Emperor X: Central Hug / Friendarmy / Fractal Dunes

Tim O'Neil

The key is not that we should admire the record for the dexterity with which a group of seemingly random pieces have been assembled to form a new whole, but that we should recognize the whole to be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Emperor X

Central Hug / Friendarmy / Fractal Dunes

Label: Discos Mariscos
US Release Date: 2005-04-12
UK Release Date: Available as import

As origins fade into distant horizons and individual reference points lose focus to the inevitable red shift of accelerating history, it becomes easier to perceive retrospective patterns and movements. Initial breakthroughs are amplified by time -- ripples in a still pond made by the force of a single pebble expanding across a yielding medium.

The most important musical movement of the last fifteen years has been the gradual dissolution of genre barriers in pop. Whereas synthesis was once perceived as novelty, the act of melding and fusing disparate cultural elements has become so commonplace as to be not only unexceptional but expected. Disregard the ironic detachment so intimately associated with academic postmodernism and examine the pluralism embodied by artists such as Beck. The notion that all genre barriers are essentially artificial constructs and that technology can enable musicians to embrace the wholesale possibilities of recorded sound as a medium independent of historical expectations was a long time coming and wholly radical. Pop music can be prone to crippling bouts of parochialism, and the only cure for this is strict and unwavering verisimilitude.

Sound is a medium, and the most exciting musicians are those who make the most of the medium's pliant and yielding nature. That this idea has already been subconsciously digested and accepted by large portions of critical consensus is perhaps a moot point. When Conor Oberst (AKA Bright Eyes) chose to start off 2005 with the simultaneous release of two albums, the more conventional rock-oriented I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronic Digital Ash For A Digital Urn, it was almost besides the point that critical consensus held the former to be the superior release. The simple fact that a musical prodigy widely acclaimed for his heartfelt songwriting and lyrical dexterity saw the need to explore the kind of digital musicianship that would have been absolute anathema to previous generations of indie rockers is perhaps as concise and pointed a statement on the direction of modern music as is possible to make. Oberst is undoubtedly sick of the "New Dylan" appellation, but here the analogy fits well: when Dylan went electric, it polarized a generation of music fans and served as inescapable proof that musical paradigms were changing faster than they could be formalized. When Oberst went digital, however, it was accepted with equanimity, as a faits accomplis.

It's been long enough since the "electronica" backlash of the late 1990s that the bitter, alien taste of enforced progress has faded from the racial memory of the cognoscenti. Those with longer memories are beginning to understand that the ill-fated influx of European dance music was not merely an attempt by abrasive and ascetic beatmakers to storm the beaches of American retail (although that was certainly a large part of it), it was a more subtle and treacherous subversion of the way American musicians perceive sound. In this sense, electronic music did succeed in becoming the "Next Big Thing", insomuch as electronic music was, and remains, little more than the overarching rubric for an ideology of music as infinitely malleable sound.

Emperor X (AKA Chad Matheny)is proudly an electronic musician, as well as an indie rocker, a folk singer, a lo-fi troubadour and an inspired pop songwriter. He switches between genres with the guileless enthusiasm of a natural born polymath, and the alacrity with which he does so is enough to make you wonder whether or not the distinctions of traditionally discrete musical genres have any use at all when considering music so willfully peripatetic. I could draw you a graph detailing all the different genres touched upon during the course of this record, but to do so would be fatuous as well as counter-productive: the key is not that we should admire the record for the dexterity with which a group of seemingly random pieces have been assembled to form a new whole, but that we should recognize the whole to be far greater than the sum of its parts.

When Emperor X released last year's Tectonic Membrane / Thin Strip On An Edgeless Platform (which I reviewed here), it was a surprisingly engrossing curio, a herald of future greatness from an almost impossibly obscure quarter. Central Hug / Friendarmy / Fractal Dunes is the confident affirmation of Matheny's talent and ability, and I for one am grateful to see that his debut was not an unaccountable fluke.

The lo-fi ethos which threatened to occasionally overwhelm the solid craftsmanship of the first album has been slightly eclipsed by a more competent and rounded production acumen. Although much of the album could still be considered lo-fi, it is clear that he is using the sound for aesthetic reasons, and not as a kind of contrarian philosophical default. Many songs on Central Hug . . . utilize the stylistic contrast between slickly-produced studio technique and lo-fi grit to create a powerful dynamic.

The album kicks off with "Right To The Rails", a hard rocker that brings Matheny's traditional preoccupation with movement and travel back to the fore. Legally blind, he is unable to drive and dependant on public transportation, and the urge for mobility carries through his strongest material. Here, the song's insistent beat and frenetic guitar work bring to mind nothing so much as a runaway train. The album dips right into "Shut Shut Up", another insistent rocker built atop a continually rising melodic scale that, again, imbues the proceedings with an irresistible kinetic charm.

"The Citizens of Wichita" provides a breather after the one two punch that begins the album, an acoustic ballad that brings to mind both the aforementioned Flaming Lips (in terms of the deceptively complex and decorative production) and later Wilco. "Raytracer" is one of the album's most obvious concessions to current indie-mores, featuring the verbose and plaintive emotional refrain:

"Did you ever get sad on your bed late at night, /
Listening to 'Either/Or'? /
Did you ever make out on the capital steps /
With an AK-47-holding Marxist girl? /
Did you ever get help with the problems? /
No, you never can admit it."

Matheny is informed by the same kind of emotionally ravished songwriting that songwriters like Oberst revel in, but there's also a disconnect there, a semi-ironic remove that prevents his material from settling down into the kind of profitable but repetitive rut songwriters like Oberst and Chris Carraba have occasionally mined.

"Use Your Hands" is built atop the kind of stuttering faux-disco beat that would not be out of place on a Squarepusher or early Autechre album. "Sfearion" is a hybrid of Bananarama-esque pop (check out that beat!) and Kevin Shields' brand of lush guitar rock. It could easily be a Top Ten hit on your local college radio station, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was released as a single.

The starkly acoustic "Rinseley" is followed by the grungy rock of "Edgeless", another effortlessly catchy tune (this time in the vein of Modest Mouse), that could easily be your next favorite song. "Aloalocular L.A." could almost be considered a lark -- it is built atop a harpsichord accompaniment, after all -- if it didn't also have one of the album's most effusive melodies. The album ends with "Coast To Coast", an instrumental that begins with an early-R.E.M. vibe before building to a wordless crescendo and dissolving into a puddle of tape hiss and overdubs.

It took me a long time to warm to Pavement, and to this day they are still not one of my favorite bands -- their proud disaffection always seemed insufferably haughty. Likewise, the late Elliot Smith (name-checked on "Raytracer") always struck me, despite his obvious talent, as uselessly recondite and sometimes painfully mannered. Matheny has the potential to be the next indie superstar, possessing the effortless songwriting chops of a Stephen Malkmus or Elliot Smith as well as the kind of compellingly holistic musical presence that could place him among the vanguard of modern pop composers, next to folks like the Flaming Lips. His vocal contortions may veer uncomfortably close to screamo parody at times, but there's no doubting the sincerity of his sentiment or the forceful authority of his words. Emperor X is well on his way to becoming the Next Big Thing in the world of indie rock. Central Hug . . . is the best indie rock record of the year so far, and stands a good chance of being one of the best records, period, when all is said and done.


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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