Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 round-up

This year was plagued from beginning to end with images of Armageddon, the apocalypse and the end of the world. It began essentially in the Micro Mutek festival back in February and appeared and reappeared at various intervals until last week’s poor and/or misunderstood prediction of the end of time by the ancient Mayan civilization. Check out three end-of.the-world science videos at The Guardian.

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3

Check out the free 11 track Pseudogeddon compilation  with the likes of Machinedrum and Chrissy Murderfoot over at XLR8R.


Kicking off this feeling musically was Lucrecia Dalt playing at Mutek to an edited Werner Herzog film of oil fields on fire in Iraq. Her intriguing album "Commotus" followed with its beautifully poised and intense cover image of dust storms in great depression era America. Although she claims it has no significance to the crisis, the influence of the crisis and its sinister Thatcher-esque methodology on Spanish culture in particular was heavy and profound (and still looms like the picture frozen in time). Personally, Lucrecia became and unwilling symbol of the apocalypse for this and more: when I did a still unfinished interview with her back in July (apologies Lucrecia) I had been told the same day that I would lose my job by the end of the year. We were bitten intensely by mosquitoes up in the park and then I had an attack of jealousy from my girlfriend as a result that was also another unnecessary blow. All resolved now, except for the interview, but for me then, it was hard to separate Lucrecia from the feeling of doom and certainly for this and more her music carried a strong personal resonance throughout the year.


It is somewhat ironic then that my career did finish only days before the Mayan apocalypse was predicted, coming to an ugly head on the 19th. I will post more ideas on this in the coming weeks as there is a number of general issues related to science that are important for me to express and for a broader public to begin to understand. In looking for a music to represent this I am drawn again and again to Oppenheimer Analysis who are one of the few artists I have encountered to deal directly with the idea of science as a theme, and not just a symbol. Their track “Radiance” comes to mind particularly when thinking of Armageddon.


It shouldn’t need much context in terms of modern politics with plenty of tension between Israel and Palestine and their neighbours that will not go unnoticed in Iran especially, and the forever unstable Egypt, whereas the bizarre North Korean government continues to test missiles capable of attacking invisible enemies. In the same year we also had continuing fall-out (sic) from the nuclear disaster provoked by the Tsunami in Japan. I noticed that Fushitsusha’s Keiji Haino was complaining about the Japanese protestors with an anti-nuclear agenda who were still content to go home and plug in to their electrical world afterwards. The key here is lifestyle. We have reached, in my opinion, the point of turning back. The future does not exist without a change in lifestyle, or a cultural recognition of wrong and wholesale changes to the pace of living. Time to slow down.


Musically then it is possible to relate all this anger, repression, protest, hopelessness and absurdity to the dominance of noise in techno music this year. This is a phenomenon that had a first flutter back in 2010 with artists like Ancient Methods, Traversable Wormhole and the like, but seemed to grow quiet in 2011 before achieving an explosive fusion in 2012. The two defining incidents must be Dominic Fernow’s Vatican Shadow project releasing an acclaimed album “Ornamented Walls” on Modern Love, although to many the “September Cell” EP on Bed of Nails was perhaps even more of a highlight. The marriage in reverse saw Sandwell District’s Juan Mendez aka Silent Servant release his exceptional and concise “Negative Fascination” album on Fernow’s own Hospital Productions label.


