08/01/2020 This week I have been mostly listening to

Venetian Snares – Greg Hates Car Culture (1999 – reissued 2019). I happened across an interview with Aaron Funk mentioning the fact that his debut EP was being reissued in honour of its 20th anniversary. I’m a big fan of Snares but never went quite this far back in his discography, but on setting out on a dark winter’s night to head into town – I thought, why not give it a spin. As I’d imagined this features hard, fast, cut up breaks, harsh noise and some manic samples, including some hilarious snippets Funk sampled from a local radio station. He didn’t own much equipment at the time these tracks were recorded – most of them were recorded without a PC – so they were mainly mixed live to DAT. This record has more tracks with a hardcore/gabba style – relentless pounding kickdrums – rather than the cut up breakbeat/breakcore style that would become his staple, and the tracks that do feature breaks are much more rough and ready than the music he would go on to release just a few short years afterwards. You can still sense he was a prodigious talent at this early stage; there’s manic intensity to the music (notable even within that hardcore style) not to mention his dark, twisted, at times puerile and at times absurd, sense of humour – see the Big Lebowski sample on ‘Fuck a Stranger in the Ass’, the Tampax advert (a call back to Aphex?) and the hilarious radio phone-in caller complaining about ‘punk kids’ in his town. Overall I doubt I will revisit this record too often, as I don’t have such an appetite for such harsh gabba beats these days, and there are dozens (literally) of Snares records that are a much richer listening experience, and no less intense for it. But I love getting this historical insight into Aaron Funk’s creative process at the time (20 years ago!!) and hearing a virtuoso talent honing his skills and his style. Very hard, very banging, lot of fun – a record for goddamned punk kids.

Proem – Socially Inept (2007). ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but hip-hop is dead’ intones the breathy robot voice over the intro to the opening track, I don’t know how to tell, on Proem’s Socially Inept. Richard Bailey is by all accounts a stalwart of the American IDM* scene, and by the same accounts this is one of his best albums. I’ve been aware of Proem for donkeys’ years, and A Permanent Solution has been on occasional rotation for a long while but am only just making time for this one. What can I say, so much IDM, so little time. So I don’t exactly know what this record has to do with the death of hip-hop, but it is certainly classic “IDM”.  Time was, I would’ve lapped up an album like this, when I was fresh from discovering Aphex, Autechre, Plaid et al but that was many years ago and my musical horizons have expanded hugely since then, for one thing my ear has become deeply attuned to more dancefloor-oriented styles: Techno, House, Drum’n’bass, etc. So it’s harder for an album like this to make such an impression on me; this is made even harder by the fact that with this kind of music is there is an absolute glut of it available (Proem himself has over a dozen albums, most of which I’m sure are very decent). Plus it is such a loosely defined genre, in terms of the sound, which can range from beatless ambience to dense crackly beat and glitch labyrinths (e.g. Richard Devine), that it can be hard to know where to start.  

I feel Proem is part of the movement of IDM which had fully departed from its origins in rave culture. Early Aphex records were heavily influenced by acid house and the house and techno emanating from Chicago and Detroit at the time, and clearly built for the dancefloor. Autechre’s early stuff was less dancefloor friendly but you can still clearly hear the electro influences (not to mention breakbeat, industrial, hip-hop) and there is definite post-rave vibe about them (both in the sense of listening after a rave, and post rave in a sociological sense). The whole Intelligent Dance Music / Ambient Techno movement of the early-mid 90s (The Black Dog, FSOL, The Orb, B12 et al) had one foot very much in the rave, even if it was geared to after hours listening. Then in the latter part of the 90s, jungle was the defining influence – i.e. Squarepusher, Luke Vibert, Aphex’s releases at the time, Venetian Snares, Bogdan Raczynski etc. By the dawn of the new millennium, the defining sound had no connection to the dancefloor, aside from the fact it was produced using the same gear (e.g. Richard Devine, Autechre, Proem, Funckarma, Bola). 

Proem – Socially Inept (2004 – Merck)

Anyway I am by no means the first person to make this point…and what is my point in this context? Because this style of music has no dancefloor or ‘mainstream’ analogue which it is subverting or reimagining, it becomes completely self-contained. It can kind of be…anything. There’s no strict tempo range, it doesn’t have to conform to the undulations of highs and lows dictated by the dancefloor, there is no specified cultural bank from which to draw samples – it can just be music. Beats and melody. And I think this is why I find this music harder to get into, these days at any rate, because it really has to shine through purely on its own strengths. Proem is an excellent producer and a talented musician. 600 words into this ‘review’, I owe him that. This album is full of icy melodies and crackly, punchy beats. I wouldn’t quite say it is dark, but definitely sombre; he’s highly adept at setting a mood and lots of these tracks are quite beautiful in their own right. 

The thing is, I could listen to this album a dozen times and it would all wash over me, with not much sticking. A bit like watching a beautifully filmed TV series but not really caring what happens to the characters. Maybe I’m being unfair, after all A Permanent Solution is a really nice album and this is no different to that (in style/quality), so maybe after a while repeated listens will pay off and it will all “fall into place”. Or maybe some music is best left to wash over you. Either way, it’s very pleasant – definitely check it out if you like your 2000s IDM

*IDM caveat

Barker – Utility (2019). Something contemporary! Bit of a rarity in these pages, though I have resolved to listen to more current music lately. This is very nice. Almost too nice. Very lush, ambient washes of sound, adorned by chiming, twinkly melodies, all woven together into a warm sonic blanket. Mr Barker is an avowed gear head, and this video of him jamming ‘against the clock’ is worth a watch to get an idea of how this music was produced.

This is essentially techno, shorn of all the hard edges – kick drum, snare – and turned into something incredibly light and airy. ‘Big room ambient’ is apparently one genre suggestion for Barker’s style (‘vegan techno’ another, more facetious label). This is very beautiful, very melodic music. The tracks could all do with being a bit longer really, most of them clock in under 5 minutes but maybe Barker is trying to avoid the traditional Techno technique of building epic relentless tracks that repeat and build for minutes on end – instead letting his creations grow and bloom quickly. The Techno traditionalist in me is whining that some of these tracks sound like extended intros that end without the beat ever dropping. But he should probably shut up and enjoy this music for what it is: enveloping, elegant and beautiful – never resorting to twee.

Space Afrika – Somewhere decent to live (2018). Something else contemporary! Courtesy of Fact Magazine’s best albums of 2018 list, which I plundered a few months ago. If I was lazy I would describe Space Afrika as like a Techno version of Burial. While that is an oversimplification, it does give you an idea of their sound. This album is like the drawn-out echo of a night-out, that you might hear between your ears as you try and get to sleep. There is bass, reverb and a sense of cavernous space, and of serotonin that has peaked and is now on the downward curve. Many great electronic albums fit the bill of ‘soundtrack to an urban nighttime journey’, and though it may be kind of cliched subject matter for electronic music, it’s so evocative that I have absolutely no issue with it. The tracks here are like the shadows of techno, dub, or some other urban club music; big heavy synth washes and bass pads, and the odd dancehall sample rumbling out of the murk.

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