Music

The Alchemist: Russian Roulette

The Alchemist's latest run for solo recognition, Russian Roulette draws sounds and sound bites from various Russian-themed sources, with a particular affinity for how the old Soviet Union was portrayed in American pop culture.


The Alchemist

Russian Roulette

Label: Decon/ALC/E1
US Release Date: 2012-07-17
UK Release Date: 2012-07-23
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Alan Marman probably didn’t intend to be the invisible man of hip-hop; it’s just a symptom of a production style that has focused on shedding modern hip-hop of its pop leanings. As the Alchemist, his resume reads like a who’s who of East Coast hip-hop, with his bruising Bronx beats filling in the deep album track positions for greats like Nas, Guru, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and Big Pun. Still, despite his best efforts – solo records decorated with thuggish images of himself, his name spread across in large, imposing lettering, for example – appropriate recognition has eluded him. Fine hip-hop connoisseurs may give Alc his respect, but most still couldn’t pick him out of a crowd.

Generally a producer stepping out from the small print of inner booklets to the front-and-centre spotlight is a shaky prospect. For the likes of the Neptunes and Timbaland – whose era-defining beats made superstars of so many – the lure of making the move from behind the mixing desk to try to achieve the kind of recognition they had gifted on so many lesser talents was probably the primary motivation for the muddled, famous-friend-featuring compilations Clones, in Pharell’s case, and Shock Therapy in Tim’s. But at the other end of the spectrum, you have a selection box of bite-sized beats like Donuts, perhaps the most lauded solo release of J Dilla’s sparkling career. This form has become an increasingly tempting option from hip-hop producers, and it’s the category that lays claim to Russian Roulette, a gap-less 40 minute run of short instrumentals spliced together with movie quotes, TV spots and the occasional rap verse.

A concept record, Russian Roulette draws its samples and sound bites from various Russian-themed sources, with a particular affinity for how the old Soviet Union was portrayed in American pop culture (there are several nods to Ivan Drago, Rocky’s mountainous Soviet nemesis in Rocky IV). While driven primarily by these samples, the record is not a scratchy, Dilla-esque dig through dollar bin vinyl. Production actually remains relatively clean throughout, and while it’s a concept record at heart, rarely do the Russian samples equate to what you’d expect. Traditional Russian folk music is occasionally drawn upon, but for the most part, the album is a glammy freakout through what resembers Moroder electronica, Saturday morning cartoon themes, 8-bit scores, smoky blues guitar and RZA-like kung-fu movie instrumentation. A good example of this funhouse of different flavours is “Training Montage - Getting Stronger”, where Joan River’s famous interview with Rocky IV star Dolph Lundgren is undercut with twinkling keys, snappy drum machines, chipmunk soul loops and dramatic instrumental breakdowns. In fact, there’s too little repetition to truly call these ‘beats’. Instead, Marman stuffs so many sonic tricks, grooves, dead ends and surprises into every track that the orchestration is constantly chopping and changing, keeping listeners constantly on their toes.

Unlike his previous solo records, Alc doesn’t make the move from mixing desk to mic (like so many of the great producers, Marman is a willing but flawed MC), but there are guest rappers dotted throughout. Rather than recruit his more famous collaborators, he turns to a series of emerging MCs, only the best of which make a real impact. Action Bronson’s loose style runs free on the sombre sci-fi harmony “Decisions Over Veal Orloff”, while the always hot Danny Brown brings some real energy to “Flight Confirmation”. But guys like Fashawn, Evidence and Big Twins somewhat succumb to Alc’s audio onslaught, belittled by these loaded tracks.

The majority of the album doesn’t contain lyrics, so subject matter is scant. Voices are just another instrument for the Alchemist to add to his mad concoction of sounds, as he cuts, chops and skewers his way through 40 minutes of concentrated hip-hop harmonies. Whatever his intentions for the project and his vision of himself in the wider rap world, for this wizard, Russian Roulette turns out to be less about stepping out from behind the velvet curtain, and more about the magic he can weave from behind it.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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