late 1994 or early 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Imagine, if you will, a scene without a location, a
community of misfits, a loose confederation of exiles and
prophets-without-honour. Bands--like Main, Disco Inferno,
God/Ice/Techno-Animal, Moonshake, Laika, Seefeel, Bark
Psychosis, Papa Sprain, Scorn, Orang, Pram, Stereolab,
Insides--who are gradually linking up into a network as they
drift further out from the indie mainstream.
For want of anything snappier, I call this phenomenon
'post-rock' because, technically and ideologically, that's
precisely what it is. Post-rock bands use rock
instrumentation, guitars/bass/drums, for non-rock ends.
Guitar is deployed not to generate riffs, but as a source of
timbres, drones, effects-treated textures etc. Post-rock is
music that happens along the vertical (layers) as opposed to
horizontal (dynamics); music that opens up space (aural,
imaginary) as opposed to developing through time
(verse/chorus/solo). Increasingly, post-rock bands resort to
technology like samplers, sequencers, MIDI etc when they
can't take 'reinvention of the guitar' any further.
Examples: DISCO INFERNO wiring up their guitar, drums and
bass to MIDI-computers, so that each string, each part of the
kit, cues different samples; SEEFEEL embracing the
soundsculpting and remixology techniques of dub and techno.
As well as a musical break with rock methodology, post-
rock severs itself from rock'n'roll ideas like 'youth',
'community', populism. Post-rock bands have responded,
consciously or unconsciously, to the industry-sponsored
monolith of mediocrity that is "alternative", by reviving the
old ideals of 'independent music' (back before indie labels
became merely a farm-system for the majors). They have given
up the idea of mass success or even indie cult-hood, and
accepted the idea of being marginal, forever. Drifting,
disgusted, from the disgrace of grunge, they now find
themselves comrades-in-arms with avant-gardists who've always
been out there on those cold and lonely perimeters where
there's honour but no profit. An example: back in 1989,
Loop's Robert Hampson would play on the same bill as bands
like Walking Seeds and Thee Hypnotics, whose grungy acid-rock
wasn't far from Sub Pop heavyweights like Tad. Five years
later, Hampson's band MAIN plays with improvisers like Paul
Shutze and Eddie Prevost, while Hampson has collaborations
planned with dronologists Jim O'Rourke and Thomas Koner.
All this might seem rarefied, even elitist, except that
post-rock has found an unexpected re-entry point into the
mainstream via the post-rave phenomenon of ambient techno.
Ambient has provided a context in which all kinds of weird
shit gets played to receptive ears (the drugs help a lot.)
Hampson even has a flourishing sideline as an ambient DJ,
while the parallels between the 'ambient noir' of Aphex
Twin/Toop & Eastley/Locust et al and the
isolationist/environmental soundscapes of Koner/Zoviet
France/Main etc have been noted on both sides.
The post-rock vanguard is torn in two opposed
directions. Some bands--e.g. Main--are abandoning rock's
kinetic energy altogether, losing the backbeat and
dissipating into ambience. Others--SCORN, LAIKA, ICE--are
looking for a different, non-rock form of dynamic, and
finding it in the grooves of hip hop, techno, dub and, soon,
jungle. This music is physical in its impact, but not in its
playing--it's constructed from programmed rhythms and sampled
loops--and so can properly be considered post-rock.
But even when it's danceable, post-rock is still 'head
music', in so far as its defining attribute is 'space'.
All the origins and influences that led to today's post-rock
--psychedelia, Krautrock, Eno, dub reggae, post-punk
vanguardists like PiL, Cocteau Twins, the blissrock and
dreampop of MBV and AR Kane, hip hop, techno--have been forms
of spatial music. Compare that to the lineage that runs from
mod through punk to the Manics and New Wave of New Wave:
music based around compression and instantaneity, whose prime
format is the 7 inch single rather than 12 inch soundscape,
designed to sound good blaring through your tiny tinny
transitor rather than a boomin' stereo system. Populist
rabblerousing for the kids (that's 'kids' as in 'The Kids Are
Alright', 'If The Kids Were United' etc). That's not a value
judgement, just a description. Honest.
Post-rock didn't come out of the blue, it has a history,
moments when eggheads diverted rock ideas for non-rock ends.
Here are some key moments in the evolution of spatially-
1/ VELVET UNDERGROUND: Post-rock because not based in the
sexual dynamism of R&B, but the drone-minimalism of Cage/La
Monte Young/Terry Riley, and Spector's Wall of Sound.
