Techno-rock showdown

I walked up the back stairs of the Ramada, through the narrow dark bar and into the main room of one of Detroit’s oldest institutions, the City Club. There, momentarily, with only a crystal ball illuminating the 1920s-cum-goth ballroom’s dance floor and vaulted ceilings, I experienced an abyss opening up in my brain and chest from the walls of bass. In the time it took me to catch my breath, a time in which I seemingly re-established my bodily existence to myself while racking my brain for precedent, I was changed. No lyrics. Nothing to stare at except the hundreds milling and dancing around me. Only sound and rhythm, volume and culture, layers deep, impressing themselves into my being.

On this night that would last more than 10 hours, Richie Hawtin and his crew seemed to be telling all who walked through the old doors: “This is what techno can do.” They were also hinting strongly at a corollary question: “What else can do this?”

Rock, in its current overwrought state, from the “new metal” to Detroit’s very own garage-rock styling, is reactionary. The name of the game in advancing musical passion has and will always be modern insight and innovation inspired by soul, that always intangible reaction between humans and now. Yes, rock was “it” when Chuck Berry melded country, blues and sociological reality in the 1950s, redefining teen existence. At times even 50th-generation Berry elements in indie rock turn up in groups such as Sleater-Kinney or White Stripes. I’m not arguing the death of rock. I’m arguing its waning effect.

Instead, the hip kids are reading German script off the backs of obscure, shaped-metal CD cases. They’re listening less to what Dr. Dre is saying and more to the large beats in his productions. They’re saving up to buy music software programs, record players and samplers.

But it’s not just a matter of guitars. Grabbing a sampler and stapling it to the Pink Floyd catalog a la Radiohead does not equal a 1965 Bob Dylan move either. Human existence demands more complexity from its cultural mirrors. Life is far less obvious, far more demure.

What is existence but that unrelenting thing that refuses to respond? Lyrics be damned; we have to listen a lot harder to hear what sound itself is telling us about the world in which we live. We do not (should not) have the time to stare at some rock spectacle when we’re trying to break, interpret and change the codes that we live by. We should not be staring when we should be dancing.

Techno rhetorically asks the two most important questions of sonic expression: What are modern sounds telling us and how can we use human experience to interpret, change, mimic, forget and understand them?

Despite the White Stripes’ stardom in England and the (still) powerful pull of rock personas throughout the world, the future-present is not about staring at entertainment, eyes transfixed. Instead the future is about slipping our skins within the rhythms of modernity. It doesn’t seem accidental that it’s at Richie Hawtin parties that I see electric wheelchairs. Neither is it accidental that the best electronic nights in Detroit mix genders, races, sexualities and ages with a consistency far more progressive than any night of rock ’n’ roll.

Techno, in its various guises, from the strict minimalism of Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills to the grabbag auteurism of Matthew Herbert and Carl Craig dares to open itself to the world’s bittersweet repetitions, surveillance and postmodern confusion, in order to arrive at a higher, sexier, even scarier fusion.

Whether it’s the blessings of a recent after-hours basement set of chillingly funky beats; the constant visitations of acts like Monolake, Matthew Herbert and Stewart Walker; the no-holds-techno range of DJs like Magda; or an over-the-top, airplane hangar-volumed Hawtin party at the old City Club, techno is the spiritual deposit of all the future-now that Detroit has given the world for the last 30 years. What can your music do? — Carleton S. Gholz

I slumped half asleep, fully drooling into an already-crusty chair cushion at Chicago’s Congress Theatre. Exhausted after a day of driving and traipsing about town to catch as many performers as possible at last month’s Ladyfest Midwest, I was determined not to leave until I saw E.S.G.

And after what seemed like days, the four Scroggins sisters, plus their South Bronx neighbor Tito, stepped behind instruments and settled into a hypnotic soul groove that wafted over my unconsciousness and carried me toward the stage. The friends I had walked in with were nowhere to be found. No matter, I still felt connected to them, along with every other hipster, drop-by and outcast dancing beside me. My physical body connected with organic beats tapped out on congas and reverberating from thick bass strings stung by strong fingers. And my mind connected to smiles, stories and lyrics flowing from the lips of a soulful front woman. It was a simple sound, but one bursting with meaning, innovation and emotion.

The air seeped with history and respect and, sure, these five ladies played their most popular songs from the 1980s, but this minimalist funk, in this theater, in a near-sleep state sounded like the future to me, a future I was ready to enter — one where women and men can break out of a circle of struggle and the rest of the world cheers them on. Maybe this is part of the reason why electronic audiences embrace E.S.G. as much as the rock crowd does — this universal message of empowerment and embracing good times in the face of a harsh world.

Closer to home a few weeks later, about 30 people gathered in the attic of a friend’s band’s bass player’s mom’s house. Just before heading upstairs, we said farewell to summer by eating a sickly amount of Popsicles. Upstairs, we sat shoulder to shoulder, entranced by quiet and introspective, yet heavily communicative music. Silence and stillness was speared by a scratchy throat, whispering words and stories, abstract and direct, as interpretable as sound to the tune of sneezes, phones ringing, nervous energy, children’s questions, laptop experiments, strings and beauty. A square of light shadowed by the reflection of a tree moving in the wind outside an open window shone over the members, who hunched to fit within the strange space. It was perhaps what a techno audience might call a “concept show.” At the end, we stood up at once as if connected by string. Sure, the audience was staring at a rock spectacle, but if we weren’t breaking, interpreting and changing the codes we live by in that room, I don’t know what it was we were doing.

Slipping skin and absorbing a complex cultural mirror are important. But there’s also something to be said about genuine connection between an artist and an audience. Where DJs and/or producers create an atmosphere from above, standing high on platforms, looking down from some sort of heaven smiling in approval, the idea of the rock god is slowly giving way to more approachability and mutual interaction.

Innovation, of course, is to be commended, but it can be found in reaction just as easily as in prediction. If we were to define waning by a decline in popularity, how could we explain the increasing attention focused on the grilled intensity of garage rock, stoner rock, reinvented riot grrl, emo and any number of other rock-derived genres?

And as far as future-music, we can’t forget to look to noise rock, chaos punk and experimental rock, where musicians continuously deconstruct previous musical ideas (using a guitar or saxophone as percussion, for example) without completely abandoning the core of traditional instruments.

Watching a retread bar band hiccuping a poor, sadly nostalgic version of “Long Tall Sally” might lead one to believe rock is waning. But don’t call something finished before peeking in every corner for signs of vitality. It’s there and it does wonders. — Melissa Gianinni

Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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