Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
I was talking to the guy who cuts me hair about the Orb, and I said, “It just sounds like Steve Hillage to me,” and he goes, “Well, he plays for them,” and I said, “Whaaat? Steve Hillage is back? I’ve fuckin’ failed!”
—The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, quoted in New Musical Express
Coveting the ’60s, which went from Frankie Valli to Jimi Hendrix in a seeming blink of an eye, pop music always wants to know what’s new. Techno, the synth-based dance/trance music, argues implicitly and explicitly that it’s the answer to that question. Disco without the crossover ambitions and U.S. chart success that made synth-based dance music both so lucrative and so reviled in the mid- to late ’70s, techno and such associated subgenres (“aliases” might be more accurate) as house, acid house, ambient house, new beat, hardcore, and acid jazz (techno with jazz rather than disco samples) do work a few variations on their predecessors. Their principal innovation, however, is to be reborn as cult music, so dangerous that—even though much of it could serve as incidental music for TV commercials—its dance parties are subject to scrutiny by special rave squads in some police departments.
Like hiphop, techno is built on borrowed ground. Its beat comes from disco and Kraft werk, its swoops and swirls from European space-rock, its sensibility from acid rock and the noise-damaged lullabies of such latter-day psychedelicists as My Bloody Valentine. Like Bowie/Eno and other art-rockers of nearly two decades ago, it also draws on the minimalists: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and so on, with their debts to traditional African, Indian, and Indonesian music. (The liner notes to Excursions in Ambience pay homage to both John Cage and Terry Riley, and Orbital has sampled the latter.) That way leads to La Monte Young (long influential in Germany, the only country his new just-intonation blues band has toured) and the first rock band to take lessons from a minimalist, the Velvet Underground, which in turn has been a major influence on the Bloody school.
What all these precursors share is the quest for the altered state. Whether by means of seemingly endless tones or inexorable percussion, these are trance musics,inimical to the Western tradition of music as a series of discrete events (and counter-events). Whether during true Dionysian frenzy or the approximation that dance clubs and raves try to engineer with relentless beats and enormous volume, such sounds attempt to meld body and spirit in a euphoric, extra-rational whole. (Along with “future” and “young,” techno buzzwords include “tribal,” “primitive,” and “jungle.”) Under such circumstances, intoxication by chemical agents is not unprecedented. Ecstasy and LSD, supposedly, were integral to the U.K.’s version of acid house; now techno (at least in Britain) is associated with the favored potion of both mods and punks, the amphetamine. (Drugs, of course, are foremost among the reasons that there are police rave squads.)
What makes techno’s crypto-Dionysianism modern is that there’s a third element. It’s not God anymore; these days it’s the machine. That means the machinery of electronic music-making itself—the speaker, the microphone, and the guitar as well as that electric-music exemplar, the synthesizer—but also the other machines whose noises compose the soundtrack of everyday 20th-century life. Early in the century, Italy’s futurists celebrated the speed and noise of mechanical transportation—and also the “hygienic” violence of war. Two world wars later, tanks weren’t looking quite so good, but Kraftwerk was still prepared to salute speed and its hum, swoosh, and clang with such pioneering titles as “Autobahn,” “Tour de France,” and “Trans-Europe Express.” Whether trains, planes, or the dance floor, electrobeats exalt movement; Skin Up offers a 146-beats-per-minute “Rat Race Mix” of its “Acceleration” (on Big Hard Disk Vol. 1), while Moby’s new major-label debut is simply called Move. Yet there’s also movement toward stillness, which is where venerable British space-rocker Steve Hillage comes in.
Mark E. Smith’s tribulation about the rebirth of hippie art-rock as cutting-edge underground music is understandable, but this is hardly the first time that bleep-bleep has been hip. Almost 20 years ago, a critical colleague known for his colorful but perverse judgments told me of his new favorite, Tangerine Dream: “It sounds like bubbles rising from the bottom of the ocean,” he enthused.
Tangerine Dream went on to near-mainstream success and then to the career its music had long suggested, programming movie soundtracks. Punk soon cast its withering gaze on the synthesizer and Virgin, the label that had released Tubular Bells just three years before, signed the Sex Pistols. Suicide’s debut album was released the same year as the Pistols’, though, and the late-’70s bargain-bin arrival of albums by such German space-rockers as Faust, Neu, Amon Düül, and especially Can presaged the rise of Teuton-tutored post-punk bands like Public Image Ltd. Meanwhile, Bowie and his electro guru, Eno, had moved to Berlin to soak up the decadence—and the techniques of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, masters of the mechanized beat that clatters still in hiphop and techno. Around the same time, Eno gave new meaning to a word much bandied by the electro movement(s): ambient.
