Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Various - Cosmic Trance 02

Substance: 1997

You know what astounds me about this release? The fact that, should you go to its Discogs page, the image I submitted way back for its cover art is still there. I submitted plenty of cover images in those days, and it heavily contributed to my decent Discogs Rank Score of 367, a Top 500 placing for a brief while (now, I’m not even Top 5,000!), so that’s not out of the ordinary. I am surprised, however, no one’s replaced that image, as it was a poor scan to begin with. Just look at it (to the left …yes, it’s the same one).What’s with those lines? None of the other scans I did were that bad. It’s embarrassing I’m responsible for this CD’s sad visual Discogs legacy.

The reason for this utterly pointless musing is there’s not much to talk about regarding Cosmic Trance 02. It’s a solid trance DJ mix from 1997 that’s mostly on a psy trip, released by a sub-label of Distance, known for the popular Distance To Goa series. Now that I think about it, ‘97 was a curious year for trance as a whole. Everyone could tell that scene was going to go big at any point, but no one really knew which sub-genres would dominate. The classic German sound was pretty much dead, yet the Dutch hadn’t made their mark either. Club trance - which fed off the carcass of a wayward euro dance scene - seemed likely, but those British progressive house DJs were injecting trancey songs into their sets, lending the music proper credibility. And what was the deal with goa? That Oakenfold guy seemed fond of it, so maybe that’s the hot new sound.

It’s the odd meeting ground between tough hard trance and psy that we find this CD. Structurally, it’s about as typical as you’d find for the genre: big opener (Moka DJ’s For Europe’s a lot of fun), chunky goa-psy for a while with plenty of acid to spare, a couple well-placed anthems along the way to keep your attention (De Niro’s Mind Of Man being the biggest one), and mellower tracks to ease out at the end. Oh, and rough mixing, but unless it was a Pro Tools set, that was the norm for these things back then, so it’s fine so long as the momentum is never lost, which it isn’t.

There aren’t a lot of well-known tracks here (fourteen in all), but most of them come from well-known labels: Transient, Tunnel, Superstition, Flying Rhino, Trans’pact, and Blue Room to name the most prominent. If you’re looking for a primer, I suppose Cosmic Trance 02 is reasonable, as it’s affordable either as a download or CD (at least according to that Discogs page). Sure is much cheaper than the near $30 I paid when it was new. Hey, don’t judge me, man. Owning imported trance CDs from Europe was a status symbol for West Coast Canadians in ye’ olde mid-90s, yo’ (not really).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sven Väth - Contact

Ultra Records: 2000

Sven Väth is Sven Väth, a very important person in the world of techno, though that wasn't always the case. For the early part of his career, he was a very important person in the world of trance, running the influential Harthouse label. Right around the time trance was blowing up, he abandoned it, pursuing a fashionable German infatuation with techno instead. Also changing was his fashion sense itself, foregoing a harlequin-rave style and diving headfirst into doofy eurotrash, literally. He dunked his bleached hair into industrial-strength superwet-gel, and became synonymous with the look until a geeky Canadian named Richie co-opted it for himself, forcing Sven to adopt yet another persona, the grizzled Papa Sven we know today.

That’s jumping ahead. For Contact, he have to focus on the doofy eurotrash era. This was when Sven established his Cocoon parties in Ibiza, along with his new label Cocoon Recordings. It took a bit for it to properly take off, as the brand of techno Väth was pushing was seen as too hard and underground for mainstream acceptance. You’d think, in an effort to promote this particular brand of German techno, he’d release an album filled with such bangers. Oh, silly you.

Väth had shown eclecticism before, but there was a sense he had a specific vision in mind on his previous albums. Mind, he did have Ralf Hildenbeutel as co-producer on them, which quite likely helped guide a wayward muse. Contact instead brings in different co-producers, who were well known, true, but leads to a disjointed album.

Most prominent is Alter Ego, helping out on nearly half the tracks. On the other half is Anthony Rother, who was something of a rising star in the electro-proper revival going on at the time. Two more or handled by Johannes Heil, and two Sven went solo on (the goofy electro Apricot, and the beatless ambient-techno throwback Privado). Quite a collection of talent, and each tune they work on has its own unique charm. Unfortunately, there’s no cohesion among them. The Rother tracks mostly maintain an electro vibe (Pathfinder and Once More especially so), but are totally out of place when paired up with the minimal techno Alter Ego offers. Smuggler, which only Roman Flügel contributed to, is a fine techno workout, then clashes bizarrely with the Heil-hemmed hard breaks of Contact.

If this is sounding more like a compilation than an album, it’s because that’s what it’s like listening to this CD - a sampler of various techno sub-genres. To be fair, techno itself was going through something of an upheaval in 2000, fresher European sounds finding their way into playlists. Perhaps Sven was hedging his bets, experimenting to find what worked best for him. Or maybe he didn’t care, and rushed this out to meet label quota demands (he was signed to Virgin) while diverting most of his attention to DJing. Whatever the case, Contact is an odd listen with good moments, but not one enjoyed in a single sitting.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kraftwerk - Computer World

Elektra: 1981

Computer World was the last album of Kraftwerk’s Fabulous Five (or second to last of the Sensational Six if you include Electric Café). What else is left to say about it? How about, of those seminal mid-career albums Kraftwerk put out, this is my least favorite.

Of course I still enjoy it, but compared to the albums that came before, it’s a muted joy, a nodding appreciation rather than giddy fulfillment. Problem is by the time I got around to hearing it in full, I’d heard it so bloody much that its potential luster had worn away long ago.

I’m not even talking about the actual songs themselves. Without a doubt, Computer World is the most influential Kraftwerk album within EDM’s sphere. These songs have been sampled, interpolated, pilfered, recontextualized, ripped-off, and paid tribute to so often, it’d be neigh impossible to make a reliable list of where they’ve cropped up. Trans-Europe Express may have been an inspiring catalyst for the Soul Sonic Force, but Numbers and Home Computer pretty much formed the backbone of electro (and by extension, freestyle and bass music). Also, much of the synth-pop world had caught up to the group’s sonic tricks by this point so all those weird, wonderful robotic sounds they produced weren’t as cutting-edge as before. Though few could match their attention to rhythmic detail and knack for charming melody, Kraftwerk no longer stood alone as the 80s took form.

This may be why Computer World always feels short to me. As Kraftwerk’s computer futurism would go on to be thoroughly explored in the ensuing decade by other artists, what’s offered here comes off as little more than a glimpse. It's unfortunate, considering their other albums provided far more compelling ‘journeys.’

Three types of songs are featured: the Theme, the Pop, and the Robotic. The latter is explored in the two I’ve already mentioned, plus closer It’s More Fun To Compute. Given their straight-forward rhythms and weird sound effects, it’s easy to see why they were so heavily sampled. Still, even in their original context, they’re solid tunes, plus anytime Kraftwerk breaks out the voice boxes is a win. Less effective are the two Pop ditties, Pocket Calculator and Computer Love, both too cute for my taste though the latter does feature pleasant synth melodies. Finally, the overriding Theme of this album stems from titular opener Computer World, which has a reprise midway through, and something of a return in the closer. As Kraftwerk list off government watch dogs, you get the sense the intent of this album is to convey a world where Big Brother’s always watching. Why yes, 1984 was just around the corner, why do you ask?

It’d be highly remiss of me to not recommend this album, but anyone breaking out from their early electronic music exploration should know Kraftwerk is essential listening. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you’ll find an overwhelming sense of familiarity with Computer World.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kerri Chandler - Computer Games EP (Original TC Review)

Deeply Rooted House: 2007

(2012 Update:
Kerri Chandler still remains one of those house producers everyone comes around to once the latest trend-house fad passes, which is cool. As for why this has come up in my list rather than the album proper, um, well, funny thing that.

See, I initially had
Computer Games as a download, but lost it when the former laptop I had it stored frizzled on me. Oddly enough, I managed to retain the EP from which I wrote this review for, plus the track Locked Out, of which I've included as part of the ACE TRACKS, because dammit, that retro-cool cruisin' vibe's just so delicious! I've been meaning to get a hard-copy proper of the album, but it don't come cheap anymore. *sigh*)


IN BRIEF: Vintage, not dated.

