Friday, February 28, 2014

Various - Mechanophobia (Original TC Review)

Trishula Records: 2006

(2014 Update:
This was my proper introduction to the then-current sound of dark psy, of which is plainly obvious as I'm often referring to it by an earlier sub-genre term that was common at the turn of the century. I honestly had no idea that the whole dark psy sub-scene had evolved into a ton of disparate night-themed sub-sub categories by the mid-'00s, but I sure did soon enough. At least there are still 'tekk' attributes on here, given the theme of the compilation. Hell, it's why I blindly picked it up to begin with. The CD's still fine for dark psy, but not one I pull out often. At least it introduced me to the awesome that is Olien though.

Oh, that opening paragraph? You'll have to wait until I reach the 'S's to find out what that's all about, if you don't already.)



IN BRIEF: Fear the machines.

Reviewing Armin van Buuren’s latest opus to the decay of popular trance left me a broken man. It took me into a reservoir of pent-up aggression which was finally unleashed, an ugly though necessary blemish on my otherwise tolerant track record. I needed time to let that scab heal, so I decided to indulge a little in that polar opposite of epic trance: psytekk.

For the uninitiated, psytekk is an offshoot of the psy trance scene. Fusing the cold mechanical aesthetics of techno and the warped soundscapes of psy, this style of music isn’t for the faint of heart. In the realm of psytekk, the machines are in total control, trampling whatever hope humanity may have without taxing a single circuit. Other times though, it just comes across as glitchy, minimal, sound-effects wankery. I suppose it depends on how much you buy into the themes the music attempts to create.

When compiling this release, Trishula Records decided not to pussyfoot the issue, and gathered a collection of the most current, uncompromising psy around. The cover art for Mechanophobia is quite clear in what kind of theme to expect here: the robots rule the roost, a barren landscape ideal for metal but nothing organic. Whatever life as we know it remains is paltry, insignificant, yet still struggling on despite the odds; a cool, if timeworn concept. Let’s see how it is put into practice here.

Our first track is from Mubali, produced specifically for this compilation. Also the titular cut, it gets us off on the right foot, consisting of sound effect samples any self-respecting Trekkie will recognize as background ambience of a Borg ship - and few things are as frightening as the concept of the Borg. The track progresses through an assortment of warped mechanical soundscapes while a stuttery, monotone bassline relentlessly growls with the driving rhythms. As with a lot of this kind of stuff, there really aren’t any noticeable hooks, merely passages where the sounds at work will find structure for a bit before moving onto something else. The final stanza does give us a brief hook though.

Japan Connection from Mind Distortion System is a little more traditional psy. The main hook that worms its way around is kind of a whispery shuffle while paranoid pads, stuttery psy synths, and quirky sound effects complement it. But, um, what’s with those pauses to play a sample of a folksy whistle tune? A clever joke that missed the mark? Perhaps, or I just don’t get it [edit: it’s from Kill Bill, 2006 Sykonee].

Anyhow, Polyphonia’s Ano Kato eradicates any trace of lingering goofiness from Japan Connection with an utterly uncompromising assault of menacing psytekk. No hooks or family-friendly rhythms here; just overbearing mechanical sound effects demolishing human sensibility. And the beats don’t let up either, pummeling away and growing ever increasingly aggressive as the sound effects do. Yeah, it’s a noisy, incoherent track that would definitely get plenty of “Turn that shit off!” complaints from those not hip to this stuff, but then Ano Kato isn’t trying to be anything but.

The Baba Jelly track aside - which has a goofier tone to it, including a pure ‘what the fuck?’ moment when a sample of some drunken pirate jig interrupts the track - much of Mechanophobia carries on in the same vein as Ano Kato: very driving, very mechanical, and very uninviting to the casual listener. You’d have to be completely absorbed in the atmosphere these tracks create if you hope to get anything out of them, as feeding you easily digestible melodies is furthest from these producers’ minds.

Unfortunately, the fact they all make use of the same sort of bass as outlined in the title track complicates things. Not only are the soundscapes uncooperative if you want something catchy, but the rhythms aren’t diverse enough, making things repetitive from track to track. Granted, there are slight differences the acute listener will pick out, and Olien’s Calamari carries some wicked resonance that’ll absorb you within its suffocating menace, but much of this will probably pass you by if you were to merely throw it on as background music.

The mold is finally broken with Procs’ bizarrely titled Big Fat Large Snoring Lamas. This is one of the most utterly demented tracks I’ve heard in quite some time. My best attempt at describing it goes something like this: a country-fair funhouse, controlled by insane clown droids, as seen through a distortion field while tripping on a hallucinogen. I don’t know if that makes sense, but Snoring Lamas is quirky fun anyways, just because the warped soundscapes and bouncy rhythms are still incredibly catchy without dipping into the cheese factory. Your attention will never stray, always intrigued by what bit of unpredictable madness will crop up next.

The compilation closes on Psyfactor’s Vodka Madness, a more typical excursion into psy trance’s arena than most of what we’ve heard throughout. It is still a dark, twisted track, but chunky acid hooks and oddball sounds form a more accessible foundation compared to everything else.

For those after a diverse assortment of tunes, Mechanophobia isn’t a remarkable compilation. It sticks to its theme throughout, and I suppose you can’t really fault it for that. There are a couple of shining moments which would grab a casual listener’s attention, but this is squarely aimed at the dark psy fans who enjoy their music as inhuman and non-musical as possible. The original industrial ethos lives on!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Enigma - MCMXC a.D.

Virgin: 1990/1999

While purists may balk at the idea of Enigma's debut being one of the most important electronic albums ever, it's hard to deny its lasting influence on various scenes. An immediate hit with both mainstream New Age types and underground S&M sorts, it kicked off an insane amount of copycats, figuring lumping any ol' chant with a bare-bone electronic rhythm would produce similar chart success. A few did in the ensuing years, but none to the degree that Michael Cretu accomplished with MCMXC a.D.

