I read this thing about early industrial music last night and today I spent a little while thinking about what the “industrial” music of today might sound like. How should it reflect my experience of technology and industry?
Listening to Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire there is a sense that the industry they are taking their cues from is monolithic; it’s loud, mechanized and brutalist. The technology or industry was external to the home, though it squatted in the background there too. People left the home to go work in a factory, on some production line. It was restrictive and controlled by an unseen figure, lending it an atmosphere of dread and fear. It was monotonous, a daily grind.
All this is reflected in the music. Beats were mostly solid and pounding, sticking relentlessly to the grid. Noise and dissonance were important obviously, attacking the ears with the unmusical force of synths and fucked up guitars. Vocals were tortured gasps of tattered human spirit or angry, defensive cries.
Anyway, you get the picture. Dystopian, grey, angry and trapped. The music often became a way to reflect that external, dehumanizing world of industry, overcoming it in some way by using it in a way that the artists controlled.
So I started thinking about what industry is now, where technology is now. I figure, technology is in my pocket. It’s seamless. It doesn’t make noise unless I want it to. So much of my communication is through it. Updates are pushed to my phone when I leave my laptop, the feed never stops. Technology is my work and my leisure, sitting in front of a laptop all day and night unless I consciously break from it. Industry is soft and bright and I am connected to it wirelessly, all the time. That is the reality of industry here, now. Obviously it would be quite different for someone who does work in factory or a sweatshop or wherever. I’ve worked in factories, it’s no fun, but I think it would be fair to say that for Irish and British people, the reality of industry is softer than it was at the end of the 70s. That kind of industry is now mostly in Asia. The office is now perhaps the dominant area of industry in Ireland, certainly urban Ireland. Of course there’s the likes of Dell and Intel, but the tone of those places is kind of different to some Thatcher-ite factory in Birmingham. Maybe I’m wrong in that though.
What I’m getting at though is that, to use the sounds of first-wave industrial music here, now, would surely be a misstep? It would be a solely aesthetic imitation, stripped of the socially-resonant power of its forebears. It would be to rob the word industry of its real world meaning in favour of an aesthetic one. The question then is what should (or does) industrial/technological music sound like now? I started casting around for examples and Mark Fell popped to mind, especially his recent work as Sensate Focus and his newest solo record. Here we have music that is very obviously a product of modern technologies and music that is also warm at times, able to trigger pleasure when it desires.
The production on the Sensate Focus records so far has been dark and slightly off-kilter, like mechanized loops gone wrong. But the tone is almost warm; it keeps sucking you back in with some chord that repeats a thousand times or a vocal sample, the standard (de)humanisation element in modern electronic music. There’s a balance between the obviousness of the technology at work, which we often find alienating, and the hints of familiar tropes which hit our brains like old memories. The drama and frustration of this divide is drawn out and heightened, delaying the desired chord change/beat/drop which Fell is way too canny to ever give in to.
I’m not really sure yet why this feels like modern industrial music to me but hopefully I’ll figure out what I’m thinking. I guess it comes down to the way I interface with modern technology, where so much of the things I like, love and hate are all to be found in one place. My work is online, my friends are online and my music is online. I’m regularly disgusted by what I see within the confines of my laptop/phone screen, but I also tell people I love them there. It’s all in one place, every extreme and in-between. I shit where I eat and chances are someone else is watching all the time, or at least I’ll feel like they are. What kind of sound will reflect that? What kind of sound will help me come to terms with that and to reclaim some sense of control over that?