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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Album Review: VA - ‘Electronic Body Matrix’

‘Electronic Body Matrix’ (2011)
Alfa Matrix, 4CD box plus download card, €30
I recently picked up a copy of The Guardian’s ‘Guide’ supplement which had a picture of a girl in stylish 40s type clothing, holding a Telecaster, on the cover. I was intrigued by her look, so I read the article: I found out a lot about her visual style, her background, her creative process and so on. What was notable by its absence from the piece, was any attempt to describe her music. Sure, I found out that she sings with a wide dynamic range; that at one point she wrote songs ‘influenced by flamenco and Debussy and Wong Kar-wai movies’; and that her music is ‘heavy and close’ and ‘dogmatically dreamlike, yet strangely precise.’ So you tell me, what does she sound like?
This is nothing unusual. It is entirely characteristic of writing about popular music, even in a context that purports to give it its due respect as serious art. In no other area of culture would it be considered acceptable to write reviews and features without any reference whatever to the specific characteristics of the cultural object under scrutiny, but the sad fact is that the majority of music writers do not have any real understanding or knowledge of what they’re listening to, or the language to describe it.
Now I’m a moderately capable musician, with a degree level education in music, and it would be easy for me to throw in a few technical terms and look down my nose at people, so let me be clear. I would not for a second argue that a lay person can’t properly understand a piece of music, or adequately describe it: you don’t need to be able to recognise and name scales or time signatures to do justice to something. There is some fine music writing that talks in terms of instrumental texture, comparisons to other music,  the experience of listening to it, and genre. But it is heavily outnumbered by writing that is exclusively concerned with issues that, while not necessarily extraneous to the music, are separate from it.
My unique selling point as a music writer, I’m sorry to say, is that I write about the music.
And having said that, I have an album to review here that I can’t possibly approach through close listening and musical analysis. This bastard is 8.3 hours long! A compilation on this scale is very difficult to appreciate as an album per se: as a programmed sequence of tunes it is so long that it’s a challenge to even hold its narrative arc in your mind, let alone find something interesting to say about it.
Alfa Matrix have a history of putting out incredibly high quality, comprehensive and generically definitive compilations, most notably their Endzeit Bunkertracks series, which taken as a whole is a 20 CD survey of contemporary industrial music (with an understandable bias towards Alfa Matrix artists). The title of Electronic Body Matrix is a play on words with the genre ‘electronic body music’, more usually abbreviated as EBM: I had better digress again.
Industrial and EBM are two closely interconnected genres, and there is a good deal of disagreement about whether one is a subset of the other, or whether they are completely separate. Industrial music was originally a genre of experimental electronic music centred around the label Industrial Records in the UK, but it has come to refer to a style of harsh and dark electronic dance music (sometimes qualified as ‘electro-industrial), which bears the same kind of relationship to mainstream electronica that metal bears to rock. Inevitably there are a bazillion sub-genres, and the word ‘industrial’ is applied as an adjective to many other styles, as in industrial techno, industrial metal and so on.
EBM on the other hand was a dance music from it's inception, as an early 80s fusion of electronica with industrial elements (although Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk had coined the term much earlier). It is characterised by chunky, jerky synthesiser parts, over minimally syncopated rock-like programmed drums, rather than the pounding, often funky, dancefloor beats that anchor most electro-industrial music, with distorted or trance-like synths floating on top. Its vocals are usually recorded clean, but often delivered in a declamatory, shouted style.
As I've said, industrial music is a confusing web of interrelated sub-genres, the boundaries between which can be hotly contested. Some claim EBM as a subset of industrial music, but there are hardcore EBM fans who vehemently proclaim it's independence as a parallel genre. To those looking at both scenes from the outside (and I try to look at all scenes that way when I'm writing) this may seem a pretty incomprehensible argument. My personal view of genre is that it is impossible to police its definitive boundaries, and that an excessive concern with it leads to generic (i.e. bland) music, but that it is a very useful shorthand for listeners discussing and comparing music. It is at its most useful when its labels are applied flexibly to musical characteristics, and at its most counter-productive when they are applied rigidly to social or historical groupings (scenes or movements).
Of course it's pointless to pretend that it isn't used in both ways, and it would be impossible to discuss a genre without acknowledging its historical origins, but when a plethora of sub-genres arise, I for one feel it gets a bit silly if there is no clear musical distinction, or if they need a whole string of adjectives (as in 'misanthropic technical death grind', to pluck an example from the ether). However, it’s really only in terms of genre that one can have a meaningful discussion about a release of this nature.
