Saturday, February 27, 2010

Teratology – Fri 26 Feb @ Pony

We are a little nervous heading to Pony. All rock venues scare me a bit, but it’s Avalon’s first night out in town since smashing her kneecap, and the 86 tram is a mid-level debacle of broken air-conditioning and teenagers on heat. Worried this is a taste of things to come, we console ourselves with an on-the-spot truism: the weirder the music, the nicer the crowd. And on paper the music tonight looks pretty fucking weird.

Without a lift to the bush doof, we are heading to Teratology – a night of breakcore, plunderphonics and related sounds from the electronic division of the punk scene. The main attraction for me is Toecutter from Sydney’s System Corrupt crew; three years ago a warehouse party near Sydney Central was shut down before he could take the stage, and I’ve never managed to see him since.

The bouncer takes a long look at my sandals, then waves us up stairs shaking beneath the bass-heavy beats of Dysphemic. The instant relief of cool air and seats up the back is tempered slightly by the stale smell of beer, but this was Pony, after all. How long has it been? About two years since my old workmates from Sydney band Crux blasted their hardcore/death/krust/??? at a demographically similar but larger crowd.

Am I imagining it, or is this crowd a bit older? Hell, I’m a bit older. My guess would be breakcore peaked years ago, but this scene (or sub-scene) seems to be happily ploughing along with its DIY ethos, eardrums and sense of humour all well intact. And if they’ve lost a few people along the way, noone could be too surprised. Just listen to the tunes, if you dare.

But it’s fun to get outside my comfort zone for a night - and into someone else’s, as it turns out, because at times the cliquishness seems over-the-top. During the first of several equipment malfunctions, when Toecutter jumps on stage and leads the crowd in a chorus of happy birthday to the apparently well-known Melody, Avi wonders whether we’ve invaded someone’s lounge room. But when he continues to buy time with an inpromptu stand-up routine – a tour nightmare story involving drinking from the Seine and becoming violently ill in an Amsterdam squat – we are beginning to feel like old friends.

Dysphemic returns with some faster broken beats, and then it’s time for Anklepants – and one of the most ridiculously enjoyable shows I’ve seen in yonks. Dressed in a strange mask with a rotating penis where the nose should be, he drops danceable beats from 80s to hard’n’fast techno – only occasionally straying into splatter territory – with live vocals reminiscent of a dentist’s drill. It’s a silly scene, and Avi is up and dancing on her stool (an impulse she regrets somewhat later on). Anklepants brings the noise, be sure to check him out.

The American headliner, Robert Inhuman from Realicide, plays a stupidly hard set of breakcore with live vocals – which puts us instantly in mind of a good set of earplugs. I find most of it hard to contextualise, but his opening and closing addresses are both magnificent: heartfelt pleas to come up and dance, pick up one of his posters, send him an email and make friends – interspersed with comments about what a great man Toecutter is. I think it’s ironic but, not quite sure, yell out “I love you man!” at the end. As every grandmother alive would say, he sure seems like a nice guy – such a shame about the fucked-up music.

Toecutter brings the night home one shamelessly plagiaristic slammer after another – although many of the tracks play for half a minute at most before he cuts them off with a “That’s that!” and proceeds to take requests and banter with the crowd. The persistent demand for AC/DC is denied, but one epic track moves effortlessly from an uplifting trance sample to a classic Metallica riff (I think, or was it Slayer?), and a number of people seem to know every breakdown and shout-out. He’s undoubtedly a popular scene figureheard, and is certainly an intriguing looking fellow with glasses, short hair, bushy beard – and are they toys hanging around his neck?

