Four-Eyed Stranger #12: "A Soul Is a Light Thing"

Oliver Ho
These wistful, sci-fi window-washers echo Major Tom's enigmatic epitaph: "Plant Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do"

Death, dissatisfaction and dirty windows haunt Hisae Iwaoka's Saturn Apartments.

Saturn Apartments embraces an existential melancholy, accentuating quiet moments, mystery and introspection over space opera. Call it zen in the art of space.

Young Mitsu has just graduted from junior high. He's 14, an orphan, and he's following his late father's footsteps into the occupation of window-washer. In manga artist Hisae Iwaoka's dream-like vision of the future, that's a hazardous profession, not unlike the chimney sweeps of Victorian England.

A structure that recalls (lightly) Larry Nivens's classic novel Ringworld, the Saturn Apartments appear to be a massive, three-level ring built to encircle the Earth. All of humanity relocated there generations ago, when the planet was declared a nature preserve--no humans allowed. The ring's levels correspond to three classes of wealth, opportunity and privilege.

Many elements of the story are also reminiscent of Charles Dickens: life revolves arounds class; people are practically born into their roles and cannot change levels; and the story follows an orphaned child of mysterious lineage being thrown into a harsh working life, which also gives him a view (literally, through the windows he's hired to clean) into lives of all classes. Through Mitsu's eyes, we meet people at all levels who experience similar existential crises. It's as if everyone quiet wonders if this is all there is.

Mitsu's father died on the job, five years earlier and under mysterious circumstances. Since then, an organization known as "the guild" (apparently a sort of union of window-washers) seems to have been looking out for Mitsu, much to the annoyance of his co-workers. Their resentment could prove fatal for Mitsu, and he wonders on more than one occasion if particular colleagues are out to kill or at least deceive him.

Iwaoka's charming artwork simply astounds. Her thin lines and pointillist moments have a delicate and fragile feeling, but the accumulated effect is powerful. Her world feels fully-formed, dense and layered with meaning waiting to be teased out. The wide, round faces of her characters seem at first to risk cutness, but Iwaoka uses the tiniest of marks to indicate nuanced and affecting emotional changes.

Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" is one of the secret origins of "Saturn Apartments"...

One exceptional and brief interlude introduces a poor couple who had been saving money for the husband's tuition, but instead spend it on having their windows cleaned so they can see the planet. The young man's dream of attending a prestigious university has been shattered (he's from the wrong level), and in a heart-breaking scene, he covers the floor of their small apartment with equations.

"To me they were nothing but symbols," his wife reveals to Mitsu. "But they were beautiful."

David Bowie's Space Oddity leaps (or rather, floats strangely) to mind during another evocative scene: on Mitsu's first day on the job, he turns around while he's working outside the ring, and he sees the Earth for the first time--the same view his father saw before his death--and he's stunned, unable to move or look away from the mind-boggling sight. The song has a sense of mystery and wonder that resonate with Saturn Apartments, and in the words of Chris O’Leary, it's an "existential lullaby," an equally apt and succint description of this comic.

"Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void," O’Leary writes in his excellent David Bowie-focused blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame. "Yet while alienation is key to the song, it’s not a bleak or despairing track at all, as it has childlike qualities."

Perhaps it's the "childlike qualities" of Saturn Apartments, along with its irresistible artwork and character-driven, spaced-out-in-space story, but it's difficult to stop imagining music to accompany this manga. Besides Space Oddity, pretty much the entire Galaxie 500 catalogue seems like a Saturn Apartments soundtrack waiting to happen. The lo-fi, dream-pop pioneers share an atmospheric (pun intended) and minimalist charm with Iwaoka's winsome manga. is David Bowie's "Space Oddity"

The first volume of Saturn Apartments was published in May this year by Viz as part of their partnership with Ikki magazine, and even though Iwaoka spins out plenty of plot threads to start the story (the main one being the mystery of what reallyhappened to Mitsu's father), she emphasizes character above all. Among the people Mitsu encounters are Jin and Tamachi, who were both working with Mitsu's father on the day he died, and who seem to share secrets about what really happened that fateful day.

There's also the intriguing Sachi, who lives in a tiny railcar-like enclosure that circles the ring continuously. Sachi's job is to look for damage (subtext alert!), and she wears a fetching, steampunk-y getup consisting of what looks like a parka, leather face-mask and clunky air tank. Her cat wears a similar outfit as they wander the outside of the ring together. An observer who stands apart from everyone, Sachi reveals that she used to watch Mitsu's father when he was working.

"When you told me he fell while he was working, I thought a soul is a light thing, so maybe he floated back up here to the ring system," she says. It's another wonderful, small moment, and Mitsu's silent reaction is a perfect compliment.

Then with a half-smile he says, "You're weird."


Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.


Preview pages of Saturn Apartments, and read new chapters (to be collected in volume two later this year)

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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