Back in the year 2004 when I was kicking a nasty drug and alcohol burn, I turned my obsessive tendencies towards the rave subculture. The hypnotic and pulsing vibrations generated by the multitude of different electronic music genres was somehow just what my brain needed. Music had been my first love in life before my teen years saw the full bloom of my latent addictions.
It was only natural that when I broke from years of oblivion seeking that I turned my focus back to more innocent diversions. Music had seen me through many a dark period and would come to my aid in a massive way in the early weeks and months of detoxing from toxic overload. I had been interested in techno from a distance for some time but something in my initial sober state spiraled me deeply into a raving rabbit hole.
The flux between dark metallic despair and angelic heights of euphoria that techno is capable of spoke to me deeply in my time of need and I flew headlong into compulsive record store binges to satiate my cravings. It was escapism and retreat back into my 13-year-old self that knew of music fetishism and hiding from a dangerous outer world. Reconnecting with that instinctual setting tided me over through an otherwise horrible stretch.
A critical book fell into my hands that made drilling down deep into a dense and multilayered underground scene more immediate. Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, US title) written by Simon Reynolds is the quintessential history of the evolution of both the music and the colorful surrounding culture of electronic music. I own a few other books about the subject but none acted as much like a Bible as Reynolds.
He wrote for the true music fiend that craves every minute detail and morsel of insider drama. Rather than a dry a distant retelling of history based on interviews and other sources, most of what Reynolds wrote came from embedding as a participant into the very fabric of the scene. He was at the raves. He took the drugs. He met the players.
Like a true love letter, Energy Flash is exhaustive in giving space to all the prominent subgenres of techno from UK Acid House to Dutch Gabber hardcore. Of particular use to me at the time was a complete discography of every album and track named in the book broken down by chapter. From those pages in the back of the book I highlighted and checked off items as I added them to my personal collection.
While it was certainly the addictive sound of the music that emotionally drew me into the study of the history, I was just as fascinated by the strong visual and cultural elements that all vibrant undergrounds generate. I was very familiar with such a phenomena from previous involvements with heavy metal, punk rock, grunge, industrial and hip-hop. When I dug back into late 60’s and 70’s rock era, much of the same trappings can be found. There’s fashion, promotional art design, drug customs, lingo, dance styles, social or political commitments and live event rituals.
With the electronic scene you get a mega-dose of all of the above to such a degree that the accompanying elements that grew out of the music are pretty well inseparable from it at this point. Like all authentic underground countercultures, they became an-encompassing lifestyle to maintain. While I have been to a few raves in my life, I admittedly missed out on the truly pinnacle days that Reynolds’ book documents.
While raves where at a height in the US during the mid-90s, I was into mostly rock oriented music at the time. My closest friends and I were into a different sort of partying and drug scene. We were more a house/hotel party, rock concert bunch. I did however have many secondary groups of friends and a girlfriend that “raved” and I often planned to make it to one only to have plans fall through. I took ecstasy for the first time after junior prom. By the time I made it, the illegal party days were coming to a close.
Reading Energy Flash and listening to music walking around town with headphones on or alone in my room, my experience was very imagination based. While the music is certainly designed for communal experiences and reverie, I was having an intensely personal and internal relationship with it. When I put the tunes on, my intent was to enter a mental trance and ride the wave of emotions, picking up a natural endorphin rush to fill my substance-free void.
While I’ve always been more personally invested in metal and punk music on a day-to-day basis, the thing I appreciate about rave music that facilitates a unique experience are those moments of unifying bliss that are best expressed by pure instrumental forms of music. A continuously mixed electronic set is designed to take the listener on an emotionally changed roller coaster full of perky peaks, steady valleys and dark dips.
“Where rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave constructs an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions, and artificial energies.” – Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash
Studying Reynolds book and collecting all the accompanying music was a constructive hobby and a wonderful pressure release valve. I was dealing with very heavy doses of confusion, anger and weird readjustments to my surroundings at the time and any relief was welcome. I was drawing from other resources and tools as well, but it was the music that always helped in a pinch. That period seems so far gone in my memory now. A remembrance of another lifetime.
Energy Flash eventually came off the nightstand and found a place on my bookshelf; having served its purpose and me moving onto whatever obsession followed. I always held the book in high regard but never felt compelled to restudy the material. That changed recently as I had spent some time speaking with my wife and her sister about their old days as teen ravers. Some of the old CDs came out and Energy Flash came off the shelf with them.
