Darkel: Darkel

John Dover

First solo release from one half of French electro merchants Air suggests he should stick to instrumentals or let someone else take over vocal duties.



Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: 2006-09-18

Air’s debut album Moon Safari, released in 1998, was something of a phenomenon. Beloved by rock-scribes as well as the ambient dance fraternity, it was a calm breeze of dreamy nostalgic French electronica, taking in Serge Gainsbourg, John Barry, the Orb, the Beach Boys, '60s psychedelia and Jean Michel Jarre. Seemingly coming out of nowhere it duly topped many 'best of the year album' polls, a charming and sophisticated antidote to the bloated death throes of Britpop and the bland, smarmy confections of manufactured boy and girl bands.

Subsequent releases offered diminishing returns: 10mhz Legend was an unwelcome journey into the excesses of ‘70s prog rock, Talkie Walkie a not entirely succesful return to the rich soundscapes of their breakthrough album. Best received was a collection of early unreleased work Premiers Symptomes that revealed the templates for their later triumph. They also successfully released the soundtrack to Sophia Copolla’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides. However, the prevailing critical consensus seemed to be that Air might be a one trick pony, milking a sound that was only good enough for the 10 songs that comprised their debut. When they deviated from the sound that brought their initial success it was deemed a pretentious failure, when they returned to it that sound itself was becoming passé. The songs on Darkel, written and performed by Jean-Benoit Dunckel, the first of the duo to release a solo effort, do little to dispel that notion.

What this album most reminded me of was the early post-Beatles work of John Lennon and the fact that, shorn of McCartney's immense gift for killer harmonies and producer George Martin’s studio Midas touch, he absolutely hated his vocal sound. In order to disguise it, he had it drenched repeatedly in its own echo: "Instant Karma" being a prime example. Coming out from underneath the umbrella of a hugely successful band, it was as though he was all too aware of the vulnerability of standing alone. Bearing in mind that all of the songs containing vocals on Moon Safari were either heavily processed through a Vocoder-esque device, or sung by someone else, one cannot help but feel the same is true of Jean-Benoit Dunckel minus his Air partner Nicolas Godin. The songs are whispered, rather than sung, in shy heavily accented English. One senses an almost palpable discomfort in Dunckel's vocals, suddenly thrust to the forefront of proceedings, even though musically there is still a familiar lushness of sound.

The press release describes the album as "a funky French version of New Order", which is about as near the mark as comparing it to Trout Mask Replica. New Order never dealt in nostalgia and this album is suffused with it. Pink Floyd? Yes. John Lennon? Yes. King Crimson? Yes, yes, yes. New Order? Non! Other than the departure from overtly instrumental tracks towards more 'traditional' song based pieces this is clearly the work of the man half responsible for "Sexy Boy" and "Cherry Blossom Girl".

It starts inauspiciously with a dark synthesizer piece that sounds as though it was culled from the soundtrack of one of John Carpenter's self-scored late '70s horror flicks, over which Dunckel intones "Be my friend till the end of time". Despite the Darkel moniker and the album’s black cover this attempt at noir-ish electronica merely grates. "TV Destroy" is another example of this, with a driving punk guitar riff and sloganeering vocals that when sung in Dunckel's reedy high-pitched lisp sound utterly ridiculous. "At the End of the Sky" is admittedly lyrically twee and trite but reveals Dunckel's sly gift for late-Beatles style melodies. The first three songs encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of the album; when he reaches for unknown territory it doesn't come off, when he deals in sweet, dreamy, atmospheric pop music it does. That's what made Moon Safari such a hit in the first place.

"My Own Sun" would suggest that the Kinks’ records have been enjoying heavy rotation on his stereo of late, being, in the verses, an almost note for note reworking of their classic "Well Respected Man". This is a jaunty stomp about personal responsibilities and following one's own path in life and, even if the sentiments expressed are naïve, the whole thing is carried off with such delicious chutzpah it doesn't matter. "Pearl" is off in the dreamy piano world of John Lennon balladry with all the space and swooshes of keyboard echo that made a large hunk of the populace fall in love with the Air sound.

The cynic in me would conclude that Darkel is a failure, a folly, a vanity project and one not worth repeating. However it is certainly not entirely without its merits. Air fans will find much to enjoy in the glistening electro-string shimmer of "Earth" and many of the songs contain infectiously catchy hooks. What is blatantly obvious is that Mr Dunckel should politely be steered away from the microphone at all future recording sessions. His voice is weak and irritating and reminded me of a feeling I had watching Burt Bacharach murder "Walk on By" at a recent London concert: just because you can write these tunes, doesn't mean you can sing them, and perhaps you shouldn't.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

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.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Melkbelly splices insanely supercharged punk energy with noise-band drums and super catchy pop melodies. It's a bewildering, intoxicating sound which has caught the attention of underground Chicago audiences. We ask singer Miranda Winters how it works.

"I've always, I guess, struggled to decide what kind of music I wanted to play, something sort of abrasive and loud or something sort of pop and folky. I would bounce back and forth between the two," says Miranda Winters, the dynamic singer who careens between pretty girl pop croons and banshee wails in the course of, really, almost any song in the Melkbelly catalog. "When we first started Melkbelly, the goal was to figure out how to make them work together, but I don't know that we actually knew that it would work when we started."

Keep reading... Show less

Is Greta Van Fleet the second coming of Led Zeppelin?

My first exposure to Greta Van Fleet was through the last 30 seconds of "Highway Tune". I've listened to Led Zeppelin since the early 1990s, but I couldn't place the song. My initial thought was that it's a lost track I missed off the recently expanded remasters. When the song finished and the DJ said it was Greta Van Fleet, I wondered who they are. They are three brothers and a friend from Frankenmuth, Michigan. Joshua Kiszka supplies lead vocals, Jacob Kiszka provides lead guitar, Samuel Kiszka plays bass and keyboard, and Daniel Wagner pounds the drums. The first two are 21 and the other two are 18.

Keep reading... Show less

The everywhere-at-once trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith goes it alone, alternating Monk tunes and Monk-inspired originals for solo trumpet. S L O W.

Wadada Leo Smith is having a great run in the critical eye. In 2016 he topped many polls with his meditative but free composing and presentations, collaborating with the likes of Vijay Iyer and making jazz move in interesting new directions. He has long been fascinated with the music and legacy of Miles Davis, an obvious brass inspiration, and he was among the first to revive real interest in Davis's later period of playing.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.