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Published: 2004/04/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Launchpad – Particle

Or Music 80401

A friend of mine was over here before, and I put on Particle's Launchpad for him. The swirl of the title track came on, all rising synthesizers and a sterile female voice (as if lifted from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001) leading a countdown. "Oh," my friend said. "I don’t want to make any judgments yet, but I think I can see where this is going."

"Where?" I asked. "Tell me."

"Well, they're gonna kick in with a techno beat." He sang a generic beat, spitting air between his teeth to imitate the hi-hat. On cue, Darren Pujalet kicked in with a tightly hi-hatted techno beat. We laughed. "Now they're gonna do one of those builds with the snare," he joked. And they did, just as soon as he had finished saying it. My friend looked momentarily astonished, as if he was somehow conducting the music. "No shit?" he asked.

"No shit," I confirmed.

Particle has damned themselves with their own relative success. When bands like The Disco Biscuits and The New Deal first thumped onto the national scene in 1998 and 1999, respectively, their goals were pure: to make music that sounded like it was made by DJs. For a few years there, the bands really tried, and it was really, really exciting, mostly because it was a contemporary-seeming challenge, and one taken up very heavily by some extremely talented musicians, like the Biscuits’ prog-freaked guitarist Jon Gutwillig and The New Deal’s Zappa-tweaked keyboardist Jamie Shields. It was exciting to listen to because the musicians obviously had their own voices and they could never quite get it to sound entirely machine-like. Ultimately, they gave up the task. The Biscuits have funneled their purer electronic impulses off to side projects like Moshi Moshi, and The New Deal have basically stopped touring altogether. Particle, on the other hand, who came on the scene on the same night as Phish’s 2000 exit (playing an after-show party floating around San Francisco Bay), succeed with almost absolute success.

And, just as Sound Tribe Sector 9 discovered when they succeeded at Phish's goal (unattainable, so far, for them) of making egoless music, the absolute incarnation of the idea turns out to be more boring than one expected. With Sector 9, at least, the impulse for egolessness is framed by their crystal-fueled leanings towards spirituality — a goal of the human race for, well, eternity. With Particle, the idea is in imitating a machine. And they do, and – in doing so – recreate a theme of horror literature since at least the Industrial Revolution: the idea of the machine replacing the man. Their music, as evidenced on Launchpad is sterile and cold and almost completely without emotion. It’s scary, depressing music that leaves one reeling. Imagine Pink Floyd without any of the bittersweet redemption offered by Roger Waters’ perfectly articulated teenage melancholy to let the listener in on the artistic intent of the whole project.

At least, that's what I get out of it.

On the other hand, it's also great dance music. But, where a DJ can find character by the way he, say, produces a beat or chooses a sample, Particle are doomed to sounding like plain ol' machines.

Eventually, my friend took off. He couldn't really listen to the music, he said. It just didn't sit right. I can see what he means. Launchpad is faceless. The way it succeeds in doing this is by not doing anything surprising. There are no stop-time waltzes, bluegrass breakdowns, or intricately composed classical sections. In a way, Particle did the exact opposite of what Phish (and, in a sense, the whole early jamband scene) did in their post-modern days of pastiche and surprise ("A Strauss piece conceived as anthemic funk! A weirdo in a dress singing Prince! A classical fugue! Trampolines!"). By creating music that has few conceptual peaks or valleys, Particle’s music is simply not noticeable. "Kneeknocker" just sort of hangs there. The music superficially changes – a Super Mario Brothers-like disco bassline gives way to a series of small builds by the keyboards and then the drums, an abrupt drop-out for keyboard noise, and the back into the groove – but doesn’t really do anything surprising. It’s transparent. And, as my friend was able to do, one can predict what might happen at any given moment.

If anybody can predict what will happen next, then it is music that is somehow reflective of the audience. Too reflective, in a way, to the point where Particle simply becomes an uncomfortably narcissistic mirror of the whole jamband phenomenon. That might be overstating the case, but it's one argument (pushed to an extreme) for the creeping dread that I get when I listen to Particle's music. It's a battle between the humans and the machines, and – right now – it seems like the humans are losing. Launchpad is dance music, but it tries so hard to sound like it that it forgets to be sexy or funny or any of those other human traits that makes dance music into a wonderful, social thing — "the way," Reyner Banheim wrote, that "European art-movements… lose their moral content and become forms of styling when they arrive on US soil." Or, as Zappa said: no eyebrows. Faceless. (Except when Charlie Hitchcock launches into a twirling, ultra-distorted metal solo that, I suppose, is intended to put the whole thing over the figurative "top" but kinda just sounds fucking wanky.)

Perhaps, beneath a smoke machine cloudbank, with blinding strobe lights and too much (or too little) consciousness tearing in bloodshot eyes (with no eyebrows to stop the sweat from pouring into them), Particle is transformed into transcendent music — a reflection of listeners' personalities that hinges on whatever else is going on in their lives that makes it fun to listen to. Listened to from a standstill, though, with no other context than the silence before and after it, Launchpad shoots out all the smoke one would expect. But, when it's cleared, the cardboard rocket is still waiting for liftoff.

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