The whole thing is almost strange and funny enough to make me want to be a punk. But of course, I enjoy being a hippie at punk gigs way too much for that. As we head home on a freezing 86 tram, pondering why fucked-up music makes both of us so happy, I award Avi the cool points for digging up the evening’s entertainment on - where else? - Facebook.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thoughts while listening to Autechre

My first rave was Cybertrek 2, the Melbourne Uni Student Union party in 1997. It was a 200 metre walk from my tiny room at Trinity College, but the two worlds seemed much further apart. Only three of around 280 Trinity students made it to Cybertrek: me, a first year in blue Dangerfield cords and a friend’s Mr Happy t-shirt; Cornelia, a stylish older girl who introduced me to Daft Punk; and Caleb, an eccentric Nietzchean with flaming red sideburns and ponytail – and a Friday 13th-style hockey mask to scare the kiddies.

Years later, as a student activist, I looked back on Cybertrek as an actually-existing highpoint of the ‘student control of student affairs’ we politicos trumpeted so loudly. Organised through the Arts and Activities Offices, and featuring many student DJs and artists, the party took over four levels of the student union building. The meeting rooms upstairs were transformed into a fluorescent jungle with the ubiquitous fractals projected onto a big screen; the Grand Buffet dining room became the main floor; the coffee lounge was the drum’n’bass room, and downstairs a mix of markets, art installations and fire-twirling under the stars.

It would be months before my second (and much larger) rave: Halcyon Knights, a New Years Eve 1997/8 Hardware party at the Exhibition Buildings, headlined by Carl Cox, Underworld’s Darren Emerson and Fatboy Slim. Today, when I walk through the Carlton Gardens to work at Trades Hall, I still wonder what bureaucratic loophole allowed 7,000 ravers to take over this World Heritage-listed site of Australia’s first Federal Parliament.

Cigarette buts littered the polished floorboards; a close friend vomited into a wheelie bin in the middle of the dancefloor and then kept partying (now that was an eye-opener); and Will E Tell teased us to distraction with a stop-start dawn set. Only a year previously I had railed against techno as repetitive anti-music for zombies: now, walking out into a beautiful New Year’s Morning, I hailed Carl Cox’s set with the specific praise that I couldn’t distinguish one track from the other!

I was a raver, and my girlfriend soon bought me some fluorescent, glittered bracelets – and a green op shop t-shirt advertising Milgate Primary School’s production of Kids in Space. But away from the party itself, I still found most electronic music almost unlistenable. Where was the subtlety, the variation? (My one dubbed cassette - Return to the Source: Shamanic Trance – was out-and-out goa.)

Thankfully, Melbourne’s street press soon came to rescue. If memory serves, the specific review was of Squarepusher’s Music is Rotted One Note by Anthony Carew in Inpress. In Carew’s typically loquacious style – never using one word when ten might suffice – he painted a picture of Tom Jenkinson’s music as a kind of sonic organism, gestated in the demented mind of this brilliant auteur, birthed live in the studio and then cut up Frankenstein-style on the computer.

I went straight out to Collector’s Corner to buy a copy, and it confused the hell out of me (as anything even vaguely resembling jazz usually does). Undeterred, I returned to pick up the same artist’s Hard Normal Daddy (1997), on which the jungle influences were much more pronounced. It’s a classic Warp Records album, straddling the divide between the dancefloor and the loungeroom. Then, another epiphany: a night with the atmospheric beats of Howie B’s Turn the Dark Off (1997) awoke in me a virtual cinema of the imagination. The next morning, I could almost see the tracks from the night before – the closest I’ve ever come to the experience of synaesthesia.

Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do (1996) was the other album on high rotation at this time, but it was the discovery of fellow Warp artists Autechre that turned me into a full-on electronica geek. On Amber (1994) and Tri Repetae (1996), they created tracks which even today sound like the hopeless mating calls of robot prototypes in a post-apocalyptic world: harsh, wistful, and perfectly self-contained. Or, to attempt a more social and less poetic description, they soundtracked the comedown from industrial life in northern Britain, when abandoned warehouses still echoed with the sounds of the rave the night before.

