The Best Electronica of 2007

Dan Raper

As electronic music's edges bleed out all over the genre map, some sounds have been resurrected, others minimally revised, but the sum total shows a genre that, diffuse identity or not, continues to exert its pull on rock, pop, and the dancefloor.

Thanks to Tim O'Neil and Nate Dorr for their input on this feature.

The year 2006 was notable for a spate of indie-oriented electronic releases -- the Knife, Matthew Herbert, Hot Chip, Junior Boys -- that casually repackaged soul, house, or techno into easily-digestible pop song forms. And after the dust settled on indie anthems "We Share Our Mother's Health" and "In the Morning", 2007 looked like it was going to be a quiet year. But while there was a relative dearth of those more pop-oriented electronic releases, this year has had its share of genre-shaking events.

Call it a year that re-sparked our interest in the dancefloor. A series of commercial-minded electro albums made the leap from the dance community to the mainstream with surprising ease. That they have been buoyed by Internet buzz is par for the course, these days -- 2002’s dance-punk is 2007’s ‘blog house’, it seems. You'll recognize a few of these acts on our final list, but in addition those, Digitalism's Idealism, Simian Mobile Disco's Attack Decay Sustain Release, and Muscles' Guns Babes Lemonade all oriented themselves towards a wider audience with shorter song lengths, verse-chorus structures and the buzzing electro basslines. Each fits slightly uncomfortably in the general "electro" category, but rather scoops out a characteristic sound (and some memorable anthems) from similar equipment. This may be the format for dance music's revival over the next few years: bright flashes of interest in microgenres brought into bigger influence through the collective bargaining power of the Internet. Because there's no doubt that music websites have played a large role in these records' success this year.

But we learned this year that you'll be judged on more than just that catchy single. Klaxons' Myths of the Near Future was an anemic version of the wild irresponsibility their first singles promised. The mixing on the record flattened the group's sound, and mid-tempo tracks like "Golden Skans" revealed the group's essentially paint-by-numbers approach. If you liked early Klaxons, though, at least there's Shy Child. The keytar/drums duo New York's sophomore album, Noise Won't Stop, featured a contribution from Spank Rock and a neat Rapture-meets-Test Icicles vibe. And if the glut of Ed Banger and Kitsune’s new French school of dirty electro left us all feeling a bit, well, sordid, acts like Kavinsky and SebastiAn proved that, when done right, heavy metal-electro can be a hulking, guilty release.

Some old stalwarts re-upped notably in 07. The Chemical Brothers divided critical opinion -- some touting a complete return to form, others seeing a continued downward spiral -- with We Are the Night. Whatever you think of the album as a whole, the cheeky “The Salmon Dance” is worthy of mention -- it brings a burst of much-appreciated levity to a genre that can be, at times, too serious about the path to that ecstatic peak. Fennesz and Sakamoto’s new work Cendre paired beautifully-worked minimal drone with sparse piano melodies. This Spartan setup nevertheless produced an album of stately magnificence, whose serenity (as on the sublime “Trace”) belied a complex interaction between the acoustic and electronic elements. And recently, Felix da Housecat's Virgo Blaktro & The Movie Disco bounced with customarily assured electro melodies. Venetian Snares’ My Downfall followed the masterpiece Rossz Csillag Alatt Szuletett with similarly romantic orchestral breakcore that was dark and overwhelming. But despite these, some of the biggest stars keep us in anticipation for next year. Portishead's first new album in ten years has us holding our breath. And Daft Punk whet the world's appetite for a forthcoming fourth album in ways hitherto unknown. Buoyed back onto the dancefloor by Kanye West's prescient use of "Harder Better Faster Stronger" as the backbone to his massive first single from Graduation, Daft Punk put in a solid year of touring and also released Alive 2007, a live recording of one of their Paris shows. Featuring slung-together, re-edited versions of their own songs, it captures the sound, at least, of the live show, if not its spectacle.

