Today's more adventurous rock groups are embracing technology
and the avant garde to forge a new genre: post-rock. Simon Reynolds talks to Main, Seefeel and Disco Inferno, and looks to a future
where riffs and powerchords will be replaced by virtual zones,
machine time and the cyborg interface
Like a clapped out stretch limo cranked in reverse, today's 'alternative
rock' is synonymous with a retreat to one of a number of period
genres from rock history. For Primal Scream think Exile On Main
Street-era Stones. For Suede think Ziggy-phase Bowie. In 1994,
just six short years from a new millennium, this is where the
money is at: in the musical equivalent of reproduction antiques.
Recently, however, a smattering of British groups, energised by
developments in electronic studio based musics such as Techno
and HipHop, as well as free improvisation and the avant garde,
have started venturing into a more financially precarious, but
aesthetically vital hinterland-without-a-name. The roll call of
futurist honour includes Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Insides, Bark
Psychosis, Main, Papa Sprain, Stereolab, Pram and Moonshake, along
with such prolific figures as Kevin Martin (Ice/Techno Animal/God/EAR)
and ex-Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris (Scorn/Lull).
What to call this zone? Some of its occupants, Seefeel for instance,
could be dubbed 'Ambient'; others, Bark Psychosis and Papa Sprain,
could be called 'art rock'. 'Avant rock' would just about suffice,
but is too suggestive of jerky time signatures and a dearth of
melodic loveliness, which isn't necessarily the case. Perhaps
the only term open ended yet precise enough to cover all this
activity is 'post-rock'.
Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes,
using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than
riffs and powerchords. Increasingly, post-rock groups are augmenting
the traditional guitar/bass/drums line up with computer technology:
the sampler, the sequencer and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital
Interface). While some post-rock units (Pram, Stereolab) prefer
lo-fi or outmoded technology, others are evolving into cyber rock,
The best way to get a handle on how these groups depart from the
'rock process' is to work from a rigorous model of how the traditional
rock 'n' roll group operates. And there's none more rigorous than
Joe Carducci's Rock And The Pop Narcotic (published in 1990 by
Redoubt, with a revised edition planned for later this year).
Carducci may be a bit of a reactionary, but his theory of rock
is grounded in a precise, materialist definition of it as music,
rather than 'attitude', 'spirit', 'rebellion', or any other metaphysical
notions. Rock's essence, says Carducci, is the real time interaction
of drums, bass and rhythm guitar. A group should be a rhythmic
engine creating kinetic energy; 'breathing' as an organic entity.
Carducci valorises the strenuous, collective physicality of performance.
His ideal rock process is opposed to the Pop Method, which is
studio based and elevates the producer over the musicians. Modern
music is a sterile, frigid wasteland because the producer/studio
('cold') has triumphed over rock ('hot'). With a typically American
prejudice, Carducci favours the 'presence' of live performance
over the increasingly 'virtual' nature of studio music, and prefers
the 'documentarian' recording techniques that characterised early
70s hard rock, which were revived by Spot, house producer at SST,
the seminal 80s hardcore punk label that Carducci co-founded.
If Carducci has a polar opposite in rock theory, it's that archetypal
boffin in the sound lab, Brian Eno. In fact, the art rock tradition
that Eno stands for an which is crucial to the development of
today's post-rock, is something like an egghead version of the
Tin Pan Alley pop process that Carducci detests; there's a line
running from Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that leads to Eno as
clearly as it does to, say, Trevor Horn. Both the Spector and
Eno approaches to soundscaping involve using musicians as a sort
of palette of textures, as opposed to the rock band's collective
toil. Increasingly, the post-Eno approach involves dispensing
with musicians altogether in favour of machines.
Another way in which Eno is the prophet of post-rock is his elevation
of timbre/texture/chromatics over riffs and rhythm sections; the
desire to create a 'fictional psycho-acoustic space' rather than
groove and thrust. When he was invited to produce U2 (a group
that Carducci reviles as the very model of non-rocking fraudulence)
Eno warned Bono: "I'm not interested in records as a document
of a rock band playing on stage. I'm more interested in painting
pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music
happens." As it turned out, this subordination of the aural to
the visual was perfect for Bono's 'visionary' vocals, The Edge's
stratospheric guitar and the inert rhythm section.