The album’s appeal truly was a case of everything falling into the right place at the right time. For one, New Age was sweeping middle-America, so anything with soothing, meditative pads had a good chance of gaining some crossover interest. Second, with eroticism sweeping middle-America thanks to movies like 9½ Weeks, folks were far more accepting of risqué concepts like Sadeness, Mea Cupla, and Principles Of Lust. Hell, a title like Sadeness should have turned heads alone, and here it was tearing up the charts while couples tore off their clothes as seductive French voices and ethnic woodwinds played out (mind, confusion over the title likely helped divert controversy). Key to its timelessness, however, are the Gregorian chants, as few things suggest chaste traditions as readily as Catholicism. The incredibly taboo combination of seduction and piety made these tunes hits with fetishists, soundtracking many a sex club ...if Single White Female is accurate, anyway. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before every Skinemax flick starring Shannon Tweed was style-biting Enigma’s sound, rendering it cliche; thus its small surprise Mr. Cretu mostly abandoned the eroticism by his second album.

As for the rest of MCMXC a.D., the other single off here was The Rivers Of Belief, which retains most of the elements of Sadeness, though opts for New Age platitudes instead. As a closer that bookends the album, it works, but likely due to Cretu’s singing, it’s not as fondly remembered as the other hits off here. Knocking On Forbidden Doors is a surprising little gem of an instrumental though, kind of a b-side to Mea Culpa and getting downright trance at times. Not sure what The Voice & The Snake was about, besides being the oddest interlude in Enigma’s discography. The sun turned cold? What is this, the apocalypse?

When the album was re-issued in 1999, it came bundled with a bonus EP containing the original remixes of Sadeness and Mea Culpa, none of which are terribly interesting. Fading Shades Mix of Mea Culpa mashes the latter’s vocals onto Rivers Of Belief, and that’s about as all worth checking out if you’re curious.

Whatever preconceived notions you might have regarding Enigma’s general career (*cough*cheesyworldbeatNewAgebollocks*cough*), it shouldn’t deter you from checking out MCMXC a.D.. You’ve likely heard the music over the years, and will likely hear it again. Despite often being imitated, Enigma’s debut remains as unique and timeless as the day it came out. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sadeness still plays in S&M dungeons. Can anyone confirm this?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Banco de Gaia - Maya (Original TC Review)

Mammoth Records: 1994

(2014 Update:
Bleagh, another super-duper long review from the year 2006. My God, how many of these did I write? True, it was the first proper opportunity I got at splurging my Banco de Gaia knowledge for TranceCritic, but given how many Banco albums I've gone over for this blog now (8 albums and 2 singles!), the opening few paragraphs are incredibly redundant.

What will make this review even more redundant is the fact a limited 20th Anniversary edition of
Maya's due to come out this week. Which I've obviously gone and ordered for myself. This isn't as fanboyish as it seems, since it's a triple-disc set (!!) full of unreleased remixes and live takes, plus my original copy of Maya had a digital defect on the final track anyway. At least with this old review up, I don't have to talk about the main album details. I mean, with how much I wrote here, what else is left to say?)


IN BRIEF: Early music from the World Bank.

[The opening paragraph contained unnecessary information, so I've removed it]

Of course, my enjoyment of Banco de Gaia shouldn’t be any secret to steady readers of TranceCritic. I’ve continuously name-dropped him all over the place, and for good reason: Marks’ music has had a significant influence on my tastes over the years. From the very moment I heard Shanti some dozen years ago (a different version, mind, not the one here), I was hooked for life. All those whom I exposed Banco tracks to often came to my same conclusion: the music from the World Bank was entirely in a class of its own, impossible to pigeonhole, and always captivating.

Ah yes, I can see your ‘Fanboy Warning’ alarms already flashing. Perhaps this is why I’ve held off covering any Banco releases for so long. Although we’ll never try to hide the fact any review of music will have some subjectivity, we still try to maintain an element of objectivity as far as our conscience allows. While I’d love to give Maya glowing praise for being a Banco release, the music critic in me can hear the faults and inconsistencies; if we’re to maintain our credibility, I’m going to have to point these out. But before I do that, a brief history leading up to this album (don’t worry, it’s relevant).

Before Maya, Marks was getting known through his association with the Megadog syndicate, often touring along with the likes of Eat Static. He did release a few cassette albums during those years but none could see official distribution due to many uncleared samples. However, this didn’t stop the Banco project from getting tapped for songs to be featured on Beyond’s seminal Ambient Dub series, where Marks’ profile grew exponentially. A full-length was inevitable and, in 1994, it came to pass.

But which audience was Marks to aim for? The Megadog partiers? The fans of his Ambient Dub contributions? Or should he shoot for a broader audience with the larger distribution now available? Maya has a feeling about it that seems Marks was attempting to please all parties involved. As is often the case in this situation, the end result can feel a bit disjointed and uncertain.

Opening track Heliopolis is as indicative of this as any. True, the sweeping vocal samples and exotic atmosphere is definitely a Banco trademark, but everything else comes off flat. The rhythm doesn’t have enough drive to it, and the squelchy arpeggiating synth sounds under-produced for a track where other attributes shine.

Mafich Arabi, one of the few tape-only tracks to be rescued, also has some problems, but at least the rhythm makes up for it in this case. Pretty much a straight-forward funky tribal stompfest, an assortment of drum loops beat away as chants and Middle-Eastern hooks accompany them. The chants are wonderful, easily lodging in your head so you can’t help but join in. The hooks, though, are a bit suspect. I don’t mind them, but if Middle-Eastern melodies aren’t your game, even an infectious rhythm and chant may have trouble drawing you in for the duration.

The dubby, groovy Sunspot is a pleasant diversion, but the violin solo in the middle may be a turnoff, as it sounds like it was thrown in just for the fun of it (really, Marks is good for one of these moments in every album). However, I can find no fault in Gamelah’s approach to trance. It isn’t a high-tempo song, but it doesn’t need to be. The tribal rhythms are brisk enough to groove to, and the combination of chants and spacey, sweeping synths is an effective pairing. Definitely one for the outdoor gatherings.

Still, the ambient dub material was where Banco garnered a large chunk of fans at this point, so Marks treats them to a mellow, dubbed-out bit of bliss with Qurna. Synthy pad washes, tranquil grooves, seaside sound effects, and warm melodies all come together to form a sonic treat for you to lie back to.

The final stretch mostly contains tracks from the Beyond compilations... after a fashion: Lai Lah and Shanti were both remixed for Maya.

