War in the jungle

Is Aphrodite (a.k.a. Gavin King) a drum-and-bass savior or poseur? A critical debate.

MICHAELANGELO MATOS: So do you dislike jump-up jungle, or just Aphrodite?

TRICIA ROMANO: I liked it when I was first indoctrinated into drum-and-bass. His wobbly beats and bass lines and easily recognizable samples effectively broke down the communication barrier between my untrained ears and my booty. But ultimately, all of his tracks started to sound like remixes of themselves. While one or two Aphrodite records in a DJ set might be fun, any more than that is overkill.

Aphrodite is part of a genre that prides itself on pushing the boundaries of technology, but he's done little to further it. Jungle producers constantly switch gears: a record from 1997 sounds dated. But Aphrodite is stuck in a time warp—while everyone else is moving forward, he stands still. More embarrassing, in an attempt to update his big hits on his album, he mangles them by adding techstep beats that don't complement the music's playfulness: He sounds like he's desperately trying to ride a year-and-a-half-old bandwagon. His moment has passed and he knows it. It's starter-kit jungle. If you're listening to him for the first time, he might be exciting and fun, but if you venture out beyond his records, you will find how simplistic, and ultimately how boring, they really are.

Aphrodite

I-Spy, Saturday, March 11

M.M.: What does "pushing the boundaries of technology" have to do with producing effective music, dated-sounding or not? This isn't science class. I'll grant you the techstep beats add very little to Aphrodite's V2 album, but I'll also argue that banking your American breakthrough on 75 minutes of undisturbed dance floor action is riskier than trying to incorporate badly written and poorly sung "real songs" into it, ࠬa Krust's Coded Language. Besides, hasn't techstep been in a similar holding pattern since '97?

Yes, dance culture runs on constant evolution, of new tracks replacing old, of the beats accelerating and the sounds getting fuller or squishier or more metallic; that's one of the reasons I love it. But I'm not snobbish enough to disdain the pleasures of things people who aren't hard-core d'n'b fans like—hooks, rhythmic drive, dynamic range—in favor of who-cares concept albums and big-deal technical proficiency. Knowing where the hip-hop sample or the breakdown is going to come in may make a record predictable, but that doesn't automatically make it bad. Progress doesn't equal quality—never has, never will.

T.R.: Maybe in 1998, you could've argued that techstep was in a rut: lots of Oh-Mickey-You're-So-Fine beats and bass lines that sounded like angry farts. But pick up the Armageddon comp, or almost anything by Ed Rush and Optical. There is a fuckload of funk and swing and nastiness in these records; they jam. Most jungle producers are pushing boundaries, coming up with new, weird shit and, equally important, burning up the dance floor. Those weirdo noises that you profess to like in dance music, then say don't matter, are usually tied to riffs. They can be fun or funky or jamming, but if it sounds like it was made on a karaoke machine, then what's the point? Whereas every single Ed Rush and Optical record I own is totally different and totally slamming—I could play you all of their records and you wouldn't be able to predict what comes next, not once. And you'd be dancing your ass off.

When drum-and-bass stops evolving, it stops existing—that's why Aphrodite was left in the dust years ago. The fact of the matter is that every Aphrodite record is exactly the same: an intro with a liberally sampled hip-hop clip, a huge drum roll, a wobble bass line, and a return to the hip-hop sample. Repeat. You can't separate the science of sound from the evolution of drum-and-bass; it's why there are so many science metaphors in jungle's community (Droppin' Science records, Breakbeat Science, etc.). At the same time, you can have all the weirdo sounds in the world, but if the tune doesn't rock, then you're probably holding an unlistenable Squarepusher record in your hands.

M.M.: I'll check out Armageddon—I like mean-sounding stuff when it's done well—though the last few d'n'b nights I've checked out have been interesting, but not much more. Same with Ed Rush and Optical, who've as frequently bored as excited me. But say you played me all those records and I wasn't able to guess what comes next, it wouldn't prove much beyond its own unpredictability. Also, it isn't so much that sounds don't matter as that as ends in themselves they're fairly irrelevant.

Most musicians whose work smacks of populism get tagged "low-com-denom," and often rightly so. But I find Aphrodite's album surprisingly subtle; it settles in equally comfortably at low or top volume, and I don't mind that it sounds less like a step forward than a summing up, since the formula he invented in '95 has aged (I think) surprisingly well. Back then it sounded like tomorrow's pop music today; today, it sounds like fun, well-crafted, interesting pop music—not the cutting edge of anything, but effective nevertheless. If that makes me unprogressive, I can live with that.

 
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