Best NEWS: The Worst People at Ultra 2015

The Worst People at Ultra 2015

This weekend thousands upon thousands of young people descended upon Bayfront Park in Miami for yet another year of the Ultra Music Festival. For those of you who, say, don’t follow… March 30, 2015 at 10:02PM
from E! Online (US) – Top Stories March 30, 2015 at 10:22PM
from bitly

The Go-Betweens: G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1, 1978-1984

The Go-Betweens were their own favorite band, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan met as teenaged boys at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, as Forster explains in the book that’s the centerpiece of this anthology of their first seven years together. (His 70-page history of that period is written in the third person; count on the Go-Betweens for a touch of the impersonal where it’s least expected.) They had their own ideas of what pop might be, and especially of what Australian pop might be. The very end of the book names their influences: Abba, Bowie, Creedence, Dolenz, Easybeats, Fellini, and then themselves.

The two of them bonded over their enthusiasm for film and literature at least as much as they did over music. Young men of that era didn’t become filmmakers or novelists together, because that couldn’t yield Jules et Jim, so Forster taught McLennan how to play guitar, and they started the group. (Forster described their partnership as “platonic homosexuality.”) Between 1978 and 1989, they made a small mountain of records but never made much of a ripple commercially; their 2000-2006 reunion was cut short by McLennan’s death. Forster’s essay, though, disputes the received wisdom that they “were ‘unsuccessful’ and had little luck. It is a view Forster and McLennan never shared, having taken a two-piece Brisbane bedroom band out to the world.”

The Go-Betweens have tried to organize and reassess their chaotic early period a few times now: There have been a few greatest-hits sets, 1985’s semi-bootlegged Very Quick on the Eye, 1999’s ’78 Til ’79: The Lost Album, the expanded 2002 reissues of their early albums. G Stands for Go-Betweens includes new vinyl remasters of Send Me a Lullaby (1982), Before Hollywood (1983) and Spring Hill Fair (1984), and an LP called The First Five Singles, which is just that. There are also four CDs: three discs’ worth of demos, compilation tracks, B-sides and oddities, and a live set from April, 1982, which features a few songs that mutated or disappeared before they could be recorded. This is, in other words, aimed at Go-Betweens superfans, but most of their fans were always superfans anyway.

They were a singles band more than they tended to let on—a lot of their songs are best experienced one or two at a time. The First Five Singles, released one a year from 1978 to 1982, is the most immediately delightful of these eight discs, although the very early Go-Betweens were callow, awkward, and a little uncomfortable with women, in the way that bookish young men can be. Both sides of their first single are paeans to unattainable women, one of them Lee Remick and the other a librarian who “helps me find Genet, helps me find Brecht, helps me find Chandler… she’s my god, she’s my G-O-D.” “People Say”, from 1979, is a homemade homage to the garage singles of a dozen years earlier; the next year’s skittish “I Need Two Heads” made them the only non-Scottish band to release music on Postcard Records, thanks to a trip to the UK whose charming details Forster explains in the book.

Forster has noted that people shouldn’t buy the Go-Betweens’ first album “without at least owning three others,” and he’s probably right. (The 1999 Go-Betweens retrospective Bellavista Terrace didn’t include anything from it.) Send Me a Lullaby—the LP included here is the 12-song British version that came out in early 1982, rather than the eight-song 1981 Australian version—is the kind of arch, dry post-punk that sat itchily next to, say, Essential Logic or James Chance records (the occasional blurts of James Freud’s saxophone are a reminder that that was the flavor of the underground at that particular moment).

Forster and McLennan weren’t yet comfortable with their voices; “Midnight to Neon” sounds like Forster wasn’t even sure how its melody was supposed to go. Lullaby‘s main contribution to the band’s history is introducing drummer/occasional vocalist Lindy Morrison, who was also dating Forster at the time, and who would be the backbone of the band until the end of its first incarnation in 1989. Morrison was never a showy musician, but she gracefully navigated the eccentric rhythms and time signatures that were starting to appear in both songwriters’ work.

