Originally published as "2 Steps Back" in The Wire #166, December 1997.
These are difficult times for Jungle. If Reprazent winning the Mercury Music Prize wasn’t bad enough (what scene could survive such a seal of mainstream, middlebrow approval?), Jungle has been ousted from its three year old status as the London underground by the advent of Speed Garage. Lured by its ‘classy’-but-torrid R&B vocals and designer-label flaunting, champagne swigging, no-trainers-allowed ethos of living large, much of Jungle’s black audience has defected to this most recent dancefloor mutation. The astonishingly fast conversion of jump-up junglists to speed garage was hastened by the emergence of an earlier mutant breakbeat strain, the essentially white Industrial-like dirgecore of techstep, as typified by the productions of the No U Turn label, which carried Jungle so far from its roots in Rave and ragga that by early this year many scenesters were complaining about a surfeit of ‘disgusting’ tracks, drenched in distortion and devoid of melody.
Ironically, many of the most subterranean producers in drum ’n’ bass have since moved decisively away from techstep towards a new sound – although not one that’s likely to win back the converts to Speed Garage. Hardly known for its semantic restraint, the drum ’n’ bass community has failed to come up with a term for the new style, although some mutter about “nu-dark” or tracks that are “dark but technical”. Since discourse abhors a vacuum, I’m pitching in with my own genre designation: neurofunk. If No U Turn-style techstep is defined by deliberately dirty production, bombastic riffs and an explosive psychosis, this new sound is about obsessive-compulsive cleanliness of production, eerie electronic blips ’n’ blurts, ultra-complicated basslines, and an implosive neurosis. Techstep classics such as Trace & Nico’s “Squadron” sound like a maniac running amok; neurofunk tracks sound like a stalker, furtive and morbidly fixated.
The first hints of a new direction were audible late last year. At the time, Doc Scott’s awesome Nasty Habits track “Shadow Boxing” seemed like a pinnacle for techstep. Actually, it was the prototype for neurofunk, with its glacial, Numanoid synth-motif glowering like some cosmic scowl, and a two-step rhythm that made the track feel like it was jogging along at 85 beats per minute instead of 170. By the time the “Shadow Boxing Remix” surfaced this summer, the groove had stiffened even further – to the point of rigor mortis – while the flipside “March” crystallized the emergent neurofunk norm with its monotonously chugging beat and acrid emissions of synth-slime. Only the low frequency tremors of bassline pressure connected these Doc Scott tracks to the kind of kinetic, hypertensile Jungle he was producing just three years ago.
Just as he crusaded for techstep in 96, Grooverider, as both DJ
and label head, has maintained a typically Godfather-like role all
year long vis-à-vis neurofunk, premiering dubplates by new
producers such as Matrix, Optical, and John B, and releasing their
tracks on his Prototype label. Grooverider has also helped codify
the neurofunk sound with his own Codename John productions, “The
Warning”/”Structure of Red” on Metalheadz, and the forthcoming
“Enigma” on Prototype. With its Mace-like squirts of astringent
synth and squelchy, non-junglistic groove, “The Warming” opened up
a whole new technoid path for drum ’n’ bass. “Warned”, the
alternative version of the “The Warning” on the Grooverider
Presents The Prototype Years compilation, is even better. Seemingly
steeped as much in acid house as Jungle, the track’s viscous,
mucus-like textures make you feel like you’re being stalked by some
ravenous and implacable snot-monster.
The year’s ultimate neurofunk track, however, is Jonny L’s “Piper”, with its metronomic two-step beat, ghostly Ambient FX and affectless female voice reciting the title like a Dalek. If the original wasn’t clenched and clammy enough, Grooverider’s remix transforms it into a disconcertingly asymmetrical robo-funk groove that’s closer to Front 242 than Ganja Kru. On the remix’s flipside, “Obedience” reminds me of A Certain Ratio – sickly, wilting drones hang dank and dismal over a rudimentary shuffle beat and a quagmire of glutinous bass-goo. It’s so mausoleum-cold in here, you can almost see your breath. In early 80s death-disco fashion, the three elements of “Obedience” seem to have an arbitrary relationship to each other; the track grasps for funkiness without every quite getting on-the-one. But then, like the avant-funk of ACR and 23 Skidoo, neurofunk is a contradiction in terms anyway: the raunchy etymological roots of ‘funk’ – a West African word meaning ‘positive sweat’, Afro-American slang for a woman’s sex-smell – have long faded away, replaced by a cyborg’s distant memory of the body.