Sheesha comes first though. I’ve never been able to grasp what Marks was shooting for in this track. The intro of it shows promise, as many layers of deep, dubby sound effects, samples, and burbly electronics are gradually added. Once the rhythm kicks in though, the plot seems lost. Nothing quite melds together like you’d think it could, and Sheesha ends up wandering aimlessly despite the strengths of the individual components.

Lai Lah, on the other hand, works brilliantly despite all the elements sounding a bit chaotic. Chalk it up to a great rhythm (probably the best on here) and some crafty sample work. A breakdown allows just the strumming samples to play with a recording of a couple’s argument underneath. As this goes on, a mournful synth melody gradually grows in prominence, finally capping off at the end of the argument before being thrust right back into the rhythm. Now that’s a unique breakdown and build!

What Marks does with Shanti may be hit or miss with listeners, as he takes the track into a kind of jam-band excursion. Each element - bassline, rhythms, vocal chants, dubby keyboards, warm pads - gets a chance to play on their own before segueing into the next while white-noise effects pulse in the background. I can see this not being all that interesting if you like your songs focused and compact, but I quite like this. Besides, as far as dubby noodling goes, this is still a relatively coherent go at it. And when the pads do make their appearance towards the end of the Shanti? Yeah... magic.

Finally we end on Maya, a collaboration with Andy Guthrie. Here, Marks gets to show off some of his prog-rock influences as he breaks out the guitar while twinkly bells and all the usual exotic soundscapes fill in the atmosphere. For what it is, this is a decent enough track, and probably one of the more unique ones in this early stage of the Banco life; it’s certainly closer in sound to current offerings than most of what’s been heard on this album.

And that’s probably something to keep in mind should you be new to Maya (the album, that is... damn, but is it ever annoying having title tracks at the end sometimes). If you got into Banco de Gaia after Marks made the project into a fully fleshed-out band, the tracks on offer here seem very simple in comparison - which, truthfully, they are. For the most part, you can hear Marks still playing by dance music’s rules, and it would be another couple years before his song-writing would find the confidence to do things his own way.

Despite this shortcoming, there is gold to be found underneath the rough edges. Some of the melodies on offer are wonderful to behold, and Marks had nailed the ambient dub template almost from the get-go. Maya may not be the most enduring Banco de Gaia album but fans of the project will still find little things about it that will keep them coming back to listen to again and again.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Various - Masters Of The 1 & 2: History's Greatest DJs

Priority Records: 2000

Folks have moaned “everyone's a DJ” for so long, I’ve forgotten its origins. I suspect it began close to the turn of the century, when the Great UK Clubbing Machine was in hype-overdrive, turning regular jocks into idols. Soon it seemed everyone was hopping on the DJ bandwagon, because if those guys can perfunctorily mix two records together to the adulation of several hundred punters, so can I, and you, and your mom, and your mom's dog. Get an opening slot at the local pub or dingy rave, and you've got it made!

Recognizing the growing popularity of DJing, MTV got themselves in on some of that action with this here compilation. And yet, someone in office must have been sick of glorified jukeboxes earning all the attention, as Masters Of The 1 & 2 spotlights the true warriors of the wheels of steel. Whether heroes of the past or stalwarts of the current generation, this CD’s as comprehensive a turntablism representation one could have hoped for (licensing and sample clearance makes things difficult in this scene). Wow, MTV producing something musically informative? The ‘90s really were a topsy-turvy time!

Turntabalism typically has two subsets of craft: the collagist mash-up, and the scratchers. Many tracks will implement both, but it's easy to tell the difference between those DJs relying on battle tools versus original tunes for their compositions. Masters Of The 1 & 2 has a heavier focus on the scratchers (DJ Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, DJ Premier, DJ Babu, Rob Swift) since clearing rights to mash-up productions is all sorts of headaches.

Of the mashy cuts, we get a couple to kick things off, one from Peanut Butter Wolf (who also provides liner notes), and another credited to Eastern Conference All-Stars (it’s a ‘megamix’, but aren’t they all?). The latter’s not really a good representation of turntable trickery, but Showtime At The Dump is a great opener, offering all the hippity-bippity beats one can dig on with clever layering and scratching throughout. And is totally outclassed by the live recording of Coldcut’s More Beats & Pieces mid-CD. Holy shit, this track is fucking nuts! Why couldn’t it have been on the single? Oh, and Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel closes the CD out, appropriately so.

Speaking of old school, while it’s cool they got a few seminal tracks like Grand Wizard Theodore’s Military Cut and Davy DMX’s One For The Treble, the highlight of these vintage scratchers is easily Grandmaster Caz & Chris Stein’s Wild Style Theme Rap 1, featuring an extended scratch session that’s mesmerizing. The turntable cats of the new school on this CD hold their own, but for raw energy, Grandmaster Caz outshines them.

And perhaps that was the point of Masters Of The 1 & 2, making sure the honoured elders of the scene got their proper respect. Mission accomplished then, MTV. This CD’s an excellent introduction to the true greats of DJing, one every would-be jock should seek out and enjoy.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Various - Massive Passive (Original TC Review)

Tactic Records: 2007

(2014 Update:
I can't believe this CD's from the year 2007. For some reason, I had it in the back of my head it was at least a couple years younger, maybe late-'08 at best. Then again, I was still willing to give full-on psy some chances that year, so perhaps this was the final nail in the coffin for yours truly, where I simply gave up on Israeli psy save for the occasional recommendation from Ektoplazm. That reminds me, I should check that website out sometime soon. Maybe the music's gotten a bit better now that we don't have as many overnight start-up labels clogging the works. ...we don't anymore, do we?

Speaking of, Tactic Records did hold on for a couple years, folding after about a half-dozen releases (so sayeth Lord Discogs). Yep, about how it went for most Israeli psy start-ups last decade. Oh well, at least I wrote an unique review out of this mess. Can you tell I'd gone back to college at the time?)



IN BRIEF: Israeli Trance Compilation #3187...

One of the largest complaints surrounding Israeli psy trance is a lot of it tends to be samey sounding from artist to artist. You’d think a scene that annually offers dozens of new names, albums, and labels would create plenty of diversity over the years, yet enduring highlights remain few. The generally homogeneous execution of it all has to be the reason of something thus far hidden from the public eye; they can’t ALL be this creatively lacking by accident, can they? Although I have no proof of its existence, my suspicions are centered around what must be the Israeli Psy Trance School (IPTS).

