Notes on: Neroche

I know of no other contemporary artist capable of so rapidly churning out such a vast quantity of jaw-droppingly unique (but all equally moreish) trip hop tunes. Blending samples that when picked apart subtly suggest notions and eras as seemingly disparate as gangsta, the wild west, parisian grayscale, fragmented jazz-age ruminations (and some indeterminate melancho-fantasy world inhabited by archaic-verging-on-mythical, darkly authoritive speakers), this guy is way up there with the most potent artists of the aural surreal. Not to mention, unlike many of trip-hop’s contemporary descendents (e.g. FKA Twigs) who hold aspects of the genre amidst a melting pot of others, his sound is as wholly identifiable as part of this category.

There is not a single track from any album I’d skip – even those that don’t make you feel like the human manifestation of ‘cool’ itself still evoke a majestic melancholia of sorts that can be as utterly enthralling or as uninvasive as your mindset requires.

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Ophthalmic Sympathy: Why trip-hop is the eminent aural suitor of visual arts.

At the dawn of the 1990’s, Bristol amalgamated everything it knew about electronica, ambient, dub, house, soul, shoegaze and psychadelia (to name but a few influences) and answered to the US’s gangsta rap scene. The result was something which dealt in subdued, tonal surreality as opposed to observations of reality, was more passively menacing than overtly aggressive, and more broodingly sensual in tone than explicitly sexual in content. Some may argue this emotionally ambivalent response to hip hop was only befitting of a country in which poverty is never quite allowed to slip into ghetto standards.

That’s not to say that trip-hop is apolitical. For example, in Tricky’s ‘Valentine'[1], one can sense a suppressed antipathy as his abstract sprechgesang husks a kitchen sink realist take on Chet Baker’s traditional notions of romance – ‘My Valentine, take me away, Council flats make me blind, I try but these towers so grey, Nowhere for my children to play’ [1]. However, perhaps more progressive is his image. Tricky’s album art and publicity photos tend to favour mugshots in which he appears confused or emotional as opposed to threatening or ‘cool’ – in the case of A Ruff Guide, he even dons makeup in utter rejection of hip-hop’s braggadocio notions of masculinity. Indeed, trip-hop floats free from vocalist’s self-referential assertions of identity (one can only chortle at the prospect of Massive Attack’s 3D and Daddy-G promoting their names in the opening beats of ‘Teardrop’[2]), with many artists opting for different guest vocals on each track.

Due to this de-emphasis on artist persona, trip-hop artists have seized the opportunity to fill the visual void with imagery and even fictions over which they’ve endlessly more control than their physical appearance. When one thinks of U.N.K.L.E, it’s not the faces of James Lavelle and Tim Goldsworthy that spring to mind, but more likely the iconic cinematic endeavours of acclaimed directors John Hillcoat [3] or Johnathan Glazer [4] that not only accompany the music but, in the case of ‘The Answer’ [3], preside over it, with dialogue taking the foreground (also true of Toby Dye’s video for Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’[5]).

With the likes of Portishead’s George Barrow working on a Judge Dredd inspired album [6] and Neroche lacing his tracks with obscure film dialogue [7], it’s clear that trip-hop artists are inviting of and inspired by visual artists. But why is it that the most renowned music video directors’ portfolios feature such a disproportionate level of material made for this genre? My best guess is a simple one; it’s cool, and it lends itself to the spectacle of motion exceptionally well. The ‘cool’ can be attributed in part to the break beats and faintly retained links to the ‘cool’ of gangsta, but its lack of ostensible ties to a specific subculture make trip-hop more applicable to an endless variety of settings. As for the motion, that perhaps has something to do with the genre’s penchant for prowling bass and lo-fi, heavily tape-saturated drums doused in reverb; the results are beats that pulsate, creep and swoop in a manner that somehow sounds kinetic.

Trip-hop at its best also goes along way towards creating a sense of suspense, be it menacing or emotional – especially when combined with hypnotic sampling and moody, atmospheric synths. Tracks have a tendency to retain the same down-tempo throughout, but, to the same effect as a film score, build layers into an emotional crash which lends itself beautifully to narrative peaks. A function that trip-hop scores offer filmmakers that traditional orchestral/piano scores cannot is the inherent ability to contextualise an image in the current technological age or beyond, simply due to its overtly electronic sound – something Chris Cunningham must have been acutely aware of when directing Bjork’s ‘All is Full of Love’ video [8], for which the track was vastly ‘trip-hopped-up’ from the original version.

However, music video directors and visual artists are not alone in noticing how these elements compliment visuals. In recent years, the once alternative genre has faced mainstream assimilation in no small way. As well as trip-hops influence on modern espionage, action or futuristic cinema (a notable example being Havasi Balazs’s ‘Clubbed to Death’ [9] in The Matrix) and video games such as Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill soundtrack [10], it has also crept into popular television, with ’Teardrop’ [2] colouring the opening credits of House M.D. and trip-hop influenced Alabama 3 opening The Sopranos [11]. Furthermore, much to the confusion of many who follow Massive Attack’s political endeavours [12], their singles are perhaps some of the most prolifically used liscenced music in the advertising world.

