Thursday, November 3, 2011

Netlabel culture

Re-reading Ed's (not really) recent posts on shitcore got me thinking about a related topic that I cultivated quite an interest for a few years back.  As the internet proved itself to be a a) game-changing outlet for people of all types, backgrounds, interests, and skills to exhibit said backgrounds, interests, skills and b) an (arguably) truly libertarian and anarchic playground for self-expression, easy distribution and subculture-breeding, lots of new paradigms cropped up.  New avenues for business, for publishing, for networking, for computer games began to breed rapidly.  We all know the story.

Netlabels are one of many stories that make up the annals of fringe internet culture.  Let's assume they first came into existence in the late 1990s.  In essence, they release music for free in completely digital formats.  This means no costs other than a modest amount of server space.  Pair this with all manners of "difficult" electronic music, and you have a match made in heaven.  It's a way for a small group of like-minded individuals to bond over a common interest (aka, what the vast majority of the non-commercial entities on the internet are all about).  You see similar paradigms in other media: independent video game developers, amateur photographers, DeviantArt, SoundCloud, the blogosphere in general.  People not only want to make their art, but they want to share it and not necessarily for profit.  They just want to share it.  And they want to be part of a community.  That's what forums are for.  That's what social media is about.

The biggest difference here isn't that it's a self-selecting community, or that it's a fringe interest because it hasn't picked up steam.  It's definitely both of those.  The biggest difference is the afore-mentioned nature of the music: difficult.  It's abstract, often obscene, often with low fidelity sound, highly repetitive, grating, annoying, silly, offensive.  It already draws from the most abrasive and fringe styles of music: breakcore, grindcore, industrial, noise, power electronics, 8-bit, chiptune, death metal, black metal, drone.  It's a community that never ever wants to be popular or well known.  It's even a community that often will deny it's affiliations with any of the aforementioned styles/genres (especially that of breakcore, which I'll get to).  It's a community without a center, without a cohesive style-guide.  You can "distill" it because then you'd just get something that sounded like a better-known artist of one of the styles many of these artists freely and playfully draw from.  You can't take gabber-infused 8-bit noise and make it sound good.  I guess if you really wanted to and really wanted to force the public at large to accept these strange noises, you'd really have to get some really polished producers and some A-level vocal talent to make some really catchy hooks over what would have to be really dumbed-down, antithetically stripped netlabel music.  That said, one of the joys of the "style," if we can call it that, is that there is no style.

There are moments of incredible bliss, of melodic and stylistic perfection scattered throughout these badly tagged (often the ID3 tags for genre read "Blues"), perversely sarcastic albums.  Smack in the middle of an album of hectic, chopped up, fuzzed out breakbeats set over pornographically guttural pitch-shifted vocals, there can be moments of shockingly thoughtful and complex beats and/or melody/harmony.  It's these joys alongside the hilarious ridiculousness of the totally spastic gabber-fuzz-bullshit and absurdist song titles/album covers that make these artists worthwhile.  That, and my belief that no artist isn't worthwhile, they're just worthless to me or to you or to whomever.  So you do end up with moments that really could be even minor underground hits if they were distributed in "real" or "legitimate" or "normal" avenues.  But they're not.  They're released in hard-to-find, intentionally badly-designed and visually grating websites reminiscent of something a fourth grader would have made using nothing but HTML back in 1997.

Two things to consider at this point in this...essay...rant...piece of writing...let's go with that: Two things to consider at this point in this piece of writing: a) didn't Ed already write this a few months back and isn't all of this just shitcore? and b) who gives a crap, most of the music sucks.

To the askers of the first question: yes, it basically is shitcore.  But shitcore tends to have less emphasis on harsh noise and power electronics and more emphasis on speed and sheer strangeness.  But if you want to call a spade a spade, go ahead, I won't stop you.  Sonically speaking there is very little difference between the average output on say Shitwank (Australian shitcore artist Passenger of Shit's label) and say...Trashfuck Net, among the more well-known of netlabels.  And there are a million labels in between that do a combination of free digital releases and purchasable physical releases in styles similar to either of the aforementioned labels.

