Esteemed music journalist and author Simon Reynolds returns after an eight-year break with new book Futuromania: Electronic Dreams, Desiring Machines and Tomorrow’s Music Today. From the 70s right up to the present day, Simon Reynolds tracks the development of music that sounds like the future. As Simon Reynolds himself recognises; there is a lifetime of listening here.
Futuromania can be read as a kind of companion volume to Reynold’s earlier book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its own Past, looking to the future now as opposed to reflecting on our past. Simon Reynolds paints the full picture of electronic music and the process of making the sounds of tomorrow, from Donna Summer, to Kraftwerk, to Ryuichi Sakamoto to Daft Punk. Throughout the collection of essays, in his explanations of the machines and their place in sonic production, Reynolds is just as quick to recognise the work and genius of the man behind the machine. In making visions of the future, Reynolds explores that intersection between the music and dystopian world-building, with chapters on this popular music in science fiction and cinema. This book serves as not only a listening guide, but an informative companion.
Having covered many developments in music over his long career since the 1980s, Reynolds now teaches at the music school at California Institute of the Arts. Working on a new book as we speak, we are sure we can expect to hear more from Simon Reynolds in the foreseeable future. The author spoke to us at METAL in advance of the release of Futuromania, set for April 11th.
You’ve taken on many roles over the years from music journalist to author to teacher; where do you find yourself with the impending release of this new book?
Right now, the job description is author / teacher – I’m working on a new book, while teaching in the music school at California Institute of the Arts.
As your career in music journalism started in the 80s, you’ve witnessed and written about a lot of different developments. In what ways do you feel music journalism has changed since?
It’s harder to make a living at it – that’s the big change. Music criticism was never a road to riches, but it seems like an increasingly tough path. Still, while many magazines have died, there’s still a lot of specialist print magazines and then there’s loads of web publications. And newspapers and non-music general magazines cover music to a far greater extent than they did in the 1980s. So, there’s places to write.
In terms of how people go about the writing itself -  if there’s one tendency I could identify, it’s an imbalance towards reviews and overviews, compared with a relative deficit of reported, in-the-field journalism. That kind of reportage is labour-intensive and requires support from a magazine (there are expenses involved). So, it’s convenient for both writers and publications if writers do work that can be done entirely from home. What gets lost is a sense of the music being embedded in real life. Music culture becomes something that exists online – as a writer you gather in your data via a screen, and then you send it out into the world via screens.
This new book Futuromania: Electric Dreams, Desiring Machines, and Tomorrow’s Music Today is set for release April 11th. This can be read as a sort of sister book to your previous Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its own Past. How do you view the relationship between the two?
Futuromania isn’t really an answer to Retromania, or even a sequel. It’s more like a companion volume – it’s about the exhilaration of music that feels like it’s somehow from the future. I’m also exploring what it means when we talk about quote unquote future music or music being futuristic. I thought about doing a full-blown study of these ideas, but then I realised these were themes that ran through all these pieces I’d done and that they came across in a more exciting way when organically embedded in an artist profile or a genre survey. Futuromania is a themed collection. Most of the contents were written after Retromania came out, so even when they are about historical subjects, like Giorgio Moroder or Ryuichi Sakamoto, they are limned through with these preoccupations to do with the future and how some music, even though it’s from decades ago, can still feel like the future. I’m looking at the intersection between science fiction and pop music, and in one essay, looking directly at how science fiction writers have tried to imagine the music of the future. All these leitmotifs to do with futurity, sonic fiction and the idea of the lost future weave through the pieces and then in the Afterword, I pull the threads together.
This book really encapsulates the project of futuristic music as world-building, from utopia to dystopia. How do you find political ideologies influence or inspire this world-building aspect in electronic music?
