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EBM and New Beat

by Philip Sherburne

EBM and New Beat

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Forget about "EDM"; let's take a moment to consider the brilliance of EBM, or electronic body music, a bone-shaking breed of industrial dance that paved the way from New Wave to rave.

EBM could be described as the bastard child of Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle; it got its metronomic sense of the groove from the former, and its grueling sense of menace from the latter. Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter is said to have coined the term to describe their 1978 album The Man-Machine, and the tag (along with its German equivalent, "elektronische Körpermusik") soon attached itself to acts like D.A.F. and Front 242. By 1988, it was a common enough appellation that Belgium's Play It Again Sam imprint would use it for the compilation This Is Electronic Body Music, a label sampler dedicated to sweat-soaked dystopians like Front 242, Chris & Cosey, and Skinny Puppy.

The parameters of EBM, at least as I understand them, are fuzzier than those of many subgenres. The style, a nervous mixture of pop and anti-pop, is closely intertwined with industrial, synth-driven post-punk, so-called "coldwave" and other amorphous sub-strains of the day. In the early '90s, it occasionally found common cause with acid house, an alliance that helped give way to Belgian "new beat" and Spanish makina. The British DJ Trevor Jackson neatly sidestepped the precise definition of EBM with his 2012 compilation Metal Dance, which encompassed industrial, post-punk and EBM classics and rarities (1980-1988). Following his lead, I'm not going to get too hung up on specifics. I've read enough blog posts arguing over whether D.A.F. used the term before Front 242, or whether Liaisons Dangereuses' "Los Niños del Parque" really qualifies as EBM, to let other, more obsessive chroniclers of the style pick its nits.

If "house is a feeling," I think it's safe to say the same for EBM: You know it when you hear it. Throbbing arpeggios, rattling drum-machine sequences and gravelly cries run through cavernous reverb. Take those elements, imbue them with the herky-jerky funk of St. Vitus' dance, smear on some eyeliner for good measure, and you're good to go. In a 1989 SPIN magazine feature on industrial dance, John Leland described it as having "one eye on the dadaists of the 20s and the other on the apocalypse." Not only is that a perfect description of the music, it also suggests why it feels so appropriate right now, given our widespread nostalgia for the avant-gardes of yore -- and the nagging feeling that something nasty is lurking on the horizon. Equal parts creepy and campy, EBM is the perfect catharsis.