How do you feel? Are you still reeling from the mental psychosis 2020 and 2021 had you going through? Do you need something aside from the prescription drugs your primary care physician had you take for the anxiety suffered? It’s quite possible you needed it all at the time because you didn’t get the music to soothe everything you were going through. Everyone may need to stop taking what they were given because this year has looked up with an assortment of sounds we weren’t expecting.
When describing electronic music, dance culture, etc., there are a number of groups that come to mind and through the ages; Depeche Mode & Pet Shop Boys captivated audiences passing through multiple decades with pop music directed through samplers & keyboards, while the Berlin collective of Atari Teenage Riot took the world by storm through the late 90s with its digital hardcore. But we’re all living in the now and that’s as far as I’ll go with comparable nuances. Chicago’s Pixel Grip is a beast of a different nature altogether. Vocalist Rita Lukea is direct in describing the group, fittingly alongside “freaks, queers, (and) fetish people” knowing their purpose, filled with arrogance. That’s all and fine as the trio of Lukea, Jonathan Freund, and Tyler Ommen have penned and recorded the group’s sophomore release, the ominous ARENA (Feeltrip Records).
The group’s music clearly redefines EDM, or EBM, although Pixel Grip isn’t defined by any one specific genre or held in place by it. “Alpha Pussy” is directed by clever sexual innuendos while being completely direct in its delivery, reclassifying female empowerment to another level. While words like “post-apocalyptic” and “wastelands” may come to mind, Thunderdome does as well, with this track sounding like Tina Turrner-esque theme music. The driving force behind the music gives us imagery of scavengers, killer cyborg imagery, and warlords vying for dominance. “Club Mania” draws from short bursts of rhythm which Lukea captures with her voice as she sings over the beat itself. The moment she breathes in adds a sense of humanity to the track. The minimalism of the track shouldn’t be lost on any of us, although this is made for the club crowd, much like early Meat Beat Manifesto. Not a deliberate comparison but a kinship for finding solace amongst the crowd. “Pursuit” veers into much darker territory – if the trio can in fact maneuver itself further down – as the few notes that permeate throughout the track are submerged alongside watery beats that allow the song to take a life of its own. It’s repetitive but far from repetitious, and completely hypnotic. But “Demon Chaser” is the song that reminds everyone that bodies are meant to move, shimmy, and just literally dance. This is everything that’s addictive about Pixel Grip. Moments here seem layered by drum patterns, bassline and Lukea’s echoing vocals that add to its subtlety.
There’s another side to Pixel Grip but it never deviates outside of its own branding allowing for cohesiveness from track to track. “Alibi” again applies subtlety within the arrangement, allowing the sweetness of this Lukea’s lyrics of attraction permeates with teenage butterflies, finding love on the dancefloor while the closing “Double Vision” is, well, everything. There’s a melancholy throughout the track, which clocks in at almost 6 minutes and the group takes this somewhere else. There’s a longing for something here and when Lukea sings “I don’t belong, with you” you believe it. Beautiful.
ARENA is the record that allows listeners to look at electronic music differently for one thing but it’s also the album that marks Pixel Grip as the musical force it knows it is. As a collective, Pixel Grip has done something…special. We just need the world to catch up to what they do.
Occasionally a group disbands and members reform from its ashes coming in stronger than it was previously. It may sometimes head in the other direction to never be heard from again. Either way, there’s movement and for better or worse, growth. It’s been that way for a number of artists, no one can ever stop change. Even when something comes to a halt, we still have change.
