The idea that cyberpunk and rock and roll have a lot in common should not surprise anyone here. From the outset of cyberpunk and the conversations surrounding it, rock and roll has been a major subtext. Street tech, youthful rebellion, the construction of fantasy worlds and fictive personalities, the use of mind expanding substances, and the aesthetics of electronic feedback (feeding the noise back into the system) are hallmarks of both of these pop culture domains. While the whole history of rock and roll, and especially rock and roll since punk and new wave, could be cited in any exploration of "cyber/music," we have listed here only a few bands that have, either consciously or unconsciously, embraced important aspects of the cyberpunk aesthetic and worldview. An excellent essay on the relationship between cyberpunk and rock, entitled "Cutting Up: Cyberpunk, Punk Music, and Urban Decon- textualizations" by Larry McCaffery can be found in the just-released "Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction." In the essay, McCaffery looks at such artists as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Clash, and The Ramones and the influence these artists had on early cyberpunk fiction.
A friend of mine is fond of pointing out that the first cybernetic musician was Jimi Hendrix. He used feedback -- the sonic relationship between human and high-tech amplified instrument -- AS the music. Jimi Hendrix closed the loop.
What follows is a brief (alpha- betical) sampling of music that falls into the cybermusic interzone. It is far from complete. We recommend that you plug in to the resources listed in "Links" and in the access section that follows if you want to delve deeper.
When industrial music began to develop as a genre, it didn't take long for it to split off into numerous amoeba-like subgenres, each with their own specific influences. Babyland takes various interesting musical elements such as techno, hardcore, cut-up and industrial dance and sculpts them into a sound that defies labeling. Full of pillaged TV snippets and other junk from the media heap of our culture, Babyland reanimates this into a subversive view of the media ocean we're drowning in. Babyland is destined to be a major force in staking out a new territory of industrial.
People might find it rather strange that I would choose to include the Cocteau Twins in a listing of cyberpunk music. Their innocent-sounding pre-verbal, post-modern lullabies are in some ways the opposite of the dark sounds of pain, destruction, and decay that characterize most industrial/cyberpunk music. And that is exactly why I think they bear listening to. Our society is going gaga, flipping out, getting mental. One direction of this breakdown is overload (given voice in most industrial music), the other direction is "oceanic" bliss which is the wave that Elizabeth Frazier and company have caught. The Cocteau's music is unmoored in space and time. It is without ground and fixed referent. Simon Reynolds has likened Liz Frazier's vocals to the language you heard as a baby before you knew how to interpret language. You get sound, pattern, mood, and impressions without a fixed meaning. Listening to the Cocteau Twins is also a great way to "cleanse your palate" in between all the other heavy music listed here.
Clock DVA's "Buried Dreams" (Wax Trax!) is the definitive release for the cyberculture revolution. "Buried Dreams" links high-tech and sub-culture to produce the cryptic journal of a brilliant madman. Frontman Adi Newton cites "advances in Virtual Reality technologies, Neural Netware, Morphic Resonance, [and] Ripperology" as background to his explorations on this album. With Clock DVA's exceptional sound sculpting, this is all challenges and rewards.
Consolidated are a filter for the stream of information hurled at us by mass media and the pop culture industry. George Bush, "Our Leader," becomes a Klansman, "Entertainment Tonight" is revealed to be a meaningless, endless loop of feedback, and America's current nationalistic frenzy merely a retracing of Germany's path in the 1930's. It's rap that relies more on clarity of message than cleverness of rhyme. With production by Meat Beat Manifesto's "Jack Dangers," Consolidated's latest album "Friendly Fascism" (Nettwerk/IRS) takes their extremely dense sound to a wicked extreme. This will shake you up.
This music always sounds like it's been beamed back through time by a band from the future. Front 242 is always out of range of any would-be imitators. The sound is icy percussion, piercing synth lines, transitions fast as channel-zapped television. Taking today's music machinery to its limits, this is the sound of a brutal master reciting his plansÉ The band's latest effort is entitled "Tyranny for You" (Epic).
