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Digital/Divide: August’s Electronic Music Reviewed

On September 4, 2019

Digital/Divide is a monthly column devoted to any and all genres and subgenres in the great big beautiful world of electronic and dance music.

One of the oldest, most tiresome, and least accurate criticisms levied at electronic music is that it lacks humanity. To guitar store loiterers, virtuosic pedants, and other manner of sonic conservative dullards, these sounds designed, programmed, and presented by people somehow arrive without the soul and nuance of classic rock or modal jazz or what have you. The phenomenon of DJs as celebrity superstars only inflamed these cynical Luddites, overlooking how the experience of enjoying dance music communally on a dancefloor or festival grounds served as evidence of its inherent value.

But for those who still demand that instruments be played, or that synthesizers and sequencers alone cannot replace their electric or acoustic cousins, there are decades worth of bands across genres that can satisfy nearly all comers. And one of the finest forms of that tradition, the dance punk act, has had quite the fine month’s worth of album releases.

One of the few groups to come out of post-millennium post-revival with their dignity intact, !!! (Chk Chk Chk) have spent the 2010s leaning into disco hedonism. Now, as the decade comes to a close with much of the original lineup still intact, the crew seem eager to end things with feet firmly on the dancefloor. As was the case with 2013’s career reaffirming Thr!!!er, their ** Wallop (Warp)** comes with infectious grooves and popwise flair. From vocal house ditties “$50 Million” and the absolutely glistening “My Fault” to the Rick Rubinesque boom bap rock of “Serbia Drums,” the group’s thumping ethos remains a constant. There’s an almost Kraftwerkian quality to the shuffle and bleep of “Domino,” which twinkles like LEDs on its monotone refrain. And while Nic Offer still does his damn thing on the mic, repeat guest Meah Pace gives “Off The Grid” and “This Is The Door” a welcome injection of diva-driven cool, the latter track unspooling into an awesome acid dub outro.

Technically junior to !!! in terms of years of activity as a unit, Friendly Fires proved with their eponymous 2008 debut that they had the dance punk balance firmly in hand, with polyrhythmic singles like “Jump In The Pool” and “Kiss Of Life.” Their first album in eight years, ** Inflorescent (Polydor)** marks the group’s third full-length outing, and its best. The trio of Ed Macfarlane, Edd Gibson, and Jack Savidge have honed their popwise craft to deliver maximum serotonin release, something demonstrated on vibrant tracks like “Love Like Waves” and “Silhouettes.” A British sensibility not unlike that of Robbie Williams or even George Michael carries the horn-accented “Offline.” Co-credited to electronic pop duo Disclosure, “Heaven Let Me In” tips the formula composition even more toward house, resulting in peak hour club bliss. But small surprises like the ’80s electro-R&B workout “Sleeptalking” and the deep TB-303 squelcher “Lack Of Love” reminds us that Friendly Fires truly has the range beyond rock.

While Friendly Fires find satisfaction in devoting themselves to the sweat and heat of the dancefloor, YACHT conversely tether themselves to their technology for ** Chain Tripping (DFA)**. In principle, the trio’s latest album seems a repudiation of the human element, relying instead on artificial intelligence tools and systems to guide its choices, its direction, and, essentially, its very creation. In practice, however, the machine learning processes driving the project made it more human than human, if you will. The uncanny valley nowhere in sight, indie pop songs like “Hey Hey” and “California Dali” recall Kraftwerk kraut clout and electroclash’s detached cool. Disco groovers “Downtown Dancing” and “Sad Money” don’t disappoint either. Even when the AI-directed lyrics come off alien or cold, as on the stabbing anthem “DEATH,” there’s something poetic about it.

Ami Dang: Parted Plains (Leaving)

The appropriation of Eastern instrumentation by sonic tourists has, more often than not, led to cringeworthy trip-hop and other such embarrassments of exoticism. Presented as a reconciliation between, or perhaps a reclamation of, Indian folk music and chillout trance, the South Asian-American’s first release for the generally New Age-minded Leaving imprint fuses sitar and electronics in a way that feels anything but cliche. Opener “Raiments” captures Ami Dang’s intent most clearly with its brilliant blend of the organic and the synthesized. A tapestry of melodic bleeps and zaps, “Make Enquiry” envelops and enthralls, while “Stockholm Syndrome” reintroduces the sitar as a contemplatively plucked mood shifter. That latter instrument becomes more tempestuous and urgent on “Sohni,” a showcase for her technical prowess. On the undeniable standout, Parted Plains’ nearly nine-minute long finale “Souterrain” finds her playing ecstatically, in the mystical and spiritual sense of the word.

Salami Rose Joe Louis: Zdenka 2080 (Brainfeeder)

Those who showed up early enough for Flying Lotus’ latest 3D-themed tour dates stateside probably caught a set from Salami Rose Joe Louis. That word salad of a moniker suits the eclectic, unconventional, and scintillating sounds of the Bay Area artist’s full-length Brainfeeder debut. While only a handful of its 22 tracks pass the two-minute mark, Zdenka 2080 feels far more cohesive than some beat tape. Her voice opens this sci-fi indebted outing on “Suddenly,” though the solar narrative premise isn’t revealed until the following cut, “Octagonal Room.” There’s a jazz fusion feel to much of the material, albeit one informed by decades of hip-hop and electronic music. As space operas go, the record thankfully doesn’t skew toward John Williams-style maximalism, instead taking a more intimate approach. The story elements shared on tracks like “Confessions Of The Metropolis Spaceship” rest upon beds of warm and wiggly sonics and loops, while the penultimate “Cosmic Dawn / Eighth Dimension” exudes weightlessness itself as its bassline sets the listener adrift.

Profile Picture of Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez

Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.

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