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The notes that became this essay were written in 2008, while I was studying in London and restlessly enjoying the latter days of dubstep before it splintered into the million pieces critics lazily conflate with the term “post-dubstep.” Years later, and with so much superior writing on the still very-much-essential Burial, this is something of a throw-away vault piece. Yet, with the popularity of what Americans insist on calling “dubstep,” for better or worse, still in evidence, I thought this down-to-basics relic might be of some interest. I’m not uploading the tunes that form the soundtrack, because I’ve already gotten enough warnings for doing that sort of thing here. (The eclectic formatting is intentional but didn’t transfer to the web that well; I’ll fix it some day.)

———-

DISTANT LIGHTS

/dubstep and urban resonance

———————————————

EXERGUE

This music manages to haunt so many versions of myself : as frightened and lonely in the dark, as wide-eyed and caffeinated, thumbing through philosophy texts, as ponderous bassist, as wounded night-wanderer, as blissed out weekender…it will not leave me alone, and I have not left it alone. To approach it here I’ve tried to craft a schizoid concept album, style variations as suitable to context. There are lingering ideas and fragments that may drift off like Burial’s “embers.” I have rifled through texts opportunistically for samples, like a DJ in a box of used vinyl. I’ve attempted to fill the text with both echo space and 2-steppy paranoia. A running soundtrack elucidates the text (and vice versa, hopefully).

I have focused largely, perhaps excessively, on Hyperdub, namely Kode9 and Burial – who are mostly referred to as such, not as Steve Goodman and William Bevan. It is by now a cliché to remark, if you like him or not, that Burial is sui generis, not part of the dubstep mainstream. My assumption is that if Burial is “oneiric dance music” like k-punk has suggestedi, an analysis of his music, which I see as a trek into the unconscious of dubstep, a blowing up of its otherwise repressed affective tendencies, will be a way of understanding broader musical paradigms – which need not be limited to any particular generic taxon.

may 2009

I. SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT

 Image

An aerial view of South London at night, around Wandsworth Prison. “Burial’s parallel dimension sounds set in a near future South London underwater. You can never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio transmissions, or the tropical downpour of the submerged city outside the window.”ii

……..

[TRACK:SOUTH LONDON BOROUGHS]

[TRACK: SOUTHERN COMFORT]

……..

If grime is the voice of angry urban London, dubstep is its primary echo, the sound of dread bass reflecting off decaying walls. To feel it, leave the sterile cleanliness of London’s centre. Follow the carrier wave as it heads for the margins, travelling south through Elephant & Castle, via Norwood and Thornton Heath to Croydon: the home of dubstep.iii

This thing we call dubstep of course comes out of Croydon, more specifically a little record store on Surrey St, in the shadow of the Croydon flyover.1

In the deepest recesses of south London, so deep in fact that it’s not really London anymore, lies a much maligned urban sprawl. Croydon…”iv

Nearest tube station something like five miles away. It is beyond the London postcode system, grime’s territorial shorthand.

[TRACK: WILEY – BOW E3]

Dubstep audaciously realigned the sound of the post-garage ‘nuum to South London: marginal, despised, other than London. Certainly other than East London (Plastic People’s location in Shoreditch notwithstanding). The more obvious acoustic-geographic comparisons are the dead ghosted cities of post-punk – not grime’s inner city decay, spaces like styles imported from New York. Melancholy over madness. The bleak sagging greyscapes of films like Nil by Mouth, incidentally Burial’s favorite London movie. “A geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only describable in terms of music or abstract physics…”v

Croydon has got the JG Ballard vibes about it. It’s a Ballard area. I imagine Croydon is Shepperton in the south. You’ve got some connections with Ballard haven’t you? Yeah, I mean you know Croydon better than I do, but Croydon seems a bit grimey for Ballard. The Ballard thing is about the suburbs. The future of the city is not urban, it’s suburban and Croydon itself has got loads of suburbs.

But it’s not a hub because there’s nothing there. Is that what’s crucial about Croydon? That there’s nothing…vi

Nothing. Built-in, modernist nothing, a suburb with its own suburbs, a black hole. Disappeared.

…dubstep (and again Burial specifically) is very much about built-up areas, urban space, places that should be bustling with life…. but are now uncannily, eerily empty. Either that, or just lonely-making. Dubstep is desolationist.vii

A melancholy non-place like the one Antonioni depicts in the closing sequence to L’Eclisse – the leading example of what could be called the New Town Symphony. (My only regret is the heavy-handed piano over the closing shot: the quiet buzz of the streetlight would have been much more apropos.) The uneasy flicker and hum of the desolate night, night buses and distant lights, Stevenson’s low growl of London all around – only this time it is the sound of electricity and burning petrol.

“Margins are so key. When has there ever been a good record from central London? Streatham, Bow, Romford, Croydon, Newham, Thornton Heath … it’s all margin music.”viii

***

Those who have recorded their impressions of coming into London by the railway from the South, have remarked upon the apparently endless vista of red and brown roofs, dead walls, and little streets which flashed by. The prospect has been compared to that of a sea, or a desert…ix

It’s already under water. These are already the last days.

II. JUST A SOUND [DUB]

Only her voice and bones are left; at last

only her voice, her bones are turned to stone.

So in the woods she hides and hills around,

For all to hear, alive, but just a sound.

