Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Month Off To Recharge

You may have noticed things slowing down a little around here, and it's not for a lack of time or material. Put simply, I'm creatively burnt out. I've been writing for this blog almost daily for the past two years, save an off week here or there as other concerns took up my attention. Not counting the 2010 stuff, I think I just recently passed the five-hundred mark too (yay!), though a fraction of original TranceCritic reviews are floating in there. Still, that's a whole lot of writing, more than I ever did for TranceCritic in five years of effort, and I feel like I've finally hit my wall. These past couple weeks I was getting by with copious amounts of caffeine, but that's a crutch, one I really need to cut back on. No, this is simply mental exhaustion, so I do what anyone that's worked too hard for too long does: take some time off.

And no, this isn't another "I give up on writing music!" rant. I'm still dedicated to reviewing every damn CD I own in alphabetical order, but a break is definitely needed from this. And what better time to do so than the dog days of Summer,where general traffic is low. Plus, letters "O" through "T" are some of my heaviest blocks of releases going forward, and a fresh, invigorated mind's better for that than slogging through while wired on Rock Stars.

There might be the odd update here for EDM World Weekly News, but if you're checking back in for new reviews, best wait until September for that. Or, I dunno, browse through the back reviews in the meanwhile. With over 500 of them, that's plenty of reading!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tiësto - Nyana

Nettwerk America: 2003

Say what you want about Tiësto’s career trajectory – no, go ahead, its fun! - but for a brief while in the early '00s, it seemed the Dutch icon was poised at breaking into the mainstream with critical credibility intact. To do so though, a bit of reinvention was required, taking his first steps in distancing himself from the euro-trance that had defined much of his musical output. After all, single-CD sets were fine for anthem rinse-outs, but Tiësto are serious DJ now, so he needs two discs spotlighting his muse. And what better way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you are serious DJ than by playing serious techno bollocks, opening with the same track Hawtin began Sound Of The Third Season, no less!

He pulls it off. I'm serious! The opening stretch of Nyana is one of the best CD1 starts I've heard from Mr. Verwest, plus I can't help giggling at the thought of his traditional 'cracker fanbase utterly aghast at all the techno, perplexed over what happened their trance hero (oh, if only I had a time-machine to show them what was to come...). True, there's little here Adam Beyer would tremble over, but for a Dutch trance DJ taking a step into the unforgiving underground, Tiësto handles himself well. The rhythms are kept brisk with momentum on a steady climb, and getting Oliver Lieb (The Ambush's Acapulco) and L-Vee (Planisphere's Totem) as some of your peak tech-trance bangers for this section is mint!

Then he fucks it all up with Darren Tate and Jono Grant’s collaboration Let The Light Shine In, as cheeseball a chedder-trance track as cheese trance could cheese out in 2003. There’s no reason for such an abrupt change in tone either, other than Tiësto had a pile of vocal tunes to cram into this two-discer somewhere. What, the Indoor disc wasn’t good enough for Cor Fifneman’s Venus or Conjure One’s Tears From The Moon? Damning things further is Outdoor returning to the tech-trance business with Ton T.B.’s Electronic Malfunction regardless, rendering the middle portion of CD1 a pointless diversion. That said, I still like Tijs’ remix of Venus, despite serving no purpose in the context of this mix.

As for CD2, this one’s famous for having three huge, gigantic, massive, McProg anthems on it – Hell, these tracks practically helped kick-off that sub-genre! Of course, I’m talking about Andain’s Beautiful Things, Motorcycle’s As The Rush Comes (tunes that Gabriel & Dresden never topped), and Holden’s Nothing (93 Returning Mix). And with that said, do you even care about the rest of the CD? There’s a few nice tunes scattered between, and the final stretch of Balearic trance vibes is charming enough, but come on, we all know what folks remember most about Nyana to this day.

That’s right, the techno! It makes one wonder where Tiësto’s career could have gone had he dared remaining on that path instead. Cue Bizarro World scene of Mr. Verwest playing Bergheim and Circo Loco.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Squarepusher - Numbers Lucent (Original TC Review)

Warp Records: 2009

(2014 Update:
Since this was the first Squarepusher review submitted to TranceCritic - yeah, yeah,
way late in the website's lifespan - I felt it necessary for a brief background summation for the reader base. Seems like redundant information now, but then it's not like I've got a ton of Jenkinson material on this blog either. Man, so many musical gaps, no matter how diligent I remain in buying albums...

This remains a fun throwback EP, and I kinda wish we'd hear a bit more like this from Squarepusher, just for the novelty of it all. Can't see it ever happening though. There's just so much other jazz-stuffs he'd rather be doing than making music for the 'up all night' crowds.)



IN BRIEF: Familiar.

Even in the ‘WTF they be smoking’ realm of IDM, Tom Jenkinson as Squarepusher established himself as one of the more challenging producers to be found. Yet, within those frenzied jazz-fusion drum beats and eclectic abstractions lay carefully considered songs that often rewarded the patient and attentive listener. Small wonder Warp jumped at the chance to sign Tom to a long-term deal, as he fit nicely in a roster that included such IDM wonks like Aphex Twin and Autechre. In the meanwhile since, he’s continued to reward dedicated followers with ever new takes on his sound, and either confounding or mesmerizing the casual passerby (as usual, there’s seldom middle ground with intelligent techno).

His latest avenue - Just A Souvenir - saw the pusher of squares diving into various aspects of underground rock music: garage, funk, psychedelic, prog, kraut – you’d think it was made by some jam band from the 70s if you didn’t know better. In any case, it was once again quite a departure from what folks figure to be Tom’s trademark sound. Perhaps in an effort to throw a bone to his pure electronic fanbase, we have this quickie follow-up EP, Numbers Lucent. Gone are all the guitars, and instead builds upon tracks like Star Time 2. Or, considering Star Time 1 is on here, perhaps this was what he was working on before his muse led him elsewhere. Whatever the case, beyond the ties between both Star Times and similar looking cover art, Numbers Lucent is a mostly different entity from Just A Souvenir.

So, if you’re down for some more Squarepusher funk-slap basslines, spritely keyboard melodies, and skittery jazz-fusion rhythms, the first four tracks here will certainly please. At the same time, though, it all feels a bit ‘been there, done that,’ especially so coming off a string of albums that saw Tom continuously moving in new directions. Cuts like Paradise Garage and Star Time 1 are by no means bad – in fact, they’re quite good; just over-familiar and safe. You get the impression he could have knocked these out at any time in his career. Mind, this feeling may be due to the old-school leanings these tracks take.

If the retro-rave vibes were only hinted at in the first four, Tom takes a full plunge in the final two. Yes, folks, Squarepusher has been bitten by early 90s nostalgia as well. Arterial Fantasy is straight-up old-school hardcore with a Jenkinson twist, and very cool in the process. Illegal Dustbin, on the other hand, goes for the gabber jugular, in a move that’s fun for the novelty factor (Squarepusher! Gabber! WTF!???), but little else.

And there isn’t much more to say about Numbers Lucent. It’s a tidy little EP that fans of Squarepusher will enjoy, and inviting for those who are curious about checking out the man’s work on the cheap. He may not be stretching here, but average Squarepusher remains better than average… a lot of others, really.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2009. © All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

DJ Abasi - Nüdisorder

Intimate Productions: 2006

Every city has local DJs who are minor legends thereabouts but relatively unknown abroad. Fame and fortune, they seek these things not, for they are purists of the scene: collecting records, opening for the touring superstars, and all around just vibey chaps to hang around. DJ Abasi's one of Vancouver's best examples, a guy who's been around since the early rave days of the city and everyone knows in some way. Though I could drop a ton of events, nicknames, parties, drinks, and anecdotes associated with him, the truth is only locals would understand much of it. Besides, I suspect he'd be incredibly embarrassed by any glowing exposé beyond what I've already provided, humbleness above all else his endearing virtue.