Meanwhile, electronic music bled out at the edges -- as it has done for many years -- into the work of rock musicians and singer-songwriters. Panda Bear's excellent Person Pitch (you'll no doubt hear about it in PopMatters' main list) builds off the gears of electronica -- computer-generated rearrangements of vocal melody, drum-machine loops, excursions into reeling brightfield atmosphere. That the whole thing sounds so warm, so organic, may be the album's greatest triumph. In a similar vein, Dan Snaith, as Caribou, couldn't quite leave behind his IDM past. This year's Andorra was a gloriously compelling tribute to '60s pop, enlarged and deepened with a computer's tools. And Matthew Dear melded odd moments of disco or Johnny Cash-style country balladry into eerie, compelling soundscapes on Asa Breed. At the other end of the spectrum we had a band like New York's Battles. They put out two stellar releases this year -- the debut full-length Mirrored, and the follow-up Tonto EP. And sure enough, between the muscular rock riffs a complex dialogue emerged between man and computer. I’m not sure who won that one -- but we certainly left enriched by the results.

Minimal techno had a banner year, again. So much music was released that it's almost impossible to keep up with it all. We gravitated towards some of the bigger, more obviously crafted releases, and in this the big labels helped us more than ever. Kompakt capped a great year with Total 8, another rock-solid reminder of why this label is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of global influence. Thomas Fehlmann’s latest, Honigpumpe, showcased minimal’s warmer side -- if you’ve ever felt slightly alienated by the genre’s ascetic sound, take a listen. Fehlmann creates warm layers of feeling without barraging you with overstatement. And Kompakt’s recent Pop Ambient 2008, too, collects another group of stunningly beautiful tracks that blend the boundaries between minimal techno and atmospheric beats. However, to the audible sigh of the genre's expectant fans, the Superpitcher/Michael Mayer collaboration Supermayer baffled as much as it rewarded, mixing minimal pop with minimal levity, with fairly minimal results.

!K7 released a couple of notable DJ Kicks mixes from Booka Shade and Hot Chip, both of which worked in the way of the best mixes: surprising the listener with unexpected directions, while remaining an accurate representation of the respective artists' particular viewpoints. Get Physical joined the party with a solid retrospective of their five year anniversary. And Fabric also corralled a number of high profile names into creating varied but uniformly enjoyable contributions to their Fabric and Fabriclive series. Ricardo Villalobos rewrote the rules for mix CDs with Fabric 36 -- he combined new and remixed versions of only his own music to create a seamless, self-referential, and monumental opus. James Murphy & Tim Mahoney's Fabriclive 36, unsurprisingly, reminded us of disco's roots and its continued relevance. And Ewan Pearson's Fabric 35 showcased again that erudite Brit's impeccable taste.

In the face of minimal's continued asceticism, a surprisingly warm and accessible subgenre re-emerged large in 2007 -- Italodisco. This music has always had an open, all-inclusive tonality that's refreshingly optimistic. So it’s no surprise that the cream of the crop made for some of the most downright fun music to be produced this year. Roisin Murphy, veering away from the quirky brilliance Matthew Herbert lent her debut, gave us an impeccably crafted pop disco record in Overpowered -- from the tortuous synth arpeggios of the opening title track, Murphy strongly proclaims, "I'm back on the floor". But it took a new artist to show us Italo's potential for ripe emotion. Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance was disco, alright, but it was strangely forlorn -- all wintry atmospheres and covered, introspective sentiment. Kathy Diamond took some of these elements right back into the realm of pop, with the dark grooves of her debut LP, Miss Diamond to You. The album deserves a bigger release on a record label with some resources to push it -- it could be a hit. Meanwhile, the Swedish grandmother of sass, Robyn, showed Britney how it’s supposed to be done. Again. The only slightly-reworked Robyn, her fourth album, got a UK release in 2007, two years after its Swedish debut. Has it even officially been released in the US yet? Either way, it’s still a much purer example of bubblegum electro-pop than anything US pop starlets have put their name to this year.

Speaking of reissues, they otherwise seemed rather thin on the ground this year. The exception is Fennesz, whose Endless Summer and Hotel Paral.lel both got the reissue treatment and reminded us why his sonic experiments combining acoustics and ambient noise were at first such a major development. Monolake's overlooked 1999 album Interstate was re-released in remastered form this year. The album demonstrated how deep the roots of minimal go; its expansive track lengths and slowly-changing synth patterns were strangely familiar to today’s fans of the genre. Vladislav Delay got a reissue of his debut LP, but it was cleaned up from the vinyl version so much that it seems a remnant of hindsight rather than an accurate portrayal of the artist as he was at the time. And Herbert’s 100 lbs reissue at the beginning of the year only served to emphasize how far and how much more sophisticated that artist has since become.

