Album Review: Holy Ghost – ‘Dynamics’

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When indie-disco duo Holy Ghost released their debut LP in 2011, they were widely dismissed as late-comers to the party. James Murphy had just called time on LCD Soundsystem and the glory days of DFA’s dance-punk reign were over. Holy Ghost! was well-received, but it was clear that whatever their talents, they weren’t going to revive the scene alone.

Two years on, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel have sorted out their timing. Riding the highs and lows of the ever-churning oceans of nostalgia and influence trends is no mean feat, but what goes around tends to come back around – slick 80s disco influences are once again dominating. Murphy himself is back, an unmistakable presence on Arcade Fire’s new Reflektor output. The exposure that Drive brought Chromatics and College lingered long, bringing a synth-pop resurgence and then, thanks of some French guys in robot costumes, disco-influences were again everywhere in the summer of 2013. And if you liked all of those guys, you’ll probably like this.

Dynamics doesn’t pretend to be the result of a searing insight; Holy Ghost are happy to wear their influences on their sleeves (indeed, the album art is unashamedly 80s). They remain as good as they ever were with a hook, and there’s no denying that this is an album that’s fun and supremely danceable – well, what else would you expect from DFA? The excellently named ‘Dumb Disco Ideas’ serves as their manifesto, a sprawling 8 minute jam laden with Soulwax liquid bass and a cowbell bridge; regardless of contemporary trends, it’s a single that would make a statue tap its toes. Elsewhere, opener ‘Okay’ brings a synthpop riff worthy of early MGMT, though it’s employed in far more understated surroundings; the walking pace verse “I’m not falling over, but I’m not quite sober / I’m not gonna take this, when I get home” – like mouth-to-mouth and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ – is just the right tempo and entirely catchy enough to determinedly mutter to yourself as you concentrate on the tricky task of getting your key into the lock at 7am. If you still haven’t sorted it out, the relentless spinning waltzer of ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ will console you on the doorstep with its italo-house splurge, it might even help patch the LCD hole in your heart.

But not everything on Dynamics is built straight on the foundations of Holy Ghost’s past releases. ‘It Must Be The Weather’ is the best of the different approaches, bringing spacious, paranoid pop that owes as much to Prince as it does Kavinsky and his ilk. The grim, addiction-detailing lyrics are an album-high too; “I call my guys and say ‘Have you got the news?’/He says ‘Yeah dude, the rumour’s true’/I fall back down the stairs into my favourite place” – suitably Less Than Zero. Equally dark is ‘Don’t Look Down’ – a skittish throb that updates the stalker’s tale within ‘Every Breath You Take’.

With Dynamics, Holy Ghost have struck a careful balance between revisiting their mid-00s origins and playing with new ideas within a similar arena. As they insist on ‘Okay’, “It isn’t over!”.

Festival Review – Sonar 2013

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Maybe it’s because most of what I already knew about Barcelona was based on a Tony Hawk’s level, but I was impressed by Sónar’s host city. Despite their crippled economy, staggeringly high unemployment, and increasingly fierce campaign for Catalonian independence (or perhaps because of it – Sónar apparently brings in around €52 million), Barcelona was evidently embracing Sónar’s 20th anniversary festivities.

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This year, Sónar by Day debuted its new location by Montjuïc magic fountains and the Palau Nacional (leaving both holidaying families and monged festival-goers confused by each other’s presence in the surrounding streets), with fewer queues and crowding than ever before.

Closing out Thursday’s music, Lindstrom and Todd Terje impressed with a live set of scorching, irresistible disco as the sun set. Of course ‘Inspector Norse’ brought the house down, but ‘Snooze 4 Love’ and ‘Lanzarote’ stood out too, and their rework of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ was an infectious, perfectly absurd, end to the day.

The best of Friday came from Elektro Guzzi and Diamond Version; the former creating devastating soulful techno from nothing more than the unlikely tools of a three-piece rock band, whilst the latter sent dark glitch and minimal loops throbbing through the crowd’s ears and chests.

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Chromatics, in one of the Day line-up’s most anticipated appearances, put on an absolute masterclass during their Saturday afternoon slot, with most of the crowd looking as though they’d dragged themselves to the show after mere minutes of sleep, determined to catch a band who were arguably slightly out of place amongst all the house and techno, let alone the glaring sunshine. Kill For Love songs dominated, alongside a delicious cover of ‘Running Up That Hill’. A sultry, majestic end to their European tour.