Throughout Eno's own oeuvre, there's a gradual eradication of
kinetic energy, beginning with the early solo LPs (with their
limpid, uneventful water colours and lyrical imagery of treading
water) and culminating in the entropic, vegetative bliss of Ambient.
The difference between the Carducci and Eno aesthetics is the
difference between 'manly' manual labour and 'effete' white collar
brainwork. Carducci actually calls his tradition (the blues-bastardising
lineage that runs from Black Sabbath through Black Flag to Soundgarden)
"new redneck". By defending the aesthetic of 'heavy' (heavy rock,
heavy industry) against studio-concocted 'lite', Carducci wants
to protect traditional artisan skills from being usurped by machines
(which, in studios as much as factories, are more reliable and
cheaper than humans). By contrast, the Enoites embrace technology
that empowers the musically incompetent.
Carducci can't make sense of the pop present, which is based in
the soundsculpting innovations of dub, in disco's remixology and
HipHop's sampladelic sorcery. His version of rock history also
downgrades psychedelia, which was the first music to use 24 track
recording to conjure fictional headspace. 'Phonography' (a term
that author Evan Eisenberg coined, in his book The Recording Angel,
to describe the art of recording) bears the same relation to live
music as cinema does to theatre. With most rock records, the studio
is used to create a simulacrum of live performance, although multi-tracking
makes it more vivid and hyper-real than 'live'. But multi-tracking
and other studio techniques can also be used to create 'impossible'
events, which could never possibly take place in real time. The
sampler, transubstantiating sound into digital data, takes this
even further - different eras, different auras, can be combined
to form a transchronistic pseudo event. You could call this 'magick',
you could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence'
- either way, today's post-rock groups are absconding into this
virtual, ethereal realm.
Post-rock draws its inspiration and impetus from a complex combination
of sources. Some of these come from post-rock's own tradition
- a series of moments in history when eggheads and bohemians have
hijacked elements of rock for non-rock purposes (think of the
guitar based late 60s music of The Velvet Underground and Pink
Floyd, and a subsequent lineage that includes New York's No Wave
groups, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus And Mary Chain,
My Bloody Valentine and AR Kane; or the so-called 'Krautrock'
of Can, Faust, Neu, Cluster and Ash Ra Tempel; as well as the
late 70s/early 80s post-punk vanguard of PiL, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret
Voltaire and The Pop Group). Other impulses arrive from outside
of rock: Eno, obviously, but also the mid-60s drone-minimalism
of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, as well as musique concrete
and electroacoustic music, dub reggae and modern sampladelic genres
like HipHop and Techno. Most of the British post-rock groups also
explicitly define themselves against Grunge, which was Carducci's
dream come true: the fusion of punk and Metal into an all-American
nouveau hard rock.
For the post-rock groups, Sonic Youth's idea of 'reinventing the
guitar' really means un-rocking the guitar; sometimes the next
step is ditching the guitar altogether. Disco Inferno's Iain Crause
says he always wanted to make his guitar sound like "actual physical
things", such as waterfalls, but in DI's early days (when the
group sounded closer to Joy Division and The Durutti Column) he
had to do it with masses of effects. It's been said that DI decided
to go digital after seeing those samplin', rockin' Industrial
muthas of invention The Young Gods live. But according to Crause,
the real Damascus experience was hearing Hank Shocklee's Bomb
Squad productions for Public Enemy. Inspired, Crause traded in
his rack of pedals for a guitar synth, which he now rigs up to
MIDI so that each string triggers a different sample.
