Monday, September 30, 2013

Solieb - Impersonator

Maschine: 2006

Screw all those trance pansies, ignoring a great album like The Hive in favour of the latest Dutch monstrosity. Time to take your work back underground, Lieb, away from the limelight and expectation of the mainstream clubbing consciousness. New label, strictly vinyl, no hype. Or, y'know, just hop on the trendy minimalist techno bandwagon, since it's a style of music you've yet to explore much of. Yeah, challenge the muse! Whatever excuse for this change of direction you want to go with.

The Solieb project was more than just a departure in music for ol’ Oliver: it also marked the start of going into business for himself, establishing his own Maschine imprint through which he released music under the new moniker. It was a bold step, in that he no longer could rely on larger labels to do the heavy promotions for him. Judging by how much the Solieb stuff got licensed out compared to L.S.G. or Spicelab, it doesn’t appear he was as concerned with that aspect of label running. Surely the good graces of name recognition alone would propel him to success. Eh...

Look, I can’t blame Lieb for wanting to make serious techno musics after so long of wading through the oceans of trance, but everyone was making serious techno musics in the mid-‘00s (yay hypberbole!). Why not try house music? Or jungle? Maybe even acid jazz! Could that German heritage of his just not help it, eager to show all these new producers what real machine music was capable of, from a native of the nation that invented machine music? Fair enough, but man, this better be some next-level shit if you’re gonna stand out from all the Hawtin wannabes.

Oh, wait, the Solieb stuff was only released on vinyl. I don’t collect vinyl. Dammit, Oliver, you’re not only challenging my dedicated consumption of your craft, but now forcing me down the internet backroads to procure it? Why are you making it so difficult for me to like this new project? How about some sort of ‘collected works’ CD option? If even that wacky Ricky D. James guy did it for his Analord series, surely something similar can be done for the Solieb stuff. Okay, enough grumbling over catering to my selfish needs. It’s time to listen to a bunch of your serious techno musics.

As chance would have it, a pair of tracks I ‘acquired’ made up the Impersonator EP, released when Solieb was gaining enough steam for folks to finally take notice (“Wait, it’s that Netherworld guy?” “Uh, yeah, name’s a dead giveaway.”). The titular A-side is quite a bangin’ bit of techno, with plenty of polyrhythmic percussion, noisy synths, and messy sound effects that has ‘peak hour’ square in its sights. I likes. The B-side, Stay High, plays up the trendier side of techno in ’06, with a shufflin’ tech-house groove and random squelchy noises. It’s... not so interesting. Wow, who’d have thought all that ‘forward-thinking minimal techno’ would sound dated already?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Raekwon - Immobilarity

Sony Music Entertainment (Canada): 1999

It all starts somewhere, and for yours truly, Raekwon’s Immobilarity was the one that got me taking hip-hop seriously. For sure stronger albums that could have done the trick existed (including, of course, Raekwon’s first album, Only Built For Cuban Linx), but by and large I regarded the world of rap music as something rather gimmicky. The biggest hits were typically crossover party jams, and the stuff my peers played to piss off our parents over-glamorized gangsta tropes and sexual misogyny to the point of ridiculousness. Thank God The RZA Hits came along when it did, shoving some musical knowledge into my ears in the process. While it clued me into the ‘musical’ potential of the genre, soon I wised onto the ‘intellectual’ potential too.

Raekwon’s sophomore effort dropped about the same time as The RZA Hits, and, eager to quickly consume more Wu, I checked it out, promptly blown away yet again. This wasn’t some cliché ridden gangsta bullshit; rather, something far more mature in tone and concept was going on, painting an elaborate story of established criminals trying to survive in an ever-changing game. Immobilarity was hardly the first hip-hop album to do this, but it was the first that I properly heard.

Raekwon’s debut had the benefit of the Wu still being something of the streets, thus their tales of criminology still had a degree of honesty to them. In the four years following it, however, the group had conquered the globe, and it just didn’t make sense to still rap about roughin’ it to get by. They were made-men now, so to take the concept of ‘criminology raps’ to the next level (not to mention distance themselves from all the copy-cats), Raekwon changed the concept of Wu-gambinos to reflect that. They’re at the top now (or very near it), and they have to protect what’s theirs from all the up-and-coming hustlers. Maybe even find a way out of the game altogether, if the opportunity arises. If Cuban Linx could be considered a Scarface tribute, then Immobilarity is Godfather.

That could have made for an incredible album, if not for weighty expectations holding it down: heads only wanting Cuban Linx, Pt. 2, and RZA’s absence in the producer’s chair. Instead, we get a slew of relatively unknowns (sans Pete Rock) using rather cheap-sounding drum kits coupled with loops of heavily synthesized Mediterranean music (especially Chris Spheeris). Maybe it’s my Italian heritage, but I love hearing these loops, perfectly complementing Raekwon’s crime stories, but I can understand why others would dismiss Immobilarity on these ground, at least back in the day.

Now that hindsight’s clued folks up that RZA wouldn’t be on every Wu release (and we did get Cuban Linx, Pt. 2), folks have since softened on this album. Problems remain that keep it from being a hidden gem in the Wu discography (too much filler in the end; the beats still lack), but Immobilarity’s a worthy pick-up if you prefer your hip-hop having sophistication and class.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

BT - 今 Ima

Reprise Records: 1996

Ha ha, neener neener! For once, those of us on the west side of the Atlantic got a superior version of a major electronic album. Suffer, all you Europeans, with your single-CD version of BT's debut album Ima, and bask in our glorious 2CD edition. Not only does this re-release contain all the original's tracks and the Sasha mini-mix, but also extra remixes, b-sides, and that Tori Amos collaboration everyone over here went monkey-poop over. Yes, yes, I feel that envy, that glorious- huh? What do you mean you can simply order it online? What is this, man – like, the future? Why am I talking like it's 1996, duuddee?

Seriously though, Ima's an album that is hopelessly dated to the era it came from. Hell, some of it sounded dated even by mid-'90s standards, with 'Balearic' sounds that 808 State left to the bin years prior. Meanwhile, whatever the heck ‘epic house’ was, it only lasted for that brief period of time, producers soon moving onto other forms of prog as the new hotness (gotta keep progressin’, after all). So while Ima had quite a bit going for it when it came out, if you’re one of those cats that can’t stand anything firmly rooted in the ‘90s, you may want to stay away.

Oh, you’re still here? Ah, I get it. You discovered BT long after this came out, and all his long-time fans proclaim Ima as Mr. Transeau’s best album front-to-back. It’s the one you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not much of a BT fan, a shining example of the musical craft he’s capable of, many times after put to great use or utterly squandered in equal share. What sets Ima apart from most of his later efforts is the relatively narrow scope of genre he explores. Balearic, epic, progressive, acid, psychedelic... whatever, dude, it’s just house music; a little trance too.

For my money, the bangin’ tracks like Quark, Tripping The Light Fantastic, Poseidon, Embracing The Sunshine, and Divinity are where it’s at, but that’s because I loves me some gnarly TB-303 workouts, which BT displays an expert use of. It even helps elevate the cornier moments in Embracing and Divinity, the uplifting piano refrains, guitar strums, woodwinds, strings and nature sound effects given extra heft (and keeping them firmly out of tepid ‘dream house’ territory). The other tunes are fine as well, though with more vocals so if you just can’t stand those, maybe- oh, wait, this is early-early BT, where he doesn’t sing at all. Carry on, then. (gotta say though, hearing Tori Amos endlessly repeat “blue skies” grates after a while)

Ultimately, the funny thing about Ima is that, for a BT album, it doesn’t really feel like a BT album, not anymore. His muse has wandered in so many bizarre, brilliant and crap ways since, that compiling a straight-forward dance long-player just doesn’t seem like him. Given Ima’s status among many, however, maybe he should do that again someday.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nas - Illmatic

Columbia: 1994

The only Nas album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not much of a Nas fan. That’s what everyone will tell you, and given his storied career, that’s some incredible praise to be had for Illmatic. So like any good hip-hop head, you go and get the CD or vinyl (no MP3 cheating, son!), throw it on, and think, “Yeah, this some good shit, back when hip-hop was best. Lovin’ those Eastcoast beats. Damn fine lyrics, Nas. This truly is illmatic and- what, it’s already done? That’s it!?”

‘Tis true, one of the most essential hip-hop albums of the ‘90s is also one of the shortest, clocking in at under forty minutes of your time, including a near two minute intro. And once It Ain’t Hard To Tell fades off, you’re left hanging, hungry for more. Illmatic’s almost calculated in its succinctness, building hype for the next release with just a teaser, a taste of what Mr. Nasir Jones could bring to the table (as if live freestyles around New York weren’t already enough). Most rappers these days have to generate such hype by way of the mixtape circuit, and here’s Nas doing it as a proper debut.

