The first time I ever ran across Swarm of the Lotus, I thought they had a really stupid name.
The first time I actually heard Swarm of the Lotus’s When White Becomes Black, I thought it was tune-free noise.
Now I think it’s one of the heaviest, loudest hardcore records I own, with all kinds of tricky riffs buried in the mix and a brutally tight rhythm section. It’s like they took the excruciating crux of Neurosis’s “Locust Star” (probably Neurosis’s most oppressive song) and turned it into an entire album, only noisier, faster and meaner. For sheer raw aggression and out-of-control sonic violence, it gives Converge’s Jane Doe a run for its money. It’s also extremely catchy, but you have to approach it on its own terms, because it takes no prisoners and isn’t really big on providing an easy way in, and the songs are a lot more complex than they seem at first. If you like loud, mean, fast music, though, the time spent with it is well-rewarded. I think of this record as a lost classic.
They did have a really dumb name, though.
For a long time, “dubstep” was more or less a free signifier very loosely attached to the music made by a small group of British producers who all knew each other. It was mentioned in print – when it was mentioned at all – by electronic music cognoscenti like Simon Reynolds and Woebot, had a loyal, tiny internet following and was otherwise very much a London scene nobody else knew or cared about. A couple of years ago, though, it became a Thing – it got written about in music magazines, had its own club nights all over the world, generated a couple different series of compilations, and got a lot of breathless hype from Mary Anne Hobbs over high-profile remixes of indie artists. Its sudden popularity caused Simon to instantly pronounce it dead, the producers to start grumbling about how the newcomers just don’t get it, and all the other things kids in the underground do when they suddenly find themselves confronting an expectant public they were never particularly interested in meeting.
Still and all, it’s weird to watch people police dubstep’s margins, to watch fans and DJs try to issue decrees about what is and isn’t proper dubstep. It’s a warning sign that classicism is setting in, and that people are trying to own a style – something that’s patently impossible. That usually coincides with me losing all interest in the style for a while, because being obsessed with “the classics” gets tedious in a hurry. This happened in a major way to Detroit techno, and as a result, there’s been very little new music from Detroit that’s genuinely excited me for a long time. I’ve heard stuff that’s insanely well-crafted and that moved me, but none of it has struck me as all that innovative or different.
There’s something very timely about Oneman’s selection. Between the rise of funky, Mala’s continuing “broken dub house” direction, and the return of the 2step influence to dubstep, be it through Burial’s beats, Geiom’s “Reminisin’”, most of TRG’s productions, Martyn’s selection or Kode9’s sets, the vital link from dubstep to “house and garage” seems to be rejuvenating (in an interesting parallel to the Berlin/Bristol dubstep/techno axis). Oneman is most definitely at the forefront of this, going so far back in the dubstep continuum that old becomes new, classic sounds fresh, when placed in relation to the dominant styles that fill the bulk of dubstep in 2008. Plus, to much of his audience, pre-2005 or even pre-2006 dubstep is new ground, and that’s not even touching the vast number of current fans who wrote off UK garage in its entirety.
To say TRG’s sound owes a debt to Horsepower and to a lesser extent, early Zed Bias, would be an understatement. But set in the context of dubstep’s recent output, there’s something refreshingly welcome to the re-emphasis of swing and rhythmic variation (2008 dubstep producer in “snares-not-on-the-third-beat shocker!”). Increasingly there is the sense that if someone doesn’t re-ignite this style, it might be lost from dubstep’s canon for good. 2002 it seems, is the new 2008.
Come on, dude, 2002 was only 6 years ago. There’s a ton of records coming out that are still obviously indebted to the old garage sound, and the free interplay between dubstep, grime and newer UK garage (funky house and bassline house most specifically – read his past columns for more details on those styles. Blackdown knows the score) makes it pretty clear that the only ghetto dubstep is in is one consciously created by its critics and fans. It’s a little early to be talking about dubstep having lost its hardcore.
