Sunday, November 24, 2019

Straight outta Atlanta… to Bratislava, Warszawa, Roma, and just about everywhere

About eighteen months ago I went on a trip that passed through a bunch of European countries. Along the way I met up with a series of old friends. The conversation would invariably turn to our kids and the music they were into - and the answer was invariably ​“Trap!”. During this trip I also gleaned that each country had its own local version of trap.

Since then I’ve been itching to write a piece on the internationalization of trap. The opportunity came with an invitation from The Face to contribute to their “looking back on the 2010s” coverage, with a piece on how the trap beat has dominated the decade - and traveled all across the globe.

Despite its seeming redundancy – it’s so very close to the Real Thing, of which there is no shortage in the first place – I was surprised by how enjoyable I found much of this Czech, Polish, Italian, Slovakian, French, Moroccan etc trap. Despite being unable to understand the lyrics at all. Which underlines one of the points in the piece: the relative downgrading of lyricism as a component of this music. Instead, it's all about the slippery glisten of the Auto-Tuned vocal, the becoming-melody of speech, the moans and the murmurs. Pure flow.  

As much as That Beat, it's this vocal mode midway between rapping and crooning - along with the peculiarly indefinite affect that its glazed texture embodies - that has struck a chord across the world, and that seems to have caught something of the not-so-secret sadness of our time. 

Big up to those who pointed me in the right direction: Miloš Hroch, Agus Tomaszewska, Jan Błaszczak, Damir Ivic, Sadmanbarty, Beatrice Finauro. Etienne Menu.

Monday, November 18, 2019


Here's a piece I did for The Guardian on Gong, the anarcho-surrealist cosmic rock troupe.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

November tour of Germany and Switzerland

I'm heading off on a tour of Germany and Switzerland to give talks about The Sex Revolts, the book about gender, rebellion and rock that I wrote with Joy Press back in 1995, which is now coming out on Ventil Verlag in a German translation  (by Jan-Niklas Jäger).  Most talks follow the format of a video-illustrated lecture + dialogue with a moderator + audience Q/A.

I'm also doing some non-Sex Revolts talks while I'm over there, including a video-illustrated talk about UK rave and the hardcore continuum as part of the Robert Johnson Theorie series of discussion events held by by the renowned club Robert Johnson in Offenbach am Main. That's on November 16th. The other two I'm not sure are open to the general public as they are part of conferences, but included here on the off-chance. 

Details about those + the  Robert Johnson Nuum event are below this schedule for Sex Revolts events. 


Berlin - Sunday, November 10th

Acud Macht Neu - 19.00

Nürnberg  - Monday,  November 11
DESI Stadtteilzentrum e.V. - Doors 19:30 / Start 20:00
Brückenstraße 23
90419 Nürnberg
with Bettina Wagegg and Jan-Niklas Jäger

Mannheim  - Tuesday, November 12
Port25 –Raum für Gegenwartskunst Hafenstr - 20 h
25-27 68159 Mannheim

with Julia Alicka and Matthias Rauch

Zürich - Wednesday, November 13

Photobastei  - 19 hr book signing / 20 hr talk
Sihlquai 125, 8005 Zürich

With Shantala Hummler

Bern - Thursday, November 14

Kunsthalle Bern, Helvetiaplatz 1, 3005 Bern - 19.00

With Shantala Hummler

Köln - Friday, November 15
King Georg, Sudermansraße - 20.00
With Wolfgang Frömberg

Offenbach am Main  -Sunday, November 17

Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach - 18.00
Schlossstraße 31, 63065

Paderborn - Monday, November 18

Paderborn University - 17:00 Uhr
Warburger Str. 100, 33098 Paderborn
Room H1.232 (Tower H, Floor 1, Room 1.232.

with Prof. Dr. Christoph Jacke

Bochum - Tuesday, November 19

Oval Office Bar,  Schauspielhaus Bochum - - 19.00

Münster  - Wednesday, November 20th

Spec Ops - 8pm

Von-Vincke-Straße 5
48143 Münster

With Anna Seidel


Hamburg - Saturday, November 9

UNERHÖRTMusikfilm Festival

Talk about rock documentaries, rock biopics, and the cinematic industry of nostalgia,  and dialogue with Prof. Dr. Christoph Jacke

