Vagina Witchcraft Vagina Witchcraft Self-Released Winnipeg, MB RIYL: Vile Creature; WAKE; Fuck The Facts
I challenge anyone to find a more impassioned four minutes and twenty three seconds to be put to record this year than the introduction to Vagina Witchcraft’s debut— and that happens before even a note of music is played. Taken from vocalist Kayla Fernandes’ speech at a Winnipeg Black Lives Matter rally in June, which was in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Winnipeg’s own Machuar Madut, the intro unequivocally positions the band and their music as anti-racist and anti-oppressive. It’s a bold but important distinction in the realm of metal where many fans and musicians alike either strive for an “apolitical” stance of ignorance and cowardice or are outright white supremacist scum.
This context helps set the stage for when Fernandes sings the words “fear me, I am the fucking devil” on the album’s first musical track, “Mercury.” Its anguished bass, drums, and guitar punctuate Fernandes’ bellows and emphasize their fury before the group locks into a double speed doomy torrent that sends the song into a groovy spiral. With each subsequent song Vagina Witchcraft deftly deploy some trademark occult themes and depressive soundscapes of true doom aficionados, that alongside their strong political sensibilities make their music a truly vital expression.
Robin Hatch Noise Self-Released Toronto, ON RIYL: Kate Bush; Austra; Kelly Moran
Robin Hatch is perched atop a silver Ford Focus in a black vinyl jumpsuit and high heeled boots. It’s a commanding image, recalling a sword-wielding Neko Case from her 2009 album, Middle Cyclone. Just like the album art, Noise marks a significant departure for the multitalented Hatch, who’s known primarily as a classical pianist, frequent podcast guest, as well as her work playing in Sheezer, Dwayne Gretzky, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and Our Lady Peace.
Hatch has experimented with synths previously on 2019’s Hatch, which featured the artist’s improvised explorations on a Jupiter-8 that sounded chilly and Cronenbergian. That album was a marked left turn from her first solo album released earlier that year, Works for Solo Piano, and now Noise is another such unexpected leap in both form and style. Here, Hatch’s talents are applied to a more overtly pop context, even taking on vocal duties.
Across its eight tracks, Noise sounds like a revelation. Album highlights like the wandering odyssey “Hivemind” (featuring Blood Ceremony/Badge Epoque Ensemble’s Alia O’Brien), the shimmering assuredness of “Heatstroke” and the eerily desolate “The Mirror” all represent a culmination of everything Hatch has done up until this point. Her classical background emboldens this synth pop with a sense of fearless experimentation.
La Fièvre La Fièvre Self-Released Montréal, QC RIYL: Noise Unit; Peaches; the ending of The VVitch
“Empowering” is a word that shows up a lot when talking about music with a feminist fire at its centre and its over usage can suggest “empowering” music grants something within the listener that wasn’t there before. In the case of Montréal’s La Fièvre, this electronic duo are neither giving nor asking for authority, simply locating it in the ways it already manifests within themselves and those in the margins.
Ominous electronics introduce the album before Zéa and Ma-Au (Joséane Beaulieu-April and Marie-Audrey Leclerc) declare that their music is broadly for people in the peripheries of society, a fiery commitment that engulfs the record’s entire 32 minutes: “Faudra faire mieux” is a demand for change and repudiation of being silenced that invokes the natural world; “La Marge” pairs their anti-athoritarian intensity with sirens and buzzing synths to call out the violence against marginalized people, and finds hope in resistance; “Écofeminites” links cultivation and working with the land with further resistance, and its slinking, danceable beat hints at the growing sexual innuendo that also pervades the song.
The music of La Fièvre’s self-titled debut album unapologetically reveres the power of femininity, and does so by rooting that power in another constant and enduring force: nature. They approach this work enthusiastically, artfully, and resist falling into the trappings of any gender essentialism in the process by situating these themes within a deeper set of radical politics.
Clocking in at 13 minutes, the breakneck tempos and blown out riffs on crisis sigil’s small towns. might seem like a momentary blip in comparison, but it’s a smart, focused distillation of what makes Rook such a compelling artist in the first place. The album opens with a brief collage of sampled screams for help, urgent digital percussion giving way to blasts of Rook’s bludgeoning, rhythmic guitarwork, raw, guttural vocals, and frenetic live drums. The first four minute-long songs on the record are sharp and precise grindcore studies, and proof that as maximal as things got on 2,020 Knives, Rook is just as capable when it comes to restraint.
