ance music's primal scene: a writhing, humid murk of sweat-stippled bodies. Sound is a physical presence, an intimate pressure of beat and bass sovoluptuously thick it enfolds you, permeates your flesh, and invades your body.You can't work out where the DJ booth is located, can't find the bar,stumble through a jungle of buffeting limbs, until you abandon the idea oforientation altogether and merge with a crowd you feel more than see. Fitfulillumination catches the curlicues of smoke, an arched spine, a head thrownback, lips puckered and eyes closed in rapture.
There's a good reason why all clubs take place in the dark, why manywarehouse raves are almost pitch black. It's the same reason you turn thelights low when listening to your favorite album, or wear headphones andshut your eyelids. Diminishing or canceling one sense makes the others morevivid. Dance culture takes this simple fact and uses it to overturn thehierarchical ranking of the senses that places sight at the summit. Visualperception is eclipsed by the audio-tactile, a vibrational continuum inwhich sound is so massively amplified it's visceral, at once an assault anda caress. The body becomes an ear.
If rave culture and the ever-proliferating forms of techno and house musichave any claims to subversive power, one of them might pertain to the waythey resist the privileging of the eye in contemporary pop culture. Thanksto the pop promo, MTV, BET (Black Entertainment Television), et al, successin genres like rock, rap and R&B now depends on the videogenic charisma ofthe star vocalist, even on a measure of acting skill. The ability to bustcool dance moves in front of the camera is more important than vocalskills: a weak or erratic voice can be enhanced and salvaged using studiotechniques; an inability to move elegantly to syncopated rhythm---WhitneyHouston, for instance--can only be masked by above-the-waist shots and quickcut-aways to the backing dancers. Part of techno's "underground"-nessrelates to its refusal of this culture of the icon, of spell-bound, enthralled fascination. For video is about spectatorship (almost bydefinition, if you're watching a video, you're not dancing; it's hard tofocus on a screen when you're shaking your stuff), whereas club and raveculture are about participation.
At a more phenomenological level, sound is about involvement and impact, whereas sight contains an intrinsic distance and detachment. "I don't seeanything when I hear this music," says Nico Sykes, theengineer/producer/owner of drum 'n' bass label No U Turn. "One of thethings it does for me is stop me thinking about that, I'm just absorbed withthe sound. I don't get lots of images of rushing down steel corridors ofthe future fighting aliens or exploring some zone---I'm an audio man.Visually I'm pretty dead."
Although many people on the dancefloor close their eyes to watch their ownmusic-catalyzed and often drug-enhanced "eyelid movies," and most clubs havesome kind of visual element (fluorescent backdrops, lasers scything throughclouds of dry ice, use of strobes or "black light"/UV, back projectedvideos, etc), Sykes's comment does crystallize techno culture's relativeindifference to the visual and its re-privileging of the ear's primacy.There's a kind of sliding-scale ratio between the visual and the sonic: themore underground the club or party, the less there will be in terms ofvisual divertissement; the more hardcore the scene, the less there is to beseen. Of course, financial factors go some way to accounting for this; promoters of underground, small-scale parties have less money to spend onvisual spectacle than the mini-corporations that run "superclubs" ororganize huge commercial raves. But the fact that they choose to skimp onvisuals and decor in order to have enough funds for a powerful sound systemagain reinforces the priorisation of the aural in techno culture.Essentially, the purer and truer to techno's "spirit" a club or scene is, the more it is "dead" to vision.
All of this goes some way to explaining the relatively underdeveloped natureof techno and electronic dance music videos. A genre predicated on thestripping away of pop/rock/rap's iconic apparatus of stars and stagespectacle in order to facilitate a massive reinvestment in pure sonicintensity, is almost inevitably going to create something of animagery/music gap. What's striking about most electronica videos is the lagbetween the futurism and alien-ness of the music and the visuals. Faced withthe problem of doing justice to the music, or conveying even a fraction ofits impact in its proper environment (i.e. heard through a massive soundsystem, by a body in the seething midst of a crowd of other bodies),directors of electronica videos have tried visual bombardment (specialeffects, ultra-fast editing) or attempted to capture the atmosphere of aclub or a rave, or used animation/surrealism/abstraction to get across theweirdness and far-outness of the music (Future Sound of London'scyberkitschy mix of filmed footage and computer-generated sci-fi imagery;Chris Cunningham's Gothic umheimlich, Michel Gondry's absurdist fantasia forDaft Punk).
