Monday, June 5, 2017

The Golden Hour of the Future

The Golden Hour of the Future
(Black Melody)

Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

It began with musical vomit in the meatwhistle. 

That sounds gross, and possibly perverse: let me elaborate. 

Musical Vomit, a noise/Dada/proto-punk ensemble, was Ian Craig Marsh's first group, and it was spawned and nurtured at  Sheffield's Meatwhistle, a  Council-funded arts laboratory/performance space for bright teenagers. Post-Vomit, Marsh teamed up with fellow electronics enthusiast Martyn Ware as The Future. Then, with a haircut called Philip Oakey displacing original singer Adi 'Clock DVA' Newton, the Future evolved into The  Human League: the first post-punk group to loudly talk up Pop as a Better Way, only to spend three years of thwarted agony as an, ugh, "cult band" (a dirty word in League lingo), all the while watching synthpop peers like Numan and OMD and even John bloody Foxx beat them to the charts. In the face of internal acrimony and creative deadlock, it took an inspired management suggestion (by Bob Last, whose Fast Product label had released the debut single "Being Boiled") to transform one quasi-pop failure into two massive, fully bona fide pop successes: the Human League of "Don't You Want Me", the Heaven 17 of "Temptation".

These 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal, are fascinating because they show how post-punk was in large part simply the resumption of progressive and art-rock, after the brief back-to-basics blip of ramalalama three-chord rock that was punk. It's not insignificant that the League were signed by Virgin (alongside Charisma and Harvest one of the premier prog-rock imprints,  home of Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream).  By 1979 Virgin had smoothly repositioned itself as a premier label for  "modern": basically, prog with better hair, streamlined sonic aesthetics,  and a  less-is-more attitude to musical chops. So the title of one tune on this CD, "New Pink Floyd", isn't entirely ironic.

What decisively shifted them pop-wards was hearing Giorgio Moroder. Opening track "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed.  "This is a song for all you bigheads who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with", announces Oakey, "We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you." His sneer makes plain the streak of hipster one-upmanship behind pro-pop proselytizing: basically, highbrows aligning themselves with lowbrow pulp and against middlebrow student notions of "cool" and profundity. Driven by an idea of pop, The Human League only reached it when they found their own Moroder in Martin Rushent.

In these spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from 1977---half-a-decade before "Love Action" and "Fascist Groove Thang"---what you hear is a group that has as much  in common with Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Chic (the reference points circa Dare and Penthouse and Pavement). Much of Golden Hour is brilliant; the remainder is either charming or, at bare minimum, interesting. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz";  the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his  most ethereal;  "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face",  "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations. 

Best of all is the closing "Last Man on Earth": ten minutes of cold electronic beauty that fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title. Overall, Golden Hour shows how under-rated both Human League and Heaven 17 (just check Side Two of Penthouse, essentially an extension of Reproduction/Travelogue) have been as electronic pioneers. "We are the Human League, there are no guitars…"


Friday, June 2, 2017

Trance + psy-trance (1998)


The New York Times, November 29th 1998

by Simon Reynolds 

The Esperanto of electronic dance music, trance is probably the most popular rave sound in the world. Although this kinetic, hypnotic music has maintained a presence on the American rave scene since the style emerged in the mid-90's, trance seems to be rising to a new level of prominence in this country.
Where early trance was generally harsh, minimal and coldly cosmic, more recent strains of the genre emphasize melody, recognizably human emotions and a warmly devotional aura. All this makes trance a populist, accessible alternative to the experimental abstraction of hip rave styles like techno and drum-and-bass. In particular, trance's dewey-eyed sentimentalism seems to be attracting younger American ravers who are still in the honeymoon phase of using Ecstasy, an illicit drug that many users believe heightens feelings of tenderness and empathy.

Encouraged by the expanding American audience for trance, Paul Oakenfold, Britain's leading mainstream trance DJ, has launched an offensive on these shores, with regular club tours and the major-label release of his CD Tranceport. The German trance pioneer Paul Van Dyk also released not one but two albums in America this fall. And there's a growing following for the fiercer underground style known as psychedelic trance, with a flurry of parties in New York and the start of an American offshoot by the English label Blue Room Released.

