Several recent albums fulfill a venerable and necessary tradition; they get down and protest at the same time, connecting dance music to the anger and sonic textures of punk. The artists and their music may belong to an existing lineage, but their music also represents a punk-revival rebellion against the current and pervasive homogenized version of dance music.
EDM has become an umbrella term for a field with several dozen sub-genres, but it also describes a culture that pasteurized a sound originally created by gay African-American men into party music for straight white bros. The resistance implicit in ʼ90s rave culture, where being an equal participant in an audience (often with an Ecstasy-enhanced sense of community) replaced worshipping a rock star onstage, got lost as DJs became superstars and raves turned into massive EDM festivals. Marshmello, Diplo, and the Chainsmokers had pop hits with gratingly empty music while more creative producers like Yaeji, Galcher Lustwerk, and Marie Davidson, and innovative styles like gqom and footwork remain niche tastes. If this scenario resembles mainstream rock music circa 1975, it’s no wonder that a revolt is in the works.
The punk aesthetic of Pelada’s Movimiento Para Cambio stems both from its simplicity and the anger of Chris Vargas’s vocals and lyrics. Additionally, Vargas and the harsh drum machine programming drown out producer Tobias Rochman’s keyboards, which provide simple melodies or droning chords (fake-string patches and rave piano riffs are favorites of the group). Rochman amplifies the impact of Vargas’s voice by adding a new filter or cranking up the volume on the beat. “Habla Tu Verdad,” the album’s catchiest song, spins on an arpeggio played on tuned percussion. Vargas, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, sings in Spanish about surveillance culture, the inescapability of global capitalism, and feminism. Even the choice of that language, reflecting Vargas’s Colombian heritage, has political overtones. While it’s far from uncommon in contemporary pop music, Pelada, who live in Montréal, have opted not to use either of Canada’s two official languages.
At age 65, Cabaret Voltaire member Stephen Mallinder returns as part of the trio Wrangler. Their third album, A Situation, looks back to the ’80s with a hard, stripped-down sound. But its lyrics are even more concerned with the failures of online culture than Pelada’s. Wrangler throws out cynical critiques of the way the Internet has made us more depressed and alienated, sung in brief lines whose concision mirrors tweets, over music that recalls Cabaret Voltaire’s The Crackdown. But there’s a funny irony to “Machines Designed (To Eat You Up),” which lays out its fear of technology over a robotic beat created on synthesizers and drum machines. Next to the power of Google and Facebook, Wrangler almost seems nostalgic for the televangelists and Islamic fundamentalists who inspired the equally paranoid albums Cabaret Voltaire released in the early ’80s.
Producer Nicolas Jaar has many projects, but in the past few years he has concentrated on his Against All Logic alias. His first album 2012 – 2017 consisted of first-rate but fairly conventional house music. The second album, 2017 – 2019, and non-album singles “Illusions of Shameless Abundance” and “Alucinao,” go in a direction that’s far more abrasive and modern-sounding. “Illusions of Shameless Abundance” and “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard” both feature vocals from punk poet Lydia Lunch, layering her voice throughout the song. On “Alucinao,” the vocals get pitch-shifted and chopped up into a blur. Jaar’s production client FKA Twigs, who sings alongside Estado Unido, is barely recognizable on the song’s second half. Where 2012 – 2017 embraced house music’s standard promise of release on the dance floor, 2017 – 2019 lives up to its title, holding up a mirror to the dystopian world we’re living in right now.
Lisbon-based singer/producer Scúru Fitchádu takes elements from punk: furious, guttural vocals, distorted bass guitar, and high-speed tempos. But he also draws on his background from Cape Verde, using beats and melodies from its funaná music, as well as influences from drum’n’bass. He sings in Cape Verdean Creole. In an odd way, his mix of a punk aesthetic and folk roots recalls the Pogues, down to the way he places accordions where a conventional rock band would use guitar. Other inspirations pop up: Fitchádu uses both African hand percussion and drumming on metal, while his spoken word samples from Black activists and sirens evoke the Bomb Squad’s production for Public Enemy and Ice Cube.
In interviews, Fitchádu—whose real name is Marcus Veiga and who has also worked under the name Sette Suijdade—espouses a post-genre aesthetic grounded in growing up listening to hip-hop, punk, heavy metal and dance music simultaneously. He proclaims, “This is not easy music. It is music of emotions and combat. I do not pretend to make people feel good. I want them to truly feel what is being done.”
His debut album Un Kuza Runhu really gets into high gear with “Sorrizu Margôs.” The song begins and ends with a sample of a man saying “Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos,” and then loops a man screaming, “Don’t shoot!” through the song’s first half. Rather than becoming the audio equivalent of TV news broadcasts that loop violence against Black people into numbing B-roll, the song remains genuinely harrowing. Fitchádu’s vocals and production create an atmosphere that enhance its horror, rather than letting it fade into the background.
In its summary of the music of the last decade, the Guardian ran an article about the decolonization of dance music, praising the cross-continental pan-African NON collective and their Mexican counterpart NAAFI. Jaar, Pelada, and Fitchádu all live in North America or Europe, but their music reflects their heritage in the global South. Jaar’s use of the English language often turns it into another element in his music rather than centering it as the source of meaning, even when he samples Beyoncé. The concept of punk as rebellion has spread beyond a band—usually, white men—playing short, fast songs on guitars; one can hear it in rappers like JPEGMAFIA, Denzel Curry, and Rico Nasty. The music discussed here represents another welcome expansion of its ideals.