OK, so I know I promised that we were done with 2014 two songs back, but it did not feel right (it did not feel right.) While Batu and too many others are just around the corner, it'd be an oversight to not check in with Hodge, a producer who has arguably been a proto-scene lynchpin dating back to his first releases in 2011 and 2012 before putting out two of the last missives from Peverelist's legendary dupstep label Punch Drunk in 2013. For a producer who has become virtually synonymous with the dark, bass-heavy techno that so many of his fellow producers get unfairly lumped in with, it's easy to forget that he was peddling far sunnier fare at the start of this decade, both as one half of the still-operational house duo Outboxx and also with his debut solo twelve whose swinging, dynamic drum programming and 4X4 predilections marked him as a kindred spirit to fellow Bristolian techno operator Kowton.
The "Hodge sound" as we would identify it today first appeared in the cold pounding techno found on his second solo release, but it wasn't until his collaboration with Peverelist (née Tom Ford) via the dreamy, driving techno of "Bells" that the artist born Jacob Martin really started to turn heads. Following his foray into distilled, polite post-trance fare, Martin soon flexed the more muscular and industrial side of his sound on his other Punch Drunk twelve. This one-two punch would pave the way for him to release on many of the labels that have been both touchstones of and important conduits into the post- sound, including Ytivil Snuod, Hotline Recordings, Tempa, Wisdom Teeth, a particularly bonkers twelve for No Corner, and Berceuse Heroique, a label that has now released three of the artist's most memorable and ambitious singles. However, one issue I've found myself struggling with in listening to the producer is that in a scene that tends to resist templates and also for its rhythmic and percussive intricacy, the industrial-tribal techno of Hodge can seem like one of these things doesn't belong.
In conversation with former music journalist Martin Clark, a writer who carefully chronicled the development of grime and dubstep from the latter's beginning via his must-read Blackdown blog, he laid down what seems to be the most common and frankly understandable criticism as to whether the crop of producers we have been discussing in this space actually constitute a noteworthy new development in UK dance.
I worry with the current crop, which as I say I do think are creative and have potential, that en masse a lot of it is basically collapsing back to techno. Some of the lead guys in this scene I've heard just play outright techno in sets. I hear some of them say "oh no, but we do it in a UK way," which is a heuristic for "bassy", but the tracks mostly don't have any rudeness to them, in fact I think these guys are aiming quite away from that rude, drop mentality, towards much more 'sophisticated' percussive styles.
The demand for rudeness harkens back to a continued gripe many seasoned music critics have had with much of the post-dubstep milieu's incapability to create something wholly new and their own. In combing through Martin's writings from the past decade along with those of Mark FIsher, Adam Gilbert, and others UK music writers who participated in the 2012 conference debating the existence and relevance of Simon Reynolds' hardcore continuum theory, I was struck by how dismissive Reynolds and Fisher in particular were of the 'wonky' brand of UK Funky that would serve as a crucial bridge out of dubstep and into something much less prescribed. Though they arrived at their respective opinions in their own unique ways, they were united in a shared feeling that the music which came after dubstep's creative peak lacked the 'shock of the new' that characterized the supposed nuum developments thus far. Reynolds in particular grotesquely overplayed his hand, chasing the rudeness of hardcore from bassline through to EDM while arguing for its non-theoretical status as a historical fact before up and ditching music writing all together for what can be presumed to be far greener pastures.
Of course, I'm just setting up the problem as it's going to take more than a song write-up to discuss why I believe this new crop of producers might just be the most exciting thing to happen to dance music since dubstep. Or not. One fact of the music critical present that I find unavoidable is the ubiquity of superlatives and the need to dispose with them. As one friend is fond of saying, "there is no winning or losing" and my generation of music critics not only lacks any kind of steady employment to help in the development of a genuinely unique voice, but also the desire to engage in the type of genre-conceptualizing that was so popular amongst the UK music press in the 90s and 00s. We just make lists. You know, like in that indie rock classic, High Fidelity (hangs self). The great MP3 blog exodus of the early 10s seemed to signal the end of a particular critical era in electronic music writing that as a whole, we have yet to come close to emulating, let along surpassing.
