Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Various - Frosty

Waveform Records: 1996

For many of my teenage years, I hadn't a clue what acid jazz exactly was, nor was I alone in my befuddlement. None of my peers knew either, though not much of surprise as I was the only chap among the 'Rupert Ravers' that even had much of an inclining towards the downtempo side of electronic music – at least enough to dig beyond the obvious names. I'd heard a little acid jazz before, but without knowing that's what it was, much less interested in exploring further. Just the name itself seemed so esoteric, a form of music that only old, mature ravers could get into. I'll grant that's partially true, but minor generational gaps didn't stop me from checking out old, respected ambient artists.

So when I saw a promotional blurb for a new Waveform compilation called Frosty, promising such trendy buzz words as 'acid jazz' and 'shadow jazz?' (yes, they had a question mark), I knew I'd get a crash course in the sound whether I liked it or not. The label was the first independent one I put blind devotion into, picking up all and everything I could, but for an imprint primarily peddling ambient dub and world beats, this was something different. Though I had faith in their musical output, I wasn't sure I was prepared for such a change of direction.

Truth is, acid jazz is a ridiculously broad style of music, running the gamut of brisk, uptempo dance-fusion work to, well, this compilation. This is about as chilled out the genre can get without becoming something else entirely, and I can see why some of the PR folks back then wondered if they could get away with calling it 'shadow jazz'. It has that Ninja Tune-like vibe going for it, with beats and melodies quite laid back, at times even dipping toes into dub and trip-hop’s pool. The cover may have an ice-encrusted buffalo, but the music paints more of a relaxing late-afternoon summer lounging on a patio with a spliff and lemonade.

A couple of prominent names appear with Howie B and A Man Called Adam, but the real standouts come from relative unknowns, supplied from the short-lived UK label 2 Kool. James Bong and The Thirteenth Sign provide tunes more on a ‘balearic trip-hop’ bent (yes, I know that’s daft), whereas Mr. Electric Triangle, Hunch, and Jaziac Sunflowers (that Moog!) lean more proper acid jazz. Round things out with quirky contributions from Beach Flea (alias of Man Called Adam; twelve minutes of downbeat haze) and The Egg (no, not The Egg; different group), and all arranged with a strong flow, and you have another winner in Waveform’s catalogue.

Back in the day, I could tell this was a strong compilation, yet I hadn’t a clue what to make of it. Thrown on at a house party or shared on headphones, none of my peers could either. We all agreed, however, it was class, worth the repeated plays. Perhaps that was all we needed.

The Misted Muppet - From The Legend (Original TC Review)

Trancelucent Productions: 2004

(2013 Update:
The opening few paragraphs are a good example of the convoluted ways we'd occasionally look for unique angles to review music at TranceCritic. All that mumbling about fantasy influences, though definitely in need of being touched upon given the material, still ended up being overlong and undoubtedly tedious for those just wondering about the music.

Speaking of, I'm surprised at how well this CD's held up.
From The Legend remains one of the best full-on psy albums I've heard, in that I hardly grow weary of playing it for the duration - almost always there's those two or three tracks that'll drag psy albums down to mediocre levels, but not here. And holy shit, does Toward The Castle kick ass! I think I enjoy it more now than I did back then. Shame Misted Muppet didn't do much after this.)


IN BRIEF: Fearful full-on trance.

Metal has it. Folk has it. New Age kind of has it. Orchestral definitely has it. Yet, for some reason, electronic music is bereft of it. What is it? Why, songs dealing in fantasy, of course.

Now, I’m not talking about references to fairies or unicorns as heard in some of the more fey forms of trance music. I’m talking full-blown, sword-wielding, magic-casting, mud-on-your-boots, dragons-on-your-neck fantasy. The kind young teenage boys absorb themselves in with Tolkien novels, Forgotten Realms quests, and online Ultima sessions.

Of course, the reason for this is elementary. EDM, with all of its fancy, hi-tech sounds and effects, is normally concerned with two things: the dancefloor in the present, and the music of the future. Fantasy, with all its historical milieus, has no place in the realms of synths. Attempts at melding the two often sound conflicted - either electronic elements are neutered to the point of sounding no different than New Age compositions, or they overwhelm fantasy’s organic textures.

However, if any EDM camp has a decent shot at bridging the gap, it’s probably psy. With properly executed parties, psy already has a mystical quality to it. Additionally, the psy-sters love their Tolkien imagery of magical mushrooms and exotic forests. A natural progression in making that jump to full-blown fantasy seems likely enough provided someone has the production chops to attempt it. Enter The Misted Muppet, I suppose.

Comprised of Dagan Israeli and Tal Hassidi when this album was released, the duo are yet another member of the ever growing Israel Full-On Mafia (unofficial name, but if it works for Swedish house...). To distinguish themselves from the glut, Misted Muppet filled their music with traditional fantasy themes inspired from movie soundtracks: dragons, warriors, wizards, epic quests - you name it. While this concept sounds good on paper, does it translate will into full-on psy trance? Let’s find out, then.

They certainly don’t waste any time in getting their agenda across. The Mist starts with the sounds of a battle: horses are galloping, swords are chopping, and people are dying, all to the refrains of a mournful piano melody (bearing some resemblance to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells opening). A piercing, wraith-like wail quickly interrupts the intro, and we’re plunged into typical full-on territory.

...for pretty much the rest of the album.

Oh, it’s certainly better-than-average full-on, and Misted Muppet are quite clever with their chosen template. However, if you have no interest in this style of psy, or can’t stand releases where each successive song follows the same structure as the last, then this release isn’t for you.

That out of the way, here’s the finer details of what you’ll hear on From The Legend.

The album is roughly divided into three stanzas, with each track in said stanza bearing similarities to one another. As mentioned, the opening song of From The Legend makes decent use of orchestral samples to start the track out before diving into familiar full-on sounds. The next two follow suite, with symphonic swells setting ominous tones before driving rhythms burst forth. As for the psy sounds, it’s most of the usual stuff: wiggly acid, squiggly synths, bubbly bells, etc. Misted Muppet’s material stands out though, as everything is intensely chaotic, yet well suited for their environments. Aside from brief breakdowns for breathers, there are always two or three synths going at it. And, remarkably enough, where psy trance is concerned, they never sound disjointed together.

Misted Muppet simplify things a little with Midnight Tales and Innocence. Rather than the frenzy action of the previous tracks, things get reduced to more typical trance fare; this includes a heavier reliance on loops and, gasp, extended breakdowns. Heh, really, these features aren’t too obtrusive in this case, and Muppet do make nice use of some ethereal female chants at points. But, ugh, what’s with that build in Innocence? It could have been better handled, me thinks, had the sounds used not been so annoying.

Up to this point, From The Legend has had a decent sense of flow more akin to a live PA set than an album narrative, which is fine if you go into this expecting it. However, if the fantasy artwork had you hoping for the tracks to provide something of an epic quest, you may be a little disappointed thus far.

The good news is Misted Muppet do bring it for their final act. Toward The Castle, as the title suggests, has a sense of urgency that’s been absent in previous tracks; storm clouds roll in as a deliciously warped synth line worms about to driving rhythms. A squiggly bit of acid marks the climax, which isn’t quite the payoff I’d have liked after the first half, but at least it’s suitable in setting us up for Mercenaries, where opposing forces appear to collide as piano melody gets tweaked out.

And, to cap this metaphorical battle off, Might And Magic wraps things up with triumphant ceremonial bells and trumpets along with all your usual full-on fare. Actually, some of the melodies sounds like something you might have heard in the computer game of the same name. I can see this one being popular with the RPG geeks, er, players out there.

