Tuesday, April 15, 2014

RETRO NECRO - THE RISE OF BOX SET MONUMENTALISM



The New Monumentalism in Reissues and Box Sets
director's cut, The Wire, 2013 End of Year Issue / January 2014
 
by Simon Reynolds

Blame it on Nick Cave’s “A Box For Black Paul”, but box sets have always been associated in my mind with coffins.  A resemblance more pronounced in the early days of the CD reissue boom, when boxes were typically oblong and came with lids, but the association endures on account of the serene and solemn aura that hangs around these music memorials. Here lies an Oeuvre, or a Genre, long since severed from the living world of music. Like Lifetime Achievement Awards, box sets are honours that almost invariably accrue to artists whose culturally productive phase is passed. 

Owning music, old or new, in physical form is steadily becoming a minority pursuit: a habit elders can’t relinquish, an archaism adopted for gestural reasons (in the case of vinyl) by hip youngsters. Even with those who still buy solid-form releases, the provision of download codes suggests that the actual everyday usage of music is increasingly immaterial.  Yet perversely, in seeming inverse ratio to the shrinking market for and vanishing utility of analogue formats,  reissues and box sets keep expanding in size and sumptuousness.  Some are getting like those ostentatious haute-bourgeois family vaults in cemeteries like Père-Lachaise.

Case in point:  The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, a casket-like extravaganza of oak, silver birch, sage velvet and gold leaf. The 87 tracks of blues, jazz and gospel engraved into six vinyl platters are just the crème of a total 800 supplied in MP3 form on a USB stick. This inclusion jars  aesthetically and philosophically with the package’s repro antique look, perhaps even sabotages it: one can easily imagine the purchaser never actually getting round to playing the LPs in practice, but instead using the iPod-ready digitized versions.  Acquiring this ten kilo monstrosity would mean – excuse the pun – coffin up around $400.  And the same amount again, if you aim to complete the set:  yes, this is just Volume 1 and another chunky lump of audio-furniture is due in November 2014, via the collaborative auspices of Revenant and Jack White’ s Third Man Records.

Reissue monumentalism comes in several subcategories.  Rise and Fall is an example of the archaeological treasure chest:  multiple volumes of long out-of-print or never-before-released material. Another is the drastic inflation of a single iconic album, such as T. Rex’s  The Slider: not the two-CD deluxe treatment that’s just standard business nowadays, but sturdy cases containing multiple CDs + a DVD + 180 gram vinyl version, along with in-depth booklets and an array of repro memorabilia (badges, flyers, tickets, press photos, etc). Then there’s the Complete Works of a legendary artist, sometimes snazzed up with a gimmicky repackage (The Clash’s boombox-shaped Sound System) or more soberly collated at intimidating scale (the 34 disc mega-anthology of Herbie Hancock’s Columbia years, as reviewed by Greg Tate in The Wire 357). A relatively recent development is the rise of live hyper-documentation, pioneered by the Grateful Dead in 2011 with a 66 CD set of their entire 1972 European tour, and echoed this year by King Crimson’s The Road To Red, whose 22 CDS + DVD track the group’s 1974 tour of North America immediately prior to the recording of the classic Red album.

The monumentalist trend hovers unwholesomely at the intersection of niche market capitalism (squeeze the hardcore fanbase for every last drop), consumer bad faith (fans all too happy to be squeezed for the chance to reconsume/relive something they’ve already consumed/ lived through) and heritage culture (everything deserves documenting, nothing should be discarded).  Okay, let’s be fair here: genuine curiosity, unstinting curatorial dedication, an arguably noble impulse to salvage for posterity’s sake, are all at work too, sometimes.  What I personally find disquieting, though -  as someone who has succumbed to the fetish-appeal and completest logic of these sets more than a few times -  is that even when the best motives are involved,  the preservationist impulse almost by definition embalms what was once a living force in the world, draws it into cordoned-off seclusion.  

