Sunday, March 31, 2013

Samim - Flow (Original TC Review)

Get Physical Music: 2007

(2013 Update:
What happened to this guy? Samim seemed poised to take the deep-minimal-tech-doff scene by storm after the success of
Heater, but when this album dropped, it barely got any notice, and he hasn't released anything since. It's almost as though he made a deal with the devil, in that he could have his super-mega hit that'd be featured on countless Ibiza Classic Anthems discs, but the cost would be he could never make music ever again. Or maybe he's just sitting fat on royalties.)


IN BRIEF: Not what the mainstream will expect.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Really, who could have even planned something like it? Not even the most insidious Swedish pop producer would have been able to concoct a track that reached across so many cultural barriers. Yet it did, and whether you loved it, loathed it, or initially loved it only to loathe it after the fourth time you heard it in a single night, it became a sensation and firmly cemented Mr. Winiger into dance music history. And the name of the track? House Nation.

Alright, alright. It’s Heater, but do I really need to talk about it here? Samim’s surprise hit has been debated and psychoanalyzed to death, and there’s little more to add to the topic at this point. If you haven’t heard it in the club, from YouTube, at a wedding, during sports intermissions, or on a pasta commercial by now, you will soon enough, at which point you’ll form your own opinion of it and render any further discussion moot.

Besides, this and The Lick (more on which later) are kind of odd-men out on this here album. For the most part, Mr. Winiger are serious house producer. He make serious house music for serious hip Berlin-based label Get Physical. He are serious about his seriousness. Heh, seriously. If you come into Flow figuring it’s going to be a collection of fun folkish dance tunes, you’ll come away just as disappointed as those who picked up The Grid’s Evolver looking for more banjos.

Admittedly though, it takes a degree of daftness on his part to make the trend-house brigade accept the accordion as a respectable instrument. It may merely be a sample of an old Columbian tune, but it was still genius on Samim’s part to resurrect it. The man’s got talent and it’s felt throughout Flow, even if he mostly restricts himself to a minimal style.

What he concocts within those narrow genre margins is quite nice for the ears. He constantly keeps his rhythms shifting with simmering funk while warm bass bobbles about. Of course, this being minimal, it’s all unobtrusive and given plenty of space for effects to tinker between the gaps. Tech influences mix up with natural sounds, creating sonic textures that tickle pleasantly at the psyche. Forcedfeedback is especially enticing at this, coming off like a night at some German techno club with an Indian jungle lurking just outside the entrance. Ultimately, Flow is a great headphone album.

However, beyond music for lounging about in the evening, it doesn’t offer much more. Springbreak has some deep sexy vibes going for it, but it can’t compare to the sweatbox hedonism of its New York counterparts it obviously draws influence from. Intro is a fine enough offering of sun-kissed organic chill, but doesn’t stir the soul in any significant way. Zleep does the bog-standard murky monotone Berlin techno thing (with all the requisite hi-hat effects), but much of the stuff from Minus is done more effectively. And whereas tracks like Blackdeath and Ukaka are mildly funky, a typical Olav Basoski cut out-funks them within a minute. Mind, it’s not like Samim is trying to outdo them by any stretch but his minimal aesthetic is too restrained to create truly thrilling dance music. For instance, on one of the few instances of him letting wildly loose - Setupone - the potential for something exhilarating comes up short; the Latin-infused builds are wonderful, but the track seems timid to ratchet the energy higher afterwards, relegating the cut to the ‘really good’ camps rather than the ‘wicked awesome’ ones. This typical restraint makes the inclusion of a track like Heater all the more welcome, as it offers Flow some much needed light-heartedness. However, it’s final cut The Lick that’ll have you pulling a full double-take, wondering if this is even the same album. Whereas Heater may encourage hoe-downs, The Lick will encourage you to get down on a ho; all the playa’ stylee of modern r’n’b, yet delivered with enough self-awareness to let you in on the joke. Samim could have used more moments like this to liven up his debut.

However, Flow is mostly an album that has the minimal faithful in mind and remains quite easy-breezy in that regard. If you disliked Heater but mostly enjoy minimal, you’ll dig this album. If you loved Heater but can’t stand minimal, you’d be better off with a Ministry Of Sound compilation the track’s been featured on (there’s been about a dozen of them already). The rest who meet somewhere in the middle will find Flow a nice sit-at-home disc.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Zenith - Flowers Of Intelligence

The Music Cartel: 1999

It almost seems like an accident. After a few years making acid techno and trance under various guises for various labels, Federico Franchi brought his Zenith moniker over to IST Records, they of the kick-ass mushroom logo. A sub-label of American hardcore outlet Industrial Strength Records, it made sense for Mr. Franchi to follow suit in what he offered them. The ensuing EP, titled The Flowers Of Intelligence, suddenly became an instant classic within hardcore circles, and the vinyl it was pressed upon a highly sought after piece of hardware for any discerning IST follower and bosh-head. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is due to the melodies employed within the tracks, spritely counterpoints to the abrasive acid and thudding kicks in a genre that shuns any and all moments of melancholy. Okay, it’s essentially the same sort of thing that Aphex Twin was doing when he started on his ‘drill’n’bass’ style, but for the hardcore scene, Zenith’s music was fresh and unique.

Fair enough, but this curious tale doesn’t end with a much-beloved piece of rare-ish vinyl. A few years after that EP’s release, demand was high enough to warrant a proper album release. But IST don’t do CDs, mang. Enter The Music Cartel, a label more known for trippy, stoner rock and metal than anything electronic orientated. They did dabble in industrial music though, and Zenith’s work suggested an influence from that scene’s noisy, coarse aesthetics. Good enough for a proper release on their label, so the Flowers Of Intelligence was brought on over, with various other unreleased tracks in Mr. Franchi's backlog rounding things out to proper long-player length.

The result we have is an interesting mix of gabber beats, touching melody, and rough mastering. It's hard to tell whether the low-fi quality of this music was intentional or not; again, maybe a happy accident. Part of the appeal in the industrial aesthetic is how it takes conventional music and warps it into a parody of itself. Enjoy thundering 909s? Now they're diluted to such a point you feel their intent, but not their power. Haunting winds and mournful synths are abstracted such that they turn into something mysterious and puzzling. It's these attributes that gives Flowers Of Intelligence a degree of class you'd never find in regular hardcore circles, and wound up getting Zenith noticed by the IDM crowds. Say, he makes some interesting stuff, kinda in a retro-Warp sort of way. What else has he made- oh my God! What’s this hardstyle nonsense?

Flowers Of Intelligence isn’t likely to blow anyone away who’s digested the entire works of Richard D. James, as Zenith’s song craft primarily relies on extended loops fed through effects. They are catchy loops though, especially so if you enjoy crunchy acid or trancey hooks. Hell, the tunes are worth a look-see just to find out why they were so highly sought after back in the day. It’s definitely a cut above your typical hardcore schlock.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Khooman - Is A Flexible Liquid (Original TC Review)

Ajana Records: 2007

(2013 Update:
I had a tough time with this one, as I didn't much care for the music; however, because I received it as a promo package at a time when TC wasn't getting many, I didn't want to go into full snark mode. Don't bite the hand that feeds you, right? The result is probably one of the most 'political' reviews I ever wrote.

Turns out Khooman's still producing, self-releasing dark psy and the like on his own Darkaplugga label. Huh, I think I actually prefer the music on this album over that. Stay chill, man.)



IN BRIEF: Flexible indeed.

Psychedelic chill music seems to be one of those funny genres producers either get or don’t. When on form, they can create music that tickles the mind, moves the heart, and warms the soul. However, those who miss the mark often do so horribly, with compositions that are crummy, cliché, hackneyed, empty, and poo. There’s little middle-ground, so I am surprised when I do come across such a release.

Mr. Khooman (or Mr. Edward Trunov to the Russian government) falls into this unwonted realm of adequacy. During its playing time, Is A Flexible Liquid rarely moved me in a way some of the greats of trippy downbeat electronics has. On the other hand, it at no point made me roll my eyes in contempt, or other reflexive actions usually reserved for scouse house. It’s as though Khooman has tapped into a spring of perfunctory competence with his music. A welcome sign of restraint in never overreaching his apparent capabilities is present, but at the same time the music on hand remains moderately quaint.

Wait, is this right...?

See, right this moment, I’m listening to track number two - titled Helpless - and it’s taken a bunch of what I just typed up there and made me reconsider. Interesting percussion, nifty sounds, alluring atmosphere - it’s a nice little slice of psy chill. Did I really come away from first impressions with an overall feeling of ‘meh’?

And much of this album goes in this manner. Perspectives of it flip-flop more-so than politicians clinging to power. The follow-up track to Helpless - Below The River Flows - is a great example of this, and within the opening minute no less! Half the sounds Khooman uses aren’t terribly good, coming off a bit amateurish in production. Yet right beside them are lovely synth sweeps and fine effects. Just as soon as I’m about to write the track off, I’m caught up in it again. Back and forth, back and forth, this track goes, and I’m at a loss which way my overall impression of it is left at. This is why Khooman seems to be so effective at making middle-of-the-road music. There’s a kind of tug-o-war between your opinions of ‘yes!’ and ‘meh...’ A New View and It's Only Dust On The Road are quite indicative of this too.

