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Kevin Westenberg

Digging Their Own Hole: The Chemical Brothers have wedded techno to psychedelia.

The Chemical Brothers bring electronica gospel to rock audiences at San Jose's Cyberfest '99

By Michelle Goldberg

IF THERE IS any doubt that electronic music has become the dominant youth culture in the U.S., this weekend's Cyberfest '99 at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds should dispel it. Despite being ignored by radio and MTV and marginalized by mags like Rolling Stone, in 1999 electronica seems as mainstream domestically as it has been in Europe and the U.K. for years.

That's why Cyberfest '99, projected as one of the country's largest electronic-music festivals ever, can realistically expect to draw 40,000 revelers to an all-night celebration of rave, house and jungle culture, even though San Jose is hardly known for its dance-music scene.

Boasting such superstars as the Chemical Brothers, jungle pioneer Goldie, hip-hop legends KRS-One, hardcore techno maestro Josh Wink and drum 'n' bass diva DJ Rap, as well as carnival rides and extreme sports, the event is planned as an American answer to England's legendary Glastonbury Festival. If all goes as planned, it should put Silicon Valley on the electronic-music map.

In fact, one the goals of Cyberfest producer Sason Parry is to open up the Silicon Valley music scene. Ironically, given the fact that the area is the technology capital of the world, fans of digital music often have to travel to San Francisco to get their club fix.

With Cyberfest, Parry hopes to prove that there's a huge South Bay electronica culture. "It's going to open up a lot of doors," Parry says. "It's extremely positive in that respect. I think that a lot of people from Silicon Valley's computer and Internet-based companies will be attending. I know that Yahoo is going to be coming out. San Jose is a huge market that I think will really grow in the near future."

Already, according to Parry, there are 25 buses from 16 different states chartered for the event. The fact that people are coming from all over the country to a future-music festival in Santa Clara is surely a good thing for the area's reputation.

OF COURSE, the mainstreaming of the music is necessarily tied to some loss of the original underground vibe, most notably the anonymity that once drove DJ culture. In order for electronic music to really penetrate the U.S., it had to develop its own celebrity system, its own version of the rock paradigm.

Once, the star at any dance-music event was the audience itself, but a few crossover acts have shifted the focus onto the artists. Moby, Underworld, the Prodigy, Orbital, Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method and the Chemical Brothers have led the way in combining rock and club culture, making an event like Cyberfest possible.

It's especially appropriate that the Chemical Brothers are headlining Cyberfest, since they've done as much as anyone to bring electronic music to rock audiences. At the forefront of the big-beat subgenre, the Chemical Brothers combined bombastic hip-hop bass, techno samples and electric-guitar riffs of albums like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole for a sound that combined the rhythms of rave with the grandiose aggression of anthemic stadium rock.

Now, with their new album, Surrender, they've taken techno into psychedelic and indie-pop territory. Though there are plenty of block-rocking beats on Surrender, the best tracks are the ethereal and introspective "The Sunshine Underground" and "Asleep From Day"--and the restrained New Order homage, "Out of Control," featuring New Order vocalist Bernard Sumner.

Significantly, Surrender includes lots of vocals, and not just the sampled snatches of house music, either. Besides Sumner, Oasis' Noel Gallagher, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue all make appearances on the album. Gallagher's yearning, uplifting voice gives the radio-friendly "Let Forever Be" a neo-Manchester vibe, recalling the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays or Primal Scream.

The album's first single, "Let Forever Be" functions almost like a pied piper, luring the uninitiated into a garden of ravey delights. The gorgeous, pastoral "Sunshine Underground," for instance, may sound a little naive to those who have burned out on ecstasy-fueled utopianism and moved on to the darker, denser sounds of drum 'n' bass and the more urban, sophisticated joys of deep house.

For those new to the scene, however, hearing "The Sunshine Underground" at 3 in the morning under the stars may well be a revelation; it's the kind of song that creates converts. Even jaded listeners will likely be reminded of the giddy breathlessness that marked the beginning of the scene. The song is chiming, pristine and uplifting, building to small crescendos that are pierced by tiny shards of jagged dissonance before recombining in even lovelier patterns.

In a sense, Surrender mirrors the way the whole Cyberfest works: lulling, familiar elements draw listeners in so that they're open to being captivated by more complex, exotic sounds. Thus those who have become fans of the Chemical Brothers through their MTV videos and Hollywood soundtrack appearances may show up at Cyberfest and fall in love with Goldie's dark, dense, moody drum 'n' bass. Even better, they may be entranced by all the local acts: South Bay junglist DJ Slim, Oakland hip-hop/electronica hybrid Nizam and San Francisco down-tempo sound collagist Darkhorse, thus building grassroots scenes.

OF COURSE, this broad appeal is precisely why electronic-music purists hate the Chemical Brothers. Simon Reynolds reports in Spin that the band has resorted to putting out advance tracks under aliases in order to trick snobby DJs into playing them. This is, one could argue, a sign of the genre's health. When was the last time you heard anyone get huffy about a sell-out rock band?

It's OK for rock fans to like radio pop. Some even take a perverse pleasure in claiming to adore the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys. Irony has seeped inexorably into rock culture; there's a corrosive kitsch sensibility that suggests nothing should be taken too seriously. Dance and turntable culture, though, for all its frivolity, is still deeply hung up on authenticity. There's an earnestness to it, a deep investment that fans feel fiercely protective of in much the way that people used to feel about rock.

By the time of Woodstock, hippie rock was already old hat to the music elite. Similarly, electronic music has thoroughly pervaded the underground, and now it has nowhere to go but up.

As far as Parry is concerned, that's a wonderful thing. "I feel that it's the new rock & roll," he says. "I totally understand the feelings of people who've been in the scene from the beginning--the core people who started it and who now feel that once it becomes mainstream they can't control it anymore. That happens with all scenes. But the only way the scene is going to grow is to expand into the masses. Artists want their music to be heard, they want to get their stuff out there to as many people as possible. Music is for everyone, and everyone has to be introduced to it some time."


Cyberfest takes place July 10-11, 5pm-6am; Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, 344 Tully Road, San Jose; $30, $35 at the door. (408/235-1077 or www.TixtoGo.com)

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From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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