articles about pop culture

Review: Forest Swords – Compassion

Last year’s glitchy political statements like Bon Iver’s 22, a million and Kendrick’s untitled unmastered were albums of the moment. They were representations of the societal earthquakes (Trump, Brexit, Aleppo) that marked 2016. Compassion might have elements of those artists’ noise-as-social-commentary, but the music doesn’t feel like it’s commenting on the here and now. As always, Forest Swords mashes together sounds from a thousand different places and eras.

70s guitar riffs co-exist alongside futuristic dub, recordings of human voices fuse with classical instruments, and horns that sound like they were imported straight from Mordor top off the whole affair. The whole thing sounds like it was produced by Gandalf on psilocybin.

But don’t get me wrong. The music’s not meant to be jolly. The melody for ‘Sjurvival’, for example, might be one of the year’s saddest. The chorus of ‘Panic’ — if you can call it’s fragments of a vocal recording a chorus — sounds like a full-blown anxiety attack. It’s heavy stuff, but the album’s overall effect is kind of consoling. Things have always been this bad, the music seems to say. And for most of human history, a lot whole worse.

Forest Swords argues that we can find some refuge in music that is this historically pessimistic. “It is almost like a primal thing,” he said in a 2014 interview, “you can hear in someone’s music when they are trying to be honest and true about something.”

Compassion is honest and true about things that have always been on our minds. We’ve always been panicked. We’ve always felt like the world was ending. And we’ve always sjurvived.

It’s not timely. It’s timeless.


Grahamstown Water Crisis Worsens

Image result for water stock

Grahamstown is in the middle of a serious water crisis.

Due to lower than average rainfall Makana municipality’s main water source, Settler’s Dam, is down to 22%. Howieson’s Poort Dam, a backup water source, plummeted from 90% in April to 56% as of mid-July. A report in April concluded that, at current water usage rates, the dams would probably be able to provide 3 months’ supply of water. That was 3 months ago.

The dire state of the water reserves prompted the Makana municipal Council to declare a state of emergency in May. If the situation does not come under control soon, it seems likely that the municipality will implement water rationing. In a public statement, the municipality said that this rationing would most likely come in the form of “water shedding for at least 2 days per zone”.

In the hopes of avoiding the need for rationing, the Makana community has taken some steps to address these issues. For example, on 12 July divers inspected Settler’s Dam to determine how much water can be pumped if special measures are implemented. The results of these inspections are still pending.

UCKAR has lent a hand as well. In response to the water shortage, the university set up a Water Crisis Committee and launched a publicity campaign to raise awareness about water conservation.

The Makana municipality has also imposed water restrictions since April. These include prohibiting the use of potable water to water gardens and sports fields, or to wash cars and property. Total water use is also limited to a maximum of 100 litres of water per person per day. However, these restrictions do not appear to have made much of an impact. In June, a public notice from the office of the municipal manager concluded that “consumption patterns indicate that residents are not adhering to these restrictions.”

Since then, in an effort to improve public awareness of the issue, Makana municipality has issued press releases and water restriction notices. However, Nikki Kohly, the UCKAR Safety, Health and Environmental Officer, feels the municipality could do more to address the situation.

“I am amazed that the authorities did not take action to impose restrictions and water saving measures sooner,” Kohly says. “Makana had huge water signs which could be put up at the entrance points into town, but these have not been visible at all.”

“I think most people are not taking this seriously enough,” Kohly adds. “But this is partly the fault of the authorities, for not issuing authoritative statements sooner, or role modelling the necessary water-saving behaviour themselves.”

There appears to have been some improvement in the community’s response to the water shortage in recent weeks, but a lot of work still needs to be done to alleviate the crisis. Students can help out by using water sparingly, flushing toilets only when necessary, limiting laundry to one load a week, collecting and using rainwater, and showering rather than bathing.

After all, there may now be posters around Grahamstown advocating water conservation, but these are not enough. As Kohly explains: “We need to see actions that reflect the words.”


