Saturday, 3 November 2012

Dragging itself through the mud: decayed dance music


I just got my hands on the new Kane Ikin record, 'Sublunar', out on 12k. Knowing and loving some of his earlier work, in collaboration with others and as part of Solo Andata, the record held a surprise in the form of slow, sparse drum parts. Added to Ikin's worn-out analogue whirls and unfolding gongs and bells, the overall sound strikes me as heading toward the same musical landscape as some dance music artists but coming from a different, more ambient direction.
To start from the dance musician's perspective: for a while now, I've been noticing a shared aesthetic among some more experimental artists that I like to call 'decayed dance music'. This is electronic music that takes house and R&B musical elements, tampers with their recording fidelity and then filters the results through a heady dub techno atmosphere which itself has been rendered less pristine in some way. For an aesthetic that is, as one reviewer recently noted, relatively limited in its timbrel colour, the results can be quite varied emotionally: from the faintly apocalyptic techno of Andy Stott to the angelic affirmations of more house-inflected Tri Angle artists such as Holy Other. What these different musicians share is a reliance on an idea of approach to composition: the story of their music is one of taking more puritan strains of dance music and degenerating them, deliberately wearing them down until the music is heavy with some sort of playback contamination. Thus Scott speaks of a “detuned grit feel” he gets from manipulating late '80s/early '90s R&B samples to complement bpms that, the interviewer emphasises, are now much slower than his earlier minimal techno. A reviewer of Holy Other's new album similarly notes the “extreme timestretching” involved, the deconstruction of “dance and pop music source material”. This story of degeneration and decay is part of the identity and aesthetic experience of these works.


Kane Ikin seems, however, to be arriving at a similar aesthetic from a perspective not of degeneration from dance but of probing potential undercurrents of rhythm within ambient drone. In the past, Ikin's music has often comprised long mournful notes ululating from among thickets of field recordings and vinyl crackle. On 'Sublunar', bass drums push into this undergrowth while the crackles emit snaps of snare rhythms. From the way these elements are incorporated into the mix, you get the impression that the rhythms had been lying dormant in the drones, only now being allowed to grow and agitate. Interestingly, reviews of Ikin's new album have portrayed the music as threatening to spill over into something even more agitated. Boomkat describes the production style as “measured and detailed” to the extent that it offers only “a tantilising glimpse” of where Ikin could have pushed the music. Fluid Radio puts this in more positive terms, detailing an “impression that each of these short pieces is threatened by chaos, as if pushed right to the edges... teetering on the tipping point of lunacy”.
In both the case of the slowed-down dance crowd and that of Ikin's droneish experiments, we have this notion that the music is being mediated in some way. It's striking how the articles I cited all share this idea of the music being “dragged through a hedge backwards” and “dragg[ing]” us the listener “through the mud”, or of “beats flow[ing] at the pace of tar” (Stott), of “the sluggish oozing open of every rhythmic tic” (Holy Other), and of the music being held down by “an unimaginable weight of water” (Ikin). Whether from the perspective of degradation or of constrained potential, the music is seen as being mediated or held back by some material aspect such that it can't fully express itself. That is, the music's 'true essence' is prevented from being expressed – or more accurately, I think, these different works are relinquishing the idea of a self-contained abstract essence of 'what they really are'. That abstract essence has been ruptured by the forcing of its material nature to our listening attention: “this has been tampered with, this is not quite what it should be!”
Personally, I love this idea of audible mediation of a work as a compositional approach. It produces this enjoyable tension where what we're getting pleasure out of is music that doesn't feel quite whole, that riffs off of an imagined ideal of the genres it's working within, while at the same time challenging us to think of it not as being insufficient in some way but as fully-formed in its own right. (You can see how 'dragging through the mud' can take on a double-meaning here: both as expressing the notion of mediating the sounds and of besmirching previously-untained genres.) That tension between degradation and new form isn't, I suspect, going away anytime soon.

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