I think that idea really crops up mostly in the essay on conceptronica. It’s an idea that’s drifted into music across from games culture: the idea of sonically creating a completely immersive reality that the listener moves through. I’ve barely played videogames in my life, but for the generations after mine, it’s just been part of their growing up, from the shoot ‘em up type to the sandbox sort. But of course, you could say that before games existed, you had world building in fantasy fiction – writers like Tolkien who imagined complex realities, peopled with races and languages and lore. I was a big Tolkien fan as a kid, so I understand the appeal. And I guess Dungeons and Dragons was the bridge between that Tolkien world-building and the videogame type. Similarly, you had world-building in science fiction and alternative history (both of which I was a huge fan of) as well as sword ‘n sorcery and fantasy  – not just novels, but comic books and films.  In all these pulpy genres, the building of the world is the really creative element, behind which plot, dialogue and characterisation (the conventional virtues in non-genre literature) tend to lag badly.
I think world-building is ideologically neutral in itself. But rather a lot of young adult fantasy and videogames seem to pulse with reactionary energies, there’s a sort of anti-modernity desire at work and a regression to saga-like narratives and warrior hero archetypes .Which in turn can take on a fascistic or militaristic vibe.
When it comes to music, most of the people invested in the idea of world-building seem to be progressive. Either they are creating something utopian or, if it’s a dystopian scenario, that’s meant to represent a kind of dark realism, a dread-full picture of the future.
The final section on this world-building mapping to cinema is extensive; why do you think the cinema is such a focus for electronic creators and producers interested in futurism?
It’s the spellbinding, immersive artform of the last century. It influences musicians of many kinds, not just electronic artists. Another factor is that for many musicians, the way that music and sound design figure in cinema is inspiring. That’s especially so if you are making instrumental music that isn’t song-based and lyric-based -  the idea of movie scores is a way of conceiving of what you do.
Specifically, with techno and jungle producers in the ‘90s, I noticed that a particular type of  film was their main form of aesthetic nourishment, outside of music itself. This was a largely post-literate culture: they could read but they weren’t habitual readers of fiction. So, if you mentioned J.G. Ballard, you’d probably get a blank look. But  Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator – these films often seemed to be among the most intense aesthetic experiences they’d had. There’s a particular strand of mainstream genre film – action-plotted films set in a dystopian near-future, full of spectacular special effects – that can carry political or philosophical ideas and bring them to a mass audience that would be unlikely to encounter any other way. The Matrix.  The Hunger Games. Most of these films are soaked in anti-capitalist paranoia. Corporations are sinister, ruthless entities. This critique, this way of feeling the world, this sense of a dark future, resonates for this audience. But the pictures also make these dark worlds seem glamorous, while the plots often involve plucky individuals rebelling or outwitting the controllers.
Cars were clearly a cause for concern in the early electronic period, both as an extension of the phallic power, to then Kraftwerk’s Autobahn evoking the zen elements, then of course Gary Numan’s Cars, and across other mediums as well; is there a modern invention like this you find is troubling the world and images of the future in the same way?
Probably the smartphone. That said, I can’t think of any songs about it really. There was a period when rap songs were full of references to DMs.
Because of doomscrolling and also the effect of TikTok and Reels in making you visually snack endlessly, the smartphone feels like a sinister entity. It’s somewhere between a prosthesis and an implant – something you’re not in control of, that you are in the control of.
Some of the artists in the conceptronica essay are dealing with the effects of social media and high-turnover Internet culture.
A part of this book really stood out to me on house music; “Nothing is ever resolved: house is the beat that can never satisfy or be satisfied.” Can you talk a little on this interplay between futurism and its music, and posthuman sexuality?
I wrote that in 1988 about acid house, which felt neurotic in a compelling but vaguely sinister way. I think there are other modes and moods in house. Deep house and garage just floods the body with pleasure. You lock into the groove, there’s all these warm organic textures. Then you have latter variants like speed garage,  Daft Punk-style filter house, and the kind of heroin house from late ‘90s Berlin. That sound, from labels like Basic Channel and Chain Reaction, felt completely wombing.