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Tracks You Should Be Listening To

Travis Scott – Green & Purple ft. Playvoi Carti

Travis Scott’s had a hectic few months. He performed in Arkansas, allegedly incited a riot, and got arrested. (#freeTravisScott is trending on Twitter, no joke.) Somehow he found the time in the middle of all that to release three new tracks, in what has been the dopest courtroom-related hip hop incident since a New Zealand judge had to listen to Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ in its entirety.

Shallou – Truth

Singer/producer Shallou gives boring interviews. His cliched answers about making music to ‘connect’ with the audience sound like they were stitched together by an edm-themed chatbot. Luckily his music’s cool.

Slowdive – Sugar for the Pill

It’s been 22 years since the last Slowdive album. The band’s experiences in the interim — taking a break from the limelight, having kids — have added to their music rather than diluted it. Most impressively, the dream-pop icons are still pushing boundaries in a genre that they helped to create.

Fleet Foxes – Fool’s Errand

With a new album on the horizon, ‘Fool’s Errand’ sounds like an argument that Fleet Foxes are still relevant without drummer Josh Tillman (who you might know now as Father John Misty). It’s music video is also weird as shit.

Lana Del Rey – Coachella (Woodstock in my Mind)

The new one from Lana Del Rey sounds a lot like the old ones from Lana Del Rey. You know – smoky voice, lots of bass, lyrics inspired by 60s rock. But she has grown as a lyricist. (Case in point: ‘Maybe my contribution could be as small as hoping’.)

On Instagram, del Rey wrote that the song came about because she had “complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount”. Me too, Lana. Me too.

Grahamstown’s Water Crisis

Water Drop

One issue that I have been engaged with in the last few weeks is the current water shortage in Grahamstown. This a serious issue, but many people don’t know the full extent of it. I put together an article on this earlier in the term, and in doing so came across some really good resources online for understanding the situation and what students can do to improve it.

First, some background info: The Grahamstown area has been experiencing a drought for the last few months. As a result, Grahamstown’s main water source, Settler’s Dam, is at 20%. The backup water source, Howieson’s Poort Dam, is at 45%. A report in April concluded that at current consumption rates, these dams would only be able to provide Grahamstown with 3 months’ worth of water. That was more than three months ago.

So, it’s clear to see that the situation is serious. But what does it really mean for the community? This can be hard to imagine in abstract terms, but social media and the internet made researching this topic much easier. For example, I was able to track down public statements about the water issue on the Makana municipality’s website. I was also able to find links to water conservation advice online. Additionally, through Facebook I was able to find information on the issue from Grahamstown residents who are being effected by it, like this:

Water update
Settlers 22% Howieson 56%

As you will have seen from Grocott's Mail divers have been investigating both…

Posted by Grahamstown Residents’ Association on Sunday, 16 July 2017

…and then this update, showing that things have gotten worse rather than better:

Please feel free to share this message with non-members, and talk with people who may not have email.

Makana Water…

Posted by Grahamstown Residents’ Association on Sunday, 13 August 2017

The local government’s take on the problem is also available online. You can read the municipality’s statement on the possibility of water rationing here. Additionally, you can check our their earlier statement on the issue here.

For some background information on how Grahamstown gets its water and how these dams work, you can take a look a this piece written by the Rhodes University’s health, safety and environmental officer. And here are some good tips for conserving water.

The municipality is addressing the water shortage by issuing public statements and implementing water restrictions, but these do not seem to be having much of an effect. As a result, a number of Grahamstown residents are unhappy with the way officials are dealing with the crisis.

As you can see, the municipality’s most recent tweets don’t inspire much confidence, especially since they were posted in 2014.

In other words, it’s up to Grahamstown citizens to make a difference in this water crisis. Students can help out by using water sparingly, showering rather than bathing, limiting laundry to one load a week, and flushing toilets only when necessary.

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1

The Scottish producer’s newest album cements his position as a purveyor of pop delights.

Calvin Harris has had an unlikely evolution.

In 2007, he burst onto the scene with 80s influenced dance music he made by himself on his computer. In the decade since, Harris has toured with Rihanna, won a Grammy, and churned out big-room bangers that launched him to a billion streams on Spotify. Somehow, the lad from Scotland usurped the EDM throne — only to now turn his sunglasses-sporting gaze to the pop charts.

