Sunday 18 January 2009


Back in the Frankfurt Trax-piece I mentioned the Third Movement-sound as the first time someone really got around Marc Acardipanes unique feel and technique, but actually this style deserves to be described further than that. While I think the dubstep/grime/bassline-axis to some degree can be seen as a contemporary heir to the original spirit of rave, this hardcore mutation is another strain of new rave music that is – or at least was, when it was at it's scenious inventive peak a few years ago – every bit as forward thinking and future buzzing as the most groundbreaking grime and dubstep. It came as a complete surprise to me, I had pretty much stopped following the scattered gabber/hardcore-movements, feeling they had more or less used up all potential. Most of it, as far as I could hear, was either pointless speedcore monotony or watered down nth-generation happy gabber – as with most of the original Thunderdome-family of Dutch producers. Sure, it could also be something like the Hellfish/DJ Producer-style of freaky filter gabber, which actually did seem like a big leap forward when it came to my attention through the Planet MU-compilation. Clearly I had been missing out, but somehow it didn't make me investigate the thing much further. The compilation was such a great summing up of that particular style that it didn't really seem like there was much to add. While being an obvious and valid mutation in the gabber-continuum, the Hellefish/Producer-style also came of as an anomaly, a weird burst of creativity some strange place in between pure dancefloor functionalism and the more experimental strains of avant gabber.

There was, and there still is, I think, a small rave-scene based on the Hellfish filter/cut up-sound, but it was not really a part of the gabber mainstream, and what's so amazing about the Third Movement-development is that it now is the gabber mainstream, rather than a cultish fraction. It was this fact that made it such a big surprise to me, because it was exactly the gabber mainstream that I'd given up on a long time ago, choosing to follow the weird twists and permutations of the experimental hardcore field in stead, and eventually ending up with breakcore, like most of that movement did. And then, out of the blue, I discovered that those Dutchmen that I'd completely abandoned had gone and made the next big leap forward in hardcore rave. A more straightforward hardcore-devoted friend played me some of the new stuff in 2001/2002 – from the new breed of Thunderdome-records even – and I was totally blown away. If anything can be used as a textbook example of the power of scenious development or of a continental hardcore continuum, this is it. Unnoticed by mainstream dance- and electronica-media – to say nothing of music media as a whole – the faithful gabber-believers just did their own thing and won. Stumbling upon such a vibrant, inventive and convincing scene was a bit like discovering jungle when that broke through. Here was a scene that had been left to it's own devices and living in darkness for years, developing something completely new and unheard, almost unrecognisable when compared to the original style. The big difference, though, is that this new style didn’t break through, it never became noticed outside it's own ghetto, not even by electronic music journalists, whereas jungle was news even to people who didn't care about rave, or even hardly about music at all. In this respect it's much like grime and dubstep, then, but the comparison with jungle is still useful for purely stylistic reasons.

To be completely honest, it's certainly not all “mainstyle”-gabber that can claim to be as faraway a mutation from the original gabber as jungle was from breakbeat 'ardcore (”mainstyle”, eventually, is one of the few somewhat recurring tags that seems like an attempt to give this style it's own name – usually it's just called “hardcore”, which of course isn't really helping to set it apart as something new and unique). The truly groundbreaking developments are not necessarily present on all the tracks, not consciously understood by the scene as the defining element setting it apart as a whole new thing, as with jungles chopped up and excitingly rearranged – as opposed to just looped – breakbeats. With mainstyle there's a lot of tracks that are industrially dark and noisy in a very monotonous and one dimensional way, simply making the hardness of the sound the whole point, and on the other hand there are many tracks that are rather trancey, bordering on straight hardstyle. But in between we have the real deal, balancing both extremes and defined by it's incredible creative bass drum engineering. Actually, it's the polymorphous kicks in themselves that are the real deal, and in principle they can be used in the trancey as well as the industrial minimalist stuff, it's just that at lot of the time they aren't, and then those styles are actually not that exciting. It’s when the bassdrum architecture is the whole driving force that this style peaks as some of the greatest rave music ever, as viscerally catchy and mindbendingly inventive as the best jungle. All varietys of the style, though, seems to be considered acceptable parts of the overall movement, many of the main producers work with the whole spectrum from noisy monotony to cheesy anthems, often on the same record (the primary mainstyle outlet seems to be four track eps, bless them), so perhaps it's a little hyperbolic to claim that this stuff is overall as great as jungle – or even the original gabber for that matter – the brilliance-to-crap-ratio is not quite as impressive. But it doesn't change how overwhelmingly brilliant the best stuff actually is.

