Simon Reynolds is maybe the most important contemporary music critic, definitely the most influential. Suffice it to remind how the debate around his definition of conceptronica held the dice during last year, not to mention terms like post rock or hardcore continuum, which entered the common vocabulary.
Blending critical theory with musical journalism, he set a new way to talk about music, alongside former CCRU members like Mark Fisher, Kodwo Eshun and Steve Goodman (better known as Kode9). Books like Energy Flash, in which he recounted rave culture from the inside, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 or Retromania, an analysis of pop culture addiction to past, are undoubtedly fundamental to understand the last forty years of music.
The occasion is the release in Italy of Futuromania, published by minimumfax, a collection of articles throughout his career as journalist and contributor to Melody Maker, The Wire, Spin, Pitchfork and so on, with the common thread of the drive towards the future, from Giorgio Moroder to Migos.
Lately I read your 1998 book “Generation Ecstasy” and Kodwo Eshun’s “More Brilliant Than the Sun”. At the end of the XX century, both of you expressed the need for a new language to talk about music, a new way that would stand out from the rock criticism. How things changed from then?
That conversation was in 1999 I think. We had a kind of debate, or mutual interview, that appeared in Frieze, the art magazine. At that time, there really was a sense of criticism lagging behind where the music was, in terms of electronic music and dance music generally. People were applying the values and metrics of rock to music that worked in a completely different way and should be understood and judged according to other values completely – an emerging value-system that we were trying to define. At that time, the late ‘90s, you had Kodwo and me and a few others who wrote regularly for The Wire, like Philip Sherburne. But most of the other writing around on dance music then was fairly conventional journalism – profiles of the artist or DJ, a bit of genre-spotting but not going deep into the effect of the music on your “bodymind” in the way that Kodwo was doing, but nor was it really taking the socio-historical or quasi-anthropological approach that I was doing, where I was engaged in akind of “resistance through rituals” analysis of subcultures (but also abandoning, or complicating, the very idea of “resistance”, that the original subculture decoders of the 1970s like Dick Hebdige were working from – coming as they did from an essentially Marxist perspective). In that discussion with Kodwo, we touch on the work of the CCRU and similar figures that we both found very exicting and promising – and this was a group that included people like Mark Fisher and Steve Goodman, also known as Kode9. At the time we spoke, it was a few years before the blogging explosion and so there wasn’t even much interesting work online. In fact, before the blogs, Steve Goodman started Hyperdub, not as a label but as online magazine, precisely for this kind of intellectual analysis and celebration of electronic dance culture. Kodwo and I contributed a piece or two, but mostly it was younger writers developing the same kind of approach.
Since then, obviously, there’s been a lot more serious and stylistically adventurous criticism of electronic music and dance culture, both in magazines and in the academy. You also had very intense discussions between blogs and on message boards and so forth. You had younger writers who had read the blogs and then started their own blogs as well as writing for the Wire and other places, people like Adam Harper.
So in many ways, what were complaining about in 1999– that lack was filled, and then some! In the 2010s, you had the hyper-theoretical magazine Tiny Mixtapes which was very formally adventurous in the way its writers used language and the structuring of their pieces – closer to poetry or experimental writing., drawing on terms from theory and philosophy. And to be honest, while I admired the daring and the attempt to do something that lived up to the music’s intensity and strangeness, I found a lot of that magazine’s output to be incomprehensible. And I’m somehow who is quite familiar with philosphy and critical theory. But I tend to be more attached to the idea of lucidity and communicating ideas as simply as possible, if you can.
So in some ways, the situation has reversed. You have a lot of theory-driven criticism out there, and people doing genre-ology, tracking new genres. But what is missing now is the traditional music journalism – the reporting, the empirical observation of what’s going on in the scene. Partly because it’s too labor-intensive to do field research, if you’re not being paid much at all, so it’s tempting to stay indoors, listen to tracks, do your interviews via phone or email. But a dimension of the dance culture as a living scene is lost, I think. There was a guy called Clive Martin was doing that kind of thing for Vice and writing very colorful pieces full of sense impressions and details of clothes and people’s behaviour in clubs. And then someone like Holly Dicker at Resident Advisor does very good well-researched pieces on various scenes. But overall there’s rather too much of people pontificating about music in terms of it being flows of information as opposed to something that involves human beings and social energy. I suppose it’s a kind of pattern-spotting, genre-taxonomy writing that most people would identify me as one of the pioneers. But these days, the things I’m most proud of in my writing on dance music are the well-reported things that are more conventionally journalistic, where you get a feel and a smell, almost, for a scene as a social space involving actual human beings.
Funnily enough my son Kieran Press-Reynolds has become a genre-ologist type music writer and is very good at it – he’s constantly tracking new formations in terms of online micro-genres.
Low frequencies underlie what you call “hardcore continuum”, alongside tribal idea of aggregation. Now that electronic avantgarde music is linked by social network communities, high frequencies kind of took that place during the last decade, dominated by what you call “conceptronica” and its idea of “world building”.
