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My Favorite EDM of 2017

In 2015 and 2016, we witnessed the merging of EDM and pop. Albums like Pharmacy by Galantis made it virtually impossible to tell one from the other. In 2017, we saw the two bifurcating again. Both pop and EDM rode the wave of tropical sounds, but EDM didn’t embrace the tropical vibes as much as one might have anticipated. I saw a lot of successful albums returning to older sounds, such as dubstep, and playing through the possibilities remaining in the trap sub-genre.

I was impatient for the follow-up to Pharmacy. The preview tracks we heard from Galantis pointed to another epic pop/EDM album, but when it arrived, The Aviary was basically a disappointment. In hindsight it’s easy to see that there was no way Galantis could reach the highs they hit with Pharmacy. So even though tracks like Tell Me You Love Me are great tracks, the effort seemed hollow and lifeless. It felt like a retread of Pharmacy, and despite adding some tropical sounds, none of the tracks really captured lightning in a bottle like Runaway.

So my top five albums were all unanticipated. They are albums that I discovered by accident, or that I didn’t anticipate enjoying.

First up is Metropole by Anomalie Some might say that it is a jazz record, but it’s beat-and-synthesizer-driven music qualifies as EDM to me. Through Vaporwave and other niche subgenres, smooth jazz has been infiltrating EDM in 2017, and Metropole is the best synthesis of that smooth-jazz-plus-EDM sound.

Next up is Good Evening by Deorro. I wasn’t a big fan of his earlier work, and my friends told me this album was pretty awful. But as 2017 went on, I found myself coming back to it more and more. There are a few tracks, such as Butt Naked and Bomba that are bangers, truly reminiscent of Deorro’s club hits. And it still manages to have quiet, sincere moments, such as in Honest Man. I think some fans were turned off by all the short interstitial tracks on the album, and at first I was too. But as I listened repeatedly, I started feeling like the interstitials glued the album together. They make the album feel more like a fully-produced DJ set, almost reminiscent of the DJ albums of the 1990s.

The third album on my best-of-2017 list is Love is Alive EP from Louis the Child. The album is the epitome of catchy vocal EDM, and it flows smoothly from the soulful/tropical Slow Down Love to the upbeat hip-hop Phone Died. In the end though, I have no reason to include this album on my list other than the fact that I enjoyed listening to it. A lot.

Fourth on my list is Communicating by Hundred Waters. Like Metropole, this album barely qualifies as EDM. It might fit better under the general umbrella of indie rock, especially since it was made by a real band that actually plays instruments. But when the the throbbing bass kicks in during the first track, it’s clear that this album draws on the sounds of electronica as well as rock.

Last up on my list is Skyriser by Maxo. At no point in this year did I ever think about how much I love this album. But when I did Spotify’s customized review of my listening habits in 2017, Skyriser was the album I listened to most. It’s easy to see why. The album is a catchy, upbeat blend of chiptunes, trap, and what sounds to me like K-pop. I know that I put it on repeat for numerous gaming sessions.

So there it is. Those are my top five EDM albums of 2017. Did you see the year differently? Put it in the comments.

Book Review – The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music

In December of 2011, Backbeat Books published The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music, a compendium of articles from Keyboard Magazine and its sister publication, Remix Magazine. The 229-page book was assembled by Peter Kirn, and collects articles published in those magazines between 1982 and 2010. The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music tells the history of electronic dance music (EDM) and it provides an interesting in-the-trenches perspective on the popular side of electronic art.

Editor Peter Kirn is the writer and publisher of the venerable Create Digital Music/Motion blogs. For most high-tech art geeks, these blogs are the center of the blogosphere. He is also a teacher who has taught at various universities, and runs electronic music workshops all over the country. He lends a well-traveled perspective to the book, and the two articles he wrote specifically for the book are insightful additions.

The cover of The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music

The book is made up of interviews interspersed with a couple long-form artist profiles and gear overviews. Most of the 21 included articles are around ten pages long. The book opens with a profile of Kraftwerk from 1982 and ends with an interview of Robert Henke, the co-developer of Ableton Live. The authors sampled include Kirn himself, as well as Greg Rule, Robert Doerschuk, Chris Gill and others. Surprisingly, the articles aren’t ordered strictly chronologically. Since the artists often talk in detail about how they use their gear, this can be jarring at times. While reading the book, I had to occasionally look back at the byline for an article in order to contextualize the artist references to software or hardware. This might be even more difficult for younger readers who can’t rely on their memory of technology from the nineties or earlier.

