Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Hauntological House, from Sturm to Stott

In using the dreaded 'H' clarifier I'm not about to dive into an analysis of whether the following fit the hauntological bill, I'll leave that to the English critics, but I do want to point to a clear trait that's been appearing in strains of dance music over the past few years. Much of this isn't at all new anymore, just that with Andy Stott's Passed Me By it seems we have a new critically acclaimed release to assess within this vague realm. I'd also like to draw attention to some earlier forbears that seem to have been overlooked.

Stott's new album is marked by a gravelly rawness, a reliance on basic rhythmic details covered in cobwebs and rust, each beat fighting to quantise through the murk. In this struggle they sometimes miss, and we get a slightly broken kind of house, slipping, like much recent UK bass music, between regimented thud and skipping dubstep. These are both areas Stott's explored in earlier projects.

There's hints of the dub techno of yore, but its been rubbed out, leaving bits, traces and smears. Through this vocals may appear, as in 'New Ground', spectral R&B gasps lifted from Burial's songbook. Otherwise it's the creaked hinge rhythms of Actress that dominate, further degraded and given less urgency, more resignation.

It's difficult what to make of this retreat from tonal and structural clarity, aside from the obvious - a disenchantment with the tradition, methods and effects of dance music orthodoxy. As genre boundaries disintegrate altogether, what purpose, aside from retro revival of past styles (a la today's Chicago house), is there in furthering existing avenues? Furthermore, the bleakness present in the music of all these artists - Stott, Actress, Burial, etc. - appears to be declaring a dead-end, reversing - off-road - out of the creative cul-de-sac, then amplifying all the dings and bruises incurred while thundering through the scrub.

With this comes a confusion over contemporary music's place in music history, part of a widespread contemporary confusion with history fullstop, as Simon Reynolds argues below:

Under the Analogue regime, time was tilted forward. In Digiculture, time is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes. It is characterised by operations like cut and paste, simultaneity (keeping open multiple windows), rewind/fast-forward/pause using mouse and cursor, saving things ‘for later’, fitting cultural or news experiences into your schedule (I won’t watch that major Obama speech as it happens because I can always catch it later on YouTube).

Stott's album in particular seems excavated from the ruins, literally pulled from cracks in the earth, or as FACT puts it: "haggard and caked in petrified dirt: everything here sounds broken, sawed-off, obfuscated, even Hellish". This grit, crackle and obfuscation then functions, obliquely and largely unintentionally, as a kind of carbon dating, signifying contemporary status much like the glitch did in the late nineties. This resigned end-of-history approach is limiting, pessimistic and cynical, however alluring it is in the short term. I do feel there's something more to Stott's album, but the continued use of such processes, particularly as they become mere aesthetic markers, as perhaps Burial is guilty of, is problematic.

Interesting note on this from Nina Power reviewing The Caretaker's new album:

...The Caretaker walks a fine line between resurrecting the past as it was and imposing contemporary ideas of what it should sound like. It’s not entirely clear how effective the scratches on ballroom records are as a means of exploring this temporal slide. It’d be more interesting, perhaps, to clean up old tracks, removing rather than multiplying their scratches, to restore them to the way they might have been originally heard in all their clarity, rather than digitally replicating the experience of listening to 78s as something ragged and barely present

This is a situation Actress appears wary of, given the direction of his latest release 'Gershwin'/'Harrier Attk':

Pole's Stefan Betke invited similar criticism for his Yellow 3 album, since which he's seemed lost, not releasing anything of comparable worth. In one sense the clicks and pops that marked that trilogy seem a stepping stone to current hauntoligical concerns, but given Pole's immersion in technology, both literally - his trademark sound the result of a faulty Waldorf Pole filter - and conceptually, it embodied all that glitch represented.

Now glitch's insecurity with technology and fearful embrace of its faults have been replaced with a brash confidence in (ab)using it to its utmost, and a desire from producers like Stott and Actress to explore the grittiest depths of what it can do. Where glitch nervously worshiped technology, today's producers lord over it, commanding it to do their bidding, then concealing its hand in the process. The self-consciousness of glitch has gone. The work of Stott and co. might possess a rough, handmade sound, but this has come about through the intricate and skilful handling of technological tools.

Music from a similar period and conceptual agenda to that of Pole but far closer in spirit to current music branded hauntological and/or hypnagogic is that of Sturm, a side project of Cologne techno producer Reinhard Voigt. I always viewed Sturm as Reinhard's version of brother Wolfgang's Gas, yet where Gas is all amorphous clouds Sturm is granular corporeality.

R Voigt's techno productions hardly inspire confidence in the producer's breadth of musical understanding (see singletted air-punching above), given their no-nonsense lumpen sound (done very well admittedly), but Sturm really is worth hearing. The first self-titled album featured a stippled, deconstructed image of Scritti Polliti on the cover, and the music was similarly bitcrunched and scattered - listen alongside Passed Me By in particular and the similarities become clear.

With Sturm Voigt fucked with myriad unrecogniseable samples, or rather anonymous pieces of audio salvage, until rotten, digital backwash, corralling this into vaguely structured 4/4 arrangements. Like Pole, the focus is on digital audio technology, but here the process is less obvious, and the results more open to interpretation. There's a greater wooziness, an intentional lack of clarity, that distinguishes this from the glitch mainstream and its magnification of neat razor cuts, a fuzziness that links it closer to today's artists.

Voigt's second Sturm album Sturmgesten keeps the wooziness but strips it right back until there's nothing but fogged out drums and bass pulses, and very little of those. I got the vinyl and never worked out the proper speed they always sounded better 33. See for yourself below.

Nothing on youtube but listen here:

Sturm: Sturm

And as they're completely unavailable (and I don't think many got them first time round) download both albums here:

Sturm (1999) & Sturmgesten (2000) (Mille Plateaux)

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