Friday, February 10, 2017

Pitchfork's 50 best IDM albums of all time

This list follows a similar pattern to their best shoegaze albums list from October -- classics mixed with curious (and more recent) picks that Pitchfork is inexplicably trying to cram into the genre, only for the early and mid-90's big guns to predictably take all the top spots like they always do in any other discussion of the best IDM.  If they wanted to make a point of updating the canon, wouldn't a "20 best IDM albums you've never heard of" list have accomplished the same thing?  Nobody reading this list needs to be clued into the greatness of Autechre and Aphex Twin, but they need to be included for reasons of clickbait, and Pitchfork and their megamedia overlords want to make money, so it's fine I guess.

Another similarity to the shoegaze list -- the opening essay is the best thing about it.  In about one thousand words, Simon Reynolds covers the history, aesthetic, name controversy, influence, and contemporary significance of IDM as eloquently as you're ever going to see it.  He leads off with the elephant in the room for every serious IDM discussion -- the name.  Yes, it's a stupid name.  But so is "prog", "shoegaze", and many others.  Once the name sticks, it sticks.  However, the debate about the "intelligence" behind the music was always beyond ridiculous.  When the biggest star of the genre is a cryptic loner who drives a tank for fun, the scene has to invent its own controversies to survive.  Early on everyone knew you weren't going to get scandalous quotes out of the boys in Autechre or Boards of Canada, so they came up with a purely theoretical but meaningless debate about whether this music was inherently "smart" compared with the reputedly "dumber" club oriented music.

The real story starts to come out in Reynolds' essay and some of the album reviews.  In the late 80's, chill out rooms became a popular come down spot in certain clubs in the UK.  You'd hear downtempo, but still danceable music that was given the tag of "ambient house".  That was yet another stupid name.  It certainly wasn't ambient in the Brian Eno "god knows how much time has passed while we've been listening to 'Thursday Afternoon'" definition of the genre.  It was an alternative to the off your face partying happening in the main room at the club.  It was ambient purely relative to the more hedonistic mayhem of regular club music.

The "ambient" tag soon spread to many other bands with vague connections to electronic music but weren't likely to be played in clubs.  The Orb, Seefeel, and even Stereolab (circa "The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music") were awkwardly lumped together as ambient.  It was a terrible, non-sensical catch-all applied to completely different types of bands, but journalists liked (and still do) to create scenes and labels out of thin air, and so the name stuck and was commonly used for a few years in the early 90's.  This is why Aphex Twin called his album "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" --  the title made sense according to the then-contemporary usage of the word.

The IDM tag wasn't a reaction to "ambient", but it happened to come along at around the same time that the latter had lost nearly all its meaning and was becoming a joke even those who liked the music.  Regardless of whatever people were calling it, the idea of chilling out to electronic music had never gone away.  It was inevitable that there would be an audience for techno fans who wanted music for home, rather than club listening.  But just because it was inevitable doesn't mean it was any less revolutionary.  To this day, people still sometimes say to me that they don't understand how anyone can listen to techno at home or at work.  Or they claim that they don't mind it if they go out, but otherwise they can't stand it.

You can piece together the rest from the Pitchfork list.  Warp's "Artificial Intelligence" compilation came along, and the series of albums that followed (plus the AI 2 collection) solidified the careers of many of the top names in the genre.  And the IDM name was inspired by the name of the compilation.  But it's just as easy to see that there was no claim of greater "intelligence" on the part of the creators or listeners of the music at the time.  A video featuring cutting edge (for the time) computer animation was released in parallel to the music (I still have my VHS copy somewhere).  It made a connection between the music and the digitization of our culture.  It was focused on the symbiosis between the music and emerging technology, rather than between the DJ and his or her audience with the music as a conduit.  Naturally, the introspective, futuristic style of Detroit techno was a central theme as well.

All that aside, I still love at least half of these albums unreservedly.  And how many times do I have to say it -- "Surfing on Sine Waves" >>>>> "Selected Ambient Works 85-92".  

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Techno in the face of fascism

Gunnar Haslam and Johannes Auvinen wrote essays for XLR8R that hopefully will stir up some lively debate.  I am all for giving musicians the occasional platform to express these kinds of opinions.  The "fascism" claim is clearly exaggerated and intended as click bait, if not viewed this way, it's hard to take anything they write seriously.  

It is undoubtedly true that for decades, politicians have scapegoated clubs for various societal problems.  For instance, getting drugs off the streets is a hard order of business, so local politicians tend to go after the clubs instead.  It's easier than dealing with a multifaceted societal problem at its roots, and it's a straightforward way to produce results when they need to show the public that they're doing something about it.  A spate of violence or a single OD death usually provides a convenient catalyst for getting the ball rolling.  None of this has anything to do with fascism though.

They are right about the spirit of neoliberalism dissolving itself into club culture.  Neoliberalism first and foremost seeks to keep the capitalist machine running, trying to avoid serious damage but not seeking to make things better for all.  Similarly, much time and money has been invested into super clubs and megastar touring DJ's with the intention of sustaining the bubble as long as humanly possible (this applied to the entire live music industry really).  The music is taking a back seat to the "experience" of going out.  Boomer era acts have sustained themselves for decades by enabling their fans to revisit the songs of their youth.  Current "stars" may be in for a rude awakening in ten or twenty years when they discover that fans didn't connect to the music as they thought and have moved on to whatever the new technologically flashy concertgoing experience will be.  

The solution, however, isn't the techno protectionism that Haslam seems to be advocating for.  His call for a more direct relationship between artists and fans suggests that local scenes need to more self sustaining, but this will make them become more insular and stifle collaboration.  For DJ's living in the bubble of New York or Berlin maybe this is a reasonable option.  But people outside the meccas of clubland want to make a living too.  His criticism of a DJ's carbon footprint seems downright silly to me.  DJ's don't travel with huge entourages and diesel guzzling trucks full of equipment to their gigs.  The life of a touring DJ is just about the most environmentally friendly form of live music work there is.  

At the end of the day, clubgoing is for the most part a luxury.  Techno doesn't have to be something of substance, it doesn't need to change the world.  Going to a club isn't supposed to be hard work, it's an escape from real life and real responsibilities. For the first wave of Detroit techno pioneers it was both, i.e. the music represented a good time and an escape from the urban decay of the (then) present with an eye toward a gleaming, futuristic future.  That was a vision unique to Detroit in the 80's, it can't be copied and pasted elsewhere as a rallying cry against political leaders you happen not to like.