Degree Zero: Untitled 170524

It would be a dream to get the vox-only stems of Jaala’s latest album. Her shrieks and shouts and tempo changes and overall chaotic vocal beauty would be used extensively.

You can listen to it here on Bandcamp.

I’m pretty happy with what I was able to eek out of Jaala’s “Junior Spirit” (the lead vocals for the track), Motion Graphics’ “Vistabrick” (which produces that great echo-y crack and bass beat), and a small smattering of Death Grips’ “Anne Bonny”, the 160BPM heart of the track, providing a driving foundation for the slowed pace of the other parts.

Jaala’s voice is beautiful: seductive and rough; high-pitched but with the subdued energy of an alto. It’s not easy to extract some vocals from her tracks what with the band’s usual frenetic guitars and drums. But “Spirit” has some isolated vocals, and luckily it’s one of my favorite singles. I jumped on the chance to cut her voice up into something so different – to insert her voice into the universe of Motion Graphics.

I’m not good at mixing – it sounds terrible on portable laptop speakers and barely sounds together on better headphones. However, I still feel the “justification”: Jaala’s voice may not belong on a dance album, but is at home as a red-hot knife searing through ambient electronics. It would be a dream to get the vox-only stems of Jaala’s latest album, Hard Hold. Her shrieks and shouts and tempo changes and overall chaotic vocal beauty would be used extensively.

Review: The Blaze – Territory (EP)

But that is where the EP may falter for putting so many tracks in one basket: do these tracks hold up without their visual counterparts? Could “Juvenile” and “Spark & Ashes” be heightened by accompanying music videos? I would answer yes: in an age where the single track is worthless, set upon algorithms and passive consumption playlists (exercise), the emotional resonance of all music requires more, and perhaps the music video continues its role of expanding the thesis first introduced by the track; from dance into reflection.

The Blaze - EP
The Blaze – EP

It’s a wonder that the modern dance music producer even comes out with an album, let alone an EP containing over three tracks. The dance music market desires the hit single, and likely some substantive remixes of that same single. The single will then be transported into Spotify/Apple Music to be inserted into various modular and algorithmic playlists that could not care less that one track or the other exists within.

For better or worse, Territory ignores the pitfalls of throwing several tracks into one collection (Pitchfork/Resident Advisor can’t cover several EPs spread over months, but rather offer only one brief piece of coverage in April; quick discoverability of the “B-side” tracks when offering the standard two track EP with possible remixes to sweeten the bargain; simply having several identifier names for several EPs to better establish the producer’s “brand”) and throws in four full tracks and two “texture” tracks for the listener.

Track Breakdown:

“Prelude” (3.5/5) feels as if it could have opened for a bizzaro-The XX album. Pulsing synths, a tinkling piano; this is not the typical track to open for most dance music producers. This opener establishes that while The Blaze may not be “heady”, they are not simply banger producers.

“Territory” (4/5) is crystalline clear, with sparse instruments over a very familiar-sounding beat; it is the prototypical rave song for dudebros and molly’d up life-lovers. It’s austere yet celebratory; the extremes in tone turn what would have been a very stereotyped sound into something with surprising substance (for a dance song). Determination and a tempered happiness makes “Territory” definitive to the tone of The Blaze.

“Virile” (4/5) is how I first discovered The Blaze months ago. Admittedly, I was particularly interested in the album cover: a man embracing the face of another, as the latter takes in the smoke of what may be a cigarette or (revealed in the music video) a joint. Here one can discover an important aspect of The Blaze (or at least what they are trying to project): that the dudebro music produced is looking beyond the typical “straight, white” dudebro, but also the assholes of many other races, nationalities and sexualities. The building synths and once-again familiar dance beat of the track drives a pitched down voice that is found throughout the EP; the ambiguity of the voice pushes the visuals and overall thesis of The Blaze: there is more that straight, white dudebro raving.

“Interlude” (3/5) still feels as if it was taken out of the B-sides of The XX. I can almost hear Romy’s voice echoing over the piano and the synths.