This compilation includes tracks from artists that are clearly EBM, such as Spetsnaz, from artists that might be said to straddle the boundaries of the genre, like Leæther Strip, from artists that aren't usually EBM but sound like it in this case (Nachtmahr), and also tracks that don't sound like EBM, and are from artists that aren't associated with EBM, such as ASCII.Disco’s ‘Jawbreaker’. So what is it, if anything, that ties all this together?
Well, to be honest, this album covers mainly the same ground as the Endzeit Bunkertracks series, but the weighting has changed: there is no power noise, and there is a lot more EBM, unsurprisingly; most other electro-industrial genres are represented, but there is less of the harsh end of the spectrum, less aggrotech, and more futurepop (which is a very closely related genre to EBM). It certainly sounds (particularly to ears unused to industrial music) very much of a piece: the combination of genres does not jar. There are very few of the ludicrously explicit lyrics that are common in electro-industrial music, although Uberbyte and Noisuf-X deserve an honourable mention in this regard, for ‘Money Shot’ (‘tongue fucking/ asshole licking/ cyber cyber cyber/ whore/ anal douching/ lesbian/ POV/ cock cock cock cock/ pussy cock/ pussy pussy cock/ pussy cock/ pussy cock/ money money money shot’) and ‘Fucking Invective’ (‘shit/ fuck/ bitch/ suck it quick’) respectively.
The EBM acts featured here range from some of the genre’s founders, Nitzer Ebb (with a remix of a track from their recent ‘Industrial Complex’ album, which is my favourite of theirs, although the EBM purists will be horrified to hear me say it) and Front 242 (so important to the genre that International EBM Day is celebrated on 24/2 every year), to the merely ten year old Spetsnaz, and recent upstarts like Agrezzior, whose excellent ‘Shout’ is archetypal headbanging, shouty EBM.
Studio X contribute a tune called ‘Body Music’, whose refrain is ‘electro/ body/ music’, but confusingly, it’s not EBM: it’s industrial techno, or hard trance (you choose). Nachtmahr, an industrial techno act, are represented by a tune called ‘Mädchen In Uniform’, which sounds very EBM: I have to concur with the singer’s appreciation of girls in uniform, but I can’t work out why he sounds so angry about it.
The download card provides a few gems: ‘The Final Destruction (Ionic Vision mix)’ from Red Industrie feat. Sara Noxx takes a mid-tempo route to a laconically ominous mood that I enjoyed a great deal. Virgins O.R. Pigeons’ tune ‘Born In Sin (De_Tot_Cor mix)’ has been doing the rounds of the compilations for a while, but it’s a favourite tune of mine, and it’s nice to hear it included here. It’s strange to find Unter Null curated as EBM, but anything Erica Dunham does is fantastic in my book (including her bacon flavoured confectionery), so I was pleased to find ‘Broken Heart Cliché (Kant Kino mix)’ included for those who have’t got all the remixes already; it’s followed up with the lovely ‘Miles From Here’, also an Erica Dunham tune, released under the name of Stray.
There are one hundred and twelve tracks here if you include the downloads, so it would be pointless for me to attempt to give more than a random sampling any individual attention. The question I need to answer is, is this collection worth the relatively large number of spondoolies you’ll be asked to swap for it?
For strangers to industrial music, it’s a fantastic introduction. It gives some sense of the diversity of the style, but it avoids the most abrasively harsh material, which can be offputting to unhabituated ears. It presents a real opportunity to explore, by including a lot of material in its own right, which will take quite some time to absorb, and by offering an introduction to a huge range of acts for further investigation. It should be noted, however, that some very important acts are not represented here, and you should never take a compilation from a label with its own roster of artists as representative of a genre: it’s fair enough, they have records to sell.
For DJs it’s a superb resource: as with Endzeit Bunkertracks you can expect a lot of tunes to become ubiquitous pretty quickly, and you will need to be wary of sourcing too much of your sets from this, because there’s a certain interchangeability among the (particularly internet radio) DJs who use the best known industrial compilations. There are a lot of excellent tunes here: I can’t recall any duds, so that’s 112 excellent tunes, but obviously they’re not all going to be right for every set. You certainly can’t pull them out at random and expect to end up with an EBM set, because as I’ve said, there’s a lot in here that isn’t.
I’m not special enough to get review copies from big shot labels like Alfa Matrix, so I shelled out for this, and I turned out to have fourteen of these tracks already (in the mixes included), but am I feeling ripped off? No way! I’m not likely to listen to this as a complete album very much, but it’s added a rich seam of creative, crunchy industrial goodness to my music library, and I’m very happy with it.

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