That many of the artists pushing such a harder and more industrial sound should be UK artists is also curious and deserves attention in the year that also saw the final death of Throbbing Gristle. Highlights from the UK scene are clearly Shifted, who combined elegance with brute force, AnD from Manchester, Blawan for crudity and Pariah for balance (his remix of Lucy on the recent Curle single is as sublime as the original). One cannot also forget Ren Schofield’s second untitled album for Spectrum Spools as Container. 2012 also saw the return of the British Murder Boys (Surgeon and Regis) as well as the most vocal praise for the Birmingham Downwards imprint, completing the cycle that Sandwell District initiated many years ago. Speaking of Sandwell District, while many of their offspring went harder and harder, many also continued to adopt and develop, while others merely imitated their sound. While many of the influenced artists produced great albums, like Spanish producer Oscar Mulero, there were many more that faded into the background while not necessarily being bad. It is also worth mentioning that US art rockers The Swans seem to have exerted a particularly profound influence over both guitar and electronic music over the last 18 months. One reason is the growing fame of their live show which works off noise, power and transformation, similar ingredients to the success of good psychedelic techno, whereas their noisy and lengthy album “The Seer” carries a similar torch of inspiration to the noise-techno artists. A critical aspect of their image and performance is the idea that Michael Gira is also some sort of shaman, or indeed, has taken the Seer role of the album name. This is a concept that was lightly flirted with in techno as well, particularly on the Prologue label with Dino Sabatini being most obvious, whereas Voices from the Lake clearly aimed for and achieved a trance state of mind. African rhythms and magic also snuck their way into fringes of other releases from Cut Hands “Black mamba”, Demdike Stare, Shackleton, Emptyset, Innervisions (last year as well) and perhaps even Juju and Jordash’s “Techno primitivism”.


Industrial and noise music has always somehow been the political arm of electronic music, particularly to techno as house has always had a proximity to protest, just as it has its side far removed in the realms of triviality. It is tempting to interpret this rise in noise/industrial techno as a parallel to the ascendance of the protest movement (Time’s Person of the year 2011) and the dissatisfaction with the current political system and the political class. However, the dancefloor and a party are still not the best places to have intellectual discussions and even the idea of this incites scorn in many people whereas others still complain that clubs are for escapism and not confrontation. But the absence of an intelligent dance floor is a hell too frightening to consider: just listen to Teengirl Fantasy’s “Do it” with vocals by Romanthony released on R&S this year and you will be in that bad place.


The groups name should tell you all you need to know, but the cringey and vacuous autotuned lyrics could be Black Eyed Peas or Rebecca Black they are as bad as the plodding and comfortable music. Besides, if I am unemployed and lucky enough to afford entry into a club, I do not want to escape my life by listening to something as trivial as that. I would rather some positive reinforcement in hearing noise and industrial techno, turning the machines against themselves and against society for its own good.


A less social association of this trend may also be in the improvements to sound design across the board and the possibilities that noise, force and silence have to play in the listening experience. Bedroom studio production has now reached an important and perhaps critical level of quality. While there is still a plethora of by-the-numbers producers, who still seem to top all the charts, there has clearly been an exponential growth in quality and diversity of production stimulated at first by dubstep and now in the post-dubstep era where genres blur more than ever, it informs all fields and genres of production. While not considered industrial or noise, the work of Rene Pawlowitz is certainly only one step away. The bigger numbers off “The Killer” like “Ride on” and “I come by night” are a case in point, gruff, granular and forceful.


Many other artists have also created their own sound world where high fidelity and texture is just as important as volume or functionality. The success of Ricardo Villalobos’s “Dependent and Happy” across the board, from Resident Advisor to The Wire is the most obvious example (remember last year they also had Margaret Dygas’s under-appreciated album as well, also from Perlon). Still close to the dancefloor, Andy Stott and Claro Intelecto made plenty of space by slowing things down a lot whereas It is also interesting to note that many albums making the top of the best of lists are fairly experimental as well as packing good sound design, suggesting that (a) the critics are ahead of the game or that (b) the audience has finally caught up (more on this point below). Actress is well known now, but he still stands apart from so many for his vivid imagination. Raime as well as Emptyset can feel like very dry music at times, and yet their appeal seems fairly universal. Plenty of other artists made an impact without hitting the lists: Ricardo Donoso’s second electronic album rightly caused a bit of fever on its release, whereas Bee Mask must be poised for greater things too. Australian Oren Ambarchi seemed everywhere in 2012 and many of his releases have become essential and on occasion left me reeling with surprise at their invention and execution, the long track “Knots” on “Audience for one” on Touch being a particular delight. Another man who seemed everywhere and anywhere in 2012 was Mark Fell, who just played an amazing night here in Barcelona with Lee Gamble who, alongside his colleagues in the PAN label, seemed to somehow reinvent electronica late on in the year. Fell in particular pushed the boundaries of experimentation and the dancefloor like no other and will hopefully have a show of his own soon on Cabeza de Vaca.


