Music

Light Asylum: Light Asylum

Based on its individual components, Light Asylum is pretty excellent. However, when conglomerated into a cohesive whole, a rut of repetition plagues what is otherwise a noteworthy debut.


Light Asylum

Light Asylum

Label: Mexican Summer
US Release Date: 2012-05-01
UK Release Date: 2012-06-11
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Last year was a testament to the excellence of the ever-burgeoning music scene in Brooklyn. Two releases from that scene made my top ten: Liturgy's highly controversial, genre-defying black metal treatise Aesthethica, and Warm Ghost's Narrows, a record criminally overlooked for sonically similar but less impressive "chillwave" releases like Washed Out's Within and Without. I began to notice this stream of excellent bands coming from Brooklyn during the middle of last year; as someone who splits time between California and Oregon, I'm usually attuned to the San Francisco and Portland scenes. As the recent SNL sketch "The Californians" can attest to, the West/East coast divide still exists, and in various ways we both perceive each other as something like wackjobs. For me, the unfortunate side effect of this is that I often don't take the time to really examine sites of musical innovation across the country, which are many. (Plus, as a prog nerd, I tend to assume anything from the UK is worth my time.) Now that I've begun to keep a close eye on the music coming out of Brooklyn, all sorts of exciting material has come across my desk.

One Brooklyn group that's done a good job in catching media attention is the Light Asylum, the duo of Shannon Funchess (vocals and instruments) and Bruno Coviello (instruments and production). During my interview last year with Paul Duncan, the lead vocalist of Warm Ghost, he referenced how at a show he performed with Light Asylum, he really had felt the unitive spirit of many Brooklyn bands. And while Warm Ghost's texture-heavy sonic isn't a perfect match to Light Asylum's straightforward, dark synth attack, both are excellent enough duos in their own right that to see them live would indeed be an experience. With their In Tension EP, Light Asylum came out the gates strong: It's hard to deny the utter power of "Dark Allies," the lead cut off of the EP: beginning with a harp-like synth effect, the song then builds into a brooding bit of synth-pop, magnetically dominated by the Funchess' vocals. Though the beats and synth textures of Light Asylum are to be lauded, what really makes this duo stand out in an ever-growing synth pop genre is Funchess.

There have been many comparisons made to her voice, Grace Jones most notably. These aren't without merit, but it's really a disservice to how one-of-a-kind her vocal presence is. Her booming contralto is the driving force behind the success of Light Asylum; without it, this would have been a cool but largely unmemorable exercise in synth-pop. (Some have begun to classify the duo as "darkwave," which I will not endorse here. I would go so far as to say that any new genre names with the suffix "-wave" ought to be dispelled from the critical lexicon, "chillwave" included.) Just by the quality of her voice the music becomes that much more engaging, and at times enthralling. So enthralling, in fact, that James Murphy mentioned one of the reasons he wanted to leave LCD Soundsystem behind was so he could produce bands like Light Asylum. If that doesn't get hipsters everywhere with a "darkwave" playlist on their iTunes riled up, then I don't know what will.

Now with a full album release of music, Light Asylum have more or less solidified their stance as an outfit to be taken seriously. Some may attempt to write off Funchess' goth biker-chick look as kitsch; however, it's anything but. This is some seriously dark synth-pop; while the choices of synth tones are often not dark in of themselves, the mood created throughout is one reminiscent of dark dance floors, where the uncertainty of night has just begun to kick in. At times, this ramps up to pure aggression on tracks like "At Will," which musically is what I imagine Rage Against the Machine sounding like if they were in the business of synth-heavy music. (Play the synth riff through a distorted, downtuned guitar... you'll see what I mean.) Fortunately, the duo doesn't merely rely on bellicose electronic sounds and Funchess' occasional bellows to make their point; this record has something of a heart, too. "A Certain Person," included here despite its previous appearance on In Tension, is quite affecting, and its at-face simple lyrical pleas end up conveying much deeper feelings of loss and nostalgia: "Walk the city streets at night / Such a pretty sight / When it's dark on the inside / Where are you now?"

But when Light Asylum is listened to in one sit-through, a glaring problem begins to reveal itself. Take the album's catchiest moment, "IPC." It has a lot going for it: a pretty cool beat (imagine The xx sped up), some well-played synth arpeggios, and a simple but catchy chorus ("Nobody's innocent / Nobody's innocent no more"). Funchess and Coviello know their strengths, and on every track they play to them. While this may seem like a formula to stick to throughout the entirety of the album, after awhile it begins to dig the record into a repetitious rut. If I began listening with the first track, I would get bored after the third song. But then if I picked up the album later and began with, say, the sixth track, I would be really into it for a few songs, after which I got bored again. This plays like a collection of similarly excellent singles, which is great in bite-size pieces but not as a cohesive whole. Pairing them side by side actually has the effect of watering some of the tracks down. Synth effects are cool (especially ones like the orchestra hits on "Pope Will Roll"), but as any aspiring musician with ProTools knows, you can only experiment with those cool sounds for so long. Playing around with beats can be cool, but after awhile it becomes fruitless. And so on.

This undercuts the album's excellence in a pretty significant way, which is a damn shame. The talent of both Funchess and Coviello is noteworthy; I wouldn't hesitate to include them amongst the best musicians coming out of the Brooklyn scene now. But merely knowing one's skill set is not enough to ensure a great debut; you actually have to diversify and make the individual moments unify with the grander scheme of the record. For that reason, I'd say that at this point Light Asylum's significance has yet to be fully realized; while the missteps on this LP are enough to suggest that the duo hasn't quite blossomed yet, the potential here is so obvious that to push them aside for these flaws would be irresponsible. Despite its imperfections, Light Asylum is a must-listen for those interested in synth-pop or the Brooklyn scene in general, and Light Asylum are a band worth keeping on the radar. All of the individual pieces are here; it's just a matter of putting them together into something brilliant. And if the sage songwriting that dominates Light Asylum is to continue into the future, then I have no doubt something great is just on the horizon.

6

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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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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