We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Many critics argue that techno music is the new punk rock. In one sense this is true—musicians need not be entirely proficient to create basic versions of either style of music. Pure ingenuity can often take the place of musical skill, and with the abundance of remarkable technology available, neophytes can create entire symphonies from programmed zeros and ones. But just as the energy and simplicity of punk has inspired thousands of mediocre albums, so has the surfeit of electronics spawned countless interchangeable dance records.
One strain of techno that has evolved from the linear thump of house music and its harder cousin, trance, is the polyrhythmic punch known as “jungle.” Drums click and pound in non-aligned tempos, creating a frantic collection of beats over simple synth riffs (and often an ill-advised soul sample). Because each snare hit vies for the listener’s attention, jungle is not exactly the type of music you’d play to set the mood during a cocktail party.
Music for the Next Millennium is Omni Trio’s singles collection of jungle tracks. Adopting Ornette Coleman’s penchant for modernist album titles would seem to align the British “trio” (which actually consists only of writer/producer R. Haigh) with jungle’s most avant-garde artists. But rather than compose experimental melodies, Omni Trio consistently employs house-music tricks like layering simplistic piano riffs and sampled soul screamers over intense beats.
Millennium‘s leadoff track, “Renegade Snares,” was a breakout club hit in England last year. Its junglist tendencies are evident from the start: Overlapping phased snare drums strike and diminish in relentless patterns with little harmonic counterpoint, eventually giving in to incessant cries of “Take me up” from an anonymous singer. The chaos created is riveting, like a car crash with no casualties. The song will likely be remembered as an epoch in dance music history, but most of Millennium isn’t nearly as ambitious or engaging. “Living for the Future,” “Rollin’ Heights,” and “Mainline” all seem like knockoffs of the opening track. The jungle trademarks are there—stuttering rhythms, clipped diva samples, booming bass—but the tunes are clichéd genre pieces. Fellow jungle artists like A Guy Called Gerald have surpassed Omni Trio’s now nascent-sounding music by making fresh sonic overtures of jungle’s characteristic skittering drum tricks. The vociferous sample on “Through the Vibe” declares “Music is my life and it helps me through the fire.” Perhaps, but Millennium is unlikely to ignite anyone’s imagination.
Jungle’s more serene relative is not ambient but ambient’s spawn: Electronic-listening music, otherwise known as intelligent techno. Until the ambient boom (or crisis, depending on your view), electronically generated sounds were primarily relegated to dance clubs. But since the beginning of electronic music—from Leo Theremin’s innovative musical namesake tackling Rachmaninov’s overtures to Gershon Kingsley and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s stabs at popular music to Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach to Cluster’s random yet melodic electronic pulses—many of its practitioners have been trying to find a way into the heart as well as the booty.
In 1983, synth pioneer Robert Moog predicted that “the distinction between composition and performance is blurring; art and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined.” British duo Autechre represents the new generation of electronic composers. The cover of Autechre’s second album, Amber, looks like a computer-generated sand dune replete with contoured hills, valleys, and baby-blue sky. On closer inspection, the image turns out to be a photograph, perhaps computer-enhanced, but nonetheless a real place. Its bleakness is matched by the scant band information, but there’s a beauty in the image’s terseness that reflects in much of the album’s music.
Electronic music supporters decry the notion that synthesized sounds are geared for heartless androids and incapable of touching the emotions like a six-string guitar. However, one of popular music’s most touching compositions is Brian Eno’s ambient, instrumental classic “Discreet Music,” with its lachrymose layering of delayed synth melody lines. It’s not that electronic music is inherently devoid of emotion, but that it has generally been created with the intention of producing alienating, or even alien, sounds. When the theremin was incorporated by Bernard Herrmann for the soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, it wasn’t to invoke warm fuzzies but the implied menace of the spaceman Tobor. Not until Popul Vuh, Eno, and especially Kraftwerk did electronic composers consistently use synthesizers for emotional music. Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” is an evocative paean to loneliness in the modern age: Ralf Hutter deadpans, “I am alone, I don’t know what to do, I need a rendezvous,” seeming to foreshadow Clifford Stoll’s theory that the Internet is sucking away our skills at personal interaction.
However, Amber doesn’t entirely embrace the notion that electronic music can or should be emotionally engaging. Certainly the duo’s electronica is more suited to the bedroom than the dance hall. Amber is a foray into abstruse electronic moodscapes, without the requisite spinelessness of much ambient or the numbing thud of most techno. Somewhere between Morton Subotnick’s pieced-together ’50s-era tape samples of notes and Aphex Twin’s ’90s ultramodern quest for new musical language, Autechre’s style of sound organization is at once fabulously futuristic in its compositional randomness and supremely dated in its notion that spacey music is all bleeps and phases.
Whereas Incunabula, Autechre’s first album, stayed close to techno’s bass-drum crutch, much of Amber floats along at a menacing pace, its rhythms never veering into a conventional time signature, its samples caressing melodies without quite embracing them. Tracks like “Silverside” and “Foil” emerge much like ambient tracks, as oozing synths wash over the speakers like a slow sandstorm. But gradually, the serenity gives way to tense drum patterns that are foreboding and obtuse. The music’s hallucinatory power results from the electronic ebb and flow that floats above the earthbound, staccato clicks of the drum machine.
Not all of Amber‘s tracks are so ominous. “Glitch” embraces the sound that CD players make as they skip over a scratch, incorporating it into the song’s slow-motion jungle rhythm, while “Slip” employs a nearly hummable melody, recalling early Depeche Mode sans David Gahan’s galling vocals. Other tracks, like “Piezo” and “Further,” are quirky bits of esoterica, flippantly recalling Kingsley and Perrey’s hyper, electronic nursery rhymes.
Amber has an astigmatic quality, blurring the lines between electronic-listening music, background ambience, and disruptive dissonance. Though this eclecticism is admirable and Autechre’s sublimation of electronic music engaging, ultimately the music is not. At least not yet. Whether it’s so futuristic that it won’t be completely embraceable until vacations on the moon are commonplace remains to be seen. Until then, groups like Autechre will have to compete with the aerobics-class music of technoids like Moby. The resurgence of three-chord punk doesn’t bode well for experimental music either, though punk’s do-it-yourself attitude seems to be in accord with intelligent techno’s modernist innovators.