Ambient house (or just ambient) doesn’t have much in common with the aural wallpaper promulgated by ’70s Eno efforts like Discreet Music and Music for Airports. On such recent releases as Moby’s Ambient, Excursions in Ambience—in this scene, proclaiming your subgenre is very important—and Amorphous Androgynous: Tales of Ephidrina (“directed by the Future Sound of London”), the sound is trippier than standard techno’s and the beat sometimes vanishes for the more meditative passages. Yet even though it occasionally sounds like bubbles rising from the bottom of the ocean, most of the time ambient features the same insistent electropulse as other techno. Anything may go in this music, but the anything that usually goes is very similar to everybody else’s.
That’s one of the most interesting lessons to be learned from several months of off-and-on listening to more than 25 techno discs, many of them compilations but some credited to such rising (or perhaps shooting) stars as Utah Saints, Definition FX, Orbital, the Prodigy, Fortran 5, Lords of Acid, Digital Orgasm, Sheep on Drugs, LaTour, and others. Techno, it turns out, is a wide-open field with a fierce orthodoxy, much like the movement from which it seems to have borrowed many of its gambits, punk.
Techno comes from all over the place: Belgium, the U.S., Germany, Italy, Japan, but most of all Britain, uncontested champ in creating youth/music subcultures. With its trendy weekly music papers, floating dance-party clubs, and influential little record stores, London is a hothouse for germinating strange hybrids. (Rough Trade started as a record store, and now its Portobello Road neighbor, Vinyl Solution, has a techno label, distributed in the U.S. by no less than Columbia/Sony.)
The acid-house movement of the late ’80s, techno’s precursor, was just the second (or third or…) coming of neo-disco in London. Following on punk’s heels—and sometimes emulating its do-it-yourself sound, throwaway one-shot singles, confrontational graphics, shock-horror fashions, and penchant for pseudonyms—were both the fleetingly popular New Romantics and such cultish but still influential outfits as Throbbing Gristle, Pragvec, pre-crossover Human League, and Cabaret Voltaire. Indeed, with all due respect to the sound of Chicago’s house and Detroit’s techno originators and such arty electro labels as Play It Again, Sam (Brussels) and Wax Trax (Chicago), Cabaret Voltaire seems the fountainhead of much techno. (The Cab’s Richard Kirk himself now makes techno, under such brand names as Sandoz and Sweet Exorcist, whose “Test Four” is on Aural Ecstasy: The Best of Techno.)
Thus, although techno’s baby-bottle/pacifier iconography symbolizes its alleged role as music for people too young to remember Gary Numan, its sound is almost classical. Recasting the remix as the main event, techno strips down synth-pop, generally throwing out such reactionary elements as melody, lyrics, and live singing; for techno, it’s not the singer or the song. (One reason for this is that early techno was, ironically, low-tech. Pioneering Detroit techno-maker Derrick May’s mixes were so simple, Jon Savage reported in the Village Voice, because they were done on basic analog cassette equipment.)
With little more than a global-village beat, techno can sound like a universal language (its catch phrases are, of course, in English, pop music’s lingua franca). Yet this synth-Esperanto seldom has much to say. Often a techno track is merely a beat and a sample: Electroset’s “How Does It Feel? (Theme From Techno Blues)” (from Only for the Headstrong Vol. II) and Utah Saints’ “Something Good” (available on Headstrong Vol. II as well as an EP named for the track and an LP named for the group) would hardly exist without their samples from, respectively, New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting.” Song titles and even artists of record are sometimes identical to their samples: Likelife’s “Like Life” (also from Headstrong Vol. II) takes its tag from the “it’s a lot like life” line borrowed from Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant.”
Despite its willful cutting-up, though, techno hasn’t changed neo-disco’s underlying beat or, perhaps most importantly, its timbres. With all the possibilities provided by digital sampling, this music’s dedication to electronic sounds seems almost quaint. (Sometimes, as when techno artists utilize such obsolete technology as the Moog analog synthesizer, it really is quaint.) Like so much pop futurism, techno is dedicated to an outdated notion of a slick, streamlined tomorrow. It’s music for people who still think the future will really be the Jetsons, or something like them: robots doing thehokeypokey to the shrill melodies of touch- tone phones, microwave ovens, and modems. (The hook of Gumbo’s “The Quickening,” from Dragonfly: Project II Trance, sounds like a doorchime.) When a techno record kicks in, a reasonable first reaction is, “Oh, here it is, the future again.”
