Thursday, February 28, 2013

Various - Fabric 48: Radio Slave (2013 Update)

Fabric: 2009

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

Um, yeah. This and 29 are the only Fabric mixes I have, both acquired for the purpose of review. As always, I have my reasons, and since you can follow that little link above to read my (not-so old) thoughts on Radio Slave’s contribution if you so wish, I shall now blather on about such reasons.

The thing about these Fabric CDs is they usually arrived new on Vancouver shelves with jacked-up import prices, upwards of the thirty dollar range (yes, that’s quite a bit for a CD here in Canada). I’ve been buying myself music for a good twenty years now, but personal purchasing power’s been poor for most of them, thus rendering my selections ofttimes rather picky. If I’m dropping nearly thirty for a single CD, it better be for something greater than ‘just another DJ mix’, especially at a time when freebies and podcasts are wildly available online.

Still, I’d occasionally splurge if I thought something should have coverage on TranceCritic, hence why I’d bought the Tiefschwarz mix, figuring it necessary for the website to finally jump on that wagon. Fortunately, a British chap by the name of Will Alexander joined our crew for a while, and he took care of the Fabric mixes afterwards, leaving me to instead cover twisted forest psy, or whatever. He only stayed for a year though, but when he left I saw no reason to carry on with TC’s Fabric reviews. They weren’t heavy traffic attractors (trancecrackers don’t like tech house, what?), and besides, I’d noticed a general trend developing with the releases: they made for incredibly boring reviews.

Always, there’d be plenty of pre-release hype, a good chunk of forum dwellers posting such thrilling, anticipatory comments like “Massive!”, or “Can’t miss!” or “This’ll be huge!” (plus an occasional dissenter). Then a website like Resident Advisor or Pitchfork would throw up their review, awarding it a customary six-to-eight out of ten, depending on the reviewer’s particular taste. Posters would cry “too low” or “too high”, then forget about it until the next edition. Rinse, repeat. Fabric was becoming just like Global Underground had: an avenue for solid yet unremarkable DJ mixes.

Okay, that’s a gross overstatement, as Fabric at least keeps its selection of selectors reasonably varied, but what else was there left to say about them? Almost every fresh angle had been covered with the series long ago, rendering reviews of new mixes little more than dutiful recaps. Well, there is one angle still…

Most of the old Fabric CDs can be found cheaply through Amazon now, many going for less than a tenner; ironically, my purchasing power’s never been better, so I can gorge on a bunch of them if I so choose. It might be fun to go back to a few and see how they’ve held up, whether to highlight an overlooked gem or eviscerate an overhyped flop. With so many out there though, which ones should I go after? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Various - Fabric 29: Tiefschwarz (Original TC Review)

Fabric: 2006

(2013 Update:
Yay, another dated review. It's not my fault though, as the Fabric series was going from strength to strength in the mid-'00s. Who'd have thought they'd settle into a predictable rut as the years wore on, not to mention get outclassed by the burgeoning Balance series.

Still, this particular edition remains solid enough, if anything for a tracklist filled with a 'who's who' of this scene - Tiefschwarz may not have accomplished much since this came out, but they knew their tech-house that year. It also captures the brief period when the minimal aesthetic had creativity, before the dominance of plink-plonk-hiss annoyances (re: the Dubfire effect). Though it was written for the benefit of TranceCritic readers not boned up on minimal, my detailing of its influence still holds up pretty well, though obviously a different tense is required.)



IN BRIEF: Minimal sounds without the pretentiousness.

Before I start, I’d like to give some much deserved props to Fabric. Of all the DJ mix compilations over the years, theirs has to be amongst the most daring. Never have I seen a series exhibit such a wide range of musical styles, all the while equally giving the spotlight to superstars and underground darlings. Fabric isn’t interested in pandering to the progressive elite or the deep house elite or the techno elite. They release DJ mixes for folks who enjoy dabbing in everything. And bloody prolifically at that. At the rate Fabric kicks these mixes out, I’m surprised the quality control has remained as consistent as it has.

It’s interesting that Tiefschwarz’ go was the one I should have come across to review for our first dip into this series. Some could point out tapping the German brothers for a mix was nothing more than Fabric jumping on the ‘minimal’ bandwagon, which might be a vali-

Eh? Oh, you noticed those apostrophes around minimal. Perhaps I should explain that. Y’see, folks, minimal is the new buzzword promo people and clueless scenesters are jumping on. Much like ‘electro’ before it (and to some extent, still), the term is annoyingly ambiguous in what kinds of music it refers to, but generally these are them: minimal/dub/deep techno; simple tech house; micro house; deep prog house; nearly anything with a 130 bpm groove and the cliché “rewards paying attention” is apt. The perversion of their pet genre’s name has raised the ire of purists, an all too common result of an underground sound becoming popular. It’s grown large enough that some long-time minimal artists distance themselves from the sound altogether. Heh, you can always tell a buzzword is getting big when those associated with it claim they produce anything but.

Was Fabric merely cashing in on the hot underground sound of the summer when they released this? Perhaps a little, but it’s hardly the first time the series dipped into these waters, and now’s as good a time as any to expose some underrated talent now that folks will be more interested in it. Tiefschwarz - Alexander and Sebastian to the tax men - have been around for a good decade, earning their keep in the house and techno trenches with various singles and remixes. I’d say they deserve a bit of time in the spotlight since their sound is all the hipster rage.

The brothers kick off their mix with some dark dubby tunes. Minimal? Tech house? Either or, really, as the tracks are quite sparse in arrangement, yet contain a definite groove one can shuffle their feet along to. Claude VonStroke’s Whose Afraid Of Detroit? is especially nice with a grumbling bassline and a bleepy hook - love those ominous pads lurking in the background.

Now this is where things get tricky in covering a release like this. How, pray tell, does one describe what goes on in a mix that contains lots of bleepy clicky sounds and groovy rhythms, but scant little in the way of noticeable hooks? By way of feeling, which has always been the appeal of minimal sounds in EDM. The drawing power of Tiefschwarz’ track selection is in the atmosphere they create and maintain rather than dropping big tunes after each other. A song like Touane’s Bassic is quite, um, basic on its own, with a good shoulder-shakin’ rhythm but little else. What it does do though, is keep your interest with intriguing soundscapes, piquing your curiosity as to what may follow. While their choice of Schumacher’s Rotor may be suspect in this case (those are some really drab sounds going on here), the track’s tone nonetheless matches what came before while providing a unique twist. Interest maintained, curiosity grows, onto the next smooth mix to see where we go next. It’s a winning formula, and Tiefschwarz execute it admirably during the course of their mix. Rotor is probably the only real stumble in this middle chunk; each successive track after displays a quirky wit in their choice of music while never losing the darkish overtones laid out in the beginning.

Of warning though: because Tiefschwarz have opted for a mix that expresses their muses with atmosphere, truly energetic moments are rather rare as a result. Yes, the rhythms do groove, and they sometimes even get mildly funky as well, but hardly ever do they excite; the shuffling percussion of Ichundu’s Hey is about as active things get. This isn’t to say there aren’t interesting arrangements to be heard, but if you’re looking for big room bombs, you’ve wandered into the wrong house, my friends.

As Tiefschwarz head into the final stretch, they leave the quirk behind and indulge in floaty (re: ketamine) tech house. There’s still a hint of unease, mind, a feeling that really hasn’t gone away since the opening track from Troy Pierce. But whereas the beginning delved into the ominous nature of it and the middle had fun with the oddities, the end calms you down in spite of some really bizarre sounds; The Hammer Of Thor from Riton will definitely make you take notice, although the hook is interesting enough.

Oops. Spoke too soon. Al and Seb throw one more bit of quirkiness our direction with the final track, a bloopy, glitchy downtempo remix of Kate Wax’s Beetles And Spiders done by Roman Flügel. It’s an amusing way to finish this disc off, but a bit heavy on the tongue-in-cheek wit.

