By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
A friend of mine tells me, "Appearances to the contrary from an American point of view, the scene in Britain seems to be much more divided, and it's fighting words if you get the name of the genre wrong."
If this is so, then a lot of musicmakers must be fighting within themselves, or with their publicists at any rate, because almost all the promo sheets that accompany current Brit dance CDs portray the groups as multigenre hodgepodges. E.g., "they're finding new crossroads between modern dub, jugular techno, and wild-eyed millennial electro." "A collision of hip-hop, jungle, big beat, acid, spoken word, and opera." "The 'have-a-go' mentality of the Happy Mondays crossed with [their own] take on '90s UK hip-hop. . . . Firmly rooted in the Bristol sound (slower, bass-driven songs that most closely resemble dub)." And so forth. The only recent exception I've seen is the promo sheet for the Wiseguys, in which the Wiseguys guy insists that it all comes from his love of hip-hop. But he isn't claiming that it all is hip-hop, and the Billboard review that comes attached to the sheet says, "Don't be surprised when house rhythms get sideswiped by hip-hop beats or when jazzy disco gets shoved aside in lieu of adrenaline-pumped big beat."
As for our heroes, Hardknox: "They both have a love for hip-hop, Drum & Bass,distortion, hooks, mayhem, and a good groove. . . .The techno gangsters seemto have found a unique formula that draws from the best of what hip-hop, electronic dance, and future rock have to offer."
Anyway, my point isn't that the terms are meaningless but that they're functioning in these promo kits as adjectives not genresjust as a nondescript rock band might get promoted as "a heady mixture of blues-metal and funk." (And "it all comes from my love of hip-hop" is sort of like "it all comes from my love of the blues.")
I'd suggest that there might be an interesting disconnect: That is, for musicians and DJs, terms like "dub," "drum 'n' bass," "hip-hop," and so forth are sounds and sources, daubs from the standard British dance palette, whereas for fans (and also I'm sure for at least some of the musicians and DJs, despite the contradictions) these terms really do link up to quasi-social categories. And of course the categories will slip and slide. Any time there is a proliferation of categories and subcultures there will also be a proliferation of hands grasping for the music, as people try to take a sound or a style for themselves, and others flee or change the sound or the style once it's been used in the "wrong" context, contaminated by the "wrong" hands. [Insert potential 72-page essay, not by me but by someonewho's actually lived in Britain, giving the gory details.] (By the way, this situation is hardly unique to Britain, or dance music, or the present. Consider the terms that were pouring out of Creem magazine in the mid '70s: glitter, glam, punk, rock 'n' roll, heavy metal, and so on. The words made real social and musical points, they really mattered, yet the music that was actually being created made a complete hash of the distinctions.)
But anyway, my reason for delving into all of this taxonomic agonyto return more or less to the matter at handis that I could describe the music of Hardknox as swamped in dub and drum 'n' bass and even having touches of trip hop and ambient yet usingmostlystraight-ahead techno rhythms. As well as all the hip-hop/rock stuff I brought up earlier. Now if you took those terms to be genres, Hardknox would seem all over the place, a bizarre amalgam (what, for instance, is a touch of ambient?). But in fact, if anything the group's music is too narrow.
That is, on the Hardknox CD the styles seem played for but one emotional effect. The echoey, dubby bass beats are portentous and ominous wherever they appear; the atmospherics are exercises in the use of various warning sirens (running in a range from "phone off the hook" to "car alarm" to "soundtrack-to-Psycho ambulance screech" to "nuclear meltdown in 30 seconds"); the softer tracks are laced with threats ("just me and you, motherfucker"); the guitarish tracks are subterranean rumbles; and so forth. "Come in Hard" manages to lift up all this doom and dread and make it move; the other songs tend to just sit you in itsometimes to brilliant effect, sometimes to wearying effect.
In general, I find the quieter cuts a reliefthis is one of the few LPs that I wish were more ambient. There's an interesting dub-heavy track, "Ain't Going Down""At last, a slow dance," I said to myself; "Ladies and gentlemen, this one's for smooching"that alternates between reggae rhythms and a techno straight beat without any disjunction. Hardknox inserts some planks-whacking-together-at-the-construction-site percussion to insure that the mood doesn't get too gentle. I wonder how this music plays out in dance clubs. Time to rock, time to smashthen time to chill out, but still to the sounds of doom. Track eight, "Resistance Is Futile": Now the warning siren is far off in the distance, mixing with a gentle mood, until people get talking, beats get hard, life gets hard. Hard-rock ambient, sort of.