“[Underground Resistance] are absolutely decisive influences: but it’s a classic and accomplished sound, so it’s difficult to compete with that style without being a faded copy of the original. However, you can still draw useful lessons from their music about immediacy and the instinct to preserve.”
– Egisto Sopor a.k.a. Polysick, electronique.it
When it comes to talking about technology and the future, an idea of utopia always forms a part of the initial stakes. So what happens when that idea is lost? Vincent Mosco writes, in The Digital Sublime:
The real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communities, or end scarcity, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal — when they literally (as in the case of electricity) or figuratively withdraw into the woodwork.
And when the computer stood for an interconnected future, for the overcoming of time, space, and power, when the computer, in other words, was in its mythic period, Kodwo Eshun called techno an OS for overriding the present. “Each UR release,” he wrote, discussing the genre’s golden boys, “arrives from the future you’re heading towards.” Underground Resistance were quoted identifying themselves as “a project devised to cold-fuse human DNA and cell structures with cybernetic and sonic circuitry; a union of sound, man and machine.” Techno was, and is, a byproduct of the Computer Age: contained within techno’s mission statement is the computer’s promise to exceed the here-and-now.
Even now, the UR website carries a front-page definition of techno: “a music based in experimentation; music for the future of the human race.” And although “without techno there will be no peace, no love, no vision,” the cyberbole of the 1990s has receded somewhat into a form at once humbler and more fundamental:
Isn’t it obvious that music and dance are the keys to the universe? So called primitive animals and tribal humans have known this for thousands of years! We urge all brothers and sisters of the underground to create and transmit their tones and frequencies no matter how so called primitive their equipment may be.
The once futureshapers have become custodians of a heritage. Like the computer, techno may have lost its most revolutionary connotations, but traces of the old promise remain: one must still override the present, if not solely for the sake of the future.
If the Age of the Telephone bore witness to a new urban reality, to “the rapid crowd of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions” (Simmel), then the novelty of the Computer Age can be found in its promise to organize the continuity of our own private universes. Although techno’s ability to tell tales has gone largely unheralded, for Eshun, tracks like “Sunset 303” and “Base Camp Alpha 808” were “a constantly proliferating series of sonic scenarios,” sonic fictions, that, crucially, “give the overwhelming impression that the record is an object from the world it releases.” A more circumspect Mike Banks, in an interview with The Wire, admitted in 2007: “I think what people really enjoy about UR is they get to paint their own picture. We might just make the canvas for them, with the record, and in their mind they paint the picture and that’s one of the reasons we sold for so long.” Motion drags metaphor along in its undertow: rhythm refers to something else, invoking what R. F. Thompson, discussing ancient African songs and dances, called the Principle of Social Allusion, concerning “music which, however danceable… remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living.” Similarly, the distance techno affords is the space of the promise, a space for narrative renegotiation: between the city and its subject, or else between utopia and its dreamers.
While techno, in its mythic, UR-sense — a grassroots, outsider economy driven by communal ambition, gear-headed innovation, and promoter initiative — is preoccupied with the release of alternative urban energies, the advent of Digital Native reminds us of the possibility of a techno detached from the urban economy of clubbing. A child of the Computer Age, and thus of techno itself, Polysick continues where Belbury Poly left off with 2007’s The Owl’s Map. Take, for example, the rustic bump ‘n’ grind of “Rattler’s Hey” (from The Owl’s Map) or the faux-exoticism of “Caravan” (originally released under TheAwayTeam moniker but included on Digital Native) and it’s clear that the widescreen militancy of UR’s anxious future-dramas has been abandoned in favor of a more contemplative, even ruminant, mode: this is techno at its most individuated, the drama of small, melodic transitions between layers of simple, emotive phrases sought in weirdsigged box jams. Tied to its era by its roving brief to soundtrack smallscreen likelihoods in a range of genre settings, library offers techno its own folk legacy, its embeddedness in pop culture an electronic dream of folk’s connection to the everyday (Mark Fisher has provided a basis for the argument that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were, at least in the UK, bigger than The Beatles, only their ubiquity was more insidious).
But we can’t bring folk into the discussion without mentioning Rob Young’s monumental Electric Eden, the crux of which is that folk’s dream of immediate access to the substance of life (be that nature, labor, magic, or some other metaphysic) is organized around the impossibility of utopia: all folk tends toward a great project of mourning for the promised land. Which is interesting because techno is not without its own utopias, from Drexciya’s aquatopian mythology to Jeff Mills’ Sleeper Wakes series. Even at the most superficial level, techno is fascinated with utopia, from the propensity for sci-fi themes as some form of organizing conceit, to the descent into blankness and minimalism characteristic of its celebrated facelessness.
In a sense, this is also where Digital Native joins up with the Artificial Intelligence ideo-genre of the early 90s, that alliance of the rust belt with the Celtic fringe best encapsulated on the The Philosophy of Sound and Machine comp, that privileged its relation with the “radical beauty” ( (c) Mixmaster Morris) of the Detroit masters by basing its tactics on a rejection of Eurorave’s glib, brutalizing repurposings — or what a more skeptical Simon Reynolds called “a full-scale retreat from the most radically posthuman and hedonistically funktional aspects of rave music towards more traditional ideas about creativity, namely the auteur theory of the solitary genius who humanizes technology rather than subordinates himself to the drug-tech interface.” What’s different is that Digital Native is paradoxically more childish and more cynical than A.I. 1.0. More childish, because the material, despite its melancholic bustle, is cleaved to the belief in an implausible promise; more cynical, because this belief can only be maintained from an ironic distance. In the spirit of Lieven Martens (Dolphins Into The Future), it’s tempting to call this a New Age dialectic: an idea takes hold only once the limit of its discredit has been established. Techno, like the computer, became autonomous only when its mythic period elapsed: “When the myth became reality, when the plebs turned up en masse for the party in 1991-2, ‘rave’ became a dirty word… resurrecting progressive rock’s elevation of head over body, melodic complexity over rhythmic compulsion, the new home-listening electronica set itself on a course that led to New Age” (Reynolds).
So you could dance to “Transpelagic,” but you won’t. Here, as on “Preda” and “Smudge, Hawaii,” the 4/4 pulse survives as a memory-trace, a carefully measured consolidation of utopian excess, investing these miniature retro-garde panoramas with an acid-moiled jounce. And techno, like utopia, only endures on the understanding that it has been lost.