As for the second part, I'm not really sure.  The people who make it are in a spectrum from those who genuinely care about their craft and see their work as part of a sociological, musicological, political trajectory or chronologically-evolving network and those who make it to piss people off and laugh about it:  the musical equivalent of Youtube trolls.  And then, there are plenty of people who just suck at making weird and/or bad music and their output can't even be listened to by so-called enthusiasts of the style.  And this happens in every genre all the time.  And then finally there are those who simply don't have an ear for this type of music and wouldn't or couldn't understand it's merits if they hit them in the face.  Like any type of art.

At some point, I'll put a list of my favorite netlabel releases

For more:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playlist #2

When Nat and I decided to bring back this blog as somewhat of a method of forcing ourselves to actually write instead of dicking around on Gchat and talking big about how we're gonna start some sort of awesome blog and THEN start writing, we decided that it would contain a few main things:
  • Terrible run-on sentences, apparently.
  • Wanky art history major-style prose (that's him, not me. I'm actually quite engaging).
  • Playlists of what we're listening to recently.
Well that means that it's my turn to write a playlist...EVEN THOUGH I THOUGHT WE WOULD BE WRITING THEM TOGETHER YOU HEARTLESS BASTARD. I also thought that we'd be doing individual songs instead of albums, but communication has never really been one of my strong suits (seriously, just ask my girlfriend! Heyoooo!). Anyway, here's a list of what I've been listening to lately. At some point in the future we'll probably do some sort of thing where we make actual playlists and put them on mediafire or whatever for people to download, but that's, like, hard.

The Olivia Tremor Control - The Sylvan Screen

Yea, I've been getting back into a lot of the Elephant 6 stuff that I was so obsessed with in High School and ditched so unceremoniously a few years later for grinding electronic noise. I guess The Olivia Tremor Control had kind of an effect on my future music tastes, what with their penchant for dense found sound/noise sculptures and complex instrumentation. In fact, whenever I'm asked to describe them, I say "they sound like The Beatles, if they were less talented and Yoko Ono was actually talented." I keep expecting people to laugh at that, because I think it's funny, but no one ever does. Anyway, I've put this song on every time I've gotten in my car for the past, like, three weeks. It starts off slow with some, umm, nature sounds, but it soon changes into one of their ballsiest tracks, with crunchy guitar riffs punctuated by sparse banjo picking and beautifully harmonized vocals. Good stuff, pitch-perfect pop with enough complexity to bear up under repeated listens.

Drink Pairing: Tecate, outside on a fall night with people you don't hate.

Madness - House of Fun

Another band that I'm revisiting after a long hiatus. When I was real young, my dad basically had four bands which he played on a rotating basis on every car trip: Madness, Squeeze, The Clash and Led Zeppelin. Madness is probably the one that stuck with me the most, especially this song, with it's rollicking, carnivalesque chorus and non-stop catchy energy. I was stuck a few towns over on a rainy day last week waiting for my car to be repaired, and ducked into a small record shop. While there, I found an old Madness compilation album in the used bin, bought it, and have been bumping this shit nonstop ever since.

Drink Pairing: Bitter, with several soccer fans with shaved heads and boots who are being kind of casually racist, but it's ok because no one seems to mind and they're doing goofy dances.

Nirvana - Oh The Guilt

Seriously, I'm a fucking nostalgia fiend these days. I used to be one of those creepy Nirvana (let's be honest...Kurt) obsessives, but kinda outgrew it around the time my acne began to clear up. But I still hold a soft spot in my heart for them, and after having a fairly intense argument with a loved one about their merits, spent a few hours listening to a few of my favorites, this being chief among them. I mean, seriously, for a b-side this is a ball-crushingly awesome song. With its intense-as-all-hell guitar riff and abstract, gritty vocals, its kind of surprising that this got buried in the archives instead of blowing up the charts. 

Drink Pairing: The tears of everyone who made fun of you in middle school.

Venetian Snares - The Identification Circles Levitate

New Snares EP. Abstract reggae-based glitch. Nuff said. 

Drink Pairing: Lots and lots of weed, with a whiskey chaser for anger.

