Showing posts from 2009|01

Wire 300/Reynolds and the Hardcore Continuum

Derek Walmsley

New on www.thewire.co.uk:

The February 2009 edition of The Wire is the magazine’s 300th issue. To mark the event, we have commissioned a series of exclusive online essays by a number of our regular writers and contributors that examine various musical trends and initiatives that have emerged during the lifetime of the zine (ie since the publication of its first issue back in the summer of 1982), and that still inform, influence and animate our world today. The essays will be posted here regularly throughout February.

As part of The Wire 300 online, we're putting up all of Simon Reynolds's essays documenting the rise of Hardcore, Jungle, Garage ... and beyond.

Simon's new introduction is now online, plus pieces on Hardcore Rave and Ambient Jungle. Further articles will be going up daily.

For me, it's not an exaggeration to say that, without this writing, I might well not be living in London and writing about music.

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ISB on Resonance

Derek Walmsley

Great looking show on Resonance FM tonight:

ISB
January 27th, 2009 · No Comments

This evenings Clear Spot is produced and presented by Ed Baxter. Ed discusses the musical career of lysergic Scots folk experimentalists The Incredible String Band with Adrian Whittaker. Whittaker is the author of Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium. Hux Records have recently released Tricks of the Senses, a collection of rareties assembled and annotated by Adrian (reviewed here by The Guardian’s Robin Denselow). Ed also - via telephone - talks to Mike Heron, Robin Williamson, Malcolm LeMaistre and Rose Simpson about the past and present. Genesis P. Orridge, Salman Rushdie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Séamus Ennis, Bob Fass, Alex Harvey and Joe Boyd are among those name-checked. Plus exclusive audio and an update on the search for Licorice. Clear Spot, Tuesday 27 January, 8pm - 9pm.


Ed wrote a British Folk primer for us, back in issue 202, and there was an article with Robin Williamson back in 2007. As recent convert to some of ISB's pulseless, hovering meanderings, I'll be checking this out.

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EDIT - profuse apologies. This was on yesterday. Nevertheless, the Clear Spot tonight with Rob Murphy promises to be pretty interesting too, with Up Murphy Street being reissued right around now...

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You can't get with Mr Smith

Derek Walmsley

Sometimes the development of music technology is quite breathtaking – think of Final Scratch, Ableton Live, all those real-time scratch and processing programmes. Microsoft's Songsmith falls way, way, way, outside this category, to such a degree it's quite astonishing. A programme designed so you can just sing into a microphone, and it'll pick up the melodies and concoct an appropriate backing you.

The results are, without exception, jawdroppingly, side-splittingly appalling. You can pretty much hear the mix of rigid, codified algorithms (switching between simple chord progressions where the voice allows) and random melodic detours (just to keep things moving along). Essentially, they've managed the perfect simulation of a hotel bar band desperately vamping along when they've got no idea where the tune is going.

A reminder that, in these days of fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, computer software can still sound astonishingly luddite.

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Funky on Rinse FM

Derek Walmsley

Like many, I've been warming to Funky, the [rather weirdly named] new thing on London Pirate Radio stations like Rinse FM. Perhaps we'll warm to the name itself after a while; 'funky house', the label which used to be listed on flyers plastered on lamp posts for over-25s raves all over the M25 Orbital area, suggested an attempt to organify house, to give it a certain feng-shui'd, ergonomic ease of use. Funky, though, is significantly different, and it's understandable that the second part of the moniker has been dropped. So 'Funky; will do for now. Of course, 'Grime' sounded weird to start with, but now perfectly captures the cold-concrete intensity of the music.

Listening to Rinse FM sets by Fingerprint and Marcus Nasty, the elements of soca and dancehall are pretty subtle, but are such an essential ingredient. It's often moving against the 4/4 beat, generating that push and pull feel which gives it a feeling of democracy, somehow (ie, you can dance to this how you want). Even when it's not there, it's kind of present in its absence, as that off beat feel comes and goes frequently in the DJ sets I checked out. Although it's understated, there's a certain dubiness in there – it comes and goes, but it makes its presence/absence felt - it's kinda welcome. There's also a certain melodic nostalgia there, which was always a part of two-step garage – it was always garage as filtered into a kind of of future pop form.

But all this is thrown into sharp relief by the intriguing tension between the soca feel – and the democracy, ease of access and general good vibes it engenders – and the more sophisticated NY style garage feel, which implies something more sexually selective, more exclusive. This is the key to the music – it gives it an openness to something more global, more open, rather than an exclusive London-centric locus, but there's still something distinctively urban in there. The dancehall feel is the grit in the oyster somehow, the slight friction which prevents it from drifting into frictionless Euro-style consumer house.

