If you take the Manchester Metrolink from Eccles to Piccadilly, your tram window will allow you to see newbuilds springing up on formerly derelict sites, with railway arches and old warehouses peppered with units of restaurants and bars and nightclubs. The Metrolink is the shuttle which defines the city. A fleet of sleek radiation-yellow trams built in Germany pierce through it in resurrection of the trains which ran in the early 20th century. Manchester on the surface is a success story in Britain, of how a manufacturing city can survive post-industrialisation, while recycling enough of its heritage to make it feel culturally autonomous. The records put out on the Manchester-based Modern Love label on the other hand, suggest something deeper, a haunting in brick and steel; a part of the north-west’s past which does not gloss onto brochures.
Since 2010, Modern Love has consolidated about an axis of two acts: Andy Stott and Demdike Stare. These producers create Brutalist techno, dance music which plunges to a darkness and depth which Lustmord might recognise, but with beats. Demdike Stare are Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker, the latter of whom is currently based in Berlin. ‘Kommunion (Alternate Version)’ is taken from their 2012 release Elemental, a compilation of four EPs released previously – the original version of ‘Kommunion’ can be found on the first, Chrysanthe. While the name of the LP seems nature-inspired, industry is as much a point of reference: the first half of the song is a pitch-black rising from the ooze, a perpetual thunderstorm, which is propelled along with a mechanical rumbling, generated by a cog turned by tortured souls in Hell. The machines dictate the operators and wreak vengeance: the second half of the song features the sound of a piano being poltergeisted inside and out, with keys mashed and wire scraped.
The song is possessed; you can hear percussion morphed from demonic voice samples and hisses of white noise or steam. The dancefloor at its best offers a model of a sexless, raceless space, where all can join. The title of ‘Kommunion’ is devilish as it creates a wash of connotations: a more sinister comingling of souls on the dancefloor, or a dark transubstantiation, or a gathering organised by a faceless communist diktat. So many terrible songs from goth rock or metal or industrial try to scare you but end up reliant on the same tired tropes of SUDDEN LOUD NOISES or rehashed imagery (blood, Satan, puppets etc). The difference between them and ‘Kommunion’ is like the difference between your standard surprise-heavy slasher film and a David Lynch film, where the terror comes through having the rulebook of the viewer-film relationship torn up. To continue that analogy, ‘Kommunion’ is scary not because it tries to scare you, but because it presents an opaque world that can’t be shaped to pre-existing expectations. It’s the difference between shallow and deep surprise. The difference between surprises coming along like punctuation marks, or as if woven into the very fabric of what you are seeing or hearing.
Looking at the best-selling dance tracks for 2012 shows you the social media dancefloor vanguard: a torrent of self-celebratory piss-weak EDM tracks which are presumably meant to detoxify and empower the listener like a dose of Dulclolax. ‘Kommunion’ is refreshing because it subjects you completely under its will, trapping you in a black cyclone. That sense of circuitousness in the first half inverts the convention of dance music as an addictive burst into drowning layers of terror, the late arrival of a four-to-the-floor beat like a Manchurian Candidate-style call to zombified dancers.
It’s this sense of vastness, of resurrection, which allows the song to feel like it communicates on behalf of the entire city, dredging up forgotten voices. The current incarnation of Manchester reflects its manufacturing past, but machines have to obsolesce. They have to improve and economise and become redundant. The music of Demdike Stare brings them back and delves beyond the surface of converted factories and warehouses. It does not offer a direct social comment as such, but rather exposes the unromantic sublime of large-scale machinery, of the simultaneous terror and wonder it can inspire as much as any Wordsworthian vision of a mountain, which we can forget in our rush to tame them with clubs and studios and pop-up barbecue meat dispensers. It’s something to consider the next time you take the Metrolink and look out the window. And if you’re in the area, my Mum thinks the Harvey Nichols is pretty great.