Trance's roots lie in the pulsating metronomic rhythms of Eurodisco, a sound pioneered by the Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder in 1977 and popularized by his protege Donna Summer. But trance really emerged as a distinct subgenre of rave music in Berlin and Frankfurt around 1993. Some aficionados identify 'Visions of Shiva', a 1992 collaboration between Mr. Van Dyk and the producer Cosmic Baby, as the first trance tune.

 Another seminal track was the group Hardfloor's 'Hardtrance Acperience' (1992), which resurrected the classic Roland 303 bass synthesiser sound of the late 80's genre called acid house. With its squeaky timbre and snaking patterns, the 303 remains a trance staple, driving dancers into a Dionysian frenzy.

Recently voted the world's No. 1 DJ in an industry poll conducted by the English dance magazine DJ, Mr. Oakenfold is famous for his role in kickstarting Britain's rave movement with his 1988 acid house club, Spectrum. Having dominated British club culture for a decade, Mr. Oakenfold is now directing his energy toward America. For the next two years, he plans to play at least 50 DJ dates a year in America. On the recording front, Tranceport, a collection of trance tracks by various artists mixed and blended by Mr. Oakenfold, has just been released by the Reprise subsidiary Kinetic, alongside the group Binary Finary's single, '1998', the year's biggest trance anthem. Tranceport features Mr. Van Dyk's remix of '1998'. Mr. Van Dyk's two albums, 45 Rpm (1994) and Seven Ways (1996), sold so well as imports that they have recently been released domestically by Novamute; his new album, Avenue of Stars, will follow next May.
Despite its crowd-pleasing power, trance tends to be despised by dance cognoscenti, who prefer more avant-garde styles like techno (a synthesizer- and drum-based instrumental music) and jungle (a hyperkinetic hybrid of hip-hop and reggae). These hipsters regard overt melody and explicit emotion (both of which trance features in abundance) as "cheesy" — that is to say, too close to normal pop music.

In contrast, Mr. Van Dyk talks of trying "to create little songs, not just rhythm tracks" and stresses the importance of expressing feelings through music. Where techno and jungle producers use terminology from astrophysics or biogenetics in the titles of their tracks, Mr. Van Dyk's most famous anthem, 'For an Angel', was inspired by meeting his girlfriend. Trance's melodramatic expressiveness often makes it verge on being a computer-era update of 19th-century symphonic music. In a similar quest for harmoniousness, Mr. Oakenfold doesn't simply synchronize tracks by tempo but combines them according to musical key, arrangement and dynamics.

Trance comes in several subgenres. As well as the lushly textured, lovey-dovey end of the spectrum represented by Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk, there's also a more bombastic strain of trance pioneered by labels like Noom along with a ferocious variant known as filthy acid techno that's popular in Britain's underground network of illegal raves in abandoned buildings. 

But the most significant subgenre is psychedelic trance. Where Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk's brand of trance favors wistful, naive melodies, psychedelic trance features ornate riffs and mandala-swirly patterns, plus an array of sonic effects that mimic LSD-induced sensations like synesthesia and quicksilver light-trails. The sound is rising in popularity on both the East and West Coasts of America. In New York, promoters like Tsunami and In-Trance-It hold parties with increasing regularity. Vain, a downtown club, holds a weekly psychedelic night, and House of Trance, a record store in the Village, is devoted to the genre.