There aren’t many courses at IPTS, but they will teach you everything you need to know about breaking into the Israeli scene. They include:

Israeli Trance 101: Learn how to produce your standard psy trance track. Your instructor will guide you in a step-by-step process of how to arrange your track, from the rambly intro sections to the trippy middle sections, and finally with the full-on synthy finish. Stock psy sounds are provided in your music making computer program, including chunky acid, spacey pads, rubbery basslines, and faux-thrashy guitars.

Israeli Trance 201: For advanced students, this course will teach you where to find contemporary movie samples, how to inject a little funk into your music, implant hidden trippy messages for stoners to discover, and maintain your interest in the scene after your sophomore slump. Innovative hooks are required for a Major.

Label Management 101: It’s not enough to be a producer, but you also need a label to distribute your tunes too. But what if no one accepts them? Then perhaps you should enter the exciting realm of DIY management! After completion, you’ll be able to do the following with ease:
-Snag a roster of new graduates from the Israeli Trance 101 course
-Entice a couple graduates from Israeli Trance 201 to give your label some potential class
-Use your label’s compilations as promotion for your artists’ new albums
-Steal away new computer art students to give your releases that extra psychedelic edge

Label Management 105 (Compilations): You have a label, but you need compilations to help promote your artists. This two-month course offers tricks of the trade to make your compiling methods easier. How to get a scene veteran to offer a new track to attract the old school, inclusion of at least one exclusive killer cut that makes your compilation a must-have for trainspotters, borrowing of other label artists, ample advertising of your roster through collaborations or remixes, and much more!

If such a school does exist, then Leon Gossler (aka: Tactic Mind) appears to be yet another graduate from it. Massive Passive is the debut compilation from his new label Tactic Records, and checks off everything you need to get a start-up in Israeli psy. Familiar faces Bizarre Contact and Ultravoice are present but mostly we find fresh faces here. The scene veteran could very well be Ultravoice as well, as he’s had releases since 2003. And sure enough Toxical’s debut album was Tactic's follow-up a mere month later.

Musically, it’s pretty much Israeli psy by-the-numbers. There are a couple better-than-average moments to be had - the peaks of Be Yourself and Flaming are solid, and Hot Leads is suitably trancey throughout - but innovation is severely lacking. In fact, some of the hooks are downright embarrassing to hear - the peaks in Ultrabizzy and Insomnia’s Computer Land are especially hilariously bad. And could Toxical have sampled something a little less obvious from The Fifth Element on Cosmic Radio? Guess not everyone managed to pass Israeli Trance 201 on this roster.

Oh, and that “one exclusive killer cut”? Look no further than Unique’s Hug & Roll, a surprisingly funky slice of psy with faux-guitar licks that aren’t corny and bouncy energy to spare. I was almost ready to start singing “Everything, everything...” along to it. Fun stuffs.

As for the rest of Massive Passive, you can throw it on and be reasonably entertained for portions of its playing time, but there’s very little to distinguish it from the hundreds of other Israeli trance compilations out there. While it’s still too early to tell whether Tactic Records will just be yet another victim of this scene’s super-high turnover ratio, a lackluster debut doesn’t do much to help make an impression in a sea of wibbly glut.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP

Interscope Records: 2000

I admit I've yet to check out The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Yes, I know it's been heralded as a proper-proper return to form for Eminem (no, for realsies this time!). To be honest though, it's hard to get excited about anything Eminem's done for over a decade now, as I gave up on his shtick around the D12 debut, not even bothering with The Eminem Show (“nobody listens to techno”? Lamest. Diss. Ever.).

For all the verbal dexterity lil' Slim's given us over the years, I suspected early he's only as good as he's got something poignant to prove. Slim Shady LP was about making his mark, Marshall Mathers LP's about dealing with his successful aftermath and not coming off as a novelty (hey, look at the good white rapper!). The Eminem Show though, what's left to prove? Sure, he can still come up with decent songs filled with sly wit, but it's a treading album. If I want to hear more of Em' dealing with fame, issues, and shit, I'll just throw on MMLP again, thanks. It's got better songs. After that... well, I jumped ship early, and turns out my assumptions about Eminem's drive as an artist weren't far off. Still, if the buzz surrounding MMLP2 is true, it would indeed appear that he's hungry in all the right ways again.

But enough of that. What is it about MMLP that’s held in such high esteem more than a decade on? Part of it truly was the growth in maturity as an artist Em’ showed us. Few rappers got as big as Mr. Mathers did in such a rapid amount of time, if ever. Lesser MCs often take their newfound fame as a chance to endlessly brag, but Em’ gives us a remarkably humble inside look into the pitfalls of such notoriety. Whether detailing over-obsessive fandom (Stan, The Real Slim Shady, Who Knew) or the societal conditions that could create an icon such as Slim Shady (The Way I Am, Marshall Mathers, Bitch Please II, Criminal), he illuminates American problems along with the shock stories and battle raps. Yep, he proved he could do conscious hip-hop!

It also helped he had Dr. Dre on hand while the good doc’ was still on fire after Chronic 2001’s success, giving us strong beats aplenty with few duds. One of the few non-Dre highlights is the megahit Stan, whom introduced Dido to the US (eh, I already knew her through Faithless), and convinced housewives all over to buy this album. Imagine their surprise at how the rest of the album went, including the brutal endurance test that is Kim at the other end. Em’ also produced the fiery The Way I Am, proving his capabilities behind the boards as well with pen and paper.

This used to be the only Eminem album you were supposed to have, even if you weren’t an Eminem fan. Guess I’ll have to check out MMLP2 now to confirm that. Things I do for accuracy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine

Astralwerks: 1978/2009

Bunch of sell-outs. Sure, jump on the disco bandwagon. Abandon conceptual LPs in favor of appealing to gaudy, dolled-up dance clubs. Dear Lord, they’ve made an ode directly to one of those types in The Model. It’s that Moroder influence, isn’t it. That’s the Italians, ruining everything, and now creative German electronic Krautrock music with corny pop melodies. Have your time in the lime-light, Kraftwerk, it won’t last. Everyone will forget this travesty of an album by the next decade, and the true artists of this era, like Cluster and Neu!, will be remembered for centuries.

