The Survival of the Industrial Sonic in a Deindustrialized West

In the ’80s, manual and industrial labor began to disappear. More accurately, it was “downsized”, reassigned, and shipped overseas. Trickle-down’s massive project was actually a second front of the cold war; a deterritorialization of the anti-business ideology of socialism and communism launched on a cross-cultural guerilla front. It was smart warfare, class warfare done right, wherein the lower castes were delegitimized in such an orderly and custodial fashion that few of unaffected would take much notice.

The current perception of the ’80s as an innocent, fun time has been constructed by people who were probably not cognizant of the miner’s strike, postal shootings, the satanic ritual abuse scare/witch hunt, the rise of the National Front, Bernie Goetz, the (lack of) response to the AIDS epidemic (or the “gay plague”), urban decay, the drug war, Bhopal, the arms race, Star Wars, Iran-Contra, the bombing of MOVE, the hole in the ozone layer, privatization, the disempowering of trade unions, the conglomeration of mass media, and the scrubbing of Latin American democracy.

The most exciting Western literary trend of the ’80s was cyberpunk, whose menacing view of a corporate control state looked dystopian, but has now casually integrated itself into the landscape of postmodern Capital (except without the channels of resistance). The cineplexes of the ’80s were gushing blood as vigilantes and serial killers sublimated the pent-up rage of the disenfranchised by proxy, and both Americana and urbania were presented as flip sides of the same bottom-feeding coin. The cathartic glee of ultraviolence was eventually disseminated through other channels too- Punisher comic books, first-person shooter games, wild west political rhetoric, and songs about cop killing.

In fact, it was a pretty dark time, particularly for the underclasses. No wonder industrial musicians were sporting military garb and gas masks, snorting angel dust, obsessing over Charles Manson and the Baader Meinhof, basing their “sexy” videos off of Joel-Peter Witkin photos, stomping around on stilts and lab coats and throwing meat at their audience to protest animal abuse, courting nihilism and black magick, rewriting popular music in the style of fascism, and generally looking like they were preparing for the end of the world. The years 1984 were 1984 alright, a collective hallucination of a free society crushed and squeezed by the motorized gears of control.

Industrial became the music of outcasts and swept-asides. Like punks, they wore culture’s disregard like a badge of honor, making the music a magnet for all sorts of fringe elements. The tenacious embrace of any kind of transgression within the scene lead to the condoning of all sorts of questionable behavior and ideologies, but it also made the music an easy escape route for kids trapped in the suburbs, surrounded on all sides by yacht rock, preppy privilege, religious dogma, social and sexual intolerance, and parents who were distant, abusive, or overly demanding. With manufacturing jobs being eliminated, many of the kids who didn’t go to college could only look forward to a life in the service industry assisting in the luxury and self-betterment of the control class, a precarious and unstable employ in maintenance of existing hierarchies.

Unlike college rock’s willful middle-class slackerdom, industrial posed itself as a real countercultural threat to be feared, a cause célèbre advocating a reverse-gentrification, a gutter-alterity that sought to infect the suburbs with all of its least wanted elements. For minds who saw only propaganda and puppetry at the heart of yuppie ambition and drive, industrial was music for those who wanted to go nowhere together. This condition is not to be confused with the downwardly-mobile bohemian. Rather, it should be viewed as a state of being so pre-disillusioned that the entire infrastructure of culture seems pitiless and rotten, a place where there’s no room for pretty melodies, only squeals, thunderous blares, the piercing grind of mismatched sprockets, and gastric synth-bass blubbers.

It wasn’t long before a few major players began to exploit this oppositional cultural role. Bands began lining up to become spokesmodels for the throwaways and refugees, those for whom any foreseen role within the capitalist matrix was more obscene than anything De Sade or Burroughs ever imagined.

In “So What” by Ministry, a frightening anthem to nihilism, lead singer Al Jourgensen framed his audience as a “screaming headache on the brow of the state”, claiming that the youth gets blamed for acknowledging the apocalypse now built up around them. “It’s not our fault that we were born too late”, he says at one point in “So What”. Jourgensen saw the violence of the younger generation as being a kind of legacy, one born of equal parts mimicry and scorn, making them “your problem to learn to live with”. In “So What”, he was able to forecast that the end product of this disenchantment and lack of social utility could only result in the shell shock of explosive rage and murder.

