Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dullsville: Future shock down under

Christmas time this year was spent back home with my family in Perth, Western Australia for the first time in three years. As usual a whirl-wind trip spent between city and countryside, with so many visits and people to see that it seemed almost like a business trip at times. But there is a strange side to seeing people so infrequently, appearing almost out of nowhere and taking two or three hours for a coffee and then disappearing again for another couple of years. I wonder how akin this experience is to making an album, staying locked away on a studio for a year or more and then emerging to face the media and the fans with 70 minutes plus of music?

But the once sparkling city of Dullsville, capital of Western Australia, the State of Excitement, has been quietly transforming itself while I was away.

The long talked about Northbridge Link Project to join the City CBD region, usually uninhabited after 5:30pm, with the neighbouring nightlife district Northbridge is finally underway. But it is downtown and elsewhere where most of the change is seen: several new sky scrapers, several of them residential, to bring the population into the city, a new State Theatre named after the city’s most famous son Heath Ledger and of course the new Perth Arena complex replacing the old Entertainment Centre 

This still doesn’t mean the shops are open after 5:30 as the following song laments, but there is change afoot

One of the lines of this song refers to curtains which was a ridiculous and confused excuse for many West Australians (or Sandgropers in the old days) to argue against change, or the introduction of daylight saving, a bizarrely contentious issue that had floated around for years. Apparently the extra hour of daylight every day would fade the curtains faster. However, one thing that struck me about being home was how few curtains there actually where in use! Every day I was woken up by the dawn, the harsh summer light pouring through the windows to the sound of birdsong.

All this is a long winded way to introduce two ideas. One is, that despite all the mutterings, there is no visible sign to an outsider of any crisis or global economic shut down in Australia, or at least Perth. Perhaps more interestingly is this issue of visions of the future and of forward planning. Perth’s main characteristic down the years has been to demolish and build a-new in place of conservation. One reason for this was that nothing was probably ever old enough to conserve. The city was founded in 1827 and was a slowly developing colony of convicts and free settlers until 1885 when gold was found at Halls Creek. Several more major finds in the next ten years, including Kalgoorlie in 1893 by Patrick “Paddy” Hannan meant genuine wild west style gold rushes  and a population explosion in time for the Federation of Australia in 1901.

So nothing was ever old enough to be worth saving, which is one reason why the downtown area, the historic centre, is largely devoid of history. But in its place what Perth gets is this fevered vision of the future, this endless imagining of how it will be. A case in point is the aforementioned Northbridge Link, envisaged for years and now a reality, whereas the proposed Perth Foreshore development looks very much the city of the future even if its future is still a dream.

A lack of future or vision of the future is the central thesis of Simon Reynolds' “Retromania” which I read while in Perth staring up at all the future falling neatly into place.

The premise of “Retromania” is that sometime around the late 60s many forms of art, including fashion, ceased to imagine the future and instead focused their attention on the past and what was perceived to be the authentic roots and feeling of the art form.

Music became pastiche and genuine new movements that broke away from existing forms were rare: the Beatles use of multi-track recording to make “Sgt Peppers”, the advent of synthesizers and later samplers and digital technology. Fashion became the same: instead of us now running around in silver space suits and other such things, we adorn largely the same clothes as previous decades, even invoking vintage styles as a form of authenticity. Reynolds even makes the bold and correct statement that English chavs are one of the few social groups to be really unbound by retromania and instead to where fashion and fabrics endemic to a particular time and place: now.

Reynolds’ book is fascinating and incredibly analytical, reading almost like an assembly manual for modern day society, but he still left many questions unanswered. Why for instance would a music collector obsessed with staving off death by obtaining the perfect record collection, complete with all “archives” from his/her own past, resort to mindlessly downloading and collecting as much music from the present as possible without listening to it? This new music represents no part of the person’s historical continuum, but must somehow be collected all the same. One can also read into the plundering of the past a kind of subjective criticism. It appears almost everyone is doing it, but for some artists it is almost more acceptable than for others. Amy Winehouse made a career out of aping 50s classic rock tropes whereas a group like the Cramps comes across as somehow more authentic – and futuristic - despite doing nearly the same.

Reynolds does important work, however, introducing a broad audience to Finnish eccentric Erkki Kurenniemi

and ideas like “super hybridity”, a concept to describe the internet’s effect on dissolving time and space in conjunction with the modern worlds rapid turnover of ideas and styles: the flow from one thing to another follows no logic and no linear direction, much as Deleuze and Guattari predicted. California’s Gonja Sufi is constantly named as the most obvious exponent of this style.

Reynolds also talks about “nostalgia for the future” and the transition from “Future shock”, the famous book by Alvin Toffler published in 1970, and filmed with Orson Wells in 1972, to “Future fatigue”.