At the same time, I think I see his point, or maybe a version of it. Specifically, there’s a whole crowd of drum’n’bass producers – most prominently Tech Itch, who should know better – who seem to hell-bent on translating their fun-free mechanical techstep idiom into something that sounds the same as their usual, idea-free crap but runs half as fast. UK garage was a reaction against exactly that kind of tedious one-note darkness, and although I love Tech Itch’s old drum’n’bass, I really wish they’d leave dubstep alone. At least until they actually engage with all the stuff that happened since dnb and dubstep ended up on parallel paths.
I do really enjoy the totally uptempo, dancefloor-oriented dubstep that folks like Skream!, Caspa and Rusko are making. It’s plastic and pop, and it ditches the weirdness and obsession with dubstep’s musical dialectic with itself that makes artists like Shackleton, Burial and Various Production so interesting. Rusko’s “Jahova”, Distance’s “Traffic” and Skream!’s “Check It” are all slick as whaleshit, and sound even slicker in the mix, but they’re all fun, bass-heavy dancefloor stompers. As DJs crews, Skream! and Caspa & Rusko are unapologetically prejudiced in favor of ass-shaking, and they put together very consistent, slick sets that still encompass a lot of dubstep’s diversity while still being clubber friendly.
I think the club-friendliness is probably the main thing that bugs Blackdown and people like him. It sucks to watch your special thing go mainstream, especially when the people doing the mainstreaming don’t seem to understand what it was that made it interesting or cool in the first place. Maybe it’s easier for me to not care because I’m only a casual bystander (although I’ve listened to a lot of dubstep and grime in the past few years). I don’t know. I’m just wary of the impulse to build a canon, to worship the classics. A good tune will remain a good tune forever, but if you fasten upon the classics of the past, you might miss the classics of the future.
Voodoo Funk is a blog run by the single-named Frank, a Berlin-based DJ who’s spent much of the last few years traveling around west Africa in the quest for interesting local music. He’s a serious crate digger, and has a talent for finding records that sound very African, but still have broad appeal. He seems to bring something like a hundred records back from each of his shopping expeditions, along with a clutch of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and often nerve-wracking stories. Western Africa is a very complicated place right now, neither the cartoonish post-apocalyptic Thunderdome painted by Western media nor a particularly easy place to live, and Frank has gotten himself into (and out of) some pretty hairy and / or affecting situations.
He’s also made available a ton of sets of the music he’s so painstakingly obtained. He takes a radio / soundsystem selector’s approach, so the results are neither continuously mixed nor left entirely alone; tracks are smooshed into one another but only abut for a second or two. Given the wide variety of styles and sounds he’s working with, this seems like a deft stylistic choice, and is – for all I know – probably the local tradition anyway. He’s got more sets up than I’ve had time to hear, but my particular favorite right now is Lagos Disco Inferno. I’m not particularly a fan of disco, after too many years spent in a West Coast rave scene that prized it much more highly than the astringent, reverb-soaked European techno I preferred, and even Frank describes a lot of these tracks as “shameless, sleazy boogie cheese grenades that only a few years ago would have had me running for shelter,” but I don’t really agree that’s what he’s got here. In fact, there’s a really weird, cosmic vibe on display that reminds me of nothing so much as early Steve Miller Band circa “Time Keeps On Slippin’”, probably due to the synthesized strings that work their way through a number of the tracks. It is both funky and groovy, and a lot of other things besides.
The rest of the sets tend towards a slightly more conventional mixture of Afrobeat, blues, funk, and African jazz, and he tends to stick to west African artists (with some exceptions made for Ethiopian and Eritrean jazz), but that makes what he’s doing sound more boring than it is. There is a lot of extremely high-quality music made in Africa, the vast majority of which people outside the continent will never know exists; Frank’s not exactly providing a service, but he is being very generous with his time and attention and exposing a lot of great music to a wider audience. He’s got a great ear and writes a good story. Check him out.
