There’s a strong chance you don’t have many extratone records in your collection. An electronic genre that operates at a tempo of 1,000 beats per minute, and can sometimes hit the startling realms of 10,000 BPM, extratone is an acquired taste to say the least—and possibly just a smidgen out of your standard tempo comfort zone. But extratone is very much real; it has a story, history, and lineage in the extreme hardcore continuum. It has a community, a DIY punk-like ethos, and a singular aesthetic that sets it apart from other genres.
“Extratone is basically a form of extreme sound art,” explains a London-based artist and Slime City label owner who has identified himself as Rick. He operates under various aliases, like Zara Skumshot and Skat Injector. “It’s not about pounding kicks, but kicks so fast they have morphed into a tonal beast. They’ve mutated into a whole different animal. A natural process of evolution. It reminds me at times of such genres as harsh noise and HWN in places depending on production. The production of course is more varied and peppered with additional elements such as synths and sampling.”
The key word here is “tonal”: when kick drums are structured at such fast tempos (usually as quarter notes or 16ths), the pneumatic sledgehammer style of beats associated with most ultra-fast music genres no longer exist. Instead, it’s a buzzing textural, tonal trip. At its most uncompromised, extratone perplexes the senses (see the work of Gabberdoom). But there are many examples of more melodic elements within the genre (also see the work of The Quick Brown Fox). A long-standing tradition of any extreme form of music, the real essence of the style is found within the brutal balance of contrasts.
“That’s the thing with difficult music,” admits Neil LAR, founder of U.K.-based label Legs Akimbo Records, an imprint that wound down operations indefinitely on December 31, 2017. “It can be a very rewarding, but also a very harsh experience. You will find both extreme, ear-bleeding distortion and sublimely clean, intricate sound design within the extratone scene. It’s far more diverse than, say, the standard Frenchcore sound.”
“I see extratone as pure power/pure frequency that you clench in your fist, provocatively defying any hardcore audience you can imagine,” adds Riccardo Balli, artist and founder of Italian label Sonic Belligeranza. “It’s so hard that, in a way, it’s not hard anymore. Just like it is so fast that in the end it’s not fast anymore. I like this self-destructive component of this style, when beats get so fast you can’t detect them anymore, you experience, at the same time, aggressivity and chill.”
The earliest evidence of ultra-fast hardcore within dance music (grindcore notwithstanding), is almost always traced back to 1993 and Moby’s “Thousand,” a track that clocks in at 1,015 BPM and was anointed by the Guinness Book Of World Records as the fastest recorded production. Other examples include “Human 1000 BPM De Rebel Va Te Faire Enculer Rubik” by Explore Toi and “Killer Machinery” by DJ Dano, DJ Gizmo, Buzz Fuzz, and the Prophet (both released in 1994) but Balli describes these examples more as reactions to hardcore’s developmental state at the time, and not as the seeds of a new genre.
“These tunes were a hyperbolic acceleration reaching the ‘impossible’ threshold of 1,000 BPM,” he explains. “They are to be seen more as a sort of extravagant bonus track inside an EP than anything else. I can see them interpreted as moments of furious, extreme madness in a context, such us the hardcore one, that hails madness as its founding element.”
In the late ‘90s, the genre began coming into its own thanks to the work of Belgian artist DJ Einrich. In Balli’s recent book Frankenstein, Or The 8-Bit Prometheus, leading extratone artist Ralph Brown (given name Daniele Rossi) cites Einrich as the genre’s founding agitator, explaining how Einrich explored the use of oscillators to transform kick drums into actual notes, in octaves.
“By combining two German words, extrahieren (to extract) and tone (note), he came up with extratone,” Rossi explains. “A subgenre where BPM are so crammed that they almost appear like extra-dimensional. So Einrich turned his name into Einrich 3,600 BPM (the perfect number of BPM according to him) and started to release tracks via his own Immer Schneller Records.” It’s here where extratone’s conceptual and mathematical approach began to take shape.
But the greatest influence on extratone is speedcore. The most popular and expansive style of extreme hardcore music, speedcore has been at the center of all ultra-fast electronic music developments since the ‘90s. It has since spawned a cornucopia of sub-styles that includes the likes of splittercore (speedcore that exceeds 600 BPM and is under 1,000 BPM), flashcore (an experimental style of speedcore that doffs its cap to IDM), Frenchcore (a toughened, 200 BPM style of hardcore that emerged from France in the late ’90s), or terrorcore (an abrasive extension of the Dutch and Belgian hardcore mothergenre gabber). However, not all speedcore artists and fans accept or buy into extratone as a style in its own right.
“I first came across extratone in about 2002/2003 when I used to frequent the Speedcore.ca forums run by the Canadian Speedcore Resistance,” explains Neil LAR who’s been involved in speedcore since the mid ‘90s. “It divided opinion even then, with people loving or hating it. Something I have become increasingly aware of is just how petty and childish people within the speedcore scene can be. Cliquey bullshit often involving grown-ass men—it is embarrassing, frankly.”
