Dance music has been living down its tag as “body music” ever since the disco bash out at Comiskey in 1977, given that “body” is synonymous with “dumb.” (As if rock has ever mapped genomes or done corporate taxes.) Making hedonistic dance tracks just isn’t enough anymore, unless they come with tracts or footnotes; in the ’90s, Warp’s architecture-obsessed acidheads sired “intelligent dance music” while Mille Plateaux’s mousy clicks ‘n’ cuts referenced Deleuze and Foucault.
San Franciscan duo Matmos used to smirk as they lashed back at such stuffiness. Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt mischievously whittled beats not from 808s or fancy software, but from banjos, balloons, and whoopee cushions, giving their squelchy tracks a clever coherence. But by 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (its sounds culled from cosmetic surgery), their theses were paramount, overriding the fun with a detail obsession found in killjoys (or grad students)—everything from bondage gear to Gettysburg re-enactments was but a fetish object when sucked into their samplers. The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast‘s title track even recites Wittgenstein over plops and honks. With a Rolodex as hyperactive as the band’s programming sense, everyone from Antony (on the ghostly “Semen Song for James Bidgood”) to Björk appears in cut-up form here, as do snails, cow uteruses, and “recordings of anonymous sex acts made surreptitiously during International Bear Weekend.” Without the footnotes though, the fun of the album is meted out by how much you dig the method. Is the ode to Darby Crash predicated on knowing how it was made?
Then there’s the question of which alter ego made it.
Finnish techno producer Sasu Ripatti is somewhat schizo. Though occasionally recording as Conoco or Sistol, he generally fluctuates between breathless, silvery house productions as Luomo and the dubby beatless haze he exhales as Vladislav Delay. Somewhere between the two polarities lies Uusitalo. It’s his most straight-ahead endeavor, which is not to say that there isn’t some greater dissertation at work; Tulenkantaja‘s booklet of Finnish fragments comes from the pen of his father, while his grandmother was a radical icon of Finnish letters.
Family tree or no, such nagging concepts don’t detract from the slippery, quicksilver tracks themselves. While not an author, Delay did once have designs on being a jazz drummer, going so far as to call his first EP Kind of Blue and name another after Coltrane’s “Naima.” Such rhythmic ticks and subtleties are evident throughout: Delay makes like both Philly Joe and Elvin, doing it fluid while eliding and just hinting at the central throbs. Propulsive yet tricky, the ambient undertows pull kick drums off-center; measures suddenly dilate, while half-steps get diced to impossible fractions.
Of today’s techno producers, none gets more dogmatic than the U.K.’s Matthew Herbert. Like Matmos, he embraces the noises that can be wrought from everyday objects: Household items were the foundation for Around the House, while last year’s Plate du Jour digested slaughterhouse sounds. Advance word that Scale was a response to the military-industrial complex did not bode well, as Herbert’s liberal guilt makes Moby and Bono look like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter’s dates at a Cheney fundraiser. Once the ebullient shuffle of “Something Isn’t Right” bursts forth though, all is forgiven. His longtime partner Dani Siciliano twirls her coos around Sa-Ra’s buttery throats, their voices buoyed by French horns, oboes, flutes, and piccolos before going stratospheric as orchestral maneuvers get made; it’s easily one of the year’s most rapturous moments. Dani voices the idealistic girl who moves to the big city, glissades among pizzicatos and conspiracies, pirouetting to drum sounds made from oil tankers and bombers. All the while she frets not about her ballgown but about her carbon footprint left on the dancefloor.