Laptop Beats, Digital Birds, and Ricci Fiends

Pretty much all electronica, really, is DIY bed room electronica—it's in dance music's family tree, only created by motionless, isolated people sitting at computers. But by playing up digital music's potential for expressive messiness, a fairly recent strain allies itself with rock's do-it-yourself sectors. The laptop underground loves beats, but it doesn't especially care about moving bodies. Imperfect and nonmechanical sounds are its staples, and its artifacts are meant to seem handmade, either figuratively or literally.

The most striking record to have come out of the scene so far is Oiseaux 96-98, a bass less drum 'n' bass album by Hrvatski (Croatian for "Croatian"), a/k/a Keith Whitman, released on his label Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge (name courtesy a witticism of Wagner). His favorite source material is the sound of guitars, pianos, autoharps, whatever, hammered and plucked and electronically altered; his aesthetic grew up on rock, but was baptized by the "amen." That beat, the drum break from the Winstons' "Amen Brother," is worse than a cliché in drum 'n' bass: It's the default option, which seems to be exactly what intrigues Hrvatski about it. He treats the amen as an alphabet rather than a slogan, crumbling and remolding it until only its timbre is recognizable. His album is very much in the dance tradition, but it's explicitly not for dancing.

Oiseaux's final track, a breathtaking cover of Pink Floyd's "Cirrus Minor," makes that clear. Hrvatski simulates the original's vocals, guitar, and organ faithfully, but he's mostly interested in its "atmospheric" bird chirps and their high-speed, high-pitched randomness. He brings in a slow amen under the second verse, then uses an organ break as the runway for a much faster amen, cartwheeling and skidding at close to 200 bpm. By the time the beats have careened out of the picture, all that's left is sound effects, and for six more minutes Hrvatski rocks the birds like they were amens, processing their tweets into a sticky, dizzying mesh.

Hrvatski: Speaking secret alphabets,
photo: courtesy of Hrvatski
Hrvatski: Speaking secret alphabets,

Hrvatski's part of a genuine scene that's spread out across the country but connected in lots of other ways. Lexaunculpt, Kid606, Cex, Lesser, Cathars, Suetsu & Underwood, and a handful of others tour together in various combinations; they remix each other's tracks; they appear on the same compilations, like the Diskono label's I'm So Bored With the USA series; they like to lure ideas from dance music into their lairs, then kneecap them. (Kid606's new GQ on the EQ EP, on 555, is essentially a noise record made from the distorted, twisted wrecks of breakbeats; it's gristly, sometimes annoying, but entertainingly berserk.)

Some of them also share a very particular obsession: viz. the existence of Ricci Fiend, "the ONLY internet mailing list with its eye on BOTH voices of the new millennium: 'bad girl' actress Christina Ricci and experimental, futuristic Intelligent Dance Music." Inevitably, the new is sue of the electronica zine FAQT includes a CD called Ricci's Pieces, with 15 audio tracks and 5 MP3s (by, among others, Kid606, Cathars, Lesser, and Cex) concerning, sampling, or otherwise inspired by the former Wednesday Ad dams.

The scene's by-products tend to be somehow personalized or homemade—maybe out of necessity, maybe out of ideology. Rock DIY's cassette dubbing deck has yielded to the CD-R burner. Some elaborately packaged recent discs, like the impressive Broklyn Beats 02 compilation of raw local electronica, have the telltale paper labels and blue undersides of recordable CDs. Cex's Cells (ba-dump bump), the first CD-R on his label Underscore, starts with a track called "At Least One Unwilling Passenger on Keith's Ego Trip," which might bring us back to Hrvatski. Cex has an endearingly weird sense of percussion, centered on wet squicks and pitty-pats, and he's a lot more interested in melody than other laptop types—parts of his disc chime like an instrumental A Broken Frame–era Depeche Mode.

Meanwhile, there are stirrings on the other side of the DIY guitar/computer ravine. Ted Leo—or, as he now insists on calling himself, tej leo(?)—is the former leader of the modem band Chisel, and not part of the electro clique. His sui generis album Rx/ pharmacists (Gern Blandsten), though, is a step toward their territory: Its murkily recorded strum 'n' brace songs are scattered into a mire of slurping echo effects and "pirated" bits from records by Crass, Gregory Isaacs, Louis Prima, U.T.F.O., the Secret Stars, and himself, as well as a groping instrumental take on Bob Marley's "Mr. Brown," retitled "Mr. Annoyatron Brown." The album's centerpiece, the deep, sooty inverted rock mix "Congressional Dubcision," could fit comfort ably next to a Kid606 track. All it needs is some Christina Ricci samples. 

 
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