As for the album’s title track, well, it suffers from ‘One-Track-Too-Many Syndrome’. There’s nothing bad about it, but it’s filled with too many sounds already heard, and the unique feature - droning, wailing synths during breakdowns - are hardly as interesting as all the quirky things we’ve heard elsewhere. At least the intriguing ambient piece Defender Of The Past makes for a nice epilogue though.

So, yeah. Pretty decent full-on album here. It’d have been cool to hear Misted Muppet attempt to expand their fantasy motifs more but this is a first attempt at it, and perhaps a second album will see them shake free of the standard full-on trappings a little more. The willingness to even try an album like From The Legend is worth a couple brownie points anyway.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Push - From Beyond

Beat Buzz Records: 2000

Mike Dierickx (formerly Dirk, more often referred to as M.I.K.E. these days) has produced a ridiculous amount of electronic music under an almost equally ridiculous number of aliases. It was under his Push guise, however, that he finally broke through to the ears of damn near every follower of trance upon signing with Bonzai. What had once been a simple acid project quickly turned into one synonymous with energetic anthem trance, even if most folks were only familiar with a single Push tune.

Still, Universal Nation is a deserved track of its classic status. Initially released on The Real Anthem EP, it’s, um, a real anthem, a tune that helped bridge the new generation of trance from the old guard. Listening to it these days, it’s incredibly simple in execution, almost absurd that it blew up the way it did - that simple galloping hook and bare-bones beat should have come off dated by the year 1998, an artifact of trance arrangements from the early ‘90s. Yet, the hook’s also remarkably catchy, and given enough sound variation throughout that you never grow tired of it. Of course, the supersaw drop at the peak of a build-up is more of a late ‘90s trope, but even then it’s understated, far from the overblown schlock that would come to dominate anthems in the following years.

M.I.K.E. followed Universal Nation up with a few more singles for Bonzai, of which were eventually gathered up with a smattering of other new material for a proper LP. Unfortunately, the result comes off mediocre, suffering from that all-too familiar complaint in how so many dance albums – especially from the '90s – are put together: little more than a collection of singles. Maybe it wasn't M.I.K.E.'s fault, in that he had no say in how his label was going to release it; or maybe he simply didn't have enough experience in the album field to make use of the medium (I think this was his first one, unless he did another prior under some alias I'm not aware of). Comparing From Beyond to some of the best trance albums up to the year 2000, however, it sadly lacks.

It’s not like the tunes are bad or anything. Like most of M.I.K.E.’s work over the years (well, until recently, so I’ve heard), it’s competently produced trance, mostly sticking to the minor-key anthem formula that was popular in the late ‘90s. Thing is, Mr. Dierickx has long struck me as just that: competent, a sort of ‘Oliver Lieb lite’, which undoubtedly sounds more like a diss than intended. Both have a knack for solid trance hooks, smart beats, and obsession with aliases - Lieb just does it better.

I suppose From Beyond is a handy CD to have if you can’t be bothered with tracking down M.I.K.E.’s Push material in the single format. The music’s definitely quality if you figure turn-of-the-century trance was that genre’s peak. It’s just a shame more wasn’t done with the album format.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Higher Intelligence Agency - Freefloater

Waveform Records: 1995/1996

After a recent raid of post-millennium ambient techno, I discovered a significant pile of producers making bleepy, dubby variants of the sound for years now. Of course, none quite capture the quirky charm of The Higher Intelligence Agency, but all my forlorn musings of never hearing it again comes off silly now. Dammit, why’d it have to be so obscure? Or maybe it wasn’t, and I was just a lazy sod. Hey, it’s not my fault I was spoiled for ease-of-access to this stuff during the mid-‘90s.

It also doesn’t escape the fact the world would have been a better place had The HIA made more than two albums (true, there were several collaborations after, but I’m talking pure, unfiltered Bobby Bird). On Freefloater, he’d refined his brand of ambient techno to such a degree, the possibilities of where he could go next were tantalizing. Maybe he figured he’d done all he could with the project in a solo capacity, at least in an album format. Fair enough if so, but man…

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to sell you on how incredible, brilliant, and revolutionary this album is, or something. Well, nothing doing, because any hyperbole on my end well undoubtedly oversell Freefloater. Truth is, for as unique a sound The HIA cultivated, it isn’t for everyone. Those cold electronic soundscapes aren’t the most inviting, even with the dubbed-out mixdown giving it a degree of warmth. Granted, that was The HIA’s whole appeal, but it could take some time before coming around to Mr. Bird’s music, if you were ever interested in the first place.

If anything, Freefloater is a HIA album for fans of The HIA. Colourform was an easier introduction to Bird's style of music, tracks either fun uptempo numbers or blissy ambient dub. This release, on the other hand, meshes the two together throughout, creating cuts that come off far more abstracted than anything on the prior album. The mix of tempos still exists, now continuously coupled with bleepy acid, crafty space-electro rhythms, and a general fascination with the machine aesthetic.

I'd detail some of these tracks but, um... I'm kinda at a loss for words. I've had Freefloater for years now, listened and enjoyed it many times, yet adjectives still fail me with the particulars, beyond the ol' “it sounds like The Higher Intelligence Agency” fallback. Hell, even the track titles aren't much help. Hubble? Skank? Ting?? Tortoise??? What do these names mean? Little, if anything, in these tracks sound like what those words suggest (and you'd think something like Ting would be incredibly helpful). I can tell you Fleagle is both goofy and soothing, but describing the specifics is beyond me.

All I can offer is Freefloater is a fine album if you're intrigued by ambient techno's potential. It hasn't dated in the slightest, and almost nothing I've come across since its release has emulated Bird's style. Definitely a win-win scenario for the curious among you.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Neil Young - Freedom

Reprise Records: 1989

Even for my generation, I came to the Neil Young Wagon rather late. My first proper exposure was during his Harvest Moon period, when you couldn't escape that song's video on MuchMusic. For quite a few more of my demographic, however, they'd been hip to the old rocker since the late '80s, when they either learned of Young's initially banned-from-MTV video This Note's For You, or the rousing follow-up chart hit Rockin' In The Free World. I probably heard it at some point, but I was more into The Beach Boys in those years.

More so, Young was getting named dropped as a major influence by several up-and-coming alt-rock and grunge acts like Sonic Youth, The Pixies, and such. Growing inspired by this new legion of noise makers, ol' Neil dropped his current blues outfit and gathered a few chaps for a straight-up rock session, the results of which became the rare Eldorado EP, limited to only five-thousand copies and not sold in America. Da'fuq?

Oh well, most of those songs showed up on his next full-length, Freedom, and thank God they did, 'cause they're some of the most kick-ass music he’d made since the early '80s Crazy Horse album Re-Ac-Tor. Though his wonderful mess of noise occurs on songs On Broadway, No More, and Eldorado, Don’t Cry’s a real highlight for that sound, twice featuring a blistering wall of incredible distortion (having an industrial clank as part of the rhythm’s hilarious too!).

