With her positively geeky enthusiasm for the making of her music, eccentric costumes and abundant charisma, Barbara Panther is an unforgettable performer. Her distinctive voice has seen her compared to Bjork, Grace Jones and Fever Ray but she has a style all of her own. Cazz Blase checks out her self-titled album and finds Panther to be an artist with imagination, an ability to tell stories and musical inventiveness
“Listen to the beat of the motherland” proclaims Barbara Panther over glitchy punk beats, before taking up the cry “Rise up” followed by the Malcolm X slogan “By any means necessary.” The revolution starts here and it’s a revolution of knowledge as well as of rage. “What’s the use of growin’ without knowin’?’ Barbara asks. This opening track, ‘Rise Up’ is incredibly arresting and it’s fair to say that within two songs of this album, I am totally hooked. This was surely one of the very best albums of last year, so why does it seem to have slipped through so many nets?
Barbara Panther was born in Rwanda. Her parents fled to Belgium when she was three, taking Barbara and her siblings with them. Upon arrival in Belgium the children were adopted into separate Belgian families. A period of being expelled from lots of schools was followed by a stint at a performing arts college, another at a dance college in Venice and, eventually, a move to Berlin. “I’m a nomad, it’s in my blood” Barbara told The Guardian‘s Michael Cragg last year.
That second track, ‘Moonlightpeople’ is a much slinkier creature than the fierce ‘Rise Up’. It’s all delicate flourishes of electric piano and lush melodies amidst still pretty crunchy beats. This is a more romantic and more playful Panther, and she seems to be tapping into the nicest aspects of early 1980s electro. It could be viewed as the finished version of the earlier song ‘Ghost Town Blues,’ a track from 2007 that can be viewed on YouTube. That song originally had more of a brittle post punk Two Tone feel to it that has now been smoothed but not entirely lost and is therefore simply transformed.
The sense of charmingly glitchy electro continues on ‘Unchained’, whereas ‘Voodoo’ is ghostly drum’n’bass. It is strangely mesmerising, textured and complex, and from the middle break onwards it becomes a full-on hands in the air, whistles blowing, dancefloor anthem.
‘Wizzard’ starts with Panther whispering about being lost while sounding rather like The Slits’ Ari Up (it’s the slightly German accent mainly, but also the playful nature of the lyrics) as the song builds from a slow crunching beat and whimsically tinkling piano. The beats intensify, the vocals grow stronger, but it never loses its quirky charm. An organ makes a sudden appearance around the two and a half minute mark and it’s a little sonic odyssey. Panther sounds as though she is skipping merrily along, leading a series of curious musicians, whose number grows as the song progresses, through the streets of Berlin while passersby observe solemnly.
‘Empire’ is a different kettle of fish altogether though and is much darker in tone. While ‘Rise Up’ is a swaggering salute to Malcolm X, ‘Empire’ is a furious tour de force through the evils of empires and the folly of colonialism, both of which are equated with vampires. “I came to see the devil, he left his records in my case” Barbara sings, seemingly almost as an afterthought. There is a sense of too many words fighting for space amongst the rage and the pulsating drum’n’bass of the tune. As a single it was a bold and dark choice. As an album track it fits perfectly with the rest of the album.
Although ‘A last dance’ is more joyfully electro and can be interpreted as a ballad of sorts, it’s no less political for all of that. “Dear inmates, I’m shipping out” Barbara sings playfully at the beginning of the song, but by the end of it she’s maintaining that “Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t pay for my life/Even if I had the time, I wouldn’t dance for my life.”
Perhaps the most disarming track on the album is ‘O’Captain’ with its simple vocal refrain of “Oh captain, take me on a trip, oh captain please don’t leave the ship.” As Panther has explained in an interview (see video below), the bass was meant to be a heartbeat. This heartbeat of the bass contrasts with the reggae-like melody of the vocals, giving the song a slightly off kilter charm. This is probably the simplest, most innocent and charming track on the album and it’s, again, a little bit like The Slits on such songs as ‘Adventures close to home’ or ‘Silence is a rhythm too’ in a wordplay and imagery sense.
Interview with Barbara Panther, in which she talks about how she writes songs, including ‘O’Captain’
Although ‘Dizzy’ starts off sounding quite stark and spacious, the sexual menace in the growled vocals, coupled with the menace of the synth sound, are reminiscent of ‘Pull up to the bumper’ period Grace Jones. However, this is short lived as Panther seems to change voices, almost as though she is singing a duet with herself and the song takes a yearning pop tone. This dark/light contrast and the use of the two voices continue throughout and it’s incredibly effective. I’m not sure if this was released as a single, but Panther’s performance of it in Cologne in 2010 is typically arresting. This is certainly a song to dance around the kitchen to whilst singing along.
Dizzy, live in Cologne, 2010
‘Ride to the source’ follows on nicely from ‘Dizzy’, bringing a gently beguiling finish to the album, rather like a calypso space age Slits. Ghostly calls echo over pulsating crunchy beats and the result is textured and exciting. Panther’s strengths are her imagination, her ability to tell stories and her musical inventiveness. With her debut she has created a record that is truly transportive, vivid and true.