Said some Berlin hipster in ’78. Probably.

As for the rest of the world, those charming pop melodies in The Man-Machine finally got regular folks regarding Kraftwerk as something more than a one-hit curiosity, even getting TV time and performing as the titular machine men. While their prior albums were landmarks in showing off what electronic music could produce, this one proved it could exist just fine alongside any ol' mainstream hit and not be regarded as some novelty (re: Autobahn). Granted, The Robots or The Model weren't tearing up charts the world over, but you just know many other electronic music hopefuls were taking notes.

Debate persists over which Kraftwerk album is their best, but for pure accessibility, The Man-Machine easily tops the rest. Them Germans always had an ear for a melody, but here they craft the ear-wormiest hooks they could, sounding as naturally pop as any top hit-makers of the ‘60s (you know which ones). And sure, for all you highfalutin types out there, this album does offer a proper concept. Almost certainly inspired by the classic sci-fi film Metropolis, a running theme of future societies permeates every track (sans The Model). Whether Kraftwerk aimed to spread a poignant message of such futurism with their tunes or were content in providing simple pictures with their music is up to interpretation, but that’s good pop music for you.

The particulars of The Man-Machine, you’ve heard in some form over the years. The Robots has long been the stand-out, what with those precision-perfect rhythms, spacious sound design, succinct hooks, and wicked-awesome vocal effects (it’s also great for testing headphones and stereos!). At the other end of the album is the titular cut, a cousin to The Robots, and while not as catchy, has equally awesome vocal effects. Elsewhere, Spacelab and Metropolis get their Moroder disco on, likely inspiring a legion of future space synth and trance producers in the process. Neon Lights is the obligatory extended Kraftwerk jam, charming in its own right with shimmering synths, though you have to endure Ralf’s warbling to get there. And yes, The Model, definitely lyrically goofy synth-pop by any standard, but holy cow, that bassline, mang!

Of course, for the musically egg-headed out there, The Man-Machine contains juicy goodies aplenty to drool over (theory! gear! spawned genres!), but I’m out of space. Not time though, as this album’s as timeless as Florian’s fashion.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stylophonic - Man Music Technology

Prolifica: 2002/2003

This album had everything successful going for it. Catchy crossover tunes, variety of contemporary sounds without coming off instantly dated, general praise from every EDM magazine that mattered, and even half-page ads in said magazines filled with quotable plaudits (best: “Great album, great hair. What more do you want?” DJ Mag). And yet, only blank stares when Stylophonic’s brought up. Heck, I didn't even know about the guy, and I must have seen those ads in Muzik Magazine. Nay, Man Music Technology was a blind purchase, one that I spread the love of any chance I get. Not that it mattered, but it was the most promotion Stefano Fontana’s project got in Vancouver (um, no).

So who is this critical darling barely anyone remembers? According to his page at Lord Discogs, Stefano Fontana is an “Italian DJ and producer”; it’s all that’s written for his bio. Wow, not even love from his own marketing department? Utterly unknown laptop ambient noodlers get bigger bios (mind, those are all self-written in the third person). Man Music Technology was Mr. Fontana’s first LP – as Stylophonic or otherwise – with prior singles primarily lead-ups to this album. Almost all his compilation duty consists of DJ pool promotions, with a couple Ministry Of Sound appearances too. Success?

Getting into some actual music, Man Music Technology runs through various forms of house, electro, acid, and funk. You’d be forgiven in initially thinking his tunes were produced by other, more successful acts, as the influences from (credible) dance chart toppers runs throughout this album. Soulreply gets in on some of that loopy French house action, including samples from Chic’s Sometimes You Win. Elsewhere, Bizarre Mind ups the acid-funk into sleazy electroclash territory, while Break @ 100 BPM, It’s The Old School With The New School, and Way Of Life get into electro-funk and hip-hop territory. The latter also includes a guest verse by Digital Underground front-man Shock-G – who also offers an extra verse in his Humpty Hump persona on the same track. Damn, how much more cool can this track get, and the answer is none more cool.

All Nite Long digs into proper electro house (yes, you 2004 gits, this is what electro house should sound like, not dumb-fuck farting basslines!) and since Basement Jaxx were experts at tossing multiple genres into radio-friendly house, Stylophonic apes the same trick with plenty more tunes (Vinalstyloz, Da Symphony, Game Over) that should have gotten more radio rotation than none at all. Man, not even car advertisement deals? Help me out here, Europeans, did anything get annoyingly licensed out? Speaking of which, closer track If Everybody In The World Loved Everybody In The World is an easy contender for “Most Groove Armada Track” on this album.

Okay, I’m generally ribbing on Stylophonic here. Man Music Technology honestly is a fine LP. His sound may not be going anywhere the big boys have gone, but he does it just as capably as anyone has. Maybe he needed a better agent.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Banco de Gaia - The Magical Sounds Of Banco de Gaia

Six Degrees Records: 1999/2000

Despite the brilliance that was Big Men Cry, Toby Marks couldn't mope forever. He freed himself of old label woes, established his own print in Disco Gecko, and discovered something in the process: the idea of Banco de Gaia as a proper band could work. All these factors likely contributed to the sudden, upbeat change in tone for his fourth proper LP, The Magical Sounds Of Banco de Gaia. Even the title's playfully tongue-in-cheek: nothing sombre, political, or reflective here, just happy fun-times found within, trust.

And even if all that wasn't enough to convince you that you were in for a peppier album than normal, the first track is I Love Baby Cheesy, a truly ridiculous title if ever there was, and a right hoot to boot. I've already reviewed the single for that though, and truth is it was the only real single to emerge from Magical Sounds. Back in those days, you could count on at least a pair of EPs, so what's up with that? Were there no other single-worthy tunes on here?

B’ah, what a laugh - choice cuts were selected for other releases, is all. The lovey-dubby Sinhala and spacey ethno-breaks Touching The Void made the cut on the 10 Years retrospective, while a live rendition of funky, world beat, communal-chanter No Rain appeared on another retrospective in Memories Dreams Reflections. Oh, and Glove Puppet was re-purposed into trip-hop for the follow-up album Igizeh, which makes some sense as the version here’s about as solemn as Magical Sounds gets, what with mournful strings and samples of war playing in the background (yeah, still got that Pink Floyd thing going on).

