Saturday, April 13, 2013

The objective flaws of memory

Was there something in the air between 1997 and 98? I remember it as a banner year in electronic music. Of course, memory can often serve under the yolk of nostalgia; after that, nothing new could ever hope to live up. This period did not so much coincide with any notable time in my life, personally, but instead I mark it as the year many of the artists I'd started following years before--during my own coming of age--came to full fruition.

I was introduced to electronic music-proper my sophomore year of high school by the (now classic) original Peel Sessions collection by the Orb. I also quickly discovered Moby--which in retrospect is a bit cringe-worthy (but I still find I can't quite part with some of the classic era material--damn you, nostalgia!). After spending a good part of my junior year of high school at semi-legal raves (which even I am surprised they had in Portland, OR) I graduated just in time to discover the advent of IDM or Warp's (so-called) Electronic Listening Music. This was when Aphex Twin, Autechre, ยต-Ziq, Mouse on Mars, Plastikman and more all seemed to explode on the scene. At least, that is, in America. They'd all been active for some time, especially in England, with a number of small releases under their belts, but across the pond, for many of us electronically-challenged, Warp's Artificial Intelligence collection and Volume's Trance Atlantic Express introduced us to a new world, fully formed.

I collected this music at a voracious rate, and many of these artists were prolific enough to make it financially daunting. Things moved at a breakneck speed. Compare Autechre's debut with Tri Repetae which came out a mere 2 years later, or Aphex Twin's Surfing on Sine Waves (released as Polygon Window) with the Richard D. James Album.

Around 1995, this lot started to be supplanted by the rise of drum-n-bass. Right before I was leaving Portland for Chicago, to attend art school, I was starting to get wind of it. My first find was a colored, double-10" collecting some of the landmark tracks from the nascent scene: including Omni Trio's Renegade Snares and 4Hero's Mr. Kirk's Nightmare. While I enjoyed the adrenaline sound, it was all a little too close to house music for me (a style I have a conflicted relationship with). I didn't really start to catch on until the arrival of Squarepusher and his quasi-prog breakdowns. He was of course, more closely aligned with the musicians I was already following.

The interesting thing about how electronic music has evovled (so far) is that not everyone hops on the same bandwagon, but whatever defines the reigning style seeps into everything else on some level. For sometime, dubstep was the reigning king of electronic subgenres. While I'm not too into dubstep in its purest form, it's stylists' work, furthering the science of bass-sculpting--carving out the most massive and resonant low tones possible--reaped me many rewards elsewhere. As drum-n-bass was cresting, their microscopic hyper-editing began to further all forms of electronic music. It also brought a heavier emphasis on bass (that dubstep would later carry even further). All of the artists I was following seemed to glean new tricks from the style.

Between the advent of rave in the late 80s and 1997, the decade of advancement in electronica is bogglingly dense: from the rudimentary bang of Chicago Acid House to the complex dioramas of cutting edge IDM. Part of this advancement was fueled by the advent of new tools. In that time, personal computers became commonplace and themselves were advancing at a rapid rate--allowing new programs, effects and possibilities almost monthly. Many of the leaps in electronic music during that time were technologically driven. I think, once you hit 1997-98, the release of new tools became more incremental and iterative. The changes we've seen in the music since is like the difference between exploration and cartography.

This, probably, is a good turn. When you're grappling with new tools you're inherently limiting your creative possibilities by placing choice behind discovery. The redoubling we've seen since the turn of the century has arguably produced much more expressive music with the same methods than anything that was released in that first decade. Of course, the new material suffers by not feeling nearly so radical.

What's striking about that one year, especially the artists I was following, was that even though they were dealing with new equipment and a volatile, constantly-moving musical landscape, they were--at this point--also extremely seasoned musicians. So from 1997-98, you had a rare meeting of talent, possibility, experience and invention--all at the same time. I see the high-water-mark of so many of the people I had followed for nearly a decade, squarely in that one-year period.