And right when you think you have the record’s sound pinned down, Rook flips it with “shape.”, a major-key pop-punk workout that retains the unpolished quality of the previous songs while introducing a new ingredient to the bare bones grind recipe. It’s an interesting formal shift that hits like a wave through the rest of the record, which finds Rook incorporating spoken word elements and breakbeats in ways that both serve the songs but also affirm her as a stylistic polymath and omnivore.
Clearance culture is hindering Canadian artists’ creativity
By: Michael Rancic | Photo by: Chachi Revah
In a cryptic post to her Twitter account in mid-August, Montréal-based horrorcore rapper Backxwash announced that her Polaris Prize shortlisted album, God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It, would be removed from streaming services and no longer be for sale in any format. “Wish I could go into more details but I can’t!” she added, following up in another tweet by comparing the situation to that of Death Grips’ 2011 album Exmilitary.
Like MC Ride & co.’s debut, Backxwash’s latest album is sample-heavy, deploying percussion and vocals from oft-used sources like Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” and Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” This technique simultaneously situates her work within hip-hop history and forms the heavy metal aesthetic that permeates the album. Alluding to the Death Grips situation hints that some, or all of the musical quotations used on God Has Nothing To Do With This were not cleared for her to use. “Clearing” a sample is a process by which artists attempt to gain the rights to use elements of a song from its rights holder. It’s an intentionally opaque and expensive process that privileges major labels and stifles creativity.
In hip-hop, when an artist can’t clear a sample— either because it’s prohibitively expensive to do so, or they’re denied by the sample source’s rights holder— they often release the song online or on a mixtape for free. But as much as artists have accepted and adapted to this model, it forces them to make an untenable decision: navigate a system not designed for their benefit, or waive their ability to sell their own creative work.
Things get a bit more complicated when factoring in sync rights for TV or film, background music, mechanical rights, satellite radio, etc. Even though we have our own set of laws to protect these rights, for Canadian artists like Backxwash, the terms of sample clearance are dictated by American major label corporations and American case law, and policed through non-Canadian tech companies like Spotify, YouTube, or Soundcloud.
“We’re seeing a lot of enforcement by algorithm,” explains Brianne Selman, scholarly communications and copyright librarian at the University of Winnipeg. With streaming becoming the most common way for people to listen to recorded music, services like YouTube (with its native Content ID technology), or independent companies like Dubset (recently acquired by Pex) use proprietary fingerprinting to identify sound sources in order to sniff out copyright infringement.
This method is likely a contributing factor to how Backxwash’s samples were discovered by copyright enforcers. “We know computers are making decisions, but we don’t know how and we don’t know based on what,” says Selman. It’s unclear what technology Spotify uses, though we know they acquired Echo Nest in 2014 after that company developed audio fingerprinting technology. Distributors that work with Spotify, like DistroKid, also license third party digital fingerprinting software.
These automated copyright infringement algorithms happen at a stage before an artist can even speak to their use of a certain sample and its place in their song. The technology circumvents legal frameworks, thereby entrusting private tech companies with the role of what is or isn’t legal. The algorithms also don’t take into account where an artist is from and therefore the nuances of laws that exist in a global market are lost. Selman says they don’t provide a trustworthy method for tracking actual infringement, citing a recent case where claims of copyright infringement were levied against the sound of static. To the delight of noise musicians everywhere, no one owns the sound of static, but that didn’t stop people from saying they did.
At the University of Winnipeg, Selman works with faculty and students to explore their rights as creators and users, a knowledge base which also connects to her work with the Cultural Capital Project, a research-based initiative that “aims to establish a ‘radical monetization’ of the music industry based on equity, connectivity and sharing.” Members of the project were involved in petitioning the government for fairer use laws around copyright in the recent 2018 Copyright Act review.
“You need to be accessing other people’s creative work in order to make your own. That’s part of how creativity happens,” she explains. “Things like remixes and sampling and those really fantastic ways of using other people’s intellectual property in totally new ways are really innovative and aren’t things that we [as a country] want to be shutting down.“
Selman says that while copyright law is meant to uphold the rights of songwriters like Backxwash, the system is unfairly stacked against those not on major labels. “Copyright formalities absolutely hurt independent artists at this point, even though that’s who these laws are supposedly written for,” she argues. “The creators, the people who generated the work that has copyright, are almost never able to take advantage of the law.”
