Tootsie, a multi-media photo collage by Yoon Son, a visual artist and VJ appearing at this year's Decibel Festival.
Decibel Festival is Seattle’s blank slate for a new musical future. If only the music can escape history first.
A certain reverence for lineage helps push music forward, but for every artist trying to invent something new, there are two more trying to reinvent the past. For electronic dance music, which once lived and died by innovation, it’s a strange state to be in.
Which is why Decibel Festival is vital. A five-day dance party that spreads across Seattle, Decibel pulls electronic music away from an imagined past and drops it into the real world, overrunning every pocket of the city it inhabits.
But the transformation is temporary. After the festival ends, most of the artists go back to places like Los Angeles, London and Berlin and everything here returns to normal. Seattle is a rock city, after all. Or a rap city. Or maybe folk.
Whichever. The music at Decibel remains a cultural anomaly. Though electronic music thrived in Seattle's rave scene for years, it lost its traditional home in the early 2000s due to several factors (9/11, the RAVE act, the Teen Dance Ordinance). Starting in 2003, Decibel rebranded the music for an older, wiser audience. Still, each year, the same Capitol Hill metal dudes peer faux-dumbfounded into Decibel showcases at Neumos or Chop Suey acting like they still don’t get what a “drum machine” is.
Ironically, like metal, the artists at Decibel cater to a specific type of connoisseur: the record geek, the obsessive chronicler, the lo-fi purist, the person with an intimidating level of musical knowledge. Both scenes shield themselves with gatekeepers and tastemakers, but their artists bubble up to the surface anyway, pulling back the curtain for a moment to reveal the influence of relatively unknown music on the larger world.
It’s not that artists at Decibel aren’t popminded, but their music is ruled by naturally avant-garde tendencies. It’s meant for the dancefloor, first off, where weird, novel sounds carry more weight than on the shitty home computer speakers or the earbuds through which most of us experience music. On the dancefloor, technological shock and awe can trump songwriting, technical ability, and/or other tenets of “good music.”
Yet dance music has a rampant capitalist streak. Moby, the biggest name in this year’s Decibel lineup, is a trailblazer in this regard, licensing every song off his 1999 album Play to commercial sources. After the album became an unexpected blockbuster, his brazen opportunism was reviled by the dance community. Now artists and promoters pair up with companies like Scion and Red Bull and Microsoft.
Dancefloor energy and crass commercialism are the essence of pop music, which is why mainstream artists like Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Ke$ha borrow dance music’s successful experiments over and over again. Lady Gaga played Decibel artist Zomby’s “Tears in the Rain” during intermissions on her Monster Ball tour last year. Kanye West sampled Daft Punk and Aphex Twin (who aren’t at Decibel, but could be). Three 6 Mafia and Lil Wayne sampled Moby.
Given Decibel’s origins in purist Detroit techno, its relationship to pop is unexpected, but has been gathering momentum for a while now. From the late ‘90s on—Timbaland’s syncopated beats, Lil Jon’s buzzsaw rave synths and Britney Spears’ bleeps and bloops circa “I’m a Slave 4 U”—it was only a matter of time before dance music artists stopped being the guy behind the guy.
Take Decibel’s AraabMUZIK, for instance, a rap producer who worked with Busta Rhymes and Dipset before stepping out on his own. Electronic Dream is a bizarre album that combines samples of corny late-‘90s trance with scything, ultra-hard beats like he makes for no-bullshit rapper Cam’ron. It’s a perplexing listen, made even stranger by the fact that Araab plays his beats live on an MPC drum machine, tapping out complex rhythms on the MPC’s tiny pads so fast that bad YouTube compression exaggerates the blur.
Araab exists in his own little world, one that sets the bar higher for performance than dance music usually does. The 22-year-old isn’t the first to play an MPC, but he may be the first to get minorly famous for doing so. The fact that his music is still the star of the show is even more surprising. For this reason alone, Araab’s performance could be the most impressive of the festival—unless you count the ridiculous visual display that Amon Tobin will bring.
Launched at Montreal’s Mutek Festival in June, Amon Tobin’s ISAM tour is “a 25’ x 14’ x 8’ multi-dimensional/shape-shifting 3D art installation”—the modern-day equivalent of Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee playing above arena crowds in a rotating drum-throne crane. It’s pretentious and overblown in a mostly good way, and if the promotional videos for ISAM aren’t full of shit, Tobin’s show will be Decibel’s most physically awe-inspiring.
Brazilian-born Tobin has been around since the mid-‘90s—artifact status in rave years—and his style of scrambled, twitchy breakbeats ran its course years ago. Maybe all these new visual excesses inspired Tobin to go down a different path. The beats on “ISAM” are a departure from his old stuff—harder and more lurching, shredded up with sampled light bulb clinks and chair creaks and other bent-up micro-samples all clattering for rhythmic resolution. It’s exhausting to listen to but the indulgence of the whole thing suggests exhaustion’s the point.