I can’t say it’s worked for me, though, as Nas in general hasn’t interested me much beyond respecting nods on the tracks I’ve heard him guest-verse. This is going to sound totally lame on my part, but even though ol’ Nasir’s main strength’s long been considered his lyrics, he has a voice and flow I find boring and un-dynamic. Just because his style is more a storyteller than a hype man doesn’t mean he couldn’t show more enthusiasm. Maybe his albums have him showing more passion, but if Illmatic is considered his best, I’m kind of doubting it, as he exhibits the same flow here as I’ve heard everywhere else.

Whatever. I’m a twat for thinking this way about Nas, but along with the laid-back jazzy vibes this album holds, his flow is appropriate. I couldn’t think those piano loops on The World Of Yours, organ licks on Memory Lane, xylophone plinks of One Love, or mix-up of everything in N.Y. State Of Mind working any better if Nas was shouting a bunch over them. There’s definitely urgency in his voice as he narrates his tales – street hustling, recollections of youth, or prophesying the future; the topics covered are generally what you’d expect of Eastcoast rap – so he will keep your attention. It’s just, damn, them backing tracks are mint. Dealing drugs, are ya’ (One Time 4 Your Mind)? That’s nice, Nas, but let me focus on that dope bassline some more. Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Okay, this review’s been lacking, I admit it. Illmatic deserves its classic status, but I’m the last person to tell you since I’m just parroting the narrative. To give a more informed opinion of it, I’d have to digest ten more of Nas' albums. And, well… yeah.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Beastie Boys - Ill Communication

EMI Music Canada: 1994

The Beastie Boys had been in the music business nearly a decade by the time Ill Communication hit the streets, utterly thriving in the world of hip-hop where a three-piece whiteboy posse should have miserably failed. Still, ten years is more than enough time for the rap game to see change, and much had in their region: Eastcoast-Westcoast rivalries heating up, gangsta rap emerging as the new hotness, and fresh New York-based upstarts like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G. challenging the old guard. And what's with this DJ Premier guy, sampling all these jazzy loops as a counter to the g-funk of the left side of America? Well shit, son, the Beasties are actual musicians. If that’s the way things are going, why not forget drum machines and raiding the past for samples? Start making your own original jams. Ain't no one doing that in hip-hop, is there? (Guru, but whatever)

And that’s what they did done. Throughout this album, you get funky Big Apple jazz licks galore, nearly a third of which are pure instrumentals. What is this, a blaxploitation soundtrack? Nah, guy, but it’s definitely a throw-back of sorts to the music the Boys undoubtedly grew up surrounded by in the ‘70s. The cheesy cop caper video for Sabotage was hardly a one-off fancy on their part; rather, part of a larger whole that is the homage to that era.

The Beastie Boys don’t let the b-boy antics fall by the wayside though. Root Down, Sure Shot, Freak Freak, and Alright Hear This find them as sharp as ever, with beats – whether sampled or played live by Mike D – keeping the boom-bap ever fresh. The star, however, has to be Get It Together featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, a perfect meeting ground of old and (then) new Eastcoast hip-hop. The Boys were clued into what was shaking up within the Five Boroughs, even if their music didn’t always reflect it.

Yet, with all these positives, Ill Communication tends to get overlooked when discussion of Beastie Boys albums comes up. About all most folks know of it is that Sabotage is the big tune (wedged between Root Down and Get It Together no less, for an excellent string of tracks!), which is unfortunate but understandable. As the Beasties had entered that ‘experimental’ stage most long-running music groups go through, there’s ample genres indulged in here. Second track Tough Guy is a pure punk freakout, and while Sabotage oozes thrash rock too, going that far off the hip-hop road must of turned some heads away. Or what about the Bhudda chant funk-jam fusion of Shambala, delved even further in follow-up Bodhisattva Vow? Who do the Beasties think they are, Banco de Gaia? Darn Tibeten muses.

As such, the musical explorations renders Ill Communication somewhat lower on the “Repeated Play-Through” totem for most. It’s still an essential part of any fan’s collection though, so if you haven’t done got on this yet, then go get her done.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banco de Gaia - Igizeh

Six Degrees Records: 2000

Anyone recall hearing The Prodigy's Fat Of The Land for the first time? The initial anticipation of new music from an act you enjoy, but feeling content in the assumption they couldn't surprise you any longer? Remember how Smack My Bitch Up utterly abolished those preconceived notions? If you're feelin' what I'm preachin' here, my friends, then you'll have an inclining of how I reacted to hearing Seti I on Banco de Gaia's fifth album.

I'm by no means comparing the two tracks, as they're worlds apart (although they do both make use of an ethnic vocalization). In terms of how they kicked off their respective albums, however, and how they represent everything good about the producers behind them, they're quite similar. At first ear-glance, Seti I works a slow-building atmosphere with oodles of nature samples and chants. A stomping rhythm emerges, and a ridiculously catchy vocal hook joins in. For the duration, this tune absolutely gets the blood pumping. I don't think Toby Marks has ever opened another album stronger than Igizeh, yet Seti I is barely known; heck, it didn't even make it to his 10 Years retrospective or other such collections. So, um, I guess the Prodigy comparison ends there.

Since Seti I wasn’t a single from an album that saw at least two, Igizeh must be an astounding album. Eh, it's good, but not that good. It's actually a rather curious one when you consider the context it came out in. As odd as it sounds, the album finds Marks doing a fair bit of bandwagon jumping, yet somehow maintaining his distinctive sound throughout. The first single, Obsidian, appears to borrow quite a bit from progressive trance, with the (barely comprehensible) vocals from Jennifer Folker lending it further to something far more commercial than you'd ever expect from Banco de Gaia (until You Are Here anyway). One could say the same about the new version of Glove Puppet, a dead-ringer and mint take on trip-hop. Meanwhile, second-single How Much Reality Can You Take has elements of big beat, a notion not gone unnoticed by Jack Dangers when he remixed the tune.

Those were the popular genres of the time (or from a couple years back anyway), but Igizeh features further musical adoption than that. Fake It Till You Make It finds Marks and company going about as full-on Pink Floyd as they ever did back in those days. Gizeh adds Moog funk to their characteristic grand musical builds (Egyptian slave revolutions never sounded so epic!). And B2 sounds like, well, Banco de Gaia did during the early ambient dub days, but with a fresh year-2000 sheen.

So in a roundabout way, Igizeh might have ended up being Banco's most accessible album, but those proggy world-beat attributes didn't quite make it so. The style Marks' project cultivates keeps this firmly on the underground side of music, though as far as 'electronica' albums go, it's remarkably diverse. A bit like that Prodigy album, come to think of it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Faithless - If Lovin' You Is Wrong

Cheeky Records: 1996

Of all the tracks to pluck for single duty from Reverence, they went with this one? Insomnia and Salva Mea were no-brainers (lead-ins, to be honest), and Don't Leave made for a decent third. If Lovin' You Is Wrong always struck me as novelty track though, like Baseball Cap or Dirty Old Man - something to spice the album up with cheeky fun so it didn’t get weighed down with po-faced seriousness. It's definitely the most erotic you'll ever hear Maxi Jazz, the sort of sexy come-ons you wouldn't expect a pseudo-religious lyricist to indulge in (sample: “Eat you like a cannibal.” Classy.). Heck, in retrospect, the entire track feels at odds to Faithless’ discography; at least, to the extent I’ve kept tabs on the group, as their post-Outrospective material hasn’t graced my ears much. That’s a topic of discussion for later though.

As with a lot of Faithless music, If Lovin’ You Is Wrong defies easy description. I suppose Prince-influenced R’n’B is the easiest lump, borrowing tempo and sounds of that genre (oh so much womanly moaning throughout). But ho, there’s more: beat scratches, clanking percussion, and a gospel chorus! I... don’t think I’d want to hear that while “tearing off tights with my teeth”. Wait, that’s a different song. Overall, the tone is just too goofy to take seriously as a slice of pure eroticism, despite Maxi Jazz’ sexy descriptions of unhinged love making. Like I said, more of a novelty track following the uber-anthem Salva Mea on the album.

The single comes with a Sexy Edit (just the album version), and a Cleaned Up Edit, which removes all the moaning and adds more light-hearted bounce to the music. Oh, and some lyrics are changed. Instead of eating you like a cannibal, Maxi Jazz will “eat you like caramel.” That’s actually more erotic, come to think of it. And speaking of coming, Mr. Jazz initially said, “If you come first, well that’s the worst”; now he says, “If you go first, well that’s the worst.” That’s... um, that’s just lame now.

