Sayan Ghosh: Electronic Body Music

Sunday, February 16, 2020 - 4:36pm


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“Body music” is what Ralf Hütter of the pioneering German electronic music group Kraftwerk called their 1978 album The Man Machine. While not the most reflective example of Electronic Body Music (EBM), it does share the confusing mix of qualities that make EBM so enticing. Not nearly as groovy as house, not nearly as rigid as techno, EBM straddled the line between the danceable and the experimental and while it laid low after its heyday in the 1980s, it’s making a bit of a comeback.

The roots of the genre can be traced back to Kraftwerk of course, as well as another German band DAF (short for Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft). Their most iconic album, the 1981 release Alles Ist Gut, is a classic example of the rather dirty, grimy yet somewhat sensual sound that characterizes the genre. For the most part, the sound on cuts like “Der Mussolini” and “Alle Gegen Alle” are relatively simple in terms of arrangement, with very precise, metronomic drums and catchy synth riffs. The most enticing part of these tracks (as well as most on the album) is Gabi Delgado’s deep, powerful incantation-like vocals. Delgado, the son of Spanish immigrants, also flirts ironically and in a way, reclaims Fascist imagery (as in the aforementioned “Der Mussolini”), paving a way from the outset for a genre that is meant to be provocative and controversial.

Throughout the 1980s, labels in Germany and Belgium promoted body music throughout Europe, with groups heavily influenced by the aforementioned DAF, as well as equally provocative groups like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb (many detailed histories may be found online). Its influences also spread halfway across the world to Australia, in particular to a Sydney-based band called Severed Heads. The group was a pioneer in its usage of tape looping and other sound-generation techniques, combining their experimental streak with a talent for pop — the best example of which is their biggest hit, the 1983 track “Dead Eyes Opened.” Originally a hastily added track to fill out a cassette, the single became an unlikely hit among non-commercial radio stations in Sydney. The track begins with a hypnotizing, if fairly standard electro-poppy synth pattern. Around a minute in, they incorporate a recording of a British crime journalist describing a brutal double murder, and about a minute later, the group incorporates a brutal set of industrial noises they are well-known for, creating a fascinating juxtaposition between the rather innocuous synth riff and the dissonant harsh sounds they introduce. The six-minute track feels five times its length, and while “Dead Eyes Opened” is not quite the best example of “pure” EBM, it achieves the main goal of the genre, to induce a hypnotic, primal trance.

While EBM died down slightly with the advent of other genres in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, its sounds have again widely permeated techno and other more mainstream types of dance music in the last few years. Artists like Broken English Club (see “Plague Song”) and Phase Fatale have infused their techno with the characteristic “buzz” of body music to create a new and exciting hybrid. Frenchman Terence Fixmer has collaborated extensively with Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy to create similarly EBM-infused techno, with the latter’s vocals on tracks like “Chemicals” adding that extra edge that harkens back to the genre’s heyday. Moreover, labels like the Berlin-based Aufnahme+Wiedergabe and Fleisch Records have led a renaissance of EBM in the country of its origins. Proof of the cyclical nature of dance music as well as the enduring appeal of the sounds and attitudes that EBM embodies, these artists and labels continue to push the genre forward for new audiences.