Friday, August 8, 2008

Re-Release Hysteris

Last week I went to see DEVO. It was fun. They were good. I was surrounded by middle aged men wearing 'sensible IT project manager' clothes and the signature three-tiered plastic hat that the band has conceived, promoted and has successfully marketed to its loyal fans. Savvy bunch, Devo.

Devo themselves were as they had always been: mixing the off-kilter with sharp riffs and pointed social commentary, all fed back through a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. This is, after all, a group whose key concept is de-evolution.

Devo didn't end up playing 'We're Through Being Cool', but they needn't have. What was abundantly obvious from their 08 presentation of their 80s material is that they know that their creativity has passed them by, and so, with the 'nothing to prove' comfort of AC DC or Iron Maiden, they belted out classic after classic. The paunches didn't matter - neither the bands nor the audience's - everyone knew the tunes, everyone had a dance, everyone had a gee whiz bang good time.

As electronic music approaches middle age, I can't help but think that a similar thing has happened. Some of the evidence is amorphous and subjective: DJs have always been disproportionately fat and bald... now increasing numbers of their audience are too. iTunes and Traktor aren't the only reason that 'everyone's a DJ' now. And note also the unwholesome insistence on high-fidelity and acoustics in the building of new clubs (I confess this is an annoying bugbear of mine). Soon, people will be demanding floor-side box seats: 'I just don't have the stamina to actually dance anymore.' Like I said, these things are subjective. They might be happening, but then again, it might also be me - my observations just the condensed reflection of my own paranoia, paunch, and absurd insistence on correct speaker placement.

But then there's the actual, material evidence of the shift. To wit: has anyone else noticed the number of high-profile re-mastered re-releases that have appeared in the past few months?

X102, Gas, Basic Channel, Pole, Monolake, the Aphex Twin and Vladislav Delay (Anima) – all these artists are re-issuing re-mastered editions of their works, often with the added incentive (for cashed-up middle-aged people) of boxed sets and extensive sleeve notes.

I remember my dad buying boxed sets of his favourites (Lou Reed, Bob Marley, Tim Buckley, Robert Johnson) in the early 90s. Part of the attraction then, no doubt, was the consolidation of cumbersome, fragile vinyl LPs onto a new format that promised ease-of-use and much greater fidelity. And the fact that, for the most part, the anthologised artists were dead. In 2008, this alone is hardly sufficient, especially when you consider that these were already beautifully recorded CDs when they were released, in the digital era, ten or more years ago. Oh, and the fact that none of the artists are dead. So why is it happening? I tend to think there are a number of factors driving it, but chief among them might be the following:

1) moribund electronica - electronic music, especially groove-based electronic music, appears short on ideas in 08. There was a time in the 90s when I couldn't even describe what I was hearing. When I first heard albums like Tri Repetae, Niun Niggung and the Richard D. James album, it was like... fuck, it was like hearing music from space. What's happened? Well, I got old, of course. But in another sense, there are only so many combinations you can run through before you've exhausted all the possible permutations. To some extent, this is about accepting the limitations of a given formula. The continual reproduction of such formulas might also indicate that the audience has become more conservative, and craves familiarity, golden greats, and 'the good old days'. But this also links to

2) the emergence of the 90s as 'the past' – yes, not one, but several heydays are way, way behind us now. Even post-millenial musical tropes like punk-funk, electroclash, mash-up appear to be from 'there and then' now, with B-more, Baile funk, dubstep and bassline chasing them toward the curvature of the horizon. What kind of horizon? Oblivion, re-release, the past - it's hard to say. The other month, my sister considered having a 90s retro party, and this is only recently something that has become not only thinkable, but appealing as a form of nostalgic remembrance. But maybe it's all to do with

3) what people are willing to buy – the logic of the 'essential purchase'. There are just so many fucking releases vying for the attentions of a shrinking market. If it's average or ephemeral, you just download it, right? 'Cos what's the point of investing in something that will be redundant in a week? But if it's a stone cold classic, something you think you'll be listening to for years... no doubt the producers of such 'classics' realise this on some level. And hey, we all need to eat.

