DJ Spooky vs. The Freight Elevator Quartet - File Under Futurism
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Paul D. Miller has been known to blunt the visceral edge of his work as DJ Spooky (whether mixes, albums or live shows) with a kind of stifling intellectualism, a dryly theoretical approach that tends to suck the air out of a room. The Freight Elevator Quartet have less of a reputation, but they were/are (they haven't put out anything since 2001) composed of four grad students, and their website says this about their work with Spooky:
[File Under Futurism] presents the key elements and ideas of the artists involved, and represents a coherent musical work that takes DJ Spooky's immense talent for aural recontextualization and cultural commentary and merges it with the electroacoustic improvisation and digital savoir faire of the Freight Elevator Quartet.You are forgiven if you think that this sounds like No Fun At All. Luckily I first encountered the record shorn of any sort of academic trappings; my friend Pete went on a school trip to Europe in high school and brought File Under Futurism back from a Paris Virgin Megastore. He knew he loved electronic music, but neither of us had any context for anything outside of normal Chemical Brothers/Orbital/Aphex Twin channels, so he had just picked up a few discs that looked good. Aside from a few crap trance albums his aim was true, but File Under Futurism was easily the pick of the bunch, the only one I cared enough to track down years later. And not because I was fascinated by the gap between the ideals of Futurism and the technology overload of today.
The result is a commentary on cultural and aesthetic oppositions, through a musical exposition and juxtaposition of early twentieth century Futurism (imagining a sublime technology) and the exponentially accelerated culture in which we live today (coping with too much technology).
Like a lot of high-minded concept albums that work anyway, you don't need to know anything—or care—about Futurism or technology to enjoy the record, and its ostensible concerns are mostly subsidiary to exactly the sort of pre-intellectual thrill Miller often doesn't let in his music without dissecting it to death. The album itself is much more of a patchwork than you'd think at first listen, given its sonic unity; as well as four tries at the basic theme you get two live versions of old FE4 songs, new mixes of their “Infrared” and “Bring Me My Mental Health,” a couple of short interstitials “curated” by Miller, a new FE4 track (“The Revolution Will Be Streamed”) composed using the software the quartet wrote for use in their work with Miller and a brief work composed on the RCA Mark II Synthesizer (the first synthesizer, and it sounds it). Again, all this sounds more interesting in concept than execution, but somehow DJ Spooky and the Freight Elevator Quartet bring out the best in each other.
“File Under Futurism (Grooveprotocol Mix)” begins things with a bang, sliding and gnashing beats swirling around Miller's popping bass and Rachael Finn's cello. The cello is one of the more striking elements here and it is extremely well used, sounding just as present and normal as the beats and static. Miller intones parts of Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto in small chunks between incredibly fierce storms of breakbeats, bass, and cello. More than anything else, what strikes you is the sheer momentum of the material; maybe it's just because Marinetti said “no work without an aggressive character can ever be considered a masterpiece,” but it works. The later “Downtempo Manifesto” takes the same themes and highlights Finn's work instead of the beats and relative danceability of the Grooveprotocol Mix, while “Experimental Asynchronicity” shreds the whole thing into an avant drill'n'bass mess, before “Chromatic Aberration” ends the album by highlighting an almost ambient side to the composition. These four variations alone would have made a more than worthwhile EP; except for the fact that “Experimental Asyncronicity” is slightly too long at eight minutes, they remain bracing and compelling throughout.
It's what is added in around those themes that really push File Under Futurism over the top, though. “Infrared” alone justifies the purchase price, a superbly mixed duet between multi-tracked cellos and muted Amen breaks, touching and intriguing in equal measure. “Bring Me My Mental Health” is a slow steamroller, picking up momentum and slowly eating Gnomad's vocals alive. The real gem, though, is the live version of the Quartet's “This is What Happens.”
Its intro is branded on my brain from repetition, gentle bass over a ticking beat being interrupted by a weird, phasing effect, the two meshing together until a distorted cello slowly enters. Finn's playing is at her best here, and the other members (R. Luke Dubois, Paul Feuer, and Stephen Krieger) prove even more adept here than elsewhere on the album at playing with, and not around, her. All four players work together superbly; the cello gets the most attention because of its novelty and because it stands out from the wash of electronics surrounding it, but what you really remember is not any one part but their interplay. The following live “Variations on a Freight Theme” is good, but almost an afterthought after the gloomy kineticism of “This is What Happens.”
Miller is, aside from his work on the four variations of the main theme, mostly hard to spot; there's enough going on that he could be anywhere, but Krieger and Dubois are credited with the mix and their website refers to several pieces being exchanged repeatedly until both parties were satisfied. That amount of back-and-forth results in something seamless, musicality and experimentalism kept in perfect balance.
There are also, as I said, a few interstitials and shorter pieces, but they work as brief breathers, a little palate cleanser between courses. There's nothing wrong with an album having an intellectual dimension, in fact at best (as is the case with this record) there's something very right about it, adding depth to explore and appreciate. But too many works that strive for that sort of resonance forget that before all of that you've got to grab the listener and give them good music. DJ Spooky and the Freight Elevator Quartet have sewn together their disparate styles and approaches into something that above and beyond being interesting conceptually hits the hips and the heart as well as the brain. File Under Futurism isn't just an interesting side project for fans of the acts involved, it's one of the best albums of electronic music made in 1999.