-Ovid, Metamorphoses, III.399-341 [Narcissus and Echo]

There is a self-effacing dread in echo: Kerans hearing his name boom off of dead clock towers in The Drowned World (p. 61). Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves:

Boum.

Echo appears to originate from the locale. It is a kind of haunting, a present perpetually submerged in the immediate past. The soundscape is thick with accretions, not far removed from the world of J.G. Ballard’s The Sound-Sweep, Kode9’s favorite work by the author along with The Drowned World.x Here sound sticks to space and needs to be swept away, exorcised. Music itself has become “hypersonic,” inaudible, only experienced at some unconscious level.

Stimulate the audio nerve directly.

[TRACK:VICTIMS]

At present our cities are hypersonic as well. Electronic signals beyond the range of human hearing, low-frequency engine roars, overhead flight patterns. A matrix of accidental sounds. Desolate cities as cisterns: reverb machines. Desolation is the prerequisite to echo – a desolation that gets internalized as we are possessed by the ghost of dead sounds, abject sounds that could once have been ours. Isolation, understood simultaneously as social disintegration and lovesick heartache. Echo in tears, Narcissus kissing the water. [BBC: Life in UK “has become lonelier.”xi]

Its use of delay perfectly suited to reflect urban decay…xii

The echoed voice is suddenly inhuman – thrown back at us, more alien with each reiteration. Speech into sound, a withering of signification. The echoed voice is fragmented, denied a posture of logocentric presence. We are dispossessed of it. It now belongs to space, the medium becomes the message.

[TRACK:I AM SITTING IN A ROOM]

The voice can be lost in other ways: in deafening thoroughfares, in the rain, in clubs. Or if one has no occasion to speak, as would be the norm in places with built-in reverb. And so plenty if not most dub dispenses with the voice entirely. But the dis-placed human voice lurks as a trace in the underworld of these musics, conspicuous by its absence.

[TRACK:SPACEAPE]

The Spaceape returns as a hostile alien, his voice “immune from dying” in a world of echo. He is uncanny and surreal, his voice itself like a wonky bass pulse. Linton Kwesi Johnson for the [post]-rave generation. England is still a bitch.

Interestingly more than one reviewer objected to the Spaceape track on the first Burial LP, a version of “Victims” but on a record less comfortable with this kind of voice. Pitchfork: “the album’s only genuinely unlikeable moment.”xiii Marcello Carlin on the blog Church of Me: “an intrusive nuisance”xiv That is: hostile, alien. The pounding, militant voice of the subaltern suddenly breaking through the surface of this drowned world is too much for some to bear, evidently.

The “vast, empty and deeply emotional” world of Burial, the haunting desolation of things like “Forgive” with its incoherent voices lost in the rain, becomes paradoxically euphoric: an opiate. Ballardian again, in its embrace of disintegration: Vaughn in a speeding car, Kerans marching toward the equator.

III. BACKWARD [STEP]

But that state of opiated bliss, of an ecstatic return to the womb, was never possible; despite all of this vastness, there is the inescapable epileptic percussion. Dubstep’s breakbeats maintain a state of paranoia, unease. It creates a claustrophobia; movement forwards entails movement backwards.

[TRACK:BACKWARD]

There is neither the euphoric rush forward of 4/4 House or the propulsive embrace of desolate cityscapes one finds in krautrock, the motorik beat speeding us down the autobahn. Those motorways are sources of anxiety; we – or at least I – often hear the sound of passing cars somewhere in the background of Burial’s tracks, but it is warped, distant, anxious. This jerkiness is what k-punk calls “2-step’s anorgasmic anticipation-plateau;” he interprets this positively, in kind of a Delueze/Guattari mille plateaux sense, in order to argue that Burial is doing something opposed, but it seems to me that this music is in fact haunted and disturbed by its anorgasmia.xv

Perhaps this is because we are not talking about consummation at all, but disintegration and devolution interpreted positively. Back to Ballard, and back to opium. The Drowned World postulates a future in which the death drive of Beyond the Pleasure Principle becomes semi-conscious, and with enthusiasm its characters suicidally rush toward “forgotten paradises,” the painless serenity of inorganic matter. The aqueous aesthetic of immersion displayed in both Ballard’s novel and in dubstep also recalls the “oceanic feeling” of Civilization and its Discontents, the ecstatic sense of ego-dissolution that for Freud is the essence of religious passion, a stand-in for a return to the womb, another kind of devolution.

This is also the logic of opiate literature, a sub-genre that was integral to the psychic landscape of 19th century London and which has left traces in the way certain zones are understood (e.g., Limehouse).

[TRACK:DARKER THAN EAST]

We’re in Wilehouse…it used to be called Limehouse, but since things are so wild around here, it just had to be called Wilehouse. Wildness within, a “dark east” that replicates that darker East. Opiated Celestials haunting the back streets of the East End, or more importantly, the back pages of West End penny newspapers.

Beyond these psychogeographical concerns, part of the inescapable legacy of London, the aesthetic of opium provides a way to understand the latent, ultimately thwarted, desires in this music. Meconium has a song called “No Heroin No Dubstep”: not literally true, of course, but on a metaphorical level it seems perfectly obvious.