The law is also incredibly difficult to challenge given how consolidated the industry is in Canada. The “big three,” represented by major labels Warner, Universal, and Sony, account for about 75% of the total market share here. The recent American federal appeals court decision that sided with Drake over his use of a Jimmy Smith sample, defining it “transformative,” feels like a monumental step forward for how the courts understand sampling. However, it obscures the fact that Drake was likely able to obtain use of the sample in the first place because he’s on Warner, the label that also owns the publishing rights to Jimmy Smith’s Off The Top, the 1982 record that “Jimmy Smith Rap” first appeared on.
“[Within the same label] you can get those samples much cheaper, much easier than [Backxwash] can, because it’s all within the one big family,” Selman states about how the law, influenced by the major label system, benefits artists who operate within that system. If you’re not Drake, clearing a sample can run anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 USD to get permission from both the owner of the recording masters, as well as the owner of the composition itself. That’s a huge price tag when you also factor in how the Cultural Capital Project has found that the average Canadian musician makes around $17,900 a year.
It’s also these same record companies who are lobbying against copyright reform, and pushing for longer term extensions so that rights holders can retain their rights over longer periods of time. Longer terms prevent new artists from freely quoting or referencing those creations in their own work. The recent signing of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (which takes over for the previous North American Free Trade Agreement) means that Canada is now obligated to extend copyright terms from 50 years to 70 years after an author’s death. While our trade relations have greatly influenced this course of action, the change has long been advocated for by Music Canada, the organization that lobbies domestically on behalf of the Canadian shells of the “big three” labels.
That hip-hop is predominantly a sample-based style of music, means that these copyright laws often disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized artists. Sampling is historically not the only way copyright law has been used as a tool to disenfranchise non-white musicians, stripping them from the control, autonomy and financial benefit of owning the rights to their own work. Academic and entertainment lawyer Kevin J Greene has focused much of his own scholarship on this very subject, noting in an essay titled “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: James Brown, Innovation, and Copyright Law:”
The founding fathers established copyright law as a means for increasing cultural productivity by giving economic incentives for the creation of artistic works. Analysts note that “in large part, the early music industry [ in the United States] was built largely on the creativity and innovation of black composers and artists.” One would think, then, that black artists would have been among the prime beneficiaries of copyright law given their astounding contributions to the world of music. However, the actual history of black cultural production and the law is one of inequality rooted in racial animosity.”
New Feeling reached out to Backxwash to comment on the matter, but she declined. It’s completely understandable that she can’t or won’t comment on the situation because the threat of litigation, over not just uncleared sample use but talking about the rights holder(s) who flagged an issue or issues on God Has Nothing To Do With This is very real. Now, she faces a potential Polaris Prize win, and save for the prize money won’t be able to reap the reward of the storied “Polaris bump” in album sales that winners experience after being thrust into the spotlight.
Backxwash could potentially try re-releasing God Has Nothing To Do With This without the samples, and recently revealed in an interview with Complex that she even entertained the idea, but ultimately resolved that they made it what it was. “I was experimenting to go sample-less,” she says. “As I started making these beats, they sounded cool, but the idea of the sample is telling a story, and I miss telling those stories. When it’s coming off a VST, it’s hard to see what that story is. Even if it sounds incredible, I’m not connected to it. With the samples, I’m connecting to those sounds.”
Deep Digs: Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass (UNI Records, 1971)
Music for Satan and the people who love him
By: Michael Rancic|Mort Garson photo courtesy of Day Darmet
In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. Our inaugural feature in the series focuses on Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass, which writer Michael Rancic argues is the most Mort Garson of all Mort Garson records.
Black Mass stands out in composer Mort Garson’s long and idiosyncratic discography like an inky smear on an otherwise colourful and varied canvas. The sole album released by his alias Lucifer is filled with shadowy melodies, minor key passages, and a fascination with the occult. It’s a stark counterpoint to Mother Earth’s Plantasia, the album Garson is best known for, with its music written for plants and the people who love them. This album, like Plantasia, is a testament to the electronic pioneer’s ability as a composer to take an idea and immerse himself in it, and speaks to the creative freedom that he was able to tap into once introduced to the Moog synthesizer.
Wherever he went, whatever he did, Garson never fit in neatly. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick but lived most of his life in the United States. His synth of choice was a Moog, despite the fact that he lived in San Francisco where the pervading school of thought at the time was very much against the synth’s piano-style keyboard, opting instead for the waveshapers and low pass gate exemplified by Don Buchla’s eponymous machines. Like his contemporary and fellow expat Bruce Haack, Garson studied at Julliard and even had a hit on his hands in the early 1960s after writing Ruby and The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come.” Yet he never quite had a home in pop music. Garson did find a niche where he could in writing novelty songs, guided by his love for the conceptual.
