Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Rush your fuckin’ bollocks off” 
- MC Scallywag/Spiral Tribe, “Doet” , 1992

“Too much speed is comparable to too much light... we see nothing” 
- Paul Virilio, Pure War

The Aesthetic Of Disappearance
Originally published as "Technical Ecstasy" in The Wire #105 November 1992.

When British youth first encountered the term Acid House they misconstrued it. In Chicago, acid came from ‘acid burn’, slang for ripping off someone’s idea (by sampling it). But in Britain, it was assumed that ‘acid’ meant psychedelics. So acid house became the soundtrack to the Ecstasy rave-olution, and another classic example of British youth misrecognising and remotivating a black American music. Hardcore Techno has reversed the drugs/music nexus: after four years of rave culture, the music has evolved into a science of inducing and amplifying the E rush. The vibe has changed (from trance-dance to mental-manic) as Ecstasy has become adulterated with amphetamine, or replaced by pseudo-E concoctions of speed, LSD and God knows what. Chemicals have directly altered the subculture’s metabolism, with the beats per minute (last count: 140-150 bpm) soaring in sync with pulse rates and blood pressure levels.

E and LSD activate the fight or flight sector of the brain. In combination with amphetamine, the result is an edgy exhilaration on the borderline of panic reaction: “are you feeling w-w-w-wobbly???”, Xenophobia’s “The Wobbler” enquires rhetorically. Ardkore is just another form of fin de siecle ‘panic culture’: hence the frequent samples of sirens, the ambuscades of sound, the MC chant “comin’ at ya!”. There’s even a track titled “Start The Panic”. But then in Greek, panic’s original meaning was a transport of ecstasy. Speedy E has changed the whole vibe of rave culture, from celebration to a sort of aggressive euphoria. The urge to merge and the urge to surge fuse in a raging oceanic feeling. Dancers’ faces are contorted with weird expressions midway between a snarl and a smile, or glare with a crazed, blazing impudence.

It’s the most brazenly druggy subculture in eons, even less coded than acieed. Pirate DJs send out a big shout to “all you nutters rushing out of your heads, speedfreaks out there, you know the score” or holler ”yes London town, absolutely flying in the studio, 100 mph”. Are drugs essential to get into this music, as Ardkore’s detractors claim? Well, they certainly help hype your metabolism to the necessary frenetic pitch. But once your nervous system has been re-programmed, you can listen to this stuff ‘on the natural’. On its own, it’ll induce memory rushes, body-flashbacks.

Speed has mutated (some say, perverted) rave music’s development, unbalancing it at both the top and bottom ends of the sound-spectrum. Ardkore is all ultra-shrill treble and bowel-quaking bass. Voices are sped up to a 78 rpm, Pinky & Perky shriek, whether they’re samples of ethereal girls like Kate Bush, Lisa Gerrard, Liz Cocteau or Stevie Nicks, or helium-ised eruptions of black voice. Closer to fireworks than ‘soul’, these vocals have been hurtled beyond expression into the realm of abstract urgency, outside the syntax of desire. Sampled and modulated on a keyboard, they become a barrage of intensities without pretext or context, shudders and shivers that are not so much inhuman as infra-human. Incantations from roots reggae are snatched from their cultural context to become animated hieroglyphs. Ragga chants add a grainy insolence that’s perfect for Ardkore’s ruff and tuff uproar. Dub bass impacts your viscera, its alien metre placed outrageously amid accelerated hip hop breakbeats at twice reggae’s pace. Having ‘swallowed hiphop whole’, Ardkore’s syncopation is a radical break with the programmed machine rhythms of early UK Techno. The electronic side of Techno has degenerated into stray smears of acieed bass, pulsation-loops derived from Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash” and “Mentasm”, fucked up concatenations of blaring samples, and octave-skipping synth riffs whose function is not melodic but textural. And of course, the sheer speed of their oscillation accentuates the sense of headlong RUSH.

At raves and clubs, or on pirate stations (like Touchdown 94.1 FM, Defection, Pulse, Rush), DJs compact rough and ready chunks of tracks into a relentless but far from seamless inter-textual tapestry of scissions and grafts. It’s a gabbling fucking mess, barely music, but as it swarms out the airwaves to a largely proletarian audience, you know you’re living in the future. ‘Trash’, but I luvvit.

It’s a mistake to appraise Ardkore in terms of individual tracks, because this music only really takes effect as total flow. Its meta-music pulse is closer to electricity than anything else. Ardkore has abandoned the remnants of the verse-chorus structure retained by commercial rave music. At the Castlemorton Common mega-rave in May, MCs chanted “we’ve lost the plot”. Ardcore abolishes narrative: instead of tension/climax/release, it offers a thousand plateaux of crescendo, an endless successions of NOWs. It’s an apocalyptic now, for sure: Ardkore fits only too well the model of terminal culture that Paul Virilio prophesies in The Aesthetics Of Disappearance: “a switch from the extensive time of history to the intensive time of momentariness without history”. This emergent anti-culture of instantaneity will be inhabited by a new breed of schizophrenic subject, whose ego is “made up of a series of little deaths and partial identities”.

No narrative, no destination: Ardkore is an intransitive acceleration, an intensity without object. That’s why the MC patter sounds more appropriate for a rollercoaster than music – “hold tight”, “let’s go”, “hold it down” – and why Techno is all you’ll hear at fairgrounds these days. Does this disappearance of the object of desire, this intransitive intensity, make Ardkore a culture of autistic bliss? Certainly, sex as the central metaphor of dancing seems remoter than ever. Rave dancing doesn’t bump and grind from the hip; it’s abandoned the model of genital sexuality altogether for a kind of polymorphous perverse frenzy. It’s a dance of tics and twitches, jerks and spasms, the agitation of a body broken down into individual components, then re-integrated at the level of the entire dancefloor. Each sub-individual part (a limb, a hand cocked like a pistol) is a cog in a collective desiring machine. Which is why dancers so readily pick up moves from each other. The dancefloor’s like a primal DNA soup. It’s pagan too, this digital Dionysian derangement whose goal is to find asylum in MADNESS. (Hence the slang of “mental” and “nutty”, sound systems with names like Bedlam, groups with names like Lunarci, MCs chanting “off my fucking tree” – pejoratives turned into desirable states of mindlessness).

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