Monday 21 September 2015

The End of PostStep

There's not much to write about in terms of new exciting post dubstep any more. As predicted the last time I posted here – and that's already a long time ago – 2014 produced quite a lot of good poststep + derived and associated music, but not with the same amount of trailblazing creativity as the four years before. There werw still some shockingly new stuff, but mostly it was a year of further refining ideas from the previous wonder years.

Best of all – in a league of its own, really – was Felicitas Frenemies ep, containing the most jaw-droppingly weird and alien music I've heard since, I dunno, Jameszoos Faaveelaa probably. Felicita is related to the PC-music camp, but where those people mostly use hyper-syntheticness as a kitsch enhancer, on Frenemies it's taken far beyond its breaking point and into utter abstraction, as creepy and terrifying as watching an artificially intelligent toy, designed to be overbearingly cute and cheerful, going completely insane, its thought processes disintegrating before our ears. In its own absurd way as radical as, say, early Swans or Einstürzende Neubauten, and the rest of the PC music camp is pretty much coming off as a cut rate Test Department by comparison, though the Lucky Me-label did released a couple of actually quite good EPs - Cashemere Cats Wedding Bells and Joseph Marinettis PDA - which, while still being a bit too pastiche-inflicted to be on Felicitas level, managed to share some aspects of the PC-aesthetic and yet be a bit more unreal and weird than the real PC deal. Closest to Felicitas level of alieness was probably Giant Claws Dark Web, which, despite being much more related to the Oneothrix Point Never/Software end of things, reached moments of the same inorganic weirdness and broken-machine-dream-logic.  

As for something approaching an actual leading movement in poststep in 2014, rather than PC music, the most obvious suggestion is what could collectively be called “abstract grime”, spanning a whole heap of different approaches, and culminating in an enormous amount of releases last year. Many were only “grime” in the most tangential sense, and many certainly weren’t all that great, but a pretty good amount of highly original, forward-thinking stuff still came out if this department. The icy, hyper angular anti-grooves of the “cryo grime” subgenre had pretty much already culminated in 2013 with Logos' Cold Mission, and not much has been added since, but a couple of brilliant EPs – Air Max '97s Progress and Memory, Blooms Hydraulicsdid managed to take it into even more abstract extremes in 2014. Related in its quest for inorganic groovelessness, a much more interesting development was what could be called entropic grime, where the clinical, sharp and shiny angles of cryo grime were taken over by stumbling, dysfunctional zombie-rhythms, and buried in layers of sonic dirt, dead sounds in a state of perpetual decomposition. SD Laikas awesome That's Harakiri-album was more or less the definitive release in this respect, though Filter Dreads Midi Space ep was perhaps even better. While his Space Loops lp - released on tape in 2013 and re-released on vinyl in 2014 - offered a slightly more polished and coherent version of the SD Laika aesthetic, Midi Space infused the style with a bizarre playfulness - there's synthetic colours and rubbery syncopations worthy of the best bitstep, yet it all come off as strangely faded, washed out, hazy: Yesterdays amazing cybertoys twisted and broken, their operating systems overtaken by depression.

Among the most characteristic subgenres of grime in 2014, “new age grime” or perhaps “emo-grime” took the clean, delicate structures of cryo grime and made them, if not exactly “warm”, then at least soft and bright, inviting. Some seemed to think that this approach was somehow wrong by definition (because grime should be “raw” and “road” and “authentic”), and while I do consider that puritan mindset pretty ridiculous, I must admit that I didn't get much into this stuff. Perhaps I'd been won over if Yamanekos Pixel Wave Embrace – seen by many as a key work – had been released on vinyl and not just tape, but another potential key work, Mr. Mitchs Parallel Memories, didn't really do anything for me either, too wistfully emotional and uniformally pretty for my taste. Rather, I think the best suggestion in this area is probably Fatima al Qadiri’s Asiatisch, which is certainly clean, lithe, bright and soft, and at the same time emotional in a wonderfully synthetic, hyper real fashion. Like with SD Laika and Filter Dread, Asiatisch has only a faint, superficial relationship with grime, with just a few artificially inseminated stylistic elements audible, and I do find it kinda silly that these records are being placed under the abstract grime umbrella, but that doesn't mean that they’re not some of the greatest releases of 2014. 