All of which probably doesn't matter the slightest to readers from elsewheres. I mean, ol' Farshad's not a Tyler Stadius or Jay Tripwire, other Vancouver home-growns with some level recognition in the wider world of clubbing. Of course, they're well known thanks to official releases marketed in shops all over the place (and Lord Discogs). Abasi, on the other hand, had barely put out anything beyond demos intended for small circulation. This Nüdisorder was primarily intended as promotion for Intimate Productions’ DJ talent, but this being his first definitive CD release showcasing his skills behind the decks, there was some interest and excitement (launch party! ‘Farshots’!) in seeing what he’d cook up in the studio.

DJ Abasi’s main appeal’s his fluency with several genres of electronic music. Hell, this mix alone is bookended by Pet Shop Boys (a brief bit of Absolutely Fabulous at the start, and Yesterday, When I Was Mad at the end), while Hardfloor acid house (Da Revival) worms its way somewhere in the middle. Mostly though, we’re treated to the revitalized sounds of electro, mash-ups, and disco punk that flourished in early ‘00s, all genres he states were having the biggest impact on his sets at the time. Nüdisorder’s tracklist reads like a who’s who of all the hot names – Soulwax, Tiefschwarz, Tiga, Playgroup, The Juan McLean, Vitalic, etc., etc. Fortunately, his tune selection offers plenty of quirky inclusions so this CD doesn’t come off as just another hit parade.

For instance, there’s classic ‘80s tunes like The Chase but covered by 2020Soundsystem, while New Order gets in with their super-oldie Everything’s Gone Green but by way of a Cicada remix; meanwhile, here’s a cool b-side from Kittin & Hacker called The Beach, having little to do with New Order’s original. One can’t have electroclash without a proper old-school cut though, so here’s Hashim’s Al-Naafiysh. Adn speaking of remixes, why not a little DFA action on Gorillaz’ Dare? Abasi’s lengthy mash-up mixing’s a little rough at points, but it only adds to the CD’s genre-freewheeling appeal.

While I doubt folks outside the 604-district will have much interest in Nüdisorder (much less find a copy), I spent a week blathering about my old burned mix CDs, so Abasi gets a review here too. No blame.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ametsub - The Nothings Of The North

Mille Plateaux: 2010

Mille Plateaux’s had many starts and stops since the label first emerged two decades ago, its latest (and seemingly last) perhaps the most disappointing. Glitch music was turning into a commercially viable force, and here was one of the genre’s Godfather labels returning in 2010. Nor was this just a small relaunch offloading and redistributing back-catalog, oh no. They were signing new artists and even setting up sub-labels, perhaps creating a new musical empire within the realms of minimalistic experimentation that would put Mille Plateaux’s former glory years to shame! Or not.

Sadly, the label ceased releasing material in but a year’s worth of operation, and Mille Plateaux’s website still hasn’t been updated since 2010. Maybe it couldn’t compete with all the free laptop ambient-glitch material clogging up the interwebs? Whatever the case, the initial hope the label could grow again was kicked off with this particular album, Ametsub’s The Nothings Of The North.

Ametsub himself is a minor enigma, even with three albums to his name (this one being his second). Japanese in origin, no name is provided on the broken-English bio at his homepage, though he’s toured enough to earn a few associative namedrops in it (Actress, Apparat, Plaid, Floating Points). If Nothings Of The North is anything to go by, it's small wonder Mille Plateaux would have tapped him for their 2010 relaunch, the music here very much in the 'jazz-click' and 'micro-hop' aesthetic you'd associate with impossibly stuffy conceptual experimentation.

Already backing out that door, are you? Can't blame you, the above descriptors appealing only to the most egg-headed musical sorts. Honestly, I felt the same way when I first heard this as a promo, my patience for glitch-click minimalist techno already stretched to its breaking point. Something kept me from deleting it after that initial listen though, a subtle warmth lurking underneath it all. Ametsub's approach reminds me a lot of early Akufen, where ear-wormy patterns emerge with a couple repeated plays. Also, there's none of the dry sterility that marks so much experimental glitch, in fact a strange bit of warmth permeating throughout. Chalk it up to Ametsub's ear for rhythm, things playing mostly on the downbeat that wouldn't be too out of place on Ninja Tune in an alternate universe where Amon Tobin performed at art museums.

The Nothings Of The North is an odd one, but then what would you have expected from a Mille Plateaux album? Not a 'morning after' LP, that's for sure, but this one sure does the trick I've found, 66 encapsulating this perfectly. It starts all sketchy with constrictive field-recordings, like being stuck in a savanna tree as a wildebeest stampede thunders all around you (ooh, such a headache...). All you want is to curl inside, retreating from the harsh elements outside. Yet, you brave the sunlight, and the song erupts in a rapturous, overbearing synth wash, nearly numbing your senses into submission. You come away feeling refreshed, vitalized, the previous paranoia miraculously cleansed away. Or something.

Monday, July 21, 2014

ASC - Nothing Is Certain

Nonplus Records: 2010

ASC’s been around a while, but in the wide world of drum–n-bass, he came across as just another guy in a sea of highly competent producers stuck following tried-and-tested formulae and genre tropes. Ain't a thing wrong with that, but somewhere along the way, James Clements got it inside his head that 'deebee' could be more than what was out there, that there were still musical roads yet explored. Fortunately, he found a pair of producers at a similar crossroad, Alex Green and Damon Kirkham of Instra:mental, and while those two were key in establishing labels that would promote their ideas, ASC turned into one of their most dependable contributors.

Their ‘microfunk’ work on Autonomic with dBridge earned them plenty of critical praise, but that was a short lived phase, more of a cul-de-sac if anything. About the same time, however, Alex Green set up Nonplus Records, and proposed a stunning question for the drum-n-bass scene: must we be held down by genre conventions? In short time, Nonplus offered an outlet for bass music producers to free themselves of their old shackles, purist fanbases be damned.

When ASC dropped Nothing Is Certain for Nonplus, it was as much a statement of the label's manifesto as it was a game-changer within Mr. Clements' discography. Here was a d'n'b guy, releasing an album on a label fronted by d'n'b guys, with barely a hint of d'n'b presented. For sure, the urban vibe of London bass music is still felt throughout the LP, but instead of reflecting on the clime's contemporary scenery, Nothing Is Certain looks to a possible future for the city. It's Detroit techno futurism for England, one of the few times this concept ever manifested itself within the d'n'b scene.

Yeah, future dystopia’s been a common theme in plenty of jungle, not to mention sci-fi inspired music too – heck, ASC alone released several mini-EPs titled Sci-Files before this one. The music here, however, keeps things grounded in metropolis landscapes, with little sinister about the environment as we casually cruise through neo-London streets late at night, sprawling skyscrapers towering over scattered novelty chip fryers. Classic electro is definitely a major competent here, tracks like Losing You, The Ubiquity Incident, and Matter Of Time begging for an icy-cool anime as visual accompaniment.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the UK’s dabbled down these sonic avenues, the early days of ambient techno, dub and IDM cropping up in ASC’s work here - Absent Mind has the bleepy hallmarks of Higher Intelligence Agency, while Yatta indulges in Autechre glitch-melancholy. For the most part though, such musical lineage is but a backbone, tracks like Lost For Words, The Depths, and Opus working within the world of post-dubstep and atmospheric jungle. In the process, Nothing Is Certain sounds remarkably unique, stylistic music that Clements has made his own. If you’ve resisted the hype behind ASC’s last half-decade of material, this album will convince you its deserved full stop.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Various - Northern Faction 3 (Original TC Review)

Balanced Records: 2006

(2014 Update:
Compared to the 1000+ word beasts I was writing for TranceCritic at the time, this review's puny, probably the shortest one I did that wasn't an EP. I make my excuses within that going through it track-by-track would be a disservice to the overall mood of the CD, but the reality is I didn't want to write at length about nu-jazz intricacies. I still don't, but then I don't think even enthusiasts are keen on it either. It's all vibe, man.