Joy Division marks the point where punk fused with music (high) technology, and is a near unavoidable influence for any "cyberpunk-ish" band which followed them. Forming in 1977 as a punk unit, they quickly grew a sound which was denser, darker, and more subtle than any other band of the genre. Singer Ian Curtis gave the band a true depth of lyrical content, with an Orwellian view of the future (the name Joy Division itself could have been a division of the Ministry of Truth in 1984) and a bitter comprehension of the human condition. Add the beat of a seminal Roland 808 drum machine and what you have is music robbed of human rhythm, an interaction of demoralized man and soulless machine which was years ahead of its time. The essential Joy Division album, 1979's "Unknown Pleasures," takes the work of the early synth bands, such as Kraftwerk, a step further by giving technology an ominous presence, and putting it in the context a gritty, bleak, urban reality. There are no synthesizers on the album, however; harsh, minimal guitar, ringing lead bass lines, reverbed drums, and analog samples of machines and laser
pulses create a sound far more dynamic and effective than the limited synth-technology of the time ever could. Joy Division wasn't able to develop their unique style of post-punk music much further; Ian Curtis took his own life in 1981. The surviving members of the band are presently in synth-disco outfits such as New Order, Revenge and Electronic.
Poor Kraftwerk. They were so ahead of their time. Their robotoid personas and their synth-ninny music seemed so bizarre and other-worldly for its time. Now it's all old hat. They gave birth to a whole generation of experimental computer music, synth-pop, and they influenced industrial dance music. They currently have a "classics" album out on Electra entitled "The Mix." It includes rerecorded, reprogrammed, and rearranged versions of their "hits." Poor Kraftwerk.
Ministry has a history that dates back to 1981. Alien Jourgenson, founder, producer, and only permanent member of the band, was at the time one of the few people who was capable of piloting the latest synthesizer technology with enough musical sense to
produce hits. For several years, Jourgenson did just that, writing,
producing, and arranging boppy synth-pop tunes, singing the words in a sappy British accent. By the mid-eighties, as consumer interest in new wave ebbed, the name Ministry became synonymous with pretentious, flaccid product, and they were subsequently dropped by their label. What did Alien Jourgenson do? He got pissed off.
Retaining the name Ministry, but recording on the new, independent Wax Trax! label, Jourgenson emerged as the outlaw of the techo-music world. As the demented composer of a cyber-orchestra of keyboard banks, he took power-chord aggression from underground Metal and Hardcore, digital samples of political demagoguery (e.g. Nixon and Bush speeches) and other examples of societal turmoil (e.g. urban riots) from rap, and put it to thunderous, sometimes inhumanly fast mechanical beats borrowed from industrial music. To this background, Jourgenson's and Chris Connelly's voices strained and rasped out profanities and accusations at the hypocrisy of modern society. The result has been three incredible albums, "The Land of Rape and Honey," "Twitch," and "The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste," which together are nothing less than the soundtrack to society's decay, and an unflinching look at the prospects of a harsh, chaotic future where technology is out of control. Ministry is to music what "Neuromancer" is to fiction and "Blade Runner" is to film.
Nine Inch Nails:
Trent Reznor, 90% of the make-up of Nine Inch Nails, is the New Romantic hero of cyberpop music. Emulating Industrial noise-technicians like Nitzer Ebb and Ministry, Trent uses his sampler to create a multi-layered world of incessant, mechanical beats, throbbing bass rhythms, and Gregorian synthesizer overtones. NIN's music is often subtle yet ominous, imposing a sense of extreme isolation. It is also prone to exploding into delirious fits of rage, with orchestras of distorted guitars, primal screams, and hyperactive siren-blasts. The music serves as the constant antagonist to our angst-ridden hero, who uses his lyrical, swooning vocals in a desperate assertion of his humanity against the oppressive digital conformity that surrounds him. Despite all this, the grooves are catchy, and infinitely danceable. This sets Nine Inch Nails apart from many of the techno-industrial bands, and has allowed NIN to enjoy crossover pop success. Trent and his road band once even appeared on the cable show Dance Party USA. During the performance, Trent, an unlikely pop star with black clothes and dreadlocks, flailed and railed behind the mike, often clutching himself in a defensive posture. "All the world's weight is on my back and I don't even know why;" he pleaded, "and what I used to think was me is just a fading memory." But the dancing big-haired junior high school kids didn't care; they just liked the beat.
