“Computerized clinic for superior cynics/who dance to a synthetic band/In their own image, their world is fashioned/No wonder they don't understand.”
When Rush lyricist/drummer Neil Peart offered this opinion, on the 1980 magnum opus “Natural Science,” he was bemoaning the fickle trend-hopping tendencies of a listening public forever being sold a “next big thing,” and simultaneously, the tendency of music industry movers and shakers to downplay the human element in music making, in order to urge forward an assembly line approach to the creation and dissemination of “music product.”
He wasn't wrong then. The 30-odd years that have passed have only deepened the prescience of Peart's observation.
What has been particularly exciting about the emergence of the “jam-tronica” movement over the past several years is the way that “techno” – a snappy descriptive meant to suggest the metronomic exactitude and repetition of computer-based music – has been reintroduced to the “human element.” It's as if the ghost is struggling to dominate the machine. The musicians are seeking to make themselves a necessary part of music making once more. One can easily read into this a metaphorical struggle of the human spirit to assert itself amidst a dehumanizing culture.
How does this happen? It can often be as simple as reintroducing real-time musicianship into the techno formula. Employing the beats that are requisite to the creation of dance-based techno, but then getting living, breathing musicians to play along, offer human commentary, find the soul in between the bits and bytes.
The mainstream club scene has always been the battleground for this metaphorical war between technology and humanity. Clubs don't succeed unless they are full of paying customers on a regular basis. That means, more often than not, lots of dancing, which can also often involve lots of drinking.
The prevailing logic is (still) based around the idea that a DJ is more desirable to a club owner than a band of musicians. DJs keep the beats flowing, they keep the dance floor throbbing, they play tunes that people already know, they don't bring too much in the way of equipment, and there's usually only one of them.
Bands, on the other hand, are comprised of several people, all of whom have their own equipment, not to mention their own personalities, and all of whom would like to be paid at the end of the evening. They also tend to demand artistic freedom, unless they happen to have been booked as cover bands, in which case they are happy to play other people's music all night long. In short, you never know exactly what you're going to get with a band. With a DJ, you'll get exactly what you expect, pretty much every time.
The economic reality of this fact has dictated a change in the broader world of music, toward that techno-based dystopia Peart was predicting back in 1980. Call it the totalitarian impulses of the dance beat. You can now pay top dollar to watch a DJ “spin” tunes in a massive concert arena. Last summer, the DJ known as Girl Talk headlined a show at Buffalo's Outer Harbor. The two biggest DJs in the world – Skrillex and David Guetta – earn their nut “playing” festivals like Coachella. They are the new rock stars. And they don't employ musicians.
Meanwhile, down in the underground, where the most exciting and dynamic music is almost always being made, DJs who still spin and manipulate vinyl records, as opposed to the “digital spinning” favored by the top-dollar DJs, are hooking up with real-time musicians to “jam.” And bands are employing laptops to keep the four-on-the-floor going while they construct compositions, improvise and take off on collective jams around that techno pulse. This is happening in Buffalo clubs that feature live music on a consistent basis, most nights of the week.
I see this phenomenon as a case of musicians battling to reclaim territory stolen from them by the dictators of dance-mania. It's not a new story. And it doesn't suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with dance music, at all. But it's happening. Musicians are a tenacious lot. They want their piece of the musical pie. After all, they spent all that time learning how to play. They'd prefer that computers don't put them out of business.
Some of the most exciting music being made is the purview of bands marrying a deeply human jam ethic to a techno-based rhythmic structure. So those who love to dance can dance. And the guitar geeks can stand there with their jaws hanging open while some serious six-string virtuoso spanks out a killer solo. Everybody's happy.
One of the finest of these newer bands, Jimkata, plays at 8 p.m. Thursday in Duke's Bohemian Grove Bar (253 Allen St.). This Northeastern four-piece released what might be the finest jam-tronica album extant last year, in the form of “Die Digital.” The record convincingly marries rock instrumentation, strong songwriting and a deeply human element to techno-based dance music. It is, in many ways, the shot fired over the bow in the battle between straight DJ music and live band performance.
One can rest fairly assured that there will be others.