Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So, like, where's the music reviews, huh?

Oh, you know how it goes. Distractions and stuff, right? Er, well, I guess that's not helpful.

Okay, so I admit I haven't done much in the way of new music reviews for a couple months now. Part of that has to do with a move to a new apartment, and another part of that has to do with needing to focus my writing efforts on scholastic endeavors. There is another factor though, and it unfortunately will impede my efforts to review new releases for a little while longer: finances.

Without getting too detailed into it, my current amount of debt is at a level I'm not comfortable with. Mind, I'm by no means deep in a hole, but I want to spend some time this year whittling it down to a more manageable amount so the interest doesn't kill me should my creditors decide to jack up the rates. This means cutting costs on other things, and I've decided to include my regular music purchases as a part of this - in other words, less 'risk' albums I know little about, and only personally anticipated releases instead. The drawback, of course, is less new material to review.

Still, I don't want to let this blog linger between such reviews, so to make up for this, I'm going to draw upon my current collection for material, though with a twist. Taking a cue from the Random Reviews I'd do from time to time at TranceCritic, I'll randomly select five songs each week and do a Mini-Review (about a paragraph long) of each. It shall be called: The Weekly 5 Song Mini-Review. (name can change if someone comes up with something catchier) And when I say five songs, I mean of any style of music - heck, it may even include a spoken-word skit! Whatever comes up in my random selection, I will included it. Keep in mind this will be mostly for fun, not at all serious like the seriously serious regular reviews that are serious.

Also, I've realized that it's taking a HELL of a lot longer to upload all those old TC reviews at a rate of one per week than I anticipated, so I'm doubling that time to do a rate of one every half-week. I should now finish it by, oh, 2012 or so.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Maxx - No More (I Can't Stand it) (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $3.98











Quality Music: Cat. # QCDS 7062
Released 1994

Track List:
1. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Airplay Mix) (3:44)
2. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Club Mix) (6:09)
3. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Overworked Mix) (4:28)
4. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Welcome To The Terrordome Mix) (5:32)
5. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Paradise Garage Mix) (5:33)
6. No More (I Can’t Stand It) (Mr. Gee’s Mix) (4:54)


(2010 Update:
I really don't know what it is, but every time spring rolls around, I get very, very fond of euro dance again. Must have something to do with all that sunshine coming back and stuff. Even this year I found myself pulling out all my old euro compilations at the beginning of March. I actually intended to have an honorary March Euro Review every year, but when a number of those CDs in my collection kept cropping up in Random Reviews, I saw little point in doing so.

I still don't know who "Hands Of Fate" are either...)



IN BRIEF: No no, no, no-no no... Oh, wait, wrong song.

Around this time last year I went on a euro dance kick and reviewed every 2 Unlimited single I own. In honor of that bit of zaniness, I’ve decided to do the same with every Maxx single I own.

Um... this is it. Don’t go breathing a sigh of relief all at once.

Really, Maxx only had two hits: No More and Get-A-Way. They might have had more but, like so many euro acts, only managed a single album before folding. Reasons for this remain a mystery.

Catching the peak of euro dance just as it was about to begin its slide, Maxx managed to stick out from the crowd with two main ingredients: ‘tinny’ production and a ragga rapper who was white (German specifically I hear). The latter was a quirky gimmick, probably done to catch some of the momentum of white ragga rappers Snow popularized, but really not the group’s calling card. Rather, the former of these attributes was a strange gimmick considering just how polished most euro was sounding in ‘94. Maxx, however, had a hollow, flat sound, allowing their fuzzy basslines to generate the momentum. It was pretty unique at the time, and would go on to be copied a great deal. Personally, I feel that sound kind of ruined the old euro style, as producers saw Maxx’s success as a way to cut corners and get away with flat rhythms. However, this group managed to pull it off on the strength of their melodies.

While Get-A-Way was the breakout, No More was a worthy follow-up and contains all the charm you’d expect from old euro. The bassline’s simple and effective, practically carrying the whole track since the main hook, a tuneless, bleepy thing, doesn’t quite have the muscle to stand out. And, as with all of the best euro, the chorus sung by Linda Meek is super catchy, never growing annoying. Even after six variations of No More on this single, the chorus never lost its charm. Plenty of additional elements - ranging from synths, strings, pianos, and assorted sounds - pad the song’s duration, remaining well in the background as to merely complement the main features.

Four remixes come on this single, most of which offer a variation of No More’s format to appeal to different crowds.

The Overworked Mix takes No More into more typical euro territory. With softer, stuttery synths carrying the lead, the bassline is relegated to support status instead. Everything plays out as before, although the rap is more audible.

Welcome To The Terrordome Mix attempts to give No More an edge with aggressive rhythms and a hook that sounds like sirens, and is even more tuneless than the original hook. Besides that, it’s the same song. Does it succeed in making No More edgier, though? Well, compared to most euro, sure, but the gabber kids would be laughing their asses off should they have heard this.

Probably the most intriguing mix on this single is the Paradise Garage Mix. Much like many of the tunes being played in that club around this time, the mix goes into more trancey territory with dreamy, airy melodies and backing arpeggios. Interspersed throughout the mix are low acid burbles that help generate some extra rhythmic momentum. By no means a classic, I could still see this mix finding its way into an old trance set as a worthy complement to the heavier hitters. The remix credits for this point to “Hands Of Fate”, and yes, they actually have quotations. Considering there’s no record of such a name other than this single, I wouldn’t be surprised if this mix was done by a prominent trance producer of the time, but decided to hide behind an untraceable psuedonym. It’d be interesting to find out who it was.