Before Hollywood from 1983 was the first time the Go-Betweens really sounded like they would for the rest of their initial run: a little bit off to the side of the pop mainstream’s commercial-alternative tributary, looking skeptically at it as it rushed alongside them. The distinction between Forster’s writing (acidic, bristling) and McLennan’s (tender, playful) was starting to become clearer; McLennan’s first real jewel of a song, “Cattle and Cane”, is a self-consciously poetic reminiscence of his youth, set to a gorgeous mesh of acoustic and electric guitar tones in 11/8 time; Forster’s songs are the album’s tougher rockers, especially “By Chance”, which sounds more than a bit like the early Smiths (both bands were releasing records on Rough Trade at the time).

By the time they made 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, on which McLennan switched to guitar and Robert Vickers, who’d met them at their first show, took over on bass, the Go-Betweens had apparently made peace with prettiness. Its single “Bachelor Kisses” was McLennan’s sweetest-sounding song yet—although, naturally, its lyrics bit harder than his delivery suggested. The band’s reach still exceeded its grasp sometimes, and their stabs at funk and spoken-word vers libre are stumbles (although not disasters); a remake of the “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea” single doesn’t match the frantic nervousness of the original. But you can also hear them successfully assimilating what they’d picked up through their engagement with other people’s music. “The Old Way Out” is effectively the Fall translated into the Go-Betweens’ own idiom, and Forster’s “Part Company” is Bob Dylan‘s Blood on the Tracks refracted through Australian rehearsal room windows.

Dylan’s idea of a “thin wild mercury sound” was an obvious ancestor of what McLennan and Forster had called “that striped sunlight sound,” a phrase from the sleeve of their first single that reappeared as the title of their 2005 live album. You don’t come up with something like that unless you’re very interested in figuring out how to mythologize yourself. But why shouldn’t they have? The Go-Betweens’ endless enthusiasm for their own work is what propelled them out of that Brisbane bedroom in the first place, and the richness of context that this box provides makes it a deeper pleasure than its component albums are on their own.

The first 600 copies of G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 also features a bonus book: a volume from McLennan’s own book collection. (Domino has hinted that there are another 1200 books in reserve for follow-up collections.) That’s entirely appropriate for them in a way that it wouldn’t have been for nearly anyone else. There may have never been a more bookish great band than the Go-Betweens, and their career had a lot less to do with the kind of massive pop-cultural success that usually engenders comprehensive boxed-set histories than it did with precious artifacts passed from one fan to another.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

The great irony about bringing a new life into this world is you start worrying a lot more about death. Not just that of the family members you must provide for and protect, but your own, as well. Plain and simple, the first rule of parenting is: don’t die. When entrusted with the immense obligation of caring for a child, even the youngest of new parents become exceedingly conscious of their own mortality and survival instincts. Behaviors once taken for granted—like, say, air travel or cycling alongside cars on city streets—start to feel more like roulette games wagered with your life; once-considered activities like bungee jumping and skydiving get transferred from your bucket list to a “fuck that” list. 

You could hear that sort of uneasiness gradually seep into the seemingly serene work of Noah Lennox—a.k.a. Panda Bear—over the past decade, both without and within Animal Collective. As the first A.C. member to become a parent, Lennox has become increasingly fond of rooting his boundless sonic exploration in meditations on home life, whether cheekily celebrating the drudgery of domesticity (“Chores”), eulogizing the family dog (“Derek”), making heartfelt affirmations of paternal duty (“My Girls”), or openly fretting over his shortcomings as a breadwinner (“Alsatian Darn”). And though he’s avoided explicitly ecclesiastical language in his solo work since writing 2004’s psych-folk hymnal Young Prayer for his late father, each Panda Bear record released since has retained the form and feel of a communal church service: They welcome us in with reassuring proverbs (“try to remember always, always to have a good time”) couched in heaven-sent harmonies, provide a sense comfort in the face of encroaching chaos, and strive to connect our physical world to a more celestial plane. And be it the psychedelic pop sprawl of 2007’s Person Pitch or the dub-like lurch of 2011’s Tomboy, a Panda Bear record ultimately requires a test of faith, a belief that Lennox’s beaming voice will guide us safely through the dense, phantasmagoric fog that threatens to consume it. In Lennox’s cathedral of sound, you can always see the stormy skies creeping in view through the radiant stained-glass windows.

