Melody Maker, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
A genre-without-a-name is emerging, an omni-genre wherein techno succumbs to
an influx of ideas from jungle, trip hop, all over, and gladly sacrifices its
identity. This music is not particularly danceable (it makes no attempt to
placate the needs of ravers or DJ's), but neither is it ambient (too restlessly
interesting for chill-out). It's art-tekno, in so far as the only listener
response that's appropriate is fascinated contemplation. All you can do is marvel
at the bizarre audio-sculptures, let your ears wander through the
sound-installations, and boggle at the sonic contraptions as they go about their
pointless, captivating tasks.
How is this new zone of music-making different from "armchair techno", as
pushed from and at the hip by Warp Records in 1992/93 with its "electronic
listening music" concept and "Artificial Intelligence" compilations? Well,
intelligent techno was always limited by purism (no breakbeats, associated
with 'ardkore rave) and piety (too much reverent nostalgia for Detroit). As a
result, "intelligent techno was definitely rather anaemic on the rhythmic side",
as Kingsuk Biswas of Bedouin Ascent puts it. One story in 1995 concerns how
jungle has given techno a hefty and sorely needed kick up the arse, forcing it to
lively-up its ideas about rhythm. Richard James, for instance, responded with the
inspired breakbeat-tomfoolery of AFX's "Hangable Auto Bulb" EP.
Perhaps it's now possible to speak of a new perimeter region where post-rock
and post-techno, post-jungle and post-trip hop, bleed into each other; a zone
where refugees, fleeing the shackles of genre and the expectations of scene,
gather to trade ideas. This new anti-category includes loads of
artists and labels not covered in this article: artists like Mu-ziq,
Techno-Animal, Boymerang, Scanner, Seefeel/Disjecta, David Toop, Voafose, labels
like Clear, Sahko, Staalplatt, Leaf and Lo Recordings (whose "Extreme
Possibilities, Vol.1" and "Collaborations" compilations are good introductions to some of the key players in this field). But even among the figures dealt with herein, the sonic
and emotional spectrum ranges vastly, from the irreverent humour of Wagon Christ
and playful Dada wit of Mouse On Mars, to the spirituality of Bedouin Ascent and
the forbidding intellect of Mille Plateaux.
WAGON CHRIST & PLUG
Cornwall born-and-bred and buddy of the Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert emerged in
'95 as a major purveyor of barely classifiable, semi-danceable weird-shit. After
the glacial ambience of his Wagon Christ 1994 debut "Phat Lab Nightmare", Vibert
veered off into cheesy-but-deranged trip hop with "Throbbing Pouch" and its
attendant EP's "Rissalecki" and "Redone". Better still are Vibert's mindboggling
peculiar forays into drum & bass as Plug. The two Plug EP's so far--"Visible Crater
Funk" and "Rebuilt Kev"--take breakbeat-science and bass-mutation to levels of
grotesque convolution rivalled only by artcore maestros like Droppin' Science.
Warning: your limbs will get tied in knots if you're fool enough to dance.
Needless to say, the reaction from the junglist community has been muted, to put
"One of my mates did try to play a Plug track in a club," says the
well-spoken 22 year old Vibert. "He got into a huge row, this guy kept saying
'this ain't jungle'. I think the guy was right, actually!"
In Wagon Christ, Plug, and his numerous remixes, Vibert has an alchemist's
approach to sampling. It's all about "getting good sounds out of absolute shit.
I listen to piles of cheesy records. For some reason I tend to only sample stuff
I don't like! One friend thought 'A Polished Solid', my EP on Mo Wax, was about
that: me polishing up a turd! Actually I got the title from a ripped up packet
of Rizlas. There was an offer for 'a polished solid brass lighter', but the only
words left were 'a polished solid'."
Wacky titles are one of the many charms of Vibert's output, from the saucy
"Throbbing Pouch" to the daftly-monikered Plug EP's. "Visible Crater Funk",
"Rebuilt Kev" and the forthcoming "Versatile Crib Funk" are all anagrams of
'Luke Francis Vibert'. "I'm running out of variations now," laments Luke.
"There's some really rude ones, like Fuck Arse Brain, but nothing nice!"
Vibert's ability to ooze his way through the barriers between genres is a
prime example of the 'perimeter' theory of: an omni-genre where tekno, ambient,
trip hop, jungle etc are all being jumbled up. Not being tied to a particular
scene or community = freedom to drift.
"All the people I know make music in their bedrooms, and it's more personal
'cos you're not thinking about clubs. When I go to a studio, at Rising High or
Mo' Wax, I see people working with the specific intention to make people dance.
But working in your bedroom, it's more like art."