The Pelican Daughters:
A little known project from Australia, The Pelican Sisters are carving a new niche that might be described as "ethno-psychedelic ambient industrial." If you can imagine Psychic TV influenced by Syd Barrett and crossed with the Legendary Pink Dots, then you may have a handle on The Pelican Daughters. They mix samplings from instructional records, ethnic music, and dialog from old movies with lysergic lyrics and surrealistic oneiric melodies. Their current album is entitled "Fishbones and Wishbones" (CCP).
The first time I heard Skinny Puppy I thought: "Now this would be the kind of music (along with Ministry and Public Enemy) that the characters in "Neuromancer" or "Eclipse" or "Metrophage" would listen to." Remember all those Sixties' SF movies and TV shows where they would show a rock band of the future and they would be playing some kind of syntho-bubble gum-jazz fusion? No..no...no! We have met the music of our dark future and it is VERY scary! In many ways Skinny Puppy is as ribofunk as they are cyberpunk. Their themes are the environment, toxic waste, nuclear destruction, and the horrors of the modern flesh. They are more David Cronenberg than William Gibson. Their latest release is entitled "Too Dark Park" (Nettwerk).
Voivod was nothing special when they rose out of the Montreal underground-metal scene in the early eighties. They wrote songs based on eclectic SF stories, but there was little else that distinguished their first two albums, "War and Pain" and "Rrrroar," from the rest of the mediocre thrash-metal coming out at at the time. It was with an important transitional album, "Killing Technology," that thrash aggression met high technology, and the evolution of Voivod began. In 1988, Voivod released "Dimension Hatross," and hence became metal's most exciting deviant child and cyberpunk's house band. The concept of the album, masterminded by hacker-drummer Away, deals with the adventures of a disembodied consciousness through cyberspace. The lyrics, penned by vocalist Snake, poignantly reflect a human mind disconnected from tangible reality. But the true genius and innovation of "Hatross" lies in the
music, composed and produced primarily by guitarist Piggy. Here the standard rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums take on a furious, dense, and corrosive sound which is at once vividly psychedelic and mechanically precise. Continuing to evolve through their latest release, "Nothingface," in which the instruments take on a digital quality which alludes to industrial music, Voivod is bringing rock music into the Cyber age.
"1000 Veins" offers more music about laboratory-created viruses, rampant technology, and the deterioration of the family. Sound intensifies lyrics; with mangled guitars, whirring robots, and static bursts layered on deep drums and stuttering keyboards. And on "Running Away," they push the genre one step further with funk horns loops, bass lines under Puppy-ish vocals, and astral melodies. Yeht Mae even take the well-used practice of scoring documentaries and make a fresh and interesting song out of "Ethnic War." I've been listening to this one. Buy on sight.
The energy generated by this trio (vocals, drums, samplers) outpowers any of the guitar-hero bands. Sampling from brash heavy-metal guitar licks and the classical canonand tightly melding the twothe Young Gods create a music that simply could not exist without this technology. Intense drums and vocals add an expressive emotionality often lacking in music of this genre. The future of rock and roll! Check out "L'eau Rouge" (Play It Again Sam, USA).
Is Zevon out of place with this list of musicians? His "Transverse City" might have been subtitled "Warren's Cyberpunk Album". Dark swirling lyrics earned him a spot in this line-up. A sample follows...
(P. Sugarman)Run Straight Down
...Fluorocarbons in the ozone layer
First the water and the wildlife go
there's not a creature stirring
'Cept the robots at the dynamo
And it's worse when I try to remember
When I think about then and now
I'd rather see it
on the news at eleven
sit back and
watch it run straight down...
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