And finally, we have Mr. Gee’s Mix. Who is Mr. Gee? I don’t know. This is also the only place I’ve seen the name crop up, but since his remix isn’t all that interesting, I’m not too anxious to find out. It’s pretty much the same song, but with his own style thrown in. Two words: circus music.
That wraps up this review. If you are a fan of that classic euro style, this is still a worthy addition. Of course, that time is long since past. So, unless you’re an adamant collector of this kind of music, the only thing of extra interest would be the Paradise Garage Mix, as the other remixes stick to the original’s template far too much to warrant any non-fan’s attention.

Score: 6/10

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for TranceCritic.com. © All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Above & Beyond - Tri-State (Original TC Review)


Best Price: $9.99










Anjunabeats: Cat. # ANJCD-004
Released March 6, 2006

Track List:
1. Tri-State (4:09)
2. Stealing Time (7:11)
3. World On Fire (4:44)
4. Air For Life (7:27) (with Andy Moor)
5. Can’t Sleep (7:23)
6. Hope (4:28)
7. Liquid Love (6:42)
8. In The Past (2:28)
9. Alone Tonight (6:23)
10. Good For Me (5:42)
11. For All I Care (5:50)
12. Indonesia (5:01)
13. Home (7:12)


(2010 Update:
I have a confession to make. Around the time I wrote this, I was going through something of a heavy weed phase. I think this may explain why this review rambles so much, even more so than many other previous ones. Not that I actually
wrote this while stoned - I can't write worth shit in such a headspace. I did listen to this stoned, however, probably making it sound much better than it really was. Er, I dunno anymore, as I lost my copy of this album and haven't heard it since. Maybe it has held up after all.)


IN BRIEF: Some very familiar sounds here.

This can be a thankless task, reviewing a highly anticipated release such as Above & Beyond’s Tri-State. With a few years under their belt under various guises (including Oceanlab and Tranquility Base), Jonathan Grant, Paavo Siljamäki, and Tony McGuinness, have managed to build up quite the expectation for a full-length. Also, due to their light-weight, super-polished anthems, they’ve managed to polarize a great number of trance fans in the process: either you enjoy their easily accessible attributes, or you despise it. I’ve hardly seen any middle ground on prominent web-forums when it comes to Above & Beyond.

So, you can see my problem. Whichever way my opinion of this release goes, it will undoubtedly draw the ire of either camp: give it a good review, and get condemned by the old trance scensters for liking ‘cheese’ (what, my Drexciya review means nothing?); or, give it a poor review, and get condemned by fans of being a jaded elitist who bashes popular music just for the sake of it (what, my 2 Unlimited reviews mean nothing?); or, take the political route -be completely, drily objective, and be attacked by both camps for not swinging more in favor of their opinions. In the end, I suppose it’s best to do what I always do: dive into Tri-State from my own perspective, and judge it according to my musical background, other opinions be damned.

The good news is I barely have any prior Above & Beyond background, so I’m heading into Tri-State with very little pre-conceived expectations cobbled together from former hits. The bad news is where my Above & Beyond experience mainly lies: the remix of Satellite. I know this track has its fans but I’m not one of them. I felt it was a tired, cliché-ridden exercise in generic epic vocal trance. All the expert production on it couldn’t hide the fact there just wasn’t much substance behind all the shiny, stuttery synths. I remained disinterested in their output and all the debates raging around how the group was inspiring/destroying trance.

Which is a good thing! If the pre-release buzz is to be believed, Tri-State is a departure from their club trance fodder of yore. Instead, Above & Beyond are interested in crafting an album meant for home listening. So, without me going into this expecting nothing more than Satellite clones (which I’m sure a number of their old fans are), I get to do this review without previous artist bias. No blame.

Starting out, the title track opener is a pleasant little ambient intro making use of piano melodies, synthy melodies, and gentle pad work. Every element works nicely with each other, creating a warm atmosphere. As I listen to this, I can’t help but be reminded of Faithless during their very laid-back moments. Though this song is a little simpler than Faithless, it is still a good way to kick off Tri-State.

With a silky smooth transition, Stealing Time gives us our first beats of the album. Nothing highly energetic, mind you, as Above & Beyond opts to keep things nicely cruising along. As the song moves with simple spacey loops, backing strings, and understated hooks, Stealing Time has a very old school feel to it (as in, ‘96 era Sasha & Digweed school)... well, aside from those vocals but just ignore them. Compared to the music playing, they are insubstantial fluff (sorry, Richard).

The tempo picks up with World On Fire, a simple bit of epic trance making use of grooving rhythms and bleepy leads. Surprisingly, the track seems to understand the concept of ‘less is more’ when it comes to trance. In this age where everything shoots for the biggest, brightest, boldest sounds, those on display in World On Fire are more restrained, kind of how the epic format sounded during its humble beginnings nearly ten years ago. Think Sash!, only less goofy and with smarter production.

Hmm... That’s the third song in a row now where I’ve drawn reference to the music sounding like something else, a reviewing technique I tend to frown upon doing here at TranceCritic. Perhaps I’d better pause this review for a moment to explain myself. I can assure you this ‘other artist referencing’ is going to happen a few more times before I’m done with Tri-State. This isn’t meant to be a dig on Above & Beyond’s creativity, or some lame-brained attempt at claiming they ripped off other artists; the group does manage to put their own spin on these songs. However, as I listened to Tri-State, my first thoughts on many songs often consisted of, “This sounds like so-and-so,” and those mental notes have stuck. Such comparisons aren’t a bad thing though, especially considering some of the names that popped up. With that out of the way, let’s get back to the review.

The next track is Air For Life, and it sounds like something Andy Moor might produce. Haha, just kidding. I know he had a hand in this.

