Even though modern dance music is electronic based and as a result is seen as cold and inhuman, the desire at the heart of dance culture is an ancient one that is rooted in communal, transcendental ideas of surrender and losing oneself in mass ecstasy (no pun intended). Many dance compilations borrow imagery from Hindu or Buddhist iconography, reducing a genuine human longing to manipulative banality. This hackneyed, blissed-out, Goa-bound humdrum element of dance culture can be off-putting to those who supposedly seek more stimulating inspiration from the music they enjoy, despite the fact that pop, rock and hip-hop can (and will) be reduced to such one-dimensional caricatures by cultural commentators. Dance music’s passive surrender can be seen (as pointed out by, among others, Simon Reynolds) as feminine as opposed to rock or hip-hop’s masculine aggression. Behind the earth-worship of electronica’s placid symbolism, however, lies its mirror image: mother-earth as vengeful destroyer as opposed to loving nurturer. The dichotomy of destroyer/nurturer has proved popular amongst many women performers (perhaps indicating why the music press is so keen to seek out the cliché), with Bjork and Madonna circa Ray of Light aligning themselves with nature as a powerful, feminine force, and using electronics to enhance the message. In 2011 this mantle has been picked up by Barbara Panther whose self-titled debut harnesses the image of a powerful avenging female spirit aligned with mother-earth.
Born in Rwanda but raised in Belgium, Panther’s debut is produced by electronic wizard Matthew Herbert. It begins with the pulse-quickening “Rise Up”. Given her back-story it’s tempting to give Panther’s music an added seal of authenticity, especially when she calls for a ‘cosmic revolution’, but in the world of pop all bets are off and her call to rise up is no more authentic than the awful “Uprising” by Muse. What it is, though, is infinitely superior. Panther’s “Rise Up” punches your gut and all but compels you to move to its beat, with the tribal feel of the music playing in to dance music’s communal yearnings. From this we go to the excellent “Moonlight People” which seductively plays up the artist’s softer side. This contrast between vengeful anger and wide-eyed innocence continues throughout the entire album, with hardly a false-step (the opening lyrics to “Voodoo” produce a cringe). The effect of either approach can be similar in that they both result in a euphoric sensation of freedom. Panther’s lyrics emit a feeling of joyful emancipation which goes hand in hand with the album’s sometimes dark, sometimes soaring electronics. As far as debut releases go, it is deeply impressive.
In terms of her singing Barbara Panther is already being compared to Bjork. There is an undeniable similarity to their voices, but the likeness is superficial. Panther appears to possess enough charisma and wherewithal to shake off any resemblance to whatever female artists she will undoubtedly be compared to, be it Bjork, M.I.A. or Bat For Lashes. The album is replete with highlights, ranging from the already mentioned “Rise Up” and Moonlight People” to “Empire” and “Dizzy”. They buzz and throb with an uncontainable enthusiasm that merges perfectly with the pulsating music. Her talent and personality, coupled with her media-friendly childhood, seem perfectly designed for stardom. If that happens I hope she holds strong to her idiosyncrasies rather than allowing herself to be smoothed over for mass consumption. This remains a minor worry and right now we have a startling debut album that is indicative of a major talent hungry to be heard. Do as she wishes and pick this up as soon as you can.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)