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We take a look into what people are calling the 'primitive sound'

There's a fresh sound that's bubbling up from the underground to challenge dull dance and ridiculous stadium rave. Influenced equally by the early stirrings of house, electro-pop, dub and the spikier edges of industrial and post-punk, it's united established DJs from around the world and newer disciples like Daniel Avery, spurred by its revolutionary DIY, stripped-bare spirit. We delve deeper into what's been called the “primitive sound”...

Listen closely and you can hear it. Coming up the steps from the basement, a door slams and from within a pulsating throb of feculent acid, a slow-burning dark pump of kick-drums and hypnotic rhythm, echoes. It's the antithesis of stadium dance, the empty light-show of EDM. It's a sound that's evolved and mutated from European and American club culture, with its roots in the heady amalgam of scuzzy, raw rudiments of electronic music that coalesced in the 1980s. It's against spectacle, for dancing and crowd interaction, and it's not afraid to take influences from everywhere. And though its genesis took place deep underground, it's growing at a monstrous rate, with a horde of established DJs as well as young, inspired producers pushing its gritty aesthetic.

Artists and DJs proliferate across Europe, in the USA, Central and South America, even the Middle East. It's an attitude that unites established players like Ivan Smagghe, Jennifer Cardini, Justin Robertson, Andrew Weatherall, Matias Aguayo and Tim Paris, and newer names like Red Axes, Daniel Avery, Matt Walsh, Hardway Bros, Man Power, Eskimo Twins, Jagerverb, Richard Rossa, Javi Redondo, Carreno is LB, DJs Pareja and many more. Its influence also extends into more conventional genres, with artists like Willie Burns and Paranoid London crafting acid house stripped-back to its analogue essence, or electro noise maverick Gesaffelstein heavily influenced by the early Belgian rave sound.

With a line in the sand between commercial dance and the underground, those who like real dance music are cleaving closer to that authenticity. Artists like Daniel Avery, once misaligned with the prevailing sounds of UK house and techno, are finding more and more listeners and dancers receptive to their dirtier, slower, sexier grind-house. While it's easy to trace its genealogy, there's no doubt it's rising fast as a viable alternative to bland pop pap and euphoric histrionics. Some have called it the “primitive sound” in reference to its echoes of early electronic beats, some see it as too broad to define, but many agree there's a shift towards a distinct new aesthetic in dance.

“I suppose that now someone is writing about it and people are grouping musicians and artists and DJs together, it does become a scene because of that, but the reality is that many other people have been doing this for quite a long time,” reckons influential DJ/producer Erol Alkan, whose label Phantasy Sound released the hugely acclaimed debut album from Daniel Avery, 'Drone Logic'. “I think right now it's being seen as a reaction to another side of electronic music, but Matt Walsh does what Matt Walsh does, Weatherall does what Weatherall does, this is a music that people play.”

Matt Walsh, who runs the Clouded Vision imprint, has a distinctive DJ sound that encapsulates what this stripped-down form is all about. Acidic, mechanical, with a flavour of electro, it's got a punky amphetamine-hopped energy, a jitteriness that sets it apart from the slick Ableton productions and Beatport hits that define the current mainstream. Imagine a strobe-stuttered dank factory, strange clankings and a hypnotic throb audible, sweat dripping from the walls, strange visions flashing against nightmarish rusty machines and you're getting close to the images it conjures in the mind.

It's DJs like Andrew Weatherall, a long-established dance shapeshifter and tastemaker, who has arguably been one of the key architects of this crystallising scene. Always hugely wide-ranging in his musical taste, there's been a punk attitude to his DJ sets from the beginning of his DJ career in the late 1980s, a no-compromise determination to challenge the audience and push against established modes of what is acceptable to play to the dancefloor. He's made house, electro, breakbeat, post-punk and loads more, under a host of monikers, and played them to receptive crowds, but he's always remained one step ahead. The sound that's been the bedrock of his most recent club night, though — A Love From Outer Space, named after an AR Kane song and run alongside Sean Johnston, taking place in joints like basement dive The Drop in London's Stoke Newington — is also the engine that's driven this nascent movement.

With a music policy of “never exceeding 122 BPM”, the music played there is necessarily slow, a thrum of buzzing, hypnotic sound, intensely psychedelic, with dub-heavy basslines, 4/4 kicks, spiky guitars and zonked synth edges. Typically a blend of Weatherall's (and his guests) encyclopedic record collection and dance history, and new records either in hock with that flavour or directly influenced by and designed for that club and others like it, the night is one of the key elements that has given rise to the sound.

Daniel Avery is one of its most important young ambassadors, and he's made no secret of the fact that Weatherall has been a key influence. There are other club night progenitors, like Weatherall's night alongside Ivan Smagghe (who with Black Strobe is a huge influence on this scene), Wrong Meeting, or more recently underground iconoclast Andy Blake's World Unknown event, but Justin Robertson, another storied DJ with a diverse taste who's had a major input on the new scene, agrees that A Love From Outer Space should be credited as an important driving force.