I know that this has also profoundly affected the kinds of records I mail order these days. I've become conservative. I usually sit on an mp3 for a few months before I decide to translate it into a record I own. And it's not like I can go down the local record shop and browse any more - they're all gone. And looking at the records I've bought over the past six months or so, this means that, on the one hand, everything I buy is a fantastic record. I waste less money buying fewer duds, and this is better for the environment and will (hopefully) force labels to lift their game... but maybe not. How many of your favourite records were bought on the off chance? How many of your most cherished records were found by digging, through a process of selection that was exploratory and risky?

People are into electronic music for different reasons. Some like it 'cos they like groove. For others, it's the expression of some kind of weird techno-evangelism: a fetish for 'advancement' and the technology that (re)produces it. Others are part of a social scene. Some people like to party, take drugs, get wasted. But then there are those who like it because it's exploratory – full of possibilities. For those whose interests tend toward experimentation, possibility, and openness to something new, weird and different... what does it mean that we're more interested in buying boxed sets of records from ten, even fifteen years ago, rather than new music (which most people just download, let's be honest)?

A lot of people are happy that the whole dark minimal thing played itself out – people were always jumping out of their skin to disavow minimal, tell you how boring it was, how glad they are it's all over. But for what? Maybe, to throw the current doxa on its head, groove-based electronic music lost its last form of exploratory music with minimal – groups of people who were saying, willy-nilly, how far can we push this, how much can our minds an bodies handle before we crash, or just get bored? Often times the results were, indeed, very boring. But the ideas that lay behind it were committed to exploring possibilities. And now, the same audiences who disavowed it have willingly condemned themselves to the quasi-infinite recapitulation of old forms and golden greats from previous decades. Hey, at least it's 'funky' and 'soulful', right?

Of course, there are some false choices being presented here. We can buy boxed sets and new releases. We can pursue exploratory music and enjoy getting wasted and listening to Oslo. But is this a pattern you tend to see? Are these habits you see people cultivating, markets that you see being generated, scenes you see blosssoming? In fact, if I could characterie 2008, I would say never has there been so much potential, and never has it been so under-realised.

In another sense, potential and possibilities are all about unfulfilled promises. And it's not like there ever was a golden age. But at the same time, the fact that we are awash in re-releases is both a symptom of staleness and an enormous possibility for people to see that for what it might be... and sell merchandise. Either that, or get the fuck out of our comfort zones and engage in some destructive creativity. Time for some errorism. Time for something completely different.


  1. ok pete. you've put a HUGE amount of stuff in there to think about. for starters on the re-releases, it could be for quite the opposite reason - rather than reliving a moment past with the former generation, the point of the re-releases could be to introduce these sounds to a whole new generation of listeners that were still watching cartoons or listening to standard bog music when this stuff was first appearing. DBX has started re-issuing some of his stuff this year, and the main point of his livepas were for both the old and new audiences. from his website: 'It will be an opportunity for a new generation of club goers and music enthusiasts to experience the sounds of DBX in a way they haven't before.' or the re-releases could be that with labels like force inc disappearing, so has the possibility for getting hold of this music and artists may want to continue to make sure it is available. or it could just be because they've run out of cash and the bank account needs a fill up.

    as the lack of creativity, hmm... i need to think more about this. why must creativity consist of exploring new sounds/territory? arguably exploration can take place by remapping or repiecing together what is already there...

    my last observation - for the time being - is that i think your perspective is unavoidably influenced by the fact you've been around this music for so long. perhaps what used to be fresh was not the music, but you?

  2. There are actually a lot of points to think over in Pete's post, so for starters I'll just say something about the re-releases, and looking back.

    If electronic music in 2008 can be characterized by anything, it's looking back. We've had a number of re-presentations (as Pete would say) of old sounds. The deep house revival. The dub revival. The space disco revival (okay, maybe that's not a revival ... but it certainly feels like a revisitation/updating of older sounds).

    I think there's a connection here to the slew of re-releases in the world of electronic music in 2008. As well as looking back to "classic" sounds, producers are looking back at "classic" albums. (Setting up the way they "should" be remembered, perhaps?)

    Of course, I think it's great that a whole new generation of electronic music lovers can get their hands on this material without paying an arm and a leg (I didn't realize how much the GAS albums were going for). That's most definitely a good thing.

    But it's interesting that there are suddenly so many re-releases this year ... and that combined with the revivals suggests that there's a whole lot of looking back ... which is fine ... but ...

    Who's looking forward?

  3. There's a lot to chew on.

    My first thought is that one should remember that I think music goes through periods of intense innovation followed by relative (RELATIVE) stagnation before things swing back around again.