The three other tracks aren’t slouches either, and in some ways are among my favourite Banco tunes around. Harvey And The Old Ones, for instance, ranks high among the most unique tunes to come from the World Bank. Layers of instruments and rhythmic chants continually build upon each other, conjuring the sort of imagery you’d expect of a tribal gathering out in the hills of India. Things briefly break down midway, then a thumpin’ techno beat emerges as everything rejoins the party for a raucous climax. It’s a fun track all around, the sort of tune that’d go off wonderfully at an outdoor hippie jam. 144k? is another buoyant track, though it wanders around with melancholic, atmospheric ambient dub for much of its duration. Considering the downbeat nature of the opening two-thirds, having such an uplifting end to the tune’s almost cathartic, despite Marks laying the sentiment on rather thick with a chanting sample of “We are beautiful people. We are chosen ones.” Follow-up Frog’s Dinner gets back to the world beat dub style he made his name on from the Planet Dog days, but this one wanders a bit much for my liking.

So I like Magical Sounds Of Banco de Gaia, but ya’ll knew I would anyway. I like everything from Marks, right? Eh, wait until we reach the ‘Y’s.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snap! - The Madman's Return

Arista: 1992

Objectivity? Oh ho ho ho, that’s a good one! I wore the shit out of my original tape – yes, tape! – a frequent go-to collection of tunes for when I wanted something ‘dark’ and ‘heavy’ during my teenaged honeymoon year of ‘techno’ discovery. Of course, Snap!’s sophomore album The Madman’s Return is hardly dark or heavy when sat against the underground of ’92, but compared to the curiosity of early ‘90s chart topping EDM, perhaps so. Euro dance as we know of it today had yet to properly emerge (Rhythm Is A Dancer certainly helped get things rolling though), while New Jack Swing and hip-house was at its apex before crumbling away. Kriss Kross’ Jump, House Of Pain’s Jump Around, and Bobby Brown’s Humpin’ Around were some of the biggest hits of that year – guess everyone just wanted to jump ‘n hump around in ’92.

Snap! itself was going through changes, a conflict of ideas for their next move. The rapper Turbo B wanted to go more hip-hop, heavily inspired by the political words of Public Enemy and the like. However, Münzing and Anzilotti- whoops, I mean Benites and Garrett III, the German producers lurking in the studio, preferred moving on from urban, the sounds of Belgian beat, trance, and 'techno' catching their ears instead.

The Madman’s Return is something of a compromise from each, the result of which an album that’s surprisingly unique and holds up two decades on (ahaha! ‘Objectivity’…). The opener’s essentially a hip-house tune with Turbo B going on about how he’s back and ready to start some shit, but coupled with clanking percussion, acid, and a deliciously grimy hook, it’s unlike any hip-house you’ve ever heard before or after. Later, Mr. B goes off on the nature of sampling in Who Stole It?, and brags a bunch on the ridiculously heavy-beat tune Money. Sure, he’s not gonna have Chuck D sweating anytime soon, but the typical euro-dance rapper’s firmly put into touch by his wordplay.

Unfortunately, the other half of the album has ol’ Durron making sexy come-ons (Colour Of Love, Believe In It, Don’t Be Shy) or offering simplistic platitudes (See The Light). The tunes themselves aren’t half-bad, mind, though the former bunch are clearly attempting to recreate the success of the first album’s Mary Had A Little Boy. Meanwhile, See The Light is Snap!’s go at another ‘techno’ hit, and you can hear Turbo B struggling for enthusiasm for it. Heck, you could also hear it in the original single of Rhythm Is A Dancer, which makes the stripped-down album version all the more awesome – instead of a silly rap, simple spoken dialog conjuring an apocalyptic future. I told you this album’s dark!

Snap! were often derided when they were still active, but as the majority of crossover EDM grew ever more shallow and tripe, folks have warmed to group’s strong production and pop perfection. The Madman’s Return is easily their peak, transitioning from fluff urban to fluff trance in a remarkably gritty way.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hot Chip - Made In The Dark (Original TC Review)

Astralwerks: 2008

(2014 Update:
Remember when it was
bands that was to rescue EDM from the '00s doldrums? Man, critical darlings like LCD Soundsystem, The Klaxons, and Hot Chip were all the rage in 2008, earning magazine covers and high scores alike. Then David Guetta broke America, soon followed by dubstep's explosion of popularity, and everyone subsequently forgot about bands again. Well, not exactly. Acts like Hot Chip appealed to an older crowd, whereas the nu-EDM appealed to the youngin's out there, and as with all things, it's the youthful movements that'll dictate general cultural trends - easier to market to, y'see.

Hot Chip still had a successful follow-up in 2010 to this album though,
One Life Stand; I'd even started a review of it before I gave up the writing gig for a couple years (more reasons for this forthcoming in two weeks!). In 2012, they released In Our Heads, which passed by with little fanfare. Guess folks (kids?) weren't buying what they were selling anymore, although I hear they're still kick-ass live. If they include ample tunes from this album in their set lists, I wouldn't doubt it.)


IN BRIEF: Peppy.

Truthfully, bands in electronic dance culture aren’t terribly new. It arguably all started with a four-piece act (Kraftwerk), and has seen many former rockers go digital over the years. Still, the general image most have of the live show revolves around one or two guys buried behind synths, sequencers, and laptops, with the occasional guitarist thrown into the mix. That all seems to be changing lately though; electroclash’s emergence and disco punk’s revival re-introduced clubbers to a whole world of indie music they’d long paid little heed to, and the little New York scene that DFA built has found its way into numerous pockets of the world in the years since. Now, you can even choose which sub-category of this genre of music you wish to proclaim as superior: dance-goes-rock (LCD Soundsytem; Justice) or rock-goes-dance (!!!; that silly ‘nu-rave’ thing Klaxons have going). Somewhere in the middle of it all lays Hot Chip.

Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard make up the brains of this unlikely electro-soul-rave-wave-pop five-piece. Although obvious darlings of the hipster crowd, it was a few years before folks properly took notice. Their sophomore album The Warning certainly helped elevate their exposure, and bundles of buzz from their live shows on the festival circuit pretty much sealed the deal: anticipation and expectation on their third album would be difficult to match. So it’s just as well they forgot all that and settled on having fun with the creative process. At least, that’s what Made In The Dark sounds like.

