44 days to go…if no one buys Soundcloud, people will wonder what the people of the mid-teens meant when they used the term “soundcloud rapper”. “What does it mean that Lil Uzi Vert was a Soundcloud rapper, daddy?” they’ll ask. “Not a goddamn thing, you ungrateful little bastards”, I’ll answer.
“Singing Plastic Songs” has this fun little drum n bass break over some sludge-synth work. It also has more of that Apple Talk vocal work, which means I probably wrote it 2003-2004 or so. It’s marked off as being on Goodbye To Welcomesville, which was the name I gave my non-political stuff, so that’s probably 2004. It’s a little three-minute pop song, not much more.
45 days to go…I wonder what the feeling of impending doom there is like. Will someone buy them? Will they just collapse and decay back into the background history of the internet, a background history that is always changing and has eaten larger sites than Soundcloud? Time will tell.
At any rate, “The Circle Had No End” is another instrumental electro-jazz number that I made when I figured out how moving parts all moved together in sync. More of those big blank arcade waves, too, which is fun for me and maybe not for you. That piano has a definite layer of dust bouncing off of it with every strike, cold and clear and with thin scrum of frozen reverberation. Tasty and a little uncomfortable.
Also of note, I have a book – the first part of a serialized novel – coming out very soon on ATM Publishing. Set your reminders to stun. Just, god, don’t shoot yourself.
Something a little newer, this piece is a standout for me because the reading of the first part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Lands works so well in this setting. This came about when I was entering tracks into the Making Hip Hop subreddit’s weekly Flip challenges. They never got much play, mostly because the winners were always trying to be No ID or Mike WiLL Made-It and I was trying to be RZA with a generous splash of Clams Casino from time to time. At any rate I think sample (Nancy Priddy’s “And Who Will You Be Then?”) and beat flow great together, and the poetry reading over top leads to a few moments of frisson, for me at least.
Has anyone bought Soundcloud yet? There’s 47 days of cash left. Surely it can be monetized somehow, right? Anyway, here’s another track I’ve uploaded for free with no financial obligation on my part toward Soundcloud.
This one is an instrumental, sort of electro-jazzish, named because the illustrious ludoligist Mark Pifher thought that a later lead synth in the piece sounded like I’d sampled the connection tone from a dial-up modem. Don’t let that scare you off – it’s not quite as bone-chillingly irritating as the lead lines on liars’ “There’s Always Room On The Broom”. It’s basically a melodic interplay of a number of synth voices with a chopped-up break holding the rhythm underneath. It’s a pretty tight track, all in all, even if it’s not mastered to perfection. DIY baby, punk rock forever.
It was alleged today in the press that Soundcloud – a site whose basic conceit, “Social Media For Musicians”, is integral to the modern music world – has only 50 days of cash left to keep themselves afloat. While it’s failure to monetize is understandable (once you get used to something being free, paying for it is a turn-off for most) it is problematic in that it has become a key player in getting new talent in front of audiences, particularly in the hip hop community.
Something else you may not know, since I don’t advertise it much, is that I’m an amateur electronic music producer. I produce electronic music amateurishly. I have a lot of these amateurishly produced electronic recordings. As a clearinghouse, of sorts, I’m going to celebrate the impending (likely non-) demise of Soundcloud by releasing fifty favourite tracks of mine over the next fifty days. Sound like fun? Well, I’m doing it anyway.
First up, from 2003’s Gig Brother Is Watching (all credit on that title to Ms. Sarah Zar), the penultimate track “Unite”, in which the Glorious Machines Revolution begins. I’ve always liked the wide-open oscillating synth on this track, and it was inspired in part by sounds on The Faint’s Blank Wave Arcade. The breaks were mashed up in Hammerhead, which alone should date this piece.
Yes, by the way, that date of 2003 is accurate. My wife (then girlfriend) and I were living on top of a travel agency in Brantford, ON when our cat knocked my guitar over and broke it. Stuck for musical output, I discovered that DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) were a thing, and I quickly pirated my first copy of FL, which was then still known as Fruity Loops. That was fourteen years ago, and here I am still plinking away at this, although somewhat better, now, I think. I hope.
The years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a sea change in the makeup of popular music in England and North America. Hip hop and electronic music ate up market share until a rough sort of equality emerged; “the kids” were just as likely to be into dirty south or drum n bass as they were rock ‘n’ roll, signalling that the Boomers were finally old and ready to be put out to pasture. One of the key drivers of this changeover was the popularity of big beat between 1996 and 1998. This movement – a product of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim Crystal Vegas, and helped along by the equally-brash sounds of other electronic acts like Daft Punk and the Sneaker Pimps – brought the slamming sound of drum breakbeats into the bedrooms of suburban teens from coast to coast.
