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Friday, January 24, 2003

++ Wasteland

++ The city is coming apart at the seams, or at least it sounds that way. I am listening to everything through a damage filter — in my Discman spins a CD-R of London pirate radio (thanks, Simon!), and the mashup of sloppily spun breaks and pigpile MC chatter is nothing if not "messy," in the scatalogical slang of garage's new hooliganism. But bleeding through the din, permeating the headphone barrier, is the noise of the BART train, which seems to be tearing itself to pieces, the window rattling against its fittings as though hell-bent on a shotgun divorce from the wall that holds it in place. Window rattle battles studio prattle until all I can hear is the rat-a-tat Gatling riddim of an all-pervasive friction: sonic, seismic, trans-Bay and trans-Atlantic.

Simon Reynolds and other commentators, including Matthew Ingram of the Naughty Bit of Crap blog, have been weighing in recently on this new mutation of UK garage into "gutter garridge" (Reynolds) or "UK Bounce" (Ingram) as it purples, slows, and slurs its words like a spit-thickened drug casualty sliding inexorably toward coma. Except that it's not nodding off, but rather building steam, despite the flagging beats and blurring resolution. If the double-tracked chat, overdriven in-studio improvs, and general impenetrability of the London slang keep you from figuring out what they're on about, you might be lucky: Reynolds has chronicled the increasing misogyny and will-to-debasement that characterize such tunes as Black Ops Crew's "Ho's Don't Mean Shit to Me" and "Swallow." And the crews, we might assume, don't care how offended our middle-class, liberal humanist sensibilities might be: "I don't care what you say/ Now we're going on terrible," raps Wiley over Roll Deep's anthem "Terrible." Perhaps it's no accident that the word, one of those paradoxical qualifiers like old school hip-hop's "bad" (not-bad-meaning-bad-but-bad-meaning-good, that is), recalls "the terrible twos," that age when children run amok. After all, this new strain of gutter garage revels in mess-making like infants with a vested interest in food-play and shit-spray.

Gutter garage, too, strikes me as a fitting term, just because I hear this as such quintessentially urban music. Not "urban" in the demographic sense of corporate radio (AKA ethnic or black), but literally urban: this is the sound of the city as it all goes down the drain. It jerks with the illogical flow of overstuffed arteries and uncontrollable traffic patterns. It shrieks and strains against decency like private violence breaking through public space in a blue streak of cursing. It bombards the senses with triangulated shards of sound and light. More than anything, its truncated samples and lopped-off melodics recall the short-circuited nature of the urban gaze. When Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand photographed the American city in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, passers-by withheld their gazes and, practiced Eleanor Rigbys all, coolly veiled their passage through the anomistic landscape. But gutter garage mimics the kaleidoscopic matrix of menace and withdrawal that marks the Anglo-American city in the 21st Century, a field of avoidance that's trip-wired like a minefield. Every anthemic burst from the MC — "Sublow Pressure!" — calls you out from the madding crowd, and it's all you can do to resist turning your startled head. Every drum break is a car crash heard from a block away. The paranoid strings of darkest 'ardkore saw at you like brutal sirens as you hold the blinders fast and make a beeline through the bump 'n' flex of the swollen street.

++ Everyone wants to talk about how "the sound of the city" is found in the "new rock", which is fine, if you've got a nostalgic bent and equate urbanicity with Lou Reed waiting for the man with the bag on a seedy corner of the Lower East Side. Others will cite hip-hop as the quintessentially urban music, with its street-savvy storytelling. But I hear urbanicity cropping up in other places. In gutter garage, I hear the crowding of streets, the lurch and creak of rusting infrastructures, the anarchy of deregulation, the solipsistic amorality born of collapsing social services (Bush and Co. would do well to take notice — but then again, amoral solipsism is the only solid plank in Bushies' platform).

If gutter garage is the sound of the topside world — thanks especially to its dispersal via pirate radio, skipping across building tops like a fleet-footed beast skimming the forest canopy — Wasteland's Amen Fire is the sound of the underground. Not "underground" in the sense of non-mainstream (though you'd be hard pressed to find this record from DJ Scud and I-Sound referenced anywhere but in the most obscurantist sources), but literally below-the-surface: this is the music of steam vents, groundwater seepage, seismic hiccups, endless tunneling.