Cryo- emo- and entropic grime was only a small part of 2014s huge abstract grime wave, and some of the best of the rest managed to be simultaneously emotional, atmospheric and highly experimental, while still clearly recognisable as – at least a kind of – actual grime descendants. Sure, they were still clearly not doing grime (or more generally, 'nuum music) “right”, taking it in a deliberately cerebral and arty direction that is far from how the genre was originally supposed to be, but that is exactly why they were actually doing something new and unheard, and why records like Slackk’s moody, melancholic Palm Tree Fire-album or Inkke’s Crystal Children ep were among the best records of 2014. This stuff is to the original grime sound what Ultravox, Japan or Soft Cell were to glam: A clearly new and contemporary take on some related ideas, free of the rock'n'roll/'nuum residue still present in the predecessors. Abstract grime is not 'nuum music, but why should it have to be to be good?

In addition to all the abstract-grime-and-related stuff, 2014 still had quite a few brilliant records scattered throughout different kinds of poststep, as well as some not really belonging there, but perhaps not really belonging anywhere else either. Evian Christs Waterfall-ep and Krampfhaft’s Before We Leave-album both had elements that perhaps could classify them as a kind of avant trap, and as such the closest we got to descendants of the wonky-wobble/ravey bitstep-lineage. On Waterfall, massive riff-blasts and brutal lurch-march rhythms are twisted into dysfunctionally weird shapes, the effect being somewhere between over the top silly, slightly creepy and genuinely intimidating, while Before We Leave tried to convert Krampfhafts idiosyncratic style into a more subtle and understated “big album”-sound, and as a result failed to be the masterpiece it could have been. The soft and polished overall sound made it a pretty big disappointment at first, but in the end that was only really a problem because of, as so often before, the inappropriate length. With repeated listening it eventually managed to show itself as one of the very best of the year, despite its shortcomings; On the first three fourths, Krampfhaft really succeeded in creating a kind of cosmic, slow motion version of his ultra-angular bleep-melodies and neurotic trap/bitstep beats, whether in the form of ravey-yet-sonambulist freak-step like “Superfluid”, “Spinner” and “Toekan”, or isolationist deep sea dreams like “Clip Point” and “Mostly Empty Space”. It's only with the last four tracks that it gets too much – here we're getting too close to cosy, pretty chill out music, completely unnecessary, and only making the album seem pointlessly drawn out. Which is a shame when the rest is so good.

Surprisingly, after some very slim years where the Californian “post hop”-scene more or less seemed to have regressed into standard down tempo dullness, it made a (slight) come back in 2014, with two pretty great albums. Mono/Poly is one of the scenes lesser known artists, even if he has been active almost from the start, and has released a couple of brilliant EPs. Where his tendency towards new age mysticism was a bit of an annoying element on 2010s digital-only Paramatma-album, on Golden Skies he dedicates himself completely to these elements, and surprisingly makes it work. The glittering bleep cascades is a perfect match for the drowsy, mystically sun-kissed sound – a genuinely contemporary, wide-eyed take on cosmic chill out music, where too much stoner down tempo is just safe and cosy. Much the same effect is to be found on the first half of Collapse, debut album by the hitherto unknown – to me at least – Repeated Measure. The sound here is perhaps more “spaced out” cosmic than warm and sunny, but we're still talking slowly drifting sci fi-music with plenty of fractured bleep patterns. What's really noteworthy, though, is the second half, where these bleep patterns are suddenly backed by a much more heavy and angular bottom, effectively turning the music into wobbly bitstep. Where 2013 actually had a surprising amount of amazing new bitstep, that sound practically disappeared since, and in 2014, and the only place it really made a noteworthy appearance was on the second half of Collapse – and brilliantly so!

Of the remaining 2014 highlights, Mesaks Howto Readme took skweee in new directions that made the style less uniquely its own, but also yielded some interesting hybrid forms. Equally eclectic, Jimmy Pés Insomnia bridged ravey wobble-trap and atmospheric, burialesque sadstep (with some nauseating vocals here and there, unfortunately), while Ital Teks Mega City Industry ep offered more of his trademark dreamy, floating footwork (“dreamwork”?), and the hitherto unknown Chainless made the best darkstep record of the year with Grey Veils, brilliantly building on the best parts of Lorn and early Nosaj Thing. Surprisingly, Inga Copelands Copeland, which on the surface really seemed too minimal for its own good, somehow managed to be better than anything else I've heard from Hype Williams, whether as Blunt and Copeland solo or together. Sort of entropic music reaching peak bleak emptiness. As opposite to this as imaginable, Disrupt offered colourful and catchy 8-bit hyper-dub on Dub Matric With Stereo Sound, while The Marvs combination of bouncy beats and ghostly bollywood samples on A King of Tunes was just as catchy - almost pop music.

