Some people really don’t like this new Arcade Fire song. It doesn’t mess around with its purposeful timing and blunt lyrics, plus being almost entirely electronic. The thing is, Arcade Fire have avoided Neon Bible imagery when it comes to protest music (the organ and lyrics definitely have a Neon Bible side to it), and just gone straight for saying what they mean. The reason ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ became default anti-Trump anthem is because it didn’t mince its words, and that’s why other protest songs from this election – and there’s been plenty – haven’t struck the same chord. Songs that need to call Trump out on what he is, directly, is the key.
Mavis Staples is the trick up the sleeve of ‘I Give You Power’. It’s a complete wildcard, and one that is very welcome. She echoes Win Butler’s protests in a soulful vocal that he just can’t, and that’s why she’s been deployed here. It’s unclear whether this is actually a single from the new album, or if it’s just a spontaneous drop, but maybe this means Arcade Fire are in a political mood, and that’s never a bad thing. Speculation aside, this is protest music and goes beyond trump and goes right for the intrinsic link between right-wing populism gaining power and the intended use of democracy to ensure representation, not abuse of power. Even if that same democracy is what has helped those leaders get into the positions they currently hold, it may also be their undoing, or at least that’s Arcade Fire’s hope.
Justice made a song for the summer with ‘Safe And Sound’, which was full of Flea slap-bass and RAM- style Daft Punk. That 80s-indebted style continues on ‘Randy’, which has twinkling synths that double up as funky organs and hair metal guitars. It’s a reasonably large slab of a song at nearly seven minutes, giving the duo an opportunity to mess around with interludes, string sections that will be familiar to anyone who heard ‘Safe And Sound’, but there’s always pulsating electronic elements behind it all. The chorus is another huge one – with the high pitched vocals singing ‘Don’t stop, work it out and try to make it / Randy, get yourself together’. Towards the end it begins to drag as Justice have already toyed around enough with the song, but there’s also a handy radio edit that cuts out some of the more experimental sections.
I can’t believe How To Dress Well isn’t a bigger name in pop. He’s got a trendy sound – sort of a dreamy electronic vibe, plus a psychedelic side – an incredibly emotive and youthful voice that would slot onto pop radio easy, and lyrics that are accessible and emotional. Maybe it’s the name – it does sound like a punk band or a child of Kraftwerk. The idea is that Tom Krell compares lost youth with losing a person, he ages and loses innocence without them. The dreamy electro-r’n’b takes a left turn when a screeching guitar enters. Then, it turns into an 80s power-ballad, with so much (forceful?) emotion that it becomes a little bit over the top. You’d expect a song that was so cutting-edge to be hollow and easily digestible, but it has a beating heart. All it needs is trap beats and How To Dress Well is 2016 pop.
Aphex Twin, or Richard D. James, has always been prolific. Whether that’s in the form of Aphex Twin, AFX or The Tuss, but he has recently returned to his most famous name to release some new music. It began with 2014’s Syro, before a couple of new EPs went under the radar slightly. His new EP, under the more pronounceable name (compared to his last few releases) Cheetah, has been teased with this pretty lengthy slice of music. Now, we’re not super knowledgeable about the millions of dimensions of electronic music, but we’ll categorise it in the few ways we know how. ‘Chill’ comes to mind. Much like the surprisingly digestable Syro, there’s no traces of ‘Come To Daddy’ here. Instead, there’s squelchy synths, bouncy synths and a bunch of the meticulously stabby beats that covered Syro. Now, we’re not entirely sure what ‘meticulously stabby beats’ means, and it sounds pretty pretentious, so maybe you should just listen to it. Yeah, do that.
Note: Extra points for letting 12 year-old Ryan Wyer direct the video. It’s something to behold.
