Why Today’s Underground Club Music Sounds Cybernetic

While the mainstream’s hooked on festival EDM, the underground can’t get enough of club-ready hybrid sounds.

July 09, 2015
Why Today’s Underground Club Music Sounds Cybernetic The ESCHER (Electromechanical Series Compliant Humanoid for Emergency Response) robot uses LIDAR laser mapping to create a 3-D image of its surroundings during the (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, June 2015.   Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

There has been a slow but sure shift in the way the underground talks about one of its key areas: "dance music" has become "club music." The major reason for this is probably that it differentiates it from Electronic Dance Music (EDM), the name that, despite its generality, has come to stick more specifically to the recent explosion of big name, big crowd, big show parties held outdoors, particularly across the U.S. "Club music" is not that—it's a more intimate, enclosed environment, both in the physical spaces it describes and in the community that enters and honors those spaces, whether real or imagined. "Club" also tends to imply a more historically informed milieu, one that recognizes the roots of electronic dance music (lower case) in house and techno clubs, rather than Technicolor raves. Put simply, "club" is cooler.


Many styles of early club music were named after the places they were played—disco at discothèques, house at the Warehouse in Chicago, garage at New York's Paradise Garage—and so it is with "club music." But that category and its associations present a bit of a problem to the online underground (I say "online underground" even though the term "internet music" is rapidly gaining popularity—I still resist it because it often implies a confusion between the platform and a genre). Firstly, and most obviously, club music is widely thought best, or even exclusively enjoyed, in IRL clubs. Secondly, club music is thought to be most properly appreciated on vinyl, and though this attitude is changing, the online underground tends not to focus on physical releases primarily, either because that's easier or because they're straight-up opposed to physical fetishism.

“Club music” tends to imply a more historically informed milieu, one that recognizes the roots of electronic dance music (lower case) in house and techno clubs.

As a result, club music is not really seen as a quintessential online underground format, and although online groups such as Classical Trax do great work highlighting emerging artists in this area, many artists who are based online do intend to enter the more traditionally structured modes of distribution if the opportunity arises. There is, after all, a difference between a bona-fide online underground artist who lives and breathes digital and an underground artist who, for reasons of exposure, simply has that indispensable Soundcloud account, and so online club music blurs together these two worlds. One thing that online club music can beat offline club music on, though, is internationalism, which brings with it the flourishing of niche styles and networks as the same kinds of weirdos link up across the globe.

Many of the tracks in this month's System Focus are lethal in the club. At least I'm sure they would be. Verifying that would take a dozen plane tickets, a dozen more couches to crash on and, because live appearances aren't exactly weekly, more free time than anyone who has to eat has. Fortunately the internet more than sufficiently allows a different route. What's more, the other reason that the term "club music" only goes so far is that enjoyment of it needn't rest solely on the club. It has other uses. Up until I decided to write about it, the music in this month's column was a part of my world primarily as the kind of music I listened to while running.

There’s something dynamically 21st century about this style’s lithe, brushed-steel syncopations, cold crystal timbres, and angry angularity.

This kind of music was pioneered by transatlantic labels like Night Slugs, Fade to Mind, and Keysound, and mixes together rebooted ballroom/vogue house and the new wave of instrumental grime, all with a stark, hi-tech machine sheen. It was soon developed further on tight, intense and ice-cold shorter releases by artists on London's Liminal Sounds such as Brooklyn-based producer Copout, and particularly those on fellow UK label Her Records, such as DJ Double M, Sudanim, CYPHR and Kid Antoine. It's a style that is enjoyed by the sort of musicians and fans who don't like to name styles, but instead allude to hybridities of aging categories like house, techno and grime. It is indeed rooted in those styles, but can't easily be reduced to them, at least to their classical definitions—there's something dynamically 21st century about their lithe, brushed-steel syncopations, cold crystal timbres, and angry angularity.


What makes this music so good to run to? It has a high tempo which keeps urging you relentlessly forward. But it's more than that. It embodies progress and athleticism in its very sound (unsurprisingly, it's the soundtrack to health goth) not in a merely beautiful way, but with a frightening dose of the sublime too. Because as in both running and culture, forward motion isn't nice, easy, or moral—it's laced with anti-humanistic pain, aggression and dissolution, crashing euphoria and dysphoria together in a bodily blur of hormones and neurotransmitters. As muscles grow and become more supple, as lungs become cleaner and the brain less resistant, so technoculture improves: motors, alloys and power supplies increase in efficiency, pixels shrink and multiply, and digital intelligence grows more independent of yesterday's humanity. Organic, machine—it's all the same in the struggle of kinetic matter. All this seems apt as I schlep my loathsome fleshform across the tarmac in a futile bid to flourish, or at least survive the oncoming war.

Okay, well, disclaimer, as with any such accelerationism: to cheerlead this aesthetic unambivalently, and especially to derive anti-humanistic behaviors from it, is tantamount to getting into bed with the fascist wing of futurism. But engaging with these images of modernity, even with a disquieting thrill, might at this point be a more valid strategy than escaping from it, especially into hissy acid house nostalgia. As such, this cybernetic club style can be heard as an echo of the industrial music of the late 1970s and 1980s—that's not to say it's an influence on these artists—which dealt with the qualities of work in factories and of being cogs in modernist technocracy (in the process sometimes getting too close to fascism to call). The contemporary manifestation of this world has been explored spectacularly at a distance from the direct groove functionality of the club by artists such as Berlin duo Amnesia Scanner, L.A. sound artist Sentinel and Lithuanian producer J.G. Biberkopf on his recent album Ecologies, which smelted club sounds with hi-tech samples and free-floating atmospheres into a rhapsody of machine disorientation.

