Chad Parkhill takes us for a tour through the world of weird, wonderful and unexpectedly danceable tunes. iPods at the ready: it’s time for part three of this special five-part blog series.
Fuck Buttons, ‘Bright Tomorrow’
Recently, and only for the briefest of periods, it seemed as though the next big thing in dance music was the kind that nobody in their right mind would dance to: noise music. In retrospect it sounds absurd, but it’s true: back in 2007 and 2008, the vanguard of electro-house got so abrasive and noisy that it might almost have been possible for a DJ to slip a Merzbow track into their set without anyone noticing.
This period didn’t last, of course. As electro-house painfully transitioned from underground genre du jour to one of the many ingredients thrown in the sonic blender known as ‘EDM’, most of its chief protagonists found themselves drawn to a nascent disco revival. But what might dance music sound like had the Ed Banger and Kitsuné sound that was so tremendously popular in 2007 kept pushing towards the abrasive and ugly? Well, it might sound something like Fuck Buttons’ ‘Colours Move’.
In many ways, Daft Punk’s album Human After All charted electro-house’s course in the years after its 2005 release. Human After All was a harsh bummer of an album compared to the heady, joyous blend of classic FM rock and soft disco Daft Punk popularised with their 2001 album Discovery. But even if it was a critical and commercial failure, it was prescient, and its chief flaw seems to have been that its form matched its content too well. The dystopian subject matter and spiky, discordant production were matched with wearyingly repetitive song structures.
Seen at the time as Daft Punk’s epigones, production duos Justice, Digitalism, and Simian Mobile Disco married those harsh guitar textures and aggressive drums to catchy hooks and clever pop song structures. This trio released their three debut albums within weeks of each other in the middle of 2007, and soon enough their buzzy, noisy approach to dance music was beating a path from the underground to the mainstream.
Even though these groups’ best-known songs – such as ‘Phantom’, ‘Zdarlight’, ‘It’s the Beat’ – had an unfriendly patina of harsh saw-wave synthesis, crunchy bass kicks, and tinny treble hisses, they also honed in on their audience’s pleasure centres with direct drum patterns and insistent melodies. Daft Punk –who saw which way the wind was blowing long before this subgenre-defining trio of albums was released – cannily mounted a 2006/2007 world tour which combined elements of their entire oeuvre to create a sound not dissimilar to that of the groups they had inspired.
If Daft Punk had taken this subgenre full circle, it was one of the supporting acts on that tour that would push this hissy, noisy dance music almost to its breaking point. Sebastian Akchoté, who records and DJs under the name SebastiAn, scored his first breakout dance floor hit with ‘Ross Ross Ross’. A blast of chopped-up samples and chunky house drums, he soon began to make his records even more difficult on the ear. ‘Walkman’ ends with a cathartic cascade of screeching feedback, while ‘Motor’ samples (or replicates) the sound of an F1 race-car engine to produce a track whose only mooring to the world of club music is its kick-snare house beat.
Around this time, too, noise musicians started making overtures towards dance music. Growing, a Brooklyn-based duo whose career arc began in making slow, portentous drone/doom music not unlike that of early Earth, started adding rhythmic components to their sheets of airy guitar dissonance. At the time, it seemed as though a rapprochement between the two genres of music was almost inevitable. At that very moment, Fuck Buttons entered the scene.
‘Bright Tomorrow’ is the closest thing to a dance track on Fuck Buttons’ 2008 debut, Street Horrrsing. The rest of the album cleaves closely to a blend of power electronics and ambient drone (‘Sweet Love for Planet Earth’), sometimes with clattering rhythm tracks (‘Ribs Out’). The fact that it comes from a noise band entering dance territory rather than vice versa shows in a number of ways but none of this detracts from the song’s primary virtue, which is an understanding that both noise music and dance music are designed to offer moments of transcendence. Dance music achieves this through rhythm, while noise music achieves it by enveloping its audience in raw sound. ‘Bright Tomorrow’ does it with both, which lends the track an air of the ecstatic so powerful it’s hard to resist grinning like an idiot even as it splits your eardrums.
As we now know, this brief moment of rapprochement didn’t go on to transform dance music. There was only so far producers could push it, and SebastiAn crossed that line in early 2010 with ‘Threnody’ – a thirteen minute track, then purportedly from his forthcoming album Total, that included eleven minutes of a slowly rising drone tone. The backlash from SebastiAn’s fans was swift and fierce, and when Total appeared after several delays in 2011, ‘Threnody’ was a notable absence. Fuck Buttons, for their own part, recruited veteran dance producer Andrew Weatherall for their sophomore effort, Tarot Sport – an excellent album, but one whose slick professionalism lacks some of the knockabout charm of Street Horrrsing.
The conjunction between noise music and dance music is a strong nexus, however, and one that has been explored since the early days of Throbbing Gristle. You can hear it in Carter Tutti Void, The Knife, and Dead Fader, amongst others. Dance music’s current form may seem inevitable in retrospect, but there’s nothing stopping us from looking back in order to find a better way forward.
Chad Parkhill is the Festival Manager of the National Young Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others.