2/ KRAUTROCK: Can combined VU-drones with James Brown/Miles
Davis grooves. Faust and Cluster just droned. Neu! invented
motorik, an unsyncopated proto-disco pulsebeat.
3/ ENO: influenced by Cage, Steve Reich, VU, Can, et al.
Invented 'ambient', which is the sound of rock turned to
stone. Eno is thus the polar opposite of The Rolling Stones,
who are the very essence of rock'n'roll.
4/ POST-PUNK ANTI-ROCKIST VANGUARD: Pil, Pop Group, Cabaret
Voltaire, etc, drew on all the above and invented dub metal,
death disco, avant-funk--all genres that today's post-rockers
are extending (they were all teenagers at the time).
5/ JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: the iconography was pure
rock'n'roll--leather, speed, solipsism, cool-verging-on-
autism--but the sound was not: Spector-meets-Velvets wall of
feedback over a rudimentary unsyncopated beat. From the Mary
Chain's anti-kinetic noise came MBV/Loop/Spacemen 3, all of
whose psychedelia turned ambient eventually
"Repetition is like a machine... If you can get aware of
the life of a machine, then you are definitely a master...
[Machines] have a heart and soul--they are living beings"--
Holger Czukay of Can.
LAIKA was formed by Margaret Fiedler after her
un-amicable departure from Moonshake. Erstwhile partner Dave
Callahan kept the name; Fiedler kept bassist John Frenett,
then recruited Guy Fixsen (who'd produced Moonshake and
engineered My Bloody Valentine) and drummer Lou Ciccotelli
(who also plays in God). Judging by Laika's debut EP
"Antenna", though, if anybody should have kept the name
Moonshake (the title of a song on Can's "Soon Over
Babuluma"), it's Fiedler. For while Callahan's Moonshake have
veered off in a harsh freeform jazz direction with the recent
"The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow" LP, Laika are renovating the
fizzy flow-motion funk of Can at their mid-'70s peak circa
"Babaluma" and "Future Days".
Although "everything starts with bass and drums", Laika
don't jam out their lithe'n'luscious grooves like Can did,
but assemble them in '90s state-of-art fashion, using looped
beats. Their sound is a mix of programmed material and hands-
on playing. This blend of machine-music and flesh-and-blood
funk is one way forward for rock, combining the 'magical',
superhuman effects of sampling with the 'warmth' that comes
from real-time interaction between players. Fiedler's faves--
MC 900 Ft Jesus, MBV, Beastie Boys--all operate at this same
interface between hip hop and rock, sampling and live.
There are techno elements to Laika's sound, too.
Discreet sine-waves of synth weave through the effervescent
pulse-lattice of bass/percussion on "Lyin' Goat"; "Squeaky"
is Aphex-style toy-music made out of sampled breath and
creaking, rubbing sounds; "Marimba Song (Boo Boo's Gone
Mambo)" juxtaposes Orbital-style sequencer motifs with
fusion-flute twirls. But on the whole, what's appealing
about Laika is that they're making trance-dance that doesn't
sound like machine-music, that feels like a live band
'breathing' as a single musical organism.
"We've gone through the 'wow, technology!' phase", says
Guy. "Now it's integrated organically with what we do."
Trance and electronica may not be influences or even of
interest ("I've been to Megatripolis twice, I've been bored
twice," says Margaret), but Laika are intrigued by jungle.
"We like the stuff on the pirate stations," says
Margaret, "Especially the juxtaposition of fast and slow,
the way they'll have spacey sounds over manic beats. There's
one track on our LP that's kinda like our take on jungle."
When I ask Laika if they feel they're part of avant-
rock's outward-and-onward drift towards the margins and away
from the easy money (ie. pillaging rock's archives), the
response is typically self-effacing.
"I dunno", says Fiedler. "We just get bored easily."
("Antenna" is out now on Too Pure. An LP "Silver Apples Of
The Moon follows this autumn)
SCORN are a prime example of the post-rock syndrome.
Mick Harris and Nick Bullen used to be in Napalm Death, who
took a certain form of rock extremity--velocity--to its
furthest limit. When a band reaches such an aesthetic
impasse, it can either persevere (at the risk of grotesque
self-caricature), or veer off in the opposite direction in
search of a different kind of extremity (like the Swans going
quiet and folky), or it can get to grips with technology in
order to push beyond those limits. Scorn combined the last
two strategies, swapping Napalm's epileptic thrash for
slow'n'low dub tempos, and augmenting the guitar/bass line-up
with programmed drums and samplers.
