“Impartiality is a lovely idea, but it doesn’t get you very far; if the impartial person may be impersonated by a demon of malignant darkness.”
My good friend Casey Anderson recently sent me a Pitchfork article concerning what is termed by its author, “The Rise of Conceptronica”. Eagerly awaiting what I hoped would be a much-needed send-up of Oneohtrix Point Never’s most recent Accelerationist-Lite™ D&D wankfest, I dove headlong into the article (despite its alienatingly-dorky title). Written by Simon Reynolds (the same English music journalist who, back in 1994, first hung around our necks that albatross of a term, “post-rock”), this article did not, to my mild disappointment, contain any sick burns at poor ol’ Daniel Lopatin’s expense, but rather concerned the area of contemporary dance-adjacent electronic music I’d heretofore seen described as “Deconstructed Club Music”, a nano-genre that can be summed up, without telling any tales out of school, as “techno’s pompous doctoral-candidate cousin”. It’s a style likely most synonymous with the Berlin-based PAN label, though it’s also present in the output of other, longer-running concerns such as Hyperdub, Planet Mu & Tri Angle, along with a scattering of lesser-knowns like Non Worldwide, Janus and UIQ. Sonically, it centres around the posited notions of “discontinuities and ruptures” as applied to electronic dance music conventions - the crystal meth to Vaporwave’s ketamine, one might say. However, the sonics are considered to be, if not of secondary importance, at least on equal footing with the “ideas” taking place behind the aural scenery - this is, its creators would have you believe, not so much listening music as it is thinking music. Though I appreciate a good flipping of convention as much as the next person with niche interests, I find the meat a bit too scarce on the bone here for it to really leave me feeling anything other than the same generalized fatigue as when spending too much time on social media.
I’d suggest to anyone not yet alienated by my writing style that, if you haven’t already, you should just click that link to the original article up there ︎ and read the whole thing for yourself. This’ll save me having to sum the whole thing up, and will get us on the same page before I dig in any deeper.
Ok, so, now that we’re all caught up on the source material, allow me to proceed. I feel, right out the gate, that Reynolds is struggling a bit with what he’s actually trying to say, and as such, he spends a good chunk of the article making a series of half-cocked non-points, leaving the reader unsure if he’s a grumbly middle-aged man, moaning about the current distance from the elysian fields of his own youth, or if he’s trying to stay hip and with-it, and getting on board with the new krü. The first head-scratcher I caught is this bit from paragraph #3:
REYNOLDS: “Hyperdub producer Lee Gamble likewise enthuses to me about the inspiration sparked by listening to an unofficial audiobook of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, a deliriously dense philosophical work about capitalism, desire, and schizophrenia.“
KEUSCH: I find it strange that Reynolds, who’s been writing since the mid-1980s, could have forgotten about the massively-influential electronic music label named in tribute to that very same philosophical work - I’m referring, of course, to those prodigal sons of Frankfurt, Germany (terrestrial demesne of Adorno Hexagrammaton himself), Mille Plateaux. Many of us first encountered the work of artists such as Alva Noto, Vladislav Delay, Snd, Pan Sonic, AGF, Thomas Köner, Terre Thaemlitz, Microstoria, Marcus Schmickler, and Tim Hecker via Mille Plateaux, standing, as they did, at the direct centre of the development of electronic music in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where they helped to shepherd it away from functional rave culture and onward into a stranger future. Beyond pioneering the idea of “glitch music” on their compilation series Clicks + Cuts, they offered, along with the Austrian Mego imprint (now known as Editions Mego), a sort of continental European counterpoint to the UK-centric IDM scene (itself comprised of icons such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada and Squarepusher). The Mille Plateaux label was named, as previously mentioned, after that very same book referenced in the Reynolds quote above (”A Thousand Plateaus” being, of course, an English rendering of the French “Mille Plateaux”), and the label was very much concerned with cultivating a fashionable association with critical theory (I would know - they released two of my own albums). It’s true that they never really made much of that association, preferring simply to name things in reference to works of 20th century philosophy than to actually say much of substance about those philosophies, or to really explore them at any proper depth, but the fact remains: claiming that Lee Gamble’s late-2010s name-checking of Deleuze & Guattari somehow marks a grand departure from where electronic music was 20 years ago is nonsense. Tim Hecker was naming tracks in reference to Walter Benjamin back in 2001, so electronic music’s aesthetic interest in these ideas and their champions is hardly new, and to suggest that it is indicates only the limitations of Reynolds’ knowledge of the subject.
He continues to fumble around in this forgetful twilight for the first half of his article, drawing ill-conceived comparisons between “Conceptronica” and “The Past”, referring mostly to the work of “classic IDM” artists like Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert and Autechre. Here we find a series of underripe “used to be all fields ‘round ‘ere”s:
REYNOLDS: “Often trained in the visual arts rather than music theory, conceptronica artists increasingly resemble a figure like Matthew Barney, whose work involves multiple media and is staged on a grand scale, more than IDM pioneers like Autechre, whose focus has always been overwhelmingly on sonic experimentation.“
KEUSCH: The comparison to the former Mr. Björk is apt, that much I’ll grant (and not simply because I find Barney to be about as engaging as his purple dinosaurian namesake), but what I dispute is Reynolds’ assertion that this new generation’s training in visual art, rather than in music theory, somehow represents a point of significant divergence with experimental electronic music’s past. Gazing back in the misty recesses of the 20th century, one is reminded that such luminaries as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, John Foxx, Laurie Anderson, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge, all came from fine art or humanities backgrounds, with no formal music-theory training under their belts (and that’s just covering the art-rock/pop end of the relevant precursor spectrum - try telling me that Detroit techno had any formal institutional grounding and further jeremiads await). Looking specifically at IDM, there was, within that scene, no specific importance whatsoever placed on a knowledge of traditional music theory, with most of the figureheads being more accurately described as savants than as maestros. Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) was always the odd man out in this regard, with his flashy electric bass playing and lascivious predilection for the chordal signifiers of jazz fusion. Even then, Jenkinson has stated openly that he is self-taught on all fronts, thus nipping in the bud the theory that he’s a an academically-certified Musician™.