Which sort of brings us to FKA Twigs' LP1, I guess, which, while not full blown poststep as such, nevertheless used a whole heap of poststep elements, and sort of demonstrated how they could be used as a base for pop music as odd and futuristic as poststep proper. So far, a much more durable and fascinating record than the much talked about XEN by her producer Arca, who goes all the way into the abstract, and is sort of closer to traditional glitch or IDM than Twigs is to traditional pop music. Not that you can't hear the contemporary elements and techniques – and a few tracks do sound genuinely and exhilaratingly new –, but when taken this far into pure soundplay and atmospheric experimentalism, you inevitably end up with something resembling classic Autechre (or, heck, even Eno), at least on the surface level. And this kind of seem to be the way most of the radically experimental electronic scene is heading – away from the unheard structural weirdness of poststep and into the more well established world of “soundscaping”, as heard on records from Holly Herndon, M.E.S.H., TCF and Brood Ma. A lot of this is sort of brilliant (Herndons Platform is one of my 2015 favorites so far), but still also slightly disappointing in the returning to safe formulas. Not unlike the goth lite/proto dream pop of the early 4AD school I guess, delivering light, digestible and comforting “art music” as an alternative to the resurgence of lame and mannered “real rock”, in 2015 mirrored by the endless forms of retro house/retro 'nuum music paying lip service to all the righteous signifiers of true dance and club culture while offering no actual evolution of the form – except perhaps a few slight hybrid elements and updates in overall sound design - i.e. stuff that only people with oppressive historic knowledge would notice, let alone care about. I mean, how desperate do you have to be as a critic to get excited about something as boring and creatively inane as deep tech or jackin house, with nothing to offer except having the right, 'nuumologically correct attitude?

So, yeah, I'm not optimistic I guess. So far, 2015 has had very little to offer, and I don't think the coming years will offer much more than the aforementioned updated electronic art music – nu-IDM, entropic, new synth. The once so exciting engine of weird wobble dubstep has ossified into formulaic stadium trap, and most other attempts at making music simultaneously experimental and dance floor oriented seem to end up as yet more insultingly dull 4/4-house-with-percussion-and-slightly-gritty-basslines-crap. Of course, some of the best artists of the poststep golden age will be hanging on and continue to release great stuff (Debruit is still at it, and Kuedo is back after a looong break), and now and then a few new artists will make surprising anomalies as weird and wonderful as the best of the originals (like Jlin's Dark Energy, perhaps the best of 2015 so far). And I am excited to hear what artists like Felicita, Filter Dread and SD Laika will be doing next. But, in the end, the golden age of poststep is definitively over, as it inevitably would be. I knew it wouldn't last, and so I should most of all just be happy about the unbelievable amount of amazing music that made the last 5-6 years such a thrill to live through, an abundance I hadn't experienced since the first half of the nineties, and not something I had really expected to ever happen again. Yet, while I'm grateful for all this, and still listen to all these records more than anything else (and even find more amazing records from the last five years that I didn't even notice the first time around), there's also something about it that feels very curious, like somehow it wasn't real, it didn't really happen, despite all the concrete evidence, all the groundbreaking records. And indeed, if we're talking about this music being recognised as a golden age, as an abundance of innovation and creativity and shocking futurism, then it didn't really happen. It seems like I'm more or less the only one having this perspective – even Adam Harper has a different focus, both with the music he's championing and with the years he consider the best (to him the years prior to 2010 were the best, and then things got good again only recently, so pretty much exactly the opposite of how I see it).

The question is: why wasn't this golden age recognised as a golden age? I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, and it's a complex problem with no single, simple solution. Answering it really deserves a piece of its own – this is pretty long and pretty delayed already – so I'll postpone my thoughts on that matter for now, and hopefully return soon.