Surprisingly, Balanced Records is still in operation, though their output is so glacial it'd make Ultimae look at them and ask "yo, what's with the hold up?" - a fifth volume of
Northern Faction was put out just two years ago! Gotta hand it to the Winnipeg label for sticking things out though. Hardy folk, those Manitobians be.)


IN BRIEF: How’s aboot some downtempo vibes, eh?

Every time I claim one has to search backwater Canadian towns to stumble upon bits of musical gold, it’s for comedy’s sake. Well, not always. Despite most of the media attention focusing on major city output on this side of the Atlantic, plenty of isolated communities scattered throughout Canada have been bitten by the electronic bug. Granted, Winnipeg may be considered a larger city by Canadian standards, but when lined up against some of North America’s heavy-weights, the Manitoba capital is puny.

Then, of course, are the winters. Canada gets ribbed to death over harsh winters, something which seems silly to those of us on the West Coast. However, Winnipeg often fits the stereotype, and many a tune from or inspired by the province tends to capture the spirit of cold, gray winter months nicely.

Balanced Records has created a bit of a murmur by capitalizing on this aspect of their hometown. Offering slowed-down grooves and warm ambience on their releases, the idea of cozying up to a crackling fire while snuggled in a big, warm blanket seems perfectly apt, their Northern Faction series showcasing local talent in the process. With the third edition, Balanced feels it’s time to broaden their borders and tap a few artists across the globe that shares the same ideals.

Yes, downtempo vibes are the name of the game here, but that’s kind of vague. Specifically, a jazzy mood is maintained while the tracks run through a variety of chilled-out styles. This is good news for those who prefer their mellow music containing a touch of musical class, but I’ll bet the word ‘jazz’ can frighten casual listeners; all too often they are reminded of self-indulgent masturbatory solos.

Well, put aside those fears, as Northern Faction 3 keeps things ‘cool’ (oh-ho-ho-ho!) with the jazz. While the opening set of tracks could probably fit snugly in the nu-jazz camps (including a pair of songs using trumpet leads), things soon slide into other styles, only retaining some of the improvisational techniques jazz is known for.

In relative running order, nu-jazz, trip-hop, dub, and soul all have their moments to shine. However, each track willfully fuses these elements in unique ways, borrowing ideas and tones to craft songs that are equally engaging as they are handy for background vibes. While few may leap out and surprise you, you’ll still find yourself lightly drawn to little moments that come and go: an interesting drum pattern; a warm synth pad; a catchy saxophone solo; a clever dub effect; a quirky vocal sample; the pleasant twinkle of a keyboard. All this and more can crop up when you least expect it during the course of this CD.

Of special note is the middle section. With the start of the track Opening Dawn by Lampshade, the listener is drawn into a dreamy sequence of soundscapes as dubby effects surround you. The track arrangement done here by Balanced Records is mesmerizing, a feat all the more fascinating when you consider just how disparate the styles of these songs actually are. And while this, ah, ‘journey’ does end with Kaskade’s Honesty, it’s more due to the different tone the San Fran chap’s soulful offering has than any duffing on the arrangement’s part; a switch of setting rather than a hiccup in the music itself.

I guess you’ve noticed I’m not really detailing Northern Faction 3 track by track. There are some songs which leap out for me, of course: the warm pads of Gavin Froome’s After The Rain; the dubby delights of Seed Organization’s Point Of Focus; the groovy bassline of Solidaze’s Dubiety. However, with most songs on here averaging the four-to-five minute mark and rarely adhering to easily-described song structure (unless you’re a jazz expert ...which frankly I’m not ...and nor are many of our readers I’d wager), it would be a waste of time to even attempt song-to-song analysis.

And really, that’s not what this compilation is designed to do. Sure, you can marvel at some of the individual bits and pieces throughout but, as with any ace downtempo release out there, Northern Faction 3 works best when played as a single whole, from start to finish. I recommend you do as such, should you ever stumble across this release in whatever tiny Canadian town you’re backpacking through.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2006. © All rights reserved.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sasha & John Digweed - Northern Exposure: Expeditions

Ultra Records: 1999

The growing marketability of double-disc DJ mixes must have finally convinced Ultra to treat these Northern Exposures properly, no longer releasing each CD separately. What I think, however, is INCredible, who took over the series’ distribution from Ministry Of Sound, wasn’t gonna’ put up with Ultra’s bullshit, and strong-armed the upstart EDM label into releasing Expeditions right. Okay, probably not, but its amusing thinking of the Sony sub-division as having that sort of clout.

What they couldn’t prevent was yet another label-rights complication, this time removing Fade’s remix of Delerium’s Silence from the American version. And you know what, I ain’t even mad. I didn’t know it was part of the mix until Lord Discogs told me so (the Lord knows all), so as far as I’m concerned, hearing the I Know You Love Me Too vocal emerge within Belfast’s gnarly acid breakdown always made sense. I don’t need McLachlan replacing what’s-her-voice in Chris Raven’s cut.

The fact Silence’s removal from the American Northern Exposure: Expeditions is such a talking point sums up where general consensus over this volume of Sasha and John Digweed’s celebrated series rests. Like most third acts of a trilogy, the hype and excitement surrounding these two CDs had dwindled compared to the previous ones, the market for DJ mixes growing ever more overstuffed by 1999. Misters Coe and Diggers still carried their high pedigree, sure, but their mixes on Global Underground were considered of greater value than this one. Heck, the two were essentially on their divergent paths now, so why even still do Northern Exposure? Did they have an outstanding contract for a third? Did INCredible really want a piece of the progressive trance pie that bad?

Regardless, two moments place Expeditions as solid entrants into progressive trance's canon. The second disc alone could almost serve as one itself, the gradual build showcasing the genre's strengths over the course of an hour-plus long CD, capping it all off with the unabashedly euphoric Tekara Remix of Mike Koglin's The Silence. Its remarkable Sasha & Diggers included such an uplifting tune, the sort of track Oakenfold and his ilk preferred. Putting it at the end of the tough trance business that came before it though, makes it all the sweeter when it does hit.

Even better is the opening of CD1, featuring a lengthy blend of Breeder's Tyrantanic and two versions of Space Manoeuvres' Stage One. I could go on for a whole review just how brilliant John Graham's debut side project was, but I gotta' save something for whenever I get around to Oid. As for setting the tone for Expeditions, its equally brilliant, hinting at high-flying space breaks to follow. Unfortunately, CD1 doesn't reach that peak again, but it's interesting hearing proto-prog psy at the end with Blue Planet Corporation. Oh the places Sasha could have gone had he followed that muse instead.