Fortunately, the rest of their mix isn’t. Tiefschwarz have crafted a worthwhile addition to the Fabric legacy, with equal parts charm, groove, and fun without abandoning the aspects of what makes this sound appealing. Although it won’t convert those who are still suspicious of ‘minimal’, it will please those who enjoy the heady nature of the music nonetheless.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Busta Rhymes - Extinction Level Event - The Final World Front

Elektra: 1998

You could not go through the '90s and miss one of Busta Rhymes’ videos, they of many a fish-eyed lens as he donned eccentric costumes and wardrobe, always perfectly synced with his eccentric raps and word play; also, dreadlocks. Thanks to such promotion, his star grew, somehow taking the idea of 'wacky-doo hip-hop personality' and thriving on it whilst other off-the-wall types were almost unanimously relegated as posse mainstays but little else. Flava Flav needed Public Enemy, Ol' Dirty Bastard needed Wu-Tang Clan, but Busta Rhymes was just fine without Flipmode Squad (much less his original crew). Though he doesn't command the same attention as before (does any '90s hip-hop star?), his followers maintain he's yet to lose his touch, at least when focusing on his own material rather than guest-versing on other cuts.

I can see why he'd garner such a dedicated following, as Mr. Rhymes had an incredible run of albums leading up to Y2K, his third one - Extinction Level Event - capping off a sorta-thematic apocalypse trilogy. Nor did he let such millennia paranoia overwhelm his work, mixing it up with regular club bangers, somber stories, and even occasional chick music.

Speaking of which, one of the big singles off here was the Janet Jackson duet, What’s It Gonna Be!? Eh, perhaps because I've a pair o' nads, this tune's never done it for me. That said, the video’s great, in a totally '90s sort of way. Gotta love that old school CGI!

Oh well, girls gotta have their R&B. For those after the bangin' side of hip-hop, the album has plenty of cuts to sate your needs, including a strong opening salvo to warm you up. After an intro that details what the end-times will bring (with a nifty effect dropping the narrator's voice deeper and robotic as his speech goes on), Busta keeps bringing the fire with beats that match his eccentric style, a mini-climax going down with the titular cut (of course). Nottz, a burgeoning talent at the time, was tasked with most of the production here, but a few of the heavy hitters of the late '90s – including Rockwilder, DJ Scratch, and Swizz Beatz – also contribute.

And what rap album is complete without guests? Flipmode Squad do their posse cut, but the show stealer is Mystikal on Iz They Wildin Wit Us & Getting Rowdy Wit Us, Busta and him trading back rapid-fire lyrics (seriously, that guy was too good for No Limit Records – shame about his career). Oh, and Ozzy crops up at the end with a cover of Ironman called This Means War!! - Busta’s means it too, dropping two exclamation marks.

Extinction Level Event's a solid, varied album, one of the stronger choices for someone unfamiliar with Busta Rhyme’s work to dive into. The only gripe could be his apocalypse theme didn't get enough attention in favour of club “hits” clogging up the back end, but if I wanted that, I'd just throw on Deltron 3030 again.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Prodigy - Experience (Original TC Review)

XL Recordings: 1992

(2013 Update:
This review feels dated now, even though, technically, The Prodigy have yet to make any sort of proper reclaim to fame. An interesting thing happened a few years after I wrote this, though: old school hardcore started receiving props again, with acts making one-off throwbacks, and even occasional 'concept' albums; all the while, an American (re)fascination with raving undoubtedly has the group getting name-checked far more often than any point during the decade prior.

I should mention the writing here reflects my transitional phase from track-by-track detailing. It's not as cumbersome as my earliest reviews, but there are still clunky chunks of grammar. Rough around the edges, much like
Experience!)


IN BRIEF: It’s got the beat; that’s all we need.

When I randomly pulled this from my collection of music to review, the first thought that came to me was, “Why should I review this? It’s a decade and a half old; everything that could be said regarding Experience has been said and then some. Besides, with The Prodigy’s relevance inconsequential these days, it’s not like-”

And then I was struck dumb for a moment. Could it really be true? The Prodigy were no longer relevant? I’m not just talking about fading from popular musical taste, but that, for all the groundbreaking material that was released under the Prodigy banner, almost none of it has the slightest bearing on modern tastes. For anyone associated with electronic music throughout the previous decade, this comes as a bit of a shock.

Hands up if you grew up during the ‘90s. Remember just how big the Prodge were? Even with three albums that bore scant resemblance to one another, their impact was undeniable. Numerous hit singles. Multiple sub-genres spawned. Dynamic live show. Take-no-prisoners attitude. Hell, they even managed to break typical ‘dance sux’ mainstream America! Every young EDM fan had that moment when they paused and, much like Led Zepplin for rock fans, declared The Prodigy the best ever (even if that opinion changed within a day).

But Liam Howlett’s musical dry spell hurt, and a new batch of partiers emerged without a Prodigy experience (having to settle for superstar trance DJs instead, poor bastards). In a scene where trends take little time to change, Howlett was left to play catch-up rather than lead the charge as he always had. The new generation of ravers saw little interest in looking back to the past when they had their own scene. The Prodigy, once an unbeatable force no one could stop, became a token footnote regarding ‘90s trivia and ‘funny hairstyles in music’.

If the Prodigy material was firmly stuck in the ‘90s, this would be understandable. Like any Height-Ashbury folk rock act, they’d retain a level of respect but would still be unable to escape the era that spawned it. However, Howlett’s productions aren’t stuck in the ‘90s. Sure, they may conjure up ravey-raves or ‘electronica’ promos, but many tracks remain just as effective today as they were a decade ago, even without nostalgic blinders.

For all its old school hardcore trappings, Experience can still pummel a party fourteen years on. The opening four-track stanza - Jericho, Music Reach, Wind It Up, and Your Love - is as much an endurance test as it is a collection of songs. Howlett’s rhythms are super-fast and utterly relentless, yet always fascinating to hear, mixing up a dynamic blend of innovative breakbeats with stadium-sized resonance. Even Hyperspeed, despite a lengthier intro than the tracks prior to it, gives no respite, unleashing some of the most devastating beats on Experience. And Charly, though stripped down compared to the others, still packs a punch. Whatever Howlett did to create such powerful drums and basslines has endured far better than numerous copycats could ever have hoped.

But enough talk of the rhythms, you say. What about melodies and hooks? Unfortunately, this has always been where Experience stumbles. To be frank, most of them merely serve the rhythms: synth stabs giving extra punch to a kick; strings providing atmosphere; etc. Take out most of Liam’s beats, and you’d get very generic old school rave hooks that could fit into any number of producers’ discography.

This isn’t to say they aren’t catchy or even enduring. The uplifting pianos of Wind It Up or hoover fun of Charly still work today, and little things in the other tracks have moments of charm as well. However, you get the impression it didn’t matter what Howlett did to complement his rhythms - they were so good that anything could work, so he just grabbed a few proven techniques of the era rather than make his own styles.

Hell, maybe Liam himself realized this all too well. How else can one explain the absurd Out Of Space. Is there anything more loony than a boing sound? (well, maybe a kazoo) This track could very well be a piss-take on the very sound he popularized, showing no matter how corny the surrounding hooks, samples, effects, and even accompanying video got, the beats would still carry the track to awesomeness. Amazingly (and perhaps ironically), it went on to be one of their fans’ all-time favorite tracks.

The strength of Howlett’s breakbeats is further exemplified by Everybody In The Place, because this is the one track on Experience they are missing! Making use of a standard four-to-the-floor rhythm at a heightened BPM, this track comes off quite bland amongst the surrounding company, and unfortunately shows just how weak many of the hooks are without the dynamite breaks.

Still, Howlett was determined to show he had skill in other facets of music, so despite being stuck making mostly hyperfast breakbeats around this time, he managed to squeeze in an ‘epic’ track called Weather Experience, where two-thirds of the song are spent on sweeping string synths and chunky hip-hop beats. It’s a welcome respite from all the manic energy to be had on this album, and its slow build towards bubbling acid and a chaotic climax is quite cinematic in musically re-creating a sudden storm.