Katholische Akademie - 2:30 p.m

Offenbach am Main  - Saturday, November 16th

Robert Johnson Theorie – a video-illustrated talk about UK rave and the hardcore continuum
Robert Johnson, Nordring 131, Offenbach am Main

21:45 Doors Open - 22:00 Start Lecture

Hamburg - Thursday, November 21th

Hamburg (Insecurity) Sessions conference – a talk about “the slow cancellation of the future” and music in an atemporal era

Terrace Hill  
Feldstr. 66/5. Stock, 20359 Hamburg

19.00 doors open / 19.30 talk / 20.00–20.30 discussion with Michael Rother, Daniel Miller, Diane Zillmer. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

beautiful daze in the neighborhood

One for the parishioners - my essay for The Nation on Ernest Hood's enchanting 1975 album Neighborhoods, recently reissued by Freedom To Spend. As well as getting the back story in fascinating detail from the late Hood's son Tom, it was an enjoyable opportunity to think about the changing nature of neighbourhood and neighbourliness  during my lifetime. 

Come zither - Ernest Hood strumming and plucking his primary instrument, alongside the Crumar Orchestrator strings-keyboard 

Sunday, November 03, 2019

conceptronica - further thoughts + deleted scenes

A couple of interesting blog responses to the conceptronica piece -  by Xenogothic and Red Velvet Corridor.

Well, I did not anticipate that the C-word would escalate into a meme! 

Nor the polarized reactions the piece would elicit.

On one side, a bunch of people seemed to believe it was a straightforward celebration of all this high-concept music (which they found pompous and overly cerebral).

On the other side, a bunch of people seemed to take it as a takedown.

Of course, it was neither.

Despite the voicing of some doubts and misgivings towards the end, it wasn't even a judgmental piece really - far more of an analysis / investigation - an attempt to understand how a cultural economy has emerged during the course of the past decade, and how it works.

If I’d actually wanted to take the piss out of this scene, there is no shortage of gassy, trying-way-too-hard press releases I could have quoted from.  On the contrary, I deliberately focused on some of the best representatives of this phenomenon - the ones who have the most articulate explanation of what they're trying to do, and who've most fully realized their intentions. 

Sometimes when you do a piece, or a book, the nub of it comes to you - annoyingly - after the fact.   

In this case, it's got something to do with the fact that conceptronica is neither part of mass culture nor is it an underground (in the old sense of an autonomous opposition to the mainstream). Instead, it’s steadily becoming a sort of subsidized vanguard.  

Nothing wrong with that necessarily. But as the conceptual electronic musicians have adapted to their new environment, they have taken on that world’s procedures, terms of reference, etc.  (Many already have the appropriate training). The upshot is that there is a textuality and rationalized framing that didn't exist in earlier phases of electronic music (outside the academy at any rate). 

For sure, there have always been intellectuals involved in techno and rave culture - people with philosophical interests, or who come from art backgrounds, or who simply have things to say. 

Still, electronica in the past was predominantly non-verbal - it sonified more than it signified. It worked through freefloating affect and visceral impact. Even when creators had intellectual preoccupations or made works that addressed a Theme (as with Wolfgang Voigt, Jeff Mills) the actual sonic outcome tended to be open-ended. There was scope for things to be reimagined by the individual listener, or collectively repurposed by social energies. But with conceptronica, the textual element is so imbricated with the sonics that a work’s significance is far more predetermined.   In such circumstances, the listener’s role is to be the recipient of a meaning placed there by an artist.  It's more of a one-way transmission. 

Further, there looms the problem inherent to any kind of art where there is a statement being made, or there is an intention to enlighten and edify. You can find yourself wondering, “Well, wouldn't I get the same effect if I just read the block of text at the entrance to the exhibition room,  or the catalog essay, or an interview with the artist - rather than looking at the pictures / installation / video art?”  What is the surplus that the aesthetic "casing" of the statement / polemic / enquiry actually provides?  Why is it happening in this particular form, or even in this field


Below are some “deleted scenes” –  passages that got lost during various stages of editing, which round out the argument and the overview.


