Just after midnight, an audience has gathered to catch a glimpse of the next big jam band. The stage is littered with instruments and laptop computers. Techno music blasts from a gigantic pile of speakers, and ripples through the crowd like a stone skipped through a pool of water. Thousands of fans have descended on the hills of West Virginia for a late night set from their new favorite band, but this isn’t your ordinary band.
A blinding flash of light signals that the show is about to begin as hundreds of glow sticks sail through the darkened sky illuminating the blackness with a psychedelic, laser beam luminosity. From the shadows, the band emerges but they do not move towards their instruments, instead vying for a seat in front of one of the three laptop computers scattered across the stage. The drummer kicks into one of those repetitious rave beats while the rest of the band clicks on the mouse as the music pours out of the speakers in a waterfall rush.
“Here’s a classic track from our first album,” announces one of the musicians, “It’s called the Caps Lock, Right Click Jam. We’re gonna kick it off with an F5 and close it out with double spacebar stroke.” Instantly, the field composed of more than 8,000 fans roar in approval and admiration. The song goes on and on for 57 minutes. During the jam, one of the band members can be seen leaving the stage and heading to the nearest port-o-potty. Another member hangs off to the side, puffing a cigarette and barking into his cell phone. Still, the music plays on. Meanwhile, the instruments sit lifeless and unused upon the stage; a vintage symbol of the good old days when bands actually played instruments to create music, before technology led us astray, before live PA sets became a standard routine.
A live PA set is difficult to define; they usually consist of a loose collaboration between humans, instruments, computers, samplers, and drum-machines. These “musicians” run audio and computer tracks through complex, audio software, then weld it together with live instrumentation. The end result is typically a live drummer pounding away at a furious speed integrated with synthetic sounds to produce a set of music that appears to be produced live, onstage. Aaron Bruno, a bass player for the electronic band Push, is exited about the merging between live music and technology. “Doing a live PA sets is definitely a future possibility for my band,” he says. These sets have recently gained popularity among rave music aficionados.
Similarly, the jam band scene has been invaded by an abundance of “live electronica” bands. This invasion began with the rise of acts like the Disco Biscuits, and Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) who both paved the way for the genre within the United States. This sound was embraced, mimicked, and imitated by groups who were influenced to create their own version of these bands. Soon, an abundance of electronic groups stormed onto the festival scene; Bands like Brothers Past, Lotus, Push, and Digital Frontier all discovered a new audience in the jam band crowd. More bands followed. More bands will continue to spring up all across the land unless, someone, somewhere can put a stop to it all. “You’ll always have copycats trying to follow in the footsteps of the creative bands, feeding off them like parasites,” says Todd Troutman, lead guitarist of the Big Dirty, a regional funk-fusion band from Eastern Pennsylvania. He believes the heart of the problem does not reside with the founders of the movement. “I can respect the forerunners as artists, because the genre only exists because they created it,” he says. Both STS9 and the Disco Biscuits were an integral part of developing a new sound. These bands possess the talent and ability necessary to compose and create beautiful music. The real problem is the bands that sprung up after the fact: the imitators. These imitators who play techno music and only techno music are like a virus that eat away at the creativity of otherwise gifted and inspirational era of musicians. They inspire madness, insanity, and repetitious groove. Similar to the brain-drain experienced in Europe when many of their gifted citizens crossed the Atlantic in search of America, Techno Music is squeezing creative juice from the next generation of improvisational musicians. “Some people are afraid of change,” Bruno insists, “They think that progress will affect society in a negative way.”
Techno music emerged in Western Europe during the late 70’s before crossing the Atlantic, and re-emerging in Detroit, Michigan during the 80’s. Since then, the sound has been separated into several distinct genres, most of which are very difficult if not impossible to distinguish between: jungle, house, drum & bass, and trance are just a few of the sub-categories which the music has been divided into. The music itself attacks the listener at furious speed, sometimes assaulting the eardrum with a 140 beat per minute tempo. Synthetic sounds are fused with this upbeat, futuristic symphony of sorts to produce the perfect electronic blend.
One major concern is the rapid multiplication of “live electronic” bands. That’s right; these bands are furiously breeding like a dog on Viagra set free at a puppy park. Every time I turn around, another electronic band emerges to claim that they are the champions of innovation , sent from the suburbs and cities of America to rescue us from the mental prison of rock & roll. Innovation? Give me a break! It’s nearly impossible to sit through a segment of TV commercials without hearing a techno song meant to embrace modern culture and instruct me to buy a Toyota, a Nissan, or a cheeseburger. I think I found a better word for innovation: cliché. That’s right. This music has been used and abused to the point where it’s not even fresh anymore. Instead, it’s old, outplayed, and destined for the dusty shelves of the Library of Congress. That is, in fact, only if the Library of Congress considers bad music a serious art form which is doubtful.
Innovative? Does anybody really understand what it means to be innovative anymore? Bob Dylan—who single-handedly made pop music a credible art form and fused electricity with folk music—understands. Frank Zappa understands. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Robert Johnson, and Django Reinhardt all comprehend what it takes to be honored with the title of innovative, musical genius. Just because some frat boy owns and operates $60,000 worth of computer equipment doesn’t mean he should be held in similar esteem by jam music fans. Please don’t put these people on a pedestal, you’re only encouraging twenty more years of tragic and terrible, computer generated music. Think about the children.
“What really bothers me about this genre is that many of these musicians slip into a mold where they’re no longer exploring their full creative potential,” says Troutman. Indeed, Techno music has become a crutch which more and more bands are beginning to lean on as a thoughtless method for stretching out jams and inducing young, easily influenced fans to come to the shows. “What I hear in a lot of these bands is less musicianship, less exploration, and more redundancy,” he says. For some reason, the darkness unleashed inside this type of music seems cold and soulless; The same beat pounding away at a thousand miles per hour, a road that leads nowhere, a crescendo of futuristic sounding blips and bleeps that injects jolts of displeasure into the body, mind, and soul. “There’s always going to be some sort of backlash involved as new forms of music are introduced to an audience,” Bruno maintains.
First of all, who decided that late-night festival bands should play rave music all night long? Who decided that 2 a.m. was the perfect hour for monotony? This madness must end. If you’re reading this and thinking that the world needs another trance band, embrace a new and intriguing sound instead. Start a real rock & roll band, a hillbilly string band, or an acid-jazz quintet. The world does not need another deadbeat, raver band. What the world needs is something new.
This is a call to action for every able bodied musician. The scene needs a hero to emerge and push the sound in a new direction, one untouched by all but bound to be discovered. Jump off the cliff and take a chance. Lead the musical revolution. The unseen path is hidden between the roots of past music and fragments of today’s emerging sound. Somewhere in between lays a clue or a secret. We need someone to stand up and show us the way. We need a musical hero who isn’t afraid to break away from the boundaries and shackles of the techno disease. Take hold of the sound and manipulate the future of planet jam. We must scrub away the dirt of trance which has been accumulating on our skin for over ten years. Then and only then will we have the knowledge necessary to move through the gateway which leads to a utopian musical civilization absent of rave-controlled cultural influences. This is my manifesto.
[Jon Sten is a senior, majoring in journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is also the founder and executive producer of Some Kind of Jam, a rock festival each summer in northeast Pennsylvania.]