Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Rock Beyond

Post-Rock, published as "The Rock Beyond"
director's cut version, Village Voice, August 1995

by Simon Reynolds


What to do when the industry calls the underground's bluff (all those complaints about  unresponsiveness, denial of access) and in the blinking of an eye mainstreams the entire Amerindie matrix of attitudes, sounds, tropes and traits? After punk reintegrated with metal to form a populist all-American hard rock (that's GRUNGE), how to revive la difference, resituate "us" on the other side of the pale?
    
Lo-fi was the US underground's response: a weak response, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values.  As the ersatz folk culture of used vinyl store clerks, record collectors and fanzine editors, lo-fi was always gonna prove a stylistic and cultural dead end (which won't stop Pavement, the genre's REM, from taking the sensibility into the mainstream, four albums down the line).

In Britain, grunge provoked the jingoist backlash of 'Britpop', whereby bands like Blur, Suede, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Gene ad nauseam rallied around a fetishized
Englishness. Beatles and  Pistols,  Who and Jam,  Buzzcocks and Smiths, have all been boiled down into an insular amalgam of anthemic choruses, tinny production and lashings of attitude; a white power-pop that symbolically erases not just America (grunge), but Black Britain (jungle, trip hop) and pan-European prole pop (rave).

But for other, smarter Brit bands, grunge provided the impetus to make a final break with rock.  In America too, the underground is rustling with the cogitation of a new breed of guitar-based experimentalists trying to think their way past the impasse of lo-fi's  retro-eclectic obscurantism.  Together they form a loose trans-Atlantic movement: POST-ROCK. The 'post' signifies a break with both the formal traits and the ideological premises of rock'n'roll. Post-rock means bands who use guitars but in non-rock ways,  as a source of timbre and texture rather than riff and powerchord (Main, Flying Saucer Attack, Skullflower, LaBradford, Stars of the Lid). It also means bands who augment gtr/bs/drms with digital technology such as samplers and sequencers (Techno-Animal, Scorn, Disco Inferno, Laika, My Bloody Valentine), or who tamper with the trad rock line-up but prefer antiquated analog synths and non-rock instrumentation (Pram, Stereolab, Tortoise, Long Fin Killie).

Post-rock has its own sporadic but extensive history, which these bands draw on as much for the suggestiveness of its unrealized possibilities as for actual achievements.  In terms of electric guitar, the key lineage runs from the Velvet Underground, through Krautrock (Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster et al) and Eno/Fripp, to such late '80s proto-postrockers as Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and A.R. Kane.  Bypassing the blues roots of rock'n'roll, the VU melded folkadelic songcraft with a wall-of-noise aesthetic that was half Spector, half La Monte Young. In the process Cale & Co invented 'dronology', a term which loosely describes 50 percent of today's post-rock activity.
            
Main offers a perfect illustration of the way post-rock emerges from rock's  chrysalis. Main-man Robert Hampson used to be at the helm of Loop, a bunch of  long haired acid-freaks with a fetish for the wah-wah pedal. Hampson's desire to go beyond the Stooges/MC5 matrix expressed itself through covers of  Can's "Mother Sky" and Pop Group's "Thief Of Fire",  but Loop never quite made the break with rock'n'roll. Forming Main, Hampson shed both his lank locks and, step by step, every last vestige of rock'n'roll: first riffs and song structure, then backbeat, eventually even distinct chords.

Main isn't so much a band as a studio-based research unit dedicated to exploring the electric guitar's spectrum of effects-wracked timbres and tonalities; said research is made public via EP's and LP's of bleakly bewitching ambience, dub concrete, and homages to electro-acoustic composers like Stockhausen and Berio. Appropriately, where Loop played gigs alongside sub-Hawkwind biker-psych bands, Hampson is now to be found collaborating with experimentalists like Jim O'Rourke, whose work in Brise-Glace and Gastr del Sol bridges the gap between Sonic Youth's 'reinvention of the guitar' and the 'prepared instruments' of avant-garde classical.
   