Meanwhile, Northern Exposure: Expeditions is a worthy finish to the series, despite mostly abandoning its original premise to do so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sasha & John Digweed - Northern Exposure 2: Westcoast Edition

Ultra Records: 1997/1998

Ah, that's what Ultra Records was scheming: split Northern Exposure into two separate releases, reaping a little extra coinage in the process. Either that, or they didn't have faith in the American market springing for a double-disc DJ mix – it was a different era, after all. While I don't begrudge Ultra for selling us Eastcoast and Westcoast separate (well, aside that finding mint copies of Eastcoast can be stupid hard and expensive now), but I just discovered they removed the 'track map' inlays Ministry Of Sound included with their versions. I had no idea these even existed, and are such an awesome thing to have, displaying exactly the sort of mixing and layering Sasha and Digweed did in the studio to make these CDs the timeless beasts they are. Boo, Ultra, boo!

As for why I have Westcoast (aka: “the Digweed mix”) over Eastcoast (aka: “the Sasha mix”, though neither exclusively did either), my fine trance sensibility lured me to the classic vibes of the early German sound, with-

Oh, fine, it’s because this was always the easier one to find on shelves. Eastcoast was quite popular, if nothing else than for introducing the concept of ‘trancey breaks’ into the progressive house scene, making it a go-to CD whenever folks wanted, erm, a break from regular ol’ trance. Matters weren’t helped by Westcoast’s choices for up-front tuneage, some tracks becoming near-overplayed anthems soon after. Taucher’s Waters was on dozens of mixes alone, and they wouldn’t come saddled with ‘old, boring trance’ in the beginning either.

Now that we’re over a decade removed from the endless anthem era, folks have come to appreciate the subtlety of Westcoast’s opening half. Such blissy vibes you can float on with Humate’s 3.2 and The Light’s Panfried; or proto-prog moodiness with Orbit and Spooky’s remix of Sven Väth’s An Accident In Paradise. It even makes all the ‘big choons’ in the second half come off a tad dated to the time, thoughts of Oakenfold Cream nights rushing forth rather than chill off-nights at Heaven. Did anyone even remember that was Northern Exposure’s premise anymore, spotlighting unheralded music from the back ends of Sasha and Digweed’s record crates? Then again, I doubt anyone could have predicted Transa’s Enervate would go on to be such a caned track in the ensuing years.

I don’t have much else to say about Northern Exposure 2: Westcoast Edition that isn’t common knowledge at this point. Yeah, yeah, it’s funny seeing an Armin van Buuren track as the closer of a Sasha-plus-Johnny mix, but Blue Fear’s a nice little number all things considered – Hell, Netherworld’s more of an obvious anthem than that one, and Oliver Lieb’s God. If it exists at an affordable rate, getting the original Ministry Of Sound double-disc version’s still the way to go, but this one’s not a bad pick-up on the used market either. It bridges two eras of trance with class, with all the tasty studio-perfect flow we expect of a Sasha & Diggers CD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sasha & John Digweed - Northern Exposure

Ultra Records: 1996/1997

While not the daftest idea for a mix CD, it certainly was unprecedented at the time. Starting an off club-night in the north lands of England featuring the chiller side of dance music was all fine and dandy, but getting a promotional tie-in release fronted by the emergent Ministry Of Sound was just ludicrous. Unless, of course, it's Sasha and f'n Digweed running the night, the hottest DJing duo in UK. Well shit, son, give the boys what they need (studio time, record rights, and that), and watch the money roll into the coffers!

Though the impetus for Northern Exposure coming into being's now relegated to a mere footnote, the impact the series had on purveyors of progressive house has not, many citing this CD as one of the all time greats. Listening to it nearly two decades since it dropped, it can come off a bit dated and quaint in terms of genre (so many ethnic chants), but in offering sublime musical moments, Northern Exposure remains top grade.

A major reason for this is Sasha & Diggers weren’t making a traditional DJ set; rather, Northern Exposure opts for the mixtape route, showing off older tracks that’d likely never get a live rinse-out. Really, that was the premise behind the club-night too, but since few even knew of it (I don’t think it lasted long), most folks figured this was Sash-el-‘Weed getting all conceptual and shit in a growing mix CD market. Like, whoa, The Future Sound of London, Rabbit In The Moon, and Banco de Gaia all on one disc? What is this, another ‘ambient house’ collection? Nah, guy, it’s a future-classic DJ mix, is what.

Truth is, ambient house/techno/dub/beat compilations were about the only places you’d find such names on a non-album CD, the market for chill-out mixes almost non-existent in the mid-‘90s. To have tunes like Cascade, Raincry, and Water From A Vine Leaf (Xylem Flow Mix) as part of a flowing DJ set was rare, and primarily the domain of deep underground releases (likely bootleg tapes at that). The Sash’Weed pedigree opened many a younger listener’s ears to a field of electronic music you just wouldn’t find on the mainstream market, and that ‘first exposure’ experience helped cement Northern Exposure’s classic status. It didn’t hurt Misters Coe and Digweed’s selection and arrangement of tracks here was impeccable. The Raincry-into-Out Of Body Experience portion’s long considered the highlight of the whole series, though Northern Exposure: Expeditions has one up for consideration too.

As for CD2, well... I don’t have it. Hell, I haven’t even heard it, despite a stream being easily found on the interwebs (I savour its mystique). Ultra Records, who handled the American distribution of Northern Exposure, continuously fumbled these mixes, their first erroneous behaviour the removal of 0°/South from this release. Maybe it was label rights complications, but I see little on that disc that couldn’t be solved with an edit or two. Maybe they felt having ‘south’ in the title defeated the concept?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fun Factory - Nonstop! The Album

Attic: 1994

When I first heard Fun Factory's big hits Close To You and Take Your Chance, it marked the first time I had doubts about my two-year strong love affair with euro-dance. By no means the worst tunes of that scene I'd come across, something about the group struck me as too manufactured. Yeah, yeah, almost all euro-dance acts were studio engineered and mass marketed with pretty faces lip-syncing on stage and videos, and even in my youthful naivety I accepted that so long as some semblance of authenticity emerged with the performers. This four-piece though, I dunno. It seemed the producers behind Fun Factory (German-based Team33) had a check-list of every detail necessary for a hit euro act, and dutifully marked them all down.

Some pre-requisites filled: a hot chick on the chorus (who may or may not have done the actual vocals), the black rapper (!), a white ragga rapper (!!), and a dancer (!?). Actually, I’ll give this factory of fun-stuffs credit for giving the dancer an official role within the group, something it seems only The Prodigy could pull off with any credibility. On the music front, you’ve got a Snap! tune, a Maxx track, a Felix (Rollo) riff, rhythms similar to the Abfahrt Records camp, and is that a little Ace Of Base reggae in there too? Yep, whatever formula was out there for a euro-dance hit, Fun Factory got in on that, and then some (is Prove Your Love eurobeat?).

Right, plenty of cynicism for Nonstop! The Album on my front. Why do I even have Fun Factory's debut album, then? Reason number one: if I see a euro-dance collection from 1994 sitting in a used CD shop, I've developed a reflex action of instantly picking it up, no questions asked. Don't judge me, that year was the absolute bomb for euro. Hell, this album's proof of it, where despite as canned as Fun Factory comes across, there's still plenty of ear-wormy dance-pop tunes throughout.