Sometimes the nicest surprises are the ones that come attached to no expectations. Every so often I’ll throw something on my iPod just because it looks sort of intriguing and end up liking it a lot more than I would with music I’ve been looking forward to a lot longer. Such is the case with Swallow the Sun and their engaging and thoroughly enjoyable Hope. They’re a metal band who have been around for a while, apparently (for as much as I love metal, you could write a couple fat encyclopedias about what I don’t know), and they have a varied sound that draws from death metal, doom metal, hardcore, and the increasingly ill-defined “metalcore” / “post-hardcore” continuum. They remind me a lot of the Ocean collective, in that they move between clean, gruff and shouted vocals as best suits the mood of the music, they know how to move between loud and soft parts of a song with actual dynamics, and they have a nice balance between melody, low-end chug and more prog notions of extended composition and weird sounds. They’re maybe not as ambitious as The Ocean, but I don’t get the sense they’re trying to be.
If you’ve ever heard a doom metal or death metal record, there’s nothing really surprising here, and folks looking for especially raw or harsh sounds should probably look elsewhere. In the unhurried way in which they play their songs and the confidence with which they do so, they remind me of Opeth, without succumbing to Opeth’s sometimes over-precious songwriting (but also without Opeth’s sometimes stunning grasp of structure). The only thing really unusual about them is their easy confidence and the grace with which they put their compositions together, but that’s a pretty big deal in my world. It’s often a goal but rarely realized. I’m going to have to seek out more of their work.
I want to say something about the music Autechre’s been making for the last five years, but it’s hard to find the words. Autechre defined, more or less by themselves, a pure, electronic sound that, after their first three or four records, was indebted only theoretically to the electro and hip-hop that originally inspired them. It is now something entirely other, although they have a legion of followers who together constitute a dotted line connecting Autechre back to the techno continuum. Their music is rooted at least as much in the process and tools used to make it as any residual notions of traditional songcraft, and this can give their music, even at its most turgid, a glossy, intellectual sheen. It can also make it feel fathomlessly recursive and inhuman.
I sometimes end up feeling about Autechre the same way I do about the more abstruse electronic works of Iannis Xenakis (RIP) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (RIP). A piece of music (or, really, sound art) can be an aesthetically unimpeachable artifact of an intellectual process, and it can intimidate you with its recondite structure and alien sounds, but sometimes that’s insufficient if the work doesn’t lend itself to interpretation. I believe that Autechre spend a long time working out the structures they use, and are conscientious about shaping their aggressively experimental music into songs, but sometimes I feel like I have to take that too much on faith.
I will say that I feel that they’ve pulled themselves out of the creative dead end they were in when they made Confield; that album is one of the most frustrating CDs I own. Excerpted, it sounds brilliant, but despite concerted, repeated efforts to wrap my head around it, I’ve never been able to get it to stick. 30 seconds after hearing it, I’ve completely forgotten what it sounds like. It contains an hour of sound that mimics music without ever coalescing into songs – with the exception of the obsessive quasi-Japanese melodic figuration and monotone rhythm of “Eidetic Casein”, which is the one part of the album I love without reservation.
Each album since then is another step back from the inaccessibility of Confield, but their last 4 albums are all easy to admire and hard to love. Draft 7.30 returns to the ghostly melodies of Garbage while keeping Confield’s arrhythmia. Untilted brings back some much-needed low-end heft and some discernible attempts to engage with Autechre’s electro legacy. And finally, their newest album, Quaristice, sees the return of the diversity and ambition of tri repetae (as well as its length).
But I miss the promise of Autechre’s middle period, when they were probably my favorite electronic musicians of all time, and when they knew a secret: they had figured out how to invert the figure and ground of music, and use their keen ear for ruthlessly pared-down melodies to create melodic lines that were sturdy enough to act as the backbone for their wandering, erratic rhythms. Just listen to “Laughing Quarter” from Envane, “Tewe” from Chiastic Slide, or “Under BOAC” from LP5 to hear songs that balance spastic rhythms with simple 4-bar melodies that somehow never get old. Sometimes, as in my favorite song by Autechre, “Arch Carrier” (also from LP5, what I consider their last fully successful album), both the beats and the melodies are kept on a tight rein, and they produce songs that are both rigorously constrained and classically beautiful.
