Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Boards of Canada
The Campfire Headphase
Warp Records
The Observer Music Monthly, September 17th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Reach a certain age and you notice a peculiar thing happening: your thoughts frequently get interrupted by nonsequitur memory images, seemingly insignificant but disconcertingly vivid. It’s as if your overstuffed brain is calling up ancient files with a view to deleting for space. Boards of Canada offers a more benign version of this temps perdu recovery process. Somehow the Scottish duo’s signature sounds--those glistening melody-trails and misty-around-the-edges textures--trigger buried memories. I’d almost say that listening to Boards of Canada is a form of therapy, except that the emotions stirred up are too plangent--painful beauty, sweet sorrow--to deserve a term that now has such glib feel-good associations.

BoC have ploughed this “memory-work” terrain on their previous two albums, the home-listening electronica landmark Music Has A Right To Children (1998) and its only-slightly-less-fabulous sequel Geogaddi (2002). The Campfire Headphase pursues the same effect but with slightly different means. For the first time the group have incorporated acoustic and electric instruments, like guitars, alongside their customary array of vintage analog synths and digital samples. So they’re no longer making electronic music but an unclassifiable hybrid. Occasionally the new hues don’t seem as idiosyncratic as their patented faded-Super8-film synth tones, but then again, there’s a thin line between developing your own vocabulary and coining your own set of clichés, and we should probably applaud BoC's attempt to extend their palette. If the gorgeous mind-ripples of “Satellite Anthem” and the dewy-eyed dreamwalk of “’84 Pontiac Dream” represent classic BoC almost to the point of redundancy, “Dayvan Cowboy” steps off the group’s beaten path. The track risks bombast with its stirring strings and crashing cymbal rolls (which dazzle the ear, as if the sticks are splashing into a pool of mercury) but stays just the right side of overblown. 

Blurring the boundaries between rock and techno is a smart move,  because BoC have always made music that deserved to appeal beyond the electronic audience. You can imagine fans of My Bloody Valentine/Cocteau Twins-style dreampop falling head over heels for Headphase, or devotees of the Cure and Radiohead wallowing into its exquisitely textured melancholy. BoC can also be seen as heirs to the psychedelic tradition, grandchildren of Syd Barrett and the Incredible String Band. The connection comes through not just in the duo's obsession with childhood or their frankly goofy song titles, but also in the stereophonic delirium of their production. On the “Oscar See Through Red Eye” and “Slow This Bird,” sounds pan back and forth across the speakers, the drift and swirl making you melt into a voluptuous disorientation. 

Boards Of Canada
Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

There's long been a strain of electronic music that's not fixated on the future but obsessed with the past--specifically, childhood.  You can hear it in the naive melodic refrains and spangly-tingly music-box/ice-cream van chimes of early Aphex and Mouse On Mars, or, more recently, on  recent albums by Fennesz, Tagaki Masakatsu, and Nobukazu Takemura, with their evocations of endless summer and bucolic bliss. Boards of Canada didn't invent this "idyllictronica" genre but they definitely codified it on their 1998 debut Music Has the Right To Children--from its title and  cover imagery of faded family holiday snaps to its quaint synth-tones (redolent of the perky-yet-wistful electronic interludes heard between mid-morning TV For Schools programmes). Even the group's name is a reference to the Canadian educational films they saw in secondary school.

"In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country"---the title track of the EP  they released in 2000 as a stop-gap stop for their devoted cult until the long-awaited second album--featured children's laughter and a rapturously  vocoderized entreaty to the listener:  "join a religious community and live out in a beautiful place out in the country."  Yet the music made by duo Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison--who actually live in a kind of artist's commune in the  unspoilt wilds of Scotland--isn't actually that idyllic: at least, not in a pure unalloyed way. There's something unnerving, at times downright creepy,  about BOC's ability to unlock the listener's memories.

