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Electronic Road Trip

Crystal Method
Katrina Dickson

Shining Facets: Ken Jordan (left) and Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method headline the Electric Highway Tour that raves into San Francisco this Saturday.

Crystal Method and Arkarna pilot the electronica caravan

By Gina Arnold

A FEW WEEKS AGO, none other than syndicated columnist Liz Smith touted the Electric Highway Tour in her column, a sure sign that techno has arrived on the planet for a good long stay. The tour--a rave that will "play" Pier 45 in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 6pm-3am--is being billed as the "official road trip of the electronic revolution." Indeed, the lineup--the Crystal Method, Arkarna, Fluke, members of the Iclandic act Gus Gus and such DJs as DJ Icey, DJ Dan, DJ Sneak, Jeno and Doc Martin--represents the full spectrum of the genre.

Smith's notice implied that anyone who was hip had long since switched their listening preference from hard rock to techno. But in fact, actual sales of this type of music have not yet caught up with the media hype, which began at the start of 1996, when Spin declared that electronica was going to be the next big thing. (Not surprisingly, Spin is co-sponsoring the Electric Highway Tour, along with BF Goodrich.)

At that time, the easily impressed music bizzers--made desperate by the crap sales of acts like Aerosmith and U2, and attracted by the cheapness of techno to produce--signed a bunch of these acts, which are meant to replace Pearl Jam and Green Day in the hearts and minds of America's children.

There has, of course, always been a dance-pop market for 12-inch remixes, and some songs by Grace Jones, Madonna and others have crossed over into the mainstream. So far, however, none of the numbers by the electronica buzz bands has been truly catchy in the way that Madonna's "Into the Groove" and Ministry's "Work for Love" were. Aside from the Chemical Brothers' "Block-Rockin' Beats" and Prodigy's "Firestarter," techno has yet to prove its mettle in America, and the genre must overcome a serious barrier before it does--namely, this country's unwillingness to move its big butt and dance.

Between them, the conventional beatless electric-guitar solo and drum solo have practically done away with all sense of rhythm, and two decades' worth of shoe-gazing rock bands whose audiences are perfectly willing to nod right along has compounded the problem. Beavis and Butt-head do not dance. And that's who makes up most of the American rock market.

If people don't want to dance, electronica is in trouble, because its intellectual quotient is quite small. In fact, anyone with a Macintosh and a little bit of computer know-how can program this kind of a groove. What's harder to achieve is the pure catchiness that creates the kind of giant radio hits necessary for the economy of rock to prosper.

Electronica also suffers from its deliberate anonymity. Faceless acts such as the Crystal Method and Arkarna do not lend themselves easily to our celebrity culture. Even if the recent death of Princess Diana fosters a brief anti-fame vogue, it's hard to see how one can publicize such a determinedly personality-less genre.

DESPITE THE FACT that the very word electronica is something of a turnoff, there's no doubt the media were perfectly correct when they said that it's time for a musical change. Angst and four-piece guy bands have pretty much reached the end of their creative run.

Besides, although techno may not seem like a promising byway to those of us who are wedded to hard-rock narrative, to decry it at this point is to echo all the fuddy-duddies who once decried Elvis, hippies, punk, rap and Dylan going electric.

In short, electronica is worth a listen, beginning with Electric Highway headliners the Crystal Method, whose name cunningly alludes to the pharmaceutical way that many ravers manage to stay up all night dancing to a relentlessly repetitive beat.

The Las Vegas-born, L.A.-based duo's current CD single, "Busy Child" (Outpost)--a riff on the rap song "Know the Ledge" by Erik B and Rakim--is one of the more prominent electronica cuts being played on LIVE 105. The band's new album, Vegas, is full of similar tracks, which, rather than being ambient, are more in the "take a good riff and repeat it incessantly" style of the Chemical Brothers.

"Keep Hope Alive" and "Trip Like I Do" are already familiar to those who frequent actual discotheques--one is from the MTV Amp compilation, the other appears on the soundtrack to the film Spawn. Hipless stay-at-homes, however, will find the Crystal Method's nonstop machine-spun beats fairly one-dimensional.

Only the song "Comin' Back" has a conventional vocal, and typically, its singer--one Trixy Reiss--is barely credited on the CD cover. We're supposed to be more impressed by the electric rhythm textures created by the Method's members, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, but we're not.

The Crystal Method's business-driven slogan is "Buy American"--a reference to the dominance of techno acts from Europe. Prodigy, Orb, Hooverphonic, Daftpunk and Death in Vegas are all more prominent and, frankly, artistically superior to the U.S. acts. So too is Arkarna, the Electric Highway Tour's English offering.

A LISTEN TO Arkarna's new LP, Fresh Meat, shows the group to be a tad more accessible than the Method, using, as it does, real songs and song structures set within a techno framework.

Arkarna's leaders, Ollie Jacobs and James Barnett, believe in the concept of techno meets guitars, rather than techno rids itself of guitars. To that end, they have crafted a surprisingly accessible modern-rock album that uses real instruments: guitar, bass, drums and even, at one point, what sounds like a piano.

"The Future's Overrated," for example, is a good song with a tune and an actual narrative: "The future's overrated / Won't be the same without you."

"So Little Time" is another poppy number with a pretty, almost folky guitar lead. It would sound just as well played unplugged, although its 180 bpm (beat per minute) techno background makes it difficult to distinguish "So Little Time" from an old-fashioned, conventional disco number by a band like Wham. The same is true for the interminable, nine-minute-long "song" "R.U. Ready."

Tracks like "R.U. Ready" prove that electronica still has a long way to go before it overcomes the "disco sucks" prejudices of American record buyers. Dress it up how you will, techno music merely recalls the heady days of 1978--late nights at discos grooving to Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, amyl nitrate and cocaine, Bright Lights, Big City.

The all-night Electric Highway Tour may be able to change that perception by injecting a modicum of edgy coolness into an otherwise moribund concept. But as the Crystal Method's very name implies, the only way a person can comfortably experience this type of performance--the flashing strobe lights, the anonymous DJs, the all-night hours and repetitive beats--is in a chemically altered state. And if the Grateful Dead and psychedelic rock have shown us anything, it's that drugs are not the best basis for an entire rock movement. If the future is going to be that much like the past, then it is, indeed, overrated.

The Electric Highway Tour takes place Saturday (Sept. 13), 6pm-3am, at Pier 45 in San Francisco. Tickets are $20. (BASS or www.ticketweb.com)

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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