I once read an interview with experimental percussionist Z'ev about the problem of making music with technology that's critical of the world that produced said technology -- "you're like, stuck!" he quipped. The very act of trying to critique what's around you ends up glorifying it, making it seem cool -- the same problem François Truffaut had with war films. But every now and then someone cuts through the crap: Oliver Stone made Platoon, and as Roger Ebert pointed out, it did not make war seem like fun. And drummer Keith Leblanc, of the original Sugar Hill Gang and its spinoffs, including the industrial-funk machine Tackhead, made the drum-machine and sampler workout Major Malfunction, and it manages the neat trick of being a product of the very technology it's designed to critique without seeming hypocritical about it.
The key, I think, is grit -- a word I know is too easily thrown around, and too often bled of meaning, to satisfy most people. But Leblanc's grit was well-earned; he'd participated in the brutally crude Mark Stewart agitp(r)op album As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade, another savaging of the technocracy that used an arsenal only marginally less polished than the one on this record. The chief instruments here are the same: mainly drum machine and hip-hop synths, but with Major Malfunction Leblanc made major use of the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI), an early sampling/digital audio workstation system.
At the time (1986-87), the CMI might have seemed a little too sleek and glossy to be featured on a record that, at least in part, indicted the unthinking use of technology. After all, this was the same machine whose sample banks were used by everyone from The Art Of Noise to Tears For Fears -- a computer for the mass-manufacture of poptones. But what sounded sleek and forward-looking back then sounds crude and robotic today, more oppressive and snub-nosed than sexy or "futuristic". When Susumu Hirasawa created the score for the bleak fantasy anime Berserk (1997), he too used sampling and CMI-like sound design that must have sounded cutting-edge at the time. Today, it also sounds crude, but the crudeness actually complements the darkness of the story, and the same thing applies here -- it's a kind of unintentional retro-futurism.
Major Malfunction's own heart of darkness stems from one of the grimmer and more historic examples of technology failing humanity (or vice versa): the Challenger disaster. The album's title comes right out of the sampled dialogue from conversations amongst NASA's ground crew in the immediate wake of the shuttle explosion, interlarded with machine-age-voodoo incantations from postmodern sorcerer William S. Burroughs ("Minutes to go, gentlemen. Minutes to go . ... Listen to my last words") and hapless-sounding lines from then-president Ronald Reagan ("We've grown used to the idea of space"). For Tackhead fans, there's an in-joke of sorts to bring the message home all the more: it's all presaged by the same machine-gun drum-machine stutter rhythm track Leblanc used for that group's "What's My Mission Now?", a raging indictment of waste and unthinking technology worship in the military.
The other side of the record opens up with another mix of thundering beats and political indictment, although with the former turned up a good deal louder than the latter. Savvy ears will recognize it as "Move", a CMI-powered track that producer Adrian Sherwood and Leblanc helped craft for an early incarnation of Alain Jourgensen's Ministry (around their Twitch era). It's another example of how the cutting-edge sounds of yesteryear can seem excitingly alien in retrospect, but it's always just this side of confrontationally crude, with its robotic funk groove and its low-res samples of news broadcasts (the line "Iraqi jets fighting" jumps out often).
The other track on this side of the record makes the point of the record more or less unmissable: "Technology Works", a downtempo funk jam (slower if only to let each beat land all the harder), peppered with eerie Cold War documentary clips about how World War III will most likely be fought by computers and not humans, and bracketed with a repeated sample -- "Technology works; technology delivers -- technology is a modern quasi-religion". This last is delivered in a nasal nerdy-boy voice that all by itself seems to presage the cluelessness (and overwhelming whiteness) of modern Silicon Valley technobrats.
"We do not use technology," said Godfrey Reggio, creator of the Qatsi film trilogy. "We live technology." His point was not that technology is evil, but that it too easily becomes invisible, and thus unquestioned. Sometimes we need to be reminded what the world around us is made of -- or, rather, what we have made it into. Major Malfunction is bonus beats for that process.
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