Decades of psychedelia and sci-fi culture are converging to create a new cosmic aesthetic that spans hip hop, dance, design and beyond... But is there meaning amid the mind expansion? Joe Muggs opens his Third eye and steps into the void
A cosmic convergence is underway. Throughout pop culture, fashion and music, diverse fragments of sound, vision and thought are coming together into a new aesthetic, dissolving all eras of the past and feeding them, through the filter of the latest technologies, into something that feels futuristic, trippy as hell and fundamentally out of this world. Decades worth of psychedelia and sci-fi culture are being telescoped together into sensory overload that feels like postmodernism fed back into itself, then blasted out with volume,
scale and saturation that makes
20th-century experiments look like cave paintings.
Look at the psychotic gay gangsta-geisha robot meltdown of Nicki Minaj, the narcotic space alien rockstarisms of Lil Wayne, the multimedia assertions of universal consciousness in Björk’s Biophilia. In club/electronic music, from the top down, all this goes double. Skrillex is now a global megastar, piloting his spaceship DJ booth through mind-melt 360° projections of galaxies exploding as fleets of Nyan Cats pass by, while Richie Hawtin’s ever- more preposterous Plastikman shows resemble some sort of totalitarian alien-government rally scenario.
The most interesting parts of the dubstep/grime/bass generation are producing ever-stranger music that seems hellbent on getting off the planet by any means necessary. US lo-fi acts like Peaking Lights, Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo and Excepter are creating the kind of never-ending electronic lysergic jams you’d have expected at a Day-Glo-dreadlocked crusty rave 20 years ago, rather than a hipster bar in Williamsburg. Meanwhile, an established electronic generation are reconnecting with this: witness Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard reconvening their ambient guise Global Communication, but also staying current and forging connections with newer artists via Middleton’s Sound of the Cosmos label and Pritchard’s Africa Hitech guise (the latter giving us the explicitly interplanetary 93 Million Miles album last year).
Just look at the Day-Glo geometries of Optigram’s designs for Hyperdub, Rainbow Monkey’s 3D surrealism for dEbruit’s future-polyethnic grooves, and Konx-om-Pax’s sleeves and videos for the likes of Lone and Hudson Mohawke and tell us there’s not a psychotropic sci-fi revolution underway. And that’s before you log on to Tumblr and see the unending lunacy of geometries, colourways and old new-age posters and rave flyers sampled, shredded and seared into your eyeballs in the name of spurious new electronic subcultures like #SEAPUNK and #SPACEGOTH.
So, what’s going on? You don’t have to go far to find a musician who thinks it’s more than just facile trends. “I think a huge shift is taking place, says Digital Mystikz’ Mala. “People are waking up. When you feel something isn’t right you begin to question. So maybe in this time outer space and other dimensions are much more appealing than the mess being made here on Earth. People are preparing for change.”
“It’s an energy shift, I guess,” says sometime Rinse FM and current Hyperdub artist DVA. “Someone did say that come 2012 things would be different and, well, here it is... All I know is I want to get off this planet. The only way I know right now is drugs, but I’m working on it.” Veteran producer King Britt, now also releasing on Hyperdub as Fhloston Paradigm, goes further. “Portals have opened up on Earth at the beginning of the year,” he says, “and loads of information is being sent to us by a higher state of consciousness. People are starting to realise that there is more to life than what’s here on Earth; it’s really the curiosity of parallel realities. So we look toward science fiction and science fact to try and make sense of it all, and see if we can get a glimpse of other worlds.”
Slovenian-born producer/singer Nightwave thinks in practical terms. “The aesthetic of ‘cosmic’ music will always appeal to a wide audience as well as artists,” she says. “However, I do think there are a lot of artists out there going a step further and implementing the inspiration into their work, exploring ideas in metaphysics, mysticism and actual psychedelics like psilocybin and DMT.” Rinse FM DJ and Eglo Records boss Alex Nut warily agrees. “Obviously,” he cautions, “there’ll always be people that follow fashions and trends with art and design, but I do genuinely think there is a generation of musicians out there who are more in touch with their spirituality and deeper issues, rather than ‘money, clothes and hos’.”
All very well, but we’ve heard this before from jazz heads, hippies and 90s crusty ravers – right? Yes and no, says designer and theorist Ben Bashford. “In the 90s, all the cyberpunk pre-millennial-tension stuff was speculative,” he says. “Now it’s real. Any kind of futurism is increasingly problematic, because it’s all happening now. We live in a science-fiction world and totally take it for granted, but once in a while you can’t help looking around and having a moment like being on acid – ‘Ohhh... I see... Oh no, it’s gone’ – because it’s just too much to process. We live in a world where we rely on server farms that are planned and designed by ’bots: the computers literally tell us where they want to be. We are ruled by algorithms. Apple now has more money than the US government. We can all see through satellites, but it’s considered so normal you just use it to find your mum’s house and don’t think twice. We might not be colonising different planets, but in other ways we’ve surpassed the science fiction we grew up on. And it’s getting weirder.”