It is not for nothing that Burial has a track called Endorphin, featuring a grotesquely echoed voice spilling out into the night in the flicker of “all those flashing lights,” with a moaning voice of pain and desire fading in and out over a sea of bass…

The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time…xvi

[TRACK:ENDORPHIN]

The whole movement of this imagery was inwards and downwards. [Coleridge’s] symbol for the exploration of human personality was always that of a shaft leading down to a huge dark space. In terms of psychoanalysis such dream images are explicable as equivalents of infantile and sexual experiences…xvii

Inwards and downwards: precisely the movement of Burial’s music. Even the name suggests a latent desire for interment. But the jerky anxiety of the drums prevents, ultimately, the capaciousness and expansiveness of the bass & atmospherics from gesturing toward spaces like the sea or vast expanses of ice. This is not “arctic ambient,” these are not whale songs. This sonic space is anxious, striated, vast but tenuous, ephemeral and uncanny. Which is to say essentially urban. There is no “oceanic feeling” here. The return to the womb – like the orgasm – is deferred; we are forced to keep on dancing2, or keep on walking home. The drug analogue for this is not the nothingness of heroin, but caffeine spasms, amphetamine crashes – weary comedowns.

INTERLUDE – DMZ 3

Image

It was sometime after 3 when I left the real world. I don’t know how it happened – I was behind one of the speaker walls, probably prowling for drugs or girls as drunk as I was to kiss in some corner against a wall throbbing with terrifying bass rhythms – a ludicrous fantasy born out of loneliness. There was no girl, but the last thing I remember was chatting, as far as was possible over the noise, with a few West Indian guys. I didn’t give them any money, I know, because I didn’t have any – I had sneaked in to avoid the 12 quid entry fee, because some shit Barclay’s machine across from the Brixton tube station ate my debit card. I didn’t eat for three days after until I could get a new card mailed from the States, but let’s get back behind the speakers…as far as I remember, Kode9 had just come on. I was still shaking off the bottle of Tesco gin I drank before I left – to beat the exchange rate, you had to nearly black out before you left on brand X liquor, and maybe buy one 15 dollar cocktail to keep you leveled at the club if absolutely necessary. This night might well have been, seriously, the historic low point of the US-UK exchange rate, something like 48 pence on the dollar. Being sober at such events as far as I’m concerned is out of the question, because I end up experiencing it primarily as a music critic rather than as a body in space and time…a character flaw, to be sure, but there is something to be said for alcoholic phenomenology. Music is deeper, delay becomes more pronounced. You mimic the music’s submersion and torpor along with its euphoria. The effects in these regards are not unlike the way opium was discussed above…and one of DeQuincey’s principle “pleasures of opium” was going to the Opera. He was the original raver.

In any case I tend to think somebody put something in my drink although I cannot justify this. This all, of course, is very fuzzy. But I do not remember smoking anything, or taking any pill. I’d probably been a perpetrator of more crimes than I could prove to be a victim of, including the classic fake oyster swipe on the back of a bendy-bus on the way down there…but next thing I knew my first girlfriend from when I was about fifteen was relentlessly mocking me, passionately kissing someone who I despised, as a crowd gathered around to laugh at me nearly until their insides fell out. I panicked and fled across the dance floor, remembering the music only as nightmarishly oppressive…I scrambled through the stairways, admittedly confusing when I entered hours earlier, but now Piranesian and impossible to navigate. Miles high. I seem to remember something of a scene in the coat check room which I felt was about 30 stories up the spiral staircase as I got my bag back and sprinted out into the 4am night, to be desperately lost in South London until well after dawn…

And I had nearly been driven insane by Steve Goodman.

[Only the next afternoon when I woke up seeing kaleidoscope patterns, soberly reflecting on the night and my knowledge of drug reactions, did I realize that I had probably taken acid, somehow.]

[TRACK:SHELL OF LIGHT]

Out on the streets, slightly less mad, I found myself living out a Burial tune while listening to Untrue, one of three of four CDs I had with me in London. This is Burial’s domain: after the club, that music simmering, half-remembered. In the dead of night, the point of superlative desolation. These are techno-nocturnes.

The slightest sound is reverberated between the lofty walls of houses, and the echoes of our own footsteps, as we plod quietly along, return to us from the other side of the way, as though some invisible companion dogged our march and mimicked every movement we make.xviii

Not the night, though, of Benga and Coki’s “Night,” paean to night’s licensing of unrepressed energy flows. This is the night after that night. The music deterritorialized, as memory or mp3. To purists this music does not exist.

It’s more about when you come back from being out somewhere; in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you’ve still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It’s like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark. It’s pretty simple.xix

***

The next morning my CD player was paused on the middle of the second half of “Shell of Light,” by chance or not the most heartbreaking moment on the album, and who knows how many times I listened to Untrue record that night, or where I went. I have discrete memories of various places in London that could have happened at any point, given the amount I drank and the amount of wandering I did (a brand of lunatic gonzo tourism, ecstatic, aestheticized hedonism: not a gemlike flame but a bonfire, a March to the Sea. The folly of youth.) I have a memory of trying to hail a cab back to King’s Cross from South London and being told it would cost fifty quid, when I realized I had about 20p on me – that could well have been that night. God, I walked up whatever fucking road that was for two hours, nearly crying, utterly lost in the least romantic sense of the term (I enjoy getting lost, enjoy reckless exploration, but also know the utter dread that one risks…)

I’m dying to see densely packed apartment blocks, people on the streets, something to suggest I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere…. Open space became utterly anathema, I wanted 200 story buildings, I wanted to be back in Manhattan. To be surrounded by water. Outer London can feel like a gigantic circular Queens. And those fucking, yellow and white light-up little plastic things on traffic islands they have in the UK – they are the most melancholy objects on the planet to me. I remember them solely through despondent noctambulations – invisible usually, but otherwise promises that you are coming near somewhere remotely centrally located – usually a hopeless promise. Two roads to nowhere coming to a fork. They were all over the outskirts of Bath, on the loneliest night of my life when I was coming off E and copious amounts of alcohol on the outskirts of a city I didn’t know the inskirts of…so inevitably slept in a field in terrible cold. I don’t think I ever went to the Abbey.