I spoke to Garson’s daughter, Day Darmet, for a feature that addressed Plantasia and its influence earlier this year for The Walrus, though those passages ended up getting cut from the final piece. Darmet’s insights into her father’s work are admittedly limited, as she was still a teenager when he wrote and recorded most of his work, but she does recall how the Moog changed him. Garson was working as a songwriter, conductor and arranger when he discovered the synth. For a classically trained composer, the familiarity of the Moog’s keyboard and controls was an open door to discovering the worlds of sound it contained.
“[Music] was a constant source of conversation just from being around him. He was consistently either writing, playing or at the very least tapping his finger to a song inside his head,” Darmet recalls. Having the Moog around gave him an unprecedented immediacy for writing and recording his ideas. For someone who was used to conducting orchestras, he now had one at his fingertips. “He could write inside his head and he could hear it back right away,” Darmet explains.
As it turned out, prior to his introduction with the Moog, Garson was looking for a way to inspire such a fundamental change in his work. “It had been a long time before he had an option to get out of commercialism and go into something that was more artistically motivating for him,” Darmet says, explaining that the synthesizer was liberating for him and his art for a myriad of reasons. “It was not conventional, it was something that was relatively undiscovered, and that allowed him to make music in a different way.”
Black Mass then is the sound of Garson embracing his anti-commercial side in the most anti way possible: a synthesizer-based album inspired by Satanism and the occult. A “black mass” is a fitting theme for Garson to explore at this stage in his artistry as it represents an inversion or perversion of one of the main pillars of the Catholic faith—essentially going against the grain. His alias, Lucifer, also shares that same contrary nature, acting as a foil to God himself. In that sense, by exploring these themes this record is wholly a rejection of Garson’s own commercial work, making it perhaps the most “Mort Garson” album he ever made. “It didn’t matter to him if it sold, if someone listened. It just had to be produced. It had to be made. It had to come out,” Darmet reveals.
As writer Sarah Jaffe points out, the connection between esoteric wisdom, the occult, and anti-capitalist beliefs is a longstanding one, and a growing stream of scholarly exploration given the recent revival of practices like tarot card reading (which Garson would later explore in full on 1975’s Ataraxia: The Unexplained. “The emerging proletariat had to be trained to defer gratification; to stifle desire; to value accumulation over expenditure,” Jaffe writes for Verso.“A belief in magic, instead, centered desires—and their fulfillment—communal and personal, for care and sustenance and protection.”
Black Mass begins with an invocation of the pentagram, or “Solomon’s Ring,” with fluttering notes that trill and bloom into an intensely percussive seance. Its driving beat and beguiling melody summon forth streaming synths that pan and howl before dissipating once more. The song establishes a dark mood that hangs over the entire record.
“Incubus” wanders insatiably before pitched-up moans materialize (perhaps taken from Garson’s other 1971 project, Music For Sensuous Lovers), while the title track “Black Mass” features disembodied synths and bells that announce the presence of a wildly gesturing, bright melody of mania. “Exorcism” is much more buoyant than the iconic creepfest performance Linda Blair would deliver two years later in the William Friedkin classic, The Exorcist. While the material on Black Mass isn’t purely purgatory, with lighter passages throughout that sound to a contemporary ear less demonic than the high drama typically associated with “horror synth,” they make the record all the more unsettling. As the most talented metal and goth musicians would demonstrate later that decade, horror is just as much about camp and hyperbolic fancy as it is an enveloping darkness.
There’s plenty of that too—“The Evil Eye” might just mark the birth of dungeon synth with its moody, atmospheric, bubbling electronic sounds that drip like they’re in a dank cave. Its pensive melody advances with trepidation from room to room as if being watched. “Witch Trial” begins with a melody that would not sound out of place on Plantasia, but the order of the natural world that he evokes later on that album gets disturbed and thrown into an unpredictably tense climax here, with an insistent drum machine beat that foretells Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Finally, album closer “ESP” leans into the sinister for one last disorienting minute.
Electronic music has always had a close relationship to the macabre, dating back to the theremin’s use in sci-fi and horror scores of the 1940s and 50s, or as a more Canadian example, Myron Schaeffer’s use of his hamograph in the 1961 film The Mask. Garson’s sonic explorations on this record anticipate the specifically synth-heavy horror of Goblin, John Carpenter, and frequent David Cronenberg collaborator, Howard Shore.