It’s a good time to be a deep house producer again. Although veteran names like Kerri Chandler have long held respect within the clubbing community, recent years have seen growing interest in their output from a broader listening base. Might it be that, after so long having to endure rowdy nu-electro and navel-gazing minimal-tech, house fans have been clamoring for something with more soul? Or perhaps everyone really is just getting old.

Whatever the reason, the sub-genre’s uptick in popularity has given producers an opportunity to try their hand at concept albums, and in Chandler’s case we have the two-disc Computer Games as a result. That’s not what this particular review is about though.

Instead, let us focus on the EP of the same name that was released a little over a year ago. Why? To be frank, much of the strongest material was initially produced on this vinyl, and seeing as how the full-length album is filled with little inconsequential skits that aren’t worth getting into, we may as well just turn our attentions here anyway. Besides, I rather prefer the cover to this one, heh.

Chandler is, if nothing else, a true traditionalist. The music contained here is about as vintage a sound as you’re likely to find within the realms of house. Even with synthy elements like sci-fi zaps and sine-wave pads scattered about, the roots of the genre are ever present. You won’t find anything innovative or groundbreaking in Computer Games, but Chandler isn’t out to reshape the nature of house music - he’s here to provide you with some funky grooves and soulful licks.

And sure enough, he delivers on those grounds. The Invaders builds bleeps along some fine beats; Last Man Standing ups the funk quotient to some degree; Vector Graphics goes deep and spacey on us; and Moon Bounce, as per its name, bounces along to shuffling rhythms as Chandler improvises some jazzy melodies alongside. All said, an enjoyably agreeable assortment of house music.

Still, if you don’t mind having to sift through a bunch of little skits, the 2CD release of Computer Games is probably the one for you. Although most of the best cuts are found on this EP, it’s also unfortunately lacking a couple more that are quite good too (Locked Out, Fortran, Pong, to suggest a few). While this single is a tasty sampler of the project, it’s unfortunately not quite the full package.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Frankie Bones - Computer Controlled 2: Live In California (Original TC Review)

Brooklyn Music Ltd.: 1999

(2012 Update:
Mr. Bones doesn't seem as active online anymore, at least not on web forums. To be fair though, music forums in general have seen better times. Seems most online music discussion has migrated to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter ...not that I'd call what occurs there 'discussion'. As for this review, it's alright though I can't help but cringe at anything that's 1000+ words now. One of those Randoms I'd do every month, which gave me the opportunity to talk about Frankie's legacy. Yay for that. Funny seeing my musings on how to score this, considering I don't do scores anymore.)



IN BRIEF: Brooklyn’s techno son tries something different.

Unless you are new to both electronic music and the internet, there's no reason you shouldn’t heard of Frankie Bones by now. As one of the founding fathers of America’s rave scene - and the unintentional originator of the acronym P.L.U.R., incidentally - his place in techno history is already secure. However, when the world wide web grew in prominence, he not only made ample use of web forums and networking sites to help promote himself, but also became one of the very few big names who actually interacted with folks online. Whereas many of his peers will answer a couple token questions or give thanks for an endless stream of ‘awesome choon!’ comments, Bones has no trouble mixing it up with regular guys in debates ranging in topics from the state of the scene to favorite drinks, and shows no fear if his opinions spark heated arguments. It’s as though he’s determined not to be placed on a Superstar DJ pedestal, in spite of the fact he easily could through his accomplishments alone.

And this is why he garners so much respect even though his brash Brooklyn attitude should have burned many bridges ages ago. Bones strongly adheres to the DIY mentality of raves, and does everything he can to maintain credibility, even to the point of sticking with spinning vinyl despite every other DJ switching to CDs or laptops. Granted, it could be argued he sees the scene with rose-tinted glasses, a certain romanticism that belies some of the frank truths out there, but considering it’s worked for him twenty years on, there’s little reason for Bones to need to change his ways.

Of course, he isn’t one to rest on his laurels either. Bones does look for ways to innovate in his own way. Late in the 90s, he found one.

The idea behind Computer Controlled revolves around Bones taking a bunch of his own tracks, playing the vinyls out at a party, and recording the proceedings as a live DJ set. On paper, it sounds simple enough and not much of a big deal. Then I thought about it for a moment, and realized this is something rare after all. Yes, DJs play their own tracks, but an entire set of them? And nor is it to be confused with a live PA set or a sequenced studio mix; this is Bones laying down the dub plates on the fly and presenting it to us as is, warts and all.

Still, this isn’t something Frankie and Frankie alone could do. Honestly, any number of DJ/producers could attempt such a set, and even do with Abelton Live these days (although there is something to be said in doing it with vinyls rather than on a laptop, raising the question of where traditional DJing ends and live PA begins with such technology). Very few do though, for the simple reason not many can even produce enough tracks to make it work. Even Mr. Tijs Verwest - an individual who has long expressed his desire to play a set of just his material - has never actually gone through with it. Perhaps over a long career, after accumulating a large enough discography, such a set would be easy enough, but even there Bones challenged himself.

Instead of relying on past releases, nearly all of the tracks on here were produced during a year’s time leading up to the chance Bones felt he’d have to make this set. As a result, many of these cuts are simple techno bangers, with little attention paid to nuances or creativity. The beats pound, a simple hook is established, and oftentimes a nonsensical looping vocal will enter the fray as well. While it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest, there isn’t anything here coming close to a hit, much less a classic. If techno of this nature holds no appeal, you might as well stay clear. Funnily enough, even Frankie realizes the musical limitations he put on himself. In typical Bones fashion, he calls out the music critics who’d ding him for such reasons in his liner notes, writing “Anyone could make a mixed CD using other people’s records, let’s see them play a full set of their own shit and make it work. If the critics give 1/10 for the music at least give me 10/10 for the continuing pursuit to push DJ culture further...” (He also gives his rating on how critics review music, 7/10 being the verdict) Bones may have been understandably pessimistic about the critics reactions to Computer Controlled, but it isn’t warranted. Yes, the music may be overly simple but the fact remains this set does work.

Frankie often opens his CDs with sounds of a party, as though you are arriving just in time for his set, and this one is no different. It’s a nifty trick to establish the mood of the disc, effectively placing you right there amongst the ravers. And Bones gets working in short time, laying the bangers down with gusto. It’s raw DJing, with rough transitions adding charm rather than hindering. And the tracks are effective party tools, a lot of fun and energetic. A few times they are darker (like Ready For The Darkness), other times they are anthems (like On The East Coast), and sometimes just transitional (like …oh, who cares about transition tracks). It may not be the greatest techno set you’ll ever hear but it’s certainly enjoyable, obviously more-so when you’re active rather than lounging around.

Although Bones’ liner notes are adamant I should grade Computer Controlled based on its DJ innovation, the consumer is still going to be more interested in how it actually sounds. As a DJ set, it’s good. As a producer’s album, it’s satisfactory. So that places this release in the 7/10 ballpark. Coincidentally enough, that’s the same grade he figured he’d get anyways. Perhaps Bones would enjoy a side career being a music critic, eh?

Asian Dub Foundation - Community Music

London Records 90 Ltd.: 2000

Within two songs, I realized I'd made a mistake. Maybe I should have listened to it first but there weren't any warning signs. With a name like Asian Dub Foundation, I had already conceived sonic images of thick reggae beats, Far East harmonies, and maybe the odd sitar or tabla. Eastern Dub Tactik hadn't led me astray (in fact exceeded my expectations), and Banco de Gaia himself tapped the group to remix one of his tunes. Yes, with such blinding faith as my guide, I purchased this out of a used shop. What could go wrong?

Let's focus on the basics first: the music itself. While I was correct there'd be reggae beats, I did not expect ragga jungle beats. And you know what? I'd be fine with that. I loves me some ragga; however, it's a rhythmic style that doesn't blend well with others. There's a reason why DJs who spin it seldom venture out of that genre unless into other forms of drum 'n' bass. This being a group that does draw influence from Asia, we get ample sitars and chants, but metal and big beat are thrown in as well (yes, a couple of years after 'electronica' was all but dead). There's a remarkable amount of melting going on in this pot; unfortunately, every component ends up in disparate clumps rather than a tasty mix. It amounts to glimpses of what makes all these unique forms of music work elsewhere but nothing specific to enjoy here.

