Soulwax (made up of 2manydjs brothers Stephen and David Dewaele as well as Stefaan Van Leuven) have always had a pretty novel approach to making and releasing music. The Belgians first came to prominence with their 1998 alt rock release, Much Against Everyone’s Advice under the Soulwax moniker, before the brothers switched focus to their 2manydjs alias and it’s more dance and electronic sensibilities – a particular highlight of this phase being the mashup and remix record As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2. Soulwax have reappeared intermittently over the years, issuing the odd remix, contributing a radio show for GTA V and running various other tv and radio side projects.
The newest album, Belgica, a soundtrack to the film of the same name, continues their subversive stance towards creating music. The album is made up of tracks by 15 fictional bands – creations of Soulwax and playing music written by Soulwax – which range across the entire genre spectrum. The bands include, in their words: “a live kraut techno band, White Virgins, bequiffed psychobilly trio They Live through to hardcore outfit Burning Phlegm (featuring Sepultura’s Igor Cavalera) whilst chanteuse Charlotte represents the other end of the spectrum with her neo soul pop.” In the film, the tracks are either played through the speakers in the club scenes, or performed live by the various aliases as with (the fantastically named) The Shitz, below.
As well as creating a soundtrack of pretty obvious originality, it also functions as a reviewer’s nightmare – 15 different bands playing a track (or two) each doesn’t lend itself to overarching analysis and isolation of aims – but here goes nothing.
First up is a track by Charlotte, who Soulwax describe as “neo soul pop.” That doesn’t really capture how atmospheric and cinematic a track it is – obviously the film maker, Felix Van Groeningen, agrees as he used it on the end of the trailer (below). A pedalled synth bass note underlies a brilliant, soul influenced, vocal performance to produce a track which actually isn’t a million miles from the much loved Drive soundtrack standout, A Real Hero. The track swells with pads and strings, creating a properly heartfelt, pop banger.
The Shitz come next, who are the only band to get two tracks on the playlist. A rock track which takes an indie approach to the verses before clattering into heavier realms, with garage rock style, head banging moments. Great band name, really good track.
Rubber Band track, Caoutchouc, is an LCD Soundsystem-esque, instrumental dance track with mechanical percussion and a simple, anthemic melody played on synth strings and bass. Before the interestingly billed, “live kraut techno band”, White Virgins get a crack with Turn off the Lights. Vocals, squeezed through a vocoder, repeat “turn off the lights” for the length of the track while the experimental rock arrangement slowly edges towards techno. A clattering and, surprisingly accessible, joy.
At this point it’s worth taking a second to note that, after 4 tracks, Soulwax have successfully achieved more than most bands could ever hope to with this project. In fact, a lot of bands are no good at writing music in their own genre, yet alone 15 completely disparate musical styles. At the very least, their adaptability is to be applauded.
Light Bulb Matrix provide some reggae-tinged pop relief after the hubbub of the last few tracks before it goes way left field with Kursat 9000’s Çölde Kutup Ayisi (which we believe, after some extensive googling, means Desert Polar Bear in Turkish and was the Turkish title for Groeningen’s previous film The Misfortunates) that features those drum sounds you find on the one Casio keyboard your school had. It’s a blend of what we assume traditional Turkish music sounds like, with pulsating bass synths and a dance, almost reggaeton, drum beat. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is, but that doesn’t stop it being a feel good and danceable track.
Erasmus provide an angry, almost violent, tribal rant over a techno/dance track, Burning Phlegm play the kind of punk and hardcore that a band with that name need to make, and Aquazal chip in with a funky, end of set, singalong.
Skipping past some psychobilly and distorted rock numbers, Danyel Galaxy conjures a slow burning otherworldly, electro track which has a drifting off, mesmeric and wondrous, quality. It’s the kind of spaced out techno to have you looking up at the night sky and asking yourself some big questions.
The Shitz reappear with a slightly tame track which doesn’t quite capture the energy of their previous outing and Robert Vanderwiel provides what presumably must be the backing to one of the film’s more mournful moments with an equally beautiful and depressing, Radiohead-inspired track.
Soulwax save something a little special for last, with a sprawling, six and a half minute, electronic suite of gradual rises in tension and an extended ambient outro. It’s a suitably grand way to finish a soundtrack of huge scope. The amount of work that has gone into it is astonishing; it’s easy to believe it took 12 months to make, in fact it’s impressive they managed to get it done in that short a time. Very few bands or artists could do what Soulwax have done – the conceptual ambition is alarming and the precise and caring execution confirms the talent of a truly original group of musicians. A fantastic soundtrack.
Belgica comes out on February 26th and the film will be in cinemas from March 2nd.