Upon reading Peter Margasak’s review of the latest Aphex Twin release, the Richard D. James Album [Rock, Etc., February 21], the following occurred to me:
Primarily, I’m struck by what appears to be this critic’s lack of requisite knowledge and experience with what could generally be termed modern electronic dance music. The terms “techno,” “trance,” “tribal,” “acid,” “acid jazz,” “electronica,” “drum ‘n’ bass,” etc have essentially exhausted the ability to classify by micro-dissecting this funk/Kraftwerk-influenced musical style. But one of the most important developments within this music is that it has, in fact, traveled beyond the confines of the dance floor. And it has been going on for quite a while.
If Mr. Margasak really believes that the main goal of most album-oriented dance music is to seek the attention of the American marketplace, it’s no surprise that when a musician of some notoriety releases an album of sophisticated electronic experimentation, he seems eager to characterize it first as artistry, rather than assigning it similar motives. It’s nothing new in dance music that musicians are creating albums (and singles) for home listening in addition to singles for the dance floor. And he even more conspicuously ignores that Europe is far ahead of the United States in its appreciation of these styles–styles which are constantly being redefined by a large number of relative unknowns.
Mr. Margasak’s other opening assertion–that the dance artist is club-oriented when he releases singles and abandons the club scene upon embarking on album-oriented dance–is ridiculous. This may be because Mr. Margasak is simply unaware that the genre of electronic dance has evolved significantly, and what was once simply a “club scene” of DJs is now a veritable milieu of DJs as artists performing and “spinning” live–in what I suppose he would call the “rock-club circuit.” Not just tracks from other artists, but whole pieces of their own work. Often, live “club mixes” even become wonderful full-length albums. He should listen to the latest Speedy J album, G-Spot, or Sun Electric’s 30.7.94 Live as prominent examples. Sure, the club scene is still comprised of a DJ spinning Black Box and Moby, but artists who choose to put out albums (as most of the more durable ones have) are certainly not leaving what Mr. Margasak thinks is the club scene.
But I’m even more struck with how Mr. Margasak qualifies Aphex Twin as “closer to” a serious composer. He seems to think it’s because the Richard D. James Album resides outside of the typical dance realm. Mr. Margasak states that this latest release “clocks in at just over 43 minutes, but it realizes more ideas than most electronic albums can in 75.” Just how is that? And what exactly is he saying in 43 minutes? No explanation is given. Note also this passage regarding the album’s most vulgar track, “Milkman”: “His boldest subversion here is formal: Most electronic pieces are hopelessly long-winded, taking ten minutes to say what could easily be said in five.”
Artists such as Kraftwerk, Meat Beat Manifesto, Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire, and Psychic TV have all submitted themes and messages in their music. Most prominent among them being the devaluation of humanity and the subversion of the masses by industry, mechanics, the computer age, and especially the media. But he has to remember that dance music may be maturing (as I believe it is) away from these recycled themes in favor of something less tangible–something closer to the emotions of rhythm and the feelings elicited through spatially expansive musical progressions–rather than a message conveyed in reconstructions of conventional musical styles and themes. It now tries to establish itself immediately, make you feel a certain way–often for a long time. And to say that this feeling could be “said” in less time is entirely irrelevant. One might even say that it is so wonderful for the messages it avoids, as well as how it develops emotion around repetitious rhythms, samples, and synth patterns.
While Mr. Margasak may see the need to hail the Richard D. James Album as rhythm-based electronic music you can’t dance to, such an assertion should have no basis in his critique and it most definitely should not aid in classifying Aphex Twin as “closer to” a serious composer. But I believe Mr. Margasak would serve himself well to listen to a few other “intelligent techno” artists, such as Autechre, Plastikman, and Future Sound of London, and then reassess the Richard D. James Album. He may find, as I have, that Richard James often tends to lose sight of his artistry through his compulsion to rebel against all other forms of modern electronic dance music–rather than produce something listenable and truly progressive.
The modern music publication, the Wire magazine, out of the UK, has named the Richard D. James Album one of the best of the year, which, in my opinion, only serves to perpetuate the myth that the best artists are those who try harder to be different–without much to say beyond the fact that they’re being different.