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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iiiii've got the Big Beat AKA Why I Love Techno

Preamble, written after I completed this entry: This is an intertwined account of why I love techno and what I understand techno to be. I hope that makes some sense. It's going to be spread over a few posts if I can keep it up, so here's part one...

I was watching "Hackers" today. You know, that movie where Angelina Jolie looks all cyberpunk and seduces Jonny Lee Miller. From 1995ish. I used to be pretty obsessed by that movie just cuz I was already basically a computer addict mixed with gamer (crazily playing Doom 2 all the time.. and it was on five A drive disks, those little 3 1/2 inch hard ones y'know). First of all, if you're not aware already, YouTube is a great place to catch free flicks. The formula is "[movie title here] part 1" in the search bar. Usually you'll get some results that are real, but sometimes you may have to dig around somewhere else if you really are trying to catch a freebie... Hackers is on YouTube, or at least it was this afternoon. I'm not gonna break out a post about that movie though.. The real point I wanted to talk about here was the concept of Big Beat techno. Also, a little bit of trance is in here too. "Hackers" is flooded with some of the biggest hits of early to mid nineties electronica (which is a word you don't really hear much anymore?)... And from my massive, steady diet of techno tracks I ingested over the last three years or so, I've come to some interesting conclusions about the older sounds that this film uses.

I am fairly certain my first exposure to Electronica was via Mortal Kombat -- the film, that is -- which featured the archetypal "trance" song, Orbital's "Halcyon + On + On" in its soundtrack. It's also in Hackers when the main character flies over NYC near the beginning. OK done talking about Hackers. The song's all soft reverb, quasi-spiritually-via-world-music sounding, four-to-the-floor stretching the length of the track with a few synths flying in here and there. I'm surprised that this song holds up so well even today, which is probably a testament to Orbital more than anything; still, I'm pretty sure I was intrigued with the idea of that song back then, as a clean, nice sounding track that was pop, dance, and purely electronic sounding all at once but without being boring. Later I learned that it was part of the rave tradition of trance music.

Of course, due to my being born in 1985 I have to concede I'm already a latecomer to the rave game (see Britain's Second Summer of Love and the Madchester scenes, or any classic American scenes for house...) so my understanding of trance and/or rave, and I guess therefore my usage of the terms, doesn't really concern anything before 1990. Sorry to anyone who thinks I am overlooking classic Detroit sounds or stuff like that. Disclaimer? Yeah.

Today when people hear the word "trance" it's basically the butt of a joke already and you're thinking E tabs, K holes, candy bracelets, huge Jncos, glowsticks et al, and that's probably because the music the genre was named for kinda sucked. Is that archetypal track from trance called "Sandstorm"? I think it is. I'm not looking it up right now because I it's late and my wife is asleep next to me as I write. You'll have heard it if you've been to a roller skating rink before when you were younger.

The complaints that trance songs were just long, same-like pulses with little to no change in them aren't too far off the mark. Any trance I found besides that song from Orbital and maybe a few other exceptions seemed to prove to me that this music wasn't worth my time. Personally, I was convinced that electronica was a very limited genre that was designed only for dance situations, maybe just parties or clubs, instead of close or personal listening. I was much more into listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam at that point in my life. Techno / electronica, to me, was mostly uninteresting, repetitive, and lacked a human element that rock obviously contained. On top of that I certainly wasn't going to dance clubs at that point in my life so I figured the only place I'd ever hear techno would be the occasional music video on MTV.

With all this in mind: Queue me watching MTV in 1997ish. I sit on my couch to watch an apparently hotly anticipated video of a song we all know today, "Block Rockin' Beats." By Chemical Brothers. It filled in all the spaces of teenage fantasy I had accumulated about the idea of raves. It's a pretty humorous depiction (ironically speaking) of people dodging the cops while trying to make it to the crazy electronica party full of eccentric, progressively dressed dancers in a dingy part of town somewhere. Youtube it, you'll laugh. And yet, this song kinda kicked my ass. I still think this song is good, not great or anything. Back then though, I thought it might be the point of rave culture entering into a wider consciousness and, more importantly, the death of boring trance with a more exciting sound for electronica to rise as a phoenix.

I went out and bought "Dig Your Own Hole" from the Blockbuster Music that was around the corner from my house on Shoal Creek (shout out to ATX, what what). I think I also bought "The Color and The Shape" at this time too cuz I really liked the song Monkey Wrench. It rawked me. Anyway, for all my prior excitement my first listen into Dig Your Own Hole by myself left me a little disappointed -- while it was definitely more listenable than any "trance" I had encountered prior, it still seemed to me it was specifically designed for dancers. Sure, there were recognizable A to B to C pop structures in some of the songs, which was the biggest improvement for me -- some guest vocals here and there... But I guess it didn't scratch my itch enough. The songs were shorter, they didn't meander, but they also didn't grab me. I blame my early grunge addiction; I had to have a human element, something more visceral and rock, I guess. As such, I listened to The Color... a ton, ton more. Yep, loved that record back in the day, scrawled Foo Fighters lyrics on my school notebooks, on tables and chairs. And as I went to a private Baptist school you bet your ass I was rebellious for it.

