Notes on Brexit Techno

A few initial thoughts I wanted to scribble down before I forgot them…

The day after the 2017 Brexit vote was the first Monday of the month, and at that time first Monday of the month meant industrial techno artist Truss had a 2 hour show that day on Rinse FM. His shows ranged from absurd Italo disco to electro to his less club-focused work as part of Overmono to the kind of hard driving techno that he plays under the Truss alias and the ravier MPIA3 alias. Truss began his July 4 (there’s some “talk about Brexit lol” joke in here), 2017 show by announcing “a particularly rowdy, angry selection for you tonight, as seems befitting the current climate here in the UK” as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “The End of Europe” hammers in the background, evoking bellicose doom and gloom a la both the Roman god Vulcan pounding on his anvil and a four-on-the-floor version Holst’s “Mars” (which the nerds in the crowd know is in 5/4). Released in 1980 on Sakamoto’s B-2 Unit album, this selection immediately connects the Brexit vote to the unrest in the UK in the late 70s, which was also significantly about austerity and the National Front. From there, Truss takes us to sometimes-Perc Trax labelmate Manni Dee’s “Cameron on a Guillotine.” This is a direct reference to then Prime Minister David Cameron, who was the person who called the Brexit referendum and led the Tory charge in favor of it. Itchy sixteenth-note drum machines power on at 140. For the first ⅔ of the song, the end of each measure, rim-shot like eighth notes lead us into the next measure’s downbeat, upon which a treble synth squeals (no doubt to evoke the squeal of a pig, which is both featured in the video at the precise moment the of the first synth squeal, and which is particularly symbolic wrt Cameron). In this part of the song, everything is very repetitive and most of the development happens timbrally (e.g., with a bit of sidechaining). Then there’s a bridge, and then we come back after the bridge at 1:50 ish and the song develops by adding some pickup notes to the synth squeal. There isn’t really much building and releasing of tension so much as expressing Defcon 5 level anxiety, the kind of anxiety where you pace around, can’t sit down, feel Mothra-sized butterflies in your stomach because you know the shit has really, really hit the fan.

“Cameron An a Guillotine” is an example of what I’m calling Brexit techno–techno produced (either behind the glass or in the DJ booth) in protest of Brexit. Truss’s show is also an example of Brexit techno, as are several of Truss’s performances under his MIPA3 alias, several of which are built around samples of Mark McGowan (aka Chunky Mark)’s anti-austerity screed. Other obvious examples of anti-Brexit techno are Perc’s “Bitter Music” LP (with tracks like “Exit” and “Unelected,” the latter of which is another itchy track whose breakdown sounds like the silencing of a room’s white noise only to reveal the annoying and anxiety-raising sound of a dripping faucet) and techno label DSNT’s Fuck Brexit Rave mix, which features Paula Temple’s then-brand-new “Jonathan and Goliath.”

Perc, Truss/MPIA3, Temple, and DSNT are all basically in the same scene/subgenre–they often play one another’s tracks in DJ sets. But the idea of “Brexit techno” isn’t limited to them. For example, there’s a fan-compiled playlist of “Brexit techno” on a Discogs discussion board (featuring more Perc & Truss and Truss’s brother and Overmono partner Tessela). Playlist compiler paulo_m describes his playlist thusly: “I wasn’t happy about Brexit – this was my angry reaction to it !!” There’s a more amateur, definitely more Kompakt-techno than Perc Trax techno “Brexit Techno Rough Mix” on SoundCloud that mixes Tony Blair talking over some comparatively super minimal beats. And there’s this techno song titled “Brexit.” There’s “Acid Brexit,” the second track of which veers hard into fast techno/gabber territory.   

I’ve poked around the internets a bit, searching for things like “Brexit EDM,” and in some ways “Brexit” functions as a timestamp of sorts–there were a few Brexit parties scheduled for…whenever the final Brexit was supposed to happen, and it was a word tossed around a lot right after the vote and just kind of got slapped on a few song or remix titles because it was a trendy word. Rockers like Jagger and Bragg released anti-Brexit songs, there are some parody Brexit songs and at least one Grime track, but in the broad realm of EDM, with the exception of Gazelle Twin’s Pastoral, this tight little industrial techno scene seems to have mostly cornered the market…but I still need to do more digging, especially because I’m in the US and limited to what I can find online.

Brexit techno is a Thing. It’s mostly hard, fast, maximalist, and heavy. You might say that it’s an expression of the fear, dread, and anxiety any normal person ought to feel at the prospect of Brexit–and at the reality of the racist and/or clueless voters responsible for it. As Truss’s post-Brexit Monday show suggests, there’s a strong fit between the hard, heavy aesthetics of this corner of the techno world and the mood/attitude of a certain part of the left toward Brexit. We might also think of a continuum of 90s digital hardcore, all its emphasis on starting a riot, the “riot of my own” punk of the late 70s right when all this austerity and nationalism was kicking off, and this thing I’m calling “Brexit techno.” Brexit techno isn’t necessarily just about Brexit; it’s about the hard-right turn most of the West seems to be taking these days. For example, there’s a Truss mix–interestingly, exactly 1 year after his post-Brexit Rinse show–that samples Trump (e.g. around 49:00).

Regardless, the thing that I think is interesting about it is that the aesthetics of Brexit techno are basically the opposite of “lofi hip hop study beats” or any of the other chill-for-greater-productivity playlists on your favorite streaming service. Instead of calming you so you can remain productive amid some really fucking alarming circumstances, they rip you out of your daily life and force you to pay attention to them. This is not background music. It’s for dancing, not studying. And as physical as that dancing is, it can help you actually…work through, in a really physical way, the biochemical parts of the anxiety and dread du jour. (I’m thinking here of how my therapist told me to take out anxiety physically, by punching a pillow or twisting a towel really hard–the physical release of embodied psychological material.) It’s not talk therapy, but dance therapy.

And fun is also therapeutic. Chill is not about having fun, per se. It’s about moderation, moderation as an ergonomic device for a particular formation of patriarchal racial capitalism. (That argument is coming to you this fall in The Sonic Episteme.) Despite being described as harsh or angry, Brexit techno is fun: it has big tension-release structures, driving beats, big grooves. Take, for example, the nearly 5-minute build (40:00-44:45) to a huge climax over a Chunky Mark rant (including such gems as “Tories wanking to Eugenics Weekly”)  in this MPIA3 Boiler Room set. Here, the club provides musical space for development that feels symphonic in scope compared to the the get-to-the-hook-right-away demands streaming metrics put on pop tracks. In these big tension-release structures, the harsh, angry stuff is used to build and release musical tension. This isn’t reactive anger, the kind of “lock her up” ressentiment that drives your average GOP or Brexit voter. It’s narrative tension, tension that builds in order to be released in pleasurable ways. I know real subsumption turned partying into work, but I think in this instance the pendulum has swung back from early 2010s EDM-pop YOLO partying-as-work to moderation/chill-as-productivity. And in this new context, especially insofar as the constraints a club puts on a DJ are quite different–even opposed–to the constraints streaming metrics put on songwriters, these maximalist development-tension-release structures that are *all over* the part of the industrial techno scene that seems to all be making music about the rise of right wing extremism may articulate structures of feeling and therapeutic devices that help transform the justifiable anger and anxiety we have at outrageous political realities into something less harmful and more pleasurable than the kind of ressentiment we see driving the nü right.