There’s a lot to be said for the impasse that some audience members must face when presented gleefully with something that communicates with them in a language they have learned to be repulsed by. It is a joyfully perverse exercise, and one shared by almost all of my favourite cultural entities — Throbbing Gristle being the original blueprint and remaining a case in point.
This week I’ve been spending a lot of time with rkss’ new record on UIQ, DJ Tools, and it is a record that has helped me immeasurably in articulating a previously un(der)expressed position of subjective resonance and dissonance that I find myself both living with and listening out for.
DJ Tools is a familiar but vague feeling distilled into a mighty fine and potent brew — and I’m drinking deep.
Before I begin telling you about this, a huge shout out, as ever, must go to the magnificent Ollie Zhang — their recent interview with rkss (aka Robin Buckley) for The Quietus is a joy to read and it has only made me fall in love with this record faster and harder. I’ll be drawing on their interview a fair bit in this post. I really recommend reading it in its entirety. You should check out Mollie’s other writings and also their music.
What follows here are some thoughts and feels written down whilst listening to DJ Tools incessantly, on repeat, over the last few days since I got back to London — for an album that is only thirty minutes in length, it’s dangerously easy to get lost in.
This post isn’t really a review… I just like this record a lot and it’s sent my mind spinning. This is an attempt to catch some of what fell out of it as a result.
If there was ever a record in danger of being unhelpfully labelled as “deconstructive dance music”, it is this one.
This is a hazard that comes both with the territory it occupies and, particularly, its presentation. Because, on paper, the approach Robin Buckley is taking here is, fundamentally, deconstructive — taking a palette of sounds, ‘EDM Kicks Vol. 1’, and using them in a way that is counterintuitive to the meaning these aural signs and signifiers are usually intended to impart.
However, whilst that is certainly happening here, it would be a mistake to arrive at and then rest on this knowledge. This record is doing much more besides. In fact, those who throw the term “deconstruction” around unhelpfully might learn a lot from immersing themselves in this album as it demonstrates a resurrection of the term from its current position as meaningless press kit cul-de-sac, recuperating it as a productive mode of aural apperception.
The album begins with a pounding, if slightly lethargic, hardstyle banger. Immediately, I am mentally picturing pixelated kids on patios, twisting between jumpstyle and shuffle, albeit at a BPM that jars with but also emphasises their usual fluidity.
Their blurred bodies are made more abstract still, and all the more hypnotic, by the violence of mid-00s digital compression.
[Recommend playing the above video back at 0.25]
Then, just as I’m starting to get into it, moving past this initial accosting, the tempo starts to slow, getting slower and slower still, until it freezes in shimmering stasis.
The bodies in my head slow down too, until I find my mental image settling upon a glacial DeepDream caricature of where it started. Those uncanny moonwalk shuffles seem to be inverted, or at least mutated, into stuttered buffering, broken GIFs, existing in an “uncanny valley” that is between the angular movements of a Boston Dynamics robot and what a human body can actually do.
Neither metal nor meat, these are sounds for mediated quantum bodies. So much can change when you remove just one line of the code.
Thirty minutes later, on the record’s ninth track, we find ourselves in now familiar territory. The layered vistas of ambience that eased us into the jagged mutations to follow are here again to escort us back up towards the surface. However, this is not a controlled ascent back to that which is known. The album’s arced nature is integral to its deconstructive form. It has a dynamic of submersion and surfacing within something so much bigger than itself. It is like a soundtrack to an underwater rave where everyone has got the bends.
In this way I’m reminded again of what Robin Mackay said to me in an email from a few months ago which I keep on returning to:
What always stuck with me about my initial experiences of jungle was that it was truly a transcendental = traumatic experience i.e. I could actually experience the sensation of my “faculties” desperately attempting to piece together the complexity of something that therefore, in a sense, never “happened” or was never “present” because I couldn’t yet manage to process it in real time. […] I think for CCRU this was precisely the role that jungle played: the site of a kind of leverage, producing a compelling sensory experience of outsideness that could then be parlayed into other domains. “Thought always begins with an intensity”…
However, in contrast to this, as the Ccru seems dependent on an absolute letting-go, an absolute submission to submersion, here we come up for air and find the world we left has now changed on our return. This is not a descent into that which is unknown and hard to quantify. It’s a descent into that which we think we know so well: formulaic EDM made non-Euclidean.
