Music News

2006 — The Year the Superstar DJ Died

For nearly a decade, the giants of electronic dance music, a cold-blooded cadre mostly from northern Europe, lumbered across the Earth. Tiesto, Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, Seb Fontaine, Judge Jules, and Fatboy Slim dominated small suburban dance floors and Ibizan caverns alike with crafty disco assembled from chest-rattling bass lines and sampled treasures from earlier civilizations.

Suddenly, in 2006, like dinosaurs shuddering in the freezing contrail of a passing comet, the time of the superstar DJs ended. Today, the big boys are gasping for space as overpaid nightclub hosts, while small, furry mammals named Busdriver, Ellen Alien, and Otto Von Schirach have sprung forth to occupy their musical niche in the ecosystem.

The sad thing — one of the sad things — about the superstar DJs' looming extinction is that they didn't begin with brontosaurus brains. IDM, or "intelligent dance music," is the obviously and deliberately limiting terminology for electronica that isn't stupid. The expression dates back to a description of Coil's 1991 album The Snow, which set the IQ bar pretty high, and the artists who followed in the last decade of the century — The Orb, Autechre, Future Sound of London — kept apace.

By 2000, European electronic dance music evolved into dozens of microgenres from the various species of house music, techno and EBM. Pioneering DJs such as Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim found they could press their popular discs and also attract respectable concert attendance numbers through careful marketing of their riveting live sets, which blended their own compositions with remixes of other artists' tracks. Meanwhile, in the States, dance music factions were essentially limited to house and trance, a situation that continues today.

And why shouldn't it? Americans almost always muck up the nuance in the cultures we import, and dance music has proven no exception. While European DJs cultivated a humbly anonymous aesthetic, Americans reinvented the DJ as turntable-toting rock star. Thus today we enjoy the Crystal Method's relentless efforts to brand their faces on maximum party records such as the cleverly named Tweekend and Legion of Boom, and this year, both the Crystal Method and taggers-along LCD Soundsystem produced 45-minute "workout mixes" in association with Nike.

But it is now clear that the DJ craze is on the wane in the U.S. The huge throngs that once welcomed van Dyk, Carl Cox, and the ubiquitous Oakenfold have dried up, at least in the smaller major cities. Once people in places like Dallas and Atlanta figured out the headliner would show up at 3 a.m., play a 20-minute set and split, it was all over, and from then on, guys like that were forced to retreat to tried-and-true markets such as Miami, New York and San Francisco for hosting duties at superclubs.

And the superstar DJ system never encouraged a farm team system, where beginners could earn their nightclub stripes in small markets and move up to larger ones. That role fell to the DJ music on MySpace and YouTube. But that system is far from perfect, or even viable. How many remixes of Optimo or Bugz in the Attic by kids from the Tulsa suburbs can anyone make it through?

Still, there were some outstanding offerings on the Better SportsWear floor of the dance music department store, and several of those are even from America.

Steve Lawler's Lights Out 3 (as well as the import Viva) reached our shores early in 2006, and the two-disc set featured some of the stalwart British producer's most symphonic work to date.

Trance music pioneer Brian Transeau, better known as BT, has been an amazingly prolific composer for years, and most of the songs he plays are originals, not remixes or compilations. His late-year release This Binary Universe continued the Marylander's exploration into mathematical and philosophical themes with the harmonically named (and sounding) "The Internal Locus" and "The Antikythera Mechanism." Plus BT dedicates the disc to his beloved pet dog, who died last year. All this might seem precious save for BT's long record of sincerity sans New Age ickiness. (BT is on tour right now with another IDM forefather, Thomas Dolby, who dropped his first record in years in December, The Sole Inhabitant, a collection of live performances and new material.)

"Burma," a trickily looped onslaught of deep progressive breaks from Australia's Lostep, lent itself to creative remixing by everyone from Sasha to Galaxy Girl, but the track was great on its own (as was the rest of the duo's cohesive album Because We Can). Perhaps a little outback isolation is just what dance music needs.

Hybrid's I Choose Noise offered a good array of Mike Truman's and Chris Healing's vast collection of regular collaborators, including Peter Hook, Judie Tzuke and Quivver (John Graham). Strangely, the atmospheric, dark tracks on I Choose Noise did not include "Space Manoeuvres Part 3," a Hybrid live set staple and one of the year's best Internet-disseminated singles. This remarkable, haunting number contains an overlay of Kiefer Sutherland (in character from Dark City) speaking the "First there was darkness . . ." lines.

The Knife — Norwegian siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer — made much of their unwillingness to show their faces or become conventional pop stars, but they shook up CMJ with a live performance that is already legend. For all its lyrical anguish, their Silent Shout, on which every track's a lover, came close to the outright synth-pop of Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell.

The Knife robbed the slightly superior Sissy — singer Johanne Williams and audio landscaper David Trusz — of some of the bouquets Sissy's female-fueled reinvention-of-trip-hop album All Under deserved. Why the single "In the Dark" was not a huge crossover hit as well as a dance-floor smash was hard to explain, but All Under's remaining tracks of furious distortion ("Anyone But You" and "Can't Save You") were just as captivating.

And then there's London nightclub-derived label Fabric, which salvaged a pretty bad year for dance music almost by itself. Fabric's voluminous (several discs per month) numbered output, even given duds like the unlistenable Fabric 26 and Fabric 27 records, put forth a strong case that the Londoners are the collectivist label of record for every DJ and remix theorist on the planet. Fabric 29 featuring Tiefschwarz was a hardy techno discovery, and Fabric 24, though a part of today's often overzealous rerelease movement, argued eloquently that the overlooked Rob da Bank deserves a place on jammy/groovy house playlists.

Finally, Christian IDM: Who'd have thought of it? Dark Globe had always evoked a Kayak-ish cult of mysticism around their majestic orchestrations, but with last year's Nostalgia for the Future they picked up the lushness and pace with a Lawlerish turn in tunes. And, quite surprisingly, gave some shouts out to the Lord.

So don't despair. The state of electronica always depends on perception. Any song by Kraak & Smaak, whose Boogie Angst was an inconsistent mix of funk hooks plus bass, is still better than anything Sheryl Crow or Evanescence could come up with. Hearing a track by DJ Shadow on your car satellite radio isn't going to make you pull over and puke the way one by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus will.

And in one last hopeful hurrah for 2006, Tom Ellard, founder of the Severed Heads and perhaps as influential in the genre's genesis as Cabaret Voltaire and John Balance, recently reemerged with a body of new work. His soundtrack and animations grace the Australian Film Commission's The Illustrated Family Doctor, and, slowly but surely, he is posting remixed and remastered Severed Heads classics to YouTube, along with some new compositions. So hang in there, smarty pantses.

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Jean Carey