Box sets represent an incursion of the “museal” into the domestic space; they are micro-museums in your own home.  The more imposing these box sets get as physical objects, the more listening to their contents feels like an imposition (albeit a self-inflicted one).   Just like visiting a museum, what begins with real enthusiasm rapidly gets to feel like a chore, an ordeal. Gorging your senses and sensibility with too much in too little time leads to an experience that unhappily commingles edification and excess, duty and decadence.

Real musical life lies elsewhere.  In his review of the Paramount box (Wire 358), Phil England noted that the label was known in its own era for “quantity over quality”: it pumped out thousands of tunes, recorded at levels of fidelity inferior even by the standards of the time and pressed on low-grade shellac.  In other words, Paramount’s approach—short term, mercenary, they even melted down their masters for metal eventually--was the absolute opposite of the reverence of Revenant, the tender care and luxuriant largesse of Third Man.  

Fast-money music, issued almost without discrimination, Paramount’s "race music" was the early 20th Century equivalent of early 21st Century street beats: the shitty-sound-quality tracks thronging and teeming through the infosphere as YouTube remixes, pirate radio sets, Soundcloud mixes, phone-to-phone swapped MP3s,  etc -  the ceaseless and promiscuous outflow of urban dance cultures like North of England’s jackin’ house, Los Angeles ratchet rap, and the innumerable ghetto dance sounds of the developing world.   Just like Paramount’s 78s of songs and instrumentals,  these modern dance styles are rowdy, bawdy, and “lowly”;  looked-down-on by upstanding citizens and discerning music fans alike. 

It is a structural inevitability that future equivalents to Fahey, White, and other epigone-custodians in that Robert Crumb/Terry Zwigoff mold, will emerge to collate these disposable sounds. But that’s a process that only happens once their original audience has disposed of them.  (The syndrome has already kicked off with early rap and electro, early house and dancehall and jungle, of course. Expect grime, screw, and crunk salvage to begin in earnest soon). These future antiquarians will hunt down fugitive MP3s and resurrect long-ago dried-up streams. They will annotate their conditions of making, auterise their makers, and assemble their findings into archives that may be physical and exclusively priced,  or immaterial and freely public.  But as with The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, the original experience of this music—what it was made for, how it was used—will be largely irrecoverable.  Which is perhaps how it should be.   Everything has its time and its place.

interview nuggets #6

Bring the Noise draws from twenty years of your music journalism. Actually longer, as you started at the end of 1985 and the US version of the book has some extra pieces added from the last few years, on figures like M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend. In those 25 years of being a professional critic, what changes have you seen in music writing?

Writing has improved, on average, just on a purely technical level. The average piece of published music writing today is less sloppy, more informed, better reasoned, and less self-indulgent. Some of that has to do with reduced word-counts preventing people from woffling on, and some of it probably has to do with computers and word-processing allowing people to rewrite and self-edit and resequence, to hone and buff the writing into shiny tightness. Whereas in the old days people had to bang things out in a single “take” on a typewriter. But even taking that into consideration, I think there’s no doubt that the quality, as writing, and as thinking, has improved.

What has faded away, though, is a certain mode of address you used to get in the music press, one that I have sometimes described as “messianic”, but it is probably more accurately characterized as “oratorical”. You used to regularly get pieces, particularly in the UK music papers, but also in America with figures like Lester Bangs, where the writing had a sense of performance: as though the writer was on a stage, or in the pulpit. It was rhetoric, designed to sway the reader to the writer’s way of seeing things. It generated a certain kind of cadence, a rousing and soaring weightiness of the kind associated with the great political speeches of history, or the manifestos of artistic movements such as Futurism.
A classic example of this would be the review that Nick Kent wrote of Television’s Marquee Moon for the British weekly music paper New Musical Express. It was 1977, the year punk took off, and NME gave him two pages, enough space for a medium-sized feature, and they even put Television on the front cover–even though there was no interview inside, just an album review. So there’s a sense in which the writer knows he is mounting the steps to a stage, he’s about to perform to a huge audience (the NME then had a circulation of a couple of hundred thousand, and a readership several times that number, because of a high rate of “pass on” of copies). Now as a piece of prose, the review is not flawless, there’s sloppy bits (Kent didn’t even use a typewriter, he wrote long hand!). But there is a sense of history trembling through the writing: Kent is rising to the occasion, bearing witness to musical greatness, to the emergence of a band that he believes will define the epoch. At the end of it you want to give a round of applause, stand up and cheer, clench your fist and punch the air.