A clutch of American bands--Sabalon Glitz, Jessamine, Bowery Electric--are currently poised to cross the brink between neo-psychedelia and ambient, following in the footsteps of Loop/Main, Spacemen 3 and its sequels Spectrum and Spiritualized, and Skullflower and its offshoot Total.  If Sabalon, Jessamine et al finally lose the backbeat, they'll probably levitate into the stratospheric vicinity of The Stars of The Lid, Dissolve, LaBradford and Flying Saucer Attack: lustrous, meditational noisescapes, permeated with dub's echo and reverb but devoid of any audible traces of Jamaica

The other major strand of post-rock endeavor has jettisoned the dronologists'  guitar-fetish. It also avoids the potential aesthetic cul de sac that is pure ambience, by looking outside rock for different forms of  kinetic energy. Some use the looped beats of hip hop and rave (Techno-Animal, Scorn); others merge live funk and programmed rhythm (Laika, O'Rang, Moonshake).  On their seductive debut "Silver Apples of The Moon" (Too Pure/American), Laika blends hands-on playing and sequenced riffs, sounding  like they're equally influenced by Can at their fizzy flow-motion peak circa "Soon Over Babaluma" and by the jungle streaming out of London's pirate airwaves. Another Too Pure band, Pram, is releasing two brilliant albums via American this year, "Helium" and "Sargasso Sea".  Less technophile than Laika, (it prefers antiquated synths, home-made theremin, the wheezing respiration of the harmonium), Pram nonetheless often sounds like trip hop irrigated with the folky-jazzy fluidity of early '70s cosmonauts like Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt circa "Rock Bottom" and John Martyn circa "Solid Air".  Completing this Too Pure triumvirate, Long Fin Killie's glistening braid of pulses, tics and chimes warrants terms like 'systems folk' or 'Celtic gamelan'.

Tortoise is the closest American parallel to the Too Pure acts' fluent rapprochement between studio-magick and real-time improvisation. Its self-titled debut of last year
offers an unclassifiable all-instrumental hybrid of organic jamming and dub-wise aural anamorphosis, sounding at times like the missing link between Slint and Seefeel. With this year's "Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters", a collection of drastic reworkings of tracks from the debut, Tortoise has plunged headfirst into the remixology that's all the rage in England (where God, Scorn and Main have gladly offered their work up for butchery).  Other American groove-oriented combos--Cul de Sac, Ui, Run On--shun sweatless studio trickery and instead locate models of post-rock dynamics in the flesh-and-blood rhythm-engines that powered Can and early '70s Miles Davis.  Another sub-strand of post-rock activity (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Six Finger Satellite, Medusa Cyclone) aligns itself with the metronomic pulse-beat of the motorik aesthetic, as coined by Kraftwerk and Neu!, who
bridged the gap between the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and Giorgio Moroder's Eurodisco.
        

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Although these strands of post-rock stretch across the Atlantic, there are real and telling differences between British and American post-rock, and most of them revolve around British bohemia's susceptibility to the influence of black music, whether African-American, Caribbean or homegrown. US post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of hip hop.

Dub's vast impact on British left-field rock goes back to the late '70s, to the kinship punk rockers felt with Rastafarian reggae's spiritual militancy and millenial imagery of exile and dread. And so The Clash covered Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" and Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time", while Johnny Rotten went from the metallic KO of Sex Pistols to the anti-rockist Public Image Limited, whose "Metal Box/Second Edition" introduced a significant segment of his following to Lydon's true loves, dub and Can. Brit-bohemia's enduring open-ness to the Jamaican sound-world, from ska to dub to ragga, explains so much of what's bubbled up from UK subbakulcha in the last two decades: you can trace the reverberations of Jah Wobble's bass through Killing Joke and On U Sound to The Orb, or witness how Specials-fan Tricky ended up collaborating with  Mark Stewart (formerly of '70s avant-funksters the Pop Group,  later a solo artist with On U).