Then there's the lyrical content. Hoo boy...

Anyone remember that guy with the dreadlocks and Che shirt? Who went to the community college and became over-educated in global issues? He may have had the best weed hook-ups but man, sometimes it wasn't worth it when he'd start rambling about New World Orders and the like. That's who this album's gonna appeal to the most. Nearly all the ragga raps deal in such topics, and how we gotta band together to fight the system and blah blah blah Rage Against The Machine did it better etc.

Look, I have no problem when music has messages and raises conscious awareness. What I do have a problem with is when the artist is lecturing me about it, practically guilt-tripping me into becoming active in protests or whatever. I don't appreciate accusing fingers pointing at me, especially when the whole reason I'm listening to music in the first place is for a bit of escapism out of the day. This does not mean I turn a blind eye to the world's problems, but music isn't my preferred avenue to learn about it. Sitting back with headphones does not solve them. Dancing does not solve them. Getting out on the streets and becoming active in fundraisers and politics ...well, it's a start, and far more productive than listening to Asian Dub Foundation ranting about it.

That all said, I bet Asian Dub Foundation kick ass live!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sync24 - Comfortable Void

Ultimae Records: 2012

Yes, I can finally talk about something new! How ironic, then, that it’s a collection of music that’s rather old-school in design. Or maybe not, as there’s a lot of ‘retro-revival’ going on in electronic music now, like a deliberate counter to combat the recent influx of starry-eyed festival ravers gorging themselves on the latest brostep horror. But that’s a musing for another time.

Comfortable Void is interesting in how it contrasts with the music Sync24 shares a record label with. Ultimae remains one of the best-kept secrets for connoisseurs of downtempo and chill. Though names like Solar Fields and Asura are frequently dropped when talk of ‘best chill-out musics’ occurs on web forums dedicated to the psychedelic aspects of culture, you seldom see them or any label mates crop up in major publications - whether this isn’t a problem or a travesty probably depends on how ‘underground’ you like to keep music. For those who’ve discovered Ultimae though, they’ve been rewarded time and time again with “panoramic music.”

This album, however, doesn’t completely fall under that umbrella, nor Ultimae’s recent dabbling into the glitchier side of downtempo either. At its most basic, this is an ambient techno album as made in the 90s; most of the sounds - burbles of acid, subtle looping synth melodies, detached dialog - could have appeared on any number of Namlook records. Even the arrangements are old-school, sparse so things are just where they need to be but not minimal for minimal’s sake. Glitch effects are few, which is a welcome change of pace when so many producers seem adamant in filling their tracks with pointless fluff. About the only thing that makes this album obviously a product of the here-and-now is the Ultimae Mixdown™, which has always been light years ahead of the curve in making music sound gloriously expansive.

It’s that expansive mixdown that makes Comfortable Void an apt title. It’s a very spacey album, at times almost desolate, yet inviting all the same. The first half has a darker tone, with droning pads, thick bass, and lethargic beats comprising its backbone - Dance Of The Droids the obvious (and welcome) light-hearted exception as spritely bells, um, dance to a bouncy beat. Midway, Sequor gives us gentle ambient that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Eno record, after which the album picks up quite a bit. Something Something provides a wonderful building melody that’s on par with any of Ultimae’s all-stars, while Oomph and Wake does the ‘slow trance’ thing that the label’s practically made another of their many trademarks. And a barren bit of ambient drone to close out? Yeah, what’s with these Scandinavians being so good at that?

Oh yes, I definitely have detailed Comfortable Void in its entirety. Well, as much as I can in limited word count, but every composition deserves recognition. It’s an album whose only flaw might be its old-school leanings, but for fuddy-duddies like me, that just makes it all the more captivating.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Roger Sanchez - Come With Me (Original TC Review)

Ultra Records: 2006

(2012 Update:
Wow, is this ever a dated review, but then anything over half a decade old now probably will be. This came out just before the Swedish House explosion properly took off, so Sanchez' brand of NY garage-house still had success. Within a year though, he was tapping electro house remixers for follow-up singles, then his own output dried up. Guess he couldn't keep up with house music's changing tastes. Still, this remains a fun album, girlie as all hell though it may be. There's a degree of class to be had here that often lacks in SHM's material, and I'd sooner strike up a conversation with a lady that vibes on this music instead of anything Steve Angello puts out.)



IN BRIEF: Music for the missus.

The last couple times New York-based DJ Roger Sanchez came to my humble little Canadian city, the results have been chaotic ...at least in terms of ticket sales. It seems, due to the high demand of Sanchez’ presence, the nights either get oversold, super-scalped, or draw a much bigger crowd our typical Granville Strip clubs can handle (The Commodore exempt of course), causing premature shutdowns or clusterfuck line-ups. You would think such mismanaged organizing would swear folks off from seeing another Sanchez show, and save themselves the stress of dealing with it again. I’m willing to bet, though, it will happen on this next visit, and all those who swore “never again” will go through it again. Seeing Roger live has become the equivalent of super-fancy shooters for his Vancouver fans: quite costly, very tasty, and no matter how much you suffer from them, you’ll still indulge again when given the chance.

Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. One other factor, one very important factor, contributes to Sanchez being the draw he is: da laydeez; lots and lots of young, flirtatious womenfolk. Roger’s reputation for great club nights in New York is world renown, and many gals abroad would love to have a taste of his slick city style. He’s become an ambassador of sorts of the Big Apple’s mysticism: going to a Sanchez night is akin to going to a fancy Manhattan club, and many urban girlie girls jump at the chance to live out a Sex In The City-esque night, even if only in spirit. Naturally, where the women go, the men follow.

With Sanchez’ second album - Come With Me - I get the suspicion Roger’s clued into where his biggest audience lies. While he’s always had a club-friendly appeal, it’s usually been balanced with house music tapped from the source: a funk thing, a soul thing, a spiritual thing, a yada yada etc. This album does away with most of that, aiming straight for the glitzy expensive clubs, and those who attend such venues -specifically, da laydeez.

Pop quiz: what kind of music does your typical clubbing minx enjoy the most? Easy answer: pick up any Hed Kandi release, or Ultra House Hits, or A Trip In House, or.. Well, you get the point. Basically, house music with fun vocal hooks and groovy rhythms; although not too complicated so she’ll embarrassingly stumble while drunkenly dancing. From beginning to end, Roger delivers those sorts of tracks on Come With Me, in a variety of flavors.

Lyrically, most stick to predictable themes. If a gal is singing, it’s about failed relationships, break-ups, or being flirty on a dancefloor. If Sanchez is singing (sometimes with a featured guest), it’s with smooth, sexy come-ons. Yeah, not much for the guys to dig here.

Musically, Sanchez brings a nice, if safe, assortment of style. Amongst the sort of clubby disco you’d expect from vocal heavy house, there’s also soul and Latin influences to be found, especially in the second half; plus, a Bhangra inspired track with Take A Chance. While none of it breaks new ground, it is all finely produced, and perfectly effective for the targeted environment.

Of course, appealing to the fairer sex is all fine and good, but is there anything on this the male-folk can listen to without feeling like his nuts have been chopped off? (Er... not that men can’t relate to themes of broken hearts and past relationships; it’s just usually done in a different tone when targeted towards them)

Well, opener track Turn On The Music aims to be a rabble-rousing party starter for anyone in the club, and while the hook has some catchiness at points, the whole of it unfortunately sounds flat given its intentions. Sanchez’ spoken-word recounts of bad luck in Again works well for both sexes, although it does come across more for the gals. And the blissy, Ibizan-tinged Soledad is fine either way, simply produced for chill-out situations.

That’s about it though. While the guys can still groove to these and enjoy them on a purely aesthetic level, I honestly can’t see many playing this at home unless they are entertaining their female friends in a pre-clubbing drink session. There’s very little here a house-head laying back, noggin noddin’ with Sennheiser headphones, will get out of Come With Me, as the song-writing aims for a very specific demographic: one that isn’t too interested in clever beats or innovative hooks. This’ll probably disappoint long-time Sanchez fans, as they’ve come to expect more from him than pure pop accessibility.

