CutMat Recordings 2011, DD album, 37m 51s
£name your price
‘Style’ is frequently contested territory in popular music. Widely circulating ideas of authenticity have it that for a creative musician to think about style is to privilege the superficial surface of their work over the deep substance. Musicians are supposed to just be ‘true to themselves’, and the music that comes out will come out, reflecting their influences, but uncorrupted by any contrived effort to conform to any particular generic conventions. This is a bit of silly notion really: for one thing it seems obvious that some element of conscious choice goes into determining whether a given artist works in bossanova or death metal; for another, much of the music that most strives for authenticity comes out sounding conventional and generic. ‘Being true to yourself’ is honestly a kind of laziness, a creative failure, and ‘authenticity’ is a smokeshield behind which to hide the fact that certain artists have not actually engaged with some of the most important grounds of their practice.
At certain times and places, in particular art forms, creators have been very explicitly concerned with the notion of style, and in my view their work has been all the better for it. I raise all this because I was going to write ‘electronica’ in brackets after the album title above, and then it occurred to me that was equivalent to writing ‘guitars’ as a genre label for some kind of rock band. It doesn’t tell you much, and it’s as lazy as an equivalent refusal to engage with style on the creator’s part. To be fair, I know less about electronic music than about many other fields of music, and so I’m not always confident in assigning specific genres to releases, but the term that now sits at the top of this review (and it’s Dementio13’s term) is a far better description of the work. Dementio13 is someone who clearly has thought about style, has made its manipulation a part of his creative process, and who asks questions about it in his work.
As listeners we are so conditioned to hearing certain timbres and textures married to certain grooves and harmonies that it can be very hard to hear past that surface impression. While various takes on rock and post-rock have incorporated synthesisers and other electronic elements, when those elements displace acoustic instrumentation entirely, the musical forms and sounds are foregrounded sharply by the demand that makes on the listener’s attention (unless they simply don’t get it, and just hear idiomatically inadequate dance music). Put simply, this music uses rhythmic, harmonic and melodic resources that would sound at home in a post-rock environment, in a (apparently) wholly electronic production. Of course, much of the point about post-rock is texture and timbre, and it’s the way those musical elements just kind of square up to you that so effectively foregrounds the sonic grain: The Hobbyist does the same, and although its timbres are obviously more readily associated with dance music styles, its textures sweep filmically and dramatically through songs propelled more by a sense of experience than movement. ‘Escort Fiesta’ has a heavy, grimy bass hook, but such stylings are absent elsewhere.
This album comes with an agenda, although you might not know it from the sound. When you download it from Bandcamp the folder includes a PDF booklet, containing the kind of artist’s statement more usually encountered in the visual arts. This takes the form, essentially, of a point by point response to the sorts of arguments put forwards by industry insiders (musicians and otherwise) belittling and bemoaning the contributions of amateur and DIY musicians. Dementio13 wears his hobbyism with pride, as a token of his dedication to music making as an end in itself: ultimately, as a rebuttal to those attitudes, the album stands or falls on its quality as a piece of art (although none of its author’s arguments would be invalidated if it was rubbish). He ends by saying that The Hobbyist ‘is also an audio vision of the future of independent music’, so let’s examine it as such (and pause to note how much his version of authenticity differs from the one I began by describing).
If music is to have a future as such, rather than the permanent now much of its practices seem to be stuck in, it’s going to need to see some change: not because anything’s wrong, but because the choice is always to develop or stagnate. That future will always be multiple, especially now that the mainstreams are so fragmented, but it requires more than a constant recycling of its own history. It requires artists making efforts to push forward into relatively uncharted territories, asking what the implications are of current practice, constantly posing the question ‘where do we go from here?’ Dementio13 is one of these. He doesn’t render his music inaccessible with ‘originality’, but uses and manipulates idiom and generic convention to forge something that is distinctively his own. Because this is pretty unusual music in my (admittedly less than comprehensive) experience, and it is also highly listenable, with a strong sense of atmosphere and narrative. He spends a lot of time building and tweaking his sounds, in a way that isn’t inherently groundbreaking (hard to find new ground to break timbrally at this stage in electronic music’s evolution), but which, as I’ve said, is not usually found in this sort of a compositional context. Once I figured out to try listening to it as post-rock (and it really yields its richest meanings if you listen with the most open ears you can), its ‘electronic-ness’ receded: it’s still a vital presence however, and the inevitable mediation of the craftsman’s hand it implies is an important part of the way these sounds work.
It’s unusual to stumble upon a specific combination of practices that hasn’t already been addressed, and while I’m not saying that Dementio13 has single-handedly inverted the world of the musics he implicates in his work, he has certainly shown a remarkable insight and clarity of vision to bring this seamless fusion about. The history of thought has been characterised as proceeding in cycles from thesis, through antithesis to synthesis: The Hobbyist is clearly a moment of synthesis, in more ways than one! And for all the mediation, it’s also a very evocative musical statement, with a more developed sense of soul than dozens of histrionic guitar bands. It’s a very rewarding and thought provoking listen that I’ll be returning to for some time to come. The whining, bitter ‘pros’ Dementio13 addresses himself to in his booklet and title have had their answer, and it’s a hard one to ignore.