On the backend of the CD, we get a pair of remixes courtesy of Rollo and Sister Bliss (I assume, what with no other credits listed). The Slowly Risin’ Mix opens with Mr. Jazz singing his opening verse without any musical backing, a boogie-woogie bassline eventually emerging. Pretty fun stuff, and then it’s off to house land, getting a little prog, getting a little bosh, and, of course, a little hands-in-the-air. Not bad, but if you prefer it when Faithless goes for the full-bore anthems, then check out the Inflammable Mix, about as unabashedly over-the-top as the group could get in the ‘90s. For that matter, how’s this track even related to If Lovin’ You Is Wrong? Admit it, Rollo, you and Ms. Bliss just had another anthem lying around in demo form, and slapped it on here under pretence instead, didn’t you. Oh well, as far as b-sides go, it’s worth scoping this single out for.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Petar Dundov - Ideas From The Pond

Music Man Records: 2012

I'm not going to debate the genre classification of Petar Dundov's music any further than I did on his Escapements album. Whether you figure it can only be techno, or have your head out of your ass enough to admit it can be a hybrid of trance too, that's up to you. All I know is his music at times bears similarities to the likes of Laurent Garnier and Ralf Hildenbuetel of the early '90s, and folks sure didn't have as much trouble identifying their material. That sorted? Good. Let’s get into Mr. Dundov’s sophomore album then, released four years after his debut full length (Sculptures doesn’t really count at this late stage).

Having attracted a number of fresh followers after Escapements, the anticipation for Ideas From The Pond was high - would Dundov continue exploring the hypnotic, melodic roads that made tracks like Oasis so memorable? Yeah, guy, he totally did, in fact ditching almost all traces of straight-forward techno in the process - we’re a long way from the tribal workouts you might have found on his old-ass Libra EP. Instead, the classic synth influences are more apparent than ever, right down a vintage quality of sound that can’t help but draw comparison to original ‘70s and ‘80s gear. The music isn’t bogged down in nostalgic tones for their own sake though, but instead complements the contemporary production, such that the tracks retain a timeless quality to them (re: the Boards Of Canada effect). Case in point: the opening titular cut, a tune that will doubtlessly forever have Jarre comparisons, but sounding far richer and nuanced than anything the French synth composer could have achieved three decades ago.

Later in the album, the use of trancey arpeggios again find their way into cuts like Distant Shores and Brownian Interplay, though rather than having stripped-down techno rhythms in support, these have more groove going on, lending almost to a house vibe. I can imagine Sasha and similar jocks getting weak in the knees had he stumbled upon tracks like these during progressive house’s mid-‘90s-

ACK! No, no! Don’t go there! Bad enough the ‘deniers of trance’ contingent puts Dundov’s music in a weird no-man’s land of stylistic classification (melodic techno is not a genre!), but to rope the prog scene into this debate too turns it all ridiculously convoluted – they can barely sort their own scene out! Quickly, moving on. Ah, these final run of tracks are gorgeous, very ambient but without all the noodly drone aspects; maybe more Berlin School in inspiration. That’s a safe genre to compare Dundov to, right? Because the alternative would be ambient techno, which would drag the entirety of IDM into this mess, and we don’t want that, now do we?

Anyhow, Ideas From The Pond is a lovely little album for those with an inclining towards electronic music’s subtly melodic potential. Don’t miss out, ‘cause it might be another four years before- oh, he’s already released another album? Damn, dog, slow down!

Friday, September 20, 2013

ICE MC - Ice' N' Green

Polytel: 1994/1995

I had no idea this Canadian cover for ICE MC's third full-length effort was so unique. I've looked everywhere online for an image of it, yet all I keep finding is the standard 'blue cover'. Maybe I just happened across a rare alternate version, but I recall only ever seeing the 'green cover' in shops around my neck of the woods. It's not like North American covers of other European acts are difficult to find either, but when even the almighty Lord Discogs draws blank (until now!), I have to wonder what's going on. Was ICE MC just not popular enough on this side of the Atlantic for anyone to bother uploading this cover?

That's doubtful. While euro dance in general may not have been the commercial juggernaut current EDM is, it still saw healthy market share on store shelves and radio play, especially here in Canada. ICE MC, one of the hottest acts overseas in '94, was no less in demand here. Hell, I recall seeing cassette tapes of this album in gas stations! When you're sharing rack space with the likes of Shania Twain and Bryan Adams, you must be doing something right on the commercial end of things.

Us Canuckians got more than a new cover (one that made better sense, no less). Ice' n' Green's entire tracklist was re-arranged, spreading the hits out for stronger album flow rather than front-loading everything. Also, as we didn't get this until a year later, an updated remix of Take Away the Colour was added (it's almost German trance!), plus two mega-mixes! Holy cow, if you couldn't get enough of Think About The Way, It's A Rainy Day, and Take Away The Colour, you'll be more than sated by album's end.

Wait, perhaps I should get some background details of ICE MC sorted. First emerging from the hip-house scene behind the tutelage of Italian mega-producer Robyx, Mr. Campbell's early career was respectable enough but hardly anything to write home about. Somewhere along the way, however, the two realized they could have super-hits by jumping on the euro dance bandwagon, but not without some changes. ICE began incorporating more and more dancehall lyricism into his persona, even going so far as to grow dreads and adopting other Rastafarian traits. No longer coming off as some generic rapper, his personality shone through, especially as ragga raps were all the rage in euro dance.

It also didn't hurt that Robyx' productions skills seemingly peaked around this point, every tune on Ice' n' Green memorable in that mid-'90s euro sort of way (having one Alexa belting the choruses didn't hurt either). The Big Three still hold up, the knock-off fillers are charming in their own right (except for Run Fa Cover ...bleh), and stabs at hip-hop (Funkin' Wit You), 'euro' garage (!?), and even world beat (Afrikan Buzz) help give Ice' n' Green a solid assortment of cheesy-fun dance tuneage.

Now, if I could only understand half the words ICE MC's saying.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Markus Schulz - Ibiza '06 (Original TC Review)


Moist Music: 2006

(2013 Update:
Are these the same CDs? Yeah, the problems I bring up in this bloat of an old review (1500 words - you've been warned) are there, but they aren't as big of a deal as I remember them. Was I really so burned out on trance that year? Perhaps, as McProg truly
was stale by the end of '06. It's not much of a surprise almost all the jocks, including Schulz, were moving on to other things within the year. Yet after hearing Ibiza '06 out of that context, in the here and now, I find there's a lot more to enjoy than I initially gave it credit for. Maybe that's all it takes, eh? Let an overplayed genre of music sit fallow for a few years, then return to it with fresh ears and (hopefully) matured insight. Then, and only then, can you properly take the music on its own merits, not weighed down by excessive marketing but as the original producers intended. Yeah...

Nah, this stuff's honestly just of higher quality than all the side-chaining, electro, 8th notes, and noise that followed in McProg's wake. If anything,
Ibiza '06 can be regarded as the genre's last gasp of glory. If you enjoyed the stuff but passed this by because of genre fatigue when it first hit the streets, maybe take another look. After all, it's not like you're gonna be getting anything new in this style.)

IN BRIEF: Pleasant atmosphere, but little else.

We passed an anniversary of sorts this last week. Prior to November 2005, TranceCritic was still a relatively low-key review site with a small but consistent reader-base. We’d cause a stir here and there with some of our more opinionated reviews, but nothing drastic. That all changed though, when one of our writers, Cobalt, gave a less-than-favorable review on the debut artist album from Miami-based DJ Markus Schulz.

The aftermath of this review resulted in a slew of hate mail from Schulz’ loyal, dedicated, almost cult-like fanbase, a flaming the likes we’ve yet to see since. Of course, for a fledgling site such as ours, that kind of publicity did wonders to increase our profile, and in a weird sort of way, we owe some thanks to The Cult Of Schulz for that. Therefore, it seems fitting we should sit here with a new release from Mr. Schulz a year later, this time in the form of a DJ mix.

Much has happened in clubland this past year, and Schulz’ profile has diminished during this time. For a DJ who was apparently on the road to superstar status, this comes as a bit of a shock. After all, he’d done everything required to be amongst the big players: solid underground reputation; unique accessible style of music; popular internet radio show; cult-like fanbase to preach the Gospel of Schulz everywhere they went. What went wrong?

Two things, by my eyes. Firstly, the aforementioned debut album tanked at a point when a solid release would have cemented his status in clubland. It chased away his underground following and was met with apathy from casual folks, leaving only his newer fans to enjoy the results. Naturally, he continued pandering to this new fanbase, but it lead to the second problem: popular tastes were rapidly changing. His brand of feather-light prog was wearing thin by the end of 2005, especially with dirty tech the burgeoning hot sound. All the hype surrounding Schulz’ rising star faded away, the Swedish House Mafia now the topic of discussion.

