Issue 16 : Spring 2009






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Any Time We Come We Come Dangerous

by Montgomery Cantsin

10 Mar 2009

An Introduction to a Review of Notes on Breakcore

American fans of harsh electronic audio may recall a German band by the name of Atari Teenage Riot (ATR) bleeping onto U.S. radar in the late 1990s. [1] Say what you want now about their obnoxious songs; for us rowdy kids listening in 1996, in America (where things like Gabber were virtually unknown), ATR was a definite head-explosion .

I recall sneaking out of my parent's house and driving over forty miles to see ATR play a gig at 3:30 AM at the Metro in Chicago. Still in high school at the time, I bravely trekked into the city unaccompanied by friends, illegally parked my grandmother's car, made my way to the very front of a tough-as-nails crowd, stood through a too-long DJ set, and then waited for Alec Empire and crew to appear on stage. The foursome, probably exhausted (having already opened for Beck out in the suburbs earlier that evening), raged for maybe 9 minutes. Empire then got pissed off (more than usual I guess) and ended the show prematurely by hurling a metal folding chair at someone in the audience. [2]Though disappointing in its brevity [3], it would go down as one of the most confrontational and, well, best, performances I've ever witnessed. [4]

Unfortunately, for several years after that I found nothing at record stores that I could file alongside my Digital Hardcore stuff. Not interested in Jungle or Techno, I was not yet inclined to do much research into those genre's various roots and branches. [5]But then in 2000 I came across the work of Kid 606. [6] His Down With the Scene was precisely what I had been looking for; it was stuff I sorely wished I'd made myself, and the person responsible--Californian Miguel Depedro--even happened to be the same age as me (having already previously released his debut album at the age of 16)! The no-holds-barred-ness of tracks like "Kidrush"--a blistering barrage of earth-shaking sub-woof-woofs and skittering static overlaying a vocal manifesto calling for the release of (captured hacker) Kevin Mitnick--immediately caused my jaw to drop and my fist to pump spontaneously! [7]I fiended for more material of a similar nature but, as far as I could tell at the time, there wasn't much to be had. [8]

Maybe I should have gone to Germany; I still have never been. In Berlin there is a store, Praxis, which is filled pretty much entirely with Breakcore. Stores in America, even good ones, to this day, don't even have Breakcore sections . (OK, maybe in New York, I don't know. And in Portland you might find some Breakcore mixed in with the Gabber at a store called Anthem.) Most of us (assuming we're in the market for hard copies) are forced to order by mail, often buying directly from countless small labels that have by now (thankfully) proliferated around the world.

But, wait, let's get back to the turn of the century. In 2001 I was dropping out of college and just starting to think of actually becoming a DJ. Alongside Film as a Subversive Art, Guiness, and Reclaim the Streets[9], Breakcore was among my primary concerns in life. [10]Yet, I was still unaware that it had a name!

Eventually, though, instances of it started to become more frequent and less isolated. In Saint Louis I started hearing of a "Doormouse" (who was then located in nearby Milwaukee, but is now based in Florida). Then in 2002 I traveled to Olympia, WA, and met DJ Fukumup, who excitedly told me about a man called DJ/Rupture. (Interesting to note: Rupture himself had only discovered Breakcore a few years earlier--courtesy of one DJ Scud--at a Sound Lab party in NYC). [11] Then, shortly thereafter, Bogdan Raczynski's "dysfunctional, immature, juvenile...drill 'n bass" [12]found its way into my Discman (and almost never found its way out!). And finally, in 2004, a certain circuit-bender started telling me about Mr. Venetian Snares. Well, not just telling me about him, but making me listen to The Chocolate Wheelchair Album and Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding constantly, loudly!

Like much Breakcore, the work of Venetian Snares is an acquired taste; I didn't go nuts for his stuff when I first heard it, and a lot of it still just sounds to me like slightly updated Aphex Twin. But, after repeated listening (to select tracks) (on a proper [13] sound system, mind you), one begins to understand why he's now internationally regarded as the first name in Breakcore, and how he nonchalantly manages to collect at least a $3000 fee to play/mix (his CDs) live for huge audiences around the world.

