Brace yourself. Death Grips are a 3-piece punk/electro/hip-hop group based out of Sacremento since 2010. Fronted by the enigmatic, fire-breathing dragon, vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, these dudes stormed the universe with unabashed reckless abandon. Despite being technically “hip-hop”, they’re as punk as a band can get without residing in a street gutter, going against every imaginable grain of social and economic norm since their earliest release. Death Grips absolutely refuse to be tainted, altered, strong-armed, or diluted – be it record labels, contracts, music critics, social norms… anything. They say what the want, when they want to, and to any audience. Backed by the relentless onslaught of Zach Hill’s spastic drumming/programming and Andy “Flatlander” Morin’s electro/noise-crafting wizardry, these 3 create a perfect storm of raw, abrasive, ear-catching brutality. Over the years, Death Grips have self-leaked their albums, independently created their music videos, paid no heed to record deal contracts, hosted no-shows where they play their music overhead with nothing but an unmanned drum kit on stage, and performed live with Hill’s drumming Skyped in from somewhere outside the venue. The only facet that matches their loose-cannon deviance is their artistic brilliance, with some of the most hard-hitting and unmistakably memorable sounds and vocal phrasing out there.
Since incarnation, Death Grips have unleashed 4 main releases. “Exmilitary”, their amazing debut, showcases some of their most caustic sounds and dizzying lyrical wordplay by MC Ride, perhaps best exemplified by their iconic single “Guillotine (It Goes Yah)” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Orlbo9WkZ2E). Sophomore album “The Money Store” is my personal favourite, providing their most refined, pop-hinting effort to date, with palatable ear-hooking sample designs by Flantlander. 2012’s noise-heavy “No Love Deep Web” was wrought in controversy, directly breaching contractual agreements with record label Epic and resulting in Death Grips (to absolutely zero dismay) being dropped and having their website temporarily suspended; not to mention the uncensored image of male genitalia as the original cover. Despite all this drama, “No Love Deep Web” is still an entertaining listen. Last year, Death Grips unexpectedly leaked a full new album “Government Plates”, their most experimental to date and a worthy addition to their amassing discography. Pondering the erratic, ever-uncertain future of Death Grips, I can’t help but recall the instant classic film quote from “The Place Beyond The Pines”: “If you ride like lighting, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”
Favourite track: Get Got (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SW9H1b7zXUY)… And the rest of the album follows suit.
I Break Horses are a Swedish electro/dream-pop duo signed to the tasteful UK label Bella Union. Forming in 2008, singer/keyboardist Maria Lindén and guitarist/programmer Fredrik Balck are experts at crafting pulsing, textured intensity with memorable pop-leaning melody that stampedes out of your speakers and straight into your metaphorical heart. With a unique ear for shoegazing synths both classic and new, minimal but carefully calculated digital drumming, and the airy, ghost-like voice of Lindén swooping in and out of the dense soundscapes, I Break Horses provide the perfect theme songs for mach-speed air travel or deep space exploration.
Debut 2011 LP “Hearts”, the better of their two releases, offers a terrific batch of songs, dripping in heartache, nostalgia and angst. This year’s follow-up album “Chiaroscuro” offers a similar esthetic, while being slightly removed from the driving intensity of its predecessor.
Favourite track: Hearts (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF6bQWXvhKw)… Nature in fast forward.
Phantogram is an electronic pop duo from New York consisting of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter. Following in the footsteps of indie-electro acts like The Postal Service and M83, Phantogram spice things up with trip-hop leaning beats and sampling, driving guitars, intergalactic keyboards and stellar pop-hook melodies and phrasing. In my mind there’s 2 distinct sides to Phantogram, as Barthel and Carter split vocal duties at roughly a 2:1 ratio. Songs led by Barthel are definitely in the top half of their work, offering greater structural variability, a broader vocal range, catchier motifs, and just straight-up technically superior singing. When I think of Phantogram, I think of Barthel’s Phantogram. In general, the other batch of tunes are more basic and repetitive, almost as though they intentionally simplified Carter’s songs to make their live performance easier (perhaps partly because simultaneously playing guitar and singing is a lot harder than most musicians make it look). Buuuut I hate to be too critical – lets just say his proficiencies at programming and guitar playing are more Carter’s forte, and constitute a crucial element of the beauty of Phantogram.
