Frequencies: Year in Review 2007

Frequencies: Year in Review 2007
1. Justice † (Ed Banger)
Though few would have predicted it last January, the breakout success story of 2007 belongs to Parisian electro-house duo Justice. They are the first European electronic act to win over North America in almost a decade. To date, they’ve sold over 30,000 copies of † in the U.S., with an extra 7,000 in Canada, an impressive feat for unapologetically electronic album. It’s a feat the French dance circuit hasn’t managed on this continent since Daft Punk. 28-year-old Gaspard Augé and 25-year-old Xavier De Rosnay may have started off the year as the highlights of a Eurocentric sub-genre spearheaded by the Ed Banger crew, but 12 months later their fingerprints are all over the globe. Gaspard Augé is as surprised as anyone else. "Since the album came out, everything’s turned out much better than what we were expecting,” he says on a rare break back home in Paris. Augé himself is a surprise; he doesn’t sound anything like the guy you’d expect to make an album like †. In person, he’s tentative to the point of stuttering, and even though this interview was conducted partially in his native French, he doesn’t seem comfortable yet talking about himself or the music. But he’s reticent of the ubiquitous Daft Punk allusions.

"It’s a comparison that’s beginning to get a bit tiresome, because it seems that in every interview we do we’re obligated to discuss this,” he complains. "We really have little to do with Daft Punk and that scene, even though we are a pair, we are French, we have the same manager [Pedro Winter, owner of Ed Banger records], and we make electronic music, but the comparison ends there. Much of this first wave of French Touch electronic music here, with Daft Punk, was based on filter disco, which was more of the same process for every producer working here. But I don’t think we’re making the same music.”

Justice don’t make the same music as Daft Punk, but they are evolving French house music for the 21st century. The first wave of French Touch — the term used to bring together the French dance explosion of the mid- to late ’90s — filtered the sexiest side of British house through edgy German techno, and lumped it all together with the funkiness of American breaks. "After the first wave of French Touch,” Augé explains, "there was a turn to techno that was more minimal and purist in design. I think people in France and Europe are a bit tired of this serious and intelligent music. Finally, people just want to be entertained, and this is also what we want to do for people.”

In this light, Justice is very much a product of the post-electroclash era, in that they’ve taken the cross-continental melting pot that was the original French Touch and updated it with rock’s cocky riffage, electro’s brittle percussion, and a dash of ’80s synth-pop. Justice has also made ample use of the micro-sampling techniques articulated by Montreal’s Akufen and fellow Parisian Jackson & His Computer Band, both of whom offer solid precursors to the cut-up, chunky aesthetic underlying the duo’s production style. But Justice’s popularity isn’t just a matter of producing first-rate dance music. They’ve become a cultural phenomenon, able to transcend the club circuit and speak to the primal sense of imagination and unexpectedness that compels every music fan’s excitement.

"It’s bizarre, even when we play in clubs,” says Augé, "people don’t come to dance but like they’re attending a concert, even though we’re not doing anything more special than spinning records. It’s different for the live show, because we have a big set-up and it’s better designed for concert halls, but that doesn’t really affect people’s reactions. For the last two or three years, the atmosphere around us at any showcase has been more rock than club.”

Though the duo ascribe to dance music’s intuition of burying their personalities, they fill the gap with an arresting mix of memorable iconography that’s both alienating and timely. In an era where the perception of mainstream media and culture is that presentation is everything, Justice are happy to cultivate the markers of a bombastic rock band without delivering the rock itself. If anything, Justice has tapped into the pretence and cynicism of the current cultural angst: the message of modern music no longer matters; it’s the combination of image and sound that gets people, and those two factors must constantly evolve.

To their credit, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay know what they’re doing. The pair comes from a graphic design background, and their videos and live appearances demonstrate that they have their finger on the sense of spectacle.