It might have been a mistake to include it though, because it leaves the follow-up tracks sounding incredibly lackluster in comparison. Fire and Jungle Bizness, while having some energy to them (you just can’t deny them riddims), aren’t nearly as interesting as the tracks that came in the first half of Experience. They sound more like tag-ons than killer tracks to finish an album off strong.

No matter. Experience does finish strong in spite of this with Death Of The Prodigy Dancers. You’d think a live track would sound completely out of place here, yet it’s a perfect capper. The Prodigy were always at their best performing live, and this track is as much meant for live gigs as anything. A complete acid thrash-fest, it was simply designed to put dancers Leeroy and Keith through their paces for the audience to witness. As Maxim’s MCing encourages them on while super-charging the crowd, you can only imagine what dazzling footwork Leeroy was displaying or what manic theatrics Keith was parading. And with your imagination doing the work, Death Of The Prodigy Dancers easily gets you pumped even if the sound quality isn’t as sharp as all the other tracks. (2013 UPDATE EDIT: imagination no longer required, here's some actual footage!)

And that’s why, even if The Prodigy aren’t as relevant in today’s scene, they can still hook in new fans with ease when given the chance. Howlett may have gone on from Experience to become a better songwriter but there’s still an exuberant innocence on display here. The energy was overflowing at this early stage, and its infectiousness has become timeless. “Check it out!”and “Let it rock you!”

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust

Virgin Music Canada: 1995

Astute readers probably noticed a missing Dig Your Own Hole as I went through the 'D's. This wasn't on account of disliking The Chemical Brothers or anything - heck, I was down with their sound when they were still known as The Dust Brothers (amazing the acts one can find on early '90s 'ambient' compilations). Unfortunately for Dig, I was already sick of hearing its lead singles before the album proper hit the shelves, and even though I can find it for less than a dollar online, I'm still not inclined to snag a copy. If I can go a whole year without hearing Block Rocking Beats again, maybe then I'll finally give the album another chance.

Exit Planet Dust, however, I can play forever and not get tired of it ...most of the time. The final few tracks are a bit fillerish for my taste, but considering how hard and awesome this album hits you from the start, a drop in momentum is to be expected.

Still, the idea of big beats influenced by hip-hop breaks had already been explored by acts like Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave. The ChemBros, however, threw a new twist into the mix by adding liberal amounts of funk-rock and starry-eyed psychedelia, suggesting Summer Of Love vibes and knowing winks to music festivals in wide-open fields.

Leave Home's the opener, and right out the gate one can see why Simons and Rowlands became darlings of rock publications trying to get a handle on that 'electronica' music. Blending thrashy acid lines, funky guitar licks, and a cacophony of breakbeats and effects, it's a strong start to the album. In Dust We Trust goes one better, with a snarling hook that coils around your head as only an acid-drenched serpent could. Ah, help, I’m getting buried in hyperbole!

Those weaned on latter era Brothers Of The Chemical will undoubtedly be surprised by how rough and raw Exit Planet Dust sounds, far less attention paid to songcraft and simply laying out the beats as though catching the duo at a live gig. The whole middle section of the album plays out like such a set, especially so of the 'Beats Trilogy' following Song To The Siren. Fuck Up Beats in particular is a filthy beast of a track, and a shame it's so short. As if anticipating a necessary breather after the bedlam, Chico's Groove and One Too Many Mornings provides proper downtime.

Those two cuts could have been the perfect way to end the album on, but that would run quite short of runtime. So, we get glimpses of where The Chevy Bohemians would take their career at the end: Life Is Sweet pairs them up with an indie Brit-warbler, and Alive Alone sees the first of many Beth Orton collaborations. I guess if those are the sort of songs you prefer these Brothers to work out, that's your prerogative. Myself, I'm gonna go back to those fucked up big beats! UHH!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Various - Excursions In Ambience

Caroline Records: 1993

Excursions In Ambience was put together by Caroline Record, an American label that grew in prominence during the '80s as an outlet for indie-leaning rock of the punk, new wave, and industrial persuasion. Though they occasionally released groups that dabbled in electronic music, there was nothing to suggest they'd go full-bore with the genre; except, that is, Steve Hillage was signed to the label. Thus, when he released his System 7 material, Caroline handled his distribution (as 777 due to a legal hiccup in the States). Someone must have noticed Hillage getting chummy with several 'ambient-house' acts overseas and, sensing the trend, started up this series. With acts like Suicidal Tendencies and Alien Sex Fiend more to the Caroline faithful’s tastes, I can’t see them reacting positively to such a CD. Just as well, then, the series migrated over to the new Astralwerks after the first volume (both labels are owned by EMI/Virgin/Universal/Illuminati/etc.).

Well, that was a fun bit of history. Is the music worth that backstory? You bet! Interest in ambient house/techno/dub/hardcore still had momentum in '93, and the roster reflects the eclecticism the genre was capable of.

Many of the heavy hitters of that scene are present. Obviously, System 7 shows up, care of a remix of Miracle by The Orb, though re-titled Mia (The Fisherman Mix). Weird, and so is the track, but then it's The Orb, starting on the experimental stage of their career. Less 'out there' is The Future Sound Of London’s bleep-house cut Calcium and the rare, spacey Black Hole Mix of The Higher Intelligence Agency’s Solid Motion, itself about as bleepy as you’d expect of Bobby Bird.

Still, the weird, psychedelic stuff tends to dominate this CD. Tranquility Bass’ Mya Yadana seems a mish-mash of world beat and bubbly acid-dub, but we’ll go even deeper into the acid-bubble with Tarenah from Psychedelic Reasearch Lab (an oldie side-project pair-up of John Selway and Scott Richmond). More subdued is Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia’s Obsidian, almost meditative the way it quietly adds layers of acid, percussion, and vocal samples to a gentle bell hook.

Speaking of gaias, Banco de Gaia’s on here too, with an exclusive mix of his tune Desert Wind. It’s far more upbeat than other versions, almost house really, but aside from some mint bass drops at the end, not all that memorable. And while we’re speaking of exclusives, Ultramarine provides an Upbeat Mix (yes, that’s the name) of its own for Saratoga. Kinda hard to pin this one down though, as there’s acid, funky licks... it’s almost deep house, of that early ‘90s European style. Y’know, almost Balearic. And if we’re to end off on a Balearic vibe, what perfect way than Sub Sub’s Past?

If the point hasn’t been made clear enough, Excursions In Ambience is a gem of a little compilation, providing ample variety while maintaining its theme. These may not all be classics on here, but they deserve the attention of your ears.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Various - Evolution Of New Sounds

Large Records: 2004

Large Records is a house label based out of Chicago. Welp, you know right there this compilation’s gonna be class. It’s also been in operation since the mid-‘90s, when they lured in talent such as Kerri Chandler, DJ Sneak, Roy Davis Jr., and 95 South, some of whom still release occasional singles through Large. In fact, several prominent house producers have singles on this label, though Large doesn’t seem to have cultivated many exclusive artists. For a while during the ‘00s, Jeff Craven - Large’s director - compiled a clutch of releases for CD, with such titles as Rhythm Lounge and Electro Jazz. Oh yeah, we’re getting deep into the deep house vibes with this label.

Evolution Of New Sounds has a little more in mind than your standard ‘deeper-than-thou’ house music. Maybe it was due to the electro revival being in full swing when this came out, but there is a futuristic bent to some of these tracks. Shame the concept never went anywhere, this being the only entry Large released while Rhythm Lounge got a whole four volumes. I guess the label figured it wiser to pursue DJ mixes instead with their Get Large series.

Anyhow, this CD features many of Large’s regulars. Kerri Chandler’s here! Jay-J’s here! Roy Davis, Jr.’s here, twice! Recent signee Glenn Underground’s here! Home-grown Solar House is here! Peter Hecher, who never released anything on Large beyond Evolution Of New Sounds, is here, twice! A couple one-offs from Natural Rhythm and Pete Moss round out the rest, so a solid roster. On here!