So I'm hopeful. Listening to this music, I feel that slight tingle, that warm mix of familiarity with the general feel combined with fresh, open structures. There's something happening here. I'm intrigued.

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Ready for the breakdown

Derek Walmsley

A study reported in The Guardian, suggesting an inverse relationship between complexity in pop and fluctuations in the stock market ("Beyoncé's new single spells economic doom") is the kind of thing that gives studying pop music a bad name. Apparently, Phil Maymin, New York University's professor of finance and risk engineering (the job title is intriguingly vague whether he's pro or anti risk) suggests that the prevalence of singles with "low 'beat variance'" often coincides with the stock market being due for a fall.

The most obvious flaw in this is that Beyonce's new single is actually, in a post-Timbaland style, actually pretty sophisticated. There's a lurking sub-base in there, an offbeat (and atonal) keyboard lick through the verse, and a Joey Beltram style Mentasm stab in the chorus. The dance moves it demands are the kind of elliptical hip swaying of the video, not some kind of skinhead stomp. It almost makes me wonder if R&B; might have some new ideas left after all; compare the track to the lumpen hiphop of 50 Cent and it's almost polyrhythmic. Anyway, who says what actually is the beat? In R&B; of the last decade, the rhythm had long ago started to provide the melodic, textural interest, and the off-beat melodies tend to move the hips as much as the beats.

Some of the references in the article don't quite ring true. How could a-ha have predicted the stock market turbulence of the mid-80s, when the song was made in 1984, and had already held an MTV music award for a year when the stock market crash finally happened in late 1987? The music of the UK recession of the early 90s was rave, then undergoing huge chart success, yet tracks like The Charly’s "Prodigy" or SL2’s "DJs Take Control" are as jagged and complex as anything King Crimson came up with. Well, compared to the disco hangover of 80s dance music, at least. In the UK, the soundtrack to the bleakest times of the late 70s/early 80s was "Ghost Town" by The Specials, surely one of the weirdest singles ever to get to number one.

Maymin argues that "If it's a steady beat, the same beat, no matter if it's fast or slow, that's a low beat variance song,". The majority of pop tracks probably fall into that category. Are plodding stadium ballads 'low variance'? The nervous, repetitive pulse of Joy Division or The Fall? Ragga? All are regular in a sense, but become irregular on an, erm, pretty regular basis. The more regular a track is, the more it has the ability to sound irregular. The regularity is what gives the leverage for a track to really throw your spine out of joint. That's the essential truth which gives pop music its motor. The idea that simplicity somehow reflects things grinding to a halt is one that you'd think we'd got way past by now.

There's probably some truth in the idea that some people yearn for a certain musical simplicity in turbulent economic times, but it's hard to argue there's a systematic dumbing down at work – certainly not on the level of rhythm. Becoming a teenager in the relatively comfortable late 80s, it was the stifling sense of social consensus in 80s pop music that I felt House music kicked against. The faux maturity of music like Phil Collins or Sting gave it a platform to show off a certain virtuosity, but in terms of surprise, it was deathly dull. Unpredictability was always heavily signposted, like a tom drum roll before a hackneyed key or tempo change. Compare it to my current listening, a selection of Jeff Mills DJ mixes as The Wizard from the late 80s, where Acid, House, hiphop and funk are thrown into the mix in breathtakingly inclusive fashion, a mix and match which completely dissolves generic boundaries (although the beats are kinda regular), and you start to realise that rhythmic regularity can be the engine room of pop, it gives it the essential torque necessary to mix cultural references together.

Beyond spotting one or two novelty singles in tough times, surely it's impossible to come up with some aggregate measure of how 'complex' the pop charts are, any more than we can measure if literature or art is currently in a 'regular' phase. Attempts to do so suggest pop can be measured as easily as blood pressure, which does the artform a disservice.

*** UPDATE 20/1/09 ***

Phil Maymin himself pointed out in correspondence that he actually hasn't analysed the Beyonce song – it seems The Guardian have suggested that fits with the theory, which seems rather shoddy journalism to me, although titillating, I guess (though pop music should be so much more...)

Maymin's data on 'beat variance' comes, it seems from a body called EchoNest.net, a third party which provides data by this measure. It's not clear what this data is generally provided for – market research reasons, perhaps? In any case, the objectivity of their findings must be a little under question.

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