A sell-out? Perhaps, but as far as cross-over house music is concerned, Come With Me succeeds in its goals. Sanchez has delivered music that is certain to appeal to the ladies with sexy flair and simple fun wrapped in a slick presentation. Can’t fault it for that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Globular - Colours Of The Brainform

Gliese 581C: 2010

Globular is Morison Bennett, a supposed rising star in the psy dub area of things according to his Last.fm bio (oh, Last.fm, I’d be so lost without you). He’s recently come out with a debut full-length album titled A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, but since that would fall under ‘S’ (Windows Media Player, from which I get my list order, ignores articles if they’re first), I won’t be talking about that for some time (if at all). Instead, let’s talk about his first EP, Colours Of The Brainform.

It sounds like Twisted Records psy dub. Meaning, the Shpongle and Ott influences are extremely apparent. And yes, I came to this conclusion before I even looked at Globular’s Last.fm bio, which directly states they’re influences for Mr. Bennett. So, if you enjoy those two, you’ll enjoy this EP as well.

To be honest, there’s not much more I can say. It’s a chore detailing the intricacies of a typical psy dub track, yet broad strokes feels like cheating. I can say that The Continuum Press is filled with dubby sonic treats, word beats, and ethnic harmonies, or I can say that it sounds like something Ott would make. Which is more helpful? Even the cascading flamenco-guitars in Synesthesiasia, while a nifty, unique sound compared to the other tracks here, still comes off like typical Twisted Records, with several effects having been raided from Mr. Posford’s storehouse.

Perhaps Globular’s grown since this debut, but there’s little here to differentiate him from Twisted Records’ all-stars. This is a win-loss, as far as I’m concerned. Win, because the music on this EP is good, and there’s worse things than to be compared to some of the best in the business. Loss, because Globular’s music unfortunately lacks an identity of its own, and therefore Colours Of The Brainform fails to make a mark beyond being an expertly executed copy-cat.

I know I’m coming off more condescending than I really want to, but I aim to be honest, and sometimes honesty hurts. Hey, I like this EP, and will more than likely check out that full length eventually. There is potential here, should Globular be bold enough to venture beyond the Twisted Records template. Here on Colours Of The Brainform though, he plays things straight (well, about as straight as anyone can with psy dub) and while that’s fine for what it is, it’s not enough to step out from the huge shadow Shpongle and Ott create within this particular niche of psychedelic music.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Higher Intelligence Agency - Colourform (Original TC Review)

Waveform Records:1994

(2012 Update:
I wrote this over five years ago now. At the time, I figured Mr. Bird's brand of dubby electro-ambient was all we'd ever hear from that particular sound. Lo and behold, there's been a minor resurgence of it in recent years, the most notable I've noticed being ASC's occasional dabblings. Mind, none of these producers quite capture The H.I.A.'s quirkiness, but at least there's some attempt to keep the sound alive. More please!)



IN BRIEF: A different sort of downtempo.

Once, long long ago (well, maybe just one ‘long’, but it sounds more dramatic this way, eh?), ambient music with a house or techno rhythm underneath was all the fashionable rage. Compilations filled the EDM market with a mature take on dance music, offering a soundtrack for when the raving ‘mah’sive’ needed to unwind. Many producers were given the green light to show off their creative mellow side without alienating their core audience. In short, it was a good time to be a fan of downtempo.

But that was in the past, and a good chunk of what was considered groundbreaking concept music hasn’t stood the test of time too well. Looking back, it sometimes comes off rather self-indulgent and directionless. However, there are those who’s work sounded so alien to everything else, even their noodly excursions can grip your imagination.

Bobby Bird’s ambient project The Higher Intelligence Agency was formed around the Oscillate Sound System, a collective of music producers and promoters with an affinity for those downtempo techno sounds of the early 90s. The H.I.A.’s profile grew in prominence as word of these events spread, and Bird's tracks were even held in the same regard as Aphex Twin, The Orb, and The Future Sound Of London. Unfortunately, a lack of promotion after the initial ‘ambient dub’ surge relegated him to the underground. And although he’s cropped up in collaborations with similar space ambient names like Pete Namlook and Biosphere, finding new material with the H.I.A. tag has grown increasingly difficult. And now it seems getting his old material is tough as well.

The album you are reading a review on is H.I.A.’s debut, and appears to be out of print now. Being no longer available from its initial label Beyond isn’t surprising though, as it’s been defunct for some time now (although its legacy certainly persists to this day). However, it is quite surprising to see Colourform no longer available on Waveform Records, its American distributor. In fact, it’s the only release that’s ever been deleted from their catalogue, probably due to some sort of legal complication holding it up in limbo. Although this wasn't a terribly rare album at the time, its age has caused a slight inflation of its price through eBay. The question, then, is whether fans of ambient techno should spring those extra few bucks for this release should they be in the market for it.

Frankly, that can depend entirely on how serious you take this kind of music. Although Bird does ambient music as well as anyone, he also has a tendency to allow a quirky sense of humor into his works.

Probably most apparent of this is the breakout track Ketamine Entity. Throughout the entire track is a silly 808 bassline that bobbles about; it does drop in a few some wonderfully thunderous booms as well, but still lends the track to a goofy tone. Throw in tongue-in-cheek spoken dialogue (“This is from the Higher Intelligence; We have concealed the vital evidence; Of the reasons for your existence") and chirpy bleeps and bloops in the background, and you have an ‘anthem’ that’ll make you giggle. That’s probably the most extreme example though. Other tracks like Delta and Speedlearn, while lighthearted, aren’t quite as thick on the stoner humor.

There are those who take their ambient music very seriously though, and have no interest in such tomfoolery. Fortunately for such folks, most of the tracks on Colourform tend to stick to ambient’s strength: easy-going, unassuming, and quite calming. The middle section of the album dwells on such themes, where flowing pads, subtle melodies, and hypnotizing loops glide on gentle rhythms. Of course, this all sounds like any kind of typical ambient, so what makes The H.I.A. noteworthy? Aside from the odd vocal sample, all of Bird’s arrangements rely on the most synthetic of sounds. Most chill music, especially these days, attempts to keep an organic texture in their atmosphere; it keeps us feeling human in our moments of downtime. Bird thought differently though, figuring even the most cold-hearted sounds of technology could bring us the same feelings. And tracks like Influx, Conoid Tone, and Orange make a strong argument in his favor.

A couple of other tracks round out this album with something a little more uptempo, and while they bring interesting variations on the H.I.A. sound, you can tell such tracks really weren’t Bird’s strength. Opener Spectral sounds just like that, an opener putting most of his eggs into the same basket: it has all the trademark synthetic texturing that you’ll come to expect on Colourform, but with a tighter arrangement than the wandering tracks you’ll encounter later in the album. Meanwhile, Re-Echo is Bird’s go at more traditional techno. It’s quite good for what it is, with nifty trancey sounds and bubbling acid; however, it’s not really that different from what you’d hear from any number of similar acts of the era: H.I.A.’s uniqueness is noticeably absent here.

That overall uniqueness, though, is what makes Colourform the intriguing album that it is. There really isn’t much out there that sounds like H.I.A., and despite some of the patchiness on here, this is still a recommended release. One can hope we’ll eventually see a re-issue, but even at slightly inflated eBay prices, fans of ambient techno will be satisfied with Colourform.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - The Collection (Volume 2)

Ruthless Records: 2000

Why release one collection of previous work when you can release two and charge twice the price! Alright, this isn’t that cynical of a comp’, but it is bizarre to see a second volume of Bone Thugs but two years after the last one. How could there even be enough material for this? Well, there’s more to the Bone Thugs story than their main singles and albums. Solo projects! Extended posse albums! Unreleased songs! All quality! Well, maybe not Ghetto Cowboy. That one’s just too silly.

Still, you get some tracks that simply didn’t make the cut on the previous collection (Thug Luv), collaborations where they appeared on other’s albums (Don’t Hate On Me was on a Jermaine Dupre album, and Hook It Up featured on a No Limit movie soundtrack -yes, Master P made movies, and yes, you’re allowed to laugh at that), cuts from the Mo Thugs Family, and remixes of tunes from the BTNHResurrection album that came out the same year.