Although Hot Chip’s flirted with a genre or two, this time they’ve stuck all their influences into a blender and added liberal amounts of pop to the mix. The result is something that’s at once chaotic and jumbled, yet super-fun just the same. These guys realize their studio (or rough approximation of one, since many of these songs were apparently conceived in Goddard’s apartment) is as much an instrument as all the guitars, synths, and tambourines they use. With such knowledge, an anything-goes mentality takes over, and the process can be sublime, provided it’s handled by musicians who remember to write music first, play with their toys second. And handle well they do indeed.

Granted, they don’t always succeed. Tracks like Bendable Poseable and Touch Too Much sound like Hot Chip needed someone reigning in all their ideas, as these overflow with excessive production; the good ideas lurking underneath are thus overshadowed. Fortunately, they’re the exceptions to Made In The Dark's general tone.

If anything, the group display an uncanny knack of making their unpredictability absolutely necessary. For example, One Pure Thought could be best described as house-music-meets-folk-rock. Yes, you read that right. Now, try to imagine Hot Chip doing without such a blend and settling on just a single influence, and chances are you’ve come away with something quaint but ultimately bland. Well, the chorus would still be good, but not as great as it is presented here.

The album is littered with such tracks. Shake A Fist, Hold On, and Don’t Dance are obviously heavily inspired by the club circuits, yet never strictly adhere to the expectations that come with that scene. Meanwhile, Out At The Pictures does the whole ‘big-disco-rock-band’ thing with winning results, while Ready For The Floor is an easy-breezy slice of crossover dance. And then there are the ballads. Good ballads!

Nearly a third of the album is dedicated to the softer side of music, and Hot Chip pulls it off with the grace of any crooner. Whether mopey musers (Whistle For Will), lovelorn lullabies (Made In The Dark; In The Privacy Of Our Love), or straight-up classy quirkfests (Wrestlers, a goofy call-to-arms rallying song inspired by, you guessed it, wrestling, with Hot Chip sounding about as threatening as a mid-80s WWF jobber ...just get a load of these lyrics: “Here we come; Drop kick; Half-Nelson; Full-Nelson; Willie Nelson... Willie Nelson.” Hilarious! ...well, if you were ever a fan of wrestling, that is ...okay, enough of this parenthesis tangent), these downtempo tunes showcase just how versatile this group is. All too often, ballads and dance music go together like oil and water in an album context (hence why ballads are usually lumped at the end whenever an act does attempt them), but Hot Chip display just as much skill in this field as they do in getting the dance floor energized.

Made In The Dark certainly is an album that will appeal to fans of many walks of music, and will undoubtedly get notice from several scenes. Heck, Metacritic alone has some thirty-five reviews available to check out, and that’s just covering the mainstream and indie-rock spreads. Even if your notion of ‘proper electronic dance music’ doesn’t hold much regard for an act that sometimes treats itself as a folk band more than techno sequencers, Hot Chip’s sense of rhythm and melody will win you over just the same.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Various - Macro Dub Infection, Volume 1

Virgin: 1995

Before he was turning dancehall heads as The Bug, Kevin Martin paid his flat money compiling a few CDs for Virgin Records. His first was the fourth volume of Virgin's double-disc ambient series showcasing acts from the genre's lengthy history, most of the prior volumes culling material from Virgin's own extensive back catalogue. Having exhausted all the familiar names though, they turned to Mr. Martin for his expertise on most things avant-garde, experimental, and dubby. Not sure what prompted Virgin’s show of faith in an oddball post-rocker, but his selections must have impressed the label enough to give him his own short-lived series, Macro Dub Infection. Or maybe Virgin just wanted in on that 'ambient dub house' trend The Orb spearheaded. Way to be late to the game, guys!

Still, Pre-Bug didn’t follow that rule by a long shot. Instead, he gathered up two CDs worth of dub-influenced music from across the electronic board. Some names and tunes are about as you’d expect from a compilation style-biting Beyond’s gimmick. Opener The Struggle Of Life from The Disciple hits all those classic ambient reggae-dub vibes, and other familiar jams from 2 Badcard, Rootsman, Automaton (Bill Laswell under his eight-zillionth alias) round out a first half of tunes most likely expected of a compilation titled Marcro Dub Infection. What’s that atmospheric jungle cut from Spring Heel Jack doing at the second position though? Yeah, there’s plenty of dubby affects at work in there, but no one said this was a drum ‘n’ bass collection too. Wait, Omni Trio’s on this as well? Pft, if you think that’s odd, get a load of classic industrial group Coil getting in on this action; not to mention indie post-rockers Tortoise, IDM wonk Bedouin Ascent, and ill trip-hoppers Skull vs. Ice. And that’s just CD1!

Frankly, ol’ Kev’ going off the proper deep end by showing off even the most tangently dub music out there (it’s an infection upon all musics!) is about the best way he could have put this together. Retreading the reggae-roots style so many others had before would be utterly redundant in 1995, and plenty others were filling in other aspects of dub (Planet Dog’s got the ethno-psy-dub covered, mang). Better to show off acts few would associate with the macro-genre while you have the chance.

Most interesting are the tracks by names that might have lured potential buyers based on chart recognition. The Paranormal In 4 Forms finds breaks pioneers 4 Hero running the gamut of ambient, trip-hop, jungle, and even classic techno in a span of eight minutes. Elsewhere on CD2, Tricky goes all weird abstraction with Ambient Pumpkin (oh hi, Goldfrapp). And I’ll take the ambient techno-dub style of Bandulu’s Come Forward any day, mainly because Macro Dub Infection’s the only place one can find this track.