"I didn't really want to leave Napalm," says Harris,
"but I was the only one who wanted to bring new ideas in.
I'd always listened to loads of different music--everything
from Crass to the Cocteaus. Metal was was actually the last
thing I got into."
Harris argues that Scorn are still "a Rock'n'Roll band",
but it's hard to see how. The biggest influence on their
sound is the avant-dub of 'Metal Box' era PiL, John Lydon's
fervently anti-rockist and increasingly studio-bound outfit.
Scorn's new LP "Evanescence" is basically Public Enemy
Limited, ie. PiL filtered through the Bomb Squad's
terrordrome sample-scapes and looped hip hop beats.
Accordingly, the album has gotten rave reviews in metal rags
like Kerrang AND black dance mags like Echoes. Scorn are
capitalising on this dancefloor connection with an EP of
remixes by Andrew Weatherall, Jack Dangers (Meat Beat
Manifesto) and, hopefully, Richard H. Kirk and Seefeel.
Scorn are no strangers to the art of mixology--their
1992 EP "Deliverance" consisted of five progressively more
devastated remixes of the same dirge. At 40 minutes long, it
hijacked both the longest single record (held by The Orb's
"Blue Room") and the concept of 'ambient dub'. Instead of
the womb-muzak usually associated with that term, Scorn's
ambient is strictly twilight-zone, haunted and disquieting.
"My favourite stuff of Eno's is 'On Land' and 'Apollo,'"
says Harris. "At low volume, it's late night relaxation
listening. But at extreme volume, ambient creates a totally
different mood, the dark side comes through."
Harris ventures deeper into this ambient noir hinterland
with his solo project Lull. On the forthcoming LP "Cold
Summer", titles like "Long Way Home" and "lost Sanctum"
perfectly capture the music's aura of exile and desolation.
Like a lot of dark ambient and isolationist music, Lull is an
attempt to create imaginary space in a world that's
verminously overcrowded. The misfit's anti-social hunger for
wilderness has to be redirected towards inner space (as in
another title, "Slow Fall Inwards"). Lull is beat-free;
Scorn's music, ever more groove-oriented, combines funk's
restlessness and ambient's entropy, paranoia and paralysis.
A big input is Nick Bullen's obsession with the noir
soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho", "Taxi Driver"),
Perhaps what makes Scorn still 'rock'n'roll', even a
'metal' band in some sense, is this sombre mood: a doom-clad
despondency that's very Sabbath. (Could it be a Midlands
thing, Scorn being Brummies?) Just check song-titles like
"Light Trap", "Blackout" and "Black Sun Rising", the latter
originating in the poet Nerval's metaphor for the abyss of
melancholy. Musically, Scorn ought to be filed in the hip
hop racks next to New Kingdom; emotionally, they belong with
Alice In Chains in 'Metal'. Scorn's methodology is
absolutely '90s, but Harris is right, they're still "heavy".
("Evanescence" is out now on Earache. An EP of dance
remixes is due sometime in July. Lull's "Cold Summer" LP will
be released in July on Sentrax).
KEVIN MARTIN is what you'd have to call a 'prime mover'.
His business is making musical connections and finding gaps,
apertures through which a future can be glimpsed and maybe
grasped. Firstly, he's singer, sax-ist and band-leader of
not one but three groups--GOD, ICE and TECHNO-ANIMAL. He
also runs the Pathological label, catalysing one-off
collaborations like E.A.R. (Martin + Sonic Boom + Kevin
Shields + Eddie Prevost) and an as yet untitled mega-jam,
loosely inspired by early '70s Miles and organised by Paul
Shutze, that will feature Rudi from A.R. Kane, Jim O'Rourke,
Jah Wobble and Tim Friese-Greene (ex-Talk Talk). If all this
wasn't enough, Martin produces bands, writes for The Wire,
and has masterminded a compilation of 'Isolationist' music
for Virgin's 'Short History of Ambient' series.
Despite their freeform/noise-rock squall God is in some
ways Martin's most trad outlet, since it's based around real-
time improvisation. God sound organic, pulsating, primal.
Martin values God for the way friction between a gang of
individuals (11 on their latest LP "The Anatomy of
Addiction") combusts in the form of chance ideas, although
the ideal is to "sacrifice our individuality within a group
sound that's overwhelming".
