ROCK / Men and their buttons: In Beaconsfield and Dollis Hill something is stirring. Ben Thompson samples the new sound of the suburbs

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S something going on, and nobody knows what it is. A babbling brook ofpure, strange, mostly instrumental music is coursing through the kitchens and bedrooms of the land. Its source is in dance music, obscured by a forest of conflicting definitions, and its destination is the future. Terms like 'cerebral techno', 'ambient dub' and 'electronic listening music' seem designed to bewilder, but the reality behind them is that over the last few years there have been huge changes in the way music is made, and maybe in how we use it too.

At the heart of these changes is sampling, the technology, now widely available, that enables any sound - a voice, a musical instrument, a horse being shod - to be stored and then manipulated at will. The pessimistic view of this development, familiar to anyone who has ever had trouble working a video recorder, is that technological breakthroughs are not always an aid to human communication. The bright futurist vision is that music can lead the way for the pulsing of machines and the flow of human ideas to become one.

So what does the new music sound like, and what sort of people are making it? Well, sometimes it sounds like a country walk, at others a midnight car alarm. The people question is more tricky. The more electronic the sound becomes, the more samples it uses of other people's music, the more it pushes the music- makers into the background, and the harder it is to discern how what they do comes from who they are. It seems faceless. To get past that, and appreciate this music's capacity for individual expression, you have to understand where it came from.

There is nothing new about electronic music. Today's adherents have a deep well of sound to draw on: from oft-derided names such as Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd and even Jean-Michel Jarre, to revered pioneers such as Can, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. These influences first fed into dance music through the Eurodisco sound of Giorgio Moroder, immortalised in Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' (1977), and thence though electro and hi-energy to hip-hop and house. The soulful feel of the last of these innovations crystallised into the harder, almost purely mechanical, techno sound of Detroit, and exploded into the British dance-music boom of the late Eighties.

Audiences raised on the dancefloor, with its endless 12-inch remixes and general sense of communion, are very receptive to instrumental music. This has brought a range of previously marginal traditions - spacey dub reggae, grim industrial funk - much closer to the mainstream, and at the same time created a demand for a new kind of music, not for dancing but for listening to, at home, often with the aid of no outside stimulant other than a cup of tea.

This fact was hammered home in the summer of last year, when The Orb's uf orb - an enjoyable and inventive album of shuffling beats, found voices and intergalactic echo- sounders - went straight to the top of the national charts. Since then, the music has developed apace, shimmering and throbbing in all directions, but the people who make it have tended to remain in the shadows, stubbornly refusing to get a face. Who are these people?

Berkshire foursome Fluke are typically reticent. They come from Beaconsfield and their first album, Techno Rose of Blighty (1991), was a novel and delightful blend of blithe, chugging beats, breezy electric piano and cheeky Joni Mitchell samples. Their new, third album, Six Wheels on my Wagon (Circa), sees them happily back on track after a live album which was more satisfying in concept than execution. Fluke's impersonality, shared by others, seems like a kind of idealism, one that goes back to their origins in acid house. That phenomenon, Fluke's occasional singer Jon Fugler insists, was less about selfish hedonism than the revival of 'a communal attitude that had long been forgotten'; a shift away from the urban elitism of old.

Dance music is usually thought of as an 'uptown' thing, but a lot of the people making these new sounds seem to come from outside the main population centres. Orbital - Paul and Phil Hartnoll, two affable brothers with very little hair - are arguably the leading lights of electronic listening music. They got their name from the M25, whose ring of metropolitan confidence just excludes their hometown of Sevenoaks in Kent. Paul explains: 'You're close enough to go to London record-shopping, but you can't stay because you've got to get the last train back. So you end up staying at home and making your own music.'

The thrill of that mid-Eighties moment when the first drum machine arrived in the Hartnoll household has still not faded. 'We couldn't believe how easy it was to use,' Paul remembers. Orbital might sound like bedroom boffins, but their music comes to life when played for an audience. 'The irony is,' Phil continues, 'that people don't realise you've got more scope for improvising and changing things with electronically generated music than you have with a 'proper' band.'

At the Brixton Academy last summer, Orbital's happy loops and subtle shifts sent waves of recognition and delight through the crowd. One of the new things in the air was a measure of equality between performer and audience. 'The best comparison I can think of,' says Paul, 'is with an idealised tribal lifestyle, where you'd have a drummer the same way you'd have a fisherman or a carpenter; Saturday night would come around and everyone would just say 'right, do your job'.'

Such utopian ideals are somewhat undermined by the homogeneity of the music-

makers though. 'At the moment this is the most horribly male-dominated kind of music there is,' Phil admits. 'Men and their buttons]' It's very white too, isn't it, given the blackness of American techno pioneers such as Derrick May? 'That's the same old story,' says Paul philosophically. 'Black people in poor areas of America come up with a new idea, or fuse old traditions in a new way; then it comes over to England, and the ripples spread much quicker here, and then we take it back to America and it'll probably sell in truck-loads.'

Meanwhile, in New Cross, Ultramarine look to antique British sources for inspiration. Their latest album, United Kingdoms (Blanco y Negro), is awash with the sounds of accordions and flutes, but there is nothing soft-headed about their folksiness. Two memorable songs feature the great, grainy voice of Robert Wyatt, singing lyrics of social protest that were written in the last century. The other, purely instrumental pieces are less instantly alluring, but just as addictive in the long term.

Ultramariners Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper look like brothers but aren't; they met at school in Maldon in Essex, and were dour experimentalists A Primary Industry before the sampler came along and changed their lives. 'It made such a difference to people making music,' says Ian. 'You can literally use any sound you want - it opens up the canvas beyond all imagining.' Do they mind how much attention listeners pay to their bucolic soundscaping? 'We write and structure it for people to sit down and listen to, but I think as often as not it's used as washing-up music, and there's nothing wrong with that.'

A common picture is emerging of gentle Home Counties out-of-towners in their late twenties who spent too much of their youth listening to Cabaret Voltaire, but ambient wunderkind Richard James does not conform to it. This 22-year-old Cornish prodigy - better known under obtuse pseudonyms, such as Aphex Twin and Polygon Window - has been making his own brand of strange and often savage electronic music since he was below the age of criminal responsibility; often, in the early days at least, on instruments he'd built himself.

It's a surprise to see such a true Tomorrow Person sporting a thick russet beard. 'I just hate shaving,' he explains. This is certainly a busy man. He is currently struggling to keep a grip on the second volume of his ambient works, which is threatening to expand from two albums to five. For James, the benefits of collaborating only with machinery are obvious: 'You don't need to wake a band up every morning and get them out of bed.' It's said that he himself sometimes goes for weeks without sleep. The hood around his eyes suggest that this may well be true.

'The amount of stuff I've got in my head that I'm keeping in storage,' he says worriedly, 'I know I'm not going to get it done if I live to be a hundred.' Aphex Twin's music alternates between passages of great beauty and vicious rhythmic assaults, the aural equivalent of an attack of the bends. These wild fluctuations render the single-mindedness of its author all the more striking.

The outer limits of what is possible in this genre are still marked by ''Papua New Guinea', the breathtaking 1992 single by the Future Sound of London, the enigmatic duo from Dollis Hill. If all goes well, their forthcoming album, Lifeforms (Virgin, early next year), will be the vehicle for an audio-visual fusion of frightening seductiveness. 'If I thought I was encouraging a culture where people would just sit at home and only experience life through electronic media, I would kill myself,' says tanned, urbane Gary Cobain. 'Oh, I quite like that idea,' says pale, pixie-eared Scotsman Brian Douglas, 'it sounds like paradise.'

(Photographs omitted)