“I only kill to know I’m alive/ So what?” could have been the mantra of the two trench-coat clad industrial-loving lunatics who butchered their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado. Their arrival seemed as if a timebomb had finally detonated. Like September 11th after it, one of the biggest shocks was not how it was allowed to happen, but how it didn’t happen sooner. After Columbine, the long obsession with the vitality of youth culture, which seemed to have survived since the baby boom, vanished. The youth, it was once thought, were the future, tomorrow’s hope of a better tomorrow-a dream of an overthrow to the existing order. In the youth, crushed adults saw an exit strategy. When kids started shooting their classmates en masse, it signaled that there was “no future”, just as punk promised, and youth were just as powerless as their corporate slave parents to ignite any real change.

It’d be comforting to say that it was Columbine that drove the nail in Industrial’s coffin too, but sonically the music had already retreated by 1999. Industrial got swept up in servicing the appetites of a public eager to crossover, but unwilling to submit to the aural totality of organized noise. So, just as rock had sexed up the working class heroes of labor by making their proud work ethic their defining feature, it too tried to dignify industrial by shoving guitars to the forefront of its dissonant morass. While never entirely absent, guitars were rarely the driving force of early industrial music. When they were used, it was often to supplement a clangorous found sound rhythm or to subtly affect the unusual tonal arrangements of programmed machinery.

By the mid-’90s though, industrial became synonymous with any kind of synth-backed hard rock in the music press. At worst, industrial became host to a barrage of music that was both ugly and self-important. Audiences, for the most part, became bored with all but the biggest superstars of the genre and the scene retreated back to the shadows where it fed off itself for years to come. Meanwhile, the austere machinal sonics of early industrial survived at the edges of electronic music, particularly electronic dance music.

Techno, inspired by the second wave industrial fad EBM, had already fetishized the processes of labor, translating the punch card rhythms of the Detroit assembly lines for the dancefloor. As the progenitors of techno’s dilettante-aesthetic began to produce records that could both slay on the dance floor and incorporate atonal or avant-garde sounds for their rapidly expanding audiences, the torch for the sonic adventurousness once found in bands like Einstürzende Neubaten and Cabaret Voltaire was passed to the anonymous knob-twiddlers of acid house, IDM, hardcore rave, and gabber.

Whereas industrial was narrative and theatrical, the largely instrumental milieu of electronic dance music was expressionistic and abstract, mathematical and architectural. Industrial music told stories through the collision of humans and machines, the competing dialectic between the voice of mankind and the voice of the things he made. This made much industrial seem like a kind of Casey Jones style struggle against technology. Techno, on the other hand, was simply about process, cybernetics. It estimated the sum of mankind as a calculable equation, anything that could be sequestered into a 4/4 beat, and acknowledged social engineering as something that both “weak” and “strong” people fell for (which was ideologically diametric from the Boyd Rice contingency of industrial). For the most part, techno removed the individual from the blueprint altogether. It too was concerned about the barbarism that being passed off as “progress”, but techno sought to be ahead of the curve by making the boldest and most innovative sounds around rather than regressing into luddite grunts and steampunk dins.

The motto was “better living through circuitry”. In programming, techno and rave found the raw materials for community-building, conducting all labor-intensive business in service to the beat. Just as union members had teamed together in fraternity and solidarity, ravers united under the fellowship of the music. The ultimate goal of rave was heterotopia, Focault’s idea of an “other” space free from the restrictions of hegemony, or implied dominance. The religiosity of the system’s core belief (the music), along with the empathetic effects of ecstasy, offered rave’s supporters a common purpose, one that was able to rescind the artifices of alienation. The barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, and ethnicity dwindled under the strobe lights.

A Threat on Par with Industrial’s Nihilistic Youth Front

Meanwhile, outside of the raves, income inequality rose steadily as wages stagnated under a globalized policy of neoliberalization. The backlash against feminism spilled over from the ’80s. Gay rights gained some decent press, but found few with the political courage to actually support it. The backlash against immigrants and ethnic minority groups continued unabashed as a convenient scapegoat for globalization while religious intolerance found new power in American fundamentalist advocacy groups like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and the Catholic League. Images of the welfare queen and the street thug provided white America with a steady stream of fear of blacks, who remained for the most part at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and, in some cases, were even being decentralized from their communities thanks to gentrification.

