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Has Underground Culture's Obsession with the Past Endangered its Future?

We're listening to Aphex Twin, watching Kate Bush, hearing Sir Mix-a-Lot, and generally trying to remember where we are.

Aphex Twin - over the path of his 22 year career - has filled a mythical position in pop culture folklore. Fuelled partly by his own wild tales (dreaming tracks before he makes them), experiments (doing sets using sandpaper and food processors), and the interviews that have surrounded him; which usually veer between surreal exaggeration and total fabrication. He represents ferociously punk levels of innovation in electronic music, and when Drukqs came out in 2001, it had NME and Rolling Stone scampering in opposite directions - the former to award it 9/10 and the latter to disapprovingly slap it with a single star.

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Over the last month, the behemoth of innovation in electronic music has stirred from his slumber to release a new album, Syro, and with it; breaking into the top ten of the UK charts. In contrast to days gone by, the reaction has been pretty uniform: top marks across the board. “THE most important release of the year so far” says one reviewer. “He is still an idiosyncratic head and shoulders above almost any artist operating in 2014” says another, slapping an inadvertently damning statement on any other producer working this year.

Despite their universally glowing high marks, the reviews do contain traces of confusion and denial. “An unusual album to contemplate because its overall approach is not particularly unusual” wrote Pitchfork. “Definitely Aphex, but decidedly done before” said Clash. Collectively, suggesting that, even though their conclusions were positive, Syro isn’t quite the mind-melting, transcendental futurefest some of us had idealistically lined up in our heads.

Syro is the intoxicating produce of a brilliant musical mind that some thought may never release again. It’s a collection of twelve pretty unrelated tracks, a time-travel through a meteor shower of eighties synth-funk, while simultaneously indulging in a reverie of rave, jungle, breakbeat, ambience, and fond, self-referential glances at the career of Aphex Twin. This creates a sound unlike anything else this year - but quite a lot like everything from the past thirty years.

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Syro is not a forward-thinking album, or a definitive record of the year. It is enjoyably, but nevertheless totally, nostalgic. Using a thought experiment from Mark Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life, it’s fair to say that if Syro was beamed back to the 90s, it would not sound out of place. In fact, to quote Fisher’s experiment: “what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little”?

Now, I love Aphex Twin, and I don't think an artist of his magnitude can be criticised for bathing a little in sentimentality. A career like his has earned time for reflection, and he himself admitted in interviews that Syro bookends an old chapter rather than opening a new one. So hopefully, on the next record, he’ll genuinely drive us forward. But, for now, with someone who was so ahead of his time looking decidedly lumbered by it, a much needed boost for innovation has again gone amiss.

We’re painfully used to seeing what Simon Reynolds would call ‘retromania’ in popular culture. In his 2011 book of the same name, he analysed this ever-increasing cultural defect, in which pop culture repeatedly draws on the past to fill the present. Inventive moments in modern musical history, like the birth of rock n’ roll, the dawn of punk, the dark early warehouse parties of Chicago house, Kool Herc spinning breaks at block parties in The Bronx, Italian producers repurposing Roland 303s to create the acid sound, or the rise of dubstep and grime are all now distant memories that almost feel fictional to consider.

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This theory has been well-trodden by numerous writers since around 2006. However, 2014 still stands out as a real shiner on the bruised face of the future. Kate Bush’s gig series has cleaned up the live circuit, Leonard Cohen's new record has resulted in adulation, Pink Floyd are reforming and Duffy is masquerading as a bloke called Sam Smith. Nicki Minaj is re-purposing Sir Mix-a-lot songs that used to be beneath wedding DJs and The War on Drugs re-possessed Dire Straits to create one of the year’s highest rated alternative albums. Ariana Grande and Zedd are teaming up to recreate the sound of Magaluf’s BCM circa-2003, and Barbara Streisand is marching up the charts by channeling the memory of, erm, Barbara Streisand.

An album from someone like Aphex Twin would once have been the rebel front against that feeling that we were on repeat. Alas, Syro is not. In fact, you’d be hard-pushed to find anything in 2014’s most critically acclaimed releases that constitutes genuine forward-thinking artistic innovation. The twenty year nostalgia cycle has been ripped apart by the internet, but replaced by an all-you-can-eat buffet of history repeating itself via a multitude of different algorithms. Electronic club scenes are, by and large, cryogenically frozen in a state of regurgitating the steadfast core genres, 90s R&B seems to have infiltrated the hearts and minds of every new young pop artist, roots reggae has found itself a new relevance, Kendrick Lamar is sampling The Isley Brothers (just like J Dilla, Ice Cube, Beastie Boys and The Notorious B.I.G. sampled The Isley Brothers) and grime’s revival, as exciting as it is, is once again: a revival.

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Things like Kate Bush gigs and nostalgic Aphex Twin albums only become real problems in this equation when they are deemed the biggest musical events of 2014. Popularised, publicised, monetised and geared to dispel mass influence on what comes next. They cast another long incantation over the twenty tens, keeping music largely transfixed in a trance, distracted from the concept of genuinely doing something totally new.

Adam Harper’s brilliant feature on the online underground shows how some music subcultures are innovating to better serve themselves, outside of the major label network, but most of these are innovations of industry and distribution. None of the music they deal in could be regarded as remotely progressive. Supposed new genres like cute pop - and another ripple of vaporwave - are patchwork sounds: open and blatant in their influences, aims and sometimes satirical ends. It isn’t about who is gonna do what next, but who is going to re-use what next.

Other examples of progression in music are actually just harrowing reminders of how we aren’t as progressive as we think we are. I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that the reason people think the FKA Twigs album is forward-thinking is not because the music is, but for the subconscious reason that we are still becoming acclimatised to seeing powerful new women of colour in pop who are in sole artistic control of their projects and their sexuality.

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Just recognising the repetitive nature of current pop culture feels like drifting in and out of consciousness - and it’s harder to stay awake. Just as you feel like you’ve planted feet in reality and you’re realising how truly derivative music can be right now, you suddenly find yourself posting on Facebook about that young bedroom producer from Ealing who you say is “the new shit” but is actually just making tiresome old rave stabs on Logic. I’m as susceptible to this as the next person.

Perhaps these aforementioned innovations regarding distribution and industry that are currently taking place in music’s underground will help it break away from the snowballing onslaught of nostalgia. Unshackled from the dying but dominant music industry machine -and free from the spells that treasure and champion anything that channels any genre’s golden era - it would open the door to a completely new approach. That is an optimistic thought.

However, pessimism is 2014’s most overriding flavour. Maybe we’ve reached some sort of musical event horizon, where our tendency to reference the past has flooded our consciousness to such an extent that escape has now become impossible. Or, maybe, in the drying Nile of pop’s mainstream, we’ve done everything already. Like Richard D. James said in his interview with Pitchfork: "Everyone knows about everything, The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever."

Admittedly, the past is seductive, but we can’t keep using the past to fill what is missing in the present. The projectile era of the regurgitation is in full swing, and one thing is for sure: if things don’t change, it's going to get pretty boring, pretty quickly.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @Cide_Benengeli