The Genre That Shall Not Be Named (Dubstep)


by Philip Sherburne
Untold
Untold

I recently stumbled upon a blog that, despite its newness and modest stature, might represent one of the most important conservation efforts in electronic dance music right now. Instead of preserving the past, however, it's focused on a far more critical project — securing the future.

Okay, I'm being slightly hyperbolic, but the point stands. The blog is called Postwutchyalike: We Can Name It Later, and its scope encompasses pretty much everything in beat-centric electronic music — as long as it doesn't fall into established categories like house, techno, or dubstep.

Beyond the satisfyingly declarative ring of the title and the excellent, evocative prose of the blog's anonymous author, there's an important argument being made here: Stop naming and start listening. Describe, compare, and by all means critique, but don't get hung up on classification. Naming new subgenres while they're still emerging only stunts their development, calcifying nebulous flux into mere collections of tropes. So slow down and smell the breakbeats: We can name it later.

It's not like the discourse around electronic music has done a great job of keeping up. In recent years, with subgenres mutating and spreading with the swiftness of memes, the names that have tended to stick — witch house, chillwave, cloud rap — have felt more like slightly disparaging jokes. Just as few people actively identify as “hipsters,” none but the most dutifully blogrolling opportunist actually wears the "witch house" badge with pride. An absurd name like "hashtag rap" epitomizes the ephemeral, not-to-be-taken-seriously stature of subgenres today.

This isn't a new problem; we've been wandering in the wilderness for a decade or more. Wiley summed up the problem with his 2004 grime hit "Wot Do U Call It?," which countered the "U.K. garage" and "2-step" tags with his own invention, "Eskibeat." Despite his efforts, of course, it was "grime" that stuck, and since then, successive strains of the so-called "hardcore continnum" have spun off into a sprawling array of sub-categories, with names that range from the well-intentioned to the totally ludicrous — dubstep, wonky, purple, niche, bassline, U.K. funky, U.K. bass, bass music, future garage, brostep, drumstep, moombahton, and the champion of them all, complextro. (By the way, don't ever say "complextro.")

We Can Name It Later takes an ingenious approach to the cluttered banquet table of contemporary music: It simply tears away the tablecloth and sends the dirty dishes clattering to the floor. Picking up the pieces, it proposes a new taxonomy based entirely upon BPM ranges, which serve as the blog's only tags. It's a way of recognizing that most of the most exciting musical developments right now are happening outside of hard-and-fast subgenres. To emphasize BPMs is to think like a particular kind of DJ: it stresses continuity over rupture, but it also encourages moving laterally — from style to style, idea to idea — rather than just slogging forward through a glut of sound-alike tracks.

The reason I bring all this up is that a trio of new releases have me salivating — call it a journalistic weakness for the old "three's a trend" truism — for the way they seem to be converging upon a single idea. You couldn't call it a "sound," but you can tell that Objekt, Elgato, and Untold have all been mulling over similar issues.

Objekt's "Cactus," released in February on Hessle Audio, was the first to catch my ear with a weird inversion of dance-music energies: its bass wobbles with the ferocity of the down-and-dirtiest dubstep, but the rest of the tune feels gutted and hollowed-out. The drum track seems to be missing information, as though a mute button had been pressed or a patch cable had come unplugged; for all its heaviness, it's a weirdly enervated tune, gliding listlessly like a sailboat stuck in the doldrums. I've never heard it in a club, and I can only imagine that it would be tough to play effectively; but that's enough to make me want to hear more tracks like it. It's the kind of track that opens up a new space and challenges others to fill it.

Elgato's "Zone," out next week, also on Hessle, has a similarly tentative vibe. At 118 BPM, it's far slower than most of the output of the post-dubstep scene (and slower even than the hard-braked "Cactus"); this time, there's no kick drum at all, just queasy bleeps that arc out over a bassy wasteland. The exact opposite of a peak-time banger, it trades velocity for sheer bass weight, marking time with the heaviest steps imaginable. "Luv Zombie," on the flip, is quicker, with syncopated 808 kick drums, skipping percussion, and a looped vocal refrain ("I'm addicted / I'm addicted / I'm addicted / To you") that give the track its forward motion. But there's an almost unbearable tension in the music, something to do with the urgency of the repeated vocal and the absence of any of the usual musical cues that signify force. For nearly nine minutes, it just floats in thin air, and the effect is dizzying.

Finally, there's Untold's "Motion the Dance," released on his own Hemlock Recordings. (It's probably no coincidence that all three tracks come from two labels that have developed in tandem, with overlapping rosters.) "Motion the Dance" is tougher than the aforementioned cuts: Indeed, at the peak of its seven-minute journey, it has become an industrial-sized meat grinder, all whirring blades and slurry. But for the first three minutes, barely anything happens; there's just a muted 4/4 kick and faint synths recalling Aphex Twin's "Fingerbib." Somehow, it just grows and grows, building intensity at a steady 30-degree angle, until it's all around you, an all-consuming maelstrom. (Frog, meet kettle.) Again, it's the kind of tune that actively challenges DJs: You'd damn well better know where you're going if you decide to play it.

What all three tracks share in common is a profound, almost militant, resistance to the immediate, booming gratification that the vast majority of contemporary club music promises. Turning bass-music formulae inside out, they represent the anti-drop. But here's the other thing: these tunes are so extreme, in their own ways, that they don't exactly invite imitation. They're difficult and hermetic; they don't play well with others. Jabbed like iron rods into the clockwork of the night, they feel less like seeds for potential subgenres and more like weed killer, burning off the overgrowth. Savor the sizzle. We can name it later.

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