Mere days after ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and its more experimental sister, ‘Life In the Vivid Dream’ drops, Grimes has followed up with ‘SCREAM’. It’s a completely different track, though this was expected after Grimes tweeted that ‘Flesh Without Blood’s sound was not the ‘sound’ of the album. In fact, ‘SCREAM’ is the exact opposite, in that it’s experimental, dark and takes influence from many different genres such as rap, electronic and weird experimental music that doesn’t really have a name – not yet anyway. The most interesting point of the track is the inclusion of Aristophanes, a Taiwanese rapper on the verses and Grimes screaming on the chorus.
Aristophanes’ verses are in mandarin, but through some translation it becomes apparent she’s very much in Grimes’ universe with lyrics about ‘A woman pulls out the headful of black hair with her bare hands / walks along the mountain ridges in a dream’ and ‘My fingers created a cold lake’. If you take a look at Grimes’ translation the song is very explicitly sexual, something that Grimes has always looked at through a yearning but also skepticism (see the difference between ‘Skin’ and ‘Oblivion’), but Aristophanes’ perspective is dark and dominating. Grimes’ screams in the chorus are heavily effected and hardly sound like her, but the point of the track isn’t to be anything recognisable from what you expect, but to offer something new. It’s not going to be the next Grimes single by any stretch of the imagination, but for those still thinking that Grimes might save them from chillwave purgatory, it might be a comfortable (if slightly short) slice of experimental electronica.
Grimes has been very clever with the first release from her new album Art Angels (Which is coming very, very soon). With the backlash from ‘Go’ that she got last year, she doesn’t bend to the wishes of her original fans, but instead has her own agenda and experimental path. ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is a pop banger, full stop. ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’ is the comfortable embrace of anyone who liked Visions. First things first, ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is a more organic take on the poppies moments of Visions such as ‘Genesis’ or ‘Oblivion’, where Grimes is playing a guitar throughout, but synthetic drums remain throughout. It’s a perfect collision of what you’d like to hear and something entirely new. Grimes packs in her newfound liking for ‘proper’ singing in the verse and chorus with the cheeky wink of ‘uncontrollable’ in her old voice again. It’s an anthem about letting go and not caring anymore, something that feels like a conclusion to the in-between-albums drama and hype that Grimes has had placed upon her after Visions.
‘Life In The Vivid Dream’ is the more experimental follow-up to ‘Flesh Without Blood’, when Grimes’ vocal flutterings that dominated Visions comes back in the outro. There’s even a clean acoustic guitar that works very well, but then Grimes’ electronic drums arrive, trading between brittle and heavy to create some weird effects. She even swaps accessible pop lyrics for evocative imagery about ‘angels will cry when it’s raining / tears that are no longer clean’. The pairing of ‘Flesh Without Blood’ with ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’ is a masterstroke of surprising the audience yet again. I won’t call it for sure, but Art Angels is not going to be anything you expect – like it or not.
(P.S. Watch the video – it’s weird and wonderful)
Arca’s responsible for some of the creepiest beats this side of Aphex Twin. Last year’s Xen was a surprise success for the Venezuelan producer; based around his alter-ego. ‘EN’ continues that same creepy electronic atmosphere, complete with artwork that you can’t quite get your head around and beats that should by all accounts turn your brain to jelly. It isn’t ‘abrasive’ or ‘harsh’ as such, it sounds less like an industrial factory collapsing in on itself and more like something organic and breathing, like a metallic butterfly constantly hitting a window. If that doesn’t sum it up well, it’s because it’s hard to pin down ‘EN’.
There’s little structure or evolution. Brief pauses allows more ‘fluttering’ to pile on top with a repetitive human voice breathing in and out to add to the instrumentation. In that respect it feels more like someone messing around with effects more than crafting a song. But Arca isn’t really out to craft a pop song. He’s making experimental stuff that makes you grab onto a structure before changing to another one just to confuse you. ‘EN’ is the sonic equivalent of Memento, a film where the structure goes back and forth in narrative and forces the audience to piece together the story themselves. It may be hard work, but Arca offers the same twisted, alien narrative with his music.