“Juvenile” (3/5): beat feels weak, seeking that “driving” motion that producers might emulate in order to get their song in a Nike running playlist. But the vocals tend to make up for these issues; the simple line by the pitched down voice, as well as the repeated whimpers in the last half of the track produce a positive emotion that I appreciated after a rough beginning.

“Spark & Ashes” (3.5/5) was my least loved track for the first couple weeks of listening, but after a few listens, this approach to the “driving” beat was wholly complementary of the great vocals and sidechaining effects that occur throughout the track. The halfway point has a build-up that feels better each time I listen to it; the looped vocal combined with the organic-sounding percussive melody became again very The XX.

Conclusion

The Blaze has found differentiation in their dance music through their visual process. I personally discovered them through their album cover for Virile, and later became very interested in their official album cover for Territory. With these two images in a vacuum, there is something very modernist in their depictions of masculinity; a type without protestant shame, comfortable in one’s skin and comfortable with those around them. The images of Virile and Territory tell two different stories of this comfortability (the latter may be more exclusionary than the former), but it is a story worth telling, and worth modernizing.

The music videos expand on these images (the covers are taken straight out of the videos like a screenshot), with “Territory” expanding EDM beyond Western borders into Algeria, juxtaposing the pleasure of dance with Islamic images, familial relationships, and back alley antics. “Virile” is more personal, depicting the relationship between two friends. If masculinity is not being eradicated by feminism, then it is evolving beyond the dated presuppositions of the 20th century.

But that is where the EP may falter for putting so many tracks in one basket: do these tracks hold up without their visual counterparts? Could “Juvenile” and “Spark & Ashes” be heightened by accompanying music videos? I would answer yes: in an age where the single track is worthless, set upon algorithms and passive consumption playlists (exercise), the emotional resonance of all music requires more, and perhaps the music video continues its role of expanding the thesis first introduced by the track; from dance into reflection.

The Blaze - Virile (Single)
The Blaze – Virile (Single)
By Benjamin Loyseau
Jonathan (left) and Guillaume Alric (right), a.k.a. The Blaze – Photo by Benjamin Loyseau

Chicago Footwork: Dance Enhances Music Enhances Dance

Like a shot of pure enjoyment in the arm, [check out this more select group] (King Detro, Apple, and Mikey seem to be Wala regulars), mostly for [Stepz the Incredible], who is able to coordinate arms and legs in geometric and greatly satisfying ways. The leg and foot movements are unfathomable from a spectator’s standpoint; this is why I am more enthralled by this type of dancing than others, no matter how difficult styles like ballet or classical really are. The body is moving in fantastical contortions, an otherworldy escapism in the body’s accomplishments.

I’m more of a Linus when I dance. Self-conscious, introspective, eyes closed and probably pointed at the ground, what have you. Yet my awkward movements have not yet deterred me from seeking great dance music. Whether I may just put it on during a bike ride or while writing, I know I’m listening to a great track when I can imagine great movement. Whereas my definition of Great Dance Music may have been D’n’B and Jungle a few years ago, my tastes have gradually moved over to the small but vigorous world of Footwork, a type of music and dance filled with primordial experimentalism, semantic satiations, and a plain fun-to-watch dance technique behind (or more physically in front of) it all.

GIF of Stepz the Incredible
GIF of Stepz the Incredible

Brief Notes on the Music of Footwork

Hazel Sheffield made a brief description of footwork in 2010:

The trend, known as footwork, refers to a style of music and dance that’s been gathering pace in Chicago since the late 90s. The music stems from juke, a speedy but strict evolution of Chicago’s four-on-the-floor ghetto house style. Footwork, though, is more experimental than juke. The chief difference is in its warped basslines, which buzz beneath frenetic synth toms and rapid-fire vocal samples. It sounds dark and messy, like the brooding urban soundtrack of Burial reimagined for a city with faster, meaner streets.

To expand off of the excerpt, the basslines are the real muscle of Footwork’s identity and provides much of the genre’s experimental sounds. There is no way to “traditionally” dance to Footwork, as it shares similar beat signatures as D’n’B, a chaotic BEA-BEA BEAT or variations that feel like a miracle that it actually fits into a 2/4 time signature (check out Feelin (feat. Spinn & Taso) by DJ Rashad), and a blistering 155-170 BPM (how does one easily dance to Boylan’s High Lite??) (and I’m still very much a casual in both the science of Footwork or music in general, take these measurements with a grain of salt).

