Like Factories Converted into Gothic Cathedrals
In keeping with the scene’s amphetamine-like workmanship, Trauner was not only host to myriad different musical projects, but labels, as well. His principal, Planet Core Productions (PCP), and its sub-labels (with names like No Mercy and Interzone) were home to some of the most dystopically grim records ever recorded. Pilldriver’s “Apocalypse Never” seems to be surveying a demilitarized zone. Mescalinum United’s “Symphonies of Steel Part 1” is like staring into a Bosch painting on acid and being sucked into the chaos. The desolate wasteland of “Thru Eternal Fog” on the appropriately named Cold Rush Records uses thick saturated layers of atmospherics to embody the “fog”, preceding the dead space aesthetics of Traversable Wormhole by roughly 15 years. Trauner summed up his outlook in an interview with the zine Alien Underground by saying “I can’t possibly justify seeing a happy end to this stupid human drama. Darkness is not mystical, it’s your everyday reality”.
One of Trauner’s contemporaries was Richard James, who remixed “We Have Arrived” as The Aphex Twin. The Aphex Twin’s early singles, like much of Trauner’s work, skirted the line between gabber, hardcore, and an unspecified third place. James’s production was densely intricate. His rhythms in particular, which comprised the main meat of most tracks, sounded like they were recorded in factories converted into cathedrals. His percussions let loose a raw, rusty physicality that was distanced by a resounding echo. This made the tracks almost dreamlike, as if they were taking place in Freddy Krueger’s boiler room, or as if they were the tinkerings of tiny sweat-glossed grunts slaving away within James’s homemade synths, ghosts in the machine. Here was the sound of dematerialized labor coming back to haunt us.
Many of James’s tracks embraced not only the ironworks durability of industrial mills, but the grimy ick factor that had accompanied early Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Instead of envisioning the cyborg consciousness of man-machines as an electric sage whose hybridity resulted in statuesque genetic perfection, James’s tracks bring to mind the kind of deformity one might actually expect from such mutation. “Phloam” is philthy and sick. Its crunchy and squelching patterns recall the repulsive biotech of Cronenberg’s cancerous video game controllers, bug typewriters, and psychoplasmic brood parthenogenesis. “Tamphex (Hedphuq mix)” is a nightmarish rollercoaster ride within the body. The song samples a tampon commercial and isolates a statement which, denied of its context, sounds like a terrifying concept; “Are you one of those girls for whom time stands still once a month?”. In James’s hands, time standing still during the menstrual cycle feels like a constant migraine headache, a “hedphuq” if you will, combined with a kind of constantly flowing nausea represented by a gushing smear of vulgar synths, the kind of patches most producers would discard and avoid on instinct.
James came to be known as an oddball character in electronic music. Some of his antics, such as driving a decommissioned tank around rural England and living in a hollowed out bank, have the air of performance art to them, as if he’s making arrangements for an eschatological new world order. In interviews though, James comes off like he’s just taking the piss with these stunts. He has made a habit of remixing tracks before he even listens to them. In fact, his pieces for Nine Inch Nails’s Further Down the Spiral were not even remixes, but original works (including one, “At the Heart of It All”, whose name seems to be a direct nod to industrial godparents Coil) that were James’s idea of the kind of sounds a group called Nine Inch Nails would make. The results sounded remarkably like a halfway point between Aphex Twin and Nine Inch Nails anyway. It’s easy to imagine James having adopted the NIN moniker first since so much of his aesthetic relied on industrial sonics.
Though he was always well-regarded for his more avant-garde and atonal qualities, James gradually moved from dance music to abstraction. As both a provocateur and a relentless experimenter, he was at forefront of what would contentiously come to be known as intelligent dance music or IDM. Though IDM was a term rejected by many of its most renowned names, it became a de rigueur term, particularly by music writers who wanted to prescribe pabulum to indie kids seeking to navigate the broad spectrum of electronic music. Despite its name, IDM in its mid- to late ‘90s form was rarely danceable. Instead, it was a kind of electronic listening music that incorporated a kitchen sink blend from wherever it saw fit- techno, post-rock, free jazz, jungle, ambient house, pop, krautrock, hip-hop, and, yes, industrial.