For those fearing this will be too ‘electro-y’ for your deep house palette, fear not as things are kept mostly on an boogie-dub flavor. Jay-J and Macari’s Hold Onto You bumps wonderfully, while Hecher’s Funkdafied blends up-front production sounds with vintage funky house vibes. Elsewhere, Roy Davis, Jr.’s Soul Music works in some guitar licks, Chandler’s Fix Is U features saxophone solos and spoken dialog, and Natural Rhythm’s Nu-Bionics has your trumpets and Moogs. Much of this probably sounds like your stock deep house tropes, but each producer work these elements into deep grooves with skill and finesse. D’es guys, d’ey know d’ere deep house. Spicing things up further are scattered stabs at dubbed-out broken-beat and jazz-proper, Glenn Underground, Pete Moss, and Solar House doing the leg-work on these cuts.

Unfortunately, the idea of ‘evolution’ doesn’t really stick out on many tracks, except for the second Hecher tune, Respect 2 Giorgio. As you’ve probably assumed from that title, it’s very retro-sounding, making use of classic synths and driving rhythms that make sense while cruising late-night Neo-Tokyo. There’s still a deep element to it, but compared to most of the other cuts on this CD, far more futuristic than the funk and soul in play throughout. Evolution Of New Sounds could have used a few more like this to really stand out from the pack. Instead, it’s just another solid collection of deep house.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Underworld - Everything, Everything

Junior Boy's Own: 2000

As far as some folk are concerned, Underworld’s career ended here. That’s just stupid, as the group carried on fine following Darren Emerson’s departure. True, they never generated the same kind of buzz as their ‘90s heyday, but it’s not their fault if tastes, fashions, and populist opinion change with time. Still, I can’t help but wonder if they’re enjoying the retreat from the limelight, having the freedom to explore whatever music they so choose (though it’s funny hearing some synth-pop creeping into their recent work again, considering that was where Underworld started at).

At the turn of the century though, the group was still riding their peak, and this live album is about as perfect a captured snap-shot of their star-status as one can get. Released concurrently with a DVD, the music was cobbled from various performances of a worldwide tour. The movie's awesome as well, splicing in footage of several concerts along with videos that were produced by the firm Tomato. The full show's currently up on YouTube, if you're so inclined to watch.

A number of live CDs featuring electronic acts had existed by 2000, but Underworld upped the ante on theirs, setting the bar on audio quality higher than it'd ever been before. It recreates an exquisite blend of punchy, in-your-face music, open-air resonance, and crowd ambiance, such that it's easy to feel you've got a front row spot near the stage. The beats pound with authority, Karl Hyde’s vocals are never drowned out, and the mixdown wisely raises the hollers and cheers in and out whenever an epic moment erupts from the music, yet never removes them altogether. About the only quibble one could have is that this is not a one-hundred percent live experience, with an obvious break between tracks mid-set probably done for time constraints - might it have been stage banter that we missed out there? Plus, the final track on the DVD, Moaner, is missing, but considering the title of this release, Cowgirl seems the more appropriate way to end on.

Right, the songs. This coming out shortly after Beaucoup Fish, there's obvious favoritism towards that album: King Of Snake, Jumbo, Push Upstairs, and Cups all get repped. The serpent song aside, I'm not a huge fan of these cuts, but they get a good showing here, especially the latter two coming early in the set as strong, energetic follow-ups to the soaring Kiteless. Speaking of Second Toughest In The Infants, crazycrazycrazycrazy Pearls Girl and, of course, the anthem Born Slippy NUXX also make their way into the show.

And that’s all. Yep, just a mere nine tracks on Everything, Everything. It may seem like a gyp, but most of them get a lengthy run-through, satisfying even the most jaded Underworld follower (well, maybe not so much those upset by the lack of dubthatboomonmybedboy material). In the end, this CD is as best an encapsulation of the Emerson years as you'll ever find.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Moby - Everything Is Wrong

Mute: 1995

The only Moby album you’re supposed to have, even if you aren’t much of a Moby fan. At least, that used to be the case, before Play hit the streets - even then, it took a bit for that quanti-popular album to get going (re: heard in every commercial or soundtrack ever), so Everything Is Wrong still held onto its title for a little longer. The funny thing is it’s not like Play was the first of Moby’s releases to do this - tracks off here and even his first album cropped up on various soundtracks - but it was the most ubiquitous of the bunch, thus the one that stuck in the public’s mind.

As for Everything Is Wrong, this was the one that raised his star beyond underground darling, thanks to the marketing muscle his new label Elektra provided. No longer tied to his rave roots, he could explore sonic avenues as never before! Then why does half this album sound like he had trouble letting go of those rave roots?

Feeling So Real, Bring Back My Happiness, and Everytime You Touch Me are all throwback rave anthems, which is weird to type nearly twenty years on. Truth is though, by 1995, almost all aspects of old school hardcore had been snuffed out by the march of musical progress: jungle adopted the breaks and bass, happy hardcore pilfered the piano lines and giddiness, and the riffs went to... oh, let's say gabber. But these tunes by Moby, they sound exactly as you'd expect classic rave to sound in that year had the genre kept plugging on. Fun these days, but kind of odd back then.

What really got folks' attention though, were the lush, cinematic piano-chill tracks. God Moving Over The Face Of The Water's the classic of the bunch, featured at the end of the movie Heat as Al Pacino holds the hand of a dying Robert de Niro (aw, they could'a had a bromance). Personally, Hymn's the track for me, playing to the haunting, melodic strengths many a Moby tune has carried over the years. Elsewhere, the gospel influences and pop-potential hinted in prior releases get more focus this time out with tracks like Into The Blue and Cool First Hive (a dead ringer of a precursor to Play).

So some lovely moments, but ol' Richard also shows his burgeoning musical schizophrenic behavior. I don't recall if The Prodigy made it the in-thing to do, but Moby's first forays into dance-punk fusion appear too. The two cuts, they're... um, punk, that's for sure; heck, What Love? sounds like it could have been an Atari Teenage Riot track.

With so much genre dabbling, Everything Is Wrong doesn't come off like a cohesive album. Instead, it's a snapshot of where Moby was in the mid-'90s, figuring out what to do next with his music as one chapter of it was coming to an end. Despite the lack of any narrative or flow, it's still a fascinating listen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Reprise Records: 1969

Considering I have more Neil Young releases than any other artist, it’s remarkable that it took four and a half months before encountering an album of his in my alphabetical listening. Fanboyish of me, you say, owning so much of his music? Pft, truthfully I’ve gathered perhaps a mere third of his output, as the guy’s been ridiculously prolific since the ‘60s. Still, I’m an admitted Rustie, and Young’s one of those musicians that’s hard to explain why you become a follower. For most, he’s just some guy that’ll make a song or three with a catchy hook, or some pleasant folksy harmonies, or a proper rock-out session, and that’s all. Then, without warning, something snags you, drawing you into Shakey’s world. It can be any number of his releases that does this - a man as eclectic as him has undoubtedly recorded a genre or two that you’ll fancy - but when it does, there’s no going back.

Personally, it was the album Ragged Glory, recorded with Young’s long-time back-up band Crazy Horse. This here album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the first one they did together, apparently recorded a short while after enjoying a couple jams together when the band was still known as The Rockets. I know I’m just repeating the chorus of what everyone’s said since its release in 1969, but the synergy between the two was remarkable. With barely any prep time, Young wrote a few new tunes, and they got their asses in the studio, pretty much recording the whole thing on the fly. The result is definitely raw and under-produced, which only added to the charm of it, and became a staple for not only their subsequent releases, but almost Young’s entire musical career.

The big hit off here was Cinnamon Girl, which was quite a heavy rocker for its day. Chances are you’ve heard some version of it, and if not, go listen to it, and have it forever stuck in your head. Other tunes skewed more folksy, though the titular cut’s a fun little country-rock stomp (that bassline!), while Running Dry’s forlorn and rather psychedelic (hey, ’69, man!).