REYNOLDS: “Another major difference between conceptronica and old-school IDM is that the latter could be used as a relaxing background shimmer, a spur to unthinking reverie rather than intellectual musing.“
KEUSCH: I’m not so sure about that - for every Xtal there was a Ventolin, for every 444 a Doctrine, for every Iambic 9 Poetry a Dimotane Co, so the theory that the supposed “ruptures and schisms” of the current scene were wholly absent from classic IDM is without significant merit. I get the sense that Reynolds’ own preferences back in the day skewed towards the softer end of the idiomatic spectrum, and that as a result, he’s mistaking his own tastes for objective reality (that’s ok, though - it happens to the best of us). What’s more troubling, however, is the strange implicit notion, buried in the quote above, that’s being used to hold much more water than it can really bear: that a realization or practical embodiment of the explicit & conscious formal concerns of the creator of a piece of art is the only sensible result that can manifest in the experience of the audience member. Phrased more concisely, this suggests that “relaxing music can only result in the listener adopting a relaxed state”, while “intellectually rigorous music must necessarily provoke a flexing of the listener’s mental muscles”, or, further reduced: “relaxing music = relaxed listener, intellectual music = smart listener”. This implies further that “a relaxing background shimmer” is inherently empty, manifesting only in a state of “unthinking reverie” for the listener, while a piece claiming to contain (or be the result of) “intellectual musing” must, by extension, provoke such musing within the listener themselves. This also rests on the shaky foundational assumption that all intellectual musings are equal, and that if someone says they’re smart then surely they must be. Mercifully, that’s not how the descent of thought into matter works, so this set of assumptive equations is, to put it gently, absolute nonsense, and displays a kind of lazy, one-to-one thinking that really should be put to bed around the time one learns to eat with a fork and knife. Brian Eno’s relaxing background shimmers, for example, contain within them the ability to inspire works of devastating intellectual sophistication, while Milton Babbitt’s apparently more formally-rigorous work remains far less memorable than his adorable surname, and seems to have accomplished little beyond adding to the pædagogic frustrations of music theory undergrads.
REYNOLDS: “...they would push the formal features of genres like jungle—the chopped, sped-up breakbeats—towards dysfunctional extremes, making them both challengingly avant-garde and slapstick silly.“
KEUSCH: Correct, for once, though Reynolds makes this factual statement seemingly without realizing that it contradicts his own assertion of the supposed uniqueness of the article’s central subjects. The entire catalogue of Winnipeg’s own IDM stalwart Venetian Snares, or the work of British junglist Remarc, provide ample evidence that the idea of “overclocking” electronic dance music styles (to use Chino Amobi’s own term from later in the article) is hardly new. I’ll concede the point that VSnares and Remarc were hardly woke-AF critical theorists, being perfectly comfortable with, respectively, using the deeply problematic art of painter Trevor Brown as album cover material, and perpetuating the default homophobia lurking within reggae’s musical heritage. (They’ve both made great tracks, though, for whatever that’s worth...presumably not enough).
REYNOLDS: ”Conceptual electronic music still draws sustenance from dance music at its most mental and mindless—beats purpose-built for druggy all-night bacchanals. But although it uses the rhythmic tools of body music, it doesn’t primarily aim to elicit a physical response. It’s music to contemplate with your ears, to think about and think with.“
KEUSCH: Not so - “classic-era” IDM had less to do with actual dancing than this current stuff does. See any 90s Warp/Skam/Planet Mu artist “live”, and what you get is a room of uncomfortable white men standing alone or in small anxious huddles, waiting for their hero to grace the stage and play sounds to continue standing around awkwardly to (I should know - I’ve played and attended countless gigs of this very type). Fair enough, Vibert had his acid influence, Autechre their electro, Squarepusher his d’n’b, but the suggestion that there was a wild and unbridled physicality central to the audience’s reception of this music simply ignores history. IDM was music for nerds to stroke their beards to, be it in person or on the album (once again, I was there stroking right along with the rest of ‘em). Were Reynolds comparing the current clique to Detroit techno, Chicago house or the UK acid scene, he would have a more valid point on his hands, as those movements were indeed centred around functional dance dynamics (and, later, around the heavy ingestion of MDMA), but to suggest that dancing the night away was the point for sober-minded IDM boffins like Cylob or Bola is either disingenuous or massively ill-informed.
