Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sandoz - Digital Lifeforms: Redux (Original TC Review)


Best Price: $16.00











The Grey Area: Cat. # KIRK 07 CD
Released 2004

Track List:
Disc 1: Digital Lifeforms
1. Armed Response (7:43)
2. Chocolate Machine (7:34)
3. Digital Lifeforms (8:05)
4. Human Spirit (7:00)
5. Drum Meditation (7:01)
6. Limbo (8:47)
7. Zombie Astral (8:27)
8. Beam (6:47)
9. Steel Tabarnacle (7:52)
10. White Darkness (9:10)

Disc 2: Redux
1. Communicate (With The Future) (7:03)
2. Ocean Reflection (8:53)
3. Tribal Warfare (7:43)
4. White Tab/Steel Darkness (Tetrodotoxin Mix) (9:27)
5. Erzulie (7:27)
6. Human Spirit (Original Dub And Roll Mix) (6:59)
7. Zombi Savane (7:02)
8. Medium Cool (10:15)
9. Shanpwel (6:04)
10. Mirror (3:37)


(2010 Update:
I think I underrated this album at the time. Yeah, I enjoyed it when I first picked it up about a month before I wrote this review, but
Digital Lifeforms has gone on to be one of my most heavily replayed CDs ever since. For all its dated attributes, I cannot deny the fact the music here is just so damned good. I hope this clunky review won't turn away other potential listeners.)


IN BRIEF: Malians and machinery melded.

It seems one thing you can count on in electronic music lately is re-issues. With so many rare, underground releases fetching high prices on eBay, you can be rest assured some producers and labels feel they’re missing a potential gravy train. Mind, it isn’t always their fault if they didn’t initially realize this. Many releases hardly make an impact during their first year or two. It’s usually through gradual exposure and word-of-mouth praise something garners ‘cult classic’ status. The scarcity of such releases only adds to its mystique and, before you know it, you’re paying a hundred bucks online for the chance to own an original copy.

Because of these inflated prices, it’s quite nice to see such ‘cult classics’ getting re-issues, often with added bonuses like B-Sides, rare remixes, and other assorted gobbledygook. Of course, I wouldn’t doubt collectors who own the originals moan and groan about this (mainly because if slightly de-values their own investment, despite whatever other excuse they tell you) but it is a great way for newer fans to catch up on old releases at a reasonable price.

Digital Lifeforms is easily one such release. Originally produced by Richard Kirk as a means to explore other musical avenues after a decade of industrial with Cabaret Voltaire, the album garnered many plaudits for its more ‘intelligent’ take on techno (remember, this was at a time when acts like The Prodigy and 2 Unlimited were tearing up the charts). While by no means the only individual to approach techno with a ‘not-just-party-music’ ethos, Kirk’s work as Sandoz certainly made a mark with his unique tribal fusion. Unfortunately, it was released on the UK indie ‘audiovisual’ label Touch, whom has a tendency to produce limited copies of their releases due to their artistic endeavors (their approach is similar to printing only a few paintings for an art gallery). As such, the album was doomed to obscurity by all but the most dedicated collector... until now (well, early 2004, to be specific).

The history out of the way, exactly what does this ‘cult classic’ sound like, and does it hold up in this day in age? Before I answer that, I should ask you, the reader, three questions:

1. Can you dig rhythms that sound like they come straight from Roland drum machines?
2. Do you like repetitive loops to some degree?
3. Does your taste in music allow for somewhat under-produced sound?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these, and figure there will never be a ‘yes’ to them for all of your musical life, then you may as well hit that Back button in your web browser and forget Digital Lifeforms; this album is not for you; try something from Anjunabeats instead. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the sounds of Sandoz are dated (especially when gritty underproduction seems to actually be the current trend in EDM lately), but Kirk’s industrial roots are still present, as he seems to hold no qualms about dirtying some of his patches if it meshes with his ideas.

Opener Armed Response is as good an example of his production technique as any. His percussion is kind of grimy, his string samples blatant, and his bassline muddy. Strangely enough, it all works in Kirk’s own way. There is an undeniable tribal energy to be had, even if it is somewhat mellow. Granted, this track could hold more appeal were it cleaned up, but then it wouldn’t be Sandoz, now would it?

If you found Armed Response too abrasive for your liking, the good news is the rest of the tracks are tidier in arrangement, if not always in production. Chocolate Machine starts with looping samples of woodwinds before the machinery settles in. The rhythm is very crisp, sounding like some sort of factory; however, various samples and pleasant melodies give this track an organic quality that tends to lack in much techno. Every element has plenty of breathing room, letting the resonance drift from beat to beat without getting drowned out in effects. It may sound sparse but Chocolate Machine is still a nice little track.

Title track Digital Lifeforms has an effective yin/yang thing going for it, mixing it up with cute little melodies and ominous string pads. Admittedly, some of the sounds used could have come straight from a SNES game. Heck, I can even identify some of the more bubbly bass sounds as pre-sets form my father’s old Roland synths. Given how far sound production had come even by ‘92, you’d think this track shouldn’t have stood a chance. Yet, there’s something oddly entrancing about the sparseness in Kirk’s style. Chalk it up to the catchy melodies, however simple they may be.