There's been times when I've had something close to out-of-body experiences while listening to BOC, carried away by an involuntary flood of images that are emotionally neutral yet charged with significance. A sort of mysticism of the mundane and municipal: reveries of concrete walkways and playgrounds with fresh rain on the swings, allotments and spinneys, canal-side recreation areas wreathed with morning fog, housing estates with identical backgardens and young mums pegging wet windflapped sheets on the clothing lines, clouds skidding across a cold blue winter sky. I'm never sure if these my own buried early childhood memories from the late Sixties, or just false memories--either dreamed or absorbed from 1970s episodes of Play For Today.  Sometiems an even more uncanny possibility suggests itself: what I'm seeing on the screen of my mind's eye are actually other people's memories, as if BOC could somehow tune into the memories of complete strangers the way Scanner samples mobile phone conversations.

Arriving almost four years after the debut, Geogaddi is basically more of the same only more so. The artwork offers kaleidoscope images of rosy-cheeked seven year old girls, and the teetering-off-pitch synths sound even more like washed-out Super-8 films. The only really new aspects this time round are the increased intricacy of the production (some of the tracks are so densely infolded they're like mille-feuille pastry) and a more pronounced fondness for the human voice. This can range from clearly decipherable soundbites (like the snippets of nature documentary voice-over on "Dandelion") to drastically treated vocals (on "Gyroscope", the sample's so distorted and compressed it's like the little girl trapped inside the TV in Poltergeist)  to vocoder-like FX (the ecstatic android plainsong on "Music Is Math"). There's even shades of  White Beatles in "a is to B as b is to c"'s collage of  shortwave and backwards-run vocals.

Ironically, the best stuff here--shatteringly poignant tracks like "1969", "The Beach At Redpoint", "Sunshine Recorder"--is  BOC sticking to their exquisite formula: crumbly smudges of textures and miasmic melody-lines  drifting like memory-gas over breakbeat rhythms that are like slowed-down jungle (processed to sound ultra-tactile, but stoically trudging like a elderly shire horse).  Geogaddi's few departures sometimes stray into gnarly Autechre-like abstruseness. Successful steps outside their own norm include  "Julie and Candy" (which  sounds like Loveless if Kevin Shields had tried to achieve the sound in his head armed only with a recorder and a toy piano) and "Alpha and Omega" (which recalls Holger Czukay's "Persian Love' with its Indian flute-motif, tinny ripples of tabla, and shortwave noises). Another unusual track is "The Devil Is In The Details," which sonically embodies the title with its ominous micro-sonic intricacies and hallucinatory texural vividness:  crinkly percussion possibly sampled from spashing water, a vocal noise like a muezzin miaouw, and a foreboding synth-motif I can only describe as "glinky".

Then again, the idea of development and progress may be not just irrelevant to Boards of Canada but somehow dissonant with their very essence. Recalling Proust and Nabokov's doomed project of retrieving "lost time", BOC's seem obsessed with uncovering "the past inside the present" (a sample on "Music Is Math"). As troubling as it is therapeutic, the music of Boards of Canada  seems to reach back into your own prehistory and part the mists of time. Somewhere inside that fog of frayed and faded memory lurks a beautiful and terrible secret.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

gloomcore and harshstep, 1998

Spin dance genre-watch column, June 1998

By Simon Reynolds

Once, there was just "hardcore"--rave music at its most flipped-out and
euphoric-aggressive fierce. Then, circa 1992, came the great parting of the
ways. English hardcore DJs mixed in hip hop breaks 'n' bass to create a
hyper-syncopated bedlam that eventually evolved into jungle. The rest of
the world stuck with techno's monolithic 4/4 stomp-beat and kept upping the
b.p.m's to ever more punishing extremes. For a while, the Dutch--in the
form of the Rotterdam sound called "gabba"--were harder than the rest. Then
other outposts--labels like Brooklyn's Industrial Strength, Milwaukee's
Drop Bass Network, France's Gangstar Toons IndustryAustralia's Bloody
Fist, and many more--took it further still.