As the ninth track on the album comes to a close, we hear the familiar sound of an oneiric synth riff as we travel quickly and unceremoniously from Buckley’s frosted synth tundra to the maximalism of Tomorrowland. The process is reversed. Just as your ear had adjusted to Buckley’s bespoke mutations, we’re now back where we started, but something isn’t right… What was at first familiar made weird, is now weird in its own right…
DJ Tools is not a deconstruction of EDM in the terms that we’ve come to understand it, thanks to the popular music press. This is deconstruction proper, predicated — first and foremost — on a difference always already contained within itself. It is not simply a recontextualisation of a given sound palette. It is rather an embrace and exacerbation of an already existing but routinely ignored overlap. It’s a dance around the centre of the dance music Venn diagram, exploring all its twisted contours and possibilities. As such, the emphasis on Buckley’s method in the record’s press release is not saying: “Look what I can do with these out-of-the-box sounds.” It’s saying, look what lurks just below the surface of EDM today… Here be dragons…
DJ Tools, in this sense, is an EDM album — but one released on UIQ. This is UIQ EDM. EDM that ruptures itself and reintroduces novelty back into the familiar, and vice versa. EDM at the edges of itself. This record doesn’t highlight its own distance from its source for the sake of culture points, as many other projects that adopt the out-of-the-box method are wont to do, signalling how cool this other stuff could be if it wanted to be. What is emphasised here is its closeness to that which is already so often derided.
I find that this album, in its best and most lucid moments, captures that same eerie in-betweenness that I had previously associated with Lee Gamble almost exclusively.
This is a crystallisation of the difference engine that sustains the hardcore continuum.
Alongside all of the above, in her interview with Mollie Zhang, I find that each of the disparate reference points that Buckley plants a pin in start to echo my own dance music coordinates — Mark Fell, Terre Thaemlitz, Autechre, Taylor Swift — and between them all I find a pervasive and perverse message, on the record itself and in the interview, which I find intensely relatable.
Fragmented anecdote: A few years back, I used to frequently catch the train between Sheffield and Hull, usually wearing an ugly metal t-shirt and leather jacket — “dressing like a biker dad unironically”, as I was accused of doing earlier this week… Despite appearances, at the time I was in the midst of a major Taylor Swift phase. By no means uncritical of her as a pop cultural figure, I was — and remain — morbidly fascinated by her trajectory from singer-songwriting protégé on her first albums, Fearless (2008) and Speak Now (2010), and the stylistic transience and restlessness of Red (2012), to the streamlined pop-hook pastiche of 1989 (2014) and Reputation (2017).
On her early albums, Swift genuinely struck a chord with remnants of a teenage romanticism I still haven’t quite shifted and I genuinely think she writes an interesting pop song — all the more interesting nowadays for the way they are increasingly imbued with an uncomfortable dissonance as she strays ever further from her stylistic roots.
Each successive record released jars slightly with all that came before it — both within her own catalogue and pop history at large. I quite like the awkward restlessness and zeitgeist-chasing — her oft-derided “white feminism”, for example, seems to entail a subtle process of dehumanisation as she struggles to become one with her algorithmic marketing machine. She’s pop music’s Mark Zuckerberg, now caught in the process of dissolving herself and her humanity into her own public image, like quick sand, appearing uncomfortably inhuman under the harsh lights of capitalist fervour.
The parts of her that remain relatable are those parts that are most alien. What is produced by her camp does not occupy this space of cold capitalist rationality all that convincingly. She is torn between PR Swift and IRL Swift — two Swifts which seem acutely opposed to one another. No white woman can be contained by her own overly-produced PR identity, no matter how hard they might try — that is, as I understand it, “white feminism” at its core. A weird feminism which does not coincide with itself. Because of this, I end up liking Swift — or, at least, being fascinated by Swift — for the ease with which she allows the perceptive listener to take a seat on the ‘outside’ of this whiteness. I bop and cringe in the same moment as I realise: So this is what it looks like — not from within, but seen as an alien subject.
Whilst Swift might not intend for this to be result, it nonetheless is. And it is likewise the purposeful result of the best of Mark Fell’s live performances or even Buckley’s — or so I’m told: I’m unfortunately yet to have the pleasure — albeit changing the “identity” under scrutiny.
Considering DJ Tools alone, Buckley occupies the position of an EDM Fell-Swift entity masterfully, folding EDM’s outside into itself and producing a perspective on a genre that does not coincide with but nonetheless is itself. DJ Tools is an EDM doubling. Actually existing EDM and Buckley’s (re)interpretation overlap to produce a moiré pattern that changes how I view both components on their own merits. It’s a hypnotic sonic experience.