Out there on the perimeter, they're all stoned immaculate. Vibert once told
an interviewer that drugs were his greatest influence: "they're my best mate,
they changed the way I heard everything".
"Actually, I said 'hash is my best mate'!", says Luke. "That's not true
anymore, but originally it did open my mind to different sorts of music. Cos I
was a bit narrow-minded. Smoking went hand in hand with getting into dub and
Dope is one reason Vibert's work is so disorientating. Another is the
queasy fluctuation of pitch he often employs, making the Wagon Christ stuff sound
like a cross between Schoenberg and jazz-funk. Luke explains that there's a
feature on his sampler that allows him to modulate pitch and explore fractions of
a tone. This 'microtonality' is shared by lots of avant-garde composers and
non-Western musics (e.g. Indian ragas), which sound weird to our ears because
they break with the clear pitch intervals that govern Western classical and pop
alike. Hip hop often has that dissonant quality too, because, Luke explains,
"when you put samples together, they're usually not going to be in tune. If you
get them synched up time-wise, they're almost always off-key. And that's a
wicked effect--the samples sort of gnaw at each other!".
Listen to Bedouin Ascent's recent LP "Music For Particles", and you quickly
realise that, for its 27 year old creator Kingsuk Biswas, percussion is the
thing. The Bedouin sound --a shimmying mist of drum machine
polyrhythms and synth tics, interwoven with ribbons
of ultra-minimal melody--is steeped in the influence of African and North Indian
Classical music (the latter thanks to Bis' Bengali background).
"Western music emphasises harmony and melody over rhythmic complexity," Bis
explains. "The most empty music, I thought, was the most melodious music, and
it's easy to indulge in that with an electronic keyboard. But with West African
percussion ensembles, melody is the product of 40 drummers jamming together; the
boundary between melody, rhythm and harmony is blurred. That discovery was the
holy grail for me!," he gushes, adding that he aims to achieve the same effect
with drum machines and computers. "As for Indian classical ragas, that music
contains some of the funkiest rhythms on the planet!".
Dub is another crucial influence; as a ten year old he'd listen, amazed,
to Dave Rodigan's late '70s show on Capital. "It was mad, mental music, beats
stopping and weird noises, lots of toasting." Later, after a spell as a punk-
rocker, he got into the Adrian Sherwood/On U skool of dub-terrorism and early
'80s avant-funk (A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo). Then came electro and street soul.
Being Asian, Bis says, gives him the "privilege" of being marginal. "It's
made me more objective, cos I'm less involved. I can look at the cultural
institutions that surround me and just laugh at them. Because of this, my music
background is very broad, I'm willing to penetrate anything I encounter and find
something positive in it."
After a period of guitar-noise experimentation, Bis got into electronic
music circa 1988's aciiied explosion. "At the time, I was listening to minimalist
composers like Steve Reich, and it was thrilling to see music based on the same
ideas become mainstream. To go to a club and hear things that were far out was
really exciting. That hasn't really changed--the barriers between avant-garde
and populist music are still totally irrelevant". Enthused by the idea of
'aciiied as avant-gardism for the masses', and inspired by performance art, Bis
actually busked his early electronic experiments: "I'd take my drum machine out
into shopping centres in the middle of Cardiff, and people would gawp!".
"Music For Particles" stems from these early days. (As with most art-tekno
boffins, Bis has a huge backlog of material; hence the timelag). "Particles"
chimes in with the lofty titles of his earlier releases--1994's "Science, Art and
Ritual", EP's like "Pavilions of the New Spirit" and "Further Self-Evident
Truths"--in that it's informed by Bis' interest in the 'new mysticism in
science'. This is the convergence of the latest theories in physics (quantum
mechanics, chaos theory) with the ancient mystical intuitions of the East (Zen,
Tao, etc). Bis is not eager to spell out any of this stuff, though.
"I've never been a preacher, I'm very much an amoralist and a spiritual
anarchist. But there's stuff in the music for those open to it. And if not, fine!
We don't all have to be mystics and eso-terrorists!".
Bedouin Ascent's rhythm-as-melody aesthetic has much in common with jungle,
which Bis loves ("I can't wait for the weekends, it's pirates all the way").
Thankfully, he's savvy enough to be wary of 'intelligent jungle', preferring
instead "jungle that isn't trying to sound like jazz, but is being itself."
Sensible chap, but after all, this is the bloke who uttered the pearl-of-wisdom:
"'intelligent techno' was the most unmusical phenonemon ever".