Toecutter - Come on Barbie

Toecutter has always ridden that knife edge between being too cutesy and lo-fi and being too ADHD and complex. Honestly, probably like 99% of breakcore artists either carve themselves a comfortable niche on either side or fall pathetically off this edge and slice themselves up the taint and into the vitals. He's one of the few who can walk this line, with crusty pastiches of cheesy pop standards holding their own against bare noise and mind-numbing chopped breaks, making his pop culture-addled deconstructions something more than the sum of their parts. Mix that with the awesome video for this song, and you have something which I can totally watch every day.

Drink Pairing: An overpriced vodka cocktail.

Well, there you go. Yea I made a playlist which is only, like, five songs long. What, do I have unlimited time to write a bunch of stuff that no one is gonna read anyway? Shit.

On Weird Music, Part 2

So last time I left you all wondering “this kid clearly thinks Taylor Swift is a) awesome and b) weird music.” Part A is true. Part B is not. Fear not loyal (hah!) readers.

Let's take a step back and go back to high school. As most kids did, I grew up idolizing the rock and roll stars of my parents' generation, thinking that they were not only the bees' knees, but that they were only thing really worth delving into. I honestly didn't delve much into music from later than 1995 other than some metal (Tool, System of a Down). I still thought I was fucking cool (knowing full well that a) I wasn't and b) no one else thought I was). That said Bob Dylan bored me (and still does), Jimi Hendrix was too much for me and Nirvana didn't really register until like the summer after 9th grade. So I was basically just pumping The Clash, Madness, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Ramons, The Sex Pistols, The Grateful Dead, Creedence, Crosby Stills Nash and Young until around 10th grade.

In 8th grade I had discovered Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral and that had a huge impact on me. I couldn't believe the outright and blatant sexuality and perversity of the album. It was dark, depressing and scary. From the pulsing, throbbing synths, to the crass lyrics and the excruciating noise buildup in “Hurt,” this was brand-new sonic territory for me and it instantly became a favorite.

In 9th grade this awesome punk rock girl came to our school and we instantly bonded over feelings of alienation from the majority of the school. She quickly became a staple in our group of misfits and nerds. She gave me all this awesome music that I instantly fell in love with: The Adicts, Dead Kennedys, X-Ray Spex, The Stooges, amongst others. This was also brand-new territory for me. The last three are still amongst my favorites and regularly get spins (if you can call it that), especially X-Ray Spex. X-Ray Spex had this incredible energy and Poly Styrene's vocals are so shrill and angsty, yet verging on soulful that I just couldn't get enough. It's really a shame they only released one full-length.

It was also in 9th grade that I got my first dose of hardcore punk. Another punk rock girl who later became another of my closest friends was also wearing Leftöver Crack t shirts and was always talking about them. So I went out and got their first album. I HATED IT. I couldn't deal. It was fucking scary. So much noise. So much anger. What was going on. I loved the Sex Pistols, I loved the Stooges. Why was this so different. I thought it was punk rock. I wasn't wrong. I just wasn't aware of what punk meant then. When I came back to it around 12th grade I was hooked. It's raw, it's all over the place. It's got classical interludes, death metal breakdowns, hilarious samples, real anarcho-punk grit and surprisingly great musicianship. It's almost the perfect hardcore album for me in that it's not just “loud fast” but “loud, fast, and smart.” Smart lyrically, smart instrumentally; a very thoughtful album that I can't tell if it was meant to be smart or just ended up that way.

11th and 12th grade things started changing. I discovered indie music for the first time. Of Montreal, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Walkmen, The Strokes, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party. The big names sure, but for me this, again, was brand new territory. It wasn't all for me (and still isn't), but I do love a great indie pop album. And Neutral Milk Hotel routinely brings me to tears. It's beautiful stuff. Interpol too was a huge influence on me. Their first album was just such a great New York album. Made me feel at home somehow. It was dark, but well-crafted. Of Montreal would later greatly influence my pop sensibilities, especially during sophomore year of college and the year after college. Satanic Panic in the Attic and Sunlandic Twins are great psych pop albums.

But we STILL haven't really gotten to the crux of all this. More next time, kiddies.

