Friday, May 31, 2013

Various - Global Underground Departures

Boxed: 1998

There they sat on the shelves, so many Global Undergrounds, so little money. You've heard a few from some friends who splurged on a volume or three, and the name recognition these jocks garnered as the century drew to a close was top of the tier, untouchable, Godlike even. You wanted to experience the Global Underground phenomenon for yourself, but cash, man, cash. Hello, what's this? Global Underground Departures? Hm, a collection of music from previous volumes of the series, and all for such a significantly low price. Well, with so many great tunes you've heard on those Digweed, de Vit, and Oakenfold discs, who can argue with this bargain?

This was the first in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ series Boxed would put together every couple years, highlighting the most memorable cuts that’d be featured on various prior main releases. Though this sounds like the best thing ever, part of what made tracks like Greece 2000 and Lose It so memorable on the Global Undergrounds they were featured was the context of their respective sets. In other words, those big name DJs knew how to utilize music for maximum enjoyment (even if their technical skills weren’t always the best), but taking a bunch of ace tracks of disparate styles and cramming them into an entirely separate mix… well, it doesn’t quite work the same.

For starters, duo The Forth aren't exactly high on the radar of most folk, almost exclusively known as remixers during the '90s. Even then, their task can't be an envious one: “Hey, you know how Tony had all this hard dance music, Oakenfold had these trancey tunes, Digweed had some tech house, and Nick used breaks? And they all had two CDs to create strong context within those sets? Yeah, mash all that into a single CD, chaps!” They do as good of a job as they can, going from a nice Balearic opening, then deep grooving tech, before capping off with a few trance anthems, but for a series often priding itself on computer-perfect programming on nearly every edition (*cough*), the rough transitions and awkward flow are noticeable.

Can't fault any of the music though. Ferry Corsten's “holy cow, he did real trance?” track Air (under his Albion guise) is here. Tekera's Breathe In You is here, care of the M&M remix. Tech house stormer Bombay from Dave Randall is here (oh, how I miss tribal tech house!). The Forth’s own prog-breaks smasher Reality Detached is here, and not shameless plugging either as Warren used it on GU8: Brazil. Pink Bomb's Indico is here, a track that brings back a ton of nostalgic memories (that whole second disc of GU8 does, really).

Ah yes, nostalgia, now the only real selling point to GU Departures if you already have the original volumes (also, super-cheap prices typically found for this disc) - a pleasant, brief trip through Global Undergrounds past. A might better tagline than “Tracks You’ve Already Got, Now In A Different Order!” anyway.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Various - Global Underground 31: Dubfire - Taipei (Original TC Review)

Global Underground, Ltd.: 2007

(2013 Update:
Well, doesn't this capture a moment in a time, written in that uncertain in-between of Dubfire's career, post Deep Dish, pre-
Ribcage. I mentioned at the end of the review that ol' Ali had to do something more significant than continue peddling this brand of deep prog-house if he was to have a memorable solo career, and boy did he ever, deciding instead he are serious techno producer, making serious underground music. If you hated that turn, guess this mix will still serve you fine. Heck, I found myself enjoying the tribal-groove far more this time out.

And yeah, this is the only proper edition of the
Global Underground series I actually have. Never saw much reason to pick them up in the series' glory years, as all my peers had copies anyway. Fortunately, as with the Fabric series, I've decided to pick up those that can be found at Bargain Bin prices on Amazon, to see which editions have been brought low by disinterest and- what, only Sharam's solo outing is that cheap? Oh fuck it then.)


IN BRIEF: Where the ‘deep’ part of Deep Dish comes from.

It looks as though Global Underground has come to the end of an era. For longer than anyone can remember (five and a half years, specifically), the once premiere DJ mix series has been the Deep Dish/Nick Warren show. With Ali ‘Dubfire’ Shirazinia (aka: the non-bearded member of Deep Dish) tapped to do #31, word has it this will be the final time we’ll see any of them on a GU compilation. I’m sure I speak for many when I say this: it’s about fucking time!

Seven out of the last eleven editions of Global Underground have seen this trinity strut their stuff, and unless you were a big fan of either, it grew tiresome five releases ago. Although GU often had repeated talent crop up in the past, at least it wasn’t to the laughable extent we’ve seen lately; nor was the recent token nods to Lavelle and Howells going to cut it for old fans. Small wonder many began to flock to newer DJ mix series like Fabric and Balance for cutting-edge DJ mixes.

How did Global Underground let it happen though? Did they sign some sort of binding contract to these guys? Were they afraid to take risks on smaller names? Was Deep Dish’s commercial clout too tempting to pass on? Are too few DJs playing the sort of house GU prefers to champion now? Sure, Deep Dish and Warren are good, but not that good so you’d want them to carry a highly respected series for half a decade.

Well, whatever the reason, that’s all in the past. Fortunately, it does indeed appear everyone is ready to move on, and Ali has been given the honor of closing this bizarre chapter of Global Underground’s legacy. Although he’s often done productions away from his longtime partner Sharam, this is only the second time we’ve seen Mr. Dubfire do a commercial DJ mix on his own (the first being an Afterhours special to an earlier double-release, with Sharam naturally doing the other). Since the duo have claimed their partnership as Deep Dish at an end, Ali has taken this opportunity as a chance to make a mix that will distinguish him from his former DJing buddy. The music, he says, has a more personal connotation and draws from his early influences of new wave, acid house, and other similar sounds.

For fans of Deep Dish, this may prove to be an intriguing plan: an upfront DJ mix that also lets you get to know the guy behind the decks a bit better. For non-fans... well, this still may be intriguing anyways. Just how much will Dubfire distance himself from the house music that made him famous? Are there significant enough differences as a solo DJ to raise him above the famous Deep Dish sound?

(2013 Edit: removed a pointless paragraph)

Taipei is the locale chosen for Ali’s mix, and as with Global Underground releases this usually factors in what you’re going to hear. The house clubs in southeastern Asia have gained a reputation for often playing out deep tribal tech house, and that’s what the first disc provides. To be honest though, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot going on here. It opens promisingly, with some catchy house tunes that suitably move you, and BarBQ’s Myself is a synth-poppy delight. Unfortunately, the mix never takes off in any major way. It lays out the groove early, and keeps it on an even keel for the duration. There are nice moments along the way, mind: And If’s lush Finest Dream; Deetron’s devilish The Afterlife; Markus Schulz’ bumpin’ remix of Yoshimoto’s Du What U Du (did I just give the Schulzer props...?). But with Ali maintaining a running theme of moody atmosphere throughout, it’s little more than a pleasant listen. There’s just not enough variation in this mix to get excited about.

Should I also mention his semi-debut track I Feel Speed, which comes near the end of disc one? Well, it’s a decent house track, and Ali’s gentle voice is suitably unassuming for the tone of it, but hardly a standout. I’m straining to think of much more to say about it, as there’s nothing terribly unique about it other than the fact it’s by Dubfire. How about I just move onto disc two, then?

So here we are in disc two, and we are off to another promising start. Bringing some murky techno to get us on our way, it seems Ali is ready to take us into grimier pastures, perhaps leading to something more thrilling than what was on the first disc. It’s not to be; instead, he seems content sticking with this sound for the duration. Interesting to listen to, certainly, but the mix suffers for the same reason the first one does: it doesn’t go anywhere. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Some of the scenery along the way is better here - the remix of Depeche Mode’s Everything Counts being a highlight - and there’s better groove to be had. However, until we get to the final stanza of this mix - where nifty remixes from Extrawelt and Kalkbrenner take us out with class - Dubfire’s set merely maintains the mood without lifting us out of the techno murk.