But Freedom wouldn’t have been considered a comeback album if it’d been a bunch of noisy rock. Young’s musical appeal was broad, many enjoying his folksy side along with forays into country and blues. This album has it all, which is a win-loss situation, depending on where you stand on such things. Me, I’m all for a little pleasant folk like Hangin’ On A Limb, plus the lengthy blues-rock Crime In The City’s great if you enjoy tales of everyday people (Eldorado’s awesome for this too, though obviously with more of a Mexican bent). Heck I don’t even mind the country tunes The Ways Of Love and Too Far Gone - Young’s about the only guy I can stand doing country, for some reason (probably because it’s Neil F’n Young). Unfortunately, two of his ballads - Someday and Wrecking Ball - are pants, especially so the former, coming off like an incredibly weak mid-‘80s country ditty (okay, not everything he does turns out). Really, the whole album has that “only in the ‘80s” production sheen to it, though not nearly as bad as many other releases of that decade.

So obviously I’d recommend Freedom if you’re looking to get acquainted with ol’ Neil, but aside from Rockin’ In The Free World, there aren’t any all-time classics on here. It’s probably more enjoyed after indulging in a greatest hits package or something, to find out if his style of music’s even your taste. While Freedom does have something for everyone, it’s unlikely everyone will enjoy it all.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Various - Freebass Breakz & Sub Funk Beats

Shadow Records: 1999

First, apologies for the crummy image at left. The only one I could find online was too small to use, thus I resorted to taking a photo with my phone. I’ve reviewed obscure stuff before, but always found a decent cover pic' (sometimes uploaded to Lord Discogs myself back when I had access to a scanner …maybe I should get one?). I know this CD isn’t terribly well-known, but surely something from Shadow Records wouldn’t be this obscure.

Yes, in a total coincidence, we’re dealing with another release from Instinct’s sub-label. Hey, they released a ton of music during their run, and believe you me we'll be dealing with more of their output down the road – they were very affordable CDs, after all. Still, Shadow's hit-to-miss ratio varied wildly, and this particular mix with the ghetto title Freebass Breakz & Sub Funk Beats is definitely a miss.

Well, not a full-on miss. More like hitting the border of the target, if you were after the hottest offering in breaks of the late '90s. Progressive, Florida, big beat, and even the burgeoning nu-skool was what folks wanted, and Freebass Breakz only sparingly has that. Instead, we're dealing with proper street-funk breaks and ...um, space breaks? I'm not sure what to call it, as it doesn't really fall into any conventional genre of that scene.

Before that though, let’s deal with some straight-up, dirty acid funk! Aw yeah, Chester Rockwell’s Alice In Wonder’s a fine way to kick things off, and following it up with a couple big beat jams is mint as well - Crossfader Dominator from Sniper is good fun, and a shame it ends so quickly. In fact, the entire opening bit is over in but seven minutes, which wouldn’t be so bad if this was a set featuring plenty of quick mixes but that’s not the case. The next cut runs nearly eight minutes long, with plenty more after that of significant length.

Then there’s that abrupt transition. Narco Dogs’ Breakbeat On Mars is such a sudden turn in tone, it may as well be an entirely different CD. This is where that ‘space breaks’ thing comes in, and though General Midi’s Outa Orbit leans more nu-skool than the others, many of these tunes seem to pilfer old school trance hooks to complement their sub-bass rhythms (though with the ’98 remix of Total Confusion, I can see why, what with borrowing elements from the original 1990 Heavenly Mix, almost a proto-trance cut itself). Unfortunately, a lot of this sounds muddy, and by the time we get back to regular big beat action near the end of the mix, most of that initial momentum’s been lost.

Still, despite a wonky track list and average-at-best mixing from Brock Landers, Freebass Breakz is an interesting listen. I honestly can’t say I’ve heard many breaks sets that sound like it, which probably was the reason I picked it up so long ago. Better than another damn DJ Icey CD anyway.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mujaji - Free Rain

Shadow Records: 2001

Though a sub-label of Instinct, Shadow Records was regarded on par with such luminary downtempo labels like Ninja Tune (probably didn't hurt they handled the UK imprint's US distribution in the mid-'90s.) As time wore on, Shadow's manifesto turned towards giving relatively unknown producers a chance to shine, whether in their various Sessions compilations, or proper LP form. Somehow, Shadow also kept the cost of their CDs low, making them incredibly tempting purchases for those with limited income *cough*. Sadly, when Instinct was bought out in the mid-'00s, so too was Shadow, and thus ended one of the more eclectic labels to ever operate on American soil.

The label history out of the way, let’s now talk Mujaji. Um... that’s a little tricky. Lord Discogs has almost no info, while their own website’s biography tells a tale of interplanetary travelers, bringing about musical manifestations to Earth, and eventually leaving because “their home world was invaded and taken over by Reptilians from the Andromeda Galaxy.” Da’fuq? Best I can glean from that is the brothers Shmack (I’m assuming they’re siblings, but they may be cousins) disbanded after a while. Before then, they bounced around after their Shadow Records debut, going from Bastard Jazz Records, Setanta Records, and Nomadic Music, releasing a couple more albums during those years. Why aren’t they on Discogs? The Lord hath failed me there.

Anyhow, Free Rain came out when Shadow Records was signing several up and comers, and as such Mujaji got lost in the shuffle of other acts like Saru, Illform, and Goo. And yes, it’s perfectly fine if you haven’t heard of these names - like I said, Shadow was all about exposing unknowns. Unfortunately, unless you’re a dedicated label hound, it makes it difficult to choose which albums to pick up, even if on a whim. I truthfully don’t even remember why I got Free Rain. I’m glad I did though, as it’s a fun album.

Mujaji hit an interesting mix of gritty trip-hop beats, funky downtempo hooks, and quirky scratches and sampling. For the most part their tunes are light-hearted and fun, but occasional somber moments crop up too, sometimes within the same track. They’re also quite different from each other and rather difficult to summarize, so here’s a quick rundown of a few standouts:

Free The Rich - great beats coupled with a lovely flute hook and ambience that sounds like a machine breathing.
Work For Us - a sample of maybe an industrial site elevator manipulated into the rhythm.
Italian Waffle - country guitars, Far East dialog, flutes, and... a digital harmonica?
The Fork - funky guitar licks, while the rhythm’s trying to be d’n’b, but Mujaji ain’t lettin’ it. Oh... oh... There it is!

And there’s more, but I’ll let you discover them if you’re so inclined. I’ll grant Free Rain may not be your cup of chamomile if you’re not into the quirky side of trip-hop, but it’s an album that’s charming enough to warrant a listen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Norman Feller - Frameless Structure

Elektrolux: 2003

This was an album I could have written an early Random Review for back in my TranceCritic days, but chickened out. I didn't feel confident enough in my writing such that I could convey what I enjoy about Frameless Structure while staying somewhat objective about things. Of course, in this blog o' mine, I can fanboy gush all I like, but it's not like this album is that good. Probably I also shirked on writing about it before because I wasn't willing to take the scalpel to the only release Norman Feller's used his full name on, as it suggests more of a personal attachment on the musician's part; a magnum opus, if you will.

Here's the thing about Mr. Feller: he makes a lot good, quality music, but seldom anything I'd consider great. He's made a tidy career in the tech-house scene under his Terry Lee Brown, Jr. guise, yet never have I seen his name dropped when lists of classics come about. Even in his early hard trance days, many of his tunes were mint, but rarely the standouts on compilations of the stuff I’d collect (and usually only if it was in collaboration). Forcing myself to take this critical ear to Frameless Struture - which is quite good, let's be honest – would turn myself into a hypocrite, praising something that others more deeply immersed in dubby ambient techno and chill could easily point out as sub-par, as little more than 'beginner's music'.

And they’d be right. Ol’ Norman’s offering is quite simplistic compared to the likes of Ultimae’s output of the same period in time (though the mixdown’s almost as lush). Most of the track arrangements are straightforward with few unexpected twists in sounds and samples utilized. If you come to Frameless Structure for challenging chill-out, you’ve definitely come to the wrong place.