The second reason, and where I’ll give Team33 the most credit for, is how Nonstop! The Album does all it can in making this a strong LP experience. Alongside the aforementioned euro-dance and reggae-pop jams, there’s pure anthem techno (Fun Factory’s Groove), throwback Belgian beat (Fun Factory’s Theme), soul-croon (I Miss Her), hip-hop freestyle (erm, Freestylin’), and crap R&B ballad (Hey Little Girl ...oh God, is this track ever shit). You could make the cynical argument this is just Fun Factory covering all the bases, but the way this album’s presented, I don’t get that vibe. Despite their seemingly artificial formation, there’s a sense of genuine earnestness from all the participants - they’re committed to the act, and those who listen to Fun Factory are in on the act as well. Its euro-dance that makes no apologies for its commercial nature, and it’s gonna’ give you all that it can give. Try telling that to Teenage Sykonee though, who felt euro-dance should be serious and shit. G’ah.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Lab 4 - None Of Us Are Saints (Original TC Review)

Resist Music: 2006

(2014 Update:
I'll keep this short, because Lord knows this old review's too long as it is - the upcoming
Northern Exposure reviews will have fewer words combined than what I spent detailing this album with.

So, how awesome is it that Lab 4 went out as they did, eh? Legacy intact, no cringe-worthy bandwagon jumps, forever maintained as one of the UK's most fondly remembered live hard-dance acts. Both members still play out at occasional solo gigs, but the Lab 4 mystique remains as solid as ever. That's how you do it in this business, friends, though a reunion tour in a couple more years wouldn't hurt no one, nosiree I says.)



IN BRIEF: A dark light in the realms of hard dance.

It’s been a long time since I willingly dove into any modern hard dance music. As I’m sure many previous reviews [at TranceCritic] can attest to, the reason for this is simple: a lot of it isn’t any good. Many producers have such a hard-on over pushing the ‘loud’ factor to extremes with all this new technology, they seem to have forgotten how to actually write anything other than a massive breakdown/build with tuneless screeching synths bookended by throbbing beats. Granted, hardcore never was about subtlety, but at least the hooks were memorable back in the day. When not pillaging old tunes for inspiration, everything sounds like toss-offs for DJs lately.

But perhaps my impressions of this music are due to what’s been handed to me to review, an admittedly lackluster bunch of DJ mixes and singles. Perhaps my recent distaste for it would be cured, or at least lessened, were I to hear a better offering. Perhaps what I need is a familiar trusted name to ease me back into the fold. Enter Lab 4.

Adam Newman and Les Elston harken back to an era when live PAs ruled the roost and the DJ merely warmed them up. And despite the glorification of the guy who just plays records since, Lab 4 have held their own as a live act. Their continued domination of the UK’s hard dance circuits lies in their uncompromising blend of aggressive synths and devastating beats. Yet, unlike many hard dance acts, Lab 4 have also managed to keep from falling into self-parody; their tracks will often push you to the threshold but rarely to idiotic extremes, no easy feat in a scene where the phrase ‘less is more’ is blasphemy.

So what kind of hard dance does a pair of gearheads produce? Why, anything that comes to mind obviously. And instead of playing favorites to a particular scene, Lab 4 instead aim to give you a taste of everything. The result is two discs worth of music, which begs a question: is there enough diversity in the hard dance realm to maintain one’s interest for nearly one-hundred sixty minutes? Well, your typical hardstyle fanboy will yell, “Fuck yeah ”, but their idea of diverse tracks ends with two different notes in an eight-bar synth riff. What about those with a more discerning taste?

Just enough. Each disc wisely mixes the tracks between techno stompers and hardcore bosh-fests instead of separating the two, which keeps things from sounding too repetitive (and believe me, it can get very repetitive fast). Also, Lab 4 doesn’t settle for just a couple genres of hard dance; every track has a unique twist that helps it stand out from the rest. But before we talk about those, let’s check out the opener of each disc, both of which are breakbeat!

Well, Restless World is only half breakbeat before settling into standard hard house. This one’s not all that good, mainly for the fact two singing divas clash horribly like a bad mash-up. The Syndicate though, now that’s some tasty action-movie big beat there.

Alright then. The techno. Unfortunately, this is all over the map. Lab 4 decide the best route for this material is in mechanical sounds, which has always been techno’s playground. However, their choice of sounds isn’t terribly interesting. At best, they’ll have some quirkiness to them that’ll intrigue (The Ritual and Use The Nitro are good examples) but at worst, they come across like weak Plastikman impressions (the god awful Nightmare). Mainly though, when the rhythms are showing some cleverness aside from straight-forward plodding (Use The Nitro in particular actually comes across rather funky given the surroundings), these techno cuts are decent enough.

Some of them also make use of chunky acid assaults. Now, normally I’m all for acid tweakege, but Lab 4 don’t quite go for the jugular as we’ve known they have in the past. Tracks like Daisy Cutter and Blackstar aren’t nearly as exciting as they could be, but that could also be due to rote rhythms in those tracks (although Blackstar does have a decent, albeit unassuming, bassline). And what exactly were they shooting for in Efini? What a mess that one turned out.

Ultimately though, we’re here to hear some big hooks and pounding beats. On this front, our intrepid duo doesn’t disappoint. Some may be quick to lump it into the hardstyle category, but there is a very important distinction here that makes the beats oh so much better: whereas hardstyle will compress the effects on their kicks so much that it punches you in the gut and creates zero resonance, Lab 4 let that resonance carry to huge levels. When they unleash their thunderous kicks, Lab 4 can make even the smallest stereo sound as big as any stadium; loud and enveloping. As for your hooks, they certainly are big and noisy for all to enjoy, but there are a few stumbles at points as well.

To get it out of the way, here’s my one gripe: some of these breakdowns go on for too bloody long. Mind, I’m not talking about Scot Project levels of idiocy, but whenever Lab 4 dawdle in a breakdown to let synths play with big pauses, it kills the momentum of the track. Neu Messiah is a particular annoying example of this, mainly because the payoff just doesn’t live up to all that downtime. In other tracks like 4 Those About 2 and Pump It, it’s just enough, but nothing to get terribly excited about, especially compared to what else is on here.

Ah, yes. With all the rudimentary material out of the way, we finally, we get to the goods... almost (Hah! How’s this for Scot Project levels of teasing, eh?). First off, I must mention the Guilty Pleasures of these hard tracks. Hellboy: once again proving apocalyptic choirs and hardcore beats go wonderfully together. The NRG: unabashedly reach-for-the-lasers trancecore; normally I hate this stuff but as a one-off here, sure what the hell. The Uprising: rabble-rousing hooligan fun. Alright, now I will get to the goods.

Let’s face it. When Lab 4 step up to the plate for hard dance of this caliber, you’re guaranteed a home-run; a tomahawk jam; a spin-o-rama deke backhander into the top corner of the net gloveside. Their choice of hooks and synths are frighteningly aggressive, which goes incredibly well with their chaotic arrangements. You feel you’re on a roller-coaster to Hell, with the wheels just barely clinging to the tracks as you freewheel into the pit. Gangstah, Invaderz, and the new mixes of Groove Overdrive and Requiem all deliver on these fronts. Oh, and yes, their cover (remix?) of the Nine Inch Nails track Perfect Drug.

This track shows just how good these guys are at what they do. On paper, Perfect Drug is filled with ingredients that have made me despise hardstyle as of late: typical hardstyle beats (it still carries resonance, but it certainly is far more compressed than most of the other tracks); that stupid synth that sounds like screeching tires; a hook that isn’t their own. However, once all the establishing elements sort themselves out and things get down to business, this track absolutely destroys my cynicism towards this stuff. After all, if you’re going to go hard, why not unleash everything you got, mother-fucking breakbeats and all.

Of the two remixes of Perfect Drug included here, Nightbreed’s is a functional jungle go in the Dieselboy vein. DJ Starscream’s remix is delightfully demented though. Big throbbing beats and glitchy tuneless effects make up the bulk, occasionally teasing you with the chorus until he finally gives you what you’re craving (both at the same time) at the very end. Add this one to the Guilty Pleasure list.

