Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dizzee Rascal and Armand Van Helden go "Bonkers"

As dance music aesthetics continue to dominate mainstream American music, thanks to the ubiquity of Lady GaGa, Kid Cudi and the Black Eyed Peas boasting beat-driven hits, seasoned underground dance artists are ready to take the power -- and dance floor -- back.

Case in point: Dexterous British rapper Dizzee Rascal and stalwart house music bad boy Armand Van Helden have come together to record the rave-tastic single “Bonkers,” which tops the UK singles charts this week and is the fastest-selling British single of the year to date.

The high-energy tune pulses with Van Helden’s solid 4x4 kick and Dizzee Rascal’s rapid-fire rapping in his thick British brogue. The buzzing bass line and hands-in-the-air crescendos should make it an easy sell in American clubs, but only time will tell whether the quirky party track will make any headway on the Stateside pop charts.

Then again, in a world where pop princess Lady GaGa is in heavy rotation on Power 106-FM (“Where Hip-Hop Lives”), anything is possible.

(Originally published in the L.A. Times)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

BLK JKS: From South Africa with riffs

It was globe-hopping DJ Diplo who first alerted me to South African band BLK JKS back in February 2008. He described the band as akin to “an African TV on the Radio,” fully aware of the statement’s irony.

Listening to the act's debut EP "Mystery," it’s easy to understand the TVOTR reference. Opening track “Lakeside” rides a ghostly vocal melody peppered with falsetto in a style ripped straight from the TVOTR playbook. But dig a little deeper, and a myriad of sounds and influences fly out in a fast and furious fashion. From random bursts of Afro-pop rhythms to simmering reggae rhythms, the band's sound incorporates all of it in seemingly effortless fashion.

Despite much Internet attention, the Echo was less than packed for the band’s L.A. club debut (it performed at the Natural History Museum with Fool’s Gold back in March). But those that did catch the band bore witness to one of the most explosive and genuinely thrilling shows L.A. has seen in a very long time.

What’s most readily apparent about BLK JKS is that these guys can really play. The taut four-piece is led by singer/guitarist Lindani “Linda” Buthelezi and backed by guitarist Mpumi Mcata, who trade blistering but abstract leads between washes of tuneful noise reminiscent of ‘90s U.K. dream-pop pioneers A.R. Kane. But it’s the ferocious rhythm section of bassist Molefi Makananise and Tshepang Ramoba that stole the show. They somehow maintain a groove while whipping through rapid-fire tempo and time signature changes, showing a raw musical dexterity rarely seen at indie rock shows.

The appreciative crowd soaked up the band’s energy, as the group veered from expansive, dubby instrumental passages into dense, menacing riffs like a new-school Bad Brains. As the performers wrapped up the hourlong set with a spirited run through “Summertime," the audience’s applause lasted long after the band members had disappeared into the backstage area.

Hey, Paul Tollett, I’ve got the perfect band for Coachella 2010....

(Originally published in L.A. Times)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dopplereffekt brings electro irony to the Sunset Strip

The irony was fleeting, but not lost.
While a majority of the worldwide techno fraternity was heading toward Detroit for the annual three-day electronic music festival now known as Movement, one of the city’s most celebrated and plugged-in acts -- mysterious underground electro legends Dopplereffekt -- was 3,000 miles away. Dopplereffekt was taking the stage at the Roxy to perform to an 18 and older crowd of party people brought together by the marketing mavens of automakers Scion, a youth-targeted brand from Toyota, which is sponsoring the four-city Dopplereffekt U.S. tour.

The band is the conception of one Gerald Donald, who before starting Dopplereffekt was one half of the even more seminal outfit Drexciya. After splitting off to go solo, Dopplereffekt released two vinyl-only albums that are essentials to the Detroit electro canon, 1995’s “Fascist State” and the following year's “Infophysix.” Thick with stark, minimal tracks heavy with irony, songs like “Superior Race” and “Pornoactress” pulse with inner-city energy enraptured with technology and European sensibilities.

But any semblance of a “party” quickly dissipated after Dopplereffekt took the stage.