Check the review column written by the staff of the London Jungle shop Black Market for the clubculturezine Mixmag – virtually every promo and dubplate is described as a two-step. Close to the defining attribute of neurofunk, the two-step is a simple kick-snare rhythm that doesn’t even sound like a breakbeat anymore. The Wire’s Chris Sharp compares it to Tamla Motown or the skinhead moonstomp. Where the mashed-up, hyper-syncopated breaks of Jungle demanded extravagantly posthuman physical responses, making dancers strive for a hybrid of bodypoppin’ breaker, contortionist and Tex Avery cartoon character, the two-step incites much more rudimentary rhythmic reflexes: the feet trudge, the head jerks, and the torso folds at the waist like a pen-knife.
“It’s the easiest break to do,” says Phil Aslet, one half of production team Source Direct. “There are no real flutters in the snares or the hi-hats. It’s a straight-up, easy rhythm to get people on the dancefloor.” Although Source Direct have shaped neurofunk’s palette of atmospherics with such brilliant tracks as “Two Masks”, “Enemy Lines” and “Black Domina” – all spectral spaces, avant-classical atonality, glaring brass stabs and strings that attack like the ravens in Hitchcock’s The Birds – the duo have so far shunned the two-step option in favour of fitful full-kit funk. Aslet says that he and partner Jim Baker are still too enamoured of the breakbeat’s possibilities. But virtually everyone else on the scene seems to be retreating from breakbeat science towards the simplicity and rigour of the two-step.
The weird thing about neurofunk is that drum ’n’ bass seems to
be turning back into Techno, albeit a brittle, staccato,
non-hypnotic variant. All year, the synth-and-sample textures have
harked back to the analogue sounds of the pre-breakbeat era: bleep
’n’ bass (LFO, Sweet Exorcist, Forgemasters, Unique 3, Rhythmatic),
Acid House’s Roland 303 (revived on Dillinja’s “Acid Trak”), even
the angular Orientalism of mid-80s synthpop (Thomas Leer,
Sylvian/Sakomoto, John Foxx, Gary Numan’s later, ‘funky’ output).
Listen to recent tracks by Bristol junglist DJ Krust, “Soul in
Motion”, “Future Unknown” and “The Last Day”, and you hear
curiously inhibited, coerced grooves overlaid with drone-swathes,
melted sound-shapes, timbral smears, stereo-panning wooshes, and
disconcerting belches ’n’ burbles of grotesquely distorted
electronics. Amazingly, a scene that began with Shut Up And Dance
and Human Resource has evolved towards the brink of
Stockhausen-esque electroacoustic sound-daubs.
Even the scientific imagery seems more redolent of Techno than Jungle: artists names like Genotype, Isotope, Cyborgz, Cybernet Vs Genetix; titles like “Telemetry”, “DNA”, “Genetic Manipulation”, Controlled Developments (a Source Direct mini-LP available only in America). For Phil Aslet, such dry, dispassionate imagery reflects the fact that “We’re technical people… Our music isn’t an in-your-face thing that’s going to sell millions of copies, it’s more of a creation that you have to read, like a book.” Detached from their own, hopefully devastating creations, neurofunk producers are like lab researchers working on nuclear missiles, or gene-splicers designing viral pathogens for biological warfare. And military research, after all, is the avant garde of science.
The scientific imagery also seems to reflect the modus operandi (as Photek titled his debut album – pure neuro!), the weeks of incredibly intensive and fastidious labour that go into the average drum ’n’ bass track. Listening, you can hear the conditions under which the music came into being: bodies rigid with tension as they click the mouse; eyes fucked by the red-eye effects of ganja and staring at a computer screen all day. Neurofunk is the culmination of the perfectionist tendency in drum ’n’ bass, where artists like Photek and Boymerang devote months of ten-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week toil to construct a single eight minute track. (By way of contrast, No U Turn’s techstep tracks are completed in a single all-night session). Source Direct’s “Two Masks” took two months of trial-and-error and “deep concentration” to finish. Where once producers would construct tracks entirely out of loops, in neurofunk you’ll increasingly hear noises and effects that are used just once. “Two Masks” is riddled with sonic singularities and one-off surprises, designed, says Aslet, to ambush the listener.
Some of the new breed of neurofunksters are actual scientists: Grooverider protege John B is a 19 year old student of genetics and cell biology at Durham University, who cites his influences as Throbbing Gristle and Stockhausen. Like Techno before it, drum ’n’ bass has been taken over by boffins. Listen to Grooverider’s Kiss FM show – where once the station voiceovers came from ruffneck types, now you’ll hear phrases like “cutting edge beats” recited in the ‘middle class but trying to sound street-credible’ accents of Matrix’s Jamie Quinn and Boymerang’s Graham Sutton.
