HOW NOT TO MAKE A 90'S "POST-ROCK" ALBUM
or, "Don't Settle for a Complacent Avant-Garde"
by Paul Dickow (March 1998)
I'm writing this for the simple reason that I haven't bought any albums by new groups that have really challenged me. It occurred to me that the paradigm for "avant-garde indie" music established by the Too Pure/Thrill Jockey/Drag City axis didn't satisfy me any more. This article is really based on opinion. My aim is to point out the ways in which a certain genre of independent rock music, namely the outsider-music dubbed "postrock" by critic Simon Reynolds, has been saturating the market. Furthermore, the various tropes of this genre aren't being challenged. Where's the next level?
This is a question that doesn't have one answer. I'll get to this later. In the meantime I'd like to outline some of the elements of music which I believe have become weighted cliches (often, the very things that make people buy the albums).
- "Crossovers" with drum'n'bass, ambient and so on. This has been done in such a way that the music being referenced (say, the elektro-style tracks on the new Tortoise record, TNT) is not being changed from its original source. The drumn'bass and other techno sources cited on many "indie rock" records are usually thrown in as a token novelty- not always as an exploration of that genre in its own right.
- The trope of technology as a theme for the music. This overused element begins largely with Stereolab and flooded the indie world (Sone, Flowchart, and groups with 'analog' in the name are cases in point.) More often than not the technology reference (like "moogie wonderland") is in the name and not always part of the music itself. This is a case of name-dropping at its most efficient.
- The straight ahead Neu! rhythm. The very metered drum beats (often described as 'motorik') are being used all too much after the aforementioned Stereolab subtly reconfigured its purpose. The straight-ahead beat exemplifies the Eno value of "repetition is a form of change" however, most groups have overused it. With Neu! and Eno, the straight-ahead beat is used sparingly such that it contrasts with the more stretched-out moments of their records. This contrast has been largely overlooked. It is my opinion that the first Tortoise record did not use this beat, and thus their songs were more layered in the melodic instruments. On their second record, this straight-ahead motif hinders the other instrumental possibilities. Simply put, this style of playing pushes a song on a linear path and doesn't allow for other kinds of expressive change. It also gets boring to listen to.
- The token electronic noise. This element has been so common in this decade that the list of groups which abuse this is too long to mention. I would like to note that artists who define themselves as Noise artists do not necessarily fall into this category; rather, what I am referring to here is the use of the "random blooping" (or whooshing, squiggly sounds usually caused by an analog synthesiser) and the way it appears in the music. Typically, these sounds appear over the top of the rest of the music in such a way as to be a garnish to the other sounds. Part of me believes this stems from the antique synthesiser's comeback as a novelty sound. I think another part of it is that all the keyboard players got old because nobody wanted to play with them in the SST eighties. In any case, electronic instruments, like any other instrument, has expressive potential, and can be a part of the band. A noise can be cool in its own right, but can a person PLAY the noise in a musical way? With most groups, this remains to be seen. The tradition of bloopy garnishes continues as I write this.
- Jamming is not improvisation. I saw a band a couple of months ago that I really liked in spite of myself (Magnog, from Washigton state). The first time I had seen them, they were all playing at once through the entire piece. The second time I saw them, members of the group seemed much better attuned to the effects of certain players dropping out or switching musical roles. The latter situation seems closer to improvisation. The point is that jamming on stage is not improv. Having a vague idea, and playing on it in variations which are made up on the fly might be a better (though certainly not orthodox) definition. Too many bands (such as Portland's Hochenkeit, or countless bands from Michigan) seem to think that jamming on one note or two or three so as to achieve a "texture piece" will consistently be interesting. I personally don't think this is so. Our ears are tune in to changes and variations. Even in the case of ambient music, slow change keeps things alive. In my opinion, the "jam as avant-garde" phenomenon is all too common; groups are going to have to fully explore their options in this regard before they can deserve an avant-garde label from the press.
The question remains...what's the next level?
Like I said before I can't answer this. I do think that it has to do with people realizing that the market for independent music which bears the above characteristics is completely saturated.
Here's some things which I've been hearing in my head--things that I've wanted to hear on new records but which isn't happening:
- De-centralizing the main rhythm. A lot can be implied through playing parts of the rhythm; for example a NOT straight-ahead drum beat; melodic instruments playing rhythm parts while the drummer plays tonally, etc. The implications of rhythmic resolution and constance leave a lot more room for the listener to understand the spaces in the music.
- Getting non-expressive instruments to express: the sound of, say, an organ or a farfisa are nearly all the same from instrument to instrument. The problem this leaves is how the sound expresses the player themselves. FX boxes which can be altered in real time and unusual amplification give the player greater control and thus the sound is more reflective of someone's distinct touch.
- Is digital the next DIY? Analog recording technology is brilliant, I can't front there. However, its rare that I can afford a 90 dollar reel of tape. I think that, since pressing CD's are become the cheapest format, and digital recording technology is becoming cheaper (and more reliable), that groups who want to think of themselves as 'cutting-edge' ought to go digital. Nobody should give a shit what Steve Albini might think about their record... pick the cheapest option if that's what it takes to make art.
These are only suggestions. I can't make a call about what anyone else's Next Level will be (although, I know what MINE is going to be!) but hopefully people will recognize that the "postrock" genre (poorly articulated to begin with) is becoming artistic baggage. Make music which doesn't sound like the music you can buy at yr. local record store.
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