Meanwhile, unless Discogs is lying to me, nearly a third of Volume Two features unreleased material, though whether old or new, the inlay don’t say. Probably the best of this lot is Sleepwalkers, which features an Eazy-E verse that’s fire, and makes for a suitable bookend to the whole Collection saga considering it was the Eazy-E featured Foe Tha Love Of $ that opened Volume 1.

Of course, you’re likely thinking this has the hallmarks of a ‘Thugs Fan Only’ release, and you’d be right. Though the quality of music’s still high, unlike the previous collection, this one doesn’t flow nearly as well, likely due to the disparate origins of these tracks. If you’re looking to get acquainted with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Collection: Volume One or the 2004-released double-disc Greatest Hits are better starting points.

As for the group itself, their legacy’s diminished since the high times of the 90s. Internal conflicts and spotty output has rendered their last decade of material almost inconsequential, while keeping up with solo projects became a chore for all but the most ardent fan. Maybe there’ll be another series of Collections to round up the better cuts, but considering how scattered across several record labels their later music is, that would prove legally difficult.

Hm, this review’s come up a bit short… I know, let’s play a game! The members of Bone Thugs all had ‘bone’ as a part of their aliases: for instance, Krayzie Bone, Wish Bone, Bizzie Bone, etc. For your reading distraction, here’s a list of potential members that could have been considered. Bone Dogg. Ice Bone. Bonestarr. Scooby Bone. Bone Digweed (this makes total sense, given the group’s fondness for the herb!). Bonecrusher. What, there’s already a rapper called that? Dammit, I lose then.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - The Collection (Volume 1)

Ruthless Records: 1998

I admit I was a late-bloomer when it comes to being a fan of hip-hop. Sure, there were songs and names I liked throughout my teenage years but it wasn’t until my 20s that I became properly hooked. As such, I missed out on most of the glorious output offered by the 90s and had quite a bit of catching up to do.

One of those “must hear” acts were Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, possibly among the most distinctive groups to emerge from hip-hop’s legacy. Their brand of soulful croon mixed with rapid-fire raps stood in stark contrast to the overt aggression most ‘thug rap’ offered, luring you in with a wonderful harmony, and then stunning you with violent content. Their backing tracks, mostly produced by DJ U-Neek, were similarly distinct, thick G-funk rhythms coupled with sparkling bells or pitched Moogs. Even their origin was different, hailing from Cleveland and thus never becoming affiliated with any particular coast, despite Eazy-E providing them their initial break.

They also cracked the mainstream with Tha Crossroads, a tribute to their deceased mentor Mr. Wright. With the highly popular (and somewhat controversial) video in heavy rotation, there was no way I could not have noticed this group. But eh, I was in the throes of ‘techno’ - nice song, cool vid, back to my German trance. It was an oversight I intended to rectify when I started my hip-hop exploration, and what better place to start than a greatest hits package?

At the time of this release, Bone Thugs had only released two albums, one of which was a double album (because that’s just what hip-hop artists did for sophomore efforts in the 90s). Fortunately, there were enough assorted EPs, remixes, and guest appearances to fill out a respectable, if not comprehensive, collection of Bone Thugs music.

Appropriately, things kick off with the Eazy-E featuring Foe Tha Love Of $, which is pretty good, but not the best offering here. The first chunk of tracks showcases the group’s melodic side, and just how amazingly tight of a vocal unit they could be. After a couple tracks they were guests on - including the Notorious B.I.G.’s Notorious Thugs - we delve into the tougher side of Bone Thugs. Oh, there’s still charming harmonies to be had, but one feels a degree of menace to their words that wasn’t present in the earlier cuts. Body Rott is a perfect example of their ability to switch between regular and double-time rapping to a G-funk groove. Closing out, there’s some curiosos like remixes and covers, plus the requisite bliss-out weed song that also became something of a trademark. In all, Collection, Vol. 1 is a solid primer to the Bone Thugs story.

Yet, there are still omissions. For instance, where’s Tha Crossroads? There’s a version of Crossroads here, but it’s definitely not the one from the video. And the 2Pac collab’ Thug Luv? Only one weed song?

Yeah, about that…

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Octagen - Collected Works Vol. 2

Five AM: 2007

Well, that was a fun little detour, but we’re back to our regular listening order now. What’s next in the pipeline? Hm, Octagen… Collected Works… How did I get this again? Ah, I remember, it was one of several trance singles I never got around to reviewing for TC.

Yes, friends, it’s true. We at TranceCritic didn’t review everything that was handed to us, and the truth is EPs slowly but surely became low-priority releases for us. The reasons were two-fold. One, the turnover rate for singles is just too damn high, with very few making enough of a mark for us to dedicate our time to - those that did would often appear on albums or mixes that we’d eventually talk about anyway. Two, I think we all preferred writing reviews of substance, to come up with creative angles, and EDM singles, primarily being functional tools for dancefloors, seldom allows for such creativity.

So yeah, this one slipped through, but reflecting on it, I think there was a third reason in this particular case: Collected Works was an MP3-only release, and I was still in my “boo, paying for MP3s are bad!” phase. I still sort of am, but I’ve accepted it’s become a viable medium for music consumption. This one came out when MP3 business was properly taking off for dance music chains, yet shows one of the dated artifacts of the era: the laughable lack of any image tagged to the files, hence the picture of Saturn instead.

Why Saturn? Because the planet’s fucking awesome, that’s why! I mean, those rings! They’re spectacular, and make crazy weird sci-fi sounds musique concrete composers would cream their khakis over. Did you know they’re only as thick as a typical skyscraper? Holy shit, it boggles the mind! And let’s not get into Saturn’s major moons, each with such uniquely quirky characteristics, it practically makes Saturn its own ‘planetary’ system. Methane lakes! 10km tall equatorial mountain ranges! Geysers! Death Stars! Potatoes!

Where was I? Oh yes, Octagen. He’s Paul Moelands (also known as Re:Locate), who released several minor trance hits during the mid-00s and appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. Not sure why his output dried up in recent years though; maybe he became yet another disgruntled trance producer because of that scene’s recent direction? Ask him for me if you happen to see him, yo’.

The three tracks on this single are quite typical of epic trance of those years: production’s excellent, there are dutiful breakdowns, and all were lost within the annual glut of releases. Same old story, though I quite like Renegade, as it’s a no-nonsense banger with the sort of bleepy hook I can vibe on. The other two are more peak-time anthems - High Tension’s melodic, Continuous is supersawic - that work for what they do, but probably come off antiquated compared to what passes for popular trance these days. Oh well.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nomad - Changing Cabins

Capitol Records: 1991

Nomad’s ultra-mega hit Devotion was among the first EDM tunes that I noticed, even before 2 Unlimited. The reason for this was Devotion placed higher in the tracklist of the CD they were both featured on (Dance Mix ‘92, for those who care - man, was that ever an influential CD…). I didn’t think much of it then, figuring it just a filler track compared to the up-tempo jams on offer, and would skip it whenever I threw that disc on. Of course, I was a silly young teenager who had a lot to learn about electronic music, but we all start somewhere.

Now, I think Devotion is brilliant, a perfect blend of many wonderful things that made cross-over house popular in the early 90s. The oh-so soulfully sweet chorus, simple enough that it’ll lodge in your head and have you repeating it long after the track’s passed by. Charming production tricks like stadium cheers (thanks, KLF), tinny hooks, bobbing baselines, and subtle bloops abound, plus a rap by a white Brit that’s far from embarrassing. And pads! My god, those perfect pads! They’re barely noticeable, tucked well in the background, yet the dreamy vibe of the song would be utterly lost without them. Even the video’s got that “only in ’91” magic. Yes, I do say Devotion deserves its classic status.

So who the devil was Nomad, and why didn’t they have any more classics? Well, Damon Rochefort, the main brains behind Nomad (name’s a giveaway) seemed to have several other interests he wanted to pursue, and charting big may have given him the financial security to do so. Makes sense, but it’s also possible he explored all he wanted to with this album, Changing Cabins.

