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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison electronic artists create a new kind of beat
Dance floor freakout
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Credit:Grant Everett Krull

The stuttering light of a strobe flashes across faces both blissful and intense. A brutal, pounding bass line thuds through undulating chests and heads. And, in the words of former Madison industrial band the Gothsicles, there are nine guys freaking out on the dance floor, happily lost in the driving beats thumping from giant speakers on either side of the room.

It's any given night at the Inferno nightclub on the city's north side, a haven for people who move to the beat of a darker, grittier drummer. The club is ground zero in Madison's industrial- and electronic-music scene, for musicians and fans alike - even as other clubs, like the High Noon Saloon and the Frequency, are embracing the technological crowd.

Madison is, in fact, one of the flashpoints of industrial and electronic music in the United States, boasting a cooperative spirit and an internationally recognized reputation for innovative bands. Compared to the city's rock and folk scenes, it's not a big crowd, but the niche the acts have managed to carve out is a deep one. And while older bands like Stromkern and the Gothsicles have moved on to different cities, they maintain strong connections with Madison.

The Inferno has regular industrial and electronic music nights, featuring both DJs and live acts. The Reverence Fest is a multi-day event that draws a diverse assemblage of acts and attendees from across the country and even abroad. And Madison bands are often cited by groups in other cities as being major influences, with much praise lavished on their supportive, do-it-yourself, collaborative nature.

Industrial music is defined by its dark, abrasive sensibilities, its mixture of metal-style guitars, computer programming and synthesizers, and the mechanical clanks and growls that give it its name. It traces its roots to the punk, metal and noise bands of the '70s and '80s, with early groups like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten setting the tone with extremely anti-establishment, experimental and boundary-pushing ethics. It has evolved a great deal and split into a dizzying array of sub-genres: EBM (the danceable, "pop" industrial), neofolk, industrial hip-hop, power electronics and industrial rock, to name a few.

Madison enjoys a little bit of all of those, with each group putting its spin on the music. Perhaps it's the university's drawing power or the extremely active music scene in general that brings so many current and potential artists to town. Whatever the case, the scene is flourishing.

One of the hubs

Matt Fanale, a jovial, talkative bear of a man, can rightly call himself one of the hubs of the industrial and electronic scene - not just in Madison, but in the country at large. It was Fanale who organized and ran Reverence Fest starting in 2003, and who since has turned it into a highly successful weekend of music. (Reverence organizers have called off this year's event, citing "the wonderful state of our economy.")

In addition to his work booking bands and organizing shows, Fanale performs his own work, which he describes as "sludge fuck industrial music," under the name Caustic. He recently released an album, This Is Jizzcore, and just returned from a two-week tour of the country alongside the Gothsicles and Pittsburgh-based Prometheus Burning.

The tour was a thoroughly DIY affair. Fanale set up most of the shows, found places for the bands to crash, and arranged promotion through online social networking sites, a far-ranging group of friends and associates, and good old-fashioned elbow grease.

"It's kind of like how the punk or hardcore scene was in the '80s, where everybody kind of knows everybody, no matter how far away you are, because there are so few people who do this," explains Fanale. The web helps, too. Industrial and electronic fans tend to be tech-savvy, which ended up being helpful when Fanale put together shows in far-flung cities.

"I'm big into networking," says Fanale. "I'd go on Facebook or MySpace and send out a note saying 'Hey we need to book something in this city,' and within the hour I'd have four or five responses from people willing to help out. So the amount of goodwill shown towards all three bands was pretty awesome. We had places to crash almost every night."

That enthusiasm for lending a hand to fellow artists and fans alike is common among Madison electronic groups. Between that and the bands' time and effort, the tour - somewhat amazingly - didn't lose money.

Sitars to synths

There is variety in the local electronic scene. Some acts are bigger, others more bedroom-oriented. Styles also vary, from the in-your-face chaos of Caustic to the worldly, multi-instrumental work of Null Device and the dark synth-rock of Sensuous Enemy.

Then there's the guitar-infused experimentalism of the Cemetery Improvement Society, which recently released a new record, Lonely Dog Island, and helped found a label, Analogy Records. The duo of Marc Claggett and Russell Paul are preparing for a tour of their own.

The Cemetery Improvement Society straddles musical genres. Started as Claggett's solo project, the band has moved from an ambient, electronic style to something more guitar-heavy and improvisational, and this progression can be heard on the new album. Lonely Dog Island also features collaborations with several of the duo's musical friends, including Madison groups Dissent and Revolt, Revolving Doors and Scarf Party.

"Madison has a huge amount of musical talent," says Paul. "It's great to be a part of that in any way. We're really tight with a lot of the groups, and the level of support among them is amazing. We definitely try to help each other out."

