LA filmmaker Thomas MacVicar has put together a 10-minute mini-documentary about the so-called “beat scene” of Los Angeles, which first gained steam at the Airliner with Low End Theory and slowly becoming, like, a thing, man. Features excellent music and interviews from artists such as Daedelus, Shlohmo, Co.Fee, and Mndsgn.
Here is an awesome, awesome video from Soundcheck of Kimbra (the best part of that Gotye song) performing Settle Down and live looping on a TC-Helicon VoiceLive FX box. The VoiceLive is a simplified version of what I do when I’m creating weirdo vocal edits and layering in a studio, except prepackaged in a box with a really swift interface. What I’m saying here is that I really, really want one.
When I first started performing live looping in the mid-1800s, I had to buy a micro-amp and a bunch of guitar pedals to plug a microphone into. People first started to take notice when KT Tunstall hit with her JamMan on Black Horse and a Cherry Tree, but that was still originally meant for a guitar. Now the very existence of the VoiceLive is proof that people like Kimbra are becoming more and more common. We’ve come a long way since the days of fretted strings and a rock kit, and I couldn’t be happier.
The term “supergroup” gets bandied about a lot I feel, and I suppose it kind of depends on how you look at it. If I were to go up to the average radio listener and say:
“Holy shit, Excision, Downlink, and KJ Sawka formed a live band together! Can you freaking believe that?”
Rather than get a real answer, they would try to figure out if I wanted their money and then quietly walk on. But if you went up to the average EDM-head asking the same question, they’d freak. Because it’s pretty damn exciting.
I’m in no way dubstep’s biggest fan. It’s true, I did gush about Skrillex on this blog a few years ago because I obtained a copy of his EP before the term “brostep” even existed, and I was (and still am) very excited about the new palette dubstep gave popular music culture. But due largely to its mainstream commercial success, the dubstep fad has passed, and thank god, because maybe it (or its derivatives) might actually get good again.
Point being, in that realm, Excision is a huge name, and Downlink is relatively popular as well. And KJ Sawka is the drummer for a little band called Pendulum, which I’ve also written about before on this blog, because they were pioneers in providing live electronic dance music using no prerecorded tracks. I’ll just leave this right here:
Destroid is electronic dance music delivered in a fairly novel way. They come armed with what appear to be modded Ztar MIDI controllers and a mythology so steeped in mystery half their fans don’t even know who’s in the band. They dressed up in alien robot suits, released a comic book, and released a series of viral videos of aliens invading the Earth using modulated bass synths, which is hilarious if you stop and think about it. They’ve now performed two or three shows around America this summer to enthusiastic reviews from the heads who were searching for something with kinda the same punch but on the next level. Destroid seems poised to bring that do the EDM scene, and I think it’s pretty badass.
(PS, in the course of writing this article, I discovered the pseudopop trash Pendulum became seemingly overnight about three years ago, and it hurts my heart. Okay, enjoy the video.)
What I have linked for you here, friends, is one of the coolest, sexiest songs to land in a long time. Banks is a Los Angeles native and self-taught pianist/singer/songwriter whose track “Before I Ever Met You” has been gaining popularity and radio airplay since it first dropped a few months ago. Her voice is sultry yet powerful, evoking the same raw feminine power you’d get from Lykke Li, Fionna Apple, or Beth Gibbons. It’s certainly in the tradition of trip hop, in this new electropop-crossover-revival-thing that’s been slowly gaining steam.
You can believe that I’m doing everything I can to find out who produced the track. Maybe she did it herself? Who knows? She’s been keeping herself completely removed from the limelight. Most other blogs, tumblrs, buzz sites, etc. are all full of conjecture and searching for adjectives or references to fill the void, just like this one. We need more Banks!
She has released three tracks to date, which have been enjoying a bevy of online attention and remixes. The two others have videos now, the most recent being for “Warm Water”, a track produced by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs with a video by Dylan Knight. It’s a softer song, showing the versatility of the artist’s expressive and unique voice (I mean that literally in addition to the overarching meaning of “voice”).
And this next video shows, among other things, the incredible expressivity of her upper range. Banks, ladies and gentlemen, can fucking wail. I get chills listening to it.
The production is simple, rhythmic, and very effective. The songwriting is natural and has the feel of a real tune that would work just as well as a solo in front of a piano as it would in an electronic setting such as this. The organically repeating refrains make for wonderful songwriting. As long as the attention that will be lavished upon Banks in the coming months/years/forever doesn’t overwhelm her, we will be seeing massive things from this new artist.