Still, he does hit the positive more often than the negative in the production department. The only trouble here is many of his ideas tend to follow long-beaten paths tread by psy chill artists. Of course, it’d be silly to expect a revolutionary groundbreaking masterpiece in a debut album but the fact remains much of this may seem overly familiar.

Does this mean you should ignore this album altogether then? Nah, of course not. There are some good tracks to check out. The aforementioned Helpless, as well as the hypnotizing Shaman Desert, are fine examples of moody somber psy chill. The highlight, though, is Let Me Out. Here Khooman hits all the right buttons, mixing up groovy dubbed-out rhythms, synthy sounds, and exotic atmospherics into a perfect blend of downbeat music. It’s like Banco de Gaia meets Audio Science (yes, I know Audio Science are a relatively obscure reference; just trust me on this).

All in all, Khooman’s debut should satisfy fans of psy chill. While not brilliant, nor is it bad. If anything, the title of his album is quite apt, as you’ll undoubtedly find your opinions of it flexing this way and that. Is A Flexible Liquid may not be an essential pick-up for your psy chill needs but it is a safe one.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Vitalic - Flashmob (2013 Update)

PIAS America: 2009

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

I take it back. After hearing the lead single for Vitalic's new album, Rave Age, the doubts crept in. It had all the hallmarks of pandering to dumb-fuck festival EDM goers, though with just enough catchy Vitalicness to barely give it a pass. Still, I sure as hell didn't want to hear what the full album might sound like if he was going in that direction. No, maybe it would have been better to do things proper-Leftfield-like and called it quits after two albums, go out with a legacy held intact and all that rot.

Does that mean Rave Age truly is utterly dire? Hell if I know, I haven't even heard samples from it yet. I'm afraid to. Afraid the Vitalic that blew my mind way back with the Poney EP is long gone. Afraid of the musical compromises required to appeal to the lowest common denominator to get noticed by the new breed of party revelers. Afraid that my cynicism has been all for naught, that I might actually like the damned thing and I’ll be forced to eat crow once more (shit’s nasty, especially with a side of foot in your mouth). Yes, I’d rather remain in blissful ignorance and enjoy the music I have of Mr. Vitallica (besides, I can wager a guess of how it’ll sound, given the general apathy towards Rave Age since its release).

To be fair, ol’ Pascal’s music’s never been the most subtle. It was a rediscovery of rave music’s blunt aggressiveness that helped him stand tall above all the electroclash sleaze-mongers. And even when maximalists like Justice and Boys Noize caught up to him, he still etched out a mark for himself with Flashmob, suggesting a developing maturity in his sound that could have kept him a class act while his peers dumbed down the formula for ever-more insta-gratification generic results.

It’s a funny story, the whole maximalist movement: Ed Banger Records, Digitalizm, Mylo, and the lot. It got plenty of press and fanfare, but couldn’t quite sustain itself in the upper echelons of commercial dance. It was just too aggressive for the mainstream, lacking those identifiable hooks that worm into ears and persist with insidious offspring wrapped around your cochlea; nay, just ballz-to-the-wallz noise and anthems. Well, gee, sound like something else that caught on in the last few years? Yet at a time when folks should namedrop these obvious influences, most of the acts that brought it to the fore are barely mentioned anymore, considered something of a trendy, hipster, blog-house thing of half-a-decade prior. Except for Boys Noize. He kept his name out there.

If you’re wondering whether Flashmob has held up, I say most definitely, but only because those making this sort of music - Vitalic included, apparently - have taken a step back from its potential. I never thought I’d say this about maximalist techno, but ol’ Pascal’s sophomore effort is bloody mature and clever compared to what passes for such music these days.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Nine Inch Nails - Fixed

TVT Records: 1992

With the release of Pretty Hate Machine, Trent Reznor made his Nine Inch Nails project an overnight success story. In adding more punk angst, it dragged the industrial scene out of quirky obscurity where only noise terrorists and silly jack-booted Belgians and Candadians existed, and back into the radar of rock enthusiasts. Sensing the momentum, the ensuing NIN tour utilized far more thrash, which further inspired Reznor in the studio while making the Broken EP, abandoned most of their debut’s obvious electronic influence altogether. Or maybe he was just really, really, really pissed off by TVT Records’ control over his work. Anyhow, Broken was a success as well, but the band never bothered with a tour for it, likely because Reznor was already in the process of making The Downward Spiral. And with that, I thank you, oh Lord Wiki.

In the meanwhile, a remix EP for Broken was released, titled Fixed. Remixes for industrial were hardly new, but as NIN leaned quite heavy into rock’s arena at this time, it probably came off confusing to all the thrash kids eager for more. Tough beans, chaps, you’re about to get a history listen here, as Coil’s in the mother-fuckin’ studio. Something of a super-group of the early-early industrial scene, having the duo lend their noisy blessing to Reznor’s project properly legitimized NIN with even the most stubborn doubters. Their mix of Gave Up chops the tune up and adds plenty of electronic noise, but the beats are almost pure rave (Belgian new beat!) with their clicky-clack percussion complementing.

Another industrial luminary shows up for a remix of the kick-ass Wish, J.G. Thirlwell, he of Foetus fame. He takes the thoroughly thrash elements of the tune, runs ‘em through a sample grinder, and adds more tribal rhythms. Hey, this shit is even better than the original! At nine-plus minutes, it’s like the Awesome Extended Mix, or something. (in case you couldn’t enough of that, there’s also Fist Fuck at the other end of the EP, essentially the ‘dub’ version)

The other three Fixed tracks are Reznor and bandmate Chris Vrenna tinkering with the song themselves. Their re-rub of Happiness In Slavery is more of a regular EBM take on the tune, while Throw This Away and Screaming Slave sound like experimental test-runs of what The Downward Spiral would feature in finished form. Not essential, but it does provide the EP with a little variety.

Remix EPs have a tendency to be pointless fluff, save the odd killer cut (hint: that’s Wish in this case), but Reznor wanted Fixed to stand on its own just as solidly as the Broken EP, and as a body of Nine Inch Nails music, this CD is definitely one of the stronger singles to be found. This band was only getting better as the ‘90s took form. Thank fuck I’m finally discovering this, even if I’m two decade late to the party.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

Def Jam Recordings: 2006

For the Wu-Tang Clan, the first half-decade of our current millennium was spent spinning wheels. Often, whatever momentum they’d create for themselves was followed with mediocre duds or nothing at all. Aside from Ghostface Killah, that is. He opened the ‘00s with the underground classic Supreme Clientele (considered so because the album got hardly any press at the time), and though his subsequent material never reached that lofty peak again, he remained consistent as the decade wore on.

Fishscale came out at about the time most had written the Clan off and Ghost was thought as a strong solo artist in no need of his posse anymore. All the more surprising, and welcome even, that Raekwon shows up on a number of the cuts, not to mention a proper Wu joint with 9 Milli Bros. Though the two had guest-versed repeatedly on each other’s albums, it was Rae’s Only Built For Cuban Linx that’d been regarded as the definitive Rae-Ghost showcase. Perhaps in a bid to recapture the fire that inspired that one (not to mention no one knew whether there’d ever be another Cuban Linx at this point), at least a quarter of Fishscale deals with crime stories and cocaine usage. Unlike so much other gangster rap, it’s never glamorized, yet nor is it ever villainized either. Best example of this is the second cut Kilo, where over a simple funk-beat supported by sounds of snorting and metal-on-porcelain, Ghost and Rae tell us the in-and-out of dealing on the street as it is, and nothing more.

In going back to those roots, Ghost seems inspired to revisit other things that worked on prior albums. The longtime ‘70s soul sampling is in full effect of course, mostly used in tracks like The Champ and Be Easy where Mr. Coles goes bravado on us. Elsewhere, reflective moments of childhood get another nod with Whip You Down With A Strap, where ol’ Dennis ponders whether he deserved some of the beatings his momma gave him. He also finds time for extraneous topics like going to the barber shop (in the short tune Barbershop, which has a ridiculously hard kick for such a silly tune). And the ladies? Whether telling tales of cocaine addicts (Big Girl) or how he’ll give them the chance to change for the better in Momma, Ghost keeps things smooth. Guess he realized if you’re gonna make an album that’ll appease all parties, the women need their tunes too.

When Fishscale came out, it was hailed as an instant classic under the Wu banner, and few thought it could be topped. While I agree it ranks among Ghostface’s top albums, something funny happened to the Clan after this one: they got good again. Not brilliant, mind, but many of their releases are on par with Fishscale. Ironically, Ghost’s album lost its ‘classic’ status as a result, and now is simply considered a “Top 10 ‘00 Wu Release”. Still not a bad distinction.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Irresistible Force - Fish Dances (Original TC Review)

Ninja Tune: 1999

(2013 Update:
I feel like an idiot for not realizing this at the time, but Mixmaster Morris had done a remix of Coldcut's classic
Autumn Leaves way back, which became something of a classic in itself. Well no wonder Ninja Tune invited him over to join their roster after the Force left Rising High. There's also some ropey info in this old review regarding the state of chill rooms. While it's true most of them had died out at regular parties, they've persisted in the psy scene, where Morris still occasionally plays out in. Erm, yeah, I've no excuse for that oversight on my part.

