Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dan Sicko RIP

Journalist Dan Sicko passed away earlier this week from a rare form of eye cancer. His book "Techno Rebels" was arguably the first proper history of techno, tracing the evolution of the scene (and the careers of the principal actors) from high school dance parties in Detroit in the early 80's to the more global rave and electronica of the 90's. Sicko's book was a favourite of mine, and when I wrote for Cave 17, reviewing old techno and dance music compilations, I always used the title "Techno Relics" as a play on his book.

A number of sites have picked up on the news of Sicko's passing, but be warned that Rolling Stone and Matthew Perpetua are full of it when they write that "['Techno Rebels'] legitimized the Detroit techno scene of the Eighties for many readers." Techno wasn't waiting patiently for approval and legitimacy from rock critics in the 90's. Journalists didn't breathe a sigh of relief when "Techno Rebels" was published -- "I guess this means techno is real music now." Why not write similarly stupid things like "the Beatles landing in America legitimized the rock and roll of the Fifties for many readers." And of course, the "Detroit techno scene" wasn't only an eighties phenomenon. If anything helped to "legitimize" it, it was techno's blindingly rapid spread to the clubs and raves of Europe in the late 80's and early 90's. That's the kind of thing you can appreciate once you actually read Sicko's book (I doubt that anyone from RS has).

More of Sicko's writing as well as information about "Techno Rebels" is available at the site of the same name.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How electronica lived and died

Michaelangelo Matos has written a nice overview of the electronica scene in the US in the 1990's for NPR. His retelling of the story, enhanced via interviews with a number of record company execs who were involved at the time, is pretty much how I remember it, and naturally I learned a few factoids that were new to me (Rick Rubin passed on signing the Prodigy!)

As more time passes and the past becomes easier to contextualize, stories like these stand out as perfect examples of how stodgy and conservative the major label music business is. They tried to market electronica just like they'd been marketing every other music fad and trend for the previous thirty years -- find a hot new thing, give it a catchy name, sign everyone even remotely associated with the scene, plug the hell out of it on radio, sit back and sell millions of records. It's no wonder that people got bored of the same old boom/bust music discovery routine and starting discovering and plugging music themselves once the right tools became available for doing so via the internet.

The electronic music scene -- the clubs, the raves, vinyl and remix culture -- was never conducive to being packaged and sold in the same formulaic way just like every other type of pop music. Matos tells the story of five thousand people coming to see a Chemical Brothers concert in Orlando (not exactly a mecca of American dance music culture like Detroit or NYC or LA or Chicago) before their debut album had even been released. The reaction of the record companies? "Damn, we'd better get their album out fast." Somehow they weren't yet seeing the dollar signs when thousands of people were coming to a gig by a supposedly unknown band. In the mid-90's, revenue from touring, concerts, and merchandise all meant nothing unless there was an album to be sold. It wasn't until people stopped handing money to the record companies in the form of overpriced CDs that they realized they needed to diversify and sign artists to more wide ranging deals that included recorded music + concert tours + merch. The record companies needed to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming before they accepted that the era of profiting from $20 CDs that cost pennies to make was over, but not before they threatened (and acted) to sue software companies, ISP providers, and individual customers into little bits for the rights to continue with their outdated business model.

The Prodigy were an exception because their look and their videos were very much of the time. Maxim and Keith Flint looked like maniacal, disturbed individuals and their videos were full of shlocky horror, all slamming dungeon doors and flashing lights all the time. They fit in nicely into a world dominated by Marilyn Manson and nu-metal, which is not to say that they shared a fanbase with those bands, but theirs was a style that made perfect sense in that era.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 3

"The sun in eclipse gathers together more mixes" (93 minutes)

Don't expect to hear the sound of summer 2011 because many of these tracks are at least a couple of years old (and are fairly well known -- there aren't many underappreciated jams that are waiting to be discovered here). I suppose what passes for a "summer mix" in my house is a mix where all the techno tracks come first, rather than buried somewhere in the middle.

