System Focus: High Speed Sounds to Blister Even Internet-Accelerated Brains
Adam Harper surfs a new wave of warp-speed sounds to blister even your internet-accelerated brain.
In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.
What a month it's been for cuteness! The deliciously hyper-camp new aesthetic, in its element online, is most famously embodied by the PC Music label—everyone's been messaging and tweeting about them! Then recently the movement got its anthem in the form of "Hey QT" by QT, a snappy lil number which is also the official tune of a new energy drink I can't wait to taste (that's the artwork above). But QT and PC are only the cherry on top of a vast cutie pie. Not long ago, #Feelings boss Ben Aqua set the net ablaze with his Resident Advisor podcast, a celebration of cute club intensity from all over the clouds. Finn Diesel's DIS Magazine show on Rinse FM, a haven for cuteness and other flavors since May and previously featuring SOPHIE, A. G. Cook and Felicita, entered its third installment on September 25, introducing Onika and So So In Luv. And trans-national club sensation JACK댄스 has returned, this time in New York with a whole new roster of US-based cuties. It was the first step in their conquest of the globe with their JACK댄스 World Tour, with stops in Edmonton, Vancouver and Paris.
You can get a feel of the JACK댄스 vibe from their audio flyer below. Those high twinkly notes, that high-speed syncopation, that high helium voice. Hints of '90s hardcore rushing unrepentantly into the digital age. And the network that links JACK댄스, DIS Magazine, Ben Aqua and PC Music with labels like Activia Benz, Donky Pitch, STHWST, Hope Sick Cola, Mecha Yuri, Manicure Records and more has converged on this style from many different points of origin: jungle and hardcore, seapunk, footwork, trap, the sparkly HudMo-Rustie sound, pop, J-pop, video game music and experimental breaks. Just as chopped and screwed lethargy seems to be everywhere between beats and vaporwave, this convergence amounts to the return of speed and complexity in ways guaranteed to blister even your internet-accelerated brain.
And it's not just the pace of this music that can be spectacular, but the sheer skill and imagination it takes to make it. What's all too often missed about this music is its sound design, which swings between or, at its best, combines avant-garde thinking and meticulous pastiche. While a track like "Hey QT" is evaluated on its resemblance to pop, SOPHIE tracks and those of PC Music artists like GFOTY and Lipgloss Twins are full of timbral and rhythmic surprises, wildly discontinuous textures that stop and lurch forward, stutter and flail up and down, breaking up the constructed personalities implied behind the music like cubist portraits. The latest example is So So in Luv, whose song "1+ Only" (listen below), peculiarly twists together kitsch romance and hard syncopation, and there was plenty more where that came from in the recent DIS set for Rinse. All this stuff manages to create a sense of excitement and anticipation with everything but a fast, regular pulse, with swift changes to wildly different sound objects wrenching your attention and a panic attack in every bar. For lots of people it's too much, but for some of us it's just enough. And at the furthest end of the spectrum are producers who've come from an entirely crazier experimental background, like Lockbox, whose recent album Prince Soul Grenade is a breakneck and breathtakingly rich rummage through seemingly every kind of shiny sonic bauble imaginable.
But plenty of this music also merges with more established kinds of syncopated beat, and the ongoing partial return of the '90s has seen a range of hardcore club styles crop up in several different places online. But this musical world isn't limited to sound alone. As we saw in last month's look at some Portuguese artists, video game music is beginning to follow old pop and TV music as an object of underground pastiche. For older kids, this means the 8-bit sounds of gameboys and early generation consoles, and those have been knocking around in new music for a while, even cropping up in grime and dubstep in the last decade. (The 8-bit scene is home to some of the most accomplished pasticheurs around, all the more impressive for their being able to work a minimal sound palette and often program the original hardware itself too.) But for the younger kids, video game music also means full CD audio written by the slickest studio engineers, and game developers often turned to techno, trance and hardcore producers for a hi-tech soundtrack to fast-paced and futuristic games like Wipeout.
Maxo, who played JACK댄스's New York night, started out as an excellent practitioner of 8-bit video game music, but recent tracks on his Soundcloud show how he's been able to blend those abilities with hi-tech timbres, club elements and cubist rhythms. Another bracing talent who appeared at both JACK댄스 New York and on Ben Aqua's mix is DV-i, who made my Christmas last year with a track on a festive compilation by Priz Tats and PC Music, "Shenzhen Miracle," which could have been the stage music for a hi-tech ice sprite boss in a Japan-only beat 'em up circa 1998, ducking and weaving through crystal snowflakes and resonant icicles with impeccably deployed jungle breaks. DV-i also has two Soundcloud singles out as part of an ongoing project with the Priz Tats label, a futuristic dating sim game-come-visual-novel called Aurora Memoria. They're best experienced online as accompaniment to the navigation of a specially designed operating system from the year 2093, and go by the names "Optical Mode" and "Fractal Mode."
