Music

Oh Astro: Champions of Wonder

Latent pop sensibilities get free reign for a glossy sample-collage sound, something like Jason Forrest re-imagined as a slick electro producer.


Oh Astro

Champions of Wonder

Label: Illegal Art
US Release Date: 2007-11-06
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The Illegal Art imprint got its start a decade ago with series of cheaply-produced compilations just begging to be made into a fair-use cause célèbre. The first and most notable of these was Deconstructing Beck, which, consisting of thirteen tracks sourced entirely in variously mutilated Beck albums, was exactly what it sounded like. The RIAA either didn't notice or didn't take the bait, and the challenge went unmet, paving the way for further compilations sourced in film and advertising, and eventually a variety of solo works including the three full-length albums of pop-reconstruction by Girl Talk. The six years since debut album Secret Diary have seen the Girl Talk oeuvre gradually shift from plunderphonic top-40 subversion to a sort of holistic musicology that sees the Boredoms set against Oasis and the Ying-Yang Twins without anything seeming out of place. Now Girl Talk's Greg Gillis is opening for the same Kanye West he's been sampling uncleared and getting remix work from the same Beck his label was goading a decade ago (as well as, hilariously, Good Charlotte).

I mention all of this not because I'm especially interested in Gillis right now, but because I'm interested in Illegal Art. Gillis's work may now have been almost entirely subsumed by the sort of mass culture he originally appeared to be critiquing (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether he's come around to a genuine all-embracing love of pop, or effectively subverting from within, or just having fun, or cashing out, or whether motivation ultimately matters at a dance party this good), but a glance at Illegal Art founder Philo T. Farnsworth's blog confirms that his interests and allegiances are relatively unchanged. Which makes it especially interesting that the current crop Illegal Art releases seem to have followed the Girl Talk lead towards greater pop accessibility.

Take Jane Dowe. She's been around as long as the label, contributing two of Deconstructing Beck's most clinically dissected tracks. In her own notes on one of those contributions, she wrote, "'Puzzels & Pagans' takes the first 2 minutes and 26 seconds of 'Jackass' (from Odelay) and cuts it up into 2500 pieces. These pieces are then reshuffled taking into account probability functions (that change over the length of the track) determining if pieces remain in their original position or if they don't sound at all." Technically interesting sound art, certainly, but remote from any traditional pop sentiments (besides source). Working since 2005 as Oh Astro, though, a moniker that now includes her husband Hank Hofler, Dowe has allowed latent pop sensibilities free reign for a glossy sample-collage sound, something like Jason Forrest re-imagined as a slick electro producer. The latest, Champions of Wonder, still isn't likely to show up on the Video Music Awards anytime soon (whereas Girl Talk played the after-party last year), but it's a far cry from her academic roots.

As such, the album is intensely listenable. Opener "Snow Queen" lays down the template: lurching synth-stabs, bright and tightly gated into precision tools, deep bass bump, stop-start drum glitches that seem constantly on the verge of falling out of rhythm, and duplo-block melodic theme of ambiguous origins. Actually, all the components are pretty ambiguous here, stripped of context and seemingly now most at home in their new environments. "Hello Fuji Boy" and "Candy Sun Smiles" manage a similar trick, but synced to steadier house rhythms that make real dancefloors a not entirely unreasonable possibility.

Besides the thick, catchy, primary-color electronica, though, and more ambient-glitch-based counterparts like "Empty Air" and "Pet Apples", Dowe and Hofler also include three entirely different studies in vocal manipulation using Hofler's own custom software. "Lucy Sees the Moon", for instance, combines a few sung lines from the couple's seven-year-old daughter with several examples of mid-century crooning. Far beyond simply overlaying the two, the former's words seem set into the melody and timbrel qualities of the latter, for an effect like an ever-morphing, customized vocoder. Later, Dowe takes her own voice as the source material of "Xanadu". Both of these songs have a kind of alien prettiness, and rather than coming off as a mere neat trick, they're genuine highlights and help the album's pop and experimental tendencies cohere in a less obvious manner than its cut-ups.

Sampling has, of course, existed for decades and has been well-incorporated into the popular music vernacular since oldschool hip-hop. Illegal Art and bands like Oh Astro, though, are a part of a lesser-known lineage of sampling, that of plunderphonic arrangement concerned mainly with the appropriation and recontextualization of various cultural ephemera. In this way, they're more directly linked to the sonic détournement toolkits of misfits like Negativland and the Evolution Control Committee, even as their recent output converges with the same pop culture they toy with. It remains to be seen exactly how the current post-mash-up landscape will affect the plunderphonic movement, but if the success of Girl Talk is any indication, we may see the way cleared for more such acts to follow suit. Perhaps most interesting of all are the implications for plunderphonia in general: will incorporation into the popular media they dismantle help or hinder the project?

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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