    The cycles aren't always the same length, and I'm sure there are plenty of other valid ways to see it, but it's one that makes sense to me.

    Expansion and contraction.

    Or maybe like you're in a maze and you've hit a dead end and have to backtrack a little to go find some new area to explore.

  4. 'Well, I got old, of course. But in another sense, there are only so many combinations you can run through before you've exhausted all the possible permutations.'

    i'd be seriously worried if electronic music was in danger of this after 40 years or so. thinking about it, i suppose a lot of people in 2000 would say that the beatles had done it all anyway, so why bother with modern guitar music. nothing left to be said. but i think they're just getting old.

    I think chris is right about the boxsets - they're timed just right for all the people who've got into house/techno in the past, say, 4-5years to go out and buy (at, in the case of the GAS boxset, an actually very low price) and to hear - and own - stuff they would otherwise not get the chance to.
    If you're 20-24 and you were listening to Sesame Street when Basic Channel started out then, frankly, these boxsets are a seriously good thing.

    it's extraordinary the amount of navelgazing going on at the moment (you, HIAF, philip sherburne...) but for me this year's been incredibly exciting. villalobos is as bewitching as ever, dettmann/klock are sounding very new to me (Clime, Similarity?), shackleton/appleblim/martyn are all making sounds that to me don't really hark back anything i've heard before...
    is there really a lack of new sounds?

  5. @ Joe:

    grunge was the last 'new' form of rock music, and its associated styles within indie-rock like noise rock. If you look at what's big in rock... well, what's changed in rock music in the past ten years, really? Anything released in 08 could have been released in 98, and this is not something you could say of the massive, massive shifts going back to 88, then back to 78, then 68 and 58.

    In a sense I think we've given up on new. Maybe it's just that pastiche is the aesthetic proper to late capitalism... maybe it's that people are out of ideas. Maybe novelty is a boring idea. I don't attach a value-judgement to that necessarily. Perhaps it all comes down to green politics: reduce, re-use, recycle. Maybe larger concerns express themselves through the music? Who knows?

    As for your second comment: does that explain ALL those boxed sets/re-issues being released within the space of one year? I'm not saying the boxed sets in themselves are a bad thing... but why so many all at once? This is my assertion: there is a pattern here, an irregularity... and that might mean something's happening. No?

    And how come so many 'new' styles are very directly following the classic styles? How many of the great 'new' albums this year are just doing 89 or 96 again, albeit in a beautifully crafted way?

    As for your third comment: you mention three things which are certainly very interesting. But... well, they do stand out a mile, don't they?

    Please don't get me wrong, this is not an 'everything sucks, why can't it be good like it was in the old days' argument. Nor am I saying that 'people aren't as creative as they were in the good old days'. But I can show you a phenomena, suggest some reasons, then speculate on what I might think is happening. Never mind the speculative bits... do you disagree with the reasons I've given?

    ...and yes, I will freely admit that I am a jaded old sad-sack. But I'm also one who's been very excited by a lot of music that's come out in 08 so far (see previous posts on this).

    ...but the thing is, you know, there was a viable market in pockets of the dance music community for music that was quite adventurous, quite risky, quite unusual for what it was. It's attracted so much experimentation, seen so many ideas fleshed out.

    If you pull the rug out from under that, then labels become more and more risk averse (those that survive), artists go for safe bets, and those that can't get government funding shrug, soldier on while they can, then go back to the call centre. Of course, people shouldn't make music to make money, but if the vast majority of people cannot make any money from recording, producing, remixing, mastering and so on, then, on an individual level, this is a massive disincentive. And cumulatively, the effects completely transform the scene.

  6. 'Maybe novelty is a boring idea.'
    i think that's probably a prevalent attitude this year. i suppose there's novelty and there's novelty. there are things that sound new (for example, the dubstep/techno thing) and there are things that are novelties in the snowstorm sense (like, uh, Noze, I guess). i don't think that villalobos/the dubstep people/the berghain people are necessarily all out there on their own. they've all got pretty solid scenes with plenty of new artists (villalobos might be the hardest to locate, i guess, but i'd hazard at Pronsato, a lot of the Perlon crowd, and then his connections with shackleton...)