People just don’t write that way anymore. I don’t write that way anymore. It probably relates to an inability to “suspend disbelief”, which is to say, an incapacity to summon up within yourself, as writer, the certainty that an artist could be the Future, music’s Saviour. Expectations of this kind have long since ceased to be admissible; these are outmoded criteria. You’d be setting yourself and others up for great disappointment. You would also look foolish to make such claims. So that particular oratorical mode, with its cadences, is virtually extinct. The occasion for it hardly ever occurs. But more than that: the taste for it, on the part of readers and writers, has withered away. People these days seem to prefer a measured tone that weighs up ambivalences very finely and deftly teases out the nuances and ironies. So instead of being based on rock’s own renegade mode of criticism, music writing now aspires to the virtues of others forms of arts criticism.

Reading this kind of stuff, I appreciate the wit and the wisdom. But ultimately it is all a bit over-reasoned and reasonable for my taste. The writing is literally love-less. What creates sparks for me is when you sense the pressure of the irrational (passion, enthusiasm) on an intellect. When there is a struggle within the writing between analysis and the impulse to testify. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

interview nuggets #5

RW: When you write you bring in the cultural trappings of pop -- image and identity, scene and scenesters, marketing and make-up -- in order to shed more light on the music and its novelty. Do you think it’s possible to write about pop music without this context - would it make sense or even be interesting to write about a new Britney album without this material?

SR: I used to have this stance that music writing should focus on pure sound, a sort of reaction against the over-emphasis on lyrics, biography, etc -- which to me at the time (late Eighties) seemed to be an evasion of the sonic, and linked to lingering hang-ups from the punk and postpunk era that constantly sought to validate music through its relevance, political content, redeeming social value, etc. Being all hopped up on Roland Barthes and the rest of the French theory crew, I was trying to do writing that was purely about jouissance, focusing on that aspect of music to do with ecstasy, convulsive bliss, ego-loss, excess, oblivion, etc. Today I think that stance, while understandable in its context (opposing the middlebrow rock critic fixation on lyrics and meaning, which never seems to go away), was misguided, in so far as pop/rock has never been purely about music alone. It's a hybrid art form, radically impure, with a whole other set of factors being as important as the sound: lyrics, persona, biography, performance, the broader social and cultural context, the discourse at any given time around music (including criticism), the design and packaging of records, the way fans make use of the music and invents its meanings, and quite a few other frames.

For instance, I think it would be great if critics wrote more about the Smiths in purely musical terms (the contributions of the band hardly ever get dealt with), as a sensual sonic experience; but the meaning and power of the Smiths is bound up with a whole lot more than the songs and the recordings. There's the record covers, there's Morrissey's interviews (which you could see as just as important to his artistry as his lyrics), Morrissey's dancing, etc. Or look at the postpunk era: a purely sonic evocation of the recordings would be fine, but it would miss all the other things going on in terms of inputs from other art forms, all the concepts and theories and ideologies flying around and informing what was going on.

That said, as per your Britney idea, I think nowadays we are almost too inundated with knowledge and data and it would be interesting, as an exercise, to try to listen to Britney or a Madonna album as a "pure" sonic experience. Probably impossible, but it might be interesting. And there have been times when I thought it would be cool to review an album how I did in the late Eighties, where often I knew very little about a band, seldom bothered to read the press release, really just responded to it sonically.


[interview with Rowan Wilson at ReadySteadyBook]

http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=simonreynolds

Sunday, March 30, 2014

interview nuggets #4

What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?
 
I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.

For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.
People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least a critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.


Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?

... I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.

Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.

 [from interview with Corcoran School of Art blog ]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014



DANCING ON THE EDGE
director's cut, Index  magazine, 2001
by Simon Reynolds

Centro Fly, Manhattan, Winter 2001. Tonight the club's mainfloor hosts a night called GBH--shorthand for Great British House. If the night was actually based in the U.K., the name would be mildly amusing--it's the abbreviation for "grievous bodily harm," an indictment roughly equivalent to "assault". There's also a faintly amusing echo of the veteran punk band GBH. 

This club, though, couldn't be more harmless, less punk. The music chugs along efficiently, a cautious composite defined mostly be what it's not (not too deep, too druggy, too gay, too hard, too organic, too anthemic). Groove Armada's "Superstylin'" comes on, and the residual tang of "vibe" in the dancehall vocal only serves to emphasize how deracinated and over-processed the rest of the track is. As for the crowd, they're smartly dressed but not flamboyantly styled, and impossible to gauge in terms of subcultural affiliation;  their celebration never reaches the level of abandon, let alone frenzy. 

I'm actually here for what's going on in the basement, the 2step night Drive By (where UK rave veterans Shut Up and Dance are spinning) but on a strange impulse I climbed the stairs to monitor the vital signs of house culture. And I'm ambushed by an unexpected fury of disgust, unable to understand why I find GBH's sub-Dionysian bustle so snugly smug, such a personal affront. And from there it's a short step to wondering: how come I ever got the idea that dance culture was meant to be an arena for danger in the first place? Right now, none of the styles of postrave floor fodder that rule the clubs--"progressive," trance, filter house, tech-house, hard house--substantiate the notion of dance-with-edge. 

Flash back, ooh, 23 years.  Disco is still at its height, and although discophobes are calling for its death, it actually seems, in 1978/79, that rock is the one that's ready for last rites. Out of those mobilized by punk, the smartest minds are arguing that traditional rock'n'roll is exhausted and the way forward involves embracing  the rhythms and studio  techniques of  disco and dub.  This "anti-rockist" vanguard--Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, James Chance, Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, to name just a few--share David Byrne's belief that "black dance production is a bigger revolution than punk."
But they don't want to simply copy black dance music as closely as possible, in that time-honored, over-reverential white bluesman/blue-eyed soul/wigga tradition; they want to mutate it, warp it, infect its upfulness with angst, militancy, and political despair. 

Two songs from this punk-funk moment seem especially emblematic, and could be said to have changed my life. PiL's "Death Disco" was actually a UK Top 20 hit in the summer of 1979, and I can vividly recall the pained expression on the presenter's face as he announced the group's appearance on Top of the Pops (England's equivalent to American Bandstand).  "Death Disco" shattered the show's merry light entertainment atmosphere: over Keith Levene's soul-flaying guitar and Jah Wobble's dark-surging  disco-style "walking bassline", ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon howled muezzin-style as he anatomized the horror of  looking into his mother's eyes as she lay on her deathbed.

The other funk noir tune is "Dance of the Screamers" by Ian Dury & the Blockheads, who weren't generally thought of as part of the post-punk vanguard. Indeed by 1979's Do It Yourself they'd crossed over as massively popular entertainers in the UK: the once-menacing Dury clasped to the British public's bosom as the chirpy Cockney king of comedy-rock.  "Dance of the Screamers," that album's stand-out song, is no barrel of laughs though. The sound is slick disco (the Blockheads were shit-hot, session-quality funkateers) but the lyric devastates the party vibe, reimagining the dancefloor as a killing field for social cripples and lost 'n' lonely losers desperate for love. Eventually Dury abandons words altogether, his hoarse howls of agony sparring with Davey Payne's freeform sax-blasts.

