Music

Yoko Ono: Antony & Yoko / Yoko Ono & John Zorn

With a pair of singles, Yoko Ono furthers her case for artistic relevance as a proponent of fringe music that, like much of her back catalogue, was never intended for mass consumption.


Yoko Ono

Antony & Yoko / Yoko Ono & John Zorn

Label: Chimera
US Release Date: 2015-02-18
UK Release Date: 2015-02-18
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In the history of popular music, there has perhaps been no more divisive a figure than Yoko Ono. Unfairly blamed for the breakup of one of the most beloved bands of all time and viewed by some as an untalented hack who hitched her star to one of the most famous musicians ever, Ono found herself out of favor with the general public almost from the start.

But those who’ve looked past the tawdry rumors and vicious, often racially insensitive critiques have found an artist pushing the boundaries of music, both avant-garde and popular. Influencing vocalists from Björk to Diamanda Galás, her early recordings featured an array of sounds rarely heard emanating from human throats, let alone associated with an artist formerly in the most commercially popular and successful band on the planet.

Her propensity to explore the outer reaches of the human voice found many critics deriding her style as little more than unlistenable noise and screaming. But further study of these early works shows an artist in top form, exploring the possibilities afforded by her instrument in much the same manner as Albert Ayler and other avant-garde jazz musicians. By pushing herself into uncharted territory, she freed herself from the often-restrictive bonds of pop music formula.

This approach brought with it an unparalleled sense of liberation, pushing beyond the known into utterly new and different territory. Much as the jazz avant-gardists sought to tear down the walls of more commercially minded popular jazz to better reflect the society in which they lived, so too did Ono seek to put a voice to the tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s by no means easy listening, but it is art in its purest, most raw form.

On this new pair of singles with Antony Hegarty and John Zorn, respectively, Ono showcases the two disparate ends of her vocal performance spectrum. On “I Love You Earth”, she cedes the majority of the song to Hegarty, making it sound more like an Antony & the Johnsons track than a true Antony/Yoko collaboration. When Ono does enter, her mere presence possess a confidence and assuredness of purpose that, despite her heavily accented phrasing and pitch troubles, wrapped in a sheen of reverb, proves a compelling sparring partner for Hegarty.

Given the tonality of her voice and her relative disregard for pitch, however, ballads have never been her strong suit. Paired with Hegarty, a master balladeer, her voice sounds all the weaker -- no match for the subtle nuance of phrasing and languid, mellifluous approach of Hegarty. That said, Ono displays a masterful sense of when to step back and let her collaborators take over.

Only when they begin to sing in attempted harmony does the full nature of Ono’s shortcomings as a vocalist come fully to the fore. Hers is such an idiosyncratic instrument that it is best served within a solo context rather than as a duet partner. The purity of Hegarty’s delivery, when paired with Ono, only serves to highlight much of what her detractors usually bring up when discussing why they simply can’t accept her as a vocalist. When she avoids close harmony and rises above Hegarty’s range, her voice comes through more confident and assured, avoiding the dissonance of their closer pairing.

“I’m Going Away Smiling” features a solo piano and vocal performance by Hegarty, a melancholy take on the track that appeared on Ono’s album Between My Head And The Sky. Where hers played with the deeply personal feelings of loss with regard to her late husband, Hegarty’s plays a bit more universal with the themes of sadness and loss. With each displaying a similarly sparse arrangement, their respective emotional components make for a nearly impossible comparison. Hers is deeply personal, having lived the lyrics. His is an interpretation and, while achingly lovely, does not possess the devastating emotional and contextual heft of the original.

On “Blink”, avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn proves an ideal match for Ono’s more experimental tendencies. As a vocalist, she is better suited to the more extreme ranges of the human voice, creating a cacophony of shrieks and squeals that perfectly compliment the equally extreme nature of Zorn’s approach to the saxophone and music in general. By pushing their respective instruments beyond the bounds of traditional performance, they create a fascinating mix of sounds that manage to sound simultaneously very human and very not. Finding harmony in the uglier elements of the avant-garde, their duet proves an uneasy, though fascinating listen.

Theirs is a thrillingly visceral pairing that, at only three minutes, is more an unfair tease of what further exploration of this partnership might one day afford. Fans of uneasy listening will find much to like as “Blink” finds Ono returning to the sounds she explored at greater length on her earliest recordings. With just Zorn as her furious collaborator, it’s an exhilarating performance that stands in sharp contrast to the subtle beauty of her collaboration with Hegarty. A yin and yang, these singles represent the two sides of her musical persona. Leaving each separate, there’s no attempt to reconcile the two, an approach that suits her and her collaborators exceptionally well.

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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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