I’m sure all the hardstyle fanboys out there are thinking they’ve managed to ‘win one’ for their side after all the nice things I’ve had to say about None Of Us Are Saints, but I’d hold off on that parade just yet. Lab 4 is undoubtedly one of the premier acts in the hard dance scene... or at least they used to be. It would seem the duo has decided to take an indefinite hiatus from touring and producing, and they do deserve a well-earned break after all this time. Unfortunately, it does create an uncertain void out there, one of which may be difficult to fill. Are there any acts out there willing to step up their game and meet the challenge? Maybe, maybe not. If not though, their absence will be felt.

Although this release may not be consistent all the way through (very few double albums are, to be honest), when they are on their game Lab 4 show why they will be missed. Too few hard dance acts manage to balance reckless assaults with enduring hooks anymore, and that scene has suffered as a result. Sure, the new kiddies still get their kicks with the new stuff, but Newman and Elston give us ‘older’ folks (we’re talkin’ late 20s/early 30's, heh) something to satisfy our craniums while boshing away.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2006. © All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

16 Bit Lolita's - Non Verbal Language / Back To One (Original TC Review)

Hope Records: 2007

(2014 Update:
So we waited for 16 Bit Lolita's to drop a second proper album. And waited. And waited. And waited. And wai- Oh hey, there's finally an LP ...Released in 2012, and only digital, but still! Kriek and Olierook definitely kept busy between though, releasing many singles through their own Bits & Pieces digi-label, with a few additional EPs on Anjunadeep as well. All the while, they maintained their cred as one of progressive house's go-to acts for solid productions, even as the genre kept shifting and morphing into things like tech-house or deep house or whatever it is now.

Not much else to add to this review. There were two other remixes of
Non Verbal Language on the digi-version which I didn't cover at the time, since I only ever initially got vinyl rips for review. The tunes still hold up all this time after, and given how much I've come to enjoy that earlier Coldharbour sound, I'm liking Back To One even more than before. Strange days.)


IN BRIEF: Prog’s new darlings?

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a breakout prog act with consistency. Many either produce a track or two before following their muse elsewhere (Holden) or fall prey to commercialized pap (Schulz). It remains to be seen if Peter Kriek and Ariaan Olieroock - or 16 Bit Lolita’s, a name that is every Grammar-Nazi’s nightmare - will follow these paths but with a steady stream of good tunes, the duo are showing great promise in resisting them. While not strictly prog house, 16BL gained most of their current momentum when DJs in this field clued into their singles. However, here’s not the place to delve too deeply into such details. We might as well wait for their next album regarding these matters (or their old one, if we ever get around to covering it, heh).

In the meantime, let’s take a quick look at their first single of 2007. Some of their fans are worrying that 16BL’s growing profile might lead them to trendy sounds in order to push their careers further. A valid concern, but if this single is any indication, it seems the duo are in no hurry to do so.

The A-Side is the slower cut, and it’s a deep one indeed. Spacey pads slide over grooving rhythms, crafting a murky tune that’s more concerned about atmosphere than the dancefloor. Dialogue and additional sounds crop up at points, adding to the setting but never dominating the focus. In fact, Non Verbal Language doesn’t have much focus at all, going about its business like a brief diversion from the day. This either helps or hinders, depending on what you expect out of the track. It probably makes better sense in the opening parts of a deep prog set, but as a stand-alone, there’s still some nifty soundscapes for your ears to gorge on.

Back To One on the flip is more fun. First off, the rhythms are spunkier, with little sound effects adding a chipper feeling that will form a silly smile on your face. The bassline drops, adding some extra bounce, and soon the quaint melody enters. And it’s a lovely little thing, using pleasing tones and melancholy notes that push all the right emotive buttons. Mind, it could also be considered borderline saccharine, similar to what the Coldharbour crew tend to churn out, but 16BL hold back just enough to keep Back To One in the realms of class.

Although these two songs aren’t huge by any stretch, they are nicely done and will serve as fine tide-overs until their next production. Any concerns that Kriek and Olieroock may drift from the path their fans enjoy should be put to rest with this single.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2007. © All rights reserved

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Open Canvas - Nomadic Impressions

Groove Unlimited/Waveform Records: 1997/1998

I bang on Waveform Records quite a bit, but truth be told, there was a period I'd all but given up on the label. Something about their late '90s output never clicked with me, which was grade-A nimrodery on my part since I was only going by cover art. One should never judge a body of music by its CD design, yet with the tacky CGI of Ancient Alien (based on a video game, no less) and silliness of Earthjuice (even the name was a head-scratcher), you'd forgive me for thinking Waveform was slipping. Not helping matters was this particular album from Open Canvas, looking like the sort of New Age pap you'd find in stores surrounded by chakra crystal stones, or whatever. Hell, I couldn't even tell whether Open Canvas was the name of the artist or the album – maybe both, for all I knew. I became a fan of Waveform because they opened my ears to a world of chill-out of more substance than Deep Forest and Enya, not because they offered more of the same.

Man, could I be an entitled brat about my music listening habits back then. What I didn’t realize at the time was Waveform was in the process of branching out from its early ambient techno and dub sound cribbed from Beyond, a plan that included dipping their toes into earthly, meditative ambient music. Yeah, yeah, that sounds dangerously close to New Age, but again, I should have had more faith in Waveform to not cross that divide. While I’ve yet to hear every album they’ve put out in this vein, what I have heard always retains a degree of sophistication often lacking in run-of-the-mill New Age, music that invokes captivating imagery with its soothing calm.

Tuu was the first of these acts to find a re-distribution deal with Waveform. Another early name was Gregory Kyryluk, who’s released several ambient albums as Alpha Wave Movement. Less frequently, he’s released music as Open Canvas, where he indulges in Middle Eastern harmonies and vistas. I guess that was enough similarity to some of the world-beat leaning acts Waveform had already put out for the label to give a re-distribution deal for Mr. Kyryluk’s first album under this alias.

I can’t say I was convinced of the Open Canvas stylee after the first few tracks here. It’s not that they’re cliché or devoid of musical substance – I simply didn’t hear anything terribly unique in Mr. Kyryluk’s song craft. It’s rather like hearing the moody score to a low budget TV series, but without any visual frame of reference.

Yet somehow, as Nomadic Impressions plays through, I find myself caught up in his sparse, desert vistas. I’m no longer sitting in a chair watching an Arabian caravan or desert marketplace - I’m actually in that setting! Well damn, that’s all I was hoping for at the start of this venture. Why couldn’t I have just let myself be swept in to start with? Oh, right, that cover...

Monday, July 7, 2014

Various - Nokturnel Mix Sessions: Robert Oleysyck

Topaz: 2000

Nokturnel Mix Sessions had kicked things off fine with Blue Amazon, and Bill Hamel was a decent follow-up. After that though, the list of recognizable jocks Topaz tapped for their DJ mix series ran out pretty fast. Maybe within localized scenes, chaps like DJ Moda and OS/2 were a bigger deal – there are countless examples of “big fish, small ponds” throughout the DJ world, the sort of dependable rinsers the touring stars would insist as their warm-up guys. And there’s nothing wrong with that, many content and comfortable with that level of fame. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting an upstart trance label, the lack of big-name recognition can hurt long-term prospects, no matter how promising the early output is.

