27 March 2012

This is Entertainment, Part III

Die kinder sind in ordnung: Einstürzende Neubauten,
anticipating the future of industrial music

Phil popped up the comments last time around offering that TG constituted a sonic "Year Zero -- a band who were previously unthinkable." True enough, I suppose. Returning to Simon's remarks about the psychedelic underpinnings of early industrial music, I tend to see it as an inversion of an aesthetic, of what had constituted music-making a decade prior. That being that it constituted a centering on the other end of the process -- focusing on the blurred and distorted sound-for-its-own-sake segues and embellishments that were such a part of psychedelia, so often the product of the (electro-acoustic) studio-as-instrument method of crafting sound, and expanding it out into an entire sonic pursuit.1

Or that's the way it started out, anyway. Up to that point, the industrial moniker had remained fairly open and vaguely descriptive -- referring to little more than a loose and dirty approach to electronic sound and tape collage. But by the early-mid 1980s it had begun to ossify into a descriptive term for the trademark sound of a particular subgenre. It's at this point – with the emergence of Einstürzende Neubauten and later Test Department, each offering up the din of scraped and pummeled metal on metal -- that one began to sense that the industrial label was being explored a tad too literally; and that in the process the whole enterprise was drifting into more limited (if not self-limiting) territory.

And then there was the model offered SPK's Machine Age Voodooo, which in the end proved to be the biggest harbinger of things to come. For anyone who had taken an interest in industrial music, the middle 1980s offered two alternatives. The first was to follow the newly emergent rhythmic/pop developments into the realm of the burgeoning "industrial dance" scene, or burrow further into the amusical sonic abstraction. The second could be accessed by way of the then-proliferating first-gen cassette underground -- the domain of low-budget electro-acoustic "noise music" of the Merzbow/RRRecords variety. As far as such stuff was concerned, the first option didn't hold much appeal for me at the time, so I ended up going with the latter.

* * * *

At any rate. Inasmuch as the Cabs zag into "urban" terrain might've constituted a radical deviation from their earlier material, it wasn't altogether unsurprising. There'd long been funk underpinnings in their music in the years leading up to stint on the Virgin label. And of course there was the pervasive post-punk flirtation -- for reasons both aesthetic and political -- with disco, funk, and hip-hop. Add to that the existent cross-pollination occurring between the music centers of New York and London, with acts like the Clash, A Certain Ratio, and New Order having already courted the NYC post-disco dancefloor set, not to mention Grace Jones covering tunes by the likes of Joy Division and The Normal.2

It was in this context that I heard Cabaret Voltaire at the time, having belatedly encountered them as they were transitioning into their Mach II incarnation; and it was into that context that their Virgin material fell; and I'd sometimes put a track like "Big Funk" or "The Web" on a mixtape alongside something by Mantronix. All of which played a big role in shaping the way I'd listen to certain types of music thereafter -- particularly in a preference for gravitating to things that married a percussive kick to a tendency toward experimentation and/or abstraction. So for the sake of bringing this series of posts to what will most likely be regarded as a thoroughly indulgent, subjective, and unsatisfactory close, here's a survey of some favorites throwback jawns from back-when...

High school, this was. The 12" that played to near album length, four different mixes of the same track stretching out to past the half-hour mark. And I remember repeatedly playing it start to finish without getting bored. What helped was that each version offered something different each time in the way the beat switched up or broke down at certain points in the track. Perhaps Arthur Baker's finest moment in term in of beatbox programming – an 808 workout that could bury novice breakers. When Quincy Jones's Qwest label signed to group for U.S. distribution and put together a "best of" package a couple years later, someone at the company decided that this track already sounded "too dated" and they gave it the more 1987 remix treatment. It sucked.

