Following electronica could cause a nervous breakdown. I do my best to read about new projects, releases, and remixes. I visit record stores, from Tower to Music Now. I get my fair share of promos. But the various genres within the electronic music fold mutate so fast, the releases perpetually pouring out, that my mind threatens to overload. As I sweatily stumble around music stores, arms saddled with sundry releases, wallet begging for mercy, my mind becomes cloudy and twisted, and my one, two, three, four, five senses work overtime until I feel I’ve entered the world of Helen Keller.
It’s not pretty, all that enthusiastic curiosity mixing with a capitalistic urge so deep that I fight the desire to send up prayers to Steve Forbes while flipping through the record racks. In the midst of all this pleasure and pain, my senses usually come back if I stay in a place long enough, and I generally allow the bins to reclaim a few of their own, but not before I give Visa the best years of my life. Compilations often come to the rescue, and for those wishing to avoid drowning in fandom’s sea, MTV’s amp may be your life preserver. That is, if you don’t mind being spoon-fed the latest trend.
MTV, hoping to capitalize on the record industry’s frenzied expectation that electronica will be its savior now that sales of grunge and pop-punk are sagging, put together the amp compilation with Astralwerks to promote its new show of the same name (though a Saturday night/ Sunday morning 1 a.m. show time isn’t likely to bolster any music revolution). But since electronic-music fans are pretty fetishistic, and the tracks that make up amp are hardly exclusive, most appearing on well-distributed albums, they aren’t likely to find anything provocative on it. The truth is, amp isn’t for da headz; it’s for Middle Americans, passive music fans, and post-punkified music critics whose editors have blindly sent them out to find out what all the fuss is about. For these target groups, amp provides a decent, if not always interesting, overview of electronica.
amp kicks off with “Block Rockin’ Beats” by the Chemical Brothers, who were the music industry’s brightest hope to crack the Top 10 (at least until Prodigy’s new album came along), but as all the naysayers know, the Bros. didn’t even come close to Mariah Careyland. Still, “Block Rockin’ Beats” is one of the Chemicals’ most kickin’ bust-ups yet, and Dig Your Own Hole, the album it comes from, is a benchmark release in the way it feeds the power of Iggy’s Stooges and the funk of Sly’s Family Stone into a computer and, unlike so much electronic music, manages to keep it virile. Following the Chemicals isn’t easy, and both Fluke’s “Atom Bomb” and Underworld’s “Pearl’s Girl” sound weak, mere hybrids of techno grinding and mush-mouthed vocals. (Björk is the only singer thus far who successfully uses techno as backing music, and she employs it in an almost traditional way, since the music is fine-tuned to fit around her voice.) Both Fluke and Underworld graft dumbass lyrics and nonsensical chants over their low-down grooves, which rather remarkably recall “I Want You” by Savage Garden, the neo-’80s group currently tearing up the charts. Where Fluke’s sounds have always been mediocre, Underworld’s mix of voice and thump succeeds in spots, most memorably on its Trainspotting hit, “Born Slippy.” But on “Pearl’s Girl,” the singing sounds drained of inspiration and becomes just another texture (which is probably what Underworld wanted, since on the dance floor the cruddy lyrics would be no distraction whatsoever. That’s something critics too often forget when reviewing dance music while camped out on their big fat butts. One should imagine shaking one’s tuchis, not picking it). The Future Sound of London fares a little bit better in the Chemicals’ wake with “We Have Explosive,” as the stuttering electro number effectively drops all the group’s wishy-washy albums into the new-age dustbin. But it’s not until Photek’s “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” that amp turns on.
Too often electronica sounds as if it’s burped out faster that a Big Mac. Rupert “Photek” Parkes’ “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” took anywhere from one to four months to create, depending on whom you believe, and nothing about it betrays that rumor. Named after a Japanese martial-arts technique that uses a long and a short sword simultaneously, Parkes’ track builds a boxy, ever-shifting wall of drums by intertwining two separate breakbeats, each representing one sword’s movements. The composition exhaustively explores the breaks it consists of, accompanying them with only minimal sound effects. “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” is dense, eerie, dry, and cavernous, and comes about as close as the work of a programmer can to displaying traditional musical virtuosity. (Look for this track on the re-release of Photek’s breathtaking 1996 EP The Hidden Camera or on the forthcoming Modus Operandi.) Critical darling Aphex Twin follows Photek with “Girl/Boy Song,” an exquisite faux-classical drum ‘n’ bass workout from his Richard D. James album, released earlier this year, and Orbital chimes in with its soundtracklike anthem “The Box,” from last year’s epic In Sides. After that, though, amp blows.
Tranquility Bass offers “We All Want to Be Free,” a tune as banal as its titular sentiment; its lethargic, white-boy posi-funk evokes sleep more than freedom. Goldie’s several-year-old hit “Inner City Life” is proof that intelligent jungle is about as smart as John Tesh. The cut is total crap, but because it’s hugely praised, “Inner City Life” has wandered from pillar to post through numerous compilations. Prodigy hands over “Voodoo People” to the Chemical Brothers for remixing, and the results are more rote than expected. (It’s ironic how Prodigy, once an OK rave band unceremoniously dropped from Elektra label after its first album tanked, inspired a bidding war and is now the latest name to shoulder electronica’s need to succeed. The group has reinvented itself with breakbeats, and “Firestarter” rocks like little else, but it remains to be seen whether its third album, The Fat of the Land, can live up to the hype.) Josh Wink and the Crystal Method are popular with ravers, and probably sound great dropped into the middle of a DJ mix, but Wink’s “Are You There?” is a bit light and repetitive for home use, and the Crystal Method’s “Busy Child” comes on like a miniature Chemicals cut. amp closes with “Sick to Death” by Atari Teenage Riot, a band so noisy and angry that if it weren’t for the drum machines and some of its members’ other projects its music wouldn’t be considered electronica but simply generic thrash. ATR’s leader, however, Alex Empire, has released some backbreaking solo records, like Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5 and The Destroyer, where the beats fire like machine guns. But as on its new CD, Burn, Berlin, Burn!, Atari Teenage Riot sounds as cartoonish as its name.
A better choice for a compilation is one that collects the obscure 12-inches of one label whose strong aesthetics promise a catalog tour of some consistency. No U Turn’s Torque (available only as an import) is the perfect guide to the latest sounds in drum ‘n’ bass. In the quickly deviating subgenres of electronica, jungle’s latest firestarter is “techstep,” an insidious and industrialized take on breakbeat. No U Turn’s production team of Ed Rush, Trace, and Nico created techstep by taking distorted, elephantine bass lines and setting them against jack-rabbit beats. The effect evokes being stretched upside down on a rack; as the low end lumbers, pulling your torso down into a sticky hole, the drum patterns lift your legs toward the stars, while the trio’s fierce boo-huffing induces paranoia. The first CD is a collection of the collaborators’ finest 12-inches (“Technology,” “Crystal,” “Droid”), and the second disc is “The Live Ed Rush Mix,” a seamless beatdown that repeats some of the first disc’s tracks alongside some new grooves and B-sides. Just as a cadre of imitators quickly adopted the Chemical Brothers’ epochal sound, No U Turn’s techstep is a thriving subgenre that has attracted fervent admirers and lame copyists. By the time the general public hears techstep, it will be in a beer commercial (and just as watered down as the product it’s pushing. I’ve already seen one comp simply called Techsteppin’). Unlike amp, Torque is for da headz, or at least crazed armchair technocrats like me, who try as we might can’t keep up with the artists who make the music. To acquire Torque, I had to suffer only a small breakdown.CP