That all said, this is still one of my favourite downtempo discs to throw on. As with so much of Mr. Feller’s music, it’s easy to get into, and he always finds some charming hook or catchy rhythm that you’ll enjoy from start to finish. As Frameless Structure has its theme centered around cosmic soundscapes, you have plenty of spacey pads, ethereal voices, and dubby beats throughout, though Feller spices the formula up enough so each track sounds unique from the others. The titular cut, for instance, has an incredibly sparse beat, merely an 808 slow-break accompanied with clicky percussion. Further down the index, the dual combo of Energetic Dub and Orbital Slide show off ol’ Norman’s funkier side of beat craft; and whoo, that pure, cavernous dub sound of Tiefenrausch ...bliss.

I guess my ultimate fear is overselling this album. It has all the things that I enjoy in ambient and chill (goodness, is that closer Melting From The Inside ever gorgeous!), but I can understand why others may not fall sway to Mr. Feller’s charms. Frameless Structure’s a high recommendation though, if you’re looking to expand your chill-out palette.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Banco de Gaia - Apollo

Disco Gecko: 2013

It sure hasn’t felt like seven years since a proper full length from the World Bank came out. True, Marks also gave us a live/cover album in Memories Dreams Reflections and an odds ‘n’ sods one in Songs From The Silk Road, but compared to the blistering pace he’d release during the ‘90s, this is a long gap. Then again, perhaps it couldn’t be helped - priorities change, inspiration fades, that sort of rot. Somehow though, ol’ Toby got his mojo back, and now we have a new Banco de Gaia album to enjoy! Or at least I’ll enjoy. Maybe you will too, if my review sells you on it.

Actually, if you’ve enjoyed Mr. Marks’ music in the past, I shouldn’t need to sell you on Apollo. This is about as close to recapturing his late ‘90s sound (which was his peak, as far as I’m concerned) in a very, very long time. The only vocals come care of ethnic samples and singing, anything of a political bent has been jettisoned, and genre experimentation is almost non-existent. Instead, we have somber ambient pieces, dubby downtempo, and stompin’ dance-jams, all marinated in that ‘worldly vibe as heard from space’ prog-rock way that’s been a Banco staple since Big Men Cry. In fact, were I to compare Apollo to a prior album (and of course I’m gonna!), it’s most like Magical Sounds, though arranged differently; whereas the older album started big and fun, this one’s more contemplative and reflective (would a song titled Lamentations be anything else?).

There are quite a few other things on Apollo that reminds me of that era. Lead single Wimble Toot features the returning saxophonist Matt Jenkins, who along with Pink Floyd saxophonist Dick Parry played on Big Men Cry’s Celestine. Later in the album, Ted Duggan, who first lent his drumming talent back in Igizeh, shows up in Hu! - and like so many Banco tunes to feature live instruments, both tracks sound like they’d kick ass in concert (c’mon, Tobes, bring the band to Canada sometime!). And though there’s no credits confirming it, Eternal Sunshine comes off like a collaboration between Banco and psy trance act Eat Static, something that could have potentially occurred back when they still shared the same label (a shame it never did); it’s also the only track that breaks the ‘conventional Banco’ mold on Apollo, but not by much.

Still, this album doesn’t reach the heights of his best albums, for the unfortunate reason that its overall theme seems muddled. A booklet linking pictures to the songs is included with the hard copy (plus tied to the digi-files should you go that route), but I’m at a loss what message is conveyed, beyond a romanticism of cultures past (similar nostalgic feelings for his career?). Also, some could argue the lack of apparent musical growth hampers Apollo, but considering few even make music like Marks these days and fresh Banco material’s rare, I’ll take falling back on successful formulae anytime.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Various - Fabric 61: Visionquest

Fabric: 2011

*cover art brought to you Fabric’s “Bubbles! Fuckin’ Bubbles!” period*

And so we come to the end of the Fabric Project (on a budget). Perhaps I’ll do something like this again later down the road, as who knows what else may end up available for a pittance. Heck, I could probably find at least a dozen if I searched outside the Canadian Amazon sphere (at a glance, American Amazon has at least seven more under the fifty cent price!). However, I don’t want to get stuck reviewing Fabric mixes all the time. I’ve mentioned before they’re seldom all that interesting to write about anymore, and I’ve plenty other music I’m itching to get to.

So, who do we have to take us out? The American-based group Visionquest, a collection of four chaps that run the label of the same name. Most of their work entailed remixes, but as their output gained plenty of hype throughout the year 2011, it was only natural Fabric would come a knockin’.

And right they should, as Visionquest includes superstar DJ Seth “He So Crazy” Troxler! There’s also What’s-His-Face, Who’s-Its-Sack, and Lee. No, not Foss, some other Lee. Look, there’s a lot of Lees in underground house music these days, I can’t remember them all. Coincidentally, this is the second Fabric mix I’ve done that’s featured a DJ voted #1 at Resident Advisor. Does this mean I can eventually expect Jamie Jones’ Fabric contribution in the bargain bin too?

Anyhow, as Troxler’s a part of this mix, you can guess what kind of music you’re in for: lots of low, heady groove, occasional drug references, ‘come together’ soul proclamations, and oddball tangents to spice things up. The Visionquesters also provide ample examples of the music they enjoy promoting on their label: ‘underground pop’. Huh, to these ears, it sounds like dubby prog remixes of synth pop played at minus-ten, but that’s not such a bad combo.

Now for the problem with Fabric 61: too many jocks in the booth. Having an epic tag-team session sounds fun, and usually is when playing out live with a good four-to-six hour timeslot. For the concise mix-CD format though, you gotta get in with what you want, then quickly get out to let the next guy have his fun. Sure, there may be a few tracks when all four are operating on the same wavelength (like the stuff promoted by their label), but for the most part this mix doesn’t flow like that. Heck, it practically peaks with Cassius’ The Sound Of Violence, dropped not even a third deep into the mix. Some DJs would use such a moment to launch the set into a higher gear, but not Visionquest. Because they have a vision, taking you on a quest! Somewhere. I think. I dunno, the mix goes nowhere after that. Nice tunes though.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Probably. I didn’t hate anything, but the arrangement seldom makes this a thrilling listen either.

Various - FabricLive 60: Brodinski

Fabric: 2011

*cover art brought to you by FabricLive’s …“Seafood …On Face” period? What’s wrong with you!?*

So this throws the ‘FabricLive series features broken-beats’ theory out the window. True, there’d been a few others with an emphasis on house or techno before, but wouldn’t surprise me if the folks at Fabric figured they’d get a form-fitting set out of Brodinski, as his prior mixes often held ample amounts of electro and hip-hop. Nope, FabricLive 60 ain’t gettin’ that; just house, techno, acid, and …is that prog I hear?

I guess I should explain who this Brodinski chap is. Good question, as it forces me to look for an answer (yes, I was quite content to remain ignorant on this one). His profile at Lord Discogs claims he’s “the most exciting DJ and producer to explode onto the scene in recent years.” I think that was written sometime around 2008. Seeing how I hadn’t heard of Mr. Rogé until embarking on my Fabric Project (though I do remember that damned cover), it’s safe to assume that was a lot of bupkis. And even if I’ve just been ignorant of his success, it can’t be that much if his FabricLive entry - not even eighteen months old now - is practically begging to be taken off of someone else’s hands.