Quinn and his brother Matt, who records under the name Optical,
are the rising stars of neurofunk. Operating out of West London’s
Hammersmith/Shepherd’s Bush area, the brothers have released two
records via Jamie’s own Metro label – Matrix’s “Double
Vision”/”Sedation” and Optical’s “Shining”/”Dark Skies” – plus a
host of tracks for other imprints, including Formation’s
experimental sub-label New Identity. Matt Quinn is also starting
his own Virus label with No U Turn affiliate Ed Rush, and doing
engineering/production work on Grooverider’s debut album for
Columbia. Confirming his man of the moment status, he also helped
Goldie construct the hour long breakbeat-and-40-piece-orchestra
epic “Mother”, the centerpiece of the forthcoming sequel to
Timeless. The highpoints of the Quinn brothers’ output so far
include Matrix’s chromium-plated two-stepper “Mute” and Optical’s
slinky but sinister fluoro-funker “Grey Odyssey” (both on
Grooverider Presents The Prototype Years), and a shared EP for
Metalheadz. On the latter, Optical’s “To Shape The Future” and
“Raging Calm” are two of this year’s most astonishing slices of
drum ’n’ bass futurism: amorphous surges of drone-bass, distressed
R2D2 bleeps and sampladelics ooze with an abject but inorganic
quality, like the cyber-lymph frothing out of the haemorrhaging
android in Alien.
According to Matt Quinn, “‘To Shape the Future’ was my angry reaction to the diluted crap that seemed to come out of the initially interesting ‘intelligent’ drum ’n’ bass camp,” while “Raging Calm” was “influenced by the sounds of 70s jazz funk but also trying to reflect the chaos of the 90s life beneath the calm exterior.” In a lot of ways neurofunk does represent a kind of truce between techstep and its former foe, ‘intelligent’ drum ‘n’ bass, merging the former’s edgy, let the bad times roll vibe with the latter’s pristine production and atmospheric textures. The new breed of neuro producers – John B, Skynet, Psion – often sound like they were probably still making LTJ Bukem/Moving Shadow style Ambient softcore or jazzy Jungle only a year ago.
John B’s debut album Visions is split into two CDs, subtitled “Organic” and “Synthetic”. The first contains jazz-step workouts like “Sax Therapy”, featuring real horn and flute solos, and programmed basslines that sound horribly close to slap bass. But the “Synthetic” disco is pure neuro, replacing the first disc’s fluency with unswinging two-step beats, plasma-morphic bass-tendrils and cryogenic synths, leavened by the odd jazzy flourish or Vangelis-like Ambient wash. Other names to look out for in this fusion-noir zone include Blade, Isotope, Kraken and Decoder (whose alter ego Technical Itch captures perfectly neurofunk’s obsessive-compulsive tendency), along with labels like Audio Blueprint, Nor, Chemical Warfare and Smooth.
The neurofunk sound has also spread to more established sectors of drum ’n’ bass. The Reinforced label’s new roster – Vortexion, The Sonar Circle, Arcon 2, Procedure 769 – shun two-step minimalism in favour of full-kit clatter, but share the neurofunkster’s pathological intricacy of production. At the other end of the breakbeat spectrum, neurofunk’s sci-fi vibe has infected such formerly jump-up affiliated producers as Swift (check his amazingly bleak and frigid “Load”) and Andy C (whose collaborations with Shimon, “Recharge”, “Mutation”, and “Genetix” are riddled with queasy bass-gurgles and fizzy electronics).
Judging by their latest release, Trace and Nico’s
“Cells”/“Copies”, even No U Turn have swapped bombast for stealth
and distortion for cavernous clarity. Chiming in with neurofunk’s
scientific imagery, both tracks feature samples of scientists
talking about cell formation, while the label’s engineer-producer
Nico Sykes describes No U Turn’s imminent releases. On “Cells” and
“Copies”, the No U Turn sound is drifting towards neurofunk,
swapping techstep’s headbanger bass-riffs for complex, clinical and
glossily textured basslines. At the No U Turn HQ, the buzzword of
the hour appears to be ‘funky’. “Cells” is described as a “two-bar
funk switch” (whatever that is), while one-time rock bassist Nico
has been enthusing about Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” and
fantasising about working with Bootsy Collins. Ed Rush has a
collaboration with Optical forthcoming, entitled “Funktion”.
Matt Quinn defends the current vogue for two-step simplicity as a back to basics return to da funk, and a timely retreat from the baroque excesses of breakbeat science. “Unless they’re extremely well thought out, complicate patterns and edits tend to miss the point that this music, in all its forms, is about flow, rhythm and the funk. It’s not about who can spend a week programming the most complicated drum track ever.” But while the beats have become less complex – to the point of sounding like drum machines rather than looped breakbeats – everything else about neurofunk has become more labour-intensive and highly finessed, from the ultra-crisp production to the pretzel-like multiple basslines.