The Prodigy were a little different from the others in that they incorporated a definite punk rock influence into their music. The most obvious of these influences was of course singer Keith Flint, who wore a pink mohawk and looked like he’d just crawled out of a bender in the basement of Malcolm McLaren’s haberdashery. There was also an aggressiveness to the way Liam Howlett arranged and programmed the songs, a certain je ne sais quoi that put the group more in the realm of anarcho-electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot than other English big beat acts that were jamming up contemporary rave culture. “Smack My Bitch Up”, with it’s controversial Kool Keith sample and it’s car-chase propulsion, was discussed endlessly as to whether it was misogynistic or simply a reflection of the culture. “Breathe” and “Firestarter” took the clenched-fist industrial energy of Trent Reznor and made it okay for kids tripping on E and glowsticks. “Funky Shit” and “Naryan”, meanwhile, were closer to what the Chemical Brothers had been doing on Dig Your Own Hole. Regardless of which direction the album took, it had the energy and edge that kids went for in the late Nineties.
It was such a success that at one point, probably around 1998 or so, I overheard a big farm kid claim that AC/DC wasn’t a real rock band and that real rock bands sounded like The Prodigy. He was objectively wrong (and dumb as a rock to boot) but there you have it: proof that, for the thrill and excitement that “the youth” craved, big beat was doing what rock ‘n’ roll acts couldn’t.
Stars Of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline
Released April 7th, 2007 on Kranky Records
Stars Of The Lid, here at least, deal with symphonies that have been compressed and stretched out and compressed again until the word “minimalist” doesn’t mean anything anymore. This is music where the drones fade in and linger and then fade out again, creating the definition of ambient music and also establishing the purest sense of a symphony of drones. Often times the tracks presented here feel like the tail-end of some greater whole, like someone cut off all of the end bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor suites and stitched them together to create something new and bizarrely compelling.
There is something akin to Phillip Glass here, or a more spaced-out Brian Eno, but neither is really accurate. It’s stark music that is too atomized to really be all that striking, and yet you’ll find yourself coming back to certain moments throughout the impressive length of the album time and time again. There is a certain peace to the record, although it is an edgy peace, not entirely at home with itself. If we return to the previous Godspeed analogy: if Godspeed is the soundtrack of the apocalypse (as I’ve thought on numerous occasions) then And Their Refinement Of The Decline is the soundtrack to the still world that comes after the apocalypse, when the dust settles and the spiders spin their webs and all is but a silent, irradiated ruin.
A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right. Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged. The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.
In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War. The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933. The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country: railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn. That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole. The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe. “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.
The first half of the album takes a different path. Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia. The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.” The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows). The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.
While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music. The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place. Go ahead and say it: Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.
When Person Pitch first came out I was of the opinion that it sounded exactly like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys had been granted access to high-octane research chemicals during the writing and recording process. Very little in the ensuing decade has given me any reason to change this opinion.
Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox was, in early 2007, on top of the world. His day job band, psychedelic electronic acid-jammers Animal Collective, were being increasingly recognized as one of the most vital bands in contemporary indie rock (Strawberry Jam was just around the corner to cement this status). Between Feels, AnCo’s breakthrough album, and Person Pitch Lennox moved to Lisbon, Portugal; the sunny climate and generally carefree atmosphere Lennox found heavily influenced the sound of the album. The stacked vocals evoke a very beachy, very free-wheeling sense of fun and abandon; the sampled loops and instruments that clatter on beneath everything add to the sense of unreality, as though you’re on an endless vacation in a place where the sand is white and the water is a clear, brilliant blue and you have no return ticket. “Bros” (jam of a lifetime) and “Good Girl/Carrots” add a bit of gallop to the sound, as though the Grateful Dead (pre-Workingman’s Dead) had access to a modern recording studio and all of the LSD they could ever want.
Person Pitch was the height of Noah Lennox as a solo artist. His next album would largely ditch the samplers in favour of more guitar-focused work, and his follow-up to that would try to rework samplers back in while striving for a more radio-ready sound. Neither have the sense of hedonistic abandon that characterizes Person Pitch and neither has the reverb-laden choral quality of vocals that marks the album out as something special.
Released March 17th, 1997 on Digital Hardcore Recordings
It’s difficult to talk about Atari Teenage Riot without understanding one key concept: that Atari Teenage Riot are punk as fuck. The idea was emblazoned on the name of their own private record label: digital hardcore. This is anarchist computer crust, William Gibson futurist punk that smells of dank alleys and crack. “Sick To Death” captures this divide particularly well: it starts off with a traditional punk guitar riff straight out of 1980 and slowly bleeds a drum n bass rhythm track in until the booming, distorted 808 bass/kick combo takes over everything and the shouting begins. The band themselves were what frog kiddies have nightmares about, the sort of antifa kids who ensured that if there was a Nazi present, they were going to get punched. They began, in fact, as an old school way to troll Nazis in their native Germany; one of their first releases was a song called “Hunt Down The Nazis!” The Future Of War didn’t spare in the left-wing rhetoric, either, drawing influence from the impersonal nature of modern warfare as evidenced by the First Gulf War. Songs like “Deutschland (Has Gotta Die)” and “Destroy 2000 Years Of Culture” helped the album get listed in Germany as not to be advertised or sold to minors. It’s the fountainhead of the genre of digital hardcore (naturally) and a precursor to the sort of twisted noise terrorism that Death Grips has engaged in.