Mr. Oizo: Lambs Anger (pt. 1)

lambsanger

Dear Matthew:

Sorry for a third straight week of bleeps and bloops, but bear with me — this one is somewhat time-sensitive.

This is another multi-part assignment. But don’t worry — the parts are pretty small. The first part of the assignment is to watch this:

That’s the opening scene of a 2010 film called Rubber. It’s about a tire that comes to life and starts killing people with its mind. It was written and directed by French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, and it’s a better summary of his approach to art than I could ever hope to write myself. You see, in addition to making films, he also makes music under the name Mr. Oizo (pronounced ‘oiseau’, as in the French word for bird), and this week you’ll be listening to his 2008 album Lambs Anger.

If the Rubber clip and the blatant Luis Buñuel reference weren’t enough to spell it out, Dupieux deals heavily in the absurd and the surreal. His only real ‘hit’ was the 1999 track ‘Flat Beat’ — the video, directed by Dupieux, features the yellow puppet and de facto Oizo mascot Flat Eric, who graces the cover of Lambs Anger. Dupieux eventually fell in with the Ed Banger crew, a French record label and loose collective of electro producers who rose to prominence in the mid-2000s (mostly on the backs of the band Justice). His early music was already pretty left-field, but when he joined the Ed Banger roster, his sound shifted noticeably toward more club-friendly four-to-the-floor electro sounds — but his surreal sensibilities became even more pronounced.

That’s what’s so fascinating about Dupieux as a producer: he really does know how to make good dance music, but it’s always done with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek its a wonder he can still talk. His entire career, especially since joining Ed Banger, has essentially been about taking the piss out of the genre and its fanswhile still producing outstanding examples of it. His production is ridiculous to the point that it feels like he’s playing a game of chicken with the scene, seeing how far he can go and still have people call it dance music. (I love it, obviously.)

Lambs Anger is Dupieux’s first full-length release on Ed Banger, and it’s probably the best jumping-off point for really getting into the Mr. Oizo headspace. Like his films, his music has a very strong sense of continuity to it — a canon, even. Repeated phrases and hooks, synthesized speech, Uffie, some of the most obnoxious techno music you’ve ever heard — Lambs Anger has it all. It even manages at times to actually be pretty listenable. It’s even got that rarest of rarities: a good hip-hop cover. This is peak Oizo.

I’m not going to lie: this is going to be a challenging listen for you, especially given what I know of your opinion of electronic dance music. But given what I know of your taste in art more generally, I think you’ll at least be able to appreciate the ethic with which Dupieux is approaching the genre. He’s making a new pair of clothes for the emperors of EDM. He’s drawing a musical moustache on the Mona Lisa. He’s the DJ of Dada.

Why?

No reason.

— Matt

PS: I almost forgot the third part of your assignment! After you’ve listened to the album, head on over to http://oizo3000.com, and just experience it. If you enjoyed Lambs Anger, great! You can download his EP Stade 3 for free from the website, and it’s a good next step. If not, poke around the website anyway — according to his Twitter, he’ll be shutting the website down for good soon. It’s a damn shame.

PPS: Even if the music doesn’t speak to you in the slightest, you might still enjoy his films. The aforementioned Rubber is a good start. If the music does speak to you, Id suggest checking out Wrong Cops at your earliest convenience.

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 2)

bleeptobleep

Dear Matt:

I’m afraid I am about to fulfil your fear about this response: that I may be entirely indifferent to the Micronauts.

I dunno, man. I’m at a loss. Remember when you didn’t like Godbluff, but you didn’t hate it either, and you kind of wished you had? That’s the situation I’m in with Bleep to Bleep. But, unlike Godbluff, this album doesn’t seem to me like the sort of music that’s even supposed to provoke a strong reaction. It’s the kind of music I tend not to have much to say about. It’s the kind of music that I might forget I’m listening to, and when I remember, I’m slightly annoyed. It’s the kind of music where, if it were playing in a store, I might leave sooner.

