Event Review: GAS at the Art Institute

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Live ambient music has a tendency to come off as underwhelming. I’ve always found watching a producer manipulate tracks on their laptop insufficient to warrant the title of “live” performance. However, every once in a blue moon I’ll see an ambient performance that proves all of my assumptions wrong. Last week’s performance by producer Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS alias was one of them.

I’d like to make note of the way his performance highlighted the importance of setting when viewing live electronic music. GAS’s music at home is primarily a headphone listen, where you are completely sucked in to the music’s world. In order to replicate this feeling live, it needed to be experienced in “wide-screen” so to speak, and this is exactly we got. The months leading up to the show, I worried we would be stuck seeing GAS perform on a make-shift sound system, forced to stand for 90 minutes in a tiny room shoulder to shoulder with fellow techno nerds. Luckily we got the opposite, as the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute proved to be the ideal venue for Voigt’s soundscapes. The audience was able to sit down while taking in both a massive video projection and immaculate sound thanks to the theater’s excellent PA and acoustics.

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My Top 10 Electronic/Dance tracks of 2017

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Like most of the UIC Radio DJs and music lovers in general, I’ve been compiling my end of year lists. Because my interest is mainly in electronic and dance music,  I’ve decided to focus my list on the best tracks of 2017. The past year has been huge for electronic music. Techno continued it’s current wave of popularity, with new voices both refining and warping the genre into new directions. Lo-Fi house died and then came back, club music got deconstructed and rebuilt into a noisy mess, and push for more representation from female, queer, and POC DJ’s helped bring new voices to the table. Here’s what I took away as the best of the year:

10. DJ Boring-Goodbye Michael

This little wonder of a remix is only number 10 because it’s technically a release from the the late hours of 2016. Created in the wake of George Michael’s passing last December, DJ Boring takes the late singer-songwriter’s 2003 track “Amazing” and downgrades it for the lo-fi house generation. The result is a remix that improves upon its source materiel by letting Michael’s melodic genius shine through the distorted bass and tape hiss.

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Bon Iver and Growing Out of Authenticity

One of the weirdest things about reaching the end of your early 20’s is realizing that the search for “authenticity” is a goal reserved for your finicky teenage years. For many of us who came of age during the late 00’s and early 2010’s, the image of authenticity that was forced down the throats of hip middle class white kids carried somewhat of a proto-lumbersexual aesthetic.  The music that came along with this image was made by groups like Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver. While all three occupied a similar corner of hipster chamber-folk, Justin Vernon’s leanings were always slightly different. Though his music easily fell under the folk banner, it carried a distinctly modern, with samples and digital manipulations being juxtaposed against acoustic instruments. These aspects placed Bon Iver in direct opposition to the indie-folk obsession with acoustic authenticity.

Nearly every piece of journalism regarding Vernon will bring up the backstory behind Bon Iver’s 2007 debut. Writers often rely on his self-isolation in rural Wisconsin (categorizing Eau Claire as “rural” is a bit of an exaggeration by the way) to help sell the “authenticity” of his work before anyone actually hears the music itself. In interviews, it was obvious Vernon was growing tired of having to constantly retell this story. Now it seems he shutting the door and that chapter of his artistic career completely.

The first few seconds of his latest record “22, A Million” make it obvious that Vernon is attempting to distort any notion of strictly being an artist attempting to revive the music of a time since passed. The OP-1 manipulated vocal loops that open the album serve as a warning to listeners who expected more acoustic lullabies, almost holding a sign that reads “THIS IS AN ELECTRONIC RECORD”. This message is further enforced by  tracks like “CREEKS” and “___45___” where glitches destroy any semblance of natural or real sound. These act as a middle finger to his flannel+raw-denim adorned fanbase. Don’t get me wrong, the acoustic tendencies are still here. Tracks like “29# Stafford Apartments” and “33/GOD” are still carry veins of folk, but they have digitally reshaped and manipulated until they are formed into something unrecognizable. Applying a sort of abstracted approach to music steeped in traditionalism.

Prior to last month the only exposure to Bon Iver I found enjoyable had been via his collaborations with Kanye West and James Blake. On these recordings, his beardo-folkiness was stripped away, allowing the glitchy, geometric, auto-tune laden arrangements to shine through. Luckily, “22, A Million”, shares more with these collaborations than his previous two albums. Instead of placing digital textures in a folk context, Vernon now does the opposite, forcing nearly every instrument at his disposal through digital processing . The result is an album where familiar sounds are warped into strange cubist structures. For some people, this new album may seem a self-indulgent and half hazard mess, for me it is perhaps a blue-print, a map showing the way forward for the struggling genre of indie folk.