I have to be careful when I talk about Autechre, though. I was completely disgusted with Envane and Chiastic Slide when they were released, taking them as yet more evidence that the whole IDM community had finally and irredeemably disappeared up their own asses. In fact, I was mostly reacting to the fact that tri repetae++ consisted of two brilliant EPs shackled to a wildly uneven album. Perhaps in reaction to the eventual near-total reversal of that opinion (at least when it came to Envane, Chiastic Slide and Cichlisuite), I tried to convince myself (and a few other people) that Confield was a difficult but ultimately brilliant record that would release its secrets in time. This lasted a few short weeks until I went to see them play in Oakland. Practically everyone in the Bay Area’s electronic music scene was at that show and were in the mood for something weird, challenging and transcendental; I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got the distinct impression that I was far from the only one who was severely disappointed. It was amelodic, rhythmically flat, and while technically live (and perhaps even improvised or generatively produced) sounded completely lifeless.
It’s possible that someday a key will turn in my head, and suddenly the most recent third of Autechre’s output will suddenly open up to me. I want to like it: I love difficult, esoteric sounds (see: rest of this blog), and it feels like a confession of failure when I ultimately just can’t get into work as clearly uncompromising and innovative as Confield and their subsequent albums. It’s never fun to see my limitations so clearly laid out. But I also have to be honest, with myself if nobody else: I don’t think my feelings are going to change. Somewhere along the way, Autechre lost me, and while I’ll keep my ears open, I don’t think they’re going to find me again.
Electric Wizard’s Witchcult Today sounds, on record, like Bardo Pond used to sound live. Which is to say Witchcult Today is very good indeed, if not quite the monolithic monster of Satanic fuzz that, say, Dopethrone was. Which is also to say there was a time when Bardo Pond would come on stage looking like a bunch of scruffy MIT grads plus some random hippie chick they rousted out of the Haight and proceed to bludgeon the crowd half to death with some of the heaviest music ever played.
When I saw Bardo Pond play Terrastock in 1998, I swear the air started to congeal. That was the first time I really understood on a gut level why it’s called “heavy metal” (technically Bardo Pond aren’t a metal band, but songs like “Tommy Gun Angel” and “This Time (So Fucked)” are basically Jesu, made years before Justin Broadrick got his new religion). You can get some idea of what Bardo Pond were like live back then here, but listening to this is sort of like watching a phonecam recording of really hot sex. It gets the idea across while being entirely inadequate.
I love any and all of John Fahey’s guitar playing, but he could really have stood to stay away from using effects. Nothing sounds nastier than 80s digital chorus.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Anaal Nathrakh’s style of heavy metal, it might be “unyielding”. Another good choice would be “totalizing”. From the very start, their music has been dense, noisy, seamless, enamored of production tricks that saturate the sound field. Whether it’s driving every single channel on the mixing board into the red or expanding and compressing the masters so whispers are at the same volumes as shouts, they don’t miss a trick to make their albums into massive stone walls of aggressive, violent noise. There are even a couple moments on Domine non es Dignus where a trailing sibilant in one of the vocalists’ words completely blows out the rest of the music, the compression’s amped up so far.
What this does is provide a Procrustean sonic frame into which Anaal Nathrakh can stretch the rest of their hyper-extreme music without you noticing how many different things they’re doing at once. They’re sonic magpies (or should I say stormcrows?), scavenging elements and tropes of just about every form of extreme music out there to create something that is both sophisticated and ineluctably British.
“Sophisticated” is not a word that immediately suggests itself when it comes to Anaal Nathrakh; the only time you can clearly understand the vocalists – when they break out into the declamatory tones of operatic power metal – the lyrics become clear in all their blunt misanthropic eschatology and pessimism. Consider narrative song titles like “Between Piss and Shit We Are Born” and “When Fire Rains Down from the Sky Mankind will Reap as it has Sown”. And the compression and unyielding sonic attack of their songs can make listening through entire albums a bit of a slog if you’re in anything other than the most amped-up frames of mind. The blown-out volumes create a sustained noise assault that erases any notion of narration, that creates an eternal suspended Now where a time before or after you were hearing Anaal Nathrakh did not exist.