That said, if this CD’s anything to go by, I’ve missed out. Early in his career, Brodinski was getting named-dropped by the likes of Erol Alkan, Soulwax, and Tiga, and I can hear why, as his style suggests the same free-wheeling disregard for genre allegiance as they’ve often shown. However, unlike some of the sets those other style-benders have made, Brodinski exhibits a smoother flow between his jumps, almost to the point you’d swear we’re in the same musical territory from beginning to end despite the clear evidence to the contrary.

If anything, FabricLive 60 reminds me of, well, a live set, one played out at an ‘up for anything’ party. Want something bass heavy and groovin’? Brodinski’s got it. Want something fierce and jackin’? Brodinski’s got it. Want something quirky and goofy? Brodinski’s got it. Want something that’ll get your trainspotter’s g-spot all a-twitter? Yep, Brodinski’s got it (congrats if you recognize where the vocal in Riton’s Dark Place originates). Personally, I’ll take the acid cuts over anything else, but tribal murk care of The Soloist’s Samuel L. Session or shufflin’ Chicago house provided by T. William’s Hearbeat (UK funky? What kind of silly name is that?) may be your thing. Point is there’s variety on this mix, but it’s not varied for the sake of smashing a bunch of tunes into the set. Brodinski has structured his set with the proper ebbs and flows that makes DJ sets enjoyable.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Frankly, I was sold right at the beginning, with a brief, silly intro from Mr. Rogé that includes the phrase “let the beat control your body”. Yeah, I’m easily pleased that way.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Various - FabricLive 50: D-Bridge & Instra:mental Present Autonomic

Fabric: 2010

*cover art brought to you by FabricLive's “Stuff On Table Is Art” period*

Okay, this is a surprise. Folks offloading their sterile minimal-tech mixes, I can understand - unless you have a profound love for the sound, it's just not gonna make the cut when culling your CD collections. But a mix featuring the likes of Instra:mental and D-Bridge? On FabricLive's fiftieth entry, no less? Then again, Fabric 50 had a ton of pre-hype going into it: speculation over who’d get the honor, what sort of music it might feature... the works. I can’t recall anywhere near the same amount of buzz about FabricLive 50. As with the series itself, it was relegated to the sidelines, an interesting after-fact for those curious about it.

Or maybe folks didn’t quite know what to make of it. For the prior year leading up to this mix, D-Bridge and Instra:mental had been, erm, instrumental in pushing a new form of d’n’b that eschewed all conventions of the genre. Perhaps as a counter to the super-popular ‘rock’n’bass’ Pendulum sound, their music became incredibly stripped down and minimalistic. There was still that sense of bassline groove and urgency, but instead of everything being intense bedlam, music was given space to breathe, bass filling in all the aural gaps. The original dubstep aesthetic is a definite influence, but this stuff was more free-flowing and rolling. No one knew what to call it either. Autonomic, for the label that spawned much of it? Minimal jungle? Personally, I’m going with microfunk, but feel free to come up with something else (always fun times, coming up with new genre names!).

Their mix for FabricLive 50 prominently features this sound, and it can be disconcerting when first thrown on. Many times you (re: me) feel these are all tracks serving as intros, that they’re building anticipation for your typical tear-out jungle session to drop. It never comes though, instead keeping things at similar pace and tone throughout. At times it’ll dip closer to ambient techno or future garage, but mostly Instra:Bridge stick to dubby ‘not-quite-d’n’b’ microfunk.

This isn’t a main room sort of mix, and as our featured mixers provide a bulk of the tracks themselves, some may be let down by the lack of artist variety. To be fair, not many were even pushing this sound in 2010, though a few familiar names like Scuba, ASC, and Genotype help round things out. Apparently these are all exclusives to FabricLive 50, provided upon request from D-mental if they were interested. It’s a definite chill sort of CD, proper headphone material to get a sense of the space these tunes provide. An odd choice for a fiftieth edition of a series, but not a bad one.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Definitely, though I can understand why someone would offload it on the quick and cheap. It’s a mix that forces you to take on its own terms, and some still don’t know what to make of microfunk.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Various - Fabric 47: Jay Haze

Fabric: 2009

*cover art brought to you by Fabric’s “Abstracted Photos On Pastel” period*

And thus we jump a year and a half forward for our next offering of bargain bin Fabric mixes, to the likes of… Jay Haze? Huh, a surprise there, but then he’s long had a ‘love it or leave it’ style. Guess whoever had this copy had no love for it; ironic, considering his roots lay in Philadelphia, the City Of Brotherly Love (mind, I think Philly's slogan's meant to be ironic, if their sports fanbase is anything to go by).

Anyhow, Mr. Haze himself had quite an eclectic career during the ‘00s, despite at times coming across as yet another minimal deep-tech chap from Berlin. It didn’t hurt that a number of his releases and aliases hinted at a love for sleazy ghetto tech, perpetuating a rep as the bad boy of that scene. Don’t let a rough exterior fool you though, as he’s done plenty of charity work in his time as well. In fact, all the money earned for his Fabric contribution went towards relief aid to the Congo. Which… makes me getting this for pennies kind of dickish, now that I think about it.

This mix is also rather eclectic, though still carrying the tropes of underground house music of the time. Oh yes, we're in the thick of the hisssssss era, and it's just as pointless and annoying today as it was then; fortunately, ol' Jay don't dwell on too many tracks with it. There's also more of a Chicago (Philly?) groove to a number of these cuts, the dry sterility of Berlin-based tech-house having been flushed away by classic revivalism that began the year prior. And Haze himself provides a nice example of that “don't call it prog or trance” neo-trance sound that bubbled about for awhile, on Burning under his Fuckpony guise. Round things out with assorted dabblings of jazz, Afro-house, and whatnot, and you have yourself one of the most varied tracklists featured on a Fabric throughout the series' history. Shame Jay ain't much of a DJ.

To be fair, this was his second ever commercial mix (the first a label showcase for his Tuning Spork print), and boy does it show. There’s no real structure to this set, tunes and genres coming and going as Haze sees fit, and thus no rise or drop in energy as the CD plays through. The way these tunes are arranged, it’d almost work better as a mixtape, but as there’s a dancefloor flow between tracks, I don’t get that mixtape vibe from it like I do with some DJ-Kicks offerings. Number 47 exists in a weird zone between the two: interesting for the track selection, but a struggle to get hooked into it for the duration.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Hard to say at this point. It may be one of those ‘needs repeated listens’ sets. Check back in half a decade, when I might do a 2018 Update.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Various - Fabric 38: M.A.N.D.Y.

Fabric: 2008

*cover art brought to you by Fabric’s “Weird Masks With White Backdrop” period*

If you were a fan of tech-house in the mid-‘00s, it was your duty to consume all that Get Physical Music put out. No, there was no debating the issue. The label that M.A.N.D.Y. and Booka Shade built was your God, and that was that. Nice of them to release occasional good music too, but as time wore on, the bouncy, minimal deep-tech aesthetic they popularized grew watered down as pretenders and imitators flooded the market. It was up to Get Physical’s heroes to take charge, planting their flag as the preeminent tastemakers for all things rooftop shufflelicious. Except they didn’t. Booka Shade got tired of the same ol’ shtick and started exploring synth-pop, of all things. Meanwhile, M.A.N.D.Y. did… um… er… well… hmm.

Well, maybe they felt taking a step back from the limelight would allow their label’s new talent to enjoy the spotlight (like Samim!). It didn’t stop the demand for their DJing talents though, and with minimal deep-tech the trendiest shit throughout 2007, it made sense that Fabric tapped one of the original promoters of the sound for a mix. Trouble was, as the following year took form, folks were itching for something fresher, and M.A.N.D.Y. just wasn’t providing it anymore.

