Modeselektor, The Fall, and the Rules of Electronic Dance Mixes

Album cover for Modeselektor Presents Modeselktion Vol. 03

Every genre of music defines an early set of rules, devolves into a chaotic sense of anarchy, then finds its way to a new set of rules. Look at rock. Early rock and roll followed rules largely inherited from country and R&B. The British Invasion initially stuck with those rules, but by about 1966, the Beatles and the Stones were breaking rules as fast as they could make them. The wave of artists who followed in their footsteps—Pink Floyd, Sabbath, Yes, Zappa, and the Dead, to name a few obvious examples—existed in a world where every idea warranted exploration, no matter how bizarre it was. By the time Zeppelin and Queen gifted us with “Kashmir” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the mid-‘70s, new rules were becoming clear, and the formulas that guide today’s rock were firmly in place by the ‘80s. Sure, a handful of visionary artists stretch and redefine boundaries, but even they follow the rules as often as they don’t.

Other genres have followed a similar path, and electronic dance music is no exception. While the structure of dance “songs” has always allowed artists to experiment, the rules come into play when you see a DJ live or listen to a mixed set. Two rules immediately come to mind: the mix will continuously flow from track to track and there will be a four-on-the-floor kick drum for the majority of the set. Other rules filter in as well, such as whether a DJ must stay within the constraints of their subgenre, (Nina Kraviz faced criticism a few years back when her improvisational three-hour set departed from the straight techno some fans were expecting.) As concrete as these rules seem today, it hasn’t always been this way. Early DJs like David Mancuso and Larry Levan would cross genres, repeat songs, and use silence. Meanwhile, classic records like The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Orbital’s In Sides, or KLF’s The White Room frequently pull in sounds from diverse genres and stray from straight beats.

We are where we are, though, and I’m as accustomed to the rules as everyone else. Which is why Modeselector Presents Modeselektion Vol. 03 was like a slap in the face when I finally got around to listening to it, seven years after I bought it. I was disappointed by Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary’s decision to reject the quarter note beat and the continuous mix, but the opening tracks of disc 1 created a nice vibe that I was happy to sink into. But then I was jarred out of that space by the guitar riff from The Fall’s “Fibre Book Troll” and I felt as if Modeselektor took a huge crap on the tried-and-true rules of dance music. Mostly, I was confused as to why Bronsert and Szary thought this was a good idea.

When music confuses me, I know I need to listen more. Both discs from Vol. 03 lived in my car for the past few months. I like both discs, but nothing on the record is as jarring as that transition into The Fall. My biggest surprise, though, is that “Fibre Book Troll” has become one of my favorite songs on the compilation. I look forward to it every time, and it’s made me reconsider The Fall, a band I decided I didn’t like based on hearing one song one time 30 years ago.

My big takeaway from Vol. 03 is that maybe it’s time to rethink the rules of electronic dance music. I love continuous mixes with driving beats that make my heart race a little bit faster, but this is the second dance compilation I’ve listened to recently that made me question whether we’re listening to this music in the best possible way. Maybe it’s time to challenge our producers, DJs, influencers, and—most importantly—ourselves to step away from the rules and start reinventing what it means to create, spin, and listen to electronic dance music.

About Chuck

Chuck is a lifelong music lover. He spent his 20s working as a professional musician before discovering he enjoys listening to music more than playing it. He knows a little bit about most genres, though electronic dance music, rock, and hip-hop are his favorites. Eleven albums/shows that transformed how he sees and hears the world (in order he encountered them): Fleetwood Mac Rumours; Van Halen Fair Warning; The Cure Standing on a Beach; John Coltrane Crescent; De La Soul Three Feet High and Rising; Puccini La Boheme (de los Angeles, Bjorling, Beecham); Everything but the Girl Walking Wounded; Carl Cox, Twilo, NYC, May 2000; Godspeed You! Black Emperor Yanqui U.X.O.; Grateful Dead. Fillmore East, NYC, April 1971; Taylor Swift 1989.

5 thoughts on “Modeselektor, The Fall, and the Rules of Electronic Dance Mixes

  1. bobvinyl

    Every new thing is breaking the rules in a sense. Charlie Parker, Elvis, the Beatles, etc., etc., etc. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” broke the rules with the horns. Nothing about that song seems like a rule-breaker today, but it was. Change is the nature of life whether it is music or anything else and some is good and some is not so good. Some makes sweeping changes that permeate everything that follows (the Beatles) and some remains more limited in scope (Frank Zappa). There is always resistance also and it is, likewise, good and bad.

