Rustie: Glass Swords
Once primarily known for its grim weather and fierce football rivalries, the city of Glasgow has most recently risen to prominence as one of the best cities in Europe to go clubbing in, and for producing some of that continent's most thrilling electronic music. In the video to Russell "Rustie" Whyte's 2008 single Café de Phresh, with US rappers 215 TFK, two New York girls talk in bemused terms about the track's producer, who hails from this most unlikely of locations: "Glasgow?" says one, snorting with laughter: "You mean Scotland, with the bagpipes and shortbread? What does Scotland have to do with hip-hop?!"
The world is beginning to discover the answer to that question. In a testament to the local sense of humour, the synthetically enhanced beats being made by Rustie and fellow Glaswegian Hudson Mohawke in 2008 were named "aquacrunk". After several years releasing widely acclaimed club-focused singles of varying styles, Rustie's debut album, Glass Swords, draws on countless different genres - and absurdly named subgenres - to make an album that transcends them all.
Glasgow is a city with a rich musical history that in the last decade has become renowned for its dance music. Its reputation exists both because, and in spite of, its relatively strict licensing laws. All its clubs close at 3am, unlike elsewhere in the UK and Europe. Such licensing laws have a two-fold effect: young revellers party particularly zealously until the curfew and then scuttle off to after-parties at people's houses, where an atmosphere of playing music, talking about music, and ultimately collaborating, has led to a thriving new wave of Glasgow club music.
The city's famous Victorian architecture has, perhaps, unconsciously shaped this daredevil creativity and hedonism, too: the soft-hued sandstone provoking a kind of technicolour rebellion in its young people.
It's a rebellion that absorbs so much of its forebears, too: Detroit techno and early acid house are as popular as the latest 2011 sounds. In the internet era, fashion overlaps, interlinks and recurs, like the Olympic rings. Glass Swords is the sound of 2011, but also an undeniable collage of its influences, not least the 1980s: when Rustie looks to the decade in which he grew up, he finds much to commend it beyond pastel-coloured suits. The windswept guitar solo that meanders through the album opener - a preamble to the main event also called Glass Swords - sounds like it must have been played on a cliff top in front of a blue-screen sunset. There's even something about the track titles that evoke the Hollywood movies of the 1980s: Cry Flames and Crystal Echo sound like they should be brands of hoverboards in Back to the Future 2.
The more epic side of 1980s rock music also comes through - in the appropriately named Flash Back, bass reverb and grandstanding riffs are interlaced with bubbling (perhaps "aquacrunk") electronic noises in such a way that the song is almost situated as 2011's answer to Meatloaf. DJ Jackmaster, one of the linchpins of the Glasgow scene and its notorious (though young) label and club night Numbers, has made it his trademark to end high-profile DJ slots at cutting-edge dance festivals like Sonar with such Eighties jukebox favourites as Fleetwood Mac and Prince; turning some of the world's most self-conscious dance floors into unabashed mass karaoke sessions.
In retrospect it seems the fleeting (though substantial) success of hair metal revivalists The Darkness around 2003 was a peak in pop music's obsession with kitsch nostalgia - the same trend that sees the pre-faded black Metallica T-shirt as a staple of mainstream high-street fashion. Glass Swords, on the other hand, crystallises a zeitgeist love of music outside of and beyond irony. The idea of "guilty pleasures" in music has persisted too long, existing mostly as a stick used by snobs to beat music they regard as less worthwhile, less sincere, or just tacky. It's the spirit of the internet age to regard all music as equal at the point of consumption, now that such vast quantities of it are simultaneously available - via Spotify, Last.fm, iTunes, illegal downloads, global shipping of specialist CDs via online record shops, and the easy digital transfer of hitherto lost classics.
Retro-futurism in dance is not new, but it seems to be enjoying a purple patch. Along with Hudson Mohawke's Butter, L-Vis 1990's recent debut Neon Dreams seeks to exploit the 1990s pop-rave canon to similar effect, converting dance floor euphoria to three-minute pop tracks suitable for home listening. Albums by the likes of Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx have been cited by L-Vis 1990 as the model to aspire to, transcending dance music's past and its present, and its location. It's refreshing that no compromise has been necessary to transcend those boundaries: on one night in the London super-club Fabric this summer, album centrepiece Ultra Thizz was played in all three rooms (theoretically subdivided by style) to raucous receptions.
Much has been made of Rustie's video game influences, and this is undoubtedly generational. Along with recent albums by fellow Brits Ikonika and Zomby, the 2011 school channel the pop cultural sonics of their youth; not by way of supplanting the worth of music, but in addition to it. And where some old rave incorporated the Pacman theme, it's the Miami and California-set Grand Theft Auto games (Vice City and San Andreas) that loom large over Glass Swords' purple haze of a sunset. In those epic driving games the multiple car radio stations became legendary in their own right: players were offered a variety of epochs and styles, most notably 1990s g-funk, woozy hip-hop, and the kind of Eighties American power ballads described above: the one-click digital diaspora before it existed - Rustie pulls together these same threads and with them weaves a coat of many colours.
What's most stunning about Glass Swords is it's at once so complicated in its composition, and so simple in its finished product. Only one of its 13 tracks lasts more than four minutes, and the bombastic melodies wear the vigorous grins of a thousand sugar rushes; yet pick away at the ingredients, and there are a thousand additives and artificial flavourings generating this sensation - each track a delicate web of different computer effects, filters, melodies and rhythms. The highlights, Ultra Thizz and After Light, are frenetic with activity when broken down to their constituent parts - but why would you ever want to do that, when ostensibly, each is as subtle as a smack in the face with a fluorescent blancmange: broad-grinning, hands-in-the-air dance anthems of irresistible joy.
Ultimately, Glass Swords doesn't take itself - or anything else - too seriously: chipmunked vocals, raygun stabs, and even comical slap-bass funk themes sit prominently in tracks like Flash Back and Hover Traps, evoking Eighties brat-pack movies and the Seinfeld theme tune respectively. On Surph Rustie plays with and reroutes the flow of electronic music history - starting with rave stabs and escalating trance micro-anthems, and turning them into a blissed out hip-hop slow jam. City Star meanwhile is closest to London's grime sound, full of mean kick drums and synth stabs, perfectly designed for an MC's vocal, but fulsome enough that it doesn't need one to sound complete.
Death Mountain is more of a workout, with more of dubstep's rhythmic bass explorations, up and down the scale. But even this is toyed with, and given an upbeat, joyous glow; transformed from the suburban dystopia suggested by generic dubstep, to the cosmic cartoon utopia of The Jetsons, all neon acetate and laser noises. It's an extension of the development in dubstep promised by Ikonika, Zomby, Joker and Guido (especially the latter's so-called "purple wow" sound): spilling an entire psychedelic colour swatch over a template that is otherwise macho, belligerent and ultimately monochrome.
Revivalism is nothing new in dance music, as it was (and remains) in guitar music, but Glass Swords treats dance music's ever larger back catalogue with both the respect and the irreverence it deserves - the glow-sticks of rave scenes past standing tall like overblown, pop art versions of the bleached sandstone columns on the Glasgow Royal Exchange. Retired ravers might carp about the digital generation's debt to their past; but they forget that when you're standing on the shoulders of giants, you can still see further.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.
Updated: November 23, 2011 04:00 AM