Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Nocturnes for London

"The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life." So wrote sociologist Georg Simmel in his seminal 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and Mental Life'. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the conflict between the collective and the individual which is so magnified in big cities engenders the "deepest problems of modern life", but I would agree that, like Simmel’s model of the triadic social group, it can lead to an unprecedented degree of alienation amongst people, despite the fact that they are living in closer proximity to each other than ever before. Certainly it is a well-documented belief that city living has created and entrenched a now familiar mesh of illogical paradoxes which frustrate the order of our lives; rising alienation comes with rising populations, and less collectivity comes with more connectivity. These have a psychological price for the city-dweller, but the expression of dissatisfaction (or the cry for help) which city-based music creates as a response to these absurd paradoxes is, I think, in fact one of the most potent and interesting reflections on contemporary culture around.

The tools for the response to the absurd paradoxes of city life are in fact also provided by the city though. The emergence of the globalised city as the stage for society is in constant evolution, producing a diverse collection of paradigm shifts, especially in the sphere of music. It’s hard not to think teleologically about culture and counter-culture movements (most such movements saw themselves as the apex of art, only to be surprised when they were displaced by new ones e.g. prog and punk), but today, through a complicated mesh of social and technological relationships bound together by the internet, it is certainly easier to talk about a Barthesian 'death of the icon' or hear echoes of Fukuyama with 'the end of subculture'. No recent musical movements have had the power or gravitas of pre-internet ones, whilst many others have been co-opted into the superstructure as nostalgic throwbacks or ironic-cool, and the idea of icons for a generation in the style of Lennon or Cobain have all but faded away. However in the context of the city the conditions of modernity are not all bad for music; boundaries become more fluid in multicultural, multiethnic metropoles and the cross-pollination of ideas and practices in the arts may often lead to a richer range of sounds and visions for artists. Electronic music can in fact innately benefit from the internet-led revolution of culture through having access to an enormous choice of samples, sounds, and ideas to utilise. Therefore those citizens of the city who are alienated from urban life, but who are also musicians, can then begin to piece together their feelings through collage-like self-portraits of samples and sounds.

As an alienated citizen of London for my entire life, hearing the results of these forays into catharsis has illuminated my solipsistic thoughts to show me that a lot of other people also feel alone in the city. This feeling of solidarity produced by music is one way of being able to get on with life in the midst of some sort of existential crisis brought on by lonely city life. But though such music is uniquely of the city, it does not relate to its perpetual flurry of movement and noise; rather it is related more to the still night air of unknown suburban streets, which I think contain more romance and despair than any bustling main square could ever achieve. What's more, night in the city hands back our humanity. During the day our individualism, or our very humanity, is subsumed in technology and machinery, which alienates us not in the Marxian sense of being seperated from our labour, but in a more emotional way, where our ties with our fellow humans, and our natural mother (as Jung might say, the forest, or perhaps more broadly speaking nature and/or the earth) are severed in favour of the clockwork confines of modern life's concept of time and space. The faceless lives we lead by day can at night be regained, where we are alone, but we are ourselves again. We can't escape the lamplit trees, the fresher air, or the sense of restless solitude that night brings, and these simple things in the claustrophobia of the city can make you feel free; yourself, but also strangely lonely. As well as this, the frenetic sub-stream of mental activity in the city by day is far from conducive to reflection, but for some reason when the city is (mostly) asleep, the air slows down, the buzzing stops, and the avenues of consciousness become wide and free. Considering all this, it is no surprise that for the universally acclaimed producer Burial a.k.a the mysterious Will Bevan, night (its ambience, its sounds, its romance, its loneliness) is the backdrop for his ruminations on life in the city of London; full of nameless yearning and aching vulnerability.

Untitled photo of the London suburbs at night, from the series "Nightscapes and Anonymous Places", Michael Bodiam

Nothing can quite describe finding yourself sitting on the top deck of a night bus on the way home during the coldest, darkest witching hours; watching raindrops meander down the scratched windscreen, seeing smudged orange lamplight reflected in the wet pavements and witnessing the silence of traffic lights turning from red to green, back to red on empty roads full of deep shadows. On such journeys I often wondered how you could capture the loneliness; the shades of grey; the feeling of a city asleep with all but the growl of the bus’ engine and the flickering fluorescent lights for company. As I passed innumerable darkened windows, faceless shops and deserted streets, I saw a different side to London’s world-famous metropolis. At night it becomes a strange dream-world, and the endless expanse of sleeping houses and glinting council estates is akin to gazing at the starry sky on clear nights in the countryside; it makes you feel so small. This is a distinctively modern urban experience, and there was, as far as I knew, little exploration of the artistic possibilities of it.