His newest album, Funk Wave Bounces Vol. 1, is a well-aimed shot at pop domination. Like every Calvin Harris album, it’s concerned with serving up winning grooves, but it’s a got a wider range of ideas.

The album features guest appearances from seemingly every relevant artist in the 2017 zeitgeist: Khalid, Kehlani, Katy Perry. And that’s just the Ks. The Migos also show up, as do Frank Ocean and Future. Even Lil Yachty contributes a bubblegummy verse.

The result is the undisputed Album of the Summer: not the best, but definitely, as the title suggests, the bounciest. It’s the perfect soundtrack to lazy days in the sun and road trips to the beach.

Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is proof that in 2017, the lad from Scotland is pop’s king of quixotic delights — and maybe it’s most self-assured craftsman.

Movie Review: Gifted

Gifted is one of two films director Marc Webb has out this year. After his work on Amazing Spider-man and Amazing Spider-man 2, it seems Webb is returning to the subject matter that brought him stardom back in 2009 with (500) Days of Summer: quirky human-focused dramas, with liberal doses of humour.

True to that formula, Gifted tells the story of boat mechanic Frank Adler (Chris Evans) and his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace). It’s Mary that the title refers to. She’s only 7, but she cuts through complex maths problems like a flaming laser sword through butter.

Her abilities lead to turmoil, however, when her mathematician grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) tries to gain custody of her. The result is a lengthy courtroom drama.

It’s fairly typical stuff. Many films have covered similar territory (see Kramer vs Kramer, Good Will Hunting, etcand Gifted doesn’t really throw any curve-balls with it’s story. The film only avoids cliche because Webb is too smart of a director. He takes a subtle approach to the drama, which makes it feel real, if not novel.

It also helps that the performances are remarkably sturdy. Evans puts in a solid turn as Mary’s de facto guardian Frank, and Jenna Slate is charming as Mary’s first grade teacher. Octavia Spencer also brings a fleshed out performance to what would otherwise be a bit part as the Adlers’ neighbour Roberta. It’s the kind of role one could imagine her getting an Oscar nod for had it been expanded, but (in one of Webb’s few directorial missteps) Spencer receives criminally little screen time

But the show is indisputably stolen by 11-year-old Mckenna Grace. Her Mary is quirky, funny, heartbreaking and — most importantly — brave. She might be my favourite film character of the year so far.

All of this adds up to a solid return to what Webb does best. Gifted won’t blow your mind, or deliver anything super original, but if you’re looking for a bit of cinematic sunshine — or if you’re a fan of monocular cats — you can’t go wrong.

Feature Audio

A brief look at what my feature will be about.

Review: 21 Savage – Issa Album

Success threatens to rob the Atlanta rapper of what made him stand out to begin with.

“The problems of failure are hard,” the writer Neil Gaiman once said. “The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.”

He’s not wrong. Success can break artists, or rob them of what made them special in the first place. For example, Jay-Z might have recently returned to form, but for years his status as an uber-successful musician/businessman meant that his songs were excruciatingly boring. You can only count stacks so many times.

The same is true for a lot of underdog artists who suddenly find themselves on the ‘inside’. For Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it took away their unique perspective, which was pretty much all they had. In the case of Nirvana, it contributed in a very tangible way to their front-man’s collapse.

Which brings us to 21 Savage. Issa Album is, as its title suggests, his first album proper, and on it he seems uncomfortable with success. The opening track is called ‘Famous’, and it features 21 insisting “I’m too street to walk around with my nose up”. But it seems like he’s trying to reassure himself more than anyone else.

He can’t be blamed for finding it hard to adjust to fame. His success came quickly, as a result of a string of mixtapes he released over the last two years. They were dark, all menacing synths and snares, punctuated by 21’s stone-cold rhymes about violence and life on the streets. It was a calculated move. As mainstream rap got poppier, 21 instead dealt in grit and grimness.

These mixtapes were largely produced by then-underground producers, like Metro Boomin, who also exploded onto the mainstream rap scene last year. That they sounded gritty added to their charm. Now 21’s music has studio gloss. An army of high-end producers worked on Issa Album, with mixed results. At times, they make 21 sound too tame, even mainstream.