At first impression, Black Mass may seem leagues away from the rest of Garson’s work. But if there’s any throughline in his discography it’s his ability to take on a concept—be it the signs of the zodiac, reinterpretations of the musical Hair, music for plants—and completely live in it to do it justice. While we know albums like The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds and Plantasia were ideas pitched to Garson that he carried out thoughtfully, how he arrived at the concept for Black Mass is a little less clear, and perhaps will be illuminated by the liner notes in the album reissue Sacred Bones have slated for November 2020.
It’s a path that even eludes his daughter Darmet. “I don’t know how he conceptually got to those places. I have no idea,” she explains. “I think that anybody that pitched anything to him, he could write music for.” Garson’s mercurial aspect lies at the heart of his creativity, and it’s something he couldn’t truly express until he had a Moog in his hands.
Correction: An earlier version of this article described the west-coast school of synthesizer thought as “very much against voltage-controlled synthesizers” and also characterized a Buchla solely as a “mess of wires” when that was not a main distinguishing feature between that make and a Moog.
Untradition Dark Summer Independent Toronto, ON RIYL: Daniel Caesar; Prince’s “The Cross”; Slash laying out a guitar solo in front of a white church in the desert
For anyone reading this in 2020 it’s abundantly clear why this album is called Dark Summer: Even as restrictions eased and cases of COVID-19 fell (albeit briefly) it was hard to not feel as though I was watching summer pass me by from my apartment window. Untradition’s latest begins in that headspace, with shimmering piano lines and moody guitar establishing a heady interiority. The Toronto artist’s own vocals run like an inner monologue, urgent and determined.
“40” doubles down on that front with a repetitive groove and lyrics that fixate on Untradition’s own struggles: uncertainty, nerves, insomnia, among others. Then with the bombast of a gospel chorus, he sings the lines “pain, peace, love, loss, right, wrong, move, on,” like a reassuring mantra, with guitars chugging along in approval. Whatever air of self-doubt remained gets annihilated by swelling strings, impassioned organ and a kickass guitar solo to end all solos.
Dark Summer is as much about breaking through moments of foggy uncertainty as it is a meditation on faith and a reverence for the creative process. This is a sharp, maximal record that cuts through the darkness in thoughtful and rewarding ways.
Le Couleur Concorde Lisbon Lux Montréal, QC RIYL: Choses Sauvages; David Cronenberg’s Crash; flying first class
In his new book On Nostalgia, Edmonton-based writer David Berry describes the potential trap that nostalgia threatens as “a feedback loop that would gradually but persistently turn our own past into a shining perfect gem, precisely the memory we need to get us back on our feet and out in the world, regardless of its relationship to what ‘actually’ happened.” Looking back at the peak of air travel through the lens of loungy disco on their latest album Concorde, Montréal’s Le Couleur deftly avoid such pitfalls by balancing their retro longing with a healthy dose of tragedy.
It’s easy to see why the Concorde jet is such a rich concept for a band to hang an album concept on: it’s symbolic of the peak of technology, luxury, and sexiness. But by framing that luxury on a path that leads ultimately to death, there’s a morbidity to the material that questions whether or not the nostalgia is aspirational without a healthy dose of melancholy to go along. That sense of balance is further maintained between the heavy concept and the lightness of the music, which is lush and careens weightlessly without ever feeling like it’s on autopilot.
Clara Engel Hatching Under The Stars Independent Toronto, ON RIYL: Ora Cogan; Aidan Baker; Ulvesang
Though this album came out in April, with the days getting shorter and as we head toward longer bouts of darkness and cold, it feels perfectly suited for fall. The stark toolkit of voice and guitar that songwriter Clara Engel has always evoked a nocturnal sensibility. With Hatching Under the Stars they lean into those darker proclivities to create a dreamlike expanse that’s among their best work.
For the better part of 16 years, Engel has plumbed the darkness of experimental folk, spinning tender songs that feel indebted to traditional or devotional music while still sounding wholly original. Here, Engel draws on that wealth of experience in an immaculately constructed and produced record. Highlights like “Preserved in Ice (for Marc Chagall)” and “Little Blue Fox” find Engel crafting distinct tableaus of poetic imagery. Their spare instrumentation gives plenty of space for imaginations to take hold, as each song blooms into a stirring beauty.