Actually, I’ve listened to this once before but it was amongst so many generic trancers it never stuck out, so I don’t remember how it went. Listening to it here, Air For Life is one half nice, and one half meh. First, the niceness: the peaks of this track contain some wonderful airy voices floating about (Carrie Skipper’s, for the record), forming a gripping melody which is impossible to resist. When the main melody is in play, this is a great song. As for the meh-ness, the rest of the track is carried by a bassline that is conceptually one step removed from speed garage. The low, chunky sawwave attributes of it initially sound cool but it doesn’t spark any kind of rhythmic momentum by relying on straight-ahead stabs. If it’s trying to be funky, it certainly failed in that regard and the sweeping voice pad work alongside the bassline isn’t enough to distract from its inadequacies. Great sounding strings on this track, though.

Can’t Sleep features vocals by Ashley Tomberlin which fail to engage after the first verse. They just aren’t as interesting as the music playing in the background, which is stunning considering the music on this track is incredibly sparse. Structurally, the song is epic trance but about as subtle an epic trancer as I’ve ever heard. It’s like Jonathan, Paavo, and Tony had a discussion, decided the epic trance sound had grown too overblown, and went to work on creating minimal epic trance. The backing sawwave pads are subdued, the main lead is nothing more than a few single echoing notes (sounding a bit like some of Oliver Lieb’s old L.S.G. works, I might add), and the typical build-ups are gentle rather than forceful. Musically, it’s far more interesting than whatever Ms. Tomberlin’s going on about (something about love-induced insomnia would be my first guess) and, much like the lyrics in Stealing Time, I always find myself tuning Ashely out.

We get a blissy bit of Ibizan trance with follow-up Hope. Piano melodies (don’t worry, no Robert Miles comparisons here), lush voice pads, pleasant strings, and tribal chants create an euphonious, organic track. It’s only four and a half minutes long though, and has the unfortunate feeling of being merely transitional.

With Liquid Love, Tri-State begins to take on a very grand feeling to it. Musically, this track is pretty much a generic, mellow epic trancer that doesn’t differentiate itself from much of the pack; however, the production quality on the sounds displayed here is stunning. Above & Beyond have already impressed me with some great sounding string arrangements but the resonance on the ones in this track, coupled with some nifty distortion techniques, makes Liquid Love sound far more grand than it really has any business being. Oh, yeah, there’s some vocals from Robert Bedford in this one as well, but they don’t add much either.

Picking up on the scope crafted by Liquid Love, In The Past continues the theme of grand strings, voice pads, and pianos. While nothing more than an ambient interlude, this Vangelis-like track nonetheless sets up the anticipation for the next song admirably.

And, hey, it’s Satellite that’s next! Haha, no, just kidding again. This one is Alone Tonight, which may as well be the big brother of Satellite since not only is it structurally and audibly identical to Satellite, it also features male vocals instead of female ones (Bedford’s again, though this time actually quite inspired). The production’s a bit more mature too, but that’s to be expected.

Since Alone Tonight is so high-profile, I suppose you want my personal opinion on its merit as well. Very well. Um, I kind of like it. Hey, I’m just as surprised as you, considering I didn’t like Satellite, but this track has one factor that saves it: context. The music leading to Alone Tonight has generally felt quite subdued, yet thematic, as if it’s building up to something big. Thanks to such expert track arrangement, Alone Tonight comes off as that long-awaited climax we’ve been anticipating while the album plays, and it sounds quite good as a result. Mark my words, though, if I’d heard this in a common trance set, you’d undoubtedly see me rolling my eyes, sarcastically muttering, “Well, that’s new”; this is still a very, very typical epic trancer that we’ve been hearing since the turn of the century.

Opening with Eno-esque pad work, Good For Me features vocals by Zoë Johnston surrounded by ambient textures. For some reason, I can’t help but picture this being sung in the middle of some Middle-Earth flower-field with butterflies and birds fluttering around Ms. Johnston singing in a big, flowing white gown. It’s a very picturesque bit of ambience, bordering on New Age (kind of like Enya at her more ethereal moments) and follows the thematic nature the last few tracks have managed to craft nicely. With that in mind, Good For Me would be a perfect capper on Tri-State.

...Only they decide to keep going. For All I Care starts promising, keeping the Eno pads, adding a catchy bassline (probably the best on this album), and throwing in a new wrinkle with guitar work. However, this track soon turns into a bit of meandering light-weight indie rock. Yes, you read that right. Indie rock, as in the kind of stuff tearing up the charts in the form of new wave bands as of late. It isn’t all that bad, to be honest, but it isn’t all together a standout either. It’s just kind of... there. And, it brings the thematic flow of Tri-State to a sudden halt, which is a shame considering how good it was doing before.

There’s two more tracks at the end, but neither are able to lift this album back up. Instrumental Indonesia has great sounding pad work but is stilted by weak rhythms that won’t have Hybrid quivering in their shoes anytime soon. And the effeminate Home would make for a decent closer in a romantic movie, but is lacking the emotional punch as the closer for Tri-State, especially when you consider some of the highs this album has been at. In all, we end on a very limp note.

I guess the final verdict on Tri-State is ‘decent’. There are some highs, there are some lows, and a lot of right-down-the-middle. Despite the standout production quality to be had, many of the songs don’t shoot far musically. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course, as an understated album can be quite the pleasant listen when you throw it on. However, when there’s a fair bit of this type of material available (as all that artist referencing can attest to), you tend to need to come up with something more innovative to stand out from the pack. Above & Beyond’s expert use of strings and pads are a definite plus, but slick production isn’t going to work all the time when the main elements, especially vocals, aren’t nearly as engaging as the background elements.

I’d say if you are still new to this whole trance thing, you will get a great deal of enjoyment out of Tri-State. There’s enough here to give you a tantalizing appetizer before the main course is offered by some of those other names I mentioned.