This is also, fundamentally, an experience of subjective dissonance, whether purposefully pursued or inadvertently revealed, and it is an experience integral to this blog in a number of contexts.
To return to the fragmented anecdote: I remember, one day, boarding a busy commuter train to Hull from Sheffield, I was listening to Swift’s album, Red, when I had a panicked and intrusive thought as I turned the volume up to the max on the album’s title track — a great song about Deleuzean intensity, for what it’s worth. I thought: what if my temperamental MP3 player disconnected from my headphones in the quiet carriage, engaging its automatic internal speaker function, and revealing me as some sort of goth fraud? What if I was found out to be a Black Sabbath t-shirt-wearing, burly, bearded, bellied, 6’4″ aspiring cutie? What would I do? There was nothing I feared more than minding my own business, doing as I liked, content in myself but becoming, in the cold light of day, a joke to those around me in my own dissonance.
Then, the more I imagined such a scenario, I started to find the joke funny for myself. The dissonance between outwards appearance and what was happening between my ears was funny. In reality, no one would probably care but the punchline became more of a truthful self-acknowledgement than some sort of consolidated (re)presentation of myself, bottled into a consistent and all-encompassing aesthetic.
I didn’t — and still don’t — feel how I look. I also don’t look how I feel. This has long been my experience but, once I fell outwards from puberty, embracing the burgeoning beer belly and beard felt like a chance to embrace a side of myself that I’d previously been externally denied. I never thought the outwardly depressive embrace of disintegrative masculinity and associated health problems would undo the more explicitly queer experiences of my teens but that’s another story and not something that I’m at all mad about. Representation is important.
Where I nonetheless find myself relating to this album is precisely in relation to these uncomfortable experiences and the difficulties of placing anything accurately in its own context — contexts of feeling, prior to representation, prior to social administration, prior to our tendency to consolidate everything, overlooking the invisible, the unspeakable, the subterranean. This is a position Buckley articulates to Mollie and it’s all over the album itself too.
It is in this way that I find this record’s nuanced connection to the personal and the political so endearing. Buckley speaks explicitly to Mollie on the nature of such complexities and our ever-complex melting-pot of pop cultural aesthetics when she says:
It’s multi-faceted! Multiple contexts are happening at once. It’s the complexity of being able to hold these different things at the same time. […] Our era is complex. It’s not about being didactic and labelling something “good” or “bad,” ironic or not. It can hold all of these things at once.
This is something to be applied to everything from dance music cultures and, as Buckley suggests, the Labour Party. Taylor Swift, too, becomes a case in point and Buckley encapsulates my own long-term feelings perfectly:
With Taylor, I have a lot of feelings. Mark Fell put 1989 into his top albums of the year for Boomkat. I checked it out for the production, but that was also around the time I started thinking about gender. I started having these basic, 12-year-old feelings of wanting to embody that kind of femininity. I was quite literally listening to Mark Fell on the one hand, and Taylor Swift on the other. What does it mean to have this history of being into cool, edgy musicians, but also having these “I just wanna be Taylor Swift ‘cause she’s cute,” kind of basic teenage feelings?
As Buckley goes on to explain, this isn’t to gloss over or flatten the inherent complexities of such a position and somehow equate Swift clumsily with the more radical politics that she is the symbolic antithesis of. But, at the same time, this is not liking Taylor Swift because it’s more edgy to know what edgy is and knowingly embody its opposite. It’s to hold both things together and say, “How can I reconcile this? Should I reconcile this? What will I be hoping to achieve in doing so? Some sort of subjective purity or an insecure, painfully self-aware contrarianism? Or perhaps an unrecognised truth?…”
If it weren’t already clear, these are very much the questions this blog has continually hoped to ask: whether that’s the internal dynamics of a restless and imperfect leftism — to quote Buckley’s pertinent example, “It’s being able to think about how the Labour party can do good things but, say, also want to invest in the police. How do we deal with that? Not through unequivocally supporting Labour, but asking, ‘how do we confront the fact that they want to do really shitty things, while also acknowledging that they could make many people’s lives a lot better?'” — or any other (sub)cultural or philosophical examples thereabouts. (This embrace of inherent complexities is encapsulated in the name “xenogothic” for me, as I’ve mentioned here repeatedly.) It’s a conscious form of becoming — political in terms both social and individual; external and internal — that makes peace with and encourages internal-outsideness-as-difference.
I’m reminded here of Amy Ireland’s recent patchwork essay (complete with useful diagram, embedded above), in which she writes:
Minoritarian and majoritarian politics are politics — not of identities — but of space-times. And as space-times, following Kant, they produce and respond to different models of intelligence.