Since forming in 2007, Phantogram have released 2 stellar LPs “Eyelid Movies” and brand-new “Voices”, as well as noteworthy EP “Nightlife”.
Favourite track: Mouthful of Diamonds (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F39CFE_ISy4)… Wishing upon a star, just before it supernovas.
Moving Units originated as a 3-piece, LA-based post-punk band in 2001. The issue with 3-piece bands is that it’s all fine and dandy adding layer after layer of guitars, harmony vocals and glockenspiel in-studio, but unless you can fork up the dough to hire a 10 piece backing ensemble (such as Bon Iver’s most recent world tour), your live show is usually doomed to sound like a thin, abridged version of yourself. This is not the case with Moving Units – a group that as mastered the art of making each instrument count, amassing to a sum greater than its parts both on record and in your local dive venue. With a we-could-care-less demeanor, Moving Units arrive shirtless at the party, help themselves to someone else’s 6-pack, walk straight to the stereo and take over.
The further along one traverses in Moving Units’ discography, the fewer original members remain and consequently the greater the deviation from their addictive foot-tapping sound. However, each album has its artistic merit and is, for the most part, worth a gander. Their debut self-titled EP is by far my most listened-to EP of any artist, boasting a punchy mix of insanely groovy bass lines, slick high-neck guitar work, iconic surface-level phrase chants, and tight, hyperactive drums. Following LPs “Dangerous Dreams” and “Hexes for Exes” dare to introduce fresh blood, new instrumentation and a wider variety of drunken disco moodiness, while still offering some killer hits (try “Available”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-eMlA-RFCw). Their latest, “Neurotic Exotic” represents the last man standing, with singer/guitarist Blake Miller the only original member remaining.
Favourite track: Melodrama (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDpWIY6QvGQ)… Can music wear a leather jacket and sun glasses?
How To Dress Well is the moniker of American electro-R&B artist Tom Krell. Visualize inside your frontal cortex a 20-something Caucasian male Mariah Carey and Brandy fanatic with a handful of basic recording equipment and a whole lot of heart – that would be Krell. I remember listening to various standout tracks from his debut album “Love Remains”, confusedly thinking my speakers had blown as the crescendos of his heartfelt beltings became buried in the distorted buzz of an overloaded, clipping microphone. However, as I realized this feature was a deliberate engineering decision, I grew to love the elegance and passion of his music, embracing this unique lo-fi, DIY production technique as an iconic textural feature accompanying his sound.
Since 2009, How To Dress Well has put forth 2 solid LPs, a handful of EPs, and the odd remix and album featurette. His debut album, the iconic and genre-defining “Love Remains” is a raw and wholly unabashed expression of his guiltiest pleasures, dirtiest secrets and deepest desires. 2012 sophomore LP “Total Loss” showcases similarly unbridled emotion with a bit of an orchestral spit shine – a fantastic listen. Krell has also lent his talent to the likes of Active Child (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kORbIHcBO_c) and Jacques Greene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9uVY_7CB0w), remixed/covered Matthew Dear and Elite Gymnastics, as well as had his tracks reworked by killer electro artists such as Pariah, Holy Other and Star Slinger (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdXLxidMtrc). Recently resurfacing with a stellar new track “Words I Don’t Remember” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbOCLEIKZOo), it appears new heart strings are reverberating in anticipation of a 3rd album expected this summer.
Favourite track: Suicide Dream 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cs_PYSW7CWY)… Like your favourite R&B icon singing from the bottom of a frigid well.
Ifan Dafydd is a Welsh producer and singer who has released through various UK-based labels like Push & Run, Recordiau Lliwgar and Rough Trade since 2011. With a humble but consistently refreshing bundle of tight-knit tracks, Ifan puts his pants on one leg at a time and gestates 2.6 gorgeous songs per year on average. Starting with a glitchy, hypnotic rework of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uO6r6liYTyg) and original track “Miranda” (free download here: http://www.xlr8r.com/mp3/2011/10/miranda), he meticulously homogenizes flavours of R&B, post-dub, soul and indie electronica. With serpentine sampling techniques featuring organic drum beats, scrapbook vocal snippets and the occasional nice little piano diddly, Ifan’s take on the genre is incredibly pleasurable to my cochleae.
