Saturday, September 03, 2005

Going Underground

At the turn of the millennium, dance music was pronounced dead by its industry and music hacks alike. Dance music in terms of techno and house became stagnant, victim to its own hype in a bland corporate rave process, as the industry waited for a ‘next big thing’ that never happened. Clubs such as the Kitchen, the Tivoli and the Temple Theatre all closed in the wake of this decline and labels internationally, particularly independent ones, struggled as record and CD sales fell down by 25%.

Profit driven club owners and the major promoters in Ireland laid their foundations on bringing in the ‘Superstar DJs’ from abroad, for ludicrous fees and subsequent admission prices, instead of developing the profile of the wealth of great talent emerging from the burgeoning electronic music scene at home. Fixated on new crazes and trends, rather than what is good and innovating, it was no surprise these clubs imploded once the fickle mainstream grew bored of progressive house and discovered the new rock revolution.

Despite the obituaries, techno didn’t die. Impervious to the rise and fall of dance culture and its cult of the superstar DJ, techno remained a constant heartbeat in the real underground. It’s kept alive by dedicated vinyl junkies who prop up the counters of record stores, people in dark recording studios who have day jobs and don’t believe in selling their work as a target-marketed package, and promoters who run nights such as Electric City and Model One. Back to the underground, back to the people who care. The most interesting music was always coming from the peripheries and the past few years have seen a deluge of exciting releases from Dublin’s thriving electronic scene and from home-grown labels such as D1 Records, Frontend Synthetics and U:Mack.

Prolific producer Donnacha Costello has been doing his minimal thing on his own label Minimise and D1 Records for years now, as well as releasing his debut album, Growing Up in Public, on German label Force Inc. Minimal and experiment are key, like on his internationally acclaimed Color Series. David Donoghue covers similar territory and his 2001 debut album on D1, First Course in Hygiene, was heralded by the Sunday Times as “the development the Irish music scene has been waiting for”.

But it’s been Decal, aka Alan O’Boyle Dennis McNulty, who have been central to the progression of electronic music in Ireland. Their debut album Ultramack 004 released in 1994 caught the attention of Andy Weatherall, legendary pioneer of the international dance scene, whilst their 2002 album 404 Not Found, hailed as a landmark album, was released on Mike Paradinas’ label Planet Mu. Versatile and adventurous, Decal (now ex-McNulty) throw different electronic styles into their sets and production, swapping minimal techno beats for an ambient sonic soundscape and then back again. Their sound has inspired daring and exciting releases from a number of knob-switchers and laptop performers such as Phil Kieran, Ambulance, Herv, Americhord, Spectac and Chymera.

This has created the basis for a vibrant club scene, buoyed by the selfless efforts of small time promoters who invest enormous energy into running nights that yield very little, if any, financial return, whose only reward is personal satisfaction and seeing others having a good time. Model One, hosted by D1 Recordings, and Electric City have established themselves as techno’s mainstay nights in the city, while Undercurrent presents live and inventive musical stylings. The introduction of the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) is further evidence of the indigenous electronic music scene’s mounting confidence, providing a platform for Irish artists and DJ’s and a networking opportunity for the Irish and international electronic scenes. Raves are also making a very welcome return to our countrysides.

Electronic music culture started growing with minimal means and independent from studios and investors, taking place mainly in the underground culture until its commercial heyday at the end of the previous millennium, before returning underground again. It has survived because it’s proponents are dynamic and innovative, unlike the hair-saloned chancers with guitars who are leading the so-called rock revolution, regurgitating stateside punk from the seventies and new wave from the eighties. Yawn.

This techno culture has led to a renewed interest in instrumental electronic music that is not necessarily to be played in a club or concert hall. An example of this was BLIND, an audio visual platform of DEAF, including VJ performances, screenings, exhibitions, workshops and multi-media events. Such explorations of the relationship between sound, image and space are infrequent in Ireland unfortunately, though the audio-related arts are at a peak right now on the continent.