All of which is to say, sometimes things take a slightly closer listen for their nuances to reveal themselves. As we discussed in our analysis of the equally structurally conventional "Not Stochastic," producers like Laksa--who can throw down a proper techno mindfuck or two when he chooses to--and Batu who were vitally influenced by dubstep have sought to achieve that thrill of the "drop" in ways not necessarily tied to a mathematically-sensible progression of eight- or sixteen-bar builds or verse-like sections but rather baked into the track itself, sometimes rendered co-terminus in the form of an off-kilter roller or particular climactic passages not determined solely by bass weight. By embracing the infinite plane of potentiality within techno--be it rooted in Detroit-inspired loopiness or mnml’s artful and even boundary-pushing trackiness--without being overly beholden to the actual genre itself, the templates established by dubstep's parodic focus on the bass drop and the drop-led EDM of the 2010s have been razed and rendered flat, allowing for unrestricted access to meta-genre sounds and concepts.
Basically, what we're talking about here is a bunch of "techno" or "bass music" artists who I and others believe are much more than that. But we remain hesitant to readily label the stylistically varied music being made as it undercuts the renewed focus on developing individual artistic voices over brief mastery of a style. It also ignores the fact that there are many conflicting opinions amongst the artists themselves while still resisting the typical critical taxonomical impulse that gave us wonky, bassline, and all the other briefly-lived post-dubstep genres--a time when over-attention from the press seemed to deaden a number of otherwise promising careers. And it is this resistance to being reduced to a scene that, as Oscar Henson (Facta) notes, "has stopped producers from grouping together in a way that could actually be quite creative, exciting and fulfilling." Fueled by a seemingly shared impulse "not to be complacent," the music has certainly gotten the attention of some of dance music's most renowned journalists.
The use of the quotation marks on "dance" and reference to it being a "strain of techno" reflects a clear apprehension on the part of a veteran journalist like Sherburne to reduce the insanely disparate music being released by the above labels and the many others we've only just touched upon. More typically, the press is far less precious in their coverage of these artists and labels. "What we're doing ends up being subsumed into either techno or bass music," Henson commented, noting that it is the very restless creative impulse that instills this nascent scene's with such a palpable sense of excitement that is the reason "nobody's ever really written a big piece trying to work out what's going on." Now, he said that in response to my own comments on the matter, but it is exactly what I am trying to do here: work out the numerous thematic, critical, and historical threads that have become woven together in this loose netting of a scene, or network perhaps.
So while Hodge's inclusion in this series has been more due to his presence within the aforementioned network of labels and producers rather than the music itself, it has forced me to spend a considerable amount of time with his productions, to work out how it somehow is different than techno. And that's perhaps part of the reason I and many others have struggled in trying to give some definition to this node cluster: we've been operating under a differential approach to musical development in a time when 'breaks' from the norm are less clean and distinct. Using the "shock of the new" as a criteria for classifying new developments in British dance music was never really a sustainable idea--at this point I think we can all agree that "newness" is a matter of opinion. For as exciting of a music as early jungle truly was, there's always going to be an accounting of it that sees it simply as sped-up and chopped-up breaks with musical and sonic filigree and not as some paradigm-shifting movement, and that's totally fine. You certainly don't have to believe me when I tell you that, like Sherburne, I also consider this grouping of artists and labels to constitute the "most consistently exciting 'dance' music out there," nor do you have to trust my or his personal musical history and knowledge used in making such a bold statement (there's a fuck load of music out there and I know I'm not hearing all of it, let alone just dance music). Just don't expect me to stop writing about it anytime soon.*
OK, let's talk about some music as music, eh?
Starting off with the type of austere post-Classical Curves/Grime 2.0 exploding car exhaust percussive stabs that was being proffered by the likes of Lotic and Rabit, the opening seconds of "You Better Lie Down" see a flammed hi hat enter on the off-beat, setting down a sparse, desolate vibe through which the song's darkwave-indebted synthline cuts like a prismatic rainbow of grey. Using the steady offbeat hi-hit to give the song its technoid bounce, the kick drum pattern is a whole other matter entirely. Using that Livity-style staggered bass kick triple as its low-end anchor, Hodge molds the sonics in his own image, blown-out but patient, bombastic while laser-focused. As the pattern dissolves into a soft 4x4 during the song's middle bridge, the melody suddenly gets itself stuck on a bike gear as a minor motif spins in place, the hats going double time to pick up the slack. By the time the central line comes hurtling back at the listener for the track's final third, the open hat has gained a layer of heft while the grimey percussion of the intro attaches itself to the rhythmic center, the powers combined to create the type of track that could have been played in everything from a Silent Servant or Helana Hauff set to a JANUS or Boxed club night. One could accuse Hodge of a trendy form of cherrypicking, but taken four years on, the song not only remains a belter, but also is representative of the producer's more-melodic brand of kick-led stompers.
*And believe me, when someone of Martin Clark’s stature and experience summarizes this music as he does, you best believe I’m going to give those words some serious consideration even if I still come out the other side in respectful disagreement.