It’s safe to say all the momentum his career had been building significantly slowed down this year. Obviously, he still has plenty of tour dates and the Cult of Schulz remains as loyal as ever, but one gets the impression he’s reached a crossroad in his musical direction. Should he carry on with his ‘McProg’ sound that helped him gain all that momentum in the first place, even though it has grown stale? Or might it be best to search new avenues, taking his old ideas along with him?

Ibiza ‘06 is this year’s annual mix from the Schulzer, representing the sort of music he played at his residency on the island this past summer. Additionally, he’s decided to showcase mostly new talent here rather than make a mix with obvious anthems, which as the head of a label (Coldharbour, d’uh) is always smart business practice. If Markus has moved on or stayed the course, we should find our answer here. Into the player goes Disc 1.

And judging from the opening chunk of tracks, Schulz is still playing his ‘twinkle’ prog (heh, there’s a million-and-one terms for it). If you still haven’t heard of it, McProg tends to have heavy grooves, airy sweeping effects, and, the clincher, little melodies that sound like they were sampled from ballerina toy boxes. It makes for pleasant music but doesn’t have the depth of other forms of prog. The fact most of it is similarly arranged like epic trance (lots of long unnecessary breakdowns and builds) has caused many of the progressive elite to disown the sound altogether. Still, it is charming music when handled well.

And Markus does handle this sound very well for the first half of disc one. Benya’s Mimas may have you rolling your eyes, mind, but after that we are taken into some nice, grooving tracks with deep, immersive soundscapes. Progresia and Francis Blaid offer synthy hooks as well in their tracks for those who like something to hum along to.

Addictive brings the rhythmic intensity up, and it seems this mix is ready to be taken to the next level. Then, the breakdown hits; and, God, is it awful. Seriously, that wailing... guitar, is it? Who knows, but it’s terribly hokey (but probably will be a smash anyway) and the complementing trancey hooks in the build are so rote, it kills the mood in an instant. A shame, because Monakhov’s follow-up Feels Lonely is an interesting track, with a nifty grumbling bassline. It certainly would have segued better from Mystery than Addictive.

From here, this mix goes absolutely nowhere. Oh, there’s some nice sounding tracks to be had - Benz & MD’s Turning The Curves is a wonderful euphoric trancer, and Technology & Computer is a decent groover - but Markus seems interested in showcasing songs rather than making any kind of thematic set. If there is a theme, it’s the running amiable atmosphere these tracks provide. Unfortunately, many of them contain lackluster hooks, most of which you’ll forget after the disc finishes. Well, maybe Chuck Luis’ Collision will be remembered, but only because it’s such a laughable try-hard.

Most telling though, is the second half doesn’t contain any of Schulz’ trademark sound. It would appear he’s moving into standard van Buuren styled trance, although with a thicker groove and slightly less emphasis on the uplift. How does this affect discero numero deux, then?

By going all trance, it would seem, but don’t run away just yet. Ormatie establishes a deep atmosphere, and Joonas Hahmo brings us the groove with a charming hook, which opens the second CD promisingly.

Some pleasant deep tracks go by, including a little bit of twinkle in Glimmer if you still crave it, but these are just warm-ups for YearZero, which is vintage Andy Moor: chopped-up vocals, angelic pads, twinkly melodies, and body-movin’ rhythms. Well, Orkidea has a hand in this track too, but folks will be thinking Moor all the way here. He might have become predictable as fuck, but Andy’s style does work, and YearZero makes for a nice peak in this mix. Achems [sic?] Razor from Kenneth Thomas works nicely as a follow-up, with a simple, pounding lead and mechanical sound effects.

Markus pulls a surprise in throwing down some techno from Roland Klinkenberg, which for a moment made me think we were going to see a completely unexpected tangent from the Schulzer. Alas, it’s not to be, but it does change the focus of this mix, leading us into deeper pastures where lots of floaty pads and minor melodies dominate. It’s an utter bore though, with rudimentary hooks, placid rhythms, and very little sticking in your mind. Sure, I enjoy some atmospheric soundscapes in my trance, but when it’s done in a DJ set, it had better lead to something, and none of these tracks do. It’s just track after track of similarly arranged tunes, and no interesting flow at all.

Even more damning is the fact the final stretch suffers from ‘too-many-breakdowns’ syndrome. This isn’t an energetic set to begin with, so you’d think excessive breakdowns wouldn’t be a problem. Yet by the time Markus’ own First Time hits, it’s become annoyingly predictable. A couple of interesting sounds will briefly draw your attention (Sassot’s Where It All Began probably the best of the lot), but most of it will fade from your memory by the end. Altogether, not a remarkable finish.

It is quite clear Markus has shifted his musical focus, as much of his old sound is absent. While I respect his decision to change, he could have chosen something better than what we have here. Instead of a unique, if simple, form of prog, Schulz seems to have been converted to the Armada trance sound, and most of Ibiza ‘06 follows their manifesto: airy, melodic trance without an original idea in it that hasn’t been aped from the year 2001. In this regard, Markus just sounds like a slightly slowed-down mellow Armin, which isn’t going to do him any favors if he wants to make a bigger name for himself.

Ultimately, there’s very little on Ibiza ‘06 that distinguishes Schulz from the Armada pack. There’s a bit more emphasis on groove and atmosphere, but it’s still Armin’s style of trance, which has been stale for ages. Markus doesn’t bring anything new to the table here, and if he continues down this road, he’s going to be stuck in van Buuren’s shadow for a long time to come.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien - I Wish My Brother George Was Here

Elektra: 1991

As I continue to wait for that new Deltron album to finally drop (so... bloody... long...), it seems appropriate that I now find myself returning to Del's debut album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here (a reference to Liberace, though the point of using it I haven't a clue). All things considered, it's a surprising album to have come out in the year 1991. Gangsta rap was huge (pop rap even huger, but like hell Del would do that), so not following in his cousin's footsteps in that field probably wasn't the best option if he aimed at making a large career for himself. Then again, the issues Ice Cube often dealt with were worlds apart from the life Del was familiar with, and if there's anything Tha Funkee Homosapien prides himself on, it's sincerity of content. Either that, or he just preferred looking on the lighter side of life.

But that was for the future. At the time, ol' Cube, already sitting high in the hip-hop pantheon, was more than helpful in giving Del a running start, producing and supplying dialog (mostly banter via gangsta counterpoints) throughout this album. And just as with Death Certificate, the George Clinton and Parliament Funk influences are heavy on here (say, maybe Del and Cube are claiming Clinton's their musical brother-in-arms! ...or something). In fact, it utterly dominates Brother George right from the start. They aren't just raiding the past for samples, they're aiming for recreation of Funkadelic in the early '90s (by, um, sampling a whole bunch of George Clinton and the like). Party rap, then? I guess so, as cuts like Mr. Dobalina, Dr. Bombay, What Is A Booty, and Ahonetwo, Ahonetwo definitely encourage hand wavin' and booty shakin' galore.

Despite using beats that, ultimately, didn't require much lyricism more poignant than “Throw your hands in the air, etc.”, Del wasn't about to sell his skills short. Still being a teenager though, he wasn’t too world-wise, so despite I Wish often getting lumped in the ‘conscious rap’ side of things, there aren’t many deep insights found within. Rather, trivial tales like chilling (Sunny Meadowz), tribulations of taking busses (The Wacky World Of Rapid Transit, a tune I get a kick out of since I rely on public transportation to get around Vancouver – though the events Del describes sounds more like a trip through Surrey), and frustration over lazy friends (Sleepin’ On My Couch) take up a good chunk of the album. Other times, he’s calling out all the poseurs and “fraudulent foes” in the rap game (Pissin’ On Your Steps, Same Ol’ Thing, Ya Lil’ Crumbsnatchers), a theme that he continues to this day, though obviously back then he had much easier targets to disassemble (Vanilla Ice is spared no mercy).

This is definitely a fun album to throw on, but not really a shining example of Del’s rapping skills. Despite the early lyrical potential, Brother George is better enjoyed for the beats oozing with the best of p-funk vibes.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Warren G - I Want It All

Restless Records: 1999

Though he arose from the same g-funk scene as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Warren G took quite a different path compared to his contemporaries. Rather than signing with Death Row Records like the rest of 'em, he took his talents elsewhere, hopping around labels as an independent artist and producer during his '90s run. The gambit paid off, establishing a strong solo career when he could have instead been lost among the Death Row stars (to say nothing about escaping the tribulations that came with being on Suge Knight's label). After a while, his former association with Long Beach faded from the public consciousness, despite having quite the hand in helping define the original g-funk style of music. He may have broke big with the Nate Dogg duet Regulate from the Above the Rim soundtrack (itself released on Death Row), but the biggest hit I recall him having was a take on I Shot The Sheriff in '97, a tune with ‘crossover appeal’ square in its sights.