Nearly as important as dub as an influence on the Brit post-rockers is Brian Eno. From the early '70s onward,  Eno was connecting, in both theory and practice, the dots between the dub of Lee Perry and King Tubby, Teo Macero's labyrinthine production of Miles Davis, Can's fractal funkadelia, Cluster's Op Art guitar-tapestries, and so on.  Eno's notions--the studio-as-instrument,  recording as the architectonics of 'fictional psycho-acoustic space'--are the organizing principles of post-rock. Most rock producers strive for a glossed-up, embellished simulation of the band in performance. Dub's fluctuating mix tampers with that 'realism', makes the band's presence  hazy and mirage-like; although Tubby et al worked with live bands, they halo-ed different instruments, different parts of the drum kit, with echo and reverb, so that each strand of sound appears to exist in its own distinct acoustic space.  Following Eno and dub, post-rock uses effects and processes to sever the audible link between what you hear and the physical act of a hand striking a guitar-chord or pounding a drum-skin. Where a rock record creates a mental picture of a band onstage engaged in strenuous collective toil, post-rock offers a blank canvas for the imagination.
   
Sampling and a related technique called 'hard disk editing'  (where sounds are chopped up and rearranged inside the computer's virtual space) dramatically increase the possibilities for disorientation and displacement. With sampling, what you hear could never possibly have been a real-time event, since it's composed of vivisected musical fragments plucked from different contexts and eras, then layered and resequenced to form a trans-chronistic pseudo-event.  You could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence'; you could also call it 'magic'.

Which brings us to hip hop, and once again the contrast between the avidity of its embrace by British underground rock versus the hesitancy of the US post-rockers. It was the weird noises on rap records that first inspired My Bloody Valentine to invent its 'glide guitar' sound; later, the band looped beats and sampled their own feedback on "Soon" and the "Loveless" LP; currently, MBV is struggling to incorporate the breakbeat-science of jungle, hip hop's successor, into its swoon-rock tumult. Similarly, Hank Shocklee's densely layered Bomb Squad production for Public Enemy is cited as a crucial influence by the likes of Disco Inferno and Techno-Animal, while Scorn creates paranoiac groovescapes strikingly similar to those stalked by East Coast horrorcore rappers Jeru the Damaja and Nas. In Britain, staying unaware and uninfected by hip hop and its homegrown offshoots (trip hop, drum & bass) can only be achieved by a strenuous feat of cultural inbreeding (congratulations,  Britpopsters!).  But in America, where you'd think it'd be even harder to ward off rap's influence, white bohemians shy away, perhaps feeling hip hop is the cultural property of African-Americans, and not to be dabbled with lightly.
    
As for techno-rave having any impact on American post-rock, forget it. A cluster of bigotries form a near impenetrable barrier: the premium on live performance, the
lingering legacy of 'disco sucks', the hatred of machine rhythms. The upshot of all this is that UK post-rock outfits, influenced by various admixtures of dub, hip hop and techno, tend to be studio-centric sound laboratories for whom live performance is an irrelevance; whereas American post-rockers remain deeply committed to the band format and playing live.  Instead of drawing on contemporary black and club music, they revisit those brinks in rock history when eggheads pushed rock's envelope beyond bursting point: Krautrock, obviously, but also Tim Buckley circa 'Starsailor'; the Canterbury scene (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow etc); the freeform passages and proto-ambient lulls that punctuate the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, and were developed further by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth.


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If you wanted to trace the tangled lineages of post-rock, you couldn't do much better than to check out two landmark anthologies compiled for Virgin by Techno-Animal's Kevin Martin, 
"Isolationism" and "Macro Dub Infection" (both released over here by Caroline).  Each unravels the cat's-cradle of connections radiating from the figures of Brian Eno and King Tubby respectively. "Isolationism" was conceived as a riposte to 'ambient', at least in its degraded modern version as womb-muzak for raved-out spliffheads. Returning to Eno's original idea of ambient as environmental music, and cueing off Uncle Bri's musical peak "On Land", 'isolationist' music artists create entropic hinterlands of sound;  a nowhere-vastness that externalizes the inner void left when the utopian imagination withers and dies.

