Hello fellow SSGs,
today we continue our four part reflection on the year that was with part II: SOUNDS.
PC) sound: it doesn't matter where you put the kick
I think 2009 was an extraordinary year for sounds, perhaps as good as 2000/2001, when so many of the formative releases of the current waves of electronic music were released. In fact, while venues and profitability lurch from crisis to uncertainty, creation, production, reproduction and mutation all appear to be in rude health. Scenes full of sounds have never seemed so vibrant or creative, at least as far as memory and sentiment serves. I want to further and say: I think 2009 will be remembered as a watershed year for all kinds of exploratory music, electronic forms most definitely included. There are several reasons for this as I see it.
First and foremost, I really feel that a lot of the most interesting music makers have finally stopped worshipping laptops: remember when an intent face peering into an unseen screen meant that ‘the new’ was being created live? Remember when the apple glowing from the monitor lid somehow signified the interface avant garde? Well I really think that, this year, we can see a lot of people have begun using the interface after their own ends. I wanna speak about this at greater length in the fourth reflection (TECHNOLOGY), but I offer as exhibits A and B in this regard Carsten Nicolai and Robert Henke, whose works this year no longer sound like ‘laptops’.
This might also connect to the very widespread use of sampled instruments and atmospheric field recordings in many of the releases that I loved this year, which seemed to be both an implicit acceptance of the ‘fact’ that a well mic’ed recording is just inherently nicer/better/more sonically interesting than the same thing generated through digital means. I wanna say that I think this acceptance seemed to occur ‘somewhere’, ‘somehow’ as people also recognized the strengths and idiosyncrasies of analog synths, vintage drum machines, digital FX AND computer-based interfaces all at the same time. So please note well: this is an argument for MULTImedia. This seems to have resulted in more people pursuing more interesting and idiosyncratic sound designs – designs which are of their own imagining, not the result of just flicking through presets or imitating already-abundant records. I’m really so happy this has happened. Maybe we're seeing a bit less 'production', and a bit more 'creation'.
I do say acceptance ‘somewhere’, ‘somehow’, to underline the weirdness of these recognitions and changes. Where did this acceptance occur? Who accepted it? Somewhere between a weird Jungian collective unconscious and an orchestra without a conductor lies the way new harmonies emerge and the way certain points in time are shared, understood, overturned, questioned, reviled, etc… but this immediately connects me to the second point, which is that there is no longer a zeitgeist (singular) in any meaningful sense. What there are, instead, are clumped multiplicities resonating in sympathy with each other: sharing a ‘sound’ as theirs in a way that might not be immediately intelligible and recognizable as such to anyone approaching it from outside…. but that is there nonetheless. Seems like all you need is a little sympathy, and you can tune in to any number of local resonances. That was 2009.
2009 was also the year my metalhead friend was also listening to (and loving) Zomby, Harmonic 313, HudMo along with the usual amplifier worship; and this while so many techno kids were digging on doom. In terms of the sounds people digest, whole lot of either/or appears to have been replaced by a both/and: people who I talk to constantly surprise me with the voracious diversity of their listening practice, and this is something which you can also hear reflected in so much of the great music released this year.
All of the above strike me as parts of the strange, diffuse, social things happening between us this year – but where exactly? Is this the strange agency of the network, or just what the network renders audible and visible? Whatever it is, it’s intensely productive and exciting.
In terms of specific sounds, there are three strands that I wanna tug, things that I feel have been specific to 2009 that I’ve really appreciated.
The first of these is the large number of releases that take you, drop you, and leave you in an immersive soundworld of their own making – sometimes for hours. With little care for the time limits imposed by redundant (or at least, no longer hegemonic) mediums such as CD, and with equally little concern for the strictures of structures (be it pop, track, or bars and beats in four) these recordings bend mood, time and music into something fascinating and full of possibility. I can’t say I’m always in the mood for multiple hours of Leyland Kirby or Oneohtrix Point Never (fuck, even Animal Collective’s ‘My Girls’ feels like it could go on all day - queue someone releasing a 12 hour remix), but I’m so glad these kinds of releases exist, and that these explorations are happening. Enter Terre’s new 30 hour, 4 GB piano solo….
Strand two is the quiver of music with a new, strong, dark energy, an energy that I find overwhelming at times. Ben Frost’s By The Throat was the release that, more than any other, orbed me in this way. This music is almost too powerful, too strong. I add to that my favourite live set of the year, this one of Shed’s from Sonar. Fuck me. But I also get this from recent releases on Raster Noton from NHK, Aoki Takamasa and Mika Vainio, as well as from Ancient Methods and Oni Ayhun. There is something so vital, so kicking about all this music. Deeply emotive. But no, probably not emo.