On his latest venture, the tension between inner peace and external pressure reaches boss-battle proportions. Lifting its main-event billing from old King Tubby records, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper serves a similar function for its creator as Slasher Flicks did for Avey Tare—it’s a playful, fantastical response to some serious life changes. In Portner’s case, it was divorce and strep throat; for Lennox, it’s the entry into middle age and the substantial familial responsibilities that go with it. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lennox pondered the possibility of retiring the Panda Bear moniker, which makes sense—part of getting older is doing away with your old college nicknames. But if that is indeed the case, Panda Bear is not going down without a fight.

More streamlined than Person Pitch and more rhythmically robust than Tomboy, Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s toughest, grimiest, and funkiest album to date. But all that extra grit and groove doesn’t come at the expense Lennox’s unmistakable melodic graces, which still provide each song with its pulse. As to be expected from an album co-produced with Tomboy holdover Pete Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom of ’80s psych-punk patriarchs the Spacemen 3) and reportedly inspired by classic ’90s boom-bap beat construction, Grim Reaper achieves just the right balance of skull-splitting drone and head-noddin’ drive. In contrast to the unpredictably amorphous song structures that defined previous Panda Bear records, many of the songs on Grim Reaper lock into a looped beat and rarely waver course. However, they’re often prefaced by or dissolve into ominous, buzzing oscillations (some of which, like the half-minute “Davy Jones’ Locker”, are portioned off into stand-alone tracks) that suggest the onset of a panic attack or some shadowy predator. As such, the midnight-marauding march of lead single “Mr Noah” and electro-fuzzed yodeling of “Boys Latin” are transformed into weapons of retaliation—a strobe-lit assault on the encroaching bleakness. “Dark cloud has descended again,” Lennox sings on the chorus of the latter song, but his elated vocal thrusts the black mass back up into the stratosphere.

Lennox told Pitchfork last fall that, despite all the personal rumination that inspired Grim Reaper, he wanted to keep his lyrics purposefully non-specific and relatable. But for all its booming breaks and future-shocked freneticism, Grim Reaper—like all Panda Bear records—remains a highly insular experience, one where it often sounds as if Lennox is speaking into a mirror. “So good, you’ve got it so good,” he sings overtop the blissed-out shuffle of “Crosswords”—a simple statement of fact from a happily married father of two who lives in a cosmopolitan coastal European city in between sold-out tours. But his wistful delivery betrays the fear of losing it all. And Lennox spends much of the seven-minute “Come to Your Senses” repeating a question (“Are you mad?”) for which there is only one logical answer (“Yeah, I’m mad”), as the song’s shantytown acid-house throb mediates between serenity and insanity. A sobering aftershock arrives in the form of late-album wake-up call “Selfish Gene”—a sort-of post-rave “That’s Not Me”—where the incessant synth-jabs provide Lennox with needling reminders of his family-man mission (“When it comes to fill those spaces/ Only you can fill those spaces”).

Taken as a whole, Grim Reaper feels like a gradual process of Lennox trying to tune out the extraneous noise of modern life and focus on what’s truly important to him. And it’s an evolution mirrored by the album’s sequence, which bookends the most boisterous, beat-driven songs around two stunning centerpiece tracks—”Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer”—that provide Grim Reaper with an extended and well-earned moment of quiet contemplation. The former is a cosmic doo-wop serenade that stands as the most affecting and beautiful vocal performance of Lennox’s career; the latter projects a gorgeous, aqueous tranquility unheard from the Animal Collective camp since side two of Feels, its light piano drizzle summoning thundercloud rumbles of foreboding reverberations.

