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Still from Fragile Machine (2005)

Man Is Now Within the Machine is Now Within Man

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In drum n’ bass itself, there were multiple examples of acts who were deemed “industrial drum n’ bass”, the most notable being the stellar Panacea, the scene’s equivalent of a Marc Trauner. There was even a brief period were harder drum n’ bass acts like Signs Ov Chaos (whose Michael Wells and Lee Newman helped launch Warp Records as bleep act Tricky Disco) and were veterans of the Wax Trax industrial outfit Greater Than One) and Generation X-ed (who released a track called “Industrial is Dead”) were getting signed to metal labels like Earache for their applications of the kind of crunchy guitars that had come to define late era Ministry, et al.

In tracing the industrial sonic as a meme throughout both electronic dance and listening music, one can’t help but wonder at times if industrial had become another standby element to substantiate rhythm sections or make a track sound properly nightmarish. Hardcore had picked apart hip-hop until it didn’t sound like hip-hop anymore, but hardly any of the post-industrial artists acknowledged their debt. And who could blame them? Hip-hop remained fresh and vital while the industrial genre itself grew stagnant. It was only allowed to thrive after it morphed so far from any semblance of the genre known as industrial that it could reasonably be considered something new.

After all, the question remained unasked throughout this transitional period; what exactly should Western industrial music sound like in a region where industrial labor was slowly withering into nothingness. Just as the guitar-heavy version of industrial “arrived” in American living rooms, the laborer himself disappeared from them, shifting to retail, service, and administrative support. They became trapped behind toll booths and mini marts in gas stations.

In electronic music, dematerialized labor resurfaced as if a ghost, a specter haunting America and Europe. The shuddering drums tucked away at a cold distance in Seefeel tunes like “Rupt” and “Hive” sound almost elegiac. They also sound alien and foreign, ethnic even. In fact, as it moved out to the neoliberalized markets of Asia and Central America, industrial became as much a world music as any other, no more native than The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Factory sounds became rare imports as consumers became more alienated from the production of their products than they had ever been in the history of class struggle.

In this distantiated sound was a hidden allusion to a lost era of control. Gabber, IDM, and drill n’bass threatened to rupture into chaos, and often did, when the mechanics of their industrial gait was disturbed. More often than not, they were about dance music pushed just beyond its threshold, its structure exploding at the seams.

Millennial fears and paranoia were heightened as the ‘90s raced towards the new millennium and corporations grew vastly powerful throughout the entire world. Drum n’ Bass’s last incarnation in the latter half of the ‘90s, techstep, was anally regimented and disciplined. Displacing the break in favor of drum machine robotics, techstep took the fascistic stomp of EBM and updated it for a world after hardcore and gabber. Nicknamed neurofunk after William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the accelerated pace of techstep was like a race against time, replicants sprinting against life’s clock, Logan trying to outrun his captors who would never let his youthful vitality survive past the age of 30.

Techstep was a computer-bred music. Cyberspace at this time was a liminal space, a potential heterotopia like rave. Its impenetrable vastness and freedom, combined with the potential for personal control, made the emerging web an enthralling space to be a part of. Businesses who engaged their acquisition teams and venture capitalists couldn’t really figure out how to monetize it, so it was quickly chartered by fuckups, throwaways, deviants, radicals, and other fringe elements. As one of the last uncolonized spaces, hackers and digital musicians were preparing to do Tron-like battle to protect this new Mecca.

Techstep and cyberpunk (which resurged in films like eXistenZ, Strange Days, 12 Monkeys, and, of course, The Matrixin the late ‘90s) staged this fight as an active battle against an encroaching power. What they didn’t anticipate was the way that the computer would be used as a pacifying object by miming the television interface and making it more interactive. Cyberspace was tamed by suits intelligent enough to realize that imperialism only works when you allow users to rage within the machine, or shop within the machine, or connect within the machine, or do pretty much anything within the machine. Those who set the boundaries framed the conversation. The defect in the cyberpunk logic was that the system itself was the control, the medium the message. By the time 2000 actually hit, nearly all white collar work, and even much service sector work, was being performed exclusively in front of and through the computer. The blue collar work that remained was less safe, paid less money, and provided fewer incentives.

Computer operations became so imperative that the mere threat of a temporary computer systems blackout (the Y2K bug) nearly caused a global panic. In the lead up to Y2K, economic meltdown was predicted and the collapse into pre-agrarian tribal niches was entertained in otherwise reputable circles. After a decade of the deconstruction and deterritorialization of labor, the world awaited in anticipation of what Badiou termed “the Event”, that cataclysmic moment that would alter this obviously unsustainable model of permanent economic growth and endlessly expanding social disparity. The change in millennium seemed to provide the perfect opportunity for that, but the “Event” never came (well, not until about a year and a half later).

The age of labor had been outsourced and replaced by a digital age. The worker remained stationed behind a computer instead of an assembly line, in a chat room rather than a union meeting. The computers began to moderate not only their labor, but their personal lives, as well. Social media in the next decade would begin to become a lens through which the world could be reduced to metrics. Industrial music had once cautioned that the human animal was being dehumanized by the objects and institutions of control. Now, the transition was complete. Man had become completely virtualized, existing in no more real a form than his simulacrum in the computer. Music now had to find a way to respond to this new predicament.

Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his wife, his daughter, his dog, and two cats. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.

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