Top marks to The Qemists for having a very proactive and friendly PR; the person in question noticed my rant about Pendulum and false genre hybridisation (shorter version: you have to do more than steal the instruments and sounds of a genre to actually capture what makes that genre tick) and asked if I’d give Spirit In The System a listen. “I can’t promise you’ll like it,” they said, “but I think you’ll at least find it interesting.” Well, I didn’t like it (sorry, guys, but I think you knew that was on the cards), and if “interesting” can be unpacked as “another example of the commercial reappropriation of the sounds and imagery of outsider genres in response to the fashion-driven demands of an increasingly desperate clade of major record labels and their investors”, then the PR was pretty much spot on.
First thing you’ll notice about The Qemists is how almost every track on Spirit In The System is billed as “featuring [Artist X]”. this is probably due to an awareness – conscious or otherwise – that there’s so little difference from tune to tune that the only way people will be able to tell them apart is by knowing who’s waffling over the music. Even then, I’m not sure how much it will help – either I’m more disconnected from mainstream culture in the UK than I thought, or this is a long long walk from the A-list of potential collaborators you’d be drawing up if you wanted to make a bid for the big-time.
What’s instantly apparent is that the rock/breaks crossover subgenre hasn’t really moved on much in the last five years, maybe even the last ten. Sure, the pads and patches are that little bit more contemporary (new hardware and software means shiny new presets to tweak!), but all the regular components are here: standard-issue breakbeat patterns that Goldie’s Metalheadz crew were already abandoning circa 1994 for being dated; bass-bin-buggering synths sucking and shoving around at the bottom of the spectrum (popularised for the mainstream ear by that “Addicted to Bass” track that got loads of airplay back in the late nineties, though re-imagined fairly impressively – turn it up loud to simulate the sensation of a having eaten a dodgy shellfish-based meal before drinking four pints of warm lager on Sunday afternoon at a festival); blends of guitar and sawtooth synth patches sliced and filtered into shards and fragments of sound around and between the beats. Nothing new under the sun: I’ve long harboured a suspicion that we’ve run up close against the limits of what it’s possible to do with sound while having it remain pleasurable to hear, which is why pop music is increasingly homogenous, retro revivalism (ironic or faithful) and genre mashups are ubiquitous, and the only true groundbreaking steps being made in music are literally painful to listen to. Spirit In The System isn’t a culmination of the last twenty years of music… heck, it’s not even a best-of. Being as generous as I can find it in my heart to be, it’s what an artificial intelligence based on pattern recognition would write if you fed it the last twenty years of music and asked it to come up with something that it thought might appeal to the greatest number of people who define themselves as being somehow “alternative” (even if that self-definition is largely based on an eccentric tendency to dressing exclusively in pink, or the inconceivably outre irony of liking classic hair-metal and owning a Mariah Carey album).
I was going to do a track-by-track dissection, but most of the tracks ended up with notes that said simply “see above”: synths (sometimes combined with guitars, sometimes imitating them), room-shaker bass, that entry-level -BOOM, cha…BOOM-cha- drum’n'bass percussion pattern… and the guest vocals, of course, from such un-Googlable non-notables as MC ID, “Chantal of Invasion” (as opposed to “off of Big Bruvva”, presumably), and mystery shouty-bloke-and-rappy-bloke duo Matt Rose and Bruno Balanta. I have no idea who Jenna G may be, either (unless she was in that YouTube video I saw the other week involving a satchel of corn snakes and a tea-urn full of strawberry flavoured yoghurt), and I have no interest in finding out; merely replace the breakbeats of her vehicle “Hurt Less” with a 4/4 kick, and it could be a Radio 1 early afternoon playlist feature… and I’m afraid I don’t mean that in a complementary way. But I did make it all the way through Jenna’s contribution, which is more than I can say for the saccharine urban-autotune wailing of “Renegade” featuring Maxsta.
There are a few names I know, though. “Take It Back” features Enter Shikari, who here – stripped of their distinctive madcap sonic overload and chemical Rapture eschatology – sound even more than usually like a gang of Mike “The Streets” Skinner clones after a few half-absorbed elocution lessons. Later on, “Apocalypse” features Rob of The Automatic – presumably not the shrieky one who got kicked out of The Automatic after their first album, thus robbing them of their only distinctive feature? Nope, it’s the main vocalist, supplying gnomic soundbitey bits to back up the pitchbending basslines and (gasp!) bog-standard drum’n'bass beats. If all you’re going to do with your vocalists is grab a few contextless half-sentences, why not go back to just sampling them from existing tracks? At least with a remix we get the intellectual challenge of seeing how the producers have reinterpreted the original; Spirit In The System sounds like a collection of committee-written pieces based on a few words and mood-trigger phrases. “Yeah, apocalypse… the weird kids love that apocalypse stuff, don’t they? That’ll do! Now, you – Ron, Bob, Rob, whatever your name is – you dig through your notebook for some suitable offcuts while we fire up the samplers!”
All the classy and skillful production in the world (and truly, The Qemists do very slick and detailed work here) can’t disguise the fact that the tonal pallet of rock and metal is in this instance seen primarily as a way of increasing market reach for otherwise unremarkable by-the-numbers hard pop electronica. In the same way that you could give a very skilled painter and counterfeiter the exact same paints and tools and canvas as Picasso or Gaugin or Pollock and still never get something that rang with the authenticity of the original works, you’ll never get an authentic rock/electronic hybrid from a group that doesn’t have equal passion and experience on both sides of the equation. That’s why Pitchshifter, Cubanate and mid-career Prodigy were groundbreaking, and still sound fresh today when held up against this quotidian by-the-numbers guff; The Qemists are merely savvy to the high-street brick’n'mortar music retail Zeitgeist, which is a skill in itself, but not one that makes me want to send them any money or watch them perform live. There’s no power to these tracks beyond their ability to make speakers shift air: no emotion, no meaning, no energy. Maybe I’m just reinventing rockism here, but I rather suspect that the people who coined that derisive term would have found The Qemist’s skin-graft of rock tropes to be just as shallow as they consider rock itself.
And that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of ostensible “rock product” sloshing around the marketplace that takes a similar tick-the-boxes approach, either… but I find that stuff to be largely unlistenable, too. I suspect the adventurous PR hoped I’d say “hey, at least The Qemists are better than Pendulum!”, but frankly (sorry again, folks) I’d rather listen to In Silico ten times over than suffer through this interminable collection of cookie-cutter crap so much as one more time. I’m even more surprised to find that Ninja Tune – a label which was for many years my go-to source for intelligent and inventive breakbeat music – is releasing such tawdry shite these days. How the mighty have fallen…
Call me again when they’ve started writing songs that mean something more to them than another paycheque, yeah?