In a sense, the history of techno videos represents a futile, always-alreadydoomed attempt to catch up with the sonic, to make the eye (organ oforientation and perspectival mastery of the field of vision) more like theear (vessel of proximity, immersion, vulnerability). There is no shortageof impediments to this project. First and foremost is the narrow-bandwidth oftelevision audio, plus the necessarily "boxy" quality of focusing on a TVset compared with the multi-sensory, circumambience of being in a club (which intoxicates all the senses, encouraging perceptual drift). Pop, rockand R&B are least harmed by the television’s inferior sound reproductionbecause those musics are actually mixed to sound good on radio and oninexpensive domestic stereo systems (i.e. more like a one-box "music center"than an audiophile's hi-fi built from separate components). Most dance musicis mixed for a big club sound system, with its panoramic stereo-field andseismic sub-bass; a large part of these records' auditory content isvirtually inaudible on a small music center, let alone through a televisionwith its mono speaker, tinny treble, and feeble, almost non-existent bass.
In this respect, dance music actually has a lot in common with heavy metaland grunge, both of which are sonically poorly served by video. Like ravemusic, metal and grunge are all about the physical impact of volume in boththe decibel and cubic sense of the word (voluminous---sound as a fluidmedium in which the listener is suspended and enwombed); they are aboutbass that hurts so good, and the kinaesthetics of riffs and rhythm as theytug at the body's psychomotor reflexes. Heavy metal and grunge videos,however, are able to communicate the physicality of the music throughdepicting performance--the theatricalized strenuousness of bashing drums andgrinding out guitar riffs; the gestural repertoire of flailing,head banging, jackknifing-at-the-waist, spasms, contortions; the grimaces ofthe vocalist or the lead guitarist in mid-solo. All of these dramatize themusic's typical emotional scenarios of struggle, endurance, conflict, toil, and trial.
With dance music, there is no equivalent vocabulary of gesture orestablished performance model to fall back upon. Being a DJ can bephysically and mentally exhausting, but compared with the sweaty redneckexertions of a rock band, it seems more like white-collar work. Most dancerecords are not played in the traditional instrumental sense of the word, but are assembled using computers. Sequences are "step-written" (one note ata time) or drawn on a VDU screen; sonic material is spliced together, processed, layered, even sculpted as a visually represented waveform. Adance track is not an "event" in the sense that most rock tracks are stillquasi-events, enhanced but plausible sounding simulations of liveperformance edited together from multiple takes and overdubs. Which is whyeven the most adventurous and interesting rock videos tend to have a least afew scenes in which the band mime playing their instruments, as if togesture at the artisanal "authenticity" (we can do this live, you know) ofrock that is compromised by the "feminizing"/"emasculating" nature of video(turning the performer into objects of the spectator's gaze).
Since the creation of the music (or its reproduction, for those technoartists who do play live) offers little to watch, electronica promodirectors have often tried to make the crowd or the scene into the star:substituting for the non-dramatic gestures of the DJ at his turntables orproducer clicking her mouse, the visible impact of the music at itstraverses the crowd-body; documenting club culture as "a way of life", aworld unto itself. Two early classics of the rave era use these strategies:the Bailey Brother's (Phil Shotton and Keith Jobling) promo for HappyMondays "WFL" (the dance remix version of "Wrote For Luck," as reworked byacid house DJ Paul Oakenfold), and Flowered Up's "Weekender", directed byWiz. Filmed in Manchester club Legends (where Oakenfold operated a franchisebranch of his legendary London acid party Spectrum), "WFL" is a exercise insynaesthesia, an attempt to parallel visually what it's like to hear housemusic on Ecstasy (a drug that doesn't usually generate visual hallucinationsor distortions, and that while intensifying all the senses, seems to have aparticularly vivid impact on hearing). The dancefloor shimmys and shimmers,the crowd's rippling, fractal choreography refracted through numinoushalation effects, trails of seeing-double/triple/quadruple after-images,light-streaks and tracers.