This is where FACS comes in. The 3-piece out of Chicago that have been recording and performing together since 2008; first in Disappears which released 5 albums on Kranky, along with a couple of live albums, and later as FACS when bassist Damon Carruesco left to focus on his visual art and electronic outlet Tüth. Since 2017, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Brian Case, bassist Alianna Kalaba (replacing Jonathan Van Herik who left the group in 2018), and drummer Noah Leger have recorded a few albums together, dense in its delivery. The band continues to drench us all with deafening explosions in sound with the new album, Present Tense (Trouble In Mind). The trio relishes in the noisy output it delivers but things are always clear and concise with its compositions. The 9-minute long “Alone Without” is filled revels in feedback which drenches the track in a tsunami-sized wall of guitar as Noah Leger fills in space occasionally for almost 2 and a half minutes before the band shifts into what listeners could relate as an actual song. The movement from moment to the next is seamless though as the music drifts on and off again, controlling the noise and using it wherever it seems fitting. The band continues to storm through the song, allowing the track itself to lead the way until its ultimate demise.
It’s “Strawberry Cough” though that I find…interesting. I think I’m left fascinated mostly by the drumming’s over-the-top recording which the rest of the members happily revolve their instruments around. Brian Case’s vocals are clean and intelligible while Kalaba’s thick bass rings out loudly. It will leave you bewildered but in the best possible of ways. There are moments when FACS’ movements eschew technicality for something simpler but completely effective. “General Public” has a rhythm wrapped around repetitive notes, without being repetitious, and working in shifting dynamics, all the while utilizing those same notes. There’s a lot to take in here but musically “XOUT” has a cacophony building that’s tense, angry, and could possibly obliterate everything that comes in its path. Not so much with explosive rhythms or dissonant guitars but in its destructive, forward-moving directness.
FACS doesn’t strike me as a group that cares what anyone thinks about the compositions the members have penned; the songs are allowed to speak in volumes, especially here on Present Tense. This is where the band lives, in the here and now.
For an aging musician with a lack in popularity, life can be difficult. Add to that being deemed legally blind could make it impossible to work through, but not always. Having a determination and raw, untapped talent also helps and when it’s what you have, there could be no stopping anyone, at any age. Everyone sees it because it’s an unstoppable force.
Robert Finley is a bluesy soul singing country boy out of Louisiana the entire world once witnessed on America’s Got Talent and has already released just a couple of albums. It could be said that at this moment, Finley is probably in his musical prime, rediscovering his own voice in these troubling times. The great thing about it is the support he has for Sharecropper’s Son (Easy Eye Sound) which includes Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) producing, co-writing, and performing on the album, as well as Bobby Wood, country songwriter Pat McLaughlin, Kenny Brown, Russ Pahl, Billy Sanford, and more. Throughout 10 tracks, Finley leaves a part of his soul on every track.
His voice hits like a freight train moving in slow motion on “Souled Out On You” and I imagine this is what Kelvin Swaby is sometimes attempting to create at times. This is the very essence of soulfulness, led by guitars, with a variety of instruments chiming through (keyboards, more guitars, horns). Even when Finley isn’t singing, the song takes on a life of its own, wrapped around all the melodies the band projects. His gruff vocals also hit high notes as they weep along guitars. It’s “Country Child” that I’m drawn to though, as every note serves a purpose no matter how random it may seem, strewn throughout the track. It’s Finley’s voice that’s captivating through, as he tells his tale of what made him the country boy that he is. He shares how as a child he was counted out, and even driving past a cotton field still hurts his back. The country made him who he is.
The interesting thing about Finley is he isn’t a one trick pony. “I Can Feel Your Pain” is a slower love song, and while I didn’t want to make any comparisons, it’s akin to Lee Fields, another soul singer that’s built quite a reputation for himself. While it isn’t a direct comparison, I do see a correlation here between the two. But then there are songs like “Starting to See,” forceful and direct in its blues-driven delivery . When Finley sings “This time I think I finally got it right / ‘Cause I’m going by faith and not by sight,” the entendre doesn’t escape us.
There’s so much more Robert Finley has to offer, and his third album Sharecropper’s Son is only touching the tip of the iceberg of music it’s filled with. I’m sure there will be a lot more to offer throughout the years and we’ll all be the better for it.