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Techno, a genre that was once slated to become the new rock ’n’ roll, has been making something of a comeback of late. You can get a sense of how far it had fallen by looking at the archives of the Wire, a “modern music” magazine that specializes in being ahead of the curve. In 1994, the year that Portishead’s trip-hop classic Dummy took its top-album slot, the magazine’s year-end best-of list was thick with techno and electronica acts such as Plastikman, Orbital, and Muziq. A decade later—and several years after the genre peaked in the mainstream—the Wire’s “50 Records of the Year” list was pretty much techno-free.
Now the genre is on the upswing, and the proof is in, yes, the pages of the Wire. In its roundup of 2006’s best records, the magazine awarded its album-of-the-year honor to a relative newcomer, a U.K. techno producer named Burial. Little is known about the reclusive artist: According to his label’s PR, he has yet to perform in concert and seldom consents to interviews or photographs. Still, despite his lack of self-promotion, Burial’s self-titled debut earned glowing praise. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed it “an extraordinary work.” The Guardian named it one of a thousand records “to Hear Before You Die” and awarded it four out of five stars in Generation Ecstasy author Simon Reynolds’s review. (“I gave it five stars, actually,” he wrote on his blog), calling it the first dubstep record that “transcends that context.”
For those who haven’t heard of dubstep—which, unless you follow every mutation of the London underground, is pretty much everyone—the genre is a product of the same musical community that produced grime. As practiced by the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, that U.K. hip-hop variant is distinguished by cluttered rhythms and impenetrable slang—two reasons why the genre never took off in this country. Dubstep, by contrast, is more accessible, and Burial is without a doubt its most mainstream practitioner. On his second and latest full-length, Untrue—a record that teems with dublike textures and futuristic beats—Burial highlights the vocal contributions of various companions. All of them sing as if they’re auditioning for American Idol, but the performances are as charming as they are unschooled.
That human factor—more specifically, the human voice—was less prominent on Untrue’s predecessor, an album that Burial started recording around the turn of the millennium. His initial efforts coincided with both the end of the late-’90s techno boom and the beginning of the post-dot-com era, when the genre’s bubble burst. It’s possible that listeners lost interest in a largely instrumental music back then because, as a largely instrumental music, it lacked the capacity to convey much meaning. In his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes about how Hanns Eisler came to a similar conclusion in the aftermath of the Jazz Age. The Communist composer charged that his instrumental-writing colleagues were “dealers in narcotics” and, as Ross paraphrases, “nothing more than luxury tools of the capitalist system.” That’s an extreme assessment, but the sentiment should resonate with anyone who’s ever heard bland techno in a car commercial or an upscale shoe store.
A newfound urge to avoid anonymous instrumentals—and the conspicuous consumption they help promote—might also explain the popularity of Justice, another critically acclaimed act that augments its gritty soundscapes with unsophisticated vocals. The French duo’s debut full-length, this year’s †, might not explicitly appeal to those looking for anti-capitalist messages. But it does live up to the tag “music for use,” a socialist concept that, Ross explains, favors everyday gestures over complexity and virtuosity. Much of the music on Justice’s debut is almost daring in its simplicity. The crunchy electro beats are straightforward to the point that any syncopation sounds like a major development. And the lyrics, though far from advocating a monklike existence, are as bare as a concrete slab. The Grammy-nominated “D.A.N.C.E.,” for example, suggests a return to first principles. “Under the spotlights/Neither black nor white,” a young woman sings, “It doesn’t matter/Do the dance/Do the dance.”
A command like that might’ve seemed prehistoric a decade ago, during the era of intelligent dance music. The IDM tag was once used to describe rhythmically complex artists such as Autechre and Aphex Twin, and the very name implied that music must be difficult to be art. No one of late has done a better job of debunking this type of thinking than Ricardo
Villalobos: The producer is responsible for some of the most minimalist dance music imaginable. On this year’s Fabric 36, a DJ mix of his own recordings (many of which are previously unreleased), Villalobos strips techno down to almost nothing but a four-on-the-floor beat. Burial and Justice sound positively baroque by comparison.
Villalobos has received quite a bit of attention this year—including an August cover story in the Wire and a September feature on Pitchfork. That attention, of course, invites the usual skepticism: A friend who has collected minimalist techno through thick and thin claims that Villalobos’ music contains few surprises. The Berliner’s latest, however, is actually quite full of them. “Perc and Drums,” the second cut on Fabric 36, is typical Villalobos. It begins with a simple, infectious pulse. Random synthetic noises click and swirl in the background, and the only hint of riff or melody comes from the rhythm itself. The track seems to be on autopilot—that is, until Villalobos introduces the sound of a jazz drummer, who, either live or via sample, adds subtle commentary to the unwavering beat.
Fabric 36 is full of juxtapositions like that, moments when Villalobos explores the similarities between two disparate cultures; his sense of play recalls the mix of organic and inorganic elements on the Burial and Justice records. Call it diplomacy, or call it fusion. Either way, it’s something other than typical dance music. Its creator, a native Chilean whose family fled to Germany when Pinochet took power, is perhaps the most pluralistic of the genre’s front-runners. But he’s not the only one bridging cultures. Both Burial and Justice share an affinity for the aesthetics of heavy metal, as well as other nonelectronic genres. Just check out the album covers of their respective debuts (†, in particular, looks like a Black Sabbath compilation), or the occasionally grim music contained therein. It’s not hard to read this obsession with darkness as, in fact, a hopeful sign. Progress, after all, comes from those who are willing to step across boundaries. And judging from this year’s output, techno’s envoys are more willing than most.