If identity is freed from the rationally conscious human self in this way, the space in which a ‘self’ can be philosophically constituted and understood becomes a far vaster terrain, its rules now pertaining to the mode of its individuation (minor or major, intensive or extensive, smooth or striated), rather than to some essence or prior quality appended to it in the already representational domain of the ‘language of man’.
This is the realm in which this blog tries to exist, encouraging a form of “deconstruction” that is both geopolitical, personal and cultural.
The notion that it is an extensive sense of space-time being explored rather than the enclosure of an “internally homogenous” identity is most telling and something that is surely best explained through music — DJ Tools being the perfect example.
Is this not what this album (re)presents to us? An alternate relation to the majoritarian space-time of EDM and its on-the-clock drops? What is this album if not a drop dropped, expanded, zoomed into, to find all the molecules within that infamous moment of tension-release, finding not an emptiness but a convergence of conflicting currents in momentary stasis?
Related to these politics of space-time, Buckley explains to Mollie that a major catalyst for this record was the distinct experience of clubbing whilst not under the influence of any kind of substance:
I think I relate to people like Mark [Fell] or Terre [Thaemlitz] partially because they don’t really drink. I’m really drawn to their music for many other reasons too, but I think that’s an underlying thing; you have a different set of experiences in the club. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, I just have a different relationship to the music. I move through the space differently. I don’t think I “lose myself” in the same way – I’m always quite aware of my body and being in the space, maybe more so than others might be.
I remember Conor Thomas saying that when he saw the DJ Tools stuff live, it felt like being at a rave at 2AM, where everyone’s really into it, and you’re completely sober. That really clicked with me – maybe that’s what I’m trying to replicate. My earlier club experiences were in Berlin, when I was around 18/19. It’s a very non-judgmental space when it comes to drinking and drugs. I never felt pressured to drink, it was just: “Robin does this, someone else does that.”
I know this feeling too.
Although I do like a drink… I am nonetheless always struck by its tendency to homogenise the sensory. Time and sensation are flattened — which is to say, dynamics are flattened onto a plane of intoxication. Time flies. Energy is expended without thought. Yeah, you “lose” yourself.
But sometimes this isn’t the right approach. I remember drinking prior to an Actress gig at Village Underground last year and having to leave early because I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. Actress’s rupturing of the sonic space of the club was not conducive with my head space and everything broke down. It was my own fault for drinking mindlessly but it did serve as a reminder that not all experiences can be dissolved into alcohol and many are probably better approached with a clearer head, under the influence of the music itself, without having to compete with any other kind of stimulant. (For me, personally, anyway — others are far better at combining cognitive stimulants than I am.)
Shortly after that unfortunate experience, I went to a DJ Sprinkles all-day Sunday set at Phonox in Brixton. Experienced entirely sober, it was a revelation. To get drunk would have probably ruined it.
The use of alcohol or any other substance is besides the point, of course, and many people react differently to these things. It seems that this discussion of recreational drug use is precisely a conversation around locally-dynamic space-times. I’ve never been the kind of person to do very well in any situation on anything other than a few pints. But surely we can agree that these things alter experience — that is their fundamental function — and the space of the club is often a space where people are surfing their own senses of time, no matter how metronomic the beat.
EDM, by contrast, can provoke near-fascistic displays of sonic communion, in which everyone in a room is attuned to the DJ’s every move, waiting to unleash themselves on the drop in unison. DJ Tools suggests a counter-intuitive use for this sound palette and one which instead emphasises the proliferation of internal heterogeneity; differences — internal to the club and to the self. Collective joy is important but this can nonetheless function as “solidarity without similarity.”
In reading Buckley’s Quietus interview, an allusion to this is clear and she makes reference to Terre Thaemlitz’ writings in this area. I was particularly reminded of a talk given by Thaemlitz called “Becoming Minority” in which she notes the importance of difference to both the club and the institutional art school — places which often see themselves as “progressive” but many of which nevertheless have an unfortunate tendency towards a homogenisation of thought and action.
What Thaemlitz has to say here is key. She says that “rather than focusing on sharing power, we need to go through a process of “deterritorialization,” or to force an ideological de-occupation of ourselves from those things which dominate us.”