Finally, the third strand I wanna pull has been sheltering under the steps, but is neither dubstep nor substep nor steptech but rather a whole new world of freestyle beat work. In his recent interview in The Wire, Robert Henke explained how he discovered that, really, it doesn’t matter where you put the kick – what’s far more interesting is the dynamic tensions this creates in the space between. Well, it’s not really a ‘discovery’ for a lot of people (duh, says Burnt Friedman or Sasu Ripatti), but nonetheless, judging from the astonishing things I’ve been hearing from Henke, Rene Pawlowitz, T++, Peverelist, 2562 and the like (as well as a bevvy of extremely young and fresh producers coming through, especially in Britain), it’s something that’s catching on, and it's a contagion among whose effects is the carving out of new grooves for new lines and new futures as yet unexplored.
CH) sound: sound, structure, time.
the first thing i'd say is that i agree with much/most of what pete has said. in particular, i'd like to really support and perhaps extend one or two of pete's points. where there are parallels with around the early '00s is that on the fringes of techno/house etc. exciting and important changes were happening that would later filter across into more mainstream sounds. this is what really excites me about guys like scuba, and some similar guys, t++ is another person who gives me a similar buzz, you can catch glimpses of a possible future in their sounds. actually this applies to most of the artists pete mentioned. vaguely related to this is pete's observation about the way people have been exploring the spaces in between the kicks. this is something i think has really great potential and excites me tremendously. saying that, i am sure i am influenced by the fact the last 2 acts i've seen have been basically electronic jam sessions: the moritz trio last night, and atom tm vs tobias a few weeks ago. there is not necessarily anything that new about it - most of it is emerging from analog gear - but i do feel we are beginning to witness a genuine expansion of the way techno music can be produced and presented. and in this regard, we probably should give some props to ricky v for helping to generate a much wider interest and acceptance with techno music that breaks out of the standard structure. following on from this thought, though, what i'd say is that to create this kind of techno which fucks with established techno structures and formats is coming from (and this should not necessarily be a surprise) people who really *know* music. you cant create this kind of shit just after a couple of months fucking about on ableton. the recent examples i've seen are from serious vets - moritz, sasu, and max, then uwe and tobias. think how many years behind knobs and mixing desks there is between all of them. i think the point i am trying to get to here is that this kind of techno, more improv, more jamming, looser structures, more noodling, less kicks (and more random ones) is much more likely to emerge from peeps who have a depth of experience with machines and basic musicality that much of the computer revolution of the past couple of years has obscured at times.
i am not sure how many points, if any, i've made so far, but what i'd like to highlight next is something which was one of the key defining traits of 2009. and that was a genuine renaissance in techno music. this has been commented on here, and elsewhere, so there is no need for me to go into much depth. but we are talking about the major features of last year, and this was definitely one of them. what i'd stress is that renaissance is the most appropriate word to describe what it was (and continues to be). look at the oxford english dictionary definition:
1. a. With the. The revival of the arts and high culture under the influence of classical models, which began in Italy in the 14th cent. and spread throughout most of Europe by the end of the 16th; (also) the period during which this was in progress.
b. Any period of exceptional revival of the arts and intellectual culture.
c. A revival of, or renewal of interest in, something; (also) the process by which this occurs.
this is really what you had with techno. the sounds of the mid to late 90s served as a template and inspiration for producers, but they used these models creatively and productively to create something new and worthwhile. techno in 2009 was walking forwards. backwards. if that makes any sense. perfect examples of this would be shed, function and ancient methods. there are others. right now it is this dynamic that is really exciting me. there will come a point in time - perhaps not too far off - where the creative potential of this relationship expires, but there is still quite a lot of possibility left.
in comparison to the productive relationship that presently exists between harder techno and its earlier incarnations in the '90s, i think the past hangs like a dead weight around the neck of dub techno. for me one of the most important events of 2009 was the death of dub techno. it is completely devoid of new and interesting ideas, and just continues to operate with a very tired and worn out model. it was STL's release on echospace which led me to finally accept this depressing reality (i say this because i have been a very long supporter of dub techno). STL has been doing really amazing stuff over the last couple of years, but when he turns to dub techno he gets boring. quick. the difference between his silent state release on smallville - one of the highlights of 2009 - and his well produced, but ultimately not very exciting echospace EP. and thinking about it, i really cannot think of any dub techno releases that excited or amazed me. i can think of plenty of pleasant, nice, ok dub techno records, but i cant think of any great ones. there certainly arent any of my end of year list. i may have forgotten of something, if so, please suggest what it may have been. there is not much bad dub techno. but there isnt much/any great dub techno round any more either. just a huge mass of incredibly average, mediocre, similar sounding stuff. i am not sure if i should be pointing fingers, but i think echocord is perhaps the best example of this trend. even echospace has basically hit the wall. it is worthwhile comparing all of this average stuff with what moritz is doing now, which is so much more vital, fresh, interesting and *forward thinking*.