I know a single mix CD is hardly enough to judge a whole scene on, but their contribution to Fabric sure does capture what it was like listening to this stuff in 2008. It has a promising start – oh how many mix CDs have a promising start – with a decent groove established, quick mixes between tracks so nothing lulls for long, and enough hooky variety to keep you engaged. Somewhere in the middle though (well, for me, Audion's remix of Dubfire's I Feel Speed), all momentum is lost, M.A.N.D.Y. taking their set into plodding k-hole monotony. There isn't even any of the atmospheric murk that at least occasionally makes this stuff interesting on a head level. Nope, just dry, minimal tech-house, sapping away whatever energy the set had as each track goes by. Not even a last gasp of interesting tunes at the end is enough to rescue this mix.

Why were DJs making sets like these? Were they trying to be the anti-trance brigade? Making sure when your ketamine bumps started kicking in, you wouldn't worry about tripping over your feet with rhythmic intensity? God, does it ever suck if you're not interested in diving down the k-hole. M.A.N.D.Y.'s Fabric mix is like having sex when you're incredibly drunk. The initial thrill and excitement eventually wears away, but you keep muddling along in the hopes of hitting a climax eventually – and when it does, it's but a pathetic dribble of release that hardly makes it worth the effort in the first place.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Not even. Tons of DJ mixes like this are out there for free, and you don’t see many recommendations for those.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Various - Fabric 36: Ricardo Villalobos

Fabric: 2007

*cover art brought to you by Fabric’s ‘We Cans 4AD Too’ period*

As far as very important people in the world of techno go, Ricardo Villalobos wasn’t just very important, he was the most important for a while. Still, how important could he have been if his contribution to the Fabric series has been relegated to the bargain bin? Eh? Eh? Ah, hahaha! Hahahah!

HAHAHAHAHAH!

That’s it then. My whole Fabric Project (on a budget) has been leading to that one moment. There’s nowhere else to go but down. Might as well end it here. What, there’s still five more to do after this? *sigh*

Seriously though, Villalalobobos was a big freakin’ deal in the mid-‘00s, such that when it came time for him to offer his DJ skills for Fabric, he made the bold (audacious?) move to feature his music only (with the odd collaboration and remix thrown in). Some saw it as the height of hubris to turn the respected series into a personal showcase, but it’s not like DJs hadn’t flooded prior editions with their own material before - number 27 had half-a-dozen Audion tracks alone. And if ol’ Ricardo hadn’t done it, someone probably would eventually (Frankie Bones?). May as well get it over with.

And truthfully, Richie Vile Wolf has such a distinctive sound that not only can he make it work, but it’s difficult to imagine a mix CD without heavy contributions from himself. Though regarded as an excellent jock live (when relatively sober), he’d only made a couple In The Mix sets for Cocoon in the years prior. By and large, he has the hallmarks of a DJ feeling constrained by the lack of runtime and crowd intimacy that comes with making mix CDs. Small wonder this was his last such commercial disc, and even calling it a proper DJ set’s a stretch.

The music on number 36 features many of the sounds most came to associate with ol’ Ricardo. There’s your minimalistic tech-house, with more than enough groove to keep you engaged even when there doesn’t seem to be much going on. Sure enough, quirky, worldly tangents crop up, including an extended detour with Andruic & Japan, a twelve minute stretch of dialog and taiko drums to a beat. The requisite “I’m from Latin America” track comes near the end, a fun capper to the set. Everything sounds spacious, with percussion and effects given plenty of breathing room should you have suitable playback gear that allows it (Ricky Villainous Bus is quite the audiophile). Throughout it all, a slow, steady rise in pace (though not BPM) and mood is maintained, always a plus for any kind of set.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
It’s a very important Fabric by a most important person in the world of techno. It should be enshrined in the Techno Hall Of Fame (some old warehouse in Detroit) for all to see, not purchased for piddly amounts of Canadian currency.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Various - FabricLive 32: Tayo

Fabric: 2007

*cover art brought to you by FabricLive’s ‘ARTIST IN BIG FUCKING LETTERS’ period*

First off, what exactly is the difference between Fabric and FabricLive? Most point to a difference of genre highlighted between the two, the main series sticking to techno, house and the like, while the other one features music of the broken-beat variety. That might have been true from the outset, but as the series has evolved, so too has its selection of DJs, genre specification be damned. Are FabricLive mixes actually mixed live at the club itself or in the studio? Kudos for doing so if that's true, but it seems like a funny gimmick for CDs this day in age.

Oh well. With Tayo's contribution to FabricLive, the vinyl crackle throughout his mix is a clear indication we're dealing with a proper live set. Damn but would I love to hear this one out. I'd never heard of Mr. Popoola before this, a crying shame if number 32 is anything to go by. The Almighty Discogs informs me his turn-of-the-century career was defined by breaks of the nu-skool sort, yet judging by the tracklists of his Y4K series, little of it would have stood out from the pack; or maybe so. There's a definite reggae dub and dancehall influence in Tayo's sound, which is spliff-bliss nectar to my ears no matter what incarnation it comes in. If his other sets offer this bent, I should check them out.

He’s adept at mixing things up throughout a set too. For sure there’s your nu-skool, with familiar names like Bassbin Twins, Aquasky, and Tipper cropping up. This being a 2007 mix though, the influence of grimey UK garage is also felt; and yes, there’s dubstep here, but it’s good dubstep. This was when the sound was blowing up with crazy amounts of potential and diversity, and what Tayo brings to 32 would have made even the most ardent doubter weak in the knees. Example? How about the transition between More Than Money from Sarantis and Warrior Queen into Skream’s Lightning? Those sorts of moments, mang, gave dubstep all the thrills and excitement missing from so much other electronic music of the time.

Of course, it helps to have a competent DJ creating such moments, and Tayo’s set is superb for his chosen sound. Momentum is continuously maintained, with expertly placed lulls for your breathers before coming back fiercer than before. There’s enough genre diversity to keep the music fresh and varied throughout, and plenty of memorable anthems you’ll be anxious to hear play out again.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
Fuck yeah, it was! Admittedly I’m biased towards reggae dub, but Tayo’s set is so much fun, only a right dullard couldn’t vibe to this. I’m actually dismayed someone offloaded this CD for such a pittance. Is it because the cardboard is lightly frayed? Neverland skips when played straight from the disc (no problems came up with the rip)? Whatever, their loss.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Various - Fabric 27: Matthew Dear As Audion

Fabric: 2006

*cover art brought to you by Fabric's 'Deconstruction Of Photography Destruction' period*

In the mid-'00s, if you were given a birth name of Matthew, you stood a good chance of being a very important person in the world of techno. Thinking about it, I can recall only three such folk of significant prominence, but it sure seemed like an invasion of Matthews for a while there; kind of similar to all those Jameses taking over prog-glitch.

Of the Triple-Matts, Dear's career seems to have languished in the middle of the pack of prosperity. He's still a recognized name, but interest in his style of music doesn't garner as much buzz as it once did. Listening to his Fabric mix, I'm still baffled how it generated buzz in the first place. Yeah, yeah, minimal was the fucking trendiest shit in the world back in 2006, but good lord does it offer some of the most utterly wank moments electronic music has ever produced (and this is coming from a guy who's digested copious amounts of dark psy).