During my Erasmus year in Amsterdam, I saw Andreas Otto and Florian Grote from the German Pinipung label turning the Melkweg venue into an enormous sonic installation, making the room literally pulsate, as well as seeing Speedy J and Richard Devine play music composed in Surround Sound 5.1 format, consisting of a 5 speaker alignment around the listener and a sub-woofer for bass sound effects.

Along with the broadening of the electronic music world, personal computer technology is developing at a dazzling speed. For little money if not for free, via open source or even through illegal copying, one can get any kind of hardware and software, such as Traktor and Reaktor. With the technology now readily available, the quality of the material can compete with that of the professional studio, so the opportunities for self-expression have never been greater. Music production is now possible without the mountains of hardware most of us couldn’t afford.

The topic of downloading is now a hot topic and a new business model is taking shape. Artists can now exhibit and sell their work online, bypassing the huge production and promotional costs of releasing their records on vinyl or cd’s. Websites such as host a wealth of Irish electronic music and provide a pad for producers and DJ’s to showcase their talents.

Electronic music in 2005 is in a ruddy good state, but has a long way to go before realising any pretensions of those who once said that Dublin had the potential to become known as a city of electronic music. With a greater emphasis than ever on promoting both emerging and seasoned artists, and with the upcoming DEAF to showcase their talents, perhaps 2006 will be the year they become the successful exponents of Dublin’s thriving production scene and receive the international acclaim they deserve. Bring it on!

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Very nice article Cogsy. But very bloody optimistic when it comes to the state of the Dublin electronic scene. Just from the few gigs I get to, fuck all people seem to show up for the edgier stuff. I mean sure Electric City has a crowd of regulars, but beyond that I'd be a little bit suspect about how healthy things are.
To be fair, I do write in the article that there isn't enough of a crossover of music and visual art in Dublin. In the Netherlands, it's common enough to read in your local newspaper about audio artists breaking through in the museum world. Maybe it's happening too in Dublin, but if it is, it's getting fuck all coverage.

You mention the no-one pays attention to the "edgier artists". I disagree. Of the experi-mentalists mentioned in the article, I've seen Decal, Ambulance, Booger and Herv live, all drawing a very decent sized crowd. Go to any FrontEnd Synthetic night during the year and there's always a pretty good attendance.

Concerning Electric City, that's always going to draw a bigger crowd because of the calibre of international artists they attract and the faster BPM's (though i've been reading on IE-dance that crowds are down since they've re-located to Traffic. Jeez, wonder why?).

I think the scene is in a pretty healthy state at the moment. The DIY modus operandi flourishes and techno isn't the dirty word it was a few years ago. It would be great to see more international labels signing Irish artists and distributing their material. Unfortunately though, everyone is pretty wrapped up with Germany at the moment and the minimal techno and click haus scene's it is synomonous with. It's a real pity that during my period of exile in the Netherlands that only one Irish DJ played there. And that was Donnacha Costello churning out, surprise surprise, minimal techno.
I don't know what you'd consider a "fair size" crowd, but most events I've been to there's never been more than 80 when it's just been Irish acts. Saying that Chevron is on Planet Mu, which has something of a pretentious aura about it which should gaurantee a crowd, HERV supported, it was less than a tenner in and only about 40-50 people. Crazy. Last time I was at a Bassbin event, it seemed to have disappeared up its arsehole in a venue the size of an average club toilet. Perhaps its worth making a difference between a healthy scene and a sustainable scene. A healthy scene can grow and pull in new audiences, while a sustainable one can keep itself ticking over while do some creative experiementation.
Oh and by the way, I didn't say "no one pays attention" to edgier artists. Everyone knows who HERV, Decal etc are, they've been covered quite often in Hot Press and other such muck, cheered on as champions of the Dublin scene. But its really only at Showcase events like DEAF that a crowd emerges to support them. Part of this is due to the small nature of scenes, and the fact that there really is difficulty getting word out about gigs if you are outside the major promotional matrix. Some like U:M can do it. But jesus, they once put on The Bug, Plaid, Shellac etc in one night. Holy fuck. Crazy line up, bound to be packed.
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