Simply put, nearly every variation of house that existed by ’91 can be found here. You got the American-influenced diva stuff, with Sharon Dee Clarke providing most of the pipes. There’s Balearic vibes in Higher Than Heaven, Latin rhythms in Barcelona, and Jamaican toastin’ with The Raggamuffin Number. Devotion also has an upbeat sibling, Just A Groove, which was initially just as successful but is now mostly forgotten, never finding its way onto ‘Old School Anthems’ comps.

Yet, with all these influences on display and production to back it up, Changing Cabins lacks any real identity of its own. In a market that had competition from The KLF, 808 State, and The Shamen - not to mention the burgeoning underground rave scene - simply paying tribute to your inspiration wasn’t enough to stand out from the pack. British acid house had the distinction of being a melting pot of several forms of music, often within the same track. Aside from Devotion and Just A Groove, there’s little of that here, merely playing things straight on a track to track basis.

Changing Cabins isn’t a poor album, but it doesn’t hold surprises or hidden treasures time somehow forgot. If British house of the early 90s holds little interest, just stick with Devotion. Nearly everyone else has.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Beat The Devil's Tattoo

Vagrant Records: 2010

This is a rock album.

*waits for 90% of readers to leave*

More specifically, this is a ‘rawk’ album.

*waits for half of remaining readers to leave*

In fact, I’d even peg this as Brit ‘rawk’, though some may call it ‘shoegaze’.

*waits for nearly everyone else to leave*

For those left, don’t expect this to be much of a review. I don’t know anything about this group, beyond what their Last.fm bio provides (based out of West Coast of America, been around for over a decade, some tumultuous issues with band members over the years). Nor am I much inclined to do more research than that. This is a style of music that barely registers on my Interest Barometer, perhaps due to an overexposure of it during the 90s when Oasis and Blur were Next Big Things.

So why do I have this? Simple answer: their name piqued my curiosity, as I’m sure it did yours. How could it not? Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? Oh, God, I just got’s ta’ hears what they sounds like! Maybe it’ll be an awesome Steppenwolf tribute. Or maybe crazy-ass metal! Perhaps it’s some quirky IDM experimental thing using a totally ironic handle. Come on, Record Shop Man, let me hear some!

Really, all I wanted to hear was rock music that ‘rawked’, guitar tones that either built intense walls of distortion or were dragged through gravel pits, and drumming that wouldn’t sound out of place in a pub or garage. Expectations were met, and I gave Record Shop Man some digital dimes for a copy.

There were some nice bonuses too. Peter Hayes, their singer, gets plenty of treatment on his vocals, sounding like something you’d expect to hear at Glastonbury dawn (or a Chemical Brothers collab’). A definite influence of 60s rock is present, with folksy ditties and psychedelic sounds creeping in here and there. And plenty of catchy hooks and charming choruses abound, rounding out a solid overall listening experience.

Is this a great album? Well, I like it, and though it’ll only cross my ears once every year or two, that’s still far more often than anything I’d be willing to hear from bands like Coldplay or post-2000 U2. For all I know, Devil’s Tattoo has been lauded and bestowed multiple kudos from Pitchfork, NME, and several trendy rock publications. Or maybe it’s been heavily criticized as derivative and cheap, a shameless sell-out of an album that decries their earlier output. Again, that’s research I don’t care to do.

After all, the music here gives me warm, fuzzy feelings, and in the end, isn’t that all that matters?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

302 Acid - 302 Acid 0005

em:t: 2005

I’ve been listening to my music alphabetically for nearly a year now, yet am only in the middle ‘C’s. Even if we assume I listened to an album a day (absurd) it seems like an inordinate amount of time with very little gain. I don’t have that much music, do I? Heh, you’d be surprised, but no, not that much. One thing has held up the queue on occasion though, and that’s the acquisition of new music. An early rule was, were I to purchase something that fell before my current position, that release would be next instead, then carry back on in order where I left off. Simple enough, but for the point I have a habit of buying music in bunches. As I did this past day. So, we leave the ‘C’s for the time being to go back to the beginning, all the way to numbers in fact.

This also presents something of a challenge for yours truly. Reviewing material that’s been sitting in my collection for awhile, that’s easy. Even if I’ve only listened to it once or twice, I’ve still had plenty of time to form thoughts on it. But tackling fresh music doesn’t offer such luxury. Unless it’s some bona-fide classic I’ve already heard tons, chances are I’m heading into these cold and, unlike my TC days, won’t be listening to it repeatedly before writing about it. After all, I only listen to these once on my portable before moving on (Rule #2!), and I’ll need to crank out a review for that too.

Dang, that’s half my self-imposed word count already. Alright, 302 Acid. Lessee…

Well, I’m in luck. Discogs lacks info about this trio, and Last.fm isn’t much help either. Apparently a live PA act, they haven’t released anything since this debut full-length. That simplifies things.

Not an easy sound to pin down, they run the gamut of downtempo and chill. You got abstract glitch (Six), droning synth washes that cover the full spectrum of mood (Mortariggus and Nocturnum be dark, Calibrations be high in the clouds), bubbly psychedelic dub that seems influenced from either Bill Laswell (Push Button) or Simon Posford (Quest), and various other dabblings scattered throughout. Don’t take these comparisons as suggestion that 302 Acid lacks a style of their own though, as everything on this album is distinct enough to stand out from the crowd. Trouble is, in showcasing their diversity, the album lacks cohesion, moving through different segments that, while interesting, can be jarring.

It’s a shame there’s little else to be found about them, as the ideas present hint at something that could have developed into intriguing possibilities - a melding of early Warp records experiments and Twisted Records chill, if you will. As it stands, 302 Acid is a fine pick-up should you be curious, but not an essential one.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Michael Brook - Cobalt Blue

Virgin: 1992

So here’s the story. I was discovering ambient proper for the first time and, like all doe-eyed newbies to a genre, didn’t know who I should be looking for. Fortunately, there was this thing called the internet and, by typing the word “ambient” into search engines like Alta Vista and Webcrawler, I stumbled upon various text-only websites consisting of lists and the odd review. “Sweet,” says I, “look at all these albums.” But, a dilemma!

Being on such a thrifty teenager budget, I can afford only one CD at a given time (stop sniggering, you kids, this is pre-Napster era). Even worse, I’m stuck in the hinterlands of Canada, where the only non-Top 40 music you’ll find in a given shop is country or blues rock. Fortunately, there’s an ace up my sleeve; or rather, a mother in Vancouver. By sending her a request, she can pick anything up in the city's many record shops. What to get, though? Hm, this Brian Eno guy appears highly on all the Top 10 lists. Music For Airports? Guess I’ll give that a shot. Time passes, and Mum informs me that the shop she went to didn’t have Music For Airports. They did recommend something else, however, that’s like Brian Eno: Michael Brook’s Cobalt Blue.

And that’s how I’m talking about it in the here and now. Though an incorrect purchase, damn if it wasn’t a good one.

Heck, the Eno brothers even show up on a couple tracks (Slow Breakdown, Red Shift, and a few others listed later), lending Brook their talents with distinctive Eno sounds. Ol’ Michael’s the real star of his album though, crafting several wonderful, lovely pieces with various guitar tones as the main focus. There’s the odd dabble into something wordly (Skip Wave) but Mediterranean moods dominate. And don’t let the Eno association fool you, as this isn’t noodly drone ambient. Nay, there’s percussion to be found, bass slaps, a multitude of different instruments, tempos, and even vocal samples, all served up with ethereal production gloss that’s astounding for the year it was released in.

There is a gripe to be had, however: song length. They just don’t last long, and each tune seems filled with musical ideas that beg to be further explored but instead come across like dense jams. It’s no surprise the best songs (Andean’s otherworldliness, Ultramarine’s other otherworldliness, Urbana’s tribalism, and Ten’s tranquility) have proper beginnings and ends, containing cohesive musical narratives throughout their running times, short though they still may be.

Fortunately, it isn’t a deal breaker. Chances are you’ve heard Michael Brook's style at some point - what, you thought The Edge came up with the Infinite Guitar sound in With Or Without You? - but any true connoisseur of ambient music needs to seek this album out. You may not be so lucky to have a mother accidently get it for you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Various - Club Europa (Original TC Review)


Quality Music: 1994

(2012 Update:
So this was going to happen eventually, coming across something I've already written a review for in my alphabetical listening order. Like those other old TranceCritic reviews, I'll just repost them here with an 'Update' paragraph.