We also have heard over the last year or two about how Mike Dehnert and others have forced people to consider upgrading their Hi Fi set up in car or home to get the most out of their music. Ben Klock also stated recently that DJing can be hit and miss for some artists depending on the capacity of the sound system and requires an open mind to tailor the set accordingly and to tease out the best frequencies. Many artists also still make music and tailor their sound for the legendary Berghain sound system, amongst them the aforementioned duo AnD. Given this, and after seeing the aforementioned Fell/Gamble show and still feeling the positive effects of the LEV Festival this year it seems more and more clear that club culture is at a juncture. While volume is essential and while it is also true that many artists do not strictly need high fidelity, there is a nagging sense that sound systems in clubs are becoming incredibly inadequate. One reason is their apparent and alleged lack of sensitivity and directionality for reproducing such beautifully constructed and intricate music in a special manner. The other is space and architecture. Electronic music still feels obliged to exist in the club setting, but somehow a club feels like a ball and chain as well. Where are the venues for ambient music? Why does the club have to always be a party at night time and not earlier or during the day (at least for older people like me?) Why are there no high fidelity listening places for concerts and even “reproduction parties” for new releases, for example? Listening to music live is about sensation and experience, not only hedonism. Why is it not possible to invent a Hi Fi Lounge where people would pay to go and hear a new album, for example, in all its stereo glory at volume as well as a live show?


This brings us to the next concept which is the live performance in electronic music. Two issues came to the fore in 2012, one an old one and a never ending one it seems, which is the issue of playing live versus pressing play. Back in June Deadmau5 made the allegation in Rolling Stone  that many artists are pressing play and there is less live performance in electronic music than appears. This may be true for some and more so for those who involve the use of complicated visual elements in their shows, like Amon Tobin, Squarepusher etc who require complicated synchronization to make the show work. Indeed, this brings us to the second point which is the tendency for over reliance on a visual element to make an impact as a live electronic show. Sure, there is nothing worse than watching a person hunched over a laptop during a performance, but there is something not right about seeing an artist swamped by an overblown and over conceptualized set up. My thoughts go to Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher who had his huge banks of LEDs and his custom designed helmet at Sonar to accompany his neo-rave IDM, but a paltry audience, who were all sadly at Fatboy Slim, a mere DJ with no special live show, or indeed music, at all. Intriguingly, the best live show of all at Sonar this year was Mouse on Mars who clearly do not press play, jamming on stage as a three piece and even changing instruments. They use only a minimal, but effective visual display. The LEV Festival clearly aims to fuse the visual and audio elements of electronic music with as much an artistic approach as they can allow and can afford. Yet there appears to be a tendency, perhaps growing, for the visual to trivialize the music or at least supersede it in importance. 2013 could be a critical year for this phenomenon in which it may arrive at one step too far or become inseparable forever. The subtext of this is a growing divide between the classic club and the festival, where the former can work just as effectively with a red light in a room whereas the later seems to depend on visual spectacle.


A parallel element this year has been the return of the real vocalist. The impact of Burial over the last few years has been profound, but his trope of the pitch shifted and cut-up vocal had reached epidemic proportions in recent times and now feels hideously overdone (Holy Other’s album had one foot in this trap while also somehow managing to break free of it). Thankfully then, 2012 saw the predominance of real singing. Highlights were Cooly G’s sensual album “Playing Me” and her astute and captivating performance at Sonar. Laurel Halo’s “Quarantine” album seemed to finish in all the lists. While it didn’t quite do it for me as much as the rest of the world, its sung vocals were nonetheless an important touchstone of the year. Jessie Ware was a personal favourite for her voice but also for the sheer surprise I had in myself for finding so much in music that on surface I should not be so close to. The myriad of excellent remixes also helped to cement “Devotion” as stand out for the year. There was also Brackles, Julia Holter, Nina Kraviz album with guests, San Proper going it alone with mixed results on “Animal”, Lucrecia Dalt (of course; I say her here as well since I think she would be a great collaborator for a dance project too) and more.