And the rapid-fire vocals, one of the coolest idiosyncrasies of Footwork that has psychological implications of beating a phrase or two in your head so much that you might hallucinate God’s commandments in tracks like “Wear Her Pussy Out” (DJ Rashad & DJ Earl). There is a strongly loving disregard for the human language in Footwork, where crass phrases are somehow elevated by bass and tom into emotional revelations. I’m flying with the smallest utterances and the funniest phrases (He Ain’t Bout It by DJ Nate sounds like “email shit” after the thousandth repetition).

It’s funny that the above article mentions Burial, who was my Trojan Horse for getting into dance music in the oddest way possible. I enjoyed a description by the artist himself, that Burial sought to capture the feeling of that 4 am exit from the nightclub: the music is still thumping inside but you’re tired and cold and are prepared to walk by a dozen of dirty alleyways and through the desolate industrial landscape of your city. I don’t find Footwork to embody that Sisyphian depressing/happiness dichotomy, but there is a transcendental energy to it that a more traditional house “four-on-the-floor” track can’t and will never find.

One more recommendation: All I Do is (Smoke Trees) by DJ Manny.

Planet Mu (from Mu-Zik) is the premiere album to check out Footwork.
Planet Mu (from Mu-Zik) is the premiere label to check out Footwork.

Brief Notes on the Dance of Footwork

RP Boo stated in an interview with NPR that most footwork producers start on their paths with dancing. As we might have read (and heard) from the music, I can’t imagine trying to solve the chicken and the egg problem of footwork. How did anyone concoct a dance that could work with this music? How did anyone produce the tracks to fit the dance?

Here’s a little homework I want to assign when recommending these videos:

When watching this Walacam video, check out the attire and the general DIY-nature of the video. These are skilled amateurs. Passionate amateurs. Even fighting through times when the music would just stop on them and potentially throw off their movements. But they succeed regardless. Amateurs nonetheless. Notice that preparation requires circling around the group — this also establishes ground control in case someone else tries jumping in there accidentally. Now I would say that lateral movements during dancing tend to occur with lack of technical skills, that their momentums are controlling where they move.

Five years later, Walacam has become a production: the lighting dramatic, the steadicam, even an actual digital video camera. “Da Warzone” has become a banner on the wall. The attire is tighter, more in line with the tighter movements. Technical skill is still about mid-level but highly improved from the participants in the first video. Is this how much the Footwork dance scene has grown over the years? I am excited to see where Walacam and co. are in five years time.

Like a shot of pure enjoyment in the arm, check out this more select group (King Detro, Apple, and Mikey seem to be Wala regulars), mostly for Stepz the Incredible, who is able to coordinate arms and legs in geometric and greatly satisfying ways. The leg and foot movements are unfathomable from a spectator’s standpoint; this is why I am more enthralled by this type of dancing than others, no matter how difficult styles like ballet or classical really are. The body is moving in fantastical contortions, an otherworldy escapism in the body’s accomplishments.

Finally, I want to reiterate how the music of the Footwork scene feels hugely conducive to physical movement: even lying in bed reading, my brain is compelled to picture images of dance and vaguely silhouetted significations of activity.Only piano concertos can so beautifully cover outdoor physical acts like biking or running. But then I can watch these videos of the dance and my imaginations are realized. Unless I put the huge amount of time into it, I could never act as otherworldly as Apple, King Detro, or Stepz. They are arbiters of Footwork’s artistry, a music and dance so intertwined that they almost feel completely naked without the other.

 

Some links to check out for more info on the artists (sonic and physical)

Video: How To Do Chicago Footwork (names of certain moves)

Wikipedia

NPR on RP Boo and Footwork

Vice Documentary on Chicago Footwork

Some screenshots I got that I liked:

GIF Meechie.gif

micronotes: On In The Air Tonight and Experimentation

micronotes: On In The Air Tonight and Experimentation

User josephprein posted “In The Air Tonight Drum Fill for 1 hour 10 minutes at 99.9%, 100%, and 100.1% speed” on SoundCloud.