13 Albums to Make Your Halloween Extra Spooky

It’s Halloween weekend, and I thought it would be interesting to create a list of spooky albums to help get you guys in the spirit. Some of these are a bit demanding from the listener but if you enjoy the erie end of the art spectrum they should be pretty rewarding:

EXUMA: Self-Titled

This piece of late-60’s esoterica juxtaposes Caribbean culture against Greenwich Village outsider folk. The result was a Voodoo themed record which may the first example of the Freak-Folk genre that blew up during the 2000’s. While the album starts lightheartedly it eventually moves into darker territory. When Exuma and his followers begin their incantations, you’ll imagine yourself in the center of a zombie ritual.

Tangerine Dream: Zeit

Before this Berlin outfitted was soundtracking classic 80’s films, their early career explored the farthest reaches of space. Zeit is a dark ambient tour-de-force: 4 tracks spread across 2 LP, each completely devoid of any sense of rhythm. A string quartet sustains dissonant chords that shift slowly and at random. Crude synthesizer appear sparingly adding and otherworldly feel to the ambience. This is music made outside of time and space.

The Haxan Cloak-Excavation

The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation is among my favorite electronic albums and one of the most terrifying records I’ve ever heard. The artist places tropes of the doom and drone metal genre and places them in electronic context. On my first listen, certain moments actually made me jump as a track will fade to silence and then blast you with low end noise.

Sleep Research Facility-Deep Frieze 

This dark ambient album may not seem traditionally scary, but its central theme of isolation in desolate cold environments reminds me of films like The Thing. Though designed in part to aid in sleep, the record sounds like being stuck in the antarctic alone with nope hope of survival when listened to under waking circumstances.

Lustmord-Heresy

If any musician has perfected the sound of evil, it’s Lustmord. The dark ambient master is able to craft music that sounds like it’s coming from the deepest corners of hell. I often have trouble sitting through any Lustmord record due to how unsettling his work can be.

Suicide-Self-Titled

This electronic/proto-punk masterpiece is a perfect representation of dilapidated and crime-ridden mid-70’s New York City. The album is entirely based around primitive organ/synth lines and demented rockabilly crooning about subjects like nuclear war, undead comic book heroes, and murder. Midway through the album lies “Frankie Teardrop”, long considered one of the most terrifying pieces of popular music ever made.

Jandek-Ready for The House

Jandek is the most-unusual of Bluesmen. Instead of basing his songs on soulful mournings, his tracks are built around heavily dissonant chords. In some moments, his tracks begin to collapse entirely and hang on faint vocal lines. Ready for The House carries some of his most digestible yet disturbing work.

Klaus Schulze-Irrlicht

After working with various Berlin-based Krautrock groups, Klaus Schulze made his foray into drone music with Irrlicht. Composed mainly on broken organ and leftover orchestra rehearsal tapes, this album consumes the listener and places him in a horrific sci-fi world that remains creepy without ever being cheesy.

Slint-Spiderland

Back in 1991 a group Louisville kids crafted an eerie collection of songs whose jagged yet dynamic structures formed the basis of Post-Rock. While most of that genre conjures up images of earths natural beauty, Spiderland’s imagery more like living on the edge of suburbia, where one stares out into the black abyss that the streetlights cannot reach.

Scott Walker-The Drift

As far back as his second solo record, Scott Walker’s work has always featured off kilter string arrangements. The droning dissonant chords added an air of unease to his otherwise beautiful compositions. On “The Drift” these same elements become the core of the music. Tracks like “Jessica” and “Clara” can make my skin crawl every time.

Chelsea Wolfe-Apokalypsis

Spooky-aesthetics are central to the discography of singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. While her current work falls more in line with goth/post-punk, this 2011 LP is an exercise in ghostly folk music. Each listen is like creeping through an abandoned building, where remnants of something beautiful have eventually become deformed and demented by time.

Swans-Soundtracks for The Blind

Swans are notorious for there excruciatingly dark body of work, taxing the listeners with music so heavy and lyrics so depressing they could make the most stoic of people’s skin crawl. Soundtracks for The Blind takes all of these elements and amplifies them to the extreme. Across it’s 2 discs, Michael Gira and collaborator Jarboe compiled a chilling collection of post-rock, electronic, and ambient music that may fans and critics labeled the highlight of their career.

The Care Taker-An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

We all know that scene in The Shining where Jack’s character enters the hotel ballroom and begins interacting with the dead spirits that have been haunting his family? An Empty Bliss is the musical equivalent of this scene. The album is made up of old 78′ waltz records from the early twentieth century which are then chopped up and processed digitally. The decaying records individual pops, skips, and jumps create a ghostly atmosphere once sent through heavy reverb and delay.

What Does James Blake Have In Store for 2016?