For the most part, hip-hop was slow in catching on in the part of the country I was living at the time -- the deep South. Too "urban" to translate to most people's experience, and most of the stuff that was coming out of New York lacked something in the "swing" department that made people want to move. The big exception was electro funk. But as Dave Tompkins put it some years ago in his Wire mag Miami Bass Primer, the verdict from down South was on much of what came from up East was "too many spacesuits and not enough boom." Which was why the region stepped up to fill the breach, and the Southern booty bass sound came into being in the early-mid 1980s.3

I had been up on Mantronix since I'd copped the 12" for "Bassline." It seemed Mantronix had some clout down the way, because -- as some friends put it -- the stuff had "that boom." Word elsewhere had it that the outfit was responsible for the "noisiest" stuff coming out of NY. Not surprising, given the assault that was "Hardcore Hip-Hop," and Kurtis Mantronix's studio-based editing method of chopping samples and beats in such a way that they simultaneously seemed to jerk and punch at the listener in tightly compressed rhythmic clusters. But this one (above) from their second album made my jaw hit the floor when it first came out. With everything atomized in an amusical, percussive onslaught that made the Art of Noise's "Beatbox" sound like Montavani.

If Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo hadn't gotten his hands on Schoolly and Code Money and whipped them into a semi-viable commercial act, who know how this record would've gone down in history -- most likely as the most obscure and bafflingly shitty-sounding jawn in hip-hop history. Run DMC had made streamlined minimalism their calling card, but with his debut Schoolly D coughed up the most rough-hewn variant imaginable. Sounded like it was recorded in an underground cavern, and too ploddingly sluggish to be "funky" in any conventional sense. Utterly baffling to take in at first exposure, but its brazen perversity made it endearing.

Here's where me and the friends mentioned above parted ways; as in, "yo, you mean you actually like that shit?" What killed me was how the sound referred back to its own material means of production: The crackle of surface noise, the scratchy intro guitar bit (absolutely contrary to the standard Rick Rubin style of the day) dropped way down in the mix, the drums and the voice (that voice -- which is another story in itself) suddenly jumping out to knock you backwards. Topped off with Terminator X cutting up the sound effect of screeching car tires, which was when all the street-level musique concrète chickens came home to roost. It was like one of those mind-blown times when you have an epiphany within the first 20 seconds of having dropped the needle into the lead-in groove, the sort of thing that tells you from here on out you won't be listening to anything with the same set of ears ever again.

Up to a point, much of what I'd heard coming out of the acid-house/rave-culture scene (which admittedly wasn't a huge amount) never struck me as anything where the energy translated into anything to exclusively limited to the dancefloor. But this, my first (be it ever so humble) exposure to breakbeat hardcore, stopped me in my tracks in a "what.the.fuck.is.this?" kinda way. I wanted more, as much as I could get. When I finally heard a jungle a year or so later, I was even much thrilled and enthralled. But it's probably better I don't get started on jungle, because we could be here a while. So to keep things moving...

This one had a rhythm track that immediately pulled me in -- a kick and a bass pulse that restlessly twisted and sidewinded beneath the bleeps and the lull of the track's syrupy ambient washes. And something about it struck a familiar chord. When I read the credits and saw that the Cabs' Richard H. Kirk was one of the parties responsible, it suddenly made sense. I guess the retro use of the electro-era "claptrap" effect should've been an obvious tip-off.

No surprise to later learn that the duo behind Autechre were a pair of cheeb-headed former b-boys who'd never gotten beyond their love for electro and 808s, because it was always lurking -- in some form or another -- at the core of their early "armchair techno" material. But after Chiastic Slide, their recorded releases quickly drifted into the increasingly sterile, coldly bloodless and clinically lab-coated ultra-abstract formalist sketchbook mode.

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1. As epitomized by how the Cabs existing throughout their first several years as an attic-bound home-recording outfit -- messing about with ring modulators and sundry effects. Ultimately it's the same psychedelic tendency that lay at the heart of the work of Nurse With Wound, et al.

2. In certain instances, one could argue that artist x or y was attempting to make a crossover or "entryist" move. As far as the Cabs are concerned, it was more of a "next logical/desired step" in the face of aesthetic fatigue or exhaustion. As far as post-TG activity went, Chris & Cosey would tuck heavily into dance-pop in the latter half of the decade. Psychic TV offered up a few 12"s to that effect, as well -- albeit in a very smug and sneeringly ironic fashion.

3. At the time, I didn't realize that the Southern Bass sound was such a strictly regional thing; but there was a period where thought the sound (due to its pervasiveness) comprised about 70% of the hip-hop universe.

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