Autechre inspired a generation of lesser artists, many of whom took the absurdly reductive formula of industrial beat + pretty melody to its predictably uninspired conclusion. Perhaps partly in reaction, Autechre’s music has become more abstract, dense and unapproachable with each release. Their experimentation often seems restless and, when the odd danceable rhythm does rear its head in one of their tracks, it is savagely attacked within moments.

They remain my favourite group, however – especially after seeing them live in 2007 at Belgium’s Dour Festival. Performing in total darkness, Autechre provided an overwhelming aural experience unmatched by any other act I have heard - and these include the Philip Glass Ensemble, Aphex Twin, Christian Fennesz and Sunn O))). Their beats are relentless while hanging right on the edge of danceability; the sounds are endlessly inventive and terrifying; the overall effect of a nightmare you never want to end.

I think the key to my enjoyment of Autechre’s set was the context. I had heard them play live once before, at four in the afternoon in a lecture theatre in Valencia. It was a bizarre experience. At Dour they were right in the middle of the rave, sandwiched between Luke Vibert and Venetian Snares, with Otto von Schirach to close. It was a hot, sweaty, smelly tent – and every single person was there to get loose and hear the weirdest shit possible. In which endeavour, needless to say, they were richly rewarded.

Perhaps it is too much to ask one artist (or group) to embody fully both the physical and the cerebral aspects rave, but for some reason I have long held this to be electronic music’s holy grail. At Dour, Autechre came as close as I can imagine to fulfilling this dream.

These ramblings have come to me while listening to Autechre’s new album Oversteps for the first time (on repeat!). It is their most easily enjoyable album since EP7 (1999), sparser and more ambient but still far from minimal. The music evokes in me a nostalgia for the enthusiasms of my late teenage years, when a world of unimagined subcultures opened up to me; it also affirms my love of electronic music, and of rave as the parent culture which spawned such a highly specialised, intricate offspring.

And of Autechre, naturally.

____________________

My old friend and musical fellow-traveller, Chris Haan, is currently surviving his first London winter – a particularly horrendous one by all accounts. But in April Autechre will play a warehouse party and he will be there. Chin up, Christoff, there’s a few of us back here who are more than a little jealous!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Proglodytes

In the doof scene, prog is the new black. Which is to say, the total absence of colour. The default choice of fashion conformists. Pure evil.

On Valentine’s Day Kasey Taylor headlined Ceres’ Sunday Sessions. An afternoon that began with hippies holding hands for world peace, and built energy through Hideyo Blackmoon’s eclectic set of breaks and dubs overlaid with blissed-out drones and synth washes, finally ‘climaxed’ with music that rarely transcended the most basic dancefloor functionality. Not for the first time I found myself in the role of acid-tongued agitator against the DJ.

While I sharpen the knives anew, a few disclaimers. Firstly, judging by the crowd response, I am in a minority: it wasn’t the wildest dancefloor I’ve seen, but there were big smiles, whoops of delight and people trancing out. Tick. Secondly, the doof scene is not mine per se: I like to think have one foot in the scene – just as I do in the Left, the hippies, the literati and the jocks – but musically speaking, my preference is for far-out electronica that straddles the divide between the dancefloor and the bedroom.

When I first encountered the scene on something more than an occasional basis, in 2008, my overwhelming impression was that the music was exactly the same as in the techno scene. Techno was moving away from minimalism for its own sake and rediscovering colour and melody, while the trend in trance was for slower, funkier beats and more relaxed, ‘daytime’ textures. The moment belonged to artists like Stephan Bodzin, James Holden, Alex Smoke and, on the poppier end of the spectrum, Booka Shade.

The big difference between underground techno and doof parties was (and remains) the crowds themselves, which are much bigger and more vibrant at the latter.  As is now clear to me, the doof scene is stronger because it offers more: the freedom, adventure and camaraderie of outdoor parties and festivals; and especially a more complete counterculture of fashion, art, spirituality and even politics, aligned with but distinct from the broader hippie scene. PLUR* and the DIY spirit – sacrificed long ago by rave on the altar of chart success and the commercial security of the club scene – are alive and well.