On the outer edges, the Scandinavians held up their reputation as avant-garde standard-bearers. As usual, the Norwegians -- on Rune Grammofon, primarily -- continued to make strange, challenging electronic/jazz improvisations. Supersilent’s 8, the quartet’s first album in five years, saw the group of talented musicians mining a wider range of emotion than the raw aggression of their early work. In Denmark, Efterklang were making electronica-infused minimal (in the classical music sense) compositions that managed to skirt both pop and indie rock, but never settled for easy harmonic formulae. The result, on their mini-album Under Giant Trees and the follow-up Parades, was occasionally stunning in its serene beauty. But remember, just because it's experimental doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. Prinzhorn Dance School put out an album that was not electronic, but not much of else either -- deflating the hype built up off the group’s signing with DFA.

The mash-up genre, despite a few fits and starts, more or less died a natural death in 2007. The Hood Internet gave us a multitude of indie hits crossed with popular raps, but after a while the novelty wore off. Instead, mini-mixes became the mode of choice for the ADD indie kids with a flitting interest in electronica and/or hip-hop. Notable entrants include Cousin Cole & Pocketknife's "Flagrant Fowl MiniMegaMix" that careened from Cat Power to “Black Betty” to a hypnotic re-interpretation of Joanna Newsom, Black Ghosts’ neat techno-flavoured "30 Min Mix", and Bang Gang DJs’ hyperkinetic (and disposable) "Light Sound Dance Teaser". Their double album, which plays like an extended version of the teaser (surprise!) is fun, but not even the most enthusiastic nu-ravers will remember it next year.

Whether this hyperkinetic, multi-referential style of dance music will last is still an open question, but as the poles of popular and cerebral electronica drift further apart, it may require a unifying force as disruptive as, say, dance-punk to bring it back together. 2008 -- the return of trance? Anyone? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, here are my picks for the top albums of the year. (The same disclaimer as Tim’s from last year applies -- I’m sorry if I overlooked your favourite album! Hit us up and maybe we can rectify it in our Slipped Discs feature early in 2008).

Artist: The Field Album: From Here We Go Sublime Label: Kompakt Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fieldthe-fromherewegosublime.jpg US Release Date: 2007-04-05 UK Release Date: 2007-05-14

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The sound of the year is a shockingly loud, rising R2D2 squiggle that comes six and a half minutes into "The Deal", one of the best tracks on the year's best electronic album. From Here We Go Sublime is the debut LP from Swedish techno producer Axel Willner. It's astonishing enough that this is a debut, but the quality of this material was so unexpected you might have mistaken the sound of a thousand critics' and fans' jaws hitting the floor back in March for an earthquake. Turns out that in the nine months that followed, nothing topped it.

Multiple songs: MySpace

The Field - The Little Heart Beats So Fast (Live at Monterey)The Field: From Here We Go Sublime

Artist: Justice Album: Cross Label: Vice Label: Because Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/justice-cross.jpg US Release Date: 2007-07-10 UK Release Date: 2007-06-18

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The reason why Justice's debut LP, , became such a force in electronic music in 2007 wasn't just because it extended the fuzzed-out bass funk of early single "Waters of Nazareth". Sure, you could lump much of their debut into a broad 'heavy metal disco' category, but you'd be missing the cheeky delight the Parisian duo takes in bright disco celebration. Besides, if you did that, you'd totally miss "D.A.N.C.E." -- truly one of the songs of the year. In fact, when listened to right through, the album plays almost light, and this contributes to the charm of the myriad fused influences. is remarkably assured for a debut: its melodies ping with carefully-plotted arrangements; its beats groan as if they're about to be crushed by giant speakers; its bass grooves with fierce independence. Don't take all the religious iconography and the faux-solemn orchestral introductions too seriously -- Justice certainly don't. occasionally knocks you flat, but mostly it's just there to fuel one heck of a dance party. It's time to have some fun.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Justice - D.A.N.C.E.Justice: Cross

Artist: LCD Soundsystem Album: Sound of Silver Label: Capitol Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/lcdsoundsystem-soundofsilver.jpg US Release Date: 2007-03-20 UK Release Date: 2007-03-12

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LCD Soundsystem's second album took its time creeping up on me. Maybe it was that the fullness of the record's individual songs lost something of their impact when placed next to each other. There's so much packed into Sound of Silver that it can be difficult to process. But when you get round to it, so many of the songs on this album capture something essential -- about the early-thirties ennui of faded dreams and lucid drug memories; or the disgust over US cultural hegemony and its domestic effects; or the nostalgia of lost friendship. It's all expertly rendered in music that bounces and jitters towards elation, never quite allowing itself to open fully. You don't have to be "innocuous", one of the hip New York kids to connect with that. The sound of the album is spacious and full, enriched by live instrumentation and analog recording techniques, and it warmly welcomes the listener. For the chance to experience the sweet elation of "All My Friends" again, I for one will gladly stay on James Murphy's mailing list.