But even when it trades in day-glo stompers for weightless ballads, Grim Reaper still crushes. In the unsentimental, funereal refrain of “Tropic of Cancer”—”you can’t get back, you won’t come back, you can’t come back to it”—Lennox invokes his father’s 2002 death and, in doing so, reemphasizes his own current reality as a patriarch, and that pervasive, deep-seated fear of prematurely leaving one’s family behind. If Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper posits adult life as some imaginary horror movie, it’s one where the phone call warning of impending doom is coming from inside the house. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

At the Gates: At War With Reality

It’s been 19 years since At the Gates released Slaughter of the Soul, one of the best, most innovative, and most influential metal albums of the ’90s. Maybe it was a little too influential—because now that Slaughter’s “will-it-ever-come?” follow-up, At War With Reality, has arrived, it’s got a big cross to bear. The Gothenburg death-metal titans have reconvened at a time when their precise, abrasively melodic sound has been repurposed—and re-repurposed—by about a zillion mediocre melodeath and metalcore outfits. That shouldn’t have any bearing on At War With Reality, but it does: Any seminal band that resurfaces after so long an absence are prone to be called on the carpet not only for their own accomplishments, but for the zeitgeist they’ve unleashed, better or worse. Luckily for At the Gates, they don’t seem to care one way or the other. Though maybe they should have.

Heavy bands making stunning comebacks has become nearly routine over the past few years; look no further than Amebix’s Sonic Mass, Carcass’ Surgical Steel, or Godflesh’s A World Lit Only by Fire. At the Gates have earned a spot on the ladder, but on a lower rung; At War With Reality is crisp, concise, and tastefully technical, but it isn’t tear-your-head-off incredible. The production, for one, is miles better, with a fuller, fleshier attack, and frontman Tomas Lindberg’s feral rasp has been coarsened even more by his tenure with his resurrected d-beat group Disfear. On “Order from Chaos”, a simmering, tribal rhythm augments his apparent attempt to throw up his own lungs; lead guitarist Anders Björler installs atmospheric melodies and nearly gothic arpeggios. It’s one of the few glimpses of dynamism to the album. Mostly it sticks to a clipped, cold, chunky groove that might as well be a melodeath plug-in.

The lack of highs and lows aside, At War With Reality sticks to a solidly savage middle. “Eater of Gods” and “The Conspiracy of the Blind” are meaty, marauding, and righteously irate. Too bad they’re also practically interchangeable. At times, they sound more like the Haunted, the long-running outfit that’s been a halfway house of sorts to various members of At the Gates following their 1996 breakup. That’s not always a good thing, as the Haunted ran out of steam and ideas years ago; At War With Reality tracks like “Heroes and Tombs” seethe and shred, but they might as well be Haunted tunes with a few more flourishes (and a lot less cartoonishness). At a time when At the Gates should be doing everything it can to set itself apart from the pack, it’s leaned on the most obvious—and most insular—signifiers imaginable.

At War With Reality unquestionably rocks with fury and passion, and that’s its saving grace. What doesn’t work is the album’s concept—in essence, an homage to the elliptical, magic-realist short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Basically, the concept involves shuffling around various Borges motifs—labyrinths, mirrors, mysterious cities—and making a patchwork of them. It’s a shallow approach to one of literature’s greatest writers, and while Lindberg should get credit for not, say, being yet another metal band singing about H. P. Lovecraft, the opportunity to rise above feels squandered. Not only does Lindberg directly, lazily lift the titles of two Borges stories wholesale—for the songs “The Circular Ruin” and “The Book of Sand”—the music doesn’t in any way connect with or evoke the otherworldliness of the author’s work (aside from the shadowy, sumptuous instrumental “City of Mirrors”). It’s funny that one of Borges’ primary themes is self-reference—because At War With Reality is, above all else, an At the Gates album that feels like a pastiche of At the Gates. At least it’s a spirited one.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Various Artists: Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes

It’s a little wearying that Bob Dylan‘s burst of creativity in the spring and summer of 1967 is still getting tapped; it would be nice if, for instance, a single artist had had a moment within the past couple of decades that was both as musically fertile and as exhaustively catalogued, mythologized and picked over. But there The Basement Tapes are—an ever-brighter star in the Boomer firmament—and here we are, as their glow increases from a distance of 47 years.