I have always had an interesting relationship with Björk’s music. When I was very young, her melodic content often struck me as too non-sequitur. At the time I listened almost exclusively to electronic music, so the fact that I wasn’t head-over-heels for Björk was always a point of contention with my group of friends.
I was introduced to her music videos in 1999, and that was the beginning of a slow descent into fandom that has taken about fifteen years to culminate (which reached its inevitable conclusion two nights ago at the Hollywood Palladium). I always loved Human Behavior because of the groove and Michel Gondry’s signature quirkiness, and of course when I first saw/heard her collaboration with Chris Cunningham in All Is Full of Love I was just as affected by it as anyone else. But I have to admit, I listened more to the Plaid remix, because at about 2:10 it starts to sound like some electronic Baroque symphony, and also because I used to be crazy for anything having to do with Warp Records.
It was a girl I knew in Tennessee who introduced me to Vespertine. It was a summer thing, a friend of a friend, and she was a beautiful blonde Buddhist in the Bible Belt, and we clicked. One night I confessed that I appreciated Björk but didn’t listen to her much. Vespertine had just come out, and my friend insisted that we drive around one foggy night and listen to it in my car. It opens up with Hidden Place, and as soon as the choral swell came in I knew it was a different sort of album. The spectacle of her previous incarnations had always had the feeling of searching to me, not quite settled. But Vespertine was thoughtful, quieter, more complex, and to me more aurally holistic. I was hearing the live-sampled nature of the source material, the shufflings and cracklings helped along by Matmos. For once, it was as if, rather than being shouted at to come over! get to know me!, instead I was being intimately invited into another’s sanctuary, maybe some warmly lit hollowed-out tree, and told to please keep my voice down because she’s got something very private to say.
It was a wonderful gift my friend had given. And I was aghast to discover that so many reviews, though favorable, still compared it diminutively to earlier albums like Homogenic. I remember being particularly livid when I heard Vespertine described as “too feminine”. I suspected then that the majority of her fans sexualized the massive beats in a strange way, as if they were only allowed to like to like a woman’s electronic music because it came across in what they interpreted as some oddly androgynous masculinity. It has certainly always put Björk in a strange position, because it seems so hard for people to realize that she could quite possibly maybe even a little bit be producing her own damn beats. Vespertine was new and honest in a way electronic music rarely is, and hearing it changed my life.
It was about five or six months later, I don’t remember how long exactly. I was a sophomore in college, as was my Vespertine friend at a different school about two hours away. I remember our last conversation on the phone. I had wanted to attend a music festival she was working at, but I didn’t have enough money to make the drive back to Nashville to see her. She said she was disappointed, but she understood. A month after that conversation, she walked off the top of a tall building, ending her own life. I’ve never told anyone about that phone conversation before this post, and not going to Nashville to see her that day is one of the only true regrets I have in life. There’s no way I could have known, but I will never forgive myself for it anyway.
I’ve never been able to make it through Vespertine since. I just tried tonight, actually, but found it’s hard to type when your vision’s all blurry. Apparently, even just typing about it I’m running into the same problem. Suicide is a horrible thing, and it leaves behind scars on the souls of the living that never go away. So please don’t do it. Okay.
The Hollywood Palladium, at first [insert word like “glance” but with your ears], was not my cup of tea. I later discovered there’s a reason I’d never been to it before: electronic acts tend not to play there because it’s got a notoriously mucky sound. It turns out, however, that this is only true if the performance actually takes place on the stage. Björk had set herself up in the round, with chairs to one side of the floor but allowing audience members to wander and enjoy from any angle they’d like. To top it off, my friends and I spent most of our time about fifteen feet from the Tesla coils, and man those suckers are loud. The show sounded fabulous. Palladium promoters, take note.
In addition to his signature hang drums, Manu played an elaborate, mostly electronic drumset. The samples were triggered by a drum brain, which were also sometimes channelled to Matt Robertson, who ran numerous controllers from his station, including a Novation Launchpad, a Reaktable, and what I believe was a Lemur, all run through Ableton Live. Matt was processing most of the audio input channels, as far as I could tell, but his live manipulation of Manu’s playing was particularly striking.
She had several keyboard-like instruments done up to accept MIDI information, including a bespoke pipe organ and a gameleste, arguing once again that portmanteau is the highest form of semantic expression. Also, the stage was practically littered with iPads. There was a harpist as well, and of course the lovely Icelandic female choir Graduale Nobili, whom I had the good fortune to get to know a little after the concert (also check out Lyrika!). Everyone was very down to earth and grateful for the opportunity to work with Björk for such a good cause.
