Short Ends and Leader

Two Blus from Blue

It's time to revisit the spaghetti western with Blue Underground's excellent releases of Bullet for the General and Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot!

The spaghetti western is one of those rare instances when a change literally saved a genre. Previously, filmmakers and TV suits had drained the once dynamic cinematic style of all its vigor and vitality, running the cowboy and enemy set-up deep into the realm of redundancy. But by adding a level of realistic violence and strict morality/cautionary narratives, the Italians and the Spanish, as well as other foreign aficionados, fashioned the oater into a pre-post modern motion picture preamble. Everything that would come out in the next few decades - the gangster and crime films of the '70s and '80s, the gory horror films of the same era, the over the top action and black/white hat histrionics within such spectacles - could be found in its b-movie make-up. There's even elements of arthouse and other independent movements present. Within this aesthetic update, there were many greats - Leone, Corbucci, Petroni, Tessari - and with the release of two obscure examples of the revisionist horse opera, two more names should be added to the list.

Indeed, Damiano Damiani (Bullet for a General) and Giulio Questi (Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! ) aren't usually mentioned among the luminaries they shared cinematic space with, but their output argues for skill and vision on par with said peers. As with many within the exciting subgenre, they came to the approach as a means of achieving some commercial cache. The late '60s saw a supply and demand boom, and many who wanted into the business found an avenue with the spaghetti western. In Damiani's case, his time in the category was a mere jumping off point for a longer, legitimate career behind the lens. For Questi, his sequel in name only to the Corbucci classic led to an equally engaging take on the emerging giallo genre. After Death Laid an Egg in 1968, however, his creative career was sporadic, at best. Now Blue Underground gives us a chance to see these lost classics in all their high definition, and the results should rewrite the rulebook when it comes to who best delivered the ultraviolent six gun goods.

Bullet for the General (dir. Damiano Damiani, 1968)
During the Mexican Revolution, a bandito named El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) leads a gang of likeminded vigilantes on raids throughout the region. Among them are his ultra religious brother Santo (Klaus Kinski) and a fetching female named Adelita (Martine Beswick). After robbing a train of its weapons, with the plan to sell them to revolutionary leader General Elias (Jaime Fernandez), El Chuncho is befriended by American passenger Bill 'Niño' Tate (Lou Castel). He wants to ride with the daring desperados. At first, he agrees. But as motives come into question, El Chuncho becomes suspicious of Tate...and visa versa.

Even the spaghetti western had subgenres, and director Damiani bested one of the most elusive with he offered up this fine Zapata effort. Named for the famed revolutionary, these films usually took on the archetypes as well as the corrupt government entities that caused the chaos. Bullet for the General is no different, the subtext of squalid, subhuman struggles of everyman modified to a place at home on the range. Damiani clearly wants to question everything, to challenge the motives on all sides as well as to explore the interpersonal dynamic between such 'brothers in arms.' The revolution backdrop provides the impetus for what we see, but Bullet for a General also lives within the byplay of its well drawn and complex characters. We aren't used to seeing people pass beyond the stereotype in this subgenre, but Damiani's knack for finding depth turns everyone into someone to consider and contemplate.

As El Chuncho, Volonte is terrific. He brings the right among of anger, slow burn sadism, and collective courage to his performance. This brazen bandito is supposed to guide us through the entire blood-spattered experience, and by playing both with and against type, he navigates the gruesome gunplay expertly. Something similar could be said for Kinski. We are so used to seeing this Herzog survivor chewing the scenery that when he doesn't here, it's like a revelation. While not laid back, this isn't the madman that made his favorite director hide in fear. Damiani adds his own sense of craft to the proceedings, turning what could have been a knock off into a masterwork of its own right. Bullet for a General may not live up to the expectations for those who think Once Upon a Time in the West is the final word on the spaghetti western, but in its own unique and highly effective way, it's just as good.

Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (dir. Giulio Questi, 1967)
When a band of Mexican and American bandits are ambushed by one of their own, they are forced to dig their own graves and are shot on sight. There is only one survivor, an enigmatic man referred to as The Stranger (Tomas Milian) who goes out looking for the madman (Piero Lulli) responsible. Arriving in a town called The Unhappy Place, our anti-hero discovers that his job is more or less done. Before long, however, he must face off against Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel) and his group of muy macho banditos. They all want the money that The Stranger and his gang were after in the first place. So does the desperate citizenry of this weird Western outpost.

In the next few months, Quentin Tarantino, student of the entire spaghetti subgenre, will be offering up his own unique "sequel" to the legendary Corbucci masterpiece Django. Entitled Django Unchained, it uses the name, and the electrifying vibe, of the character and his coffin dragging dynamic to begin what is bound to be a homage heavy entertainment experience. Something similar happened to Giulio Questi when he made If You Live...Shoot! Though his main character had no name (he is referred to as "The Stranger") the producers wanted a clear commercial association. With Corbucci's film practically printing money, a moniker reconfiguration was in order. Thus Django Kill got its marketing match, and the film world got a sublime, surreal, horror/western mash-up. From the unreal opening which finds out hero crawling out of the body strewn mass grave that he helped dig to the first entry into a town known as "The Unhappy Place" (and boy does it live up to its label), we are overwhelmed by macabre. The horse opera stuff seems strewn about, suggestive in nature.

This doesn't mean that Django Kill fails in its primary goal. This is a fine spaghetti western with a lot of the tropes we expect from the type. The amount of violence is commiserate with a callous cautionary tale such as this, as are the various villagers who seem lifted out of a Fellini imitation of John Ford. Byt Questi also adds subtle elements which really subvert the type. Sorrow and his gang are viewed as veiled homosexuals, their embroidered outfits and gang rape of a male youth indicative of such a sloppy, bigoted inference. Similarly, the town, which is supposed to be a sanctuary filled with scared innocents, is actually worse that anything The Stranger came across while on the trail. They are a vile and villainous bunch. When taken in total, Django Kills...If You Live, Shoot! becomes that critical rarity - a formula type that transcends expectations while triggering both emotional and ethereal reactions. We are fascinated by this excellent film. We also realize what a forgotten gem it truly is.

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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