Friday, August 06, 2004

Talking about Belgian hardcore, as we were a second ago, well now seems as good a time as any to air my micro-theory of beats as fonts. One thing that struck me recently about those Belgian records is the beats. They aren’t proper house exactly, or proper techno. Perhaps "Eurorave" is the only term. They’re propulsive, machine-made, they do the job but don’t draw attention to themselves. I really like that style: modest, four-square, high-energy. They sound almost like real drums, but not quite; texturally they’re "thin" compared to programmed rhythm today. At a certain point in the Nineties the whole realm of texturhythm opened up. Darkside obviously (all those pitchshifted, timestretched, metallicized, phased breaks--sometimes even psychedelically reversed e.g. Omni Trio’s "Feel Better"). But the same thing happened across the board in dance music: Deep Dish’s remix of De Lacy’s "Hideway" is an epochal track in this regard, the drum sound becomes a presence, thick and gloopy, like dancing in molasses. This quality--"wide" drum sounds --intensified as the decade progressed: Todd Edwards, UK garage, Herbert, then getting really pronounced with the textural cornucopia of 2step and microhouse.

The analogy that struck me was fonts. If your classic rock drum sound is something like Baskerville or Times New Roman, then the drums in the Belgian stuff or early Eurohouse or The KLF is perhaps equivalent to Arial or Lucida Console or something of that ilk: streamlined, almost-naturalistic, with a hint of futurity and this-is-the-modern-world. But like your classic rock drum sound, the beat/font doesn’t really draw attention to itself, it’s functional--rhythm as division of time. Pure information. Of course rock drum sound hasn’t always been like that--think of psychedelia’s effects-laden beats: the billowing, phased drum-rolls on The Small Faces’ "Itchycoo Park" being equivalent perhaps to the trippy typography on all those Fillmore Ballroom posters for bands like Sopwith Camel and Jefferson Airplane, woogly and pendulous to the point of illegibility.

Then in the Seventies drums went "naturalistic" again; a good sound meant clear and defined. (Exceptions: dub and dub-fiends like PiL and Martin Hannett; gamelan-aware postpunkers; Eno-linked or influenced stuff e.g. the splashy drums on "Warning Sign" by Talking Heads; rock groups that used a lot of hand percussion perhaps; Arthur Russell obviously). Despite rave culture being the rebirth of psychedelia, the drums in house and early techno are for the most clean and stark, but that begins to change around 1993, leading to the current fontasia (forgive me!) of voluptuous texturhythm. So my challenge, to folks out there who actually know something about both dance music and graphic design (Matt? Julian House?), is to tabulate direct correspondences between the specific beat-signatures of auteur-producers and particular fonts. Who, for instance, is the Wings Dings of modern music? Who's really pushing it now in terms of approching the threshold of rhythmic illegibility? Alternatively, to break down the history of drums in pop music according to a similar schema. E.g. What's the equivalent of serif versus sans-serif? Would sans-serif = the postpunk fashion for not using ride-cymbal and hi-hats, because of its assocation with heavy rock?

An exquisite if pointless way of passing the time I'm sure you'll agree!

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