The results can be heard on the astounding LP, DI Go Pop. "A Crash
At Every Speed" samples Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" and Industrial
Improv unit God; "Starbound" samples U2 and children's laughter;
while the gorgeous "Footprints In Snow" samples Saint-Saens's
"Aquarium". Not that you can tell, since Crause 'plays' these
sample-tones rather than merely quoting them. Because he's using
a fretboard rather than the usual keyboard, he can use all the
guitarist's traditional devices - bending the strings ("It literally
sounds like you're twisting the samples", he says), jamming and
improvising. This results in unearthly ninth dimensional noises
that bear no discernible link to the physical acts that generated
them. (Perhaps even more disorient ating is the group's approach
to the drums. They use a MIDI-ed up kit whose pads also cue samples.
On "Footprints", for instance, the tom-toms reproduce the sound
Crause sees Disco Inferno as a "virtual reality band". But what's
really inter esting about them is the way they haven't totally
abandoned the rock process: they combine the physicality of live
performance with the wizardry of sampling. (Crause claims that
DI Go Pop was recorded live, and that the group's future plans
include using Marshall amps!)
Other post-rock groups are more affiliated to Techno. Insides
compose on Cubase, a widely used computer music program that functions
as a sort of "virtual tape recorder", according to the group's
J Serge Tardo. "Cubase allows you to 'play' things you couldn't
physically play," he says. Like a sequencer, it 'remembers' a
riff, motif or beat and reiterates it in any timbre, whether sampled
or derived from a module (a sort of digital library of sounds,
no bigger than a Kelloggs Pop Tart).
Insides' non-rock approach dates back to their earlier lo-fi incarnation
as Earwig. "[In Earwig] we all played hermetically sealed patterns
that overlapped but didn't gel. We'd play separately, in a sense,"
explains Tardo. Like systems musicians, Insides weave a tapestry
of sound-threads, where Tardo's guitar features as just another
iridescent filigree. In fact, he says the greatest influence on
his guitar playing is Kraftwerk!
Tardo prefers "the godlike position of manipulating the soundscape
from the outside [the classic Spector/Eno role] as opposed to
being in the mix, like a guitarist." When the group play live,
improvisation figures only in the sense that "you can have a husk
of sequencer patterns that you can mutate, like in a dub mix"
(an approach which has direct parallels with the live performances
of such Techno operatives as Orbital and Mixmaster Morris). Performance
isn't strenuous in the Carducci sense, but it's mentally draining
- "Like doing somersaults in your head," says Tardo.
Like Disco Inferno and Insides, Seefeel are one of those groups
whose Year Zero coincides with the arrival of Joy Division and
The Cocteau Twins, and whose aesthetic is shaped by the late 80s
dreampop of My Bloody Valentine and AR Kane. The latter awoke
Seefeel's interest in sound-in-itself, which gradually led them
to club based musics such as Techno and House. Of all the post-rock
units, Seefeel have most avidly embraced Techno's methodology
appropriately, they've found a commercial niche in the 'electronic
listenin g' genre (recently performing alongside Autechre and
u-ziq), and a home on its premier label, Warp.
Seefeel use a lot of guitars, but only as a source of timbre (all
cirrus swirls and drone drifts). If it's mostly impossible to
distinguish their guitar tex tures from the sequenced/sampled
material, again it's because of Cubase, which, says Mark Clifford,
allows them to "take two seconds of guitar and chop it into 1000
pieces, loop it, string it out for ten minutes, layer it, and
so on." Similarly, Sarah Peacock's voice is not deployed expressively
but used as material; the title track of Seefeel's imminent Ch-Vox
EP (a one-off for Richard 'Aphex Twin' James's Rephlex label)
is composed entirely of her treated and timestretched vocal drone.
Live, the Techno process means that Justin Fletcher drums to a
click-track, while the rest of the band must keep in sync with
the pre-recorded parts. Not surprisingly, this is unrewarding
and they'd prefer to dispense with gigs altogether. Clifford's
fantasy alternative would involve Seefeel creating an aural environment
but not actually being the focal point on stage, which is closer
to the process of club DJing than being in a rock 'n' roll group.