Take this mix from Robert Oleysyck, the third of the Nokturnel Mix Series (I figured the order out, praise be catalogue numbers). Do you know him? Don’t be ashamed if you don’t, though if you were into this music to any degree in the year 2000 while living in America, you might have come across his name. For you see, he passed the time writing trance reviews in the pages of Mixer (essentially America’s Mixmag) alongside his DJing. In a coincidence I’m sure Mixer’s editors had a good chortle over, Oleysyck was even tasked with reviewing the initial volley of Nokturnel Mix Sessions, including his own mix for the series. Aw man, how can anyone maintain journalistic integrity reviewing their own work? I can’t recall what he wrote, but I do remember he gave himself a 7/10, about as political an approach to this conundrum as any.

As for me, yeah, I’d rank this a seven too, if I did numerical scores anymore. One thing I’ll give Mr. Oleysyck credit for is he definitely knows how to put together a progressive trance CD. In fact – and I know I’m going way out on a limb saying this - Nokturnel Mix Sessions (this one) is possibly the most perfect summation of that scene I’ve ever heard. What ol’ Robert accomplishes within the context of one CD, most releases took two or even three discs to get across.

What works best about this mix is Oleysyck’s patience, spending the opening few tracks on sparse, groovy prog-house like Sander Kleinenberg’s Frog Dancing - even the opening ‘anthemy’ cut of Saints & Sinners’ Thin Ice is relatively subdued and chill. Can’t deny making a similar mix from Space Manoeuvres’ Stage One to Kleinenberg’s Sacred as Sasha did on GU: 013 reeks of jock riding, but Oleysyck somehow outdoes Mr. Coe’s finale from that classic mix, relegating Bedrock’s Heaven Scent to mere ‘third status’ near the end. Instead Christian West’s Eterna and Jon Vesta’s Gull mark our proper climax, the latter of which deserves far more appreciation compared to other progressive trance anthems of the era. Definitely a solid capper on a strong set from Oleysyck, though the rest of his mix contains little else innovative.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Various - Nokturnel Mix Sessions: Bill Hamel

Topaz: 1999

Nokturnal Mix Sessions was Topaz Records' premier DJ mix series – okay, only DJ mix series. They released around half-a-dozen of these CDs, but few names beyond the third-tier of trance jocks were ever featured. Blue Amazon's likely the most immediately recognizable name, and perhaps Scott Stubbs too, if you were following Topaz with any regularity (guy was all over the label). Bill Hamel's also a chap folks should know if they were fans of the deeper end of progressive house. Already a steady producer in the scene – including a single on Bedrock during their 'dark prog' years, though mostly releasing through his own Sunkissed Records print – Hamel wasn't much known for DJing, this mix in fact being his first official release. He followed it with an early contribution to Balance (aka: the pre-James-Holden era, when hardly anyone gave EQ Recordings much notice), but by and large kept his name in the realm of studio works.

As Topaz was hoping to establish itself as an American contender to the UK’s dominance in progressive trance circles, you bet this edition of Nokturnal Mix Sessions (Volume two? Fourth edition? I can only guess where this one falls in order with the series) is gonna’ crib some of its stylee from the big G.U.’s main players. Hamel’s sound found some kinship with John Digweed of the time, which probably led to his getting a bit chummier with Bedrock a few years after this mix. There’s quite a bit similarity to Digweed’s GU014: Hong Kong double-disc here, though obviously not as computer perfect with the mixing. Hell, I think this was a live turntable session.

After a blissy bit of Balearic business in Changing Shape’s Keep It On (some might know it better as the repurposed 16B track Keep On Changing Shape), Hamel quickly moves into chugging tech-house prog-whatever. Names like Medway, Smith & Selway, and DJ Remy – yeah, that sound – make up this section, but unfortunately ol’ Bill has no easy way of transitioning it into prog-trance territory afterwards. Just as well, then, he slightly cheats the process with the Incisions Mix of Travel’s Pray To Jerusalem, what with its break-beaty breakdown easing the clashing styles. Damn mint tune by the end of it though, progressive trance vibes in all its glorious 1999 heyday. Hell, throw in another ace Incisions remix of a Travel track (Bulgaria), plus Mr. Faber’s own Amorak, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an Incisions showcase – going by these tunes, he does deserve more props, methinks.

The rest of Nokturnal Mix Sessions – Bill Hamel’s Incisions Love In plays about as you’d expect a Digweed inspired set of this time would. Hell, I kept expecting Heaven Scent to emerge as the set climax, despite the fact Hamel used the Evolution Dub of the Bedrock anthem at the midway point of this mix. Though a notch below the premier mixes of the era, this is a perfectly acceptable progressive trance CD for one's collection.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Masta Killa - No Said Date

Nature Sounds: 2004

The '00s weren't nearly as musically bad of a decade for the Wu-Tang Clan as most remember. During those years though, you'd be forgiven thinking otherwise – good albums are fine, but most expected instant classics nearly every release. That said, a few such exceptional LPs found their way onto store shelves that decade, one of which took everyone by surprise: Masta Killa's debut album, No Said Date. Yes, the final official Clan member, who only got one verse out of the entirety of the Very Important Wu-Tang Album Enter The 36 Chambers, and who fans of the group seldom name-dropped as their favourite member, knocked it out of the ball-park on his first try.

At a time when speculation of an inevitable breakup of the group was rampant, seeing the whole Wu-fam’ on a single LP was a strong selling point for No Said Date (not to mention extended members Streetlife, Killah Priest, and Prodigal Sunn along for the show). RZA behind the producer’s chair for a number of tracks, plus his studio disciples Mathematics and True Master contributing too, helped complete the ‘vintage Wu-Tang Clan’ feel of this album. Folks had been waiting for half that decade for it, and was delivered by the least likely chap.

What works in No Said Date’s favour is fully acknowledging Mr. Turner’s role within the Clan, the final puzzle-piece of the RZA’s initial Grand Plan. Mr. Diggs, numerological nut that he is, felt it necessary to have nine proper ‘monks’ within Wu-Tang, some of whom he’d have to tutelage, guiding them to discover their inherent rap talents. Masta Killa was essentially the rookie, and definitely took some time to develop a strong persona. It’s a testament to Noodles’ dedication to the lyrical craft that he didn’t rush releasing a solo album, only putting himself out there when he felt totally confident in his skills. It was worth the wait, Mister Masta sounding as much a seasoned veteran on No Said Date as any of his fellow Clansmen that show up here. And show-up they all do indeed.

Want some throwback funk with ODB warbling? Old Man’s got you covered. Street tales from Raekwon and Ghostface? D.T.D.’s your cut. Reflections of the inner city life as only told by Inspectah Deck and GZA? Get your ears on Silverbacks. Confounding production as done by RZA? Oh hi, School. And don’t figure Masta Killa’s simply along for the lyrical ride on these tracks either - his verses are just as vital and distinct as those from his Clan-fam’.

Noodles shines though, on two tracks: Digi Warfare and Masta Killa. The former’s an awesome electro throwback, brought to the modern era with excellent sonic chops from long time New York house producer Choco. The latter, final track, in making use of Far-East harmonies and Bruce Lee’s classic “be like water” speech, serves as a strong summation of Masta Killa’s career; a justified, celebratory moment for a man who proved patience is one of music’s finest virtues.

Friday, July 4, 2014

2 Unlimited - No One (BioMetal, Pt. 5)

Quality Music: 1995

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

“Are you ready for this, Anita?”

“Is that some kind of joke?”

Ray smiled. “How do you mean?”

Her reply was quick and exasperated. “We’ve had all manner of horrors thrown at us! Things both living and machine, mutations of animals common and exotic, the very walls around us pulsating and breathing like we’re inside the intestine of an asteroid-sized BioMetal. We just made it through of wall of crustaceans, each as big as our ship! And you’re asking me if I’m ready for whatever’s lurking inside that cavern?”

