Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Narcomaterialist fallacies.

Simon Reynolds on Wonky and Ketamine in the Guardian. It is clear from the change in tone and content between Reynolds’ initial responses to Wonky and this piece that he cannot quite fit it into a pre-exiting pro-forma schema. The latest piece posits a speculative association between the psychedelic disassociative anaesthetic and the emerging transversal non-genre, one which lies firmly within what must be termed the narcomaterialist tradition of music writing, one recently lambasted heavily by DJ Rupture here. The narcomaterialist perspective is one which will be familiar to any avid reader of the UK music press (particularly the rock press), and it commonly reduces entire genres, albums, artists, to their particular associated narcotic intake- Bowie’s Station to Station, for example, will be talked about as a “cocaine album”, with little attention paid to the specificities of its production beyond that. Whilst drug-use inevitably has some role to play with certain artists (indeed of course Bowie was consuming an inhuman quantity of the stimulant in the mid-1970s) and certainly was an element within the assemblage-network in the earlier years of dance music, narcomaterialism is all too often greatly overstated, without significant empirical verification, and operates as a way to conceptualise and write about abstract shifts in musical production and consumption patterns in an overly-intuitive fashion. Often writers from an English Lit background, with little grasp of how to describe music itself, reach towards narcotic-metaphor to enable an easy indexing of the qualities of a piece of music (for example the description of Villalobos-style mnml technohouse as “Ketamine house” used the drug as a metaphor which conveys a certain linearity, an anaesthetic lostness of extreme repetition and track/set length combined with a psychedelic pulsating textural edge). But the pop-nowness of wonky seems out of step with the descriptions of Ketamine experiences (frequently involving in its deeper “k-hole” stages a total disconnect from reality and abstract mind-tunnel transport).

Reynolds, unlike many of his fellow music journalists, has always been able to describe music in exquisite synaesthesic detail, and hence his falling back upon a narcomaterialist analysis is not due to laziness or an inability to engage with sonic materiality. I suspect its temptations come for him because of the way in which his speculative (nay fictitious) wonky-K relation enables him to return to the mythic era of rave where a direct drug-dancer-music interaction was more explicitly apparent. It is true that a sonic-theory-fiction or hyperstitional narrative need not be immediately empirically accurate in order to have a certain currency, a productive power perhaps, but what is clear here is that Reynolds’ speculations act simply to slot the new (wonky as non-genre) into a pre-existing paradigm. Of course we ought not to necessarily take the words of the producers and DJs at face value (who often seek to undermine the role of agency of the dancefloor in favour of their own auteurship by denying any link to drug use). Indeed in earlier times the link between cerebral Apollonian producer/DJs (for example in the first wave of Detroit Techno) and drug-guzzling Dionysian dancers played an absolutely key role in the evolution of the music. However there have been significant changes in patterns of drug consumption and drug-pop culture interaction, with the singular veneration of one substance (Ecstasy predominantly in the formative years of electronic dance music culture) shifting to a more orgiastic poly-drug consumption- where the effects and affects of a specific drug are erased in favour of a combinatorial fug- alcohol, MDMA, amphetamines, cocaine, ketamine, along with various legals and experimental chemicals, some deployed together, some deployed individually but in a heterogeneous fashion across the makeup of the dancefloor. This crucially undermines any direct and obvious synergies which might develop, since each has markedly distinct consequences. Drug use has clearly shifted from a kind of Eucharist-like specificity towards a generic intoxication, perhaps concomitant with a broader consumerisation of underground dance music.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Eliminativist Soul.

Tom Allan writes via email:

