Welcome to the debut of No Humans Allowed, a new monthly column covering techno, house and other permutations of the “electronic funk,” to nick a phrase from the late Bob Sicko, author of Techno Rebels. I envision most installments of No Humans Allowed taking the form of critical round-ups of the myriad twelve-inches and albums perptually piling-up around my home stereo. I want to also include the occasional interview, artist profile and brief act of historical excavation. But in this first installment I plan to map out where I’m coming from as a both fan and critic of these genres, which, to give you an idea upfront, can be boiled down to “dude who has no problem rocking both Jeff Mills and Lightning Bolt in a single pint.”
I pitched this column (the name of which pays homage to electronic-rock pioneers Chrome) because I believe the synth, drone and noise fans who read Foxy Digitalis are primed to investigate these genres in some depth, that is far beyond electronica (a crossover zone messy enough to claim everything from The Field to DFA to Pan Sonic/Mika Vainio to Italians Do It Better). A good deal of this belief is based on the swift proliferation of synthesizers, sequencers and, most important, beats in the myriad scenes comprising underground and experimental music in America. Amanda Brown, who currently records under the moniker LA Vampires, is the perfect expression of this. Over the last five years, she has evolved from Pocahaunted’s free-improv séances to operating 100% Silk, the Not Not Fun-related imprint that specializes in melting avant funk, rave nostalgia, progressive electronics and outsider psychedelia into gooey dancefloor rhythms. In the underground’s noisier realms lurk artists such as Val Martino (Unicorn Hard-On), Leslie Keffer and Jeff Witscher (Rene Hell, Cuticle), all of whom have dabbled in technoid pulsations. Then there’s Ren Schofield (Container) whose dedication to beats feels the strongest of all his peers. In addition to releasing the Fake Sound Routine “techno compilation” series on his cassette label I Just Live Here, he recently dropped an excellent full-length, LP, on the Spectrum Spools imprint (itself operating at the intersection of modern American synthesizer drone and European electronic music). When I caught Container’s excellent set at last summer’s Voice Of The Valley Noise Rally (check out my festival report) the half-serious phrase “techno is the new noise” could be heard rippling through crowd.
If the online music magazines FACT and Resident Advisor are accurate barometers, the sprawling techno/house community in Europe and the United Kingdom is smitten with these developments. Both have run articles on many of the labels and musicians I just mentioned (as well as Emeralds, Maria Minerva, No UFO’s and Motion Sickness In Time Travel). Even more telling is how the sense of experimentation cuts both ways. The Modern Love crew (Demdike Stare, Miles, Pendle Coven, Andy Stott, Anworth Kirk) forges a blend of dub techno and crate-digging archeology that’s industrial in its mood, murkiness and foreboding textures. The extended Sandwell District/Downwards network of producers — Regis, Female and Silent Servant most notably — uses its creative juices these days helping techno reconnect with its monochromatic, dystopian ties in post-punk. Their numerous collaborations and side projects, including Tropic Of Cancer, Sandra Electronics and Six Six Seconds, create little music that’s appropriate for serious dancefloor shimmy-action, more like the soundtrack to a grimy, Neue Deutsche Welle club in the early 1980s. Maybe the most adventurous of all are Moritz von Oswald and Vladislav Delay. Their respective forays into electroacoustic-based ensemble music collapse dub, ambient music and fusion into an undulating, psychedelic fog.
My own initial explorations in techno (house came several years later) occurred in the second half of the 1990s, back when a similar relationship between American underground experimentalists and electronic music producers from Europe existed. The music was considerably more abrasive back then, yet that same sense of open borders and mingling populations permeated the atmosphere. The Michigan noise scene had yet to fall in love with first-pumping maximalism. Wolf Eyes and early Andrew W.K., and later Viki and Mammal, were into dance-rock grooves, however gnarled and slathered in seething distortion. At Fort Thunder, in Providence, Rhode Island, getting bodies to move was always a top priority at shows. Lightning Bolt, Olneyville Sound System and Mystery Brinkman (a huge fan of techno and bass music) were the children of Six Finger Satellite in the way they fused propelling rhythms — some danceable, others not so much — with post-hardcore brutism. I was also a fan of the Vulcans (The Rapture, !!!, Gogogoairheart), who were revisiting classic post-punk and electro.