This contemporary “destabilized” zone, unlike IDM, is perfectly at home in actual dance clubs, where people expect to actually dance (be it with or without drugs), and it has a great deal more to do with functional nightclub culture and hyper-relevant urban fashion than it does with male homebody discomfort. “Conceptronica” is perfectly at home in Berlin’s very own dance Disneyland, the sainted and inviolate temple of Berghain - a highly exclusive institution that would never have opened its doors to the (hopelessly unfashionable) likes of Plaid or Global Communication. Beyond that, going conspicuously unmentioned is the connection between “conceptronica” and footwork, another 21st century style of fractured and disjointed electronic dance music. The link between the two movements is not conjectural, but rather explicit and conscious: one of footwork’s breakout stars, Jlin, has collaborated with Holly Herndon, for example, and both Hyperdub (home of Lee Gamble) and Planet Mu (who release the work of deconstructed club artists Ziúr and Antwood) were instrumental in bringing the work of the once-insular Chicago scene out to the wider world via their compilations and artist releases. Footwork, unlike both IDM and 2010s-Berghain-bothered-sonic-philosophizing, began life as music to facilitate underground dance battles, and is therefore perhaps the most vital source of that unbridled physicality Reynolds mistakenly orients around the shuffling Cornish nerds who ushered in the “golden age” of IDM. The expansion of footwork beyond its Chicago origins and the incorporation of its sonic idiosyncrasies into the wider electronic music world are inescapably relevant to the development of “conceptronica”. As the momentarily-vital something that was dubstep sputtered out, a kind of subcultural rudderlessness took hold, and something new was needed to put the wind back in the sails of electronic music’s metaphorically-foundering ship. This something would end up being Chicago’s footwork sound, championed specifically by Planet Mu / Hyperdub honchos Mike Paradinas (μ-Ziq) and Steve Goodman (Kode9 - himself the MIT-approved author of a work of social theory, demonstrating another pre-existing link between electronic music and The Academy). It was their interest in bringing footwork to wider audiences that helped guide our metaphorical ship home into the port we’re now apparently calling “conceptronica”. That Reynolds could omit or ignore this aspect of the matter demonstrates once more his lack of awareness of the full context of a movement he’s aiming to discuss, and his fundamentally out-of-touch, old-man perspective on what appears (to him) to be an empty gulf between then and now.
As I observe the once-unified stream of my thoughts bifurcating out inexorably, dispersing the current out into the marshy delta of divergent musings, the main thing I’d like to get across about the annoyance I feel with both this area of music and the writing about it is that it’s dominated by the persistent reek of the same old self-promotional capitalistic gestures as all the stuff it’s supposedly “disrupting”. For all the talk of “breaking down conventions”, the material results are quite conventional, still taking, as they do, the form of the usual commercial products, made by the usual people who find themselves in the ludicrous position of attempting a career in “the music business”, a business which, as Matthew J. Sage wonderfully points out, perhaps should never even have been, were it not for certain opportunistic responses to The Beatles taking, as they did, such a virulent hold on the barely-born youth culture of the 1960s. One is free to slather on as much Marxist and post-Marxist schmear as one wants (forgetting, as always, the holy silence of the one true Marx); at the end of it all, the prime directive remains selling a plastic object or a packet of data so the rent can be paid - my problem being not with this need to pay rent, but with the false pretence that “releasing and promoting an album” doesn’t amount to the same old music biz schtick that various hucksters have been pulling since the earliest days of popular culture. There is, beyond this, as once more noted by Matt Sage, an incredible irony in, on the one hand, making music so completely bogged down by this hand-wringing, armageddon-bothered, politico-philosophico-ecologico-doomsayer persona, and on the other hand, chomping at the proverbial bit to sell loads of deeply environmentally-unfriendly plastic objects which, as we are constantly reminded, are a direct cause of the apparently imminent extinction of all organic life on the planet (though an argument could be made, Gurdjieff-style, that there is currently no life on this planet at all - I mean, do you call this living?)
So which is it, exactly? Do you want to wake us screaming from our capitalistic slumber, to carry the torch of the new hyperpoststructuralist regime onward, into the glorious dawn of the anti-anthropocentric non-future that belongs to our creeping fungal inheritors, or do you want a career in the entertainment industry? You’re releasing vinyl records in elaborate sleeves, flying all over the world from festival to festival, making music with machines built from the exploitation of precious resources, powered directly from the grid, racking up an enormous carbon bill - if the sky is indeed falling then you’ve been kicking pieces of it down with the rest of us, buddy. I suppose the upshot of bearing witness to the success of this duplicity is that it gives me the confidence boost to finally publish my impassioned treatise on animal rights, written in bone black ink with a rare swan quill on the finest vellum and bound in exquisite calfskin. PAN releases are particular offenders in the packaging realm, coming as they do with that extra-thick silk-screened outer sleeve, for no reason other than to stand out in a crowded marketplace, to provide a sense of material rarity, and to make a sale (though they do look, admittedly, really cool).
A ”post-modernist Marxist” in Lacoste is too much to bear - apparently this is my breaking point (it’s funny how inconsequential that last straw often ends up seeming). I suspect the response to my incredulity will be that I’m just missing the terribly-obvious point that adorning one’s body with the emblems of the destructive ideology one claims to abhor is somehow “post-modern commentary”, that it’s really very droll, and that my failure to appreciate it as such is confirmation of my irredeemable barbarousness and lack of sophistication, but I’m sorry it’s simply not. Arguments that it’s anything other than an interest in fashion amount simply to clever retroactive bullshitting meant to deflect attention away from mundane hypocrisy. I should note that I’m actually quite understanding of hypocrisy, regarding it as a universal-enough facet of human nature that we should probably be more understanding of it (while still calling it what it is), so what I’m after is not the attainment of perfect consistency, nor do I wish to howl class treason at Lee Gamble and string him up by his garters; I don’t believe that we need to excise all consumerist fashion-idolatry from the world, but I do think we need to get over ourselves, and at the very least, stop all the bullshitting. Own thyself - discourse, designer garm and all - they’re all just facets of the crystalline illusion that insists “you” are even really anything at all.
