Music

African Head Charge: My Life in a Hole in the Ground / Environmental Studies / Drastic Season

Hearing African Head Charge's four LPs now they play like one long, unfolding record, a complex document meshing experiments with structure, old sounds with new, and weaving various traditions into one heady mix.


African Head Charge

My Life in a Hole in the Ground

US Release: 2016-01-22
UK Release: 2016-01-22
Label: On-U Sound
Amazon
iTunes

African Head Charge

Environmental Studies

US Release: 2016-01-22
Label: On-U Sound
UK Release: 2016-01-22
Amazon
iTunes

African Head Charge

Drastic Season

US Release: 2016-01-22
Label: On-U Sound
UK Release: 2016-01-22
Amazon
iTunes

African Head Charge

Off the Beaten Track

US Release: 2016-01-22
Label: On-U Sound
UK Release: 2016-01-22
Amazon
iTunes

Adrian Sherwood's contribution to modern music are many. His influence rises out of him unique melding of dub, African, Jamaican, and countless other traditions into the music that surrounded him, especially the post-punk and fledgling new wave movements. He has countless career moments worth recalling here, but his work as leader of African Head Charge still stands as some of his most challenging and rewarding music. The four African Head Charge albums -- 1981's My Life in a Hole in the Ground, 1982's Environmental Studies, 1983's Drastic Season, and 1986's Off the Beaten Track -- have all been reissued on vinyl for a new batch of fans to discover. Listening to them as a whole now is deeply rewarding, especially because they don't feel like a progression so much as one long, unfolding, complex record, a complete and cohesive document that meshes experiments and structure, old sounds and new, and various musical traditions all into one heady mix.

If the title of 1981's My Life in a Hole in the Ground feels still like a dig at Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, it's mostly because the music sounds so much more resonant. The title was likely more a nod, but the sounds here are a sonic leap ahead of those other musical legends. The album doesn't experiment so much as it challenges us. Opener "Elastic Dance" clashes production accents and keyboard crashes with the plain, organic pinging of a jaw harp. The harp gives way to pulsing psychedelics and a lean-persistent beat. The song never takes shape so much as it sets its pace and lets the bolts fly off the chassis in every direction. It doesn't pin down its influences as clearly as other moments in Sherwood's discography, but it lays out a palate the other songs can draw from.

Along with percussionist Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah, Sherwood builds the rest of the album on unforgettable grooves. "Family Doctoring" builds its echoing shuffle on reggae structures, while the persistent hook that rises and falls through the track brings in Eastern textures. "Crocodile Shoes" lets Noah move through African rhythms, while the occasional howl or distant horn merely adds heft to his drums. "Far Away Chant" digs into the darkest, most haunting corners of dub, while "Primal One Drop" presents the kind of straight-on beat that hews closer to rock or R&B without losing its groove. It's an album of strange sounds united by its beats, a lean record that still surprises with its flourishes but stays within the borders it sets up.

1982's Environmental Studies starts to stretch those borders a bit. Opener "Crocodile Hand Luggage" feels like a natural next step. It's got the same dark shadows of "Far Away Chant", but the textures are far thicker here, the sounds more varied and clattering over the percussion. It also includes synth vamps that tap into vein of jazz-fusion that never quite leaves the record, offering yet another turn in the African Head Charge sound. Songs like "Snakeskin Tracksuit" and "High Protein Shack" nod more towards traditional jazz, with an emphasis on horns and syncopated rhythms, but any notion that Sherwood is settling into a genre gets blown up in the second half of the record. This is where get some full-fledged experiments, like the layered scuffling and snapping of "In a Trap", or the Eastern-riffs-turned-kitchen-sink-drum-circle of "Breeding Space". "Primitive" and "Latin Temperament" turn back to Jamaican and African hints in the drumming, but the echoed, sometimes scraped out production and oddball turns both recall dub and, perhaps, predict later movements like trip-hop (along with earlier track "Dinosaur's Lament".

So Environmental Studies built on its predecessor, delivering stranger turns but also a few more memorable moments. The next record Drastic Season, bedded down in the farthest corners of the sound from Environmental Studies. "Timbuktu Express" shimmers with thick layers of neon synth until those turn inside out, shifting into sinister pulses of vibrating noise. "Bazaar" and, later, "Fruit Market" still have their eye on reggae and dub, but around them songs erupt into strange, explosive shapes.

None are more arresting in their strangeness than "African Hedge Hog", a song where everything stutters, where it seems the bass and drums can't quite find each other, where the guitars seem borrowed from post-punk but get sliced up into unrecognizable, far-off bleats, where synths and horns seem to be shouting at each other like animals across some great, dark expanse of land. Environmental Studies, like its title implies, feels geographical, like it is more interested in playing in space than propelling forward. But, of all the albums, it also feels like the one most reliant on the others. It's an interesting record, front to back, but its true feat is in setting up the next record.

That record, 1986's Off the Beaten Track, changes things up a bit. It comes three years after its predecessor, and though Drastic Season was the first record the duo made in a proper studio, this is the record that finds them taking full advantage of those environs. Unsurprising perhaps that proponents of dub would find new strengths in a new studio space, but Off the Beaten Track continues to push the African Head Charge sound, but also manages to deliver those shifts in the pair's tightest, most dynamic compositions to date. Check how effortlessly they match their love of Eastern melodies with dub and other Jamaican music traditions on the titular opening track. Hear how "Belinda" borrows a contemporary, industrial sound and meshes it with the duo's trademark production scuffs, found sounds, and the organic backbone of congo drums.

"Throw It Away" shifts African Head Charge's usual focus by pairing it with a more rock-based beat and turning out something that aligns more with the burgeoning hip-hop scene than any other song in their repertoire. "Release the Doctor" takes the often too-light elements of New Wave guitar and keyboard hooks and weighs them down with a perfect balance of deep rhythms and rippling production. Closer couches its haunting voices and deliberate pace in the duo's heaviest textures, as well as natural sounds, as if in the duo's final moments they simply drifted off into the world around them, into a pulsing, lively world they created.

These albums managed to mesh so much of their own past and present together, that it's amazing how they don't sound dated at all now. Instead, the albums echo nicely off of each other, each one adding some clarity and some complexity to the others around it. Adrian Sherwood stands as a long-time musical innovator, but his with Noah as African Head Charge is perhaps his most timeless and resonant work. These are records that preferred discovery over perfection, and the deep, undeniable beauty of the right sound over the quick hit of a good hook. Like so many notes that populate these four important records, African Head Charge is gone, but its influence echoes on.

7

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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