Coming up: Throbbing Gristle and Kraftwerk; How Experimental Music Changed My Life.

On Weird Music, Part 1

One question I seem to never tire of being asked is “why do you listen to such weird music?” I've never had a good answer. And I'm usually drunk when I'm asked it so I really can't make anything connect. But I really do like the question, and I think maybe I like it because I don't have an answer and it forces me to constantly evaluate my interests and ideas. Which is something no one does nearly enough. People need to stop, breathe, re-evaluate and either make alterations or decide the path they're on is the right one for them and continue on. Either way is fine, as long those considerations are made and accounted for every so often. Be a crazy-ass murderer. Just WANT to be a crazy-ass murderer. Don't do it because your parents pushed you to follow in their footsteps.

Back to the topic at hand. Music is what you make of it. Music sets the mood, it sets the tone of the day, of the hour. Really fun music can be great. It can also be really boring. Or really grating. Or just not what you need. Sometimes you need to be depressed. Sometimes you need to feel like your brain is being slowly and inefficiently worn down by the rhythmic ripping of a dull cheese grater. Sometimes you need to get angry. Sometimes you just need to dance. Sometimes you need to feel as insignificant as possible. And sometimes you just need to get LAID.

But what about when you're not looking to “set a tone” or get some drunk chick to feel sexier than she probably looks. What about when you're just at home. Alone. Nothing to do except listen to music. No real mood to set. No depression to feed or stave off. I'm rarely trying to completely numb myself. Everything I listen to ends up being a lesson. A lesson in myself, in the world around me, in my friends and who they are and why they're like that, in forces greater than we can know. Music has this incredible power to not only shape our moods and define our emotions but to give weight and viability to concepts and ideas. It's more than just feeling good. I know this sounds stupid because it always does no matter how it's said or who says it but music is truly mind expanding in ways that few other things are.

By mind expanding I mean to say that music can show you not simply new paradigms with which to create music, but full-fledged maps of social, political and philosophical realities. Sound itself is simply a medium, stuff, material, in the same way that paint and paper scraps are the “stuff” of painting and collage respectively. A red dot means nothing on a canvas until you ascribe meaning onto it. Even a fully-realized, figurative painting means shit without some context. The less context you give it then it becomes the audience's job to interpret. The more context (aka, “meaning”) you impose the less interpretation and the more concrete it becomes. That's not to say that the best figurative painting doesn't have loads of hidden messages and interpretable content. It just means that it's more outwardly understandable. With sound it's very much the same. The more easily-apparent structure that's imposed the more easily interpretable it is. That doesn't mean that great music isn't well structured and seemingly nondescript. It's the interpretation of subtleties, the hidden messages, the slight differences between one song and a similar song that make one or the other more or less interesting.

With modern, radio-friendly pop music, there's rarely much to talk about. Bump-bump-bump-bump. That doesn't mean I don't listen to Britney almost every morning (these are hard facts, people). But at the same time for some people they find a lot of pleasure in listening to nothing but pop music. Music that speaks on a very simple, but emotionally/psychologically resonant level.

Taylor Swift is a great example. She makes really sweet, beautiful (let's not call it country, because it's not) pop music that's heartfelt and emotive. She talks about issues that most of us have endured or at least fantasized about (also we've all fantasized about her so it's not hard to think of yourself—if you're a guy—as the guy in each of her songs): bad break-ups, new crushes gone bad, budding romances, and the uncomfortable truth of seeing your ex move on whether you have or not. It's powerful stuff and she's got a killer voice and a great set of producers that really help build beautifully sappy pop gold. I listened to her new album CONSTANTLY for about 4 months. I listened to it in the car. With friends (yes, in a room full of guys). Playing Call of Duty. Writing job applications. Cooking dinner. Me and a couple friends got hooked to that shit. And that's because it's great. It's silly, it's cheesy, but it really allows you to visualize the stories and the stories really connect. And so with pop music you have the heartfelt music and the strong story-based lyrics to draw you in. Either that or a great hook, a catchy beat and some awesome synth or guitar work to get GROOOOOVIN'.

More on this in part two, in which I talk about the stylistic origins of my tastes.