When electronic music first began, its creators took pride in their ability to outrun any defining genres. But like all the musical movements that came before, electronic music soon evolved into distinct subgenres and separatist camps, splintering the scene like so many wood shavings on a toothpick. That makes Ninja Tune recording artist Amon Tobin's recent CD, Permutation, something like a ghost of raves past: On it, seemingly contradictory forms tickle each other senseless. Latin-flavored rhythms tango with harsh, jagged breakbeats; jazzy drums mingle with spooky, otherworldly noise.
Amon Tobin, Mixmaster Morris
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Tobin—who makes his music not by sampling live instruments, but by coercing the sampler to create acoustic-seeming sounds—succeeds where other electronic producers fail. "I generally sample sounds off of records," he says. "I'm starting to sample sounds around the house, different sounds in the garage or whatever, but I'm not into getting studio musicians in and getting [samples] that way, 'cause I think you might as well do it as a live band."
Despite the lack of "real" instrumentation, Permutation has all the depth and warmth of a live jazz band banging away in a smoky corner of your neighborhood bar. Jazz is a heavy influence here, not so much in the way the songs are structured, but in the music's overall gloss.
Such sweet sounds also show the influence of Tobin's Brazilian heritage. The tunes possess a hot-under-the-collar intensity: Beats, samples, and chaotic melodies shake, rattle, and roll under Tobin's thumb. "You can't ignore the fact that rhythms from that part of the world are really intricate and interesting, and they're very soulful as well," says Tobin.
"Reanimator," a jungle track, owes more to the dark side, with its cacophony of beats and a distorted sub-bass that bellows throughout. Unlike the jungle artists that move your favorite dance floor, Tobin strays from the 4/4 beat structure that so often populates jungle's tech-step, hard-step, and jump-up mini-genres. Instead of spilling out neatly, one by one, his beats come tumbling out of the tune in one big, messy, but carefully orchestrated descent. "It's become very formulaic," he says of the current crop of jungle records. "Especially in the last year, it's become very DJ-orientated, where the music's really about who's got [dub] 'plates' . . . DJs want simple records that they can mix. It's a real shame 'cause if you think of it as a kind of music that developed out of just breaking all the rules, now it's become really confined by rules."
There's hope yet. Tobin names Liquid Sky (a NYC jungle label) and Photek as two of his favorites, and points out that even the dreary and dull will eventually evolve: "Music develops by mutation. It develops by corrupting it with other kinds of sounds. That's how it moves, that's how music's always been."
Muzak, smooth jazz, ambient—forms of music that generally provide the background to office work or housecleaning. We listen to them but we don't hear them—and that's OK. Who wants to hear a jazz-lite version of Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love" anyway? Mixmaster Morris (a.k.a. the Irresistible Force), a UK DJ who specializes in lazy, laconic beats, creates what some might consider "background" music, but unlike the output of other mellow-yellow artists, his records actually make you pay attention.
The beginning of It's Tomorrow Already, the new Irresistible Force LP, says it best: "At first hearing, it's like listening to the wallpaper—it seems to be background music," intones an echoey, reverberating British voice. The implication, of course, is that on the second (and the third, and the fourth) listen, it will become clear that the record is anything but background music.
Morris has a long history in the dance-music arena. Starting on pirate radio in 1985 doing The Mongolian Hip Hop Show, Morris began recording two years later under the Irresistible Force moniker. A participant in the influential acid house scene in England, Morris worked with the Shamen creating the Synergy Club, which hosted the Orb, Spiritualized, and System 7, among others.
It's Tomorrow Already weaves a dense aural tapestry, layering one shape-shifting groove over another. Samples beckon underneath a blanket of sound that's thick like the air on a hot summer night. There's a constant conversation happening; as if Morris and his voices are havin' it out with the skeptics: "Where's the beats?" an imaginary critic asks, to which Morris' heroes respond, "Any sounds can be for use."
Morris' textural masterpieces don't float like aimless clouds, though. You can dance to the Irresistible Force—or rather, you'll sway to music that sounds like it's been crafted for the rave's late hours: coming down, down, down, but staying up.