Finally, closing Sónar by Day, and following on from the Friday night’s EDM onslaught, came the gurgling trap of TNGHT. Hudson Mohawk and Lunice doled out the drops as they danced beneath a fairly conservative light show and an onslaught of bass. Earworm ‘Goooo’ was colossal, and closer ‘Higher Ground’ gave the soundsystem the most strenuous workout of the weekend.

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 Sónar By Night

Whilst Sónar’s daytime incarnation retains a classic festival vibe (sunshine, fake grass), Sónar by Night has a completely different atmosphere. More a rave than a festival, it takes place in a series of enormous aircraft hangers and the roofless, walled spaces that link them. There were massive empty spaces, which came to act as chill out zones, and, if you were feeling more recklessly fucked, there were dodgems.

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First then, the rather controversial presence of some of the U.S.’s biggest EDM acts. Though there had been some pre-emptive complaints regarding Skillex’s headlining slot, he had a decent crowd, and many people seemed to be willing to give him a chance to prove them wrong. From atop his giant spaceship, Skrilly jumped around and kissed his Barça shirt, before firing off some pretty impressive lasers and “dropping the bass”. The music didn’t stand up to the visuals. I went with an open-mind, but it was repetitive and dull, despite the aggression. Earlier, Baauer put in a fun, fast DJ set (though it was rather more commercial than Sónar aficionados would have liked), but it was Diplo’s Major Lazer who triumphed, battering down any resistance with a joyously energetic performance. With confetti canons, a Wayne Cohen hamster ball, and manically gyrating dancers on stage, most of the crowd were close to drowning in their own sweat as much of the second album and the rapturously greeted ‘Get Free’ boomed out – it was a long way from typical Sónar fare, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

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Next, the abundance of disco influences. Breakbot’s live bass and electric guitar brought slinky Saturday Night Fever struts to the dancefloor, whilst Justice’s DJ set, though somewhat predictable, packed the punch of ‘We Are Your Friends’, a raft of hits from , and even the Ronettes and Diana Ross. Of course, the disco scene was ruled by the Pet Shop Boys who dominated the mainstage with the festival’s strongest visuals (sorry, Skrillex) and their high-camp power-pop. With suitably Spanish bull dancers and an array of costume changes (including an amazing disco-ball helmet for Lowe), their newer records were followed by an encore that boasted more hits than anyone else on the bill; ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Rent’, and ‘Always on My Mind’ have lost none of their irreverence and none of their hooks.

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Of course, opening proceedings amid widespread excitement, were Kraftwerk bringing the same show that a select few saw at the Tate Modern to a crowd of 10,000+. Everyone was childishly excited about the (much-photographed, suitably 80s) 3D glasses, but the robotic Düsseldorfers opened big with a goosebump-inducing ‘We Are The Robots’, and everyone remembered quite how phenomenal it was to be watching the genre’s godfathers, more than forty years into their career. A full length ‘Autobahn’ proved slightly inaccessible, but ‘Radioactivity’, ‘Tour de France’ and ‘Radioactivity’ were amongst other highlights, all paired with simplistic, iconic 3D images.

Despite the mutterings about EDM and the slightly poppier fare on offer, there remained a very strong “traditional Sónar” line-up of outstanding techno. Richie Hawtin’s ENTER provided hypnotic pulsing techno, with Hawtin showering the 6am crowd in black confetti and a surprise Skrillex appearance! 2ManyDJs’ mashup set, littered with huge hits from Kavinsky to MGMT, demonstrated incredible live mixing and allowed everyone to finally lose their shit to ‘Get Lucky’.

Inevitably though, the absolute best sets came from Sónar’s core sound – veteran European techno and house producers. Paul Kalkbrenner blended new tracks with classics and dropped a phenomenal set, laden with touchstone Berlin techno. As ‘Sky and Sand’ blasted out, everyone hugged anyone within reach – a perfect conclusion and amongst Sónar 2013’s best moments. Equally impressive was Laurent Garnier’s French house, which like Hawtin, enjoyed the euphoria of the closing, sunrise slot. ‘Jacques in the Box’ is always fantastic, and closing with Prodigy’s ‘Out Of Space’ was inspired. As Garnier had played the first ever Sónar, it was a neat full-circle.

Amongst the Guadí and the rollerbladers, the lost tourists and the omnipresent Catalonian flags, lurks an utterly incredible festival. Festivals are always about euphoria; but Sónar does it best.

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