"Intelligence, as far as I'm concerned, is not a musical virtue. A lot of
the stuff put out as intelligent techno was beautiful, but calling it
'intelligent' misses the point: it was about human enquiry and the abstract, and
those are to do with intuition, not intellect. Primitive impulses. Just the
fact that there are thousands of people in their bedrooms each making thousands
of hours of this music--for no money whatsoever, believe me!--indicates there's a
compulsion to do it. Intelligence is just one facet of music. Personally, I
like to leave things as open as possible, 'cos it's in possibility that exists
From Gas's vapourspace to Steel's cranium-mulching distorto-thrash, from
Global Electronic Network's bleep-scapes to Cristian Vogel's mantric austerity,
Mille Plateaux has one of the most provocative and stimulating catalogues in the
realm of experimental electronica. But what's really unusual about this
Frankfurt-based label is that there's a whole buncha theory behind the weird
Mille Plateaux was founded in 1994 as a sister to the more
dancefloor-oriented hardtekno label Force Inc. According to founder Achim
Szepanski, the aim was to resist the formulaic, self-regulating tedium of trance
and ambient, which Achim disses for their "insistently kitsch and conservative
melodic/harmonic content". Instead, Mille foster a new, "deconstruction-ist" form
of electronic music, based around the opening up of "a continuum of infinite
variations in which the sound material molecularises... Music without center,
radically fractured, heterogenous and conflicting." Music that tries to simulate
the sound of the universal 'rauschen' (a German word meaning both 'rustle' and
A crucial influence is the theories of Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari;
Mille Plateaux is named after their "anti-fascist" manual, "A Thousand Plateaus:
Capitalism & Schizophrenia". Hack your way through the forbidding prose, and
you'll find that Deleuze & Guattari's anti-hierarchical, nomadic thought has lots
of applications to music, from the flow-motion funk of Can to the cut'n'mix
aesthetic of hip hop and jungle.
Achim is particularly interested in D & G's concepts of
"deterritorialisation" and "reterritorialisation". Subcultures and musical
revolutions like punk or rave begin with "deterritorialisation" (the dissolution
of boundaries and rules, a breakthrough into new cultural space), but are always
inevitably "reterritorialized" (from within, by the emergence of orthodoxies and
self-imposed barriers; from without, by corporate exploitation). Rave started as
anarchy (illegal parties, pirate radio, social/racial/sexual mixing) but quickly
became a form of cultural fascism. Achim talks of how "techno today is
stabilised and regulated by an overcoding machine (the combination of major
labels, rave organisations, mass media)". Similarly, Ecstasy--once liberating,
enabling ravers to merge with the sound-system to become a gigantic "desiring
machine"--has become brain-bludgeoning escapism, with punters necking more and
more pills of dubious origin. Decrying ravers who use E as "a mother substitute
(Ecstasy can be your new Mommy)", Achim talks of using drugs to experience "audio
hallucinations" and other forms of schizophrenic experience.
Attracted by its "paranoia" and sensory chaos, Achim and Force Inc were
precocious fans of UK hardcore breakbeat. Alongside Mille Plateaux, they set up
the Riot Beats label to document the fledgling German jungle scene. The sub-label
is run by Alec Empire, a whizzkid who makes Kraut-jungle tracks under various
aliases, leads the agit-prop hardcore unit Atari Teenage Riot, and puts out
sombre experimental electronica under his own name via Mille Plateaux. According
to Empire, Germanic jungle is already over and a new sound--breakbeat-based but
much ruffer, noisier and punk-rock aggressive--is taking over. He calls it
Achim is disappointed by UK jungle's recently aquired respectability and
self-conscious 'seriousness'. "It's only a rip off of Detroit sounds, cheap
melodics like trance," he snorts. He's equally disgusted by trip hop, dissing it
as acid jazz gone digital. Mille Plateaux's riposte is "Electric Ladyland", a
compilation of mid-tempo breakbeat trax that shun trip hop's cheesy, mellow
samples in favour of harsh, abstract sonorities. Achim is also gathering
together a collection of essays about electronic music entitled "Maschinelle
Strategeme", which will be translated into English eventually, and planning a
tribute LP to Gilles Deleuze, who committed suicide a few weeks ago at the age of
70. Mille Plateaux: theory and practice in perfect (dis)harmony.
Oval's "94 Diskont" is the most swoon-inducing record I've heard since My
Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When". Imagine Spacemen 3's "Playing With
Fire" pulverised into a million fluorescent splinters, then tiled into a 'musaic'
of refractory shards. Beautiful, in a insidious, unsettling way.
But to respond to "Diskont" as 'beauty' is to severely misunderstand Oval's
intentions. According to Markus Popp, the Berlin trio's impetus wasn't musical so
much as critical: to expose the "conditions and constraints under which music in
the Nineties is created", and by extension, to interrogate the entire
technology-mediated nature of today's information society.