To be honest though, there's not much to update - my thoughts on an 18 year old compilation isn't going to change much in a few years. It's interesting to note, however, that electronic music is currently seeing a commercial push that definitely exceeds that of the euro-dance era. Not that I'm surprised, as most current dance-pop reminds me of euro-dance, save production quality ...and the unfortunate loss of galloping rhythms.)


IN BRIEF: Typical.

These Random Reviews can be cruel sometimes, as it might expose material in our collections that we may be a little embarrassed to own. There certainly are a couple choices since TC’s inception that I’ve nearly shirked from doing, but I am wholly committed to honoring the rules of this unique feature we offer (for those just joining us, a Random Review is quite literally picked randomly from our personal music archives; I personally just close my eyes and reach out for one). I suppose one could argue if I don’t really care for such releases anymore, why do I still own it? Well, once you start a serious music collection, it’s very difficult to part with anything, even if you only pull it out to listen once every few years anymore. Humans: aka The Illogical Pack-Rat.

We all have to start somewhere, though, and for many North Americans first discovering electronic music, euro-dance from the early 90s was their catalyst. Simply put, the stuff was everywhere, promoted to a degree electronic music has seldom seen since. Mainstream radio stations had dedicated programs, music channels had regular hours showcasing videos, and it certainly was accessible for all to enjoy at safe gatherings like weddings, sports events, and high-school dances (unlike that questionable ‘rave’ music where people want to do, like, drugs, and stuff, heh). It also didn’t hurt that the music had some of the best pop-hooks ever written for electronic music in the post-italo era. A glance at the tracklist above will undoubtedly bring the choruses to songs like Get-A-Way and Go Go (Love Overload) rushing back into the heads of anyone who was within earshot of them fifteen years ago.

So, yeah, ridicule if you want that I still have something like this in my collection. I take no shame in occasionally enjoying the musical equivalent of Paxil, especially when the 21st Century variety of euro-dance is utter crap.

That bit of bloggy confessional said, Club Europa honestly isn’t that remarkable of a compilation.

Fact of the matter is there were tons of dance compilations at the time of its release, and many of the big hits on here could be found on countless other CDs. Get-A-Way, Let The Beat Control Your Body, The Key, The Secret, Go Go, Piece Of My Heart, Take A Freefall - all saw regular compilation rotation in Canada alone. A smattering of minor hits essentially rounds out the rest (Face II Face’s I Want You being the best of the lot), most of which is standard euro-dance fare: buzzy synth riffs, a chick singing on the chorus, a silly rap verse or two... Ultimately, Club Europa is a worthy used-shop pick-up if you’re missing a few key songs for your collection, but hardly essential.

With the critical analysis out of the way, now for some fun. It’s time to play Amazing Euro Trivia!

Sometimes one of the fun things when looking back at these old compilations is to see where a lot of the names ended up and who was often ghost-writing in the studios. For instance, 2 Unlimited producers Phil Wilde and Peter Bauwens were behind C.B. Milton, a singer who had quite a powerful soulful delivery considering he was performing dance-pop. Tatjana, who’s Feels Good introduced the former model to the world of euro (and would go on to have the hit Santa Maria), continues to release albums to this day. Most surprising is the inclusion of Eartha Kitt, a legend in the world of film, cabaret, and Batman; here, her disco hit Where Is My Man? is given a rather bog-standard euro spin, but her unique singing/purr is just as memorable as ever. And of course, dedicated happy hardcore fanatics should be aware of Q-Tex and their Power Of Love (presented here in what might be daftly described as ‘epic-euro’).

Perhaps one of the few things that does make Club Europa a little more distinct from your run-of-the-mill euro compilation is the inclusion of so many releases from Abfarht Records. Seekers of old-school house are probably quite aware of that collective’s classic moody single Alone (It’s Me), but Torsten Fenslau, Jens Zimmerman, and Nosie Katzmann would go on to produce several euro-dance hits before Fenslau was prematurely killed in a car accident. Their most famous, of course, was Culture Beat’s Mr. Vain, but Piece Of My Heart and River saw some decent chart action as well. Unfortunately, some of their other material offered here - The Sunny Side Of Life and Kim Sanders’ Tell Me That You Want Me - just don’t hold up well at all.

And I guess that wraps up this Random. Not really much here, to be honest. Club Europa is about as straight-forward a euro compilation from the mid-90s as you’re about to find in your used shops. I can’t give it a high recommendation since it doesn’t offer anything terribly unique, but euro fans will probably still enjoy it if they happen to have a couple extra bucks burning a hole in their pocket.

As for these Randoms, hopefully the next one will be better. Maybe I’ll pull that two-CD Platipus Records compilation next time. Worryingly, though, I know I have a Trance Voice lurking about somewhere too...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Various - Club Cutz Volume 7

BMG Music Canada: 1996

Ah, Club Cutz. Now there's some history! Fine, it was strictly a Canadian thing, but at one point it was among my country’s premiere compilation series, rubbing shoulders with other greats like Dance Mix, DJ Line and Chris Sheppard’s Pirate Radio Sessions. After moderate interest in early editions mostly featuring house, the comp producers changed gears when euro-dance gained steam, and found a simple formula for success: be the first to have that hot new dance single everyone needed, and watch the sales skyrocket. What Is Love, Tonight Is The Night, Another Night, More & More …um, Cotton Eye Joe - all made their major Canadian debuts on Club Cutz.

Then, to earn the truly big bucks, the CDs also featured well-produced dance covers of 70s rock staples, an effective tactic in attracting the ‘housewife looking to let her hair down’ demographic that I guess existed in the early 90s. At least, they were the ones requesting “that dance version” of More Than A Feeling and What’s Up at weddings.

Club Cutz 7 truly was the series’ last great hurrah. The must-have hit single? Shut Up (And Dance With Me) from Sin With Sebastian. Even my non-dance friends fell sway to its goofball charm. Me, I preferred the unabashed euro fare of First Base’s Love Is Paradise.

Half the other tracks consist of fun but otherwise forgotten slices of euro. Chances are their hooks have been cannibalized by whatever contemporary dance-pop beast exists at a given time, but those wonderful galloping rhythms could forever be lost to the 90s.

The rest features big gay house and garage, including that Deep Dish remix of De’Lacy’s Hideaway that was making the rounds. Yep, there be divas galore, something of a retro return for the series, and thus no dance cover of 70s rock. No, Tainted Love doesn’t count. Besides, Senor X’s version’s not that good, and whenever I hear it, I can’t help but think of giant squid. Yes, there’s an amusing anecdote there, but I’m running out of self-imposed word-count space.

Even with this edition’s success, one could tell the good times at the Club Cutz camp were ending. Not only cannibalistic, dance-pop is a fickle beast and the tides of change were well under way in ’96. Euro dance was stuck in a creative rut, follow-up singles and albums failing to reach the highs of two years past. European shores started noticing fresher sounds from the lands of trance, while American clubs saw glamour in hip-hop. The main series lasted one more edition, then the label tapped Chris Sheppard to re-invent it in ’98 as Club Cutz 101, mashing together urban and club trance into continuous mixes. They made it all the way to 606, so I guess it was successful, but it clearly lacked the charm of its euro years. Thanks to downloading, gone were the days of track exclusivity, and so too was the anticipation of seeing what a new Club Cutz would feature.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Plastikman - Closer

Novamute: 2003

Plastikman is Richie Hawtin, a very important person in the world of techno. A part of Detroit’s second generation, he was instrumental in de-Eightiesfying the genre, ushering in a 'less-is-more' aesthetic for a new era. Unfortunately, due to his near-perfect production, rumours persisted that he was a robot, and a self-image celebrating chrome-dome geekery didn't help. Sensing distress, a kindly German named Sven saved him from an existence of droidhood, and Richie regained his humanity through various acts of debauchery. Having done so, he embarked upon the most noble of white human pursuits: corporate shilling of self-stylized brands. Something like that anyway.