'90s hardcore styles have been floating around online for a while now as part of one of the more internet-based movements of recent memory: seapunk, where oceanic imagery meets classic rave. One of the movement's pioneers, Ultrademon, released a second album in July on the Coral Records label, which, though highly competent in recreating the feel of the era, didn't really manage to transcend it enough to make a uniquely modern statement. One seapunk-associated pasticheur that ventures further afield is the Texas-based Xyloid, who seems to capture that specific peppy 'net' sound (if such a thing exists) in a highly developed form, a corporate merger of lightly antiquated background muzak and contemporary club, of coldness and warmth, and with effortless skill too. He's seen releases on Vaporbabes and Aural Sects and with his latest EP, The Crystal Sessions, perfects his craft still further. Another label bordering on seapunk aesthetically (and soon to release more Ultrademon) is from Russia—Hyperboloid, which has released Chrissy Murderbot and Pixelord (one of the bosses). They recently put out the nimble Super Dream_sim by Atlanta-based duo Ba-Kuura, which ably combined footwork rhythms and sprinkles of jungle with generous helpings of HudMo-Rustie joy.
Footwork and jungle are like-minded genres, which might explain why they often appear side by side or in close combination (they were even merged by Om Unit a few years back in his Phillip D. Kick project). Both have a collection of specific percussive samples and rhythmic imperatives, and both operate with high syncopation at around 160bpm. Both are explored by a small group of producers surrounding the Pittsburgh-based labels Postlife and Hope Sick Cola, including Shisa and Nekophiliac. Since they use the software and hardware of the contemporary era, the rhythmic patterns come out differently than they did twenty years ago, and they're often accompanied by lusher or cuter sounds. One of Hope Sick Cola's highlights is the album d'chrone by the prolifically unpredictable New Zealander Yeongrak, whose rough-hewn, often noise-like beat sketches periodically coalesce into vital expansions on footwork's templates into both hardcore territory and uncharted atmospheres: try "shabushabu" or "estrogen" (below). Then there's the gorgeous recent album from Friendly Sneakrz, Flowers From Above, on the sweetly Japan-inspired label Magic Yume Records. It gently dovetails footwork with J-pop and rave, and despite the energy of these styles, still manages to maintain a wistful distance.
Of course, one of the main production templates knocking about today goes by the name of trap, and that's a direction Hudson Mohawke and Rustie took their neon-and-crystal synth sounds into. The space they opened up has been explored by labels like Activia Benz, Donky Pitch and STHWST to the point where they've been beginning to find something distinctive. It's not just hardcore, footwork and trap in the mix here, but a nameless nexus of all kinds of glitteringly detailed, hyperactive and often camp club styles that brings them into alignment with Ben Aqua's #Feelings label and his RA podcast. One influence from the Jersey Club style, for example, can be heard in the cheeky bed springs sample that serves as just one of many points of continuity in a vortex of club maximalism: it appears on WALLACE's "OutAspAce" (on STHWST), Kaleidoscope's "Royal Flash" (on Donky Pitch), and Miami Mais's incredible "Goose" (on Activia Benz). And yet for all the variety, there are similarities not just in the samples but in the preference for higher speeds, higher pitches and greater detail and syncopated hits. One of the STHWST-affiliated producers was picked up by JACK댄스 for the New York night and remixed by Maxo and so, unsurprisingly perhaps, has released one of the cutest picks of the bunch: Guy Akimoto's BaeBae EP, something of an ode to digital communication, begins with the itchy-fingered title track, which includes a demure robot lady announcing, Reality escaping me, emotions with velocity, log me on, sign me out, give me something to type about. Hype tunes, low tides, sending emails all night. Me and bae, bae and me, HDMI, USB.
A lot of people reckon the digital world is turning us all into morons, and a lot of people reckon the online underground is only full of technically impoverished music bashed out by amateurs. But this quick survey of producers and labels from different places and genres but sharing a common vibe hopefully shows just how complex and technically advanced digital natives can get. Sure it's a bit blasphemous, using the sacred tradition of hardcore for purposes other than urban grimness and reverence for rave memories by mixing it with cuteness and video games—sometimes it's conveniently forgotten by the history boys that rave could get incredibly silly and infantile sometimes. But this music explores the kinds of moods more usually associated with kitsch and kids while swerving spectacularly and luxuriantly through digital detail and the vast repertoire of club sounds past and present. Like so much of the music that engages with new technologies rather than runs from it, it can be heard as an exploration of the modern mindset, of pursuing the simplest decadent pleasures in a rapid world of unprecedented techn(olog)ical development that, ironically, renders us children. But, as its fans are constantly typing in the same comment threads where this stuff is bitterly denounced, it's also simply lots and lots and lots of fun.