An aside in a Dissensus thread (I forget which) some weeks ago to the effect that “Nineties music sounds shit now, doesn’t it” made me wonder… well, does it? I don’t need too much prompting to go on a major back-to-da-90s kick, so I dug deep in the closet and had a bit of week back there…. Ultramarine, Wagon Christ (still think Throbbing Pouch is towering, magical, and mystified by the paucity of love out there in the community for this album), loadsaloadsa ambient jungle , even some Orb, never got around to DJ Shadow though… And I can confidently say that, as far as my ears can tell, "no, actually, it doesn’t sound shit. It sounds, in fact, glorious". Well, there was a moment several years back when I put on Omni Trio “Renegade Snares” for the first time in a long-ish while and thought “oo-er it does sound a bit cruddy ‘n’ muddy, the production, the drum sounds…". But it’s well past that now, that phase of cringing at the only-recently-cutting-edge-but-now-already-dated which so often afflicts dance music, that phase is some way behind us… and the best of that decade sounds, once more, unimpeachably great... And then a lot of the other stuff--and there was so much dance music, electronic music, in the 90s, things moved so fast, fragmented so multiply-- well I think that stuff too s going to be salvageable as kitsch actually quite soon…. who knows, even things like FSOL’s Lifeforms or Sven Vath may enjoy a second coming as the Esquivels of their day!
But relistening and inevitably rethinking this music, it also made me consider the recent discussions about the future (and nostalgia thereof), the issue of futurity/futuristic-ness in music, and what exactly do we mean when we describe a music as futuristic or a certain exponent as a Futurist? How much is rhetoric and how much is substance? Can sound itself be a kind of rhetoric?
Because so much of this Nineties music did talk itself up as future-music and see itself in those terms. You got in the interviews and you got it from all the science fiction, bit-kitschy-even-then packaging /artwork/typography… and not least you got it in the band names and track titles (Omni’s “Living For the Future”, Noise Factory’s “I bring you the future, the future, the future” riff used in “Futuroid”, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse a/k/a Foul Play’s “We Are The Future” ... not forgetting Phuture of “Acid Tracks” fame naturally, and that “ph” itself becoming the coding for FUTURISTIC as with Photek and and countless other examples eg 2steppers Phuturistix revealing their roots in drum'n'bass with their moniker as much as neurofunkazoid trax)… So much of this music as it happened was received and felt and written about as future music (which I’m sure philosophically presents some problems--if it’s happening-right now, how can it be from the future or of the future?)…
There’s various ways to take the idea of “future music”--the angle of futuristic as literally predictive of what tomorrow’s music will sound like ("tomorrow’s music today" was actually Melody Maker’s slogan at one point if I recall, but that meant more a tipsheet, you-read-about-it-here-first rather than a futurist credo, Front 242 Skinny Puppy and Young Gods covers withal)… or perhaps in another sense, "future" applies because if the underground is the vanguard it’s because it’s bringing right here right now what will eventually be the common everyday stuff of mainstream popular music… well you could say that did and didn’t happen with the technorave/drum’n’bass/et al …. some of the ideas seeped sideways into rap and R&B, or they popped up subliminally in adverts and movies and TV scores… but no, faceless techno bollocks did not, ultimately, vanquish and eclipse for all time songs/guitars etc.
And then (as discussed earlier, towards the end of this post) there’s “futuristic”, which involves playing with received ideas of the future as already established in science fiction and futurology and popular science programmes/books: the imagery of cyberpunk and space-age whatnot that pervaded techno, D&B, etc, and pretty shlocky-kitschy stuff it was too, a lot of the time, whether slanted to the utopian or the dystopian). So for instance, synthesizer tones per se were already established (from the late 60s onward, through movie soundtracks, then with Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, also in jazz-fusion, etc) as connoting the Future/Outer-Space.
And there is another category that I’m going to designate “futuroid”, in homage to the aforementioned Noise Factory track, and that would refer to genuinely unforeheard, cutting-edge, out-of-nowhere elements in music. So the actual futuroid elements in jungle were the beats and the bass-science (not so much the dubsway rumblizm but the more radically mutational and counter-intuitively pretzel-like motion-shapes of bass-goo), and in techno it would be those sounds and effects that weren’t part of the established 80s synthpop palette (e.g. mentasm, or acid when it first appeared). In all the rave styles, though, there tends to be a mixture of the genuinely futuroid and the merely futuristic.
