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.