By 1996, though, hardcore was banging its head against a brick wall
of  shlocky ultraviolence and 250-300 b.p.m. velocity. The more astute
producers took a step sideways from this braindead end. One escape route,
followed by Frankfurt's PCP and its sister-labels Dance Ecstasy 2001 and
Cold Rush, involved a style that just cries out for the absurd oxymoron
"ambient gabba": an atmospheric, slightly slower sound, heavy on cavernous
reverb, glacial textures and sorrowful melodies. Following awesomely
desolate dirges like Renegade Legion's "Torsion", the PCP crew have reached
something of an aesthetic pinnacle with Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never",
the tenth Cold Rush release.

Pilldriver is one of many pseudonyms (see also The Mover,
Mescalinum United, Alien Christ) used by the mysterious Marc Acardipane,
probably hardcore's most visionary producer. "Apocalypse Never" harries the
listener with synth-stabs that sound like a swarm of bat-winged and
trident-wielding demons, while the unrelenting 4/4 kick-drum is so cleverly
inflected you never register it as monotony. For more glorious gloomcore,
check out the PCP compilation Bigger Bolder Better, plus Superpower,  a
six-track EP collaboration between PCP's Hypnotizer and New York's Oliver
Chesler, on the latter's Things To Come label.

Another increasingly popular "step sideways"  involves mixing
gabba's Teutonic terror-riffs with techstep jungle's paroxysmic breakbeats
and murky bombast.  From Drop Bass Network's sub-label Ghetto Safari and
Frankfurt's Chrome to the Paris imprint No-Tek and London's Ambush, this
new hybrid--known variously as  "splatterbreaks", "hardbreaks" or
"harsh-step"--is the emergent renegade sound at squat-raves.

Superficially, harsh-step seems to have much in common with Alec
Empire's Digital Hardcore, which also combines gabba's killer-bee drones,
sped-up breaks and fuzzguitar-like midfrequency noise. But unlike Digital
Hardcore's adrenalizingly one-dimensional scree, the Ambush producers
leaven their  assault with a superior sense of dynamics and space. Jackal &
Hide's Escape From South London EP is a lo-fi holocaust of industrial
effluent, eardrum-shredding snares and low-end turbulence. Aphasic & Scud's
Welcome To The Warren EP sounds like metal-bashers Einsturzende Neubauten
getting on the good foot. Best of the lot is the Give Up EP by David Hammer
(a.k.a DHR artist Shizuo), who interweaves different kinds of distortion
with a sensuous awareness of  audio-tactile texture.

Although Ambush's sound verges on outright avant-gardism, DJ
Scud--who recently played New York's Soundlab alongside DJ Spooky, Alec
Empire and Manhattan's own harsh-step crusader I-Sound--says his real
inspiration is the populist rave of 1991. Scud wants to bring back "the
madness and intensity" of early hardcore, "but not its happy-happy,
hands-in-the-air vibe". Hence the dystopian aura and abstract  militancy of
Ambush's four releases to date.

Sidestepping DHR's full-frontal approach
(sloganeering harangues), harsh-step's anarcho-politics are more subtle
--articulated in  techno-theory zines like Break/Flow, Datacide and Scud's
own Fallout, hinted at in the paramilitary imagery of track titles and band
names, and most of all, incarnated in the music itself. At once savage and
sophisticated, harsh-step is the sound of insubordination--not just against
sonic stagnation but against cultural lockdown too: the urban politics of
gentrification and ghettoization, the insidious normalization of
surveillance. If gabba was techno-as-heavy-metal, harsh-step is new
millennium punk-funk.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Extreme Music

A riff on 'Extreme Music and the appeal thereof' from 2007, which was written for someone else's book but not ever actually used, the time-wasting twat-head (said affectionately but with an under note of annoyance)


