The Conflation of Modes of Expression: A Continuing Trend for 2007

Time for my New Years' reflection.

This post stems from a conversation I had with a group of friends from my class a couple of months ago, and I've been meaning to blog it ever since. We were discussing the future of music and tried to point out trends that were coming for the future, touching on new forms of distribution and the related changes in music, on a potential for anti-music, on the rise of Japan as a musical center and a bunch of others. But one thing stood out as something we all could agree on from our vastly different backgrounds (punk/kraut, synth/goth, geekcore/metal and my, er, hip-hop/disco/reggae): we saw our genres' hardened limits of expression quickly being eroded.

At a certain point in the evolution and fragmentation of popular music, probably around the mid-seventies, strong instrument taboos appeared even outside folk and trad genres. Giorgio Moroder proudly claimed "only electronic keyboards were used on this recording" in his liner notes while heavy metal adopted a staunch, almost traditionalist anti-synthesizer stance. In commercial products the guitar's atmosphere and the keyboard's punch were mixed together, but the offending instrument was buried deep in the mix so as not to be too obvious.

As late as the 01/02 season this division into guitar-based music and computer-based music was fully intact. The trendy sounds of the moment were detroit garage rock with its distorted sweat-based creed and electroclash, detached and distant. Hip-hop was at a synthetic peak. Metal had brought out the turntables but the synths were still buried deep in the mix.

Today's situation is in complete contrast. Bands from every vaguely vital genre have seemingly abandoned all rules and are using strong, distinct, highly-mixed live instruments and equally distinct computer instruments together. The 06/07 season has seen bastion after bastion of self-contained music fall to the lure of combinatronics, and met little resistance from the fans that a half-decade ago would have spit on them.

To begin with, those good ol' trendy garage/electro sounds have completely crossed-over. A band like CSS fully merges both living guitars and robotic synths, while even a austensibly pure elctro band like Does It Offend You, Yeah can afford to add live rock'n'roll drums and put on a rocking live show. Old bands that fit the new "strong electro, strong garage" idiom, like Polysics, are suddenly becoming huge stars.

At the edges of metal, the music has turned a corner and suddenly bumped into IDM. 65 Days of Static can unproblematically use a whole bunch of glitch percussive sounds and bleeps. Every self-respecting avant-metal band uses at least a loop pedal but more likely all sorts of dirty synth sounds, like the very hip These Arms Are Snakes.

Over at the dance end, bands like The Presets, Cut Copy and Digitalism are going completely indie on us. Or just mixing little bits of guitar music in there. Last year's nu rave hype with bands like The Klaxons is obviously a flirtation the other way.

And then there's hip-hop where live instruments have been crashing in again after many years of being frowned upon. You don't even have to make them "sound like samples" à la Dr Dre, just party like a rock star and interweave guitar riffs to your heart's delight. With producers like The Runners or Montana Traxx, live instruments are turning up all over the mix and blurring indistinguishably from the synthesis.

I guess this development is a kind of fracturing, really, but the splinters are becoming so small it's all turning into a smear along the horizon from the vantage point of this quickly speeding train called music. The social divisions are still there, of course, and subcultures are in no danger of dying out, but it seems no-one is condemning any way of making music anymore. Whether that's a good or bad thing time will only tell, but this trend can only continue and deepen as we dive into 2008.

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