Richard D. James’s return as Aphex Twin last year came as a considerable surprise, but the music he brought with him was old hat. Not that Syro didn’t sound welcome, at least to fans who had been waiting 13 years for new material from electronic music’s most incorrigible trickster. But it hardly sounded urgent or even particularly new. Coming on the heels of a hitherto unreleased 1994 album from James’s Caustic Window alias, Syro might well have been a contemporaneous companion piece, fresh from the time capsule. But, at least according to market demands, that vintage sound was also Syro’s great success; a wide swath of present-day artists go to great lengths to infuse their own productions with a similarly tarnished patina. Glossy, 1990s-inspired house rules the charts; lo-fi, ’90s-inspired house rules the underground. The noise scene, meanwhile, keeps putting out cassettes. (One notable exception last year was the return of instrumental grime: which is to say, the revival of a style from a decade ago.) There’s been little in electronic music to orient us in the now, much less the nascent future that has long been its ostensible province.
For a decade and a half, popular music has seemed largely to be spinning its wheels, a situation that led Simon Reynolds to dub the start of the new millennium ‘the “Re” Decade’ in his 2011 book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. ‘Where are the major new genres and subcultures of the 21st century?’ he asked, noting the way that reunions, revivals and recycled styles had halted pop culture’s forward motion. But if, as he argued, we’ve found ourselves stuck in place because ‘the sheer mass of past accumulating behind the music began to exert a gravitational pull’, recently it seems as if numerous wormholes have begun to open up, leading to points unknown. Signs of a new kind of electronic music, one which couldn’t be confused for that of any other decade, are finally beginning to appear, suggesting that the tide may be starting to turn.
This emergent style is not so much a genre as a sensibility – an approach to rhythm, texture and referentiality that stands apart from long-established modes. You can hear this new sensibility in FKA twigs’s widely (and rightly) heralded album (LP1, 2014), which frames R&B’s desiring affect in jellied synthesizers and haphazard clatter; you can hear it in her occasional co-producer Arca’s chilly, alien debut album Xen (2014), with its insectoid chatter, banshee wails and viscous keyboard tones. Both artists delight in flipping dance music convention to focus on irregular rhythms and disruptive beats (perhaps finally making good on the promise of Autechre’s 1994 Anti EP, which was produced in order to circumvent the UK Criminal Justice Bill’s ban on raves playing music with ‘a succession of repetitive beats’). Arca’s shuddering rhythms often sound like a ragged tarp flapping in the breeze; FKA twigs is fond of haywire beats that bob like broken springs – an effect she foregrounds in the metronomic head-nodding of her 2013 ‘Water Me’ video. On twigs’s debut EP1 (2012), even an otherwise traditionalist neo-soul song like ‘Hide’ came wrapped in a bewildering arrhythmic shell.
There are similarly unstable energies at play in the music of Texas-based Lotic and his fellow expats in Berlin’s Janus collective, who adopt the shuddering pulses of Jersey club music and the flash-bang dynamics of ballroom house and stretch them to dystopian extremes. On Lotic’s recent Heterocetera EP (2014), he freezes gunshots in time and space like a digital-era Eadweard Muybridge, while undulating metallic drones scan as the sonic equivalents of Frank Gehry’s non-Euclidean buildings. A lot of this stuff has a dark, ominous cast. Texas’s Rabit and London’s Mumdance and Logos fuse tropes from grime and ambient music into a funereal style they term ‘weightless’, which feels like a futuristic take on goth, its overarching aesthetic less steampunk than molecular computing. (See, for instance, Mumdance, Logos and Rabit’s ‘Inside the Catacomb’, 2014, or Rabit’s ‘40 Below’, 2013.)
But other artists are using similar strategies – smeared string pads, broken-glass percussion, pitch-bent vocals – to invoke an opposite mood, giddy to the extreme. Consider the rubberized particle collisions of Sophie’s hyper-pop anthems like ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Hard’ (both 2014) or the screwball antics of A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond and other members of the PC Music collective, whose absurdist magpie tendencies are anything but complacently retro. The disorienting apex of this approach has come from Felicita, a PC Music affiliate whose 2014 EP Frenemies swims in Chipmunked Sprechstimme, seasick slide-whistle melodies and winch-driven clatterbeats, establishing an uneasy truce between nonsense and sensory overload that recalls Ryan Trecartin’s soundtracks at their most nightmarishly psychedelic.
To say that this stuff sounds new isn’t to say that it represents a world wholly apart, or even that it is entirely without precedent. Arca’s Xen carries within it textural and rhythmic echoes of Harold Budd, digital dancehall and Purple Rain-era Prince. Lotic’s music interpolates the gelatinous riff at the heart of Masters at Work’s ‘The Ha Dance’ (1991), a ballroom staple, with the melancholy pings of mid-1990s Autechre and Black Dog Productions. And FKA twigs’s pitched-down voices, derived from Southern rap, reflect the kind of vocal manipulations that have been rampant in the bass music scene since Burial’s arrival; more directly, they connect to the de-gendering processes The Knife used on Silent Shout (2006), which might be considered a touchstone for much of this new aesthetic.
But even when certain elements of the music have clearly traceable lineages, nothing about the final product sounds quite like anything that has come before. With their jagged rhythms, glassy timbres and resolutely digital aspect, these new tracks couldn’t be confused with the music of earlier decades. At their most extreme, they can convey, at least upon initial listens, the same sort of brain-rearranging rush that accompanied a first encounter with jungle or grime (or, indeed, Aphex Twin). As beats come undone from conventional timekeeping and notes twist in the artificial winds, the brain struggles to catch up; you can practically feel new paths being blazed through your cortex, new neural networks congealing around unfamiliar tropes.
If this new sensibility is a welcome corrective to our long period of retromaniacally marking time, perhaps it also represents another kind of correction – that of popular music opening up to marginalized voices. It seems not coincidental that questions related to gender and sexuality are explicit concerns, whether it’s FKA twigs’s exploration of power and sexuality, or Arca’s genderqueer alter ego Xen, who gave his debut album its name. In a series of portraits that accompany the album, the multimedia artist Jesse Kanda represents Xen in bizarre, bulbous, waxy shapes that recall Chris Cunningham, Louise Bourgeois and the infant in Eraserhead (1977). Kanda also supplied the striking imagery for FKA twigs’s album sleeve and her ‘Water Me’ video, subtly distorting and distending her already striking features to surreal effect. Throughout, the body appears as something malleable, grotesquely beautiful and fundamentally post-natural.
Consider, too, Future Brown (a next-generation supergroup featuring Fatima Al-Qadiri, J-Cush and Nguzunguzu), whose very name suggests a sort of manifest destiny for people of colour, a blurring of lines that will eventually swallow all of us in its polymorphous embrace. It may be too early to give a name to any of this, but it’s tempting to call it a new futurism – or, at least, a new near-futurism – one that locates utopian promise in the leap beyond binary oppositions, and celebrates trans identities and interstitial states.
First published in Issue 169