What is the attraction of extreme music? What can "extreme" even mean nowadays, when the outer limits in every conceivable direction seem to have been probed? Besides, extremity depends on context and expectation.  If "extreme" has any meaning at all,shouldn't it be in reference to extremity of affect, the intensity of what the listener experiences? But then, as we can all surely attest, it's often the softest songs, the most gently seductive and caressing sounds, that cut you up most cruelly. Bursting into tears is a pretty extreme reaction to a piece of music, but I can't think of any noise record or avant-garde work that has done that to me. Whereas Al Green's "I'm Still In Love With You" or The Smiths' "There is A Light That Never Goes  Out" infallibly devastate. The most recent thing to make this grown man sob was Kraftwerk's "Autobahn", an innovative piece of music on many levels, but not really "extreme" or noisy, on the contrary, all euphony and Beach Boys-like honey to the ears. What  choked me up wasn't the poignant melody but the sheer aesthetic majesty of it, the spirit behind the work.

Conversely, I once fell asleep in a Galas concert (and I was a fan and admirer of her music!). The singer was aiming to conjure Old Testament levels of affliction, abjection and grief (the work was inspired by AIDS as a modern day plague). Yet the undifferentiated pitch of mind-rending anguish had the effect of lulling me into a doze. On the level of affect, Galas's work was on the same level as Mantovani. Or a  mug of Horlicks.

Nonetheless I remain obsessively drawn to the abstract and out-there in music, and I'm not exactly sure why. That's not unusual: often there seems to be a gap between the reasons we give for liking or validating certain kinds of music and what's really going. With noise, free jazz/improv, avant-classical, et al, there's a tendency to talk in terms of subversion or challenge, an assault on staid sensibilities. The music is envisioned as an edifying ordeal, a salutary and spiritually uplifting violation that will expand the listener's horizons. But in this scenario it's always some Other that is being tested and transformed; by definition, we are the the always already expanded. If you approach a work of art expecting to be challenged, you're no longer in a place where that can happen.  

Terms like "innovative", "groundbreaking", "pioneering", are equally problematic, because once you get past the first few listens, the music necessarily becomes familiar; what was abstract and amorphous starts to take on a shape, ceases to be disorientating. It's impossible to repeat the shock of the new.

This is even more the case when we listen to avant-garde music from a long time ago--Varese's pre-World War 2 compositions, the early musique concrete of Pierres Henry and Schaeffer, Stockhausen's elektronische works, or, in rock terms, Velvet Underground, early Throbbing Gristle, et al.  

So what is going on when we go back  as listeners to experience a past breakthrough? Is that sensation even recoverable, given that the present we inhabit is one where the breakthrough is taken for granted,  commonplace, perhaps even institutionally sanctioned to the point of seeming worthy. 

Clearly there's a large element of projection by the historically-informed listener, a kind of mental restaging of the moment of bursting through into the unknown. Curious and paradoxical this may be, but it's absolutely integral to my enjoyment of the music. Indeed it results in an arguably unreasonable bias against contemporary artists working in those fields, on the grounds that, however accomplished their work is,  they are settlers not pioneers; what Philip Sherburne calls an après-garde.


my assertion of being compulsively drawn to the extreme is somewhat in contradiction to the opinion that Extremity is passe as voiced in this Over-Rated of 1997 bit (but then consistency is the hobgoblin of etc etc)  which ran on the old Website Blissout aka A White Brit Raver Thinks Aloud. I wonder if you can guess who the unnamed opponent that is not-strawmanned-not-at-all-actually at the start of the piece?


There's a certain strain of argument being touted in which the extremities 
(global as well as musical) are where it's all happening--from freeform improv 
to Jap-core noise, from NZ drone-scapes to quirked out neo-Krautrock to 
Skullflower-style fuzzadelia. Apart from the insufferable cooler-than-thou 
attitude that often seems intrinsic to this stance, my aesthetic objection to 
all these initiatives is their tendency to end up as pure abstraction. And pure 
abstraction isn't really that interesting. You can't do anything with it, or to 
it--apart from just lie back and take it (in). 