***

IV. RAVE/SPACE (MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA. UNKNOWN PLEASURES.)

Part of the euphoria of rave was in its reclamation of derelict urban space, or rather, posthumous, marginal, exurban or ex-urban spaces:warehouses, garages3, aircraft hangars…

It wasn’t a barn. It was an aircraft hangar. The only time you see anything like it is in those ‘Old Testament’ films with a cast of thousands. All too much to be real. So many people dancing.xx

The accoutrements of a Ballard novel. A very Thatcherite, suburban dystopia unexpectedly carnivalized. Rave was the bacchanaliazation of post-war urban planning nightmares; the M25, erstwhile a strange loop to nowhere or to itself, a quarantine fence at best, lent its name to Orbital’s ecstatic project. The city had been abandoned to a future without cities, but now this liminal spaces licensed the collective realization of displaced fantasties. The Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker becomes the Temporary Autonomous Zone of Hakim Bey.

Enter the 1990s. This story has been told. By 2008, I’m on line at Ministry of Sound, waiting to be sucked through airport-style metal detectors. [codified nightlife, Dionysus now with a SECURITY tee and a walkie talkie]. These things set off strange associations…the twin bomb plots of 2007, Tiger Tiger and Glasgow International Airport being exchangeable targets. The latter coming second, almost a cop out. Drunkenness is the principle growth market in the advanced capitalist cities, their raison d’etre. Tiger Tiger is more obvious than the City, a placeless place filled with distant people from bedroom towns, the affluent homeless.

As the whiteshirted flashlighters stomp about this machine, I also wonder what a skreamix of Music for Airports would sound like…more site-appropriate, to be sure.

Most of these performers are not all that much older than me. They have inherited the same nostalgia.

But I also love the euphoric stuff that’s in UK tunes too. I feel like it was stolen from us…I’m too young to have ever gone to a warehouse rave, but I want to show the ravers that someone is still holding a light for that old sound…that the signal is still out there.xxi

[TRACK:RAVER]

The thing about holding a light is that it could only be necessitated by a distressing darkness. Much of this darkness is simply the persistence of the bleak cityscape that rave temporarily transformed.

I live next to a prison so that’s half of the view from my room, the other half is prison land. I think where gallows used to be but I dunno, doubt it. The rest is a fucking massive dual carriage way all the way from Streatham down towards the Thames. You can see for miles all the way to the river, past the river and when it’s foggy like it was today, it’s a mad view.xxii

This partially explains the sense of bittersweet longing toward these spaces. An overwhelmingly negative relationship to dead cities gives you dystopian cyberpunk, gives you industrial post-punk, things like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten.

[TRACK:KOLLAPS]

Those visions are here too, but are always in tense relationship with a nostalgia that softens them.

Burial is an elegy for the hardcore continuum, a Memories from the Haunted Ballroom for the rave generation. It is like walking into the abadoned spaces once carnivalized by raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction. Muted air horns flare like the ghosts of raves past. Broken glass cracks underfoot. MDMA flashbacks bring London to unlife in the way that hallucinogens brought demons crawling out of the subways in Jacob’s Ladder’s New York. Audio hallucinations transform the city’s rhythms into inorganic beings, more dejected than malign. You see faces in the clouds and hear voices in the crackle. What you momentarily thought was muffled bass turns out only to be the rumbling of tube trains.xxiii

[TRACK:EUPHORIA]

There is a lot of overlap between Burial and Joy Division, though, with Martin Hannett’s echo production techniques evoking the dreary landscape of post-industrial Manchester – an environment even Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who have hopelessly tried to argue against miserablist readings of the band’s music, admit inspired their playing. A song like Shadowplay is firmly in Hyperdub territory, the 1978 Granada TV bit even interlaced with lonesome highways in negative.

[TRACK:SHADOWPLAY]

the center of the city at night. the depths of the ocean. waiting for you. the assassins grouped in four lines.

Image

Croydon Flyover (Eric Hands, 200?)xxiv: A photograph that should be sent back in time to the inbox of a young Peter Saville

But Joy Division could look back only to a city that could offer them, at best, better employment opportunities. Maybe Northern Soul. Madchester was beyond the realm of possibility in the 1970s. There is nothing redeeming in the city of Shadowplay. Burial by contrast is looking back on that other desolate city as a site of (lost) possibility, and because of this nostalgia is far more elegaic than Joy Division, who have nothing comparable to mourn. Appropriately, the Ballard reference of choice for them is The Atrocity Exhibition, rather than The Drowned World.

Still pursuing the path that’s been buried for years,

All the dead wood from jungles and cities on fire,
Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair,

Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be…

V. WAR/COLLAPSE

…a city paralysing itself in fear of blackened steel, perpetually on the point of total detonation.xxv

The nostalgia can turn sour as well, and many of these songs are simply ominous. The death drive displaced onto the city surfaces and reabsorbed as echo. The city about to be drowned, not by degrees but by catastrophe, a sudden critical mass.