God's studio LPs "Possession" and "Anatomy" have been
affected, however, by the production techniques Martin's
explored through Ice (50 % sampling, 50 % live) and Techno-
Animal (wholly sampladelic). In God, this takes the form of
sampling their own playing, whereas Ice and Techno-Animal use
external samples. Martin enthuses about the "revolutionary"
potential of 'hard disk editing', where sound is converted to
digital data and mixed, processed and edited inside a
computer. Hard disk editing makes it much easier to do the
kind of intricate tape-splicing once done manually by Can or
Miles Davis' producer Teo Macero, where long improv sessions
were chopped up and condensed into compositions. Ice's
"Under The Skin" LP is a prime slice of cyber-rock, combining
the ferocity of real-time playing with the hyper-real effects
of digital technology.
Techno-Animal is the most studio-bound of the three
bands, being based entirely around samples. Martin and his
collaborator Justin Broadrick from Godflesh were intrigued by
"what happens after you've taken music to the extreme, as
we'd each done with God and Godflesh. At that point,
extremists like Nick Cave, Swans, Einsturzende Neubauten, had
reverted back to traditional genres--blues, folk, MOR. We
didn't want to take the 'irony' route, and decided that
there's an extremity in silence, or slow motion, or
minimalism, that's equally effective as full-on assault.
It's all about finding where the polarities--noise and
silence--meet. Techno-Animal is meditational, about
recapturing lost memories, whereas God is physical, trance-
Techno-Animal and Ice are on-going projects, having both
recorded tracks for the fourth instalment of Virgin's best
selling series of ambient anthologies. Compiled by Martin
himself, this 2 and a half hour double-CD is an essential
guide to the dark ambient zone he calls 'isolationist'. Along
with avant-rockers like Main and drone-ologists like Thomas
Koner, the compilation includes offerings by Aphex Twin and
Seefeel. Some kind of unexpected convergence is occurring
here. Avant-rockers have felt at once encouraged by and
resentful of the success of Aphex's "Selected Ambient Works
Volume 2", when they've been making the same kind of sinister
soundscapes for years with minimal reward; at the same time,
proto-ambient units like Zoviet France are puzzled and
pleased that, after years in the wilderness, their tracks are
slipping into sets by chill-out DJ's.
"People are questioning musical structures, the ambient
boom has made them open to stuff that isn't song-based",
reckons Martin. "But it needs to be taken a lot further.
Martin decided a long time ago that "as soon as you
start relying on making a living out of music, you begin
making compromises." And so he lives to make music, rather
than makes music to live. So compulsive, so almost biological
is his drive that he breaks out in a strange, virulent skin
disorder whenever he produces a record!
"The Virgin compilation and Pathological are ways for me
to chase dreams, really. The fact that such a concentrated
bloc of stridently uncompromising music is going to released
via a major label is a victory for the hard of head! "
(God's "The Anatomy of Addiction" and Ice's "Under The
Skin" are out now on Big Cat. The "Isolationist" anthology
will be released by Virgin in September).
RECENT PINNACLES OF POST-ROCK
PAUL SCHUTZE: "New Maps In Hell" (Extreme). Ambient-improv
nightmare-scapes. Check out also imminent LP "The Surgery Of
Touch" and techno alter-ego Uzect Plaush.
JIM O'ROURKE: "Remove The Need" (Extreme). Top-notch drone-
ology using 'prepared guitar'.
KAZUYUKI K. NULL AND JAMES PLOTKIN: "Aurora" (Sentrax).
Jap-core improv colossus + cyberthrash guitarist = unearthly
drones derived only from guitar.
EINHEIT BROTZMANN: "Merry Christmas" (Blast First). Ex-
Neubauten percussionist + neo-Hendrix axe-tormentor =
wonderfully ruined noisescapes.
ZOVIET FRANCE: "What Is Not True" (Charrm). 19th LP of a 15
year undersung career at the brink between ambient and
musique concrete, this has all the usual wraithes and
apparitions. The "Vienna 1990" LP shows they can do it live,
LABRADFORD: "Prazision LP" (Kranky). Krautrock, without the
'rock', dissolved into a delicate, drum-less chamber music,
all serene expanses and distant drones.
FLYING SAUCER ATTACK: LP (via Cargo distribution). Lo-fi
pastoral ambience under the spell of Krautrock obscurities
Popol Vuh, and pretty spellbinding too.
BIOTA: "Almost Never" (Cuneiform/ReR). Indescribable sound-
mazes full of trompe l'oreille acoustics.
THOMAS KONER: "Nunatak Gongamur" (Baroni). Breathtakingly
desolate recreation of Antarctica in sound, all receding
reverberations and slow-mo shock-waves.