Blaze presents the James Toney Jnr. Project: Natural Blaze

Maurice Bottomley

Blaze Presents the James Toney Jnr. Project

Natural Blaze

Label: Lifeline
US Release Date: 2001-04-27
UK Release Date: 2001-03-26

Blaze have been around nearly 15 years. In that time they have become the leading exponents of jazzy, soulful house music, with endless remix credits and a string of club classics behind them. From their New Jersey base, Josh Milan and Kevin Hedge have been churning out smooth, keyboard driven dance anthems with enviable regularity. To those that inhabit the space where jazz, house, disco and jazz collide, Blaze are little short of gods.

Yet this is only their third album (fourth if you count the compilation, Many Colours Of). The first, 25 Years Later (Motown 1990), marked that lost opportunity when House and Garage briefly entered the mainstream of black American music. That album, though still highly regarded, disappeared without trace. Blaze went back to Jersey and the Shelter club and built a reputation as producers and remixers at the deep end of dance. Basic Blaze from the late '90s is a lot of people's favourite dance album, while tracks such as the afrocentric "My Beat" and the nu-disco gem "Wishing You Were Here" have had a life expectancy far greater than the usual dancefloor fodder. "My Beat" in particular is a tune that defines the terms jazz-house, deep house or soulful dance as well as any.

So, to say that this album was eagerly awaited is my understatement of the month (and I am particularly fond of understatements). The response to its arrival is, not exactly a disappointment, but something less than ecstatic. It is a fine, discofied, jazzy affair -- very reminiscent of a number of late '70s releases -- but there is a definite sense of water-treading and laurel-resting about the nine tracks on show.

The sound is as sublime as ever -- organic, smooth and drenched in soul. The sentiments are as spiritual and socially conscious as we have come to expect, and the general feel is as relaxing as slipping into a warm bath. However it is all a little safe, and the standard of the tunes is second-rate at best. Lyrically and vocally it also leaves much to be desired.

It is still streets ahead of many in the field and will work in certain bars and clubs ("Elevation" has already been tanned by the DJs that know). It will appeal to the home listener who adores Earth, Wind & Fire, George Benson and George Duke and wishes people still made records like they did in the old jazz-funk era. It will not, I suspect, win many new converts. It fits into the category the scarier end of the dance scene calls, disparagingly, "Dadhouse".

As to the actual tracks, for "My Beat" we get "Revolution Poem" and "Afro-groove". "Revolution Poem" has the right attitude but is clumsy and slightly embarrassing in its sub-Mutabaraku (it might even be him) "conscious" lyrics. "Afro-groove" is better but again the spiritual spoken-word vibe has been done better elsewhere, not least by Blaze. It kicks along nicely though and has a lovely organ groove that gets better on each hearing. "Time For Love", which opens the album, has some sharp, squirty alto sax which promises something more adventurous, but settles down into a bouncy, jazzy swayer. "Lovely Reprise" has some infectious acoustic guitar and a good chill-out feel. The best instrumental is "The Grooves" which sums up the strengths and limitations of the whole effort. Funkier and a little darker than most of the others, it retains the seventies feel and takes you on a hammond,synth and percussion led journey that holds no shocks but gets you in a good mood. It is the sort of thing Reuben Wilson or Charles Earland would have been proud of -- nothing new but oozing class

"Elevation" is the pick of the vocal tracks -- poor lyrics sung in that rather wet EWF style don't endear it to me though. It gains greatly if whacked up really loud and then becomes a solid soulful houser. "Better Days" and "How Deep is Your Love" are likeable with lovely piano touches, but too lacking in character or bite to really convince. The gentle "Lovely Ones" is structurally the most satisfying but the vocals sound a little off-key to me. Blaze's vocals have never been their strong point and that fragility has finally been fully exposed.

Still, I will probably play this album more than most I get this year. But I am a sucker for this stuff and an unrepentant "Dadhouser". Instrumentally, it is a solid album. If you like Blaze, and know what to expect, you will get plenty of mileage from it. If they are a new name to you I would not start here. There is no reason why artists should always innovate and Blaze have done enough to assure themselves of a prominent place in dance history. What is something of a let-down is that at this very moment there are some killer Blaze remixes doing the rounds, far more satisfying than anything on display here. This is a confirmation that it is the paucity of material on this outing that is at fault and all of Blaze's musicality and feel for the groove cannot quite hide that fact.

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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