[30 June 2004]
Weird things are happening over there at Britain’s most famous electronic music label, Warp. If you pay attention to things like that, you’ll notice that over the past four years the Warp roster and most of the newly acquired talent has been shifting focus away from straight electronic music towards something more of a hybrid. I’m sure there’s a handful of knotted and intertwined reasons why the artists are all aimed in the same general direction like this. Aphex Twin’s last record featured prepared piano pieces alongside violent drum ‘n’ bass. Prefuse 73 has metamorphosed into the analog, Spanish downtempo funk duo Savath & Savalas. Squarepusher is mixing it up with slap-bass improvisation and live drums again, and did that respectful cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Vincent Gallo and !!! aren’t electronic acts at all. How can we interpret this plate-tectonic shift in the goals and intentions of the artists, and also the label? Is the addition of analog techniques an adulteration that creates new opportunities for experimentation, or does it just dilute the astringency of the music? Do we chalk it up to a “sign of the times” and leave it at that? Or is something more, or less, interesting at work here?
Two Lone Swordsmen are the example for today, with their new album From the Double Gone Chapel featuring guitar, live drums, and vocals for the first time. And the record turns out to be a pretty eccentric twist in the growing TLS discography. Like Plaid, TLS are a popular, but critically underrated group that bounced around the underground labels until finding a long-term home on Warp. For whatever reason, the funky, pop-sharpened electronica of these two groups has never endeared them to the same obsessive fans and critics that follow every nose-pick by Aphex or Boards of Canada. TLS deserves the same treatment. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that TLS’s Tiny Reminders from 2000 is one of the best records Warp has released. With lots of acid-style 303 synth sounds and magnetic breaks, the record is an almost pitch-perfect example of the booty bass abstractions and cybernetic Krautrockisms that form Warp’s trademark IDM sound, as pioneered by Polygon Window, Luke Vibert, and Black Dog. TLS hasn’t stretched and agonized the limits of the genre like Autechre, but over the span of as many years, the duo has created a generously addictive sound.
People always applaud risky moves in creative endeavors. How else can we be expected to appreciate Confield? And I normally applaud crazy-insane risks, but the one that Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood took in releasing an album of dour, dystopic rock songs might not have been a risk in the right direction. An electronic act that decides to be a rock band is kind of like a politician who goes from being pro-choice to suddenly going public against abortion. It’s a surprisingly retrograde change of attitude. One thing that felt exciting about techno music back in the day was how it seemed to turn its back on the ethics of popular music. It was forward-looking music. When people complained that electronica had no soul, what they failed to notice was how cheapened music’s soul had become thanks to the guitar and pop music. Eliminating the foul, pillaged soul from music altogether was a radically smart move. Rather than sweaty, emotive rock heroics, electronic music gave us enigmatic anonymity. It was a good trade up.
So why go back to that baggage-laden genre? In songs like “Faux”, that mix up programming and live instruments, it might be considered a kind of musical flagstone, engraved with a description of TLS’s early inspirations, being stuff like Bauhaus (the band), Alan Vega, and only the broodiest, darkest moments in the career of Marc Almond. But the next song “Formica Fuego,” which is a variably repetitive or a loop-structured guitar jam, reads like a Neu! song but sounds like a band trying out for an A&R rep at Touch & Go. It’s a frustratingly catchy tune that is essentially nothing more than a tune by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. For most of the album I’m stuck thinking of wincing comparisons to better music that sounds like this. They helped produce Primal Scream, and now they sort of sound like a rip-off of Primal Scream. There’s a lot of ‘80s goth music churning around in there, but also a lot of Chicago rock from the early-‘90s, but none of the songs on From the Double Gone Chapel have half the morbid sex appeal of Girls Against Boys, or the vitriol of Shellac or Mule. I can’t understand how this is an improvement on TLS’s high-end, super alert production of killer electronic songs. The inclusion of the cover of “Sex Beat”, originally by the Gun Club, doesn’t help things for being the best track on the record.
TLS’s introduction of rock instruments doesn’t quite match the assaultive fusion improv heartburn that Squarepusher is after when he goes analog, and it’s not as deftly anachronistic as Druqks, nor is the rock music of From the Double Gone Chapel as perverted as !!! or as deconstructed as Tortoise. I can only really properly compare the record to all the other vaguely charming electro-clash stuff that’s come out lately, and with those songs in mind, I’d say the album is average. And the thing is, I’m sure I’ve already heard at least five rock ‘n’ roll records this year that are better than From the Double Gone Chapel. But if TLS had released another electronic record, I probably wouldn’t be saying that.