If you’d asked me a year ago which artists best exemplified the state of the contemporary avant-underground, I’d have said Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro, and left it that. No doubt about it. Today, I’d want to add Daniel Martin-McCormick to the list.
While mainstream pop is busy converging on a single mutant mega-genre — euro-dance, feat. R&B, feat. hip-hop, feat. rock, feat. euro-dance, feat. R&B — elsewhere the name of the game is radical eclecticism and artistic self-difference. Multiple projects and personae. #keeponmoving @changenotevolution. N E V E R S E T T L E. And the attitude always seems very deliberate, studied. The musical sensibility I’m getting at here always seems to have an agenda. This is the era of the concept musician, the PhDJ and their necessary foil the academicritic.
Look how perfectly Daniel Martin-McCormick fits this bill. He first made a name for himself between 2001 and 2004, releasing two excellent records with the post-hardcore turned free-improv and general freakout five-piece Black Eyes. After that, his next project was Mi Ami. Initially Mi Ami did post-punk, though with more than a passing interest in dub. But by 2011’s Dolphins, the group had discarded the paraphernalia of rock entirely, trading in their guitars for “ancient drum machines, a sampler that runs on floppy disks, and the simplest keyboard presets imaginable” (TMT Review). The result was a kind of dystopic, ultra lo-fi electro-pop that, although it was clearly indebted to old-school house and disco, nevertheless wore its own lack of roots in the dance tradition firmly on its sleeve. And if this were true sonically, it was even more obvious visually. When Mi Ami made the shift to Not Not Fun offshoot 100% Silk for their most recent effort Decade, it made perfect sense.
In fact, Martin-McCormick’s association with Not Not Fun had already been established for some time as Sex Worker, probably his weirdest project to date (which is saying something). And when the Ital moniker emerged in 2011 on a series of EPs for 100% Silk, there were mumblings right from the very start that maybe this was an artist we’d heard from before. If it was hard to tell, that’s because this was the first time Martin-McCormick had abandoned his trademark squawk, hitherto the only continuity between the various projects. Moreover, this wasn’t just a surface level difference. It signaled that for the first time Martin-McCormick might be interested in making straight-ahead dance music rather than some sort of semi-ironic commentary on it. Not “hipster house,” just house. And by 2012, he had duly made the move to the estimable Brighton-based electronic label Planet Mu.
In another era, that’s probably where this brief synopsis would have ended. In 2012, it’d be wrong of me not to mention Martin-McCormick’s regular (and high-quality) output as a critic for Dusted magazine as well. Look at the records he’s reviewing. Look at his favorites of 2010 and 2011. This is a guy who’s not just listening to but theorizing exactly the same stuff we are. Which is to say E V E R Y T H I N G: noise, dubstep, techno, punk, footwork, hip-hop, African disco, reggae, Colin Stetson, Matthew Herbert, Cooly G, Laurel Halo, Hype Williams, and plenty of Oneohtrix Point Never. And it’s fascinating to notice, for instance, that Martin-McCormick reviewed Planet Mu’s superb original Bangs & Works compilation shortly before signing to the label and suddenly injecting a heavy dose of footwork into his own sound. The result, “Doesn’t Matter (If You Love Him)” from February’s formidable Hive Mind (TMT Review) is for my money one of the standout tracks of 2012. The fact that “Privacy Settings” follows only two tracks later is testament both to the depth of Martin-McCormick’s talent and to the breadth of his artistic vision. “Privacy Settings” offers four of the darkest, most unsettling minutes you’re ever likely to experience. Footwork this ain’t.
It’s this diversity that makes Martin-McCormick such a tantalizing proposition. You get the sense that anything goes with him; that he’s totally unalloyed to genre; that he could go anywhere or do anything next; that none of the rules apply except when he wants them to, except when he’s deliberately invoking and exploiting them; that having already tried his hand at punk, noise, and improv — and admirably so — on his next album he might simply abandon electronica entirely and move on again.
He didn’t. Not this time at least. Dream On moves in pretty similar territory to Hive Mind and with almost as much flair. For me, there’s nothing quite as impressive here as either “Doesn’t Matter” or “Privacy Settings,” but it’s still a top quality record. The opening two tracks are both built around a solid four-to-the-floor, before things disintegrate into shards of noise on “Eat Shit.” When the beat does eventually kick in and the noise stubbornly remains, you begin to realize what it is that makes Ital so great. His more straight-ahead takes on house would be genuinely worthwhile in their own right, but it’s where he deviates from the script that things get really interesting. “Enrique” is another perfect example, a totally mutant hybrid of ambient, concrete, noise, and industrial, throbbing and sinister before the interference start up around the three-minute mark, and then the siren begins steadily to ascend and descend, ramping up the anxiety levels each time. With its Trecartin-esque vocal fragments, portentous organ, and swells of noise, “What A Mess” is just plain batshit crazy: deeply, deeply disconcerting stuff.
None of this is an accident. Daniel Martin-McCormick knows exactly what he’s doing. And you can rest assured that next time it’ll be something different again. In this respect, he is at once an innovator, a symptom, and a paradigm, a dramatic exemplification of the fact that our musical future will increasingly be shaped by relentless genre-hoppers, bringing their restless and highly literate ears to bear on whatever territory they happen to see fit before moving on again. And so the interesting question becomes: what territory will they see fit? Are any genres off limits? If so, which? And according to what politics?