The interviews usually delve into the creative process for an artist or ensemble that played a role in the evolution of electronic dance music. It’s interesting to hear the often clashing views on creativity in dance music. Patrick Codenys of Front 242 argues that the key to creativity is to “always be aware of your environment.” Other artists, such as Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers, talk about starting tracks by just experimenting with a sample or a certain piece of gear. Although most of the artists employ mass-market equipment, in chapter 12, Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, talks about how all of his tracks begin with his own custom tools. Without a doubt, the book chronicles the way that electronic musicians fetishize their gear, but this is only natural. After all, the evolution of electronic dance music is, in a significant way, the evolution of electronic musical instruments.

Many of the articles touch on the controversy that surrounded the art of sampling in the 1990s. For those of us who were around to witness it, these articles hearken back to the era when sampling was making headlines through the legal system. Chapter eight is almost entirely devoted to artists weighing in on the moral and creative implications of sampling. In a revealing moment, Richard James seems truly exasperated by the whole discussion, claiming that he is “obsessed with using [his] own sounds” and he doesn’t “care if someone copies my whole track and puts it out under a different name.”

Peter Kirn’s own articles supply the highlights of the book. His interview with musicologist Denise Dalphond provides a readable introduction to the academic view of EDM. Her brief comments on sexism in electronic music will ring painfully true for many readers. The concluding interview with technologist and composer Robert Henke provides a strangely contrarian view on the entire book. He sagely points out that as the tools become more refined, they will become less interesting. In other words, electronic music will be mature when writers care more about the conception of a piece than about what gear was used to execute the artist’s plan.

The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music is a very readable introduction to an often-overlooked history. Because the collected articles were written for magazines, they are short and easy to consume. For academics and scholars, the book is a welcome change in style which may be useful for extra readings in a course on electronic music. Certainly the articles on Kraftwerk or rave culture are essays that educators can use to connect academic electroacoustic music to popular EDM. The book fits well with the other books in this category. Readings from this book can be used to augment readings from Christopher Cox’s Audio Culture or Paul Miller’s Sound Unbound.

On the whole, The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music is a valuable resource for educators, composers and hobbyists. It clearly illuminates the history of an overlooked niche of popular music. This history is very important to fans of electronic music, so it behooves educators and composers to gain an awareness of the artists involved. Furthermore, at the affordable price of $16.99, The Evolution of Electronic Dance Music should be on every musician’s bookshelf.

MusicBYTES Fall 2009

Last October Mike McFerron hosted another MusicBYTES concert at Lewis University. The bi-annual event featured a short program of video pieces, and was referred to as a mini-concert by McFerron. It took place in Ives Hall in the Orson Fine Arts Building on the Lewis University campus. McFerron presided over the concert, casually dressed in a brown sweater and jeans. After introducing the event, he kicked it off with a piece called Graveshift by Per Bloland and Arie Stavchansky.

Graveshift – Through a rain-streaked cafe window, surveillance of a street scene is digitally transformed into a fluid chaos comprised of paranoia, ghostly figures, and alterations of reality. Echoes of a forgotten song float above the milieu, now gaining and now losing coherence. It is an image plagued by distortion, but this distortion emerges from quietness, and recedes once again into the same.

Then we saw Confined 10-01-2 by Paul J. Bohelho and Russell J. Chartier.

That was followed by Made In… by Hsiao-Lan Wang and Benoit Granier.

Next up came McFerron’s Prelude to You Brought this on Yourself.

Prelude to You Brought this On Yourself is the result of the collaborative production of a play by George Miller, my colleague at Lewis University. In his play, Dr. Miller sets in context the true story of a young female high school student who suffered enormous ridicule and even physical assault for the sole reason that she was openly homosexual. The principal of the High School where this occurred justified the assault by explaining to the parents, “she brought this on herself.”

This composition is not a commentary on religion, media, politics, or homosexuality. Above all, it is not an attempt to glorify, condone, or condemn homosexuality. Instead, this work is a commentary on a society’s intolerance of a human voice seeking neither audience nor acceptance – only existence.

Written in 2008, this fixed media composition features singer Jillian Kelm.

Then NGC 1999 by Samuel Pellman and Miranda Raimondi.

And Becoming 3-2 by Evan X. Merz.

The second to last piece was flutter arrhythmias by Charles Norman Mason and Sheri Willis.

flutter arrhythmias was originally conceived as a site-specific three screen installation which enveloped the viewer on three sides. It was installed at the Islip Museum of Art, Carriage House in New York in 2008. It was inspired by sounds from the installation space: the train in the distance, the birds, and the combination of mechanical and natural sounds.

Finally, the concert closed with Boop Boop Beep by David Morneau.

Despite some brief technical difficulties, the short concert flowed smoothly. The program was a diverse, but even mix of well-traveled composers such as Per Bloland, and less familiar composers. The audience was a small group of around 100 Lewis students and local musicians.