I suppose this is to be expected though. Many times when a DJ makes a mix more personal, the emphasis on ‘paying attention’ is stronger than laying out the bangers. Unfortunately for Ali, his offering is hardly unique. In fact, there are plenty of DJ mixes already out there that cater to this deep-tech-tribal-minimal-progressive-yada-yada-house sound, and the Taipei association doesn’t do much to distinguish it either. Hell, I could go down to the local semi-underground club in town here and listen to this stuff live for cheaper than what you’d have to pay to purchase this release. Why should one get this if it can be heard anywhere?

Well, it is a nice mix to listen to, of that there is little doubt. Nice though doesn’t necessarily mean memorable, and if you’ve been following this sound for the last year, you won’t find much new in Dubfire’s take on it. For the most part, he keeps his mixing and track selection so steady that surprising or exciting moments are few and far between. It’s going to take more than this to emerge from the shadow of his Deep Dish legacy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jim 'Shaft' Ryan - Miss Moneypenny's Glamorous Grooves (Original TC Review)

Beechwood Music: 2001

(2013 Update:
This probably shouldn't have come up here, but for some reason Windows Media Player has this listed as
Glamorous Grooves only, so whatever. Get it over with, right?

Actually, this CD's held up fine, even with a laughable mono-mixdown (how'd you neglect mentioning that, 2007 Sykonee?). I think I might have oversold the glitz Miss Moneypenny's advertises, but the brand is still kicking it around, Jim 'Shaft' Ryan still holding residency. Good for them, especially in maintaining the funky disco vibes in an era that would have it coming off dated. Proper house music will never die! Or something.)



IN BRIEF: Not as bad as you’d expect.

Miss Moneypenny’s. Expensive cover and cocktail drinks. V.I.P. lines longer than the regulars at lesser clubs. Tarted up barbie-dolls. Shirtless clubbing guidos. The very epitome of style-over-substance. Where the most fabulously fabulous go to bask in each other’s fabulousness. Oh, and apparently they play house music too.

In all seriousness, the clubbing franchise has done well for itself considering its humble beginnings as boat parties near Birmingham over two decades ago. It made Ibiza’s euro-trashiness its divine ethos and has remained unapologetic about the high-class standards it places on its patrons. They believe Studio 54 had the right idea, and along with Mediterranean hedonism indulge in the disco-glamour fantasy that legendary club made for itself. All fine and dandy, I suppose. For as many artistic or spiritual attributes folks place on the clubbing culture, there are still far more out there who prefer the skin-deep good times a place like Miss Moneypenny’s provides. It can make you feel like a million bucks because you’re forced to look a million bucks to even attend, and are often surrounded by folks- sorry, la beau monde dressed in similar fashion.

At the turn of the century, the night was finding huge success with a booming club culture, and like nearly every other mega-brand, they started making sponsored DJ mixes. But whereas most were jumping on the trance bandwagon, Miss Moneypenny’s stuck with the sound that made them who they were: funky disco house. In hindsight, that was unusually wise for a club typically known for expensive shallowness; the brand remains as consistent as ever whereas other superclubs like Gatecrasher and Slinky have fallen off.

And so we come to Glamorous Grooves, one of a few DJ mixes cheapo label Beechwood released for Miss Moneypenny’s before the club established it’s own label. Considering all the factors that should have made this a dodgy release (superficial club, crap label), it turned out not half bad.

Chalk it up to the fact funky disco house is just, well, fun! Granted, the music is often secondary compared to the patrons of Miss Moneypenny’s, where they be far more interested in flaunting their styles to each other than discussing the subtleties of a filter effect. However, such concerns have no bearing when throwing on a CD at home where the music can be judged on its own merits. And here Glamorous Grooves yields plenty of housey delights that saw the rounds at the turn of the century. Rui Da Silva’s Touch Me; The Face’s Needin U 2, in the guise of a then-modern update; remixes of chart toppers from Fatboy Slim and Moby; other remixes from singing legends like Grace Jones, Barry White, and Loleatta Holloway; plus plenty of cuts from usual house favorites like Olav Basoski, Junior Jack, Harry “Choo Choo” Romero, Robbie Rivera, Joey Negro, and so on.

Disco, tribal, Chicago, garage, latin, and even jazz are all blended into the funky bowl, effectively making the music on here dateless. It’s certainly more entertaining to listen to than most of what passes for popular house these days. Give me the filtered disco build over a stomping fart bassline any day.

Unfortunately, whereas the music itself holds its own, the presentation of it leaves something to be desired. If anything, Jim ‘Shaft’ Ryan, who’s long been the main resident for Miss Moneypenny’s, handles his trade well but is unremarkably routine.

He knows his role as a club DJ and that translates onto disc one’s sequence. Opening with the instantly catchy All I Do, he works a slow burn to peak out on his own Happy Daize. Things subside for a bit, and this usually means easing the crowd down from their dancing euphoria to grab a drink at the bar. Some simple groovers play out while you wait in line for your cocktail, drink it down, share a chit-chat with some hot minx or thick stud; maybe make a quick bathroom run too, for whatever reason you see fit. Soon enough, the groove gets more infectious, and DJ Disciple’s It’s Easy hooks you back in, where the disco delights continue on the dancefloor for the rest of the mix. But what’s with that slam-mix into Let The Music Play? Just yipes.

Disc two, meanwhile, tries to go deeper into the tribal funk. For the first half, Ryan mostly succeeds, and Sharem Jay’s remix of Honey makes for a nice little peak. Sadly, the mix takes a steep drop in the momentum after that, and never recovers with any sense of flow. It seems Ryan has a pile of tracks he wants to play out but can’t figure out how to make these cuts fit together, so he just hodgepodges it. And while Sax Heaven from The Italian Connection (a pre-shit Robbie Rivera project) makes a valiant effort to rescue this mix for the end, it’s not enough to erase the memories of bland that came before.

And then there’s the general sound quality. Of course, this being Beechwood, it won’t be the best mixdown, but even the DJing sounds rough in places. I’m all for authentic DJing but surely some of these mixes could have used a couple different practice spins to make them work better?

Still, I suppose the real question lingering is whether this older release is worth your time. In all honesty, only if you see it for bargain-bin cheap and you have a bit of spare change burning a hole in your pocket. There are tons of funky disco house mixes out there, and while Glamorous Grooves is a decent enough product, it’s hardly essential listening. The Miss Moneypenny’s faithful may find more worth in it, mind, but for the rest of us it’s merely a passing fancy.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Kevin Braheny - Galaxies

Hearts Of Space: 1988

This CD first came out way back in 1988, yet even here there's a plea within the inlay to not pirate the music within. Well, not so much not pirate, but a request to send Hearts Of Space two dollars royalty for every copy you should happen to make for your friends – tape copies, that is, as there were no other means of replication from CDs (the digital revolution must have given the label fits). I wonder if anyone actually did send the two dollars. And what about those with a tape copy? Were they karma-obligated (yes, that's the excuse they're using in the inlay) to do the same if they made a tape-to-tape copy? And used shops, what of those? Wait, don't answer that. Tangential musings of quirky booklets, that's all.

Kevin Braheny's been brought up a few times at this blog, but this is the first proper album of his I've had a chance to talk about. Truthfully, Galaxies is a soundtrack for a planetarium show that made the rounds in the '80s, based on the book by science and physics author Timothy Ferris. I highly doubt it's still being shown two decades on, unless they've constantly updated information with each new astronomic discovery. Mm, nah, easier to just make a whole new show.

Despite that, Galaxies has endured as a minor classic of space ambient, the music within generally strong enough to stand on its own without context or Mr. Ferris narrating overtop. Ancient Stars twinkles with a sense of awe, Milky Way Rising is calm and soothing before erupting in grandeur, Intergalactic Space feels cold and desolate, and Ice Forests Of Orion shimmers with crystalline beauty. I imagine such music goes splendidly with images of drifting stars, floating nebulae, and sprawling galactic bodies splashed across a planetarium’s ceiling. You wouldn’t even need the Pink Floyd lasers to enjoy it! Say, what’s playing at the ol’ H.R. MacMillan Space Centre anyway? “Harold’s Solar System”? Oh, how boring, a tour of those spiral empires is what we need here!