Ray checked his weapon and shield gauges, each still in the process of recharging, an estimation of but a few minutes before they could proceed. Some of the strongest life-signs they’d encountered yet rested just beyond the darkness before them, readings capping out nearly every sensor designed to monitor for BioMetals. Either an armada even larger than the one the HALBARD had tore a path of devastation through lay ahead, or, as Anita speculated, a central ‘brain’ complex that controlled them all. Either way, it looked like a fight to the finish, and they’d need all their spare energy reverses locked and loaded before taking it on.

“It’s probably a big, blobous tentacle,” Ray quipped, tapping a steady rhythm on the panel to his right. “Like, maybe a squid-thing, with a huge beak that could snap our ship in two if we got too close. I don’t think we’ve seen one of those yet.”

“Huh, it’s no more ludicrous than the dragon-thing we already killed.”

Ray chortled. “There, see, it’s not hard to see the lighter side of all this nonsense.”

Anita sighed again, but it was different this time, less irritation than Ray was used to hearing from her. It felt like her breath somehow billowed out from his earpiece, coursing through his body and settling just under his skin. He shuffled in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable. “How do you do it, Ray?” she asked. “Keep optimistic even in such abhorrent surroundings?”

Ray pursed his lips, surprised he had to think a bit for a reply. “Hope, I guess,” he finally said. “That there’s something better than being a ‘hot-shot’ pilot with a skill for killing BioMetals in my future. Maybe settle down in a tropical paradise, make a little tango music.”

“It takes two to tango,” Anita quietly said.

Ray smiled. “Is that an offer?”

“Maybe. We’ll see, after we kick the last of these BioMetals’ asses.”

“Hah, do BioMetals even have asses?”

Anita giggled. “Honestly, no one knows, and I don’t care to be the first to find out.”

Ray powered the HALBARD’s system’s back on, the ship humming back to life. “Me neither. Let’s end this!”

HOW DOES THE THRILLING BIOMETAL SAGA CONCLUDE?
Oh, you know: big bad beat, galaxy saved for another epoch, Ray and Anita do victory parades, General Wilde retires to Planet Kaypewsolaceniceawesome, Dr. de Coster disappeared into a black hole of his own invention. Usual space opera stuff.


(If you're hopeless lost as to what's going on, click here.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Del! The Funky Homosapien - No Need For Alarm

Elektra: 1993

While I've no doubt Del's ire against “wack MC's” was primarily directed toward those on his side of the pond, it sure is funny hearing him spouting off on lyrical lameness after I indulged a stretch of euro-dance raps. I can only imagine what the Funkee Homosapien would have thought if the likes of 2 Unlimited and Maxx had as much influence in America as they did in Europe, and how viciously he'd go for them if he cared to. Just as well Del focused his attention on his immediate competition in the hip-hop game, the silliness of euro hardly worthy of his wrath.

As for what got him so pissed off in the first place, I honestly don't know. Long-gone is the laid-back, funkadelic, 'lighter side of life' vibes that made up his debut album (Wrong Place notwithstanding). Perhaps one too many R&B chart-toppers finally broke his backpack, or maybe hip-hop’s growing dependence on gangsta tropes to shift units left him jaded with the art. Why should he have to spit about material he had no real experience with, nor wanted to fabricate to appease label heads? The core of rapping was about proving who could command a microphone and hold an audience’s attention with your lyrical skills. By 1993, too much of it had devolved into style over substance, flashy stage presence over verbal dexterity, and slick video mugging over direct connection to the kids in the streets. Fuck that noise, says Del - he just wasn’t gonna’ take it anymore.

No Need For Alarm has him removing the gloves, taking the entire hip-hop scene to task with an endless barrage of battle-raps. The opening salvo of tracks - You’re In Shambles, Catch A Bad One, Wack M.C.’s, and No Need For Alarm - became classics of the burgeoning ‘backpack rap’ scene, where lyrics cutting down hip-hop’s lamest, clichéd tendencies are the norm. This still being a young Del, however, he can’t help himself falling into some of the violent metaphors much of gangsta rap was littered with at the time. Catch A Bad One is filled with tons of aggressive imagery (to say nothing about “ripping heads off” of stuck-up girls in Boo Booheads!). He obviously wouldn’t literally do these things, but it’s a rather shocking side of Del he left behind long ago, unparalleled wordplay now his preferred weapon of choice.

Completing the ‘strictly underground’ vibe of this album is the bare-bones production, including jazz samples of wobbly cellos, out-of-tune horns, and muddy-as-shit rhythms. When your showcase is Del lyrically riding whatever beat you throw at him, you don’t want glossy nonsense getting in the way. Not exactly a strong selling point for, then, if Deltron 3030’s more your thing. Honestly though, No Need For Alarm serves best as a time-capsule, where Del not only stepped out from the shadows of a bloating hip-hop scene, but became a champion of heads hungry for underground, lyrical warriors mercilessly decimating false idols. He’d only get better from here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Maxx - No More (I Can't Stand It) (2014 Update)

Quality Music: 1994

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

Ah, hmm. I guess Maxx never had their own video game tie-in I can fanficify, did they. I'm gonna' have to do a real 2014 Update for this single, aren't I. Man, you don't want that. You know how boring it would have been had I done the same for all those 2 Unlimited singles? My original reviews were exhaustively detailed, and while not always entirely accurate, in no need of updating. I'll grant possibly only two people on the planet get a kick out of those BioMetal stories, but I write them for my amusement, a break from my usual fare. Dammit, why couldn't Maxx have been more popular than 2 Unlimited? Not even a CD-ROM soundtrack credit? *sigh*

Actually, listening to No More again, I’m surprised how well it’s held up to this day. Despite lacking the polish of Maxx’ first hit, Get-A-Way (Team Samira, yo’!), there remains an undeniable craft to its pop production. Maybe it’s the fact Gary Bokoe’s ‘raggamuffin’ approach to the requisite euro-dance rap sounds unlike any other out there. Seriously, compared to the endless copycats that emerged after Maxx’ success, Gary comes off remarkably unique. I think the only reggae-rapper in that scene that outmatched him was ICE MC, and he had the benefit of heritage on his side. What’s a silly German outfit like Maxx doing emulating the UK’s fascination with reggae-dance music?

There’s a lot of music from the ‘90s that’s hopelessly dated to those years. Some of it, like old school rave, big beat, and prog-house with ethnic chants continue to work in spite of their datedness, a nostalgia for the long-gone scenes they sprung up within. Conversely, this same factor works against some genres if the memories and events tied to them remind us of things the music world would much rather forget – New Jack Swing probably won’t see a comeback since everything we associate with the genre spotlights the commercial urban scene’s desperate attempt at cashing in on hip-hop street authenticity.

Euro-dance of the ‘90s exists in a funny realm between the two, primarily due to an explosive birth of creativity, followed by years of shameless rehashing and generic retreads (music turned “beige”, as ICE MC put it). Yeah, I’m being liberal with the term ‘creativity’, but consider: in combining hip-house, italo, and anthem ‘techno’, euro-dance struck upon a formula that had never been done before, and opened a wide door of potential genre blending. The most memorable tunes of this era almost all sprung up within those first couple years of existence, producers mixing and matching influences from other scenes (reggae! trance! country?), trying to top the charts over their contemporaries with some new angle (oh hi, Maxx). These songs hold up as strong dance-pop because everyone making it kept outdoing each other in this musical arms race. Small surprise acts like 2 Unlimited, Culture Beat, and Dr. Alban are making bank on ‘90s nostalgia tours now. Why Maxx hasn’t gotten in on that action?

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