Still, his former friendships endured even if Mr. Griffin The Third went elsewhere in the world of hip-hop. As the ‘90s drew to a close (and most of his old associates finally freed themselves of Suge Knight), it seemed all the original g-funk party crew were reconvening, collaborating with greater frequency. It was almost as if something big was going to happen, like a return to the glory days of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. What could it be, mang? Oh, wait, we already know. Chronic 2001. Well shiiite, no wonder then.

I Want It All, Warren G’s third full-length, has collaborations galore, especially from his Long Beach days (or would that be... ‘daze’? Ahahaha! Haha! Ha. Er...Um, what was funny again?). Tha Dogg Pound’s here! RBX is here! Nate Dogg is here! Snoop Dogg’s here! In fact, the inclusion of both Snoop and Nate on Game Don’t Wait marked a proper reunion of the trio’s original group, 213, which existed even before they showed up on The Chronic. Small surprise it’s one of the best tunes on I Want It All, an easy, breezy, spliffy recollection on their music careers and where they may head (though they never properly released anything as 213 until a number of years after).

Most of this album’s like this - laid back and mellow, even for g-funk. Not much in the way of club bangers, ‘hood anthems, or r’n’b crossovers, yet still maintaining the ‘everyday is summer days’ vibes you’d expect of West Coast hip-hop. As for Warren G himself, he mostly steps back into the studio, letting his guests handle the lyrics (also included: Jermaine Dupri, Eve, Drag-On, Slick Rick, Memphis Bleek... holy Hell, I could go on). As Mr. Griffin The Third’s never been an exceptional rapper (similar to Snoop’s drawl, but with less playfully smug sneering), it’s just as well he lets his beats do the talking, as the music’s mint for recalling those warm sunny days you just want to cruise.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Banco de Gaia - I Love Baby Cheesy

Six Degrees Records: 1999

Windows Media Player has some odd organization. Ignoring articles in titles, that makes sense to me – who wants long strings of ‘the’s, ‘a’s, and ‘an’s? Yet here we are in the ‘I’s, and it regards the pronoun ‘I’ as its own entity, lining up all my albums starting with “I…”. On the other hand, it treats the word ‘is’ as lesser than ‘I’, as demonstrated when Khooman’s album Is A Flexible Liquid cropped up in the ‘F’s. All of this, of course, has nothing to do with the music on Banco de Gaia’s I Love Baby Cheesy. If you’ve actually been wondering how this alphabetical thing works though, here’s your answer, since there’s not much to discuss regarding this single, and I have to eat up self-imposed word count somehow.

Truth is, aside from one or two cases, Toby Marks' project doesn't translate well to the singles format. His albums generally are enjoyed as a whole, and the odd tune that does get plucked out for EP use often comes off weaker without the surrounding tracks as context. Still, DJs gotta DJ, and they'd much rather have a shorter piece of wax or disc without all the fuss of partial blends and multi-tracks.

I Love Baby Cheesy was the lead single off Magical Sounds Of Banco de Gaia (and the lead track, incidentally), marking a return to big, exuberant fun-time music from Marks after the relatively somber Big Men Cry. As a jump off point for that album, it's fantastic, the combination of funky rhythms, catchy nonsensical vocal samples, hooky synths, and dashes of world beat grabbing you by the lapels for a flailing good time on the dance floor or open field. It's about as light-hearted as you'll ever find Banco de Gaia (and if you don't believe me, gander at those goofs in the video). Shame the stupid Radio Edit on this single ruins all of that, but his Skippy Mix makes up for it (aside from a few cosmetic changes, it's the same as the album version).

Two remixers join in on the cheddar love, the first care of Dub Pistols, a group who broke out during the big beat era and are still kicking it today. Best way to describe their take on this tune is… ‘hard-step’ breaks? Whatever, it’s typical late-‘90s fodder, and mostly forgettable.

The second comes care of a chap going by Wayward Soul, offering two rubs here. Lord Discogs says this is actually Anthony Thorpe. *blink* Wait, original acid house Thorpe, he of Addis Posse, Moody Boys, and such? You sure of that, oh Lord? Huh, if so, that’s quite a coup on Marks’ part to snag him. His remixes are pretty cool too, the first (Electric Cheddar Remix) a dubby, tribal breaks thing, and the second (The Afro-European Remix) going deeper into the dub and tribal haze. Yeah, I can vibe to these. They’re definitely unique offerings within the Banco discography, even for those who are not completists. (*tugs at collar*)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Various - I Love 1992: Underground Anthems

Mixmag: 2001

More free music from a magazine, though this time care of Mixmag. I only bought the one issue, primarily to sate my curiosity over who’d earned the honors of their “Top 100 Tracks …Ever” vote (no, really, Energy 52’s Café Del Mar was deemed the best of all time – could it win such a poll today though?). Beyond that, the issue was crap, and I saw no reason to ever buy another again (I soon had Muzik for my Brit-biased journalism anyway). Still, if Mixmag included CDs as fun as this one, maybe I sold the magazine too short.

Promoted as a two-disc series celebrating the original peak of old school rave (where buying two issues was required, bastards), one disc featured the ‘very important’ tunes of ’92 dance, and the other highlighted underground anthems of the same year. In a way, it was just an excuse for them to jump on the “Hey, remember these classics?” market, though admittedly a profitable one with a decade’s worth of nostalgia finally creeping into the UK clubbing consciousness. Now that I think about it, why isn’t there much of the same thing going on right now for 2002? No ‘I love 2002’ retrospectives? ‘Best Of Dark Prog’? I guess UK Garage is kind of having a retro return, but that’s it. Funny how those genres don’t feel so comparatively old today as vintage ‘ardcore did when this CD came out.

And is there anything special about I Love 1992: Underground Anthems? Not particularly. The tracklist is obvious as fuck, featuring The Hypnotist (twice), Praga Khan, Human Resource, Blame, 2 Bad Mice, Origin Unknown, and Q Project, amongst others. If you don’t know which tunes by these acts were used, let me be the first to welcome you to this scene called raving (keep it tidy, please). It’s definitely a CD where the term “all the same tracks you got, in a different order” is apt, as I can’t think of any old school hardcore aficionado that wouldn’t already have these tracks in some fashion.

That said, I fucking love having all these tracks in this particular order! The opening salvo of The House Is Mine, Injected With A Poison, Hardcore You Know The Score, and Dominator is as perfect a rave anthem whore-out as you can get – hell, Adam Power’s mix of Injected’s so worth the price of admission, gloriously capturing every single old school cliché at their best (Pianos! Divas! Hoovers! Samples! Breaks! ‘hoo-hoo’s?). From there, we take a journey into the dark side of hardcore, a pile of proto-jungle tunes offering glimpses of how quickly that scene would take over. The transition to Valley Of The Shadows is rather sudden, mind, but considering this is just a freebie from Mixmag, that’s a pointless quibble, especially when the rest of the CD’s been so much fun.

Since the tracklist’s hardly unique, I wouldn’t recommend seeking this disc out for more than a dollar. At that price though, it’s a bargain!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Aphex Twin - ...I Care Because You Do

Sire Records Company: 1995

Whauh! Don’t look at me like that. We all know you’re operating on some other wavelength compared to your musical peers (pft, as if Aphex Twin has a comparable variable), but there’s no need to be smug about it. Plus, are we to believe you have teeth that pearly white? Come on, you’re from the British Isles – we all know what’s up. It cannot be denied, though, that …I Care Because You Do has one of the most unique album covers out there in Electronic Music Land, such that ol’ Richard’s grinning visage became a running theme for his ‘90s output. It seems, no matter what he does, Mr. D. James’ will always leave a lasting impression.

Speaking of music, how about dictating the change of a whole scene? As Aphex Twin, he’d already helped define ambient techno, leading to the intelligent dance music (IDM) branch at large. Yet as everyone jumped on that bandwagon, he was already moving on. There were still melodic and calm musics found in his releases, but hardcore beats, abrasive acid, and sonic noise crept further and further into his sound. The On EP properly introduced his new 'drill'n'bass' style, and this here album explored it further, even as folks pondered whether such ventures were wise in the first place. It definitely caught those only familiar with Selected Ambient Works off guard.

…I Care Because You Do tends to go forgotten when it comes to Aphex Twin albums, probably due to the slipshod way the packaging comes off. The vinyl barely looked better than a white label, and the CD cheekily uses the original 'compact disc' logo with pen scratchings for labeling; Richard D. James sure does care about this, doesn't he. Plus, few classic tracks were culled from it, most of the Aphex glory going to former or latter offerings. Who could even enjoy tracks with weird titles like Mookid, Cow Cud Is A Twin, or Wet Top Hen Ax anyway? Farmers?