His lyrics don’t always help either. There’s a lot of rapping about clothes and money on this album, and it doesn’t suit 21. He’s also been an anti-rapper: anti-mainstream, anti-consumerist, anti-radio. He wears pop appeal uncomfortably.

This change seems be a result of 21’s success. He’s no longer hustling on the streets. These days — as he repeatedly tells us— his bank account is full and his life is luxurious. In other words, he’s like any other rapper. I’m not a fan of him rapping like this. I like my 21 Savage, well, savage. He’s always been at his best when he’s speaking in a barely-audible snarl over slow-burning horror-movie production.

The best tracks on Issa Album are the ones where he returns to this style. ‘I been hanging with the dead people’, he muses on ‘Dead People’, suggesting that the people he lost in his former life still haunt him. It’s real stuff, full of hurt and regret. What made 21 Savage stand out was always his blunt honesty, that he could examine his own pain on record, no matter how uncomfortable. Unfortunately he does that so little here.

It’s ironic that fame is making it harder for 21 Savage to produce the work that made him famous in the first place. Hopefully success doesn’t spell the end of him.

The Age of Mura Masa

The UK producer’s debut is an album that could only exist in the internet age.

In a recent interview, Mura Masa said that his music “comes from geographical isolation more than anything”.

After all, the producer grew up on Guernsey (population: 60 000), a remote island off the coast of France but under British control. (“The queen is on the money,” Mura Masa explains.)

One couldn’t be blamed for assuming then that Mura Masa’s debut would would be a regional effort, influenced by the landscape he came from, in the vein of Forest Swords’ Wirral-inspired Engravings.

But the key word in Mura Masa’s statement is geographical — because musically, his debut album sounds anything but isolated. Instead, it mixes together sonic elements from around the world: UK garage, US hip hop, Calypso, shakuhachi flutes. Even his stage name is a Japanese import.

The reason? The internet.

Mura Masa is a 2000s kid. He grew up with the internet. He might come from a remote island, but with a dial-up connection and an eager ear, he was able to absorb international influences. Even a decade ago, that would have been impossible.

The internet was also responsible for Mura Masa’s meteoric rise. As a teenager, he started uploading his music to Soundcloud, where it caught the attention of a few YouTube music channels. In the handful of years since, he went from producing in his bedroom to working alongside some of the industry’s biggest hit-makers. Some of them, like ASAP Rocky and Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, show up here.



It might seem odd that all of this happened to a kid from a British island that I’m pretty sure neither of us had heard of until this article, but really, it happened because of it. “That’s why the Internet was so important to me,” Mura Masa explainend to the FADER. “Because being so far removed from any real cultural influence, it was important for me to do my work online.”

As a result, it might be tempting to view Mura Masa as some sort of commentary on the internet age. After all, the album cover suggests information overload. The obscure samples (vintage video games, a Japanese weather report) feel like a voyage through the weirder corners of the web. And the album’s best tracks (‘Love$ick’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Blu’) are tinged with sadness as if, despite being perpetually online, Mura Masa still feels lonely.

But I don’t think that’s what he intended his album to be. Mura Masa’s here to party, not to ponder.

As Mura Masa himelf explains: “When I started making music I wanted it to have a narrative and be conceptual, but as time went on I thought it was probably more practical for a first album just to have good music.”

I guess that sums up Mura Masa pretty well. A+

Top 10 Tracks of 2016


In the year of Trump and Brexit, music served as both distraction and defiance. Here are the top tracks of 2016

10. Skrux – Our Fragment

Skrux 1.jpg

In a year defined by trap in both the hip hop and EDM spheres, Skrux had an underground hit with a mix of piano melodies, distorted vocal chops and ticking clock percussion. It was a burst of sunshine in the year’s EDM scene, but also a peak at what the electronic landscape may look like in 2017

9. Cruel Youth – Hatefuck

Teddy Sinclair has always been heavy. Under the name Natalia Kills, she made dark electric guitar pop that caught the ear of will.i.am. Her new project alongside Willy Moon takes that idea to the extreme. Their third single chronicles a dysfunctional relationship through 60s-inspired vocals and trap instrumentation. With its fusion of darkness and pop, hatefuck serves as an expression of just what a melting pot indie music has become in the post-Snapchat era.