A duo -- Donald and his female foil, known only as To Nhan Le Thi -- with keyboards, both wearing disturbing black matte masks, stood facing each other in front of a large screen. The beats of the preceding DJ were replaced with ominous synthesizer tones, and after a brief false start that forced the band to leave the stage, the show eventually commenced with more of the same moody keyboard ambiance, and little else.

Images of the duo in lab coats, interspersed with random shots of satellites and political symbols, flashed on the screen behind the pair as they stared at each other and idly poked at their machines. As the first song faded into the next and then the next, there was no discernible beat. Delving into their most recent ambient output, such as the 2007 release “Cabal Yau Space,” a good 15 minutes passed with this bizarre scene onstage and a confused club wondering what the heck was going on.

“We want to dance!” wailed a voice from the crowd.
“Drop the bass!” chimed in another.
Pockets of people started booing.
Still, the eerie scene onstage remained static. Dopplereffekt continued to just stare at each other from across the darkened stage, the only movement coming from Donald’s left hand, which twitched spastically above his keyboard. Eventually, a hissing snare drum was thrown into the mix, evolving into slow, loping grooves reminiscent of late-period Kraftwerk.

By then the hecklers had lost their steam, and much of the audience had drifted off toward the bar. The music slowly inched up in BPMs and even elicited some dancing, but never really hit any sort of peak. After about an hour (and not playing any of their mid-‘90s classics), the pair unceremoniously left the stage. As the closing DJs frantically set up their gear to save whatever semblance of a party was left in the night, the subdued crowd slowly trickled out of the club.

While it wasn’t exactly the Sex Pistols at Winterland in ’78, the absurdist nature of Dopplereffekt’s performance was more a case of wrong place, wrong time. This was a show for obsessive techno and electro fiends, and would have been more readily appreciated in the right environment -- like the Movement festival in Detroit.

(0riginally published in the L.A. Times)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's that techno time of the year again...

If you’re from Detroit and have even the most fleeting association with techno music, Memorial Day weekend means “the festival.”

Old-school heads (cough!) will know it as “DEMF,” AKA the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. New kids know it as “Movement.” Regardless, this annual under the radar three-day festival of techno down on the waterfront in Hart Plaza has gone through all sorts of drama over the course of existence. There was the whole Carl Craig era (he started the damn thing), and the fallout when he was ‘fired’ by some lady whose name I forget (ha!). Derrick May took it over for a minute, but now it’s the hardcore crew called Paxahau running the show—and quite well at that.

Serious techno freaks generally bitch about something (namely the line-up), but this year’s edition looks especially hot. Then again, the line-up looks pretty good to me every year (Flying Lotus, Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, François K, etc.) . Not enough for me to pony up the cash to fly home, rent a car, get a room and party like it’s 1995 all over again. But hey, a boy can dream (or in this case, reminisce).

So I definitely got a laugh out of this spot-on rundown of who goes to the festival that’s in this week’s edition of the “Detroit Metro Times,” the city’s alt-weekly. I’m not even mad at their definition of the “Old-School Detroit Techno/Rave Set,” which is where I fit in. Although I do take umbrage at the idea of being “worn out from having just traveled from somewhere.” Hey, don’t hate me for getting the hell outta Dodge when the getting was good. Besides, I’ve found that I’ve out-partied people much younger than myself the last few times I made the voyage. Defensive much? OK, maybe just a little. But like Jagger so sagely said back in the day, “Time waits for no one.” It stalks and eventually catches up with even the best of us. Or is that the luckiest?

Regardless, I’m sure the myriad of party people descending on the Motor City this weekend will have one hell of a good time. Just be safe out there (they don’t call it ‘Murder City’ for nothing) and do yourself a favor and befriend a local to serve as a travel guide. And if you find yourself in the vicinity of suburban city Ferndale, have some of the best Chinese food in the world at China Ruby on Nine Mile Rd., or down the street at Bangkok Café. They’re both so, so good. God, I wish I was going to Detroit this weekend…

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Album review: The Field, "Yesterday and Today"

With the release of his 2006 single “Over the Ice,” Kompakt recording artist Axel Willner (AKA the Field) galvanized the global techno community. Combining minimal aesthetics with a crafty sample of Kate Bush song “Under the Ice”) into a lush, hypnotic groove, the song signaled a genuine and inspired new voice in electronic music, landing on many influential year-end ‘best of’ lists.

