The Drums: Portamento

Matt James

The Drums are still wild at heart, but newly weird on top.

The Drums


US Release Date: 2011-09-13
UK Release Date: 2011-09-05
"And I can never go home anymore. And that's called 'sad'."

-- The Shangri-Las

I gotta say the Drums' debut was a bit of a lifesaver. Its mix of infectious melody, heartfelt wonder, childlike loneliness, witty lyricisms, and naïve romance saw me through many a mess o' blues. On first listen Portamento, in all honesty, felt comparatively flat, a frantic panic of ideas, sounds and moods. Many hours on the psychiatrist's couch and several listens later though it started to click, choruses bloomed, toes were tapped, hearts melted and -- yay! -- new saviours emerged from the fog. On every level, Portamento is a more complex, creative, and ultimately unusual record than its predecessor. Following a "build 'em up, knock 'em down" rites of passage lashing from the perverse UK press and the sudden exit of one of their gang, this is the sound of a band going all-in and the result is by turns heroic, admirable and strange, but never less than intriguing.

"Oh let it begin, let it begin," decrees lead Drum Jonathan Pierce. Rather comfortably, the first half of Portamento pretty much flows seamlessly on from the debut and finds things business as usual at Chez Drum. Basically, classy, sassy pop bangers, one after another. "Book of Revelations" recites all the Drums' commandments -- bass heavy, shuffling skiffle rhythms with a catchy-as-hell chorus the height 'n' width of a skyscraper. "I've seen the world and there's no heaven and no hell," declares Pierce, kicking over the pearly gates like some lapsed preacher from a Flannery O'Connor tale. "I believe that when we die, we die, so let me love you tonight." Hallelujah, joyful and triumphant! Heaven can't wait!

Future enormo-anthems are tossed off with such giddy abandon it's as if the Drums could do this imperial pop malarkey blindfold. Super-fast Strokes-alike single "Money" promptly offers the album's most sing-a-long moment: "Before we die, I'd like to do something nice / I'd like to buy you something, but I don't have any mo-neey." A tale of street-urchin lovers pressing their grubby faces against the windows of the Mansion on the Hill. It's the Drums showboating and it's hard to suppress a girlish Beatlemania-style shriek of approval. Almost as euphoric is "What You Were", a latchkey cousin of Bowie's "Modern Love", which packs a punchy, bouncy, coolly high hip 'n' danceable and a surprising, smooth 'n' funky sax riff amid harmonies to die for.

There's still plenty of the whip-smart, witty wordplay that originally made 'em leader of the pack. "Hard to Love" is a real charmer and rides Two-Tone Ska rhythms over what could only truly be described as gurgly space bass. "I would never hate you / But you're hard to love," winks Pierce. Dancing away the heartache is still an option then? The toppermost highlight though is "Days", full of brooding glances, ripped Levis, trashville beatbox on the sidewalk, sad spiraling minor chords, killer bass, and stray cat harmonies. The lyric "Days go by and I never needed you" encapsulates the album's theme of unrequited love and bickerin' broken-hearted emptiness perfectly. "You broke my bones and I sold my soul," its narrator says, kidding no one they can make it solo. It bottles that desperate longing ache the Drums excel at and will be, furthermore, officially compulsory for dancing in the dark under a blue moon. The Happy Days fade to black begins with the lush, passionate "I Don't Know How to Love". When Pierce wonders, "Why don't you love me anymore? / I simply don't understand," he's no longer just lonely, but now eternally lonesome. It all ends with a sweep of melodramatic grandeur and a sad signal to pack away the sun...

"The things I used to feel, I don't feel anymore," Pierce sings on "Searching For Heaven", a turning point into uneasy listening, a step to the dark side. We're not in Kansas anymore. In a heartbeat, night has fallen and the moonlit air drawn chilly. Over ominous ambient synths, Pierce's slurred, broken vocal -- "Will we dream again?" -- feels like a suicidal SOS beamed back from space. The four songs that follow are similarly disconnected, disconcerting. The Joy Division hypnotics of "Please Don't Leave" sound like someone trying to shake a sobbing, hysterical ex who's clutching their leg whilst yelling "I won't let go!" (We've all been there right?) "If He Likes It Let Him Do It" keeps things moody blue with a muscular robotic pulse, tall shadows and flickers of theremin-style Gothic decoration. A touch of fresh madness swiftly follows with the new dawn rising of "I Need a Doctor". Twitching, carnival hypermania juxtapose some of Pierce's most oddly acidic lyrics yet: "You know I love you / But I wanna kill you." The longest winter though is the "straitjacket, size medium, pronto" shiver of "In the Cold", where Pierce sings, "I just sit there in the cold / I know I won't see you again." It's end-of-days melancholia and you'll feel there's a tiny, frosty ghost weeping in your stereo. The fact that it's swiftly carried off stage by the hyper pretty, romantico finale "How It Ended" ("The Girl from Ipanema" complete with grass skirts 'n' garlands) and you will be left open jawed by the wildly strange ride that is Portamento.

Although the end result isn't quite as exquisitely perfect as their debut, the Drums remain a rich, sincere, emotional and admirably contrary oddity. Portamento will charm you, hug you, haunt you and yes, sometimes baffle you whilst offering further proof that they are a more fascinating proposition than many give them credit for. It's also laced with such death, rejection, and the fade of hope that it feels like the middle segment of some tragic operatic trilogy. "Do you think Jesus loves me? Can I go home again?," they pondered wistfully at the end of their debut. Now as they stride tearfully, but with spirit unbroken, into uncharted waters, it would seem the Drums have their answers.


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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