    I think these people are obviously special and obviously stand out, but i don't think they're spontaneously generated geniuses - they come from solid, time-tested support networks and their influence does filter on to other artists (and not always in a watered-down fashion, not always).

    i think it's a good point about what i guess is conservatism provoked by financial difficulties. i can definitely see it happening. but then again i can't remember many interviews with label bosses recently that said that financial difficulties were constraining their creativity - in most of the LWE interviews for example labelheads seem to say that money isn't the issue (but then again I suppose a label owner saying 'we're in it for the money' kind of undermines their authenticity abit...)

    omar-s's creativity and willpower certainly doesn't seem to be waning, and he sells his music for half the price it is over here in the UK.

    I don't think I really disagree with your post(s), and i'm interested in the way you tie it into broader trends in society/politics.

    I wonder how much aphex/autechre/the mice on mars were able to live day-to-day on their albums. James has probably done the best out of all of them (well, enough to buy a tank, or whatever it was). But then for each of them were there hundreds of IDM casualties, frantically trying to program more beats as if more beats=more attention. I'd like to know how much difference there is between techno and the m_nus effect now and IDM/whatever and the Warp effect back then...

    please keep writing things like this, they open my eyes and ears every time.

  7. yo pete, as a 22 year old who's fairly new to house and techno, I thought I could shed some light on one element of your post. you said that the first time you herad Richard D James album, it sounded like music from outer space. I would say that is precisely the feeling I got the first time I set foot in a German club (which was also my first club experience altogether)-- it was like I was hearing music that shouldn't come out for another twenty years. I was flabbergasted that there was enough material like this to fill so many hours, and my girlfriend and I spent the next few days struggling to properly describe what we had heard-- no matter how hard we tried, all the adjective and analogies we came up with felt crudely innacurate. I guess my point is that, while these certainly aren't the halcyon days of techno, the music is definitely fresh enough to induce that feeling you described.

  8. "If you're 20-24 and you were listening to Sesame Street when Basic Channel started out then, frankly, these boxsets are a seriously good thing." (joe)

    As another young'un, I think this 100% true. For someone who stumbles upon a phenomenon that is so many years your senior, it's sometimes difficult to immerse yourself in everything new while simultaneously groping to find the lineage. Working at an incredible radio station has afforded me more of a back catalog than most people my age might have access to, but still, re-release like this offer invaluable perspective on where all of this shit really came from.

    I also agree with Will's comment. Going from listening to the standard no-wave/post-punk catalog and a handful of older electronic artists to the revolution I experienced walking into my first techno club-- this music has dramatically changed my life in a very short period, because a few years ago I didn't even know the likes of it existed.

    Not really sure where I'm going with all this, but for those of us who haven't been along for the full ride, 2008 has been a dazzling aural journey.

  9. yeah, i think the fresh-ness/excitement you feel when you first discover this music is something that unavoidably disappears. part of what made the first few years of listening to this music so fantastic was going to a party and spending the whole night being knocked on the floor constantly asking 'what the fuck is this?!'. those moments become more rare and shorter. nothing can be done to avoid that if you go into the music in a really serious fashion...

    but this still leaves the question of why the artists are deciding to do these rereleases. and why all of these are coming out at the same time. my guess is that it is not just a matter of introducing their work to new sets of ears. something more is at play...

  10. As a cute little post-script (tragedy returning as farce in the space of a blog thought bubble), Ministry of Sound have just released a 'Best of: 91-08' compilation. Sign o' the Times.

    But all you guys less jaded than me are totally right.

    My friend Jake was talking about the parallel phenomenon that a lot of Australians (and others, of course) experience on their typically/relatively long jaunts across Europe, visiting all the cities, galleries and monuments they've been seeing and reading about their whole lives. He was talking about being in Krakow after four months of backpacking (in the wake of six months studying in Sweden), and he was like, 'Mneh, beautiful church, mneh, amazing building, mneh, pretty girls, mneh, delicious, cheap beer...' then he realised, 'Jacob?! What's wrong with you?! You are in Krakow... and it's BEAUTIFUL.'

    Same deal with me and music. I listen to electronic music eight hours a day, five days a week (on the weekends I have my pod on shuffle, play 80s vinyl, or listen to Parliament and Fela Kuti). So there's a whole lot of churning going on, and a whole lot of deadening.

    You guys know about anhedonia? It's effectively 'dose failure', like in the movie Awakenings, you know? The drug works, they wake up, but they have to keep upping the dosage until eventually... the drug doesn't work its magic anymore.

