Something about the talk of electronic music as the next big thing doesn’t compute, and that something is fairly easy to see. Electronica’s appeal is, let’s face it, inherently limited: Synthesized bleeps set to rigid computer thwacks will never have the mass appeal of pop songs with singers and hummable choruses. What electronica does add to the landscape is something much simpler and richer — the unabashed pleasure of making music — and there may be no better example of that contribution this year than Dig Your Own Hole, the much-anticipated sophomore album by one of electronica’s leading disco-ball lights, the Chemical Brothers.
Long ago, in studios far, far away, the joy and adventure of making rock & roll was heard in every vinyl groove. That rarely seems to be the case anymore. From the hardest rap to what’s left of grunge, a workaday drudgery has set in. With few exceptions — Beck jumps to mind — musicians appear to clock in and out of recording studios with grim, belabored determination. The opposite has often been true of techno; since the music is incessantly overhauling itself, its creators’ knob-twirling exhilaration has always been palpable. Dig Your Own Hole pushes that approach to its next, more ecstatic level. It doesn’t merely redefine what it means to hear and absorb pop — it throws the thrill of concocting new music back in your face.
The Brothers — Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, both British and unrelated — do more than leave their 1995 debut Exit Planet Dust in the dust. They stay true to techno ideals (like relentless beats per minute) while pulling the music in elastic, crazily inspired directions. Dig Your Own Hole opens with a four-song suite that careens wildly, and exuberantly, from the burning-down-the-disco break beats of ”Block Rockin’ Beats” to the manic dancehall of ”Elektro Bank.” Songs abruptly shift tone and beat, never settling into techno’s inflexible rhythms. (”Elektro Bank” ends up sounding like whales under alien attack.) Like kids building a house out of Legos, the Brothers keep adding more and more blocks until the house becomes a different structure altogether.
Even more so than much techno, Dig Your Own Hole doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before — literally. Layering sample upon sample (up to 300 per song, the duo claims), Simons and Rowlands create noises that don’t bring to mind anything known to man. What is that screechy wail on ”Setting Sun” (heard here in its full-length version) or the Dustbuster-gone-amok mayhem in ”Don’t Stop the Rock”? Guitars and a ”Baker Street”-style sax circle around the grunting ”The Private Psychedelic Reel,” which could double as the theme song for a cop show about robots set in 2025. But such recognizable instruments are the exception. Dig Your Own Hole may epitomize sound as substance, a dubious distinction at worst. But those sounds (like recycled voice snippets) become alluring hooks in and of themselves, bringing the record as close to pop as techno has come so far.
Like its predecessor, Dig Your Own Hole includes two experiments with non-sampled singing voices, and each is a tantalizing hint of some future electronic Top 40. ”Setting Sun,” their Beatles-at-the-video-arcade single, still doesn’t feel like a finished song, but the Piccadilly Circus sneer of guest vocalist Noel Gallagher meshes perfectly with the Brothers’ trippy swirl. ”Where Do I Begin?” begins as becalmed cyberfolk, with mopey British folkie Beth Orton lamenting her morning-after bleariness. Her one verse is then looped, and with each repetition, the noises around her increase, creating the sensation of all-consuming emotional numbness. (Typically perverse, Rowlands and Simons end the track with what sounds like an amplified chain saw.) In both songs, the voices become metaphoric — humanity fighting its way out of, but eventually getting subsumed by, technology.
As with another aspect of computer culture, the Internet, it’s hard to tell whether Dig Your Own Hole is the future incarnate or merely another step in that direction. What it is at times is a little spooky, like accidentally tuning into a radio station from the next century. And in the eyes and ears of the Chemical Brothers, that musical future is more fun — and much less scary — than anyone could have imagined. A