Mark Smith is one half of improvisational electronic duo Gardland, whose most recent LP, Syndrome Syndrome, was released in 2013 on RVNG Intl. Currently based in Berlin, he is a regular contributor to electronicbeats.net and Electronic Beats Magazine. This recommendation of Transllusion’s 2001 LP, The Opening of the Cerebral Gate, was originally printed in our Fall 2014 issue, and the record is about to be reissued by Berlin club and label Tresor.
It’s a little sad to me that Drexciya feels like an unattainable artifact. No matter how many reissues and reappraisals attempt to push them back into modern electronic discourse, I can never fit them into any cogent narrative. While contemporaneous acts like Underground Resistance cultivated a similar sense of distance, UR’s was much more an inclusive and empowering brand of isolated autonomy that was directly applicable to one’s everyday life. Drexciya, on the other hand, seem hopelessly far away. There is no takeaway message—or if there is, it’s too deeply alienated and abstracted for terranean brains. I find it hard to even consider them as people. Their musical character occludes their human character completely. This is music beyond empathy. It doesn’t care about you.
And that’s why I value The Opening of the Cerebral Gate so much. It exists within a vacuum, surviving purely on its own narrow but perfectly taut aesthetic. Drexciya exists in a zone beyond the pretension of your ego, yet its world is self-made and totally powered by the collective id of James Stinson and Gerald Donald, as is Transllusion, a Stinson alias.
I wonder if this degree of artistic self-curation is possible in the music world today. These days, there isn’t a lot of cognitive dissonance surrounding the necessity of dressing your boring self up in some sort of vaguely transcendent narrative. Drexciya kind of blew right past that. They came up with perhaps the most ridiculous framing concept in electronic music to date and then inhabited it so totally that their position was unassailable. It’s awesomely ironic that they used a spectacle to maintain their autonomy. I’ve yet to hear a cynic calling in to question the artifice that’s central to the Drexciyan identity.
There’s the usual glut of Detroit signifiers on The Opening: malignantly pitched harmonic progressions, laddering arpeggios, big 808s, the occasional unclassifiable noise, but Stinson manages to remain distinct from the city’s history. I put Terrence Dixon on a similar pedestal, but even he occasionally reclines back into the welcoming arms of the Detroit identity. However, as Transllusion, Stinson’s sound design gets a facelift. Bright transients and some modern reverb contribute to a more searing palette than his warmer early nineties material. It’s a suitable coupling to the brain-pain themes that the record courts.
The Opening was the second part of a project called the Drexciyan Storms. Stinson and Donald were supposed to release seven records in a single year under a variety of aliases. This is the same series that gave us Lifestyles of the Laptop Café and Harnessed the Storm, so, needless to say, they were on something of a roll. I’d hazard a guess and say we’ll continue to see these records reissued. Personally, I’m glad for it. And this is basically how it goes talking about Drexciya; You hit an end point pretty quickly where all that’s left to talk about is the music itself, and we all know that gets old pretty quick. ~
A few weeks before electronic maverick Aphex Twin released his latest album, Syro, a friend slipped me the record so I could listen to it in advance. As the zip file downloaded, its vital signs looked promising. The thirteen garbled titles were written in classic Aphex style, with the requisite armory of uppEr and loWeR case and brackets (both round) [and square], and when I flicked through the tracks, it seemed like it might be the real deal. However, given Richard D. James’s penchant for troublemaking, I knew it might be a phony version of Syro that Warp Records launched into to the digital ether to screw with fans, a fake leak.
I couldn’t be certain either way, because the potential leak posed a hyperreal conundrum. If I liked the music and it turned out to be an imposter, I’d be the butt of Aphex’s practical joke. And what if the opposite happened—what if my skepticism about the veracity of the leak turned to cynicism, and I ended up hating Syro just because I thought it was a fraud constructed to con people who can’t tell the difference between authentic Aphex tunes and sneering knockoffs?
At first listen, the record ticked all the boxes. Glitchy percussion and pastoral synth melodies recalled the producer’s stellar run of albums in the mid-90s; the plucked synth strings that announce “nusxxtrabo780” were a dead ringer for “Goon Gumpas” from the Richard D James Album. The battering 808 claps of “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3” even matched the initial impact of Analogue Bubblebath.
In some ways, I felt more free listening to this potential leak than I would have if I had known for sure that I was hearing the real Syro. This was an opportunity to approach a record free of context, and without the reputation of a legendary electronic auteur coloring my listening experience. In theory, I should have been able to rely solely on my gut instinct as to whether the music was any good, and whether it was truly the work of Aphex Twin.
However, when I allowed myself to drift into this liberated head space, I found that this Syro wasn’t exactly a wild listen. The house piano samples on “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] (syrobonkus mix)” were naff and cloying, and the clumping military chug of “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]” left me cold. Everything felt underpowered and square, because the beats never spilled over the barlines and the melodies didn’t tug at the heart strings as I’d have hoped. If this leak had arrived with indisputable proof that it was helmed by the real Twin, I’d like to think I’d have felt short-changed—but it’s tricky to tell how I would have felt about it, or how much my knowledge of and preexisting relationship to its author would influence my opinion about the music itself.
It seems that IDM is easy pickings for a skeptical listener, and mischief is often mistaken for content by mediocre imitators and lustless fanboys. I’ve listened to a dead-eyed replica of Aphex Twin—a calling-card list of breakbeats, kid clips, and ambience—but I missed the sense of touch which dominate masterpieces like On.
Maybe the fake leak was James’s way of telling us that he wanted us to stop talking about Syro and to listen to it again.