Music

Remembering GWAR's Dave Brockie: Scumdog of the Universe, Artist, Hero

Dave Brockie forced GWAR fans to take absurdity very seriously. He gave hope to kids all over the world, suggesting that creativity, humor, and heavy metal might be infinitely more powerful than the stultifying, small-minded idiocy that they saw all around them.

I first came into contact with GWAR when I was about 13 years old. This would have been about 1993 when my friends and I somehow came across a copy of GWAR’s album America Must Be Destroyed in the only record store in the small town in Northern California where I grew up. This was the high era of grunge, and the music that we were listening to took itself very seriously. Like so many young kids, we looked to popular music for examples of the kinds of people we wanted to be. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins suggested the possibility of channeling our feelings of awkward pre-teen alienation into something cool, or at least fashionable.

GWAR offers something very different, and in retrospect, something far more significant. GWAR offers a hyper-transgressive, Dionysian celebration of chaos caught up in an endless funhouse mirror maze of irony, playfulness, and often very serious social satire. GWAR presents an image of unbridled, demonic violence taken to completely absurd, nihilistic proportions. The band takes the violence that contemporary American culture celebrates and forces its listeners/viewers to experience, in the words of William S. Burroughs, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. GWAR satirize the violence of American culture in such a way that it becomes inescapable; the obscene, militaristic hypocrisy of the Bush/Reagan years is hung out for everyone to see, blood-spattered and unavoidable. Indeed, GWAR is really about obscenity in all its forms.

Dave Brockie, AKA Oderus Urungus, Scumdog of the Universe, and frontman of GWAR, was found dead in his home on the evening of Sunday March 23rd, 2014. The reasons for his death are still unconfirmed at the time of this writing. Brockie was the driving creative force behind GWAR, one of its only real constants in a revolving cast of musicians, puppeteers, set designers, costume builders, and various other artists that made the act probably the most entertaining live show this side of ancient Rome. Brockie “played” the character of Oderus Urungus, although I am not totally comfortable describing Oderus as simply a character in a stage show. Oderus was an alter-ego and a metaphor; a blood-spraying, crack-smoking, monster-raping, force of unholy nature who would never let us forget just how stupid and pathetic humans really are. Oderus Urungus does not ask us -- he forces us to take a good hard look at our most atavistic desires and most sadistic impulses. GWAR is an absurdist parody of every narcissistic MMA fighter beating someone’s brains in while his fans scream for more blood. GWAR is the reflected image in the rear-view mirror of every horror hungry rubbernecker slowing down to get a good look at the carnage on the highway. Dave Brockie and his merry band of intergalactic degenerates made a career out of mocking America’s most vicious appetites and fascistic power fantasies.

Just a few months prior to Brockie’s untimely death, I had the acute pleasure of interviewing the mighty Oderus Urungus. Mind you, it was Oderus Urungus that I interviewed, not Dave Brockie; he did not break character for a moment and threatened me with violence several times. I asked this hyper-violent, ageless space creature about the purpose of violence in GWAR’s music and performances and he responded in the following way:

Oderus Urungus: I hope that it encourages it. In our own way it is a crude metaphor when we drag the pope out on stage and rip his guts out. It is, in a sense, an incitement of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, but it is also us having dinner… let’s not forget that… the connection between the two is both clear, and completely murky… so I don’t know…those GWAR fans out there, they inflict great violence upon themselves and each other during the shows, but once they are done with the shows, I think they go out there and they are just a bunch of teddy bears… So I don’t really understand what’s happening… We are trying to encourage you people to kill each other but GWAR fans seem so happy… I’ve got to start just being meaner to you people… more awful…

BHO: You have to find ways to make us more legitimately violent, and stop achieving this kind of catharsis?

OU: Yes! Quite frankly, the catharsis is blowing my mind.

GWAR shows were indeed cathartic and euphoric; a baptism in gallons of fake blood and Lovecraftian burlesque. I feel genuinely sorry for people who never had the chance to see GWAR perform live. There was nothing quite as entertaining, joyous, and gleeful as watching Oderus Urungus feed a pantomime Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton to a giant, world-consuming maggot while thousands of kids, soaked head to toe in fake blood, screamed with approval.

Like metal culture more generally, GWAR constantly deconstructs masculinity, exposing the hyper-macho absurdity of the narcissistic "He-Man" athlete or rock star. I asked Oderus about this during our interview:

BHO: Are you a particularly macho creature, or are you beyond petty human gender roles?

OU: Oh certainly beyond petty human gender roles, but at the same time, selfishly, even slavishly devoted to my own persona. Any type of praise or compliment, I receive well. Therefore, I would have to say, being an overtly masculine creature, even though I have a pussy in my chin, I involve and imbibe and endow and bestow upon you all of the greatest things about being a shit-kicking male. Obviously we are the best at whatever we do.