But, whatever. Say "Breakcore" to the average Yank and they'll either respond with a blank stare, or else think that you're just talking about Breakbeat. Now, for anyone with questions at this point, you're welcome to do your own research on: A) what exactly a "breakbeat" is [14] (like, did you know that it can be said that they originated in the 1800s?); B) how Breakcore might be distinguished from the genre Breakbeat [15]; and C) how both of these differ from Breakbeat Hardcore (not to mention: how Breakbeat Hardcore is also different from what is called UK Hardcore!).

Anyway, hopefully the blank stares will subside soon, 'cuz anyone needing a Breakcore primer could do much much worse than to discover this here half-hour documentary by Bert Könighofer and David Kleinl. Notes on Breakcore , now more than two years old, remains the definitive introduction to an audio movement that has now reportedly taken Europe by storm and threatens (maybe) to blow up a few other spots as well. Despite the fact that it well deserves an audience, no serious review has yet (to my knowledge) been written of this documentary. (Perhaps because the video has mostly, I guess, been viewed on Youtube.) Vice 's cute little blurb doesn't really count, though their reviewer, I must say, does well in making note of both the torturous and the "euphoric" aspects of Breakcore. (More on those in just a bit.)

"So, um, Breakcore. ...What is that again?"

OK, Good question. (And you can rest assured, by the way, that Notes will largely answer it for you!) For now let us just say that Breakcore is primarily characterized by: A) its fetish for distorted breakbeats (Amen!); B) its high BPM range [16]; C) its sharp and marvelous sense of humor; and D) its tendency towards extremes.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Breakcore is not merely a mutation of Jungle--a genre which itself was partly (London's) mutation of Hip Hop. [17]Interestingly though, some say that Breakcore can (at times) be considered a parody of Jungle. They do have a point. In fact, it could be said to be a parody of much of the very material that it happens to incorporate. [18] And, as anyone who's witnessed a performance by Doormouse or Otto Von Schirach knows, much current Breakcore is furthermore marked by a relentless irreverence and a child-like ridiculousness. First-time listeners ought not jump to the conclusion, however, that Breakcore is merely a joke. (It ain't!) [19]

But, now, OK, is Breakcore just mashed-and-screwed Gabber? Well, in a way, it is. So, let us now slow down a bit in order to get some things straight about what Gabber is. Gabber (like its very angry brother Speedcore) is another of many subcategories under the umbrella of, er, 'Ardkore Tekno . Don't worry--if you're not familiar; you can easily bring yourself up to speed with Gabber's entire M.O. in under 59 seconds.

"Pure Gabber is purely concussive/percussive," says Simon Reynolds. "Music for sensation junkies." (This latter quote-and not so much the former--could also apply to Breakcore.) Gabber represents an intense extreme while at the same time tending to inhabit a very narrow slice of the audio spectrum. Those who have seen the film Modulations may recall an interview with Kodwo Eshun wherein he notes the disorienting, "jackhammer," quality of Gabber's rhythms. That pretty much sums up the sound of it. Gabber is war music (as a friend of mine commented upon hearing the music of Insect Deli for the first time). Part of what keeps a lot of people away from it is the fact that neo-Nazis have at times been known to be among its appreciators. As I'm again relying mostly on the account of Simon Reynolds, please allow me to quote him here at length:

"With its sensations of velocity, fixation, and aimless belligerence, Gabber offers all the pleasures of war without the consequences; it's an intransitive war [and its] aggression does seem to hold an attraction for the extreme right. [M]ost of the time, though, Gabber ignites a firestorm with no specific target. Gabber kids direct their aggression against their own bodies" (Generation Ecstasy).