Reynolds quotes Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa from “The book of Disquiet”

“…a feeling worse than tedium but for which there is no other name. It’s a feeling of desolation I’m unable to pinpoint…. I don’t know who I am or what I am…”

Boredom and the future. Sounds like some place I know. But where did the future all go wrong?

On the music side of things, Australia was wracked by the near tragedy of Molly Meldrum’s accident while I was there. Meldrum is a household name in Australia and something of a bumbling icon for Generation Xers and slightly older people. Meldrum came to fame in the 70s as the somewhat accidental and clumsy host of the ABC TV show Countdown (recently slated for resurrection, a move that might deeply upset Simon Reynolds) and later moved on to commercial television, plugging inane albums on shows like Hey hey its Saturday. The 65 year old Meldrum recently suffered serious injuries and was in an induced coma after falling several metres putting up Christmas tree decorations.

I once met an Australian girl in a Barcelona bar in 2006, picking her up with the line “I just heard Molly Meldrum was dead”. The line worked, but turned out to be untrue. It was a wind up; a friend in Perth had sent me a text saying Meldrum had died. The joke was it came in the same week as the death of the crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and Peter “King of the Mountain” Brock who died on 8th September 2006 3km from the end of the race in the Targa West '06 rally at Gidgegannup, about 40 km from Perth. Brock was most well-known for his endurance race exploits, always on Holden and never in Ford, including taking the chequered flag nine times at Australia’s Bathurst 1000 race. The joke was how could Australia lose so many icons in one week?

There have also been some steady progress in Australia’s music profile recently, especially with regards to the more experimental side of things. Wire readers may have spotted a free download  of Wire-tapper sounding experimental sounds under the slightly-derivative umbrella label “New Weird Australia”. Brisbane also had a recent write up in the Wire while the Room 40 label has come up for consistent praise. Label owner Lawrence English also had his concept album “The Peregrine” on Experimedia widely hailed at year’s end.

Lawrence English - The Peregrine (album preview) by experimedia
A friend also turned me on to the Perth band Mental Powers who combine fragments of song with shaking percussive improvisation. A limited run of releases has seen light of day on the Badminton Bandit label.

Melbourne group HTRK had a productive 2011, releasing a handful of albums and singles shared across several labels including Australia’s own Misteltone and Ghostly International. Blurring dark ambient, industrial and dubstep, one of the groups most enigmatic tracks was “Blending” from the “Work (work work)” album.

Also from Melbourne, Berlin-based producer Tornado Wallace has also been earmarked as one to watch, releasing a couple of well received singles in 2011 including his third for Delusions of Grandeur and more recently the successful “Part 9” single on Instruments of Rapture, home to some of the 6th Borough Project’s early work.

Finally, hailing from the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Martyn Palmer has just released an ep called “Horizon Glow” under the Option Command moniker for Canada’s King Deluxe collective and label. Palmer’s sound mixes the multi coloured computer game tapestry woven by labels like Hyperdub with more traditional IDM structures.

Option Command - Polybell Strategy from King Deluxe on Vimeo.

Finally, in festival news, perhaps there are signs of a crisis after all as attendees at the Australian summer festivals seem to be decreasing – or perhaps refuse to show up for the bands on offer or are spread too thin amongst the multitude of festivals that have sprung up in recent years where there was once only the Big Day Out. This year the Perth leg of the festival will be stripped down from the multi-stage affair to a single main stage with only half the crowd of previous years expected. Yet the lineup too seems to hark back to a different day and age: Soundgarden, The Living End, Noel Gallagher, Röyskopp, Kasbian and My Chemical Romance amongst many more. Hardly a line-up to die for even if you are a stadium rock kind of fan. Southbound, held on the outskirts of summer holiday town Busselton, promised Fleet Foxes, Metronomy (Simon Reynold’s recommended band from the above video), Arctic Monkeys and Crystal Castles, but little else. The Summerdayze festival is where to head for for electronic needs, with still barely enough interesting names in Flying Lotus, Benga and Skream, Seth Troxler and perhaps Moby to offset the array of mediocrity that is Justice, Snoop Dogg, Scissor Sisters, Pendulum and Sasha.

The truth is, getting artists and particular bands and their gear to Australia is a difficult and expensive thing, but perhaps still there could be more risks taken with lineups and styles since the range at each festival is precariously narrow or too commercially appealing to be interesting. To finish with Reynolds again, he makes the point clearly in his book that the kids now days have unlimited access to musical knowledge and don’t have the limitation and stigma about jumping styles as once was the case 15 or 20 years ago. Maybe the time is right for change the approach? As Big Day Out organiser Ken Wes said in the West Australian paper recently "There's only so many times you want to go and stand in a paddock"

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