Black street culture found its media representative in hip-hop, which caused a series of panics in its own right. Hip-hop was crucial in the development of what became known as hardcore (or ‘ardkore) rave. The UK had been unsuccessful in finding its own voice in terms of rapping, so it wound up supplanting the voice altogether, or later, with the advent of jungle, substituting ragga machismo for street braggadocio. Hardcore ravers believed they were taking hip-hop to the next level by applying the future logic of acid house’s eccentric squiggles, accelerating breakbeats, and adding the intensified euphoric rush of house music stripped of its ostentatious flourishes. Rave pumped its divas full of helium and made their histrionics even more divisive by pushing a Busby Berkeley film’s worth of set dressing and choreography behind them, in double-time no less.

The rhythm engine of hardcore and jungle had foregone industrial kling klang in favor of the more “organic” sampled break. Whereas industrial had been about the dehumanization of the physical apparatus of capital, rave made the choice to rage within the machine, seeking ways to use the structural integrity of the system against itself by forging a kind of robotic pleasure center. If the Beatles had rubber soul and Bowie had plastic soul, here was a kind of silicon soul being engaged by a cadre of faceless producers. Its anonymity allowed its engineering to be undeterred by the rigid tensions of identity or the fickle pretensions of ego. Rave, in tandem with ecstasy, asked you to give yourself over completely to the music.

Of course, rave’s blissful post-ideological stance was short-lived as its rapid growth called for a chemical supply chain that was not sustainable. Soon, the children of ecstasy experienced a fallout into addiction, enervation, reliance on organized crime, and, in some cases, overdose. As tolerance rose, the ecstasy comedown became harsher and life both outside and within the clubs began to appear nightmarish. Pills were spiked with other streets drugs to meet high demand. Clubs were plagued by violence. Kids were dropping dead not just from overconsumption, but dehydration, as venues jacked up the prices on bottled waters in lieu of the dearth alcohol sales.

The music began to reflect this shift as hardcore transformed into the far less fuzzy darkside. Perhaps the prototypical darkside track is 4hero’s “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare”, which begins with a police officer teller the titular Mr. Kirk that his son has died of an overdose. “Kirk” was pretty timid though compared to the hardcore that was mass-produced just a short year or so later.

Some of the fastest and most intense music of the time was being put out on a label called Industrial Strength Records, whose records make speed metal seem like it has been deliberately protracted to a slower BPM by DJ Screw. Industrial Strength was founded by veteran American techno producer Lenny Dee, who had worked with both Arthur Baker and Frankie Bones in the formative years of electronic dance music. Dee’s passage over to the darkside found him commanding a legion of performers with such bleak names as Caustic Visions and Industrial Terror Squad, as well as hosting many early works by future name producers like Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), Delta 9, Carl Cox, Marc Trauner, and the late Caspar Pound of Rising High Records.

Perhaps even more hellish than darkside, though, was gabber, a techno variant that distilled the club track to its purest essence- the four-to-the-floor pounding beat accompanied by some incredibly austere and direct melodic syncopation. Without the intricate rhythms and syncopations of hardcore or jungle, gabber was able to propel its BPMs well beyond the 200 mark, making its cacophony of extreme beats practically a symphonic drone of noise.

Noise music itself was a close kin to industrial, so it’s no surprise that gabber seemed to be have a reserved interest in industrial sonics as well. It too was in the business of splitting eardrums and reflecting a spiritual ugliness onto an audience hungry for a joyride with their Jungian shadows. However, the speed of gabber prohibited any earnest self-reflection. Instead, the genre’s messages were short and punchy like the music, bound up in rapid consumption and accumulation, tying it more to the cheap thrills of action movie explosions than the morose cerebral darkness of those auteurs favored by industrial musicians (Kubrick, Polanski, Cronenberg, and the like).

