During the recent World Economic Forum in Cancún, anti-globalization activists took visiting journalists on a tour of what they called the real Cancún: the tin-roofed shantytowns that surround the resorts and nightspots that make up the postcard version of the city. The activists argued that the scrubbed-clean white plaster walls of the Westin and Radisson were just façades obscuring the true effects of unfettered capitalism.
For the past three years, locals Phoenecia (Josh Kay and Romulo Del Castillo), along with the artists who release on the duo's Schematic label and their like-minded associates the Beta Bodega Coalition, have been offering attendees of the Winter Music Conference a similarly sobering revelation. The events at the Infiltrate 3.0 anti-winter music conference give a glimpse of an electronic music that's abandoned the shiny-happy pill-popping tropes that pack crobar each week: steady beat patterns, repetitive melodic hooks, and slick production values that all come together to uplift the listener and remove him from the humdrum of everyday life. Schematic's view of techno is like Keanu Reeves's outlook on the world after taking the blue pill in The Matrix. The illusions on which dance music rests are exposed and shredded into itty-bitty fragments, much as increasing forms of abstraction have assaulted the sham of realism in the visual arts.
As implied by its name, Brownout is an undermining of the power grid that supports straightforward commercial beatsmiths like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. In main-room electronic music, the drum machines and synthesizers are perfectly synched, so every sound is locked into the overall rhythm structure. On the twelve tracks here, the melodies and percussion constantly slip out of alignment with one another. A sluggish beat plods patiently through "Eyebrow," while pieces of the groaning soundscape fall haphazardly into the background. Every structure on Brownout caves in on itself. Even on "Grrl Trrbl," the track that comes closest to settling into a groove, a hip-hop-like cadence is tripped up by mechanical whirs and ratchet sounds.
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This is an incredibly claustrophobic record. Phoenecia limited its sonic palette to a narrow range of tones, which if translated to color might fall between matte gray and charcoal. In a recent URB Magazine article, the duo says Brownout "sounds like the Everglades at night ... on a really hot night, with all the creatures alive and moving around." But it's not just any type of life out in them thar bushes: These critters have machine parts, and rubbing up against one another sounds more like rusting industrial equipment than soft flesh. It's a tromp through the barely hospitable wasteland of electronic music that the big-money forces behind the WMC would rather you didn't realize were there. And for all but the most jaded clubland expats, the four-star hotels will probably prove more inviting.