Anyhow, while the music on Galaxies generally holds up, there are a few moments that clearly were made for the feature. Main Theme’s almost muzaky overtone has “opening credits” written all over it, while the four Starflights were likely transitional pieces within the show (it’s quite funny hearing the THX Deep Note in Starflight 1; gotta make sure the planetarium’s speakers are workin’ too!). And then there’s the final track (and presumed credits roll background), Down To Earth, which brings Braheny’s jazz background into play. It’s... um... well... ‘80s and jazz, that’s, er... ugh...

Right, it shouldn’t be surprising New Age attributes would be present on a Braheny collection, but aside from the last cut, Galaxies skilfully flirts between the sap and the sublime, much like Vangelis’ often did (yeah, the Cosmos comparison was inevitable). Obviously this album won’t appeal to Lustmord disciples, but it’s pleasant enough as a bit of light, space ambient fluff.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV

The Null Corporation: 2008

This is the last one, I promise. Well, at least until we get around the ‘P’s, if I decide to pick up Pretty Hate Machine (might as well, right?). I’m astounded that I now own this much Nine Inch Nails material, gathered up in such a small frame of time (helps when friends are offloading their old CDs). I mean, there were odd tunes here and there that I liked, thought were interesting, didn’t mind if they happened to air, but little that’d make me go, “Okay, let’s do this!”, and properly dive into Trent Reznor’s discography. Something had to be a catalyst though, to finally pique my curiosity enough to take that leap, and that would happen to be this here album, Ghosts I-IV.

Actually, it was a single track off here that did it, used as the backing score to this fucking awesome video of the Cassini Mission to Saturn, created by Chris Abbas. The images are already lovely, but the accompanying music stunned me when it was revealed as a Nine Inch Nails piece. The band was doing music like this? And not as a simple one-off filler, but a whole album’s worth? Wait, two CDs worth!? I’ve misjudged you, Nine Inch Nails, may I experience more?

To be fair, nearly two hours of pleasant, ambient doodling can get tedious (yet Brian Eno’s had a long career peddling such stuff), even with such a tantalizing piece as 2 Ghosts I leading the way. The whole project isn’t really about that though; rather, having finally freed himself from any and all record contract obligations once his deal with Interscope ended, Reznor desired to free himself of any and all creative direction. In other words, no specific themes or album concepts, just musical expression and experimentation, letting the muses of everyone involved to go where it may. Swell… jazz, then.

Heh, no, but Ghosts I-IV does get rambly after a while. As one can expect with drifting muses, the music comes off like half-formed ideas, bits and pieces of something that could have been made into a greater whole had Reznor went down that road instead. With so few breaking even the four-minute mark, it’s the sort of music you’d expect to hear as transitional pieces on a proper album, or weird experimental remixes on Side B. I can’t say I was ever bored with Ghosts, as there’s enough stylistic variation – glacial piano drone, brief industrial freak-outs, distortion-fuzz rock jams – that’ll keep your attention, just to hear what odd-ball sounds will come with the next cut. At the same time though, so much of it comes off like teases, musical ideas deserving of more care.

Apparently Ghosts was intended as a one-shot EP, and perhaps it should have remained as such despite Reznor and co. enjoying all the results. It’s akin to one of those ‘studio sessions’ rock bands often release as bonus discs to their classic albums, only missing the classic album. Interesting and oddly enjoyable, but unessential.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Police - Ghost In The Machine

A & M Records: 1981

2 Unlimited was incredibly influential in developing my musical tastes – it’s possible I might not even be writing electronic music reviews were it not for them (what would this blog be instead? Rap Music Critic? Grunge Music Critic? Country Music Cri- oh, God no!). There is a group, however, that I heavily enjoyed well before that, predating even the obligatory Raffi stage we all go through as children. Well, two, but no point in getting into Boney M right now, as this review’s already in danger of getting lost down Anecdote Alley.

Right, The Police. I’m surprised how ingrained memories of playing Ghost In The Machine are. Fiddling through my father’s record collection, always looking for that distinct black cover with the weird LCD markings (it's the band's faces, Toddler Sykonee). Putting it on the turntable, instantly being mesmerized by the opening synth stabs of Spirits In The Material World, feeling giddy over the pop-romp of Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, and eagerly anticipating that haunting, emergent pulse of Invisible Sun. I don’t recall listening to much beyond that. I was only ever after the opening salvo, the rest of the tunes going way over my young head.

I could also point to this album as planting seeds for my fascination for things electronic based, but that's stupid, exposure to themes of technology overtaking humanity an inevitability growing up in the '80s (well, where such technology existed anyway). Maybe it was the recession of the time souring moods, but Ghost In The Machine finds The Police (re: Sting, mostly) far more contemplative than they'd been in the years prior. Sure, they still have time for uptempo rock numbers like Rehumanize Yourself, reggae jam One World and the like, but aside from Hungry For You (a sort of sister track to Everything...), the themes of fear for the future and where mankind's heading persist. End the album with a melancholy track titled Darkness? Yeah, definitely far more mature topics than I could have hoped to understand.

Significantly older now, I've not only come to appreciate the themes of this album (if somewhat snicker with the benefit of hindsight), but the musicianship as well. The Police have long been one of those remarkable bands where their talents were often overshadowed by their hit-making ability. Four albums deep now, and they've started experimenting with jazz fusion (oh, Sting loves to honk on that sax throughout) and prog rock (Secret Journey has lovely guitar effects in play); and yes, more synthesizers than ever used before. And damn, that bassline in Spirits In A Material World is bonkers, utterly remarkable how such a screwy hook gels with the rest of the song. I got to catch their reunion tour, and Sting couldn't get it right, causing a muddled rendition of the song.

Ack, that's yet another anecdote. Too many, gotta abort this review now. Check out Ghost In The Machine if you haven't already, it's easily the darkest of The Police's efforts.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2 Unlimited - Get Ready

Quality: 1992

What shame is there with this one? It shouldn’t even be a surprise, as I’ve many times proclaimed 2 Unlimited one of the best acts to emerge from the eurodance scene of the early ‘90s, if not the best. Their hits are timeless in a way so much ‘techno’ of that era isn’t. Of course, it doesn’t hurt they’ve been ridiculously whored out to every sports arena ever, endlessly lodging their catchy hooks and stompin’ beats into the collective consciousness of stadium participants across the globe. Still, if it worked for AC/DC, why not some plucky Belgian group too?

What’s made hits like Get Ready For This and Twilight Zone enduring is how slick they sound, even by today’s standards (you can pump these tunes today and get the same reaction). They’re using all the tropes Belgian rave was popular for, but compared to the underground grit of most records of the time, this stuff has crossover appeal right out the gate. Throw in raps and vocals care of Ray Slijngaard and Anita Dels, and you’ve a formula that went on to be heavily imitated for years to come, though seldom exceeded.

What about this here proper debut album, Get Ready!, then? Everyone knows the hits, but did their album material ever warrant a look? Pft, if you were a fan, damn skippy it did, but I'm not gonna preach to the choir. Sit down and take a gander at what Album-Orientated-Unlimited involved in ye' olde year 1992.

First off are two more hits, The Magic Friend and Workaholic. The former's one of those goofy tunes that was fine back in the day, but doesn't hold up out of its era. Workaholic, however, still packs a punch, a bizarre scratchy synth forming the basis of the main lead; the 'Big Ben' intro also often gets used at sporting events (“get to work, home team!”). The coarse nature of this tune (including that classic “who the fuck are you” sample), along with strong cuts like Rougher Than The Average, Contrast, and Delight show 2 Unlimited still had a sense of the rave scene they spawned from, despite the underground totally disowning them by that point.

Then there are the ballads. Fuck... Forget them, especially the dire Eternally Yours; utterly sap r'n'b knockoffs.

