Saturday, March 27, 2010
CHRISTOPH DE BABALON: If You're Into It, I'm Out Of It
The story of drum and bass music has a hundred versions, but purists frequently lament an arc of compromise: jagged breakbeats are domesticated to score car commercials as ritual raves are co-opted by businessmen. An outlaw is deputized. For a listener like me, however (Midwest, mid-twenties) the mythology of psychedelic libertinism and socio-spiritual ecstasy is barely more than the dated liner notes packaged with an LTJ Bukem mix. It’s like how I really dig Jimi Hendrix's music but you couldn’t pay me to watch Woodstock: The Movie. The heroic iconography associated with the pure heyday of drum and bass (the Hendrix-torches-his-axe for the jungle crowd) has typically been the DJ leading his congregation through their rhythmic glory, but I have always preferred the producer, huddled monastic in his bedroom over sampler and calculator, perfecting his masterwork before turntable apostles take it to the world. It’s no surprise, then, that that I am partial to the armchair end of drum and bass. Imagine the difference between swing and post-bop, dance music made avant-garde art. The same radioactive spider that turned Benny Goodman into Eric Dolphy also turned Goldie into Squarepusher. Meanwhile, Sun Ra was from Jupiter and Christoph de Babalon is from hell.
If You’re Into It I’m Out Of It is grim, scary and unyielding. I suppose people could dance to it, but somehow I imagine them sawing through their limbs to escape some Jigsaw Killer death trap instead. You’re not getting out of this record alive, buddy. De Babalon uses the lo-fi claustrophobia of a thousand black metal opuses to pummel his listener with overdriven bass drums and the twitchy, digital bite of spring-loaded sounds. You know those PFM and Spring Heel Jack records that reach for the clouds with a breath of fresh air? This is not that. This music smothers and strangles and slices. It’s awesome. "Dead (Too)" has a bandsaw synth that cuts through all the other music you listened to today and leaves it in little shreds on the floor. "Expressure" is the sonic equivalent of two black eyes.
There are lengthy, drone-based ambient tracks interspersed with the fury and murder, but they are not a calm respite. The ambience is not Brian Eno’s wide-open public terminal, or even Tim Hecker’s day-after-Chernobyl wastescape. It’s more like that box where they locked up St. John of the Cross. That claustrophobia, combined with the almost-excruciating anticipation-of-a-bang tension, is pivotal to the album's structure and makes it a complete, immersive listen. Pretty? Pleasant? No. It’s better.
I know a lot of people would hate this music, (it failed the girlfriend test), but the very things that make it alienating are what make it so thrilling. There’s no arc of compromise here. This music will not work in a car commercial. Your crowd-pleasing DJ has no use for it. De Bablon doesn’t care. If you’re into it, he’s out of it. He painted the basement floor red and he’s got a bunch of strange-looking tools.
I work as a substitute teacher, which means I watch more educational videos than any person should be subjected to. It’s incredible how many of these pedagogy-Spielbergs use anonymous, generic (probably public domain) house and jungle-lite to score their “learning is fun” condescension. Using music as background noise is paying it the ultimate insult. (In that, I am not including using music for dancing, which is a way of actively engaging it.) I admire Christoph de Babalon for making an album that refuses to be ignorable. Great art makes you want to rip it off the wall, they say, either so you can burn it or take it home. This guy doesn't care which one you do, but if you even try to attack this music you'll probably lose the fight. Look at that album title. It's just as audacious as “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. De Babalon has the good taste to spare us the pop-prophetic, self-congratulatory liner notes favored by so many electronic musicians, but you can imagine the sort of Nietzsche-esque exclusiveness he might have included: “Perhaps not even ten men alive are prepared to hear my breakbeats.”
I love the dank atmosphere, the suspense of being chained to the furnace just below that mildewed waterline as the cement floor is sunk under a malicious flood. This is one of my favorite electronic albums. In case you were looking for one more thing Thom Yorke and I have in common (in addition to “scrawny” and “nervous” and “loved by millions”), I once read a review of this record that he wrote for the BBC (which you can read on de Bablon's myspace page). “I choose this record,” he wrote, “because it's the most menacing record I own and it's kind of how I imagined drum and bass was always going to be and then it wasn't.” I think I own some records more menacing than this, but that other part is exactly how I feel about it.