Ra: Wxfdswxc

Ra successfully infuses his noisy, jittery compositions with a striking dose of actual funk and an occasionally bigbeat-esque level of rhythmic cohesion.



Label: Sublight
US Release Date: 2007-02-06
UK Release Date: 2007-04-17

For an acronym that appears to have once meaningfully contained the words "dance music", the increasingly vague umbrella of IDM extends over quite a lot of wholly undanceable, relentlessly un-funky material. In fact, a lot of the best experimental electronic music succeeds on the same traits that render it unpalatable to DJs. It's often too fast, too spastic, too abrasive, or just too unpredictable to settle into a groove the way more tightly standardized genres like breakbeat do, but these motives need not be mutually exclusive. Though admittedly still far from dance-floor designed, up-and-coming glitch maestro Ra successfully infuses his noisy, jittery compositions with a striking dose of actual funk and an occasionally bigbeat-esque level of rhythmic cohesion, all while reserving the right to completely wreck the structures he's assembled where needed.

If Ra's sound seems surprising, it is perhaps fitting, then, that he hails from such a surprising label. In its first three years of existence, Winnipeg, Mannitoba's Sublight has managed to become one of the leading outlets for independent electronic music in North America, picking up slack from Tigerbeat6's drift towards more rock-oriented sounds and apparent troubles at other smaller indies (Orthlorng Musork shut down two years ago, Coredump closed down after the tragic loss of its founder, Zod is only just coming back from hiatus). In the process, they've managed to repatriate a range of North American artists previously releasing overseas on labels like Britain's Planet-Mu and Germany's Ant-Zen, bringing back contemporaries from Winnipeg itself (Venetian Snares, Fanny), from over the border in the Midwestern U.S. (000, The Flashbulb), and beyond (Julian Fane from Vancouver, Datach'i from Brooklyn). Most impressively, they've managed to pull over a few names from Britain itself, including The Gasman and Somatic Responses. Ra, a visual artist and musician hailing from Paris, is not only one of the latest examples, but one of the more promising new arrivals.

Ra's strength lies in his ability to imbue his angular, overdriven compositions for bristling synthesizer, electric guitar, and processed noise with an insatiable swing and momentum. Virtually all have a clear direction and some kind of satisfyingly climactic moment or two pinning their parts together. Sometimes this means ironing the kinks out of the rhythm section and allowing breakbeats to loop uneventfully for a time, but there are enough chaotic fills and stretches of rapid drum chopping to prove that he's no slouch in that area either: he's simply opted to allow the tracks space to breathe, and to fall into true groove once in a while. The effect may seem dull to some listeners more used to 300 bpm drill strikes, but it tethers Ra's work to a commendably visceral appeal.

A key example arrives early on in the form of opener and almost title track "Wxfdswxc", which begins by tweaking thick, bass-heavy beats across a lurching guitar riff, somehow managing to sound thoroughly catchy even without yet making any concessions to consistency. That slight concession comes soon after, though, when, with a cinematic cymbal shimmer, the track is inundated by a crush of bass synth. From here on out, the drums assume a swaying hip-hop loop, but further embellishment to them would simply be lost in the the apocalyptic chord progression, gloriously seething and clipping out with a restless force and constant textural variation. Later, "Fake Poetry" spends its first 1:20 on a DSP workout that culminates and shatters to reveal the album's finest melody, glowing-yet-yearning on hazy guitar to a loping two-step drum kit. And "Dr. Merdewerkdichliebe", which would perhaps be best suited to serve as a single, slings mutilated guitar hits and hacked-up vocal samples into a barrage somewhere between Jason Forrest and Prefuse 73. (I mentioned dance music before? Well, this is the track I can most envision excelling as such in the right remixer's hands.) On the other hand, there are points where entropy seems to take over, the tracks roaming restlessly in search of suddenly unavailable hooks, but fortunately these stretches are relatively few, and more often do in fact give way to driving purpose (see: "Gray Fox").

Sublight has been holding to a feverish release schedule for a while now, but Ra is a testament to the continued high quality of their output. Wxfdswxc2 is a solid sophomore effort, and comes tantalizingly packaged with a DVD showcasing Ra's visual work as well, in this case in the form of a set of music videos, both for his own tracks, and for fellow Parisians dDamage, in queasily combined live action and animation. It seems that certain types of classic breakbeat technique went out of vogue with bigbeat (for some, with its advent; for others, with its demise) so it's a welcome surprise to find them reappearing here, a decade later and tastefully couched in ominous modern editing and noise. Scattered electronic artists have been eschewing pure machine music for human elements for awhile now (Jamie Lidell's turn at soul, for instance), so the combination isn't exactly groundbreaking, but hearing IDM dare to be funky is nonetheless satisfying, and Ra's tracks manage it without ever feeling dumbed down or over-simplified.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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

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