    We see the same thing in other areas. The plan to rebuild Notre Dame in Paris is to rebuild the roof as it was at the time of the fire. It ignores that the spire was a 19th Century addition and ignores that the cathedral is an active church with an active history. So, there are those who would have the roof rebuilt in a modern style (perhaps as a green roof) and others who want it to look unchanged by time. To me, the latter are stupid in this case. They ignore that history is not about the past, but about the continuous story from the past to the future. Again, not every change is good, but I think being closed off to change, being too stuck on the rules, is a dangerous way to think. I still believe in an absolute truth, but our ability to discern is so flawed that we have to keep our fallibility in mind. That should keep us open to both moving forward and staying in place and doing our best.

    All that rambling and I haven’t listened to the record yet.

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  2. bobvinyl

    Listening to the transition to “Fibre Book Troll,” I actually think it’s pretty good. The bass line of the intro doesn’t quite ease you into the song, but it acts a quick buffer before the song gets really agitated. Even the coarseness of the Fall has that underlying bass line that I think keeps hints of where the set started. I wonder if my EDM naiveté makes me less tied to rules in this case.

    Interestingly, this is not an old Fall song. It looks like it came out after this version from Modeselektor.

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  3. Chuck Post author

    Your point about change is important. I don’t even know where I personally stand on things like the Notre Dame Cathedral. I do think there’s something important about holding onto things from our past and even restoring them when they are damaged or destroyed. At the same time, it’s naive to fetishize the past and ignore improvements that have occurred since the original was created. Improvements like fireproofing and sprinkler systems. I see this with cars a lot, the difference between the people who try to impeccably restore cars to their original state and the people who build restomods, where you restore an old car with advancements that have occurred since it was built (e.g., improved braking, turbochargers).

    And you’re right, change is happening all around us, all the time. Music changes every day. It’s easy to look back and see how revolutionary the Beatles or Zappa were, but the impact of their change wasn’t readily apparent when they were in the midst of it. I’m not a Radiohead fan by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s easy to forget that their legacy is built on a great-but-derivative single that came from a meh debut album.

    I never thought to look at where “Fibre Book Troll” fell in The Fall’s timeline. There is a whole other important point here about how it’s impossible to listen to everything but it’s also problematic to dismiss things because you didn’t like one song the one time you heard it 30 years ago.

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  4. bobvinyl

    To go with the Notre Dame thing a little further as a discussion of change in general, I want to be clear that I am in favor of making aesthetic changes in the rebuilding. My example of the green roof was a bit ambiguous, because it is both a practical and artistic change. I don’t want Notre Dame to be bulldozed and rebuilt totally new. I want it to be a living building. I want it to reflect its full history, coronations of an English king and a French emperor, but also, maybe its finest hour, when it burned and brought a very divided world together for a few days as we feared we’d lose it. So, what happened in the 15th and 19th Centuries is important, but so is what happened in the 21st.

    Likewise with music. It has to both fit into and push forward a tradition at the same time. Music is like a great narrative with songs and artists and genres as characters. If they don’t change, there is no story, but if they aren’t also built upon their past, there is also no story.

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  5. Chuck Post author

    I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, humans have a bad habit of destroying things that have gone out of fashion, only to then realize those things were pretty amazing and should have been preserved. On the other hand, juxtaposing change upon history has created some interesting, thought-provoking, and at times amazing creations.

    I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre comes to mind. Personally, while I love the pyramid itself, I hate its placement. Why do I love his design of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in DC then? Maybe it’s the fact that 4th St. bisects the West Building from the East Building and the new is not juxtaposed atop the old. Maybe it’s the recognition by the NGA that both the new and old are equally important, but they are different. Having separation of the buildings is key for me, but I also recognize that “separate but equal” has been uniquely catastrophic in American history.

    I don’t want to hear the same old music over and over. I do want musicians to push the boundaries. Sometimes, though, that pushing ends up a lot like the pyramid at the Louvre: it just doesn’t sit well with me. I think Sean Combs did more to harm hip-hop than probably anyone else in my lifetime but there’s no question that he permanently changed the rules and that millions and millions of people loved those changes. And even I can see that he introduced ideas of song structure, harmony, and melody into mainstream hip-hop that resulted in some of my favorite albums.

    What’s my point? I’m not sure, but I think I’m suggesting that Puffy lead the redesign of Notre Dame.

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