I should also mention there are two versions of
Fish Dances out there, the other having an additional two remixes from Fila Brazilia and DJ Food. Just my luck I'd end up with the short one.)


IN BRIEF: A final dance from the Force.

Changing trends can be cruel. Mixmaster Morris, once a fixture in the chill scene, seems all but forgotten now. How could an individual whose star was as bright as The Orb’s disappear from the public eye? As with all things in musicdom, the answer is a change of tastes.

Morris’ brand of mellow, trippy ambience was a lovely soundtrack to many a backroom when rave parties were mostly an underground vibe; it wouldn’t be uncommon to see hippies and candy kids lounging together as the lengthy Force track Flying High pleasantly noodled out of speakers. Once club culture invaded the chill rooms though, most of Morris’ fans were shooed away. And when Moby’s Play blasted all traces of druggy connotations out of chill rooms with its bankable MOR tones, the old ambient masters’ fates were sealed: downtempo music was no longer the refuge for ravers, but rather their mothers.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. We mustn’t forget the influence Ninja Tune’s brand of trip-hop was having on folks. While they wouldn’t see the kind of commercial success reserved for Moby and co., their critical praise continued undaunted while psychedelic styles were regarded as old-hat.

Perhaps this is why Morris ended up on the label. On Ninja Tune, he could continue to produce his kind of music without either selling himself out or being lost in the backwaters of tiny labels still making lovely mushroom music. It may not have worked out as intended though, as Morris’ music was too psychedelic for even the open-minded Ninja Tune faithful, whom prefer their reefer above all else. The album It’s Tomorrow Already was the last produced with the Irresistible Force alias, and Morris has scarcely been heard from since. Does this mean the material on that release was bad? Oh hell no. As is evidenced by this final single Fish Dances, the Irresistible one was in as fine of form as ever.

The two cuts produced by Morris himself - the remix of Power and an instrumental of the titular track - contain all his trademark tricks in abundance: dreamy melodies; trippy atmospherics; bubbly drumming; floaty vibes; and, as always, a strict adherence to loose music. This last attribute has often caused Morris to lose potential listeners; for those who enjoy structured music with definite hooks, his free-for-all approach can leave many confused despite the lovely textures heard. And, as is usually the case with such music, it can go on for tedious amounts of time with go-nowhere sections. Fortunately, these two cuts show enough restraint so you don’t tire of anything looping on you.

An eclectic assortment of producers are on hand to lend their talents in remixing tracks from the album as well. Nepalese Bliss, the other single from It’s Tomorrow Already, gets a dubby trip-hop work-over from Jimpster; his blend of jazzy vibes with Morris’ floaty melodies are a wonderful combination. Meanwhile, Frédéric Galliano treats Fish Dances to a brisk acid jazz workout on the percussion end before bringing in the original’s dreamy synths to end out on a smooth bit of chill. Positively delish’.

The remixes by Voda (on Playing Around With Sound) and Plaid makes for an interesting contrast to the rest of this single’s material. Paranoia drips from Voda’s go, with eerie, choking sound effects and skittery spoken dialogue that is rendered nearly unintelligible; all the while, grimy trip-hop rhythms clump along. But if Voda’s remix is paranoid, then Plaid’s remix is downright schizophrenic: it starts with similar eerie effects while anxious melodies flow in the background. Eventually though, it settles into an easy electro rhythm before ending off in a pleasant, light-hearted tone.

It’s a shame Morris never had a chance to continue working with Ninja Tune, as his style does bring an already strong label added depth in the blissy chill categories. However, ‘twas not to be, and the Irresistible one’s output has been scarce since (you can find fresh material online though, should you be interested). All in all, if you’ve never cared for Morris’ early material, then perhaps this single will offer you a chance to reconsider. You still have vintage Irresistible Force tracks here, but the variety and skill of the remixes adds to Fish Dances’ worthiness if you’re in the market for non-MOR chill.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Carol C - First Impressions

Topaz: 2000

Atmospheric jungle seemed like a flash-in-the-pan movement, a genre that had all the potential to sweep that scene by storm, but was overshadowed by its commercial-friendly sister-genre jazzstep. By the turn of the century, neither generated much attention from the press anymore, most interested in the emergent darkstep sound instead. Eventually jazzstep's soulful aesthetic was adopted by the liquid funk guys, while atmospheric went relatively dormant for a long while. There were a few one offs here and there, and Bukem's Good Looking Records never went away, but folks by and large considered the genre an artifact of mid-'90s partying.

A DJ mix such as this was considered dated even by the year 2000. Mind, it didn't help that Carol C opted to use many tracks from atmospheric jungle's high point, but it does beg the question why someone would bother to release such a CD at that point. In fact, why would Topaz, a label that was making its mark as a progressive trance outlet, take a dip in this genre at all? Were they so inspired by Paul Oakenfold's Global Underground: Oslo set that they had to get themselves in on some of that 'dolphin d'n'b'? Was Carol C such a big fan of that sound that, for a debut mix CD, it was atmospheric or nothing at all? Was it just the trendy thing for all start-up labels to offer at least one drum'n'bass release, even if their potential audience could care less for it?

Perhaps some of these questions can be answered in figuring out who Carol C is. First Impressions is her only DJ mix CD credited, and it appears she’s had a career of producing and singing funk and nu-soul in the group Si*Sé since then. That makes a fondness for the jazzy side of jungle a good match, but still doesn’t answer much about her skill on the decks, much less why Topaz would have tapped her of all DJs for a mix such as this. Buddies with Scott Stubbs, mayhaps?

Okay, enough questions. How’s the music then. Nothing revolutionary, but if you find yourself jonesing for just a little more jungle on an LTJ tip, you’ll be in fine hands with First Impressions. Most of the major names for atmospheric, jazzy d’n’b show up, including Omni Trio, Zed Bias, Shogun, Jonny L, plus lighter moments from Technical Itch and The Advocate. And that’s all the names on this CD. Yep, of the ten tracks used, four acts get two tracks each. No wonder the tone is consistently maintained in this mix, there’s barely any crate diggin’ to be had!

I can’t hate on First Impressions for that though, as the music’s pretty class as most mid-‘90s atmospheric jungle’s wont to be. If I’ll give this mix any credit, it’s that Carol C selected tunes outside the Good Looking Records library. On the other hand, maybe Topaz couldn’t clear the rights to those.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Miss Kitten & The Hacker - First Album (2013 Update)

Emperor Norton: 2001/2004

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

First, I was disappointed. Seeing a run of material I’d already written reviews for in my queue, there’d be little opportunity to challenge my creativity. Then, I was relieved. A good chunk of them were albums I’d already uploaded here way back, thus providing me with the excuse of proper 2013 Updates rather than a piddly pair of paragraphs. After, I sprained my left wrist at work. Typing is now an arduous chore as I muddle with a bulky brace and tender tendons. Do I slink away in defeat then, take Mother Nature’s insistence that I slow down to heart? Pah, I couldn’t slow down even if I tried. Damned Powerthirst addiction.

Anyhow, Miss Kitten & The Hacker. I concluded that original overlong review claiming First Album hadn’t dated in the four years after it’d been released. What about a dozen years though? Surely something that sounded intentionally retro has survived even a decade's worth of music (de)evolution. Nope.

Funny thing about the electroclash era is the music that emerged from that scene is forever tied to those years, especially in lieu of the fact almost all of those acts moved on or disappeared altogether. It worked back then because the style and substance was different and new, especially to a generation of electronic enthusiasts who'd missed the early'80s space synth and italo pop from which the nu-new wave groups drew influence (*cough*). As with all things retro-minded though, once the novelty wore off and nothing fresh kept it afloat, it forever dated the music to the early ‘00s. When I wrote that stupid-long review in 2005, electroclash still had a charming afterglow going for it, even if no one was making that particular strand of stripped-down electro anymore (oh, but did the sleaze ever persist; I should also mention much of the background information I wrote, while not exactly incorrect, barely does that scene’s influences and lasting effects justice). Listening to it now, however, that charm’s worn off, and all First Album has going for it is appreciation for the context from which it was sprung.

