Top critical review
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Highly informative but not objective enough
on 10 July 2009
Simon Reynolds' "Energy Flash" is one of the most frequently prescribed accounts of modern dance music and culture. Reynolds was one of the first music critics and journalists to write about the blossoming dance scene of the 90s in more depth than your typical Mixmag "phat choon" hyperbole. As such his works are often top of the lists of things to read if you want to learn about dance music.
One of the best things about Reynolds' writing is his determination to move beyond rockist notions of music journalism, which he himself dubbed in his "Bring The Noise" anthology as "bad [literary criticism]", where journalists pour over lyrics meanings, artist statements and subtexts, treating music as essentially glorified poetry.
Reynolds was smart enough to recognise that dance music, with its automatic playback, instrumental grounding and DIY ethos, was opposed to rock music's fixation with the star, the performance and the ego. Dance music is interested in anonymity, in "losing yourself", in de-emphasising the musicians and emphasising the finished sound. In response, his writings on dance music attempt to describe it by invoking critical theory, postmodern philosophy and metanarratives of class and racial struggle.
One of the great strengths of Energy Flash is that it is imbued with the hands-on knowledge and experience of someone who actually attended the raves and parties that they are writing about, and who covered the scenes as they emerged. Reynolds' book is full of information that has largely been forgotten by the temporal club scene, and so it has more vividness than many subsequent books.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Reynolds' pioneering and intelligent critical style, which still feels fresh if you're used to reading vacuous dance mags such as Mixmag, I have to urge caution to anyone who reads this book to educate themselves about dance culture. Such is the breadth and detail of Reynolds' account of dance music history that it would be easy to take his word as gospel regarding musical merit.
As someone who knew their history and their music before reading this book, I was dismayed to read Reynolds' dismissals of many styles and scenes I thoroughly enjoy, on the basis of scene politics. One of the biggest narratives that the book documents is the clash between the breakbeat hardcore that formed the basis of the UK rave scene and the later, "intelligent" styles that attempted to write hardcore out of the history books. As a firm advocate of drum 'n bass in the 90s, Reynolds puts a great deal of effort into championing hardcore and downplaying the scenes that attacked it.
For example, if you'd just read Energy Flash and never heard the music, you'd probably believe that progressive house was a pretentious electronic reincarnation of 70s prog rock that abandoned its black roots in favour of white, rockist values. As someone who likes both old skool hardcore AND progressive, I can understand Reynolds' point regarding the unfair and condescending criticisms of the hardcore scene, but I also think he's guilty of over-reaction and making false claims for the sake of his inter-scene narrative struggle. Only someone who purposefully ignored everything coming out of Renaissance in the early 90s for the sake of his argument could claim that prog house abandoned its black NYC roots. His derogatory descriptions of offending styles border on mere caricature at times, dismissing some wonderful music because of inter-scene snobbery that he should be rising above in a book that aims to document history.
I also found his repeated assertion that "black music = soulful dance music" and "white music = unfunky head music" both lazy and somewhat racist. For example, he states that: "For all its cult of the mystic Orient, Goa Trance is sonically whiter-than-white... with not a lot going on in the rhythm section". While he is clearly attempting to invoke the Orientalism theory of Edward Said and co, Reynolds ultimately ends up subscribing to the same racist assumptions he's attempting to counter, by dividing the world into a white/not white dichotomy, where ANY music of non-white origin should be expected to be rhythmically interesting - in other words funky, soulful and primal as opposed to the cultured white music where tribal groove has been repressed.
Altogether this is a great book for the beginner, but keep your eye open for biases and keep your ear open to the music being discussed before you form an opinion.