Starkey: Ear Drums and Black Holes

A gorgeous spacey affair with shuddering bass, a slight hint of muzak, prog-tendencies, a pop heart, and dubstep/grime cred.


Ear Drums and Black Holes

US Release: 2010-04-27
UK Release: 2010-04-19
Label: Planet Mu

There’s a couple thousand dubstep DJs out there who could have named themselves Starkey and meant it. Luckily, Philadelphia’s Paul J Geissinger, who was the one who adopted the moniker, is a somewhat inappropriate fit for a name suggesting starkness as a defining characteristic. His mixes are neither straightforward nor extreme in the Borgore vein, nor are they concise or austere in ways that define the Hotflush crew.

Starkey’s debut full length player on Planet Mu, Ephemeral Exhibits, was a hit among fans and critics alike. While it certainly delivered the Richter-scaled goods, particularly on lurching masculine stomps like “Pictures” and “Gutter Music” (which featured the magnificent grime MC Durrty Goodz), it also revealed a multilayered compositional complexity suggesting that Starkey’s genre coinage “Street Bass” was not just a reference to the phallus, but also a proposal that street music/bass music can also have a brain, a heart, and yes, a soul.

If Ephemeral Exhibits was the alpha male document to win the attention of Croydon crowd on the other side of the pond, Starkey’s follow-up Ear Drums and Black Holes is a more androgynous, glam, and pop affair. Even the name suggests orifices, though this too could be another linguistic ruse. Talk of drums seems like a diversion since percussion plays second hand to the mammoth synths rolling throughout this piece. Just as well, the space articulated in the album title is almost non-existent; all dubby echo chambers have been squeezed out by the plump and swollen electro-bass dominating the available air.

Starkey is at his best when he abandons all the self-imposed limitations of a scene that at times seems to strive for provincialism. Starkey imagines himself as the contemporary of Drake and The Dream at points on Ear Drums and Black Holes, even going so far as to apply liberal amounts of auto-tune on tracks like the glorious “Alienstyles” and the unique “Spacecraft”, where Geissinger, doing an eccentric take on R. Kelly, serenades a would-be paramour to escape with him on a the aforementioned air ship.

Perhaps the weirdest track on the album, “Spacecraft” conjures the spirit of prog and all its UFO-adorned LP jackets through a kind of weird power play between the sensual and the aggressive, cutting cinematically back and forth between the red lamp lit sleeping quarters on deck and the firey explosions of the rocket boosters below preparing for liftoff. Break downs, false endings, explosive returns, and such render a peculiar centerpiece, though it must be noted that the album is full of these odd twists and turns.

In fact, much of Ear Drums and Black Holes seems an inconsistent hodgepodge of styles at first, but there’s a running consistency in both the chromatic palette and the chrome-plated exterior of the instrumentation that makes these sometimes disparate tunes seem like they all fell off the same family tree. Still, it’s what Starkey does with these synths, which often achieve a grandeur worthy of M83, that impresses; the wild effects, dramatic chord changes, epileptic syncopations, subtle coatings of distorted vibrato, et al.

The least successful variants on the album are the two tracks with guest vocals by Texan rapper Cerebral Vortex. On “Murderous Words”, Cerebral Vortex’s southern drawl is confident and calm, while Starkey’s music is paranoid and anxious. It’s a discordant pairing overall, which is not to mention the fact that Starkey seems to have stepped down his productions on these tracks to accommodate the lyrics. One would at least expect better rhymes, wordplay, or flow from something so deliberate, but the two Cerebral Vortex tracks fall flat in terms of both production intensity and lyrical tenacity.

“Numb”, however, is a spot-on execution and an inventive hip-hop production. The opposite of “Murderous Words” in a way, Starkey brews up lazy synths couched in an ethereal twilight haze of street lamp light pollution and urban high rise twinkle while PMoney (another name from the grime game) delivers a slightly manic yet Boy in Da Corner style introspective verse taking place at 4AM during a bout of writer’s block. “I look strong on the outside, but inside the mind I’m a soldier that’s limping”, PMoney states, further explaining that the only escape from these spiritual wounds is to “plug in my headphones and zone out to the kick of the drum”.

It’s easy to imagine many doing just that with this very album. Ear Drums and Black Holes offers many a majestic moment, the peak being the track immediately following “Numb”. “Stars”, sung by the virtually unknown but sirenic Anneka (she’s done some work with Vex’d, Milanese, and Ital Tek), is technopop made in heaven. Anneka’s coos may be the element that could potentially lure in fans from outside of the scene, but its Starkey’s bizarrely phased cymbals, his Morse code riddim that sounds like a signal struggling to get through, his atonal R2D2 squeals, and the way he almost seems to fumble into an epic conclusion in what remains a crushingly brief three minutes that makes the song one for the ages. It proves that Starkey, though comfortable just about anywhere, transcends scenic boundaries, which is good since he doesn’t seem too concerned about them, anyway.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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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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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