Their delivery to North America has followed a disciplined, if imagistic, path. They debuted Stateside in 2006 with the "Waters of Nazareth” single, a raucous quasi-religious club banger that worked a church organ synth over the heavier-than-thou distortion of metal. "When we released the ‘Waters of Nazereth’ single,” Augé says, "it was just to give people something more radical, different. When we released ‘D.A.N.C.E.,’ it was more to warn people that the album is not going to be just club bangers, distorted noise, and cut-ups. There will also be a pop side to Justice.” The video for "D.A.N.C.E.” features over 500 animations dancing along the front of two t-shirts. It’s a simple and yet incredibly effective visual feat that complemented the inherent catchiness of the song perfectly. The song and video also served as an antidote to Justice’s previous work. "D.A.N.C.E.” took MTV by storm and became the driving force behind making the single a hit. The video worked much like "Da Funk’s” man in a dog suit walking around downtown New York.

This past October, when Justice appeared on Jimmy Kimmel live, they took the opportunity to stage a one-of-a-kind performance, which consisted of Augé and De Rosnay tuning the wavebands of a radio, as impersonators for Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Prince, Rick James, and Stevie Wonder formed a mock band to lip-sync their way through "D.A.N.C.E.” The performance has racked up more than 148,000 views to date on Youtube.

And then there’s the matter of that cross graces the cover of their debut album, which incidentally does not feature any words. On tour, that cross is planted front and centre, obscuring the duo with its size and brightness.

"In our opinion, electronic music in a club has the same reach as religious music in a church,” Augé explains. "It’s the music of our mass. So all the imagery and titles on the album feed into this sense of a religious experience. We’ve always had this idea that, in a club, our music should provide a kind of opening or clarity. It should lead people toward that light. And it’s funny, people come to see us expecting to dance, but in the end the feeling in the room is more like the kind of worship that happens at a rock concert, with everyone pumping their fists into the air. I think this is because, in our live shows, we integrate more emotional elements into our sets than the average club elements. We look to strike the right balance between energy and emotion.”

Their mass, so far, has been a wordless one. The presentation of personality, to this juncture, has been one of shape-shifting artfulness, a graphic design readily crafted to best suit whatever medium they have to tackle. The music, as always, has remained impeccable. Justice speaks to 2007 because they are manipulators of the senses; they are hedonists of sight and sound. Dimitri Nasrallah

2. LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver (DFA) In 2005, the eponymous debut from James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem stole the limelight in electronic and indie circles with its crossover dance-punk fusion. Sophomore effort Sound of Silver continued with almost unanimous critical acclaim for the DFA head honcho, keeping the essential trademarks that made "Daft Punk Is Playing In My House” and "Disco Infiltrator” so successful while refining the sound somewhat. Work such as "Someone Great” and the title track epitomise the greater sophistication this album takes in furthering LCD Soundsystem’s self-defining sound. Rob Woo

3. The Field From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
Just when everything seemed to be going the way of overly sensational blog-house, mash-up after mash-up that, in comparison, made pure tech-house seem bland and boring, Swedish act the Field released this gem. A producer of both amorphous, ambient tracks released off of Kompakt’s Pop Ambient compilations, and also a whack of dance floor-oriented tracks on twelve-inches, FHWGS combines both. It’s like the music you’d hear in a club mixed in with twisted and distorted samples of club ambience. Spacious and minimal percussion loops build into cyclonic rhythms smoothed over with warm synths and chopped up vocals. "The Deal,” with its distant church organ melody and echoed, chamber vocals is faith restoring for the electronic dance music purists. Stephanie Kale

4. Simian Mobile Disco Attack Decay Sustain Release (Interscope)
James Ford and Jas Shaw magically combined the wild energy of rock with the deep pulse of dance music as Simian Mobile Disco. The duo have made some killer tunes, and helped revolutionise club music through remix and production work for Air, Mystery Jets, Klaxons and Arctic Monkeys. Their 2007 album Attack Decay Sustain Release stood out largely because of the tracks "Tits and Acid,” "Hot Dog,” "Hustler,” and "It’s The Beat” with vocals by Ninja of the Go! Team. Their sound is simultaneously nostalgic, referencing early ’80s post punk new wave, and totally contemporary and hot. Marinko Jareb