Psychedelic trance was originally associated with Goa in South West India, the drug-and-dance paradise that lures raver tourists from across the world. By 1996, clubs had sprung up throughout Europe offering a surrogate version of the Goa experience. In September 1996, the promoter John Emmanuel Gartmann held America's first psychedelic trance rave, Return to the Source — a now legendary party at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. These days Mr. Gartmann's company, Tsunami, holds a psychedelic party every second Friday at Vinyl, a club in TriBeCa.
In the beginning, Tsunami events drew a crowd that was 80 percent European expatriates, members of what Mr. Gartmann calls "the international traveling set" — nomads who spend the winter party season going to raves in India and Thailand. For a long time, the only Americans at Tsunami parties, it seemed, were students from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. "My only explanation is that maybe they'd traveled a lot during their vacations," Mr. Gartmann said. Now Tsunami parties consist of 60 percent American ravers, who are turning on, tuning in and dropping in on the psychedelic scene because of its euphoric energy.
Psychedelic trance parties simulate the Goa experience as closely as possible. In India, parties on the beach or in the jungle run from sunset to dawn, whereupon dancers pick up flutes and conches to invoke the sun. In this spirit, Tsunami raves are structured so that the music progresses from "night music" (hard and sinister) through spiritually uplifting "sunrise music" to the sheer elation of "morning music".
The fashion and decor that accompany psychedelic trance also originated in India. "We like to get dressed up for the festival," said Mr. Gartmann. "Women get adorned. They look like goddesses. It's a celebration, an honoring, infused with the spiritual energy of India." Dancers wear fluorescent-patterned clothes that glow under ultraviolet light, T-shirts decorated with fractal-like patterns and sweat pants made of paisley and tie-dyed fabric. Some women adopt a beach bum look (white halter-tops, hair swept away from the face using white plastic sunglasses), accessorized with luminous nose rings, bracelets and bindis. Fluorescent face-paint and hair dye are also popular. For men, a common look is the unshaven backpacker style. At Tsunami's parties, the walls and ceilings are covered with gaudy streamers, papier-mache sculptures of magic mushrooms, butterfly mobiles and retina-scorching mandala tapestries.
As might be expected from the name, the psychedelic trance scene is surrounded by neo-hippy rhetoric, a syncretic mish-mash of mystical notions drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Western religions. As such, it resonates with the vogue for Eastern spirituality in late-90's pop culture, from the Beasties Boys' devotion to Tibetan Buddhism to Madonna's flirtation with the kabbalah and yoga. Coincidentally, Madonna's latest album, Ray of Light, is steeped in the influence of the poppier end of trance, courtesy of its producer, William Orbit.
Eddie Bang, who works at the New York techno store Satellite, says that for psychedelic trance fans the music itself is like a religion. "They're tribally devoted to the scene," he said. In many respects, they are like Deadheads, another movement of mostly white, middle-class youths drawn to gaudy neo-hippy clothing, trance-dancing and tripping on hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy.
Spiritual vibes and loud colors aside, what makes the psychedelic scene so attractive to its devotees is the joyous frenzy of the crowd, which bounces and flails with a fervor rarely seen on New York dance floors. And although the music is generally held in critical disdain, psychedelic trance can be exhilirating. Performing live at Tsunami's recent Totally Twisted rave, the British producer Hallucinogen transported the dancers into a sonic maelstrom of phosphorescent filigree. Where many trance artists are minimalists, Hallucinogen is a maximalist. His tracks are continually morphing; every couple of bars, a new arpeggiated riff comes writhing out of the amazingly intricate mix.

Because of its Teutonic roots, trance is sometimes criticized as an unfunky form of dance music. In trance, creativity does operate largely on the level of melody and layering of texture rather than rhythm (the usual province of dance music). But adventurous producers like Hallucinogen are expanding trance's rhythmic palette of clockwork beats and chugging bass lines by weaving in dub reggae-style echo effects and speeded-up hip-hop beats. From the growing sophistication of the music to the irresistible energy it catalyzes on the dance floor, psychedelic trance is ready to explode into wider popular consciousness.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

letter from NYC - outlook for '93: grim

LETTER FROM NYC: outlook for '93: grim
Melody Maker, December 1992

by Simon Reynolds

     Since it's that time of year when everyone's looking to the
future, let me weigh in with my two cents worth: not predictions, so
much as patterns for '93 in American rock.  This much is obvious:
the major labels are still fixated on that delusory figment, "the
next Nirvana".  Having signed most of Nirvana's grunge peers, and
scraped the bottom of that barrel, they're currently harvesting the
next crop: bands whose development has been (mis)shaped
by the success of "Nevermind".