The duo's interest in working across boundaries is typical of the local scene. Another case in point is Null Device, the longstanding project of Eric Oehler and Eric Goedken. Founded in 1997, the group has gone through a series of lineup changes, adding Jill Sheridan, Charles McKenzie and Elizabeth Scheef. Null Device has released an ambitious catalog of world-influenced music. It's also played alongside bands of all stripes, even opening for basement Bhangra superstar DJ Rekha for a sold-out show at the Majestic last year.

"Overall, the Madison music scene seems to be one of the least antagonistic scenes I've come across," says Oehler. "Null Device has had the opportunity to play with some non-genre bands and work with a pretty diverse set of artists, which is not only pretty awesome, but kind of unusual. I talk to my friends from other cities and they're always sort of amazed that we get to play diverse gigs. It's great, because we get to bring our music to a wider audience, and we get to learn from performers in other genres."

Diverse influences are apparent in their music. Null Device incorporates everything from Middle Eastern instrumentation to breakbeats, sitars to synths, and tablas to electronic bass. "I go through phases, and just start appropriating sounds and textures from whatever I happen to be listening to at the time," Oehler says.

How does a four-piece band perform such textured music at shows? "Playing it live has been daunting," Oehler admits. "I've been forced to put a lot of stuff on backing tracks just because I don't have four Punjabi drummers, a Turkish string section and a guy playing dilruba."

What matters, says Oehler, is that the music sounds good. "It doesn't really matter exactly how you pull it off. We play as a four-piece, and everybody's got something to do, so hopefully that will make up for the fact that we don't have a live sitarist."

Strong personality

Is it a cop-out, adding instruments with backing tracks? That doesn't stop electronic artists from doing it. In fact, they're arguably creating a new kind of music. The use of various electronic elements, too, has grown and evolved over time. Prominent artists like Dan Deacon pull their sound entirely from a messy conglomeration of iPods, Nintendos, guitar pedals and effects boxes.

"My drummer is my Nano," Fanale says with a chuckle. "If someone's got a problem with that, tough."

This isn't to say that only synths and computers are used on stage. Another group mixing electronic and traditional elements is Sensuous Enemy, whose members - JAI, John Freriks and newcomer Chris Wenzel - create a swirl of brooding, bombastic sound out of distorted guitars, live drums, melodic synths and JAI's powerful, Annie Lennox-like vocals.

Sensuous Enemy's members agree that the electronic scene in Madison is pretty tight-knit and supportive. But getting their music recognized by a larger audience hasn't been as easy for them.

"It can be difficult to get crossover appeal and play with bands from other genres in town," says JAI. "A lot of rock and other musicians look down on electronic music. They think, 'Oh they're not a real band, it's all just computers.' But if they knew how much work goes into this, how much you have to do before you can perform it live, it would probably change their minds."

One barrier might be the scene's esthetic. "I think we're definitely a subculture that some people might be a little afraid of," says JAI. "It's a lot of punks and industrials and rivet heads, and that might be a bit off-putting for some people."

And as with any community, there still are prejudices to overcome, especially for a woman who's not only the lead singer, but also the band's manager. Still, when things start feeling a bit too much like a boys' club, JAI just ignores it. "I'm a very strong personality type," she says. "I just get up on stage and keep working and just do my thing."

Welcome the newcomers

Perhaps because of how the rest of the local music community sometimes treats them, more established electronic acts support and encourage newcomers, helping them find opportunities to play out and doing a whole lot of collaboration. One newcomer is Josh Klessig, a.k.a. the Gentleman Loser, a self-described bedroom artist who plays slightly more ambient electronica on a synth and laptop setup.

"Back when I was going into college I just got some software and a cheap MIDI keyboard that I started doing ambient music with under the name Inebriated Assistant. Then I kind of stopped after I graduated. Got a job. Got bored," Klessig laughs. "And I thought, 'What does my life need? Aha, synthesizers!'" Since then, he's played a few live shows and even recorded an EP called Ghost District, which he created with the help of another up-and-coming musician and producer, Morey Burnard of Daku Mata Studios.

All of Klessig's recording work was done in a bedroom and a basement, which goes to show that, as with local musicians generally, electronic artists have benefited from the advent of affordable, professional-quality equipment. And the technological changes aren't just sonic. Thanks to the Internet, an individual like Caustic can organize an entire tour, without the backing of a major label. And putting music out online has broadened local bands' audiences in unexpected ways. A track by the Cemetery Improvement Society ended up on a compilation CD in Indonesia. Several groups have been able to play festivals in Germany, a major source of industrial music.

And right here in Madison, the electro-head crowd have found a supportive environment. They've built a welcoming community that incubates all manner of musical aspirations and ideas. They're helping to redefine what it means to be an artist and musician - all, of course, on their own terms.

That's the calling card of electronic groups worldwide. It's also very Madison.

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