May 17, 2012

Son Raw wrote a think-piece and killed three releases in one review.

I don’t like writing about music as if it were fashion. Some people may find it to be a useful parallel but reducing the meaning of music to the same base level as the endless commercial cycles clothing manufacturers use to hawk their wears fills me with dread: a good song is a good song even if it’s not what some *insert Son Raw straw man hipster description* approves of come end-year list time. Nevertheless, ideas can become exhausted – while I’ll forever treasure my copy of Hard to Earn, I want to hear 9th Wonder’s boom-bap beats about as much as I want a root canal. So while producers were making great strides in exploring negative space a decade ago, Dubstep and MNML’s spatial engineering have given way to the kind of colorful, big room, in the red vastness that’s now being described as maximalism.

Much as layering a hi-hat over a kick wasn’t all that interesting in and of itself, maximalism can result in some pretty awful music: the Americanized euro-trash of Lady Gaga & Red One, the screeching drug-activation of Brostep and the critic-baiting slopcore of Death Grips. That said, there’s a few reasons for the progressive rise of massive soundscapes beyond the exhaustion of EDM’s minimal current: an increase in synthetic drug use, rave’s return as a big business leisure industry, easier access to powerful audio-editing software and nostalgia for the tape saturated, crudely digitized production of the early 90s. The results have been music that’s expansive in its use of space without resorting to the cheap trick of pummeling the audience with sound, instead crafting aural environments as alien and inviting as anything conceived in the heady days of psychedelia.

Joker’s latest single is a shining example. As one of the clearest links between the darkness of DMZ era Dubstep and electronic music’s current wall of sound, his music has only grown lusher with time, from the stark empty spaces of Digidesign to the tranced-out vastness of Skitta. Taking the UK’s bassline science to its logical extremes without falling victim to noise for noise’s sake, the later track is almost completely constructed around the interplay of rumbling low-end, gurgling mid-range and a layer of thunderbolt synths. By the time an electric guitar aping solo tears up the soundscape to close the track, you’re left gasping at the fact that Joker found room for another sound.

B-side “I think You Should Know” is restrained but only in comparison: the vocal version drops the raver synths but only to allow room for a furious, syncopated performance by Grime emcees D Double E and Footsie. Crucially, it’s a rap track with all of the sonic vastness of the Guetta-pop on commercial radio that actually benefits from the production’s digital sheen, never going for the easy thrill but instead exploring what new ideas can be developed in an era of unlimited digital manipulation.

Lone’s Galaxy Gardens album takes a slightly different approach, re-imagining the euphoria of classic rave music as interior symphonies for mind and body. Having never experienced the original rave generation’s drug fueled massiveness first hand, Lone drew from old cassette tapes documenting the scene for inspiration with telling results: his multi-layered melodies and new-age positivity are miles away from the physically pummeling bass that defined the previous decade’s dance music. Rather, the album’s aquatic textures (running water is a recurring motif) and fluorescent synth lines function equally as headphone symphonies and as club tracks, balancing out the digitally saturated high-end with unorthodox drums that ensure the record is more than a simple throwback record.

Even when Lone pulls things back such as on the acid inspired “Earth’s Lungs” the results diverge from the primitive drum-machines and 4 track recordings that defined electronic dance music’s first generation. Instead, the cutting-edge sound quality and massive space generated by today’s modern digital workstations allow him to go far beyond his predecessors’ technical limitations while striving for the same goal: to create completely synthetic environments out of the digital ether, crafting a world drum hit by drum hit and synth by synth.

Finally, Girl Unit’s Club Rez EP marks a welcome return for a producer whose absolutely anthemic “Wut!” set the tone for the current wave of Bass music maximalism in 2010. Expanding his sound to cover classic 80s electro (Ensemble, Plaza), jacked-up prime-time drum machine workouts (Cake Boss), aquatic Hip-Hop beats (Double Take, Rezday) and serotonin soaked rave (Club Rez), the release never replicates Wut’s exploding bass drops, prefering the slow build approach to composition.

Double Take for example starts off with all the expansive space of Dubstep (or club-ready Hip-Hop) and it confidently and subtly takes its time to develop into the kind of melodic anthem the listener is waiting for, finally giving you the high-end bliss you’ve been expecting during the final minute. It’s a pain for DJs, a tease for listeners but a great way to ensure his music doesn’t fall into the trap of functionalism for functionalism’s sake – you’ll want to play this one out till the end. It’s also an approach to maximalism that goes beyond shock and awe kitchen sink-throwing in favor of a more rewarding progression, something absent from both today’s walls of sound and yesteryear’s minimal masterpieces.

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