Actually, that’s only true if you take the album at face value, sniggering at all the oh-so coy irony and the like - that’s sure what I was doing for the first few tracks this time out. As First Album played through, however, I noticed a surprising level of depth to the music and deadpan lyrics. It isn’t super-deep or anything, but it’s there. Miss Kitten and Mr. Hacker created a world that’s more than just a parody of our own fascination with celebrity lifestyles and seedy culture. Rather, it’s a cutting indictment of the two, peeling back the glamour (or lack of) and revealing how empty, and thus similar, it all is. The sparse production and unemotional tone of Ms. Hervine’s voice perfectly sells the soul-crushing existence of Life On MTV, Stock Exchange, and Nurse. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Damned English courses.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII: Original Soundtrack (Disc 4)

DigiCube: 1997

If Disc Three was about enjoying the world of Final Fantasy VII’s quirky tangents and mysterious corners, Disc Four says, “You’ve had your fun, we got a plot to get through now.” True, the tail-end of the last one had that too, but here there’s more urgency to the music. Makes sense, as the music covered deals with all of ShinRa’s shenanigans and the proper confrontation with ol’ Sephy. Only a few ‘generic’ tracks appear here, and seeing as how Parochial Town or Hurry Faster! were featured at earlier stages of the game, they come off more like leftovers shoved way over here due to lack of CD space on the first three.

Whatever. If you enjoyed the game mostly for its ever-evolving convoluted plot, then this disc’s for you. Thrill, as you remember every time the Weapons raided major cities in Weapon Raid. Chill, as you did during the countdown to Cid’s rocket launch, in The Coundown Begins. Marvel, when the Mako cannon is fired a second time in The Makou Cannon Is Fired. Tremble, as Meteor finally descends upon Midgar in World Crisis! (by the way, is it just me, or was that a ridiculously slow moving meteor?) Er, yeah, there’s a lot of FMV sound-tracking happening here, and aside from the wonderful ‘Aeris In The Lifestream Saves The Day’ end of World Crisis, not much stands strong outside the visual reference; though the percussion in Weapon Raid’s mint.

Quite a few one-offs appear on CD 4, in that they’re pieces that were only used for single scenes within the game. A couple are acoustic, and though Sending A Dream Into The Universe is definitely a take on Cid’s Theme, damned if I can remember where On The Other Side Of The Mountain plays.

And obviously all the ‘final’ music makes up the final stretch of the final CD. Like the final dungeon track Judgment Day (love that percussion!), pre-final boss music Jenova Absolute (like that fight, it’s rather meh), final boss music The Birth Of God (what the hell’s up with that title?), and final-FINAL boss music A One-Winged Angel. Okay, I’ve never understood why he takes on that final form, other than because Kefka in Final Fantasy VI got to have a ‘fallen-angel’ form, Sephiroth got one too. I’ll grant Final Fantasy skews towards a Renaissance-gothic style, but still. Oh well, One-Winged Angel is still an impressive bit of music, and believe me when I say it blew everyone’s mind when that battle and score went down way back in ye’ olde 1997. Latin choir for the final win!

Funny thing about listening to Final Fantasy VII’s music again, is how much some aspects of the game are still ingrained in my brain. I can’t go through any of the battle music without hearing the sound effects associated with them, and all those high and low emotions (shad’ap) during certain cues come flooding back. Sure does make me want to dust the ol’ game off again.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII: Original Soundtrack (Disc 3)

DigiCube: 1997

Let’s talk sound for a moment. Though it was a marked improvement over the previous generation of consoles, the 32-bit era still took a while to fully capitalize on its potential in sonics. Final Fantasy VII’s initially was intended for the Nintendo 64, and thus was likely the reason Uematsu composed the soundtrack using MIDI; or maybe he was just comfortable with it still. Whatever the case, the inboard Playstation soundcard, though a capable piece of technology, was limited in what it could reproduce, hence the poor emulation of brass instruments.

What the game’s music lacks in trumpet fanfare, however, it more than makes up percussion. Plenty of proper drums and tribal rhythms are scattered throughout the four discs, but a great showcase of them show up on CD 3. Cosmo Canyon and Great Warrior in particular are a joy to, erm, enjoy, borrowing elements of Native American music - makes sense, since the Red XIII character’s homeland seems inspired by the culture. Even better is the triumphant march of Cid’s Theme, the gentle beat of Lifestream, the pulsing throb of The Great Northern Cave, and the heartbeat of Those Chosen By The Planet (though I must add those high-note ‘choir’ tones are hilariously wack).

It’s when ol’ Nobuo steps out of traditional arrangements and uses purely synthesized sounds where the music on Disc Three turns fascinating. The opening refrain of You Can Hear The Cry Of The Planet always sends chills down my spine, and not just because it’s the music played in the location where Aeris meets her demise (what spoiler?). Elsewhere, upbeat silliness of Racing Chocobos - Place Your Bets could work as its own electro track, though I’m sure anyone who’s spent countless hours chocobo breeding in this game has grown utterly sick of it and the hoe-down Fiddle de Chocobo (I only bothered as far as a black one myself).

And acoustics! Goodness, but are the string instruments ever class. The theme of the other fangirl-favorite tortured soul Vincent has a suitably sad melody strummed, Buried In The Snow makes use of short violin strums and plucks, and Forested Temple works Uematsu’s other ace-in-the-hole of percussion - bells - with a guitar arpeggio. And okay, the fiddle work is pretty good too in Fiddle de Chocobo - I can admit that now since I haven’t played the game in a long time, and thus don’t have it currently ingrained in my brain.

From a personal standpoint, I enjoy the variety of music on Disc Three the most. Much of it is introduced when Final Fantasy VII’s world truly opens up with side quests and mini-games, a welcome element for those who prefer their RPGs as an immersive experience rather than a point-by-point plot progression. Plus it includes a couple of the most memorable themes between Sephiroth’s and Aeris’. Even the FMV bits like Steal The Tiny Bronco! and Interrupted By Fireworks are enjoyable, which is more than I can say for the next disc.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nobou Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII: Original Soundtrack (Disc 2)

DigiCube: 1997

Final Fantasy VII was a pretty big fucking deal when it came out, and like most fans of jRPGs of the time, I too fell sway with the epic gameplay, cinematic scope, and cutting-edge polygon Lego-models. And the music! Hoo boy, did it ever suck me in. Though I’d rate Final Fantasy VI’s overall score of better quality, this game’s was so much more diverse than anything I’d heard from RPGs before. Why, I could even listen to it on its own, separate from the game. If only there was some way I could- Whoa, they actually have such soundtracks in Japan? Damn, I gotta get me a copy! Who cares how much it costs, this music’s too good to pass up.

This was the first VGM CD I ever bought (re: father purchased for me since he was the one with the credit card). It's also the last, though I've picked up Symphonic Suites or tie-ins on occasion. The reason, as always, boils down to funds, those darn pan-Pacific duties incredibly brutal. Plus, I never was that big of a gamer to splurge on their OSTs, especially now as I've grown older and find less time for them. No, if I'm laying down some serious cash for music that sounds inescapably flat and plays out as short double-loops, it'd better be something special.

Final Fantasy VII definitely has its share memorable pieces, but as with many games, it has its forgettable fluff too. Coincidentally, most of it shows up on Disc Two, which deals with most of the music featured through the Golden Saucer segment. There’s the game over music, the sleep-at-inn music, and even Waltz de Chocobo, the brief music played before you get your first Summon materia (I think; been a while since I played). Also, two main chocobo themes appear here, the surf rock Electric de Chocobo, and a jazzy-shuffle Cinco de Chocobo - oh boy, dos chocobobobos.

CD 2 is also all over the place in tone. As the game finally emerges from the choking industrialism of Midgar, Mr. Uematsu gets his opportunity to work in many different themes. You have pleasant acoustic pieces with Ahead On Our Way, Farm Boy, and Costa del Sol, somber pieces like Mining Town and Sandy Badlands, and corny marches like Rufus’ Welcoming Cermony and It’s Difficult To blah blah blah. Oh, and the overworld theme’s the first track too, given an incredibly generic title of FF VII Main Theme. Geez, couldn’t come up with something better than that?

For yours truly, much of Disco Two is skipable, but it also has some of my favorite pieces. J-E-N-O-V-A’s brisk, trancey hook is awesome, and Gold Saucer is a right hoot; criminal that both these cuts are so short, but the utterly dull Trail Of Blood lasts twice as long. Also, Cait Sith’s Theme’s here, and as he’s my favorite ‘guilty pleasure’ character of the game, I totally vibe on this cool shuckster-jive. No shame.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII: Original Soundtrack (Disc 1)

DigiCube: 1997

Final Fantasy VII is the seventh instalment of the Final Fantasy franchise, a very important series in the world of gaming. It has the distinction of turning RPG gaming into something cool and enjoyed by all. Who cares if it bore scant resemblance to Western RPGs like Ultima or Might & Magic? Those were for losers, man. Greasy barbarian nonsense, right? Let's get steam-punk on the genre! Still, the game's impact is unimportant here, as I'm not a gaming blog. Want more details, seek out the endless articles, websites, fan pages, hate pages, and slash pages (er, maybe not) out there. I'm focusing on the music from the game, and that's about it.

Yep, if you thought I wandered off the conventional 'EDM review' path before with rock and the like, you ain't seen anything yet. To be fair, video game music is its own form of electronic-based music, what with chiptunes a thriving aspect of its lineage. As storage capabilities grew ever larger, however, the need to rely on in-board soundcards turned pointless when complete orchestral scores could be stored on discs. Even in the 32-bit era, you'd have individual licensed songs as the backdrop to your WipEout or Tony Hawk sessions.

