Friday, August 05, 2005

ritual damage

i heard some noises in the distance as i was leaving tower records tonight. stopped midway to my car in the parking lot. was that explosions? a moment later, it came to me: nightly fireworks at 9:45 pm, for the tourists at sea world. this sort of thing ... well, it's sort of fucked, cause sea world is just across the bay from the marine corps training depot, right? there's a war on, right? does anybody even think about this sort of thing? it reminded me of something an old man had said to me, earlier in the year, when i'd asked him if he enjoyed the 4th of july fireworks. "not really," he'd said, "these days they'll set 'em off over any old thing. when i was young it was ... special"

so as i was getting on the freeway i said to myself, fuck it, i'll do it tonight. i'll write about the urban tribe album. i'm in a state, won't be getting to sleep til 2 or 3 anyway. i'll blow off some steam, get sort of stupid. i was thinking of carl craig and juan atkins, taking solitary detroit freeway night drives soundtracked by e2e4 and radio activity. were those drives comforting? was the car like a glass and steel womb? the purr of the motor and the pulse of bass, was it maternal? were they insulated, but still connected, electricifying mojo tuning them into the city-wide network of nocturnal travelers?

this was not comforting. we have these huge freeway on-ramps where i live, big circular rollercoaster ramps that spin you around 270 degrees at a steep grade, like you're tilted on some fairground machine and the world is spinning around you at 80 mph. these expensive european cars i'll never be able to afford, they surround you on the freeway with these new school headlights that throw pixilated glare like digital projectors on the cars next to you. they have LED brake lights - if you have trouble with trails at night you'll see ghostly clusters of dots, strobing across your vision. i'd just had my car washed after letting it build a three-month coat of dirt (we had record rainfall up until may) and that just added to the whole videogame hyperreality of the thing. this was not comforting at all. i didn't want to be driving, traveling - i wanted to be home.

where does techno go, when it needs to turn inward?

when i was in college i was a bit more excited about dance music. i was a bit more excitable, in general, you know? bad little kids, doing bad little things. people, things, responsibilites tended to float in and out of my life, willy-nilly. around 96-99 my grip was getting positively slippery. with growth and rapid change, things were getting diffuse at the core. so i was glomming pretty firmly onto dance music. it was getting pretty diffuse out there, too, but you could see things happening. it was spreading, like an oil slick, like a cancer, metastasizing, throwing off new styles and scenes on a monthly basis. directions sketched out on remixes and split EPs and one-off tracks were quickly mapped out onto artist albums and label compilations. there was no shortage of things dance could be, no end of places dance could go. if you were paying close enough attention, you could see it happening.

i was keeping tabs on a lot of things from 96-99: reinforced / metalheadz, basic channel / chain reaction, japan's sublime records, emissions audio output, clear, tresor, warp / schematic. but more than anything, i was keeping tabs on mo'wax. say what you want - from 95 on to when the whole thing collapsed, lavelle was a positively visionary A&R. lavelle gets slammed, often, the perception being that he's more concerned with his role as tastemaker and networker than with the music. well, newsflash: pretty much everywhere except the producer-obsessed world of dance, that's how it works. and lavelle's leftfield techno dream-team of 96-99 (carl craig, kirk degiorgio, andrea parker, urban tribe, dj assault, mark broom, baby ford) is an object lesson on letting your fingers do the walking. i have no idea how it went down, but it may have been like this: nightmares on wax hooks lavelle up w/ warp records, who hooks him up w/ richie hawtin via hawtin's FUSE project. hawtin teams up with craig for la funk mob's breaking down boundaries, messing up heads EP. craig releases his innerzone orchestra EP on lavelle's label, introduces lavelle to buddy sherard ingram, ingram gets aboard lavelle's monolithic headz 2 comp w/ his fittingly-titled track "covert action".

hopefully, you'll forgive me for making such a fuss over sherard ingram, when i admit i didn't even notice him the first time i heard one of his tracks. there's quite a bit to take in over 4 cds. you've got UNKLE and luke vibert showing the shambolic, lo-fi way forward for the apres-garde andy votel / broadcast axis, ILS inventing nu-skool breaks on "the force", tortoise rendering themselves obsolete w/ "the source of uncertainty", photek's 13-minute dark tribal house "trilogy" forecasting digweed's 00s renaissance, peshay and degiorgio sketching the next 10 years of west london sound w/ "the real thing (90 bpm mix)" and "the counterpoint". and quite a bit of ye olde boom-bap-scratch-crackle-creak-hiss for the trip hop faithful. a few minutes of glitchy 909 breaks, plucked bass and muted, heat-hazy synths, coming late in the anticlimactic first disc, didn't make too heavy an impression on my already-soft brains. fast forward from spring of 96 to early winter 98. two and a half years on, down to my last $20-, just dumped by my girlfriend, about to flunk out of school, my pavlovian training is still in full enough effect that i grab this just because it's filed in the mo'wax section ...