James Blake has kept relatively quite since the end of 2013, a year which saw the release of his sophomore LP “Overgrown”. In early 2015 the dubstep producer gone northern soul crooner announced his 3rd LP titled “Radio Silence”, possibly in reference to his role as BBC 1 radio host, a job that has kept him busy for the last 2 years. Since then fans have been kept mostly in the dark regarding work on the album. What can we expect from Radio Silence? Details on the record are sparse, but based on what little information we have and the tracks Blake has performed since the albums announcement suggests that the record will combine Blake’s growing songwriting abilities he explored on Overgrown with the experimental structures of his first album. Here’s what we know:

Kanye West and Justin Vernon Will Feature

Rumors of a Kanye West x James Blake collaboration have been floating around since Ye declared Blake his favorite artist back in 2013. Fan speculation was proven to be true in July of 2015 when Blake confirmed that he and Kanye were working in the studio together. Also confirmed to be contributing to the album was Justin Vernon, who collaborated with Blake on the 2011 track “Fall Creek Boys Choir”.

Two of the tracks on the album are titled: “Radio Silence” and “Modern Soul”

During his 2015 touring schedule, Blake performed two new songs. One in particular is all but confirmed to be the title track on Radio Silence. The initial performance of the album’s title track made waves across independent music sites. The track begins with the line “I can’t believe you don’t want to see me,” which loops throughout most of the track. Blake builds further vocal lines on top off this loop. Each line pushing the track forward until the beat finally drops, transforming the the track from digital R&B slow jam into a four to the floor club jam.

Back in February, Kanye West played a new James Blake track during the Life of Pablo debut at Madison Square Garden. Blake debut this same track, titled “Modern Soul”, on his BBC Radio 1 program later that day. “Modern Soul” sees Blake returning to the off-kilter and glitchy beats that defined his self-titled debut. Based around a dramatic piano loop, Blake stretches his blue-eyed soul vocals to their limits all over this track. The juxtaposition of artificial piano next to soaring vocal lines is striking. If “Modern Soul”and the albums title track are any indicator, Radio Silence is shaping up to be one hell of a record. 

During the same broadcast Blake announced that “Modern Soul” was the first finished track off the new record. Meaning the possibility of the album seeing a 2016 release is still up in the air. For the listeners sake let’s hope James Blake breaks his Radio Silence sooner rather than later.

An Animal Collective Live Retrospective

Baltimore experimental pop group: Animal Collective has been one of my favorite bands for many years now.  For the hardcore fan, the band’s live show have been just as intriguing as their albums. With the release of their new record: Painting With and tonight’s live performance at the Concord, I’d like to share some of my favorite recorded performance from each of AnCo’s live incarnations over the past decade.

2001-2002

The Collective’s earliest tours are surprisingly well documented. Footage from 2001 shows that band at it’s most primal and abrasive. The band had not begun using the samples that would define future live setups, but instead consisted of Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) on drums, Avey Tare (Dave Portner) on guitars, and Geologist (Brian Wietz) running fx and feedback loops. Performances from this period shift from frightening to hilarious rather quickly.

2003-2004

Very little footage exists of the tour leading up to the release of Here Comes The Indian. From what I can tell performances were in the same vain as previous tours only this time even more tribal and Boredoms-esque. The band’s lineup was completed by the addition of guitar player Deakin (Josh Dibb) during this time. That same year, Animal Collective released a freak-folk album under the name Campfire Songs. This would inform the bands subsequent tour and their 4th album: Sung Tongs. This tour saw the band stripped to the acoustic guitar and floor-tom duo of Avey and Panda. The primal energy remains here, but child like vocalizations and Beach Boy harmonies replaced the abrasive noise.

2004-2006

After Sung Tongs proved to be a critical success, the full 4 man lineup made a return and began touring songs for their 5th release Feels. This lineup continued into 2005 and 2006 where the band would debut material from Strawberry Jam. The material here was their most ambient and poppy to date, with electric guitars and samples beginning to be used as a major part of the live instrumentation.

2007-2009

2007 through 2009 is the most well documented period of Animal Collective’s career. Most likely due to the arrival of smart phones combined with the rising popularity of youtube and live-streamed concerts. Over three years of nearly non-stop touring, the band used the live show to develop the tracks that would eventually form their critical and commercial peak: Merriweather Post Pavilion. My favorite footage of the band comes from this era. The use of samplers meant they were able to perform most of their back-catalog, which was often reworked to fit in with the new material. In my opinion this is Animal Collective working at the height of their creative powers.

2011-13

Since the release of MPP, the band has tour less frequently. The full lineup returned in 2011 for a set of festival dates, leading up to the release of Chz in 2012. Avey Tare developing strep throat multiple times in 2013 plagued the subsequent tour, however the band still played some of their strongest sets during this time.