8. Chance the Rapper – No Problem

2016 was Chance’s year. From a scene-stealing guest spot on Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’ to the success of his third mixtape, Coloring Book, Chancellor Bennett might have produced the most fully-realized hip hop of his career. With his first album proper on the horizon, it appears that the Chicago rapper is moving from strength to strength.

7. Flume – Say It ft. Tove Lo

Flume’s album Skin delivered on the promises of his debut, overflowing with oddball takes on genres ranging from hip hop  to psy trance. With his Tove Lo collaboration ‘Say It’, Flume scored over 20 million YouTube views and spawned a thousand remixes. In the process, he made a strong case that few electronic artists walk the line between experimental and populist as deftly as he does.

6. James Blake – Radio Silence

On Radio Silence, Blake imbues his characteristic blend of R&B and bleak electronic soundscapes with a maximalist feel. The end result? A track that is as postmodern as they come without sacrificing a shred of jammability.

5) Frank Ocean – Ivy

Sigh. Frank Ocean only released two albums this year. At least we can take heart in ‘Ivy’ – the quiet masterpiece from his long-awaited LP Blonde (Blond?). The guitar-driven song sums up everything that made Ocean’s 2016 work so potent: where he could have followed Channel Orange with traditional pop fare, he instead opted for vulnerability and experimentation. His peers should take note.

4) Bon Iver – 22(Over Soon)

Justin Vernon recorded his 2008 work For Emma, Forever Ago in his father’s hunting cabin in the woods, according to legend. Its Auto-Tune heavy folk sound represents a very specific kind of Americana: the album deals with issues of break-ups and breakdowns against backdrops of Wisconsin’s bars and woodlands. This mostly continued on Bon Iver’s second album, but with his 2016 release 22, a Million, it seems at first that Vernon has abandoned his sound completely. The album trades guitars and folk arrangements for electronic glitches, distorted vocals and stray bursts of sound. When one looks a little closer at tracks like ‘Over Soon’, however, it becomes clear that Vernon is just as intent on representing America sonically as ever.

3) Beyonce – Formation

No song in recent memory has affected pop culture as much as Beyonce’s political fireball. Mike Will Made It’s synths are simple, ominous – and became instantly iconic. But what really makes the song is Beyonce’s performance, which more than matches the incendiary subject matter. Debuted at the Super Bowl, the track’s reverberations still continue, proving that its message of resilience and defiance isn’t just relevant but essential.

2 . Kanye West – Real Friends

After  the critical acclaim of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, the stakes were unimaginably high for Kanye West’s seventh solo album. Speculation was rampant over what new sound he would pursue with it. An extension of the maximalist progressive rock of Dark Fantasy?  More of the industrial noise of his 2013 work?  Despite all the guesswork, Kanye’s first lead single single in three years came as a surprise: the song features little more than a drum loop and a synth. In hindsight, however, the track is both the most daring and most logical follow up to West’s previous works. More than that, it functions as bridge between the many iterations of Kanye West: the classic samples of College Dropout Kanye, the lyrical bleakness of 808s and Heartbreak,  and mournful synthesizers reminiscent of Yeezus.

In light of West’s recent hospitalization for mental health concerns, Real Friends – and ‘The Life of Pablo’ as whole – reveals itself as the work of an artist at the height of his powers but far from the end of his struggle.

  1. Radiohead – Daydreaming

2016 was kind to Radiohead fans. We finally got to hear official versions of tracks that had been drifting around Reddit, unfinished, for years. We even got to see the band headline major festivals like they did in their heyday. But their greatest gift was A Moon Shaped Pool, a return to form after their disappointing 2011 album  King of Limbs. The LP has no shortage of great additions to the paranoid androids’ canon: the schizophrenic strings of ‘Burn the Witch’, the driving guitars of ‘Identikit’. But the album’s centerpiece has to be ‘Daydreaming’. The track is based around a simple piano melody, but delivers an emotional gut-punch to rival anything Thom Yorke has written in the past. “Dreamers'”the song goes, “They never learn.” In this fractured year, that line reads like both praise and admonition.