Score: 6/10

ACE TRACKS:
World On Fire
In The Past
Alone Tonight


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for TranceCritic.com. © All rights reserved.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Frankie Knuckles - His Greatest From Trax Records (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $6.99











Trax Records: Cat. # CTX-CD-5007
Released 2004

Track List:
1. The Night Writers - Let The Music Use You (7:55)
2. Marshall Jefferson - Move Your Body (6:43)
3. Jamie Principle - Waiting On My Angel (4:01)
4. Kevin Irving - Children Of The Night (3:53)
5. Frankie Knuckles - Your Love (6:43)
6. Screamin’ Rachael - La Vie (3:56)
7. Frankie Knuckles - Baby Wants To Ride (8:34)
8. Dezz - Boom Boom (7:45)
9. Frankie Knuckles - It’s A Cold World (5:43)
10. Frankie Knuckles with Jamie Principle - Your Love (You Got The Love Remix) (6:26)
11. Frankie Knuckles - Bad Boy (6:15)


(2010 Update:
Timing can be everything. Just a couple weeks before writing this review, I'd finished reading the excellent book
Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, which provided quite an insight in the 80s gay house scene. I can honestly say I'd not have understood the context of the music on this CD without reading that book first.

Also, this review features possibly one of the best concluding paragraphs I've ever written. At least, I think so!)



IN BRIEF: A soul thing, a spiritual thing... and sometimes even a gay thing.

I am not gay. The thought of another man in a sexual manner does nothing for me. While I don’t find the notion of two men being intimate with each other as something abnormal (to each their own, right?), neither do I find it arousing. The gay lifestyle is as foreign a concept to me as a woman’s. Simply put, I am way hetero.

That all said, after listening to Frankie Knuckles Presents, I have to admit the notion of being gay sure sounds a hell of a lot of fun.

In what should be a bit of unexpected info to no one, the Godfather of house music is indeed gay, played to predominately gay audiences (most of which were black as well), and produced music that would undoubtedly appeal to such a crowd. This compilation features nearly all the songs Knuckles had a hand in that were released on Trax Records, a label that gained acclaim for tons of house classics and notoriety for dodgy business practices.

Okay, a good chunk of the music on here could be construed as being ambiguous for its target audience twenty years on. However, when you envision this stuff playing to dancefloors filled with sweaty, gyrating gay men on uplifting drugs, it just makes more sense that way, especially when vocalist Jamie Principle is present (nearly half of this compilation).

The disc opens with a pair of tracks that many equate to the classic Chicago house sound: Let The Music Use You by The Night Writers (a Knuckles pseudonym) and Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body (which Knuckles produced). The production is fiercely raw and simple, yet there’s something irresistible about it nonetheless, and you couldn’t picture these tracks having the same hold on you if they were re-done with modern equipment, as many, many lukewarm ‘9x and ‘0x remixes can attest to. The vocal prowess of Ricky Dillard in Let The Music Use You lifts you up as Knuckles’ production accommodates him to keep building this track with soulful energy. And when the main rhythm and piano loop starts in Move Your Body, it is quite possibly one of the defining moments in house history. Even if the track does nothing more than alternate between various drum, string, piano, and vocal loops from there on out, the energy from that first drop carries over to the very end.

However, these two tracks aren’t a good indication of what to expect on this release. Rather, Waiting For My Angel is more indicative of the Knuckles sound on Trax. With its bubbly bass, analogue synths, tinny percussion and vocals washed in reverb, the sound is unmistakingly 80s. It conjures up that seedy, decadently sinful inner city neon flavor that was the decade’s clubbing calling card. Of interesting note on this particular track is Jamie Principle’s performance: save a few breathy moans and effeminate giggles late in the track, he sings far more ‘straight’ than we will hear later on.

Kevin Irving’s Children Of The Night is one of the few tracks here that stretches the Knuckles association a bit thin; he’s merely credited as the mixer, certainly an integral part of the studio process but hardly one that normally goes recognized. While having this slice of housey-italo blend is nice, it unfortunately does showcase one of the big problems Trax Records was known for: sketchy producing. Granted, everything on here does contain some really rough sound but we tend to overlook that much in the same way we overlook the rough sound quality of 60s rock music -the music manages to still move you in spite of this. However, Children Of The Night is poor even for Trax Records. There’s just no resonance to be had, and the song comes out sounding incredibly flat. It’s not I.F.O.R. piss-poor, but glaringly obvious in this case.

Moving on, we come to Your Love. You may know this track as the original backing to You Got The Love (also included on this disc, though under a different name). The lush pad work, catchy bassline and arpeggio hook are all here, though in far rawer incarnations. Also, Jamie Principle has the vocal duties on this one, elegantly crooning between heavy sighs. Your Love, above all else, is incredibly stirring, especially at the apex of the track when the backing pads rise to their highest note with the female chorus. As the track ends with a bit of choir backing and Jamie erotically moans, “I can’t let go”, the lush, tender nature of Your Love will fully embrace you, even if the sexual orientation seems ambiguous.

Screamin’ Rachael’s La Vie is another song merely mixed by the Knuckler, and it shows as this track doesn’t hold much similarity to the ones bearing his name alone on here. Rather, La Vie is more italo in nature, although it does contain some funky slap bass guitar to complement the stuttery synths.

Baby Wants To Ride. Hoo, boy. You may want to hold onto your hats if Jamie’s moans and giggles in the earlier tracks were too gay for you. Here, he breathily speaks about various things while Frankie’s funky bass and sinister synths drone in the background. What starts out as some sort of commune with God turns into a reflection of a sexual encounter with some gal, playfully delivered with all the sexy slyness Prince was known for; prudes’ll probably blush at some of his moaning, heh. When some extra percussion is added mid-way through (the rhythm is pretty sparse), Jamie goes into some odd political tangents. Ultimately, the general gist of it is America’s double-standard of claiming to be a free country, yet discriminating gays. All in all, it’s a pretty cool sounding track but seems to wander aimlessly at points.