No, that’s not right. This is a great collection of off-kilter music, skillfully flirting through lovely melancholy, aggressive freak-outs, and funky experimentation. It’s almost impossible to get bored playing this, each track sounding totally odd and unique from what came before, urging the listening to keep going and discover what delightful devilishness Mr. D. James creates next. Lovely orchestral passages like in Next Heap With and The Waxen Pith rub shoulders with glorious beat freakouts like Start As You Mean To Go On and Wax The Nip. Childlike whimsy as found in Alberto Balsalm has a wicked counterpart in Ventolin (ooh, my ears …yet I can’t turn it off!). Other assorted styles are tinkered and toyed with, almost bizarre parodies as played through ol’ Richard’s mangled and abused analog gear.

Despite a lack of any unifying concept, this is easily Aphex Twin’s most complete album in terms of diversity. I wouldn’t want to start an exploration of his discography here, but I’ve definitely returned to it more often than his other works.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blend - Echo Warrior

Shadow Records: 2002

I’ve apparently known about Blend (George Mandas on his Greek passport) for a while now, appearing on the 2002 Shadow Records compilation Hed Sessions 2. Among original cuts and remixes, he makes up a third of that CD's tracklist, and is easily a highlight of all that funky, downtempo niceness (shouldn’t I have reviewed Hed Sessions 2 already?). It was just recently, however, that I re-stumbled upon Blend, while scouring through Shadow’s discography at Lord Discogs. Say, the samples of Echo Warrior sound good, but fat chance finding a hard copy over a decade- whoa, Amazon does have one available!

The album turned out as I expected, a solid collection of downtempo tunes borrowing influences from trip-hop, dub, nu-jazz, and broken-beats. In fact, you could say Mr. Mandas manages to 'blend' them quite excellently! Eh? Eh...? Oh come on, you have to give me that pun - it was too tempting to pass up, the most succulent of low-lying fruit.

Seriously though, the name Blend as an artist title is apt, as ol' George displays quite the craftsmanship for his chosen sound. Each track typically features a specific genre of the downtempo scene, but borrows enough elements from others such that they never drown in cliché. So whereas you may prefer pure dub vibes over jazz noodling, even when Blend gets his saxaphones or standing cellos in the spotlight, it’s always accompanied by rivers of reverb and smokey space.

Thus, Echo Warrior gets to indulge in a surprising bit of diversity: Green Tea Blues and E-Funkt have funky hip-hop flavor going for them (kind of reminds of a Gorillaz instrumental); All That Dub, Plan Zero, and Moods For Mr. D get heavier into the bass ’n’ echo end of things; Blue Man and World Dot Com play up urban jazz tones, such that you just might handle those beatniks and their poetry after all; a couple nods to trip-hop and illbient (really, ‘trippier-hop’) crop up in Addicted, Soulcentrik, and Bleep, Human, Bleep; and even drum ‘n’ bass gets represented with Sunset Cream and Strictly Nowhere. I should mention that this summation of Echo Warrior is far from sequenced; in fact, every stylistic variant is nicely paced from one another, giving this album an equally class listening experience when played from beginning to end.

Okay, high praises all around, but if what I say is true, why have so few (including myself, until now) heard a thing about Blend’s decade-plus old debut album? Unfortunately for Mr. Mandas, his timing in releasing an album like this wasn’t the best. Had Echo Warrior somehow managed a late-‘90s street date, it may have stood out as something far more unique. By 2002, however, the downtempo scene was flooded with options for music suitable for lounges and late-night smoke sessions. Blend couldn’t help but get lost in the glut. Perhaps this little review will turn some ears his way though, as Echo Warrior shouldn’t be lost to indifference and passing of time.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Juno Reactor - Bible Of Dreams

Blue Room Released/Metropolis: 1997/2008

First, some well-deserved props to Metropolis for reissuing all the Juno Reactor albums released prior to the band joining their label. It couldn’t have been easy gathering up the rights to them, as Ben Watkins’ group saw distribution across several labels in several countries throughout the ‘90s. That said, I cannot deny some disappointment with the reissue of Bible Of Dreams. I never had an original copy myself, but a couple friends did, and the combination of a slick digipak (back when they weren’t as common) with modified Renaissance artwork in the booklet gave the album a degree of class few psy-leaning CDs of the day could compete with. Well, the booklet remains for the reissue, but comes within a boring old jewel case now. Poor form, Metropolis. This is a classic, treat it as such, eh?

Actually, Bible Of Dreams isn’t quite the classic many make it out to be. For sure it's another strong album in the Juno Reactor legacy, arguably even their best from front to back. A critical release within electronic music as a whole, however, is debatable. My impression's long been it was an LP that happened to drop at the right time, and got noticed by a wider audience thanks in large part to their signing with TVT Records for Stateside distribution. TVT also had a lucrative deal with Hollywood, licensing out music for all sorts of action movies (hence why so many of them featured industrial acts from their roster). This greater exposure rescued Juno Reactor from psy trance obscurity, and with tracks like Conga Fury and God Is God leading the way, drew in a ton of new fans who'd never have given them a second thought. “Holy shit, dude, there's music like this being made out there!?” Yeah, you silly metalhead, it's been around for years.

Wait, scratch that. Bible Of Dreams did have fresh sounds on it when the album first dropped in '97. For sure there's some regular ol' psy in the latter half of the CD, but Juno Reactor almost sounds bored with these tunes, like they're going through the motions or were left-overs from previous work. No, Bible Of Dreams made its impact within the psy scene with its opening salvo, showcasing a radical change of musicianship for Ben Watkins' band that none foresaw coming (orchestral swells, in goa trance!?).

Opener Jardin de Cecile is blissy but brisk, almost progressive trance; God Is God is practically world beat with an evil, industrial bent; Komit finds something of a meeting ground between Watkins’ forward outlook and goa of old; and Swamp Thing predicts prog psy’s techier moments a decade early (gotta have those triplets!). Oh, and tribal beats. Especially tribal beats. Lots of tribal beats. This is Watkins tapping into the primitive parts of your brain, giving all who ventured into this album – hippie and metalhead alike – something unexpected and unforgettable. He definitely succeeded in that regard, as Juno Reactor’s star flew ever higher after this one.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Juno Reactor - Beyond The Infinite

Blue Room Released/Metropolis: 1995/2008

Fortunately for me, I didn't have to spend much time getting re-caught up on Juno Reactor's discography before hitting Beyond The Infinite, as the group had released only one standard LP prior, Transmissions (does Luciana count as a proper album?). Then it’s off to Bible Of Dreams right after this, and my ‘90s Juno resuscitation will be complete. Ironically, Beyond and Bible come one after the other in my collection’s alphabetical order, so it’s almost like I’ve gone back to the ‘B’s again!

Beyond The Infinite finds the band Ben Watkins built further refining the psy trance sound they helped popularize on their debut. What had once been a quirky trance offshoot music journalists struggled to identify (“goa techno”, really?) had now turned into a full-blooded scene with major names, labels, and parties blowing the doors of possibility open. Blue Room was among the early UK adopters specializing in the sound, and their manifesto lured in all the hot acts: Kox Box, Etnica, Total Eclipse, and, of course, Juno Reactor. There was something different going on with Watkins' group though, their industrial roots lending less of an India-on-acid tone to their tunes in favour of straight-ahead thrashing, spacey numbers.

It'd still be a few years before the group truly started exploring the potential of genre experimentation though, but we find hints of it in Beyond The Infinite. Cut Samurai throws in woodwinds and bit of Japanese dialogue, Rotorblade is practically a precursor to all the 'buttrock goa' the likes of S.U.N. Project would fully indulge in (to say nothing of the proper rock elements Juno Reactor would eventually do themselves), and Magnetic started their short-term trend of heavy tribal beats on the second album track (Conga Fury and Hule Lam on following albums; or was that just a coincidence?).

The rest of the album falls more in line with psy trance’s style, though still retains that Juno Reactor aesthetic. You know the one: somewhat flat, as though, no matter how hard they try, the band just can’t shake those EBM sonics. Hey, it gave them an identity, but it's honestly a sound quality not for everyone, especially if you prefer your psy filled with chunky acid galore. If it’s not a problem though, there’s a decent amount of stylistic variety on Beyond The Infinite: blistering cuts like Guardian Angel, Feel The Universe, and Mars (ooh, voice pads, like German trance – no wonder Hypnotic initially picked up Stateside distribution!), or slower number like Ice Cube and Silver.

