A year and a half ago, the DJs at the Thursday night Avant God event at Brooklyn's Luxx resurrected the phrase to describe their own blend of bleeding-edge dance music. Avant God closed down (and later, so did Luxx), but "death disco" lives on as the name of a London club night, and most recently as the title of a mix CD from French DJ Ivan Smagghe.
Just what is this stuff? NME called the PiL album "a lethal dose of psychedelic eclecticism;" Smagghe's mix, although very different in sound, could be described in much the same way. The 13 tracks range from punk-funky cuts like The House of Fix's "Way Out" and Drinking Electricity's "Breakout" (Tiga Edit) to dark techno-industrial pounders like Sweet Exorcist's "Test Four" (remixed by Smagghe under the name Blackstrobe) and Steve D's "Monochromatic" (Technoclash Mix).
There are also tinges of Italo-disco - in BWH's "Stop" (Nathan Wilkins & Midnight Mike Edit) and Kiki's "Luv Sikk" - and electro - in "Breakout," and the Dub Pistols' "Six Million Ways to Live" (Paul Daley Six Mil Version). What holds it all together are the detached, dark sensibility, and the non-stop 4/4 beat. This is disco that won't take no for an answer.
The impersonal quality reminds me of a lot of French dance music I've heard over the years. (Smagghe's somewhat pompous liner notes are also very French, in a different way.) Many tracks feature simple, repetitive acid-style basslines that make them seem endless - perhaps perfect for a drug-fueled night of dancing, but less pleasant for headphone listening. Is the edginess of a set like this challenging, or just monotonous?
To me, the "death disco" style is distinct from what bands on the DFA label, like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, do (though remixes of DFA tracks play a big part in death disco DJ sets). The output of DFA bands is more what I'd call "disco rock" or "disco punk" - a rediscovery of the strain of funky rock-and-roll DNA that was always there within the genetic code of old-school disco.
Death disco, in contrast, seems driven by something colder and more mechanical. It represents a retreat from the verse-chorus pop structure of much nu-electro of the last few years - a return to the days of long, slowly evolving tracks built on 4- and 8-bar repetitions. This is music for 12-hour DJ sets, in which the thump-thump-thump of the kickdrum never relents.
Of course, the more user-friendly genres of house and trance also rely on the steady underpinning of a four-on-the-floor beat. But death disco - thankfully - flushes away the stale, sentimental cliches that house and trance have been trapped in for years. In their place, it gives us darker, noise-driven, atonal grooves, flavored with diced-up bits of electro, industrial and acid house. The vocals are distorted; the melodies are fragmented or nonexistent.
In a recent interview, DJ Damian Lazarus described the new sound as:
"a new form of house music, one that incorporates techno and breakbeats and it's deep and it's quite druggy, but there are also accessible angles. ... This is serious music, extremely serious and I use the word in every sense. It's deep, it's intelligent, it's quite futuristic and it's pushing the boundaries forward of what you can and can't do with music."
I am fully in favor of pushing things forward, and Smagghe's mix CD and other sets I've heard lately show a welcome spirit of experimentation. Not all experiments succeed, of course. Some of Smagghe's dancefloor-centric, avant-house selections work for me; elsewhere the lack of pop values like melody and variation leaves me cold. Is his mix a signpost for the future? I'm not sure. But it's no hoax.
--Reposted from VOLTAGE: ELECTRO CULTURE
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