“They created their own identity and scene there,” Justin says. “It's easy to paint a pastiche of the sound, it's all sub 120 chuggers, but there's so much variety, from heavy disco to brutal new beat, that psychedelic feel to it. In certain times it has the sparseness of dub and the rawness of rock 'n' roll. All those little influences, maybe it's a group of producers and DJs who listen to other sorts of music and let that influence be absorbed into the dancefloor. If you get Weatherall, Dan Avery, Richard Fearless together, there will be as much talk about garage rock, psychedelic rock as there will be drum machines.”

It's Justin Robertson who has used the “primitive sound” term, a epithet describing its roots in the tangle of electronic dance styles that came about in the 1980s and beyond, everything from danceable post-punk and electro-pop to Belgian New Beat, industrial and naturally early house produced on the holy trinity of 303s, 808s and 909s. All these sounds, Justin reckons, are linked by their vitality and grittiness which is what attracted newer DJs and producers in the first place, tired of overproduction and slickness in dance.

“I think it's a loose collection of people that like that visceral sound,” he notes. “It's stripped-back a bit, in some cases. It's people who like [proto-punks] MC5 and the Cramps rather than [prog rock dinosaurs] Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's rawer with a touch of a psychedelic feel to it, in the same way that when acid house first started a lot of those records sounded quite alien and odd. It has that kind of feel to it, it doesn't have to be necessarily acid house. Whether that be a raw spacey cosmic disco record, stripped-down techno record, it's something with the bleeps in the right place.

“It's for that atmosphere of a sweaty basement. That's a common denominator, and they're quite jacking. The interesting sound that started developing at the end of the last decade, it came out of that kind of... disco is constantly getting revived, but people like In Flagranti were taking the weirder end of it, the Euro/New Beat cosmic end of it, a lot of that pricked up people's ears cos it had that off-kilter sound. But it had a certain humanity to it as well. A lot of the nu disco people took it in a more '80s pop direction. This sound developed out of wanting to develop that psychedelic feel, that stripped-down feel rather than go too lush and overproduced and pop.”

What's certain is that it's a broad church. There's Israeli duo Red Axes' fuzzy post-punk house records on I'm A Cliche, their cover of dub Goth hit 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' by Bauhaus containing many of the qualities that define the genre. There's the records on Matias Aguayo's Comeme, from the skeletal proto-house and EBM vibe of DJs Pareja (check their killer rework of 'Los Ninos Del Parque' by Liaison Dangereuses, another early dance scene touchstone) to Rebolledo's lo-fi drum machine funk. There's Daniel Avery's deadly sulphuric acid, or the strobing dark technoid mastery of Hardway Bros or Pink Skull. What these records all share though is certain characteristics, a faded, gauzy, emaciated bare-bones funk closer to the excitement and experimentation of when electronic dance was new. The early 2000s movement electroclash and its resuscitation of certain 1980s tropes is an element of it that can't be ignored, say Red Axes.

“We would say that it's a kind of a mixture of different influences that are a bit different from common dance music, and more about rock and loose energy. We don't consider it as a new form at all, it was there since the beginning of electronic music through the electroclash revolution. Nowadays the concept is more or less the same idea and a bit more clubby.”

“It's nice because it does encapsulate quite a lot of stuff,” Justin believes. “Me and Dan [Avery] have been talking about this for a while, there seems to be a coalescence of people, this network growing. It's not wilfully unfashionable, but since that deep house thing has been so massive, it's sort of set against the grain in some senses. It's not careerist in any way. It's grown from the grass roots as it were.”

“It's a little bit like we're digesting all that we've been through in the last 20 years, which is techno and indie music, new wave, a rock background,” believes French DJ/producer Jennifer Cardini who runs the Correspondant label from Berlin. “I sometimes have the feeling that there's nothing new there, I recognise the influence of movie soundtracks, of rock, and a lot of other things that are just part of our biography as DJs, that is made of all the influences and things we've lived and played, because some tracks are influenced by house. I find it quite a mature kind of music actually.”

Jennifer's new 'Correspondant 2' compilation is a perfect primer for the sound, featuring both upcoming and established acts associated with the rawer aesthetic, among them Weatherall's Asphodells project, Hardway Bros, Golden Bug, the rising Man Power, Kasper Bjorke and of course Red Axes. While she is keen to point out that the tunes and artists are of the same kind she has always played, she agrees that their shared outlook is becoming more popular with a new generation.

“Of course I'm very happy about the interest in this music,” she continues, “but I can say as a label owner we are not gonna stay fixed on this, we want things to evolve and we want to stay curious. We don't want to hang on to hype because this is not how I've done my career the last 20 years, I'm always curious and interested in what's going on with music and not with trends.