"A scribble effacing all lines" is how Deleuze & Guattari put in A Thousand 
Plateaux, talking of the tendency of avant-garde artists to reterritorialise 
around "the child, the mad, noise"--the aesthetic equivalent to such "fascist or 
suicidal" lifestyle choices as heroin addiction, terrorism or joining a cult. 
Musically, the quest for chaos can easily end up as a black hole of 
undifferentiated, maelstromic miasma--as vast as the cosmos maybe, but in the 
absence of any figure-ground perspective, it's effectively as claustrophobic as 
a cubby-hole. 

I subscribe to the D&G/Manuel Delanda line that the most interesting work 
happens "on the edge of chaos". I'm interested in abstraction where it works as 
a component of a groove ('ardkore, darkside, techstep) or an element within an 
architectonics of audio-space (Chain Reaction). It's the thresholds, the 
intermediary zones, that are really magical -- melody bleeding into noise, 
songcraft struggling with psychedelics (My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du); 
distortion + raunch (Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic", Royal Trux's Cats and Dogs); 
the Bataillean excess and surplus-to-requirements extravagance working within 
and against the funktional minimalism (Prince, swingbeat); space + groove + 
timbre (Can, Neu!, Miles Davis, Seventies dub). Punk to funk, the ethos is the 
same: "restriction is the mother of all invention" (Holger Czukay). 

Extremism? Well, on what scale are we measuring here? Very little out-rock, 
avant-jazz, left-field electronica, etc. being perpetrated today really ranks 
with, let alone exceeds, the outer limits probed by the Sixties freeform 
brigades, electro-acousticians, and so forth. There's also the question of ego: 
so much out-rock or avant-improv seems to partake of the Expressionistic Fallacy 
(e.g. Caspar Brotzmann's scrofulously self-preening theatre of pain). This 
interferes with the listener's ability to derive machinic use-value from it. You 
just have to sit there and gasp in awe. It's about marveling at the Artist's 
depth and intensity of feeling, rather than using the music to trigger 
sensations and intensities in yourself. The impersonal, "objective" approach to 
constructing rhythmic engines or kinaesthetic audio-sculptures can create just 
as powerful feelings in the listener as the "subjective" school of Romantic 
outpouring creativity. The idea that the former is mere artisanship whereas the 
latter is true Art is, like, half a century out of date, at least. This is the 
age of the engineer-poet, the imagineer. 

Although drum & bass can make some preposterous claims about its experimentalist 
reach, the truth is that its radicalism is always constrained with a quite rigid 
set of parameters: at any given season, certain kinds of bass-sound, certain 
kinds of breaks, and a specific tempo, are required by DJ's and dancers; 
invention takes place within and against those constraints. The resulting 
friction creates sparks. In hardcore dance scenes, constraints are a strength, 
not a liability. At the very least, these parameters are no less likely to 
produce strikingly listenable and intensity-productive results than the total 
absence of constraints. Extremism can be as fruitless as any musical stance; 
simply embarking with an experimental mindset does not guarantee results. 

Leaving the rhetoric of extremity for those still interested in playing the cool 
game (the fun wears off about a decade or so, lemme warn ya; there's always 
something more marginal and listener-unfriendly than whatever outer limit you 
set up shop upon) is a tremendous release. I can now confess that the 
song-oriented Faust IV is my favourite of their albums rather than the hipper 
Faust Tapes, that I prefer the boogie-fied crossover stab Clear Spot to Trout 
Mask Replica, that the almost-funky Strange Celestial Roads is my fave Sun Ra, 
that the Sly-and-Jimi influenced Seventies Miles pleasures me more than Ayler or 
AMM screeching to the converted. I can consign those Merzbow CD's to that 
cupboard marked "possibly someday, probably never".  

Thursday, April 16, 2015


interview, Melody Maker, November 18th 1989

by Simon Reynolds

cover feature, Melody Maker, July 30th 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, May 1991

by Simon Reynolds