“Becoming-minor” (with a hyphen), then, is about a process of considering our tensions with the majority — our own subjugation to social and political domination — in terms other than traditional identity politics and “Minority groups.” For example, when thinking about gender discrimination, the concept of “becoming-minor” (with a hyphen) converges with “becoming-woman” (with a hyphen) — something Guattari says everyone has to do, even women. If we do enough hyphenated “becoming-” in greater and greater detail, zooming into social relations under a microscope until we are “becoming-molecular” (with a hyphen), “becoming-imperceptible” (with a hyphen), we finally arrive at the possibility of “becoming-revolutionary” (with a hyphen).
[P]eople say all of this “deterritorialization” stuff Guattari talks about is indicative of our moving into what has come to be called the “post-Human” era, calling into question the Humanist notion that “people are people” as an erasure of cultural differences. The very idea that we are “all the same inside” is, in fact, a kind of “becoming-fascist” (with a hyphen); taken to the extreme, it becomes a naturalization of the impossibility for difference. As someone personally interested in showing the limitations of identities and identity politics, and as someone who has never once felt “represented” by legislative processes surrounding identities, I think this kind of resistance to Humanism proposed by Guattari is socially important.
[However], both “becoming-minority” (with a hyphen) and “becoming minority” (without a hyphen) can be dangerous positions. In my mind, any “becoming-” implies a notion of arrival, of being. As acts of deconstruction, they arrive at different constructions. And I see all acts of definition or arrival or construction as inherently linked to processes of homogenization, grouping, identification and classification, which are therefore automatically interlinked with enclosure, limitation, territorialization, and “becoming-fascist.” Guattari’s notion of finally “becoming-revolutionary,” of finally becoming anything even if in a really vague Zen-like cloud of a thousand indistinct plateaus (and those French guys are always somehow into Zen, which is super-fascist), is a teleological (or, linear) process. It implies a historical trajectory — and we know how important notions of historical trajectory are to fascists, right? “Becoming-” implies a new mechanical process, a new means for results, a new cultural machine. It falls back into the traps of domination, albeit in a very sublime and delicate way. This is uninteresting for me, and why I told you in the beginning I am not particularly a fan of Guattari.
(As a side note, this is an interesting challenge to various teleologically rigid Accelerationisms and U/Acc, to me, feels like a position that addresses this, alongside its perhaps initially surprising affinity with many people who identity with some form of queerness.)
What Thaemlitz goes on to explore is an explicit relationship between acts of gender transitioning (of any form) in a way that seems to map interestingly onto Buckley’s approach to the domineering aesthetics of EDM culture. Thaemlitz explains:
Guattari spoke of two types of deterritorialization — absolute and relative. (Absolute deterritorialization is related to that rather lofty, Zen-like concept of “becoming-revolution” that I complained about earlier.) But as for “relative deterritorialization,” which is generally accompanied by an act of “reterritorialization,” I can’t think of a better example of this process than the act of gender transitioning from female-to-male or male-to-female, in which people deterritorialize themselves from one dominant gender identity only to reterritorialize themselves in relation to its dichotic other. Rejecting one gender construct by embracing another — both of which are oppressive. And I think it is through the example of gender transitioning that we can see how Guattari’s notion of “relative deterritorialization and reterritorialization” always carries with it a desire for power — either to share in existing structures of domination, or to dominate those structures with new power systems. […] While it’s true that members of many Minority groups submit themselves to the surgeon’s knife in attempts at assimilation — from nose jobs to breast augmentation to Asian double eyelid blepharoplasty — transgendered communities seem to be the most systematically invested in the contradiction of advocating for acceptance as “who we are” while simultaneously obsessing on reconstituting ourselves in the image of that which dominates us. In gender transitioning you can clearly trace both the Guattarian concept of “becoming-minor” (with a hyphen) — or rather, I should say already “being-minor” (with a hyphen) — through the quest to mentally and physically “become” something other than the gender initially dictated upon us; as well as the conventional, identitarian concept of “becoming minority” (with no hyphen) through the desire to re-assimilate with dominant culture as female or male.
The nature of Thaemlitz’ talk is quite rambling and tangential, but what I find myself pulling out of it — and likewise with Buckley’s tandem exploration of artistic and personal processes — is a frank and honest approach both to gender and genre transitioning, in such a way that calls into question much of the dominant cultural problems of dance music’s aesthetics and spaces.
If there is one a key lesson to be learned here, which I’ll depart with, it is one imparted masterfully with Buckley’s use of ‘EDM Kicks Vol. 1’: the lifting-up of minority groups within dance music cultures is a necessary and worthwhile endeavour but there is a message to the EDM bros here too — you too can become-minor, in your own ways, and the potentialities that you will be opened up to if you do will benefit us all.