Human Spirit sees Kirk starting to indulge in the more tribal aspects of the Sandoz project. Over a looping chant, sweeping sinewaves and simple echoing hooks snake around 4/4 rhythms. This track’s sparse repetitiveness is quite trancey, and probably would have appeared on some very early trance compilations had more known of it. Well, okay, this was probably closer to ambient techno than classic trance, but the two weren’t that far removed when you boil down to it. Oh, and what’s with that old funk sample tagged on at the end? I don’t know which I find more amusing: the fact it actually works, or that the ‘damn’ bit is bleeped out! Heh, crafty, that Kirk.

Diving into some groovy dubbed-out soundscapes is Drum Meditation. It’s a pretty lethargic track, casually bobbing along as oddball sounds pop in and out over synthetic and organic percussion. Yeah, there’s not much to it, but it's decent chill fodder in any event.

Building upon the template laid out in Human Spirit is Limbo, a track which structurally does the same thing but more vigorously. The sweeping synths are clearer, the rhythm far more energetic and punchy, and the tribal chants catchier. Of additional note is the bassline: while many of the Sandoz basslines have been deep, grumbly beasts, the one in Limbo is a serious groover. No more apparent is this than some two-thirds into the track; when it drops after a rhythmic build, you won’t be able to help but bob your head in time.

Using some tribal percussion to set the pace, Zombie Astral is even more brisk than Limbo. However, it’s far more interested in subtlety, as the only element beyond percussion that does more than loop is a bubbly bassline played at a very low frequency. The synth pads and horn riffs surrounding it are nice little add-ons but don’t draw much attention to themselves.

We’re now reaching the dubbed-out outro section of Digital Lifeforms, and the final three tracks are quite nice at what they do. Beam sounds like an ambient dub version of Limbo (indeed, the same tribal chants are used); Steel Tabarnacle’s paranoid soundscapes are griping, and has a bassline with wonderful resonance; and White Darkness, while probably the most disjointed track on this, has some interesting movements between tribal percussion, chants, and dubby melodies. These tracks are a great way to finish out the album, drawing you into a hypnotic trance as the slight sounds and warm pads envelop your ears. You probably won’t even notice that dated percussion anymore, even if it was a turn-off in the earlier portions of the disc.

The main attraction out of the way, I suppose you’re wondering what’s up with the second disc now. To sum it up, most of these bonus tracks don’t measure up to the first disc, which isn’t too surprising. They are, after all, tracks that for various reasons never made the cut. A couple of them have appeared elsewhere but mostly are all unreleased.

While Kirk has arranged the bonus tracks to form some sort of flow, the ideas tend to be disparate form track to track. Listening to it, I get the impression he had a lot of avenues to explore his own techno when Voltaire was winding down. In the process, he refined it into his own style, of which became the basis for Digital Lifeforms. And, despite the tracks not sounding quite as definitive as the first disc, there are definitely some intriguing moments to be had for even the casual Sandoz fan. Here’s a summary:

Communicate (With The Future) - Bit of a chipper slice of ambient techno, with digitized voices speaking the title; reminds me of Bobby Bird’s work of the same era.

Ocean Reflection - Loopy; spacey. Decent example of old school trance, though could just as easily be considered techno with repeating pads.

Tribal Warfare - Bassline sounds like it’s been lifted by many modern ‘electro’ house producers. Decent tribal techno workout with bleepy hooks.

White Tab/Steel Darkness (Tetrodotoxin Mix) - White Darkness spread over extra echo effects and slightly funkier rhythms.

Erzulie - This bares the closest resemblance to the Digital Lifeforms material, which makes sense as it was a B-Side to one of the singles. Warm pads, bumpin’ tribal grooves, horn hooks, but still a notch below the griping qualities of disc one.

Human Spirit (Original Dub And Roll Mix) - Could also be called the House Mix, as the rhythms get funkier, the funk sample gets looped quite often, and, um, that’s about it. Pretty fun.

Zombi Savane - Kirk has a try at some acid house, with a warbley bassline, tongue-in-cheek samples (“Get higher, baby”), and somewhat gritty hooks. Aside from some flutes though, nothing distinctively Sandozian.

Medium Cool - The first Sandoz track, and boy does it show. It’s basically most of the elements found in Drum Meditation looped to eternity, with various, unremarkable percussion fills to spice it up. The least interesting bonus to be had.

Shanpwel - The most interesting bonus to be had! Funky tribal breaks with chants overtop and quirky drum programming so it doesn’t just sound like loops. Heck, I’d say this is even better than some of the material on disc one, although it hardly fits the same theme.

Mirror - Noodly ambient track with ‘dark’ sounds setting the tone. It’s a shorty so at least it doesn’t drag.

Whew. What a long-winded review, eh? I suppose it can’t be helped. Digital Lifeforms is, after all, a highly recommended album by old school techno, IDM, and even dub fans. To try and wishy-wash around the details wouldn’t do this release justice (even if I did get a little brief in descriptions towards the end of it, heh).

Given the scarcity of the original Digital Lifeforms, this Redux edition is definitely worth your attention if you’ve been curious of the Sandoz project -you get all sorts of unique sounds which were new territory for its time. Amusingly enough, with the whole electro and minimal trend going on lately, this release has the benefit of still sounding relevant well over a decade since it first cropped up. Isn’t retro a grand thing?

Score: 8/10

ACE TRACKS:
Limbo
Steel Tabarnacle
Shanpwel


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

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