Kode9 at least is obsessed with a kind of technofuturism. The cyberpunk aesthetic is a touchstone here. Goodman’s work is infused with the dread of future-war, the most dramatic manifestation of dubstep’s characteristic paranoia.

1. The angular momentum of breakbeat culture provides a sonic simulation of hyperurban meltdown. Not an analogy but a cartographic isomorphism opening sonic production onto a war continuum which deposits localised chaosmosis on every scale. ‘Jungle’s basic problem’- how to sustain rhythmic asymmetry, nurture the swerve, sustain the turbulence- ‘what degree of stratification is required to get distributed?’xxvi

His CCRU texts are riddled with militarized language, an uneasiness with the silent complacent posthumous city that goes beyond either desolation or longing, toward a fear of imminent doom…

2. Machinic night-vision reports from the dark side of the Occident, mapping the interlock of desiring machines, social megamachines and war machines as technology converges with biology in computerised control societies.

3. Planetary capital flow redistributes bringing novel mutations along the axes of East-West and North-South. “The more the world-wide axiomatic installs high industry and the highly industrialised agriculture at the periphery, provisionally reserving for the center so-called post-industrial activities (automation, electronics, information technologies, the conquest of space, overarmourment etc.), the more it installs peripheral zones of underdevelopment inside the center, internal Third Worlds, internal Souths.’xxvii

He gestures toward a sonic archeology of the invisible, a fractal “turbulence” that flows in undercurrents through the unconscious of a late capital-ist London and and its cryptic marginalia [Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.],“internal Souths” of social marginalization and sonic ferment.

Burial’s drums are literally weapons: scratching knives, videogame samples of machine gun shells hitting the ground, lighters igniting. Atmospherics for a militarized London post 7/7.

2005 – the only thing I remember properly was at 9am on the 7th of July. I was walking across London crossing from south into central London. I usually get Northern Line but had to go a different way ‘cos the underground was fucked. I had headphones on; I was listening to tunes, just lost in it but I could tell vibes around me were offkey and weird. You could feel it. So I took the headphones off and overheard people saying all this stuff. People were ringing me but getting cut off.xxviii

This aspect of Burial’s music, as terrorism dirge, exhibiting a paranoia as something deeper than a TV-spawned epiphenomenon, is – as far as I can tell – not often attended to. Successfully repressed, buried, but flickering as ultrasonic “embers in the tune”xxix

[TRACK:PIRATES]

[TRACK:UNTITLED]

…its vinyl crackles sounding like London burning down forever.xxx

1The micro-ecology of these developments have been duly dissected and cataloged elsewhere. Dance music, which lives or has lived in the past on ephemeral dubplates to be played for insatiable club audiences, is, more than any other broadly defined category, burdened by the pressure to be new. It tends to evolve at breakneck speed and taxonimize itself into a million shards. This results, also, in a hyper-anxiety of influence, and an uneasy nostalgia toward one’s predecessors. This explains the endless hand-wringing over the very concept of the hardcore continuum. I find the details of all of this ultimately tedious and distracting: footnote fodder.

2Dancing itself is an embodiment of a music’s mood, a visceral, tactile experience of sound; the visual has already been deprivileged, and now so in a sense has the sonic. This is theory as practice, Kode9’s bass materialism, his “bass bomb” exploding mind/body dualism. The sound hits you somewhere in the stomach or chest – like fear, like heartache, sickness or extra-musical vibration. To dance to dubstep is to recreate a narcotized, infantile flailing, a vaguely sexual churning of the body through a space that music, sweat, drugs and fatigue have made as fluid as water. (An oceanic feeling.)

3I personally think it enormously important to keep in mind the following appropriations: the Paradise Garage in New York City was named after a parking garage that was formerly at that site on King St. The “genre” or wot do u call it of “UK Garage” was named after this place. And the sound system at Ministry of Sound was mimicked directly on the Paradise Garage sound system.

iMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

iiHyperdub, Press release for Burial. http://www.hyperdub.net/burial.html

iiiMartin Clark, “Where is dubstep?”. November 10, 2004. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2004/11/where-is-dubstep.html

vPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 757

viGary Weasel, Spannered.com interview with Kode9, January 16, 2009. http://www.spannered.org/music/1113/

ixPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 680

xSimon Sellars, “A Ballardian Burial.” http://www.ballardian.com/a-ballardian-burial. Kode9, appearing in daylight as Steve Goodman, discussed Ballard’s sonic aesthetic as one of “urban delay.” This presentation was not, to my knowledge, transcribed or recorded, and is thus, appropriately, inaudible.

xiBBC News, Life in UK ‘has become lonelier’, December 1, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/uk/2008/changing_uk/default.stm

xiiMartin Clark, Dub, Decay, and Delay, February 6, 2007. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2007/02/dub-decay-and-delay.html

xiiiTim Finney, review of Burial, June 21, 2006. http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/9138-burial/

xvMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

xviThomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Penguin Classics edition, p. 76.

xviiHayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, p. 248

xviiiCharles Manby Smith, Twenty Four Hours of London Streets, p. 395. Via http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications7/world-00.htm.