Yes this is an interesting shift. Obviously the bass element is still there in the music, which really comes across in the live or club context, and also if you play it in the car, so long as you have a decent sound system. But a lot of people are listening on ear buds off their phones or on computers or tablets through dinky little speakers. And they’re listening often to a stream that isn’t necessarily that hi-fi. So there has been a gradual shift of emphasis in production towards high-frequency and mid-frequency sounds – intricate little details and wisps of sound, and movement of sound within the stereofield. Because this cuts across through the playback systems most people use, especially with ear buds when you are encased in music. It’s also partly to do with the software that artists are using to make music and the incredible detail and intricacy of production you can do. There is this sort of ASMR-attuned production aesthetic. But also a lot of the sounds in 2010s music also remind me of the FX and sound design in movies (meaning the CGI-oriented action and sci-fi blockbusters really) and videogames. The sounds in a lot of conceptronica are very high-definition, 3D, and ‘tinkling’ – sounds akin to smashing glass has become a sort of cliché of percussion, and all kinds of hissing, sibilitant sounds.
Then you also have the hyper-pop sound-palette that you got first with PC Music and then it’s become widespread in lots of genres – very bright, high frequencies that create this feeling of cuteness and sugary overdose. That treble overload intensity is in its way just as extreme as heavy bass. Also, a lot of the Auto-Tune pop and rap of recent years is really doing its most interesting things sonically within the higher frequencies.
But while I agree that it’s a very 2010s thing, the hyper-treble impulse has actually been part of the hardcore continuum. Early 90s hardcore and jungle had a lot of sped-up vocals, often female soul vocals that were accelerated until they sounded like angels or pixies – cartoon creatures. Then you had 2step garage at the end of ‘90s, which was very sugary and again quite “treble-tastic”. You could almost say, there’s a pendulum where the continuum moves between between poppy (and actually getting into the charts as hardcore rave and 2step did) and then it veers back underground and gets more dark, minimal, bass-oriented. The treble-phases have big basslines and wobbly low-end sounds too, so it’s more the case that the vocal elements (and also sounds that mimic strings like in soundtrack music) get stripped out during the dark underground phases (think of dubstep – not much treble there, and in its place this obsession with “bass weight”).
There was a guy called Wayne Marshall who wrote an essay on ‘Treble Culture’ back in the late 2000s, picking up on the way that kids were listening to music entirely on their phones and so bass was becoming less and less important in more recent styles.
In your article for Pitchfork called “Why Burial’s Untrue is the Most Important Electronic Album of the Century So Far”, contained in Futuromania, you compare Burial to “Eleanor Rigby”, because “where dance music is generally about abandon, Burial’s music is about abandonment.” Is there still music about abandon with that 90s energy? More than three years after that article, is Untrue still the most important electronic album of the century so far?
I should say upfront, the headline of that piece was chosen by Pitchfork, not me! They have a genius for coming up with titles that proliferate through social media – a big claim that people then dispute and tweet about, so the piece gets a lot of traction online and through the socials.
I don’t know if I would describe Untrue as the most important electronic album, but I don’t know what other albums would be rival candidates. I’m not the sure the concept even has much meaning. “Important” is one of those slightly empty terms that people use when they want to something matters or that you really need to pay attention. Another empty praise word people use is “bold”. But “bold” compared to what?
It’s certainly a great record and one that is emotionally powerful and resonates with a lot of people, including people who don’t follow dance music or particularly favor electronic music in their listening. It has an evident humanity and emotional quality that touches people who would normally listen to things like Joy Divison or The Cure or some more recent equivalent of that kind of thing.
Although I think I actually prefer the first Burial album, but that might be because it was such a surprise and seemed to come out of nowhere.
In terms of the “Eleanor Rigby” comparison, I was really pleased when that popped into my head, partly because on the face of it seemed so unlikely, but also because I was trying to think of music that addressed the subject of loneliness and urban anomie – and “Eleanor Rigby” must have been the first example of that in pop music. It’s a song that was innovative within the context of pop, partly because of the arrangement and instrumentation used, which was a break with rock’n’roll, but also because of the mood and the emotional content. It was very grown-up, very “real life” – and the beginning of rock starting to address social realities, rather than just being about teenage concerns like love, sex, dancing, etc.
So in that sense Burial replicated the Beatles move – making dance music that talks about life outside the club, and the realities of a fraying social fabric, urban isolation, the kind of lost people that the city is full of. Often it’s just down to his genius with a title – who else would have thought to call a track “In McDonalds”, or “Stolen Dog”?
I don’t know if Burial is an innovator sonically – but he’s an innovator in terms of content and emotion. But where the Beatles did that kind of innovation through lyrics, he has to do it through vocal samples and bits of film dialoague, and above all through the titles – the framing of his music is what gives its otherwise quite amorphous (if obviously sad or yearning) emotions their specificity, and it’s that concrete specificity that gives them their poignant power.
So in an odd way, Burial is in the traditon of the Beatles and the Kinks, who pioneered this kind of social-realistic pop with their character-based songs. But he’s also in the tradition of New Wave artists like Elvis Costello, The Jam, Squeeze, The Specials, even Madness with their songs like “Grey Day”. And before that, you had the Sixties British social-realistic films like A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar, or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – black and white films about young working class people struggling.
It’s an interesting thought for me – to forget about Foul Play or Omni Trio or Groove Chronicles, the obvious hardcore continuum ancestors to Burial – and point instead to “Ghost Town” by the Specials, or “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” by the Jam.
As to the question of dance music with a quality of abandon, I think there is a lot of functional club music still being made that is designed for people to take drugs to. And then you have trap music which is very dissolute and decadent, and certain has an energy of people busting loose. But I don’t know if the dance-drug culture has any sense of utopianism about it, which it did at one point in the first five or six years of rave culture, I think.