A last dance with tech-house: playlist
Ever since rave became mainstream, I've been in a melancholy mood. I listen to Romy'slatest album, exhilarated by its candor and simplicity of feeling. Whether caught up in her balletic babblings or hanging on her crystal-clear revelations, electronic music speaks to me of feelings, and I like it that way.
My return to commercial music began on the day of the open-air festival organized by the Électros de Quiberon, a small festival in Brittany which had seduced us with the idea of dancing on the beach at the Sables Blancs campsite.
With the wind in our sails and pedals, we reach the campsite. The water is low for several kilometers, with passers-by only able to immerse themselves above the ankles. They pass over a stage that glistens like fish scales. The sky is slightly overcast, and the pine trees and camper vans add a wildly poetic touch to the scene.
The bass from the loudspeakers starts to sound, but it's not Funktion One and we'll have to get closer. A few campers and a couple of random people are sitting at the tables of the "Ty snack", encircled by pine trees. The spot is almost empty.
It's Man-R at the turntables, and I have the impression that this obvious and immediate tech-house doesn't necessarily fit in with the time when we're eating chips. It's time for a breath of fresh air, a refreshing drink or a cool newspaper for people on vacation who, I imagine, wouldn't mind something a little calmer.
Today, I have a great deal of trouble with tech-house, the most popular genre of mainstream electronic music.
Tech-house really came into its own between Ibiza and Berlin in the 2010s, and at that time it was my main gateway to electronic music. It was also associated with other more underground sub-genres, notably minimal.
Although dominated by the same group of white guys, it stood in stark contrast to commercial house music, which was enjoying a big boom with David Guetta and co. A few miles away on the same island, the Amnesia club invited Sven Väth, father of the father and former owner of Frankfurt's Omen, to bring in DJs from his Cocoon Recordings label. Without going so far as to speak of an underground vs. mainstream opposition between the Pacha and Ibiza (Cocoon parties were only held one day a week), it seems that Sven Väth was participating at the time in the development of a scene that flirted with both popular and underground club culture.
Ricardo Villalobos, What you Say Is More That I Can Say, Alcachofa, Playhouse, 2003
At the time, one of the hallmarks of tech-house was the introduction of autotuned or filtered vocals, trailing off as if they were interminable complaints. It's as if only the metronomy of rhythm could provide a way out, as in this piece1 by Ricardo Villalobos, member of Cocoon Recordings.
While overwhelming us with melancholy lyrics, tech-house is a mise en abîme of the environment around the party. In "What You Say Is More Than I Can Say", the thumping, muffled bass makes us stand back, as if we were just a few yards from the club door, provoking a desire to get in, but also the apprehension of not getting in. Above all, the filter applied to the percussive elements isolates the lament:
The self-reflecting electronic music is the first new element. What's more, the "narcissus effect" is amplified by the lyrics, which refer solely to the subject.
In techno's later vocal moments, which date from the 1990s, these are regularly emancipatory lyrics, having to do with the collective or at least the enjoyment procured by music and communion through dance. One example is the funky sample of Motown group Cuba Gooding's "Happiness Is Just Around The Bend" in the rave track "Aftermath"from Nightmares on Wax (1990), the uplifting gimmick of the trance-like "The Spirit Makes You Move" by Arpegiattors, or the political samples of Jamaican MCs in " Radio Babylon "from Meat Beat Manifesto.
With no desire to change the world, tech-house's appeal lies in its novel depiction of the romantic, doomed DJ. It's the return of the rock-star who fascinates us, who makes us dance while trying to make us flinch.
Basti Grub & Komaton, "Sick" Cocoon Compilation J, Cocoon Recordings, 2010
With too much navel-gazing, the techno party is rehashing its demons and sinking into depression.
In Basti Grub and Komaton's "Sick", the minor key and fragmented voice that dissolve at the drop, a moment that is supposed to be uplifting, seem to speak of the impossibility of clearing one's head even in a salvific scenario.
It's also at the moment of the drop that the controlled skids of the kick that invariably punctuate the bass on the high beats of the bar start to bounce like dough all around the beats, resulting in a rumbling groove. It flirts dangerously with Paul Kalkbrenner's glamorization of the drug-addicted DJ, this groove at least gives us a way out towards something more round than these cold pseudo psychic frills.
DJ T featuring Nick Maurer, "Burning", Get Physical, 2011
Still in Germany, the Get Physical label is making a name for itself with its "Full Body Workout" compilations, a program that pretty much sums up the mentality of the genre: surpassing oneself, accompanied by an obligation to be productive. And yet, in 2011, DJ T is at the helm of what is perhaps one of the genre's finest achievements, all about imbalance. The keyboard triplet stretches out before moving on, its bouncy claps giving us the prospect of flight, brought down to speed by cavernous bass. It's as if every element of rhythm and melody has been ripened by effects to give it juice and mellowness. Sweet fruit ready to be plucked from the tree, with an addictive taste.
Something has happened
Something that I can not explain
Burning on the inside
Burning while standing in the rain
The track takes us straight to burn-out. Typically, this happens without our noticing him, too absorbed by his enticing vocals and funky timbre.
Art Department, "Without You", Crosstown Rebels, 2011
On the Anglo-Saxon side, hyper-prolific Canadian duo Art Department also seem intent on echoing the club experience. Instead of leaving melancholy for later and celebrating a collective mystical impulse, they begin with a short dive into malaise, before freeing us from it with one of their famous vengeful drops. The voice is more natural, and we're in the complacency of the headlong rush enunciated throughout the track.