 While the "Isolationism" anthology spans guitar-freaks like Main,  techno renegades like Aphex Twin and avant-droners like Zoviet France,  "Dub Infection" is even more wide-ranging, encompassing trip hop (Tricky, New Kingdom), techno (Bedouin Ascent, Wagon Christ) jungle, (Omni Trio, 4 Hero) and post-rock (Laika), as well more obvious dub resurrectionists. (Significantly, the only white American outfit to appear is Tortoise, with the awesomely peculiar sound-maze "Goriri"). Perhaps this multiracial mix prophesies the dissolution of 'post-rock' itself into a broader anti-category, a sort of perimeter region where all the post-s gather to trade ideas: refugees from rap, from rave, from jungle...  anybody who feels shackled by genre, by the expectations attached to identity and community.    

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What does the emergence of  post-rock say about the Zeitgeist? If music, as Jacques Attali famously claimed, is prophecy, mirroring-in-advance future changes in social organization, then the 'post' in post-rock seem to chime in with other tendencies in the culture (e.g. computer games, virtual reality etc), ones which seem to indicate the emergence of a new model of post-human subjectivity,  organized around fascination rather than meaning, sensation rather than sensibility.
            

Form and ideology go hand in hand, as ever. With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to deliquesce into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the Song and the Voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller, the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom or site of social resonance. The more 'post' a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of the soundscape.  A band's journey through rock to post-rock
usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music. In the process, there's a dismantling of trad-rock mechanisms like "identification" and 'catharsis' (which is replaced by plateau-states of bliss, awe, uncanny-ness, or prolonged sensations of propulsion, ascension, freefall, immersion). In post-rock,  'soul' is not so much abolished as radically decentered, dispersed across the entire field of sound, as in club musics like house, techno and jungle, where tracks are less about communication and more like engines for "the programming of sensations" (as Susan Sontag said in 1965 of contempoary art from Rauschenberg to The Supremes). Music that's all surface and no 'depth', that has skin instead of soul.
            
Above all, post-rock abandons the notion of rebellion as we know and love it, in favor of  less spectacular strategies of subversion; ones closer to notions of 'dissidence' and 'disappearance', to the psychic landscapes of  exile and utopia constructed in dub reggae, hip hop and rave.  At the heart of rock'n'roll stands the body of the white teenage boy, middle finger erect and a sneer playing across his lips. At the center of post-rock floats a phantasmic un-body, androgynous and racially indeterminate; half-ghost, half-cyborg. 

For the time being, the margins must remain the zone for this future-music's research-and-development. On both sides of the Atlantic, popular taste and critical opinion clutch tightly to the certainties and satisfactions of song and singer, and their attendant fictions of community and resistance, while the biz demands 'charismatic personalities' (Juliana Hatfield! The bloke from Live!!!) as the focus of its marketing schemes.  For post-rock to go mainstream would require a Dylan figure--a Stipe or Vedder, say--shocking his folkie audience by appearing onstage with a sampler, as Dylan did when he went electric.  (And what is the electric guitar now but the new acoustic guitar, signifier of grit and earth and folk-blood?).


A final, emotionally-ambivalent thought about the difference between rock and its post-. Let's consider the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", described by  Greil Marcus, accurately, as the greatest piece of recorded rock'n'roll ever. Consider specifically the all-too-brief instrumental prequel, the way Keith Richards' soliloquy of a solo conjures a shattering pitch of ecstatic anguish and longing.  For a multitude of reasons, the historical conditions that made 'Gimme Shelter' not just possible, but of oracular significance, are gone; not only has rock's grand narrative petered out into a delta of micro-cultures, but the possibility of writing a redemptive narrative itself seems to be fading.  A post-rock band would take that intro's appalling poignancy, loop it, stretch it out to six minutes or more, turn it into an environment. Because that limbo-land between bliss-scape and paranoia-scape, narcosis and nightmare, is where we postmoderns live.