That’s jumping ahead though. For Mr. Dear’s contribution to the Fabric series, he chose his Audion guise, where he often indulged in the most minimalicious of minimal’s aesthetic. Though it wasn’t the first time Fabric tapped a producer of such ilk, number 27 came out around the time the sound was surging out of backroom obscurity, so I guess some kudos to the label for capturing the trend on the rise (unlike nearly everyone else the following year). As such, there’s some good stuff early in this mix, hinting at the fun potential of minimal tech-haus. Dubby, dark, and just enough groove to keep your attention whether on a dancefloor or with headphones.

Then he ruins things about a third of the way through, going on a tedious tour highlighting all that makes minimal-tech a chore. It doesn’t seem like at first, as Ruede Hagelstein’s Keep Us Away choice of quirk-sound reminds me of charming, cheesy ‘50s sci-fi UFOs. After that though... g’uh. Plinky-plink in Sweet ‘n Candy’s Tacky Wakeup, retarded vocals in Claude vonStroke’s Deep Throat, swishing water in Ali Khan’s Waterbomb, and aimless nonsense in Argy’s A Rhino In A Glass Shop. There’s no atmosphere or rhythmic foundation in these tracks; just sound-effect showcases, and not very interesting ones either.

Even Mr. Dear seems aware of the go-nowhere tangent he’s taken, as he abruptly shifts gears on Robert Babicz’s Battlestar, taking things into sludge tech-house territory. And I quite like this part, what with a return to groove, mood, and even an actual melody in Âme’s Rej (not yet overplayed when this was released). With an easy lead-out featuring other prominent names like Troxler, Villalobos, and Luciano, Fabric 27 ends well enough.

Was This Worth The Pennies Paid For It?
I suppose. Two-thirds of the mix sound fine by my ears, and Dear’s mixing is clinically clean, as most minimal mixes typically are. Doubt I’ll reach for this again anytime soon though.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Yes - Fragile

Atlantic/Rhino Records:1971/2003

Generally considered the best Yes album, but only if you’ve a passing fancy for the ‘70s prog rock style. The super-long, technical mastery of later albums is only hinted at here, with more radio-friendly melodies spaced out between sonic doodles each member got to indulge themselves with. There are still long songs, but nothing eating up one side of an LP record - half of one, yes, definitely.

This was also their most commercially successful album under the ‘classic’ ‘70s lineup, and with a lead song like Roundabout, it’s easy to hear why. The hook is introduced almost immediately, and even though the actual melody only gets repeated a few times thereafter, you can’t wait for Jon Anderson to sing “I’ll be the round about;” again (he never does). Perfect tune for your rock radio stations, and even better for the DJs playing it in need of a bathroom break, as the whole thing lasts eight-plus minutes. At the other end of the album is Heart Of The Sunrise, a true technical masterpiece of every band member jamming, soloing, blah blah blah. Hey, I love this tune, but I’ve been spoiled by live renditions of it, and the album version sounds stiff and tinny compared to them. That’s my bias, but don’t let it be yours! (unless you prefer Heart Of The Sunrise live as well - if so, *fist bump*)

If it seems like I’m glossing over what everyone but fans of ‘80s Yes considers their best, it’s because there ain’t a damned thing I can say about it that hasn’t been said forever. All I can offer of insight are the few little things that readers of a (mostly) electronic music blog might be interested in, and ridiculously talented musicianship probably doesn’t register too high on such a list. I should know, I used to be like that!

Anyhow, Fragile was the album Rick Wakeman made his debut with the group, and everywhere you can hear the classically trained keyboard virtuoso’s influence. A solo ditty with Cans And Brahms seems inspired by that Carlos character’s work, great organ sounds in Heart Of The Sunrise, and lovely piano diddling on South Side Of The Sky. That kid, he can play him some keyboards. Even Jack Black gives him a nod of approval in School Of Rock, and that guy’s only known for stupid-fun cock rock! (also of note: Roger Dean’s Yes artwork debuts here as well, who’s psychedelic sci-fantasy style would become as synonymous with the band as anything music related would)

In a nutshell, Fragile is a fine introduction to the group and what they’re capable of on both ends of the music spectrum. If you want more musical mastery, dig deeper into their other ‘70s output; catchy hooks, their ‘80s. If you want just a little more convincing on Fragile, check out perma-member Chris Squire’s solo piece The Fish. For a bass guitar track, sweet Jesus does it ever have some awesome, trippy sounds in it!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Photek Productions - Form & Function Vol. 2 (Original TC Review)

Sanctuary Records: 2007

(2013 Update:
It'd be
another half-decade before Rupert Parkes finally released another proper Photek album, KU:PALM, which received... mixed reactions. Guess time will only tell whether folks warm up to it like they did with Solaris or not. As for this collection of odds'n'sods, I can't believe I neglected to mention the Pendulum influences on several of these tracks ...or maybe not. I was kind of in denial about the whole 'rock-and-bass' movement, firmly planting my flag with the liquid funk sound for much of that year.

Oh, and celebrations, as this is the last of my old TranceCritic reviews I'll be uploading for a while. Cripes but are there ever a lot of 'em in the 'F's.)



IN BRIEF: Back in business.

So Rupert Parkes is back with another Photek album, eh? And apparently he’s producing drum’n’bass again too. Hhmph. Does he really think the jungle scene will so willingly take him back after he tried to sell out with house music? Like all is forgiven? Hell, he’s even enlisted the aid of Robert Owens here, always a sure sign of trying to appeal to the liquid funk crowd. You’d think Parkes had discovered the guy or something. Why, he even... he even...ah, heh.... *snicker*...

Okay, I can’t write that with a straight face any longer. It’s just silly to think the jungle scene would have grown that jaded over the years, although there may be a few out there. For the most part though, the return of Photek has been welcomed by the dee’bee faithful. They’ve sat patiently as Parkes dabbled in house beats, Nine Inch Nails remixes and soundtrack work, hoping he would one day return to the dark, techy drumfunk of yore. And now, after a few years of side-projects spurring interest again, the man from Ipswich has finally delivered a full-length release some seven years after the last.

Only this isn’t quite a pure Photek album. Much like the previous Form & Function, FFII is rather a collection of past and present tunes, including remixes done by other producers; rare white vinyl releases like One Nation sit alongside current singles like Love & War, while the likes of TeeBee and Tech Itch lend their hand to proceedings as well. Such a release might have some thinking ‘stopgap’, but Parkes has definitely been a busy boy recently, and his offerings on here are anything but rushed fillers.

In fact, you’d almost think this was a proper album from the opening three tracks, although slightly more in a commercial vein. Industry Of Noise finds those rock collaborations still on Parkes’ mind, while Love & War is as smooth a slice of sultry d’n’b as anything from the genre’s 90s heyday. And yes, Robert Owens does make his obligatory cameo here on Things, but considering Photek pretty much did introduce the house legend to junglists everywhere, another collaboration is only right. Besides, the tune’s mint!

From here, FFII lays out banging track after banging track, and not once falters (well, one stumble, but I’ll get to that in a bit). Parkes unearths long-lost gems like One Nation and Saturated Hip Hop, but new offerings such as Deadly Technology and The Beginning easily hold their own too; drum patterns are gripping, with basslines rumbling with just as much authority as ever. And if you were ever a fan of the more paranoid aspects of Photek productions, Full Spectrum Dominance’s talk of cyber espionage will certainly grab your attention, should the intense beats in this track not pummel you into submission beforehand.

For the most part, the remixers hold their own too, with only DJ Die and Clipse being the weak link here by turning in a rather cornball liquid funk outing on Thunder. Everyone else is in top form though; heck, TeeBee’s go on the rare-ish Ni Ten Ishi Ryu is just as good as anything Parkes did when the track was first released a decade ago.