Interestingly, as 2 Unlimited's popularity grew large enough to export Get Ready! upon American shores, some changes were made to the album. Instead of having dedicated sections for Vocal Mixes, Instrumental Mixes, and (ugh) romance, the tunes were re-arranged for stronger album flow. Instrumentals of the non-hits were removed, and the B-side to Get Ready For This, Pacific Walk, was added, a downtempo bit of balearic chill, interesting as a curiosity in 2 Unlimited's discography.

Get Ready is an odd album, all things considered, stuck at a crossroad between raves of before and eurodance of the future. Despite production quality leagues above their contemporaries, the rough edges still show, giving it scrappy fun flavor later releases would lack.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Various - Get Lost 4: Damian Lazarus

Crosstown Rebels: 2011

Alright, another confession. What's this one, number six or seven now? Ah, where's the point in having a blog if you can't unearth the shames of music-buying past. Not that I should be ashamed of this one, mind, it’s just when you cynically brandish a pitchfork against music review sites like Pitchfork and Resident Advisor, the last thing you’d want to be caught doing is actually paying attention to something they recommend. Yet in the year 2011, I was ridiculously out of the loop for new electronic music, almost all my efforts going into exploring the past. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to peruse some of the current material ol’ RA was talking about, take in a few samples of their ‘4/5 and higher’ offerings. Lo’ and behold, there even were a couple albums that sparked my interest enough to check further!

So obviously, this Get Lost 4 from Crosstown Rebels honcho Damian Lazarus was one of those releases. Yeah, I know, quite a surprise since I’ll rip into that whole deep k-house scene any chance I get, but this mix surprised me with strong flow and musical choices. The Get Lost series is Crosstown Rebels’ label showcase, though not a terribly prominent one. It’d suffered a four year absence before being resurrected by Lazarus himself for this instalment, yet as the label gained tons of positive press in 2011, it seemed appropriate to bring it back.

If you’re familiar with any of Jamie Jones’ or Seth Troxler’s output (and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t by this point), the familiar slow, bobbly bassline this brand of deep house likes is present, but used sparingly such that it doesn’t drag everything down. In fact, when it makes a return near the end with Art Department’s All Mine, it’s quite welcome, a sort of perfect capper to a dubbed-out little journey.

Uh oh... there’s that word almost exclusively used for prog mixes: ‘journey’. And yeah, Get Lost 4 does remind me of such a set, sort of a CD1 option if Deep Dish were still churning out Global Undergrouds. Dana Ruh’s Night Till Dawn has all the hallmarks of those early-‘00s ‘dark prog’ records, while Daphni’s Ye Ye works as a strong set climax (though clearly understated as the music in this mix tends to be). Maybe that’s why I liked this disc more than past experiences with this genre would dictate, holding a stronger sense of narrative that isn’t lost in druggy detours. Oh, they’re there – it’s Crosstown Rebels, they couldn’t escape their self-induced ketamine daze if they tried, especially following the success that was previous year’s Without You from Art Department – but it’s almost exclusively shunted to the bookends of this set.

There you have it, yet another shame of mine, yet I cannot claim starry-eyed youth for this one. Then again, it’s not like RA never hits the mark with good recommendations, but it’s still hard trusting a rag that changes tastes as trendily as that one does.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

S.E.T.I. - The Geometry Of Night

Incoming!: 1996

Swell, another act that shares their name with a similar sounding one, both initially released around the same time too (dark ambient, why mid-'90s of course). Fortunately, this one's easier to clarify than all that Gas. We're dealing with Andrew Lagowski for this S.E.T.I., who retains the acronym's attributes. The other goes by Seti (or SETI), and is comprised of Savvas Ysatis and Taylor Deupree. Also, the latter only released a few (highly regarded) albums, whereas Lagowski's been going strong to this day. The most important difference, however, is just how well known each are. Seti's sophomore effort, Pharos, is something of a classic within space ambient drone circles. S.E.T.I.'s sophomore effort, The Geometry Of Night, is, um... not so much.

Actually, this album isn't drone at all. Mostly it's ambient dub, though of a much darker nature than what Beyond pioneered. S.E.T.I. sounds like what The Higher Intelligence Agency would if Bobby Bird was far more paranoid about life, as Lagowski makes use of spoken samples about government agendas and information control. Fortunately, it's not rampant throughout the album such that it drags the experience into tin-hat ridiculousness, but it does set a moody tone that can feel claustrophobic while listening. A strange theme, really, considering much of the artwork within reflects mankind's attempts to communicate with beings out in the great beyond. I can't tell if Lagowski's being pessimistic or optimistic. Maybe it's all down to how you interpret these tunes.

Still, it's not like The Geometry Of Night is highly complex or filled with stunning production. Most of the tunes are straight-forward enough, with dubby grooves accompanied with dark ambient sounds. Though a fresh-sounding take on the formula, it's rather dry at times due to the bleak nature of the music, and the rhythms are quite heavy in the mixdown, often drowning out whatever pad work or subtle melancholic melodies Lagowski crafts. The only track to break form is Mare Crisium, utilizing Gregorian chants to haunting affect for much of the runtime – a brief bit of beatwork at the end feels unnecessary, though doesn't impede the song either. It does a wonderful job of capturing the cold desolation of a lunar surface, and it can't be a coincidence ol' Andrew chose the “Sea Of Crisis” as a title, given the conspiratorial nature of this album.

Not much else to say about this one. The Geometry Of Night's one of those albums that'll make a nice addition to your dark ambient dub collection, if you so happen to be gathering one, but not the most critical to own either. I definitely hummed-and-hawed over it whenever I saw it sitting in a store, always bypassing it due to limited funds; gut feeling told me it'd be alright, but nothing mind blowing, and turns out I was right when I did bite the bullet. Funny enough, due to a pricing error in the store's system, I got the CD for free! Conspiracy? *cue Mare Crisium...*

Friday, May 17, 2013

Jay Tripwire - Gemini Soul (Original TC Review)

Nordic Trax: 2007

(2013 Update:
It was funny listening to this again, given the context I'm more familiar with now within the year it came out. Jay pretty much ignored any and all 'minimal deep-tech' tropes that'd grown incredibly popular overseas, and God is it ever refreshing to hear deep house from the year '07 play to its West Coast American strengths. Tripwire's released a couple more digi-albums in recent years, but it seems his general output has slowed considerably compared to his heady output of the '00s.

Strangely, the thing I remember most about this album is where I happened to write much of this review for it, while in a layover at a bus depot in Kamloops. Not the best memories for deep, jazzy house music, that's for sure.)



IN BRIEF: House from the source.

Ol’ Jay has many fans across the globe, and garnered plenty of plaudits for his tribal-infused house. Yet in his own home of Vancouver, he goes relatively unnoticed, often regarded as just ‘another one of the guys’. Sure, folks look forward to his return to the decks of some local underground club but not often with the kind of fanfare as the reception he gets overseas.

He isn’t alone in this either. Many a Vancouver-based DJ is taken for granted in his or her scene, only to be worshiped elsewhere. Are other cities like this? Somehow I doubt it. Heck, the opposite holds true for many New York DJs alone (word has it Junior Vasquez can only play one of his 'legendary' sets at home, as one example). Perhaps Vancouverites take a more humbled stance regarding their homegrown talent? Or maybe they really are spoiled by the local heroes?

Eh... and what does any of this have to do with Tripwire’s debut artist album, you ask? Um... not a whole lot actually - figured I’d give you a peek at the local scene while I was covering someone from here. But enough with this semi-bloggish intro. Let’s get into some actual music!

So this is the first full-length album from Tripwire. For a guy who’s produced oodles of singles this decade, it’s been some time coming but then house music of Jay’s sort tends to be a singles market - tracks are often designed to fit into DJ sets; album orientated house (AOH?) isn’t very common. And this is glaringly apparent on Gemini Soul. Although the tracks are arranged for as smooth a listening experience as possible, it still feels like you’re hearing a collection of singles rather than a flowing album. It doesn’t make it bad by any stretch but does come off a bit drily. Fortunately, the actual music more than makes up for this.

