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Minneapolis-based Zivix hopes that Guitar Hero strummers will want a real guitar

Thomas Lee
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Sure, they're just video games, but anyone who has played the hugely popular Guitar Hero or Rock Band has probably channeled a little bit of Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, or Aerosmith in their performance.

But can someone truly rock out by hitting a bunch of colorful buttons on a plastic guitar controller?

Zivix LLC is betting some players will want to upgrade to the real thing. The Minneapolis-based start-up is developing an electric guitar with fingertip sensors that allow users to play and control the game wirelessly. The company hopes players will want to feel and look the part.

But the Headliner digital guitar is not meant to be just another tricked-out controller. By holding and feeling out a real guitar, players may actually want to learn how to play the instrument and write music, said Zivix president and founder Dan Sullivan.

"There is a certain group that aspires to go beyond the game," said Sullivan, who started Zivix in 2006. "They had a taste of what it's like to be a real guitar player because that's the illusion. Why not take the next step and being able to play?"

Zivix is also developing software called JamSession that it could package with Headliner. The software allows multiple users to mix prerecorded song loops from different instruments and genres.

But some venture capitalists wonder if Zivix is making too big of a leap. Users may love to play Guitar Hero, but will they pay $249.99 for the Headliner guitar when they can get a beefed-up PlayStation 2 guitar controller for $39.99? That depends on whether a video game player really does want to be a musician instead of pretending to be one. (First-time players might spend $500 for a quality electric guitar.)

"The question that comes to mind is ... why would anyone want to buy this?" said Peter Birkeland, chief financial officer of Rain Source Capital, a St. Paul-based network of angel investors. "Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not about playing music. It's about playing a game."

Birkeland also questions the cost of making real guitars vs. traditional game controllers.

Sales of video game accessories like controllers jumped 14 percent last year to $2.6 billion, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Much of those sales are due to the phenomenal success of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Star. Activision Blizzard Inc. of Santa Monica, Calif., which released Guitar Hero III in 2007, has sold 10 million units in the United States, making Guitar Hero the all-time bestselling video game.

"The game-play is fun whether or not you have an interest in music or being a musician, and I think that is key to the success of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero," said Anita Frazier, a NPD analyst. "They're also quite accessible - video game enthusiasts and newcomers to gaming as a form of entertainment can both enjoy these games."

The popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band has led some industry officials to speculate whether the games can boost sales of real instruments. So far, the numbers don't bear that out.

U.S. guitar sales totaled $1.1 billion in 2007, about flat compared with the previous year, according to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Unit sales fell 4.1 percent to 2.86 million.

However, some data suggest there might be a correlation between game and guitar. About 67 percent of people who play rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band said they were likely to pick up a real instrument, according to survey by Guitar Center, a guitar retailer that reported a nearly 27 percent jump in first-time sales last year. Another 81 percent said the video games motivated them to ask for a real instrument for the holiday season.

NAMM is funding a study by Drexel University that seeks to determine whether Guitar Hero and Rock Band will encourage middle school and high school students to pursue formal music education and whether playing the game results in real musical skills.

Zivix hopes to release the JamSession software in June and the Headline guitar by late fall. The company is discussing partnerships with retailers, video game makers, and even real-life musicians to create song loops for JamSession. Sullivan envisions people creating their own loops and sharing the music with other JamSession users over the Internet.

"The idea is to use technology to make it easier for beginners that don't know anything about music to sound like they are playing music," Sullivan said. "It's a technology boost to music creation."

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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