Technology is often seen as having a negative influence on music. Ever since the advent of sound generated by machines rather than traditional instruments, there have been dire predictions about the death of the Song. More Brilliant Than The Sun takes the opposite attitude and celebrates these strange new technologically-based forms of music, examining what they signal for the future.
However, Kodwo Eshun’s book is not a straightforward history of the synthesiser, the sampler and the art of scratching. His interest is primarily cerebral, exploring the new conceptual ideas produced by mutant strains of music. Or in the words of The Prodigy, "I’ll take your brain to another dimension / Pay close attention"
Eshun argues that mainstream music journalism has simply ignored the future shock of technologically-based music because it doesn’t fit into our traditional ideas about music. The sometimes life-changing impact on listeners by artists such as Kraftwerk, Sun Ra and Parliament has been dumbed down rather than discussed.
For example, the palpable desire to become a machine evoked by Kraftwerk, or Sun Ra’s and Parliament’s claims to be from outer space indicate a movement towards trying to become post-human. Let’s face it – these aren’t ideas you’ll get from an Oasis record.
Similarly, the technology itself also opens up new ideas. The way that the sampler confuses musical history by raiding and redesigning the past to construct the present makes technological music shift away from any idea of history or heritage. It doesn’t belong to any culture or race or even any genre in the traditional sense.
While More Brilliant Than the Sun gives rise to some fascinating ideas, it’s an ultimately frustrating book. Eshun’s prose style drops continuous narrative in favour of brief paragraphs which each focus on a particular idea. This soundbite approach ultimately robs the numerous concepts Eshun discusses of any depth. By trying to avoid the style of traditional music journalism, Eshun actually weakens his own attempts to provide a counter-argument.
This isn’t helped by his thesaurus-thumping vocabulary, which does more to obfuscate than elucidate the very ideas he’s attempting to bring to light. Equally, Eshun seems to assume a musical breadth of knowledge in his readers on a par with own, with few signposts for those who aren’t already familiar with his record collection. There is a companion compilation CD to the book, but music journalism should inspire readers to investigate sounds themselves, not assume they’re familiar with them already.
Essentially, Eshun has unearthed a secret history of machines and music which deserves a wider audience. Unfortunately, he has sabotaged his efforts by producing an account of that history which will probably bewilder and ultimately alienate his readers.