Music

S.T. Mikael: Mind of Fire

The reclusive Swedish musician becomes so focused on the otherworldly nature of his music he fails to notice that, in all actuality, it’s quite dull.


S.T. Mikael

Mind of Fire

Label: Subliminal Sounds
US Release Date: 2008-01-08
UK Release Date: 2007-12-10
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There’s a certain unwritten rule in rock music: if you open your album with a song of over nine minutes length, it shouldn’t just be good; it should be untouchably epic. Surely Mercury Rev realized this when beginning their sophomore record with “Meth of a Rockette’s Kick”, an utterly glorious, shimmering psychedelic beauty, balancing jazz swirls and pure white noise in equal measure. Krautrock favorites Can got it right as well: the title track on Future Days may take nearly four minutes to get started, but the haunting melodic line more than rewards the listener’s patience.

And then there’s “My Dream”, the opener to S.T. Mikael’s first release after 11 reclusive years. The bended double-guitar riff tries with all its might to replicate Pink Floyd circa 1973; Mikael sings of “purple lights of knowledge” and monsters released from one’s soul, clumsily steering clear of any semblance of a coherent vocal melody. The song soon drifts into a galloping rhythm reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “Achille’s Last Stand”, the perfect backdrop for Mikael’s dreadfully amelodic fuzz-guitar jamming. As if fashioning himself the anti-Tom Verlaine, Mikael’s solos are devoid of any memorable substance. Indeed, the press release describes the record as “a fantastic voyage that is so mind-twisting and soul-swirling” that it “makes your brain start thinking in those pebble-splash-pond-mind circular expanding waveforms that reveal the password to tomorrow.” As far as I can tell, this puzzling description refers to the fact that the instruments often pan from speaker to speaker in a distinctly gimmicky manner that must have truly blown minds at the dawn of stereophonic recording in the late '50s

Clearly, Mikael is harboring a burning desire to create music as wildly psychedelic (forgive the overuse of this word), trippy, and utterly enormous as that of his heroes. With Reine Fiske and Fredrik Björling of Dungen fame on the album, this should be a given. Hell, he even announces his goals quite openly on a spoken interlude: “Crazy ideas. Dissolving time. Free expression. Getting crazy.” Yet somehow, the symphony of wah-wah pedals and organ timbres sounds more gimmicky than “crazy” or mind-expanding, the obvious aural interpretation of song titles like “Wizdom”, “Into Your Mind”, and “Gyrax”. The latter is among the album’s few highlights, with its truly mesmerizing guitar riff and jungle flute effects. The song typifies a common problem on the album: Mikael rarely manages to marry his instrumental grooves to equally engaging vocal melodies. As any jamband-hater can understand, the line between ‘groove’ and ‘song” is terribly wide. “Wizdom” is an even more directionless endeavor, especially considering its seven-minute length. Mikael’s rambling vocals are as melodically incoherent as ever here, and clash quite painfully with the Funkadelic-esque wah guitar. His vocals are difficult to swallow on much of the album, and this coming from a guy with Tom Waits and Joanna Newsom at the top of his Last.fm charts. Mikael, on the other hand, does not have an inherently untraditional voice; he merely has a penchant for irritating over-singing, rarely holding a note steady. Unsurprisingly, the guitar solo again mistakes pure wankery for excitement.

And yet, amid the mess, it’s not all bad. “Into Your Mind” does not stray much from Mikael’s usual bag of tricks, but its infectious falsetto refrain and vaguely Caribbean percussion render it the indisputable high point of the album. And why? Simply because the song nurses a legitimately groovy melody that ebbs, flows, and advances, rather than stagnating into indulgent soloing.

Halfway through the record, Mikael quite literally speaks to the listener in a track as misleading as it is unexpected. “I want to thank you for buying this CD and managing to go through the first part of it, and now I feel that I have to explain certain things for you,” announces the musician in a distinct accent, soon crediting the album’s musicians for successfully “capturing my dreams and visions on recorded sound.” The interlude functions as an introduction to the album’s nine “bonus tracks”, which essentially form S.T. Mikael’s solo album. “There have been times when I’ve been alone a lot,” he explains. “And my music has been played by myself alone, in recordings plunging to the depths of my bedroom dreams. So, I have decided to take you on a travelogue through different moods and soundscapes with the help of my sounds from yesteryears.”

Unfortunately, this “travelogue” is another missed opportunity: stripped of his endless studio trickery and session musicians, Mikael is somehow even more self-indulgent and musically uninviting. “Did You Feel” features Mikael moaning about “microcosmic contacts” atop some rather drab acoustic guitar arpeggios. “Organ Prelude” is as quick and unmemorable as its title suggests (though the same title and description could be applied to “Stroll on Stumblin' Street” or “Organ Mission of Love”).

Quite simply, the entire nine-track suite proves one thing: S.T. Mikael doesn’t realize that aimless lo-fi noodling and messing around does not constitute a “travelogue through different moods and soundscapes.” It does, however, demonstrate Mind of Fire’s failure to live up to its pretensions of cosmic bliss. This is all the more distressing considering the 11 years it took for the album’s arrival. Perhaps in another decade or so, Mikael will release an album in which memorable songwriting is favored over psychedelic pandering.

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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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