Reynolds’ unfortunately-titled article is not my only source of information on this vaunted musical movement - I’ve been following the development of this scene for much of this rapidly-ending decade, and if all my little hypertextual interjections haven’t made it clear already, I keep my knowledge game tight. I’ve read countless interviews with each of the relevant figures, scrolled their various social media accounts in the traditional zombified state, and have given their work a fair shake first-hand (meaning that I listened to each of their albums a couple times - apparently I have a lot of time on my hands). At the end of all that due-diligence, all I have to report is that I don’t believe the hype. I graduated from art school myself, I know what it’s like to try to exist in that milieu, what it’s like to then try to reintegrate yourself into a cold and indifferent world, and I understand intimately the pressure they’re under (shit, it’s why I don’t try to make a living in the music biz) Looking at this crew, reading their shiny empty statements, I don’t see any intrepid pioneers of the new post-human realm, nor do I feel the terrifying presence of the spirit of a New Æon when I listen to their music. What I see, hear and feel is the fear-driven chattering of a gaggle of self-deluded capitalists, perhaps dimly aware of their own limitations, but unwilling, when all is said and done, to die in the old world and find out first hand what “being reborn in the new one” might mean (it probably doesn’t take your bank account into consideration). They clutch to the record biz, to the festival circuit traditions, to the very idea that an artist is a rockstar and a rockstar is a god. The fissures and ruptures, the prolapses and sarcomas, and all the other grad-student buzzwords are nothing more than an elitist form of “branding”, etched into the dry, papery skin of the desiccated corpse that is continental philosophy - itself an ideological abyss, born (quite understandably) out of an inability to integrate the horrors of the industrial age, but it is an abyss nonetheless, and one that must be crossed, rather than simply stared-into. This abyssal ideology remains unconquered, and it is passed on like a hereditary disease to the unwitting-but-complicit lambs, safely penned in at fortresses of higher learning. These lambs, blighted as they are by the failures of their forebears, have become simply too scared, too bummed, too tired to get out from under that gloomy tree - they still need paternalistic approval in the form of record deals, prestigious gigs, write-ups in The Wire and all the usual trappings of material success to reassure them, and you just don’t get those things by being too far out there.
Now that I’ve gone right off the rails with that last paragraph, allow me to take further issue with Lee Gamble’s assessment that, in the ongoing wake of the (very real and undeniable) socio-political horror that was ANNO 2016, it would be a “cop-out” to make anything but an explicitly political album (and a specifically doomy one at that - the tsar of Grimdark accepts nothing less). I’m far from an apolitical person, and I fully appreciate the place of power art has in the exploration and dissemination of political ideas; however, what I do object to is the idea that all we can do now is make music that allows that outer darkness to take deeper root within ourselves, letting it burrow its way like an earwig into the core our psyches. To do so is not “combating the overwhelming horror of the external world” - rather, it is allowing that very horror to overtake the internal world as well. We’re already fed a steady diet of toxic slurry by the news media and various predatory shock-celebrity ideologues, all reminding you to like and subscribe so you can be sure not to miss the next nightmare, so if, in addition to all that, we’re supposed to further submit to Ingsocian doctrine and only allow ourselves to talk about, think about and make art about that very same horror...well, it’s no wonder we’ve come to believe that horror is all there is.
Now, I may well be detecting certain vibrations coming towards me, through the strands of this spider’s web on which I sit, carrying the accusation of “ostriching”, of wanting to pull the duvet over my head and deny the objective and inescapable menace of reality - not so, for that accusation would be a simple knee-jerk reaction to my suggestion of something subtler and perhaps more helpful. This impulse to champion the unflinching thousand-yard-stare into the gaping maw of ceaseless annihilation, while dismissing any less-macho attitude as “ostriching” or “escapism” is really just the result of a kind of mental violence we’ve likely all suffered - an abusive discourse that tells us that we’re naught but ambulatory sacks of electrified meat, far too stupid to know even the tiniest bit about what’s best for us, so all we can do is fall in line with the loudest and largest sacks of meat and let them do the thinking for us.
I want to be very clear about this: I am in no way saying that we are not, as nations and as a species, deep in the shit, and I am in no way saying that making art about that shit is a bad idea. What I’m saying is that, perhaps, if one wants to avoid suicide, it might be best to start being a bit kinder, to both ourselves and to others, instead of feeding that gaping maw 24/7. To flip Reynolds’ description of 90s dance music, I suggest that it is possible to engage in a kind of “thinking reverie” - to allow ourselves a joyous abandon that can actually feed our intellectual lives rather than sap them of all potency. I suggest that the supposed dichotomy of intellectualism vs hedonism is a false one, and I insist that we are, in fact, very much able to whistle while we work, to see beauty while fighting horror, to love in spite of all the hate around us. As beings, we live in both the day and the night, in the summer and the winter, and must know that all these states are transitory - existence, be it material, social or psychological, is a state of constant flux, constant movement, constant change. Mindless and irresponsible sensual hedonism carries no less fearsome a destructive power than does the inflexible dogmatic insistence on the supremacy of punishing intellectualism; to see only those two states is willfully-selective and constitutes a form of mania, a frantic flitting between extremes, and is far from an indicator of good health, be it mental or societal.