If Amon Tobin is on some Wagnerian complexity, then Zomby is minimalist Erik Satie—a total inversion of bombast. Zomby, who so far has kept his identity hidden, is a pure London product, an extension of old ‘90s rave music crossed through its latest incarnation, dubstep. He loosely associates with the ambiguous scene UK journalists call “bass music,” but he differs from everyone else by his use of classical melody and weird meter. His trademark sound is a mashup of southern-inflected rap beats, filled out with scattered arpeggio shots and off-kilter ostinatos. But the core of Zomby’s music is all vibe and mischief, and on Dedication, his album released in July, tracks often end at around the one-minute mark, leaving on the chopping block partially explored ideas that other producers would kill for.
(Last year, I traveled to Barcelona for the Sonar Festival almost specifically to see Zomby before learning that he rarely shows up to gigs. Even if he does appear at Decibel, he’s on Wednesday night, the same night that AraabMUZIK plays—a scheduling boner considering the overlap between both artists’ crowds.)
Taking a different direction from Zomby’s introspective vibe is the Night Slugs crew, another London-based collective of producers that built their reputation on atonal dancefloor shock.
No one else at Decibel this year will play music as commercially unviable as this. The standout of the lineup is Girl Unit, whose tracks “Wut” and “IRL” verge on diva-shriek satire. “Wut” degrades dance music’s euphoric breakdowns into a melodramatic wash of synthetic strings and helium-laced female vocals. It’s almost sarcastically candy-coated, until the track drops into relentless southern rap snares that cut through glacial drums and pummeling, exacting bass. There isn’t much to be gleaned from this music outside of a club, but in that environment it’s a visceral experience. Hopefully the Baltic Room, a smaller Capitol Hill venue that hosts Night Slugs on Thursday night, can be tuned properly to accommodate their low end. This stuff without bass is like watching TV without a TV.
Thanks to Neumos’ reliable sound system, I’m not worried about sound issues for Martyn’s set on Friday night. A Dutch guy now living in Washington, D.C., Martyn isn’t making the strangest music, nor does he have some crazy stage show with glowing cubes or whatever. His appeal is very meat-and-potatoes—a hybrid of warm chords from Detroit techno, bass pressure from dubstep, and the song arc of moaning house music from Chicago. As a DJ, he sticks to his niche more often than not, but he’s capable of dipping into old ‘80s rollerskating jams and breakdance stuff. He has a new album coming out on LA beatmaker Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, and it’s a great mix of all the impulses previously mentioned.
The local contingent of beatmakers working in a similarly off-kilter vein as Flying Lotus is centered around Seattle’s best band, Truckasauras. I actually interviewed the full quartet for this piece but forgot everything they said, except for the suggestion to read Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist. One of the chapters talks about the corticofugal system of the brain, which governs how you process music that is totally new to you. The effect can be painful, literally, releasing a flood of dopamine, which triggers an almost schizophrenic effect. But after your brain adjusts, the music becomes more and more pleasurable until it basically sounds like the Eagles and you have to start all over again.
Anyway, Truckasauras’ music is a big, warm blanket of melancholy arpeggios and video game rap shit, and even though it’s been processed corticofugally by my brain a thousand times, it’s still more like Wu-Tang Clan than the Eagles to me.
The problem is that I’m a 32-year-old married man, and my Wu-Tang Clan should be someone else’s Eagles by now, which is essentially the crossroads that dance music finds itself at these days. The old stuff refuses to go away.
Even Decibel’s lineup is symptomatic of this ongoing fascination with the past. The headliners, Moby and Amon Tobin, bank off past notoriety—ghostly traces of a time when rave music tried to crack the U.S. pop market without bona fide stars. Meanwhile, up-and-coming Decibel artists like Motor City Drum Ensemble channel the inescapable glory days of Detroit techno and Chicago house via a white dude from Stuttgart, Germany.
But dance music is always changing. Not just as raw material for plundering, but as a point of inspiration more tangible than living in the past. Anyone can dwell in the torrent of good old days forever looping on the Internet. Decibel gives you the chance to go out and experience something real.
Where to see all this crazy shit
9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28
With DJ Krush, Shigeto
9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28
With Atom, Jon McMillion, 214
9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29
With baths, tokimonsta All-ages
9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29
With bok bok, Kingdom
9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29
With holy Fuck, E*rock, Introcut
Moby DJ Set
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30
With Alexi Delano, Blondes All-ages
9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30
With Martin Buttrich, Max Cooper, Egyptrixx, Cyanwave
Motor City Drum Ensemble
9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
With Chateau Flight, I:Cube, Julio Bashmore, Deniz Kurtel, Mike Huckaby