Disco may be the most pervasive form of music on this planet. There is no strict definition of what makes disco disco: a 4/4 beat is all you really need. People claim to despise disco, although admitting to liking some disco singles has become acceptable. Listen, fuckers, you always liked it, you only “hated” it because everyone else “hated” it and now you, flippantly, want to admit that you like a few singles? You know what? YOU LIKE DISCO. Don’t bother denying it. Sigh… it’s getting old.
Okay. Here’s the history of disco: Disco bubbled up in the early-70s’ Philly Soul sound, floated over to Europe, came back to NYC fucked up and electro, got all over everything, was loved, hated, died, was reborn a few years later, and has quietly roamed the Earth ever since, sometimes showing itself, sometimes hiding behind such words as “post-punk,” “new wave,” “techno,” “house” or “dance-rock.” Disco wasn’t destroyed in a Chicago baseball stadium. Disco never went underground. Disco got punched in the face, that’s for sure, but disco has no face, so what does it matter?
This week, I want to present you with a few modern-day versions of that glorious, classic disco sound. Some will fit your idea of disco, some may not.
Chromatics’ "In the City" begins with a simple 4/4 bass drum, a sampled, chiming keyboard loop and a two-note ice-pick synth stab. Deadened guitar notes are added with the snare beat, an equally dead female vocal picks up and a squelchy synth cuts through like a lazy razor. The bass is as uncomplicated, both as rhythm and harmony, just adding occasional weight. Chromatics use disco as a foundation, then empty out the space around it until the strength of 4/4 time seems barely enough to hold the song upright. An errant or unnecessary note could topple the construction. From the sound, it is obviously nighttime, and the atmosphere is not euphoric, but paranoid and frightened. Violence and suicide are implied but never confirmed within the lyric. This is disco on ice, and everybody has bare, wet feet.
Like Chromatics, Glass Candy are from Portland, feature a hottie singer, and are produced by Johnny Jewel. Jewel has a way with drum programming, investing bones—if not flesh—into his machines, lending the whole thing a slightly inhuman swing. Unlike Chromatics’ black vision, Glass Candy are all color and emoting. On their cover of Belle Epoque’s 1977 "Miss Broadway", strings, sequenced and echoed synths, pianos, saxes and Siouxsie Sioux battle six or seven minutes for your attention. Glass Candy started as a garage rock band, Chromatics as punk rock, but both have slipped more and more towards disco as they have developed. Chromatics stole Glass Candy’s producer and Glass Candy has stolen some of Chromatics’ cold air, and each have emerged as flipsides of the same tarnished coin, coming off like some coked-out 1979 loft party on the 6 AM down-slope.
(In searching for Glass Candy mp3s, I found another Johnny Jewel production, this time by a Texas native named Farah, who’s bare bones and darkness rivals Chromatics’ stripped corpse of a sound. The “Law of Life” remix [found at the link above] has the patience of a saint, sitting on its bass drum for almost six minutes before developing a backbeat. Chromatics, Glass Candy and Farah are all hard at work on new albums and singles, which should be available soon on the Italians Do It Better label, distributed by Troubleman Unlimited.)
If there’s been one thing unsaid so far, it’s that none of the Jewel-produced disco is all that danceable. It certainly isn’t disco one is likely to hear at a techno club. Sweden’s Lindstrom, however, has been one of the hottest producers of club disco for a couple of years now. His "I Feel Space"(dig that Donna Summer title) is all about the beat, which is exceptionally smooth and deep, riding hi-hats, hand percussion and shakers over an oscillating bass loop and icicle synths. It all feels organic, yet electronic, tapping into the electro-acoustic production that early disco unveiled as possibility and perfection. Guitars and keyboards dash about in space above the beat for the first half, before the breakdown ups the percussive density, keeping the whole thing landed and spinning out of control. (You can find this song on the Smalltown Supersound/Feedelity CD, It's a Feedelity Affair.)
Striking a balance between all-out dance-rock and trad disco is !!!, a New York by way of California 8-piece that features more drums than any band traveling by van has any right to have. While !!! features heavy production on the back end, they tend to keep their instrumentation restricted to the standard guitar-bass-drums, with occasional horns and analog synths. !!! has gone from funk to disco-punk to clubbish stuff to a slick, yet muscular disco sound found on their latest single, "Heart of Hearts". You hear the beat being built brick by brick, the bass blares and—boom—a smooth swoosh of synth and sinewy guitars sound off over the syncopated cymbals and shit… sorry. Shouldn’t have started. Stop. Stank you. Anyway, this is certainly the most pop song !!! have ever released, and as it pulses and pushes its way towards some sort of climax, the whole thing breaks down and comes back as a rougher, spacier version of itself. The guitars take off, while the drums become more elemental and organic. Another breakdown follows, and when the drums reenter, they are grimier still, with cymbals becoming gong-like and the bass drum pummeling the earth in search of nothing but dirt to bury itself in. (“Heart of Hearts” is available on Myth Takes, out on March 6, 2007.)
There is no conclusion to this. Whether you know it or not, disco continues in its lovely ramble across popular culture. Disco is like an incurable STD, bubbling up when and where it wants to, consistently explained away as something else, all the while laughing at its ultimate power over your poor and deluded soul.