Further complicating all this is that some of the mood of the music that made it feel tilted towards Tomorrow--that mood in, say, ambient jungle/artcore drum’n’bass of brimming optimism and anticipation--is actually created with backward-looking elements. So in the case of Omni’s “Living for the Future” it’s the John Barry influenced soundtrackisms that
create the eyes-on-the-horizon feeling. (A different set of soundtrackisms, I expect, contributed quite heavily to darkside and techstep’s dystopian futurism). Likewise with the Bukem end of things, there’s a lot of harking back to to 70s fusion, jazzfunk, O/S/T thematics…
These thoughts were brought into relief when rummaging through the closet for 90s stuff I stumbled on a CD I haven’t listened to since I got it, Breakbeat Science: two CDs of 1996 drum’n’bass plus a fat full colour booklet of interviews, as done by those Volume people who did the Trance Europe Express/Trance Atlantic series (I remember thinking how this development signified that d&b had crossed over into middlebrow). 10 years old, poised between Logical Progression and Techsteppin’, it’s a curious artifcact, and quite a kitschy relic in itself… and naturally every bloody interview is riddled with references to “the future”, uttered by interviewee and journalist alike… and yet d&b is already at that point where the rhetoric is slipping out of synch with the actual achievement… in part because the producers ideas of how to advance the music actual involve backward steps (musicality, soundtrackism etc) … in retrospect it becomes clearer than ever that hardcore was way more futuroid than jungle--it had the breakbeat science, the radically non-naturalistic, no-relation-to-the-acoustic-instrument bass-plasma element, but it had other elements too: radical vocal science, with the squeaky voices, the voice-as-riff played percussively on the sampler keyboard, the sampladelic voice-goo smearage… the unforeheard Beltramoid synth-timbres and stab patterns…. even those manic Morse Codey piano vamps were more what-the-fuck futuroid than the glancing minor-key jazzual keybs in drum’n’bass… Yet I suspect there was significantly less “we are the future of music” rhetoric during hardcore than later on, cos everyone was in the rush of the now. Did I even used the F-word at that time? (Actually in the end of 92 Wire ardkore piece, I said listening to the pirates “you know you’re living in the future”). But generally, rave in its pure form was about the now.
Perhaps there’s a three-way division here.
Artists who make an overt ideology out of their aspiration to make tomorrow’s music today (this would include quite a few techno people, but also a group like The Young Gods, or earlier, the Art of Noise--both of whom could also be seen as having a relationship to the actual early 20th Century movement Futurism, adding a tinge of retro-Futurism)
Artists who play with science fiction imagery, a set of signifiers and associations that refer back to a tradition of how the Future was envisaged or sonically imagined. For quite some time--even in the early 90s--this kind of thing already had a retro-futurist tinge to it. Again lots of techno artists went in for this kind of imagery but so did a lot of genres (synthpop, industrial, space music) outside the dance field.
The actually emergent or unforeheard elements in music.
(Why not call this ‘modernist”? Well, Modernism is itself a style, a period-bound thing to the point where there is such a thing as retro-modernism… Not all futuroid things are going to manifest as stark/lacking ornament/bleak/brutal/abstract/functional/minimalist, i.e. the clichés of modernism…. For instance breakbeat science as it evolved turned into a kind of rhythmic baroque, and wildstyle graffiti, while futuroid and futuristic, was not Modernist in that style-defined sense of stark etc).
To map this onto the old Raymond Williams residual/emergent dichotomy, most musics that are any good or at all enjoyable or have any impact on the wider culture are going to involve a mixture of futuroid and traditional. A wholly Futuroid music would probably be as indigestible as Marinetti’s proposed Italo-Futurist replacement for pasta--a dish of perfumed sand.
Finally, “futuroid” is not solely a property of electronic music or computer-based music… To pick only the most consternating example, I would say that the style of guitar-playing developed by the Edge in the early days of U2 (“I Will Follow” to “With or Without You”) was as futuroid as anything done by most electropop artists at the time… furthermore that the futuroid in music can exist without any accompanying trappings of the futuristic either in sound or imagery
PS As I finish this I’m listening to the last track on 8-Bit Operators, an 8-bit tribute to the music of Kraftwerk… it's a version of “Man Machine” by gwEm and Counter Reset that is either live or simulated-live … the shaky-middle-class-English-voiced parody-MC calls out “alright Bagleys, how do you feel out there this evening… speak to me Bagleys [massive crowd cheer] …we want to say a big shout out to Kraftwerk and all the ravers in the world…” (Bagleys being this old British Rail depot turned dance venue near King's Cross which is
where in 93 I went to one of the first jungle-as-Jungle raves… and now I think about it, they had an old skool room even then…). But yeah, talk about retro-futurism! The music--sort of techo filtered through an indie-rock lo-fi amateurism and archness--is actually kinda like how I thought Nu Rave would sound. The track ends--“Easy my fellow junglist warriors, until the next time, gwEm and Counter Reset, out of here”--and I don’t know how to feel…
PPS and what do you know, in marvellous synchrony, Dorian Lynskey asks whatever happened to the future?