The West Coast of North America has long held a reputation for soulful deep house, and Tripwire’s contributions don’t falter here. However, his locale does have an impact on his style. The southern strongholds in San Francisco and L.A. often maintain a sunny disposition, an obvious influence from the climate. Vancouver, on the other hand, is situated in a place where the skies can be overcast for long stretches at a time, with rain ranging from annoying spittle to whipping in your face. This does create a melancholic mood at times, the kind of atmosphere that suits snuggling up in a warm blanket with hot chocolate. Gemini Soul makes ample use of moody pads that capture a glum rainy Vancouver day aptly.

Don’t worry though, folks. Jay’s music flirts with other flavors too. Sexier bumpers like Body To Body; jazzier offerings in Call And Answer and English Bay; dubby cuts like The Evil That Men Do; and even a dash of electro proper in Tokyo Space Noodles. For house heads, there’s a fine platter of variety pie to be had.

Still, for as pleasant Tripwire’s sound is, it’s hardly revolutionary stuff. This is house music that honors its roots and feels no obligation to move forward. A number of these tracks could just as easily been produced in the early-'90s as in the late-'00s in terms of structure and sound - heck, the final track reminds me of some BKS b-side (an extra bit of Canadiana for all you fellow canucks out there). Not to say Jay should have jumped on current trends; I’m actually quite thankful I didn’t have to endure a release where tuneless hooks and funkless farting basslines cropped up. But if the sound of vintage house music has never held much appeal for you, Gemini Soul probably won’t win you over.

In the end though, Tripwire has provided a splendid collection of tunes for you to gorge on. It won’t win any originality points but when you have an album that feeds the soul like hot chocolate on an overcast gray day, you can’t help but be reminded that sometimes the oldest tricks work best.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nebula - Gate To Infinity

Disturbance: 1997

As with so many shopping splurges at local record stores (back when they were still plentiful), the cover caught my attention, sitting amongst so many forlorn DJ mug shots in the ‘Electronic/Dance’ section. Oh, charming mid-'90s CG art, you never make sense, but you're always much more fun to look at. With a back cover promising tracks with such spacey names as Galaxy NGC 2997 and Cygnus A, you bet your ass I went into this one sight-unheard. And, well... Gate To Infinity turned out a'ight. Mostly acid techno, though incredibly under-produced even by mid-'90s standards. I suspect that was partly the intent, to go for a raw, underground sound, but compared to the slamming stuff being churned out by the London Acid Techno Crew, Nebula's material comes off weak.

Oh well, let’s see what he does get right. Elvio Trampus, the man behind this project (and nearly a dozen other ones) kicks Gate To Infinity off in fine form, using a crafty blend of jungle, acid, and ambient techno - heck, Galaxy NGC 2997 could almost have appeared in an LTJ Bukem set. Irregular Area is a strong follow-up in this vein, and third track Sky is a dubbed-out downbeat variant of the sound. Frankly, if the whole album had been tunes of this nature, I’d rate it higher (erm, if I gave out scores anymore, that is).

After that though, there’s little for me to note. Ol’ Elvio does mix things up between quirky off-beat tunes and serious hard-hitters, but I’m not getting any decent sense of flow on this album. The tracks almost sound like batches of previously released singles all lumped together for a full-length, but Lord Discogs tells me these were all original works for Gate To Infinity. I’m rather stunned that someone who showed such capable beat-craft on the opening three cuts would also produce such drab sludge as in Audichromatik (really? a gabber kick??). Though the trancey titular cut and Cygnus A help keep the back end of this album from being a total write-off, it just can’t quite reach the potential promise that opening salvo hinted at.

But hey, there was enough good stuff here to at least give Nebula another chance should I happen across another of his releases. Lo’ and behold, I actually did stumble upon another Nebula album in the ‘Electronic/Dance’ section a couple years later, titled Atomic Ritual. “Sweet,” thinks I, “it’s even got an updated take on Gate To Infinity's cover.”; star-like symbol, seemingly floating in the void of space. Yet, something about it seemed off, appearing too slick for an almost entirely unknown mid-‘90s techno producer. Maybe a quick play at the shop’s listen station was called for.

What the…? Guitars? Metal?? This can’t be the same act. Don’t the staff check these things? Man, good thing I double-checked on that one, as I’ve no need for any- eh? You say Atomic Ritual’s actually pretty good? Uh… guess I’ll have to take your word for it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gas - Gas 0095 (Original TC Review)

em:t/Microscopics: 1995/2008

(2013 Update:
I had to find out exactly what that
Timestretch track properly sounded like, so using Mixcraft, I time-stretched the shit out of it! Turns out it's just some ambient drone, though I did notice the slower I got it, subtle tiny bleeps began revealing themselves. Oh, Mr. Jarvis, you and your fascination with all things infinitesimal.)


IN BRIEF: Soothing synths and experimental doodling.

Yep, this is an album by Gas, and it is a re-issue from the mid-90s, but before all you Wolfgang Voigt fans out there befuddle yourself over what’s going on here, allow me to clarify. The individual behind this particular Gas alias is Mat Jarvis, whom has continuously burbled in obscurity for years, known primarily only to the cultish fans of ambient techno label em:t. As such, fans of the well-known obscure Gas project might cynically think this lesser-known obscure Gas project is trying to gain some extra publicity by re-issuing this album at a time when interest in the well-known obscure Gas project has never been higher. Meanwhile, everyone else outside the ambient techno sphere of influence has read the previous sentence, wondered what this fool just said, and promptly clicked ‘Back’ on their web browser. Probably.

For those whose curiosity kept them on this page, Jarvis’ Gas (oh, the puns we could have…) falls into the more egg-headed variety of ambient techno. Don’t worry too much, though, as the sonic experimentalism associated with this style doesn’t grow too unbearable. In fact, Gas 0095 is quite quaint in execution.

The five main tracks - Experiments On Live Electricity, Microscopic, Earthshake, Mathematics And Electronics, and Discovery - all make use of simple drum programming, soothing backing pads, and bleepy supporting sounds, easily conjuring up the kinds of images one might associate with scientific endeavors. Meanwhile, the lead synths in these tunes tend to evoke a sense of wonder at the mysteries of the world around us – because they are subtle, though, it seems Jarvis is more intrigued by inner space rather than outer space. Well, actually, that may only be the case with the lovely Microscopic and delicate Disocvery, while Earthshake is more of a ‘club cut.’

As for the other two, their unwieldy lengthy names also reveal unwieldy lengthy tracks. Experiments… and Mathematics… both have some nice things working for them, but overall ramble too much. Mathematics… in particular really stumbles with its faux-funk leanings, never grabbing you in the same way the better cuts on this album do. It’s telling that the literal sonic *blip* that is Miniscule is more of a talking point than Mathematics…, in that it’s such a “what’s the point?” moment. I guess Jarvis figured it’d be ‘clever’ to make one of the shortest songs in existence, lasting a fraction of a second. Hnn, perhaps it’s quirky in showing how remarkably acute our audio perception can be to even hear something like that, but indeed, “what’s the point?”

There isn’t much to talk about with the rest of the sonic doodles comprising Gas 0095. Earthloop is about the closest thing coming to a fully-fledged song, with blissful ambient loops and soothing meditative sounds comprising the bulk of it. There’s another “why?” sonic experiment in Timestretch (a four-and-a-half minute long song compressed into one second), and other brief weird bits that sound like they could be the backing soundtrack to a science documentary. These are all skippable for the most part, although they last so short you’d probably barely notice them during a play-through.