Where "WFL" focuses entirely on the sensation of being a drugged member of adrugged dancefloor, Flowered Up's "Weekender" documents both thehallucinatory delirium and the sociocultural framework that both explainsand ultimately contains it. ("WFL" might itself have been intended as acomponent of such a broader vision; the Bailey Brothers had originally beenapproached by Happy Monday's label Factory Records to work on a movieproject about Manchester provisionally entitled The Mad Fuckers). A 15minute mini-movie that follows a hard day's night in the life of a workingclass London youth called Little Joe, "Weekender" is a mélange oftraditional "gritty Brit" social realism (Joe eats his dinner while hismother neurotically twirls her wedding ring on her finger and silentlywatches TV, its screen reflected in her spectacles; Joe smokes a spliff inthe grim hallway of concrete tower block of flats; the sordidsex-and-drugs squalor of a nightclub's lavatory, seen in a overhead passthat peeks down into each cubicle in a row of toilet stalls); trippydancefloor commotion; heavily symbolic fantasy/hallucination sequences; andurban derive (Joe, still in the Ecstasy haze, wandering the desertedmetropolis in the grey pre-dawn hours). Think Ken Loach filtered through theprism of MDMA....
Like Happy Mondays, Flowered Up were a rock band inspired by and caught upin the frenzy of British rave culture in its early years; despite its remixby DJ Andy Weatherall, "Weekender" is therefore more a rock song about thejoys and anguishes of the rave lifestyle than an example of where dancemusic was at in 1992. Still, Wiz's screenplay and script pre-empts the basicnarrative arc of all the clubbing-and-drugging movies and fiction thatfollowed in the Nineties: having the time of your life and then paying forit, flying high and crashing hard. The film is both a documentary snapshotof early Nineties London clubland (listening to pirate radio, going down toQuaff Records to pick up the new house imports and rave flyers) and a moretimeless statement about British proletarian "weekenderism": the "workhard/play harder" life-cycle that goes back to the pill-popping mods ofSixties London, via the Northern Soul fans of the Seventies with theirobscure sub-Motown singles and amphetamine wraps, and the jazz-funk and soulAll-Dayers of the early Eighties. Both song and video pay homage to TheWho's mod movie Quadrophrenia: there's a sample of the film's hero tellinghis boss to take his job and stick it where the sun don't shine, and LittleJoe is picked up by a friend driving a mod-style scooter.
More eloquently than Flowered Up's crudely expressed and sketchy lyric,Wiz's scripted dialogue lays out both the exhilaration and the impasses ofthe raver's lifestyle:Joe's feelings of limitless power and possibility ("when I'm out with mymates, and we're all one on, buzzing off our nuts, all together, it feelslike we could... like we could do fucking ANYTHING!") versus the eternalreturn of Monday "like a jail on wheels" (to quote The Clash), the comedownto a reality with all its limits intact and un-altered ("I used to feellike that when I was young, but look at me, I'm still cleaning windows,"responds Joe's older, wiser, and wearier workmate). Unlike his mother andhis equally crushed, domesticated sister, jack-the-lad Joe is determined toout-run his inevitable fate (mediocrity) for as long as he can, fuelled bymusic and drugs. The most striking sequences in the video depicts him doingjust that--a fantasy set-piece in which Joe sprints full-tilt inside thegrooves of a gigantic 12-inch dance single, giggling with glee despite themalevolent stylus that is hard on his heels. Redolent of the set-pieces inJulien Temple's musical Absolute Beginners (his flawed version of ColinMacInnes famous novel about the early, just-before-mod days of British youthculture/cult of youth), this sequence vividly captures the sense of danceculture as both groovy and a locked groove. Adding to this sense of a loop,a deadening dead-end, is the image that opens and closes Wiz's mini-movie:Joe--gaunt, pallid, a devitalized ghost of himself, an ember of the discoinferno--descending the side of a huge office building in hiswindowcleaner's pallet; literally coming down after the high.