While obsessing over this stuff, my antennae began tuning in the latest advances in digital hardcore, breakcore, gabber and minimal techno. I first gravitated towards the extreme styles. DJ Scud’s fusion of drum ‘n’ bass and power electronics sounded just awesome sandwiched between [insert your favorite Merzbow or Whitehouse album] and Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s drum-machine grindcore (there was a lot of that vile stuff going around for sure). Eventually, though, I began to eschew aural rape for transcendent hypno-groovery. In other words, I started falling for actual techno. My gateway drugs: all things Kompakt (of course) and anything by Thomas Brinkmann. I also need to tip my hat to Motor’s Hexen, a disc I knew nothing about in 2000 when the boys at Sound & Fury, on New York’s Lower East Side, recommended it. I blasted that thing nearly every day for what seemed like months (it definitely served as the looped soundtrack for more than a few weekend-long parties). I still rank Hexen — which I’m spinning while typing these words — as one of my 10 favorite techno albums of all time. Its microscopic focus and efficiency are so single-minded they border on the pathological.
My bible during this period of discovery was the zine Ugly American, issue no. 13 in particular, which came-out in 1999. Founded by one Greg Chapman, Ugly American covered just two subjects: hardcore pornography and experimental music. Its editorial attitude, soaked in vintage scum-rock belligerence, specialized in spitting vitriol concentrate and fuck-off venom. Chapman had several partners in crime; my favorite was J. Marlowe (whom I’ve never been able to track down). As a music critic, the guy was merciless and brutally hilarious, but also packed with knowledge, insight and curiosity. In issue #13 Marlowe wrote 6o-plus reviews over 170 pages. Needless to say, he covered a lot of turf, from noise and death metal to post-rock and electronica to hip-hop and jungle. I gravitated towards his writing on techno (drum ‘n’ bass, too). What struck me is how he consistently framed the genre inside modern music’s larger historical narratives. This was rather unorthodox at the time. Before the spread of sound samples online, it seemed as if a good deal of techno criticism focused on the music’s mechanics. This aided DJs who needed to know about time signatures, bpm, unexpected shifts in mood, etc. I had no problem with this approach; it just wasn’t terribly pertinent to somebody who spent more time cranking techno on the home stereo than shaking his rump at the clubs (which I also enjoy). The writers who did bug me were the zealots and theorists who believed in the Immaculate Conception by insisting techno was a brand new art form, one that sprung from nothingness, basically. For them techno lived beyond history, as well as that great flow known as cause-n-effect, and was anti-everything that existed before it (rock music in particular). In his best reviews — Photek’s Form & Function, Burger/Ink’s Las Vegas and Plastikman’s Consumed — he dismantled these notions. In the process, he cracked open the form’s DNA and helped chart its roots in older genres and movements. The following paragraph from Marlowe’s Consumed review nails his outlook:
The Plastikman record has been generally characterized in the techno community as an “experimental” record, a dark, quasi-industrial, sparse, minimal and absolutely undanceable record intended for bedroom speculation. Most of this is true, except for the fact that Consumed is in many ways a deeply conservative and traditional electronic record. Because everyone in the techno world attempts to live up to their own tedious and rather flaccid “next-level” / “futurist” rhetoric, people are veritably shocked by the presence of a conservative electronic record in their midst, and can only assume that the record is also some strange “next-level” shit. A dark, brooding, throbbing record with loping 4/4 house beats that you can’t dance to for shit? File under “abstract” along with Third Eye Foundation and call it a day. Indie types, on the other hand, understood this record immediately, recalling as it does SPK, Neubauten and Cabaret Voltaire in terms of atmospherics, and Glass/Reich/Kraftwerk in terms of mindless, effortless forward motion.
