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New Techno, Old Music
Donnacha DeLong questions the originality of the recent developments in dance music.

"There's nothing that's new under heaven,
There's nothing unique over hell,
Pour me another double cliche,
You can't write a song that's never been sung

"Nothing That's New" - Chumbawamba.

In a world where Oasis sell millions, where Brit Pop still reigns and success seems to be based on how well you can play the riffs of the Beatles, the Stones, et al., it seem that Chumbawamba hit the nail on the head. There is nothing that's new anywhere.

Then again, perhaps not. According to the music press, we are actually hearing a revolution in modern music. The latest bandwagon that has been jumped on by magazines across the musical divide is that of the dance bands who have pushed back the boundaries of dance and are changing the face of music forever. And the bands at the fore-front of this revolution are ... the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers.

Allegedly, the idea of fusing punk rock and techno is a new one and that bands who have just started mixing guitars and loud vocals with dance are progressing beyond all of their contemporaries. The Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers are not the alone in this so-called revolution, Orbital's Butthole Surfers sample heavy "Satan" and Primal Scream's electric sound-track "Kowalski" and their cover of Motorhead's eponymous anthem are supposedly new departures from a dance scene that was growing stale.

In truth, all of the above named have come up with something about as original as Brit-pop. This so-called "new" techno is fresh enough to the dance scene, but only as fresh as Oasis are to people who have never heard the Beatles. These bands are re-treading tracks that have been well tread for over 20 years.

There is a string of different terms for this kind of music, of which industrial, electronic body music (EBM), dance core and heavy techno are just four. These terms refer to a variety of bands who play a type of music somewhere between dance/electronic and punk/metal. The different names form an irrelevant set of lines between bands with similar ideas, most of whom are divided more by geography than by style. For the last number of years, these different terms have been abandoned in favour of a more general definition of "industrial" or "industrial techno". It is a style of music that originally developed alongside punk, and far from being a progression in dance, it actually formed the basis for European dance music of the 80s and 90s.

The band most often credited with starting the ball rolling are arch noise-niks Throbbing Gristle. In 1976, when the Sex Pistols were shouting about anarchy and popular music was being redefined, Throbbing Gristle were way out there, challenging the very definition of music. Over the next few years Genesis P. Orridge screamed his lungs out over a bizarre selection of factory sounds and twisted synthesizer noises. They coined the term "industrial" for their music, based on the simple fact that they used industrial sounds instead of instruments. While much of their recordings are almost completely unlistenable, they did leave behind a handful of some of the best heavy electronic songs ever, like "Hamburger Lady", "Adrenalin" and "Persuasion."

When punk rock suffered a quick demise, a number of bands, who had decided that three chords were not the whole truth, emerged to prominence. The depressed synth punk sounds of Joy Division and the electronic experimentation of Wire, Devo and Killing Joke - who all added the synth sounds of Kraftwerk to the guitar based sounds of punk - added to the impact of Throbbing Gristle to spawn a whole new genre of music.

The experimental nature of the music and its underground nature meant that it didn't receive much media attention. It was, in general, too heavy to be covered by those interested in pop music and because they used drum machines and synthesizers they were largely ridiculed by hard rock/heavy metal magazines of the time. In general, the only coverage these bands got was confined to small columns in magazines like Kerrang. The fact that indie/alternative music as we know it now didn't exist meant they just didn't fit in.

However, the music continued to exist and, at times, fed off the popularity of both gothic and electro in the eighties. At times, there was little difference between them and some bands, like Killing Joke and Nitzer Ebb, achieved marginal chart success.

Nitzer Ebb were part of the European EBM scene along with bands like Front 242 and Die Krupps. In comparison to most of the bad hard rock or Eurovision style pop emerging from countries like France and Germany, the continental heavy techno scene was one of the most experimental and interesting of the 80s. The EBM scene followed the popularity of Kraftwerk and David Bowie's electronic period (Heroes, Low and Lodger). The music combined elements of these with punk and heavy metal and found some success on the dance-floors of Europe.

After a few years, however, European dance fans lost interest in bands and turned to DJs, who played a less heavy version of EBM - all dance beats and synths. This was the beginnings of European house music, which in turn led to rave music. Therein lies the irony of the claims of originality by current techno bands, Euro house and rave were an attempt to tone down EBM, which is contained the same elements as the so-called "new techno".

While current dance fans may know nothing about the old EBM scene, the same is not true of the bands themselves. Both the Prodigy and the Orb did remixes for Front 242 a few years ago.

More important is the involvement of the producer Youth in the dance scene. Youth has made a name for himself as one of the top dance producers, working on everything from the most forgettable dance-floor fodder to collaborations with the Orb. The relevant fact about Youth is that he is also the original and current bassist with Killing Joke. In other words, one of the originators of the industrial genre is also one of the most influential individuals in dance music.

Basically, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers have allowed the music press over here describe them as original, while knowing themselves that they are nothing of the sort. Being described as innovative and original are the sort of thing any band wants to hear about themselves, so why contradict those who want to say it?

The question remains why these bands, who have been doing well within the dance scene would want to start releasing stuff that is derivative and of marginal appeal over here? The answer could be very simple, like all European bands, they want to crack America.

While over here, industrial is of limited popularity, the same is not true of the US. Over the last few years, industrial bands like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson have sold millions of records. Could it be possible that the bands who are supposed to be progressing dance music to a new level are just selling out to conquer the US and cash in on the success of industrial? I wouldn't want to attribute such base motives to the bands, but it does seem very likely.

by Donnacha DeLong