It’s no wonder, then, given that some of the most distinctive aural motifs of the genre are now synonymous with various car [13], perfume [14] and clothing [15] adverts (not to mention a plethora of arguably sub-par Spy movies), that there exists speculation as to whether the trip-hop is still alive and kicking, let alone the ‘alt’ force it once was.

There’s certainly argument for the genre having become less distinctive. In fact, many would argue that drawing distinctions between electronic genres has never felt more like picking atoms from sand. One could be forgiven for weeping into Music For Airports, mourning simpler times after a glance at the ocean of youtube playlists concisely and elucidatingly entitled something akin to:’AMBIENT/TRIPHOP/ELECTRONIC/CHILLWAVE/PSYBIENT/ILLBIENT/CHILLSTEP/DOWNTEMPO MIX 2014!!!’.

However, though trip-hop may be only one of many genres under which they are listed, one need only look to the likes of post-2000 artists such as Bonobo, Boards of Canada, Gorillaz or FKA Twigs to see that the genre not only endures, but is more bound to the visual realm than ever. Kitty Empire summates that FKA Twigs ‘…introduced herself as less a new girl singer than a series of fascinating visual and auditory manipulations; a work of art’ [16] and indeed, it’s arguable that the ‘trip’ factor and positive alternative reception of FKA Twigs is somewhat contingent on her visuals. Similarly, Gorillaz’s Jamie Hewlett created such a meticulous virtual fiction that the music has become inseparable from the visage of its virtual band members.

Furthermore, when we consider how the likes of DJ Shadow and visual artist Ben Stokes have forged cohesion of sound and vision that ‘…grew into a single symbiotic entity’ [17], we begin to see the formation of a new, all-inclusive medium. After all, it was but a year ago that United Visual Artists saw the collaboration of Filmmaker Adam Curtis and Massive Attack in an immersive, politically charged fusion of a gig and a film that was attributed to each artist equally and thus described as a ‘gilm’[18].
Though it may no longer sit so distinctly and iconically upon the throne of ‘alt’ as it once did, its contradictory concoction of simultaneously menacing and sensual tones continues to pervade not only neighbouring genres, but fuse with entirely different mediums. If hip-hop’s hypnotic half-sibling is dead, it went out like a sandwood tree capsule, and it would seem that its legacy mesmerises not just our ears, but equally, our eyes.
[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VIqmIMcXrQ
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7K72X4eo_s
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yeEEH_h2RE
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNWFHpPu1qs
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F9pydomWOE
[6] http://www.nme.com/news/portishead/62558
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qvChPUNVbE
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjAoBKagWQA
[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFS4zYWxzNA
[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPjuuVOGqxI
[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW3LikcBL68
[12] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/massive-attack-makes-gaza-statement-using-headline-stage-at-longitude-festival-9622836.html
[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwlzyMrmtzU
[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KwHd1GZkoY
[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3VCfcTpFHk
[16] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/29/fka-twigs-ica-london-review-compelling-ecstatically-filthy
[17] http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/an-in-depth-interview-with-dj-shadow
[18] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/30/massive-attack-adam-curtis-manchester-festival

Unite the Kingdom: Burial and ‘progressive patriotism’.

What google earth undoubtedly spent years and millions trying to document, William Bevan arguably captures in minutes by way of an outdated programme that can be attained for free. And that is: the UK.

Fellow liberal stomachs may churn upon seeing the creator of one of the Guardian-ranked ‘albums of the decade’ [1] associated with the now sullied term ‘patriotism’. However, it only takes a glance at fan-made youtube videos and artwork [2] to ascertain that Burial’s music has inspired a somewhat prolific appreciation for urban UK existence – despite apparent concurrence that it’s a desolate and lonely one.

It would be all too easy to assume a wariness for contemporary UK life given Bevan’s much documented disdain for modern internet usage and seemingly insatiable yearning for the UK rave era that passed him by [3]. Fragmented, drowned out vocal samples such as ‘I walk around, with my head hanging down’ paint the perfect, greyscale picture of technology-saturated postmodern alienation against a backdrop of societal decay; but something increasingly personal about his tracks, such as the inclusion of sounds from his favourite video games, or the clicking of his brother’s lighter, suggest a more complex, realist and ultimately more loving view of contemporary British experience, one in which the most supposedly trivial of working class endeavours can become special and meaningful. What less could be expected from a man deep enough to derive poignancy from Eastenders? [3]

For instance, the tender glow of the ambient track entitled ‘In McDonalds’ shrouds the familiar (for many) act of visiting a fast food chain in the small hours with an almost cinematic, ethereal majesty. Similarly, the mournful ‘Nite Bus’ radiates a sense of imparted nostalgia that urges the listener to celebrate their current era, however humble and non-spectacular their activities, before it zips itself into the unreachable past.

Suppose we were granted national omniscience for a moment. It isn’t too difficult to imagine that after experiencing every instance of injustice, depravity and banality, alongside the countless instances of love and joy that somehow manage to endure in spite of it all, what we’d feel is something akin to the ‘downcast euphoria’ [4] his music evokes. His use of the contrary motion technique [5] can be heard as an audible expression of the UK’s duality at any given point – wherever something’s falling or decaying, something positive is rising. It’s an unnervingly uplifting, honest sort of melancholy that many other blooming future garage artists such as Late, Vacant, Nocow, or Volor Flex have (understandably) sought to replicate.