Aside from personal computers, now common both as compositional devices and as talismans, little has changed since pop-music futurism’s previous runs. It’s no leap for Richard Kirk, Steve Hillage (co-producer of 777’s “Mia (the Fisherman Mix)” on Excursions in Ambience), and other synth-pop and space-rock veterans to mastermind techno. Stark as the new sound may be, many elements are familiar: the disco-diva refrains, the fake-orchestral swells, the decorative sampling of such non-Euro spices as sitar, shakuhachi, didgeridoo, and Middle Eastern chanting. Techno even reprises the goofy drug-addled irony and cosmic wonder of the hippie era: Radioactive Goldfish’s “LSD Is a Bomb” (from Aural Ecstasy) features Jack Webb (in his Sgt. Joe Friday role) deploring the use of psychedelic drugs, and Black Sun’s “The More You Look the More You See” (from Dragonfly) samples that old New Left jokebook, Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. (Dick’s early-’60s nemesis, JFK, surfaces in Shaft’s “Monkey (Bruce Lee vs. Monkey Mix),” from Headstrong Vol. II.) With hippie sunniness, meanwhile, Midi Rain’s “Shine” commands, “Let your mind be a sun.”
Indeed, one of the striking things about techno is that in banishing most content it’s failed to rid itself of corniness. Orbital’s “Lush 3-1” and “Lush 3-2” (from Orbital 2) are intricate electro patterns, but the vocal chorale of its “Halcyon On On” really is lush; Apotheosis’ “Obumbratta” (from Aural Ecstasy) sounds like a techno setting of the Red Army Chorus; both Zexos’ “Angel of Love (Dub Pylon Mix)” and Young American Primitive’s “Young American Primitive (Angel’s Hand Mix)” (back to back on Futurhythms) feature church-music sopranos; and the pitter-patter of rain, a hoary new-age cliché, is common on ambient tracks, including Moby’s “The Rain Falls and the Sky Shudders” (from Move). Start using a Celtic whistle as a hook—as does King Arthur’s “Magic Day (13th Century Mix)” (from Mindbending Climax: Technomancer 2)—and pretty soon you’re in Big Country.
To be sure, digital programming also offers new ways to be irksome, such as the annoying pitch modulations and phasing common on Tresor II: Berlin/Detroit: A Techno Alliance (an album of German, not Michiganer, thumping). Still, it’s those digibeats that distinguish most of the best techno. For every puckish Utah Saints, who can sample Kate Bush, Gwen Guthrie, and Slayer and retool Simple Minds’ “New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)” without misplacing its stirring pomp, there are 30 techno-logists whose wit is best left unexplored. Few Steve Reich or Maureen Tucker fans, though, can fail to thrill to the stuttering beats of Circuit Breaker’s “Trac-X” (from Probe Mission USA), the complex polyrhythms of Das Rennen’s “Pulse Versus 3 Phase” (from Tresor II), or the Reichian percussive patterns of Moby’s “Patients” (from Futurhythms). Such clanging may not provide everything I want from pop music, but it’s as Dionysian as it wants to be. As for the future, well, have you heard the Hollies’ box set?
Discs mentioned in this essay:
Ambient, Moby (Instinct); Amorphous Androgynous: Tales of Ephidrina, various artists (Astralwerks/Caroline); Aural Ecstasy: The Best of Techno, various artists (Relativity); Big Hard Disk Vol. 1, various artists (Smash/Island); Dragonfly: Project II Trance, various artists (Instinct); Excursions in Amb ience, various artists (Caroline); Futurhy thms, various artists (Medicine/Giant/Warner Bros.); Mindbending Climax: Technomancer II, various artists (Antler-Subway/Caroline); Move, Moby (Elektra); Only for the Headstrong Vol. II, various artists (FFRR); Orbital 2, Orbital (FFRR); Probe Mission USA, various artists (Novamute/Tommy Boy); Shine, Midi Rain (Vinyl Solution/Columbia); Tresor II: Berlin/Detroit: A Techno Alliance (Novamute/Tommy Boy); Utah Saints and Something Good, Utah Saints (London).