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Culture Reviews
Sixteen Tons 
By Martin Richardson
I was a bit too young for the first explosion of rave culture in the UK – the 1988 “Summer of Love” saw pre-occupied with school homework – but managed to make it to uni in time for the dawn of IDM. It was the era of Autechre, Aphex Twin and lesser lights like Sabres of Paradise on the one hand, grinding away with abrasive beats. Up against them came the ambient noodlings of Future Sound of London, Orbital and the Orb, techno hippies with a waft of organic sound and spacey effects enlivening the techno mix. Driving full tilt across a night-time industrial landscape with “Lifeforms” blasting from the stereo was something of a theme of my late teens. Somewhere between the two extremes, the likes of enigmatic English duo Plaid emerged. They returned last month with a new album which they brought to Moscow on their first visit in a decade.

The major problem with IDM, though, has always been transferring the carefully structured studio work into a satisfying live show. Back in the day, at the Megadog events which toured Britain’s universities in a bid to recreate the anarchy of raving in a field without the inconvenience of trudging out of town, the emphasis was on filling a large hangar-like space with a crowd of intoxicated youngsters (some of whom, dare I say, may have been under the influence of illegal narcotics), ramping up the volume to 11 and supplying a chill-out corner for when the pounding and banging on the main stage all got too much. It worked, just about, because there was a sense of occasion, of communality and enough contrast to keep you going until dawn. Recreating that vibe on a smaller scale, however, is a big challenge.

Plaid’s approach is not one which is destined to make megastars out of Andy Turner and Ed Handley. The pair keep a low profile on stage, hunched over laptop (Apple, naturally – the world’s biggest multinational corporation stands distinctively for creativity as opposed to the tyrannous monotony imposed by, err, other, err, smaller multinationals) and mixing desk to trigger the next waves of beats and samples. Audience interaction was as minimalist as the staging, and our ocular pleasure was attended to by the screens at the back of the stage. When the Pet Shop Boys performed like this in 1986 it was still witty to quip about men twiddling their knobs in public; in 2011 we’re not at school anymore and electro performance has evolved beyond this, surely. In effect, we were witnessing a soundtrack without the film, or having the background music without the activity.

This works fine when the music is good enough: nobody would regard a great symphony orchestra as a visual feast, but it doesn’t stop their concerts being thrilling. But here again there’s an awkward impasse. The nature of electronic music is that even when it is being created live – all those sequences are being activated in real time – it still sounds pre-recorded. The added frisson of hearing something created anew, with all the inherent risk of an artist pushing his talent to the limit, is somehow absent. And then there is the problem with the current Plaid tour – it’s limited to the recent release of “Scintilla”, a somewhat unfocused and underwhelming return to the studio after some years of soundtrack work. While there are great moments – the opening “Missing” works well, and was nicely matched to footage of an underwater fantasia which complemented the weightless menace of the music – the overall effect is underpowered. The music is neither crunchy enough to shake the audience, nor dreamy enough to chill us out. There was conspicuously little dancing going on for much of the set as well, which did little to add to the visual distractions on offer.

It’s difficult to be too critical of the band – they are undoubtedly very good at what they do – but somehow it was even more difficult to leave feeling I’d seen a real show. For devotees, of whom there are apparently plenty, it was a kind of homecoming: a chance to catch their heroes in person for the first time in far too long. But for the unconverted, this was not the place to thrill to a new favorite band.

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