i'll leave it there, and hand it over to the others. to conclude what i'd like to see is more people having the courage to develop and pursue distinctive sound signatures. you can do this while working within (but perhaps renovating) the techno structures currently in place.
PS) sound: as heard through a helmet lined with lavender
Here we go again:
Peter brings up the end of laptop worship. (And yeah, it was a form of worship, for a while there—I'm reminded of performance photos from the first couple of years of MUTEK, when the performer and his [almost always "his"] notebook seemed to signify a brave new minimalist fusion of creator and output, a kind of digital immediacy. The visible laptop was absolutely key to the aesthetic, simultaneously de-mystifying and hyper-mystifying the practice of composition and performance.) Before I agree with you, I only want to caution against slipping into an overly binary stance. Hell, it's been hip to bash laptops for years, now, and concomitant with the rise of the Nu-True School attitudes of the deep house revival (keepin' it real, takin' it back, goin' deep) has been plenty of knee-jerk, analog-is-better talk. Analog becomes its own fetish. But while I'll concede that machines (and samples of acoustic/electric music) tend to sound "better," "warmer," etc., than softsynths, using them doesn't automatically translate to better ideas. I'm reminded of Traxx's Faith, which was analog as you like, but sonically and structurally something of a retread, neither breaking new ground nor, most of the time, doing anything really exceptional with traditional elements. (An exception is "Enka," which uses just a handful of elements but winds up being something very strange indeed, thanks to its oddball melodies and otherworldly clash of timbres.) Villalobos has reportedly begun digging heavily into modular systems, but I'm not sure that I'm hearing its impact in his work yet; he doesn't need analog gear to turn out novel sounds, frankly.
But I do agree with you that, on balance, this shift back towards craft is a good thing. NSI's live performance at MUTEK (and archived as a Resident Advisor podcast) was the kind of thing only possible from musicians who know their instruments and their methods as well as Tobias Freund and Max Loderbauer do; and you got the same feeling from NSI and Odd Machine's releases, which bent decades-old machines to the artists' will in a breathtaking way. (Just listen to NSI's recent Eitherway EP for an example of how out they can go.) The Moritz von Oswald Trio, both live and on record, is another great example of musicians deeply in tune with their gear and their process.
A lot of the most sonically exciting music I heard this year came from outside techno. After several years of "indie" musicians claiming to take inspiration from places like Kompakt, but often coming up short on the execution front—using thin, presetty synths, or uninspired and unevolving drum sequences that signified "techno" without actually engaging with the form—more and more acts from the "rock" realm seem to have torn a page from the Knife's Silent Shout, the most genuinely techno record to ever come out of the indie-dance realm (or, at least, find most of its success there). Fuck Buttons and Weatherall managed an occasionally thrilling fusion of noise and dance music with Tarot Sport. And still to the left of them, Emeralds recorded even more immersive and incredible (as in, it's hard to believe how anyone could come up with a din like this) work. Both What Happened (No Fun) and their untitled album for Wagon/Gneiss Things were quicksilver oilslick Kraut-drone-kosmisch insanity; the opalescent "Alive in the Sea of Information" delivered exactly what the titled promised, a kind of pulsing, breathing affirmation of spirit rendered in an infinity of overtones. It felt like a kind of technological animism. (I occasionally got a similar sensation from Ethernet's 144 Pulsations of Light, though the latter record is more obviously inspired by Gas' school of granular pulsation.)
