[2 January 2011]
Music has been tracing in dark directions recently. Think witch house, Ben Frost, minimal wave, Miasmah Records, Ancient Methods, Ekoplekz, LA Vampires & Zola Jesus, Type Records, the sadly shortened Throbbing Gristle reunion, Demdike Stare, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth obsessions, et al. Perhaps this gravitation towards more sinister realms has come about because it’s easy to imagine austerity 2010 as dystopia now, a journey from the light, the dreaded cyberpunk end-product of corporate colonization where government and media are functionary arms of business ontology and the slow subtraction of quality of life standards is accelerated to repay the gambling debts of the permanent aristocracy. It seems appropriate that the music of the shadows would match the mood on the streets. Any modern day eschatology of this kind can find roots in the Rastafarian apocalypticism of dub, with it’s becoming-third-world backdrop. Thus, a re-examination of the dystopian origins of dubstep (first made in a far more dubby form than exists now) seems appropriate, as the genre seems to have imagined our current predicament before the fact.
The compilation Dark Matter: Multiverse 2004-2009 is acutely titled. The “dark matter” of the title refers to both the shaded hue of much of the content (Joker’s neon Rayleight scattering being the major exception) and the astronomical concept of “dark matter”, which is a hypothetical gravitational force that is undetectable, but inferable from the surrounding observable matter. Dark matter in the latter sense is an argument for the influence of the space between, those negative dub apertures which imbue those notes and interspersed riddims with so much more intensity. The paranoia of dubstep then is theoretically proper. Whereas psychedelia seeks to unite all notes until one is indistinguishable from the other, dub estranges and alienates them, examining how one note can never really know another.
The “Multiverse” is also a scientific concept, though it’s more popularly used in science fiction to discuss the possibility of universes beyond our surveillance capabilities, including parallel universes or universes accessible only by ruptures in standard perception or cognition. It’s also the name of an umbrella of labels owned by Ginz that includes Tectonic, Kapsize, Caravan, and Vertical Sound.
It’d be hard to argue at this point that dubstep is not a multiverse, comprised of so many different facets and segments that it’s hardly a single thing anymore (and may even just be a stand-in term for rave at this point). The compilation illustrates efficiently how little first wave dubstep (Vex’d and Loefah’s earliest work) and second wave dubstep (2562, Joker) have in common, but even this collection has its own dark matter, gaps in the story that don’t quite show the lineage between the old and the new school. The last part of that title, 2004-2009, may read to some like a eulogy, particularly since our current year is not featured, but dubstep in 2010 is more of a dispersement, a radiation of energies creeping around in the dark matter between the mainstream and the underground, infecting as they permeate.
For some (including this author), the first exposure to dubstep proper was not through a period-defining comp like Run the Road or a sly crossover infiltration into an adjacent scene, but via the Zizek-inspired end of history tract Children of Men. Featured here from that film are Pinch and P Dutty’s ghosts n’ goblins in the machine mechanical monsterpiece “War Dub”, and Cyrus’s “Indian Stomp”, whose world music tendencies are only differentiated from awful Café del Mar globalized chillout via the careful positioning of dark ambient tones and tasteful reverb. Between Children of Men, Hyperdub—founded by the theory-literate Kode9, who kept his moniker from time spent in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU, which featured other music academics such as Nick Land, Nina Power, Mark “K-Punk” Fisher, and Kodwo Eshun)—and the dense music itself, dubstep seemed mainly the province of eggheads.
It’s hard to imagine a less likely music to catch on in this manner than the earliest selections featured here. Vex’d’s “Lion” is more hermetic industrial ragga than populist pabulum. Comprised mostly of rhythm triplets, the song’s other spaces are filled with filthy distortion, atonal shrieks, and a gaunt galloping bassline. That Vex’d was soon signed to Planet Mu, then still mostly associated with latter-day IDM, was hardly a surprise. Elsewhere, the Bug’s scene-moving Pressure (not featured here) came out on Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, known to attract some of the most abstruse names in electronic music.
Even on its fresher cuts, Dark Matter: Multiverse 2004-2009 is unapologetically artsy. Joker’s “Stuck in the System” may replace the subtlety of emotion from early Multiverse tracks with an ostentatious glut of them, replicating hip-hop’s conventions—over-saturated histrionic strings, thunder SFX, cheesy keyboard horns, monster pounding beats—but his “Psychedelic Runway” is blissfully weird, unclear if its “runway” stands for jets with gremlins on the wings, or for fashion model models hiding ghoulish disfigurement behind flashy couture.
The music featured on Dark Matter makes no aim to be crowd pleasing, which may be why so many found it distasteful the first go-around. It’s too much The Wire magazine and not enough The Guardian. In contrast to its here-undocumented forms, the Multiverse of Ginz was dark, but not sick enough for the metal heads. It was forlorn, but not somber enough for the Metalheadz, though there was an obvious familial relationship with the drum-n-bass crew. Moving Ninja’s stick tribal snares on “Witchdokta” split the difference with a breakbeat, and its metallic sheen is one manic hi-hat away from the paranoia of tech-step.
The tracks from Caravan and Vertical Sound were never dubstep proper, and hence stand alone as the odd men out here. October’s two abstract four-to-the-floor musings occupy a solid 18 minutes on the second disc of this collection and still sound out of place. Ginz’s work with Emptyset and Bodysnatchers are also amongst the peripheral exercises, slipping in some electro, filthy low end glitch, and Deepchord-style ambient dub house amidst the genre retrospective. While these recordings are entirely competent, they also prove that Ginz has a better ear for talent than composition, though the over-caffeinated G-Funk of “Purple City”, his collaboration with Joker, proved seminal for both dubstep and grime, and even defined a sound by its chromatic scheme.
Dark Matter is but a fraction of the multiverse of sounds it recollects, but it’s a pretty great capture of its own little strange arty corner of these worlds.