At that point I was a blossoming music nerd already, so I had to test the waters around me to see what my friends thought about the rise of electronica. People were definitely aware of stuff like Block Rockin' Beats, but what mattered more to a lot of my friends were the radio hits at the time, which were songs by Crystal Method and, more significantly, Prodigy. People were pretty nuts about "Breathe" at my school. There were some definite music cliques forming about my junior high class -- some people who "dared" to listen to harder stuff like Metallica which was about as rebellious as most of us could get, some people who were grunge with me, some punks, some radio listeners, some pop kids -- but it seemed like Breathe managed to cut through most of the lines as the most liked song. Prodigy definitely had an intense image thing going on that allowed them to rise above first impressions of typical electronica. Hell, their lead singer gave Rancid a run for their money for punk looks. I think it's more significant that "Breathe" utilized more organic sampled tone, namely the distorted "guitar" (cuz it maybe isn't one) riff that drives it, coupled with a pretty rock and roll vocal and some pretty intense lyrics that any disgruntled kid could latch onto and sing later, sounding cool.

While I saw everyone digging Breathe and heard it on the radio, I was convinced that it was more of the same electronica that turned me off for the same reasons Chemical Brothers managed to at first. Thus, it didn't set me off very much. Techno still wasn't my thing. Electronica was still a fad to me. It was still for dancers in my head. Same for Crystal Method. I kept returning to my rock records more often than not. Seemingly, I was trying to enjoy the new sound of electronica, or at least understand so I would know where music was going, but it wasn't working out for me. That is... until one day...

I was at an arcade (do people still make arcade games? Like, are there amazing arcade machines that have come out in 2008?) somewhere, I think in Austin, hanging with some friends. Carrying a backpack with me, I stored my discman with headphones, wallet, and an album I decided to pop in just to see if I could finally enjoy electronica again -- Crystal Method's "Vegas." It's strange how vividly I can recall this situation. So, like I said, I am a big gamer, always have been. I am particularly good at those top-down fighter jet games where you can fly around shooting upwards at the enemies who fly down shooting at you, and your progression from level-to-level depends on your ability to survive their downflow attacks and you kill everything in sight. Some people call those games total bullshit but I love them. I love Galaga, I love Aero Fighters... they are awesome. At this particular arcade I was rocking some Aero Fighters type game though. I'm off by myself, pump in the 25c and hit start, and slipped my headphones on, hitting play. "Vegas" fades in with a synth tone that pans the stereo field, then drops into some dance-y fast paced electronica (it's pretty much a big beat record). As I frantically fought off the high-speed onslaughts of my enemies, I found that my ears were basically getting a perfect, high-tempo soundtrack for my eyes' input. Suddenly, I found myself loving the hell out of songs like "Busy Child" and "Keep Hope Alive," singles I had definitely heard before on the radio but never enjoyed nearly as much as I did then.

It was a big epiphany for me cuz I had finally removed my categorizations of electronica from rigidly defined dancefloor situations to personal listening situations, albeit at first I was like "Maybe I can only listen to these records when I'm gaming." But as I went back to those electronica albums I had already bought again with a more open mind, I found myself able to enjoy them on my own as I never had before. I went back and bought Prodigy's "The Experience," which has the amazing track "Voodoo People." That song was somewhat of an anthem for me back in those days. It features prominently in "Hackers" too.

Now, I hadn't surrendered to the dance craze totally yet. I was still much much more of a rock and roll kid. At that age, I would begin to pick up the guitar, realize I loved Pearl Jam enough to buy all their albums, go through a totally exclusive punk rock phase, etc etc. This was far more important to me than realizing I could and did actually enjoy electronica/techno music. But looking back now, and given my taste now leans much more toward dance, techno, and hiphop than it did before, I can see how these experiences laid the seeds of my later music loves.

At this point I am making an executive decision based on 1) the length of this entry 2) my wife trying to sleep while I type, and extend my analysis of big beat/electronica into a later entry. This will basically a history of my love of techno that also talks about where techno has been, where it is going, and how I came to understand it. Part two will go from here to my discovery of IDM, house, my first raves, to my pivotal discovery of microhouse/minimalism in techno. Part three will talk about how I jettisoned all rock music for a few months as a sophomore in college, listening almost exclusively to hip-hop, microhouse and disco. This is about when I realized how the categorization of techno happens, so it'll have to be then that I talk about what I think about big beat vs. the rest of dance music. I'll analyze the effect of minimalism on dance music, discuss the rebirth of trance, the rise (again) of techno, and how big beat could reintegrate itself into the consciousness of listeners.

This might take four parts but I think the personal anecdotes combined with my insights could work.

Okie dokes?

I love you all

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