Obviously, I’m completely wrong about this: more on which later.

My favourite part of Bleep to Bleep was the track ‘Bleeper_0+2,’ a pretty straightforward noise track, with no beat. And that’s basically what I liked: it offered some respite from the merciless beat that otherwise pervades the entire album. When I started writing this post, I was worried that I would come off as hypocritical for critiquing the album’s sameness — the quality that you see as the source of its fascination — when I’m a fan of Steve Reich. But, there’s a fundamental difference between the Micronauts’ minimalism and Reich’s. Both employ ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns,’ as I (inadequately) defined minimalism three posts ago. But Reich’s obvious patterns drive the music towards gradual change. The Micronauts’ patterns do not. Bleep to Bleep changes constantly, sure. But it doesn’t go anywhere. I had a theory teacher once, who pointed out that Reich’s most substantial gift was knowing when a musical idea would outstay its welcome. I would not personally say the same of the Micronauts.

As I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy disliking things. My philosophy is that if I don’t find something to admire in a piece of music, it must say more about my liabilities as a listener than the musicians’ shortcomings as artists. There’s a reason I’ve chosen to think that way: it’s self-evidently better to like more music than less music. Selectivity is for chumps. And if I put the onus on myself to appreciate a piece of music on its own terms, rather than on the musician to produce something that I can approach on mine, I’m more likely to enjoy more music. Plus, I’m inclined to think that it might make me a more empathetic human being, which is a win for everybody around me. (It may also explain my increasing tendency to write about myself instead of the music that you assign. Sorry about that.)

I remain frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a way into Two Fingers or the Micronauts. The fact that these are artists that you love makes it worse because it confirms that they can inspire the kind of nerdy joy that is essentially what I live for.

So, I’d like to make a proposition. If we’re still plugging away at this correspondence in a year or so, maybe we can take a week or two and just look back on a couple of albums that we haven’t liked. Because, how gratifying would it be to find that we’ve become better, more open music listeners over the course of this project?

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 1)

bleeptobleep Dear Matthew:

Since we’re talking about minimalism, I have some more bleeps and bloops for you — literally.

Though the Micronauts is now just one guy (Frenchman Christophe Monier), it was a two-piece (Quebecker George Issakidis) when they recorded one of the most strangely compelling electronic albums I’ve ever heard: Bleep to Bleep. It’s like they set out to make a nice little techno jam to play at their next rave, but just didn’t stop. The album is literally just the same song for 45 minutes. (Or, to be more specific, four takes of the same song, broken up with two noisy interludes.)

That sounds like it would be awful, but the repetition becomes the most fascinating feature of the album. The definition of minimalism that you gave me last week was ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns’, and it describes the Micronauts perfectly. Monier and Issakidis are indeed working with an extremely limited palette — a drum machine, some very basic synthesizers, a sample of some strings and a smattering of miscellaneous percussion — and for 45 minutes, they build up an arrangement, then disassemble it, then rebuild it in a slightly different way, then take it apart again, tweak it, put it back together… they build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy for three quarters of an hour. It’s the same song throughout, and yet it’s never the same song for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s the musical equivalent of the Ship of Theseus. It’s riveting.

Keep in mind, too, that this was the late ’90s, so they’re working with the real deal here — they’re using actual synths and samplers and drum machines, they’re not just some kids messing around with Garage Band for an afternoon. So this is also a fascinating album if you’re at all interested in the technical aspect of electronic music production, especially before the era of the laptop DJ.

Now, this is definitely some straight-up ravey acid techno bullshit. Given your reaction to the dance music you’ve encountered so far over the course of this project, I’m not sure how you’ll react to it. It’s entirely possible that you’ll hate this album. Worse yet, you might be completely indifferent to it. But all I know is, I find this album totally captivating. And since you’re into a guy who makes music by looping slightly-out-of-phase recordings and swinging microphones over speaker cones, hopefully you will too.