Was this album worth re-issuing then? Of course, silly. It’s always good to have old collections of music made available again, even if it only interests a select few out there. The better question to ask is whether this particular re-issue is worth the attention of you, the casual consumer. Microscopic is definitely a keeper, while Earthshake, Earthloop, and even Experiments… should warrant your attention if you fancy ambient techno from the mid-90s. However, Gas 0095 is far from a necessary pick-up, as there’s plenty of other similar releases from that time which hold up better. Jarvis’ project does have moments of unique charm, but not enough to draw in those who prefer their ambient techno with much less experimentation.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile

Nothing Records: 1999

This doesn't feel right. For those singles, sure, no problem. Remix EPs? Ain't no thang. Even a critically hailed album in The Downward Spiral? Relatively straight-forward, as I'd heard most of the big tunes off that one at one time or another, not to mention all the positive press its received several years after-the-fact made it easy figuring out what to expect and enjoy.

The Fragile is an entirely different case though. As Trent Reznor's third proper Nine Inch Nails album, an absurd amount of expectation was weighed upon it. Not only were folks wondering if he’d maintain his creative momentum, but might he even rescue industrial-rock from the doldrums the genre was suffering? Let’s be honest here: that scene had turned passé as nu-metal’d risen to prominence in the late ‘90s, nor was it done any favours by goofball hits like Rob Zombie’s Dragula. If ever there was a time to re-establish industrial within the public conscious as music with creative ingenuity and passion, that time was now (er, then).

Since all most remember from alternative rock at the turn of the century are bands like Limp Bizkit and Creed, it’s safe to say The Fragile failed to make the impact many hoped it could. To be fair to Reznor though, he may never have intended the album to generate such acclaim. It’s always a dubious endeavour for rock musicians to attempt the double-LP, critics ready to pounce with claims of hubris overshadowing talent. Still, Reznor had built up a decade’s worth of good will, thus The Fragile garnered plaudits for ambition, if not sales numbers.

So here's my conundrum: this album's been regarded as something of an 'art rock' experience, one that won't reveal itself with immediate catchiness, but with subtleties to be enjoyed after repeated listens - and I'm sure I will after a few more plays; hard, thrashing rock and oozing, ambient experimentation definitely makes this one enjoyed in a proper play-through. Unfortunately, due to my ridiculous self-imposed constraints, I don't get repeated plays to provide an in-depth analysis of The Fragile, merely what a couple quick listens offer mere days after I've removed the shrink-wrap. So... essentially how most enjoyed the album that first week it hit the streets.

And...? It's a good album, with subtleties I'll enjoy after repeated listen, but lacking those instantly memorable tunes one could still expect on a Nine Inch Nails release. No Closer, Wish, even Perfect Drug (the stop-gap single released a couple years prior). For sure, good songs abound on The Fragile, but they feel more as a part of a greater whole, whereas tunes off The Downward Spiral could stand alone just as well.

Yes indeed, it’s unfair that I must write a review of The Fragile without ample time to properly digest its contents. Oh well, I’m sure there’s exhaustively in-depth reviews of it floating out in interwebland. I’ll just leave off with the confirmation that, yes, it’s a worthy addition to the Nine Inch Nails legacy.

Monday, May 13, 2013

DJ 3000 - Galactic Caravan (2013 Update)

Motech: 2010

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

Man, was I ever at the end of my wick when I wrote that review three years ago. It’s barely longer than what I impose upon myself now. I’d basically given up even trying to review new material by that point, so it’s surprising Galactic Caravan caught my attention enough to manage such a comparatively short review for TranceCritic by my standards. Guess hearing strong, straight-forward tech-house was such a breath of fresh air back then, I felt the album deserved whatever props it could get, even if on a soon-to-be-dead website.

Sadly, in writing such an unintentionally short review, I left out some other tidbits of info (or I just couldn’t be bothered to research further). For instance, the name DJ 3000 itself. Did you know that Frank Juncaj took the name from a Simpsons episode, the one where those idiot radio DJs who refuse to give Bart an elephant prize are threatened to be replaced by a similarly named machine. The DJ 3000 was such a technologically advanced contraption that it could reproduce any and all necessary inane jock-talk. Then again, maybe Mr. Juncaj just came up with it on the fly, but it was funny noticing it when I recently watched that episode again.

Another thing I’m surprised I neglected to mention was how the tracks on Galactic Caravan at times remind me of good ol’ Banco de Gaia, what with that bouncy, Middle Eastern vibe running through. Obviously not exactly alike, but enough that a namedrop wouldn’t have been out of place for yours truly, despite Marks and Juncaj being of totally disparate scenes. Festival hippies and Detroit head-bobbers, all joined in unison under one tent. Yeah, that’d be a kick-ass show. Talvin Singh can open.

That’s all I got. Yeah, nothing revolutionary or insightful to be found with this 2013 Update. Ain’t a whole lot more I can add, except the perfunctory “why this no more well-known?” complaint for ethnic-fusion tech-house. Juncaj hasn’t released any DJ 3000 follow-ups to Galactic Caravan in the LP form, though a smattering of singles came out on start-up label Contuse last year; compared to the blistering rate of mid-‘00s Motech material though, it’s almost as though ol’ Frank’s decided stepping back from the hustle of underground music business was a wiser course of action. Shame if he’d think thus, as he’s got a solid, unique sound that still has untapped potential.

Look, I know I’m rambling at this point. Too many morning shifts have rendered my sleeping habits utterly wonk, and while I can still muddle through half-decent reviews with fresh material (ooh, that Nine Inch Nails double-CD came in!), coming up with anything meaningful for a full 2013 Update on such a recent-but-unknown release is nigh impossible. I actually initially fooled myself into thinking I’d get away with a simple two-paragraph blurb, forgetting I’d written and uploaded a proper(ish) review here back when. Have I reached my quota yet? Close enough.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aquila - Gain Control

Dacru Records: 2009

Moan and groan, I thought I was done with this stuff. I had my fill covering it for TranceCritic, occasionally an incredibly solid album still crosses my way, but this? I’m actually surprised it’s still being peddled, at least at this standard of quality. I know some scenes and genres can recycle the same sounds and tropes for years on end, but this? Well, these chaps aren’t from Israel, so I guess there’s at least that.

If I’m doing all this moaning and groaning, then why do I even have Aquila’s debut (and only) album Gain Control? As with many things psy-trance based as of late, it was another recommendation at the always awesome ektoplazm.com, I think brought up during an online discussion over new full-on psy albums that weren’t bunk. What hurt is there in downloading a free album, right? If it’s not all that good, it’ll either get deleted or simply forgotten to the nether-realm of the harddrive. Unless, of course, I engage in a dedicated, sequenced re-listen of everything I have. Such foolishness.

Aquila, a three-piece psy act, are based out of Belgium, but if you were to go by their sound, you’d swear it was just another Israeli full-on project from the mid-‘00s. This was released in 2009, however, which actually shocked me when I went to Lord Discogs to double check. To be blunt as a brick, Gain Control sounds exactly like the generic material released on some of those Trancelucent compilations I reviewed way back eight years ago. I dunno, maybe these were tracks Aquila’d been sitting on for a while, and simply gathered them up a few years after the fact when they finally properly released a full-length, but I’m not finding any info to suggest otherwise.

I suppose what’s troubling me here is it’s not like Aquila’s material is awful - it’s simply more of the same, and full-on can sound incredibly tired even after the smallest amount of it. Listening to Gain Control has actually made me come to appreciate The Misted Muppet’s From The Legend even more now, just for how much different it stands out from typical full-on psy. This one, though? I’m at a loss to remember specifics. There are a few tracks that would sound great while being played out at a forest party underneath the summer stars (heck, even did while taking a midnight stroll to the corner shop for a late night energy drink), but nothing I’m anxious to throw on again anytime soon.