Focusing on the story of one face in the crowd (a Face in the Sixties modsense: a figure "on the scene"), "Weekender" represents one attempt tocircumvent the problem of techno's facelessness, its lack of a performancemodel or star glamour. Emerging from the same rock-meets-rave milieu asFlowered Up, but musically achieving a much more full-on embrace of technomusic's abstraction and rhythmic urgency, The Chemical Brothers havecleverly turned their anonymous anti-image into a video signature--a seriesof blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo appearances in their own promos, notunlike Alfred Hitchcock's ultra-brief appearances in his movies. TheChemical Brothers are not the only camera-shy techno artists--Norman Cook ofFatboy Slim tends to almost totally evacuate himself from his own videos,while Josh Wink's "Simple Man" promo wittily turns "sound" itself into thestar, in the form of the sound-reproduction technology. The narrativefollows the rise to stardom of a ghettoblaster radio, and its trajectorythrough adulation, corruption (groupies, drugs) and eclipse (when thefickle kids abandon him for a new sensation--the sound of a fire alarm thatgoes off accidentally at one of the radio's stage performances). Ironically,given the video's playing off the alleged facelessness of techno incomparison with rock and rap, Josh Wink is one of the more visuallyrecognizable and charismatic-looking artists in the genre.
The promo for the Chemical Brothers single "Out of Control" makesfun of their near-total absence from the proceedings, putting the slogan"100 % Chemical Free" in the corner of the screen during a fake commercialfor a fizzy beverage called Viva, then immediately following it with four second glimpse of the Chemical Brothers on a TV-within-the-TV. The main protagonist in "Out of Control"'--a voluptuous Latina revolutionarystreet-fighter--is also the latest in a series of attractive and athletic women hired totake up the Chemical Brother's videogenic slack: the split-personality "ravebabe" in "Setting Sun," the gamine criminal on the run in "Block Rockin'Beats", and the club girl with X-ray vision in "Hey Boy Hey Girl" (all byDom & Nick); the dancing redhead and her clones in "Let Forever Be"(directed by Michel Gondry and using painstaking live-not-digital simulationof special effects like kaleidoscopes and multiple images); the gymnast inSpike Jonze's "Electrobank". This use of a girl as a proxy for the ChemicalBrothers by different video directors is such an obsessively reiteratedmotif it warrants scrutiny. Perhaps something is going on akin to theopposition of the male artist and his muse, except that here the woman(usually dynamic, graceful, and fierce) simultaneously embodies the energythe Chemical Brothers unleash (she's not the muse, but the music) andrepresents the crowd (implicitly feminine, manipulated and pleasured to afrenzy by the masterful, masculine DJ).
Like "Weekender", "Setting Sun" has a circular narrative, beginning andending with the blonde pigtailed rave-babe protagonist collapsing in thegrounds of a stately home in the aftermath of an illegal rave---her comatosehead strikes the lawn with a sickening bounce, and the Chemicals Brothersmaterialize clutching their DJ boxes (having presumably played at the rave)and curiously inspect the prone form of one of the victims of the deliriumthey have incited. But where the circularity in "Weekender"' evokes theworking class raver's treadmill of drudgery, anticipation, and explosiverelease, "Setting Sun" is more about the abolition of chronos (the workadaytemporality of linear, clockwork measurement and schedules) and the raveas kairos (the special time of peak experiences, epiphanies, carnivalesquecelebration; intensifications of the moment that are felt as timelessbecause they step outside chronos--the sensation that the KLF described, inthe context of rave culture, as "3-AM Eternal"). Along with themicro-editing of the image-flow to match the beat's dense, strobingsyncopations, there are numerous near-subliminal flash-forwards andflashbacks to earlier or later points in the video narrative (so brief theyliterally are flashes), and this adds to the sense of conventionaltemporality being suspended.
