Punk continues to undergo various post-mortems, most recently in The Filth and the Fury, Julian Temple’s forlorn reminiscence of the Sex Pistols. Temple was inside the movement at its apogee and obviously felt he deserved the last word. Likewise, the editors of Modulations have enlisted old warriors and saints of the music press to bring that same voice of definitive authority to a survey of contemporary electronic dance music.
It’s a handsome publication that would look equally at home on a hipster’s coffee table or a musicologist’s bookshelf. Inside the covers, though, one’s spirits sink. After a few pages of words laid out in trendy multicolored hues, you realize that Modulations is less about history than hagiography. Every record chosen for discussion is a masterpiece, lauded in almost purple prose. The artists are on par with Duchamp — bohemian wunderkinds fighting against the music establishment to realize their pulsing bricolage. Even favored rhythm boxes, samplers and effects generators win countless bouquets, the cherished tools of the artisans. Vive la revolution!
I sympathize with the hyperboles. The music industry is a ruthless machine. It searches out gold mines it can make money on and then, when the vein is tapped, it spits out the slag, right into the faces of the kids who started the whole thing. Youths either get with the program and use this sad process to their advantage or they get run over.
But conspicuous among many is the absence of trance in the chronology. Only a glancing reference to “intelligent techno” is made. But no artists or their work are mentioned in the various discographies. Pray tell, why?
Perhaps the answer lies in a quote from Teo Macero, Miles Davis’ longtime collaborator and producer: “All these electronics are great,” quips the sardonic Macero, “but if you don’t know what the hell to do with them and you’re not a good composer, you might as well send them back.” The old guard speaks with forked tongue, it seems.
Trance is the most advanced form of techno precisely because it requires the most talent to do well. This unfortunate fact runs counter to the democratic mythos of electronic dance music — the DIY movement of punk articulated through cheap, mass-marketed musical instruments by youths of varying degrees of modest musical talent.
The rhetoric of techno focuses on the future and the evolution of sound within an edgy underground setting. As one might expect, Detroit, that great “wasteland of ideas” as Derrick May puts it, emerges as a romantic node of musical and racial miscegenation — a white city left to blacks and then clandestinely reclaimed by the white children of the suburbs after-hours. Not nearly enough of a stink is made about this, especially the volatile racial dimension in the fight for “authenticity” of Detroit techno’s roots. A topic for a book in itself, no doubt.
This is a good start on a project with no end in sight. But perhaps that’s the very reason why works like Modulations will always be gloriously incomplete.
For more about Detroit techno, take a look at "Pitch'd", our biweekly column devoted to Detroit's BPM musiculture.
Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.