Like Gabber, Breakcore tends to aim for the fullest possible impact. And, like most other "urban" forms of bass-based electronic music, both are heavily valued for their ability to "hit" audiences in search of an adrenalin rush. [20] It's about total occupation of the spectator's awareness. But. With Breakcore, it is not so much by way of a simple jackhammering. Rather it is by achieving "maximum sonic density." [21]And this is a density born in part, as we shall see, of the complex mashing of Breakcore's countless (and counting!) disparate elements. As mentioned by an interviewee in Notes, some of these elements happened to find their way into the mix precisely for the purpose of driving the rightist element out of (some basically anti-authoritarian) rave parties. [22]

With its own kind of sheer power and unyielding ferociousness, Breakcore does, arguably, retain a kind of military feel; in some cases it is almost as if its practitioners are demonstrators of a "non-lethal weapon." It's not for nothing that there is now an annual Breakcore party called "The Goat Lab." XLR8R has quoted its co-founder (Parasite) as saying that "[t]he name was directly inspired by the U.S. military's research into psychological warfare using de-bleated goats as a test bed." Any readers familiar with Jon Ronson's frightening (and humorous) book The Men Who Stare At Goats may see what we're getting at here. (Some pretty heavy shit, eh?)

In fact (yes, Vice) it may bring to mind some of the more notorious experiments and adventures of one Throbbing Gristle. Indeed, Breakcore is (sometimes) "industrial music for industrial people" (to quote Monte Cazazza's view of T.G.). But--fascinatingly--at other times it's more music-to-the-ears of pop-lockers and blunt-smokers! As you can see, assuming Breakcore is anything at all , it is in fact quite a great deal of things! It owes something to Noise, but also to purveyors of Plunderphonics. It is in some ways the spawn of Grindcore while also being a relative of DJ Spooky's Illbient sound. ...And on and on and on (i.e. Jamaican soundclash [23], IDM & "granular synthesis," happy hardcore," etc. etc.)

And, let's not forget: drugs! [24] Breakcore is not only often produced by and for users of various [25] powders and "illies," but the music itself can also (like Noise, for example) be considered a veritable psychedelic. Give yourself up to its power, and your mind could potentially be reshaped! At a Breakcore party this might lead to a kind of "collective autism" (to again borrow from Simon Reynolds). It could also result in the collective achievement of a sort of Zen (or Situationist) oneness with time. [26]

In its best moments Breakcore represents an exquisite, ecstatic, raving-madness. It's too much! Like a steaming hot cup of Neoism, Breakcore can perhaps above all to be noted for its overfull-ness. And (to recall a classic party-time prescription by Rimbaud), for better or for worse, it may be the most effective of current audio routes to a "rational disordering of the senses."

[1]Their brief commercial success in the states was, incidentally, a by-product of Beastie Boy mania. It was Mike ("Money") Diamond's Grand Royal label that managed to carve out a niche here for ATR's brutal anti-fascist/anti-rave (proto-breakcore) dance music--by skillfully handling the band's stateside distribution (as well as that of Digital Hardcore label-mates Ec8or, Shizuo, Bomb 20, and Christoph de Babalon). (It's perhaps also worth noting that Diamond and the boys made some other good calls during this period--not least among these was releasing BS2000's eponymous debut.)

[2]I'm not sure if that chair hit someone (a heckler? an uncooperative audio technician?), but I definitely do remember seeing an ambulance arriving at the venue as I was leaving.

[3]Brevity, though, let's not forget, was a key feature of hardcore punk (circa 1980). It's probably one of the features which originally made hardcore unacceptable to a mass audience.

[4]I probably would not feel that unsafe at a show again until 2008, when I almost got hit in the head by a beer bottle thrown by a very drunk Mutant at a Drumcorps/Eustachian show at 5lowershop in San Francisco. There was also a time in Saint Louis when I watched the one-and-only Mr. Quintron pull a knife out on an audience at the Side Door, but that doesn't really count--even though it was a shock, it was pretty clear the gesture was just for show.  