Two songs truly captured what Young and the Horse were capable of: Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand, primarily extended jams, the former more southern and the latter straightforward rock. If your idea of jam music only goes so far as The Grateful Dead or Phish, you’re missing out. These guys lock into a groove and just go, the Horse providing the rhythmic backbone while Young coerces whatever wonderful sonic mess he can out of his “Old Black” ’53 Gibson Les Paul. Throw in lovely, harmonic choruses every so often, and you've got a pair of classic guitar epics for your ears.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is a solid introduction to Young and his Horse, but some of their best runs of these songs came at the live shows. Guess I’ll talk about that whenever I reach the 'L's.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Various - An Evening Of Trance: Mixed By DJ Grover

Topaz: 2000

You'd be forgiven in thinking this CD's hopelessly corny and not worth your while were you to judge it by its cover. Hell, you'd even be forgiven thinking along those lines after listening to the first track. You'd be doing yourself a disservice in thinking such thoughts though, for if you are thinking them, then you don't know anything about the label from which these tracks were gathered from. Go on, admit it, how many of you have heard of Eve Records? Maybe some of you Cult Of Schulz folks out there, but not many others I wager.

To be fair, I barely know anything about Eve Records either, and I own this CD. God bless Discogs, so here’s what I’ve gleaned from its profile there. Launched in the mid-'90s, it primarily was an outlet for Pablo Gargano's material. By the turn of the century, they'd gained enough momentum to bring in other talent, including such names as Atmos, Steve Gibbs, and yes, Markus Schulz. Eve Records even managed a few spin-off labels and has held strong to this day, though general consensus tends to favour their pre-2000 output.

Hopefully they’re not talking of the first track, Atlantis Shores by Sourmash. It sucks. Bad. Think your most inane, cliché epic trance of the late ‘90s coupled with poor production quality, and there’s your tune. Skip it, and never speak of it again.

After that, it’s pretty much the Pablo Gargano Show, as all but one other track is by him. Considering the poor opening, I wasn’t expecting much, but ol’ Pabs, he knows his trance. If you were following the genre during the late ‘90s, you were bound to have bumped into a couple of his cuts on compilations and mixes. Probably his biggest exposure came at the end of two Global Underground sets (Oakenfold’s Oslo and Digweed’s Sydney, specifically), but by and large he appeared on relatively underground releases. And I can hear why, as his sound is tough, energetic, and properly trance; essentially the kind of music that makes better sense at a warehouse rave than in a superclub.

He’s diverse too! There’s dark, brooding beasts like My Noise, acid leanings with Trance In Saigon and Niquest Limit, straight-up space-out moments like Illogical Trance and Peace & Love, and classy anthems like The Secret Spice. Shame this DJ Grover chap doesn’t appear up to the task of giving all his tunes a solid mix to stand on - may have been better to make this a regular, unmixed compilation instead.

I suppose one could complain An Evening Of Trance sells Eve Records short by making this almost all about Pablo Gargano (David Craig gets an acid trance cut in too), but the Italian native was Eve Records in those early years. There are likely more comprehensive releases of the label out there, but if you find this on the cheap, it’s a sound purchase if you have an ear for this sound.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pryda - Europa / Odyssey (Original TC Review)

Pryda Recordings: 2007

(2013 Update:
This was written back when the term 'Swedish House Mafia' was nothing but a pet name web forum users tagged to producers making electro house from the Scandinavian country, which is why Eric Prydz was considered a 'member'. Go figure Angello, Ingrosso, and Axwell would go on to use it as a proper performance name. But yes, Prydz most definitely is not a real member of the group, having stuck to his own path for much of his career. Ironically, he was predicted to be the biggest star of that clutch of producers, but his lack of memorable hits following
Pjanoo and refusal (fear?) of touring overseas left a significant gap in his career, the real SHM all too eager to take in his place.)


IN BRIEF: Equivalent of filler.

The general consensus within clubland is if you want to get into Eric Prydz, stay away from the material released under his own name (Call On Me, Proper Education), for despite such singles’ instant catchiness, they will quickly irritate after having to hear it on the radio for the three-hundred fourty-seventh time; let the commercial populace, whom fancy buying a Ministry Of Sound Annual compilation as digging deep into the underground, have their novelty dance tunes. Rather, if you really want hear what the successful Swedish House Mafia member is capable of, his aliases are where you should be directing your attention.

Although all of his work tends to retain that nu-electro tech-house feel, the material released under the Pryda banner gains the most notice, and for good reason. Tracks like Aftermath and Frankfurt are classic class, with much of the Pryda discography all equal to the highlight task. However, no success goes without its vocal detractors, and Eric has seen his fair share of them when it comes to this alias. In a nutshell, he’s been accused of never quite reaching to the higher pastures his music hints him capable of, often settling for the tried and tested formulae that’s won him over again and again. Fair complaints, and unfortunately with this new single Europa, he’s given such negative folk more ammunition.

As is often the case with Prydz, the base elements will win you right over. Along with a pleasing backing synth that gently grows in prominence when it plays, a simple looping trancey hook gets plenty of washing effects thrown on it at the peaks, which makes for a decent climax. And that’s about it, really. Everything else is sparse in sound, limp in rhythmic energy, and lacking in ingenuity. Europa’s arrangement is the kind of thing most up-and-coming producers learn in House Music 101, and were it not for Prydz’ layers of effects propping it up, this would be a very, very mediocre tune. You’d think he used John Dahlbäck’s Seal Of Adequacy and called it a day. It’s like Chinese food: satisfying upon consumption, but leaves you feeling empty shortly after.

The complete opposite is to be said with B-Side, Odyssey. For the opening minute or so, you’ll probably dismiss this as Just Another ‘Minimal’ Track, and might even wonder why Prydz, more known for peak-time tunes, would make something like this. However, as this track builds, additional rhythmic layers work a fine groove while basslines and backing synths craft a surprisingly strong production. Unlike Europa’s immediate appeal that evaporates soon after, Odyssey’s subtle sonic depth works in its favor, as the climax comes off like an anticipated reveal rather than run-of-the-mill pandering. That being said, Odyssey is still a rather simple tune as well; more satisfying than the A-Side, certainly, but rudimentary in execution nonetheless.

I’ve a feeling this single is going to garner many split opinions, none the least amongst Prydz’ fanbase. For some, he can do no wrong, and the basic ideas he presents definitely are good. However, even for a producer who’s been guilty of holding back on potential, these tracks sound as though they were made without much thought. Maybe he needed some Christmas bills quickly paid off, so he knocked these out, posted them on Beatport for purchasable download, and sat back as folks eagerly snatched up New Pryda without bothering to listen beforehand. Maybe.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Various - Euro Dance Pool, Volume 2

Sony Music Direct: 1995

One year. That's all it took for euro dance to plummet from its perch. I'm sure sales held just fine, but stagnation had set in. All the charming attributes of the genre eroded away, in its place a shallow shell of glories past. Okay, that's not quite accurate, and the only evidence I'm providing for the argument is this CD. But oh, when we're through...

First, some positives. The opening half of Euro Dance Pool, Volume 2 features a couple returning acts from the first one, namely DJ Company and The Free. Actually, scratch that as a positive – their tracks aren't nearly as good as the ones featured on the previous edition, incredibly generic compared to their original hits. That right there is the problem: all these euro groups became streamlined, homogenized. There’s no distinctiveness or personality among them anymore. On Volume One, you could definitely hear the difference between DJ Company and The Free - now they could be Taboo or Unique for all I can tell. Still, that Look Twice tune makes a good effort to stand out.

The production quality’s the main culprit amongst all these tunes though. The beats sound cheap and flat, many making use of an annoying *tckock-tckock* kick. The hooks are almost non-existent beyond bleating nonsense. And why's this stuff so bloody fast? Yeah, euro often had a quick pace, but this is almost at eurobeat speeds, or even... dear God, you're not taking notes from happy hardcore now, are you!? No, that's not it at all. The raps, they're totally different now. Ragga raps. Wait a damn minute; these are nothing but Maxx rip-offs! Fuck you, Maxx Berman.