However, when one of their albums comes up on my iPod, I tend to end up listening to the rest immediately thereafter. Part of it is that all of their albums have at least a couple songs that are brilliant at evoking precisely the frame of mind that makes their music sound good – they’re catchy and get you pumped. An important part of it, though, is that their magpie approach makes listening to any of their three most recent albums – Domine non es Dignus, Eschaton and Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here – akin to hearing a kind of greatest hits of extreme metal for the last 20 years. There’s a great deal of variety buried within the churn.
Considering the way they join chromatic, atonal death metal guitar solos (reminiscent of later Carcass) to overdriven drum machine blast beats (redolent of Brutal Truth), for instance, points to the fact that grindcore was just death metal with a punk attitude and a fascination with pathology textbooks. Or the way a soaring, epic power metal vocal (a lá Ulver at their most soaring) immediately followed by hoarse death metal growls (along the lines of Deicide) makes clear the dialectic between the majestic and the abject throughout metal. It’s pointless to try and hang a specific genre around Anaal Nathrakh’s neck: each album builds on ideas from the album that preceded it, and they move fluidly between styles within the same phrase, much less between songs.
What makes this all a very British phenomenon is the way a dour pragmatism seeps out from the edges of the frame: while there are frequent stabs at the epic in Anaal Nathrakh’s composition, they seem categorically incapable of pomposity. This is the main thing that separates their newer albums from the progressive metal madness of the last two Emperor albums (IX Equilibrium and Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise): those records are full of fantastic compositions and heroic playing by some of the most talented musicians heavy metal has ever seen, but the whole enterprise is fatally undercut by Ihsahn’s irrepressible need to portray himself as the omphalos of Creation. By contrast, Anaal Nathrakh’s songwriting, production and musicianship, while not quite as accomplished, have a lived-in quality that evoke Blake’s 7 or Warren Ellis’s recent portrayal of the Battle of Crécy. Heavy metal as medieval trench warfare: a metaphor I think Anaal Nathrakh could appreciate.
What Anaal Nathrakh remind me of most, though, is something that is also deeply British, and probably close to the hearts of quite a few of Anaal Nathrakh’s English fans: their relentless downbeat cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy-as-ideology reminds me of nothing so much as the miniatures-based wargame Warhammer 40,000, a game that impresses me more for its ambitious envisioning of a universe of eternal dæmonic conflict than the reality of the game itself. Warhammer subsumes the pan-dimensional evil and intergalactic deicide of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into a world of Roman prætors and legionnaires, and it’s easy to read Anaal Nathrakh’s eschatological death-lust as a soundtrack to neverending, metaphysically fraught strife.
There’s a small circle of musicians making a very specific kind of drone music that sits somewhere between processed field recordings and pure electronic ambient. It’s never quite clear what made the sounds you’re hearing, and this mystery, as well as the way that elements shift, emerge and disappear keeps it from being sonic wallpaper. Most of this artists in this circle (Andrew Chalk, Jonathan Coleclough, Colin Potter, the modern-day Hafler Trio, Andrew Liles, Christopher Heemann) know each other, and they all cultivate their indifference when it comes to finding an audience: Mirror, one of the most talented of these groups, spent a long time putting out 2-500 records at a time (and I do mean records). There’s something weird about buying a record with sides that are more silent than not. It’s somewhat disquieting and anonymous.
Andrew Chalk was in Mirror (along with Christopher Heemann of HNAS), and right now I’m listening to his Shadows from the Album Skies, which has a peculiar name but is a beautiful record. It’s more static and mysterious than most of these lowercase drones, with the only recognizable sound on the whole release being some microphone feedback subtly woven into the first track. It’s subtle and unchanging enough that it draws you in, forces you to listen closely to hear the variations and textures. Moreso than most ambient music, it creates a numinous aura of sound. It is quietly sacramental.
Chalk’s stuff can be hard to find, but it’s worth digging up. Without really meaning to, I’ve collected 7 of his releases and find them all beautiful, soothing and deeply strange.
“Let’s Free Your Head From Your Ass And Worry About Tibet Later” is a near-perfect name for a song, especially when the band playing it sounds suspiciously like early Nirvana.