So given the seeming impossibility of comprehending our hypercapitalist, algorithm-driven world, looking to inner and outer space seems like a rather inviting option. But this isn’t necessarily copping out, just psychic necessity. “I think about the kosmische krautrock guys of the 1970s a lot,” says designer/artist Tom Scholefield aka Konx-om-Pax. “For them it was about creating their own reality in direct response to the horror of what Germany had been, and given the shitstorm we’re in now, I’m very happy to do that, to try and build something with my friends. Not opt out completely – that’s impossible – but to create a sanctuary.” For Mala, “it’s obvious what’s happening right here in front of us. Pure destruction, an endemic lack of respect for all things, including self. Making music has allowed me to explore my sense of self, and when one explores themselves, exploring the universe comes naturally.” The vastness of space and the complexity of the mind may be the only viable metaphors for the inhuman scale and bizarreness of the world we’ve created.
Alex Nut says that thinking cosmically is political in itself and can give a vital sense of perspective: “I’m interested in politics, so naturally, out of interest and curiosity, you look back at the politics and systems of days gone... and you realise that in many ways we have advanced very little. I think everything is based around cosmology, and the first things that many life forms on the planets would have ever seen are the sun, the stars and the moon. It would have been one of the first things that a human being would have thought about and questioned.” There’s no question that simple curiosity can be a powerful thing. “I grew up on science fact as much as science fiction,” says Tom Middleton. “Attenborough and Tomorrow’s World were just as relevant as Blade Runner and Blake’s 7. And now we’ve got the ex-D:Ream keyboard player (Professor Brian Cox), a really great communicator, delivering cosmology to the masses... This stuff leads to dreaming big and looking above and beyond for inspiration.”
All of this is now relayed through a mangled sense of perception, where even without chemical enhancement, our day-to-day is screwy: TED talks on neurology or identity politics will be stuck on our Facebook timelines in between base-level LOLs. It takes a lot to get through this. “Our aesthetic is 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, every film and video game and rave flyer, all filtered through today’s tech,” says Tom Konx-om-Pax, “with the colours turned up. Maximum imagination.” But however reflective we may be about the universe and our place in it, however we try to boost our colours and build our own world, it’s easy for cosmic thinking to become nonsense. “You often see a kind of quasi-religious attitude attached to this kind of music as well,” says Benjamin John Power of Blanck Mass and Fuck Buttons, “which seems like a contradiction of sorts. A few years ago I had a member of a contemporary dance group scold me for not practising telepathy and making the music I do.”
Which is maybe taking it a bit far – but it’s a weird, wired world out there: a world of drone warfare, social-media-enhanced revolutions, waves of economic meltdown, meme politics, Anonymous striking at the hearts of governments and virtual pop stars. And as a wise(ish) man once said: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Or as Strictly Kev aka DJ Food, who, long-keen to put the “trip” into trip hop, reasserted his cosmic credentials by launching his last album in an observatory, says: “Maybe this is the next manifestation of acid, albeit in a subtler form. The word ‘psychedelic’ has been back in people’s minds for many years now; maybe this time it’s an extended trip rather than a big bang.”
A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME AND SPACE: Global Communicator Tom Middleton’s TEN KEY COSMIC MUSICAL MOMENTS
Fade II Black: “The Calling” (Fragile, 1990)
This is Detroit techno at its most expansive – like dancing in the centre of a nebula as particles from exploded stars tumble around you.
Black Dog Productions: “Otaku” (Rising High, 1992)
They called this kind of sidereal electronica “intelligent” but it was never about the intellect – it was about universal love...
4 Hero: “Universal Love” (Reinforced, 1994)
Jungle always had a direct connection to the mothership, but rarely was it more obvious than here: breakbeats and electro extrapolated into the unpronounceable dimensions, while space angels sing.
Coil: “The Mothership & the Fatherland” (Threshold House, 1999)
The glorious final phase of Coil’s career was conducted mostly in zero gravity, and this 23-minute mind-melt from the outer reaches of existence is among their finest works.
Troubleman: “Messenger” (Far Out, 2001)
Mark Pritchard lets jazz and UK garage orbit around one another, signals from far-away places echoing through their harmonic patterns.
Lindstrøm: “I Feel Space” (Feedelity, 2005)
At a time when dance music felt hemmed-in, this track opened up infinite possibilities by looking back to the future – or was it forward to the past? – and proved space disco’s 21st-century viability.
Monolake: “Titan” (Monolake/Imbalance Computer Music, 2009)
Very current audio technology created a techno track that seemed to come from 100,000,000 miles away and a century into the future.
Laurel Halo: “Supersymmetry” (Hippos in Tanks, 2010)
A high-tech electronic goth song that tunnels deeper and deeper into the fundamental structures of the universe, sparkling with the light of decaying particles.
Silkie ft. Skream: “Untitled” (Deep Medi Musik, 2011)
Proving that dubstep’s creativity and vision are still vast in scope, this glides like an intergalactic battle cruiser and packs a similar punch.
ASC: “Aqualoop” (Space Cadets, 2012)
The “autonomic” sound has moved way beyond its drum & bass roots, and now floats free in outer space. This one takes you to the heart of distant galaxies, protected in a field of sub-bass.
Text by Joe Muggs
This article appeared in the June issue of Dazed & Confused