“The tl;dr is: shit got faster and didn’t stop getting faster,” says Emma Essex, aka The Quick Brown Fox, head of the label and studio Halley Labs. “A few styles really stuck—especially in Europe, where the speedcore is very macho, aggressive, and angry, and not a whole lot else. That’s one of the big stagnations, in my opinion—the concept that speedcore has to be angry or aggressive. It’s been shaken up by regional differences, but that old go-to of aggression is still extremely foundational.”
Yet in contrast to the angriness and aggression, a much stronger characteristic of extreme hardcore is its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and its wry knowingness, whether it’s the provocative crudities of Aussie musician Passenger Of Shit and his label Shitwank Records, the playfulness of Legs Akimbo, or the daft concepts of Sonic Belligeranza.
“This is the way I personally see this super-hyper-mega fast sound,” explains Balli. “That fist-clenched-in-front-of-the-audience I was mentioning is thought to be very ironic, but also serious and ironic, and so on, in an endless game with the attendees.”
“I don’t take any of the shit too seriously,” says Neil LAR. “I could point you in the direction of others who live for this stuff, but I doubt they would even talk with you. I am probably ‘selling out’ in their eyes just by answering these questions. I have little time for that kind of attitude, frankly, and I am still certain I divided the Legs Akimbo fanbase by not giving a fuck, and releasing whatever I wanted.”
Those who do live for it are as inventive as they are committed. Essex says extratone’s creator base is rife with DIY styles, like mash-up extratone, minimal extratone, noise extratone, and “straight-up joke extratone.”
“It’s something you can just up and make—that’s the entire point,” explains Essex. “The barrier of entry is practically non-existent. And people into weird music have a pretty immediate starting point in a style that requires little knowledge of anything. Because of that base level, you hear all kinds of weird musical decisions that somebody more ‘versed’ in composition or production might not even consider. I think that’s a great thing in any creative scene, it’s just that extratone gets a bad rap for being only that.”
Where extratone stands out within this wider collection of styles is its speed, as well as its textural and sometimes conceptual signature. A good example of this is Balli and Ralph Brown’s Tweet It! EP: In 2012, the Bologna artists realized the similarities between the data produced per second by Twitter (1.456.000) and digital audio (1.411.200), and created a 14-track EP consisting of tracks that are each one minute and 40 seconds in length. These run at 1,400 BPM, 140 Hz, and consist of 140 characters for every tune text. With such a strong conceptual approach, it could be argued that extratone leans heavily on the ideologies of sound art and experimentalism, but Balli disagrees.
“I agree working with tonal/textural audio opens a sort of algebraic and mathematical realm of sound, which I found stimulating as a producer,” says Balli. “However, I think this differs from, for example, sound art. Personally, I think the latter is mostly self-celebrating, and repeating cliches of a tradition—the avant-garde one. What is in the majority of cases considered ‘experimental music’ has got nothing truly experimental in it. Extratone could also be considered ‘drone-ish’ if you want to pigeonhole it in a more academic genre, but with a dynamic afflatus. The noise constituting its texture ain’t static. On the contrary, it’s thought to be, essentially, dance music. And this is what makes it interesting to my ears.”
Neil LAR agrees that extratone comes into its own on the dancefloor, and describes intense performances by acts such as Jensen, Skat Injector, Gridbug, DJ Mucus, Extratrolls, Licho, Hersenerosie, HateWire, Junkie Kut, and 10Jonk-T as “monumental experiences.” Balli is equally emphatic about the genre’s ability to create unique dancefloor encounters. While not strictly an extratone artist himself, he has his own unique performance technique that comprises cutting up pure tone records in a style he describes as “a hybrid, abstract turntablism no man’s land.” He believes the future of the genre is now in the hands of performers who debunk the standard laptop/Ableton combo applied by the majority of live across the entire electronic music spectrum.
“I can’t not mention my colleague Ralph Brown,” he grins. “His act is totally intense, 100% adrenaline, and he’s not using Ableton Live. When he plays, he has these serial killer eyes fixed on the screen. It’s a blast! At the same time, it’s both scary and hilarious.”
“For me, to seek a true extratone experience you have to witness it being performed live,” adds Skumshot. “It’s like walking onto another planet with a skull-crushingly intense atmosphere. A total sensory bombardment hits you like a ton of bricks as you’re shut into one hell of a brutally surreal trip. Proper Altered States shit. There’s times when you’re so blinded by lasers, and your ears are so full of ‘tone’ that you could be in some kind of glitched-out computer program. The searing note blasts, relentless lasers, strobes, and smoke combine to throttle you out of existence—in the best possible way.”
Even without hearing it, that very description of extratone can seem a little intimidating. But because it transcends any net-based ecosystem and survives as a performance style as well as a production style, extratone is very real, and is being pushed, explored, and developed by interesting and genuine artists.
“I think in extratone there’s a huge, underutilized, misunderstood toolkit hidden away which is simply based on exponentially faster kick drum sequencing,” says Essex. “It could really stand to be more deeply explored by people who might write it off as stupid and forget about it.”
You might not have many extratone records in your collection. But beyond the acquired taste, there’s definitely more to it to than meets the eye (and ear). Long may this continue.