Long time Juno Reactor followers tend to remain divided over which is the group’s ultimate best album, but for those who prefer and continue to long for their straight-forward psy sound (holy cow, guys, let it go, Watkins ain’t going back to it), Beyond The Infinite is about as good as it gets. It hits hard when it needs to, takes time to ease off the reigns for a breather, and not a duff cut in the lot.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Earthling - Hypernature (Original TC Review)

Neurobiotic Records: 2008

(2013 Update:
Another CD that sounds better than I recall, at least on a superficial level. There wasn't anything on here that I actively disliked this time around (though some of the drug references remain childish), making me wonder why I gave
Hypernature such a snarky, middling score in the first place. Maybe I was just cranky? It was the middle of the winter when I wrote it, and Lord knows that's affected impressions on more than one occasion. Oh yeah, I'd totally suck as a 'professional' music journalist, what with letting emotions and subjectivity getting in the way and all.

However, once the album ended, I remembered why Earthling's sophomore effort left me underwhelmed: nothing stuck in my head, the same frustrating problem I had with it before. Maybe that's why liked this a little more now - I'd totally forgotten anything about it.)



IN BRIEF: Cool cover.

I have a confession to make: I’m easily drawn towards psy trance covers. Sure, they can be ridiculously overcooked and busy at times, but there’s something about the combination of computer artwork, fucked-up concepts, and pure psychedelia I find difficult to resist. Maybe it’s my fruitful imagination that’s to blame, intrigued by the out-wordly bizarreness of these covers. Whatever the reason, it was one of the things that got me into trance when many compilations from the 90s had similar themes, and it’s a bit sad that generally only the field of psy continues to over-indulge in fractals and such.

More than that, though, I often figure imaginative, creative covers will provide imaginative, creative music from the CD inside. You would think after being burned on numerous occasions over the years I’d have learnt my lesson by now. But nay, I still peruse psy trance albums, find something with a really funky cover, and come away underwhelmed time and time again. *sigh*

Italian Celli Firmi has been DJing psy trance around the Mediterranean (mostly Ibiza) for over a decade, but earlier in this decade he released an album as Earthling called Patterns to minor fanfare; some enjoyed it, some found it boring, but, having read this far, most have only just now discovered he even had an album called Patterns (and probably also that there’s a guy named Celli Firmi who produces as Earthling). Firmi’s mostly appeared in collaborations since, but this past year he decided to release a follow-up titled Hypernature. After listening to this, I figure more effort was put into the cover than the music.

Okay, that’s unfair. I’m sure Frimi put a good amount of effort into his album – after nearly eight years since the last one, why wouldn’t he? When the results are this dull and generic, however, one can’t help but wonder what even the point was.

Seriously, it took nearly half-a-dozen listens of Hypernature for anything beyond stock psy sounds to sink in, and even then I had to resort to alternative methods. No, not that kind of alternative method – I’m talking about something else entirely different. Instead of playing the album from beginning to end as usual, I hit the Random button on my player, then jot down notes beside a track number should it crop up. Lo and behold, it actually worked! I could finally remember which track had the “TV brain” sample, and which one had the “open eyes” sample; which one had “some moments with a rubber hook”, and which one had the extra amount of “superfluous rips, zips, and zaps”; which one had the “dull twiddle”, and which one had “some acid chunk”; which one had a “slight bass change”, and which one was “slightly groovy”. And so on.

Actually, there were a few things that did catch my attention even on the initial play-throughs. The tracks that bookend Hypernature - Beans Of Light and Lost In Trance-Nation - stand out from the rest because they have actual solid hooks in them; however, they are unfortunately undone by silly ‘taking drugs is cool, kids!’ vocal samples. Also, there was one cut on here that makes use of a mid-track tempo change – which one was it again? (checks notes) Ah, right, number six (Get In The Chopper); not that anything comes of it - this gimmick has been used in psy for ages, and often executed with far more brilliance than here - but after listening to standard full-on rhythms for much of the album, any variation stands out.

That’s the primary problem with Hypernature though: everything on here has been done before, and done far better. The rhythms may have energy, but are generally as generic as psy gets; there’s plenty of synth tweaks and burps scattered about to make the music appear busy and complicated, but for the most part is merely fluff; the standard psy arrangements either wibble about or piddle out with anti-climatic finishes. Some might argue that Firmi wanted to make a ‘deep’ record, so of course things won’t leap out; it’s designed to be head-fuck music, or some-such. Fine if such is the case, but when one Olien track can fuck with my head more than a whole album’s worth of Earthling tracks – and be a memorable experience in the process - I’m going to go with the sure-thing.

Yet Hypernature isn’t an awful album either; there isn’t anything here that made me cringe or bury my head in shame. For all intents, were I to hear a track from here while at a party, I’d probably continue to bounce along to the beat. Granted, I doubt I’d recall what had just played once it was finished, but nor would I have an overwhelming urge to leave the dancefloor. If anything, these could make for fine transitional tracks.

And that right there explains why Firmi’s second is the dull, unremarkable listening experience that it is. It’s an album full of set pieces, of transitional tracks. There are plenty of brief possibilities and almost-hooks, but you always get the sense that it’s leading to something more engaging, more memorable -perhaps in a DJ set this would be so. Alas, it is not the case on the album called Hypernature.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Carbon Based Lifeforms - Hydroponic Garden

Ultimae Records: 2003/2011

I could go on and on about how brilliant Carbon Based Lifeforms’ Hydroponic Garden sounds, to which those who know will nod in agreement, and those who’ve instead discounted my praise of Ultimae Records shall remain in the dark. It's a given fact at this point that little of what I say here will convince the doubtful, but trust me, if you’ve yet to drink of the Ultimae cup, it shall remain your loss for it is quite delish'.

No, screw that. Selling Carbon Based Lifeforms should be easy, especially to old schoolers as the act’s sound harkens back to ambient techno of the early to mid-'90s: simple, laid back rhythms, haunting synths, samples of dialogue and nature, and TB-303. Hell, even the album's title and tracks sound scientific and futuristic, like something you might have found on Beyond, Recycle Or Die, Apollo, or Fax+. If you're one of those folks yearning for more of a vintage ambient techno sound untethered from the modern obsession with laptop noodling and glitch (*cough*), Hydroponic Garden really is a no-brainer, especially with the lush Ultimae Mixdown included in the deal.

Alright, I'm getting ahead of myself. Who even are Carbon Based Lifeforms, and what sort of particulars can we find on their proper debut album? The act itself is a Scandinavian duo comprised of Johannes Hedberg (sounds like a hockey player) and Daniel Sergestad (or is that Ringström?), who’s also the chap behind Sync24 (how’d you miss that tidbit of info, 2012 Sykonee?). They’d released prior material on MP3.com and CDr, though went mostly unnoticed. Their luck considerably changed when they got to showcase their talents on the Fahrenheit Project series from Ultimae, stealing the spotlight on the third edition with the track MOS 6581. Hot anticipation followed, and within a year came Hydroponic Garden.

Whether the album met expectations, I haven’t a clue, as that was a decade ago now (scant reviews of it are positive though). Even if for some absurd reason it didn’t, Hydroponic Garden’s held up perfectly fine as an entry into the ambient techno canon. There’s pulsing dub numbers like the opener Central Plains, the titular track, and Silent Running, blissy acid with Tensor, Neurotransmitter, and Comsat, and lovely, spacey ambient passages on Exosphere, Refraction 1.33, and Artificial Island. The two highlights, of course, are a revamped version of MOS 6581 – the lovely synth melodies are given extra weight and space – and Epicentre (First Movement), essentially an ambient version of the same tune found on Fahrenheit Project: Part 4.

I guess the only fault to be had with Hydroponic Garden is that similar versions of The Big Two can be found elsewhere, somewhat diluting whatever special quality they have within the album itself. That, along with a small drag in the middle, are the only quibbles I have, but whatever. I’m preaching to the choir, aren’t I. If not, this is a worthy addition to any ambient techno collection, so get on it, folks.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Various - Human Traffic

FFRR: 1999

Movies properly capturing club culture are rare and often crap, but Human Traffic’s one of the few that got it close. Sure, it's a comedy, exaggerating all the highs and lows associated with “clubs, drugs, pubs, and parties”, and it only highlights one aspect of a global phenomenon – specifically the UK in the late '90s. Still, I can't think of another country that had as much sway within dance music as the Brits did at the turn of the century, what with so many self-important DJs, clubbing brands, and magazines exporting their narrative across the world. Even in the hinterlands of Canada, we were lapping it up. Groove may have been more realistic in the parties we actually went to, but we yearned to be a part of the Human Traffic ones.

Funnily enough, us far-flung Northwest Coasters almost never learned of the movie's existence. Quite by chance, I’d stumbled upon the soundtrack in a local shop, a double-disc of music featuring names and tunes I was familiar with. Upon realizing there was a whole picture associated with it, I special ordered the DVD to sate my curiosity over what sort of movie could have such mint music. It fast turned into a hit within my party crew, getting umpteen repeated plays almost every weekend as we showed it off to any and all (almost always while stoned). For most of 2001 (yes, we were really that late to the Human Traffic revelry), we would not stop quoting the damn thing, and I somehow suspect similar occurrences went down in other areas to the world who dug the flick.