Of course, this all ties in with Peter's immersive soundworlds and dark energy. I think my most gratifying this revelation was the discovery of a wide swath of underground activity of which I'd never been aware before, one that ties together the cassette scene's DIY spirit and home-soldering prowess with a growing attention to mind-melting, transportive sound. There's No Fun Productions, responsible for both Emeralds' What Happened and Oneohtrix Point Never's Rifts and Russian Mind. (Emeralds' Steve Hauschildt has a couple of recent cassettes and CDRs of overdriven synth drone that are also well worth checking out.) There's Type Records, a label I never paid a lot of attention to, which came out with Black to Comm's electronic/acoustic wonderland Alphabet 1968, Richard Skelton's new Landings, and the upcoming Going Places by Yellow Swans--about whom I know nothing, but the album is amazing, a dusk-colored swirl of Philip Jeck and Flying Saucer Attack and Gas all playing at once. Type's also responsible for the 2008 release of Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill by Grouper, one of my favorite discoveries of 2009. At Unsound Krakow, she played in a mostly darkened movie theater and I sank deep into the cushioned seat before slipping into a truly hypnagogic state, astral traveling on rails glazed with feedback. My girlfriend and I went to see her again in Berlin, just a week later, and the setup couldn't have been more different—it was an intentionally shabby rock club in a former doctor's office, with ceramic tile teeth hanging jaggedly down from the ceiling where the walls had been knocked down by sledgehammers. Grouper (Portland, OR's Liz Harris) sat on stage with her guitar in her lap, spending a considerable time fiddling with an array of pedals at her feet. Her stage presence is a kind of anti-stage presence, but it works for her, shielded behind severe bangs and keeping her gaze locked downward. Five or six Walkman-style cassette players played back long strips of noise, feedback, loops, railroad clatter… it was hard to tell. But it all smeared together into a gorgeous, porous mass, led by spindly guitar lines and Harris' own considerable voice. (One suggestion: If you go see Grouper live in a rock-club sitting, position yourself at the front, and sit down.) Discovering Grouper led me to Jefre Cantu-Ledesma's Rootstrata label, which coincidentally enough also released a DVD-R by Oneohtrix Point Never and an album by Barn Owl, one of whose members is Jon Porras aka Elm, whose Nemcatacoa (Digitalis) hit a lot of the same sweet spots for me as did Emeralds and Black to Comm, if from a more acoustic perspective.
And I have to mention Kevin Drumm's Imperial Horizon (Hospital Productions), a near-perfect album of drone shimmer whose closest analogue is Folke Rabe's 1967 masterpiece What?! (briefly reissued on Dexter's Cigar, now out of print but available on a few MP3 blogs). If you love drones and haven't heard either of them, make haste. (If you've never listened to them together, simultaneously, it's well worth a try too, especially if you like freaky Radigue-style spatializations in the air around your head.)
Back to techno. I actually don't share Chris' frustration with the form. STL's Echospace 12" may not have been groundbreaking, but I have no problem sinking into it. It's not necessarily club music, but it's almost single-mindedly functional nonetheless, and all I can say is that it works for me. Berlin's Freund der Familie had a beautiful dub-techno release with "Symbian," with the title track pitched up to dubstep techno. Mobach's "Metrobots" (SD Records) was machine-centric dub techno, but even stranger; the title track has the crudely cut samples of Pepe Bradock or Theo Parish, and the sidelong "Alternate Moods" is a bizarre and wonderful kind of underwater carnival bluebeat, like Burial gone ska (and not quite so dour). Van Rivers' "Stretched Out on Pavement" (also SD) split the difference between dub techno and cutting, clattering warehouse techno and came up with something as good as anything on Modern Love. Where does dub-techo end, and warehouse techno begin? XDB's Lost Tape EP (Wave) asked that, as did Levon Vincent ("Late Night Jam," what a tune). In any case, yeah, techno feels exceptionally vital right now: trad, maybe, but not treading in place: just listen to that last EQD, which couldn't sound more classic, and yet seems to be pushing into a new terrain altogether. The B-side, with its collapsing beat, is tugged by competing degrees of swing into something unusually elastic. For being a question of two chords and a tuned conga sample, it's exceptionally musical. For all its simplicity, and for all its full-on energy, it's exceptionally smooth, yielding, enveloping—it's Scandinavian loop-techno as heard through a helmet lined with lavender.
Somewhere between techno and ambient lies that spongy terrain sometimes called "downtempo." (I wonder, is it the fault of the name that so much of the genre is crap? Would slow, murky, breakbeat-oriented music have remained a more vital field if it hadn't ended up with unfortunate tags like "trip-hop"?) I still haven't tired of Lukid's 2009 Foma nor his 2007 Onandon, which sound as much indebted to Dettinger or Jan Jelinek as it is did Dilla or Prefuse; they sound a little like Zomby working with September Collective's soundbanks, with warm, liquid acoustic sounds taking the place of square-wave jags and beeps. Ras G's Brotha from Anotha Planet (Brainfeeder) was similar in feel: nominally I suppose you'd call it instrumental hip-hop, but when was the last time you heard anything in hip-hop (even Flying Lotus, whose label released it) this far-out and weird? The rhythms remind me a little of Req, who had a couple of brutally minimalist albums of unquantized, dust-crusted boom-bap on Warp in the late '90s; but Ras G's deeper, richer sonics deliver exactly where Req always disappointed me a little. Listen to the sub-bass on "Earthly Matters"—this is heavy stuff. My only complaint might be that most of the tracks on Brotha from Anotha Planet feel like sketches—it'd be great to have some sustained, ecstatic jams; the way Ras G sources and combines his samples, I feel like there's some Theo Parish action in there waiting to get out. But for an album made up of two- and three-minute tracks, it's powerfully immersive stuff, like the Bomb Squad meets Staubgold—which seems like one pretty good model for "deep listening" in 2010.