The Tesla coil was important to me, because it’s an electronic instrument that doesn’t have a bitrate. It requires no post-amplification or line out. It just is. It’s what electricity sounds like to the naked ear. But after a conversation with one of my friends, I came to agree that the gravity harp was the instrument that most accurately communicated the intention of the residency. Watch it playing during her performance of Solstice below:
Controlled by resident pendulologist Frank Arthur Cassata, designed by Andy Cavatorta and interfaced by James Patten, the gravity harp is four giant robot pendulums outfitted with tuned, rotating sleeves sporting eleven strings each. As the pendulums naturally swing back and forth, a fixed guitar pick plucks the string closest to it. As the pendulum swings out again, the sleeve can stay on the note, rotate to another, or rotate fully to create a rest. The motion of the pendulums is controlled mostly by the simple interaction of mass and gravity. It’s never quite regular, creating a hauntingly near-human cadence that stays with you long after the performance has finished. My brother actually uses an inverted pendulum model in his PhD studies on human walking, and in our talks about his work I’ve come to realize what fascinatingly elegant and endlessly inspiring machines they are.
All this sonic geekery is well and good. It’s a thorough and thoughtful production, both educational and forward-thinking. But at the center of it all, of course, is Björk and her powerful voice, her poetic lyrics, her spritely dancing, and the music. I’ve seen so many sound installations in my day, especially since attending grad school at a place like CalArts. But no matter how elaborate your machines, or how clever your interfaces, in the end it means nothing without the music and a personality like Björk’s to tie it all together.
And, as it turns out, a large part of this tour involves songs from Vespertine. When she launched into Hidden Place, and that gorgeous live choir swelled, ladies and gentleman, I lost it. I went back to a time before I lost my friend, driving through a light fog in the hills of Tennessee, and I cried. And her ability to elicit that kind of emotional response out of electronic music, singing about scientific themes and techy installations, and to have that effect on someone who took over a decade to finally get around to admitting it… that’s what makes Björk one of the most important musicians and performers of our time. I’m so grateful I had a chance to see this show, and if it is even remotely possible, go and see her festival set at the Hollywood Bowl today. I promise, you won’t regret it.
The show is a promotion for their new album, Amok. So far it’s amazing. They started out with Duke Ellington, and they just called out Bjork. Also you get to watch Thom Yorke’s trademark freakout dancing to his favorite songs. Apparently they’re going to give away free tickets in a bit, too. I am so happy.
Craig Scott is a multi-instrumentalist and composer hailing from Leeds, who brings us music I’m hearing more and more of these days. His aesthetic is like some electronic soundscape if Ornette Coleman made soundscape electronica. There’s this jammy non-sequitur thing happening, and I like it a lot. A lot of technically proficient players here in LA, NYC, even a few in Nashville I’m aware of are turning to improvisatory electronic editing, samplers, etc. for releases and performance. It preserves a humanity that’s still surprising, which is worth its weight in gold, and he is in good company.
Check another of his Leeds projects Ikestra for some serious funk groove in your jam.
My friend and frequent collaborator Amir Oosman is one of my favorite multi-percussionists alive right now, as I mentioned in my review of Joomanji’s Manj. In the below video with Keelan Tobia, you can watch the two of them perform an original composition for tenors, snare, and drum set. They’re not only ridiculously clean in their execution, but as performers they’ve got personality and flair that takes this video over the edge. Cleverly framed by producer Logan Shillinglaw IV, who has a really cool name, the video has already garnered thousands of views since it was uploaded yesterday.
Rounding out several other promos I’ve been sent:
Musique Le Pop is rather pleasant New Wave electro pop. In other words, eighties music with modern synths. I can dig that.
Leron Thomas‘s new single Appear To Stack off of Take It has a very strange quarter-notey type of groove for a funky track, but the way the timbral changes are introduced with the electronics and brass and whatnot really did it for me. Pretty enticing voice, too, I just wish the rhythmic production was a little less repetitive. In this case, though, maybe that’s the point?
The email I got informing me of Gunfight @the Gates by doubleedgedscissor had some janky links in it and wasn’t formatted well. However, the music is unique, a blend of heavy synths, outside drums grooves, processed vocals, homebrewed alien electronics and the occasional sitar. Not linking to them would be a crime against whatever race happens to inhabit whatever awesome planet they’re from.
Still more reviews to come. As I say on my Contact page, I try to shout out each and every one of you who contacts me via this blog. I intend to keep that promise! If you’ve got something you want reviewed, linked, mentioned, or sullied, by all means let me know!