As with jungle, the great leap made by the best mainstyle-tracks is rhythmic. It's about liberating a hitherto simple structure and allowing it to blossom into constantly morphing, multidimensional grooves. Jungle took 'ardcores usually rather straightforwardly looped breaks and chopped them to atoms, building new structures as amazingly complex as they were irresistibly catchy, saturated with insane start-stop trickery and endlessly stimulating syncopations. With mainstyle, it's the relentlessly pounding four-to-the-floor kick drums that are being transformed and turned into a dynamic, hyperkinetic force. The sound of each kick is beefed up so it's closer to a metallic bass than a drum, so thick and massive that it practically has a physical presence, like a big block of sonic concrete. The occasional use in traditional gabber of double time kicks or small kick rolls at the end of a bar, to add a little variation and extra energy, is here a constant – and constantly self-transforming – element, creating a rhythmic flow that is simultaneously explosive, monstrously massive and mercilessly precise. The stomping monotony is punctuated by unexpected jumps, twists and turns, one moment warping in all directions, the next surging forward with immense power, enfolding all sorts of broken syncopations within the metronomic stampede. And the drum sounds, having reached such a density that they're practically synth tones, are often pitched up and down so they're used as tuned percussion, introducing a melodic element in what was once monochrome simplicity. As with jungle, linear rhythmic energy is turned into multi-tiered beat science. In both cases, the end result – when the process have really worked – is that the drums have become the melody, or rather, the main creative force in the music, what makes it exciting and irresistible.

A lot of these things can be said about the Hellfish/Producer-sound too, of course, and if anything there's probably a much bigger focus on wild beat trickery with them. The crucial difference lies in the remaining factors, and the overall purpose they give the music. Hellfish and Producer seem somehow self-consciously left field, whipping up a hyperactive sensory overload that in many ways owes as much to old school hip hop turntablism (apparently the unsurpassable horizon of more or less all good British dance music) as it does to gabber. The mainstyle producers, on the other hand, slow things down to create a much more stable groove, where the rhythmic tricks and gambols serve the overall linear thrust. That's what makes so much of this music a heir to “We Have Arrived” and the more ravey end of PCP/Acardipane-doomcore generally. Often it's simply like doomcore reunited with the original (proto)-gabber brutality from “We Have Arrived”, revitalized with modern equipment. Or, the other way round, it's the most anthemic, cod-symphonic and, in a way, trance-like end of gabber – the K.N.O.R./Ruffneck-axis as well as a lot of the stuff on Mokum – that have developed it's own dark side, becoming more “serious” or respectable by pledging allegiance to Acardipanes apocalyptic vision. If this music is considering itself “deep” or “heavy”, to the degree that it cares about such things at all, it's because of this darkness rather than the beat-complexity, which is probably seen much more as a functional invention, a simple means to charge up the rave-capacity rather than a goal in itself – not the essence or art that the stuff is all about. Which might be part of the explanation why the beat science here have never become the same kind of staple, defining factor as with jungle, but also why it seems to have reached a broader kind of popularity than with Hellfish/Producer – it's never really allowed to spiral off into complexity-and-abstraction-for-the-sake-of-it, the technique is always subservient to that monstrous locked-on-target force that Marc Acardipane defined so long ago with “We Have Arrived”.

The most melodic and anthemic of this stuff, where the pompous, mentasm damaged synth riffs blare as triumphantly euphoric as in eurotrance or hardstyle, is obviously totally cheesy, but so is the doomcore variety as well, in it's own way, overindulging in gothic pomp, sampled choirs and horror movie dialogue. And it's great. Actually, both kinds of mainstyle-cheesiness can come up with the best of what this scene has to offer, it's more often here you'll find the really far out beats, whereas the more serious, arty and minimal end of it have a tendency to avoid the most excitingly exaggerated possibilities. It's totally scenious in this way, there's practically no mavericks or self proclaimed “deep artists” here, and there's absolutely no hint of jazz or soul tastefulness – but then, I guess that is pretty unlikely within the gabber continuum anyway. Arguably, some of the producers specializing in the more industrial-noisy end of things might think of themselves as the experimental front line, taking the new hardcore to a deeper and more serious level, but I can't think of a single one who have made a real name for himself that way, there doesn't seem to be any “geniuses” celebrated as artistic leaders by the scene, or as honourable exceptions by the mainstream music media (again – pretty unlikely with anything coming from gabber). There's yet no LTJ Bukems or Goldies of mainstyle, which is probably a sign of health.