— Matt

PS: After you give Bleep to Bleep a spin, it’s worth checking out the single that was released from the album — essentially, the entire album distilled into something you can play on the radio. It’s called ‘Baby Wants to Rock’, and its running time? Three minutes and 19 seconds.

Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 2)

isam

Dear Matt:

God, I also love Amon Tobin. I love him so much that I wrote 1400 words on him. Strap in.

You mustn’t have actually thought there was a chance I wouldn’t like this, right? This provides exactly the same kind of sensory overload that makes me love Mahler and Yes and electric Miles Davis so much. It’s actually amazing how soon I knew I was going to love this. I suspected I would as soon as I saw the art, actually. But I knew this was going to be my kind of album within the first minute.

So, let’s look into that first minute a little more closely.

Journeyman‘ begins with three simultaneous sound qualities: something that sounds like a cymbal roll with mallets, a noise like windswept paper kept down low in the mix, and a series of slow, rhythmic bworps. The bworps set the tempo for the track and act as the first source of tension. (What will the next bworp sound like? And the next?) Eight or nine bworps in, they begin to change more perceptibly, like Tobin is turning up the cutoff frequency on one of his ad-hoc synths (which may be what he’s doing, although I’m not nearly well-versed enough in these matters to know).

But, just as it seems like a pattern is developing (the bworps will keep getting higher in pitch), Tobin pulls back on the reins and keeps them consistent, making way for the incoming percussive noises. Note that I didn’t say ‘beat’ — because ‘beat’ would imply that there’s a pattern in play, and other than the steady tempo, there doesn’t appear to be. A series of Wurlitzer-like tones plays in double time to the bworps, with emphases placed seemingly arbitrarily. Certainly, they have nothing to do with what beat of the measure we’re on.

As the track builds, Tobin introduces new sounds sequentially. He does use some of them more than once, but never with the same melodic fragments. Virtually the entire opening — the entire track; the entire album — is an exercise in constantly generating new material. Something happens, then something else happens, then something else. There is very little recapitulation.

It’s a miracle how Tobin can hold attention with this technique. Patterns, you see, are what makes music make sense. Musicologists and mathematicians agree on that. ISAM works differently; it builds to something, then refuses to follow through, instead choosing to keep going off in new directions. It’s basically the opposite of that kind of music I mentioned in my Belle and Sebastian response — the kind that feels clear and self-evident. This is music where you can always feel a human consciousness pushing and poking at it, ensuring that it never falls into a pattern that feels natural, or straightforward.

Evidently, both extremes can be equally satisfying.

I could really go on about the album, but you’ve assigned me more, and I’m already embarrassingly late on this, so I’d best move on.

isamlive

Pretty much as soon as I started watching ISAM Live, over a bowl of Thai coconut soup at my desk, I realized that the visuals were basically going to be the point. There was altogether too much daylight in my living room for me to properly appreciate this sort of dark psychedelia, so I shut myself in my closet with my laptop. I built a little armchair out of pillows and everything:

Childlike darkness cave

It struck me as I was huddled in my childlike hideaway that if the pest inspector happened by while I was in there with headphones on, they might well conduct their whole search without realizing I was there. That put me in the exact opposite position to the one Amon Tobin was in during his ISAM shows: had the central cube that he was seated in been just a few shades less translucent, he could have been entirely absent and nobody would have known the difference.

But, before you assume that I’m about to launch into a facile and uninformed indictment of live electronic music, let me tell you about a similarly elaborate projection-mapped concert that I’ve been to. Roger Waters’ 2010-13 touring production of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is in every sense the most spectacular live event I’ve experienced. The basic premise of the show is that throughout the first half, a giant wall is built between the band and the audience, for metaphor reasons.

The show was a rejig of Pink Floyd’s original Wall tour from 1980-81, which was inspired in part by Waters’ anxieties about stadium rock shows. At those gigs, most of the audience is so far away from you that you may as well just be miming. So, Waters decided to test his audience’s trust by literally building a wall between him and them on the next tour. The original Wall show even started with a “surrogate band” playing the first song in Pink Floyd rubber masks.

Waters’ recent remount of the show brought these themes into even starker relief, since it’s an open secret that he can’t sing anymore and most of his live vocals are mimed to backing tracks. When I saw The Wall, I found it curiously easy to get past that, considering my classical background, etc. I just accepted that Waters did not serve a musical purpose at that show, but a semiotic one: The Wall is his masterpiece and his story. His presence adds power, whether he’s actually singing or not.

I don’t know enough about the kind of music Amon Tobin makes to be able to tell what’s going on in his little control pod. It seems like the music on ISAM Live is sufficiently different from the studio version (and sufficiently more predictable, suggesting that maybe he has to let certain processes run their course while he focuses on other things) that I’m quite certain he’s driving the show somehow.

But, it kind of doesn’t matter to me. If prog rock god Roger Waters can mount a show where his musical participation is immaterial, then we’re obviously past the point where ‘he might not even be doing anything’ is a sufficient argument against any live performer.

ISAM Live is not a stunt or a high-wire act. It is not a Magma concert. It is an immersive aesthetic experience — the home viewing of which demands a decent pair of Sennheisers and a darkened room (or closet). Tobin could be sitting perfectly still and staring into space in that central cube while his album plays, and his simple presence at the centre of the set — the creator of this beautiful thing — would still be symbolically resonant. The fact that he chooses instead to work for his living each night makes me love him all the more.

Jesus Christ, I still have to write about the DJ set.

Okay. I’ll keep this brief. Because, regrettably, I didn’t get much out of Tobin’s Two Fingers persona. I talked a bit in my Beardyman response about my confusion over not dancing to dance music. There’s a huge gulf between Two Fingers and Beardyman, clearly. And that gulf means the difference between me being able to listen to it and not.

I could listen to Beardyman, because his music strikes me as ‘listening music’ that put on dancing shoes semi-ironically. It’s jokey and deconstructivist, and the thought of anybody dancing to it still seems a little weird to me. Two Fingers, on the other hand, is a skilled peddler of ‘straightup dancefloor devastators,’ in your memorable phrase. Maybe someday I’ll understand why people listen to music that’s intended for the dancefloor. But yesterday was not that day, nor is today. Tomorrow’s not looking promising.

And as you know, I’m not likely to actually dance to it, either. I’m not the audience for this.

Now let me close out this more-discursive-that-usual response with a random thought that doesn’t really connect to anything.

It seems to me that a DJ set is the opposite of a live classical music performance. DJs are basically improvising: they’re spinning out a unique, spontaneous product that is paradoxically produced with pre-existing musical ingredients that are set in stone (or rather, vinyl; or ephemeral digital something-or-other). At the classical concert hall, they’re going for a performance that adheres to the composer’s score, while having no pre-existing sonic building blocks to construct it from.

I know which of these poles I prefer, aesthetically. But, at this juncture in our correspondence, I’m not sure which one can claim more of my respect.

— Matthew

Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 1)

isam

Dear Matthew:

I feel as though we should move directly into the bleeps and bloops at this point.

Amon Tobin is one of my favourite musicians maybe ever. He got his start in the 90s as part of that wave of chilled-out British drum and bass that formed the entire soundtrack of shows like Spaced, a sound that his label Ninja Tune (with whom he is still signed) practically invented. He worked with samples, usually of old jazz records, cut up and mashed together to create new songs altogether. After a few records like this, however, Tobin began to get bored, and started going increasingly further afield when sourcing his samples, twisting and processing them further and further beyond recognition. His sound started to get darker, bigger, and crunchier. Then, like Eno before him, he started getting conceptual. He started doing soundtracks. He did an album where he recorded all of the samples himself. And then, in 2011, he released an album created entirely with synthesizers he created himself digitally — many based, of course, on his own field recordings. The album was called ISAM (Invented Sounds Applied to Music), and that’s what you’ll be listening to this week.

ISAM is incredibly ambitious. The aural palette Tobin creates for himself is absolutely massive, and the range of emotions he’s able to evoke with it is equally broad. ISAM is bombastic, haunting, ponderous, playful, and everything in between. Some tracks are more like experimental sound design than anything you could reasonably call music. It sounds nothing like any of his previous work, and yet it’s still unmistakably his work. It was never going to be a crowdpleaser, but if people are still talking about Tobin in twenty years, my money is on this album being why.

Now, when you release a new record, your label usually wants you to go on tour to support it. But what do you do when you make electronic music that is, for the most part, completely impossible to dance to? In the 90s, Tobin’s solution was to learn to DJ so he could play music that people actually would dance to, and he soon started pushing technological boundaries there, too. (He was one of the first big names to embrace vinyl emulation software like Serato, which is now industry standard.) But ISAM was such a completely different beast that touring it that way just didn’t make sense.

So, he didn’t.

isamlive

Surprise! This week’s assignment is a double bill. After you listen to the studio version of ISAM, you’re going to be watching a film of ISAM Live, the show Tobin and a team of engineers, artists and programmers created to tour it.

I’ve always found live electronic music to present an interesting dilemma. A lot of producers start off as DJs, so their live show usually follows that sort of spontaneous, semi-improvised format. But when your music isn’t designed for the dancefloor and you can’t feasibly recreate it live, how are you supposed to perform it? Do you just sit down on stage in front of your laptop and press play? Daft Punk seem to have found the answer in 2006, which I’ve written about elsewhere: you create an arena-sized audiovisual experience. But, when you do that, you have to plan everything out in advance, and if you’re a DJ, that makes you nervous. So there’s this interesting sort of cognitive dissonance you have to navigate within the scene, and you can get a lot of grief if people think you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

I will state unequivocally that, for my money, Amon Tobin is the greatest DJ in the universe. But ISAM Live is about as far from live DJing as you can get. The set is a blocky expanse of cubes covered in techy, psychedelic projection-mapped video, and Tobin is up there in his control pod pressing buttons that are presumably connected to something, but when you get right down to it, you’re not watching something spontaneous — you’re watching a tightly rehearsed performance. This might not seem strange to someone with your background, but remember that most electronic musicians start as DJs, so for them, this approach is highly counterintuitive. With ISAM Live, Tobin was at the forefront of a new take on live electronic music, one the broader scene still hasn’t quite wrapped its head around.

I’ve already written a lot, so at this point I should probably shut up and let the music (and video) speak for itself. I am extremely interested to hear what you make of all this.

— Matt

PS: ISAM Live includes the first encore from the performance, but both times I saw it (shut up, he toured with a beefed up version of the show a year later), he did a short DJ set as a second encore afterward. And, since I did claim earlier that he is the greatest DJ in the universe, I’m also going to have you listen to that second encore from the second version of the ISAM Live tour, which was released as a free download. It’s got stuff from other artists, but it’s mostly tracks by Two Fingers, a side project of Tobin’s where he takes all of the insane stuff he does in his solo career, like building a bunch of digital synthesizers from scratch, and makes straightup dancefloor devastators with it. God, I love Amon Tobin.

PPS: Check out the original artwork for ISAM. Like the final artwork and the artwork for the single ‘Surge’, it comes from an installation by visual artist Tessa Farmer called Control Over Nature, created specifically for the album. God, I love Amon Tobin.

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 2)

Eno

Dear Matthew:

This is a really cool album.

I mean, I know who Brian Eno is — he’s that guy who did all those albums that Music People like. But, apart from a cursory listen to Here Come the Warm Jets a few years ago, I don’t really have any experience with his music firsthand, unless you count my ongoing love affair with ‘Once in a Lifetime‘. That reputation always kind of preceded him, and I always figured he’d just be too arty for me, or something.

But, digging into this album, what I immediately noticed was what you meant by the album’s agelessness. I listened to the 2004 remaster, which probably helps, but you’re right — you could’ve told me that this came out last year and I would’ve believed you. Eno was unbelievably ahead of the curve, especially given what you’ve told me about his working methods. In his attempts to be more a sort of curator of sound than a musician himself, he set the mold for the careers of any number of modern producers who, in your phraseology, play people rather than instruments. Your new friend Dan the Automator springs to mind as a particularly apt example of this approach to music production.

I’m also reminded of the Kate Bush album you had me listen to, in that I’m seeing all kinds of groundwork for modern music I’m already really into. Acts like Amon Tobin, Four Tet, Sigur Rós, and even arguably guys like Flying Lotus or J Dilla — they’ve built entire careers on the foundation provided by tracks like ‘Sky Saw’ and ‘In Dark Trees’. Most of these guys work primarily with samples rather than live musicians, but I think that means the Eno paradigm actually applies even more.

(‘In Dark Trees’ actually gave me the most incredible feeling of déjà vu when it came on, although I soon realized that’s because it appears in Electroma, Daft Punk’s 2006 arthouse film about two robots who want to become human.)

My only complaint about this album is that a lot of the songs seem … unfinished. A lot of tracks — usually the shorter ones, but not exclusively — feel more like demos than like polished final versions. Maybe it’s because I’m used to modern guys like the Chemical Brothers who will take a good musical idea and run it into the ground for twelve minutes at a time, but a good two thirds of the songs on this album feel like they end too soon. I feel like I’m just starting to sink my teeth into them, and then they stop. That’s actually probably the giveaway for dating this album: had it come out last year, it would probably be at least an hour long.

Anyway, congratulations. I think you’ve found your first album to hook me the same way Deltron 3030 and Wrong hooked you. Now! To sit back and wait for it to spring to mind unbidden.

— Matt

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 1)

Eno

Dear Matt,

This week, you’ll be diving into the definitive album by a figure with whom you have a passing familiarity already: Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

To our generation, Eno’s best-known creation is probably this sound, here. Insofar as his name means anything, it’s probably ‘massively prestigious record producer.’ Eno helped to craft some of the most acclaimed albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, amongst others.

But, at the time of Another Green World, he was not yet the Eno of legend. This was five years before Remain in Light, and 12 years before The Joshua Tree. In 1975, Eno’s career basically consisted of two albums as a synth player with Roxy Music and a couple of pretty straightforwardly glam rock solo albums — which, by the way, have two of the most fantastic titles ever: Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Another Green World was a turning point for Eno in that it was the album where he stopped focussing on writing songs, and started focussing on making rules, instead. Reading about the way this album was made is just maddening: Eno basically hired a bunch of top-flight musicians (John Cale on viola, Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums…) and invited them into the studio without having written any music.

Then, they’d just try stuff. Eno would impose arbitrary rules, like ‘the microphones will hang from the ceiling, today,’ and he’d hope like hell that it wasn’t all a tremendous waste of money.

I have no idea how those methods could have resulted in this album. Another Green World is an astonishing feat of musical craftsmanship. It is unbelievably detailed; even in comparatively minimalistic tracks like ‘Zawinul/Lava,’ there’s so much going on in the background to produce musical tension.

Also, the fact that Eno abandoned all traditional methods of making an album might account for why Another Green World is so weirdly ageless. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell what decade it was made in if I didn’t already know.

This will also conveniently serve as your introduction to a figure you’ll be hearing more from in the near future: King Crimson’s guitarist and leader Robert Fripp. I love King Crimson, but when I just want to hear Fripp playing the stuffing out of his instrument, I’m most likely to put on a Brian Eno album. Because, Robert Fripp’s ability to play the guitar is second only to Brian Eno’s ability to play Robert Fripp.

That’s what makes Eno kind of unique in all of music. He describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ (he even tried to get that listed as his occupation on his passport), but he’s been able to spearhead some of the most staggering albums of the past fifty years, just through the sheer power of lateral thinking and clever leadership.

By the way, the small crisis I seem to have experienced after Belle and Sebastian failed to knock me flat has basically passed. You mentioned to me shortly after I posted my response that Belle and Sebastian isn’t the kind of band that does knock you flat on the first listen; it takes a while to sink in. After a couple more listens, I can feel it happening already, and I have renewed faith in my ability to appreciate new music.

I bring that up mostly because Another Green World is very much the same in that way. It took me years to think of this as anything more than ‘fairly good.’ I don’t know another album that benefits more from living with it for a while. So, listen to it once and tell me what you think. Then maybe ignore it for a bit and whenever it comes to mind unbidden, try again.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve been looking for an album that will grab you by the throat and start you up on new and unexpected musical journeys. This is not going to be that album. But, I’m pretty confident that, given your other tastes, you’ll eventually love this.

— Matthew

Die Antwoord: selected videography (pt. 2)

dieantwoord

Dear Matt:

Ehhhhhhhhhhhh.

Alright. So, here’s how I approached this. When I fired up your playlist, I decided to just let it run, and resist the urge to Google everything. I figured, let’s just allow this to be a pure encounter, informed only by a half-remembered read of your assignment four busy days ago. I’ll just hit the fullscreen button, let Die Antwoord flow through me unmediated, and scribble down a few notes as I go.

Those notes look like the hastily scrawled confessions of a hallucinating trainspotter. It is a testament to the alienating weirdness of Die Antwoord that I appear to have descended into a dissociative state about midway through your playlist.

Honestly, I am as baffled by this music now as I was last night when I listened to it, and I’m spinning my wheels here because I don’t know what to say. I feel like I’m missing a huge chunk of the context for this, and I’m pissed off at Die Antwoord because I’m certain this is by design.

I have one potentially interesting thought, and it is about the tiring question of whether or not any of this is real. One of the many questions I posed to my future self in my scribblings on this viewing was “are those real scorpions?” That is, of course, regarding the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers,” on which Ninja raps: “Next time you ask me is it real, I’m gonna punch you in the face.”

Trouble is, with the way that Die Antwoord present themselves, “Is it real?” is a worthwhile question that everybody’s obviously going to be asking, as regards both the scorpions and the band itself. This is a move that’s been pulled before. It’s a classic Glass Onion — you bait your audience with deliberately cryptic art, then you mock them for trying too hard.

There was a time when I would have had the patience for this. Maybe sometime I will again. Don’t get me wrong: there were plenty of moments when I could barely pull myself away from the screen to make notes. But, it’s late and I’m frustrated and right now I kind of feel the same way about this that I do about the Stockhausen I used to listen to in high school: cut the performance art bullshit and make some goddamn music.

I take no pleasure in disliking things. It makes me feel ignorant. This one will require a revisit.

— Matthew

Die Antwoord: selected videography (pt. 1)

dieantwoord

Dear Matthew:

I just watched an insane movie called Chappie, so this week you’re going to listen to some Die Antwoord.

Die Antwoord (‘the answer’) are hard to describe. They’re usually referred to as a ‘rap-rave’ group, but that really only scratches the surface. The principle members, Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, are two white South African lowlifes who espouse the idea of ‘zef’, a Afrikaans slang term that means something like a white equivalent of ‘ghetto fabulous’. Along with the mysterious (and possibly apocryphal) DJ Hi-Tek, they make over-the-top club rap in a mix of English and Afrikaans that embraces every ridiculous trope of the genre — all accompanied by some of the most insane music videos ever committed to film.

…except that’s not really the whole story either. Digging beyond the initial weirdness yields no answers, only more weirdness. Ninja and Yo-Landi seem to have a Jack and Meg White sort of relationship — they have a daughter, but it’s not really clear if they’re dating, if they ever have dated, or even when they first met. They’ve both been involved in various other hip hop and art projects before Die Antwoord, and the pair seem to have both attended and later dropped out of art school at some point. Zef doesn’t seem to have really even been a thing before Die Antwoord, or at least not as they portray it. When the band was first blowing up, all of this led a lot of music journalists to write a lot of tiring essays about what Die Antwoord actually is. Is it a prank? Is it performance art? Is it insensitive cultural appropriation? Are they even a ‘real band’? What does ‘real band’ even mean? Do any of these questions matter to anyone who isn’t a music journalist?

I have my own thoughts on Die Antwoord — and even more on the absolutely bonkers aforementioned Neill Blomkamp film in which they star as ‘themselves’ — but I’m interested in hearing yours. Of course, if I just had you listen to an album, you’d be missing out on probably the most striking component of the band, which is their videos. So, in lieu of an album, I’ve put together a selected videography for you to peruse. (A viewing of Chappie afterward is optional, but encouraged.)

Sit back. Relax. Set your YouTube window to fullscreen. And hold on tight.

— Matt

Beardyman: live in concert (pt. 2)

beardyman-live

Dear Matt:

What do you mean I couldn’t get anybody else to go see Magma with me? I’ve got tons of friends who like Magma! Scads, even! I wish you could meet them, but they all live in Canada. Wait…

Beardyman was fun. Really, it was a great show and I had a good time. But, dear god I am a walking cadaver today. As you’ll no doubt be acutely aware yourself, the concert ended after 1 AM — on a Wednesday night. I am writing this in stolen moments during coffee/lunch breaks, animated only by a truly monstrous amount of caffeine. Be informed that my present exhaustion, and the fact that I am a young/old man who Just Cannot Handle This Kind of Thing, is probably colouring my recollections of the concert.

Okay.

Let me start by enthusing about the Beardytron 5000. This contraption is every musician’s dream. It’s what Frank Zappa thought he’d found when he discovered the Synclavier. “It’s my nightmare,” said Beardyman last night, “but it’s also set me free.”

That’s a familiar sentiment to anybody who has ever played an instrument. I remember the frustration from my years as a trumpet student: I knew how I wanted the music on the page in front of me to sound, but the tool at my disposal was a difficult, primitive piece of 19th-century technology — basically, a metal tube that you make fart noises into.

The metaphor I use to explain this sometimes is that playing an instrument is like paying rent. Your rent payment is the thing that allows you to continue living in your apartment. But, it can also be the obstacle that prevents you from continuing to live in your apartment. Likewise, instruments are the things that allow you to make music, but they’re simultaneously the thing that comes between your musical vision and the actual sound.

When Beardyman says that the Beardytron has set him free, he means rent-free. In the context of my metaphor. God, I’m tired.

But, let’s focus for a second on the first part of Beardyman’s explanation: “It’s my nightmare.” He said that because for all it’s awesomeness, the Beardytron is still a ludicrous, cobbled-together Rube Goldberg machine (with a name straight out of Calvin and Hobbes) that sometimes does not work.

Last night, there were at least two instances where the Beardytron was misbehaving sufficiently for its maker to comment on it. They may have been my favourite parts of the night, because those moments emphasized the extent to which Beardyman is a musical Doc Brown: undoubtedly a genius, but an incredibly silly one whose unlikely inventions sometimes blow up in his face.

That’s what makes Beardyman fun — not just that he’s a fantastic musician (good lord, can this man beatbox), but that he’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to get all those beats out of his head and into the world.

All the same, there were moments where this concert got tiresome for me. As you know, my attitude towards dancing is somewhat along the lines of Taber, Alberta. So, I spent the concert standing with the (reassuringly large) contingent of people who’d rather just listen.

Occasionally, I found myself thinking that I was going about this all wrong. Dance music is sometimes of only limited interest to people standing still. But equally often, I would look down at that writhing horde, dancing to a beat constructed from Beardyman’s ramblings about Bryan Adams and Celine Dion killing the Queen, and think: “What are you even doing? What is this music even for?”

And then I stopped thinking, and I felt just fine.

—Matthew