Toronto Sun

Techno wizards take on the electronica hype Underground to over the top?

If you believe the hype, then you believe the future of pop music lies in the collective hands of two techno bands.

The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, the most-talked-about musicmakers of the moment, are leading a two-pronged techno invasion of North America.

The Chemical Brothers played a show into the wee hours at the Warehouse last week, and The Prodigy attack Arrow Hall in Mississauga on Monday night.

The two electronic groups from England are being hailed as possible saviors by the music industry, which has suffered -- if you can call it that -- two years of flat sales. Sales are reportedly up by about 10% in the first quarter of 1997, but needless to say, the search is on for another next-big-thing.

"In England all those battles have been fought," Chemical Brother Ed Simons said recently. "Dance music was on the radio quite a long time ago. People like The Shamen, The Orb and Orbital had kinda cleared the way for us. "

Still, Simons and his partner in chemistry, Ed Rowlands, have gone it alone in North America. So far, their latest album, Dig Your Own Hole, is a Top 40 Billboard album.

The fate of The Prodigy's third release, The Fat Of The Land, remains to be seen. It'll be out June 30. If reaction to last year's fierce single Firestarter is any indication, it looks good for North American acceptance. (Madonna's Maverick label reportedly signed them to a $5-million, five-record deal, and their Toronto venue was changed from the Warehouse when the show reportedly sold out in seven minutes.)

Unfortunately, the techno renaissance is fraught with misconceptions. The genre itself didn't just materialize out of thin, British air.

"I find it a bit distasteful that we're re-introducing this music to America," says Simons. "It's like the Rolling Stones taking America by embracing the blues. We do interviews with Time and Newsweek and talk about American electronic artists like Carl Craig and they don't know who we're talking about. "

Fitting snugly under the blanket term "electronica," technology music can be traced directly back to the airy, synthesized sounds generated by '70s artistes like Germany's Kraftwerk and Britain's Brian Eno.
Married with funk, it became the basis for hip-hop in New York. Married with disco, it begat Detroit and Chicago's booming "house music" sound popular in dance clubs in the '80s.

Trippy experimentation this decade by British groups like Aphex Twin and Future Sound of London forged the final link while providing the soundtrack to the burgeoning, underground "rave" scene that would spread through the western world.

David Bowie -- whose techno ties date back to his work with Eno 20 years ago -- has jumped on the techno bandwagon with his most recent album, Earthling.

"Things like We Prick You and I'm Deranged from (1995's) Outside album were very influenced by jungle-techno, and at that point I got really excited about it," says Bowie, who toured European festivals with The Prodigy, Underworld and the Chemical Brothers last summer. "I thought it was the best new rhythm to come along, probably since reggae. "

U2's The Edge, on the other hand, practically admits that his band is only flirting with dancefloor culture on its new album, Pop. He says U2 hasn't made a radical departure.

"If you want to dance to the new record, you can dance to it," he says. "I like to dance, myself. We're still writing tunes, we have a great singer and lyricist. We've just taken on board some new ideas. "

Dabbling, maybe. But the enthusiasm of established artists has fuelled the techno crossover.

More importantly, bands like The Prodigy have shattered the myth that practitioners of electronica are dull and soul-less anti-performers. Formidable frontmen Keith Flint -- he of the weird, winged hair -- and Maxim Reality have jolted jaded rock audiences awake.

"There was this theory about dance music: It's never going to be big 'cause there's no stars and they're boring live," says Mat Osman, guitarist for British band Suede. "We've played with The Prodigy a couple of times and they're the most exciting live band you'll ever see. They're on fire. "

The electronica craze might prove that all it takes to break a 25-year-old musical form is some star appeal and a record industry budget.

But, with a short-lived rock revival, a punk revival and a New Wave revival already behind us in the '90s, the techno thing may be just fresh enough to last.

"It will be fine for a while," says Jill Cunniff, vocalist-bassist for New York's tech-friendly Luscious Jackson. "The things that really last are songs. Some of those bands have great songs and that's what's going to make it work, not necessarily the trend of hyped stuff from the industry. "

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