Gabber favored synths that buzzed like gnats hovering above a horde of stampeding warthogs. Layered voluminously, it came off like a plague of locusts following a stormtrooper brigade into the killing fields. The heavily regimented commando sound was outwardly “martial”, a term which had been used in the past to denote industrial music incorporating the sounds of military marches. Like martial industrial before it, gabber drew in an alarming number of musicians and fans from the far right. Certain songs touted not only ultraviolence (common amongst all gabber), but misogyny and fascism, as well.

The big fad on college campuses during this era was multiculturalism. Cultural studies professors, post-structuralists, and post-modernists sought nobly to correct social injustices by studying the world relativistically. However, rave had encouraged a heterotopia that was anti-cultural, one that was shorn of the unique perspectives of tradition that those same professors naively thought capital couldn’t accommodate. Of course, rave and techno’s predicament was that once the panorama of cultural signifiers had been scrubbed, those without the vision to create something new on the leftover blank slate would often default to white male values, European enlightenment values, or free market capitalist values, et al.

The majority of the gabberheads, whose largest contingency was in the Netherlands, responded antagonistically to the invasion of its scene by neo-fascists. Many DJs in the scene had originally spun hip-hop and were the furthest thing from racist. Still, gabber’s general belligerence cemented the scene as a predominantly male one, or rather one in which there were, as one Sperminator track (probably ironically) put it, “No Women Allowed”.

Gabber coincided with a world which seemed to be, like the music, marching relentlessly forward, but with no discernible direction. As corporations grew multinational, they seemed unstoppable. Profits shot up at an enormous rate and the GDP of the industrialized nations skyrocketed. The emergence of Silicon Valley and bubbling Asian markets ushered in a multitudinous array of new products and industries. Investors seemed to be grabbing at as much as they could before they even knew what they were buying. The rush for more, faster, seemed destined to crash at any second, but even a flood of recessions couldn’t seem to slow its momentum. Like Gabber, it was cartoon industrialization, enterprise that could push as many people off of as many cliffs as possible without consequences or blowback.

A few saw past the flying scuds and patriots of gabber’s gleeful destruction to the scorched earth in its wake. “Imagine surveying earth after nuclear destruction and enjoying what you see, that’s how it feels when you listen to it” were the words used by Marc Trauner to describe his feedback-laced, reverb-laden, and industrial-tinged music. Trauner’s work as The Mover, Pilldriver, Rave Creator, Marc Acardipane, Cypher, and literally dozens of other names were some of the most auteuristic tunes in all of gabber and perhaps some of the hardest of all hardcore.

Under the name Mescalinum United, Trauner helped ignite both gabber and darkside with his pivotal 1990 single “We Have Arrived” (the first release on Industrial Strength Records). Whatever had arrived in “We Have Arrived” was unequivocally sinister, a threat on par with industrial’s nihilistic youth front. The mix was like bleep techno all snarled at the edges with distortion, like a trigger-happy spaced invader who’d been downsized and cut off from Medicaid. As the song’s pogoing synth squelches propelled forward, the backing synths were pitching upward in unbearable tension like they were refueling for an even more massive assault.

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.

Man Is Now Within the Machine is Now Within Man

In drum n’ bass itself, there were multiple examples of acts who were deemed “industrial drum n’ bass”, the most notable being the stellar Panacea, the scene’s equivalent of a Marc Trauner. There was even a brief period were harder drum n’ bass acts like Signs Ov Chaos (whose Michael Wells and Lee Newman helped launch Warp Records as bleep act Tricky Disco) and were veterans of the Wax Trax industrial outfit Greater Than One) and Generation X-ed (who released a track called “Industrial is Dead”) were getting signed to metal labels like Earache for their applications of the kind of crunchy guitars that had come to define late era Ministry, et al.

In tracing the industrial sonic as a meme throughout both electronic dance and listening music, one can’t help but wonder at times if industrial had become another standby element to substantiate rhythm sections or make a track sound properly nightmarish. Hardcore had picked apart hip-hop until it didn’t sound like hip-hop anymore, but hardly any of the post-industrial artists acknowledged their debt. And who could blame them? Hip-hop remained fresh and vital while the industrial genre itself grew stagnant. It was only allowed to thrive after it morphed so far from any semblance of the genre known as industrial that it could reasonably be considered something new.

