'Aquarius' Complicates Racism in the 1960s and, Maybe, Today

For all its wearying focus on Charles Manson, the show has other, better ideas, including an acknowledgement, via an earnestly outraged NOI member, that black lives might matter.


Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
Cast: David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, Grey Damon, Emma Dumont, Brian F. O'Byrne, Michaela McManus
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Creator: John McNamara
Air date: 2015-05-28

"You are a living lie. I am the truth who will burn your world to the ground." It's striking, this pronouncement by Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles), and when he makes it to LA Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), you're inclined to believe him. This is because, just a couple of hours into Aquarius, you've already seen Sam lie quite a bit. It's part of the job. "Cops can lie," he tells a murder suspect who's signed a confession based on Sam's deception during an interrogation. Sam is, per Duchovny's usual characters, always laconic and strangely wise, and you believe him even though you know you probably shouldn't.

The slippage between truth and lies is at center of Aquarius, set in Los Angeles 1967, which sets weary Vietnam War veteran Sam against none other than Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony). As the show spends its first two hours cutting between cop and criminal, one working the case of a missing 16-year-old and the other seducing her, not incidentally with the most banal of lies ("They can't see who we really are: we're special, we're powerful, and we can change everything"), it pauses to introduce Bunchy, a member of the Nation of Islam, bow-tied and adamant. Bunchy brings another dimension to the proceedings, an intervention plainly calculated and not precisely convincing.

While you understand that Bunchy is right about Sam -- and the system of policing he represents, however reluctantly -- the show is less obvious about how it's using Bunchy. Earnest as he arrives at a crime scene to protect black citizens from the cops' questions, he occasions a standoff pretty much immediately. Sam says he's interfering with an investigation, while Bunchy suggests that he is, rather, pushing back against the cops by definition: "You are an occupying force," he says. "Until you withdraw, we will not help you." The language speaks to 1967 and today too, of course, alerting you that Aquarius means to be topical as well as nostalgic and vaguely, if guardedly, referential (the show calls itself "Inspired in part by historical events"). The cops here don't have tanks or other military surplus, but they do have attitude, a culture based on their perception of perpetrators as enemies.

Such perception is familiar to viewers of most cop shows, but Aquarius complicates it even as it confirms it. Manson and the show's other, more generic outlaws appear easily condemnnable; Charlie, for instance, dominates his sexual interludes with his interchangeable, long-haired and bell-bottomed "Manson Girls" as well as a frankly brutal homosexual liaison. However, Bunchy provides an alternative view.

Another alternative view is intermittently offered by Sam's new partner, the scruffy, younger-generation, undercover designate Brian (Grey Damon). He resents the older cop's habitual lying to suspects and treating black witnesses as "dumb spades". He has reasons that are a bit overstated, but they do suggest someone on the writing staff wants to provide Sam's apparent display of racism with a context. (It's safe to say that Sam can only be more complicated than he looks at any given moment.)

That said, Sam and Brian share an inclination to menace and assault odious adversaries, and the show supports their decisions in this regard, ensuring these adversaries look like they deserve whatever violence they incur. It's only right, the cops reason without saying so, to punish bad guys. As the system surrounding them and that they represent is so inept and corrupt, they resort to slamming heads to keep order amidst the many signs of disorder here, from anti-war protests to the crimes committed by the military in Vietnam, both noted not quite in passing on background televisions.

That Bunchy has and makes visible another idea about how bad guys might be defined suggests, however briefly, that the show acknowledges that black lives might matter, even in a network's period cop show. NBC's release of all 13 episodes of Aquarius to VOD as soon as the show premieres on 28 May means you'll be able to see how far this acknowledgment might carry right away.

The series opens on the girl, Emma (Emma Dumont), who will become Sam's case, sneaking out of her parents' house at night as 16-year-olds tend to do. As she slips away, to be picked up by Charlie, the soundtrack plays one of its many era-defining tunes, this one the Who's "I Can See for Miles". The point would be, no surprise, that no one is seeing far at all, no one imagines the coming fall of Saigon or the Manson murders, the building civil rights movement or women's lib or any of it. The show supposes you can see this, in the sense that you know the history that comes after 1967, and that you can appreciate that even in this fictionalized form, that history bodes ill.

Aquarius isn't quite history, but it also isn't precisely now, or even accurate in either case. What you can see is not so much "truth" as it is versions of truth. What you can see, in Bunchy's adamant assertion of himself as truth, is the possibility that another story exists and might be told. When Sam arrests him and uses Bunchy as a means to get another case closed, when he dismisses Bunchy as so much trouble to be overcome on the way to doing his job, he doesn't see what you might, that the truth, if not out there, as The X-Files' Mulder once held, might be elsewhere.


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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