The term "conceptronica" first came to me back in 2006 when reviewing a Matmos album. 
I also used it later that same year in a piece about hauntology. But concept-driven electronic music wasn’t a particularly new thing even then. In the Nineties, Mille Plateaux named itself after the book by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari; their best-known outfit Oval spieled with intimidating rigour about the cultural ramifications of digital technology.  Another Mille Plateaux artist Terre Thaemlitz released a series of covers albums dedicated to iconic synthpop artists like Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, accompanied by queer-theory-infused polemical essays.  

That kind of thing seemed to dip away a bit, during the microhouse years. But then towards the end of 2000s / early 2010s, you had people like Herbert mounting sonic polemics like One Pig. Amanda Brown of Not Not Fun and LA Vampires described herself as a conceptualist interested primarily in thematics, as opposed to a songwriter expressing emotions. Elsewhere in that same hypnagogic scene you had Daniel  Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never putting out records where increasingly  the framing of a project was an indispensable element of the listening experience. Graduates in Fine Art and Art History, Taraka Larson and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama even composed an art movement  manifesto, The Now Age – with subsections like  “Architecture of Utopia” and “The Mirrorball as Panopticon”.


Berlin, October 2015: Holly Herndon delivers the keynote presentation at Loop, a summit for music makers convened  by the audio software company Ableton. Titled “On Process,” the talk largely involves a deep dive into the intricacies of Herndon’s creativity, the kind that led to her highly praised album of that year Platform. But it’s prefaced with general comments that deploy the ancient rhetorical maneuver prolepsis: anticipation and outflanking of criticism. Herndon notes that conceptually-minded electronic musicians often get negative responses like “stop over-analysing everything” and “you’re ruining it with your babble.”  Rather than adding value to projects and enriching the listener’s experience, these sceptics sees concepts as taking something away. Music, it’s felt, ought to be able to “stand up by itself” without textual support.

Now even more feted in the wake of this year’s Proto, Herndon seems like the right person to ask about the rise of conceptronica and the suspicion it still rouses in some quarters. “For some people, they think the concept is compensating for a lack in the music itself,” she muses over Skype. “But my brain, or my taste, likes to marry concept and emotion – that’s the Holy Grail.” Concepts are generative for Herndon, “a starting point, a way of creating a sound world or coming up with a production technique.” But she always works hard to ensure that the concepts are  sensuously wedded to the sound, so that listeners “can hear and physically feel whatever I'm talking about through the music itself”….

Part of it is a desire to have more control over the reception of their work. “I think it was Douglas Rushkoff who said, ‘program or be programmed',” says Herndon. Her own spin on that is “analyze or be analyzed….  I can either contextualize things myself or  just put it out there. But people are probably going to read things into it that weren't intended. So I like to have a role in that analysis.”


When I meet PAN duo Amnesia Scanner in a hipster café in Los Angeles,  Martti Kalliala is sporting a T-shirt for the gabba label Mokum, a mainstay of the Nineties Netherlands scene that would evolve into hardstyle. His partner Ville Haimala’s T-shirt bears the logo of Posh Isolation, a Copenhagen experimental imprint.

From Finland but based in Berlin, Amnesia Scanner’s music moves somewhere between those two realms of cartoon insanity and exquisite sound-design. The love for hardstyle is tinged with ironic distance but the duo are genuinely awestruck by the excess and insanity of the sound and the subculture. “There’s this hyper-designed drama and euphoria,” enthuses Kalliala, pinpointing the disembodied voices that boom over the sound system and exhort the sky-punching ravers like a gym trainer or motivational speaker. “The images that this ‘voice of the festival’ paint in these monologues are so bizarre, like the rave is a gathering of pagan warriors in this post-apocalyptic landscape,” explains Haimala.