Much like the graphics of the game, Final Fantasy VII marks a transition from old, antiquated soundtracks of yore. Uematsu definitely has more sound banks to work with compared to the 8 and 16-bit era, but much of the music has a shrill, tinny tone to it. He wants melodic woodwinds and brass fanfare, but all we get are hilarious squawking sounds that instantly date this to Playstation gaming. Still, ol’ Nobuo proved capable of squeezing every last ounce of musical potential from video games, and with Final Fantasy VII primed to break all sorts of new ground, he wasn’t about to flub on this challenge. In the end, four CDs worth of music emerged from his efforts.

The first disc almost exclusively features music introduced during the Midgar portion of the game (though several pieces were re-used for other sections). Compared to Final Fantasys past, the setting skews more modern, with industrial clank (Makou Reactor and Shinra Company) and slummy urban flavor (Oppressed People works a reggae jam; Turk’s Theme oozes city cool; that bassline in Underneath The Rotting Pizza!) providing a fitting tone. Plus, Mr. Uematsu gets to enjoy his rock indulgences further on tracks like Crazy Motorcycle, Fighting, and Still More Fighting (mind, Final Fantasy’s battle music’s always been rock-heavy). Unfortunately, while Cloud’s unofficial theme of Anxious Heart is a memorable somber dirge broken up with lovely bells, the other character themes on Disc One aren’t terribly memorable; in the renditions we hear on this disc, anyway.

But to talk about those, I must break this review up. As each CD averages twenty tracks, I may as well spotlight each one going forward. Eh, you figure there isn’t enough material to stretch this out? Pft, it’s Final F’n Fantasy VII. What isn’t there to talk about?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Dust Brothers - Fight Club

Restless Records: 1999

Fight Club was an incredibly bold movie at the time, highly divisive in what audiences got out of it. Still, whether you agreed with its Gen-X rebellion manifesto or not, you couldn't deny its tight scripting and strong acting – not to mention such a shocking twist as *spoiler* Meat Loaf dying. Another positive consensus was a thumbs-up for the soundtrack, produced by studio wizards The Dust Brothers.

Simpson and King had quite the esteemed discography by the end of the '90s: Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Beck's Odelay, countless remixes and one-offs, plus some boy-band thing. Having accomplished so much in the field of regular ol' music, the duo must have been itching to stretch their creativity elsewhere. Enter David Fincher, a long time admirer of their work and in need of someone to score his new, edgy movie.

Regardless of fanboyism, The Dust Brothers were an excellent choice, being something of a staple of ‘90s music one way or the other. If the movie was to deconstruct that decade’s idealism, why not have the duo responsible for some of the all time classics of the era contribute as well? Plus, having an original score of electronic music was just the hip thing to do by that point. So sayeth The Lola, anyway.

Fight Club being a dark comedy and paranoid thriller (not to mention spiffy special effects showcase, like at the end when *spoiler* all the bombs go off) most of the music reflects that tone. Though a few light-hearted bits crop up (the Casio-samba of Corporate World, for instance), dark brooding passages make up the bulk of the tracks. Occasionally dusty trip-hop beats and psychedelic rock sampling break up the monotony, but for the most part we’re dealing with total score stuff.

Still, the movie had its share of pulse-pounding moments, and The Dust Brothers come correct on this front when called upon. Finding The Bomb doesn’t hold back on ramping the tension up as it plays out, while Stealing Fat has all the hallmarks of a mad capper going down. Incidentally, that track’s also where the kick-ass opening credit music lurks, which handily points out one of the unique things about this soundtrack.

Most original score albums will sequence the music as it was featured in the film, as a means of emulating the movie’s narrative. Not so with Fight Club. Bits are lumped together under titles that have little context to what was going down on screen, and the whole thing plays out more like a proper album of Dust Brothers music than a soundtrack. The duo insists it’s not be taken as such, but if they’re adamant about it, why arrange this CD this way? Label interference?

Whatever the case, Fight Club works exceptionally well as a standalone, but having visual context does add to the experience. Like when it’s revealed at the end of the movie that *spoiler*, those really were Marla’s clothes she was selling!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Prodigy - The Fat Of The Land

XL Recordings: 1997

Fat Of The Land marks the end of what many fans consider the Holy Trinity of Prodigy albums, including Experience and Music For The Jilted Generation; fans that enjoyed their work in the ‘90s, anyway. I’ve no idea what the new generation thinks of the group that Liam Howlett built, though I can see them unable to handle his style if the remixes that came out with the recent re-release are anything to go by. Holy hell, are those ever fucking pointless and stupid. A lot of Prodigy’s music was already unashamedly ‘dumb’ to begin with, but it’s downright subtle compared to the bro-‘tard nonsense Zeds Dead and Noisia bring to the table.

Forget 'em. All we're concerned with here is the album proper. Fat Of The Land came out at the peak of 'electronica's push, where several UK acts were counted on to break America. Yet The Prodigy stood apart from other Great British Hopes like The Chemical Brothers and Underworld, growing ever brasher as the years wore on, and taking on thrashy punk attitudes as a giant middle finger to the capitalization of the underground scene they'd grown up in. Sure, we'll sign to your major, but you're gonna take us as we are, warts, rivets, and all.

Fat Of The Land had a degree of curious expectation going in. Lead singles Firestarter and Breathe proved they could create anthems on par with their peers, but surely a full album of that would tire quickly, and with no hope of topping those highs.

Then folks threw the album on, Smack My Bitch Up blasting from their speakers, blindsiding just about everyone with how damned good the tune was. Those fierce kicks! That snarling acid! That lush breakdown! Holy shit, they fucking did it! No way they can top- Oh yeah, Breathe! Damn, that's a good track too!

Fat Of The Land pretty much played out like that. Hearing Minefields, Narayan, Funky Shit, and Climbatize for the first time totally convinced you of The Prodigy's ability to adapt and diversify with the times while maintaining their take-no-prisoners, full-on musical attack. Not only were the new tunes fresh, but it helped contextualize the worn-out singles. Trust me when I say not many were looking forward to hearing Firestarter after a year of it. Narayan deserves extra props just for building anticipation for that squalling guitar riff again.

But that was then. Does the album hold up fifteen years on? Sort of. Make no mistake, Fat Of The Land is very much a product of its time: a big beat CD that would become one of the standards to meet in the ensuing years. Much like Experience before, it can’t escape the environment from which it was crafted. Fortunately, Howlett’s production remains as blunt, ferocious and superb as when it first hit the shelves, and I’ve no doubt they’d generate the same level of bedlam played out as they did when they were new. Fuck those current remixes.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Banco de Gaia - Farewell Ferengistan (Original TC Review)

Six Degrees Records: 2006

(2013 Update:
I think this was among the last of my track-by-track reviews, and it's too damn long as a result. Did
Ynys Elen really need that much detailing? Of course not! Yeesh. One could probably chalk the length to inexperience in handling over-enthusiastic fandom while writing, as Banco de Gaia remains one of my all-time favorite acts. It'll be interesting to see how I'm forced to curtail it since his upcoming album, Apollo, definitely falls within one of my alphabetical stipulations.)


IN BRIEF: Banco’s back on form

To say the last Banco de Gaia album (You Are Here) was met with lukewarm responses may be generous. While not a bad album, it seemed to lack a coherent theme and purpose, resulting in a listen that was disjointed and confusing. Many followers of Toby Marks’ music wondered if he was feeling a musical burnout, or if You Are Here was merely an experiment that didn’t quite hit the mark. Judging from the material on his new album, Farewell Ferengistan, it seems the latter may have been the case.

Yes, my friends, Marks indeed found his groove once more. While the production definitely comes off more focused this time out, the major improvement is the lack of preach that hampered the last album. Marks often injected political thoughts and ideas in his works, but rarely at the expense of the music on hand. I suppose with the volatile political climate in the years You Are Here was made, Marks’ sloganeering got the better of him, hoping to spur on some extra activism. Unfortunately, it came off redundant, as most of the Banco audience is already boned up on such ideas. Farewell Ferengistan does away with that, letting the music speak for itself again as Marks provides little blurbs in the inlay (including an amusing disclaimer reading, “All facts and claims stated herein are liable to be untrue, partially true, or totally true depending on your viewpoint”; we should have a disclaimer like that too!). The thoughts he details can give some insight into the ideas he approached some of the songs with, but, for the most part, they aren’t crucial in enjoying the music on its own merits.

Also, Farewell Ferengistan creates captivating settings, a long-time Banco trademark, and something that was sorely lacking on the last album. Whether conjuring up dusty Arab caravans, ancient mountain villages, lonely starship freighters, primal tribal gatherings, or drunken monasteries, Marks’ ability to let your imagination take over with his music guiding is remarkable.