Wasteland's music is in many ways very different from gutter garage: for one thing, it's entirely instrumental, save for some buried samples that sound about as rough as something you'd find in Tosca or Peace Orchestra. What's more, Wasteland's work is in some sense "prog" to garage's pure street sound; in the mode of all things experimental, it tries on sonics and tests textures far more self-consciously than street music, which goes straight for the pleasure center — not so much E'd up as Id-up.

But Wasteland's broken beats and shuddering torpor are drawn straight from dancehall, hip-hop, and garage, even if the tracks' starchy thickening comes straight from Cabaret Voltaire. (Indeed, both Scud and I-Sound have recorded much more straightforwardly brutal, post-breakbeat tunes on other releases for Transparent and Ambush.) Urban but underlit, it's a subterranean take on street sounds, flexing in slo-mo like Chris Cunningham's video for Portishead's "Only You." If you don't believe me, just listen to it underground, on the subway, and listen to the way it bends with the air pressure.

Amen Fire is neon white and hazy-featured, stitched together out of glitches the texture of caulk, carpetground grit, and grease smeared on windows by sleeping commuters. Feedback peals brighten with the same reflective urge as burnished aluminum, stainless steel, and matte glass scratched with the signature of key-toting graffitists.

Riddims bump and lurch like subway cars, cousin to Southern Bounce, but only as jiggy as tunnel speed allows. Panning horns approximate the moment of unknown motion when the exterior view, the fixed interior, and your own gaze tumble into a seasick disequilibrium, and as the car pulls forward (or perhaps it's the world sliding backwards) you can't tell if you're at rest or in motion. Like garage, or techno, or any other form of dance music, Wasteland's uses the same syncopations and the same sandpapered tones over and over, and so tracks bleed together the way the stops on an over-traveled route do, repetition fucking up your sense of distance 'til you find yourself on a one-way trip to the trainyard. Again and again I have found myself at the end of the last track of Amen Fire with no sense of how I've gotten there; all that's missing is the streak of drool down my face and the hot crease of slept-on fabric on my skin.

If garage is music for boom boxes and car stereos, Wasteland are the soundtrack for the bleedthrough between public and private. Dulled beats and tinny harmonies thud and whisper like the whimpering complaints emitting from headphones two seats ahead, sneaking into public space through perforated earbuds and waxed mazes of flesh.

If garage wears its danger like a gangster's swagger, Wasteland are dangerous like the cracked syringe I once found nestled into BART's torn fabric seats, matted into the fabric as though deposited there by a careless mother bird. Fractured, ground down, hollowed out, this is a minimalist score for true-crime dramas.

Despite all the elements of ragga, of African drums, of Cabaret Voltaire's industrial grind, this is strangely deracinated music, heard as if drifting through twisted corridors, the product of a spontaneous distributed ensemble composed of lone busker, ventilation system, and track squeal. It's a little bit like Two Lone Swordsmen's subterranean electro, where bathyscaph clank and sonar ping chime up through drainpipes from the depths of the buried city. It's also surprisingly quiet, like hardcore caught napping, or like pure noise steeped in the hypnogogic sublime, where every half-heard syllable wraps around a pulse and sinks deep into the subconscious like a breathing stone. Its churnings are numb: they don't throb like rock 'n' roll's distended member, they tingle like the absence of an anesthetized lip, or a leg gone dead tucked away from the press of the rush-hour crowd.

++ And then before you know it you're outside amidst sulfur lamps, halogen buzz, noir shadowing in every distended echo. "Has It Come to This?" is the title of Amen Fire's last track, but it's got nothing to do with The Streets' garage anthem of broken communities and "deep seated urban decay." In the machines of Wasteland, "it" and its dread coming are the calcification of the world into a palace of dead mirrors, where every look beats against sliding subway doors, where gazes are met only by the blue flash of retinal scanners, à la Minority Report. The track borrows a wheezing Hoover bass from the best paranoid darkside jungle, and a skittering garage riddim that slips from light to shadow with the flickering ease of Chris Marker's time-traveling protagonist in La Jetée — or the sickening quickness of the jump-cuts in Fight Club. Darkcore drum 'n' bass — techstep — used these techniques, more brutally, to posit a sci-fi dystopianism that verged on parody, but in the case of Wasteland, it's all too desiccated to be deadpan. As serious as your life, Amen Fire is the soundtrack to a life lived underground, bent double, headphone-deaf, neon-blind. It burrows deeper with every measure.


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