How to collect pop music from down under, part five: the dance course

Australians love to have a good time, or so the stereotype goes. Musically, it shows, with a lot of dance acts – DJs, producers, everyone else in between – making lots of waves, with some lucky enough to sneak out of the country and make it big globally. But since the development of Aussie pop music centered mostly on rock and pop, it took a while for the electronic scene to break through to the mainstream and become an essential part of the landscape – well, essential enough to make me feel old, because this never really was the music of my youth. But soldier on we must.

As with everything we’ve heard so far, dance music in Australia can be traced to underground bands absorbing all these influences from elsewhere in the world. In 1979, Severed Heads – widely considered the pioneer of Aussie dance – was formed, moving swiftly from industrial sounds to a more palatable dance pop, all powered by synths and drum machines. Their breakthrough came in 1988’s “The Greater Reward”, which saw some popularity in the United States. Through the years, bands and producers alike would attempt to take the mantle – the 90s, for instance, saw acts like Itch-E and Scratch-E and Future Sound of Melbourne – but the genre would only really gain popularity at the beginning of the new millennium.

First off, I have written about this song before, but fucking hell, I am still not ready for the feels this music video triggers.

One of the turning points in Aussie dance is the release of the Avalanches‘ debut, 2000’s Since I Left You. Painstakingly assembled from almost 3,500 samples by members Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater – with a bit of abandon, they’d admit, as they never anticipated the album being released internationally – and made partly as a response to the big beat movement popular during the 1990s, the record received acclaim for its sunny disco pop, and perhaps also for the whole production process. It says something that the record singlehandedly held the Avalanches’ reputation for sixteen years before its follow-up, the more psychedelic (and collaboration-reliant) Wildflower, was released.

Another duo that took a somewhat similar approach is Pnau, whose 1999 debut Sambanova was initially pulled from record stores due to uncleared samples. Initially a duo – Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes; they were later joined by Nick’s brother Sam – they gained a reputation for their live sets, and have even earned the respect of Elton John, who they collaborated with on the 2011 record Soft Universe, and the following year’s Good Morning to the Night. That said, chances are you know Pnau better for Nick’s work as one-half of Empire of the Sun, his project with the Sleepy Jackson frontman Luke Steele.

Fast forward a few years, and another pillar of Aussie dance emerged: the Presets established themselves for their harder-edged approach, fusing together techno and rock without exactly channeling the big beat movement the Avalanches were reacting to years prior. Formed in 2003, the duo – Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes – became regulars of the festival circuit, before supporting Daft Punk as the French act toured Australia. While their albums have already gained critical support, the release of “My People” in 2007 – and subsequently their Apocalypso album – pushed them further towards the forefront. (Also, will.i.am attributes the sound of the Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D – yes, the one with “I Gotta Feeling” – to this song.) They’ve only released two albums since – their latest, Hi Viz, was released a few months back – but they’ve been prolific remixers for artists at home and abroad.

Also along the same lines are Pendulum, founded in Perth in 2002 but since based in London. While they began with a sound rooted on drum and bass (my intro to them was “Tarantula” from their 2005 debut Hold Your Colour) they have somewhat smoothed themselves out in recent years, before going in a sort of hiatus – they haven’t released a new album since 2010, although plans have long been in place. That said, two of the band’s members have released music as Knife Party – the news theme geek in me will remember them for remixing the ABC news theme and somehow making a hit out of it.

I mentioned the bands, right? Even in the Aussie dance scene bands play a greater role than you’d expect. When I began exploring Aussie music over a decade ago it was the electropop bands that I first stumbled upon – but then, it was the time when the fusion of dance and post-punk became to make waves, particularly in the United Kingdom; permutations were all but a given. Cut Copy was one of the earliest I found; initially founded in 2001 as a one-man project (led by producer Dan Whitford) it has since evolved into a full band set-up, also touring with Daft Punk on the same tour that launched the Presets. Their breakthrough came with the following year’s In Ghost Colours, which channeled a stronger new wave influence.

Also coming from Melbourne – and also one of the early bands I discovered – is Midnight Juggernauts, whose sound is on a more ethereal, cosmic vein, although still very much on the indie rock side. Also along that vein is Bag Raiders, two classically trained musicians who you might remember more now as a meme. Even further down that alternative route is Art vs Science, who came together inspired by a Daft Punk gig – was it the same one I’ve been mentioning throughout this installment? – and has a more jagged, punk feel to it. On the other edge – something smoother, but still decidedly alternative – is Miami Horror, whose sound has straddled both rock and house.

I did talk about how modern dance in general makes me feel old, because it wasn’t the music I was raised in, nor was it the music that surrounded me during my youth. That said, I find that Australia’s tendency to start things a little differently has helped bridge that divide. It’ll take me a while to warm up to floor fillers, but the stuff I’m exploring next, I realize I’m a bit more exposed to because, one, they’re everywhere, and two, let’s face it, the bands along the lines of those that I grew up with aren’t the ones making cutting-edge music today. Indie is blurring, and the dance floor is just one battlefield.

Australia found itself as a starting point for one of these movements. Flume is widely recognized as one of the proponents of future bass, although he did not single-handedly push it – there was, as with most of today’s dance, proponents from Europe and the United States. But he set the template for future bass – on the deep and wobblier end, but still more euphoric unlike typical bass music – with the release of his eponymous 2012 album. His follow-up, 2016’s Skin, came just as the genre was breaking out, and earned him a Grammy the following year. Future bass now counts among its proponents Aussie DJs Wave Racer and Alison Wonderland, as well as internationally known names like Diplo and James Blake.

To prove that I can get to dance music too, I’ll end this installment with a favorite DJ duo of mine. But then, I’m really more predisposed to the sound Flight Facilities make: more rooted in the house music I was slightly enamored in during my freshman year in college, and something definitely sunnier and more relaxed. Formed in 2009, the duo – Hugo Gruzman and James Lyell – began remixing other artists’ songs before releasing “Crave You” the following year. Their 2014 album (and only one so far) Down to Earth captures their sound well: a bit escapist, a bit more rooted in the past, or at least a more idealized version of it.

Another DJ duo, the Aston Shuffle, channel the past by sticking slightly firmly with the electro house tradition; the same goes with Dirty South, a Serbian-Australian widely recognized as one of the world’s best DJs. And then, just to loop it back to the (throwback) pop side… I didn’t know Sam Sparro was Aussie; “Black and Gold” was constantly in my ear when I began to explore British radio.

And then there are the many bedroom producers that always seem to pop up when I go exploring Aussie community radio stations or Triple J. There always seems to be someone new each time I revisit. Dance music in Australia is thriving, and I have barely scratched the surface. [NB]

[Next week: we listen to the proponents of Aussie hip-hop.]

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