I believe, in short, that it is possible to do both. It is possible to dance the pain away, to drift on the sweaty sea of unthinking flesh, and to then reemerge from that crashing surf revitalized, ready to reengage with those rigorous intellectual matters and able to perceive qualities therein which had previously remained occluded (chronic stress being, of course, one of the most pernicious occluders of insight). Both territories, the hard and the soft, are valid and valuable - what concerns me is the infiltration of the one into the other, as these zones need to be respected as separate, in the “don’t shit where you eat” sense of the matter. It would be wise to commit fully to whatever you’re currently doing, as the present moment is the only moment you really have. So if that means “having fun”, then get thee to thine Berghain and dance the week away - have the casual sex, take the drugs, revel in the senses, feel the joy of being an ambulatory sack of electrified meat. Then, once all that steam has been blown off, the serious business can resume - the key here is to allow each to have its proper role in your life, and to not confuse the promise of the one for the negation of the other. We are poorly served, in equal measure, by the claims of supremacy at either extreme - we can’t dance all of our problems away, nor can we think a fractured world back together again. The maxim remains, lest we lose the thread, Solve et Coagula, not Solve aut Coagula.
Beyond these objections, I also find it fairly problematic to make a universalizing proclamation that, in the wake of Anglo-American political idiocy, the rest of us all have to make ham-fisted pseudo-commentaries on Brexit, lest we be dismissed as “copping out”, by a sleepy-looking bloke with a siq chain. It might be true that, politically-speaking, America’s problems do end up being, in some part, everyone else’s problems, and of course there’s plenty of scary shit going on in countries besides the US and UK, but don’t we all have a certain complicit role in allowing the persistence of this dismal situation wherein the US inevitably governs global discourse, especially in the spheres of art and culture? We may not be able to diminish the outsized role America (or England) plays in the geopolitical sphere, but certainly we can stop accepting this pernicious lie that their culture is the only real culture, while the rest of the world is only capable of making pale imitations of that true grandeur. The idea that the best thing a non-American (or non-Brit) can do is “pass” is a difficult one to accept, and it’s especially odd in the context of the Reynolds article, considering all the self-congratulatory suggestions of woke-ness and inclusivity from the artists therein. I find it more than a little ironic that not one of them seems to have recognized their own bias in this regard, that the English-speaking world equates directly to the “real world”, and that to operate outside of the US/UK milieu means being rejected as a “cop-out”.
I think, of course, that I’m likely reading far more into this simple comment than Lee Gamble ever intended. I think he was probably just trying to say that he was upset, scared, worried, bothered & a’feared, and that as such, he didn’t much feel like making nice music. All this I understand, but, harbouring no real ill-will towards Mr. Gamble, I must still regard this as a sort of inadvertent gaslighting, in the sense that he is calling bullshit on any experience of reality other than his own, in order to (probably unconsciously) bolster support for his own experience, which is, of course, an experience he’s trying to sell us on, both in the sense that “he wants to be validated”, and also that “he literally wants to sell us an album”. By setting up his experience as the dominant factual narrative, he is devaluing a diverse and chaotic truth (that the world may, in fact, be comprised of more than just the UK and US, that some of us may well have other shit on our minds). By framing his comments as something larger than his personal POV, as some kind of universal social imperative, he is able to handily dismiss as a load of mush-brained drivel any alternate views. This distortion process seems to me to be ultimately of a kind with the same colonialist practices these artists say they oppose. Forgive my cynicism, but I can’t help but see much of this supposed “opposition” as simple lip-service, miming the right moves and mouthing the right words for likes, retweets and sales. It’s fashion politics, fashion philosophy, and the superficiality reveals itself quite readily to anyone willing to prod just a millimetre below the surface.
I fail to see exactly how Gamble’s Mnestic Pressure is a “political album” (I presume this is the album he’s referring to in the article - maybe it’s the In A Paraventral Scale EP, but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t change matters one bit). I understand how what he tweets about and talks about in interviews is often political in nature, but what I don’t see is how any of that factors into this album of standard post-IDM fare (I enjoy Gamble’s music well enough, but howling revolution it ain’t). I think it’s far more plausible to see this album as an exercise in opportunism: by 2016 (if not far earlier), the novelty had worn off of most forms of wild new electronic music. Autechre had already happened, Merzbow had already happened, Coil had already happened, countless forms of ostensibly-futuristic dance music, hyper-intellectual academic music, globally-hybridized fourth-world music, had all already happened, so what could possibly be left to call your own? How should one drum up excitement about one’s own collection of beats, when all possible “properly new beats” may well have already been made? The obvious answer would be, of course, to nest it in a bed of current events and elitist jargon - a California King, as metaphorical beds go, large enough to accommodate any old art, any old discourse, regardless of actual applicability. I assert that this binding of vaguely-outlined hyper-current political notions to an album that could have existed in its essential form in 2009 or 1999, is naught but a successful exercise in persuasive marketing, and to be taken in by it means either that your sense of discernment is somewhat lacking, or that you simply like the music and aren’t all that interested in the discourse (which is ok, just see that for what it is - assuming one can enjoy listening to Gregorian chant without being Catholic, to ragas without being Hindu or to Sufi music without being Muslim, then clearly one doesn’t need to be engaged with a specific ideology in order to be moved by the art emerging from that context).