Then I heard Burial. His muffled beats and cold swathes perfectly captured everything I feel in London at night. Something about the ghostly tone of the music, like fog lights in the murky distance; the dusty, loose percussion and the ethereal disembodied vocal samples create the perfect aural document of the city, and it somehow provides affirmation that you are not the only one; it allows the rediscovery of the 'self' after its loss in the thunder of the city. Through the music, and contrary to the city’s grip on human isolation with the absurd paradoxes it stokes, a sort of 'community' is formed; the community of the night-bus riders, the 3am blazers, the lovelorn, the lost, and the lonely.

Burial can’t be fully understood without an understanding of the monochrome nocturnal loneliness of the city. In fact, to understand Burial fully, his music cannot even be extracted from the context of London; the metropolitan beast that created him. His focus on particularly London imagery (song titles include 'South London Boroughs' and 'Night Bus') is explicitly evocative of London’s sprawling reach, and how easily you can feel lost and alone in its infinite suburbs. London is written deep into Burial’s music; it is London music, and as has been written on countless occasions before, London haunts Burial’s music. Each deprived tower block, each lamp-lit park, each brick scar, each ghost, each night bus, each kebab shop; they are all audible in Burial’s music in some mystical guise; a gust of icy synth, a stuttered beat, a looming bass drone, a distant impassioned cry, or a fuzzy crackle. These sonic double entendres (the latter being a perfect albeit more literal example wherein vinyl crackles and the sound of rain dissolve into one other) link together the wide gulfs that lie between imagination, sound and vision. In successfully making music that lies somewhere between the three, Burial has placed his art beyond the confines of just the aural, and has instead painted with sounds a lasting portrait of urban London. This lends Burial’s music a narrative and emotion; it is alive, and the fractured, quasi-indecipherable voices which sporadically intone out of the music’s gloom, are poignant evidence of this. Just as Georg Simmel’s ideas are still relevant to sociological theory today over 100 years after they were written, Burial’s music will retain the essence of dealing with and expressing the urban isolation that Simmel’s ideas first addressed, at least for certain types of people and/or certain frames of mind.

It seems pedantic and pointless to get involved in the arguments over what genre Burial is. There are years of archived forum/blog/’zine debate which I have only scratched the surface of, attempting to argue and explain Burial’s place (or not) in a particular movement (the Hardcore Continuum) or genre (ambient/minimal/dubstep/post-dubstep/2-step/darkstep etc). I personally like the term ‘post-dubstep’ simply because it reminds me of post-rock, which was coined initially in response to bands like Fridge and Disco Inferno who employed samples as well as live instruments, and broadly speaking, who were more interested in ‘movements’ and soundscapes than songs. Post-dubstep therefore retains a few norms of dubstep (tempos, rhythms, aesthetics) but instead of being characterised by the bass warps and wobbles of the more club-centred dubstep, it is more subtle and introspective, relies more heavily on dub-derived atmospherics, and spurns drops and climaxes in favour of overall ambience.

Whatever genre Burial is, his only two albums (the eponymous 'Burial' released in 2006 and 'Untrue' released in 2007) marked a turning point in the evolution of dubstep, where the silent nocturnal reveries of many young artists finally made sense, and they could, through Burial’s lead, create their own musical impressions of city life. Burial, like the night, gave back humanity and lonesome freedom to artists and listeners. In a way Burial’s unique sound has become a template for copyists, but two particular artists have taken the spirit of Burial and come out with opposing but brilliant interpretations: Mount Kimbie and Kryptic Minds.