Boom Boom from Dezz (Knuckles again only credited as the mixer) is an example of early acid house: big, cavernous rhythms, some associated lyrics, and the TB-303 getting a simple workout. While nowhere near as complex as the little acid box would later get, there are some interesting tricks pulled on Boom Boom, especially when it gets a bit distorted near the end. Nothing sequenced here, just raw, improvised knob-tweaking over a backing beat. It is even more aimless than Baby Wants To Ride, though, and at nearly eight minutes in length, you may lose interest since Boom Boom really is sparse. Pretty much one of those songs that makes better sense on a dancefloor.

Another Frankie & Jamie collaboration is next in the form of It’s A Cold World, a somber, reflective song that probably spoke to several gays coming to grips with their sexuality. Knuckles doesn’t miss a chance to play off of Principle’s lyrics, making use of an eerie synth pad towards the end to complement the song’s themes. Sadly, the mastering of It’s A Cold World isn’t the best, as you do hear some unfortunate frapping of the bass and distortion of the lyrics at points.

I guess when the original bootleg of You Got The Love first cropped up, Frankie took it upon himself to make an ‘official remix’ and release it commercially legit. That’s what we get here, although I wonder why Jamie Principle is credited but not Candi Staton on this CD’s tracklist? He only provides a bit of backing vocals here. Oh, how is the song? Well, my associate critic J’ already covered all the details in his review of the latest re-release of You Got The Love, so you can check that one out if you want. As for my personal opinion, this is a decent bit of diva house, and probably the ‘cleanest’ sounding track to be had here (mainly because it was produced a few years later than the others). And you still can’t beat the moment when the backing pads hit that high note, even if they aren’t as prominent here as they are in the original Your Love.

And finally, at the end, we get the absolutely unabashedly gay song Bad Boy. Very happy, very fey, and very quirky, it’s a cute track, but I wouldn’t dare play it to a homophobic frat party. The track list credits this to Knuckles, but this is a Jamie Principle song. Every single vinyl that has had Bad Boy on it has had Principle’s name on it. Why credit it to Knuckles and Knuckles alone here? Hnn... it seems the sketchy labeling of Trax Records continues, even in retrospectives such as these.

For that matter, despite the choice tracks to be had on Frankie Knuckles Presents, the overall presentation leaves a bit to be desired. This is hardly the entire Frankie story, as we’re only getting a slice of his discography. Mind, that’s to be expected since this is only the material that came out on Trax but those seeking a more comprehensive collection may have to wait a little longer. The other gripe I have is the sound quality on some of these. Yes, I know house veterans would be screaming ‘sacrilege’ if anyone tampered with the original masters, but let’s be fair here. Many of them were kind of shoddy to begin with and, in this day of digital marvels, wouldn’t it be nice to perhaps give these classics a proper sound treatment so we can enjoy them in their full glory? I’m not asking for a “Greedo shoots first” kind of change, just an “eliminate that pink blob under the landspeeder” kind of change.

Still, this release is a decent enough introduction to the house sound of the mid-80s. A vibrant, hedonistic, sexual energy runs through these songs, capturing the carefree days when a gay man could escape the torment of prejudice in the world and lose himself in house music. The tragic breakout of AIDS sadly cut short those years, and, like any scene that sprouts from innocent intents, it will never occur again. This is the soundtrack to those times and, no matter your sexual orientation, you can’t help but get lost in the moment as well.


Score: 7/10

ACE TRACKS:
Marshall Jefferson - Move Your Body
Jamie Principle - Waiting On My Angel
Frankie Knuckles - Your Love


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for TranceCritic.com. © All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

BT - These Hopeful Machines


Best Price: $7.99











Nettwerk: Cat. # 0 6700 30849 2 5
Released February 2010

Track List:
Disc 1:
1. Suddenly (8:06)
2. The Emergency (10:53)
3. Every Other Way (11:07)
4. The Light Of Things (10:47)
5. The Rose Of Jericho (7:43)
6. Forget Me (9:38)

Disc 2:
1. A Million Stars (12:25)
2. Love Can Kill You (5:22)
3. Always (6:12)
4. Le Nocturne De Lumiere (11:38)
5. The Unbreakable (10:25)
6. The Ghosts In You (7:57)


IN BRIEF: These songs, I wish.

I’m not going to proclaim to be anything of a BT expert. I sporadically enjoyed a number of his tunes from the 90s, was ready to proclaim him an incredible producer after hearing Fibonacci Sequence on Sasha’s GU: 13 mix compilation, then was mightily disappointed in the album Movement In Still Life. It sounded like an overcooked attempt at ‘electronica’, fully three years too late to be relevant; mind, it probably didn’t help I was exposed to the busted American version either. None of Mr. Transeau’s output interested me since that time (well, aside from the perverse curiosity of what an N’Sync collaboration would sound like …it sucked). Apparently I’ve missed out on some dizzying highs (This Binary Universe) and dilapidated lows (Emotional Technology), which I’m sure would affect my thoughts on this latest album to some degree. As it stands, however, perhaps going into These Hopeful Machines without hearing those may be a benefit, as I won’t be weighed down by those expectations, good and bad.

Actually, that’s not entirely truthful. There’s already some expectation here, most of which derived from pre-release buzz, and a good deal of which was rather… sketchy. Word had it that BT was going the pop route again, and considering his last foray down that road - Emotional Technology - has been hailed as his worst album, a number of folks were leery about how this one was going to turn out. Well, pop is indeed what we get here, more than you’re likely to ever want.

