The wholesale packaging of electro has an inevitability of occurence that matches an inevitability of process. Whilst the machinations of cultural reterritorialisation normally offer us no new insights other than a slightly glowing, but always dying, spark of diversion – the colonisation of electro has provided (perhaps) some food for thought. Not a reason to detect the onset of cultural crisis theory, just food for thought.
The pairing up of bigbeat and breakbeat/hip-hop derived electro was always the first inevitability, due mainly to the stronghold that bigbeat had in the commercial marketplace (the dreamed of crossover between indie and rock buying mentalities and dance’ infinite mix format). The demented concept of ‘nu-skool breaks’ was even invented to cement the process even further and allow a number of bigbudget-straight-out-of-nowhere operations to flourish (Fuel, etc). Teetering on the brink of this was the open hand extended to the likes of Pharma and the numerous labels that their producers inhabit, causing an almost polarising split within the work of the producers themselves between jump-up party beats electro and the more demanding (and absorbing) ‘industrial swingbeat’ style that usually ends up padding out the Electric Ladyland series on Mille Plateaux. Whilst this industrial swingbeat has its moments, it leaves itself wide open to proximity based co-optation by the bigbeat corporate machine, especially when the tracks begin to sacrifice quality for quantity, quickly leaving behind the stinging nastiness and total disorientation that the better industrial swingbeat tracks signify.
The techno strain of electro has always held more promise, with the feel-bad factor and industrial funk dirge noises being pioneered through the Haag, across various German labels, and now in the UK. Always tangental to this has been the uneasy 80’s revival that has been overshadowed by a wholesale cultural / commercial re-investment in 80’s culture. This hasn’t, as yet, produced an ‘80’s mix’ suffix to techno tracks, proving either a difficulty or reluctance to replicate this sound – instead we have numerous missing-presumed-dead popstars making a live package trip style comeback. The only wholesale exception to this mode of operation has been the overhyped and diabolical Add n to (x). Inevitably this has taken the edge off some of the hardcore retrofutrist and neuromantic tracks, with producers having to dig in hard to resurrect those disconcerting synth riffs and spindly melodies that formed the late 70’s early 80’s techno-pop offerings. Thus, the latest collection by D’Arcangelo on Rephlex sounds both fresh and tainted by the past, whilst the heavily delayed album by i-F (now being pushed by Disko-B after nearly 12 months delay on Interdimensional Transmissions) sounds like a bad joke wearing very thin very quickly. The quirky mystique of 2 or 3 of the tracks soon giving way to an ‘over the counter’ electro feel. A more up to date report on Haag activity is given elsewhere in the review section, though one detected a watershed when the relaunched Viewlexx imprint debuted with an Electronome 12 that managed to occupy space in most record shop fronts. Before you could say ‘time for a rethink’ Ferenc and the other figures had re-strategised their campaign and taken the unusual step back into re-animating the ‘high-energy’ disco classics with minimal bleeps and bass and a pre-techno tracking speed of little over 120bpms. Of course, their game was up before they had even laid down their joker cards, with Wire reviewers like Peter Shapiro muscling in on the ‘in joke’. Obviously, rethinking is not enough.
Returning to the impact of techno-electro on the techno scene then ample evidence was gleaned from track titles, remix projects, review columns, etc. From plastikman to The Advent, to Komputer, to the obnoxious Dave Clarke – electro was definitely ‘in’ once again. That most of these producers were failing to capture the fleeting and now fleeing spirit of punk-electronics came as no suprise, and (similarly to big beat) the scene is being cemented by the barcode branding of ‘tech-house’. A quick listen through Justin Berkovi’s continued Force Inc output ‘After the Night’ sets the mood here: very clever programming, smooth noises, the occasional clunk and clank, and just enough references to electro on 3 or 4 of the tracks – the overbearing impression one gets is of a sign hanging in the door of a wine bar: “Smart But Casual”. So where has the feel-bad factor and industrial funk retreated to, for surely what has the courage to step out of the overtly industrial genre is not bound to be swallowed up by the sickly tags of either tech-house or Panasonic style obtusity?