    Neurasthenia could be another way of describing it.

    I've often thought of denying myself music for a month to see what happened.

    Perhaps one of the things we take for granted in this day and age is music flowing like water out of a fountainhead. Endless shuffle.

    But in earlier centuries, music was... quite scarce. You could only hear an orchestra at a recital. Can you imagine the 'WTF!?' moment that would have induced? No wonder the first people who heard Rites of Spring rioted...

    ...I think the clubbing experience in some places is still amazing. AMs at watergate, any time at the panoramabar, a good party at Tokyo's unit, or fabulous outdoor parties like the upcoming Labyrinth beast in Japan.

    ...and of course, it's all too easy to romanticise a past that never really existed. I confess I'm guilty of doing that. And clubbing = space + music + people ... these stars don't often align for me at the moment.

  11. i should add, another lot of reissues is all of the schatrax back catalogue. this is a good example of getting some really amazing - and hard to get music - to a new (and old) audience. schatrax has always been pretty underground, but his stuff is really amazing.

  12. Agreed... I've only been recently introduced, and those Schatrax EPs are dope and deep.

    NB as far as I'm aware a lot of Move D's deep techno gear (like Drane) is all old stuff from his vault.

    Q: Why doesn't Wolfgang Voigt raid the vault and put out a comp. of that?

  13. Music may have finally arrived at where visual art arrived at in the late 20th century.

  14. @Noel: What, dead? Or on life support. Or just very, very profitable for a small few and an elite market?

    It's funny... it's common to talk about the death of art, but it seems absurd to talk about the death of music.

    There was a Christian Vogel track from years and years ago entitled, if I remember, 'All music must come to an end', and I thought about it in the broader sense... I still do... but I feel very strongly that music... has a kind of boundlessness to it. Is there any place, any culture in the world that doesn't have its music, make music, listen to music, record music?

    But on the other hand, at certain points, under certain conditions, certain types of music become difficult, uncommon, improbable, or even non-sensical. Certain instruments lose their current, or their currency. Sounds, styles, genres come and go. Things click into focus, come together, then fall apart.

  15. no not dead. art is not dead. art is boundless too.

  16. 'art', or 'Art'? Or Art Tatum? That's one Art who's dead, for sure.

    I dunno... does art work anymore? Most art, most of the time?

    I mean gallery-hung, white-space, institutionally supported Art.

    Or... is that not art?

  17. i'm nineteen and without the reissue of Gas i would have missed it and it would have been too bad.
    and come on, Ministry of sound are releasing retrospective compilation like this almost every year !

  18. "Music Non Stop"... Sorry, couldn't resist. I'm 42 and in recent years I find myself increasingly fascinated more by depth than innovation. This is something I think is under-valued in our culture, but the progenitors of electronica themselves have spent the majority of their career honing rather than diluting their music. Less is, in the some cases, much more. One more example: Scott Walker, three albums in 25 years, but lord, lord, such music... Thank you for such an interesting post.

  19. @colin - i'm 46 and I'm with you on the depth thing, but I still get excited by new releases. (idm producers get hung up on the motif thoguh don't you think?)

    @pc - yes I think art does still work, even white cube art, but maybe when it is black cube art.

    back to your musical ennui, i have a feeling that the internet can cause a numbing saturation. so many mixes, so much music, so much access. i can remember when i used to wait for weeks for a new album to hit the record shop. it's so much better now, but it takes so much effort to choose right.

  20. Interestingly, it is a quantity thing with releases. In the early 70s, about 4,000 albums were released a year. Now it's more than 14,000.

    Music has become... banal, in fact, piped music and mp3 players on shuffle fill so much space in the rich world, that the challenge is to find

    1) a quiet space

    (perhaps an art gallery :) )

    2) a good setup for deep listening

    ...this affects the way music is heard and understood.

    As for RHC's comment: yes, I know the MoS comment proves little, or maybe nothing. And definitely the re-release thing has a lot of positives, too.

    Now that the rave generation has kids and mortgage, there's been a short inter-generational lull, but I get the feeling that people 18-21 now have a completely new feel, new musical map, and are unencumbered by a lot of the culturo/musico/social presuppositions that lay behind 90s 'dance music' culture.

    Perhaps the death of 'dance music' will be the best thing that ever happened to dance music.

    Shedding the Past.


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