Dance Music's Détente Peace Breaks Out Between Intellectual and Instinctive

Dance Music's Détente Peace Breaks Out Between Intellectual and Instinctive
There's this song I can't get out of my head, a song about clubs, a song about losing yourself in the groove, a song that suggests dance music has recovered its fundamentally inclusive spirit. The track is John Tejada's "Sweat (On The Walls)," a low-slung techno/electro hybrid released last October on Germany's Poker Flat Recordings.

An accomplished musician with experience in drum & bass and acoustic folk music, Tejada is perhaps best known as a rigorously minimal technoist — a producer whose sharpest tracks seem to scythe weightlessly through the atmosphere. What's so shocking about "Sweat," then, is just how lush it is. First, there are the track's myriad intersecting sinister electro riffs; each is substantial enough to carry the track on its own, but as arranged by Tejada, the riffs wrap tightly around each other, each a flickering length of neon twisted within a grand curlicue sculpture. Then there's the song's indelible narrator, a woman recounting her clubbing experiences and asking the listener questions about their own drug preferences.

That this woman can still elicit a frisson with the line "acid all over the place" at this late stage in dance music history seems nothing short of incredible, but in this respect, "Sweat" strikes me as this generation's version of Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash" — the 1991 single that contained a sampled voice repeating the word "ecstasy." Of course, "Sweat" will never reach as many ears as Beltram's classic — dance music just doesn't have the same sway with young listeners it once did — but for those of us tuned into the scene, it's nothing short of epochal.

To be into techno and house these days is to feel marginal in the scheme of contemporary music, even in the ostensibly open-minded independent community. Any anecdotal account of current listening trends will tell you that the audience for electronic music has shrunk in the face of rock's resurgence, but even if its numbers are down, the dance community is undergoing something of an aesthetic renaissance, one due in no small part to its dwindling profile.

The theory goes like this: as an underground scene begins to penetrate the mainstream, it takes on a host of converts — some genuinely piqued by the form's artistic merit, others by its profit-making potential. Within a few short years, the spark that originally set the scene ablaze is indistinguishable from the spreading fire. This situation inevitably causes a rift in the scene; on one side, fly-by-night operators and hegemonic players tend to water down their product to establish and/or maintain market share. Purists, on the other hand, tend to veer way left, taking their music to places where only the most educated listeners can follow.

Such was the state of affairs in techno and house in the initial stages of the post-rave era (1999 to 2003). On one side you had old-guard populists like Pete Tong and John Digweed, DJs specialising in a form (progressive house) that had come to embody dance music at its disposable and formulaic worst. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, stern minimalism prevailed, evident in the circular experiments of the clicks & cuts movement and the razor-edged severity of the post-Basic Channel techno scene.

How surprising it is, then, to hear that Digweed's new Fabric 20 mix amounts to a veritable reconciliation of those disparate camps, functioning in this sense in much the same way as Tejada's "Sweat (On The Walls)." For Tejada, "Sweat" represents a rightward movement; for Digweed, meanwhile, Fabric 20 sees him moving to the left, as he applies his distinctively smooth mixing style to purist-approved tracks from labels like Merck, Substatic and Kompakt.

Fabric 20 and "Sweat" are only two of the many examples of rapprochement between factions on the left and right. On the mix front, for example, there's a strange rhyming effect between Triple R's new Selection 3 and Mei-Lwun's recent Uno compilation — the former made by the head of Germany's exacting Trapez label, the latter by a San Francisco DJ who usually plays to the bridge and tunnel crowd. Track-wise, there are just too many recent standouts to mention, but the work of producers like Ewan Pearson and Tiefschwarz strike me as the ideal soundtrack for this fruitful period of détente in club land. Peacetime has never sounded so euphoric.