So maybe the endlessness of house - the deferral of climax, the way that it just keeps pumping and pounding – maybe it’s fulfilling in its own right. Like tantric sex maybe!
You are very conscious of the ego surrounding rock music in your writing, identifying rockisms and anti-rockisms in the reception of the music of the future, to even the group format of rock’s “gang-like” band to electronic music’s coupling of composer and singer or lyricist; could you expand a little on this relationship between the two?
There’s lots of music that works through ego – rock, rap, dancehall ragga. Often it’s  connected to that adolescent need to assert oneself, claim your space in the world. I find that kind of energy exciting. But  possibly the more evolved way is where the performer’s self melts into the music. My friend David Stubbs had this cool line about Krautrock groups like Faust: “they submit themselves as a speck on a landscape of their own making”. So, the music is glorious, but it doesn’t involve self-glorification – the artist disappears behind the majesty they’ve created.
This distinction between self-celebration and a more self-effacing approach cuts across this contrast I was making between the boy-gang in rock and the synthpop duo as “couple”. The Clash and Soft Cell are both basking in the spotlight. Mark Almond was a diva and showman.
You've highlighted the influence of classical music in electronic music, drawing parallels to Bach. Can you share a little more on this; in what ways do you find this classical influence shapes modern electronic genres?
The Bach thing came up because Edgar Froese mentioned the basso continuo – this bass pulse in Bach that Tangerine Dream recreated for their hypnotic extended pieces for synth. You can hear a kind of Bach-like thing going on in later genres like trance, all these baroque ripples and wibbling folds. One of main pieces of equipment used in trance was called the Arpeggiator.
But rather than classical or Romantic era composers, there’s probably connection between the 20th Century avant-garde and electronic popular music. Whether it’s the musique concrete composers and early electronic people like Pierre Henry and Karlheinz Stockhausen, or the minimalists such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. The way the latter structured their pieces and how techno and trance work is very similar: pulse rhythms, small melodic units. Even the mood is similar: the minimalists moved away from avant-garde atonality towards melodious prettiness and a propulsive yet serene euphoria.
Another connection is the links between Erik Satie and ambient music.
This book recognises the human behind the machine as the primary agent, even when creating this uncanny posthuman alien sound. With the latest developments in AI, what do you think this means for the future of futuristic music? Is this an abuse of technology for you, or do you think it’s much the same as the vilification initially afforded to autotune?
It’s too early to say what AI is going to mean for music – we’ve only had it for a couple of years. Auto-Tune existed for about a decade before we really began to see what could be done with it in terms of warping the voice and pushing into these strange areas of distortion and posthuman weirdness.
So, for instance, I’m not sure I can yet hear what the signature of AI is when it comes to music based on text-to-sound commands or the creation of non-human singing entities. Yes, it sounds eerie, but not in a way that identifies itself as utterly different from what has been done for a while now using existing processing software. I listen to the patten album Mirage FM – it’s really cool, but I do wonder, “if I hadn’t read that he’d used Riffusion, would I have been able to tell? Maybe I’d just thought it involved some drastic use of Auto-Tune or Melodyne or other combination of already existing effects”.
Like with all previous electronic and digital technologies, AI ultimately relies on the ingenuity of the human using it.  And you also need the human sensibility that can sort through the outcomes and decides what’s worth keeping, what can be modified in other ways, what can be combined with other materials. The initiating human spark, the subsequent human filtration – without these artificial intelligence is artificial unintelligence.
Are there any recent developments in music or new releases that are catching your attention?
Probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard in the last few years, at least in terms of  electronic dance music, is amapiano – a South African mutation of house. The rhythm structure is peculiar, like half the groove is missing – yet the tracks still groove. The bass moves in a completely unexpected way. There’s a variant of amapiano called 3-step, which makes me imagine some kind of three-legged species – although it’s not actually that rhythmically discombobulated.  Amapiano is functional music, party music, good vibes music.  But maybe it’ll spiral off some darker or more aggressively weird tangents.