I just can't
No I just can't
Make it without you
I don't know what to do
You can feel the camaraderie of the early days, not unlike that of Danny Boyle's films, slipping away and the genre dissolving into EDM.2
Benoit and Sergio, Walk and Talk, Vision Quest, 2011
That same year, Franco-American duo Benoit and Sergio released what should perhaps have remained the last piece of tech-house. It's itchy without taking itself too seriously; it's a frisky, sporty sound about the pleasure of living your own life.
My baby does K all day
She doesn't wash her hair
Doesn't wash her clothes
Just sits on the couch and watches television show
My baby does K all day
Released on German label Vision Quest, the track may owe its comic aura to Tobias Freud, who is in charge of the mixing. Member of the techno-experimental duo Atom ™ & Tobias known for his experimental live performances.
As long as its sex + depression combo survived and managed to produce groove, tech-house had a chance of proliferating among its audience of white males. After 2011, the scene diluted, its most interesting iterations moving to the indie pop or disco side (see Pillow Talk's "Strange Love" in 2012, or Kasper Bjorke's remix of the same band's "Deep is Breath").
Three explanations for this dilution:
1 - Without opening up to other genres (pop, experimental or funk), tech-house retreats into itself, and while specific iterations can bring an immersive and sensual internal point of view, the genre repeats itself and loses itself in its reflection.
2 - The problem is that electro has become a lifestyle in the same way as yoga. Like the frat-boys who live by status, the masses accept it for the place and opportunity it gives them in society, but not necessarily to assert their adherence to a culture or break out of a social or psychological straitjacket.
Electronic music has well and truly become a brand, and it has to meet two main objectives: to make people dance and stay, and a third bonus: to photograph them in order to present tangible results for marketing and profitability purposes.
Or, as "CuddleFishMusic" would say on a Reddit conversation from three months ago, responding to question "Can someone explain to me how Gen Z fell in love with tech house?"
- "Social media is the answer to your questions. Tech house is easily digestible to the masses, can rework practically any pop song, and fits the "frat boy" lifestyle pretty well".
When I saw Man-R and Wally's sets at the Électros de Quiberon, I felt more like an itchy bug because of the over-presence of hi-hats and their constant freneticism. Synth chords provide the melody as if to apologize for the inadequacy of the rhythm, which, if it were more interesting, could be the only common thread.
3 - It's as if the tech-house model were inflexible and had to contain us all within its pre-defined rhythms in a haphazard, or "randomized", way of speaking in production software to create a beat at random. "Randomization" is a term used perhaps more widely in medicine to define a test that studies the effects of a treatment on a group of people with the aim of comparing them afterwards. This idea of randomly controlled medical beats to match the biorhythm of the greatest number of people smells straight to the nose. In fact, we keep hearing the same sterile sounds.
So we dance, driven by a motivation about as intense as if we were meeting for soup time. The problem with this autopilot mode into which electro-soup live shows plunge us is that we find ourselves in a sad dilution of the electronic scene in the mainstream. This problem isn't confined to big festivals or club venues, but also to small, fledgling structures such as the Electros de Quiberon, which you'd think would be less dependent on financial returns than a Las Vegas festival.
Sitting opposite us, a couple adopt the right attitude by starting to mime the psytrance vocals that bring movement to this overly dry mix. A group asks if they can sit with us, "It might be fun". They're locals and start talking about island boating, sailing, fishing and partying. They've stashed a Soundboks in the woods a few hundred yards away and warn us that there'll be an after-party.
An overdosed phaser remix of "Only You" drops in just as one of our acolytes shows me videos of schools of dolphins he's photographed in the early morning hours. I now think that the music fits the moment quite well.
Let's face it, it's the vacation, and we're at the campsite. With this band and these spotlights on the pine trees, there's something devilishly adolescent in the air, in the spirit of Danny Boyle.
We started to move closer to the DJ to dance. A younger team wants to trade us poppers for two long sheets.
The music stops an hour before the scheduled end because too many campers have complained (and I can understand them) and the after-party is announced in the woods.
On site, no lights and a whisky and coke base. We set it down on a horizontal trunk beside the speaker. The music starts to get out of hand. We manage to squeeze in Pelada, "No Hay La Solution". The song works well, but otherwise the music we play is considered too soft by the band.
- "That's nice at 2 o'clock when we're all ripped out."
The energy is very high and the sounds they make are like Avicci.... I'm at a loss.
- "Anyway, a rave," one of our acolytes told me, "we just put on some music with some friends".
I had deduced that they don't take themselves seriously. But as we started to leave, frustrated by the sound, the youngest said to me, his voice full of emotion:
- "You're witnessing the beginning of something big".
Well, musical disagreements in electronic music shouldn't hasten its extinction. But let's not forget that rave music is based on communion. The co-existence of the underground and the mainstream may have to exist if the former is not to die out completely.
Please let's keep sending sound into the woods, because at least it's our own systems and not the ones imposed on us. But let's really do it.
- You can listen to this version on YouTube ↩︎
- EDM: "Electronic Dance Music" is the new name for electronic music found in the United States. It is said to have been renamed for its mass distribution. ↩︎
Translated into English by DeepL with TranslatePress