While remaining firm in my objection to Gamble’s desire to speak for the rest of us, I should hasten to agree that it’s perfectly reasonable to say to oneself, while living under the cloud of idiocy that is Brexit, “shit, that’s depressing, and I find myself depressed. I don’t rightly know what to do with myself these days, consumed as I am by all this Brexiting. Perhaps I’ll tickle the ivories, by which I mean of course, ‘fingerbang my trackpad’, thereby momentarily assuaging my likely-irresolvable fears about the dismal political future of dear old Blighty”. I’m not suggesting that current affairs be considered off-limits as inspiration for music-making; not in the slightest. My intention is not to mock the idea that political turmoil can serve as worthy lead to be transformed by application of creative fire into Thee Golde of Arte - I’m simply riled up at the sanctimony present in ranking that specific source of inspiration over any of the rest of it. I’ll grant that I may just be using a lot of words to try to say, “do it better“, that perhaps if the musical results were more to my liking, I would be less annoyed by the pronouncements of the creators. This, of course, would reveal that my own mutterings may well contain the same type of hyper-stylized self-aggrandizement I claim to abhor, and that perhaps I simply consider myself to be a better writer than any of the artists under discussion here.
Hmm. Being a person is complicated.
I should note, to say something vaguely positive for once, that I find Chino Amobi’s outlook more engaging, as I don’t feel the presence of nearly the same level of cynicism with him as I do with Gamble. Similarly, though Holly Herndon’s music leaves me, overall, as uninspired as would a student film festival*, I at least appreciate her optimism (though her AI-fixation is tedious, to use the kindest word available), and there is a sense of energy surrounding her that I find a bit less insufferable than the flatulent smog hanging around the peak-gentrification “Americans in Kreuzberg” scene spearheaded by artists like M.E.S.H. (though Herndon is, herself, an American living in the German capital’s once-anarchic riverside district - at least until the winds of fashion blow the lot over to Szczecin or wherever’s next up for conquest-by-techno).
I hinted earlier at my desire to rehabilitate our view of escapism; my case against accepting the dominant critical usage of that word centres around the default view that escapism is always a bad thing, and along with that, the misguided notion that wokeness doesn’t also conjure into being its own shadow form, a state akin to what is termed, in the study of trauma, hypervigilance. Much like our bodies, our mental selves require both wake and rest, activity and passivity, positive and negative, permission and restriction etc., so I can’t help but see much of this as being the result (or perhaps the cannibalistic cause) of “big issue overload”. For all the talk of diversity, multiple narratives, non-traditional protagonists, altered perspectives, and so forth, I’m still hearing the same simplistic things, arranged in the same simplistic ways, over and over and over. Sure, Holly Herndon doesn’t sound much like Mira Calix or Ellen Allien, but to any true initiate of history, or of even just the last 20 years of electronic music, Herndon’s transmissions are hardly alien. Similarly, Lee Gamble rose to prominence by recycling the (already relatively shallow) ideas formulated by Vaporwave, just shifting the specifics to UK ‘ardcore nostalgia rather than the SEGA title screen jamz of Lopatin & Co. (the Deleuze-bothering came later, and remains a retread of the territory explored 20 years before by the Mille Plateaux label, as covered many paragraphs ago). This supposed hallucinogenic dreammachine of cutting-edge post-musical invention is revealed to be naught but an old shoe box with some holes punched in it, topped by a single LED pulsing out “kill me” in Morse code.
But back to my defence of escapism: I can only speak for myself, naturally, but I would hazard a guess that anyone bearing witness to the parade of distraction we call “the 24 hour news cycle” wouldn’t take too much exception to the suggestion that this existence may, in fact, be a prison. We’re surrounded constantly by terror, by devastation, by futility, by sheer human cruelty, by impending doom (be it social, technological, environmental, nuclear, interstellar, the list is seemingly endless). We tell ourselves constantly that we’re both individually and collectively worthless, that we’re naught but beasts, having no recourse to anything above the war, rape and pillage of our barbarian forebears, that it’s all hopeless and we’re all helpless to do anything but suffer for all eternity (for not even the sweet release of death can offer any solace from the hell we’ve built for ourselves).
It seems to me that this existence is very much a prison indeed, that the carnival of horrors is in town all year round, that the slavedriver’s whip-wielding hand is never stayed, and so I don’t quite get how seeking escape from that is a bad thing. I think we’re operating under the mistaken assumption that escapism is only ever solipsistic self-soothing, and can thereby be considered a dead end, instead of the gateway to imagination that I posit, under the right circumstances, it truly is. Wrestling with a vicious and implacable beast, day after day, night after night, week after week, year after year, must lead eventually to the realization that this will never end, that this beast is indefatigable, this contest fixed and un-winnable - at that point, it seems to me that there is only one choice left to make: either let the beast devour you, or get out of the ring. The longer we “tough it out”, playing by the beast’s rules, thinking ever linearly, rationally, reasonably, planning our moves like a chess computer, we only ensure the futility of our fight, and guarantee that it’ll go on forever - forever going nowhere. Sticking it out in this un-winnable fight is not heroism, it is self-abuse, and is must be seen as the destructive compulsion it is.
Imagination, I insist, is the key to all triumph, and imagination is necessarily irrational - it’s unreasonable, silly, stupid, pointless, goofy, horrible, scary, sexy, and so much more; it is, in short, anything but a “cop-out”. Imagination, not fearful, degrading, self-abusing rhetoric, is what brought us down from the trees, what revealed to us the superabundance that is art, what got us to the literal surface of the fucking moon. Imagination allows us to concretely envision unlikely possibilities, which can then become tangible actualities. All matter has its origins, its very roots, in thought, in the immaterial territory of imagination, and as such, unfettered imagining should be seen as one of humankind’s most precious birthrights.
BIASES & CONCLUSION:
I am self-aware enough to know that I am just as biased in my tastes, opinions and larger orientations as anyone else is, and I am sensible and forgiving enough to regard that as being essentially ok (at least if we consider any aspect of being a person to be “ok” - some would disagree). With that in mind, let me lay my biases bare, at least the most significant ones, in what amounts to a trigger warning come too late.