the album cover resembles nothing so much as a warning sign. dangerous radiations within. quite appropriate, if you ask me. this album is a time capsule, a time machine, a time trap. just holding it in my hands, i feel myself drifting off in thought ... i'm flashing on other times and places ...

september 2004. after a thoroughly frustrating morning attending a graduate seminar - haven't got the proper vocabulary to follow the lecture, though i know the concepts front and back - i've lost my keys, so i decide to walk home along the beach. it's only about ten miles, right? the first half-hour, i'm cursing under my breath the whole way. by the first hour, as i gradually see fewer and fewer joggers, i'm decompressing. 90 minutes in, i'm between public beaches, on a long stretch of inaccessible beach beneath high sandstone cliffs, places i've never seen before, a little spooked by the desertion and the prehistoric plants. i round a corner, and there's this ... thing, something the ocean spit it up and left on the beach to dry. i can't tell if it's plant or animal. i can't tell if it was this color when it was alive or not. did it live on the surface, or deep beneath? for a minute, my problems, my thoughts, my self is forgotten as i wonder on a new, utterly vexing problem: ... if i try to tell somebody about this, will they know what i'm talking about?

sometime earlier. i'm rummaging through an old box of toys in the garage. towards the bottom i spy something that looks familiar. it's a tiny toy gun, an accessory to an action figure. i take it out of the box and hold it up to the light, overcome by sudden waves of emotion. it doesn't fit any of the figures. it's too big for star wars, too big for transformers. too big for any of my toys, too detailed. whose is this toy? where did it come from? perhaps it's an orphan, left behind when i threw away a toy i had outgrown. was it mine to begin with? did i steal it from a friend, out of jealousy? was it left behind by a playmate whose name and face i no longer remember? what is that lost thing that meant so much to me - and why can't i remember where i saw it before?

the back cover may be the most striking i've ever seen. you really have to hold the thing in your hands to appreciate its beauty. the text, laid down in gently oscillating font sizes, slowly approaches and recedes, carrying your eye in gentle loops around the glowing center, where a tiny, lovingly-screened white-on-yellow "mo wax" glows and shimmers with furtive life. is it a glowing sun, or the center of the atom? the resemblance to orreries and nuclear models is highly suggestive, at first, of a journey down one of techno's favorite freeways, towards the unpopulated spaces of its nth generation sci-fi imagination.

"nebula", the second track on the album (and the first to really grab you by the brain and twist), seems to bear this out. just as soft, pointillist synth tones begin to merge into something like a washed-out rhodes drone, huge bass pulses start quaking the speakers. is it this the b-flat hum of the black hole at the center of the perseus galaxy? more synth figures slowly enter: foggy oscillators bounces back and forth, a modulated sonar ping pounds out an icy vamp, bubbles of ARP gently burst over the whole thing. unhuman doesn't begin to do it justice - one reviewer (in the wire) compared its fragile beauty to a crystalline environment grown in a glass bubble. this is the beauty of a benevolent sublime, the beauty of an snowed-over landscape untrammeled by footprints, of looking out your window in the morning and seeing the neighborhood erased by fog, the eerie quiet after the ice storm and before the dawn. a few simple elements, effortlessly interweaving into breathtaking the depth - it all suggests something grown rather than composed.

are we verging on cliche? fine. you should all be grateful, you know, that i didn't drag fractals into this. you start talking about fractals, and before long, you're wandering into a truly inhuman landscape, the dessicated music-is-maths of current autechre and de9-era plastikman: the sound of sound-as-data, interacting with itself. this is not to say that's not interesting - often it's not, but hey - but that's emphatically NOT what's going on here. the first hint ought to be the roster on the back, crowded to the gills with names: anthony shakir, carl craig, kenny dixon jnr and the mysterious "m. king" (anybody?). even where sherard ingram gets sole production and writing credit (as on "nebula") craig and ingram show their hand with mixing credit, addl keyb, edits, etc (and on an album as stuffed with production minutiae as this one, that's not an insignificant credit).

ironic then, that for a team effort, so much of the album revolves around depopulated spaces of social relations. conventional wisdom runs that the "techno" in "techno" refers to the nonhuman or antihuman aspects of its twitchy machine rhythms (snicker!). "detroit techno", while it gets a sort of a free pass here as the accepted "soulful" variant of real techno, is still regarded as concerned with the posthuman possibilities of space travel and technology. urban tribe's collapse of modern culture is the gleaming tip of an iceberg, a third way for techno, the high point of intelligent techno practice based on an (ostensible) exporation of inward-looking and backward-looking social practice.

