Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music
The early negative reviews of Rhino's Machine Soul -- which boil down to "been there, done that" -- have a point. As a purported attempt to lay out the history of dance music across two discs, the set opts for obvious choices (Kraftwerk, New Order, Donna Summer), throwaways (Sparks, Gary Numan's "Cars"), and, worst of all, songs unrepresentative of the culture's underground rep -- OMD and Depeche Mode are the Top 40's old news, and the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" has been invalidated by that damn Volkswagen ad. That leaves little opportunity to cram some cred into the tail end of the second disc (BT, Paul Van Dyk) and an overall sense that Rhino's just cashing in on Fatboy Slim, and poorly at that. But while part of the problem is Rhino, the peculiarity of dance music's relationship to the masses is another. Ghettoized in every radio format it can sneak into -- pop, R&B, and alternative, mainly -- dance music that makes a dent on the charts is almost always crossover material, and what crosses over is always different. Not to mention that it's not always what its creators envisioned. It was Donna Summer's voice, not Georgio Moroder's autobahn drift, that made "I Feel Love" a hit, and the fans who came to New Order's "Blue Monday" could give a throw about the song's trance background, just as most Moby fans (especially these days) might not know their Eno.
That's not Rhino's fault; its job is to track the clumsy tango of art and commerce, and dance music's avoidance of the wider marketplace is even more entrenched than that of alt-rock, which went through its own similar growing pains five years ago. So Machine Soul's problem isn't that it neglects Juan Atkins in telling its story -- it's that it forgets about the Pet Shop Boys. Mistitled, the set functions best not as a history of dance music but as the tale of the synthesizer and sampler as pop music devices: The fact that it gets you cold drivel like the Normal's "Warm Leatherette" as well as the oceanic drift of Moby's "Go" and the big beat of the Chemical Brothers' "Life Is Sweet" is typical of the game every underground genre's had to play. Still, even in telling that story, Machine Soul is bested by Tommy Boy's The Perfect Beats series, which succeeds mainly because it focuses on the close ties between techno and hip-hop.
Both those sets exemplify what you might as well call the Fatboy Slim dividend -- attempts to codify the genre's history now that it's made waves on the pop charts. The spate of recent collections looking still further back are a result of that as well: Rhino's Wired Magazine Presents Music Futurists and Caipirinha's Early Modulations: Vintage Volts both centered on the university lab roots of techno, but Ellipsis Arts' Ohm is the most thoroughgoing, engaging, and convincing set yet produced. At three CDs, it has room to maneuver, starting, as it must, with the theremin: Clara Rockmore's Tchaikovsky beehive gives way to tape, noise, and musique concrète experiments from John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Edgard Varese. Given the genre's early genesis in the scientific realm, the first half of the set is best appreciated by academic ears, but by the mid-'60s electronic music began to move slowly away from enthusing over sound to enthusing over structure. Representing the monsters of minimalism -- Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich ("Pendulum Music" performed by Sonic Youth), Terry Riley, etc. -- the latter part of the series defines the struggle to turn the newfound instrumentation into a system in which song would have to respond to the machine and vice versa. Rock 'n' roll ran with this ideology as well, from "Baba O'Riley" to Roxy Music to the bubbly bass of Can and Public Image Limited.
In the end, however, every instrument has to respond to the human being tweaking it, which is the story the bulk of the '70s tracks on the third disc tells -- voices are manipulated, transformed, and surf the same sine wave as the machines they're sampled into. At the set's 1980 stopping point, electronic experimentation had embraced not the novelty of weird sounds but instead the charming, ethereal beauty of ambient, represented by the Jon Hassell and Brian Eno tracks. After that, it passed out of Ohm's hands and to the Detroit techno and Brit ambient artists who took it semi-mainstream -- and engendered a search for history. Thank you, Fatboy Slim.