A similar fantasy appeals to Robert Hampson of Main, who reckons
"these c ould be the last days of gig-going." He imagines organising
"a live mix scenario, where we'd be hidden out of sight, behind
a desk"; a sort of avant rock sound system, in other words. Unsurprisingly,
Main are primarily studio based, a sound laboratory. With Main,
Hampson has returned to the experimental music he made before
he formed the mid-80s indie group Loop, which was based around
tape loops and layers of processed guitars. Main have progressively
shed Loop's vestigial rock traces, dispensing first with human
drums, then with the drum machine. The percussion on their new
LP Motion Pool is all sampled, and even this may eventually be
replaced with pure ambience.
Hampson is a longtime foe of the sampler, he says, and resorted
to it reluctantly. Sometimes he prefers to physically play Main's
most monotonous, uninflected, one chord riffs, because of the
minuscule differences in attack and tone this produces. "To sample
the chord and sequence it," he says, "would iron out the character,
flatten the sound." As Main drift away from the rock process and
the rock mainstream, they inevitably move closer to the avant
garde, finding allies with contemporary improvisors and droneologists
like Jim O'Rourke, Paul Schutze, AMM's Eddie Prevost, Thomas Koner,
KK Null and J im Plotkin. A recent North London live showcase
for Motion Pool made this connection explicit, with Main's two
sets split by a free improvisation featuring O'Rourke, Plotkin
Another key player in this area is Kevin Martin. He runs Pathological
Records, leads the post-rock outfits God, Techno Animal and Ice,
and participates in the 'supergroup' EAR (along with Sonic Boom,
Kevin Shields of MBV and Eddie Prevost). From his own experience
as a producer and bandleader, Martin reckons that "working with
technology, you become fond of machine time and fed up with the
fallibility of human time." God is his most traditional project,
since it's about combustive improvisation and physical effort,
"the sparks and flashpoints that come from human elements. I see
God as a relic of another time, which is why we have images of
burnt out locomotives on the covers."
God LPs (a new one, The Anatomy Of Addiction, is imminent) straddle
jamming spontaneity and studio mixology. By contrast, Ice and
Techno Animal were both conceived with no thought of live performance.
For those units, Martin was (like Disco Inferno's Iain Crause)
heavily influenced by Public Enemy, specifically the way Hank
Shocklee's production situates a song's dynamic in the vertical,
not the horizontal: "The shifting layers of frequencies, not the
development of verse-chorus narrative," says Martin. "Of course,
you could say the same about Jeff Mills or Stakker Humanoid. But
Shocklee, on Fear Of A Black Planet, was the first to use sampling
to pile on the intensities, rather than just quote obvious riffs;
he took the peaks of other songs, like trumpet solos, and layered
Many of his kindred spirits on the avant rock peripheries - Robert
Hampson, Mick Harris, Justin Broadrick (Godflesh/Final) - are
embracing digital technology, and Martin thinks that's because
digital sound appeals to control freaks. "[These musicians] are
a bit solipsistic, they like to control all aspects of what they
do. Also, as the audience for adventurous music c ontracts, they
get less interested in playing live, it doesn't pay, and instead
retreat to their home fortresses and surround themselves with
machinery. I think that connects to what's going on in society
as a whole - a process of atomisation and disconnection. Digital
also appeals because it allows you to break down structure."
Despite the 'cold' accuracy of digital sound, Martin sees post-rock
retaining some kind of primal energy. It's not physical in the
Carducci sense, but "a different kind of friction, the kind that
comes with people wanting to interface and integrate themselves
with machinery. It's like Lee Perry saying he wanted the mixing
desk to take him over, or Can talking about machines having souls.
People feel outdated by machinery. So they're taking on technology,
but using it to unleash primal energy."
So perhaps the really provocative area for future development
lies not in cyber rock but cyborg rock; not the wholehearted embrace
of Techno's methodology, but some kind of interface between real
time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement.
As Kevin Martin points out: "Even in the digital age, you still
have a body. It's the connection between 'Techno' and 'Animal'
This article first appeared in issue 123 (May 94).
© 1997 The Wire.