Somehow, I suspect had Gain Control been some of my earliest exposure to full-on psy, I’d be more lenient of it, maybe even give it a thumbs up on par with the mid-‘00s material I still occasionally enjoy. As it stands though, I'm just disappoint, son, moreso with Ektoplazm for rating this than my own folly. You'd think a website so immersed in the psy scene would have fresher sounding full-on to recommend when called upon.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Various - Future Trance Trax: A Time Traveling Experience

Hypnotic: 1995

Not to be confused with the still running (!) Future Trance series released by Polystar, this is Future Trance Trax, as released by Hypnotic in the mid-‘90s. There wasn’t any idea on Hypnotic’s part to suggest this was the future sound of trance, just a simple, silly unique title they’d slap on nearly every release of theirs: Trance In Time, Travelling In Trance, Trance Of The Gods, etc. What this compilation specifically showcases is music from Outloud Records, a sort of Danish version of Suck Me Plasma.

That in mind, it’d be quick to assume the music on hand shares the same hard German trance style that Talla 2XLC’s label enjoyed pushing in those days. This stuff’s a little different though, almost a smoother take on the sound. A… ‘future’ take? Hah, no. Whereas German trance tended to sound epic and spacey, these cuts feel more grounded, a sense of the mysterious lurking within forested shadows; or maybe it’s that damned Will O’ The Wisp track near the end making me feel that.

So some quick particulars. Audio Science is here with their moody acid Monsoon, an interesting track in how it starts as a slow groover before erupting into a brisk pace - just like a monsoon, eh, eh? Beyond Reality is also here with two tracks: Mind Runner and Semi - Analogue. The former was the duo’s biggest hit (okay, only hit), but we’re treated to the calmer Love Mix as the compilation’s closer. Semi - Analogue’s an okay opener, though rather odd seeing as how it was the b-side to Mind Runner. Another act by the name of Giez was a regular contributor to latter-era Hypnotic, but their track here, I'm A Hero, is silly. Mind, that's probably just personal bias disliking actual lyrics on my trance compilations – dammit, that's why I left euro-dance back in the day.

Future Trance Trax also features a few exclusives, though little that I’d figure critical to own unless you’re a classic trance completist. I’m also not sure if they were exclusive to Hypnotic or Outloud, but I’ll assume the latter, if only because Torben Schmidt (yet another multi-alias man, most famous for the duo Aqualite) appears to be the chap behind most of them, and he ain’t an L.A. boy. Anyhow, most of these one-offs are okay, invoking that ‘mystical trance’ vibe I mentioned earlier. Like… ‘fairy and unicorn’ trance? Good God, no, though few are hilariously under produced and come off as euro-dance instrumentals.

And that's all for this one. Hypnotic released better compilations in its heyday, but quite a few weak-ass ones afterward too (many licensed from Outloud no less, when they went down a drab hard acid road). Future Trance Trax is about as middle-of-the-road as Hypnotic trance compilations could get. Which means, of course, that is was a classic back in the day! Oh yes, many a drunken house party was spent flailing to Challenge’s In The Shock with a single strobe light. It’s all we had.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Nine Inch Nails - Further Down The Spiral

Nothing Records: 1995

I swear I never intended to get such a crash-course in Nine Inch Nails’ peak years. I figured it’d come as a slow, gradual process, assimilating Reznor’s music at a comfortable pace of my own volition. Oh so fool hardy of me to think thus. It’s almost as though ol’ Trent intended to release so much material within such a narrow alphabetical range, such that should anyone attempt to listen through their music collections in that order, they’d be forced to go through Nine Inch Nails discography almost all at once. It even makes me want to pick up The Fragile now, just to complete the process. Oh what the hell, I may as well.

Until that shows up, however, here we get the remix EP to The Downward Spiral, Further Down The Spiral. I’m not sure why it’s considered an EP though, as its runtime easily makes this a proper full-length remix album. And like all Nine Inch Nails remix projects, an attempt at creative a cohesive listening experience is repeated, a small collection of artists and producers called upon for all eleven tracks.

Returning from the Fixed remix project are industry icons Coil and J.G. Thirlwell (most well known as Foetus). Coil’s trippy, psychedelic take on The Downward Spiral actually ends up sounding like something The Orb was producing in those days (which may have contributed to Dr. Patterson getting tapped for a remix on The Perfect Drug a couple years later), while three different version of Erased play more to Coil’s twisted sense of choking soundscapes (the short Polite version notwithstanding). Meanwhile, Mr. Thirlwell gets his hands on Mr. Self Destruct, and brings the thrashing original closer to a proper industrial work; good for what it is, but his remix for Wish still ranks as his best.

Reznor adds a little distortion to Hurt, and studio associates Brian Pollack and Sean Beaven turn Self Destruction more clubby. Let’s face it though, the real draw of Further Down The Spiral is the special guest producer on hand. That’s right, let’s give it up for Rick Rubin! He gets to work with Piggy, where-

Eh? What do you mean there’s another special guest providing a remix? No he isn’t. Oh, he was approached to do so - guess someone in Reznor’s camp (Trent himself?) noticed that oddball Aphex Twin chap shared a similar noisy aesthetic, and thought he’d make for a welcome addition to the Further project. Turns out, however, Richard D. James couldn’t be bothered to even listen to the original track to remix, and simply sent some unreleased material instead (legend purports he initially used the excuse of “sped up entire song to use as a snare” to get away with it).

So you ended up with a Nine Inch Nails remix album, plus two new Aphex Twin tunes (both of which skew closer to his drill’n’bass period). Guess Futher Down The Spiral becomes essential purchasing if you’re a completist of either act.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien - Funk Man (The Stimulus Package)

self-released:2009

While folks have been waiting for a new Deltron forever now (a… torturous… wait…), in the long meanwhile, ol’ Del kept himself busy, mostly concentrating on solo material over the past decade. I kind of ragged on him with that Hieroglyphics album, but following a little downtime after it, he seemed to find his form again, if not repeat the brilliant creativity that marked his turn-of-the-century output (not sure anyone could though). In 2008, he finally released a proper follow-up to his 2000 album Both Sides Of The Brain, Eleventh Hour, a relatively light-hearted romp that recalled many of Del's sillier moments on prior releases. As it didn't really show signs of musical growth, it was a small disappointment for folks hoping he'd come back with more fire. Still, they couldn't argue Del had lost his touch, as that album delivered exactly what you'd expect from a Funkee Homosapien full-length.

This Funk Man album was a quick follow-up to Eleventh Hour, a sort of yang to that one's yin. Whereas the former showed off Del's playful side, this one's a showcase of his battle-rap skills, a field he's just as adept at as his off-kilter material. If you've been hankering for a return to his pissed-off No Need For Alarm era, this is about as close as it's come. To be fair, Del ain't sayin' nothing we haven't heard from 'underground conscious' rappers for years now, but he does it in such a flamboyant, cutting style that you can't help but sit up and take notice.

As the title suggests, Funk Man has a running theme of Tha Funkee Homosapien being the funkiest character around, going so far as to use the unfortunate “I'm stank, so I'm dope” trope …or something. Frankly, a track titled I'm Smellin' Myself should bomb, especially so when the lyrics contained are about as eyebrow rising as you'd suspect. Somehow though, Del pulls it off, but only just, my friends, only just.

Lyricism was never going to be a weak spot on a Del album anyway, but unfortunately the beats aren't quite up to snuff as prior albums. As everything's self-produced, the music tends to run through serviceable loops, mostly funky beats and the like. Del's an alright producer, but when he's had the likes of George Clinton, Prince Paul, and Dan The Automator providing the tunes, Funk Man can't help but come off a weaker offering in Del's discography.

So if that's the case, why should anyone but devout fans even bother with Funk Man? Well, how's about it being a free download sound to tempt you? Yep, there was no official release with this one, though it was added as a bonus disc to the 2011 album Golden Era. While I wouldn't recommend Funk Man as a starting point for Del's work, there's no reason to not check it out if you're at least a passing fan. Or if you need a Funkee Homosapien fix while waiting for the next Deltron album.