"Not sure though about your point re: a move away from the Latin mnml of Luciano and Ricky V, and towards the Ostgut sound. That's where some of the critical interest is going, I guess, but the main shift has been towards the dreaded post-mnml quasi- deep house of Oslo, Cecille, Mountain People, Drumpoet, Sascha Dive etc. Which was ok for a release or two but now sounds boring as fuck. But that's undoubtedly where 'the scene' (dj's, producers, labels, punters) has mostly gone. Ostgut/Berghain have existed in parallel to mnml for years, and are now I guess attracting more critical interest than previously, partly because of the Shed LP [...] Most of the Berghain residents (including Dettman and Klock) were involved in Tresor, and the sound is very much a part of that Berlin 'nuum, obviously tying in with Basic Channel/Hardwax/Chain Reaction too. I'm not sure how much it owes to mnml, to be honest... So re: house/techno shifting in parallel with socio-economic changes, that's borne out by the rising popularity of Ostgut (and the Hardwax-affiliated labels like Equalized, MDR and Klockworks, also the suddenly massive popularity of e.g. Sandwell District), but not really by all the neo-deep house stuff, which is supposedly about reinvigorating mnml by introducing 'warmth' and 'soul'... "

I'm certainly with Tom when it comes to a deep suspicion bordering on contempt for the kind of ‘warmth’ and ‘soul’ proffered by the neo-deep house contingent, but I think that this kind of bifurcation (both of which operate via a retracing of steps to a certain extent, though Ostgut Ton clearly manage to extract a greater amount of value than the pseudo-deep set) is not entirely divorceable from the socio-economic, especially given the fact that Berghain/Ostgut had evolved since the early 00s in parallel to the then-dominant mnml sounds. Why the turn to these genres now? In part of course this is due to internal reasons within the mnml scene, a perceived total exhaustion of its potentials resulting in a lot of generic tracks being produced, along with a disdain for the rapid mainstreaming of what had once been an underground sound. But this kind of polarisation in the descendant sounds seems to imply a degree of relation to the spirit of the times more generally: some sounds drifting towards the cold/dark/inhuman, others to warmth, soul etc.

But it seems there is more going on here than just that- in a sense there is a kind of battle between two notions of "soul"- as falsely-naturalised humanising warmth or as coldly inhuman dislocated "ghost in the machine", between a certain banal soul-boy conception (with a concomitant reductive and naive relation to black music) and blank-eyed techno futurism (with a far more complex and productive set of transversal relations to the music of the Black Atlantic). As I wrote before there are a number of subterranean connections between Ostgut Ton and certain strands of UK Bass Music, not merely in some of the percussive tropes but also in the deployment of regular plumes of irradiated diva-vox, (see “Goodly Sin” “OK” and “Gold Rush” from Ben Klock’s One) squirming into the bleak drum matrixes, rendering the inhuman backdrops all the more alien. Whilst there were certain moves within late-mnml to incorporate the more singular dubstep sounds (for example Villalobos' dropping Skream's "Midnight Request Line" and various Skull Disco tracks), this was piecemeal and whilst indicative of a degree of respect developing between the two scenes, never really impacted on the kinds of productions being produced. Ostgut Ton on the other hand refine this and achieve a more fluid articulation between the two cultures (indicative of who is the real inheritor of the space opened up by mnml). As Simon Reynolds noted in his recent talk on the Hardcore Continuum in Liverpool, the point where diva vocals (or the machinically reconstituted remnants of them at least) were erased from a given genre is usually exactly the juncture when its international appeal is really established- that it ensures no-one is confused as to whether this is pop music or R’n’B or other “girly” (sic) genres more firmly associated with a preponderance of female vocals. OT appear to radically mess with this conception, often seeming like a strange quirk in the Hardcore Continuum itself, a weird after-echo, temporally and spatially displaced. It is this (in both the vocal matter-remainder and swinging slicing 2-step-via-Burial drum patterns), along with an ineffable “atmosphere” reminiscent of a particular kind of cold-energy which shifts OT away from being simply an outright nostalgic sound.

Two (interlinked) kinds of ‘soul’: As human-essence or as black musical expression. Ostgut Ton’s take on the latter (absorbed via post-HCC musics) enables a more sophisticated, bleaker interrogation of the former. In this sense Ben Klock’s recent productions almost operate as eliminativist soul music, where the human as such interrupts only as remainder, as locked-groove epiphenomenon. Whilst this has some connections to hauntology, this differs greatly from already-implemented hauntological musical forms. Rather than an act of mourning this particular intimation of human quasi-presence speaks of a system where the pathic as such has been evacuated, a cold system, subjectively forsaken, mere meat-brain mass mediated via assemblage-network... ain’t no happiness, ain’t no sadness…