BIAS THE FIRST: I am an occultist, not a critical theorist, and I do regard the persistent notion that material issues are of universally greater importance than matters esoteric as being a busted flush. I’m not particularly concerned with correcting this error in comprehension, however, possibly because I’m accustomed to being thought of as soft in the head by the adherents of materialist dogma, but also because I simply have bigger fish to fry. Beyond that, I also consider the supposed supremacy of “hard” science & technology over the “softer” ones to be a failure in understanding (or even acknowledging the existence of) the subtler aspects of consciousness, art, the universe, etc.
I am not anti-intellectual, nor even properly anti-academic; I do have fairly mixed feelings about my own institutional training, but I’m fine leaving those feelings in their indeterminate state, and I recognize that, as my feelings, they concern no one but myself. What I’m specifically aiming to criticize when I harp on Reynolds’ gang for being pretentious grad students is merely the elitist, ivory tower, emperor’s-new-clothes quality of it all; it’s the masturbatory, self-congratulating, preaching-to-the-choir bits that get my goat, not the “acquisition of information, insight and skill”. I know far too many people with advanced degrees (my wife, mother and most of my closest friends included) to roundly equate “distasteful egotistical showmanship” with “having a few diplomas”. I also know quite well not to valourize ignorance, for there, as in academia, be monsters (definitely more of them, and often worse ones at that). What may, to the reactive and stressed reader, appear to be anti-intellectual or anti-institutional sentiments are simply sparks of my conviction that, while the intellect can get you quite far, it can’t go all the way - that eventually something else must take over, if you’re to ascend to the proper heights of consciousness and transcend the mundane obsession with hyperactive information collection.
BIAS THE SECOND: In terms of my political ideals, I hold the greatest affinity with (pretty far-) left-wing anarchist thought, but I’m also a pragmatist, recognizing that our ideals are not always as practically-useful or as readily-implementable as we might wish them to be, and that to hold to those ideals instead of actually doing something useful would be...silly. Even if we understand the best-possible result of most democratic elections to be naught but the adoption of “the lesser of two evils”, I’d still say that any reduction in the overall evil of the world has to count for something, no matter how tiny it may be. The point here being: get over yourself and vote.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and agree with them on a considerable number of points, but do feel that they missed the marks (waka waka) in some areas - they also couldn’t see the future, so though they did their best, I think it’s time we let them stop spinning in those graves of theirs and finally RIP - I can’t imagine they’d be any happier to see what their material legacy has amounted to than I am. I think that, similar to the cases of Jesus, the Buddha, Friedrich Nietzsche or Aleister Crowley, the followers of brilliant people are often the worst enemies of that very brilliance, amounting to nothing but howlers in the abyss, to be avoided at all costs.
I think America is the devil, but like the devil, is also misunderstood (perhaps most of all by those who worship it most openly). I think the European Union was a great idea, still is a great idea, and if I had voting rights in the UK, I would have voted “remain” over and over and over, until my poor little mind broke and they had to forcibly remove me from the voting booth, packing me off to an asylum in the country. My aim in spelling out some of my personal politics is to ensure that I’m not misread, based on my views on art, as being some sort of pedantic, regressionist, “debate me” slimeball. Although I don’t love what I see as the self-congratulatingly-pseudo-intellectual music made by these particular kidz (all of whom are older than me), I do believe that, overall, the kidz are alright, so I’d prefer not to be dismissed as a prematurely-old man yelling at a cloud (at least not the awful kind - I’m fine being a curmudgeon, as long as it’s the ultimately-loveable sort). I think it’s absolutely, unequivocally wonderful that the boys-club vibes of electronic music are finally being dispersed - the scene has been stuck in that particular holding pattern for far too long, and I am wholeheartedly in support of the continued development of as diverse, unconventional, consensus-disobeying, individualistic, and joyous a world as we can get.
BIAS THE THIRD: It is true that, overall, I feel little affinity with the music under discussion in the Reynolds article, but that’s not why I’m interested in writing about it. There’s plenty of art I don’t like, and that dislike alone isn’t sufficient to make me want to spend my time thinking about that stuff any more than I already have to. I understand that no one else is under any obligation to make art that interests or pleases me - I do that quite well on my own, thank you very much, and my drive to seek out new art in the wider world is not hindered by my frequent encounters with “shit I don’t like” (being the functional adult that I am). In essence, what I’ve been rambling on about here is not even really the music, as I ultimately don’t think the music itself is worth much this comment. In fact, I don’t think the music is really “the point” for the artists under discussion either - instead, the point seems to be the critical theory claptrap and careerist pandering, so, with that in mind, those are the beasts with which I’ve been futilely wrestling. For the indulgent, however, here are some snarky remarks to summarize my feelings about the music: Lee Gamble makes nice-enough stuff that’s ultimately not as haunting as its supposed hauntological concerns. M.E.S.H.’s empty posturing might fly as part of the brunchtime entertainment at an MFA parents weekend, but it does nothing to exorcise any pernicious cultural demons. Holly Herndon’s work is so unmemorable I can’t even think of anything properly catty to say about the specifics of her much-vaunted “art practice”. Chino Amobi seems like the most interesting and sincere member of this makeshift clique, so I’ll restrain my ire where he’s concerned, and will look forward to seeing where he takes things in the future.