TB) sound: Not new ways of old things either. Actual new things.
Glad to read your thoughts on the year that was sound-wise. Problem is, you seem to have covered most of what I'd offer up: The issues are much the same as they were last year, the bright hopes much the same as well. Outsiders will keep popping up, we'll keep lauding them, people will largely ignore them. The wheel, it keeps a-turning. Rather than documenting my obsessions from 2009, though, I did just want to add some thoughts on things already touched upon in your three pieces.
Rating the year: I'm kinda intrigued that you found 2009 to be such a great year. (And that it will have such an impact going forward.) I'm trying to remain as positive as possible, but so many of the artists that you list after you make this claim are old hands, people that I'd argue created their best work a few years ago. It doesn't feel to me like people are so much punching through walls as they are spinning their wheels in slightly different ways. The Monolake and Carsten Nicolai albums from 2009 sound great, no doubt, but it certainly doesn’t feel quite like this as "watershed"-esque as the arrival of Clicks and Cuts. (Although we need only look where that led to probably be thankful that it doesn't.) The guys you talk about never used the presets (or they used them in fascinating ways). What was really different about this year?
Finding the beat: I had the good fortune to see Monolake live at Tresor—a sneakily good club at times—late this year, and it was one of the most mindblowing shows that I saw all year. (I do choose the word mindblowing carefully there.) It was the first time I've heard a full surround sound system, and Henke put it through its paces, stuttering drum & bass-like beats throughout the hour and change that I was there so that every time that you moved throughout the room you had a completely different perspective on what was happening. I walked around a decent amount, and saw some of the most meaningful dancers that I've seen in Berlin. (Trying to find that kick, no doubt.) It was absolutely unrelenting—aside from a short breakdown here or there—the entire time. It was also incredibly playful, something that is sorely lacking from the music that we so often praise. You rarely see people freak out like this to deep house. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
More noodling from the more experienced: To go back to my point about the people that are pushing things forward in Pete's opinion, I think Chris underlines my central worry: The guys who are doing this have almost exclusively been around for ages! It was inspiring to see the parade of old guard experimental techno folk destroying MUTEK this year in probably the same ways that you saw in Japan, Chris, but I wonder who arrives to take their place. This is perhaps why I feel myself being drawn further and further to the outer reaches of dubstep lately. Scuba, Martyn, James Blake, Untold: They all seem to be finding ways to say new things. Not new ways of old things either. Actual new things.
Dub techno: I'm not an enormous fan of the genre, perhaps because I often feel a bit overwhelmed by the stuff, but I empathize with Chris' thoughts. I think STL is a bit of genius, but his particular genius isn't well-suited to dub techno to my ears. He works in subtle, tiny modulations that add up over time. But he also knows, crucially, when to stop. Dub Techno Explorations and "Checkmate" didn't; they needed an editor. One more thing to add to Chris' argument: Even though after careful examination I realize that Deadbeat's upcoming mix has plenty of relatively contemporary productions on it, in my first scan over the tracklisting, I couldn't help but think that it was a historical document. (Again, I'm fully ready to admit that this is due to my severe lack of knowledge about dub techno.)
Indie/noise/crossover: Can't help but agree with you here. I was briefly e-mailing with a friend who claimed that he was putting together a mix that would help showcase the pretty solid link between certain noise musicians and electronic music. The two most telling things: He had to make it a two-disc compilation to fit everything in, and he had no idea who the Fuck Buttons were. Astral Social Club, Richard Youngs, Yellow Swans: Techno! Who knew? I spent a great deal of time daydreaming a few years ago about what a Fennesz microhouse record might sound like. Now I realize that it was probably released by someone in the interim. Shall we nominate the more experimental side of Oni Ayhun to these ranks as well? I went to see the producer play live in Berlin late last year, and there were more than a few techno producers in the audience.