the feathery drums, vangelis-esque synth and elegaic repose of tracks like "at peace with concrete" and "decades of silicon" hark back to derrick may's "relics" and the black dog's obsession with classical artifacts ("kings of sparta", "the crete that crete made", and, oh, a million other tracks). the reggae-flavored caribbean lope of "low berth" ducks and weaves like a ship on stormy seas, grounding craig and ingram's composition (compare to late-period drexciya's sometimes unconvincing flights of fancy) much as classical asian tunings underpin ken ishii's avant-garde practice. what tracks like "sophistry","lap top", "transaction" and "cultural nimrod" lack in dynamic drum programming, they make up for in rapturous textures that invite contemplation and meditation, recalling the b12's "scriptures" and "silicone gardens", as one's "reflections" and "shambhala", steve pickton's optimistic dreams for stasis and inspiration.

this is not the techno of juan atkins and drexciya. we are not waging lonely imaginary war on the military industrial. we're not looking to hitch a ride out of this damaged cluster. we are already space travelers, the alien astronaut of kc flightt's planet e, landed on earth and looking back at ourselves through a distanced lens.

urban tribe differs sharply from this company, though, in the pervasive sense of unease that shoots through much of the album. the dreamy humanism of most UK techno and much detroit techno is as dated as the early blue note fusion albums, late silver age sci-fi (first hints of new wave creeping in, without the creepiness) and modernist architecture (saarinen & niemeyer & etc) that inform the aesthetic. while UK heads seemed to be thrilling over the possibilities of connection, of global chronological harmonisations of the likemind-ed, sherard ingram was finding roads that traveled, apparently, to nowhere.

"d2000" - the track most resembling a collabo track, with it's strong uptempo KDJ moodymann vibes - blends sampled party chatter into a thick layer of glutinous muck, while laidback house snares and hats clatter above. the euphoric, yeah, except towards the end the beat twists itself into an awkward corner, while the first figure of the sort-of-call-and-response string refrain goes unanswered, ending the track on a moody, unresolved note. the trick is reprised for the glossy surface of "daytime TV", a track formed from overlapping voices, echoing dub-spatially into unintelligibility (ed note: it is 2:45 AM - am i there yet?). in these cases, human relations are represented by an shifting and uncertain sonic surface.

my favourite tracks are the astounding "human genome project", "micro machines" and "social theorist". in the first, wildly phased breakbeats run like droplets of mercury, swarming together and merging into a buzzy pulse which threatens the poignant synth lines (so wispy and tenuous it's like it's evaporating off the speakers) the titular nanomachines of "micro machines" are represented by a busy whir and hum of tiny 909 hi-hat, which build in urgency and intensity, eventually overrunning the stoned tone poem ingram is plucking out on bass and keys. "social theorist" revolves around the dubbed-out clack of billiard balls, wandering around the soundstage over a muted murmuring. are we theorizing implacable cause-and-effect of newton's cradle, or hume's existential dread?

so, where are we? oh yeah, detroit techno's like, not just about things, it's about people, you know? and if collapse of modern culture was a person, he'd be a tall dark and handsome a mysterious, moody, difficult sort of dude. cause he's all about culture, and tribes, and the collapse thereof and so on. none of which would be all that impressive if he weren't a) so damn handsome and b) so damn right about everything that was going on. i'm not talking merely about the collapse of culture at large - which is what everybody is talking about all the time, sort of, in one way or another - but the collapse of detroit/intelligent techno, as a musical culture.

collapse of modern culture is pretty much the last great intelligent techno release. as such, it basically marks the end of the detroit tradition. at around this time, the major detroit players start to fade into the background. meanwhile the UK players move en masse into the west london broken beat sound, the continental europeans embrace stale drexciya-isms and fractured carl craig atmospherics. in each case, the impulse is to treat detroit techno as a sort of ready-made to be plundered. stalwart crews like UR are reduced to flogging the same rhythmic tricks to death ("vintage future", indeed!) or attempting to recapitulate old hits ("inspiration", "jaguar"). for awhile, the (not really) new school sound of theo parrish and kenny dixon captures everyone's attention. their sound is exciting enough, and well-crafted enough, to ignore the tough facts: KDJ and parrish have displaced one anxiety of influence with another. sensing an exhaustion of detroit's possibilities, they dip back into the well of soul and r&b, shoehorning these readymades into the awkwardly rigid (yet functional!) beat structures of detroit techno - to still-thrilling effect, i might add.