"Experimentation in music, at least nowadays, is for most people a tame,
safely 'guided tour' through MIDI software and hardware," says Popp. "Most of the
music produced by using this equipment proved to be no more than a predictable
effect of the hardware or software involved."
What he means (or what I THINK he means) is that the sequencing programmes
(e.g. Cubase) used by most artists in techno, jungle, et al, enforce a
standardised sonic syntax that subtly restricts the scope for truly unforeseen
sounds or structural innovations. One way of circumventing this imaginative
lockdown is to exploit the machine's hidden faults or devise improper uses never
intended by the manufacturer. Just as Hendrix made guitar feedback aesthetic, and
hip hoppers abused the stylus and turntable, Oval f*** with digital technology. A
lot of the unearthly drones and disorientating tics that comprise "Diskont" were
created by vandalising CD's with paint, then playing them; other effects came
from dismantling MIDI hardware.
"Vandalising?" says Popp. "In my perspective, the CD treatments are only a
humble attempt to re-establish a decent, tangible, material basis for one of many
possible musical stances in the 1990's. It's our personal, tiny aesthetic margin
for intervention from within software."
Taking the unhappy CD player's anguished noises--glitches, skips, unforeseen
cybermusik the machine makes as it tries to 'guess' what's missing on the
disk--Oval painstakingly constructed the material into the audio-maze that is
"Diskont". Much effort clearly went into making something endlessly listenable
and queerly 'beautiful', yet Oval have confused their admirers by insisting in
earlier interviews that music is NOT one of their interests. Turns out this
isn't strictly true.
"Our effort constantly oscillates between a very conscious and affirmative
use of music technology, and an often clueless, 'critical' abuse of that
technology... We always wanted to offensively suggest something 'new' from
'outside' or 'before' the digital domain. 'Before', in that everything we have
released so far could easily have been done on a couple of reel-to-reel tapes
'Reel' is what my mind does after protracted exposure to Popp's labyrinthine
discourse. But such "cognitive dissonance" is in perfect alignment with what Oval
do sonically. Aural Op Art, "Diskont" confounds your ear's gaze.
MOUSE ON MARS/MICROSTORIA
Sometimes the world of experimental electronica resembles nothing so much as
a kindergarten, full of little boys playing with tekno toys, smearing texture-goo
on the walls and molding sample-stuff like Play-doh. Nobody fits the 'adventure
playground for the imagination' metaphor better than German duo Mouse On Mars.
Andi Toma and Jan St Werner met in a health-food store when they both got
embroiled in an argument over who should get the last packet of Muesli. They
decided to share it. Then they discovered they both made music, and decided to
share sounds. Like the Start-Rite kids of post-tekno, they set off to create
some of the most captivating, enchanted-with-itself electronica around.
Adding weight to the kindermusik theory, their 1994 debut "Vulvaland" got its
title from an imaginary island in "Ausenberger Puppentiste", a kids' TV
marionette-show. "It's called Lummerland," says Jan, "but we adapted it to
Vulvaland. That's our idea of a utopia that's here and now, not in the future
where you can't reach it. Everyone has their own kind of Vulvaland where they
like to go. With the new album "Iahora Tahiti", it's like we've left Vulvaland
and are now ready for adventures. 'Iahora Tahiti' could be a pirate cry--'we
MOM treat their machines like playmates. "We don't like to control them,"
says Andi. "We trust them, let them do their own thing. If the computer goes
mad because there's a thunderstorm coming and too much static in the air, and it
makes a strange noise, we are very happy to use it. The machines have maximum
freedom, the people have maximum freedom; they should care for each other."
"There's always something about a machine that's unique," adds Jan. "You have to
find those hidden features, because this is what makes the machine interesting."
MOM build up their music from multiple layers of exquisitely naive,
music-box melodies. "I like music-boxes a lot," says Jan. "It's magical--like
someone smiling really strangely. I always get, how you say, a goose-skin?
Goosepimples!". Simple melodies are preferred, because they don't distract from
MOM's real priority, "the melody of sound": succulent, stroke-able textures, and
stereophonic effects that make you feel like you're inside a 3D, fairytale
Andi & Jan are inspired as much by the Beach Boys and Krautrockers Can and
Neu!, as by techno. Appropriately, they're all set to embark on separate
collaborations with fellow Neu!-heads Stereolab and MOM's post-rockin' Too Pure
labelmates Pram. Brian Eno has also declared an interest in working with them.
Right now, though, there's Microstoria, Jan's side project with Oval's Markus
Popp, which has spawned the remarkable album "Init Ding"; Popp describes it as
"even more abstract, immaterial and unintentional than Oval, in so far as most of
the tracks actually played themselves."