And that’s not even the worst of it. Nearly half the tracks are covers of songs that have no business getting covered into dance music. The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo doesn't need one. Elvis doesn't need another one. Holy hell, The Sex Pistols unquestionably don't need it! Is this because N-Trance had that stupid hit with Stayin' Alive, so now every two-bit euro producer's trying to cash in?

Ironically, one of the best tunes on Volume 2 is a cover, Dance Floor Virus’ Message In A Bottle (they even released a whole album of Police covers). The tune itself is about as you’d expect of a euro update, but sweet Jesus does singer Filippo Neviani ever nail the vocals! I recall playing this to my old man, about as big a Police fan that I knew of at the time, and he was impressed by how Sting’s cadence was captured. Heck, even ol’ Gordon himself thought it was his own voice that had been sampled. It definitely was a huge selling point for this CD, one of the key tracks played out on advertisements.

But nay, the series died after this, and the regular Dance Pool one shortly afterwards here in Canada. Sony then turned to the poor man’s Chris Sheppard - MC Mario - for their commercial dance mixes here. B’ah...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Various - Euro Dance Pool, Volume 1

Sony Music Direct: 1995

Alright, enough of that noodly ambient-Age stuff. Let's get back to fun music again, specifically euro dance, circa. 1994. A major player at the time was Dance Pool, Sony's subdivision for all things club orientated. The label's reach was far indeed, often responsible for mainland Europe distribution of several key dance releases while cultivating a roster of their own, including Jam & Spoon, B.G. The Prince Of Rap, and Culture Beat.

Thus, when Sony tested the dance waters here in good ol' Canuckaland, many of their releases carried the Dance Pool stamp. May as well, since that upstart Quality and competitor BMG were cashing in on a genre of music that Sony was boss at in Europe. Get a little promotion on MuchMusic’s Electric Circus, and you’re set. The first few volumes had a mix of big euro hits, house smashes, and even hip-hop (Kriss Kross, really!?). Oh, and some oddities cropped up too, like Deep Forest's Sweet Lullaby and remixes of Céline Dion's Misled and The Philosopher Kings’ Charm. Da’ fuq’...?

Yeah, the Dance Pool series didn’t do nearly as well as Canada’s other successful ‘90s dance compilations thanks to such wonky tracklists, but a few memorable releases did find their way to store shelves. Like other euro compilations, Euro Dance Pool went out of its way in bringing over cuts lighting up clubs overseas, but were perhaps not as well known on American shores.

Though this CD was released in ’95, all the tracks were from the year prior, when, as far as I’m concerned, euro dance was at its best. The genre still had ties to the hip-house and Belgian beat it originally drew influence from (re: ripped off), so the bass often had solid shoulder-shufflin’ action while punchy riffs dominated - oh, and raps plus a bird belting out the chorus, but you already knew that. By ’94 though, the sounds of trance were creeping into the scene, which makes sense since a lot of old school trance producers would make a track or three for easy cash. As a result, spacey pad work, stuttering background synths, and galloping rhythms became de facto attributes for euro hit after euro hit. Me likes a lot, and Volume 1 has it in droves.

There’s big, obvious hits like B.G.’s Colour Of My Dreams (though given a very trancey rub), DJ Company’s Rhythm Of Love, and an ode to drunk-dialing (maybe), Lover On The Line by The Free - actually, if the video's anything to go by, it was a bad acid trip. Speaking of fun, daft euro videos, Pharao’s There Is A Star is a right hoot! Elsewhere, Jam & Spoon pop up with their cornball-rave pseudonym Tokyo Ghetto Pussy, the Abfarht team contributes with a Kim Sanders cut, and solid one-offs round out the rest (sans an annoying 2wo Third3 ‘pop’ cut). Overall, Euro Dance Pool’s a fun compilation, showcasing some of the best the genre had to offer.

And it dove right off a cliff after...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Robert Slap - The Eternal OM

Valley Of The Sun: 1986/1991/2010

Speaking of obscure tape-ambient from the ‘80s, here’s a doozy of such an example. Or maybe not. Originally released in 1986, Robert Slap’s The Eternal OM has also seen a couple CD releases over the years, most recently in 2010. For the cover image though, I’m going with the 1991 edition because… I dunno, looks more charming than a seabird flying off to the sun setting below an ocean horizon. Abstraction, man!

Back to Slap, he was a prolific producer on one of the earliest New Age ambient labels to ever emerge, Valley Of The Sun - they even beat out Hearts Of Space by a few years, though couldn’t quite gather a roster as significant as that label. Valley Of The Sun’s primary focus was on the meditative aspects of this sort of music, and as such released several tapes with ‘crystal’, ‘astral’ , and ‘light’ in their titles. And, as a lot of this music came out on tapes, it’s become incredibly hard to find it anymore, especially so with many long out of print. This particular release, however, endured, becoming something of a staple for spiritual meditative sessions, and all that rot.

So what's on The Eternal OM that's earned itself 'classic' status? Four things: a single droning pad, and, as far as I can determine, overdubs of about three different synthesized chants of “Om”. For an hour. Yes, that's it.

Look, this isn't actually an album of music. It's meant to be played in the background while deep in meditation or relaxing during massage therapy or engaged in hot tantra sex. Or, I dunno, whatever activity you might need noodly Oms for. The chants aren't designed to move you or haunt you or invoke an emotional response – they're functional tools. The Eternal OM is about as perfect an example of what ambient drone is designed to do.

It's pretty easy to snigger at the idea of an hour-long track of overdubbed Oms, but after dropping the cynicism and going with the chakra flow, I was surprised by how easy it was to get lulled into a zone. Part of it is the way Slap plays the chants, almost rhythmic in how they emerge and ebb - quite relaxing, if you don't pay much attention to it. Amusingly, Valley Of The Sun realized the prayer's effectiveness, printing a small 'warning' on the original cassette copies that one should not play The Eternal OM while operating a moving automobile. Say, how is it three in the morning already anyway?

Should you be so curious to seek out this release of Oms upon Oms, I need to point out that, technically, Robert Slap only has a producer's credit for it. According to the always awesome Discogs, there is no Artist associated with The Eternal OM. Makes sense, as since this really isn't a composition of music, there's no artistry involved. Or I dunno, maybe there is, in kind of a post-zen non-music sort of way. Abstraction, man!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Nimanty - Etanee

Venonza Records: 2008

*sigh* Here we go again.

I suppose this makes better sense than one-sided vinyls – talk about scamming record collectors with that option – but one-song releases are still annoying to deal with. It's not even like Nimanty couldn't have made this a multi-track EP, as he released other similar digi-singles at the time. Was it so important having individual images tagged to these MP3s? It just don't make none of the sense in this day in age.

If I'm bitching so much, why did I even pick this up then? Research, primarily. As one of those Twitter links to the right suggests, I've been gathering all sorts of music for a guide, and sometimes good examples of certain genres come in these single-song releases. Normally it's some re-issue of old, obscure, tape-only ambient from the '80s, but occasionally something like this crops up too. I prefer avoiding them though, as it wonks up my personal library. Still, this Etanee was too good to pass up. Heck, I even paid for the bloody thing, and I fucking hate the very concept of paying for MP3s. But... I didn’t buy a digi-file that's uninsurable; no no, it's, um, donating to Discogs, for their incredible service. Yeah, that's it! And if the artist gets something beneficial in return, all the more better for it.

So who is Nimanty, and what’s so special about this one particular tune of his? Roelf Staal’s the man behind the project, composing space ambient much in the vein of the label Hearts Of Space, a juggernaut operating since the ‘80s in providing music to watch the stars hover by. You know, the sort of calm, soothing music they’ll play at the planetarium as you bear witness to the cosmos in all its splendour. The universe is grand and majestic, not cold and desolate as those dark ambient guys will have you believe. In that sense, space ambient has a tendency to skew towards the New Age side of things, and though some will claim the difference is negligible, believe me it exists.