Looking through the best of lists in the different media sites it seems clear that there is almost a consensus as to what was the best in 2012. Furthermore, if you scroll through the comments lists you also get the sense that the public agrees, with a certain exception (see below). First thought would be to say that these were indeed the best albums of 2012, but perhaps the consensus also comes down to the fact that they were in many ways the only good albums of 2012. This is harsh and a bit of an over statement, but it did feel that this year took a long, long time to get going and then it all seemed to get exciting in a flurry at the end of the year. The albums making the list are also hardly ground breaking in many ways, although good, and there were also plenty of decent, but not amazing albums by big artists. I am thinking of Redshape, Christopher Rau (I would also add Smallpeople although they did end up on the proper lists), Tinman, Emeralds, Forward Strategy Group (great in moments, but a little stilted at times), Holy Other, Juju and Jordash (intriguing and worth going back to, but somehow unfulfilling or a bit clumsy at times), Sigha and Scuba amongst others. One noticeable trend was the absent of many real (or should I say classical) dubstep albums in the final lists with the exception of perhaps Jam City. Peter van Hoesen’s “Perceiver” is a good example of a totally cohesive and well-made album that really doesn’t add much more to the IDM-styled techno that has been prevalent for the last two years or so. The Prologue label stuff seemed a breakthrough this year as it combined home listening depth as well as dancefloor functionality without sounding like this IDM-techno or post-Sandwell District techno. Similarly, PAN really caught the imagination by reconciling complex experimentation with the compelling urge to listen. Their emphasis as well on collector records and design was also fundamental. As an aside, there was a modest trend for picture discs to emerge as well, with the CLR label doing it for the Motor releases and also the Deepchord “Summer night versions EP”.


L.I.E.S. was by far the best label for quantity and quality. Their importance as well comes from breaking Rush Hour’s stranglehold over the retro house sound, now moved from Chicago to New Jersey. Using the same palette they somehow broke through to the other side and in the process expanded their A&R remit to dislodge the label from any simple classification. Just look at Torn Hawk’s filthy space rock sound or Professor Genius’s hashish inspired ambient album “Hassan” to see how far the label has gone. It is also worth mentioning how much of this stuff sounds like "hipster house" and gets closer again to the dirtier, lo fi sounds of the Not Not Fun underground. The caveat of this is that judging by the comments pages, many listeners were strangely unaware of many of these labels even until the end. This is perhaps no surprise looking at what charts and what DJs made the top of the list suggesting that there is a great divide between critical acclaim and the real audience.


In short, 2012 was not the vintage year that 2011 was and saw more a stabilization of current trends than important advances. Predictions for 2013: I predicted the return of drum n bass this year and was almost right. Certainly it returned to the consciousness, but still lacked a really big cross over album or single. Lee Gamble’s “Diversions 1994-1996” was probably the closest. But the trend will continue and drum n bass to keep making a bigger impact in 2013. I also predict a big increase in the number of Asian producers influencing the scene next year. Resident Advisor has been in Japan since 2011, but it might be time to see some rewards from that connection. Techno will continue to get louder, faster and harder on one side, but on the other will develop into a more elaborate, long-form electro style as the continued influence of the Drexciya reissues becomes consciously apparent while the urge to copy the Sandwell District style diminishes (see Delta Funktionen and the recent Killekill label compilation for the first steps). House music will pursue the New Jersey garage line, but take up Mark Fell’s cut up vocal line style and angular melody structure from the Sensate Focus series to another level, like Huxley and Bicep gone hypercolour (sic) and hyper geometric.


Peace and tranquillity.


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