just thinking about Curtis suicide, their entire sound and image was so tastefully, intellectually serious, that it just came off as much more “important” and timeless than The Cures obvious and graphic style, with its blurred images and faces of pale, sickly boys. Not to mention the front men – Curtis sonorous droning sounding much more authoritative and tormented, whereas Robert Smith have always sounded like a mopy teenager wallowing in his own existential bellyache. The point, however, is that beyond these surface elements, there doesn't seem to be any reason Smiths sickness is less genuine than Curtis gloom. Or, rather, Curtis doesn't really come off as less pompous or overwrought than Smith. The surface elements are very distinct, though, there's almost a comic book quality to The Cure, the way they express their darkness through straightforward, unsubtle pictures, where Joy Division is all arty black and white photography (it makes perfect sense that Corben should make a film about them) and dignified theatre. And of comics and theatre, we all know which is considered an important art form.

It's the same with Burial and Distance, at one level at least. Distance is very straightforward in his dystopic urban darkness, and My Demons is an album that almost have “dark and doomy” written on it with big black letters. The labyrinthine urban dreadscape on the cover is actually pretty much doing exactly that. And yet, there's also a very surreal, mysterious aspect to that cover, just like the music it's capturing so brilliantly. The gloom and darkness may be loudly declared, but underneath, the music is much more ambiguous, subtly moving and dreamlike. So while it's executed differently, the core material is not that far from Burials – in both cases there's a feeling of unreality at the centre of the music, a drift of obscure and ghostly emotions. Maybe you could say that Distance and Burial are approaching each other from opposite directions: Burial take what was once human emotions and remove them completely from their flesh and blood context, makes them copy-pasted fragments haunting the ether, caught in loops like compulsive thought patterns, decaying and mutating into shapes where the hitherto familiar becomes painfully broken and alien. What remains of our hopes and dreams are now these deteriorating synthetic forms, forever lost to us and following their own path, as if the only way the rave euphoria could survive was by escaping into this unknown viral electro-magnecology. With Distance, the thoroughly alien is the starting point– like looking directly inside mysterious future machines, probing their private mental world, and thereby creating an emotional response in listeners trying to grasp what is essentially beyond human emotional reach.

Distance is not using the embarrassing cliché of the Pinnochio-cyborg longing to be human, the forms inhabiting My Demons are unapologetically synthetic and inhuman on their own terms. And even though the music seems haunted and sorrowful and doomy, it's also coming off strangely detached, with an uncertainty to whether it's just our best attempt at interpreting the alien emotions before us – they seem like sorrow and paranoia, but that might just be our own minds playing tricks for lack of something to compare it with –, or whether the sadness and gloom is simply our own reaction to the lost and empty world before us. There is no humans on the cover of My Demons, and the music is exactly like the dreams of a depopulated city. Where Burial creates a world of electromagnetic ghosts circling above the drowned metropolis, Distance goes down to the desolate street level, streets haunted not by ghosts or angels, but by synthetic minds encapsulated in forgotten surveillance networks and the robot offspring left to stalk the empty spaces – streets haunted by the city itself as one big zombie organism of decaying concrete, glass and wires.

So, to get back on track, can My Demons be described as a contemporary Faith to Untrues Closer? Or is Seventeen Seconds perhaps a more appropriate comparison? It's a relevant question, because even though Distance and Burial seem to mirror The Cure and Joy Division in their different approaches to a shared core of post rave loss and disintegrated dark futurism, the analogy doesn't fit quite as well when it comes to the actual sound of their music. Burials fuzzy, blurred, crackling production isn't the least like Joy Divisions bare boned, hard edged thump, which is actually, if anything, much more reminiscent of Distance – and more so than anything by The Cure as well. Sure, there's a sharp simplicity to Seventeen Seconds that's not completely at odds with Distance, but most of all it has a kind of brittle, prickly transparency that's also quite different from My Demons' slow paced use of space and gravity. Faith is a more fitting comparison, being the Cure album with the most thoroughly drowned, somnambulist introversion. But then, if this is closer to the Distance sound, then it's because it's also the Cure-album closest to Joy Division.

Things get more complicated if we look at Faiths successor and The Cures masterpiece, Pornography, because the sound of that record is far from the tight structures of Distance, and actually much closer to Burial – quite unlike the cold, death obsessed sickness of the lyrics, which is as far from Burials bittersweet dreams as it's pretty much possible. Despite the overall simplicity and mechanical thrust of Pornographys song structures, the production is often deeply psychedelic, a maze of hallucinatory delay and reverb. With drifting fragments of para-arabic melody and Smiths voice transformed, disembodied and echo-drenched to sound like a self-devouring hive mind, Pornography is a blurred, crackling, decaying sound world of thoughts slowly dissolving and drifting away, very much like it's the case with Burial. The greatest technical difference between the two is probably in the rhythms, where The Cure utilise a deliberate stiff and thrashing hardness, resembling nothing as much as techstep. Only on “Siamese Twins” and to a lesser degree “Cold” do things get rhythmically fascinating – here the contrived un-funkiness is so exaggerated that it becomes crooked and stumbling, a lopsided anti-groove not completely different to Burials asymmetric twitching, though the heavy angularity of grime is probably a better comparison.
In the end, both Burial and Distance have something that is totally their own, something that will not be recognised if we demand to see them through the lens of the rock cannon, no matter how flattering a comparison with Joy Division is meant, or how accurate it may be in describing some aspects of what's going on. I think the most crucial thing about Burial is the ambiguity, the way the sadness and hopelessness somehow also contain a comforting warmth and awestruck, mystic wonder. It's music with such a tangle of shades that it never reaches a clear meaning, and as such it's much more alienating and disorienting than Joy Division or The Cure ever were, with their convinced, one-sided gloom and depression worn clearly on their sleeves. And Distance, well, with him as well things are not as obvious as they seem, even if he indeed flaunt the darkness in a manner just as coarse as the post punk misery goats. The crux of My Demons is the restraint; even the hard riffing tracks constantly seem to hold something back, avoiding impact or friction in a way that is almost gentle. And never in a way that suggest repressed emotions or imminent eruptions, the restraint always come off as somehow right, obviously fitting the strange unfolding sound world. Which is actually the most futuristic and fascinating thing about this music, where it become quintesentially synthetic, machinic and alien, and what completely separates it from the human desperation burning beneath the cold surfaces of The Cure and Joy Division.

There's a dreamlike, otherworldly elegance to My Demons, it creates minds eye visions of incomprehensible giant robots performing hushed slow motion ballets in empty, nocturnal cities, with fluid tiptoe movements in unreal contrast to their hulking proportions. This is not as much a world where the nightmare predictions of The Cure and Joy Division have come true, as it's the new world to follow, a world where history – or at least human history – really have ended, and what have taken over is not for us, not of us. And that world is very much at the heart of Burial as well, even if he seems to suggest that it's not just a world to come, but also a world that is somehow already here, coexisting with our perceived reality. As such, these great dubstep records are not contemporary equivalents of Joy Division and The Cure, but rather their heirs, or distant mutant descendants, taking the post modern sickness not just to the logical conclusion, but beyond.