Etanee in particular is a good example of where that divide occurs. It has your sweeping, spacious pad work as you’d expect, but there’s more musicality going on here, a greater emphasis on not only creating atmosphere, but painting a specific picture. Ambient, at least in its purest sense, is ambiguous in presentation, the listener often allowed to discover their own interpretation of the music playing (though the composer will still offer a guiding hand). Etanee takes the time to play a little piano, glitch up the pads, and even provide curious vocalizations. It’s like a Kitaro composition, quite pleasant really when it comes to New Age-ambient hybrids.

Overall, this is a nice little tune (only ten minutes long), but my God could it use musical context surrounding it. C’mon, Nimanty, how about a proper LP, eh?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Deep Forest - Essence Of The Forest

Sony Music: 2003

Several folks enjoyed Deep Forest's take on world beat when they first emerged, but as the duo edged further from Western beats and deeper into local traditions, general interest in their output significantly dwindled. Add me to that group, and I was one of the few out there that actually enjoyed Boheme, scattershot faults and all. When Comparsa came out though, it came off a hodgepodge of any culture Mouquet and Sanchez were influenced by on their last tour, yet sounding like nothing at all. Granted, I didn't give it more than a cursory listen, as my ears had drifted away from the pop side of world beat, finding fresher sounds from Banco de Gaia and the like. I hadn't paid attention to a Deep Forest production since that lacklustre impression.

Then Essence Of The Forest came out. Hm, a greatest hits collection sounds interesting, and there's even updated remixes of all the selected tunes from Deep Forest. Wow, they'd released two albums since Comparsa? I guess it wouldn't hurt to pick this up. It'd be interesting to hear what they'd been up to, and maybe I'd been too hard on Comparsa. After all, this collection features the best cuts from their albums, right? Eh, I'm not sure.

Obviously Sweet Lullaby's the first track, and the lead single off Boheme - Marta's Song - goes second. After that though, the music culled from the first two albums turns weird. Deep Forest gets two more tracks updated, Desert Walk and Night Bird. The former, I can see, as it was a pleasant downtempo tune, but I found White Whisper, Savana Dance, and the titular cut more memorable than Night Bird. And to be blunt, most of the selections chosen from Boheme were tunes I've never liked. The dark, mysterious gypsy songs Gathering, Bohemian Ballet, and Cafe Europa, those were ace! Instead, we get Lament and Freedom Cry because... why? They're different from those other tunes? Meh, oh well, at least Twosome's on here.

What of the other tracks then? Honestly, given the selections from the first two, I've no idea whether they're the cream of the crop off their respective albums. What I can say is those not familiar with Music Detected will be stunned at the change of sound, with a major focus on R&B, funk, and soul. Getting blunty with it again, it's a total clash with the world beat throughout Essence Of The Forest, as all the tracks are mixed among each other. Some of it's good, for sure, and neat to hear Deep Forest stretching out, but incredibly out of place sitting beside African pygmies and Bulgarian gypsies (not to mention the mish-mash of cultures from Comparsa).

I wouldn’t bother with Essence Of The Forest if you’re looking for more Sweet Lullabys (although you do get two versions on here!). It’s a better pick-up if you’re only curious of their output since their debut without actually listening to the other albums.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

BT - ESCM

Reprise Records: 1997

The inlay of BT’s sophomore album ESCM has the following printed out: “This recording is best suited to a nice pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones.” Really? They’re good cans, but c’mon, those were the Dre Beats of the day - more of a fashion statement, especially within the DJ world. My Sennheiser HD650s are leaps and bounds better than the Sony model. Okay, that model didn’t hit the streets for half a decade after this CD came out, but what of the Sennheiser HD580s? They’d been around since ’93, and were considered the audiophile standard for headphones in the mid-hundreds price range. And BT’s saying even those won’t do with his album? Fuck you, Rick Berman.

Whoops, sorry. I’ve had Plinkett-isms stuck in my head lately. Still, a memorable bit from those Star Wars reviews at RedLetterMedia was producer Rick “Berman” going on about how CG technology allowed Lucas to create movies that are “so dense, [with] so much going on all the time.” Gee, sounds like someone else abusing technological capabilities, don’t it.

But hey, credit due where it’s deserved. Mr. Transeau created many sound effects himself, and as we’re dealing with ‘90s BT, the results aren’t as superfluous as his later efforts would end up. Case in point: Orbitus Teranium, a bare-bone bit of breakbeat supplemented with stutter and glitch effects at various points. In some ways, it’s nothing but a showcase of this technology, but as it capably serves the rhythmic momentum, it works. Most of the effects BT uses throughout ESCM are in this vein, and I’ve no problem with it, so long as the music it’s supporting can stand on its own. And that’s where ol’ Brian sometimes fumbles.

BT displays many influences and inspirations, but his songwriting can’t keep up. Opener Firewater is a perfect example, for the most part a solid “I can Enigma too” slice of world beat. Yet, at the back end of the track, BT suddenly chirps in with singing of his own, accompanied by folksy acoustic guitar strums and… wait, is this the same song? And… it’s already over. What was the point of that? Other instances crop up that are nothing but doodly bits of orchestral swells or piano tinkering because, hey, BT can play such music, but doesn’t know how to write a regular song around them. Then there’s Solar Plexus, the ‘rocktronica’ track even the most ardent BT fan scratches their head over. It’s nothing more than Mr. Transeau going “I can Trent Reznor too”, but what would Nine Inch Nails fans say about it? “Fuck you, Rick Transeau.”

Still, enjoyment outweighs the frustration. Flaming June’s a bona-fide classic, Jan Johnston’s contributions are pleasant enough, and early BT-Breaks are skill, three cuts of which we get. ESCM is considered a flawed gem, and perhaps BT realized this, using a mock-up of the 2001 Monolith for cover art. Or maybe he couldn’t clear the rights to the original as an image, resorting to a phonylith instead.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Petar Dundov - Escapements

Music Man Records: 2008

Why's this so difficult? Petar Dundov makes trance. Not epic, anthem, fluffy, unicorn, euro cheddar trance; just simple, old school trance. Why do so many folks deny it? Are they afraid his tunes will suddenly turn bad if they're tagged to a genre of music that's been horribly raped in the mud? What an idiotic assumption, but it sure seems like it the way Dundov's trance will get called anything but trance. Melodic techno, hypnotic minimal... just not trance. God, it's like saying Kerri Chandler doesn't make house music because David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia have sullied that genre’s legacy. There's room for both, commercial and classic, so why not take trance back to its roots?

Then again, maybe the world of electronic music wasn't ready for a return of classic trance in 2008. And it's not like Dundov intended to make a statement of some kind with this album. He cites the same influences that many original trance producers did – classical synth composers of the seventies – and by stripping his production of so much modern excess and fashionable fluff, the results are simple and hypnotic. Certainly it helps that many of the sounds he uses have a vintage tone to them, as though plucked from keyboards of yesteryear. It's techno without the maximal aggression or minimal wank, music that could easily rub shoulders with other tracks on an old Harthouse compilation; y'know, trance.

Okay, okay, Escapements isn't all trance; in fact only a few tracks could be labeled as such. For the most part, this is a techno album that often dips into space synth and the like. She In Purple is a dead ringer for ‘80s stylin’ cool electro-groove, while Anja’s Theme and Kanon harkens back to the minimalist experimentation many ‘70s keyboard wibblers indulged in. Meanwhile, influences from Detroit crop up on Rain, Oasis, and Waterfall, working a slow, grooving build to a futuristic motif. They are arranged much in the vein of classic Laurent Garnier, though rather subdued in comparison.

Distant Shores and Sparkling Stars though... they’re classic trance through and through. Cascading synth washes, hypnotic loops, subtle arps, stuttered hooks, and rhythms just groovy enough to hook you into a TAZ as it plays through. Mark Reeder would approve.