The first half of Farewell Ferengistan is quite good at this, drawing upon many influences that harken back to an era when traveling by horse was common, and the dominant empire was that of the Mongols (probably the largest in recorded history). Even the name Ferengistan comes from the name far-flung settlements in Central Asia dubbed Europe at the time (Ferengi became a derogatory term for Western traders, due to their greedy, materialistic tendencies of the time, and used by most Arabs and East Asians... and that’s your fun-fact for the day). As always, Marks’ production is sample-heavy, but unassuming in its presentation. I’ve always marveled at how he can take a well-worn, rinsed-out, over-abused sample, and make it sound fresh again, and this time is no different. Ethnic chants, wood winds, drum loops, spoken dialogue; it’s all here, although some may be a bit more difficult to I.D. this time if you’re a sample trainspotter. As has been the growing trend in Banco de Gaia, electronic elements play a much reduced roll, complementing the organic nature of the songs rather than leading them.

The somber, downbeat title track opens things up, setting up a nice atmosphere but doesn’t really hook you in from the get-go. Rather, the simple melody in Ynys Elen will do the trick, mainly because it’s essentially a 32-bar refrain, repeating throughout the whole track. What keeps you hooked though (besides its catchiness, of course), is the fact Marks is constantly adding something new with each go-around: a new set of drums, a different synth, an added pad, and much more. By always keeping things evolving, Ynys Elen comes across as more of a jam than an actual song, each successive loop bringing a new contribution to the fray.

The pace picks up with Chingiz, a fairly standard dance track with a fairly non-standard vocal lead (Mongolian chants, in case the title didn’t give it away). Not to be outdone, follow-up Kara Kum takes the rhythmic vibes a step further with building layers of forlorn guitar strums, lonely woodwinds, and tribal drums. At one point, the song breaks down to start over, relying on only the drums and an 808 beat to build tension. And build tension it does, as the track’s intensity never gives the listener a chance to catch their breath, relentless in its primal assault. Once the melodic elements return, Kara Kum is in high-gear for a rousing climax. Shame about that abrupt ending though.

The Harmonious G8 is best described as a conceptual interlude. The idea is to fuse together the individual performances of a singer form each of the G8 nations, which was carried out at one of the recent summits. Of course, it isn’t a flowing sound when it comes together, but certainly more coherent than you’d expect.

Moving into the second half of the album, Marks leaves the past and heads into the future with a pair of sci-fi influenced tracks. Saturn Return is a spacey ambient piece, and is quite effective in placing you amongst the stars before grounding you back on Earth with some casual rhythms and a female chant to take you out. Journalists will probably end up adding Terry Riley to the every-growing list of musicians they often strain comparing Banco de Gaia to.

And perhaps even Wendy Carlos as well. Sure, the opening of Flow My Dreams, The Android Wept sounds like a typical Banco tune, with pleasant electronics, groovy rhythms, rich ambience, and a rousing male vocal. However, the song soon moves into a synthy rendition of Flow My Tears. Composed by the British lute player John Dowland in the 16th Century, it has the odd contrast of being both mournful and uplifting at the same time. A simple enough idea, but Marks turns this song into a tribute of sorts to Philip K. Dick, whom penned many sci-fi novels, including the one that went on to be turned into Bladerunner. What kind of tribute (beyond Dick’s enjoyment of the original piece, of course)? By having the lyrics to Flow My Tears sung in a robotic voice, rendering them almost unintelligible! Actually, Flow My Dreams, The Android Wept comes off remarkably well. Even if the lyrics are hard to understand, they still add to the song’s atmosphere, and work as an additional element complementing the main melody. Hey, if it worked for Vector Lovers, why not here as well? It’s a sonic experiment never tried under the Banco banner, and succeeds.

White Man’s Burden changes the album’s setting again with its lengthy, ambient opening. Layers of lush, natural soundscapes keep building, hinting at an emotional peak. Instead, once the rhythms take over, the tone of the track goes one-eighty, turning into something more ominous to lead out. If you’re familiar with the origins of the song’s title, the context of this musical change won’t be lost on you.

Farewell Ferengistan ends on a charming note with We All Know The Truth. The title reads like something you might find on an Enigma album, but the track itself rather sounds like one of William Orbit’s poppier moments, including lyrics sung by Maya Preece of Dragonflys. As a song to cap off the album, I suppose it works. Despite being overly chipper at times, We All Know... feels like a reassuring lullaby, reminding us there’s still warmth in a world that can feel cold at times. How the song fits in the Banco discography, one phrase uttered by Roger Meyers, Jr. sums up my own thoughts: “It’s different, I’ll give it that.”

But different is good when done with finesse. While Farewell Ferengistan does see a return of the of Banco style we’ve been familiar with over the years, there’s enough fresh ideas executed to surprise long term fans as well. For the most part though, this is a contemplative album. Marks seems aware we’re at a turning point of sorts in human history, and while it helps to look to the past for guidance, we should still keep our eyes forward. The future isn’t as scary a place we sometimes think it is so long as we approach it with the right intentions.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pantera - Far Beyond Driven

EastWest Records America: 1994

Whoa, when I said I was glad to be done with psy dub for a while, I didn't think I'd be going this far off the chakra path so soon! It’s quite a turnaround in tone from just a few CDs ago. Awesome!

Pantera’s one of those metal bands I seldom paid attention to when they were active, but should Metal Mike throw some on, I found my head nodding approvingly (sorry, never was much of a mosher; it don't jive with my rave-flailin'). As pioneers of the sub-sub-genre “groove metal”, it's little surprise my dance music trained ears would find some kinship with them. Those chugging bass lines and heavy rhythm guitar action… it’s the perfect meeting ground between thrash metal of the ‘80s and death metal of the ‘90s, with less of the technical wankery of the former, and less of the stupid of the latter. Well, as far as my limited metal knowledge is concerned anyway.

Far Beyond Driven marks the end of what many fans consider the Holy Trinity of Pantera albums, including Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display Of Power (is there any album cover more fucking metal than Vulgar?). Those first two had the distinction of breaking the band out of obscurity and securing their niche within the metal collective, but by ’94 that scene was going through plenty of changes, not to mention many bands had co-opted the bands style. If there was any time to make a stand, it was with this album. I’m assuming they succeeded if Far Beyond Driven’s held in just as high of regard.

Yeah, don’t go expecting brilliant analysis from this review. As I’ve said before, my enjoyment of a metal full-length only goes so far as how long I’m willing to put up with it. To be fair, I’ve come across plenty of such releases that do the trick, but if you want more intricate details regarding Far Beyond Driven, maybe check out Metal Reviews, or Metal Underground, or Angry Metal Guy, or… look, there’s plenty of proper metal review websites.

Anyhow, I like this album; or at least, it keeps my attention for the duration. Pantera expertly switch things up between all-out thrash and sludge-chug groove, such that I can’t even tell when songs stop and start unless there’s a studio fade-out. I seldom have a clue what sing-shouter Phil Anselmo’s going on about, and nor do I really care as “Dimebag” Darrell’s kick-ass guitar work almost always gets the spotlight. And those occasional nods to metal of old are also welcome changes of pace, including a cover of Black Sabbath tune Planet Caravan. D’aw, they can be mellow too.

Y’know, if the rest of Pantera’s discography is as solid as Far Beyond Driven, I should give it all a listen. Hm, the band’s been around since the early ‘80s. Didn’t realize that. What’s their first few albums sound like?

Oh my God! Aaahh…!!! *dies from spandex and hair spray*

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chromeo - Fancy Footwork (Original TC Review)

Vice Records: 2007

(2013 Update:
Chromeo may have been sincere in their music, but to many of their fans at the time, they were treated as little more than a novelty act. Straight-up hipster fests at most of their shows and, as with all things hipster "enjoyed", Chromeo became passe as that scene turned their ironic tastes elsewhere in short order (or just grew the fuck up). That, or Chromeo signing to a major label for their third album,
Business Casual, made them no longer cool - retro electro-funk pop's only cool if it's some indie act playing it, I guess.

Of course, if you genuinely like this sound,
Fancy Footwork hasn't dated in the slightest. It was intentionally dated to begin with, after all.)


IN BRIEF: “If it ain’t broke...”, etc.

When Chromeo first made their presence felt on Tiga’s label Turbo Recordings, they were surrounded by a huge roster of up-and-coming names, each pushing and shoving for attention in a quickly crowded electro-renaissance. In spite of this, Dave 1 and Pee Thug still stood out from the pack thanks to their ultra-stripped electro funk sound and playfully charming come-ons. They grabbed your attention because, unlike many of their brethren whom fallen by the wayside, you honestly couldn’t tell if their ‘80s indulgence was ironic or sincere. Oh, and they had some damn fine catchy hooks too.

Half a decade on, the landscape of dance music has certainly changed; the era of electroclash seems but a distant memory, even if trace elements of kitsch can still be found on occasion. Chromeo were a perfect fit for the retro-revival then, but now that tastes and trends have moved on to encompass indie-rock overtones and navel-gazing minimalism, has the duo found it necessary to change with the times as well? With their sophomore effort, the answer is a resounding “Gosh no!”

Fancy Footwork finds them picking up right where they left off on She’s In Control. Talk boxes. Roland 808s. Analogue synths. And songs of women. Lots of women. Electro funk vibes and synth-pop melodies dominate once more, and Chromeo find little reason to move out of their comfortable niche. Because of this, some might figure the duo as nothing but a one-trick pony. However, this strikes me more as a definitive statement of how they wish their act to be perceived. You might have been able to knock them for trend-jumping in the beginning but not here. This sound is more unique now than it was half a decade ago.