Hardstyle’s  portentous voice-overs and high-definition bombast influenced Amnesia Scanner’s 2015 release “Angels Rig Hook”, while the “turbo kick drums” and advanced production also fed into 2016’s AS EP and last year’s full-length debut for PAN, Another Life. The latter is a brilliant blend of  the anthemic and the abstract, recalling NiN-style alt-industrial crossover and current Top 40 as much as the digital maximalist glitchcraft of PAN labelmates like Errorsmith. “We wanted to tap into the memes of pop,” says Haimala. “Our previous works were much more unstructured. But we started to get a bit bored with the music in our scene – it just seemed a bit lazy, just collaging a whole lot of stuff.”


Lee Gamble is just about to release the second instalment of Flush Real Pharynx, his three-part "sonic documentary". Titled Exhaust, it centers on Mark Fisher’s concept of “semioblitz” – the barrage of signs and symbols, corporate propaganda and subliminal psy-ops, that incessantly bombards all of us consumer-citizens. The final installment will confront capitalism’s wasteful residues: “all this non-degrading stuff left behind like ghosts and phantasms. I want to smear the sounds so they’re like those plastic conglomerates forming in the ocean, what might have once been a football or a broom handle, but molded together into this weird sculptural gunk.”


If the sheer gigantism of conceptronic projects sometimes recalls progressive rock, the spirit of the music feels more akin to postpunk. There’s the art school input, the deployment of terminology from critical theory and radical philosophy, the ultra-progressive views on race and gender, the belief in stylistic hybridity, the embrace of cutting-edge technology, the drive to experiment with live performance.

Alongside its political commitments, postpunk was also a critical commentary on rock itself - where youth music had reached in its historical development. What had started out in the Sixties, in Lester Bangs words, as a “program for mass liberation” had become a controlled and controlling leisure industry, siphoning young idealism and energy into a system that safely dissipated it while  generating revenue for its owners. Setting itself in opposition to this decadence, postpunk could not allow itself the freedom and cutting-loose of early rock, a wildness now tamed and put into service


Alongside its audio-visual turn and its political turn, you can also detect a vocal turn in 2010s conceptual electronic music. Actually, this is something that has been going on almost across the board in contemporary music, from the brightest heights of Top 40 pop to the most obscure ghetto zones of avant-garde experiment. This new burst of vocal strangeness has been powered by digital editing platforms, pitch-correction technology like Auto-Tune, and “vocal design” software like Melodyne.  From the sculpted vocals and complex architectures of harmony vocals in Top 40 pop - ranging from Top 40 pop and rap like Billie Eilish / Migos / Travis Scott, through the mechanistic stutters of footwork and the slowed-down “screwed” vocals of witch house and vaporwave, to experimentalists like Katie Gately, inflicting weirdness on the human voice is the cutting edge. Literally cutting: it’s all about mutilating vocal performances and rearranging the shards into new melodic-rhythmic patterns, processing human breath into  swirly texture-clouds or smearing it across emotional landscapes.

Vocal estrangement is a particular interest of  PAN's roster of artists. On Fake Synthetic Music,  Stine Janvin uses her voice plus echo and “spatial distribution” to, as she has said, “explore how I could vocalise in a way that would combine architectural sound with dance floor sequences.” Drawing oblique inspiration from the formulaic ecstasies of chartpop and trance, she experiments with “sonic and optical illusions, otoacoustic emissions and minimal melodic sequences”.  Less the product of abstractifying technology than of unusual technique, Janvin's PAN labelmate Eartheater deploys her breathy whisper in songs that address “alternate realities strung in the vastness of infinity, the isometrisity of time and space, the ambiguity of words, moral surreality, the evolution of sexuality in a digital age.”  

Where Janvin and Eartheater's Alexandra Drewchin are in the spotlight of their own music, Amnesia Scanner see themselves as background technicians standing to one side of it. Accordingly they have created Oracle as a surrogate frontperson, or frontcreature maybe. The inspiration comes partly from the disembodied voices that boom portentously over the sound system at hardstyle shows. “Oracle is conceptualized as a being, a character, that is somehow part of Amnesia Scanner, but that is not fully alive, not fully dead. Like a fixed shape or image.”