Pictured above are my favourite of his EPs: 2012’s “Treehouse” and his 2-song collaborative contribution to “Y Record Las” with the talented Alys Williams (who, interestingly, competed on BBC’s “The Voice” TV show). Furthering his spirit of team work and benevolence, Ifan has made available a free download of his new track with like-minded producer Catching Flies called “Don’t Know How” (https://soundcloud.com/catchingfliesmusic/catching-flies-ifan-dafydd-1), as well as crafted a scrumptious remix for electro labelmates Bodhi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz_2ogweZoI). And that is about all I know regarding Ifan Dafydd.
Favourite track: To Me (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voY3dYyzado)… Is that a… violin?
The Notwist are a 4-piece indie-electronic group based out of Germany since the late 80s. I believe they are amongst the most classy, innovative and proficient indie bands in the world today. With origins in grunge and post-metal, they have mellowed-out and matured into experts of composition, arrangement and production of meticulously-wrought music. Fronted by the crackled, silky voice of Markus Acher, The Notwist reaches further, holds closer, and breathes deeper than just about every other act out there.
I consider the origins of modern-day Notwist sound to be within their monumental 2002 release “Neon Golden”, an album that has been garnished with numerous well-deserved accolades and frequently mentioned as one of the most important pieces of this genre. Featuring 10 songs of overwhelming beauty and elegance, it represents the flawless integration of the highlights of indie rock, electro programming and wind ensemble arrangement. In a moment, the listener is spirited away to a land of nostalgic familiarity, even when experiencing The Notwist for the first time. 2008’s excellent follow-up LP “The Devil, You + Me”, many years in the making, stands as a natural extension of their temperament, with moments pushing further into their driving rock roots. Update: “Close to the Glass”, their much-anticipated new album via Sub Pop Records, is now out and well worth the wait.
Actively involved in other aspects of the German music scene, members of The Notwist also collaborate in notable acts such as Lali Puna, Ms. John Soda and Console, as well as occasionally crafting original sound tracks for film. It’s apparent other artists feel similarly about The Notwist, as they’ve managed to acquire standout remixes by the likes of Panda Bear (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2h4IrrFIoU), and Four Tet & Caribou (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8IP1G-2q8I).
Favourite song: Consequence (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXX42Wv7dWI)… couldn’t think of a better closing statement.
Real Estate are an indie rock band based out of New Jersey since the summer of 2008. Conglomerating a pick-pocket sample of talented musicians from other groups (guitarist/singer Martin Courtney once of Titus Andronicus, guitar wizard Matt Mondanile of Ducktails and bassist Alex Bleeker), Real Estate has steadily become one of the most recognizable and proficient of the genre. Flawlessly embodying the esthetic of a midsummer lackadaisical poolside daytime doze in a lawn chair recliner, listening to Real Estate helps to set your troubles aside for a while. They’re the vibe of having work deadlines, bills to pay and a million errands waiting, but then looking out your window at the blue sky, succumbing and saying ah what the hell as you grab your sun glasses and a frisbee and head to the beach. Carefree cool guys to the core, Real Estate strip it down to deliver a pretty blend of dancing guitar lines, distinct pop melody, extended jams and honest lyrics. Without a care in the world, they play a similarly nonchalant show in front of backyard gatherings, all-you-can-eat diners, or in front of thousands at most major indie festivals out there.
Since sauntering out of the hot tub and into a recording studio, Real Estate have released 3 LPs, an EP and a batch of singles. Their debut self-titled effort is a pleasant lo-fi introduction to their chilled-out style that probably works best as a complement to their later work. Follow-up round-house kick LP, 2011’s “Days”, is a phenomenal step in the right song-writing and engineering direction, featuring some of the catchiest indie songs written in years and since praised with universal acclaim. Today Real Estate released their latest album “Atlas”, a mellow chaser with perhaps their best song yet (“Talking Backwards”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgsdblVq8wo). If you like what your ears are hearing, I recommend sampling the sonic half-brother of Real Estate, the aforementioned “Ducktails” project (particularly 2013’s “The Flower Lane” LP – try “Sedan Magic”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAtwvjUvivI).
Favourite track: All The Same (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqIp5Pqt9wc)… Yeah, doesn’t get much better than this.