BHO: Is GWAR mocking masculinity or embracing masculinity, or both?

OU: Both. We are mocking it, the way that you humans do it, because you look so stupid when you do. But at the same time we are embodying it with our own gestures and showing you how it’s done, so to speak. We are the immaculate and perfect masculine force, and when humans do it you just suck. Not to say, that there are not some humans that rise above the pack and shine, they shine like a little star for a time. Some men, like Mr. T… men like Charles Bronson… but ultimately they must be consumed into corruption.

As the above response illustrates, Oderus (and Dave Brockie) was very conscious of the ways in which GWAR satirize masculinity. The concept of performance always takes center stage with GWAR, and the performance of masculinity in particular. Oderus Urungus was the embodiment of the ultimate strutting, muscle-flexing, narcissistic dude-bro; so roided-out and pumped up that he can’t stop himself from tearing the world apart. The ridiculousness and artificiality of masculinity is impossible to ignore with GWAR, and that is exactly the point.

Like other great examples of postmodern American art, GWAR is hilarious and devilishly entertaining, while simultaneously forcing us to confront something that is deeply wrong with our culture. There is a genuine sense of anxiety in GWAR’s music, aesthetics, and performances that runs much more deeply than the band's scatological silliness and hyper-violent excess. Brockie consistently returned to one basic question throughout GWAR’s career: who has power, and over whom do they wield it? Censorship and the insidious power of those who would claim moral authority over others, is as much a part of GWAR’s art as their deconstruction of violence. I asked Oderus about his attitude towards censorship during our interview:

BHO: Recently I took the time to revisit your 1992 film Phallus in Wonderland, which chronicles GWAR's struggle with Granbo and the Morality Squad. Do you feel that the Morality Squad and their spiritual and ideological brethren have become stronger or weaker since GWAR defeated them in the early '90s? As you see it, what is the state of censorship and moral crusades in America in the year 2013?

OU: Well that’s just another example of what I am talking about. As soon as GWAR came on the scene, censorship got bigger than ever. You know, they saw the face of the beast at that point, and ever since then the elements of… even though we defeated Granbo and the Morality Squad in battle, truly, they have gone on to other more subversive ways. Their numbers have swollen, and swelled also... and become swullled… there are more of these creatures than ever, and that is also very good, in a very bad way for the human race… because your life is basically doomed… things will continue into a state of controlled idiocy…

In the late '80s and early '90s when GWAR rampaged into public American consciousness, there were many very powerful people who were very serious about banning metal and accusing anyone associated with it of everything from murder, to child abuse, to satanic conspiracy. The West Memphis Three spent decades in prison for listening to Metallica in the state of Arkansas, and Judas Priest was put on trial in civil court because a few demented lawyers heard satanic messages in the group's records when they played them backwards. GWAR baited, mocked, and decapitated in effigy the paranoid, fascistic lunatics behind the anti-metal moral crusades of this period. In doing so, it was an important part of the process of delegitimization that prevented the moral crusaders of this period from succeeding in their witch hunts.

Brockie forced those of us lucky enough to be exposed to GWAR to take absurdity very seriously. GWAR is playful and endlessly fun, but they are more than just a joke. GWAR is popular performance art of the best kind that can be enjoyed and understood on multiple levels. I am deeply grateful to have been given the opportunity to have had a conversation with Oderus/Brockie while I still had the chance. I am even more grateful for all of the times that I have seen GWAR live, experiencing the group in all of its blood-soaked Wagnerian glory. I will be listening to its records, watching its movies and videos, and exchanging stories about different live shows with other fans for the rest of my life. There is nothing that I can say here to properly thank Dave Brockie for all of that; for all of the blood, laughter, and happiness that he brought to me and to millions of others during his too-brief life. News of his death broke just a few days ago and I have been in mourning ever since. A quote from the funeral of Beowulf seems appropriate in expressing how I and many, many others have been feeling this week:

"The twelve warriors rode around the tomb

Chiefton’s sons, champions in battle

All of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

Mourning his loss as a man and a king.

They extolled his heroic exploits

And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,

For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

And cherish his memory when that moment comes

When he has to be conveyed to his bodily home."

Dave Brockie was an artist and a hero. He scared the hell out of self-righteous, puritanical, right-wingers; people who would have obliterated everything good about American culture long ago if they were allowed to have their way. He gave hope to countless kids all over the world, suggesting to them that maybe creativity, humor, and heavy metal might be infinitely more powerful than the stultifying, small-minded idiocy that they saw all around them. Dave Brockie is no longer with us, but his legacy continues. I look forward to raising a glass with him one day in Valhalla.

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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