xixDan Hancox, “’Only Five People Know I Make Tunes’”, interview with Burial in The Guardian, October 26, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2007/oct/26/urban

xxBrian Belle-Fortune, All Crews: Journeys Through Jungle / Drum and Bass Culture

xxiiIn Martin Clark, “2005 According to Burial”, December 31, 2005. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2005/12/blackdown-soundboy-end-of-year-review_21.html

xxiiiMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

xxivEric Hands, “Croydon Flyover.” Uploaded to flickr November 9, 2008. http://www.flickr.com/photos/erichands/3016037418/. See also: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erichands/sets/72157594419619114/

xxviiIbid.

xxviiiIn Martin Clark, “2005 According to Burial”, December 31, 2005. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2005/12/blackdown-soundboy-end-of-year-review_21.html

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These pieces, except for one, were created on Christmas Eve, several years ago – perhaps 2007, though I cannot be sure. I worked for the entire night constructing them, though my process was not additive but subtractive, or rather divisive: they became less under my control the more I tinkered, as I introduced new variables, spliced segments at random, and subjected them to modulations I did not understand. I have tried to add to this collection, but nothing I do fits with the basic algebra of these particular songs.

I hadn’t slept the night before, and I knew I would have to be awake the next morning to celebrate the holiday with my family. I supposed that insomnia is common to astronauts, for whom day and night are terrestrial abstractions. I felt at one with Apollo 8 that night, in that manic intensity that froths in the tail end of an insomniac binge…

I had first heard the Apollo 8 broadcasts a few days or weeks before that, and was struck by the tone of awed sincerity that overwhelmingly negated my cynical, straight-faced response to what I would like to have seen as saccharine piety. I was born at a time when “the space age” was already a nostalgic slogan, a boilerplate alarum for a dead futurity: the obvious fodder for MTV’s earliest advertisements. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw6xesXLIAA). How could what seemed like the greatest accomplishment in human history become, in twelve short years, comical prefatory footage for a Buggles video? And how perverse am I, now, to count that broadcast as coequal to the moon landing, being born after both?

I thought there was something sublime there, something that gave an urgency the electronic pieces I was creating otherwise lacked. I was inspired by Eno’s Apollo, of course, and the discerning listener will wonder if many of the harmonies come from an earlier piece of his. The theme of space travel, however hackneyed, lent an anchor by which to tether music which would otherwise float up and pop like sad balloons. They remain suspect of an ersatz vitality. But they are still the only tracks I’ve produced that have any vitality at all.

I encourage any listeners to use the best headphones they have access to. The originals do not scale down very well, in any case, and I’m afraid much of their granularity is lost entirely on ordinary speakers; laptop speakers produce nothing but irritating static.

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Give it to me hot!

I was listening to Gomma’s Anti NY compilation the other day, and was blown away by the contribution of the wonderfully named Sexual Harrassment (sic). “If I Gave You a Party” is an exuberant romp, rather out of place on a side otherwise composed of moody downtown malaise from the likes of Gray and Ike Yard (who have both been ably rescued from obscurity in the last few years). I felt almost incensed that this jam wasn’t the centerpiece, but with uncanny timing, a Sexual Harrassment revival is now underway thanks to a release last week by the folks at Citinite records.

The group, from Cleveland, made only a handful of tracks, in the early 1980s. These fell in the cracks between electro and funk, and were grounded by a brash punk minimalism; as headman Lynn Tolliver remarks of the making of 1982 hit “I Need a Freak”: “But you know, great musicians generally do more than is necessary, so I said to the keyboard player, just give me a thrusting bottom key note, over and over.”

“If I Gave You a Party” is one of those songs that makes you wish you were a DJ so that you could hear tracks like this at actual parties. A lost world of sexed-out minimal synths colliding with Implog-style no-wave noise excursions, it’s a sweatier and sillier cousin of the “cold wave” sounds being produced by some repressed but remarkably dressed Belgians around the same time. (Hopefully someone starts calling this “heat wave” and starts throwing themed parties on the Lower East Side.)

The remix/covers EP, Give It To Me Hot, is timely, given the global resurgence of interest in electro and synth-funk recently, and it’s only appropriate that DāM-FunK, LA’s Baron of Boogie, heads things off with a trademarked astral-analog reworking of “You Are My Sexual Connection.” But the rest of the EP follows much less naturally from the original material, which is actually quite welcome. Soweto-based Sweat.X’s version of “I Need a Freak” is frankly terrifying, turning the original’s neon campiness on its head, creating an uneasy landscape of latent violence. Jimmy Edgar and G. Rizo’s reclamation of the throwaway Richard Simmons-baiting “Exercise Your Ass Off” might be the album’s most impressive effort. Finally, Robert O’Dell’s “If I Gave You a Party” refuses, understandably, to coast easily on the epic hook of the original. But his hodgepodge, schizoid cover, while at times compelling, is ultimately too busy and overworked. Like Sweat.X, he emphasizes the darkness of the original’s flagrant deviance, but ruins a perfectly good party in the process.

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Radio City

I’m the antenna catching vibration
You’re the transmitter, give information
I’m the transmitter, I give information
You’re the antenna catching vibration

– Kraftwerk, “Antenna”

Kim's other obsession

As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I’d share this (out of print) record, called Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom, put out by Sublime Frequencies in 2005. Anyone familiar with that label knows that their releases tend to mystify rather than demystify – perhaps appropriately, for our purposes. This isn’t an ethnomusicological document, but a cabinet of curiosities. And how curious!