MY TASTES & PREFERENCES:
PAN has released a handful or two of very good albums, to be sure, but those albums are the ones that break the label’s own mold. I think Heatsick/Steven Warwick is one of the finest dudes around at the moment, and I love the records Eli Keszler, Lifted, Yves Tumor and Helm all released via Berlin’s art-club messiahs. I do feel, however, that those artists stand aside from the specific aesthetic niche into which Reynolds’ cast of characters fit; their albums display some sensuality, some playfulness, some romance, some meat on the bones, instead of just being the aural equivalent of a lone foam mannequin head, a slice of prosciutto draped over its left ear, placed on a milkcrate in an empty white Neukölln gallery, flanked by döner shops that’ll be yuppie boutiques by the time you finish this sentence. And so it is that I feel compelled to proclaim, as did Thamus the sailor, on those Greek isles so long ago, “PAN Is Dead”.
LOL J/K LUV YA - there’s a new Steven Warwick album coming out on PAN, for which I truly can’t wait, and I’m sure they’ve got other solid stuff further up the pipes as well. I really just wanted to impress my archaeologist wife with that sick Greek mythology reference.
Hyperdub and Planet Mu have released more good stuff than bad, and in my opinion rank as two of the most consistently rewarding labels around, so although they do have some involvement with this stuff, at least they’re less embarrassingly fashionable than PAN, so I have nothing to hold against them, and will continue examining their future releases with neutral curiosity.
Also, OPN was truly great, right up through R Plus Seven, but then he lost me around when he went on tour with NIN (fuck me, though). Replica is a perennial jam.
Deleuze & Guattari are not my dudes, but they are dudes nonetheless, and I harbour no ill-will towards them, their work or their readers.
CONCLUDING REMARKS: Do I have anything useful to say? Any more helpful suggestions of what to do instead, or am I just bitching? A lot of this has seemed very personal - what’s up with that?
Bitching I am, to be sure, so it’s the “just” I take exception to - can’t I bitch and also have a point? If this has seemed personal, that’s because it is - the introductory quote I placed right up there at the top should have made it clear that this wasn’t going to be an impartial survey. And like the Butthole Surfers said, “it’s better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven’t done. Oh, and if you see your mom this weekend, be sure and tell her: SATAN!”
If you’re wondering what to listen to instead of the poor ‘ol grad students I’ve put through the ringer here, the best recommendation I have to offer would be Burial. Everything he’s done is, in my book, simply perfect, and his presence as the anchor artist of Hyperdub’s catalogue demonstrates the level of brilliance that label is capable of spotting, despite my lack of interest in some of their other signings. He is the redeemer of electronic music’s sins - everything I said about imagination up there ︎is made manifest in his work, and a number of the socio-political ambitions of much of Reynolds’ crew were addressed more concisely, poetically and beautifully on 2013’s Rival Dealer EP than on anything more recent (3 years before Lee Gamble’s supposed year zero, it’s worth noting). It’s so easy for electronic music to spend all its time navel-gazing, fretting about its precarious status as The Music Of The Future™, that it ends up collapsing down into itself and leaving us with the pile of nonsensical rubble I’ve been sifting through here. In welcome contrast to “conceptronica’s” hollow proclamations of being post-human, super-human, anti-human, and so forth, Burial remains perfectly human, and in doing so, reminds us why any of this “art” stuff matters in the first place.
So just go buy any and all Burial you can find, in whatever format you like. It’ll make you feel more, think more and care more than Reynolds’ lot ever could, and it’ll leave you less broke than trying to gobble up all of PAN’s exclusive discs would.
I suppose the only other helpful suggestion I can confidently offer applies only to those actively making music, and not to the casual reader. This advice would be that you should make up your mind, and be really, really sure about it, before you start saying you’re a proto-accelerationist post-structuralist non-contingent neo-quasi-Marxist with a Meillassouxian bent, then getting a €100 haircut and tossing on some fresh designer gear for the photoshoot before your Boiler Room set. This, I suppose, can be further shortened to, simply, “stop lying”. Do you want to curbstomp capitalism, vaporize the icecaps with a nuclear blowtorch, salt the very bowels of the earth, imminentize the eschaton and accelerate the violent transition into the promised post-human age? Or do you want to get a label paycheck and a nice festival grant, sit back in your Eames-indebted chair at the third-wave coffee shop, conducting genteel interviews with your favourite bourgeois arts n’ culture periodical? Do you want to destroy consumer culture, or do you want to buy new synthesizer modules? This business of critical-theory-ing your way out of having to just be a fucking person already is exhausting, futile and disrespectful of the intelligence some of us may well possess. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling out, just don’t pretend that’s not what you’re doing. We’ll appreciate the courtesy, and you’ll likely appreciate no longer having to keep up the charade of giving a shit about anything besides your own material success.
︎I would like, by way of a post-script, to reassure the reader that this is all in good fun, and that I don’t consider any of this to be a matter of life & death or anything. I truly have no problem with any of these artists making the stuff they wanna make, talking about it how they want, or getting paid something nice for it (it’s not like they’re neofolk nazis). It’s simply important to me, in terms of my own development as a person, to try to let my passions free every once in a while. I felt a tremendous glee while writing this (followed by a tremendous fatigue while editing it), and as my friend Trevor Blake pointed out, it’s often the things we love the most that we feel compelled to criticize most thoroughly. I also spend what sometimes feels like an unhealthy amount of time alone, so I find that writing out my thoughts with sufficient intensity and focus helps to dispel the doldrums that could otherwise quite easily overtake me. So if, in the course of reading my vitriolic mutterings, you find your feathers ruffled, I’d suggest settling down, puffing on a reefer-eeno, and remembering the cats.