“People are more reactive to it. Things start to work when you can find it's in fashion. That is more and more the case with this kind of music. If you take the example of the Correspondant parties in Paris at the moment, we have a very young audience. The audience has totally renewed itself. I do warm-ups that are like three or four hours and I start at 70 BPM, and kids are already dancing. There is a reception to this. I also see it as a signal to push things forward, not to take it for granted that it works. I don't want to do that. For the label, for my artists, I don't like it when things get fixed. It's working, people start to like it, and they just start doing the same thing.”

Though guarded — to define a genre or conform to it is to limit yourself, understandably — she's excited by raw Mexican acts like Max Jones and Zombies In Miami who are putting out records through the label, new acts who subscribe to the primitive aesthetic, and promises a debut artist album from Man Power in the new year.

A key component that many of these records share is their speed — or lack of it. Whether they're pitched down by DJs or naturally slower in BPM, it's a factor that gives this music its entrancing effect.

“These slower beats are allowing DJs to be more in control, that's a very important part,” reckons Erol on this pitched-down phenomenon. “DJs do feel that they have time, they have space, and the audience will stay with them and allow them to do that, rather than hyper-charging people up from one high to the next, waiting for the next euphoric drop to be greater than the last one. It's another part of the cycle, and this will give birth to another exciting thing.”

The A Love From Outer Space rule, of never exceeding 122 BPM, isn't just for effect. The idea is to allow the music to breathe, to give it a greater sense of space. Jennifer Cardini says she has always preferred a slower tempo, that it gives the music more power and weight.

“I was never a fan of high BPMs, ever. Even when I was playing Jeff Mills or techno in the early '90s, I was always playing it minus 4,” she says. “People were getting mad at me for that. I always like it when the BPM is around 120. It's more like hard beat style. It's also more sexy. It leaves space in-between the sounds, you hear things differently when it's more slow. I think this is also a matter of taste. I've been a huge fan of Boards of Canada, I grew up with Warp, and also the first productions of Kompakt, Studio One, even the 'Consumed' album from Plastikman is really slow. I always liked slow stuff, it's powerful. If you make something really slow and really hard, it's more powerful than something that is really fast. Then it gets heavy, the groove gets heavy, a bit nasty, I like it like that.”
The cavernous negative space of dub rears its head when dance music is slowed too. Whether it's the overt rumbling reggae bass of the Asphodells, often a feature of Weatherall's production, or simply the head-messing echo deck manipulation and gaps in the music, dub is another element contributing to the curious blend of this dancefloor trend.

“Me and Dan [Avery] were pissed once and decided it was the spaces in-between, the gaps between the notes that are important,” Justin remembers. “It's got a certain humanity to it, a human feel, a looseness.”

What this engagement with original dance music sounds reconfigured in a new image signifies most obviously is a reaction to the twin populist genres in the mainstream — that of EDM and commercial “deep” house. It's an alternative to the bang and bluster of the former and the smoothed out smugness of the latter, where a collective atmosphere and love of music are paramount, and where the crowd face each other rather than fixating on the DJ. For Erol, it represents a rejection of spectacle and an embrace of the original spirit of club culture.

“It's a bit less happy, I think the reason it has that appeal is that the elements are the antithesis of what EDM has been. You listen to an Andrew Weatherall set from five years ago and he'll still embody the same qualities and similar references, he's always been a bastion of good taste, that's what people want right now, something with a bit more taste, because electronic music has become extremely tasteless.”

Whatever you want to call it, there's a drive back to the essence, and it just might be the kick up the arse the dance scene needs.


10 key “primitive sound” records:

  1. Various 'One Night in Comeme Vol.1' Comeme
    The first volume of raw sounds from Matias Aguayo's label.

  2. Red Axes 'Ballad of the Ice' I'm A Cliche
    Industrial electro-pop and house album from upcoming Israeli duo.

  3. Daniel Avery 'Drone Logic' Phantasy Sound
    Acid burner and title track of his debut album.

  4. Deadstock 33s 'Summon the Primitive' Electrique
    Dark psychedelic acid house with raw drum machines and nasty synth wonkiness.

  5. Primitive World 'Danceteria' Black Acre
    Track from Sam Willis of Walls with live-sounding drums and evil Reese bass.

  6. Various 'Correspondant 2' Correspondant
    Incredible and wide-ranging comp from Jennifer Cardini's imprint.

  7. Andy Blake 'Cave Paintings 1Y' Cave Paintings
    Skeletal machine funk of drum machine clunk and heavy electro bass.

  8. Emperor Machine 'RMI Is All I Want' Southern Fried
    Slow disco slap bass and soaring synth strangeness for reaching giddy stratospheres.

  9. Matt Walsh 'The Clouded Vision Experiment' Clouded Vision
    Great label mix and a perfect intro to the genre.

  10. Man Power 'Kiloton' Correspondant

    Trippy disco acid beast from the hotly-tipped anonymous artist.