As much fun as that paragraph was to write, it's a horrible lead-in for this here album titled Closer, the third and (so far) last full-length released under the Plastikman banner. For that matter, I'm not sure what an effective lead-in would be, beyond the dry particulars. It’s not a popular album and, when discussing Hawtin’s legacy, barely brought up. Fans were confounded by it, casuals were uninterested, and the techno scene at large shrugged it off, figuring Richie would make a proper dancefloor album later.

Still, I’d argue it’s at least an important album. If anything, Closer was ground zero for the minimal scene’s rise in the middle 00s, as all the tricks that turned into clichés are present: simple lyrics spoken with pitched down vocals, plink-plonk production, white noise wank, etc. In 2003, such sounds were still tucked in the realms of experimental labels like Mille Plateaux. Hearing it on a Plastikman album legitimatized it as where techno should go next, and Hawtin made damned sure he promoted the hell out of the sound on his M_nus label, not just as a form of music, but as a way of life. Erm, yeah…

If you found the minimal wave ridiculous, then Closer isn’t going to convert you - best to stay away. For those who didn’t grow tired of it …well, this album’s still a bit of a chore. It’s the sort that can only be appreciated in a single sitting, but takes forever to build any momentum. All too often progress is undone by Hawtin’s need to detour into sound effect gimmickry, the worst offender being the middle track Slow Poke, which is nothing but sound effect gimmickry. I’ve listened to Closer at least a half-dozen times now, and still the only highlights for me are those crunchy claps in the second half.

That said, Hawtin succeeded in crafting an album that works in spite of itself. The mood is kept tight and claustrophobic, enveloping you into a dark journey of paranoia that you want to take in its entirety - I’ll bet those crunchy claps wouldn’t sound so cool if I hadn’t put up with hissing nonsense beforehand. While this is by no means revolutionary, it is effective, and if that’s enough for you in a concept album, then by all means get closer to, um, Closer.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Nine Inch Nails - Closer

Island Records: 1994

Also known as that “fuck you like an animal” song. In fact, I think it’s all anyone knows about this song. Well, except for the opening kick-snare, which immediately alerts people that the “fuck you like an animal” song is starting.

And no, I didn’t go back on my word from the last review. This is electronic music. Nearly all industrial music is to a degree. However, because it’s primarily the rock scene that latched onto the sound, it's often overlooked when considering the whole of electronic music’s heritage. There’s more to it than that, of course, but I’ll get into it when I’ve an album more appropriate.

Meanwhile, let’s talk Nine Inch Nails. Or, maybe you can tell me more? Truth is I’ve barely given Trent Reznor’s band notice over the years. What I heard, I thought was cool (especially that “fuck you like an animal” song everyone was playing!) but my bed was firmly in the ‘techno’ camps back when NIN was blowing up, and my limited purchasing power reflected that. Fortunately, now that I have disposable income, I can go back and rediscover that which I foolishly bypassed. Or, in this case, gather up friends’ CD collections whenever they’re looking to offload them.

As a single, Closer is an odd one. Apparently it was released as a double-digi pack, but with only one CD within, the second of which had to be purchased at a later date. Guess that’s one way to test fanbase loyalty, and I’d be astounded if anyone could pull it off now.

Of the two CDs, there isn't much difference in terms of tone. The first has the version of Closer everyone’s familiar with even to this day (“Hey, Bro! It’s that ‘fuck you like an animal’ song!”), a funky Jack Dangers remix that almost sounds like what a Lenny Kravitz cover would end up as, and various other industrial-metal, noise, and sonic experimental cuts scattered about the rest. The second CD mostly reworks other songs from The Downward Spiral, the main highlight being an awesome EBM-thrash version of Closer called Closer To God. Compared to the first CD, these cuts are a nice break from hearing Reznor constantly telling me he wants to fuck me like an animal (wait, huh?).

Overall, this is a solid single for fans of 90s industrial - the fascist-leaning, angst driven, cyberpunk sort. If you’re just looking for the “fuck you like an animal” song though, best stick with the simply titled track Closer .

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yes - Close To The Edge

Elektra/Rhino: 1972/2003

What’s this? I go and say I’m back to reviewing electronic music, and the second thing I review is a prog rock album? Scandalous. Didn’t I mention that when I’m reviewing everything I have in alphabetical order, I meant everything? Heh, how remiss of me. Don’t worry, folks, I still have more electronic music than most other forms in my collection. It’s just a coincidence that this would be next in line.

Besides, there’s some electronics in Yes. Rick Wakeman, the group’s most famous of rotating keyboardists, provides plenty of spritely sprinkles, swirly pads, organ chuggery, and Moogy musicality for those who dig on that sort of thing. In fact, the whole band is on point with this album, coming off the commercial success of Fragile, but yet to get too far up their asses with Topographic. Close To The Edge is the perfect middle-ground of those two, containing the stunning twenty-minute titular song to open, followed by a ten-minute folksy-ditty-turn-orchestral-climax with And You And I, and a ten-minute rock-funker with Siberian Khatru as a closer. Come for the catchy hooks and choruses, stay for the marvelous musical wizardry.

If you happen to obtain the Rhino re-issue, as I did, you also get some extra …things. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been into the rock scene proper, but studio run-throughs and alternative takes don’t interest me - if I’m going to hear a different version, give me the concert renditions! There’s also a (LOL) single cut of Close To The Edge (essentially the rockin’ Total Mass Retain portion of the song …the big ones were often divided up into titled passages), plus a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America, which may be of interest to those who are also fans of that duo.

I can see how this album wouldn’t be appealing if you simply want boom-boom, la-la ‘choons’, as it’s not even a ‘gateway to prog’ kind of album. This is an album made by people, and for people, who are intrigued by the potential possibilities music has to offer, and pushing one’s skill to discover that. All too often prog rockers overstep their ability; Yes got as close to that edge as they could here (hurr-hurr) and came away with one of the finest prog rock albums ever crafted. If you consider yourself a fan of creative music even in general, you owe it to yourself to at least give the titular track a listen. Hey, it’s only twenty minutes out of your day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Model 500 - Classics

R & S Records: 1993

Model 500 is Juan Atkins, a very important person in the world of techno. Often credited with being one of the Godfathers of the genre, his fame diminished as new upstarts took the techno mantle for themselves during the 90s. His career floundered for a while, which led to depression and over-eating. Determined to reclaim prestige for his name and his waistline, Atkins developed a bold new diet, which focused on the consumption of high amounts of protein to stave of hunger cravings. Wait, I’m getting my Atkinses mixed up. Damn you, Webcrawler!

Yeah, me getting into el’ Juan’s techno legacy is pointless. With online essays, published books, and video documentaries about techno’s roots out there, more than enough material is available for the curious. I don’t see much talk of Model 500 though. Why is this? It’s not some obscure alias. No UFOs was a techno hit, back when the term ‘techno hit’ wasn’t even a thing. Maybe Cybotron was the sexier moniker.

Or perhaps there’s some merit to that nonsense I wrote in the first paragraph. Atkins never released a proper Model 500 album until the mid-90s, when much of the new Detroit blood was dominating talk. This here Classics collection was released a couple years before Deep Space (the Model 500 debut proper), and as a round-up of his 80s material, Classics is interesting, but not the most engaging listen.

The problem I have with this is it sounds too 80s for me. Hey, I like me some 80s, but when I throw on a techno album that has the word “classics” as the only word in the title, I go in with preconceived expectations. I want to hear proper futurism, and Classics simply doesn’t have that, no matter what the cover art suggests. I’ll grant it’s not Atkins’ fault that Yello forever dated “chiki-chikah” to the 80s, but there it is in Electric Entourage, and I’m left feeling “eh.” That said, cheers for tracks like No UFOs and Sound Of Stereo, which meet those stupid expectations (but jeers for making them the bookends of the whole album, muddying what little album flow there is further).

One of techno’s ongoing appeals is the sense that, no matter how advanced in technology we come, the music will always remain at least one step ahead - the best of what 80s techno has to offer still retains that. These tunes, however, don’t, instead coming off like 50s depictions of the year 2000: definitely futuristic in attempt, but now quirkily retro. Go in with this in mind, and Classics is a fun enough throw-on.

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