The six-disc Basement Tapes Complete set that Dylan released last week isn’t even the whole story. At some point in the past couple of years, Dylan found a stash or two of lyrics from the Basement Tapes period that he apparently didn’t get around to setting to music at the time (or, if he did, apparently didn’t bother to play with the Band at Big Pink). Producer T-Bone Burnett was appointed to do something with them, and assembled a kind of new Traveling Wilburys to write and perform music for them: Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes.

This isn’t the first time somebody else has written music for Dylan’s words—the first example may have been Ben Carruthers and the Deep’s 1965 single “Jack o’ Diamonds”—and two of the original Basement Tapes’ highlights, “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Tears of Rage”, were completed by members of the Band. Dylan himself participated in a similar project three years ago, completing Hank Williams‘ unfinished lyric to “The Love That Faded” for The Lost Notebooks. Williams, though, didn’t live to finish that album’s songs. Dylan’s just not so much the guy who wrote the lyrics on Lost on the River any more. (He’s moved on: the set list on his current tour includes only four of his pre-1997 songs, not counting a Frank Sinatra cover.)

These Dylan texts are, literally, throwaways, but they come from a period when he was writing spectacular throwaways. The baffled breakup songs “Golden Tom – Silver Judas” and “Kansas City” would both be as perpetually quoted as, say, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” if they’d appeared on record in the ’60s. (The latter features some perfect Dylanoid backhands a la “Positively 4th Street”: “You invite me into your house/ And then you say you gotta pay for what you break!”) And, as always, Bob’s a magpie: the title of “Duncan and Jimmy” riffs on the folk tune “Duncan and Brady”, and “Hidee Hidee Ho” owes its hook to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”.

A project like this is a treacherous one for its artists, though. To try to sound like Dylan is to come up short of the mark, and to try to not sound like Dylan can betray the material. So the New Basement Tapes hedged their bets, each writing music for the old lyrics on their own, which is why the 20 tracks here (on the “deluxe” edition, released at the same time as an impoverished 15-track version) include a few lyrics that show up twice in radically different settings. Most of the songwriters err on the side of avoiding Dylanish cadences—Goldsmith’s settings, in particular, are bland adult-contemporary stuff, and his lack of puckishness means that when he gets to a phrase like “I have paid that awful price,” it lands with a dull clunk.

It also seems like a mistake to take these songs as seriously as the NBT’s sometimes do. “Spanish Mary”, for instance, is a chain of stock phrases from old ballads, shuffled until sense falls away from them (“in Kingston town of high degree”?), but Giddens sings it as if it’s a meaningfully dramatic narrative. (To be fair, the funereal Giddens/Mumford setting of “Lost on the River” that closes the album is one of its high points.)

The MVP of this group turns out to be Elvis Costello, who treats Bob as a band member who didn’t happen to show up to the jam that day. Costello’s already started playing a few of his collaborations with 26-year-old Dylan live, including “Matthew Met Mary”, which isn’t even on this album. His two-minute take on “Married to My Hack”, whose lyric is basically just Dylan flexing his rhyme chops, is a rapid-fire monotone rant in the vein of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; he bellows and snarls his way through “Six Months in Kansas City” as if it was one of his own minor rockers.

Nearly every track on Lost on the River has a couple of memorable moments: a marvelous turn of phrase, a brief Jim James guitar meltdown, an instant of the band members discovering how their voices can harmonize. But what it lacks is the casual joy of Dylan’s Basement Tapes—music that was made almost literally in a woodshed, with no thought at the time to releasing it. Dylan and the Band had the luxury of freedom from expectations and the luxury of being allowed to make something trivial. For all its power and commitment, Burnett’s supergroup doesn’t.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Clark: Clark

The world is ending, and Chris Clark is writing its soundtrack. In the 35-year-old electronic producer’s latest dystopian vision, the Earth’s layers peel back with painstaking certainty while everything else bursts and pops in unrest. Temperatures flash between frostbite and flame. There are moments of unsettling calm, only to be ruptured by bruised sky, acid rain, famine, disease. Unknown beings attack, armed with tones set to bewilder. Somewhere, the sound of a muffled Billie Holiday acetate being mauled by a pack of lions echoes through the murk. There is last-chance dancing—or are those people just running away?