IDM was like a millennial fusion music (Squarepusher even made the fusion linkage explicit in the jazz-funk leanings of records like Music is Rotted One Note), one fermented with an expanded record collection and an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. Since IDM grabbed what at the time were precious column inches from dance music in the rock mags, it ignited a cultural war within electronic music. “Intelligent” electronic music, in one corner, represented white collar work- mental, often computer-made, professional (artists with a career arch), office-driven (made in home studios without any consideration of club appeal), and “civilized”, requiring a PhD in both compositional theory and esoteric music history in order to wrap your head around its structural complexity or get its in-jokes. Dance music, on the other hand, could be thought of as being more blue collar physical (body music), functional, task-oriented, made by both skilled and unskilled workers, manual (“performed” in the clubs more than at home), and crafted for and by the unwashed masses regardless of their backgrounds or their foreknowledge of antecedents.
The other criticism leveled against IDM was that it was attention deficit disorder (ADD) music, symptomatic of the plague that seemed to be very much a product of late capitalism and its discontents. An overly saturated media landscape, combined with the rise of the home computer, had given birth to new kinds of solipsistic addictions- shopping addictions, chatroom addictions, online gambling addictions, porn addictions, video gaming addictions, and, eventually, music downloading addictions. The televisual image had replaced the written word as the primary source of cultural literacy and television’s post-MTV pace had rapidly sped up to near-breakneck and breakbrain speed.
Rapid edits have been shown to literally numb the mind, granting the brain little time to soak in visual information, establish personal connections between cuts, or challenge the assumptions of what’s on the screen. For Hollywood and TV, this is a great way to pacify populations already flooding the box office for escapism. By offering thrills that satisfy as pure spectacle alone, the culture industry can reinforce the ideals of the ruling class without stirring up the disenchanted masses in the seats. Television furthered this ideal of disconnection and alienation on a virtual level by introducing graphical interruptions such as dancing logos, on-screen ads, and, perhaps most insidious of all, the 24 hour news ticker. Finally, there was an influx of unskilled labor who, in another era, might have been blue collar workers who were able to support their families, but whose newly available administrative support positions-the only jobs with a moderate pay scale- required the invented skill set known as “multitasking”. Multitasking was a nefarious scheme to get more for less that caught on and soon turned into standard business practice.
If IDM’s psychiatric diagnosis was questionable, its Ritalin-deficient spawn drill n’ bass announced itself as full-blown certified. Drill n’ bass offered the aural equivalent of what Michael Bay and Baz Luhrmann were splaying out, massive technical feats of distraction and inattention intended more to flabbergast than inspire. Like IDM, it was electronic listening music, but specifically inspired by the fast riddim and cutting intensity of jungle and its offspring drum n’ bass. Artists like DJ Scud, Soundmurderer, Aphasic, Dev/Null/, and Venetian Snares took jungle’s accelerated futurism and made it so lightning-paced that it was no longer danceable. There was something both auto-destructive and brittle about drill n’ bass. Every sound squeezed in was a paper thin sliver that was barely perceptible as an individual frequency. Every track had the possibility of collapsing into utter chaos at any point. Ironically, for all the detailing put into these compositions, drill n’ bass became more about the totality of sound than any individual flourish or structure though.
Jungle was already bounding with beat science. So, drill n bass focused what little attention it had on a collision of its near-noise aesthetic (consisting of too-quick percussive programming with filthy batches of distortion) and things like ragga (DJ Scud and Nomex’s “Total Destruction”) or heavy metal (Bong-Ra’s “Necro Goat”). Producers were not afraid to throw in industrial-sounding “drills” from the genre’s namesake, or any kitchen sink found sound really, to compound the sonic overflow.