In an odd way I had hoped to find some correlations that I had instinctively felt were there between the rave subculture and the occult magick I have since made a study of. I didn’t think they were there, I only hoped they were. Some 12 years ago when I read it, I had now idea what esotericism was or much about alternative spirituality for that matter. I was in for a bit of a surprise as I began my reread. With 12 years of lived experience and seeking for the lights that only drugs had once shown me, I was reading with a completely different pair of eyes this go-around.
The studies of sociological inner-group dynamics and intricate rites of passage that the largely, very young ravers partook in was engrossing reading the first time through. But in retrospect, there were quite a number of references and dimensions woven into the story that simply went over my head. Back then I was interested in the music, the drugs and the decadence. I had no way of understanding the influences Reynolds covered that came in from Terence Mckenna, shamanism, UFOs, Gnosticism, Zen or Hakim Bey.
Looking at it now, it’s like, no shit, Sherlock. Before having the myriad of mystical and radical touch points spelled-out for me as I flipped through the book pages again, I had my own thought that raves ecstatic highs and communal initiations were very much a cousin of sorts to magick and the occult quest for universal truth.
“Gnosis is the esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth that various pre-Christian and early Christian cults believed could be apprehended directly only by the initiate, a truth that cannot be mediated or explained in words. In rave, catchphrases like ‘hardcore, you know the score’ or ‘you know the key’ are code for secret knowledge to which ‘only the headstrong people’ are privy.
And this is drug knowledge, the physically felt intensities induced by Ecstasy, amphetamine, and the rest of pharmacopoeia. The MC’s role, as master of the sacra-mental ceremonies, is ceaselessly to reiterate that secret without ever translating it. The MC is an encryptor; a potent inclusion/exclusion device – for if you’re not down with the program, you’ll never know what the idiot is raving about.” – Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash
What I found interesting about the passage above was not so much that drug states on E are just like states of transcendental gnosis, although I won’t argue that it shares nothing in common either. Having hacked my way into elevated conscious in my youth and failing to hold onto it or converting that knowledge into sober states, my focus today is on natural forms of magick and altered states. That being said, the really interesting aspect for me about rave culture or any subculture, are their initiations, secret dialectics and the achievements of awareness beyond identification with the self and the body.
That a modern underground music scene can unconsciously (or consciously) mimic mystery cult traditions by means of coded language, secret meeting places, esoteric art forms and shamanistic trance states produced by music, is well, a little trippy. A yearning for rites of passage and social initiation into exclusive clubs are a part of the human makeup and seem to be instinctual. Where they fail to exist formally or fail to satisfy, they are created by and for the participants.
“Magic, yes. I remember one Full Moon (rave party) at Grey Whale Cove, down on Santa Cruz Beach – the most beautiful, magical place I had ever seen. People as far as the eye could see. As everyone started coming up on their Ecstasy and their psychedelics, a huge ring formed around the DJ booth. Everybody was holding hands and spinning, running in a fast circle.
To me, it was like going back to witchcraft or something – pagan magic rituals. It was out of hand, like we were tapping into something (that was) just taking us in these directions.” – Jason Walker from Rave America by Mireille Silcott
Impressive to me are that most of the people who were involved with making the music, producing
the events and especially those making up the attendance base, were very young – still kids in many cases. Impressive as well is the completely permissionless, decentralized, entrepreneurial, DIY drive underlying the entire enterprise. The secrecy in rave was twofold: one, to preserve authenticity and two, to work around police and prohibitive official red tape.
This anarchistic, grassroots formation of the culture is an aspect given good coverage by Reynolds in his writing. Music parties without permits, radio stations without channel approval. The state and its bureaucrats were treated like the unnecessary and constraining obstacles that they were. Rules were broken out of necessity to create an atmosphere were rules had no place. Without an overt political motive, actions were taken to create the community that players in the scene envisioned. It just so happened that that reality was a direct threat to the system and the established procedural order.
While the underground dance scene never was politically organized in the way that the anti-war, civil rights conscious, hippie rock era was; the mere existence of the scene was it’s own attack on the status-quo.
In a similar vain, the occultist or ritual magician seeks no permission to gain access to the doors of inner-wisdom. Instead, the gatekeepers of organized religion are dismissed altogether with a knowing that the real power is found outside of dogmatic hierarchies. The reigns grabbing ethos inherent in magic practice carries into the impulses of the raver. Both seek to reach an esoteric source, totally inaccessible through ordinary aboveground means. The journey to the holy temple takes turns off the map.
I see a strong correlation in mindsets that, disinterested in convention, pursue a “by any means necessary” path to destinations of deliberate choice. There’s nothing happenstance or casual about being truly in an underground subculture. The absolute same can be said of a commitment to the occult. The efforts are painstaking but the rewards are special and held closely by the devoted.
Another interesting parallel between rave and magical practices or magical thinking is the notion of synchronicities. Loosely defined, a synchronicity is a belief that certain events are falling directly into place for an individual as if by the universes design. These synchs can come in the form of a premonition that comes to pass or the appearance of signs, symbols, patterns or correspondences that carry personally meaningful resonance. On Ecstasy, the user feels surrounded by meaning, like the universe is focused upon them and beaming down messages. Every song and every face seen feels angelically choreographed.
“The sensory flood can seem visionary, pregnant with portent. Serious speed freaks often have a sense of clairvoyance and gnosis, feel plugged into occult power sources, believe they alone can perceive secret patterns and conspiracies.” – Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash
The question of how much to make of the perceptions of drugged states seems unresolvable. Opinions tend to be very strong in either direction as if it’s a binary proposition. The outsider to these highly charged personal experiences looks askance at both the religiously triggered awakening and the chemically aided one. Both occurrences often leave the person somehow changed but yet forever second-guessing the validity of what they felt. All they can often be sure of is that they saw, heard or felt something extraordinary – broke through from origins unknown.
It does appear to be a rare case in which an individual who has stolen a peak behind the cosmic curtain of existence has the sustained commitment and will to follow up on that initial burst of inspiration and convert it into a daily spiritual regimen that doesn’t include the drug. There are stories to be heard on both sides of that fence and legitimate claims to be made one way or the other. My intent is not to place one ahead of the other but to observe and compare all means of attaining divine contact.
There are enough pre-historic, ancient and contemporary cultures that integrate mind-altering substances into their religious ceremonies to evidence a genuine claim that the two elements can share space. An even bolder claim would argue that they necessarily share a function.
In considering a non-religiously grounded shamanic psychedelic journey that takes place at a rave, the insights can perhaps be as profound but often leave the person without a net in the aftermath. Without a foundational structure to relate the experience to and evolve the spark it struck, the drug taking itself becomes the means and the ends. Like a revolving door, the psychically altered user (usually very young without spiritual roots), repeats the drug trip again and again attempting to recapture the elusive flight into the cosmic heavens.
“A sacrament in the secular religion called ‘rave,’ Ecstasy can just as easily be a counterrevolutionary force as it can fuel a hunger for change. For it’s too tempting to take the easy option: simply repeating the experience, installing yourself permanently in rave’s virtual reality pleasuredome.” – Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash
This is exactly the predicament I landed myself in in the years leading up to 2004. Living in an endless cyclical loop of pleasure and pain, vainly trying to live in cheaply won fantasy realms on the other side of my own faults and limitations. The elixirs of various substances offered quick release from mundane reality and plunged my consciousness into netherworlds of either delights or horrors. Each plunge, yet another risk of an unhealable wound. Risk became a trivial standard.
Oddly enough, there are similar risks in serious magickal workings if undertaken in a caviler fashion without proper psychic protections in place. Likening it back to subjecting the mind to mood enhancing chemicals, opening the mind up to hit of kundalini surging is whispered to burn out the operating system.
“There is only one reward for those who seek spiritual unfoldment or extension of power without first cleansing the body and soul. The very powers which the student draws to him in his studies will destroy him unless he is robbed in the garments of purity. Unto the unpurified, God is a consuming fire; for wherever dross is in the nature His power will burn it away. With the influx of the spiritual power there is a great cataclysm in the body of man; and if he has not prepared it to the best of his ability to receive this light, his foolhardiness will precipitate obsession, insanity and death, for broken bodies, nerves and minds follow in the wake of broken laws.” –Manly P. Hall, The Sacred Magic of Qabbalah
I’m still working towards a purified manor of achieving the sorts of heights I once knew so well. I’ve reconciled that the inner-bliss of ritual and meditation may never produce the visceral excitements of a night of illegal taboo breaking. But for me, the occult offers its own life-enhancing taboo transgressions. The activity is still carried out secretly and entry into the stream is somewhat guarded and protected from posers. Religious orthodoxy threatens Hell for magic as much as it does for having too much fun. Mainstream society is still quick to assign their fearful labels on it.
If rave was a contemporary act of rebellion, the occult has been at that game for centuries longer. Thwarting authority can be achieved at no cost of brain cells so I’ve learned. Whether it’s subverting political or spiritual power structures, the self-reclaiming practices of the occult offer the freedom and liberation I previously sought in pill form.
The results are anything but instantaneous to be sure. Older now and hopefully marginally wiser for my ware, patience and persistence are prices I’m willing to pay to ascend the ladder of illumination this time around. It appears as if I used up all my shortcuts and cheat codes. But the game is far from being lost.