The concept for the mix was born out of that simple, somewhat absurd idea ("put the techno first for once"), and from there I recycled a couple of transitions from older, private mixes, added a couple of tracks that I really wanted to work into a mix for whatever reason (Rough Trade, Liquid), successfully IMHO pulled off an audacious transition (Lil B to Explosions in the Sky), and 93 minutes later (longer than I intended, as usual) I ended up with a mix that I've been enjoying the hell out of lately. Hopefully you will too!

Soundcloud link

(more details appear in the comments)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sigur Ros, "Inni"

Summer is always a slow season for new releases, which means it's also a slow time for writing. I don't tend to follow new releases news either, I just can't get excited about so-and-so releasing a new album in three months and here we have the track list for you. I start anticipating when the album is about to be released. As in the day before it is released/leaked.

I usually ignore all the "click here for preview of Song X from their new album" too. Except that today, I got an email From Sigur Ros, entitled "Inni". Not "see the new video by Sigur Ros, 'Inni', from their upcoming album". Just "Inni". I clicked on the link and it led to a charcoal grey screen, barren except for the word "INNI" in block white letters. I started the video, and was greeted by a swarm of metallic howling and grainy black and white video images of whirring machinery. After the last Sigur Ros album (and Jonsi's solo album), I thought they were all set to go pop. Silly me.

The grainy footage was interspersed with individual shots of the members of Sigur Ros, frozen on stage over their instruments, surrounded by fog and haze. Sigur Ros, "Metropolis"? Believe it.

Suddenly the music switches to a gentler, instrumental piano melody, more along the lines of what you'd expect from them. The music creeps along but the images churn into motion as the band attack their instruments amidst the maniacally flashing lights. It's hard to figure out what's going on thanks to the rapid camera cuts, but it all ends in what seems to be an explosion of sparks. The audience waves their hands to catch the ashes, or whatever it is that remains of Sigur Ros and their semi-militaristic long coats.

Just like that, it's over, after barely a minute. And yes, I really really want to hear the album now.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

John Cale @ Barby Club

John Cale will turn 70 next year, and his voice sounds exactly the same as it did 40 years ago. This, to me, is remarkable. The fact that he was never able to sing like a bird is besides the point. Cale wasn't born to sing, he's a virtuoso on the piano, a wizard behind the production desk, but sort of fell backwards into a singing career on the outer edges of pop -- all of this is also besides the point. People age, their voices change, or to be brutally honest, their voices deteriorate into a husky shell of their former selves. Which musicians from Cale's generation, Lou Reed or Mick Jagger or anyone else you care to name, can say they still sing as well as they did in the 60's? Hell, nearly all of those guys didn't sound like they did in the sixties twenty years ago.

Yet Cale keeps going, looking and sounding great. I went to see him in concert over five years ago and figured it was a good thing I caught him when I did. After all, he was getting up there in years and I probably wouldn't get another chance to catch John Cale live. And yet here he was, playing in front of a rapturous crowd at the Barby, still owning the "Gun"/"Pablo Picasso" medley, still making Matthew Sweet jealous that he didn't write "Perfect". Even the setlist was mostly the same, and songs from his new EP "Extra Playful" slotted in nicely next to a mixture of classics and songs from his last two albums.

After I got home I re-read my comments from the Lula Lounge gig in 2005 (probably for the first time since I wrote them) and was surprised at how little has changed about Cale in concert. You could practically copy and paste those comments into a review of yesterday's show. I do recall that he seemed angrier and more confrontational in '05, as if he had something to prove, or wanted to silence any doubters who didn't think he could bring the intensity. This time he seemed more relaxed, content to show off himself and his band and to play a nice mixture of old and new songs just like you've come to expect from an aging rocker when he's on tour. But only the most cynical of Cale fans would complain that he doesn't show up on stage wearing a hockey mask anymore. By any other, less extreme measure, Cale shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.