Here’s the label’s blurb:

“Schmaltzy synthpop, Revolutionary rock, Cheeky child rap, and a healthy dose of hagiography for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, this is the now NOW sound of North Korea! A hermit kingdom with a rich folk history and an even richer tradition in over-the-top praise for the ruling House of Kim, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a diplomatic thorn and a culture never Neverland. Boasting a heady mix of Stalin opera, Tokyo karaoke and brooding impressionism, the sound of present-day Pyongyang distills into warped agit-pop and lost-in-time commie funk. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in North Korean music, this is your vehicle for exploration. Christiaan Virant has visited this mysterious land and has assembled this amazing audio collage. Captured within are rare live recordings from various performances and mass games demonstrations, sounds lifted from People’s Army television dramas, samples from hard-to-find CD releases obtained in the capital, and of course, news reports from the “real” Radio Pyongyang, which continues to broadcast to this day, albeit under the new, strikingly anodyne moniker “Voice of Korea”.

The “lost-in-time,” improvisatory and schizophrenic nature of North Korea shines brilliantly in this dizzying palimpsest. Totally synthetic approximations of future-pop collide with bits of triumphalist, martial Opera to create a magnificent soundtrack for the Sci-Fi State. I love that phrase, “agit pop,” as well; music is so much more effective as a weapon of affective manipulation than text (you can’t close your ears). I imagine this music being broadcast over Pyongyang like a kind of ideological radiation, soaking into the pores of the capital’s youth…

download HERE

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ENTER THE KANYE

I’m sure other people have noticed this by now – the video has been out for, what, 20 minutes? – but I figured my Enter the Void post could use this update.

Also, Rihanna’s outfit may have been inspired by Paz de la Huerta’s rarely-clothed performance. As Prefix writes: “Her line, ‘Want you to see everything,’ gets taken to another level here.”

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A 2010 mixtape.

Since my album list was so devoid of thought or care, I’ve decided to make a little mixtape of some of my favorite tunes from 2010. It doesn’t pretend to be a “best of” compilation; it’s more like a temporally delineated cousin of the two “fixtapes.”

The first version of this was over four hours long, so I’ve had to trim it considerably. I omitted songs I’ve put on previous mixes, so no “Round and Round,” etc. I kept only the songs I felt I could comment on without thinking too hard, which got rid of a few total mindfuck cases that I would have liked to share.

Here’s the link: MPBE2010.ZIP. Commentary below.

Tracklist:

1. Group Inerane – Boghassa
2. Marnie Stern – For Ash
3. Girl Unit – Wut
4. Peter Gordon & the Love of Life Orchestra – That Hat
5. LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean
6. Demdike Stare – Hashshashin Chant
7. James Blake – I Only Know (What I Know Now)
8. DJ Nate – We Can Work This Out
9. The Bug – Catch a Fire
10. Games – Strawberry Skies
11. NDF – Since We Last Met
12. Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company
13. The Smiths – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out [Demo]
14. Baths – Rain Smell
15. Laurie Anderson – Another Day in America

The much-feted Group Inerane’s “Boghassa” has such a furious vitality that you might imagine it being played as the soundtrack to an armed uprising – as, in fact, it was. The Wire explains: “Recorded by Hisham Mayet on location in Niamey, Republic of Niger, January 2008 at the compound of the Tuareg rebel leader at midnight! While the rebellion was in full force across the country!” That, my friends, is punk rock.

The always acclaimed but somehow underappreciated Marnie Stern changed direction considerably for her latest LP, as is evident from the title of the record: Marnie Stern. Compare the Duchamp-referencing In Advance of the Broken Arm and the preposterous This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That. “For Ash” is the closest she’s ever gotten to being sentimental, fairly enough since it’s an elegy for her late friend Ash, but if possible it’s even more invigorating than her usual math-rock esotericism. It’s so good that I sprinted halfway across Williamsburg to make sure I got to her set at Brooklyn Bowl on time, since I knew it would be played first. I made it to the show, and probably to http://www.latfh.com/.

I’ve been waiting for Girl Unit’s “Wut” to get old, and I still think it might, but after several dozen listens it’s still the hands-down “chuuuuuune” of the year, if maybe not the “tune” of the year. It could probably be used to pull people out of comas.

The reissue of the songs of Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra was a glorious treat for those of us with an insatiable hunger for all things Lower Manhattan. Gordon is probably best known at this point for collaborating with Arthur Russell, and Russell does make an appearance on the indefatigable “That Hat,” from 1984, though he is overshadowed by the ecstatic, breathtaking shrieks of New York Doll David Johansen.

In my more curmudgeonly moments, I’m not sure whether or not LCD Soundsystem is any good. James Murphy is certainly an alchemist virtuoso in the studio, but he’s more of an editor and synthesizer than a visionary – as he would probably admit. This is Happening is even more nakedly derivative than usual – “All I Want” is just short of being a David Bowie cover – but the opener, “Dance Yrself Clean,” is a fairly awe-inspiring and genuinely quirky romp that I dare not criticize.

Techno-dervish “Hashshashin Chant” is the best single track to come out of the three excellent 2010 releases by the unclassifiable Demdike Stare. It has an appropriately bizarre, giallo-tinged video, which you can watch here: http://www.selectism.com/news/2010/12/20/video-demdike-stare-hashshashin-chant/

Jace Clayton, better known (or maybe not, these days) as DJ /rupture, tweeted this in October: “In the waiting room of heaven’s dentist office they play James Blake’s ‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’ and nobody feels any pain ever again.” I can’t improve on that.