5. Amon Tobin Foley Room (Ninja Tune)
Cooks know that ingredients make all the difference. For his sixth album, Amon Tobin moved his kitchen to Montreal and went organic, enlisting such local luminaries as Stef Schneider (Luyas, Bell Orchestre) and Patrick Watson. With his magnificent ear for nuance and most breathtaking arrangements to date, Tobin’s work on Foley Room is more molecular gastronomy than the usual slice and dice, so finely executed and so carefully reassembled that few of the contributing musicians recognise their own playing. Helen Spitzer

6. Gui Boratto Chromophobia (Kompakt)
From its rainbow-blasted album cover to its uplifting tracks, the ironically titled Chromophobia (fear of colours) rejoices in Sao Paulo’s sun-dappled wavelengths rather than the cold greys of Berlin or Detroit. Brazilian producer Gui Boratto combines skittery beats with trance-y synths, computer clicks and aerosol hisses with organic tones — and the results sound both cinematically widescreen and intricately Lilliputian. And that’s all before dude drops eight-and-a-half minute single-of-the-year competitor "Beautiful Life,” a rare vocal track that builds slowly and hypnotically into a post-raver anthem so epically pretty it couldn’t fail to collapse a crowded dance floor into an E-puddle upon climax. Joshua Ostroff

7. Holy Fuck LP (Young Turks)
It’s hard not to notice a band with a name as exclamatory as Holy Fuck. Like winning the lottery, the boys of Holy Fuck struck gold with their impromptu sets and spastic sound — so much so that they attracted attention immediately and moved up among the musical ranks with remarkable speed. Their full-length album, LP, has that astounding high energy, live feel that traditional electro acts fail to pull off. With their ferocious ability to combine the frenetic intensity of unrestrained drums and sprawling bass with the intoxicating allure of their gritty electronics, you are immediately taken for a spontaneous ride, as the words holy fuck spill from your mouth. Ashley Hampson

8. Dan Deacon Spiderman of the Rings (Carpark)
With his first full-length album, Baltimore’s bespectacled overgrown kid did his Wham City proud. First impressions are that you’re hearing a 33-RPM album played at 78 speed, but that’s just how his hyperactive digi-pop works. Oscillating synth tones move at warp speed, beats fall in and out of rave and rock patterns, the vocoder handy work rivals Battles and T-Pain, and Woody Woodpecker even handles the mic for his cameo. Overjoyed, overwhelming and overzealous, Spiderman of the Rings hits the stimulus square in the nose. Deacon’s mastered the art of feeling like a kid again all within the confines of his magical little laptop. And if there was a more explosive dance floor filler than "The Crystal Cat,” well, I didn’t hear it. Cam Lindsay

9. Chemical Brothers We Are the Night (Virgin)
The raw energy and underground grit of early work by Dust Brothers could not be reproduced, but lucky for us can still be found incarnated in the Chemical Brothers. While Ed and Tom first made music out of warehouses, the more highly produced We Are The Night is innovative and classic as ever. "Battle Scars” effectively bridges rock and electronic and features the honest Johnny Cash vocals of Willy Mason. Fat Lip of Pharcyde raps kid-friendly about dancing like a salmon on "The Salmon Dance.” "Saturate” is progressive and beautiful like a sunrise. This album is danceable, questioning, blissful, and groundbreaking. Sarah Ferguson

10. Ghislain Poirier No Ground Under (Ninja Tune)
M.I.A. might have the larger stage presence, but Ghislain Poirier has the better beats. In a year when electro beats from every corner of the world clashed and mashed, Poirier proved that his 2005 masterstroke Breakupdown was just the beginning. His wobbly bass and dancehall/soca rhythms invited a small army of MCs along for the ride — including Abdominal, Omnikrom and Face-T — but Poirier’s post-modern hip-hop grooves always speak louder than words. Several tracks here allude to the dark politics of the day, as the show-stealing Chicago MC Zulu urges here, the best antidote is to "fight the pressure with bass and treble.” Michael Barclay