There is a quibble to be had with FFII though, but it has to do more with Parkes as a producer than the actual music on hand. For as solid of a collection of jungle as this is, one can’t help but feel that Photek isn’t quite as far in the lead of the pack as he once was. Whether doing his own thing in the mid-90s or branching out into other genres at the turn of the century, you always had the sense that Parkes was operating on a totally different level than your standard d’n’b maestro. Here, it sounds more like he’s following the trends rather than spearheading them.

Still, even if he is more of a follower than a leader now, his wily veteran sense of the scene will undoubtedly keep him in the minds of junglists should he be here to stay this time. And even if the next proper Photek album finds Parkes trying his hand at, say, psychedelic minimal electro-prog, I’m sure fans will be far more willing to forgive him for it this time should he continue to produce d’n’b as solid as this on the side.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

John '00' Fleming - For Your Ears Only

React: 2000

This John Fleming guy, he's done well for himself. Never mind he kicked a bout of lung cancer in the crotch, but he rekindled his music career afterward, taking it to heights he hadn't seen prior. He also snagged a long-term deal with the Euphoria series, staking a claim in the overcrowded trance DJ mix market by being one of the few who'd mix in psy along with the regular stuff. Before then though, Mr. '00' released a couple relatively unknown mixes for various labels, this For Your Ears Only on React perhaps the most prominent of the bunch.

The double-CD looks very much a product of its time, with a cover aping the Designer's Republic aesthetic that was quite popular with EDM releases in the year 2000. And the first disc? Progressive trance for the most part, though very few classics, at least that I'm familiar with. In fact, most of the names on CD1 are new to my eyes, with only the last clutch of producers - Airwave, Paul van Dyk, and BT - being obvious names for a mix such as this. Heck, even their tracks aren't terribly obvious. I can't recall hearing Alone In The Dark or Namistai at any point in the last number of years, much less when they were new. What I'm sayin' here is CD1 is a solid enough mix, but nothing remarkable either. Functional progressive trance, which is perfectly fine for a Year 2000 set.

Check that: it's a remarkably bangin' progressive trance set, the sort of tempo typically reserved for CD2 of releases such as these. How can Mr. '00' build upon it for the next bit? By going total cheddar, it seems. Seriously, that first track, Free, is about as generic vocal trance could get back in the day. Total fluff piece, and such a weak way of opening the second disc. Who even made this- oh. Um...

Well, ol' John was getting his career back in order at this point, so I guess some compromises were required. And like it or not (I fucking hated it), epic-corn trance was popular at the turn of the century. It'd be a number of years before he'd team up with the likes of the Digital Blonde anyway, taking his sound closer to the psy vibe many of his current followers enjoy. In the meanwhile, we have to endure more anthem-schlock, culminating in one of those annoying-cloying Dutch tunes but five tracks in. God, that's stupid. Who even made this Electra- oh. Um...

Okay, I'm just goofing. And J00F does come correct with a little goa shortly afterward, almost as though he used the fluffy stuff early to lure the kids in before unleashing some Astral Projection on their asses (in two tracks, no less!). If you're a recent fan of Mr. '00', For Your Ears Only may not be your cup of chamomile, but it won't hurt your collection if you're gathering all he's released either.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Fabric Project (on a budget)



Here’s the scoop. Shortly after posting those two Fabric reviews, I decided to go about gathering more. Not so much for the sake of reviewing them - though I definitely will - but to sate my own curiosity over how many of them have held up over the years. With many of them now available at affordable prices, it’s no thang on my part to start a respectable Fabric collection. So where do I start at? The best ones, of course. Nah, screw that.

While perusing online shops, I noticed quite a few were ridiculously cheap; like, one penny’s worth even. I was quite shocked by some of the names relegated to such depths, at which point a delightful idea sparked in me brainpan. Why not get these ones instead? Sure, they may not be any good, but at worst they’ll be adequate, right? Fabric wouldn’t release anything of wretched quality, right? Right!?

I still had to limit myself though, as many of the best deals come from UK shops. Trouble with ordering from the Isle o’ Brits are the ridiculous shipping costs; after all, it was such fees that made Fabric CDs stupid expensive on the shop shelves here in the first place. Even if I’m only paying a dollar (Canadian!) for one, there’s still nearly thirteen bucks worth of shipping cost. So, I limited myself to those editions of Fabric and FabricLive (because why not) that were only fifty cents. I also found an American shop that were selling a few Fabrics at a much more reasonable ‘shipping + handling’ rate, so picked up whatever they had at less than a fiver.

And which editions of this long-running, respect series were deemed barely worth the cost of the CD they were printed upon? Ah, you’ll just have to wait and see. Not immediately either, as they’ve only now started arriving in the mail (damn import logjams). Until they have all come in, I’ll carry on with my regular material, after which I’ll go over the Fabric and FabricLive discs in numerical order. All I’ll say at this point is I’m expecting eight of ‘em, and none are below their twentieth volumes.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tony Anderson Sound Orchestra - Focus On Hollywood

LaserLight Digital: 1988

No, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke. This CD actually exists, and I have a physical copy of it in my collection. I sure as hell didn’t pay for it, as it was bundled in a box full of other music a friend was offloading. I guess I could have just said nyet, but curiosity got the better of me. I mean, just look at all those classic themes from television and film! Miami Vice! The Never Ending Story! The Magnificent Seven! Dallas! E.T.! Karate Kid, Pt. 3! Wait, what?

As I’m sure you can tell by the tone of this review, Focus On Hollywood does not have all those classic themes. They’re interpretations of them by one Tony Anderson Sound Orchestra; or rather, cheap ‘80s synth pop covers. If you’ve ever wanted to hear memorable John Williams and Enrico Morricone scores diluted into shit muzak quality, here’s the chance. It’s like the music you hear when being put on hold, or the very worst of early Yanni.

My God, even the compositions that should thrive within those dated ‘80s sonics sound like crap. Miami Vice has no spark, The Never Ending Story comes off like a horrible early disco cover, and Take My Breath Away - the love theme from Top Gun - is dead on arrival. Flashdance… What A Feeling? More like has no feeling, amirite?

I’ve no idea who this Tony Anderson Sound Orchestra is. Seeing as how Focus On Hollywood comes from LaserLight Digital, a cheapo label that’s churned out all sorts bargain bin material for the past two decades, my guess he was a studio guy commissioned to make these tunes on the cheap, and pushed out on the market for a quick turnaround. Just look at that cover! There’s no warning of these being shit-synth versions of familiar themes. All you know is you get Miami Vice, Flashdance, Top Gun, Dyansty, and more! Well shit, it’d be too damn hard to find all those on separate singles. What a deal to snag ‘em all on CD, and- oh, fuck, these aren’t the originals. I’ve been had!

The funny thing is I can’t hate the music entirely. These are good themes. I’ve never watched an episode of Dallas, but I can hum that tune off the top of my head no problem. Anything with Moroder as a credit will get lodged in your noggin’. I haven’t a clue where The Thornbirds is from (“An early ‘80s mini-series on ABC, ya’ lazy sap,” gruffs Google), but that faux-French theme is rather nice. Probably would sound great in its original score.

Maybe… maybe, there’d have been a point to Focus On Hollywood back in the day, when collecting soundtracks, scores, and themes was far more difficult than they are today. As it stands now though, this CD’s only good for a laugh, pointing and giggling at a time when such tinny production was considered cutting edge. Hell, I don’t think it even was back then.

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