this must be the place....goin strong , yeah baby!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Why I Love Techno pt. 2

This is the second installment of my exploration / analysis of techno or electronica or dance or [insert genre tag]. Why I like it, why it's classified the way it is, the way it works, that sort of thing. I slipped the first part in under the radar, so if you want to be up to speed like a good student then jump over to first.
So yeah, big beat happened. Fatboy Slim probably ended up making out with the biggest loot from that party. From the seminal "Praise You" video (which, thinking about it now, shines like a harbinger to stupid multitudes of YouTube video'd people dancing or singing along to songs they like today) to his occasional and sometimes surprisingly incredible work on contemporary remixes/productions.. Songs on Blur's sinfully under-appreciated "Think Tank" come to mind.. he typifies what nineties big beat techno means (meant) to me. And what reinforced my classification of him this way? It wasn't anything sophisticated, certainly not an understanding of how rhythm or tone worked in dance classifications -- that would come later. It was on the one hand an understanding that Big Beat usually meant good-times party music, but on the other hand it was guidance from

Trying to hit CDNOW today will shoot you straight into Amazon's eswamp. In the past days of Napster, roughly the late nineties, CDNOW was an invaluable resource that stood on its own as an early online record shop, yet it also featured bits of criticism and commentary on the music. As I recall it was a pretty awesome site. It had the breadth of allmusic as it exists today, just about the same simplicity in its interface, and great recommendations that worked well for me at least at that point in my life. I linked the few techno records I had to the critics' label of Big Beat automatically, just saying, ok, sure, perhaps that's what popular electronica in the nineties is called. But what else was out there? I looked into some related artists, and before I knew it I, like many of you surely have also done, stumbled upon what might be #1 on the list of worst-named genres...

Intelligent Dance Music. IDM. Uh oh, OOO, smart dude, nerd guy, do you listen to difficult, abstracted music that you could never dance to if you tried because you... can't dance? Thus you punish all us slick meathead dudes with moves by playing your breakbeat drilling sounds changing meter every five seconds? Music we obviously cannot take as we are not "Intelligent" ourselves but mere fratboys still jamming Everlast's "What It's Like"?

...Hopefully someone will laugh at that. See how nasty that genre name is? It's basically the same thing as the insertion of post- in front of a genre, where a critic describes an artist who is using the same instruments, sounds, and techniques of their colleagues but mutating the result/output that those elements made previously. Post dance must not have been attractive at the time. Nomenclature concerns aside, IDM was a really positive discovery for me. This music didn't seem concerned with a strictly party or dance situation at all, but rather it rewarded close, personal listening like I was used to doing. It was almost like I had finally found some electronica I wouldn't feel silly listening to on my own.

My first IDM love was Mr. Richard D James, otherwise known as Aphex Twin. My Audiogalaxy (RIP) profile listed him as one of my favorite artists, and I'm sure I really thought so back then when the listening was fresh. Dude's still a god to a lot of people to this day. I still have a few albums of his on various formats, my favorite being the wonderful "Windowlicker" 12". It's an unforgettable album cover, and the song is pretty wicked too. Back then though, I just loved that he made tunes that seemed to be so... Advanced sounding, I guess. Like he was channeling high-speed chaos in ways that no one before him ever attempted or conceived, save some early jungle stuff (which I hadn't heard or processed at the time). This is, of course, excluding his Selected Ambient Works series... which are much less schizo but still very cerebral slices of electronica.. SAW2, the "weirder one," has been a slow-burning favorite of mine. Some differences about him that stood out first: his face was on his records and videos, reestablishing a humanity to his musical persona that other techno acts did not do/have; his arrangements were like serpentine puzzles to be untangled; his sound palette seemed so vast and mutable it suggested infinity. All this contributed to a long-lasting feeling of surprise as I listened in and found other similar artists.. This is probably the golden age of Warp Records era techno. Aphex's symbol and visage might be the most recognizable sign from the IDM camp, but he's by no means the best there was to hear. I'd give that honor to Autechre on "Tri Repetae +++."

For all the maximalism Aphex Twin's freaky beat workouts suggested at times, I thought that IDM style actually brought a much needed element to the electronica table: subtlety. Trance's hypnotic samelike-ness, and so-called HI NRG dance tracks on the radio were stoopid (think C&C Music Factory, Groove Is in The Heart, etc). IDM was adventurous and daring in comparison. New rhythms abounded. Crazy textures flew into the mix out of nowhere. Other brain-y techno trends emerged from IDM's sound palette like glitch and microtechno (minimalism in dance...). It was only a matter of time before trance's reign over the techno popularity club would erode, giving way to something a little less blunt, and hopefully more smart.

