Monday, April 2, 2007

Compulsive Urge

Essential Electronica

My own interest in electronic music started when I was a young boy. Being terrified by the spooky, atmospheric Doctor Who TV theme was my first awareness of electronica's ability to evoke a visceral response. In a lighter vein, chart-toppers Telstar by The Tornadoes then Popcorn by Hot Butter showed what could be done without ‘real’ instruments.

Those hits were popular manifestations of a revolution in electronic sound experiment instigated by controversial innovators like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Sir Thomas Beecham's famous observation - asked whether he had conducted any Stockhausen - "No, but I once trod in some," provides early evidence of musical snobbery directed at electronic music.

Unlistenable he may be, but Stockhausen’s influence on electronic and experimental artists is crucial: Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt of my beloved Can as well as futuristic trumpeter and Eno acolyte Jon Hassell (check out his Power Spot LP, it’s a classic) all studied with Stockhausen.

As electronic music threw off the shackles of its novelty status, the seventies saw great innovation, especially on the German scene. Can for instance pre-date trance by twenty years, while Kraftwerk explored the interplay between technology and culture and exerted a gigantic influence.

My record collection of the late 70s and early 80s was filled with electro classics as new technology redefined what was possible - Brian Eno changed everything with his ambient experiments; Cabaret Voltaire’s albums were groovy and chaotic; in the new wave arena Pere Ubu scattered weird electro squiggles all over their early masterpieces.

On the poppier side, British bands like Human League, New Order and Happy Mondays incorporated electronics in both production and form, in the process inspiring rave culture and a golden age of electronica. There was an explosion of post-rave fusion including trip-hop, downtempo and ‘chill’.

The downside was that easy access to techno gadgetry naturally led to an abundance of inferior product. Those who knock electronica say it often lacks a certain lack of human-ness and 'feel'. It’s easy to see how this has come about.

In the sixties and seventies, most music was recorded live. A real sense of excitement and urgency could thus be created by musicians composing then performing songs collectively, live in the studio. By contrast, modern electro recordings tend to be built up in the studio with each aspect of the recording process digitized and automated. Compositions tend to begin with a rhythm track rather than a harmonic or melodic idea.

This ‘slave to the rhythm’ approach is both the strength and the weakness of electronica, and the reason for the aimlessness of most dance music. I occasionally get the compulsive urge to shake my booty, but only if the tune distinguishes itself through a particular melodic/expressive/emotional spark of inspiration.

Electronic Essentials: 5 or 6 worth having

1. Kraftwerk - Computer World (1981)
Perhaps their most fully-realized album, anticipating the rise of computer technology. Sonically, rhythmically and conceptually, years ahead of their rivals. The word 'genius' truly applies.

2. Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)
The acceptable face of commercial electronica.

3. Plug - Drum 'n' Bass for Papa (1997)
Experimental yet accessible DnB masterpiece.

4. Plastikman - Artifakts (1994) / Musik (1998)
Stripped down minimalist beats. Tense, funky and hypnotic.

5. Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
A meditation on childhood, nature and confusion. Unique and essential.

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