What this contrary sensation beckons is a type of observational patriotism that revels in the real. Patriotism that accepts and welcomes national impermanence; that celebrates the melting pot. Patriotism that looks fondly upon, and withholds judgement of, whatever may exist or be consumed within UK culture, as opposed to the rigid maintenance of some decrepit, exclusive, mythical notion of Britishness in which a sense of spurious superiority is inherent. Who but someone that wholly embraces the integration of the UK’s Indian population could construct a track like 2013’s December release, ‘Come Down To Us’ [6], that falls snow-like into the ears as a euphoric, distinctly Christmassy UK anthem, yet whose core melody is carried by extensive sitar samples and vocals that are pitch-shifted as if to verge on Tarana singing?

Historically, pride in one’s country has been considered a particularly masculine endeavour. As has the creation of, and (though far less exclusively), the consuming of electronic music [7]. But Burial is unafraid to cater to his female audience, acknowledging that ‘blokes might be like, “what the fuck is this?”, but hopefully their girlfriends will like it’ [3]. He creates a sound that transcends gender dichotomies, if not through an unashamed emphasis on emotion then through an embrace of gender ambiguity. As well as his recent extensive sampling of transgender director Lana Wachowski’s HRC acceptance speech [8], he often employs the down-pitching of female vocals/pitching-up of male vocals (perhaps best exemplified in the Beyonce sample 00:28 into Untrue [9]).
However, this does not necessarily situate his music is female-orientated, but rather egalitarian. Another of his vocal samples attempts to evoke compassion for a man who has presumably committed heinous crimes. The Southern Londoner woman’s seemingly defensive plea in Etched Headplate – ‘he’s not setting out to hurt people, he’s got a lot of love in him, for his friends, his family, his girlfriend…he actually often wants to do the right thing’ is nothing if not an empathetic recognition of moral dualism.

In light of the hopeful, ‘anti-bullying’ [10] tone of his latest EP Rival Dealer it’s acceptable to presume that Bevan is becoming more open. In a brave bail on his much-hailed jungle beats, Come Down To Us’s more ballad like structure focused not only on Lana Wachowski’s HRC acceptance speech but was also subtly interlaced with an interview from NASA scientist Melissa Dawson, and in doing so calmly raises a middle finger to any fallacious claim that dance music is unintelligent or nihilistic.

The album was also followed by an official denunciation of his anonymity as a means of thanking his audience, notably by way of a note and voluntarily internet-erected selfie [11]. This could be considered a negative act in terms of his progressiveness, in that anonymity entails a displacement from notions of class, gender, race and age that permits anybody to identify with the artist based on their music alone.

However, for someone who previously displayed shyness and reluctance regarding internet exposure [3], the choice of a bog-standard ‘selfie’ is not only endearing but arguably shows not only a growing trust for his audience and a down-to-earthness (matched by his grammatically erroneous typing and casual talk of Dark Souls 2 [11]) that could easily have been pretention instead had he opted to reveal himself via a moody photoshoot. It’s also in line with the themes of coming to terms with one’s identity that riddled Rival Dealer.
Though Bevan emphasises the ‘UK’ aspect of his garage/jungle/rave/techno influences, it’s of course absurd to infer that his music is solely influenced by, applicable to or enjoyed only by the UK. Indeed, his samples are derived from cultural artefacts of various supposed calibre from all around the globe, from Japanese composer Motoi Sakuraba’s Dark Souls soundtrack to Texan Terrence Malick’s critically acclaimed experimental drama. It’s only befitting of a time and place, particularly a small island, to which international culture is more accessible than ever. But there’s something that makes the cracked asphalt and dew-ridden wheely-bins around me twinkle with a majestic familiarity, and makes even my anti-nationalist chest swell with euphoric belonging when this pioneer of dark garage signs off with ‘Big shout out to the UK and everywhere else’ [11]. Though he doesn’t mean to imply any superiority, and I take none from it… I think it’s pride I feel when this emotive beat-god mentions us first.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2009/nov/23/burial-untrue
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBlKpshuIA8
[3] http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/burial_unedited-transcript
[4] http://www.piccadillyrecords.com/products/Burial-Untrue-Hyperdub-51991.html
[5] http://www.attackmagazine.com/technique/passing-notes/contrary-motion/
[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1bb2JakOmo
[7] http://sonicbloom.net/en/why-not-more-women-make-electronic-music-and-how-this-could-change/
[8] http://www.whosampled.com/sample/302874/Burial-Come-Down-to-Us-Human-Rights-Campaign-Lana-Wachowski-Receives-the-HRC-Visibility-Award/
[9] http://www.whosampled.com/sample/27040/Burial-Untrue-Beyonc%C3%A9-Resentment/
[10] http://www.factmag.com/2013/12/14/burial-opens-up-a-little-about-new-ep-rival-dealer/
[11] http://www.hyperdub.net/burial/