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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Charlie Looker - Simple Answers Music Album Reviews

Charlie Looker - Simple Answers Music Album Reviews
The Psalm Zero frontman and Zs alum reckons with the rise of fascism—and his internal struggle against its insidious appeal—on a debut solo album of unusually confrontational modern classical music.

Six years ago, New York-based multi-instrumentalist Charlie Looker began composing his debut solo record, Simple Answers, as a meditation on the rise of fascism in the West. Although its genesis (but not its recording, a process facilitated by a Kickstarter campaign last year) predates the current presidential administration, and critics can easily overstate that regime’s influence on individual works of art, there’s no divorcing the album from where America is at now. “When the wound is fresh and open, bad ideas find their way in,” Looker chants on closing track “Puppet.” “And when our state is broke and trembling, we want answers—simple answers.” But in 2018, our wounds aren’t fresh anymore, the answers are often far from simple, and the distance between what we crave and what we have makes Simple Answers a powerful piece of modern classical music.

Informed in parts by the sounds of Looker’s industrial metal band, Psalm Zero, the album is inspired by the work of French philosopher and writer Julia Kristeva, as well as late comedian Patrice O’Neal. Kristeva speaks of fascism as an internal energy to be sublimated rather than an external force that can be defeated, and Looker sees those ideas mirrored in O’Neal’s standup, which is sampled on the crucial track “Fascist Moments”: “The promise of me being better than you makes my fucking whole life,” the comedian says. “I made a decision to be quote-unquote a good guy. My natural instincts stop.” The sentences are deliberately taken out of context, turning humor into horror. Through O’Neal, Looker is doing more than just passively observing the seductive power “might makes right” politics have over the Proud Boys who co-opted Looker’s beloved Fred Perry polos—he’s acknowledging his own susceptibility to their appeal.

There’s plenty of bombast to mirror such temptation on the album. Many of Looker’s roaring compositions could soundtrack marches if ripped from their context. “What Dawn Is This? (Overture)” is an ominous choral passage that foreshadows the overarching mood of Answers, if not to the mess of sounds that follow the string-heavy prelude. Kelly Moran, a New York pianist who also performed on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of, loops with dexterity throughout “Golden Flesh.” Her performance is blissful yet tense, keeping Looker on his toes.

These sweeping gestures don’t ultimately resonate as celebrations of fascism; they demonstrate the dangers lurking behind its allure. Psalm Zero’s drum machines and electronics disrupt the majestic swagger of Answers, weighing down and gleefully perverting the music, as though Looker is spitting in the face of people who confuse their own flailing mediocrity with “the West is best” heroics. (As he once said, “I hate racism, and I love classical music.”) “Ritual Fire” is the closest the album gets to a Psalm Zero track, throbbing with bass undercurrents, pounding bass drum, and an anxious string climax that soundtracks Looker’s scream: “Gas my lungs to hell, gas my lungs to hell!” It’s a dark reference to his Jewish heritage couched in a deliberate provocation.

Although it rarely sounds this confrontational, the modern classical form allows Looker to achieve a visceral sound without any hulking guitars. “Puppet” opens with staccato horns over bumping drum machine, then homes in on Looker’s tender voice, which has long been the core of his projects. As the piece continues, the repetitive sing-song of his voice, the loosening of the drum-machine beats, and the rising strings all coalesce in a wave of helplessness. This is not an admission of defeat—it’s a realistic acknowledgment that, for all the introspection Answers encourages, the internal and external battles with fascism rage on.

Looker, whose work in Extra Life, Zs, and Seaven Teares has made him a fixture of avant-garde music, introduced himself to a metal audience with Psalm Zero. Although Simple Answers is not a metal record, it’s in conversation with the genre’s foundational themes. Metal celebrates power and dominance through brute, masculine force. This energy is not inherently negative—inspiration to take control of your own life can be a good thing—but it can be toxic in the wrong hands. (There may even be some pointed critique of this strain of metal in the electronics on “Fascist Moments,” which resemble those on Burzum’s ambient piece “Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte.”) Looker contemplates the fascism lying dormant within him and rejects it, defying genre borders by bringing elements from pop and New York’s longstanding experimental traditions to the ostensibly stodgy world of classical. His honesty is a more effective weapon in the war we’re all fighting than moral grandstanding could ever be.

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