Passages such as these really spoke to me. Totally feeling inspired, I started to investigate older movements (industrial, minimalism, ambient music, Krautrock, Italian disco) and to reflect on how they directly relate to the development of techno. They also spoke to my love of holism and interconnectivity (such a corny phrase). I’m that breed of music nerd who has never aligned himself with any one subculture or style of music. I’ve always enjoyed grooves and the ways in which they alter consciousness. I can be spinning Hawkwind’s Space Ritual or a Cosmin TRG banger laced with wailing diva vocals or an early Bill Monroe breakdown or Perc’s ferocious industrial funk, it doesn’t matter. So long as a particular geometry and movement of sound, regardless of how it’s dressed, induces peak experience, I’m totally cool. This is important for me to point out because techno (as well as house) won’t be treated like a hermetically sealed specimen in No Humans Allowed, more a creature of evolution, one who belongs to a wonderfully tangled and unfolding web of life.
Marlowe taught me one other thing: you have to dig deep into a genre to truly understand it. Though examining the larger historical picture is vital, so too is the microscopic, a perspective that demands you meet your subject on its terms. In the world of music, this is very true of techno. Despite the Internet’s ability to bring together just about everyone and everything at the speed of light, techno still remains something of a second-class citizen here in America (the country from which it originated, amazingly enough). There exists in Europe and the U.K. a nexus of clubs, labels, distribution and media that, in terms of development and scope, dwarfs our own. Subscribe to weekly e-mail updates from Boomkat, Hard Wax and Juno, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s overwhelming: hundreds of twelve-inches are dropped each week on that side of the pond, with a good number of them never making it here, unless you don’t mind dropping serious cash (overseas shipping + shitty exchange rates). Even music produced by homegrown talent, just about anybody from DeepChord to pioneer Carl Craig, finds a larger audience overseas, generally speaking. Many theories abound as to why things have unfolded the way they have; I’m sure I’ll dig into some in coming installments of No Humans Allowed. The upshot is this: an American can head down to his or her local indie shop and snag the new remix EP from the latest electronica, or now dubstep, darling. But in most instances there’s no significant selection of hard, pure, cutting-edge techno and house for him or her to peruse. Of course, one can always go online and order MP3s and FLAC files with ease, or even steal the stuff, but those modes of consumption don’t bring fan and music scene together quite like flipping through hundreds of twelve-inches in a place filled with other folks equally geeked. Any American who has spent meaningful time in a record store like London’s BM Soho or, stateside, Cleveland’s Bent Crayon knows this all to well.
Not surprisingly, this domestic scarcity extends to live appearances as well. Tours of North America by the overwhelming majority of producers I’ll be writing about rarely venture beyond a short list of large urban centers. Compounding this is the miserable fact that those of us (myself included) who don’t call New York City or Montreal or Detroit home also lack local DJs versed in killer techno. Those who possess any real skills almost always spin Top 40 hip-hop, brostep or house music for the halter-top crowd.
I bring up these last few points because I feel as though No Humans Allowed will serve readers best if I focus most of my attention on techno’s deeper reaches and not a whole lot of the hybrids out there. I dig much of the music I mention at the beginning of this column (especially Container — that guy slays), but there are plenty of critics in the indie and noise mediaspheres covering it. Though I can only dream of turning on readers the way Marlowe did me, I’m going to try my hardest. There’s a lot of great techno out there that I truly believe American fans of synth, drone and noise would love to hear.
Six links for your exploration:
Sandwell District – wherenext.tumblr.com
Downwards – downwards.tumblr.com
Perc Trax – perctrax.bandcamp.com
Thomas Brinkmann – max-ernst.de
Cosmin TRG – cosmintrg.com
Ugly American – zinewiki.com/Ugly_American
And here’s one more jam just for the hell of it: