30 Years of Italo-Disco

28 08 2014

Michelle Pfeiffer Grease II Cool RiderIsn’t it funny how musical styles come and go? I remember 1950s rock ‘n’ roll being popular when I was growing up in the early ’80s, mainly because of Grease and Grease II. Michelle Pfeiffer straddling a ladder was one of my most cherished memories (and her electrocuting Christopher Walken to death in Batman Returns was perhaps my favourite scene in cinematic history). Everything ’50s was cool then, from the turned-up cuffs to the white socks. One of the first songs I learned to sing was ‘Rock Around The Clock’, but that was in 1982, long after the original song had been played on the radio, let alone penned. I was flooded with images of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Boy George. The same era had a peculiar dance beat which nobody had ever heard before—a 4-4 dance beat–with synthesiser arrangements.

In the early ’80s a new sound flooded the dance clubs of Europe and trickled down to America (as usual—new sounds happen in Europe first). It was a style of dance music with a rich, heavy, persistent bassline and simple yet elegant melody. It originated in Italy, with musicians like Giorgio Moroder, who produced music not only for Donna Summer, but also for films like Midnight Express and iconic ’80s fantasy films like The Never Ending Story. It clearly derived from 1970s disco, but reinvented itself with modern synthesisers. It became known as Italo-disco.

Probably my favourite italo-disco tune is ‘Hypnotic Tango’, by My Mine:

Isn’t it absolutely gorgeous?

One of my other favourite italo-disco tunes is ‘Orient Express’, by Wish Key:

Isn’t that the most seductive dance tune you’ve ever heard?

Glass Candy basically aced the whole italo-disco revival with the following tune:

How beautiful is that? Ida No, the singer of Glass Candy, is totally awesome.

New italo-disco style music is being created by Sally Shapiro:

Absolutely sublime.

Italo-disco is a gorgeous dance style. You just have to love dance, melody, and rhythm.

Advertisements




Austra

18 01 2012

I think I may have discovered my new favourite band. That is hard for me to say, since Erasure have occupied the most prominent setting in my crown of musical gems since 1995. That may soon change. Their competitor is Austra, a synthpop/darkwave/indie electronica band from Toronto who just released their debut album, Feel It Break, last year. (Yes, I know, as usual I am late to the game.) However I am not yet ready to give the number one position to Austra, simply because Erasure have produced fourteen studio albums, and I have only heard one by Austra, but if they keep up the amazing work, they very well could earn that place. Besides, a tie between the two bands isn’t entirely out of the question.

OK, so you want to know what the hype is all about, don’t you? It’s about their coherent, well-developed style, their professional-sounding technical wizardry, their eerily fun dance sensibility, lead singer Katie Stelmanis’s chillingly pure, cold voice, their artistically spooky themes, their rich harmonies, their otherworldly melodies. All of these in combination produce a lush, full, satisfying sonic experience. Listening to their debut album, Feel It Break, one imagines opening up a book of occult lore and exploring the hidden mysteries within. I would liken them to a cross between Florence and the Machine, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and Karin Dreijer of The Knife and Fever Ray. But at least as creepy as Karin Dreijer. Finally, an album that sounds weirdly Scandinavian without getting mired in slow, dissonant, undanceable experimentalism. It’s musically exploratory, thematically fascinating, and fun to dance to.

Check out the video for their single Spellwork, taken from the debut album. In my opinion is encapsulates the overall deliciously spooky theme of the work:

This song gives me goosebumps. One thing that stands out is the strong verse-chorus structure characteristic of pop songs—but it’s all done in such a beautifully strange and ethereal way that it doesn’t sound commercial or formulaic. Stelmanis’s eerily quavering vocals are spot-on, the melody soars like some dark-winged bird over bare tree branches, and those rich harmonies complete the vocal arrangements. And those layers upon layers of tinkling synthesisers just sweep you away into a glittering fairy world of yore. I can’t get enough of the cryptic occult references, either. Lots of Youtube commenters have said that the video is “weird”, but it’s supposed to be. The song is about pagan rituals (or so I think), so obviously the video reflects that. It’s so enticing because it’s so arcane.

Then there is the light, bright, beautiful synthpop gem Lose It. This is probably as pure, pretty, and pristine as synthpop can get, and Austra have distilled the essence of the genre in this song, and yet we haven’t quite heard synthpop done in such a fresh, clever way before. At least I don’t think so. Just have a listen:

Isn’t that just delightful? It makes me pee my pants. And it makes me pregnant. With twins. The most remarkable thing about this song, I think, is the perfect harmony between Stelmanis and the background singers in the chorus. Together, they create this plaintive, crystal-clear, birdlike song of hope and sorrow. It almost sounds like Enya in a strange way, but a cool, synthpoppy Enya. Delish.

OK, on to our last video. Showing their ability to master a range of synthpop sub-genres, Austra reveal their goth goth side in this video for their single Beat and the Pulse, and boy is it sexy. Be forewarned: I don’t do censorship, so this video is not safe for work! (That means it’s NSFW):

So what did ya think?? In my opinion, This is the difference between pornography and erotica. The models are portrayed in a seductive, tasteful manner, and they exude a mysterious power. It’s not crass and exploitative; it’s subtle and stylish. Besides, listen to the pulsating bassline that suddenly creeps into your ears when the beat kicks in. And, again, that rich texture of harmonies fills out the song and sends chills down one’s spine. This is dark, sinister synthpop at its finest.

Speaking of weird Scandinavian-sounding dance music, compare Austra to Karin Dreijer when Dreijer accepted the award for best dance artist on behalf of her band Fever Ray at this Swedish music awards ceremony:

Kooky! And fabulous. Now that we’ve established that both Austra and Fever Ray are cool, creative bands with a statement to make, it’s time to ask the question: which one is weirder? All that matters is that they are weird, and there’s a rhyme and reason to it, even if the typical Beyonce-glamoured American can’t see past his milquetoast Top 40 music collection. Consider this Youtube commenter’s post about the above Fever Ray video: “Its unfortunate most people cannot understand the statement of the absurdity of award shows, come up, make a stupid speech and say thank you within 20 seconds and walk off stage for the next commercial, absolutely meaningless. If viewers can only see the surface level and think ‘Man that lady is weird, whats with the face?’, they need to start digging deeper past the surface [sic]”. So true. So, so true. I cannot improve upon that observation, except to say that the average American isn’t into the musical creativity of artists like Fever Ray and Austra, because they’re only exposed to the commercially successful acts.

Anyway, I haven’t written about a cool band in a while, so when I discovered Austra I just knew I had to say something about them and spread the word. I entreat you to do the same. Spread the word. As you would your seed. No, just kidding. Sort of. I can’t wait to hear their next album! I’m thinking of writing about new releases by a few other bands who make me want to diddle myself, like Glass Candy and Chromatics, so keep visiting this blog. (Oh, and I’m posting another instalment of the fabulous lady-comic Julie Gentron and the Lady League very soon, so look for that too.) So go out and buy Austra’s debut album Feel It Break—make sure it’s the deluxe version—and support one of Canada’s most talented and interesting musical products of recent times. (The album was released by Domino or Paper Bag—can’t remember which—and it’s on iTunes, of course.)





Tomorrow’s World

9 10 2011

I have been waiting for this day for four years, yet somehow it feels like just another release date. I guess I’m showing my age. Erasure have released Tomorrow’s World, named after the British 1980s science documentary series. And I have to say, with the help of Frankmusik, the album is awash in smooth, modern dance sensibility. Well, two-thirds of it, at least. The other third is a little bit more anchored in the soul-gospel balladry which places focus on lead singer Andy Bell’s distinctly bold voice. But, then, his voice soars in the dance tunes, too. The strength of the album is in how Andy’s voice–which sounds particularly strong and stable–glides atop the chic dance grooves.

Consider the track “I Lose Myself”, with its hard, deliberate rhythm and rich, unabashed vocals:

If you ask me, it sounds like a well-polished, modern twist on early New Order. But it hasn’t really been done before; it’s a new kind of fierce dance-pop. (By the way, New Order’s lead singer, Bernard Sumner, is releasing an electronic album soon.)

Now consider the more vulnerable sound of “Be With You”, characterized by an irresistibly loping beat and Andy’s longing, soaring voice:

This is the way ballads should sound: originally conceived to be slow, but re-interpreted as a dance track to inject a throbbing energy which only elevates the soulful vocals.

Then there is “A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot”, the ultimate cynical commentary on the vapidity of British club culture in the 2010s:

This song is like “I Lose Myself” in its intense, driving rhythm, but it is a little bit ironic how it criticizes the banality of modern British dance music while co-opting that same style and creating a much more lush, melodic, tightly-structured, tuneful sound–which is the way dance music should sound anyway.

Finally, we arrive at my favourite track, “Fill Us With Fire”. I like this track in particular because of my spiritual bent. (I believe in something greater than myself, but ultimately what matters is how we treat one another. Indeed, for me, that is the purpose of spirituality.) It is a rumination on the woes of humankind and a plea for rationality and self-reflection. At the same time, it doesn’t sound too didactic. It is truly a treat for the ears and the mind:

Something about this song evokes climbing a ladder. As I listen to the verse, then the bridge, and then, finally, the chorus, it feels as if I am ascending into a higher place. It is one of Erasure’s most divinely contemplative compositions, in my opinion. It is just sublime.

So that is the sound of Erasure circa 2011. The production was done by Frankmusik , a highly talented and emerging electronic dance artist. And we know the name-brand sound ofVince Clarke, a skilled and timeless “tone-smith” who creates the instrumental soundscape of Erasure, not to mention his bandmate Andy Bell, a prominent songwriter and vocalist. I cannot describe to you the amazing talent produced by Mute, which includes artists like Moby and Goldfrapp. Their skils combined, these individuals should make you shit tears of joy. Honestly.