I guess the pertinent question is, if Escapements sounds like something that could have been produced in the early ‘90s, is there any reason to get this in the here and now? Well, if you fancy that vintage vibe, it’s a no-brainer. As Dundov’s production has a nice, crisp modern sheen to it, nothing sounds dated, and hypnotic, melodic techno (trance!) always had a futuristic vibe going for it. If you’re curious why old-old schoolers are always going on about how trance was so much better back in the day, don’t hesitate to scope Dundov out. Even if it’s unwittingly, he’s one of the few producers out there that can take the name back to credibility.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Madonna - Erotica

Sire: 1992

Madonna is Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, a very important person in the world of pop. She was among a handful of artists of the ‘80s instrumental in bringing dance music back to the mainstream, thanks in large part to several memorable and provocative videos MTV gleefully had in rotation. Of course, it was dressed up as synth-pop and such, but club culture knew it was just disco in new clothing. Ol’ Madge knew it too, as her career often flirts with the best of contemporary beats for mainstream consumption. At the turn of the ‘90s, however, many pop stars of the previous decade were floundering, unable to keep pace with what folks wanted. Even Madonna was coming off dated, but unlike her peers, she held a savvy for the music business few could compete with. Re-invention was called for, but into what? The answer was two-fold: erotic cinema and underground clubs.

S&M culture was, um, penetrating the mainstream consciousness, hit movies and music like Basic Instinct and Enigma’s Sadeness impossible to ignore. Ms. Ciccone took notice and re-imagined her sex appeal, going from pop-punk pixie with a dash of virgin-whore to full-on sex vamp dominatrix. The general audience wasn’t quite ready for that, outcries of her scandalous behavior turning folks away from her latest efforts (even more so). For Madonna, however, it was still a success, in that if her art couldn’t remain in the mainstream, at least her name did, which was more than could be said for her ‘80s peers.

Meanwhile, her musical career held strong with those that never turned their back on her. By diving deep into the realm of chugging house and New Jack Swing, Madonna found a comfortable home with a new breed of club culture revolving around alternate lifestyles and fetish wear. Shep Pettiborne, a DJ and remixer of several similar dance-pop acts, was tasked with giving Ms. Ciccone the beats needed for maximum eroticism while still keeping one foot close to the edge of the mainstream should anyone curious about descending into those S&M basements choose to do so. Erotica, Deeper And Deeper, Fever, Bye Bye Baby, and Thief Of Hearts are about as solid of tunes as you can expect with the players involved. This whole album is remarkably consistent, seldom straying from its sexy, provocative tone. You of course have to include a couple ballads, but even tracks like Rain, Bad Girl, and In This Life are fine offerings.

Erotica won’t receive plaudits from purists (does anything of hers?), but it’s hard to deny the album succeeds in providing strong clubs rhythms with smart, seductive vocals. If you need an example of how miserably this can fail, just look at any of Madonna’s recent output. It worked here though, likely because Ms. Ciccone didn’t have her eyes squarely set on mainstream acceptance. By willingly diving into the warm latex embrace of this underground world, she came out with one of the best albums of her career.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Various - Erol Alkan Presents: One Louder

Muzik Magazine: 2003

I'm surprised Erol Alkan's career never blew up beyond underground darling. Of course, his refusal to hop on the production wagon until recently probably hurt, but ol’ Erol’s brand of bangers and mash-ups was popular with both the discerning punter and slop-drunk clubber, sets finding that sweet spot of commercial familiarity and underground obscurity. Still, what started as an exercise in cleverness quickly descended into bad gimmickry, and as one of the driving forces of the mash-up scene, Mr. Alkan unfortunately got tied at the hip with it.

It was easy to fall sway to that scene though, as it presented something quite refreshing in that oh-so fun year of 2003. DJ mixes were, for the most part, tediously predictable, so it blindsided many when jocks started raiding glories of dancefloors past, rinsing them out almost seamlessly with music of the present. Okay, the '80s revival was in full swing at that point too, so finding the links wasn't difficult; however, to hear classics not as retro radio fodder, but as vital components of contemporary nights out was magnificent.

Getting back to Mr. Alkan, One Louder isn't his official first commercial DJ mix (that honor going to A Bugged Out Mix). Rather, it was a freebie given away with Muzik Magazine, who were all up on his jock back then. One Louder itself was a short-lived club night that Alkan attended, pushing this particular style of genre mash-up before it ever got popular. In lieu winning their Breakout Artist Award that year, Muzik finally convinced him to release a mix CD, which he decided to dedicate to that club night.

Free magazine CDs are often hit or miss, typically hitting the “eh, 'tis fine” mark. Not this time out. One Louder is exceptionally good, almost too good for a freebie. It has a solid start with the always welcome disco punk classic Make It Happen from Playgroup, but not three tracks in we're treated to Duran Duran's Girls On Film of all things. Duran Duran? In 2003!? You bet, care of the Night Version that made the tune club friendly back in the ‘80s, in no way sounding out of place on this mix. And the choice material keeps coming fast and furious.

Codec & Flexor show a little club swagger with Crazy Girls. Goldfrapp’s Train and Benassi’s Satisfaction get mashed together. Goldrun’s remix of Grand Popo Football Club’s Men Are Not Nice Guys will get your gurn on. A string of thrashy techno calls back those crazy times when guys like Vitalic were thrilling and new. And, if all that wasn’t enough bedlam, Alkan closes out with a freakbeat punk cover of Harder Better Faster Stronger, an utterly mental and ace way to end a set on.

Despite One Louder being an old free CD, it’s still worth dropping down some cash if you happen upon it in a used store. It’s about as much club-trash fun you can have in a mere hour.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

BMG Music Canada: 1993

I’ve made no secret of my love of the Shaolin crew. It was the Wu that opened my ears proper-like to the possibilities of hip-hop ingenuity, but even before then I had a level of respect for the odd tune I heard from the group. It took a while to catch on though, in no small part because my teenage years were spent on the West Coast. True, the Canadian West Coast, but G-Funk ruled my peers’ Discmans, thus I seldom gave anything East Coast notice. Oh, those wacky years when regional distances mattered.

So I entered the temple that RZA built and began digesting whatever Wu material I could. Problem was I came a tad late, thus my early Wu consumption was almost all post-Forever material. And while there were still a few solid releases under the Wu flag at the turn of the century, it paled compared to the pre-Forever era. It was a while before I bothered checking it out though, largely the fault of a CD called The RZA Hits, essentially a collection of the best cuts from those early albums. “Why should I get Enter The 36 Chambers,” I thought, “when half the album’s already on The RZA Hits?” Man, bring out the Australian boot, ‘cause I deserve an extra punishing kick for that one.

Fact is every cut off here could have ended up on The RZA Hits. That’s how bloody good this album is. Rowdy bangers (Bring Da Ruckus, Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit), posse anthems (Protect Ya Neck, Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’, Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber), introspective moments (C.R.E.A.M., Can It Be All So Simple Then) or individual showcases (Method Man, Clan In Da Front, Shame On A Nigga… kind of), this album’s got everything one can hope out of a hip-hop release. But hey, you should already know that. Even if you haven’t heard any of these cuts (!!), you’ve at least heard about its classic status within the hip-hop canon. Two decades on, it hasn’t lost its shine.

Or rather, none of the raw, unvarnished grit has worn away. As the Wu were still very much of the street at this point, there’s no fine studio polish or immaculate production here. The RZA made do with what he had and got ridiculous mileage out of the bare-bones drum kits and samplers. It of course helps to have eight outstanding MCs (Masta Killa’s only here for one verse) on hand spitting fire throughout. Enter The Wu-Tang was already an incredibly unique and distinctive sounding record in ’93, thus it’s more remarkable each MC is just as unique and distinctive as well. I’ll deal with them when I come to their solo albums though. In the meanwhile, you get on Enter The Wu-Tang, as it’s one of about ten rap albums you’re supposed to have even if you’re not much of a fan of hip-hop.

(As an aside, this is also my one-hundredth review since writing them again. Celebrating in style!)

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