Flashback 1997: A world fascinated with the power of computers, watching the Internet transform communications and business. In the midst of it all, computerized music is announced to be the heir to rock’s throne. Re-dubbed electronica, this “new” genre of music was hailed as the fusion of the new information technology aesthetic and the deep-seated cultural desire for a musical expression of the zeitgeist.
All that was needed were the superstars to make it happen. Hermetical DJ culture wasn’t enough to sustain the media’s need for images and symbols, so the stars of electronica were created. These included The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, The Prodigy, and slightly later acts who built off of 1997’s initial hype, like Air and Basement Jaxx. And, of course, The Crystal Method. These “dance bands” were the media’s key to preventing a jarringly radical paradigm shift from a focus on rock bands to DJs. These groups provided the perfect transition material, being both image-conscious and more visible than the skinny guy with headphones sitting behind the turntables at the club. The future seemed more than imminent.
Fast-Forward to the Present: Electronica’s great promise is yet to be fulfilled. Just when shiny silver shirts and fat beats looked like the only vision of the future possible, the public and the media rediscovers the rock star. A lot can happen in five years. Certainly the instability of the Internet as a basis for national economies hasn’t helped much. And on top of it all, 2001 has proven itself to be the year in which “the sophomore slump”, a specter that has long haunted pop and rock groups, is shown to be just as applicable to electronica groups as well. Never mind that some of the above mentioned acts were working in more obscure conditions for a number of years before 1997. It is the “breakout” album and its follow-up that truly matters.
While Daft Punk, Air, and Basement Jaxx, have all released new albums that have met with decent commercial success, and some critical praise, the general consensus is that these albums just aren’t quite as good as their predecessors. The Chemical Brothers, who of course were working long before their style broke out into the mainstream, have continued to put out product, but have yet either to really impact sales or to garner critical acclaim, and perhaps most tellingly, the most visible act of the electronica dawn, The Prodigy, has been more or less invisible, with the exception of a by-the-numbers remix album.
And now we have the new release from The Crystal Method. Although it may be a sad statement of contemporary commercialism, The Crystal Method helped expand public consciousness about the burgeoning electronica scene with the ultrahip, first-of-the-new-wave Gap commercial that featured “Busy Child”. With such a simple gesture of cashing in on your work, The Crystal Method put the “new” electronica into the living rooms of millions of people. Sales of their debut album, Vegas, skyrocketed and the big-beat scene seemed like the hippest place to be. But a Gap commercial does not a sustainable career make.
Tweekend, the second release from The Crystal Method continues the drug culture in-jokes (T-shirts from previous concerts sported the slogan “Got Meth?” in the milk commercial’s famous font), but in many respects, it just can’t live up to the marker of Vegas. And that’s saying something, since Vegas was hardly a truly innovative or superb album in its own right. But what Vegas did have going for it was a palpable sense of energy and a bombastic power that made it, if not genius, then at least extremely infectious. Vegas did little more than capture the moment of big-beat electronica, fusing hip-hop, techno, and rock into one muscular, danceable expression of action. But while the shine and charm of that moment may have worn off for the discriminating public, for The Crystal Method nothing has really changed since 1997.
Which would be all well and good if Tweekend offered up a duplicate of Vegas. But it doesn’t. Something, some crucial element, perhaps an originality spawned by being more or less nobodies at the time of Vegas‘s production, is gone here. The beats are big, full, and just as toe-tapping as ever. There’s still a rockist sense of bombast and glamour, aided in no small part to the inclusion of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland on a handful of the tracks. But the breaks and bleeps that once made “Busy Child” seem somewhat unique are, five years later, predictable. Weiland’s fun vocals on “Murder” are still not quite the radio-friendly single that Vegas provided in “Comin’ Back”. And while one of the strongest tracks on Vegas, the hyperkinetic “Keep Hope Alive”, was possibly the best on the album, it was also one of The Crystal Method’s oldest songs, hearkening back to their days as L.A. rave DJs, and was actually a part of what helped them land the record deal for Vegas in the first place. Tweekend doesn’t have anything to really match “Keep Hope Alive”, and because of that, it seems like an act of uninspired repetition.
Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland also seem to have more or less abandoned the rave culture that initially supported them. While hybrid rap/rock/electronica is fun and danceable, the bass-heavy grind of “Name of the Game” is fairly stale in the face of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit overkill. Even the tracks that would be best suited to the dance floor, like “The Winner”, “Ten Miles Back”, and “Blowout”, simply sound like they’d be best used on a video game soundtrack. While “Over the Line” shows The Crystal Method expanding its sound into other branches of the electronica tree, the song’s obvious influence from acts like Daft Punk undercut any claims of innovation.
As anyone with even a passing knowledge of electronica can tell you, pitting one style against another is a fruitless task. It’s simply too complex a scene to make comparisons easy, and, as splinter styles continually break away from more centralized genres like house and techno, it’s almost a full-time job to keep up with the flavor of the month. As such, a comparison between The Crystal Method’s big-beat style and more recent developments in the dance music scene really amounts to very little. But in comparing Tweekend to Vegas, it seems pretty clear that the energy and power of 1997 have waned into by-the-numbers beat construction. It’s not fair to reduce Tweekend to a beats album that’s really just waiting for some other DJ to come along and do something proper with it, but the fact remains that, as an attempt to further the claims of electronica’s ascendancy, it’s lacking.
It’s pretty much a given that The Crystal Method’s live shows remain as energetic and dance-frenzied as ever before, and Tweekend will still make good music for parties. But with a huge range to chose from, hardcore electronica fans will probably be more satisfied with current IDM offerings, or even mix albums from their favorite DJs, while those who gravitate towards the pop side of music will find more to enjoy in the Mobys out there. Tweekend isn’t worthless, but it’s not going to do much to convince anyone that these are the superstars of the future.