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.
Twenty years ago, a distinct strain of house music bubbled up from the metropolitan underground of Parisian clubland and into a more mainstream consciousness. Helmed by dance dons and future stars like Thomas Bangalter and Étienne de Crécy, the scene had previously enjoyed modest wins beyond the humid familiarity of the dancefloor, most notably via Daft Punk’s leftfield 1997 album debut Homework. Still, the relatively rapid codification of the so-called French touch, a fresh sound marked by filtering repurposed loops of old funk and disco records, soon found itself on the cusp of pop acceptance thanks to scarcely pre-millennial singles like Cassius’ “Feeling For You,” Bob Sinclar’s “I Feel For You,” and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You.” Campy, kitschy video clips directed by alt auteurs aided in these successes, something quite critical half a decade before YouTube’s founding. Even acts from outside the francophone community benefited from the rising tide, namely the merry Briton pranksters Basement Jaxx, who rather shamelessly named one of their singles “Rendez-Vu.”
Despite early success and a clear love for this music, Zdar and creative partner Hubert “Boom Bass” Blanc-Francard soon proved disinterested in a formula almost stereotypically indebted to Cerrone. Perhaps that has something to do with co-founder Philippe Zdar’s history ahead of the duo’s seminal 1999. He and the aforementioned de Crécy made one of the subgenre’s preliminary album-length entries, Motorbass’ one-off LP Pansoul, which captured the then-nascent sound. Arriving three years after the debut, the second Cassius album Au Rêve diverged significantly from the double-down of Daft Punk’s 2001 game changer Discovery. Though house remained in the project’s DNA, as evidenced by its single “The Sound Of Violence,” and snagging juicy features from R&B veterans Jocelyn Brown and Leroy Burgess, they seemed intent on mutation. A structured, song-oriented approach carried that genre-jumbling record and continued on 2006’s even more diverse 15 Again.
This latest — and sadly, final — Cassius full-length, ** Dreems (Justice/Love Supreme)** comes with no small amount of pain. Zdar, whose work producing for Phoenix and The Rapture somewhat overshadowed his own musical output, passed away in a tragic accident mere days before this release, inconveniently suffusing sadness into what should have been wholly celebratory. Seamlessly mixed and blissfully deep, this unintended endpoint finds the pair content and comfortable in the club once more, albeit with a greyed sense of cool. House’s inviting kick-snare throb sounds as right here on infectious vocal takes like Owlle’s “Don’t Let Me Be” and Beastie Boy Mike D’s “Cause Oui” as it does on effervescent instrumentals such as “Calliope” and “Chuffed.” A welcome bait-and-switch following a bucolic intro, “Rock Non Stop” evokes so much of what made 1999 such sheer joy to hear back in the day, and why Dreems deserves to share its rarified air.
Bastardized beyond belief by commercial abuse and bad bro optics over the years, progressive house once used to be one of dance music’s most compelling forms. The intricately twisty melodic paths and euphoric thrills of John Digweed’s old Bedrock anthems made many club nights into epic adventures, and thankfully there are still producers carrying on that tradition. Signed to Lane 8’s This Never Happened imprint, Anderholm delivers an eight-song project that cautiously explores its environs. He hints at grand gestures on “Monologue” and “Mope,” exercising a restraint few of his peers could muster. Populated by percussive whims, he practices a bit of worldbuilding on the tribal-tinged “Wonderland” before giving Moscow’s Alexandra Pride the spotlight for the sublimely synthy title track. Throughout Fractures, things feel delicate and precious, even on the overt floorfillers. For crystalline closer “Sunflower,” Anderholm slows the pace enough to better observe and, ideally, admire that fragility.
With influence spreading well beyond its geography, Mexico City’s NAAFI crew doesn’t play around. Listening to the latest EP from Brooklyn-based signee Debit, the label’s reputation for uncompromising and forward-thinking work remains firmly upheld. A ruthlessly caustic update of the tribal guarachero sound, the Monterrey native builds new structures from the fragments of recognition. Glitchy whirrs and machine buzz converge into rhythmic noise on “My House,” a structure far less homey than its title may imply. Dancefloor friendliness amounts to less than an afterthought on the industrial bass jam “Market,” though it counts as System’s clearest club weapon. Immediately following is “Medicine,” an urgent and buzzy cut that teases with techno only to sub it out for polyrhythmic punch. Lest anyone mistake Debit’s architecture as somehow too abstract, she closes out the project with a dizzying footwork-adjacent DJ Earl collab “Numbering.”
A test of techno’s limits, and a theory of its promise beyond said limits, seems the intent of Austrian Stefan Juster’s third release for the rarely disappointing Editions Mego label. Whether or not you care to understand the philosophical underpinnings and structural foundations of Proxy States, the execution presents plenty to marvel at and enjoy. After booting up the system with the intrusive drones and digital detritus of “Instructions for a Sound Machine,” he lets loose the springy and spry “Wreath Products (C#, D#).” Of the remaining three variants of the motif that follows, “Wreath Products (F#, G#)” comes closest to matching classic Plus8 techno’s hardware awakenings. Unspooling over 10 minutes, “Compressions in a Chamber of Hard Light” descends into computer-controlled chaos, a disorienting yet glorious fit of signals and errors competing for attention and purpose.
On 2014’s International, a svelte synthpop set directed by Posh Isolation head Hannes Norrvide, retro charms routinely trumped songcraft. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the way that particular iteration of Lust For Youth operated, but the 2019 upgrade boasts greater substance to measure up to the style. A punk sneer opens this eponymous effort, an embittered toughness that makes “New Balance Point” worth a prompt rewind. The deprecating “Insignificant” rewires classic New Order flourishes with a thumping beat and a light dusting of body spray. As before, Lust For Youth stays rooted in what once was, but unlike many who dabble in Depeche, this band comes committed to make its own way. At times, glottal stops and poetic license cloud the intent of Norrvide’s intriguing lyrics, leaving one to wonder excitedly if “Venus De Milo” expresses infatuation or acrimony. (He’s far more direct with his ire on “By No Means.”) Later, appropriate gravity is afforded to the brutal murder of transgender woman Larissa Rodrigues da Silva on the potent “Imola.”
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.