Even the biggest names doesn't really stand that much apart from the whole. They're usually offering good solid quality, but not necessarily the best or most exciting tracks. The Third Movement label is of course something like the very foundation of the style, having released countless records, many of them pioneering or outright defining the sound. Their Demolition series of compilations is an obvious place to start for those who want a fast introduction to the style. They are, however, also very mixed bags, quality-wise. There's cheesy anthems, metallic monotony and strikes of incredibly thrilling scenious brilliance, and while most of it seems to be good stuff, it's not necessarily one big cavalcade of classics – there's many fillers as well, and there's absolutely no guarantee that the best mainstyle-tracks will be included. The same goes for the very prolific DJ Promo (a name every bit as irritating as DJ Producer), founder and champion of Third Movement, and often seen as more or less the man behind the scenes success, as well as playing the major role in inventing the style. His records contain lumpen, cheesy “hits” – all titanic tranceriffs and his signature shouty, self-aggrandizing rap-like vocals – as well as brilliant abstract tracks, taking mad metallic percussion and rhythmic contortions to surprisingly catchy extremes. Yet, it's hard to think of any of his music as being truly in a league of its own: If he's kind of representing the scene, it's because of his tireless work as DJ, label-owner and prolific producer, as well as the fact that he was one of the first and most pronounced to develop the elements defining the style, and not because he have made a string of universally known, indisputable timeless classics, or because his tracks are generally the best the scene has to offer.

In true scenious style, you'll find the best mainstyle records more or less by pure luck, checking out the bulk of new releases regularly, now and then stumbling upon something that'll just happen to be incredibly great, some of the very best stuff you've ever heard, in any style. And there's really no way you can systematize these discoveries, unless you're practically dedicating your life to it – i.e. being a full time DJ. I'd be the first to admit that I'm no real authority on what is truly the greatest mainstyle records, I've never dug that deep into the piles of stuff available, never really tried to check everything coming out, and I'm not claiming that my few personal favourites are necessarily the very pinnacles of the style. I've certainly missed plenty of masterpieces, and I'm sure mainstyle-scholars could play me lots of unsung tracks that would be at least as great as the ones I've found. The best advise, as it's usually the case with scenious music, is to find your own classics, create your own cannon. But that said, I'd like to end this with a couple of my personal discoveries; records that were probably conceived as effective DJ fodder, and certainly aren't well known in the same way as stuff by DJ Promo or other Third Movement mainstays like Catscan or Rude Awakening. Yet it's records that I rate higher than any other mainstyle I've ever heard.

Interestingly, my two favourites are actually not dutch. The Depudee is german, and takes the style to the cheesy extreme. Tons of aggressive rap samples, cheap fanfare-like hardstyle riffs and even cheaper rave dynamics wonderfully overdone – on a record like Move Around the tracks practically consist of nothing but breakdowns and build ups, breakdowns within breakdowns, breakdowns within build ups, build ups within breakdowns etc. ad infinitum. As cheap as it is, it's also incredibly inventive and invigorating, wallowing in the lowest common denominators while at the same time supercharging them through insane, constantly morphing bass drum architecture, using them with such creativity and sparkling conviction that it reminds me of nothing as much as the early Prodigy. Yet better still is Chaosbringer, one of the few examples (that I know of) of the big french hardcore scene going into mainstyle territory. Here we're talking doomcore-derived darkness of the most exaggerated, pseudo-symphonic kind, beefed up by the same massive rave dynamics as with The Depudee. The tracks build and build, creating immense tension and explosive release, surging forward like a giant army of towering demon-robots, and always made further powerful by bass drums as hard and heavy as reinforced concrete, yet elastic and intractable like run amok rubber balls.

To me, if to no one else, Chaosbringers Dividing the Red Sea-ep really feels like a kind of pinnacle, all the best aspects of ravey (i.e. non-avant) hardcore/gabber rolled into one: Droning mentasm doomcore, cheap samples and catchy synth riffs, rampaging mainstyle bass drums, even a tearing break beat in one track. The only thing missing is computer game silliness and raw amiga samples, but then the result would probably be, and sound, far too forced. What makes it so ultimate here is that it doesn't seem even remotely like something deliberately made to be ultimate, not a conscious effort to collect all the best ideas, but rather an obvious evolutionary outcome, a natural accumulation of stuff that works, hyper-engineered to a new level of devastating power, everything coming together smoothly. Still, dig deep into the wealth of mainstyle, and you might find your own pinnacles. The time when this scene was peaking and seemed totally new and revolutionary is some years behind by now, so perhaps in a few years time people will begin mining it. Maybe I should get a lead and start now.