detroit techno, in 1998, had found itself in the same position jungle had a few years earlier. having worked on ferociously hard at perfected its conception of itself for years, it found it could go in anywhere it wanted to, except forward.

so where does techno go, when it needs to turn inward?

ritual damage - the practice of deliberately bending, smashing or otherwise damaging an object before it was offered to the gods was a widespread phenomenon in antiquity. it occurred in the classical world, where pots were broken in shrines, as for example at the sanctuary of hera at samos ... the idea seems to have been that by damaging an object ... the worshipper was consecrating it and rendering it appropriate as an offering to the powers of the supernatural

the interesting thing about this idea, and i've noted not too many texts make any mention of it (though i guess maybe it's obvious, or taken for granted in context) is the idea that the supernatural is not separate, but rather immanent in the world. so this is what you do. faced with the thought of making offerings before perfection, you stress your creation, smear it into haziness. the most successful artists working in the detroit idiom, post-detroit, have taken this to heart. the ann aimee label is a particularly good example. alex cortex didn't bother with naming the 24 tracks on his album, CiM's album, while nominally more approachable by the inclusion of track titles, traffics in the same sketchbook vibe, offering a wealth of 2-to-3 minute tracks that somehow transmute loose composition and unfinished edges into hazy, soft-focus perfection.


this is like the term paper that refuses to die. i've ritually damaged my brain trying to pour out everything that is good about this album. tomorrow, i'll step back, add a postscript, and throw some mp3s at you, as a prize for reading.


Blogger Andy said...

Thank you!

4:29 AM  
Blogger vahid said...

er - the center section, between the two inlay photos, got sort of scrambled. so i posted a revision. hopefully it makes better (not perfect) sense ...

4:57 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

If virtual gold stars existed, I'd give you three of them for this entry.

7:26 AM  
Blogger OMC said...

Jeez, how did I miss this one? :( Probably because Urban Tribe sounds like a name for a acid jazz group.

(nice revaluation of Mo'Wax btw, was listening to Lavelle's Cream "mix"cd recently and he was indeed making some amazing connections.)

7:28 AM  
Blogger nebbesh said...

amazing stuff! just bought 'more brilliant than the sun', maybe this could be seen as a counterpoint to it, i.e. the journey inward.

and yeah, mo'wax had it locked for a bit. wish i'd bought more of those 'excursions' 12s

8:06 AM  
Blogger hector23 said...

I thank Lavelle for getting me into Patrick Pulsinger/Cheap records as well. Claire can now sound kinda cheezy but at the time it was a revelation.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Excellent post.

6:43 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

wow, sorry for gushing, but really amazing post, the kind of thing you seldom get from blogs these days: persuasive without being hectoring or edifying, intimate but not indulgent,with a kind of undeniable knowledge-of-territory that comes only from lived experience, thoughtful descriptions of the actual sounds - its all very good indeed.

4:30 AM  
Blogger JD said...

Great, provocative post.

The idea of ritual damage is echoed in Michael Taussig's "Defacement" (1999) and Joseph Koerner's "Reformation of the Image," (2004) who both argue that defacement is a powerful mode of the sacred. I'm curious to know more about the origins of this idea--it sounds like Bataille? I don't know enough about the music you cite as examples to get your point by context.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

urban tribe's covert action was originally on one of craigs imprints - retroactive i think it was, so lavelle probably got it in fat cat where all that good shit was coming in.
hes does tracks now down a similar line and djs as drexciyan dj stingray. it is fking good infact there is a whole slew of similar kind of tracks on the submerge /ur hypnotek records series,you can hear the bass heavy jay dee influence in there..

4:50 AM  
Blogger Culla said...

Superb article! Traditional British in-scene jealousy did for Lavelle in the late 90s (that and some of the Unkle stuff), but he's back and busy these days, having seen off the sneerers. Mo Wax are already being rehabilitated into cool as it's obvious they pushed more genre-defying things of difference than most labels will ever manage.

7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice writing & a very personal review (& that's why i like it!).
a new urban tribe ep is out now:

+ a brand new album!

i remember around 1996, when those mo'wax records went out, all my friends @ university' (at least those who have knowledge or good taste on music) were like "mo'wax this and mo'wax that....": & i could not stand it : to my ears it was just some foolish hype, i didnt trust the music...
How wrong i was!!! it took me a bit of time to face it, but yeah, mo'wax had loads of gems in their catalogue.

2:19 AM  
Anonymous Enkeling said...

great album, and great post too.
just found a copy at my local record store today.
and as always I ask myself: is there more of this good stuff?

4:52 AM  
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