Willmer expounded on his trance-inducing template with the 2007 full-length “From Here We Go Sublime,” crafting dreamy, propulsive instrumentals out of even more unassuming sample sources, rendering the likes of Lionel Richie, Coldplay and Fleetwood Mac into his tactile, emotionally-charged tracks.

For his second LP outing, Willmer continues to mine unlikely sources to create mesmerizing tracks while expanding his palate to include live instrumentation. In this case, it’s the ten-minute-plus title track, a sprawling collaboration with Battles drummer John Stanier, whose muscular trap work ignites the last half of the song. For first single “The More That I Do,” Willner chops up obscure Cocteau Twins tune “Lorelei” into a thick, almost cacophonous cluster of percussive bliss.

Like an electronic Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Axel Willner’s music as the Field uses rhythm, repetition and unexpected melodies to make a captivating sound that can be too much for some listeners. But to fans of top-flight techno craftsmanship, it’s nothing less than spellbinding.

--Scott T. Sterling

The Field
“Yesterday and Today”
4/5 stars

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kid Rock knows beer

Oh, Kid Rock. When he’s not mashing up Lynyrd Skynyrd with Warren Zevon to produce a massive hit ("All Summer Long"), pimping babes decked out in decidedly non-P.C. Confederate flag bikinis for said song's video or enticing young men to think about joining the National Guard, the self-proclaimed “Son of Detroit” is trying his hand at creating the next great American beer.

“It’s going to be called ‘Bad Ass Beer,’ '' Rock boasted to Rolling Stone magazine recently from his suburban Detroit studio, where he’s hard at work recording the follow-up to his multi-platinum 2007 release, “Rock N Roll Jesus.”

“It just tastes like good American light beer…an everyday beer,” he raves, extolling the fact that his brew will be an all-American endeavor, right down to the hops. “It’s creating jobs in Michigan at the brewing company. We know people are hurting here so we’re trying to take that whole approach.”

While we wait to see if Bad Ass Beer will come to usurp the likes of Natural Light and Coors as the beer of the American working man, what’s even more intriguing to us is the series of competitor-mocking advertisements Rock is working on to promote his new golden dew.

“There’s one where it looks like the Budweiser horses, and they’re all up in the air, just freaked out, like they went haywire, and whatever they ride on is smashed up, and it just has my beer sitting in the front. It says, ‘Bad Ass. And ‘…and the horses they rode in on,’ ” Rock tells the rock mag. “There’s another one where we [mess] with Corona. We have an old rusty truck with no tires on it and it’s sitting on the Bad Ass beer, and it says, 'The only way you’ll ever see a lemon on it.' "

But for Rock, it all boils down to flavor: “It’s good, and there’s no aftertaste,” which sounds like as good a tagline as any -- definitely better than meaningless marketing boasts such as "triple-hops brewed" or "beachwood aged."

Expect Bad Ass to hit shelves in time for Labor Day festivities. Beer run, anyone?

(Originally published in the L.A. Times)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Today’s obsession: New Boyz: “You’re a Jerk”

Thanks to Detroit homegirl Kathy Rivkin giving me the heads up, I’ve found my new favorite song. In the grand tradition of Soulja Boy, teen L.A. hip-hop duo New Boyz has delivered “You’re A Jerk.”

It’s reminiscent of the Neptunes minimal era, when they were cooking up classics like “Grindin’” for the Clipse and “Nothin’” for N.O.R.E. mixed with some of that Cool Kids retroism (note their super-trendy style profile, heavy on bright colors and plaid. I guess kids in the 'hood ARE shopping at American Apparel).
This spacious hip-hop jam also comes with a new dance, “the Jerk.”

Yes, “You’re A Jerk” is totally ridiculous. It’s also pretty awesome. Watch your back, Soulja Boy. L.A. is comin’ atcha!

Here's a brief clip of the Boyz getting the kiddies all riled up at a SoCal high school show:

UPDATE: I couldn't resist. I wrote about the New Boyz for the L.A. Times.