On my personal timeline of music analyzing, this puts me right about 1999 or 2000. I was still pretty naive to the way that electronic/dance music got classified, but I started buying more and more of it anyway, learning what I could. Spin magazine, my music subscription of choice through these years, basically demanded my purchase of Moby's "Play" after it was released. At the time, this record felt really good. I heard it was a house record, which didn't mean much to me, but I appreciated the lighter, more emotive beats matching with good pop structure, some things that trance definitely lacked. I knew "Play" wasn't the braingame that anything from Warp was putting out, but I didn't want to feel like I was flying through a jagged minefield of percussion all the time as I kept listening to IDM, drum n' bass (basically IDM's more jungle-y cousin, perhaps) and that sort of thing. That was refreshing.

It might sound a little silly for me to admit that my first experience of a live electronica/dance show was Moby's headlining tour when he played Austin Music Hall. Because for one it really wasn't that kind of show at all. He was just touring with a band. Still, I knew he used to make purely electronic music, so I totally thought I was going to a rave and was nervous. The funnier parts are the amazing, perfect rave cliche memories I have from the experience. I rode downtown with a girl who was older than me and we parked somewhere nearby the venue, and almost immediately as we exit the car a guy with soooo too much candy jewelry, neon bracelets, and tiny backpack gear comes up to us offering to sell us "rave toys." I asked what he meant... 'oh you know, glowsticks, water, other.. fun.. things?' Too bad I wasn't very interested in that sort of thing at the time, I probably could have scored some E pretty easily. Still, we left that guy laughing to ourselves only to see that the standard outfit for the evening was definitely "rave style." Good thing I wore orange, a v-neck tee with an Atari logo from Urban Outfitters... I had a pair of Jnco's once, but nothing like the really hardcore kids wore. I'm talking 3 or 4 feet of bellbottom so their feet are gone under a denim blanket. In the venue, you saw The Liquid, you had strobe lights going off, fog machines... the whole shebang. I had fun at that concert, it felt somewhat devious even though I barely did more than giddily sing along to some of the songs.

The story of what became of Moby's "Play" is one of complete and utter media saturation from what I remember. America's great techno hope got pretty played out in every sense of that phrase. I recall that he licensed every single track off the record to some commercial purpose... The Southside single featuring Gwen Stefani probably still gets daily play on some radios... but I totally knew that the original version on early "Play" copies didn't feature her vocals. I was such a true Moby fan for knowing that. Spin named it pretty high in their best albums of the nineties list and I felt cool for liking him. "Play" still sits in my CD collection but it doesn't get too much love lately. I wonder why Moby became so uncool? No singles really after Play was the shitstorm album of those years. Perhaps he ran out of new tricks. Going back, all the classifications of that album as a house record don't really make too much sense, but back then I thought of it as house music, and I thought I liked house music...

I can certainly say that my introduction to house via Moby lead me to Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx, and that "Digital Love" was the first electronic song that totally made me lose my shit when I heard it. The Jaxx's "Remedy," another record worshipped by Spin at the time, was pretty fresh then too... I dug it. Moby was my bridge into better, more fun times in dance music. While I didn't recognize what made house "house" (much less why Daft Punk was labeled acid house) at this point, I dug it as a better version of historic trance. Daft Punk, you gotta love 'em don't you? Crazy beats, nasty breakdowns (Harder Better will forever have an undeniably amazing outro), very good production level.. Today I love Discovery as one of the greatest dance albums ever, but I listened to Digital Love so much back then I can barely stand to hear it again these days. When I come back to Discovery at any time, some song I didn't love quite as much before will suddenly be the song I have to hear on repeat 20 times. It demands a dance but it's got amazing pop quality to it. By now, I don't think I gave a damn whether electronica was "meant for clubs and parties"; maybe I stopped caring about music "purposes" altogether. So even though I was still playing guitar a lot, trying to make a band happen (hail Iconoclast), and becoming obsessed with Radiohead, I tried to keep the pace with new techno sounds.

