It’s been a great year for both dance and noise music. After years of increasingly slow ballads taking over the pop charts, lately there’s been an outpouring of energetic abrasion from commercial and underground corners alike. Are musicians missing the club and compensating by cranking the beats at home? I suspect the pendulum would have swung back around anyway. The albums reviewed below assault the ears while remaining light on their feet.
Backxwash: God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It (Bandcamp)
Recent winner of Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, Backxwash is going places — even if this album, abundant with uncleared samples, is available only through her Bandcamp page. On it, the Zambian-Canadian rapper peers into a grungy musical hellscape.
Lyrically, these songs address Backxwash’s version of forgiveness, but given how fiercely she thrashes and wails, this is no happy emotional progression. Musically, she’s invented a new sort of rap-metal; integrating gritty screeches, contorted drum tracks, compressed layers of guitar, and a thick patchwork of samples (often recognizably from the classic rock canon, including Black Sabbath riffs and Led Zeppelin drums), she scrambles the sonic elements of metal into a dense digital vortex, all while rapping about ghosts and the occult.
Even on the quieter tracks, there’s an underlying, headache-inducing drone that keeps you on edge; the album recalls Jpegmafia’s battles with white noise, or perhaps Ski Mask the Slump God’s Halloween-themed screamo rap, although Backxwash’s version is much spookier. Often, such insidiously dissonant music is meant to evoke daily stress and quotidian anxiety. Here, it’s more like a portal to hell has opened and Backxwash stands before it, howling rhymes and invocations. Obscured by amplifier distortions and electronic whistles, the details aren’t always clear, but a grand and terrible spiritual communion is taking place.
Backxwash freely switches her flow to fit the mood, moving between a warmer conversational cadence and a raw death scream; on “Spells,” her voice blurs into a slurred drone, as if trying to hypnotize you. “Into the Void” rumbles over industrial guitars and mosquito whines, while the drums slowly roll forward like a tank. On “Black Magic,” cobweb-encrusted piano chords and an eerie keyboard shiner exactly match her nervous roar (“I fuck with black magic, yah!”). Finally, she reaches a tentative sense of self-acceptance with “Redemption”; the triumphant gratitude of this closing rap suggests that the forces of chaos have been vanquished — for now.
Her sinister synthesis of multiple abrasive genres recasts negative energy as a positive force. The spell enthralls.
Food House: Food House (Dog Show/Decent)
Frivolous, playful, and totally committed to sensory overload, Food House are the most coherent of the new hyperpop groups — they even come across as poised pop stars rather than children throwing a musical tantrum. On their first album, they offer a useful lesson in how to shape chaos.
The album is a noisy whirlwind. They shift with skittish enthusiasm between surreal pop modes when they’re not just tossing keyboard crunches, bass fuzz, trap beats, random guitar breaks, and globules of pitch-corrected saliva into an aural blender. Producer Gupi fashions a streamlined neon hook machine that keeps adjusting and inverting itself, while singer-songwriter Fraxiom coos and hisses culturally literate love confessions through an endless array of refracted vocal filters (“Tonight let’s do shit that gets us in cringe comps/make some new behaviors that straight people will infringe on,” for instance).
Compared to most hyperpop groups, they don’t depart from the formula so much as tweak the proportion of ingredients: sleeker and more grounded in dance culture, the beats hold fast, with a reassuring groove. Where Brakence, say, generates pathos from doomed attempts to sing through cacophony and 100 Gecs (godparents to this scene) just throw back their heads and cackle in the face of chaos, Food House’s legible song structures and chewy choruses suggest control: accepting the noise in their heads and incorporating it into pop compositions, they’re confident in their eccentricities, and Fraxiom skates through the album gleefully unbothered.
Although critics have often viewed such rainbow explosions of form as parody music, it’s really a celebration of emotional excess, as the songs zoom recklessly between moods. Over soaring house piano and elegantly arranged keyboard blips, “8 Now” captures a transient bliss, while “Ride” sees Fraxiom’s Auto-Tuned vocals crack endearingly as he jumps an octave for the chorus. Yet every sugary hook is matched by a hairpin turn into raucous havoc — especially on “Metal,” whose grandiose riff bangs as relentlessly as anything on an actual metal album.