Importantly, the scene seems to have avoided the cycle of boom and bust that affects the musical and, ahem, emotional freshness of narrower scenes. A strong culture allows new musical forms to be introduced without the core ‘vibe’ being compromised: witness the psychedelic twist on hip-hop and dubstep from producers like Spoonbill and Bassnectar. There is also a multiplicity of roles to be taken on: if gyrating by the front speakers all weekend isn’t your style, you might be a costume freak, d├ęcor artist, a chill DJ, a techie, a stallholder, a healer… or the person who lounges at the back of the stage laughing at your friends while you pass them another joint.

But the key element in this sustainability of the scene seems to be the trend towards daytime partying., to which I am an admittedly late convert. For years I railed against the replacement of New Year’s Eve with New Year’s Day, arguing that the real glory of the morning is revealed only when you have survived the night. And while there is truth in this, there is more in the fact that you can’t enjoy much of the day – or at least not as much, or as many over a long period – if you keep pulling all-nighters. Partying more or less within the natural rhythms of your own body seems entirely sensible, especially if you have to go to work on Monday.

And so, we come back to prog, the daytime music of choice. Psy trance may still rule the night, and bass sounds get a run early in the party or on the chill stage. But when the sun comes out at a doof, when everyone’s dressed to the nines and dosed to the eyeballs – that is to say, during the real business hours of 9 to 5 – prog reigns supreme. And all too often it’s boring as batshit.

It is in a sense fitting that use of the term ‘prog’ – with all links to its original meaning apparently severed – has become the norm, because there is nothing progressive about this music. It is not forward-thinking stylistically, nor does it take the listener on a journey. The breakdowns offer the illusion of progress to a new and higher plane, but when the beat drops we find ourselves exactly where we were before. So prog is in fact about stasis: it assumes the listener/dancer is already in a state of bliss, and promises to keep them there by not rocking the boat.

My girlfriend, an infinitely more hardened doofer than myself, has been tearing her dreads out trying to explain it to me. Taking care to clarify that prog is not her thing, she asks me to imagine I’ve been partying for three days pretty much non-stop (with some effort, I do this). I’m on the dancefloor and I want to dance, but my poor little brain can’t handle anything too strange. I want music to which I can move imaginary blocks from pile A to pile B…

But now I’ve lost her, because I never want to approach dancing like it’s factory work. At the end of a party, when my energy levels are waning, I need music that will slap me across the face or deliver a jolt of electricity to the base of my spine. The same goes for an after party vibe like Ceres’ Sunday Sessions: if I’m stone cold sober, or just having a quiet drink or two, the music has to do more than just plod along

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not talking about shards of electronic noise that pierce the ears and send people running for the exits (I learnt this lesson years ago after playing Pita on a mellow after-party morning). I’m just calling for more rhythmic and sonic diversity: drop a breakbeat, a new rhythm, some organic instrumentation, hell, even a mashup. Sexperts say we forget the brain is our largest sex organ; I’m sick of my brain feeling desperate and dateless on the dancefloor.

Maybe this post is a year too late: I should have written it after Rainbow Serpent 2009, when headliners D-Nox and Beckers served up the most mind-numbing minimal prog imaginable. Bored off the dancefloor, I ran around trying to recruit people to the Maximalist movement, under the slogans “Less is not more: more is more” and “More anything? More everything!”

Of course there is a place for minimalism, but I don’t want to hang out there if the music is being stripped back to its least challenging components. Prog is music for proglodytes: people incapable of stringing a sentence together, or moving their bodies in anything but repetitive back-and-forth, side-to-side motions. People who need only the signifiers of rave music – a four-to-the-floor beat, an electronic noise, the hint of a melody – and not the thing itself.

Musical trends ebb and flow, and the backlash against prog is well under way. In the meantime though, I find myself wishing the same wish I’ve had for years: that alongside the main stage and the chill out stage, we could have a freak out stage playing 60s psychedelia, experimental computer music, freak folk, contemporary noise and not-quite-dancefloor acts like my beloved Autechre.