One of the leading and most creative lights of the club side of this sound is New York's DJ New Jersey Drone, who appeared on Biberkopf's NTS Radio Show alongside DJWWWW in March. Drone was namechecked as an inspiration for health goth, and was remixed by Mixpak producer Murlo and Tri Angle Record's Rabit on the amphetamine-grimy Energy EP for Dallas, Texas label Track Meet at the end of last year. More recently, Drone's brilliantly fractious and complex espressoSYN appeared on New York's Bootleg Tapes. What's more, the NY artist's tracks and remixes appear all over the place, and tracing them gives a more than decent picture of the network around this sound. One of them was for French artist P4N4's beguilingly liquid Living Water EP, for fledgling Prague label Velkro. Based in Paris, P4N4 also has an EP on one of the first and still few concertedly club labels to embrace not just the internet but an aesthetic of it too, #Feelings.

Another big name on Bootleg Tapes is rising NYC star Celestial Trax, whose Ride or Die EP for the label is real treat of melancholic-melodic grime. Celestial has just released another EP, Vaxxilate, on the label of London's pirate-turned-legit club music station Rinse, and it's probably the most imaginative and finely-honed release yet, with siren squeals and barking metal tubes placed just so among pounding syncopations and hints of tresillo. Bootleg Tapes has a range of more experimental ventures, too, and the amazing Inca by Brooklyn producer Tallesen (who's also released on Daniel Lopatin's Software Label) sits right on that tantalizing border between club and abstraction: metal, glass and carbon-fibre manifolds are chewed up and flung about like a creeping psychosis in a secret underground weapons laboratory.

DJ NJ Drone also appeared on _VIRALITY, a free compilation from Berlin-based label/collective/curators WDIS. This collection has electrifying contributions from California's Gewzer and New York's Gronos1, as well as "Wet Tech," notably by Magic Fades, the Portland-based duo who form two thirds of the curators of the Health Goth Facebook group. Also based in Portland is SPF666, whose Scorpion Cache EP for Club Chemtrail has gotten me through many a grueling mile. Just up the coast in Seattle is Korma, who with YNGN runs the new label Team Aerogel, which to date has just one, high-intensity release by the two of them, Ascension. Korma also has an EP out on Montréal's Infinite Machine label: titled ZGMF-X19A, it's full of gleaming metallophones and named after a mobile battling suit from the Gundam anime series: a union of body and technology.

This cybernetic club style can be heard as an echo of the industrial music of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, which dealt with being cogs in modernist technocracy.

Roller Truck Sounds Vol. 1 by Moscow's Roller Truck is another Infinite Machine collection in this cybernetic style, and immaculate too, with "Hot Pad" possibly one of the richest, severest examples out there. Infinite Machine also features several releases by Romanian artist Liar who has his own label, Tessier-Ashpool, that shares its name with a fictional corporation dreamed up by cyberpunk author William Gibson and is explicitly motivated by sci-fi (the label's cover designs are less cringy when you know they're in homage to that of the first edition of Gibson's Neuromancer). Its standout releases include, a holodeck ballroom workout by UK producer IMAMI, a record that sounds like it features car-sized alien crabs by South London's Cloaka, and Urban Deity by Vancouver producer Spurz, who calls it “an ode to that delusion of youthful invincibility, and both the hubris and ecstasy inherent in feeling like you run everything. Designer sneakers and gaudy jewelry set against black technical fabric. Lush green foliage set against polished black marble. High gloss against matte. Excess.”

But again, and like Biberkopf's Ecologies, not all explorations of this style and its industrial architecture are "club constructions"— tracks ready to go straight to the decks. Many of them roam more freely, take it slower, or generally melt into abstraction; good examples include Eraser Meditations by Kadahn (New York), Vital Signs by Gel Dust on longtime hi-tech label Zoology (Amsterdam), the work of Dviance (Lyon), and also that of Partisan (aka Aural Sects co-manager Bunny Intonamorous), and Inbox Island by Sharp Veins on Irish grime label Glacial Sound. One particularly fascinating and powerful release is Lit Internet's Angelysium, which features collaborations with some of the producers on the _VIRALITY compilation as well as South London producer Endgame (who was in last month's tresillo column). Cinematic almost to the point of telling a story, if Angelysium ever gets into a groove, it's likely to vanish suddenly into the vast mists, giant machinery and assorted percussive enigmas. The empty spaces that characterise the stop-start textures of eski grime become yawning chasms thick with tension and potential assailants, yet also with melancholic distance.

All this is just another reason why the category "club," while it does a lot to hone in on specific and, in many ways, desirable qualities in dance music, can only go so far. "Dance" is a more intangible, open-ended concept, something that can happen anywhere and is directly related to the body and activities like running and other forms of exercise, the body being even more intimate and present than the club that might temporarily enclose it. Dance is music that moves you.

From The Collection:

System Focus
Why Today’s Underground Club Music Sounds Cybernetic