After all, the question remained unasked throughout this transitional period; what exactly should Western industrial music sound like in a region where industrial labor was slowly withering into nothingness. Just as the guitar-heavy version of industrial “arrived” in American living rooms, the laborer himself disappeared from them, shifting to retail, service, and administrative support. They became trapped behind toll booths and mini marts in gas stations.

In electronic music, dematerialized labor resurfaced as if a ghost, a specter haunting America and Europe. The shuddering drums tucked away at a cold distance in Seefeel tunes like “Rupt” and “Hive” sound almost elegiac. They also sound alien and foreign, ethnic even. In fact, as it moved out to the neoliberalized markets of Asia and Central America, industrial became as much a world music as any other, no more native than The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Factory sounds became rare imports as consumers became more alienated from the production of their products than they had ever been in the history of class struggle.

In this distantiated sound was a hidden allusion to a lost era of control. Gabber, IDM, and drill n’bass threatened to rupture into chaos, and often did, when the mechanics of their industrial gait was disturbed. More often than not, they were about dance music pushed just beyond its threshold, its structure exploding at the seams.

Millennial fears and paranoia were heightened as the ’90s raced towards the new millennium and corporations grew vastly powerful throughout the entire world. Drum n’ Bass’s last incarnation in the latter half of the ’90s, techstep, was anally regimented and disciplined. Displacing the break in favor of drum machine robotics, techstep took the fascistic stomp of EBM and updated it for a world after hardcore and gabber. Nicknamed neurofunk after William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the accelerated pace of techstep was like a race against time, replicants sprinting against life’s clock, Logan trying to outrun his captors who would never let his youthful vitality survive past the age of 30.

Techstep was a computer-bred music. Cyberspace at this time was a liminal space, a potential heterotopia like rave. Its impenetrable vastness and freedom, combined with the potential for personal control, made the emerging web an enthralling space to be a part of. Businesses who engaged their acquisition teams and venture capitalists couldn’t really figure out how to monetize it, so it was quickly chartered by fuckups, throwaways, deviants, radicals, and other fringe elements. As one of the last uncolonized spaces, hackers and digital musicians were preparing to do Tron-like battle to protect this new Mecca.

Techstep and cyberpunk (which resurged in films like eXistenZ, Strange Days, 12 Monkeys, and, of course, The Matrixin the late ’90s) staged this fight as an active battle against an encroaching power. What they didn’t anticipate was the way that the computer would be used as a pacifying object by miming the television interface and making it more interactive. Cyberspace was tamed by suits intelligent enough to realize that imperialism only works when you allow users to rage within the machine, or shop within the machine, or connect within the machine, or do pretty much anything within the machine. Those who set the boundaries framed the conversation. The defect in the cyberpunk logic was that the system itself was the control, the medium the message. By the time 2000 actually hit, nearly all white collar work, and even much service sector work, was being performed exclusively in front of and through the computer. The blue collar work that remained was less safe, paid less money, and provided fewer incentives.

Computer operations became so imperative that the mere threat of a temporary computer systems blackout (the Y2K bug) nearly caused a global panic. In the lead up to Y2K, economic meltdown was predicted and the collapse into pre-agrarian tribal niches was entertained in otherwise reputable circles. After a decade of the deconstruction and deterritorialization of labor, the world awaited in anticipation of what Badiou termed “the Event”, that cataclysmic moment that would alter this obviously unsustainable model of permanent economic growth and endlessly expanding social disparity. The change in millennium seemed to provide the perfect opportunity for that, but the “Event” never came (well, not until about a year and a half later).

The age of labor had been outsourced and replaced by a digital age. The worker remained stationed behind a computer instead of an assembly line, in a chat room rather than a union meeting. The computers began to moderate not only their labor, but their personal lives, as well. Social media in the next decade would begin to become a lens through which the world could be reduced to metrics. Industrial music had once cautioned that the human animal was being dehumanized by the objects and institutions of control. Now, the transition was complete. Man had become completely virtualized, existing in no more real a form than his simulacrum in the computer. Music now had to find a way to respond to this new predicament.

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