Look, I’ve got little problem with much of pop music, whether it’s bonafide classics (The Beatles, Abba, The Police, etc.) or cheesy dance (2 Unlimited, Snap!, just about any early-90s euro dance really); a good tune’s a good tune. And BT does know how to write a good tune. There are loads of catchy choruses on this album - Suddenly, The Light Of Things, and The Unbreakable all get lodged in my noggin, such that I’ve no problem falling sway to, plus enjoyable nuggets of music scattered throughout the rest of both CDs. The trouble is BT fills his music with so many gratuitous, pointless effects and wayward tangents, it dilutes and ruins any charm the hooks have. The word “restraint” seems to be a totally alien construct to Mr. Transeau.

Let’s put it another way. Normally, someone would write a sentence thus: “The sky is blue.” Now, here’s the way BT would write it:

“The- let me pause for a moment, as I wish to present to you a theory of the cosmic significance of the word ‘the’, as it relates to the number pi.”

Three paragraphs later…

“…anyhow, the firmament above, where the heavens so grand exist beyond a fragile veil of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide…” (every atmospheric element is listed at this point) “…contains a deep azure melding with various shades of cerulean, aquamarine, and blue, which is a color I love, you love, and we all must love, like a dove, for love is the grandest of loving feelings, a feeling of pure emotional nurturing sentiment, this love we love.”

That’s what it’s like to listen to this album. It grows so tedious that anytime an effects-laden ‘solo’ emerges, I completely tune out until it finishes. I simply don’t care.

Another thing that struck me is how BT seems to be playing catch-up with contemporary club music, including rounding up regular ‘trance’ vocalists like Christian “Will Shed Tears For Sunrise” Burns and Jes “You Still Remember ‘As The Rush Comes,’ Right?” Brieden. Perhaps most shocking is The Emergency, a collaboration with Anjunabeats regular Boom Jinx. It features side-chaining, thunk-clap rhythms, and very little point beyond trying to fit in with the current generation of mau5 clones. Elsewhere, The Rose Of Jericho style-bites old-school McProg beats and plinky-plonk hooks, turning in a track that works at the peaks but pointlessly piddles about to get there (Le Nocturne De Lumiere suffers for much of the same reason). The Light Of Things, perhaps one of the least offensive tracks in the overwrought-effects department, is basically your standard vocal trance outing - though I must admit it’s quite good compared to many other dismal attempts of the same type; there’s fun energy to be had here (the fact it’s a collaboration with Laurent Véronnez of Airwave fame probably helps). I’ll also add The Unbreakable works in this regard as well, although whenever I imagine the scene in which it’s likely to be played at - super lasers and smug superstar DJs urging a ravenous crowd to enthusiastically hop in one spot with a fist in the air - I get a cold chill down the back of my neck for some reason. It’s a very obvious, manipulative, calculated anthem, that one.

There’s also a bunch of ‘rocktronica’ tunes and downtempo moments, most of which are quite derivative of the sound (Every Other Way? Meh, needlessly long). Aside from Suddenly (one of the few tunes that works provided you first edit out the effects wonk that bookends the track), the only one that stood out for me was the final track, The Ghost In You, for the simple reason that it’s one of the most restrained songs on the whole album. While I was first listening to These Hopeful Machines, a couldn’t help but wonder what a BT song would sound like if he stripped away all the production trickery and simply played acoustically. Well, I got my answer here and despite being a cover of 80s band The Psychedelic Furs, it still comes off as generic as many BT tunes goes these days, especially for a singer-songwriter ballad.

I’ve no doubt there will be plenty of new fans loving this album, as it seems to be mostly geared towards a fresher crop of party kids who aren’t much aware of BT’s 90s output but are dazzled by superfluous special-effects (or those who simply enjoy unoriginal radio-ready melodies). If such is the case, so be it. I may throw Suddenly and The Light Of Things on as a guilty pleasure on occasion but the rest of These Hopeful Machines is quite forgettable. I’ll stick to the 90s BT, thank you very much. He at least had a better grasp of the word “restraint” back then.


Score: 4/10

ACE TRACKS:
The Light Of Things


Written by Sykonee, 2010. © All rights reserved.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Flowjob - Support Normality (Original TC Review)


Best Price: $8.91











Iboga Records: Cat. # IBOGACD36
Released January 15, 2006

Track List:
1. Run, Baby, Run (The Big Escape Version) (10:13)
2. Everland Airport (7:45)
3. Flangers In The Night (8:19)
4. Have Fun & Survive (9:00)
5. Wannafrisbee (9:03)
6. They Are Not Alone (8:17)
7. Mood Food (7:56)
8. Wadley (9:32)
9. Glitter (7:47)


(2010 Update:
More wordy than it needed to be, but I think my enthusiasm still came through on this review. Unfortunately, Flowjob didn't quite break out in a way I thought they might have, especially since their follow-up wasn't quite as good as this. I still give this album a high recommendation though. It's insanely infectious and loads of fun!)



IN BRIEF: Gold where you least expect it.

The most common answer to the burning question “Where’s all the good music?” these days is “Underground. Deep underground.” No matter how much the lazy wish the best material was easily accessible, it is seldom the case anymore; folks yearning for material with more substance than typically overused structures and sounds have to put in far more effort to discover unique material since it seems label politics is making it tougher for DJs to be the outlet (especially when said DJs own the labels).

So, the remaining question is just how far underground you have to dig to find choice tunes. In the case of prog house, it seems all the way to different camps altogether.

