[28 October 2010]
Jack Dangers and his Meat Beat Manifesto project may be beyond the point where we can expect to be surprised with every release, but, after over 20 years in the electronic music racket, it’s impressive enough to state that we can’t expect him to not surprise us either. At this stage, Dangers may no longer be ahead of the curve, but he is still hip to the curve and, by all means, relevant to the curve. Not many of his peers can say that, but then again Dangers never was very much like many of his purported peers. Whereas many veterans of the industrial and electronic music scene plod through their third decade of music-making as if music stopped growing at some imaginary nexus point in their rearview, Dangers has retained a primary sound aesthetic that is exclusively the domain of Meat Beat Manifesto, and explored it through the lens of Acid, Ambient, Sampledelic hip-hop, trip-hop, drum n’ bass, jazz, musique concrète, and, lately, dubstep.
Despite these sonic explorations, Meat Beat Manifesto can come off as self-referential, and indeed they are. Lyrics get recycled, certain sonic cues and breaks pop up over and over, and tracks get remixed and reworked ad nauseum. Yet, whereas some of the aforementioned relics attempt to regenerate their past victories as a reflex demagogic impulse, alluding to their greatest hits reel as an escape from the burden of generating new magic, Dangers’ foundation in dub and hip-hop vernacular make his reflexive tendencies as much formal motifs as perfunctory standbys. Thereby each album seems like a path on a continuum, but not so much so that the uninitiated couldn’t just dig in at any point along the way.
It should be no surprise then that familiar sounds like ghostly mellotrons, specific found sound tags like the dial-up modem, and a couple familiar drum patterns linger in the ether zone that is Meat Beat Manifesto’s latest, Answers Come in Dreams . Vis a vis the title, the album seems to operate on a kind of “dream” logic. Ideas float about like motifs, memes, or mnemonics. Some of these ideas are familiar and some are new, but there’s a certain uncanniness to the mix that gives the album a feeling of unsettling stillness, a sleep posture rather than a forward incline. Answers Come in Dreams is a dub purgatory of an album, a surrealist sludge of the known Meat Beat Manifesto doused in ooze. Each track is a both liquid and hypertonic, comprised of a continual series of disparate noises and effects that morph into one another like a hallucinatory scene out of the Donald-Duck-does-acid film The Three Caballeros.
The 411 on Answers Come in Dreams is that it is a more minimal album than previous efforts. Though the compositions do scale back dominant melodies, discernible samples (already being faded on 2008’s Autoimmune), and rhythmic complexity, it’s hard to imagine what set of ears you’d have to be wearing for this mix to sound minimal. Densely layered and thick fogs of sound creep around for 70 odd minutes. In fact, the whole of the album is actually a bit overwhelming, its major flaw being its textural excesses rather than its melodic deficits.
Focusing on effect rather than affect, Dangers piles a whirlpool of concrète sounds that play anacrusis to his hypnotic sub-bass riffs and drum patterns. Beyond the skeletal rhythm section, there’s little “song” to the compositions here. “Token Words” is the most elucidated manifestation of this as it is entirely beatless and abstract, a swirl of voices and atonal din that recalls MBM’s “Mad Bomber/The Woods” from Subliminal Sandwich. “MYC” revels in gurgling patterns, Spanish radio patter, loud dingy reverbed squawks, backwards masked voices, and deep earth drones that recall the gongs on Coil’s How to Destroy Angels.
The album itself is named after Dangers’ duet of remixes for Coil’s 19-year-old “The Snow”. Having spent his career being branded an industrial artist, one has to wonder why Dangers would even want to evoke this genre, particularly since the scene has fallen so far out of favor of late. Industrial has come to mean a very specific thing to modern audiences, but “The Snow”, Coil’s acid single, was a good example of the time where boundaries were once blurred. Underground ‘zines from the late 1980s and early 90s found the boundaries between techno and industrial rather moot at times. After all, acid was in part launched by Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard Kirk and his Sweet Exorcist singles on Warp. Meat Beat Manifesto stayed consistently on the line between those two and other genres, sounding up-to-task whether collaborating with The Young Gods or Orbital. “Mnemonic” from Answers Come in Dreams may be the group’s most industrial-sounding tune in years, but it’s also the best industrial cut this reviewer has heard in a long while, a sickly distorted slab of mechanical funk that owes as much to Alva Noto as it does to Nine Inch Nails.
There was always a little something industrial about the early dubstep tracks anyway. Dubstep has since splintered into ravey, house-inspired, and ambient directions, but the dubstep Dangers most evokes on Answers Come in Dreams is the early dystopian atmospherics of genre stalwarts like Vex’d and Loefah. Answers Come in Dreams is not quite as pure a genre replication as those quick to brand this a dubstep album would think though. Absent are the globalized jittery syncopations rooted in Socan/Latin/African/Jamaican Riddim, replaced with a creepy stalker lurch, as witnessed in cuts like “Quietus”, “Waterphone”, “Let Me Set”, and “Luminol”. If anything is minimal, it’s the percussion and breakbeats, reduced on some tracks to mere propulsive pounding. Dangers’s dub credentials though are not in question, for those who may think he’s opportunely jumping in (late) on the movement. With roots in Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound sonics, Meat Beat Manifesto was doing weird stuff with sub-bass echo chambers since around the time many of these new producers were born.
Oh, and in case I didn’t mention it, this album is insanely dark, perhaps the most pitched-down in Meat Beat Manifesto’s illustrious career. Yet, unlike most industrial and noise, it does not traffic in the violence of attack. Rather, it examines that old reggae emotion of dread, which is more about the threat than the harm itself. The evil cackles of “Zenta” or the bleak horror film whispers on “Please” could certainly teach the so-called “witch house” folks a thing or two about how properly spooky music is made and if these are indeed the answers that come in dreams, one has to wonder what the questions are.
Unfortunately, Answers Comes in Dreams continues a long tradition of Meat Beat Manifesto albums that are infinitely listenable, but far from perfect. A couple of tracks fall flat and suspend the album’s potential to reify the man’s once potent career with a bout of round-the-board praise. It’s perhaps this tendency, coupled with some unfair stigmas, that has prevented Dangers from earning the respect he deserves. Even in the age of access, it’s unlikely that we will see any of these new producers being able to catch up to the curve and occasionally surpass it after 20 plus years.