Monday, May 6, 2013

AK1200 - Fully Automatic

Moonshine Records: 1998

The late ‘90s were a great time for Moonshine Records, releasing several DJ mixes across several genres at a blistering rate. Though they first foraged a path into drum ‘n’ bass’, erm, jungle with the likes of Aphrodite and Doc Scott, a trifecta of other DJs carried them through the turn of the millennium: Dieselboy, DJ Dara, and Dave Minner, aka: AK1200. The former two had already established careers when they signed to Moonshine, but ol’ Dave was a relatively unknown entity when it came to commercial CDs. This here Fully Automatic was his first such release, and seeing as how he became a staple for Moonshine, he must have knocked out of the park, right?

Well, this was a popular disc among my circle of friends, so there’s that. In fact, it was so popular, that two of us had picked it up! Hey, this is a bigger deal than you’d think. Out in the hinterlands, only one person would purchase any particular CD (usually on a trip to Vancouver), and if anyone else liked it, they’d burn a copy. Thus, it was incredibly rare for two proper hard copies of a DJ mix CD to be floating around, but there was for Fully Automatic. Part of it too was, around the time, everyone in our crew was discovering just how awesome jungle was. Of course, we were mostly introduced to it through jump-up (always with the cheese), but from there we’d all snag whatever we could from whatever DJs were available: Grooverider, Bukem, Dara… Basically, it was a likely eventuality someone would get Fully Automatic, as I don’t think there was a single jungle DJ mix released in those years that one of us didn’t have. Geez, is this ever turning into Anecdote Alley. I’ll stop now.

So, AK1200. Fully Automatic. It’s a jungle mix CD, mostly finding a meeting point between tech-step and darkstep. There’s also a little jump-up, Photek-era drum-funk (?) and even neurofunk in its earliest forms. Plenty of sci-fi soundscapes too, though touches of hip-hop and jazz crop up as well. All this sounds like a mess of a tracklist, but ol’ Dave pulls it together for the most part. There are abrupt changes, for sure, but the set’s flow never flies off the rails. Most of the mixes are quick cuts and little clashing occurs. AK1200 even throws in a few extra tricks with the crossfader and scratching, though nothing most DJs couldn’t do with a little practice (to be honest, it comes off a bit amateurish after just listening to two CDs worth of DJ Premier scratching).

Damn, I spent more time reminiscing about Fully Automatic than actually reviewing the bloody thing. Well, it’s not like it’s an exceptional CD, but solid enough should you have a couple bones to spare at the used shop. As with so much music though, the memories associated with it can make it a larger deal than it actually is.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Gang Starr - Full Clip:A Decade Of Gang Starr

Virgin Records America, Inc: 1999

This double-disc collection of Gang Starr material opens with a live ‘rest in peace’ call-and-response recording for the then-recently deceased rapper Big L, a once rising star in the New York scene. Though Full Clip was released over ten years prior to Guru’s own death, I have to say it’s somewhat eerie hearing such a shout-out in the here and now. Like, as though the specter of death continued to lurk in the shadows. Waiting... Waiting...

Anyhow.

Gang Starr was comprised of producer DJ Premier and emcee Guru, and were one of the longest-running successful acts within hip-hop that comprised of just those two elements, neither overshadowing the other. Often it’s the microphone handlers that get all the attention; or a DJ will strike out on his own to become a top-grade turntablist; or the producer’s craft behind the mixing boards turns him into a hot commodity within the scene at large. Gang Starr was all of this, a remarkable feat considering all the factors that should have held them back beyond their Golden Era breakout. The whole ‘DJ and MC’ dynamic was a bygone relic of the ‘80s, overrun by the emergent gangsta scene, yet somehow they kept going when many of their peers fell by the wayside. Did folks mistake them for a gangsta act as well, what with a name like Gang Starr? D’oh, of course not. It was all about respect.

First off, Guru’s smoky style of rap was as smooth as beatnik flow. He had no need for aggressive shouting or profanity-laced lyrics; his words are sharp and to the point. Whether taking other MCs to task, telling street life tales, or giving shout-outs to jazz, he comes across as a wise elder, someone you best pay attention to when he speaks, as you’ll undoubtedly learn something after. If only DJ Premier wasn’t always making such fine beats, I wouldn’t be accidentally zoning him out so frequently.

Therein lay Gang Starr’s other weapon: DJ Premier’s impeccable sense of sampling. While he likely wasn’t the first to pilfer jazz and funk records of New York City’s past, he definitely became synonymous with the sound, almost single-handily dictating how underground eastcoast hip-hop would sound for the ensuing decade. If you weren't lucky enough to get Premier's touch on your track, chances were you'd end up style-biting the smooth, jazz-loop form for credibility.

Or perhaps all that is just the impression this Full Clip two-CD retrospective wants to impart. I'll admit I haven't delved into Gang Starr's proper albums, in part because this one provides almost all that you could want from the duo in a nice, tidy package. Their classics are accounted for (Words I Manifest, Militia, Rep, Steez ...plenty more!), plus assorted guest spots and rare one-offs make this more comprehensive than the Mass Appeal best-of released in 2006. Of course, Gang Starr’s style, with their unapologetic old-school approach to hip-hop, may not be for everyone. Like, those who figure trap-rap the height of sophistication.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hieroglyphics - Full Circle

Hiero Imperium: 2003

During the mid-'90s (yes, always with the '90s), the Hieroglyphics crew were gods among the backpack contingent of hip-hop fans. First to break out was that funkiest of homo sapiens, Del, soon followed by Souls Of Mischief (A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai). When label conflicts halted all their momentum for a while, the posse eventually took matters into their own hands and began self-releasing material through their website. As the decade came to a close, the Hiero crew made a definitive statement with 3rd Eye Vision, an instant classic among underground heads. The group's proper LP debut showcased everything that made Hieroglyphics such darlings of that scene, with sharp lyricism in the form of solo freestyles and group raps, plus great production that built upon the Golden Era's fun, free-wheelin' vibes. For those tired of mainstream rap's glamour and gangsterisms, it was a breath of fresh air.

Then the group went silent.

Oh, individually, their careers carried on successfully (especially so Del's), but as a posse, Hieroglyphics seemed to turn more wayward from each other with every passing year. Dammit, can't let rumour mongering tarnish their legacy. Half a decade after 3rd Eye Vision, it came time to release a new full-length, make yet another definitive statement; silence the doubters and reclaim hip-hop back from the new growing popularity of bling and crunk.

Or not.

Truth is, rap collectives have a difficult time beating the sophomore slump, possibly more so than any other form of music. The fire that initially united a group almost always fizzles out (or, in the case of an act like Jurrasic 5, never flares as bright as their breakout). Plus, solo careers make things difficult in drawing everyone back, other commitments demanding their time.

This is definitely highlighted on Full Circle by Del's presence; or rather, his near lack of it. Whoever you felt was the strongest emcee of Hieroglyphics, there's no doubt Tha Funkee Homosapien was a driving force on many a Hiero cut. Here though, he barely shows up, and when he does he comes off sounding bored, as though he's got other things to do (Halo’s the only exception). Maybe it was simply a case of creative burnout after so many successful projects in the years between, but his lackadaisical raps hurt the album.

But a crew doesn’t die just because one member ain’t on his A-game. Sadly, this feeling permeates throughout the album. Nothing comes across as outright awful (except that ridiculous Jingle Jangle cut), yet there’s something lacking on Full Circle. Steve ‘Flash’ Juan of rapreview.com called it missing ‘dopeness’, and I can’t think of a better term for it. Those moments that make you skip back to hear a track or verse again - filled on so many Hiero projects - just don’t exist on Full Circle. For the most part, it’s an album that sounds fine as it’s playing, but is easily forgotten once finished, with little incentive to replay any time soon.

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