These artists are all the more pertinent since Mount Kimbie have just released their debut album 'Crooks and Lovers' whilst Kryptic Minds released their own debut album last year entitled 'One Of Us'. The latter were initially associated with the drum 'n bass scene in the early 00s, but stopped work in 2003, only to return in 2008 with a more dubstep sound, influenced heavily by Burial’s atmospherics (haunted, even?), but also retaining some of the bass wobbles of their more club-focused contemporaries. Similar imagery is evoked when listening to Kryptic Minds as Burial, but they have a harsher, more mechanical edge which isn’t as introverted or affecting, but which itself holds a sleek, post-recession dystopian claustrophobia with its precise clicks and regimented sounds. The inhuman sheen of Kryptic Minds’ brooding music takes the paradoxes of city life to their disturbing extreme, where, like a Philip K. Dick nightmare, emotionless and conscienceless humanoids stalk the urban wastes with no sentiment of alienation or hopelessness; the very feelings which characterise and animate Burial’s portraits of fragile human love and loss.

Though on their awesome 'Maybes' EP Mount Kimbie evoked a chilled nocturnal glow indebted but different to Burial, on 'Crooks and Lovers' their sound rests less in the shadowy streets of London (though the ghost of it still haunts), and is more reminiscent of its melting pot of global culture; from the smell of exotic spices wafting out of street stalls, to multicoloured fabrics billowing against the chipped brown brickwork of low-rise flats. A palette of sounds only available to the internet generation is employed, with many organic percussion clicks and clacks used in place of standard drum samples, whilst voice manipulation is used to gorgeous effect on the track 'Before I Move Off' where a melody is sculpted through vocal science from sample scraps. The computer-game blips add a childlike playfulness to the song, but the more minimal guitar riff and aforementioned vocals which are completely synthetic but somehow deeply emotional, create a perfectly balanced piece. 'Mayor' is bouncy and vibrantly colourful, whilst 'Field' begins with a deep, sluicing sample, then breaks out into rays of pastoral haze filled with dusty acoustic guitar and percussion clicks and pops. Mount Kimbie’s shifting focus from the early-hours isolation of London living on 'Maybes' to the city’s buzzing, iridescent mish-mash of cultures on 'Crooks and Lovers' shows a sort of liberation from the ties of the absurd paradoxes of the city. Solace is not anymore found on the night bus, but on the dance floor, where the boundaries between body and music are allowed to flow into one another through dance, and where the loss of the self (rather than regaining the self, as with Burial) is made possible.

These artists also signify a future; culture and/or society have not ended, and there is new, brilliant music emerging from the ashes of supposedly dead movements. This ability to reinvent through sonics and ideas is a continual process of mitosis, and lends much credence to the Hardcore Continuum, where movements spawn new interpretations that spiral off to the side. The point is that electronic music in particular is not static; it mines the past but emerges with glittering new sounds. Rock is more bogged down in the difficulties of escaping the shadows of the past, and this is in part because of the sonic and creative limitations of the overused rock instrumentation, and also to do with the parasitic influence of the media and record labels. Electronic has come across no such boundaries yet, and therefore continues to thrive where rock is becoming more and more stagnant and retrograde. That isn’t to say that rock cannot again come alive (and that electronic music doesn't suffer some of the problems of rock), it just seems to my ears that the imagination of rock musicians is confined to the past, whereas with electronic the past is only a reference point to create new sounds. Both genres work on the same structural confines as each other i.e. the laws of rhythm, harmony, and melody, therefore much of the difference between the two is in sound; what can be done with it and how it can be arranged in a relevant and beautiful way. Electronic music has in the past ten years been creating some of the best sounds around; from Burial’s distant echoes, to Mount Kimbie’s upbeat vivacity, by way of other brilliance such as Gas, Lawrence, Monolake, Pantha Du Prince, Fennesz, Madlib, Oh No, Scuba and Caribou.

I am very late in adding ideas to dubstep theory, in particular Burial, as most of the best music critics around have already painstakingly explicated his relevance and genius. However, Burial as the soulful answer to London’s urban paradoxes, and two latter variations on this theme, go towards explaining my own particular affinity with the music, and put the context of the city firmly at the forefront of each of the artists addressed. Burial is not a random occurrence, and could not have happened anywhere but London in the 00s. But let’s also not forget that he is not the be-all end-all of electronic music, and that artists like Kryptic Minds and Mount Kimbie are now more relevant to the UK scene and music-crit because they are the next step in the ongoing process of UK underground’s evolution. Burial deserves a special place in the hearts of electronic fans, but his silence over the past few years besides a few tracks here and there (including an awesome collaboration with fellow legend Four Tet) should refocus our view of the state of the scene today.


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