• “Home of Metal”

    RIDING THE IRON HORSE from London into Birmingham, I am always struck by how green and lush the outskirts still appear. Canals cut through the approaches, their crisp edges capitulating to the creeping undergrowth. You pass empty, smashed factories and brick warehouses to reach the city center, recently a riot battleground. Yet the green is a reminder that Birmingham and its satellite towns are inventions of the industrial revolution. This was a peaceful rural heartland until the eighteenth century, when the loom became the new plow and peasants were forced into the new city to work for the

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  • the Omar Souleyman Group

    YOU SWAY; a kaffiyeh-clad man wearing aviator sunglasses struts across the stage. This is no mere tableau of shades-and-scarf radical chic, however: There is a definite tension to the scene, a fervency. The singer, who is Syrian, is chanting lyrics in Arabic while a fellow band member, a poet, whispers intently into his ear. As he intones choppy refrains, the singer’s every phrase is answered by a wind or string instrument tuned to a Middle Eastern scale. You venture closer to scrutinize the musician behind him and discover he is playing a Korg synthesizer, dishing out lightning-fast licks on

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  • Van Dyke Parks

    “WE REMEMBER A TIME when historical continuity in music was still a viable thing,” Ry Cooder once told an interviewer researching his friend Van Dyke Parks, a patently idiosyncratic fixture of the LA music scene. “Yet both of us have always lived and played very much in the present. There’s no paradox in that!” Active since the 1960s as a composer, arranger, keyboardist, and producer, Parks tends to work within the mainstream and with rising young artists, but his sensibility—one that encompasses George Gershwin–inflected pop-classical pluralism as well as indigenous and global folk

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  • Euro-trance

    LISTENING TO BRITNEY SPEARS’s recent single “Hold It Against Me”—which launched this past January at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—one can’t help but think that aspects of its production and structural composition betray the year of its release. The song is essentially one long crescendo, overlaid on a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The chorus builds in each iteration until finally it re-appears, accompanied by a beat, with only about thirty seconds left in a song a little shy of four minutes. The entire song is constructed around this moment, and

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  • Alicia Hall Moran

    AS THE ARREST OF HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. on the steps of his own house made clear, the dynamics of racialized subjection are particularly vexed in ivory-tower towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the one hand, black bodies are continuously surveyed and assessed as either “hood,” “Harvard,” or “homeless”; on the other, the city and its environs play host to a range of the most visible African-diasporic cultural institutions and practitioners anywhere. Yet there are, of course, much-needed escapes from these specular extremes of life lived black.

    It was just this kind of phenomenal experience—of

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  • audiocassettes

    THERE IS NOTHING MAGIC about a cassette, nothing bewitching about an object that can be taken apart and reassembled or fixed with a pencil. A small rectangular box of plastic in which magnetized tape moves back and forth between miniature spools, it is, from today’s vantage, a hopelessly antiquated format. At a time when most of us listen to music that exists only as data, on soundless players that cannot be pried open, the cassette displays its modest mechanics all too transparently. Peer inside the deck as you slide in a tape in, and you see a tiny, busy factory world of belts, wires, and

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  • Robert Wyatt

    IN 2006, A NEW WORD, Wyatting, entered the lexicon. Referring to the prankish activity of sneaking an experimental music track onto an unsuspecting pub jukebox in order to vex other patrons, it got its name from an English teacher who suggested that Dondestan, a 1991 album by Robert Wyatt, epitomized the kind of music suitable for such a venture. While it’s hard to imagine one of Wyatt’s records actually clearing a room, he is the consummate cult figure with a taste for subversion—albeit one with a vulnerable, inimitable voice as cherished by his fans as Chet Baker’s or Chan Marshall’s by

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  • Indonesian pop

    THE DESIRE TO HOLD ONE’S HEAD HIGH, to determine one’s own future: This is the reason so many regimes throughout the twentieth century rose and fell. But to hold one’s head high while crisply dressed all in white and wearing a black velveteen pillbox hat? This was Indonesia’s fate alone. When Kusno Sosrodihardjo, known simply as Sukarno, became the first president of Indonesia in 1945, he wanted all to see that the legacy of Dutch colonization and a brief spell under Japanese rule had done little to dampen his—and, by extension, his freshly christened nation’s—sartorial flair. “I say,

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  • Michael Benson on Laibach

    LAIBACH USED TO BE A FORCE to reckon with. To begin with, the band—if you can call this ensemble of sophisticated politico-cultural provocateurs simply a “band”—were the only group from the socialist world ever to make it in the West, signing a long-term recording contract with London’s prestigious indie label Mute Records (home to Moby, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode), and they did it entirely on their own terms. “Art and ideology don’t exclude each other,” was one of their earliest slogans, but I prefer another: “All art is subject to political manipulation except that which speaks the language of

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  • Throbbing Gristle

    WHILE MANY LIVE RECORDINGS are accompanied by disclaimers—invariably apologias for the sound quality—few come with warnings as to their possible side effects. Throbbing Gristle’s TG24, a limited-edition deluxe box set of twenty-four CDs of live Throbbing Gristle (TG) recordings made between 1976 and 1980, is prefaced with the following: “Industrial Records and Throbbing Gristle will not be held responsible in any way whatsoever for the results of any physical, mental or structural damage either inflicted or incurred by the owner of this collection or any third parties.” A coda further suggests

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  • Le Tigre

    FAMILIAR WITH HERM CHOREOGRAPHY? Well, if you’ve ever attended a Le Tigre concert, choreographed by band member JD Samson, you’ve seen it. Herm (slang for androgynous queer) locates Samson and the boy-band-derivative moves one sees at Le Tigre shows—her tributes to how queer bodies negotiate the world. Equal parts dance style and critical intervention, Samson’s choreography is just one element of a performance practice that reopens questions about community, fandom, feminism, queerness, and their conjunctions and differences, by drawing on staged spectacle, audience exuberance, and punk-derived

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  • Electronic Music

    THE TRADITIONAL SCENARIO might be described like this: People onstage make music, and, in response, people in the audience make noise.

    And if the people onstage make noise?

    Sonic Youth’s contribution to the two-CD Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 1921–2001, the first of eight planned releases on the theme, takes this situation to its logical conclusion: “Audience” is six minutes of applause taped at the end of a 1983 Sonic Youth performance in Berlin, subjected in the studio to the same sorts of manipulations that the band applies to sounds generated by their instruments. The result is

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