But enough about the movie, how's the soundtrack? Pretty darn good, I'd say, though like its cinema counterpart, very much a product of its time. Almost all the big producers and genres of the late '90s are accounted for, plus nods to classic tracks of clubbing yore are included too. Interspersed throughout the discs are clips of dialogue from the movie itself (like I said, damn quotable!), often leading into music associated with those scenes (Orbital's Belfast after the Comedown Sermon, for instance; or William Orbit's Ogive after What Was I Talking About?).

The two-discs also separate the music between a DJ mix (handled by Pete Tong) for CD2 and a 'miscellaneous' CD1. For my money, the mix disc is most fun, running from garagey house through trance and finishing hard with techno – a proper clubbing disc. The first one features mostly broken beat music (trip hop, gangsta rap, downtempo, breaks, etc.) with a few ambient pieces added; in other words, where all the music that couldn't fit on the DJ mix ended up.

Whether fresh-faced ravers will find much of interest in Human Traffic, I'm not sure, as there's almost an entire generational gap from when this came out. On the other hand, there's yet to be another movie celebrating dance music hedonism as entertainingly as this one did, retaining a timeless quality to it. Nice one, bruv.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ice Cube - Death Certificate

Priority Records: 1991/2003

I had no idea Ice Cube’s Death Certificate was so old. 1994-ish was my guess when I saw this album sitting on store shelves, but no earlier. Hell, I thought The Predator was older! I’ll grant part of my ignorance was just not knowing much about O’Shea Jackson’s early solo career, beyond a basic cliff-notes summary (formed N.W.A., left for solo-pursuits, got into movies, etc.), but there was another, sillier reason too: his haircut. Thanks to the album covers of Straight Outta Compton and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, plus the movie Boyz N The Hood, I always associated early Cube with the jheri curl style. The first instance I saw of him without the cut was in the 1993 rap parody movie CB4, so surely Death Certificate came out sometime after then, right? Hell no, in fact dropping onto store shelves a mere year after Cube’s solo debut. Wow, am I ever an idiot for taking so long to realize that.

Legend purports Mr. Jackson shaved his head as a way of distancing himself from West Coast gangsta rap tropes, which is funny considering Death Certificate marks the introduction of another attribute that defined Cali-based hip-hop: g-funk. Yes, a full year before Dr. Dre cemented the sound. To be fair, raiding George Clinton for samples was still a fresh concept, but all the glory for it goes to one of Cube's associates/enemies, and none for Da Lench Mob. Maybe everyone wanted more Bomb Squad action instead?

It definitely lends a different tone to this album compared to the last one. Lyrically, Ice Cube keeps firing shots at all the problems wrought by American society in the early '90s, but as the music has more bounce to it compared to the Bomb Squads' propulsive beats, Death Certificate comes off light-hearted compared to AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Not by much, mind, as tunes ranging in topic from ghetto misdemeanors (of course), members of the black community who sell themselves out for a bigger piece of the corporate pie, STDs (Look Who's Burnin' ain't about fire, folks), and even racism within the 'hood are just as vitriolic as anything Cube's done. It's just, y'know, funkier now.

So while his targets remained mostly the same (though now including N.W.A. on No Vasaline, since they had the audacity to make disses on him), Cube wanted to focus his words with more conceptual precision rather than the scatter-shot way he did before. The result is an album of two halves, a 'Death Side' and a 'Life Side' (probably worked better on the vinyl or tape copies). To be honest, there's scant difference between the two, though more 'hood tales permeate the 'Death Side', whereas 'Life Side' deals heavier with societal topics. It was a good idea in principle, but not delved into deep enough to make a difference in the album's flow one way or the other. It also dates Death Certificate to the early ‘90s, making my former ignorance of its release date all the more sad.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Miguel Migs - Get Salted, Volume 1 (2013 Update)

Salted Music: 2005

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

I must be getting old. It's the only explanation for how I somehow enjoy this CD more than when I first wrote a review for it. When was that, six or seven years ago now? My God, can one's taste in music really change that much from their late twenties to mid-thirties? I mean, I heard the rumours of it being so, the anecdotes, the old-wives' tales, but now that I've experienced it myself, I'm astounded to find the legends are true. It's not like I didn't have an appreciation for deep house when I was younger. Even in my early twenties, I enjoyed the output of chaps like Mark Farina and such. This is a different feeling though, a soul feeling, a- Oh dear, I'm turning into one of those house heads, aren't I.

Yeah, yeah, I quipped a whole bunch about that in my original TranceCritic review of Get Salted, Vol. 1, which sure makes my writing come off immature now that I look back at it (not to mention the overlong, pointless 'angle' of whether Miguel Migs should get an artist credit or not – inappropriate, leftover snark-rant regarding DJs and the spotlights they seek, t’was). Folly of youth, I guess, but it’s not like this CD’s an overlooked gem that my lack of maturity couldn’t comprehend at the time. All that’s happened is the bumpin’ funk and soul vibes that’s long been a deep house trademark now resonate stronger than they did before, and there’s any number of reasons for this other than ‘getting older’.

For instance, the music that passed for popular ‘deep house’ following Get Salted, Vol. 1’s release was, for the most part, boring as shit. Minimal deep-tech? For the love of... What happened to the funk and soul? Hell, what even happened to the artsy European flavour? But whatever, that fad thankfully came to an end, to which we now have the nu-‘deep house’. It’s... well, just boring house for the most part, like 2002-era prog, but with all the plod and a distinct lack of spaciousness. Well sure then, Get Salted, Vol. 1’s gonna sound brilliant compared to those contemporary offerings of ‘deeper than thou’ house.

Props to Mr. Migs, then, for ignoring such trends while maintaining his Salted Music label to this day. Though sporadic in releases, it still peddles in that West Coast summery disco-funk style that OM and Naked made their names on. He even released a second volume of Get Salted in 2009, though I’m not compelled to check that one out, which brings me to a final point.

Get Salted, Vol. 1 may sound better to my aged ears in the here and now compared to the then and before, but the stylistic and pacing problems I mentioned in that old review also persist, especially the drag in the middle of the set. Despite Mr. Mig’s brand of deep house hitting those classic soul notes better than most, it still has its flaws too.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Juno Reactor - Hotaka

Metropolis: 2002

Juno Reactor was already popular within the psy trance community by the turn of the century, but as the new millennium took form, something must have happened in Japan, as Ben Watkins’ music found an even wider audience in the Far East country; at least I assume, given how many live CDs and DVDs they’ve released of concerts there. So big, in fact, that while the Reactor project was between albums, he released this EP titled Hotaka, a major tune for the Hotaka Mountain Festival where Juno Reactor performed the year prior. What else could it be for?

The track itself is quite the mish-mash of musical heritage. Taiko drums and Japanese vocalizations are obviously a bit part of the tune, but as we're still in that 'spaghetti Western' portion of Watkins' career, the thrashy guitar riffage is accounted for as well; and, of course, those pseudo-EBM rhythms that's long been a Juno Reactor trademark. I guess if the first half of the album Shango didn't do much for you, neither will Hotaka, as the tune's firmly moved on from all those early psy trance vibes many were introduced to the Reactor. Heck, it doesn't even have that 'buttrock goa' thing going for it, so finely produced it is.

Juno Reactor had a decade-deep discography by the time Hotaka came out, but very few singles to their name, as their main strength lay in the album format. That trend continued here, with a pointless Radio Edit and two remixes included with the main track. As for the re-rubs, there's some discrepancy. They're credited to Thomas Heckmann and Der Dritte Raum on the CD, but Lord Discogs states otherwise, the “Heckmann” remix done by Kloq, and the “Raum” one by Juno Reactor member Kris Kylven. There's also a note stating the CD credits are mislabeled, but if that's the case, it's one Hell of a mislabel. Were Heckmann and Raum even commissioned to do remixes for this EP? Who knows at this point, but I'm sure some Juno junkie could enlighten you if you're curious enough.

Ignoring all the clerical mishaps, how do these remixes sound? The “Heckmann” remix is far more banging, almost what you'd expect the techno producer to do to the track if given the chance. Meanwhile, the “Raum” remix goes more subdued and minimalistic – it's almost meditative in an ambient sort of way, but without losing any of the high tempo of the original. Overall, they're both interesting variations of Hotaka, in a stripped-down, understated way.

Hotaka’s a tidy little EP, though probably only Juno Reactor completists will likely feel the need to nab a copy; what an odd thing to say, coming from yours truly, as this and Shango are the only Reactor releases I have. Granted, part of that oversight’s because of an early Audio Galaxy raid gathering up their music for burned CDs, but those have long since disintegrated. Looks like I’ve some music hunting to do…

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