Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All from Somewhere Else

Let's face it, they might as well have gone ahead and called this 'What's Hip in Chicago?'

Exploding Star Orchestra

We Are All from Somewhere Else

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2007-01-23
UK Release Date: 2007-01-22

Exploding Star Orchestra is, for the purposes of this recording, a 13-piece big-band featuring the most noteworthy denizens of the exact point at which Chicago's avant-jazz and post-rock fraternities collide, including Corey Wilkes of Art Ensemble of Chicago alongside John McEntire, Jeff Parker and John Herndon of Tortoise. It's led by cornetist, composer and Chicago Underground mainstay Rob Mazurek and was originally convened in response to a commission from The Chicago Cultural Centre to put together a show in Chicago's Millennium Park for the "Made in Chicago" festival. After a dozen or so performances, Mazurek led the Orchestra into McEntire's world famous Soma Studio in Chicago to capture what Mazurek refers to as the "sound projections" created by this decidedly weighty ensemble.

You see, despite the fact that this project is so cool you could keep a side of beef in it for a week, and has probably earned Mazurek some kind of honorary seat in Chicago's City Hall, he's not one for shallow trappings. He's got weightier ideas on his mind, and bigger fish to fry -- in particular one cosmic stingray. We Are All from Somewhere Else is an instrumental concept album, that creates a sound-narrative to accompany Mazurek's hallucinatory, circular fable of an exploding star, the interstellar travels of an astral stingray, conversations with electric eels and the death, ascension and transfiguration of the cosmic stingray from ghost to bird to phoenix to rocket to new-born star. And that's not all. In the spirit of the genuine jazz mystic visionary, Mazurek offers up this entire project as a kind of gift to humankind, a healing force designed to help us discover a better sense of balance in the universe. His liner notes describe the project as an attempt to "imagine the possibility of a non-border/non-restrictive world in which we can live full creative lives without the stress and absurdity of war and separation of any kind... It has to do with the quest for life and non-life, form and non-form, structure and blown structures, in which to expand and contract at the same time and different times, the joy of frequency and tonal and non-tonal harmonic bliss."

Quite clearly, this whole endeavour is some heavy business. But even if you don't dig the whole New Age subplot (and maybe you should, what with the year 2012 and the end of history as we know it rushing ever nearer, about to consume all civilisation for all time and launch us into an unimaginable era of cosmic realignment... or something like that), the good news is that the music contained herein stands magnificently on its own -- and just happens to swing its nuts off.

The four-part suite, "Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time", jumps straight in with a huge, heavy, Arkestral big-band sound, powerfully reminiscent of George Russell's classic -- and equally ambitious -- suite, "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature". A relentless, Eastern sounding riff paves the way for a beautifully Oriental, extended flute solo before, three full minutes in, the whole piece shifts up a gear with the introduction of a fanfare-like head, followed immediately by a swooning, falling, dreamlike motif and then back to the riff for more solos and finally giving way to a free-form breakdown bristling with McEntire's strangely incongruous marimba. It's a hugely exhilarating opening 10 minutes that sets the listener up for a dense and spiritual journey.

After a brief, dark, modal interlude, we're plunged into the murky sound world of the third part of the suite, "Psycho-tropic Electric Eel Dream", a group improvisation based around recordings of two different species of electric eel in a tank at INPA Research Laboratory, Manaus. It's a thick, abstract soup of sound built of pulsing electronic rumbles, restrained trumpet parps, subtle sax squeaks, marimba rattles and a thousand more unidentifiable sounds -- all coming together to evoke space -- both inner and outer. The final part of the suite is a complex, Dolphy-like, mid-tempo stroller with Zappa-esque, cinematic statements and marimbas, vibes and bells adding a shimmering, hallucinatory depth to what might otherwise have seemed almost straight-ahead jazz in its simple beauty.

After a short solo piano recital, we're into the second suite, "Cosmic Tones for Sleep Walking Lovers", which wells up in a burst of joyous, chaotic free-jazz, smeared with strange, subliminal computer treatments, before giving way to a typically Mazurekian piece -- strongly reminiscent of the Chicago Underground Duo's take on Steve Reich's circular, minimal pattern music: an ever-turning wheel of small gestures, with marimbas and vibes conjuring Reich's "Music for Mallets, Organ and Voice", jazzy horn licks providing a little fire under all this ice-cool posturing, and a richly burbling bass underpinning everything. Then it's straight into a big, slow, bluesy piece of real jazz that comes on like an outtake from Coltrane's Africa Brass, with a distorted electric guitar solo and a cosmic ARP synth solo sliding out like Dr. Patrick Gleason's contributions to Herbie Hancock's early '70s Mwandishi excursions.

After all that's gone before, the final piece is strangely anticlimactic -- a restrained, meandering piece with meditative flute and loose brush-work, which just ends, abruptly, crying out for a recapitulation that doesn't come. Chances are, by the time they got around to laying down the last track, Mazurek was off in some other uncharted region of the cosmos, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. There could be worse ways of spending your weekend.


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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