   So if you thought the first, "authentic" wave was dire enough,
gird thy lug-holes for the likes of Kyuss, Stone Temple Pilots, and
Wool.  These neo-grungers occupy a constricted triangle of terrain
whose points are Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and Helmet.  Their
vocalists all bellow in that godawful Soundgarden/Alice In Chains
pseudo-blues style, like Joe Cocker being crushed between two slabs
of conrete.  Kyuss' "Blues For The Red Sun" LP, for instance, is
a dismal slog of down-tuned guitars and sluggish tempos.  The video
for the single "Thong Song" is set in some kind of sallow-lit
dungeon, while the song itself oscillates between a stop-start,
crippled riff and ineffectual blasts of rage, like a prisoner in
solitary trying to escape by using his head as a battering ram.

     If Kyuss are singing the modern blues, as the LP title seems to
claim, this is the blues as sung by Ozzy Osbourne and filtered
through Henry Rollins.  Rollins' agonised throes of failed, flailing
masculinity, as first and best heard on Black Flag's "Damaged", were
a seminal influence on Nirvana.  And Rollins' recent song "Low Self
Esteem" captures the (dis)spirit of grunge perfectly.  Musclebound
but impotent, grunge is masculine, but never macho in a flamboyant
Jagger/Plant/Axl way.  Grunge isn't the new cock rock, it's the
castration blues.

    And so bands like Kyuss don't swagger, they strain: their
riffage sounds strenuous, like it's perpetually on the verge of
sprouting a hernia. In a recent issue of Details, Rollins writes
eloquently about his almost mystical attitude to working out. He
sees "The Iron" as his only true friend: submitting to its regime,
he learns to channel his aggression and confront his own limits.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rollins is a survivalist, a One
Man Army, at war with himself.  If Rollins is parted from his
weights for any prolonged period, he sinks into a morass of
despondency, like a career soldier who's been demobilised against
his will.  With Rollins, Kyuss, et al, rock is a kind of spiritual
work-out, a fortification of the self in order to face the minefield
of everyday life.

    There's another strain of US rock activity, bands who don't
fight abjection but succumb to it: Come, Swell, Codeine, Toiling
Midgets, and other inhabitants of the abyss.  Where the turgid toil
of Rollins-rock is eventually numbing, this music is plain numb:
Come should really call themselves Coma. Again, "the blues" are
waved around by some as a reference point, but I can't hear it,
except in so far as this music is black-and-blue with emotional
bruises, blue like the rigor mortis of an overdose victim.

     If there's a gleam of brightness on the bleak horizon of US
rock, it takes the form not of positivity but peculiarity: the
absurdist rock of lo-fi art-punks like Royal Trux, Thinking Fellers
Union Local 282, Cul de Sac, Sun City Girls, Fantastic Palace, Wall
Drug, and others.  Operating somewhere to the left of Pavement and
Mercury Rev, these bands are heavily influenced by the warped and
wired fractures of The Fall, the fissile soundscapes of Faust and
Can, and Sonic Youth's oldstyle guitar-reinvention. Although they
have a similar experimental approach to the British avant-rock
fringe (Moonshake, Earwig, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, Papa
Sprain etc), the US weirdos are still somewhat restricted by their
guitar-fetishism.  US rock has yet to embrace the psychedelic
possibilites of sampling: it still thinks disco sucks.  The two
Brit-rock pinnacles of the Nineties-Primal Scream's "Higher Than The
Sun" and MBV's "To Here Knows When"-could never have happened
without rave culture.  But even with their lo-fi Luddite tendencies,
these art-punks know how to marvel, rather than wallow in the mire
of moroseness.

[footnote: now i would much rather listen to the mire-of-morose bands of that era - Alice of Chains above all, but probably Kyuss and possibly even Wool whoever the fuck they were - than any of them lo-fi record-clerk collector/zine-ed type bands]