[5]Such as: Ragga-Jungle (e.g. R.A.W.), Bouncy Techno (e.g. Scott Brown), and/or whatever kind of Tekno Jason Blakkat was spinning back then.

[6]Because His album was reviewed in print by Randall Roberts (A.K.A. Lil' Edit: one of my favorite DJs).

[7]Years later, I happened to find out that "Kidrush" repurposes an older (1996) agit-prop flexi-disc which had been released by an entity called Etoy:

[8]Perhaps I could have started by noticing that Down With the Scene also featured some work by an artist named Hrvatski! However, It's worth noting here how Depedro himself described his own experience of this pre-millennial era. In an interview for The Wire he recalled: "There was no new music. There was a time when I just wanted to give up. There's already noise, there's already Jungle, there's already Techno, there's already this, and it's like what do you make? All of a sudden I was just like 'I'm gonna make whatever,' and it turned out that 'whatever' became something. It wasn't enormous, but it became enough for people to care."

[9]Note, when I say Reclaim the Streets I am referring to London RTS (circa 2000), who I had the pleasure of encountering during a semester abroad. Nowadays RTS, especially in the States, tends to be pretty tame and generic!

[10]Though on the verge of inventing it all by myself, I had not yet discovered Thee Neoist Cultural Conspiracy by this point in time.

[11]Strangely Simon Reynolds didn't seem to notice Breakcore until somewhat recently. In 2005 he mentioned it by name to readers of the New York Times, citing Rupture as one of its most notable artists.

[12]To quote a BBC review.



[15]Actually Breakbeat is, more strictly speaking, a cluster of genres, but for now just assume I am referring to artists like DJ Icey.

[16]133 BPM is ideal for dancing (according to Frankie Bones). Hip Hop's a bit lower than that, while Jungle is a bit faster. Roughly speaking, Breakcore is faster than that. And then Gabber's even faster, up near 200. Then there's Speedcore, and, well, don't get me started on Extratone and all that.

[17]To get schooled on Jungle, read Simon Reynolds's Generation Ecstasy . Or (to hear it instead of just reading about it), track down a mix by S.P.L. (Bend, OR), or by DJ Killingsworth (Portland, OR).  

[18]But, it's hard to tell sometimes whether a repurposing of existing audio is to be considered an homage or a dis! This is especially so with Breakcore.

[19]If it's "novelty" you want, check out Breakcore's younger brother: Speedbass.

[20] As was noted by an expert panel hired by the City of Seattle to determine what might have motivated Kyle Huff to shoot and kill seven people (including himself) at an early-morning after-party in Seattle on March 25, 2006. (Note, um, one of the authors is connected to the Rand Corporation.) ?Huff's first shooting victim was an acquaintance of mine: Jeremy "Dirty Jesus" Martin--a musician, DJ, and technician whose skills for promoting Breakcore and making people smile has been sorely missed (by Chickenheds, Autonomous Mutants, and Burners) ever since.

[21]To borrow Wikipedia's phrase

[22]For a relevant exploration of the concept of Rave-as-Temporary-Autonomous-Zone, see 'The Imaginal Rave," in Ron Sakolsky's anthology: Sounding Off. And here we might also make note here of Alec Empire's view of the early "Acid" (Techno/House) scene (circa 1990) in the interzone between East and West Berlin: "For me Acid meant total protest, not letting anything in from the outside, no political lies, no promotion and therefore immune from the system."

[23] Note, for example, the title of this very essay. It's taken from a track by Dopeski & Jakes--"Cantankarous" (Wardance Records).

[24] Did you know that ATR lost one member to a drug-related death in 2001?

[25] "For a period I would literally do crack all night and then after I came down I'd sleep a couple hours, get up and do music. I would twist the music until it gave me that same rush I got from the crack?" (Aaron Funk, as quoted in The Wire .)  

[26] "on several occasions, Debord observed that the Situationist attitude consisted in identifying oneself with the passage of time." (See page 27 of Anselm Jappe's Guy Debord .)