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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
Sounds Of The Underground
by Stuart Watson
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One of the problematic aspects of applying the term "underground" to a particular style of music or musician is the mutability of such a term in relation to different situations, scenes and attitudes. A quick dictionary search revealed several definitions - "hidden or concealed, clandestine", and "art, usually privately produced and of special appeal and often concerned with social or artistic experiment" perhaps particularly relevant. Perhaps a truly underground music may then be defined as one underground by choice or necessity.
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Sounds Of The Underground
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To remain underground by choice when sources such as the Internet have increased ease of access to information may seem odd, almost contrary - even the most obscure artist is likely to have an official Internet presence detailing their releases and how to obtain them. However some artists do make a conscious decision to retreat from such ease of availability, an example being the English musician David Jackman, much of his work released under the name Organum. His strategy seems calculated to defeat commercial success; records are released in tiny editions of several hundred on small record labels available through a limited network of distributors and stores, with little or no publicity attending each release. The records themselves are often presented as art objects, covers adorned with Jackman's own surrealistic collages. Although the music Jackman produces may be described as uncommercial, lacking values such as obvious hooks and melodies and often droning and meditative in nature, such a defiantly anti-commercial stance goes beyond either the artist's or label's opinion of the limited commercial appeal of the product; indeed due in no small part to the limited availability of the releases they are highly sought after and can often be seen to fetch exorbitant sums on auction sites such as eBay. It instead seems to represent a desire to reclaim the form from commercial imperatives, focusing attention on the art produced rather than extraneous commercial devices. A degree of anonymity, mystique and privacy is also maintained; this approach is in common with that of contemporaries such as Coil and Nurse With Wound, musicians whose hermetic studio practices are mirrored in their attitude to commerce.
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Sounds Of The Underground
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While David Jackman is a musician "underground" almost by default due to personal and artistic choice, Detroit techno label Underground Resistance offer an example of a more aggressively underground music in relation to social and political concerns. Formed in 1989, the name of the label defines their stance both artistically and in relation to commercial practices; underground in order to maintain control of the means of production and distribution of their releases, and to combat what they regard as the damaging influence of mediocre and uninspiring music. UR presents the record label as covert military operation; releases are referred to as "transmissions" and "fresh ammo", artists are "soldiers", Djing dates "nightstrikes", the forum for news updates "mission control". The label's manifesto integrates political and musical aims, stating that "Underground Resistance is a label for movement, a movement that wants change by sonic revolution". Such a defiantly underground stance does not necessarily produce uncommercial music. The label forced Sony to withdraw an unauthorised copycat release of Aztec Mystic's "Knights of the Jaguar", producing a follow up release "Revenge of the Jaguar". The label's political stance extend into the mythos of its artists; electro act Drexciya derive their name from the concept that pregnant slaves thrown into the ocean from slave ships on route from Africa to America gave rise to an underwater race known as Drexciyans, a race of aquatic shock troops in UR's fight against the "Audio Visual Programmers". In respect of both its artistic and political agendas and modes of business practice the label is a model of an organisation seeking to achieve its aims through truly hidden or covert means, resisting commercial pressures, underground by necessity as much as by choice.
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As UR found with the case of "ŠJaguar" changes in public taste can cause an artist or style of music to move "overground", regardless of whether this is beneficial to the artist; "underground" can become an attitude as much as a commercial reality or definition of place in public consciousness. Hence a scene that was assimilated into mainstream consciousness in a relatively short period of time such as Jungle could find a figurehead like Goldie exhorting followers to "keep it underground" as he was seen accompanying Bjork to public functions and appearing as a gangster in Eastenders. So can any musical genre remain truly underground? Black Metal as a genre would seem to be a strictly underground concern; arguably beginning with the tongue in cheek satanic invocations of Venom and Bathory, the genre was taken into darker territory by Norwegian groups such as Darkthrone, Mayhem and Burzum. Notable for subject matter concerning Norse mythology and fascist politics, and a peculiarly eerie and doom-filled atmosphere, the scene is most notorious for extra-musical activities such as the imprisonment of Varg Vikernes of Burzum for the burning of churches and the murder of former bandmate Euronymous. Despite such garish headlines and the supposedly terminal unfashionable nature of a genre such as metal even Black Metal currently carries a hip cache in more avant garde circles; Norwegian group Ulver have released a collection of remixes by artists such as Fennesz and Merzbow, while more experimental metal outfits such as Stephen O'Malley's groups Sunn O))) and Khanate have received attention in The Wire magazine.
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Perhaps the true underground lies in forms still regarded as beyond the pale in terms of fashionability; do the likes of Country n Irish (See Vacuum 2) and unreconstructed hair metal have a dedicated fan base immune to the whims of fashion? Or is the true underground something we haven't heard yet, something too evil or extreme in sonic intent to reach the sensitive ears of the mainstream; we can only hope.
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