And you can forget the ‘irony’ suppositions as well. Yes, it was easier to pin it on them before, but that was due to the overwhelming number of acts surrounding them that were being ironic; Chromeo were merely caught in their wave. Now, the duo stands independent from taste-makers, quite happy to no longer be trapped within trends. As such, they’re bolder in presenting themselves, secure in the knowledge they have the chops to deliver their sound sincerely and without constant comparisons to current names (they’ll never be rid of the ones from the ‘80s though).

But don’t for a second take this as though they’ve become serious musicians. Chromeo’s songs are still filled with playful witticisms and willful pop. It’s just much easier to buy into the fun of it without feeling like a trendwhore. If their Intro doesn’t win you over with its vintage synths and “Chro-mee-oh, ooh-oh ” chant, then you may as well write the rest of Fancy Footwork off, as it’s clear you won’t be able to buy into their sound.

And while the music itself is mostly straight-forward and entertaining, it’s the lyrics that win you over. Of course, their pick-up lines like “You got a boy like him, a man like me, and you know that’s just not the same” and “..call me when you’re home alone; call me when you’re freaky, call me when you’re nasty, call me when you want to mmh” are amusing but Dave 1's simple tales of relationships come in various guises. The hilariously Freudian Momma’s Boy for instance, or Pee Thug’s so-simple-it’s-sound advice on how to deal with a testy relationship (“take her to the movies and you’re gonna work it all out” - even Dave 1 seems stunned by it). Elsewhere, smoother moments such as 100% and Outta Sight show a more thoughtful side to their writing. Probably the only instance where the duo’s wit comes into question is on Tenderoni, where the title is often repeated like a woeful intent to create hip slang.

All this being said, there isn’t anything on here that could be deemed a standout hit. Titular track Fancy Footwork, with its bumping rhythms and simple call for dancing on the floor, is the closest we get, with Bonafide Lovin and Waiting 4 U holding the silver and bronze. The rest, while all nicely digestible synth ‘n’ funk, remains unabashedly singular in execution - it doesn’t exactly sound canned, but nor does it sound original. It’s like they’re appetizers rather than a full-course meal. Ultimately, those inventive or lingering moments that could help lift the album above something more than a pleasing diversion are missing.

Still, if you have nary a problem with light-weight happy-fun electro, such criticisms probably won’t be of much concern. Chromeo’s act is in fine form, and unless the combination of poppy hooks and hot-neon imagery leaves a lingering bitterness in your ears, you’ll come from Fancy Footwork with a smile on your face.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Various - Family Tree

Eardream Music: 2010

Ah, no! I've had my fill of psy dub, really I have. Going through the entire Fahrenheit Project series from Ultimae, plus a brief detour into spa-a-a-a-ce, has sated my palette for at least a good month. Damn you, alphabetical stipulations. And here I was, thankful for covering different music again. *sigh*

The funny thing is I nearly bypassed this one altogether. Family Tree comes care of Eardream Music, a tiny web-label that's released but a mere half-dozen digi-comps in the few years it’s existed. I stumbled upon this one at the always awesome Ektoplazm, based off a recommendation list from website runner Basilisk. Cool and all, but as I'm sure many folks can relate, downloading from these free music portals creates a tendency of nabbing releases in bunches, some of which get lost in the shuffle and buried within the convoluted file management of hard drives. I'm pretty O.C.D. about keeping track of what I download, and Family Tree still plunged to the depths of my folders.

Long story short, I only just now happened upon this sucker again, which likely means there wasn't much to it that made me want to listen again (assuming I even bothered to play Family Tree when I first downloaded it). I certainly don’t recognize any names here, and nor should I as most of them haven’t released anything anywhere else (so sayeth The Discogs).

The most prolific of the bunch is Tor.Ma, otherwise known as Rafael Hernandez to his fam’ - of course, being prolific here means releasing at least one album, but dude’s got three under his belt. His tune for Family Tree is about what you’d expect from most psy dub music, though it’s got some funky bounce going for it, almost a proper reggae vibe were it not for occasional effects dragging it from the realms of trippy ganja music. In fact, save that and the final of these five tunes, this could almost be considered a reggae dub release.

Each producer does offer a different take on the template too. Austero’s Bettie Page opts for a house jam. Nako sees fit to bring the rude-wobbly side of dub music to our ears in 3 Corazones (no, not dubstep). Prefer your Jamaican jams coming from space? Ish Dub & Juan Cano got you covered with the spliff-bliss Good Bye South Africa.

Yeah, yeah, these tunes aren’t reinventing the wheel, and if I’m honest (am I anything but?), the production’s stiff, missing that extra little mixdown polish that sets great releases apart from the merely decent. Or maybe I’ve just been horribly spoiled by Ultimae this past week - it’s like going down to a 19” monitor after enjoying a glorious 32”. Still, if you favour these sounds, you’ll be well sorted with Family Tree. Hey, it’s a freebie download, and far worse music has been unleashed upon the interwebs than this tidy little collection.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Überzone - Faith In The Future

Astralwerks: 2001

After the successes of Chemical Brotherhood, The Prodigious, and Fatboy Slimstyles, record execs seeing dollar signs figured any ol' 'electronica' act making those break'n'beats musics would keep the cash flowin'. Thus began the proliferation of albums featuring breaks artists and whatever sub-genres they brought. BT and Hybrid had the progressive side of things covered; Adam Freeland brought the nu-skool to attention; DJ Icey repped Florida state; and the West Coast acidy chemical breaks vibe featured The Crystal Method and this Überzone fella’. You remember him, right? C’mon, his City Of Angels material was among the highlights of that era of breaks.

Still, though chemical breaks never died, the mid-‘90s was its only peak of popularity - it even beat out big beat by a couple years in America, though it clearly remained a product of the rave scene with little true crossover potential. The Crystal Method managed it by combining The Chemical Brothers’ block rockin’ sound with their acid, but Überzone was something different. He skewed closer to the electro side of things, finding a nifty, skippity-scratch blend between Florida and West Coast. It was unlike anything else even within the chemical breaks scene, propelling Mr. Wiles to the forefront of the genre. How, then, does one go about marketing the guy, when his sound is so underground?

Hedging bets, apparently. Faith In The Future has all the hallmarks of a big beat album, checking off what was required of a crossover: slick production that can catch your ear while the radio’s playing, guest performers and collaborations, chill cuts for the chicks, and knowing nods to the true heads who’ve stuck things out through thick and thin. Fine, if that’s your aim, but by the year 2001, the crossover formula had grown stale, and Überzone’s debut was quickly forgotten in favor of any-and-all things nu-skool.

All of which actually makes Faith In The Future a pretty darn good album regardless, because Überzone doesn’t fall into either of those camps. He’s an electro-funk guy, and if you don’t believe it, the opener Beat Bionic features veterans of the old school in talk-box action from Bart Thomas and Bigg Robb (of Zapp fame, though credited as Sure 2 B here), and scratch artist Davey Dave. Later in the album, none other than Afrika Bambaataa shows up with his SoulSonic Force for 2kool4skool, capably showing some nu-skool skill while keeping things retro-proper. Most of the album follows this form, with collaborations from Rennie Pilgrem and Ken Jordan (of The Crystal Method) expertly handled while Überzone cuts loose with his brand of electro-acid-funk. Rounding things out are pleasant enough chill tunes with Dreamtime and the titular cut, and the indie-rock warbler track (Frequency with Helmet front-man Page Hamilton) doesn’t drag, also a plus.

I cannot deny Faith In The Future coming off too polished if you prefer your breaks strictly underground, but as few others have ever emulated Überzone’s style, it’s still a fresh sounding album over a decade on.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Various - Fahrenheit Project - Part Seven

Ultimae Records: 2011

Who knows at this point whether Part 6 of Fahrenheit Project was intended to end the compilation series, or circumstances simply made it thus, but for whatever the reason it appeared that would be the final entry. Considering the highs it'd achieved, it also would have concluded on quite a limp note. No, better to do things proper-like and give the series a send-off it deserves. Well, one theory for Fahrenheit Project’s resurrection, after half a decade of sitting fallow.

First off, the cover art itself is something of a tribute to Ultimae of old. It retains the letter-box design (which’d been retired the same year), plus includes the circular graphic that graced many of the original covers before they were redone with new artwork (Part 3, which never received an update, also has it). And lo, Asura finally returns to the series. Oddly, most of the Ultimae regulars are absent: no Cell, no Carbon Based Lifeforms, and Aes Dana only provides his usual track arrangement. True, the latter two had albums forthcoming the same year, but it's a shame not to see them in any musical capacity.

That said, a few familiar names to the Ultimae legacy do crop up. The duo Circular had released their fourth album on the label, and Scann-Tec appeared on Part 6. Hol Baumann gets a credit as well, though it’s care of a remix on Final by a relatively unknown Max Million. A number of other established and fresh-faced acts round out the rest, including that AstroPilot dude again (I told you he was prolific!).