Whispers and rumors abound lately that the psy scene, of all places, is seeing a resurgence of prog music which is daring to innovate. This doesn’t come of much surprise to me as there’s always been a bit of a tie between psy and prog -Oliver Lieb probably said it best when he quipped most prog sounds like slowed-down minimal psy. In general, both like to start from a basic premise, then build around it with various embellishments along the way before peaking out with some sort of climax or conclusion to the flow of the song -the difference being one’s more concerned with rhythm while the other on atmosphere.

Iboga Records appears to be quite interested in promoting this fusion of prog structures with psy aesthetics, and have earned themselves a decent reputation because of it. However, no label can sustain itself on just one form of EDM (unless your name is Anjunabeats, apparently) and Flowjob’s debut sees the label branching out from its usual psy trappings.

Eh? But isn’t Support Normality being distributed by psy shops like Psyshop and Saiko-Sounds? I suppose, but the material on here is hardly psy in any form; but that’s the trouble with underground niche labels: they rarely get the promotion outside their core scenes despite the music having a chance at big sales in others. In fact, for a good chunk of this album, I’d call it tech house with prog ideals (no, not progressive tech house, you ninnies -such a thing doesn’t exist).

Well, maybe not opener Run, Baby, Run. This song opens up with a dreamy ambient intro that lasts over three minutes. It’s not just noodly synth washes and echo-y effects, though; there’s a definite, meticulous path being followed, gradually building tension to when the first kick hits. When it finally does, all that nicely built tension is wonderfully released despite the laid-back house rhythms. While there are some hooks to be had later on, the focus of Run, Baby, Run is clearly on blissed-out atmosphere, and here it certainly excels.

Moving onto Everland Airport is where we start to see some of that tech house I mentioned two paragraphs ago. Ah, I can see that nervous glance forming on your face at the very mention of tech house. I don’t blame you. It’s one of those forms of music that, more often than not, makes good sense on a dancefloor but is mind-numbingly boring to listen to at home.

Indeed, for the first minute or so of Everland Airport, it appears the song’s just going to be a simple tech house workout, and my mind wandered on the first listen. Along the way, though, something managed to catch my ear and I tuned back in. When I did, my first thought was, “Wait a minute. When did this track get so good!?”

Well, there’s the bassline, a fun groover that’ll get your head bobbing no problem, but that was there from the onset; besides, a catchy rhythm isn’t enough to sustain interest for the nearly eight minutes this track runs. No, the real strength of this track is its refusal to settle into predictable loops. Percussion, effects, fills, minor hooks, and other assorted trickery keep Everland Airport constantly shifting and morphing throughout with the main rhythm tying it all together. Great stuff.

Staying on the tech house tip, Flangers In The Night gets more dubby with it. Once again, a groovy bassline ties the whole track together, and is introduced early on. And, once again, you’d be forgiven for writing this track off early on as another excursion into mediocre tech house. Yet, just like Everland Airport, you’ll probably find yourself suddenly turning your attention back thanks to the ever-changing elements.

The tech house groovers out of the way, Flowjob move into something a little more punctual. Have Fun & Survive relies on minute stuttery hooks and flowing synths rather than groovy basslines to propel it forward. Not to say this is without its fair share of catchy rhythm, but it isn’t quite as prominent as those that came before once the song gets going. As such, Have Fun & Survive also gets away with a minor breakdown and build near the end without disruption the flow. While it’s not as intuitive as the tracks before, it’s still effective in adding some variety to the album.

Wannafrisbee brings us back to tech house territory, and it’s here I’m fully convinced Flowjob are definitely in a higher league than many others. It’s one thing to produce good tracks, but quite another to craft an album full of material that can actually keep your attention, or at the very least keep drawing you back should you stray, especially when it comes to tech house.

Like Everland, this starts out driven mostly by rhythm and is carried by an infectious bassline. The beauty of this one, though, is once you pay attention to it for just a bar or two, you are instantly hooked, and are unable to escape the rhythm’s clutches. How? Simply put, Flowjob keep the energy of Wannafrisbee continuously building by adding various elements as the song progresses. Just when you think the rhythm couldn’t get any groovier, the next measure turns it up yet another notch. Then when you think it can’t get any more energetic, here are some minor hooks to keep you going. Even when the track briefly pauses at a peak to start this gradual build again, none of the momentum is lost as you’re already pumped to keep going. Wannafrisbee is dynamite on a dancefloor.

If there’s been a common theme apparent on Support Normality thus far, it’s each successive song manages to outdo the previous in some manner, and They Are Not Alone easily continues this trend with the best bassline yet. Surrounded by plenty of dubby atmospherics weaving throughout, this sees us leaving the funkier tech house vibes behind and moving into typical prog as hinted in the opener. The main hook is still carried by the rhythms, but the contributing pads, synths, and effects harmonize wonderfully, easily building anticipation for the main hook whenever it leaves for a bit. Mind, They Are Not Alone may not quite go for the jugular, but even in its understated presentation, the song is very effective in wrapping you in sonic bliss.

Mood Food takes us on a turn again, this time finally, yes finally, letting the hooks dictate the track’s path rather than the rhythm. There’s a few of them, mind, but they don’t compete against each other for prominence. Rather they each get a chance to shine before the next takes over. How do they sound? Well, the first one is pretty straight-forward synth stabs, and doesn’t last too long. A mellow gleaming melody accompanied by spacey pads takes over in a brief, unobtrusive breakdown, where it floats along with the rhythm for a while before the third hook emerges from the background. This one’s more aggressive, designed to get you charged up for the peak of the track, and it certainly does this when it has a chance to play out on its own with an accompanied bit of dialogue. It’s just a shame the payoff doesn’t take it to bigger heights. This is one of those times I really wouldn’t have minded an overblown climax, as Mood Food almost begs for one.

