Space-bar DJs trumped by ambidextrous analog freaks
Did the temperature of electronic dance music hit 92 degrees this week or something? Because people sure did get irritable. As usual, we can thank Deadmau5 for getting folks all riled up — this time, with a post entitled "We All Hit Play" which asserted that EDM's big-leaguers, himself included, aren't really doing that much onstage. He had some decent points, but any insight tended to be eclipsed by his penchant for schoolyard tussling, and he really missed the boat in his dismissal of the DJ's craft, as Create Digital Music's Peter Kirn pointed out. (Deadmau5: "'Beatmatching' isn't even a fucking skill as far as I'm concerned, anyway. So what, you can count to 4. Cool. I had that skill down when I was 3, so don't give me that argument please.")
As you might expect, Deadmau5's screed generated a vigorous response across social media and the blogosphere, some of it smart, and some of it not so much. The veteran producer A Guy Called Gerald, known in recent years for taking his own live show in a far more dynamic direction than Deadmau5's professed space-bar punching, might have been expected to disagree with Joel Zimmerman's pragmatic (or cynical?) views on live performance; less expected was the way Gerald's vitriolic "Message to Rat Head" took the conversation to a new nadir, claiming, "The only button you and people like you are interested in pushing is a nuke for the Palestinians." Whether you read the comment as anti-Semitic or merely stupid, the artist's windmill-tilting didn't do any favors for the DIY standards it was attempting to defend.
Fortunately, Deadmau5's rant also inspired one of the smartest, most passionate pieces of music writing I've seen in some time. And so, in something of a twist for the Friday Five, I'm singling out that post along with another article that offers a useful counterpoint to the top-down narrative that describes corporate EDM right now. For a little praxis to go with all that theory, I've included two live performances and one DJ set that put some real-time rigor back into electronic dance music.
Kerri Mason, "Press Play? Hit Start"
On her personal blog, Billboard's dance-music reporter Kerri Mason touches briefly upon the kvetchy climate that characterizes overground dance music right now, noting that "Artists are getting comfortable, some fans are starting to notice, and the ancients are rhapsodizing about the way we used to do it." She proceeds to talk about her own coming-of-age on New York dance floors, where Danny Tenaglia schooled her in house music's progressive values: "Every set was an experience, a journey, a play starring you but not meant for you at all. In five years and well over 200 sets, I never heard him mix the same two records together twice. That’s for real."
I actually got goosebumps when I read that. I did again when she spoke to the importance of losing oneself in the music: "[M]ore often than not — and this is a critical point — WE DID NOT KNOW WHAT THE F*CK WE WERE LISTENING TO. We did not know where one track ended and another began. We did not care to know. We were losing our minds out there. We were in the depths of minimal synthetic despair one hour, brought up by the palpable joy of gospel house the next, then mind-blown by a postcard from the world outside."
But Mason isn't just shouting "I was there!" or shooing the kids off her lawn. Instead, far more productively, she tries to explain to newcomers (and remind the old schoolers) how dance music offers a space for risk-taking, experimentation, and open-ended possibility. Without risk, there's no transcendence: "It’s important to tell you that some nights were bad. Some nights we waited and waited and the magic never came. That was part of what it meant to be there. And can you imagine the anticipation — and eventual blissful relief — of a drop that took literally weeks to build?"
For anyone who cares about the history and the future of dance music — its survival as a collective enterprise and creative dynamo — it's a smart, moving piece of writing.
Rory Gibb, "Delia Derbyshire to Deadmau5 in 39 Steps? Why EMI Are Wrong"
The Quietus gives away British journalist Rory Gibb's best line in the subhead — "Want a vision of electronic music's future? Imagine crap trance riffs and recycled one-note basslines stomping on a human face, forever" — but that doesn't make the piece any less essential. Gibbs examines EMI's Electrospective campaign, a timeline of electronic-music milestones as viewed through the lens of EMI's catalog. Beginning with the likes of Can, Tangerine Dream, and Cabaret Voltaire, glossing over most of the key developments in dance music from the past two decades, and wrapping up with David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia and Eric Prydz, it ought to give pause to anyone who still thinks the Universal/EMI merger possibly could be good for music, musicians, fans, or indeed anyone who isn't a top shareholder at either of the companies. Without lapsing into underground partisanship, Gibbs patiently explains how the project paints "the last few years as an evolutionary dead end," doing "a disservice to the volumes of recent music that keeps the attitude of its forebears intact, and still manages to capture the interest of listeners well outside the confines of the underground."
Magic Mountain High, "Pudel Openair 2012-06-17"
Magic Mountain High — the trio of Juju & Jordash and Move D — are the antithesis of the space-bar complacency described in Deadmau5's post. I'm not sure they even have a computer with them on stage; if they do, it's certainly not the heart of their setup, which consists of an array of classic drum machines (TR-606, TR-707), vintage synths (Roland Juno 60, Korg SH-101, Yamaha DX-11), squirrelly gizmos like Doepfer's Dark Time, and more. That's a lot for even six hands to handle, which means that their three-way improv tends to evolve slowly, as fingers crabwalk across the knobs and discrete timbres gel into ideas. I'm pretty sure that some of their machines aren't even synched up, which lends a slipperiness to certain moments where arpeggios wriggle free of the timekeeping and lead down parallel paths. Slightly off-kilter Detroit techno is the order of the day in this recording of a recent performance at Hamburg's Golden Pudel club, a punkish venue with a gritty reputation. (The one time I played there, I put my head through a hidden pane of glass and wound up in the ER, but that's another story; nevertheless, I have great love for the place.) To confirm how live Magic Mountain High's performances really are, just compare the Pudel set with recent live recordings from Utrecht, Rotterdam and About Blank: You won't hear so much as the same sequence twice.
Skudge, "Live PA @ Berghain | June 16 2012"
Here's another live set performed all on hardware — "no computer involved," stresses Sweden's Skudge of his recent performance at Berlin's Berghain club. (You can get a sense for his setup in this photo from a recent gig at Space.) It's way less freeform than Magic Mountain High's analog sprawl — as you can see from the tracklisting, he performs versions of tracks that he's previously released on vinyl. But even if he's not making it all up on the spot, it takes skill to harness a team of machines and get them galloping like Skudge does.
Morphosis, "Mnml Ssgs Mx Fnl – Morphosis"
Finally, given the persistent complaints that today's DJs play it far too safe and stick to far too narrow a setlist — something that could also be said of plenty of "underground" house and techno DJs, frankly — here's a counterexample courtesy Morphosis, a.k.a. Rabih Beaini, a Lebanese producer recently relocated to Berlin after many years in Rome. The set was recorded at Berlin's Panorama Bar, whose remit tends almost exclusively to house music. And while I've heard some of the best house of my life at Panorama, I've also endured countless hours of indistinguishable, interchangeable thumps. That'll happen when you have a club where the party runs for 24 hours or more. But Morphosis treats his opening slot with the respect it deserves: Instead of just jumping in with a four-to-the-floor kick, as so many opening DJs do, he greets early arrivals to the club with the kind of listening experience that you almost never get in a nightclub context. The first hour careens through Pink Floyd, Sunn O))), Keith Fullerton Whitman, and even Jack DeJohnette; the next two hours suck listeners (and, by that point, dancers) into a vortex of churning techno and electro that's no less outré than the material that precedes it. I'd go out more often if more DJs played like this. To borrow a line from Kerri Mason's article above, "if you want to talk about DJs taking risks, supporting new talent, skipping the big track, teasing crowds of thousands with little to no regard for their reaction, and making people not only go bananas, but weep, yell, and question the nature of their existences — then gather 'round the fire, children."