My listening habits post-IDM discovery, post- Kid A, post- post-rock and all that stayed eclectic through the years.. well, this puts me near the tail end of high school, I think. At that point, Audiogalaxy was still live and I was using that to learn about music. I took a chance following an obscure recommendation whilst perusing the lovely racks of Waterloo Records and picked up a slightly pricey import of "Textstar" by Farben, aka Jan Jelinek. Some online buddies gushed about the greatness of Jelinek, the so-called master of microtechno. I think a P-fork review would call this release "music for neat freaks" and a study of "beat structure" then rate it very, very favorably. I didn't know what I was getting into at the time... it seemed to me to be a really great headphones-listening album, with all its discreet parts coming together to form a complicated, ticking beat mechanism. But I got into it more and more, I think, for the same kind of reason I love records like Tortoise's "TNT" so much -- they are definitely paradigmatic showcases of the "less is more" maxim. While "Textstar" still remains one of my favorite albums ever, listening to it back then for the first time would cause at least three important realizations for me.

For one, I was crazy for this injection of minimalism in dance and techno. I couldn't get enough of it. I'd go on from "Textstar" to discover I loved the rest of Jan Jelinek's catalog quite a bit, but also introduced myself to other favorites like Ellen Allien's "Berlinette," the skittering electro-pop of The Notwist, et al. When DNTEL's "Life Is Full of Possibilities" was released, I thought it was absolutely some of the most forward-thinking songwriting ever done. I haven't listened to that one in a while though. It'll probably be worth going back to soon... When The Field made a big splash with "From Here We Go Sublime," I was a bit sad that Jelinek wasn't being trumpeted as a big hero alongside Go Sublime's fanfare. For as much as I would grow to love The Field's music, I always thought Farben had the superior sound and hoped people would be encouraged to go out and try Textstar on for size at least for good measure against The Field's sound. but for minimalism's sake, I think it was finally the cure for my doubts about the genre of dance and techno as a whole. It was the ultimate expression of subtlety in a genre that desperately needed to tone down the tendencies of its past mistakes in trance's somewhat rock n' roll maximalism. The releases that are still steadily being pumped out by electronic artists today are tempered by this introduction of minimalism as a sort of guiding principle, I think... No one would dare produce a stoopid, repetitive trance record and expect to be taken seriously these days because the music has improved since microtextures were introduced. As it goes with most trends or sounds, especially in the quickly mutating world of techno that creates new ideas nearly annually, there's been an eventual backlash for minimalist techno fans in recent years.. but while it was fresh, it was truly amazing stuff.

Slightly more significant for me was how these minimalist albums introduced the concept of tone to my ears. Sheer sonic timbre and how artists manipulate it wasn't something I really listened in for before... I just stuck mostly to the vibration of guitars and drumkit hits. But an album like "Textstar," being virtually without melody throughout, forces the tone into the foreground of the tracks. Suddenly, I was really interested in "purely" tonal artists like Stars of The Lid, Keith Fullerton Whitman, or Fennesz, when before I didn't really get what could be interesting about so-called "drone" music. Around this time I also began to dig pretty deeply into a habit of listening to bands like Mogwai and GYBE! It also allowed me to go back and recognize what I had been missing out on before when I didn't consider a tonal analysis to be that prescient to the listening experience... I now have a deeper appreciation for the stuff I was listening to before techno came along, and can see how the different tones of rock styles have changed throughout its history.

But I guess I can finally say for certain that minimalism brought the component parts of dance music to my ears in a "simple" or "clean" way such that I finally recognized what designated different techno styles. In the words of Simian Mobile Disco's track, "It's The Beat." It wasn't totally obvious to me, for some reason, that "house" meant four-on-the-floor bass patterns and a fairly particular tempo range. "Jungle" or "Drum n' Bass" featured groovier, more complicated bass patterns and upped the tempo. "Disco" means alternating bass and snare on the one, two, three, four. Call me ignorant if you want but I guess it just took a discovery of microhouse for these dance and rhythm principles to become obvious to me.

Going back to why I started, the rise and fall of big beat (and how it may be the solution for techno's current dearth post-minimalism), will be the next part of this series of posts.

Until then, dig this awesome site, which is a visual timeline of the development of electronica / dance styles complete with samples of pretty much every style. Check microhouse or something in there for a Farben reference! It's at

I love you all


  1. Many thanks for sharing this nice post. I also love Techno Music. I like it because it largely and loudly boasts about the beats rather than the lyrics or the other elements of a song. It has both intensity and aptitude of swinging the mood of the listeners.

  2. That was either a compliment (in which case I'll say thank you) or a really hilarious riff-fest from someone on the rancho blog making a non-descript name and saying vague things, and if it's that, then I am really laughing.