As far as end-times scenarios go, the one Clark sets forth on his eponymous seventh album is vivid. And while there’s plenty of terror to be found here, Clark resonates because it pinpoints both the humanity and the nothingness that come along with complete dread; he knows that in order for annihilation to mean anything, you have to care about what’s being annihilated. Because for every laser-burned bass kick and alien-probe synth, forces of good cautiously look out from the rubble in the form of twinkling lullabies and melancholic piano loops. In cinematic sci-fi terms—and it’s hard not to think of this record as a kind of headphone IMAX experience—Clark is more akin to Alfonso Cuarón’s devastating infertility parable Children of Men than, say, Independence Day: ominous because its pulse feels all too real.

At this point, Clark has been translating his wracked emotions via machines—samplers, software, synths—for about half his life, and Clark has him merging techno, electro, noise, classical, ambient, and post-rock with the skill of a virtuoso. Growing up just outside of London, he indulged in nascent omnivorous Internet-era listening habits, giving time to indie rap, Pavement, and Squarepusher as a teen before Warp deemed him next-in-line to their mindful electronic throne at the start of this century. Though it was probably unfair to expect Clark to live up to the legacies of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, it was also inevitable. But with his third album, 2006’s Body Riddle, he quietly did just that, turning in an opus that moved the sounds of Warp’s classic 1990s roster forward, mixing sensuousness and mechanics to create a 21st century cyborg touchstone.

Owing to the mercurial nature of his tracks, which often morph unexpectedly many times across just a few minutes, follow-up Turning Dragon was nearly as excellent but utterly different, trading in spectral atmosphere and hip-hop rhythms for a more full-on techno thrust. And after five years of frustratingly diffuse material that had the producer grasping at new styles and textures with mixed success, Clark is a much-welcomed return that locates the midpoint between Body Riddle’s tangibility and Turning Dragon’s bulletproof sheen. The album adds a fresh layer of grandiosity that hints at festival-sized dance music or even Trent Reznor’s churning soundtrack work while never bowing down to any type of current trend. Clark is like Aphex’s comeback Syro in that it showcases a veteran artist living and breathing within a sonic space of his own creation—and the fact that no one would confuse the two records is a testament to Clark’s hard-won individuality.

What’s always set Clark apart is his eclecticism, dynamism, and flair for the dramatic, all of which is on fine display here. His tracks don’t drop as much as they slip or swerve, forever off-balance. He’ll end a techno album with eight minutes of beatless, sky-cracking ecstasy you’d expect to find on a Sigur Rós LP, and it will make sense. He’s allergic to the idea of standard sounds and presets, which is partly why we’re still talking about him 13 years after his debut. And unlike many of his more insular peers, Clark can be open to sentimentality—not schmaltz as much as a belief in humanness and all its inexact wonder. In electronic music’s never-ending battle between man and machine, he’s seeking a third way. “It’s just far too easy these days,” he said in an interview earlier this year, talking about the copy-and-paste replicability of so much modern composition. “I’m often inspired by the path of most resistance. Looking for those tiny snippets of error—machines being pushed into areas of behavior that seem wrong and unusable. There is real fruit there.”

Rather than fighting the SoundCloud hivemind with real people playing real instruments, à la Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, he composed Clark largely on a computer by himself in a barn in the middle of the English countryside, cracking codes and inflicting glitches. As computerized watches and glasses inch toward ubiquity, this idea of subverting machines to make them more human seems like a particularly worthy preservation strategy—and nobody does that quite like Clark. Yes, he makes music that sounds like the end of world. But he also makes you want to live long enough to see what that will look like.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Arca: Xen

There’s a moment on Xen, Arca’s full-length debut, when it feels as if the album—hell, the world—is coming to pieces. It happens during the fifth song, “Sisters”, which opens with digital noise strafing across limpid chords, like the Stuxnet virus attacking a high-end aquarium. Woozy keys and LinnDrum beats are hard-panned to the left channel, while the right channel alternates between silence and piercing sinewaves. Every now and then, the stereo imaging corrects itself and we’re treated to a few bars of pleasantly symmetrical funk, but it’s torn asunder every time, the landscape leveled by that tinnitus-grade screech. It’s like Prince versus Merzbow, Purple Rain and pink noise locked in mortal combat in some distant-future holodeck. It is a fucked up scene.