Multiple songs: MySpace

LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

Artist: Dan Deacon Album: Spiderman of the Rings Label: Carpark Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/deacondan-spidermanoftherings.jpg US Release Date: 2007-05-08 UK Release Date: 2007-05-07

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Baltimore's ascendancy to the top of electronica's must-visit list is due to an unlikely figure. Pasty, balding, and with taped up tortoiseshell glasses strapped to his face, Dan Deacon is an odd sight in the middle of a heaving mass of adulatory revelers. But the sight was a common one at venues across the country this year, and more than a few people took notice (when you hear the epic "Wham City", it's hard not to). Determined to coerce his audience into having fun, Deacon would shed clothes, plant himself in the middle of the floor, and work up a sweaty storm of snappy electro-fuzz. And everyone who saw him live had an absolute blast.

Spiderman of the Rings brings the elements of Deacon's live sound into greater focus, revealing a mash of synth arpeggios, distorted fuzz and expertly-deployed percussion accents. The overall effect is one of abandon and euphoria, but don't for a moment think that this music is casually tossed off. The guy's got an MFA in electro-acoustic composition, but instead of retreating into beard-stroking academia, he's chosen to use his powers to create something we can all appreciate, and which makes for a mighty fun listen, too. Let's all sing together: "Gonna get my pants suit on, gonna get my face face on…"

Multiple songs: MySpace

Dan Deacon - Crystal CatDan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings

Artist: M.I.A. Album: Kala Label: Interscope Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mia-kala.jpg US Release Date: 2007-08-21 UK Release Date: 2007-08-20

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For those who thought she could never top her astonishing debut, M.I.A. had something to say this year. Kala is a masterful display of appropriation and interpretation, corralling source material from India to the Aussie Outback into a party album that's in turns ferocious, elated, and fist-pumpingly independent. It's all informed by a generous spirit of inclusion for the sounds of the countries where she traveled while making the record. The masterstroke -- live, at least -- may be her "cover" of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" (she combines it with a hulking bass line ripped from New Order's "Blue Monday"). It's called "$20" and it's incredible. Throughout, M.I.A.'s raps are mainly a foil for the more interesting beats that underlay them, but there are enough moments of wit or bravado to keep us well entertained. Whoever thought we'd be singing along so loudly to a chorus where a gunshot and a cash register provide the punch line? Her epilepsy-inducing MySpace page and outrageous outfits combined to create this unique presence on the dance music scene. It's been a great year for M.I.A.

Multiple songs: MySpace

M.I.A. - JimmyM.I.A.: Kala

Artist: Various Artists Album: After Dark Label: Italians Do Better Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/various-afterdark.jpg US Release Date: 2007-10-16

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The definitive collection of new Italodisco shows us the genre's full potential. Italo's been around, in various forms, for many years, of course -- but it was this collection, in large part, that catalyzed its re-emergence in 2007. There are a few essential covers -- Glass Candy's reworking of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" and Mirage's swirling cover of Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" (both from the early '80s) stand out. But the majority of the work on After Dark feels both new and timeless in the best way. Think lots of brass accents, perpetual major tonalities, and plenty of twisting synth arpeggios. Texas outfit Farah's two contributions are especially good -- one has a chanted section in Persian (yes), and one simple synth arpeggios like a blissed-out the Knife. But don't think of this collection as one of those "important albums" that should be acknowledged but never listened to. This is some incredibly enjoyable music. You could call it 'cruisy', in the sense of cruising in your '69 Alfa Romeo Spider up the cliffs off Amalfi. The thing of it is, Italo's buoyancy can be quite delicate. This may be what makes it so addictive -- these songs have an ambivalent, hidden heart.Various Artists: After Dark

Artist: Amon Tobin Album: Foley Room Label: Ninja Tune Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/tobinamon-foleyroom.jpg US Release Date: 2007-03-06 UK Release Date: 2007-03-05