Part of the narrative involves the mysterious and somewhat mystifyingappearance of the blonde girl's sinister red-haired doppelganger, who likethe proverbial "demon on your shoulder" leading you astray, appears to lurethe girl to the illegal party. But the real heart of the video is the raveitself--which five years on from "Weekender", is much more technicallyaccomplished and effective in simulating the modern bacchanalia. Theflickerings, dapplings, and strobings of light, the shadowplay offragmentary illumination that disintegrates the individual bodies of thedancers into a swarm of autonomous limbs, captivates and teases the eye,frustrating the the Appollonian impulse to form a tableau out of the scene.Sound, through the flux of forms that is the crowd, wreaks its revenge uponsight. It's a Dionysian delirium so convulsive and contagious that even thepolicemen, who have come to monitor, control, and ultimately disperse theevent (documentary footage earlier in the video shows a real rave beingviolently broken up) cannot remain immune and uninfected. The video's moststriking sequence shows two archetypal British bobbies, mustachioed andwearing yellow riot jackets, breakdancing and raving with astonishinggrace and fervor. From the word "hysteric" on the blonde girl's T-shirt tothe policeman's muscular rigor dissolved in the fluent geometry of "liquid"(US slang for the raver's style of swirly-limbed dancing), "Setting Sun"resonates with readings of rave culture in terms of polymorphousperversity, male hysteria, clitoris envy, androgyny, and nympholespy.
O[rphan] D[rift>], a London-based mostly female art-collective whose videowork has featured in promos for songs, as back projected video-decor inclubs, and in multi-media gallery installations, also represent "the spiritof rave" in terms of a form-dissolving, ego-melting, boundary-hemorrhagingfemininity. They consciously articulate their work as an attempt to closethe gap between the visual (traditionally regarded as a masculine sense) andthe aural (traditionally regarded as female). The "Spiderman" video was madeusing techniques like luminence, strobe, highly distorted and layered wipeand inversion effects, color adjustment, and feedback patterns. Some of thepatterns were generated using an animation program which works with randommutation of shapes. The ur-technique underlying all of O[rphan] D[rift>]'swork is the liberation of texture from its environment, of energy-flux fromcontoured form; the goal is to recreate "the intensity of being kind oflost", an experience the members of O[rphan] D[rift>] have "researched"through numerous missions into the synaesthetic synergy zones of thedrugs/techno interface. Reports of these adventures in O[rphan] D[rift>]'sbook Cyber Positive describe the rave experience in terms of masochisticmortification of the flesh ("deep hurting techno," "the violence of thesounds, it's like you're being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated "),shamanic possession and voodoo oblivion ("white darkness", "the fog ofabsolute proximity"), and "beautiful fear".
Using a mix of sampled and shot footage, O[rphan] D[rift>] process theimagery with effects related to or analogous to those used in digital soundproduction (i.e. the sort of treatments favored in electronic dance music,like phasing, ghosting, filtering, flanging, distortion, feedback, pinknoise, and so forth), then densely layer it, and edit and process itfurther in tandem with the music . The result is a video palette of abjectchromatic oozings, filaments of phosphorescence, seething blurs ofultra-solarized luminosity, and candlewaxy flows; palimpsests, ectoplasmicpulses, kaleidoscopic frenzies, and spectral bleed-throughs; the mottling,blotching, pitting, flaking, and pockmarking of the visual plane;split-screens where there is a fuzzy or frayed border, a maculate overlap.The overall effect simulates a sort of retinal trembling, as though visionitself was wavering, the mindscreen buckling, rippling and crinkling. Theeye is restored to its materiality as a jelly-like orb, a muscle capable ofbeing stressed, strained, even injured, as opposed to a disincarnate,invulnerable perceptual apparatus.
