The electronic-music scene, perhaps startled by its recent, convulsive growth, finds itself taking stock. Two new compilations attempt to survey the tangled histories of electronic and dance music, to very different ends. EMI’s Electrospective draws an undulating line from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Tangerine Dream through synth pop, Daft Punk and on to David Guetta and the Swedish House Mafia. Bleep, the retail arm of Warp Records, takes a more vanguardist view with its 55-track compilation A Guide to Electronic Music, making room for not just Oliver Messaien and John Cage but also Basic Channel, Wiley and Burial.
Both collections (with their attendant web campaigns) have a different story to tell about the nature and evolution of electronic music. EMI’s describes a process of streamlining, whereby once-alien sounds are assimilated into the Borg-like totality of pop music. It’s a populist teleology, in which formal and technological possibilities are narrowed to a hard, chrome-plated point tapping infinitely away at the “Like” button. Bleep’s survey, on the other hand, traces the history of electronic (dance) music as a succession of mutations and moments of rupture. Ending its chronology with 2010 tracks from Actress and James Blake, artists who embrace a certain broken aesthetic, it leaves no doubt that Bleep anticipates further upheavals on the horizon.
It’s not hard to figure out which narrative brings us to Electronic Explorations, a mammoth digital compilation of new music put together by Rob Booth, the producer of the Electronic Explorations podcast series. The album isn’t actually a survey, per se. At the most basic level, it’s a fundraiser: Proceeds from the album go to support the website and podcast; your ?5 donation (around eight bucks) get you 61 tracks — nearly six hours of music — along with the warm, fuzzy feeling of having supported electronic music at the grassroots level. As far as the selection goes, it’s mostly a matter of which of Booth’s friends and colleagues wanted to contribute. (Booth originally intended to include only 30 tracks, he says, but the submissions just kept coming.)
Still, given its size and its scope, the compilation serves, however unintentionally, as a kind of cross-section of electronic dance music’s margins in 2012, particularly in the grey area between techno, dubstep and electro. There are no huge names, but there are several — Al Tourettes, Neil Landstrumm, Kowton, Perc, Ital Tek, Emika, Distal, Chrissy Murderbot, Darqwan — that will be familiar to fans of club music’s outfielders. Dark moods predominate; rather than commercial EDM’s fist-pumping triumphalism, Electronic Explorations traffics in confusion and doubt. Broken rhythms and battered timbres wear the scars of a rough upbringing. If history favors the winners, the collection is a rogues’ gallery of beautiful losers. It’s 21st Century punk, really: the echo-chamber brutalism of Chris Finke’s “The Sickness,” the gothic jungle of Enduser’s “Void,” the collapsing warehouse rave of Dead Sound & Videohead’s “Fuck TV.” Some of it isn’t so pissed off; Swarms’ “Pandora” sounds like Cocteau Twins in a way that I’m not mad at, and Memotone’s “Stop Running and They Will Catch You” is a bewitching swirl of pianos, pump organ and horns. But there’s a punk spirit to all of it, as techno kicks are tripped up by sweeping breakbeats and ’90s flashbacks vaporize in a spray of digital artifacts; there’s a sense of battles being fought, turf being won — and overturned.
While there are a few relatively “pure” genre examples — Broken Note’s red-lining dubstep, Cursor Minor’s classic electro — most of the material emphasizes the space in between genres, where rhythmic patterns and sonic tropes from different teams get tangled up. Anneka’s “Jaws of Day” is electro-pop with a dubstep hangover; Chrissy Murderbot’s “Fuzzy” is a Rip van Winkle tale in which jungle wakes up as juke. As for Kowton’s “False Town,” I don’t know what to say except that it will give you a whole new appreciation for the son clave rhythm, strands of which he layers in a way that suggests helicopter rotors dangling you dangerously in midair.
Perhaps this all sounds rather romantic — it is, after all, just a compilation, and Bong Ra’s “Sinistar” does remind me an awful lot of Ministry’s Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, although not in a bad way. And it’s true; perhaps if it were just another dime-a-dozen digital comp, I’d be less inclined to go in for the close read. But I like the idea that the Electronic Explorations comp says something not just about its artists, but also about its listeners. We’re paying for music — which is itself something to be said, these days — and our money is going directly back into a productive part of the culture. As opposed to the usual music-industry machinations, there’s a certain kind of transparency here, one that underlies the collective nature of any independent music scene, “electronic” or otherwise. It doesn’t hurt that the music is so strong. It’s not the definitive cross section of electronic music in 2012, but it’s as fascinating a compendium as anyone has assembled yet.