Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part Eight: What Happened When Skrillex Helped America Discover Rave


Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.

Thanks Katherine—though I’m afraid I’m going to kick the “defending Drake” can further down the road, and leave it to Nick or Eric. I don’t enjoy Drake, and sad to say the main thing he makes me feel is “I’m too old for this shit”: the world of gender, fame and power relations he’s a window onto seems grim and thankless, even if playing it up is his game. Whatever emotions a man of 38 is meant to feel listening to a man of 25, relief surely isn’t one of them.

But on the other hand, the first thing I thought of when I heard “Marvin’s Room” was, er, my own teenage faves The Wedding Present, and David Gedge’s habit of transcribing knotty, private half-conversations in songs—the woman’s responses sometimes implied but never given trackspace. Nobody ever called his productions beautiful, but while the genre changes, the manipulative angst remains and will always find an audience.

This kind of automatic pattern recognition is the curse of listening to music too long: You identify things too quickly, it becomes hard to push ghosts aside and focus on what a piece of music is doing in the now. The most-cited book in music criticism this year was Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, his attempt to tackle this head-on and ask whether our culture is addicted to its own past. The book touched a nerve with many readers, who intuitively agreed with Reynolds’ sense that music’s drive towards the future had sputtered and stalled. My feeling is that private retromania—the involuntary encroachment of your own memory—is more of a problem than acts reusing and referencing the ’80s and ’90s. Occasionally in 2011 I found myself unable to offer much comment on an artist, simply because I felt like I knew and had heard too much.

Do you know how much it matters, for instance, that the box of tricks employed to crowd-wrecking effect by Skrillex is drawn from twenty years of rave? The answer, to anyone in one of his crowds, is not a whit. Taxonomies are useful only to a point. If a “brostep”—hideous word!—fan were to hear the cream of 1991 dance music they’d probably find it bass-less, oddly structured, corny in all the wrong places. I can’t help mapping the excitement I hear in Skrillex onto the excitement of two decades past and finding it wanting, ending up at avuncular approval rather than glee—but that’s my problem, not his. And I’d like to get a bead on the phenomenon from the remaining panelists—is the discovery of rave by a young, emo- and rock-oriented American audience any kind of big deal?

If the curse of knowledge stops me from really engaging with big communal movements, what are the other options? Hermitage, maybe? A lot of my 2011 favourites were instrumental records—electronic microworlds, bring-your-own-context parties and albums to get lost in. Jurgen Mueller’s gorgeous Science Of The Sea was probably a fake—supposedly it’s a late-’70s vanity project by a moony oceanographer—but the fiction let it be as obvious and acqueous as it needed. Far sharper was Hauschka’s Salon Des Amateurs, a finicky, kinetic marriage of house and chamber music. And Blanck Mass, a side-project of English synth-noise outfit Fuck Buttons, put out a self-titled album of ambient synth music imbued with a cosmic, post-human sense of scale. Electronic music gets more attention if it can be wedded to a movement, even one as absurdly vague and generous as “UK bass music,” so albums like Rustie’s joyful, hypersaturated Glass Swords and Kuedo’s grand and lonesome Severant got some of the attention they deserved.

For other records, some appreciation of the context was probably required: Nick’s already mentioned James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual, a record of the year for avant-garde Brit magazine The Wire, but one so controversial the editor was moved to blog a lengthy explanation of the voting process. Some commentators see Ferraro’s record—made using the sound-palettes of the early web, like AOL welcome sounds and MIDI music—as caustically satirical, other listeners might simply be vibing on the genuine prettiness of its glossy miniatures.

As the temperature dropped, though, my favourite wordless album of the year resolved itself: In Dust, by Swedish duo Roll The Dice. I kicked myself for missing their apparently savage live shows, but their record is statelier—long, stoical pieces hammered together from drones and old keyboards, building through repetition into something powerful and sad. The record culminates with the fluttering, pretty “Way Out”—a hopeful note to end on, except Roll The Dice follow it with the gloomiest title of the year: “See You Monday.”

Which also means it’s time for me to return to my day job and end this commentary—it’s been a lot of fun and thanks to Maura for inviting me and everyone else for being so stimulating. Looking forward to Eric and Nick’s last pieces and perhaps—finally—some fuller comment on the hip-hop year…