Dancing in the dark (figuratively and literally) to "Death Disco" and "Screamers"--this was my introduction to dance music. Later I fell for the punk-funk paroxysms of Delta 5 and Gang of Four, the  polyrhythmic panoramas of Talking Heads' Remain In Light, the dark absurdist "mutant disco" of Was (Not Was), the Chic-for-sociopaths of Defunkt. The latter, hailed at the time as funk's very own Sex Pistols but now almost totally forgotten, was formed by James Chance's  estranged horn section (New York between 1979-82 was a hotbed of groups based around the notion of dance-with-edge). Leader Joe Bowie defined the group as a revolt against the sedative culture of disco: "We've got to wake up again and Defunkt are part of that resurgence of thought."

By 1983, though, the notion of avant-funk or punk-funk had run out of steam, trapped itself within its own cliches: sub-Miles trumpet-heard-through-fog, neurotic slap-bass, guttural pseudo-sinister vocals,  Ballard and Burroughs references. The leading edge of white alternative music recoiled from the dancefloor. Groups as diverse as The Smiths, Husker Du, REM, Jesus & Mary Chain, restricted their influence-intake to the whitest regions of rock's past: The Byrds folk-rock, Velvet Underground, rockabilly. Still, the core contention of the punk-funk project--that rock's hopes of  enjoying a future beyond mere antiquarianism (the Cramps, the White Stripes) depends on assimilating the latest rhythmic innovations from black dance music--never entirely disappeared.

What happened was that the next-wave of postpunk groups, like Scritti Politti and New Order, fully embraced the latest black dance styles (electro, synthfunk) and their tools (drum machines, sequencers, Fairlight samplers), infiltrating their doubt or dread into the mix via the lyrics and vocal approach, but not tampering with the music to any great degree.  Other ex-punks (Paul Weller's Style Council, Simply Red) just took on blackness wholesale: the music, the lyrical language, the soul style of vocalisation. And for quite a long period in the Eighties, this was the consensus: that the best white artists could do with black music was try not to fuck with it, for fearing of fucking it up. Emulate, not mutate.

This "soulboy" consensus was rudely shocked by the arrival of acid house in 1987. Gospel-influenced song-based house was highly palatable (Weller even made a deep house record) but the harsh futuristic attack of the Roland 303 acid bass was greeted with appalled incomprehension: "it's so cold, so mechanistic---where's the soul?!?!". To which my response, was "exactly, exactly, and who cares?", Hearing the early Chicago acid tunes was like the totally unscheduled resurrection of avant-funk, half-a-decade after its demise, and half-a-world away from its birthplace in Britain and Germany. In songs like Phuture's "Your Only Friend" and Sleezy D's "I've Lost Control", you could hear uncanny echoes of PiL, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo: the inhibited and coercive treadmill rhythms, the constipated basslines, the desolate dub-space. Even the  imagery evoked by the track titles or stripped-down vocal chants--trance-dance as control, a sinister subjugating form of hypnosis; scenarios of mindwreck, abduction, paranoia---was just totally 1981.  And as it happened, some of the acid house pioneers were influenced by the early avant-funk and synth experimentalists, from Throbbing Gristle to German outfits like DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors).

It was only right and proper, then, that the pan-European subcultural upsurge triggered by acid house allowed many original avant-funkers to resurface. Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk formed Sweet Exorcist and made some of era's classic "bleep techno";  Graham Massey, 808 State's musical genius and future Bjork collaborator, was formerly of minor avant-funk outfit Biting Tongues. Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV's Genesis P.Orridge, Soft Cell's Dave Ball, Youth from Killing Joke, 400 Blows's Tony Thorpe, Torch Song's William Orbit, Quando Quango's Mick Pickering.... there's an endless list of avant-funk veterans whose dormant careers were instantly revitalized by the new context created by the synergy of house and Ecstasy. The concept of "rave" itself, with its multiple connotations of madness, fury, and deranging euphoria, seemed to me like pure punk-funk in spirit: the ultimate merger of aggression and celebration. 