It would be a bold move for any debut album—and the iTunes helpdesk will be getting emails about “faulty” MP3s—but it’s particularly audacious given the trajectory of the Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi’s career. He’s got a handful of releases to his name so far, including 2012’s Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, a pair of bewildering EPs that threaded glassy digital synths with sped-up vocals and chopped’n’screwed stutterbeats, all as twisted and contorted as the weird, milky appendages pictured on their sleeves. Beyond that, though, Arca is best known as a next-generation super-producer, or a potential one, anyway. He’s already produced some of FKA twigs‘ best work, he’s co-producing Björk‘s next album, and he had a hand in four songs on Kanye‘s Yeezus.

But Xen, named for Ghersi’s ambiguously gendered alter ego, shows that Arca’s brush with the big time has not softened him. Nothing else on the album is quite as violent as “Sisters”, but all of it feels gripped by the same sort of tension. Kick drums stutter and stumble; rhythmic patterns fall apart in mid-song. A few of the beat-oriented tracks, like “Fish”, have come completely untethered from the rigid grid that usually governs electronic music’s timekeeping. Sounding like a hardstyle rework of Laurie Anderson‘s “O Superman” made with a broken MIDI clock, it flaps at the edges like a tarp with a busted tent pole. Aside from a few relatively placid sketches recalling Harold Budd or Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, the palette tends to emphasize hammered metal, broken glass, and melted plastic; plucked tones and bent notes and nails-on-a-chalkboard sheets of dissonance. (The strident synths of “Tongue” sound like they’ve been inspired by the shower scene in Psycho.) Taken as a whole, it is an album about unstable unities, things that cannot easily hold together, wholes breaking to pieces and being put back together again in new and unfamiliar shapes.

Even the pacing of the album seems to move in fits and starts. From the dramatic opener, “Now You Know”, all elastic arpeggios and rocket-launch glissandi, he feints left into the Harold Budd homage “Held Apart”, and from there it’s on to the schizophrenic “Xen”, a song divided between metallic locust-swarm passages and Fairlight fantasias flecked with synthetic birdsong. “Slit Thru”, a downcast Dem Bow number, gives way to the languorous and atmospheric “Failed”, a meandering synthesizer jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo, a mixtape of Japanese ambient pop from the 1980s. From there, the pizzicato string synths of “Family Violence” lead into the reggaeton-leaning “Thievery”, the closest thing to a single on the album. And so on, all the way through the anticlimactic (but still exhilarating!) closer, “Promise”, with its aimless string plucks and blast-furnace rumble. Xen feels less like a narrative arc than an amalgam of two- and three-minute chunks that might work just as well on shuffle. That’s not a criticism. To the contrary: the album’s mazelike shape is an indicator of how much lies beneath the surface. You really could get lost in this thing.

It’s been a while since it felt like there was anything really, categorically new in popular music, or even semi-popular music. As Simon Reynolds’ Retromania argued, the story of the century so far has mostly been one of collaging together the bits and pieces of earlier decades. Gradually, however, it is becoming clear that something is cresting the horizon, and while it’s too early to make out the particulars of its shape—this lumbering behemoth with the Teflon gleam and Transformer joints and image-mapping skin—it is getting closer.

This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.

It’s not necessarily sci-fi in its themes—not, say, in the way that Detroit techno celebrated cybernetics and space travel—but there’s still something inherently futuristic about its portrayal of technology as something tangible and even sensual, its suggestion that data has texture and heft. It spins code into a second skin. (I realize that that description doesn’t sound that far off from The Matrix—a 1999 film that, these days, we’re likelier to read as kitsch than as prophecy—but this stuff is different; it’s less Keanu than Cronenberg.) You can make out its traces in the work of people like Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never, Evian Christ, FKA twigs, Berlin’s Janus crew, and even PC Music, and it feels like it’s coming to a head on Arca’s Xen. The next few years—his next few years—are going to be interesting. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork