Music

The Knife: Tomorrow, In a Year

Illustration by Sara Hernandez

The Swedish duo's follow-up to one of synth-pop's greatest achievements is -- wait for it -- an electro-opera about Darwin.


The Knife

Tomorrow, In a Year

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2010-03-09
UK Release Date: 2010-03-08
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It was a funny coincidence that during my first… slog, really, through Tomorrow, In a Year, I came across a note from the Knife’s Olof Dreijer, apologizing to the attendees of a Halloween party in Bogotá for “false advertising.” He and Tomorrow collaborator Mt. Sims were asked to play a two-hour DJ set to promote the new record, an opera based on the writings and experiences of Charles Darwin. The two dressed up as Charles and Emma Darwin for the event, and apparently the music they played was so “horrible” that their promo company stopped them after 40 minutes. “Sorry,” Olof writes with his best poker face to the partygoers who were given wrong information (like, that the music wouldn’t be horrible), and offers them a refund by clicking a link. It’s probably a blank page, and it may or may not contain a virus.

Ask Mogwai, the Pharcyde, and My Bloody Valentine: Expectations are a mother, and the roar of your fans clamoring for a sound they like can be deafening, even if you’re the Knife and artistic freedom trumps popularity any day of the week. Whether those fans will follow the band beyond Tomorrow, In a Year is the $64,000 question, but faced with such a hard swerve left, the party people are forced to acknowledge the Swedish brother-sister duo’s affinity for the macabre, the weirdly theatrical, and the deeply avant-garde. Underlying this is the desire to become someone or something else -- pop stars, birds of prey, opera composers, the Darwins, and so forth. The Danish experimental theatre troupe Hotel Pro Forma recognized this protean fantasy in the Knife, and hired them to compose the music for their latest opus: Tomorrow, In a Year: A Darwin Electro-Opera, which interprets Darwin’s writings, his life, and life on Earth as Darwin must have seen it. The subject of this review is not the opera itself, but the Knife’s studio version of it, in conjunction with Mt. Sims and German experimental songstress Planningtorock.

Boy, what a mess. It gets messier: Tomorrow, In a Year involves bona-fide opera singer Kristina Wahlin, pop vocalist Jonathan Johansson, singer/actress Laerke Winther, and the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson all providing different types of vocalizing. Opera is the “DNA” and forms the basis of the performance, though I’m not certain about the symbolism of the pop element. Its progression follows the structure of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, evolution itself, and Darwin’s relationship with his family all at once, somehow. In short, unifying Tomorrow, In a Year as an easily interpretable document is arduous and probably not even possible. That’s most likely the point: Life, both in the Darwinian sense and in the way we often think of it, is extraordinarily complicated despite our best efforts to simplify it. There are interesting notions in this idea and in the different forms Tomorrow, In a Year can take, but I don’t find their aggregate effect dazzling; I find it stultifying.

This is compounded by the music itself, most of which is no picnic, and what happens when the music and the ideas collide. Hotel Pro Forma note that the opera is separated into two sections in accordance with The Origin of Species, with the first part as an abstract discourse on the natural world, and the second part as a synthesis of ideas into a theory of all life. I actually hear three parts, the first one being the weakest. “Epochs” to “Minerals” sounds like angles on the same track, whereby the instrumentalists’ groaning synth emissions meet Kristina Wahlin’s operatic mezzo-soprano. The dynamic between them is curious; you get the sense that Wahlin could shoot her vocal cords into the chandeliers and the music would still eclipse her. If this section represents Darwin’s relationship with geology, in which the H.M.S. Beagle puts him in touch with magnificent landmasses, then the instruments could be the rocks and the voice might be Darwin’s inner wonder -- but it’s a stretch. The program tells us it’s also about our own rapture at the “beauty of nature” that we feel as we witness the opera. Beauty is about the last thing I could ascribe to this; the musicians cook up a dreadful noise that suggests the rot of death more than anything out of Darwin’s pages.

The next section, from “Variation of Birds” to “Shoal Swarm Orchestra”, is centered on animal utterances the Knife recorded in the Amazon rainforest and the Icelandic wilderness. Sparse, conceptually provocative, and intensely boring, these mutated chirps and warbles make me imagine the winged creatures I might see flying and swooping deep inside a Knife pop song if I opened it up like cupboard doors. In the Knife’s modification of these natural occurrences, there may be something about human technology, however old, encroaching upon the non-mammalian life that has been around long before us and evolves with us. Still, it’s a hell of a dead spot, and when the far more realized final section arrives, the trek becomes almost worth it.

Tomorrow, In a Year’s most enjoyable songs are here, in the section from “Annie’s Box” to the ending, but because this is a record about evolution, flipping them on without passing through the previous tracks can trigger a bit of guilt. “Annie’s Box” is an interesting way to start this section off -- we move from open, practically human-less spaces to a touching elegy about Darwin’s daughter Annie, who died from disease at the age of 10. Annie’s box contained notes from Darwin about his favorite daughter’s failing health, and it’s hard not to think about him having to reconcile his beliefs about the majesty of nature with the personal tragedy of Annie’s deterioration. Before long, “Colouring of Pigeons” overtakes this small pang of human loss with a shuddering, grand-scale epic involving everything in the ecosystem asserting its collective power. But the coup de grace comes with “Seeds”, which begins with a crisp, minimal 4/4 beat, a buoyant bass and euro-chic melodies with Reich-style phasing. Whenever I hear it I’m reminded of Ricardo Villalobos, minimal techno’s ambassador of having a good time. Could it be that these characters in the profound evolutionary expanse are…partying?

It’s a rare, awesome moment of levity in a work that otherwise takes itself too seriously. All the different ways to think about Tomorrow, In a Year seem to have the opposite effect of the one that was intended. They constrict the listener’s imagination and don’t allow for any room to breathe. As I read back over my own writing, I realize that there’s so much about the Knife and Hotel Pro Forma’s conceptualization that I just completely missed. It would take me nine more reviews of Tomorrow, In a Year to capture it fully, but of course, I’m not going to write them because I’m not elated at the prospect of listening to this album over and over again. And when all is said and done, Tomorrow, In a Year needs to work as just that: An album to be played, not an exegesis to be studied. Supposedly, the opera itself in November ’09 was spectacular; the still images attest to this, and the audience must have been rapt with the feast of light, sound, and performance that characterized Darwin’s brilliant worldview. The studio counterpart doesn’t come close to approximating that, though certain moments bear their own rewards. But most of Tomorrow, In a Year is so unappetizing that my open mind goes out the window and I feel like a partygoer in Bogotá: Just deliver the goods, and we’ll call it a night.

5

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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