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.

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* PLUR = Peace Love Unity and Respect

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