We come full circle with Wadley, as this track re-visits the atmospheric soundscapes as done in Run, Baby, Run. While more punctual than the former, there aren’t any major hooks or leads to be had in Wadley in the melody nor the rhythm. There are some subdued, stuttery minor ones, but nothing that leaps out at you quite like most of the other tracks did. The dubby, trancey atmosphere of it is still a pleasant listen, though, so no beef there.

And at the end of Support Normality, we have Glitter, a definite odd-man out. With its very simple growling bassline, twinkly hooks, and female vocals (yes, actual vocals!), this sounds like something that might make the rounds on McProg DJ circuits. While inoffensive enough as it is, Glitter certainly comes off sounding far less musically innovative compared to the rest of the material on this album. Is this an intentional try for a little chart action? Or perhaps a sly rib on the dumbed-down approach of most McProg by contrasting it with some of the best prog I’ve heard in a long time? We may never know, but don’t let this put you off on this song. For what it is, Glitter works just as fine as any other in this field

I suppose you’re wondering why, despite most of the glowing praise I bestowed on this album, it ‘only’ got four stars (since when is that bad?). Well, as good as these songs are, and as expertly they are arranged, they do all stick to a relatively narrow tech-and-prog sound, which does inhibit the scope of the music in general. Additionally, I’m hesitant to give something higher because these guys show excellent potential, and could really push the boundaries of prog house should they desire so.

Whether they do or not may depend on if they get the push this album deserves. Support Normality could get a number of prog heads turning, should such heads take that gamble and explore outside their core scenes. Otherwise, this may end up being one of those underground classics that gets slept on during its time, only to be re-discovered later on (at insanely inflated prices on eBay, natch). The choice is yours. Just don’t complain later on that you weren’t recommended it.


Score: 8/10

ACE TRACKS:
Everland Airport
They Are Not Alone
Mood Food


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006 for TranceCritic.com. © All rights reserved.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Benny Benassi - Who's Your Daddy? (Original TC Review)

Best Price: n/a











Universal Licensing Music: Cat. # 983 624-8
Released December 2005

Track List:
A1. Who’s Your Daddy? (Original Extended) (6:27)
A2. Who’s Your Daddy? (David Guetta & Joachim Garraud Remix) (7:15)
B1. Who’s Your Daddy? (Electro Extended Mix) (5:51)
B2. Who’s Your Daddy? (Fuzzy Hair Remix) (6:32)


(2010 Update:
Oh man, lots of dated stuff here. Guetta doing trance? Okay, yeah, I admit I hadn't a clue who he was at this point, but his star was still a few months off from properly blowing up. Then there's that whole predicting the electro-house fad would die out by 2008. *sigh* Wishful thinking there, Syk'. As for Benassi, he's fallen off a bit since, Guetta having now become the premiere electro-dance-pop DJ and producer. You can still catch Benny on tour, though I dunno if he'd play this single. Maybe if you ask him nicely.)



IN BRIEF: Do the Daddy Dance.

You kind of have to feel sorry for Benny. Sure, he successfully produced a monster hit that made him a critical darling and mainstream star overnight. Unfortunately, in doing so his career could only follow one of two paths: continue recycling the formula of Satisfaction, keeping his mainstream fans but alienating the critics for ‘rehashing the same ideas’; or use his newfound stardom to stretch his musicianship, winning him continued critical praise but losing his mainstream audience for not providing ‘more of the same’. With Who’s Your Daddy?, it would appear Benny’s settled with the former.

Milking a winning formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing -hell, 2 Unlimited alone did it successfully for numerous singles. They are more of an exception than a rule, though, as all too often the perfect storm of circumstances that can make a dance hit massive across the board rarely works twice; just ask Darude.

But odds be damned, says Benassi. He’s made his bed with stupidly simply, dirty rockin’ house music, and he’s determined to give his fans more of it, whether we want it or not.

Fortunately for him, the style hasn’t worn out its welcome just yet (I predict two more years, tops) so Who’s Your Daddy? is an effective bit of rowdy dancefloor business. Looping guitars thrash as not-so-innocent dialogue spoken with innocent voices will undoubtedly get the ladies randy, inciting them to get drrrty in a club should they have consumed enough liquor -it encourages girls to play the innocent tease, and the guys to act on it. This is more of a novelty song, though, so your post-club enjoyment will only last for as long as those lyrics keep from annoying you. Personally, they overstayed their welcome by the third remix of this track on here, but party gals usually have a higher tolerance for skanky, shrieky words in music.

Ah, yes, the remixes. Not a whole heck of a lot to talk about regarding these, as they are fairly straight-forward exercises in making Who’s Your Daddy? suitable for certain scenes. It doesn’t quite work, though, as Benassi’s original trashy version invites wild antics while the others don’t. David Guetta and Joachim Garraud provide a bit of a trancey re-rub, which works decently enough until those slutty, screaming lyrics pop up, as they hardly mesh with the music on hand; anyone not familiar with the original will cast plenty of ‘what the fuck?’ looks in the direction of the trance DJ foolish enough to play it. The Electro mix cleans the sounds of the song up somewhat so it’ll fit better in electro house sets but the rowdy spirit of the original is slightly lost in the process (they’ve yet to make a synth sound that’s quite as wild as a good ol’ distorted guitar, though they are getting closer). And the Fuzzy Hair remix is only notable for an anti-climatic build, as the rest of it is funkless bumping electro house; very skippable.

Still, the original mix is a keeper for the time being, and Benassi should be able to maintain his career off of its strength for a little while longer. It doesn’t have nearly the accessability of Satisfaction but as a clone of the formula, Who’s Your Daddy? works fine and randy... er, dandy.


Score: 6/10


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2006, for TranceCritic.com. © All rights reserved.
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