Kicked in the Teeth by Art

Image from the cover of Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales Illustrated (Classics, May 2011)

For a full day, it seemed like I got pummeled by unflinching art. And I feel like I'm better for it.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2011 Edition

Publisher: Prime (Nook)
Author: Paula Guran,Holly Black,Neil Gaiman,Joe R. Lansdale,George R. R. Martin
Publication date: 2011-09

Listening to NPR's All Songs Considered podcast recently, I pretty much got kicked in the teeth by art. The theme of the pre-Halloween show was "The Songs That Scare" and it found some dark places I certainly wasn't expecting. I'd never heard Sufjan Stevens's "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." or Hayden's "When This is Over", but now that I have, I'll never forget them.

I was listening to the show sometime after Halloween, after the revelations about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State had started coming out. I was stunned by yet another story in which numerous people had abdicated moral responsibility in favor of protecting an institution.I mean, I know this kind of thing goes on all the time, and has gone on throughout history, but I'm always amazed and saddened by humanity's ability to gloss over evil in the interest of some "greater good".

I'm fortunate to be well insulated and sheltered from such things. As far as I know (always a big "if"), nothing of this sort has ever gone on in my extended clan. I do know some adults, though, friends who have gone through childhood abuse of one kind of another, and it's safe to say that they are permanently changed. My biggest worry these days is my socially awkward, obsessive compulsive daughter's introduction to school and the meanness of other children. The true evils of the world? I can't even imagine, although art of various kinds often keeps me in a sort of walking daze when it touches upon such things.

As a fan of genre fiction, I always picked up a copy of the now defunct The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror anthology each year. The collection, first edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, then by Datlow along with Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, was a always a good way to keep a finger on the pulse of what was going on in the storywriting world. You can count on a few tales that revolved around bad things happening to children. Fairy tales, in particular, always seemed ripe for this kind of retelling.

I was unused to seeing such tellings in zombie stories, though. David Wellington's "Good People" has a scene where it's very obvious that a three-year old child will suffer the same grisly fate as her mother. Adam-Troy Castro's incredibly powerful "The Anteroom" has its undead (now truly dead in an afterlife limbo) narrator remembering the betrayal of killing his own child. Of course, it's a given that children will suffer like the rest of us in the inevitable zombie apocalypse (Romero's Night of the Living Dead dispensed with any rose-colored fantasies about that way back in 1968). AMC's The Walking Dead is currently getting (some would argue too much plodding) mileage out of the possible fate of a little girl lost in walker-infested woods). The powerful (and graphic) trailer for the video game Dead Island gets its power from the fate of the little girl in the middle of it.

As disturbing as all of that is, though, it's always had the distance of fiction. Sure, I can get in discussions about whether Costco or Sam's Club makes for the better fortress against the zombie hordes, but I know that such strategies will never really be put to the test.

But back to those songs. Stevens's "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.", of course is about the infamous serial killer who sexually assaulted and then killed over 30 young men and teenagers. Laced with piano and delicate fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the song progresses from Gacy's childhood under a drinking father and on through his crimes. The song attempts a delicate balancing act, uttering an early "Oh my God" at Gacy's crimes, but then portraying those crimes with a surprising softness. And to be honest, the song's twist to some kind of introspection on the narrator's part (And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid) comes far too easily. It's not where the song's power lies. For me, it's the almost throwaway line "They were boys with their cars, summer jobs" and all of the potential those boys never had a chance to realize. I find it to be a profoundly creepy song.

Hayden's "When This Is Over" finds its inspiration in the story of Susan Smith, who rolled a car containing her two small sons, still in their car seats, into a lake to drown. Hayden, though, tells the tale from the perspective of one of Smith's sons, as the water is filling the car. Hayden's vocals, somewhere between Tom Waits and cookie monster metal, leaves something to be desired, threatening to take the song from affecting to melodrama. But it's hard not to get caught by the child's confusion ("What did we do? / I cleaned my room just as she asked me to"), his faith that they'll be rescued ("You're still asleep, baby brother / I'll wake you up when this is over"), or the final rationalization that when the searchers find the brothers in their pajamas, they'll see that the whole thing was a mistake.

I have to wonder if either song would have had the same effect on me, flawed as both of them (to me) are, if I weren't a parent. Once you have kids, you spend your days in a constant state of exhausting vigilance -- not just against predators and evil, but also for accidents that could injure or maim your children. You're seriously susceptible to portrayals of other people's children suffering. You can't help but think a quick "There but for the grace of God go I." I'm honestly fine never hearing the Hayden song again, and not just because of the vocals.

I also caught both of these songs in a vulnerable state because I'd just seen an online comic strip called Camelia. I hesitate to even mention its name, and would also hesitate to post a link if I hadn't lost it, because this thing shellshocked me for days. And I apparently saw one of the tamer, less soul-searing episodes (if that's possible). Camelia is about a little girl being sexually abused by her father, but it's also about the facade the entire family erects around the entire situation.

Camelia gets a stuffed bunny who comes to life at night and exclaims that he and Camelia will be best friends and have lots of great adventures. After a visit from Camelia's dad (not shown), the rabbit kills itself by leaping from the upstairs bedroom window, landing in a pile of countless other stuffed animals who had done the same. The strip I read was an unsettling mix of black humor, evil, and absolutely no hope. I honestly didn't have the courage to venture any further than that one strip, especially after reading some comments that discussed the series's other events. It's haunted me ever since.

Someone would logically ask, "Why the hell would you subject yourself to that? Why would you read or watch or listen to such unsettling stuff? Well, for one thing, I believe that art is supposed to take you out of your current time and place, whether it takes you somewhere serene (Van Gogh's "Starry Night", for instance) or somewhere much darker. You learn a lot about yourself by how you react to uncomfortable art, even if you do your best to put your head back in the sand.

Granted, I didn't need these songs or comics or video games or movies to make me realize that I find child abuse appalling, but even as I say that, I know that the distractions and ritual of daily life have a natural effect of placing a veil around my awareness of what goes on in the world. My father used to accuse me of being intrigued by darkness. That's when I was a teenager, and therefore a bit of a nihilist (isn't everyone, at that age?). I've since grown up enough to know that there are indeed good happy songs and, heck, even beauty to be found in the world. But uncomfortable art? There's something to be said for it -- and for being unsettled by it.

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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