There’s no doubt that neurofunk has produced some of 1997’s most striking and accomplished music. But there’s something about the style that leaves me cold. This is the most alienated and obsessive ‘dance’ music since Cabaret Voltaire circa Microphonies or Material circa “Ciguri”. That’s no small achievement. But at times it seems like the producers are willfully excising all the things that made Jungle so exciting in the first place – the polyrhythmic exuberance, the explosive joy, the ruffneck boisterousness – simply because those elements have been co-opted by the mainstream and ended up in TV adverts and David Bowie albums.
Shunning obvious and crowdpleasing characteristics – anthemic hooks, rinse-out breakdowns – neurofunk is a music of timbral tweaking and endlessly recessive nuances. In this respect, the style reflects a triumph for the kind of obsessive production techniques pioneered by Photek. Modus Operandi might have been received by many as a disappointment, but so many tracks released this year share his music’s oddly amnesiac effect (compelling while you listen, but afterwards you can’t remember much about it) and numbing avoidance of explicit moods or emotions. (“The absence of feeling sort of becomes the feeling,” as he told Chris Sharp, optimistically, in The Wire #159).
Since neurofunk represents drum ’n’ bass’s latest attempt to
alienate all but its most committed connoisseurs, where next for
the scene? Jungle’s populist core has withered away: most of
London’s pirate radio stations have switched to playing Speed
Garage; recent jump-up Jungle events like The Roast have been
almost empty. “A lot of the dread side of Jungle has gone into the
Speed Garage,” says Phil Aslet, referring to the dancehall reggae
fans originally lured into Jungle by its ragga samples back in
1994. Not only have those people left the scene, but Jungle’s sonic
repertoire of rude-ness has migrated wholesale to Speed Garage,
too: the ragga soundbites, the timestretched vocals, the booming
sub-bass, all can be now heard fully assimilated and uproariously
revitalized in a defining UK Garage track such as Ruff Da’ Menace’s
“Kick the Party Into Full Effect”.
Of course it’s precisely these rude-boy/B-boy elements that neurofunk has shed as part of its realignment with Techno and Acid House. Drum ‘n’ bass seems to be on the verge of redefining itself as, and refining itself into, a purist genre comparable to the Detroit-pietist techno-phunk of labels such as Soma, Ifach, Ferox and Peacefrog, and artists like Ian O’Brien, Funk D’Void, Mark Broom and Russ Gabriel. It’s a realm where labels are referred to as ‘imprints’, tracks come cloaked with concepts and highly-designed sleeves, and the uppermost ceiling for sales is about 2000 copies. Caught between its reluctance to abandon the dancefloor totally for no-rules headfuck, and its squeamish disdain for the full-on fervour of the rave, this semi-experimental genre of ‘abstract dance’ suffered a humiliation of sorts earlier this year, when Colin Faver’s long-running Techno show on Kiss FM was dropped to make way for a Happy Hardcore programme. In that hideous, hilarious irony (‘proper’ techno displaced by the rave fodder it had always sneered at) lies a warning for the neurofunk tendency, and for its patron Grooverider, who has his own Kiss FM show based around a similar progressive ethos to Faver’s.
Purist Techno originally defined itself against the cheesy-ness of Hardcore Rave and handbag House –‘cheese’ meaning the corny-but-effective elements in music – by dedicating itself to the pursuit of endless subtleties. The thing about cheese, though, is that it creates flava and increases the phat content of any given music. When it comes to cheese, I’ll choose a pungent cliche over an insipid subtlety any day. In fact, the entire history of dance music is about the creation of potent cliches – sounds and effects so good that other people couldn’t resist copying them and caning them to death. Cliches like disco’s snare-crash, acid house’s faecal Roland 303 bass, garage’s skipping snares, Rave’s Morse code-like piano vamps, Hardcore’s Mentasm stabs, Jungle’s Amen breaks and dread bass, gabba’s distorted kick drum, and the EQ-ing/phasing/filtering effects used by House producers from DJ Pierre to Daft Punk.
To invent a cliche from scratch is a great feat. What worries me is that the neurofunk school of drum ’n’ bass is not generating any potent cliches, just a series of subtle tweaks and involuted nuances. Techstep was a slight return to the broad strokes and bombastic sweeps of Belgian Hardcore circa 1991. A year ago, I thought techstep’s destiny involved fusing with gabba and German gloomcore, thereby promising the reintegration of the original pan-European Hardcore rave of the early 90s. But now drum ’n’ bass seems more likely to link arms with the abstractions of Cristian Vogel and Surgeon, a far less appealing prospect. Amazing records will still regularly surface, for sure: there’s too much history, too strong a community of knowledge, for it all to peter away. But neurofunk represents yet another step away from Jungle’s roots in rave, and a two-step trudge towards a not so bright future as one of those not really that danceable dance music genres that appeals only to headnodders and trainspotters.