Food House understand that great pop music establishes a dialogue between tightness and density — between producing lots of noises to listen to and molding them into attractive forms. Their mess is jubilantly affirmative.
Toriena: Pure Fire (Madmilky Records)
Toriena excels at hyperactivity: whatever groove she’s found herself in, her beats zoom forth at top speed. Here, the Japanese producer chops the drums up into tiny metallic pellets, which makes them faster still.
Previously, Toriena specialized in chiptune, coaxing playful tunelets and bleeps from vintage 8-bit synthesizers (or modern simulations of them). Where chiptune usually generates an excessively cute melodic intricacy, Toriena opted for a brisker, sharper style of flamboyance, marked by percussive fireworks displays. This album realizes the underlying fury of her earlier music. Sweaty and ecstatic, it’s a dance album, but only for those who can dance to a barrage of sound. She chops up pieces of countless electronic subgenres — hardcore techno, UK rave, future bass, Eurobeat, and maybe some gabber — and reassembles them into a brutal wall of rhythm. As giant slabs of synthesizer intersect at skewed angles, pitched drums collide and produce wrenching dissonances.
Usually dance music this deconstructed generates a rather abstract thrill — even if you can dance to a congeries of drums all talking to each other, it can be exhausting, especially when the drums start to blur. But Toriena shapes her many whomping irritants into hooks that jolt and cohere; the album has a thick solidity to it.
“Break Me Down” is her most frantic paroxysm, charging forth with a garish, headbanging guitar riff; “Getting Into a Pose” is her most conceptual piece, with keyboards jittering awkwardly, as if actually getting into a pose, while she repeats the title. On “Butterfly Effect,” grimy drums and a sped-up voice babbling disembodied syllables give way to an electronic explosion as aggressive as any since dubstep’s heyday, interrupted briefly by a guitar break that almost immediately gets sucked back into the vacuum.
Even when hurling sound effects at the wall to watch the splatter, these tracks never stop shimmying, never lose their balance. She’s achieved a fusion of elegance and noise.
Blackpink: The Album (YG/Interscope)
One of the few Korean pop groups to achieve outsized international success, Blackpink have invented a distinctive yet broad style, combining ideas about sonic abrasion with performances of feminist autonomy. On their first full-length album, they stretch the formula thin.
Like BTS, the only other Korean pop group to have established a global brand, Blackpink play a tricky double game. Marketed as a flashy alternative to the samey inertia of post-Spotify Anglophone pop, they nonetheless typify it. Gesturing toward Korean pop’s reputation as a site for aural invention and weirdness, they also embody Beyoncé’s model of the empowered and combative pop star — if other Korean girl groups are too girly for you, behold the fierce warriors of Blackpink.
Musically as well as visually, they invoke glamour, danger, toughness — and indeed, Jennie and Lisa’s raps are faster and meaner than average ones, their distorted keyboard hooks harsher, their whistles and industrial shrieks more piercing, even as they fit effortlessly into pop compositions. Yet, because their songs straightforwardly embrace EDM’s mechanical wind-up structures, building toward drops and postchoruses that reliably explode right on time, they lack surprises; because they deploy their sound effects sequentially rather than all at once, the effects never congeal into noise and instead settle into an attenuated, needling whine.
They’ve released only a smattering of songs over the past four years while building endless anticipation among fans for their eventual album. Here, they can’t seem to sustain the dynamic shifts and harmonic clashes that marked their best singles (especially “Whistle”) over an album’s length; the pulpy bombast lands with a clunk. Nothing else on the album matches the bathos of the opening “How You Like That,” which starts with a lovely, radiant synthpop verse interrupted by a hideous air-horn drop — the musical equivalent of a fart noise; they never regain momentum after such a deflation.
Caught between competing market forces, they’re trapped in a box — they can’t make the racket they’d like to.