And the music? Chill, of course, though by this point Ultimae’s bread-and-butter was mellow prog psy and blissed ambient techno, and that’s the general vibe going on here. Heck, AstroPilot’s Memories Maze is incredibly brisk, almost breezing along at a proper trance pace. Meanwhile, Asura’s Millenium 3 does something I thought I’d never hear from this label: side-chaining. It’s not even subtle, that distinct pulsing-throb of pad work around the kicks front-and-center throughout the track. After hearing the technique abused by electro house producers and Markus Schulz disciples, I want to hate this track by default. As it plays through, however, I find myself enjoying it, sucked into Asura’s groovin’ little number. Of course, the reason for this is obvious: those other producers are shit, and Asura’s not.

All-in-all, Fahrenheit Project, Part 7 is a welcome addition to the series’ history. Though not quite reaching the highs of Parts 4 and 5, it easily stands on even ground with the early editions. If this does end up being the final entry, I can’t think of a better way of going out than with Solar Field’s OnFlow. It’s such an uplifting tune, forcing a silly grin upon your face as you reach over to the closest person to give them a big, sloppy hug; yet, a touch of melancholy permeates the mood as it fades out at the end. Sending Fahrenheit Project to the heavens, it seems.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Various - Absence Of Gravity

Sentimony Records: 2011

I bought the Fahrenheit Project collection back when it only included up to Part 6. Seems pointless, however, to do a retrospective of the series without also covering Part 7, so off to the Ultimae homepage I went to pick that up. Hopefully it would arrive in the mail on time to carry on here, and sure enough, it did. Wouldn’t you know it though, I went and gummed things up by buying more than just the one CD, forcing me to honor my alphabetical stipulation regarding new music. Don’t worry, folks, we’ll return to our regular Fahrenheits soon enough.

And what prompted me in picking up this curious little compilation called Absence Of Gravity? I’ve been jonesing for a follow-up to Tyler Smith’s Distant System album Spiral Empire for a while now, but unfortunately it appears the project’s been put on hold yet again. Thus, upon seeing a space psy-ambient collection among the third-party releases Ultimae distributes, I was an interstellar moth drawn to a spectral class O-Type star. Who cares if the cover looks a little corny, it’s just, um, going with a ‘90s retro vibe I bet. Yeah, that’s it! Send that CD on over, guys.

Absence Of Gravity has a tenuous theme going for it, something regarding the 50th anniversary of the first space walks. For the most part, it's stylistically similar to old Namlook records, so if you've felt the Braheny school of 'planetarium soundtracking' is too New Age for your taste, you'll be in fine hands here. There are a few psy dub trappings – how could there not be when acts like the prolific AstroPilot and dark psy chap Psyfactor crop up in the tracklist – but nothing that overwhelms the outwordly vibe going on. Instead, we get plenty of dark droning patches capturing the bleakness of deep space, swelling cosmic synths inspiring the grandeur of the cosmos, and the requisite samples of astro-radio chatter and scientific lectures or interviews.

Speaking of such, it's pretty cool hearing Russian cosmonauts on a few of these tracks. Mind, it'a not a huge surprise since this compilation comes care of the Ukraine-based Sentimony – no doubt many of these producers grew up following the Soviet's exploits into space. It’s refreshing to not run through the same ol' Apollo mission dialog nonetheless. And hey, Spectrum Vision brings us a tune titled Tunguska; funny stumbling across that so soon after Russia dealt with another meteor.

Somewhat surprisingly, Absence Of Gravity shows diversity even within its admittedly limited niche. I eat up space music like a black hole eats matter, but it’s a welcome contrast having a few Earth-bound moments like nature sounds in Reactive’s Free Search and ethnic chants in Chronos’ Endless Rotation (it is psy dub, after all). There’s pure ambient noodling early on the CD, brisk chill-out in the middle, and even spacey electro near the end. Overall, a solid collection of downtempo for those who agree space is the place.

Now, about that Distant System follow-up…

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Various - Fahrenheit Project - Part Six

Ultimae Records: 2006/2008

What else could Ultimae do? Half a decade after emerging from the hinterlands of psy chill obscurity, the label was riding an astounding wave of musical success. Their tactic of interspersing albums from their roster with the Fahrenheit Project series probably could have been milked to this day, but that's boring. Nay, by the time Part 6 of this series came, changes were afoot, and perhaps sadly, this would be the last of the Fahrenheit Projects for some time.

Such changes included: launching new compilation-mix series such as Oxycanta and Albedo; heavier emphasis on artist albums; and, most crucially, signing more talent to Ultimae. For a label known for an almost glacial rate of releasing material, such a jump in activity was going to show a little initial strain. Those new series didn't last long, as the increased LP output – almost all which were ace – overshadowed many of them. Why bother, said the fans, with the compilations when much of the best material was on the albums? Fahrenheit Project succeeded because it was as much a sneak preview of such albums as it was a roster showcase, so it was in Ultimae's favour to offer their best material for the series. With names like Solar Fields, H.U.V.A. Network, and Carbon Based Lifeforms practically selling themselves to the faithful now, the Fahrenheit format was no longer required.

So it's in this transitional period we find Part 6. Again, regular Ultimae acts all show up, with a few outside contributors sprinkled about. Still, a notable difference rears its head compared the last few entries, in that there's a lack of CBL. Sync24 does offer one track, mind, but as the duo was working on their sophomore effort, it's possible they didn't have time for Fahrenheit this time out. Maybe Ultimae should have called in Asura? No, wait, he was working on a new album too.

At only nine tracks, this is the shortest of the series, and to be blunt, it isn’t anywhere near as good as the prior two. Granted, those were lofty peaks, but one can’t help but be disappointed they couldn’t maintain at a plateau instead of take a stumble. As with Part 3, the lack of diversity hurts, most of the artists sticking to tried-and-tested psy chill tropes. The production remains top notch of course, but track flow is serviceable at best, everything melding into the same psy-glitch-ambient-downtempo soup Ultimae’s known for.

One of the few surprising developments, however, comes midway, and care of Solar Fields. Instead of offering his typical brand of chill-out, he dives headfirst into the realms of prog psy on Levitate. He’d dabbled in the vicinity of that sound before, but always in a ‘slow trance’ fashion. This tune, though, is incredibly brisk, especially for Fahrenheit Project. It must have garnered him a good response, as his following album, Earthshine, was loaded with the stuff, such that even fans of regular ol’ trance took notice.

And then Ultimae’s exposure truly took off.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Various - Fahrenheit Project - Part Five

Ultimae Records: 2005/2008

Five editions of Fahrenheit Project deep, it's safe to say Ultimae had found a formula that worked. Fresh material from their regular roster, a few contributions from outside sources, and an excellent mix of mellow trance, ambient techno, and cinematic chill keeping the music varied and interesting. Oh, and release it after a fallow year, a handy tactic in building anticipation for the next entry in the series.

By 2005, however, the need to take it a step further must have been on their minds. Mostly fuelled by the popularity of Israeli full-on and Swedish prog psy, the psy scene was enjoying a resurgence of interest, and those into the downtempo side of things were cluing into the label's potential. The buzz generated by their early material had grown into a steady murmur now, but Ultimae had long been a cut above their musical peers, so it's not like they had to up the ante. Besides, Fahrenheit, Part 4 was such a good compilation, I doubt anyone expected them to top that one. Could they even top it?

They fucking smashed it.

For one thing, Ultimae noticed psy's changing trends, and capably found a footing within the realms of prog psy. Not that the label was adverse in dabbling with an upbeat tempo, but it was mostly a sort of 'slow trance' style they were comfortable with. Here, Aes Dana's Purple and Solar Field's Water Silence could easily find DJ set duty with any of the Iboga or Spiral Trax offerings of that year (though probably better suited early in such a set). Wedged among those two are the returning Jaïa and Aural Planet, each providing a different tone of psy dub, keeping variety high and class.

At the other end of the spectrum (and CD) lurks the other Ultimae regulars in Carbon Based Lifeforms (including two solo outings from CBL member Sync24), and Hol Baumann. The former’s sound often skewed in ambient techno’s favor, but even that was seeing changes with the trendy emergence of minimal, drone, and glitch by the mid-‘00s. Following suit, they along with Hol explore such music to great effect. Heck, Baumann’s Final could have made for an excellent capper with strong drum programming and guitar strums complementing the glitch, but Sync24’s suitably named ‘Epilogue Edit’ of Wake takes us out in fine fashion.

And then there’s the middle section! Holy cow, it’s the best string of music I’ve heard out of all these Fahrenheit Projects, no small feat considering how strong the track arrangement usually is. Processing Lights from H.U.V.A. Network is a lush piece of ethereal chill, then Cell somehow outdoes that with his own haunting Blue Embers. Joining them is prog psy vet Marius Katz, bringing a touch of actual ambient techno funk to the proceedings, and sounding not a touch out of place in the process. How he do that!?

Okay, that’s enough enthusiastic rambling from me. If you can only get one Fahrenheit Project, Part 5’s the one. Trust.

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