For a band that said their new album would have more in common with the electronic beginnings of New Order, ‘Restless’ has more in common with indie-flecked pop. The driving force of the track is an acoustic guitar and a funky bassline which makes Peter Hook’s departure from the band slightly less huge than it was made out to be. The orchestral tinges in the background add a bit of drama which can verge into slightly cringey territories, but for the most part they stay behind the other instruments. The instrumentation on ‘Restless’ is really good, the drums are on point and the acoustic guitar remains the key instrument above the orchestral flares, which is hard to master amongst the wide variety of instruments New Order deploy.
The main problem with the track is the vocals and the lyrics. Whilst he’s never been the greatest vocalist of all time, Bernard Sumner has had some good moments in the past. However, in ‘Restless’ he verges on boredom and when he sings ‘how does it feel’, it steps into a whiney tone. The chorus, however, is very catchy ‘Restless / I am so restless’.The song seems to be criticising the ever-moving nature of modern life, from the ‘I want a nice car / A girlfriend who’s as pretty as a star’, which is one of the more bland lyrics the track has to offer. Despite a few wrong turns, ‘Restless’ mostly comes out the other end unscathed. It’s also a reminder that New Order can expand beyond new wave electronica.
If you ever though Ethan Kath was the one pulling the strings of Crystal Castles, ‘Stillbirth’ is a defiant response to that claim. With help from HEALTH man Jupiter Keyes, ‘Stillbirth’ proves that Glass was more than just a singer, as previously disputed by former partner Kath. ‘Stillbirth’ takes inspiration from the harsher elements of Crystal Castles discography, not to the extremes of ‘Doe Deer’ but not their pop-friendly hits ‘Not In Love’ or ‘Crimewave’ either. The lyrics are powerful and often evocative, alluding to the post on her new website where she states ‘Abuse isn’t always obvious and it doesn’t always involve black eyes’, but in the lyrics she sings ‘You don’t own me anymore’. It’s an empowerment anthem hidden in a beautiful razor-sharp electronic mess.
On ‘Stillbirth’, the vocals are also less blurred and robotic than in Crystal Castles material. Glass is given front and centre, which makes sense because she’s the perfect frontwoman and it’s about time she gets some attention beyond ‘that girl in CC’. Without Kath’s influences, Glass can freely move as she wants, expressing some of her most personal lyrics to date and also delivering an ear-splintering electronic punk song. Undoubtedly better than some of the cuts Kath has recently released still under the name of Crystal Castles.
REALiTi is a shelved track from Grimes’ 2014 lost album, which will now probably be lost in time as an album we should have heard but we didn’t. It follows on from the poppier side of Go, which was initially badly-received from fans thinking that Grimes was unwittingly going into the pop world, thinking that she didn’t know what she was doing. I can assure you, as this track shows, that Grimes shows what she is doing. Instead of further going down the EDM route that Go promised, REALiTi explores chillwave and traditional pop structures, creating a hybrid of something like Genesis from Visions and Go, which creates something that can only be described as an excellent song. The lyrics are also much more personal that that of earlier releases, with Grimes singing ‘And I feel that nothing in life could ever be like that again /
Cause your love kept me alive and made me insane’, like a beautiful contradiction that sounds like Grimes just became a little bit more human.
Grimes plays with squelchy and laser synths and even the odd handclap in REALiTi, making an accessible and catchy song. The most recognisable similarity with Go is Grimes’ newfound attraction for singing in her natural voice, over her trademark baby-whisper. Personally, I think that the natural singing fits the track more than her traditional singing and it adds to the chilled-out, ethereal tone that REALiTi sets. Mostly, the video companion compliments the track really well, taking shots of Grimes on tour across Asia with vivid colours and textures aplenty. It’s a worthy companion to the song. If REALiTi proves anything, it’s that Grimes can pen a pop song just as well as she can write an experimental electronic song. It also proves that the lost ‘pop’ album will be dearly sought after for years to come.