Between 1991 and 1993, as rave turned to hardcore, hardcore to  jungle, it really did seem like the reactivation of the avant-funk project, except on a mass scale. This was a populist vanguard, a lumpen bohemia that weirdly mashed together the bad-trippy sounds of art school funk-mutation with a plebeian pill-gobbling rapacity that recalled the vital vulgarity of Oi! (In the early Eighties, your 23 Skidoo art students and your Oi!-punk proles would have been deadly class enemies). In particular, the transitional sound of "darkside"--febrile hyperspeed percussion, ominous basslines, dizzy sensations of harrowing bliss, a haunted/hunted vibe of spooked-out paranoia---was uncannily redolent of  the soundtrack of my youth: Death Disco, Pt 2.  Indeed "darkside"'s  reflected a moment circa 1992-93 when Ecstasy abuse was starting to exact its heavy toll, transforming many into braindead zombies and a few into actual real-deal corpses.   

*                  *                           *                           *

To be a participant in the underground rave scene of the early Nineties was electrifying, like being plugged into currents of revolutionary energy. The sensation was explosive: energy exploding into public space (with illegal raves and warehouse parties), energy exploding across the airwaves (with pirate radio), energy exploding through the music itself, which felt like it was propelled pell-mell by a mutational momentum that was uncontainable.

And then a strange thing happened--all that unruly, turbulent energy, and all that borderline-criminal activity, started to get orderly and organized. Clubs and labels became business-minded, looking towards steady long-term profits rather than quick killings, and thinking like corporations rather than buccaneers. Raves in the "darkside" era  became too edgy for all but a diehardcore of headstrong nutters, and alienated by the moody, paranoid vibes, many ravers returned to the clubs, with their safer atmospheres and  predictable satisfactions. Gradually, the punk principles that informed the original rave scene ( the crowd-as-star, the anonymity of producers and DJs, "faceless techno bollocks") faded with the emergence of a global circuit of superclubs and a hierarchy of superstar DJs: pseudo-personalities like Paul Oakenfold, Bad Boy Bill,  Lottie, Paul Van Dyk, Dave Ralph, who travel the world earning fat fees and racking up the Air Miles. 

The music changed too, the fever and fervor of hardcore rave gradually tempered into something milder. On the global quasi-underground of superclubs, the dancefloor is dominated by the whiter-than-white sounds of trance and its mature cousin "progressive" (the sound made famous by Sasha & Digweed at the late unlamented Manhattan superclub Twilo, among other places). Anthemic and sentimental, trance has a certain cheese-tastic anti-snob allure: in some sense, it is still music for ravers. Punkless and funkless, "progressive" is definitely a post-rave style.  Musically, it's somewhere between a de-anthemized trance and a house music utterly purged of blackness, gayness, sexuality, humor. What's left is a faint aura of ersatz futurity, spirituality, cosmic-ness. Sleek, abstract artist names like Evolution, Breeder, Hybrid, Moonface, Quivver, Lustral, and vapidly big-sounding track titles like "Force 51", "Syncronized Knowledge",  "Gyromancer", "Enhanced", "Carnival XIII", "Descender", "Supertransonic" seem almost subconsciously designed to to avoid conjuring real-world evocations or resonances.

 Purging all the aspects of rave that harked back to earlier youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive has achieved a blank purity, sterile and non-referential. It's the nullifying soundtrack for experiences sealed off from everyday life--the sanitized debauchery that superclubs are in the business of  catering for, despite their front of co-operation with the authorities against drug use. Beyond "edge" in the subcultural sense, the very sound of the music lacks edges --your typical progressive track is a featureless miasma of samey-sounding texture and mid-tempo surge-pulses,  blurring indistinguishably into the next track as DJs compete to perfect the craft of the seamless, pointlessly prolonged mix. It's music that doesn't explode with crescendoes and climaxes, but slow-burns, simmers. And this  implosive aesthetic mirrors the way the club industry has successfully corraled and contained the once anarchic energies of rave.