What is occurring is a hardened autonomy of intention, creating seemingly local pockets of sound and structure codes, blueprints that change with geographical location. Two cases in point are Leeds based ScSi and Edinburgh based Penalty.
ScSi grew from the meeting point of experimental tech dj Daz quayle, and the burgeoning studio work of Carl Finlow (Voice Stealer, Scarletron, Random Factor). Having already shared the credits on 2 releases on cult German electronic label Klang, Quayle decided to launch the ScSi imprint to capture the specific sound that he, Finlow and Nick Simpson had been working towards. About to release its fourth release, the sounds, feel and packaging are expressed solely by this hardened cell of activists, who wish to do nothing more than push an ultra-futurist, feel-bad, minimal funk. Their first release sees four separately named projects draw on the Leeds gothic tradition filtered through that same city’s biomechanical blips and bleeps that momentarily scarred the futureproofed beginnings of rave culture. Scarletron revisit Jason’s teen slasher set, The Unit bolster the Haag’s cleanly produced electro grunge sound, Silicon Scally provide a slo-mo frame by frame murder sequence, while Slick reverberate an electro-skank around an air lock chamber. Carl Finlow holds court on ScSi 2, with a double pack that glimpses his darker psyche through extreme ‘stalking’ tracks and his trademark machine funk interjections. The tracks are less minimal than his smoother 80’s viruses, using the riffs to trap overlaid speeded up and slowed down electronic drags and bursts. ScSi 3 is devoted to Slick – four soundtracks from an orbiting, dysfunctional, space station, where the bass just rolls and and kills everything in its path…Any evidence of a polished sound in production is surrendered in the 4th installment, a collection of 8 tracks and 8 loops that draw in disk error sounds, sampler breakdowns and a huge array of dirty timbres. The producers stick religiously to the ‘riffy’ format – bringing in bad sector sounds individually, in layers, or often as a singularity fired off for just a few bars. The overawing impression is of techno-collapse, simulating the atmosphere relayed via a black box of the last few minutes of a suspended and doomed aircraft, before contact with the ground rips all material to useless shreds. The definition of funk is re-opened, stripping it down to an absolute minimum and then pushing it into new domains, building it up again….
Penalty seems more concerned with tackling the concept of electro than of pushing it in a singular direction, their planned series of 5 x 4 track eps smashing away complacency and security in both production and consumption. Being part of Sativae (and Drought) gives them a head start, able to draw on a tradition of disturbing the techno format – reinvesting loops with suspicious samples and chaotic arrangements. The latest release, Penalty 3, is the strongest in terms of achieving an objective of (painfully) dissecting its subject – the four tracks stretch electro in totally different directions, minimising a linking co-ordinate between the tracks themselves, and between each track and a supermarket shelf definition of electro. Sugar Experiment Station introduce us to the ‘Violent Nurse’ – taking a maybe sweet electro melody and distorting it beyond repair, then reverberating some loops on the top. DJ Valium mocks us with ‘Electro Jazz’ – stretching the bond between its object and its distorted destination to the limit (allegedly a snare remains?), sounding like scratched Kraftwerk synched with an old 78 played at 33 (or less). Silver Locusts ‘A Barren Garden’ is a preview of a wider concern regarding spoken word tracks, whilst Berkovi’s ominously titled ‘Razor Blade / Bucket of Water’ blows away his ‘over the counter’ trackwork for other labels with a superb metallic echo and chanted lyric reminiscent of ‘2nd Edition’ era PiL. Backtracking to Penalty 1 and 2 you find equally disturbing work by the likes of Carl Finlow (his awesome ‘Invisible Light’ on Penalty 1), Tobias Schmidt (who digs up 78 era Cabaret Voltaire and electrocutes them), and The Sketchers (who specialise in that ‘electro through the graters’ sound). The bad sector is being re-explored…