Josh Millard has a great analysis of the effect on MetaFilter:

Polyrhythmics! So the structure of this fill: you can count it out as 16 beats long (sub-beats technically but let’s keep this simpler to write out), but there’s not a hit on every beat: Phil plays Duh-Duh (pause) Duh-Duh (pause) Duh-Duh (pause) Duh-Duh (pause) DUH (pause) DUH (pause).

We could rewrite that as a little string where X = hit, o = pause, like this: XXoXXoXXoXXoXoXo

At song start we get all the tones in unison, but every later juxtaposition of the XXo segments has some other set of tones mixed together. So they sound the same, but not! This is also where some of the more interesting effects in the muddier, less-coherent sections come in, as we get constantly-shifting miniature studies in melodic rhythm as those different tom tones crash against each other in little flams and arpeggios.

If you’re a drummer or just like wasting time reading about music technicalities, I highly recommend Millard’s explanation of juxtaposing the normal speed with modified speeds of this iconic drum fill.

micronotes: Arca – Manners

micronotes: Arca – Manners (in album Stretch 2)

Arca - Stretch 2

  • So it was 2014 and Witch House was on the decline. Arca turns it into something that actually seems less emo-y and adds quite a bit more space/soundstage to the instruments.
  • Sounds nothing like modern, post-Mutant Arca. Of course some overamped synths (hence Witch House), but the artist hasn’t fully jumped into the abyss.

Released December 2nd, 2014

micronotes: Colin Stetson – Spindrift

micronotes: Colin Stetson – Spindrift

CS3343366-02A-BIG.jpg

  • “Colin, what if you put a beat on your music?”
  • I think the beat is still derived from those unique microphones he places near the fingers, but unlike the earlier, more organic clacking sounds, it sounds just like some DJ found a Stetson track and was compelled to transform it into the most chill dance track ever.
  • The track seems more referential to Stetson’s qualities rather than invoking those qualities directly i.e. it’s unfortunately a hollow representation of his great skills.

Released on Spotify February 15, 2017

For You: Thundercat – Drunk

03-07-17

For You: Thundercat – Drunk

BFDNL064_Thundercat_Drunk_Packshot.jpg

Dear Garrett,

So you weren’t familiar with Thundercat when we spoke about it a few days ago. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising: Stephen Bruner has mostly made his reputation working with giant alterna-mainstream hip-hop acts like Flying Lotus, and through Lotus, Kendrick Lamar. Thundercat’s great though: he has this kindly falsetto that is indie and poppy, sincere and ironic all at the same time. His debut album, Thundercat, was a great postmodern ode to the television show and a generally “IDM”-y sound that included hugely virtuosic basslines and percussions, leading up to a type of sound that a weed smoker would have been quite content with.

His second album Apocalypse seemed like a distraction from real playfulness. 2013 was a defining year for alterna-mainstream hip-hop and modern soul: Daft Punk intermeshed with Lamar, #GrammysLessWhite, and things like Tawk Tomahawk were taking over the Australian airwaves. But Thundercat comes in with a near soul-less rendition of pop, and we were sent into a largely idiosyncratic and hollow world that Twin Shadow was also attempting to carve out, but to no avail. The tracks were strong but they lacked what made Thundercat Thundercat, so it passed through the ears of Pitchfork/mainstream indie and settled into oblivion.

Drunk is hugely imaginative, and the lyrics are plain fun and funny. Rather than the reverential Thundercat, this album chases its own tail into the abyss, celebrating its complex basses and percussions just as Bruner did six years prior. It’s twenty-three tracks! Yet it’s packed with interludes and transitions that it feels as though we are met with ten largely substantive tracks that meld into a dozen other sounds through the course of each segment. I think you’d actually like some of the funk/soul/IDM stuff found throughout, even if the rest of this letter was as directionless as the album itself.

Love,
Aleks.

Track Highlights

  • Captain Stupido
  • Walk On By (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
  • Inferno
  • Friend Zone

2017, Brainfeeder