Part of progressive's selling point is its image as streamlined pleasure-tech. The tracks are mere components for the mixscapes assembled by the ultra-skilled technicians who travel the global superclub circuit. Temples of  too-easy hedonism like Gatecrasher, Cream, Ministry of Sound, actually use their very leisure industry corporate-ness as part of their image and sales pitch: the logos, the slogans like Gatecrasher's "Market Leaders In Having-It-Right-Off Leisure Ware," the merchandising and spin-off compilations, all communicate the sense of quality guaranteed, a reassuring predictability. You get what you pay for, the superclubs and superjocks seem to be saying; your precious leisure time is safe in  professional hands. But Progressive  embodies the ultimate vacuousness of pleasure as its own justification. For without difficulty (the physical commitment of actually journeying to a remote rave, or a shady club, say), you get what you pay for and nothing more. The "surplus value" that came with participating in the rave underground--with its possibility of either wild adventures or a total bust--has disappeared as an option.  The superclubs are like department stores or shopping malls, the dancers like consumers or spectators. Factor in the Ibiza-isation of dance culture, and the Spring Break-isation of Ecstasy, and you have a depressing picture: the transition from rave as counterculture to clubland as a mere supplement or adjunct to affluent, aspirational, enjoyment-oriented lifestyles. A dance "culture" without even the transcendent escapist frisson of the original disco. Because with lives so well-adjusted and abundant, why would you even need to escape at all?

I have this far-fetched theory that Daft Punk's album of last year, Discovery--with its titillating infusions of late Seventies AOR, soft-rock, and lite-metal, its evocations of Frampton, 10CC, Van Halen, ELO, Buggles, and the actual recognisable Supertramp keyboard lick on "Digital Love"---was trying to make a point: that dance music right now has a lot in common with American rock at its most toothless, radio-programmer-castrated, emollient (all those groups ruled the radio roost during the punk-never-arrived-here FM void of 1976-80). Almost as if, by making this unhappy resemblance blatantly obvious, Daft Punk could somehow prompt a real Dance-Punk into existence. Well, I said it was far-fetched theory.

Another abreactive symptom of this dawning sense of dance culture as a dead end, as a new decadance, is the resurgence of interest in the original dance-with-edge: avant-funk, mutant disco, early Eighties proto-house. Compilations like In The Beginning There Was Rhythm: The Birth Of Dance Music After Punk,  Disco Not Disco, and  Nine O'Clock Drop (complete with compiler Andrew Weatherall's sleevenote railing against the way dance music has become "the soundtrack to complete an easily assembled life(less) style.... the soundtrack for ad agency pick and mix culture snitches"). Reissues of 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire, ESG.  Clubs like Mutants and Transmission. Then there's the plethora of contemporary groups who are taking cues from the early Eighties: Playgroup, with their loving pastiches of New York mutant disco and synth-funk, their Pigbag and Specials homages; the  Kraftwerk circa Computer World meets Todd Haynes circa Safe anomie & modernity of Adult; the art school bop and Sprockets-funk of Berlin's Chicks On Speed; Le Tigre's lo-tech agit-funk, all spiky riffs and rad-feminist sloganeering.

Angular, scrawny, not-quite-fluid, early Eighties postpunk dance is a world away from the plumply pumping satisfactions of modern dance music, the supple repleteness of its production. What seems appealing to contemporary ears about that period of punk-funk is its very failure to be funky in a fully-realised fashion.  And that brings us back to the original question of what the white boys and girls can bring to the party? Precisely their alienation, their awkwardness and unrelaxedness, their neurosis, their inability to swing (think David Byrne's persona: the geeky consumer-commuter burb-dweller straining to "stop making sense," trance-out). It was this very Euro-WASP stiltedness and coldness that was so inspiring to the original Detroit techno people (a paradox that Carl Craig crystallized with the insight: "Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky"). Rave culture once offered a transgressive ecstasy, but after ten years of professionalisation and technical refinement, rapture has become routizined, bliss banal. No wonder that a new generation is rejecting the very notion of trance-dance as narcotic, lulling, null, and grasping instead for some kind of edge. Rather than the ease of release offered by house music in its many forms, tension and unease seem desirable again, for their own sake.