The freak out stage: a haven of insanity when everything around you seems way too normal.

____________________

* PLUR = Peace Love Unity and Respect

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reading Stieg Larsson

I thought I should read a crime fiction novel. You know, for research.

People bring an unbelievable amount of the stuff into the New International Bookshop. Sometimes I think for every box of non-fiction donated, we get a box of crime. In particular, there seems to be a species of middle-aged communist woman who reads nothing but thrillers and whodunits. And leading Socialist Alternative member Sandra Bloodworth – who certainly reads (and writes) a lot of politics and history – watches every police show on TV.

This has always seemed strange to me. It’s not that I read exclusively heavy literature, in fact I almost never do; give me popular history and biography over theory any day. And the popularity of escapist literature (and art in general) is not only understandable, but perfectly desirable. Why shouldn’t we experience something beyond the often mundane reality of modern life, exercise our minds a little, and enjoy ourselves? I suspect we should probably draw the line somewhere before a life lived entirely online in virtual worlds, but I won’t presume to know too much about that.

Crime seems a strange choice for escapism, however. Literature offers an infinite spectrum of experience across our past, present and future – and beyond our little planet, into a universe limited only by the imagination. Why choose to escape into a world of brutal murders and the minutiae of police investigations?

So here are the prejudices, or at least preconceptions, I have to declare before recounting my first experience of reading crime fiction.

First, I have suspected crime readers (and viewers) of being more or less willing dupes of the pernicious ideology of fear, the belief that we are all powerless individuals living under constant threat from the inexplicable evil lurking in human nature. In short, I have blamed crime fiction for the fact no one lets their kids walk to school alone any more.

Second, crime fiction seems to be the sudoku of literature. The rules and individual components of the game are familiar to all, it’s simply a matter of following the premise through to its logical conclusion. Everything adds up in the end, with the principle upshot being you have successfully killed some time and the plane is beginning its descent.

This recalls the time historian Sean Scalmer tried to make me understand the appeal of rugby league as being the endlessly subtle variations within the rigid pattern of play. After taking into account personal preferences for different material, this doubtless explains how any genre can have enduring appeal – but neither crime nor rugby league, nor sudoku, is my genre of choice.

Left-wing politics is, however, so I couldn’t read the biographical stories on the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson without some interest. Nor could I avoid them, because in late 2009 The Age seemed to be running a campaign in support of the Millennium trilogy.

Larsson was a one-time Trotskyist and apparent lifelong workaholic, a graphic designer who edited a crusading anti-fascist magazine. He was also a heavy smoker, killed by a heart attack in 2004 at the age of just 50 before the three novels he had written as a hobby could see the light of the day. Posthumously he has become one of the best-selling authors in the world.

It’s an appealing back story, and when in November I found myself killing time in the Adelaide airport bookshop, I forked out $24.95 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two days later I had finished it, but thought I should take a break lest I become an instant crime addict. This January I knocked over the second and third books, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, in about a week.

They certainly make for compulsive reading and I do recommend them, even to non-crime fans – but I did expect more politics from Larsson. There is little class analysis to speak of (of course this is not a literary criticism, more a caveat for Lefties attracted by the author’s politics). The first book does dig into the dirty secrets of big business: the misogynist violence within the industrialist Vanger family is rooted in the fascist ideology which infected the Swedish ruling class in the 1930s; and the respected capitalist Wennerstrom’s empire rests on dodgy arm deals. But the profit motive is rarely the primary motive for crime, and the working class is all but invisible.

In fact it is the strident feminism of Larsson’s work which is its most striking and appealing feature. He shatters more than a few paradigms by creating pint-sized, bisexual, socially awkward hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander as the classic just avenger. She is a wonderful character who simultaneously infuriates and delights, becoming more sympathetic the more her story is revealed.

The Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in fact The Men Who Hate Women. It’s hard to imagine this title selling as well in Western countries still experiencing the backlash against feminism but, given the phenomenon the books have become, it is a shame the English language publishers baulked.

A woman busts through the glass ceiling; bigoted police and the mental health industry trample over legal rights; gay, lesbian and polygamous relationship are all sympathetically presented; the trafficking of women is deplored. A cynic could read Larsson as a predictable checklist of Left-liberal concerns, but it is this convincingly detailed background that provides the moral framework to which a reader can really latch on. The Millennium trilogy is a multi-layered quest for justice which transcends the rights and wrongs of an individual crime.

The first book is the best, not only for the shock of the new but for a narrative drive unmatched in its sequels, which occasionally suffer from the sudoku effect. The latter books are really one work divided in two – perhaps serialisation would have maintained the suspense most effectively – and the climax, however enjoyable, lacks real suspense. Undoubtedly Larsson died too soon, although his idealised self lives on in the character of Blomkvist, the investigative journalist sex-machine.

So, what of the fear factor?

Just after finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I had what I took to be a most revealing dream. It began as a classic fantasy: I was making my AFL debut (strangely, for Essendon) on the MCG. I ran out onto the ground, through the banner, warmed up and then headed to the bench as the first bounce approached. Realising I needed to go to the toilet, I informed the incredulous runner and headed back into the bowels of the stadium – whereupon I was tackled to the ground, bound and gagged, then raped and killed.

Read crime fiction at your own risk.
__________
N.B. Just before completing this post, the Bookshop received a donation of quality history and politics, plus the obligatory crime - tucked away with which was real gem: Delightful Murder: A social history of the crime story (Pluto Press, 1984) by the late Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel. I've nabbed it for myself. There may be more forthcoming on this topic...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A New Rhyme?

As a teenager growing up in Adelaide, my favourite Australian band was a relatively obscure Melbourne outfit called Gentle Persuasion. Their second EP was called A New Rhyme. GP gigged at the Prince Pat hotel in Collingwood, where my brother saw their farewell gig some time in the late 1990s, I think. Was I out of town, or had I already forsaken rock music for the rave scene? For whatever reason, I missed the show.

A New Rhyme hints at my main concerns in this blog. The first is music, although I rarely listen to music with lyrics. What excites me most of all is precisely the invention of new sounds, new rhythms, new approaches - and the alchemy which melds this invention into new music. As a music junkie, what drives me is the thirst for an unimagined aural experience. I want to to treat my ears and my brain to something new.

I do have my preferences, however, the most obvious being for electronic music. I imagine the bulk of my writing will essentially be criticism of albums and tracks, concerts and gigs, parties and festivals - as well as general musings on the state of the scenes.

A New Rhyme also points in a political direction. I co-ordinate the not-for-profit New International Bookshop in Melbourne, and am a former member of the Marxist organisation Socialist Alternative. My politics are clearly on the Left, but like many I sense the need for new forms of political analysis, organisation and action. This is especially so at a time when climate change, war and financial crisis leave global capitalism open to critique - and attack - which the traditional Left seems unable to spearhead.

Hopefully this blog will be a useful forum for me to sharpen my political ideas, as well as spark and engage in debate.

At Rainbow Serpent festival this year, I met a crusty old pirate who looked me up and down and said "You're from the Shishies". After an awkward back and forth I thought I had his meaning. "You're right", I said, "I am one of those sissies. I'm a big sissy!" "No", he insisted, "the Shishies!" Eventually, after considering bringing in as translators my friends who speak fluent SSHhhh, I worked out he thought I was from the Sixties.

And maybe he had me pegged. Like the revolutionaries of the Sixties, I want it both ways: utopia right now, the dream of ravers and modern ferals, AND a social movement of movements which can effect the replacement of capitalism with a classless system (call it communism, socialism, anarchism or just real democracy).

So for now, that's where you'll find me: somewhere between the apolitical hippies and the straight-laced activists. And, from time to time no doubt, somewhere else entirely.