This goal--making the eye swoon--is often attempted through the rapid-firebombardment of imagery. Yet over stimulation and visual assault is morelikely to induce a flinching of the gaze, a shielding withdrawal. Perhapsthere is a fundamental and unbridgeable gap between the ear and the eye interms of their different capacities to cope with intensity. Take rhythm: thesubdivision of time gets ever more fantastically complex in dancemusic--micro-syncopations, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns riddled withhesitations, multiple tiers of polyrhythm. (And it's not just the drums andthe bass-- most of the musical elements in dance records, from the keyboardsto the vocals, are rhythmatized and function as cogs in the groove). But torender this implosive internal intensification of rhythm visually would notonly be extremely challenging on the technical level, but also much moretaxing or even traumatic to the viewer. The ear seems to be able to copebetter both with faster rhythms and with internal rhythmic complexity(hyper-syncopation, offbeats, cross-rhythms and counter-rhythms). The earcan not only apprehend the staggering complexity of modern dancerhythms ---rhythmic simultaneism (multiple percussive patterns interlockingand overlapping), timbral treatment of the beat and the riffs to createtextured rhythm and rhythmatized texture, spatial organization of rhythm inthe stereo-field--it can also enjoy them.
The trilogy of videos created by Hexstatic (Stuart Warren-Hill) for theColdcut tracks "Timber", "Frog Jam" and "Natural Rhythm' approach thethreshold of this discomfort zone in their attempt to match image torhythm. The first video in the series, "Timber", has an overtly polemicalthrust, using the sounds and sights of buzz-saws chopping through treetrunks and axes hacking wood to make an eloquent protest againstdeforestation. The sound and image of an Amazonian Indian woman singing aplaintive melody bleeds into the video/track's mechanical mayhem, setting upthe opposition of female nature versus hypermasculine technology. (There arealso near-subliminal chirrups of protest or distress from a tree frog)."Frog Jam" and "Natural Rhythm" also sample wildlife documentary footage (awhirling hummingbird, a woodpecker tapping a tree with its beak, the splashof an insect or small frog as it bounces off the surface of a pond, aleaping monkey, flowers bursting their seed-pods, and so forth), buttransform them into the visual equivalent of jungle's loopedbreakbeats--visual stutters or optical tics, which are synchronized toColdcut's music (also seemingly made either from wildlife sounds orsimulations of them, then edited into syncopated drum patterns). At onepoint all the different video-loops of animals are arrayed visually on thescreen, making a fair visual analogue for the "virtual drum kit" ofseparate but interlocked rhythmic patterns that Coldcut have organizedacross the mix-scape.
The agenda for the second half of the Nineties in electronic dance music was set by jungle and its more self-consciously avant-garde successor drum and bass. The genre's "breakbeat science" (digital techniques of micro-editing and resequencing beats) has been imitated by the experimental art-techno fringe (Coldcut's trilogy of tracks is just one example of jungle's pervasive influence), migrated into other genres like house and trance, and spawned offshoots like nu-skool breaks and 2-step garage. In the last few years, though, that future-rush of exponential rhythmic complexification has dissipated, reached a plateau or impasse. The most popular dancefloor sounds of the last four years- Big Beat, the "disco cut-up"/filter style of house, and the Eighties-revisionist styles known variously as electroclash or nu-wave--are retro-kitsch in flavor, imitating or directly sampling Seventies disco and early Eighties electro (i.e. the pre-rave ancestors of house, techno, jungle,et al). This wave of "technostalgia" is reflected in recent videos, like the kitschadelic cut-and-paste of Cassius's "1999", where the pulpy visuals match the period associations of the track's disco sources: Pop Art/Lichtenstein style comic book appropriations, dated-looking typography and graphics redolent of early Seventies teenpop music annuals and heart-throb magazines, tacky sci-fi imagery, and so forth.
Similarly the video for Les Rythmes Digitales’ "Hey You What's That Sound" (directed by Evan Bernard) is a fond, knowing and immaculate parody of an early Eighties dancepop video (think the pre-megastardom Madonna of "Holiday" and "Lucky Star", or Shannon, or Bananarama). The primitive computer video effects perfectly fit Les Rhythmes Digitales's deliberately retro-futurist sound--stiff sequencer and drum machine rhythms, unwieldy geometric synth-riffs. What was once state-of-the-art retinal intensity returns under the sign of camp, signifying both bemused amusement that we could ever have been astonished by these clumsy visual tricks, and a yearning to experience once again that virgin amazement.
By: Simon Reynolds
Published on: 2002-06-10