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The true successor to 2000's landmark Supermodified, Foley Room marked the return to top form of Brazilian drum'n'bass legend Amon Tobin. The album combines live instrumentation (with such luminaries of the modern classical scene as Kronos Quartet) and field recordings to weave a complex fabric of surging sound. Capitalizing on suspension and release is Tobin's forte, and here he builds layers of tension, holding back a drum break for what seems like an eternity before blasting you with a fierce wall of sound. Drums are everything -- they rattle, creak, and crash in indecipherable rhythms, becoming much more than a device for timekeeping. But more than this, Foley Room succeeds in making each of the isolated elements of Tobin's hectic sound shine brightly, precisely when he wants them to come out. What I mean is, this hyper-contrasted sound is always employed in the service of the song, and never becomes an exercise in pastiche. It's a lot more difficult to accomplish than it sounds.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Amon Tobin - Foley Room Trailer #1Amon Tobin: Foley Room

Artist: Burial Album: Untrue Label: Hyperdub Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/burial.jpg US Release Date: 2007-11-06

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Burial doesn't want you to listen to his sophomore album -- he's said this, in interviews. It's meant to be an underground album for an underground audience who understands its context and referents. The strange irony of it is, Untrue is the most full and emotionally accessible dubstep album since Burial's debut. The elusive London artist refuses to reveal any biographical information or discuss his music with the press, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Lucky that this weird, rickety music has the legs to carry all the scrutiny. Untrue improves on Burial in important ways -- dark and brooding, it creates an oppressive, complete world from start to finish. Maybe it's this consistency that attracts a wider fanbase than the insular world of dubstep -- even for the rest of us, Burial's music is both enveloping and alienating. Faltering vocal snippets reveal a hint of soul, but are cut off often before they're even really understandable. The schizophrenic beats shatter halfway through a bar. But everything here is so coherently conceived that once you enter Burial's murky world, you won't want to leave.

Multiple songs: MySpaceBurial: Untrue

Artist: New Young Pony Club Album: Fantastic Playroom Label: Modular Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/newyoungponyclub-fantasticplayroom.jpg US Release Date: 2007-08-28 UK Release Date: 2007-07-07

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It's often impossible for young groups to follow the outlandish success of a debut single or two with an album that matches its early promise (we need to look no further than Klaxons for an example of that). But this year New Young Pony Club kept impressing and impressing again with song after song. Fantastic Playroom doesn't need showy displays of skill to convince us of its merits -- it's all there in simple, early '80s-homage-laden pop songs of alarming likeability. Singer Tahita Bulmer has the disaffected, flat vocal styling that came to embody downtown dance-rock this year -- a tone of ironic boredom, which is only revealed as a put-on when Bulmer allows us (on some of the album's mellower numbers) a glimpse at her softer, more pop-focused side. Even if you don't know you know them, you probably recognize the three big singles "Ice Cream", "Get Lucky" and "The Bomb". But three good songs doesn't get you into the top ten albums of the year. Fantastic Playroom is much more than that. Sexy and fun, the album was the best in its genre this year -- and a triumph for pop on the dancefloor.

Multiple songs: MySpace

New Young Pony Club - Ice CreamNew Young Pony Club: Fantastic Playroom

Artist: Gui Boratto Album: Chromophobia Label: Kompakt Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/borattogui-chromophobia.jpg US Release Date: 2007-03-13 UK Release Date: Available as import

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Gui Boratto went and made a masterpiece of craft right off the bat. His debut album on Kompakt has quickly become a minimal classic, all carefully interlinked, layered sound and obsessed-over technique. The album's title is a purposeful misnomer -- rather than being monochromatic, Boratto's music is multihued in the extreme, pulsing with trance-inspired synth lines over steady 4/4 beats. Yes, it has its anthemic moments -- after you hear "Beautiful Life"'s optimism once, you don't forget it. That's the only song with vocals on Chromophobia, because, for the most part, you don't need vocals to appreciate the warm atmospheres and shifting rhythms of this complex electronica. By turns light/airy and insistent/clinical, Boratto opens our eyes to possibilities in minimal techno that had only been hinted at by artists like Thomas Fehlmann. Reviews of this album tended to skip context and concentrate firmly on the power of the music -- there's a reason for that. No matter how closely you followed techno's twists and turns this year, Boratto immediately jumped out.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Gui Boratto - Beautiful LifeGui Boratto: Chromophobia


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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