I’ve been riding the footwork wave as hard as everyone else, but I love the way DJ Nate stands out from the pack with his use of vocal samples, which resembles a lot of the more refined, moody vocalizing associated with dubstep and other nuumological offshoots. He understands the way a simple pitch-shifted melismatic vocal sample imbues a track with a certain sensuality, but he takes a technique that is sublime in the hands of producers like Burial and James Blake and reveals it as the simple trickery it really is. The result is a hilarious bathos. “We Can Work This Out,” from the Hatas Our Motivation EP, is probably the best example.

“Catch a Fire” is only partially a new song, since it takes its bass line from the by-now canonical London Zoo’s “Skeng,” but it’s an altogether different creature. It’s an utterly mesmerizing hate letter to London – which is what all the best love letters to London look like on the surface. It features Kevin Martin’s King Midas Sound collaborator Hitomi; in fact, it sounds more like King Midas Sound that most of Martin’s releases as The Bug, and not just because of her vocals. The music video is also recommended: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-sSqMsckgM

“Strawberry Skies” is the goofy-awesome opener of Games’s debut EP, That We Can Play. It is, appropriately, more “playful” than Daniel Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never, but it is an equally effective assault on what he has called “timbral fascism,” the assignment of taboo status to certain tones usually associated with cultural detritus. Laurel Halo, who had a very good EP called “King Felix” last year, provides the vocals.

NDF’s “Since We Last Met” feels nothing like a ten-minute track; in fact, it seems to end too soon even when you listen to the whole single with the Ricardo Villalobos remix. That’s what the best of minimal does; it crafts a groove so deliciously perfect that repetition only amplifies its sublimity, like some kind of aural morphine drip. It’s an odd release for DFA, but the (more or less) untreated live vocals and the presence of actual lyrics mark it as something out of the mainstream of house and techno. It’s a very rare feat for a dance tune to have lyrics worthy of close reading; in most cases it would probably be a disaster, but these little enigmatic phrases come to entrance, ultimately functioning, like most dance vocals, as vehicles of affect rather than meaning. More, please.

Joanna Newsom’s “Good Intentions Paving Company” is, in a way, the perfect love song, to the extent that the great love songs manage to simultaneously evoke the polarities of despair and ecstasy, not by juxtaposing them but by fusing them into a paradoxical state of what might be called the bittersweet. (The great example, for me, is “There is a Light That Never Goes Out;” I’ve accordingly included an early demo, culled from the earth-shattering collection of unreleased Smiths material that recently surfaced). “Rain Smell” traverses similar terrain, except that it forgot to take its meds and ended up wandering down a lonely beach in a scotch mist (with an emphasis on “Scotch”).

“Another Day in America” is not necessarily my favorite song from the excellent new Laurie Anderson LP, Homeland; in fact, it’s not even a song, really. But I think its grandeur – transgender-voiced existential poetry over Badalamentian synth drifts – makes it a fitting closer. Besides, Antony had to get in here somewhere, as prolific as he was last year.

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Graphic as a Star is Coloradoan singer-songwriter Josephine Foster’s musical interpretation of twenty-seven poems by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, with her dashes and her sight rhymes, is a difficult poet even to read aloud; to make proper “songs” out of her music is more difficult still. But Foster, who had managed in 2005’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing to put Goethe and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff to music, is up to the task, if anyone is.

Dickinson’s verse always approaches but veers slightly away from a neat musicality. Her hymn meters dig grooves for the poetry to speed through, but it always skips out. Her words fit awkwardly into her stanzas, like bones that haven’t healed properly. This is evident in the first stanza of the first song on this album:

Trust in the unexpected –
By this – was William Kidd
Persuaded of the Buried Gold –
As One had testified –

Foster twists the words to create an abcb rhyme scheme. It’s not clear that this poem even has a rhyme scheme, but Foster, with her wavering, abundantly rich voice, manages to create subtle rhymes in the following stanzas – between “Stone” and “undivine,” and between “withdrew” and “America” – in the undertones of her delivery. This first rhyme, however, juts out from the song. It’s unexpected, and forces the attentive listener to either listen again or consult the lyrics sheet (which retains Dickinson’s texts, punctuation intact).

This technique of alienation is constant throughout the ninety-minute album, and it makes for difficult listening. Has the miner’s lamp “nullif[ied] the mine”? Foster succeeds so spectacularly in capturing the “off” quality of Dickinson’s verse that she has created something else entirely, something singular. She takes the disarticulation of the poetry to extremes. Every line, sometimes every word, seems to be from a different song. This microscopic level of detail makes the poems, as wholes, almost impossible to see in the fog of language Foster immerses us in. It also makes the songs difficult to hear as discrete units. The music, and the voice, gestures toward the song form without really reaching it. We get a series of fractal almost-songs, the intonations not those of speech but too inchoate and shattered to resemble the lyrical.

I’m not sure if, by steadfastly resisting the impulse to read Dickinson’s poetry in a “sing-song” manner, Foster has gone too far in the other direction. After four or five listens, it still sounds distant and cold, though at moments it is undeniably tender and familiar. For the most part, it remains uncanny, and as such is difficult to really love – and, like a ghost, difficult to shake off.

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