In fact, there’s quite a few exclusives and rarities on this collection, just another of its selling points. Variety of music and extensive liner notes of dub’s history aren’t bad incentives either.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cell - Hanging Masses

Ultimae Records: 2009

Of all Ultimae’s second-tier acts, Alexandre Scheffer’s project Cell has undoubtedly intrigued me the most. A regular contributor to the Fahrenheit Project, I think he earned Ace Track status on every single volume he had music on; heck, even on Part 5, where I stated the whole damn CD as ace, his Blue Embers was a highlight among highlights. Yet here we are, nearly half a decade since Cell dropped his first proper LP on Ultimae, and only now am I listening to Hanging Masses. If Mr. Scheffer’s music is as exceptional as I’ve claimed before, why’s it taken me so long to finally pick this up? Eh, likely for fear of disappointment, though given the track record of pretty much anyone releasing music on Ultimae, that should be the last concern.

More likely, he doesn’t release material at the same clip other Ultimae regulars have, so on the occasion I’ve splurged, it was easier buying the Pack deals rather than picking individual CDs. Sadly, Cell has no Pack option, but then he barely has any solo material on the label to begin with. In fact, his first album, Phonic Peace, came out in 2005, on the forgotten psy-chill label Indica Music, with several more tracks appearing on various downtempo labels – oddly almost all of the psy variety, given his music’s not terribly psy to begin with. Bottom line is scouring for every Cell tune out there isn’t easy, a slow deliberate process. Much like the music he makes, come to think of it. Oh hi, segueway!

I’ve mentioned Cell does ambient techno much like Carbon Based Lifeforms before, but he’s also restrained in his approach. For instance, after a bit of noodly drone and astral-chatter, opener Calling develops into subtle bleepy music accentuated with occasional haunting harmonizing pads. It doesn’t sound too removed from CBL’s early work, but whereas that duo would make such pad work a prominent, evolving feature, Cell keeps it understated. Yet, at no point does Calling feel lacking of melodic content either, everything in its right place with no need for grandiose moments. Really, when Mr. Scheffer presents us with music similar in arrangement but epic in scope with the titular cut, it almost comes off as overselling, so effective he is at spacey minimalism.

Hanging Masses is thus another difficult album to detail due to its relatively sparse tone. There are lovely synth harmonies in tracks like Second Shape, Part 2 and Universal Sunrise (ooh, I sense Solar Fields influence in there), quiet introspective delicacy with Vapor, and even mildly up-tempo moments with Risky Nap Under Blue Tree and the Aes Dana collaboration Switch Off. Overall though, my best description is as above: if you’re familiar with Carbon Based Lifeforms, you’re familiar with Cell. Don’t let that lead you to think Hanging Masses is some, erm, carbon-clone. While sharing similar aesthetics, Cell explores the subtle side of ambient techno, abstraction without ever diving deep into IDM’s wankier tendencies. Good music for those weaned on Namlook.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Miktek - Elsewhere

Ultimae Records: 2013

Despite pushing talent other than their core roster in the late ‘00s, it wasn’t long before Ultimae fell back on its usual standbys. To be fair, crafting albums of the nuanced richness the label supports does take time, made more so by the glacial rate anything gets released on the label. That another fallow period of fresh faces would follow isn’t too surprising, but we may be on the verge of another wave of releases from ‘second-tier acts’. Live albums from Circular and Hol Baumann came out last year, while I Awake just released another single. Two other artists, whom had prior material out on other labels, also joined the Ultimae roster, Lars Leonhard and Miktek. Both appeared on last year’s Oxycanta III compilation (holy cow, it took over half a decade to for a follow-up!), and while the former got a digi-EP release, Miktek got the full album treatment, making it the only such proper LP to come out on the label last year (Solar Fields’ Origin #2 and Aes Dana’s Aftermath 2.0 were more b-side collections). Glacial indeed, and so’s the music on this album. My God, that was a long paragraph.

Right, Miktek. This was the word I heard pitched down in some old tech-house record. No, wait, was it in a Frankie Bones techno single? Actually, I think it’s a shortened name-variation of the man behind the project, one Mihalis Aikaterinis as known on Greece passports. He’s released a number of ambient and IDM tunes on Greek experimental netlabel 33 Recordings, and self-released a pair of albums too; so some time in the trenches before joining up with Ultimae. He definitely offers a different style of downtempo for the label, though it may not be immediately apparent.

While they’ve dabbled in the realm of ambient techno, drone, and glitch, Ultimae, erm, ultimately remains a part of the psy-chill scene. The music on Elsewhere is quite removed from that, however. There’s more of a laptop, melancholy shoegaze tone throughout, and having track titles like Magnificent Desolation, Song Of The Burning Mountain, and False Dawn certainly help sell the mood. Gee, Ultimae, why so down of a sudden? There’s been somber moments in the past, no doubt, but Elsewhere gets downright lonesome at times.

Most interestingly, that trademark panoramic production is relatively absent here. While many of the backing synths sound full, they’re also distant, like gazing upon landscapes just obscured by fog. The rhythms, mostly on a gentle ambient dub bent, are incredibly simplistic, lacking thick texture that’s common in many Ultimae releases. Yet given Miktek’s style, Elsewhere wouldn’t work with the traditional Ultimae Mixdown™, a stripped aesthetic crucial in creating feelings of melancholic detachment.

Similar albums conjure specific emotional responses and memories; see my review of Vector Lovers’ iPhonica for examples. Miktek’s music is broader, more like a canvas than specific imagery, which does fit the Ultimae manifesto. Go figure the label felt it was missing the bleak side of such soundscapes, but here we are.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I Awake - The Core

Ultimae Records: 2008

For much of Ultimae's history, the debut of any act on their label isn't that artist's first solo release. Some have had Ultimae compilation duty prior, while others offered music on other labels. Thomas Huttenlocher's one of the few exceptions, dropping his first single Birth on Ultimae in 2007, then following that up with a full-length titled The Core the year after. Unless Lord Discogs is being dishonest with me, he had no other material out before then. The bio write-up mentions he was a part of a Swedish ambient collective called Ghostfriend, but the Lord draws even blanker on such a name than Mr. Huttenlocher. What I’m getting at here is, if this I Awake material truly was his debut, then damn dawg, I gotta applaud him in getting the Ultimae blessing (re: the Ultimae Mixdown™) right out the gate. Not many chill acts are so lucky, so this I Awake material must be something special to grab the label’s attention thus.

Well, I don’t know about that, but The Core did come out when Ultimae was in the process of releasing albums from artists outside their main roster - one can enjoy the Solar Fields and Aes Dana stylee for so long before asking if the label has any other chill on offer. With I Awake, we get the old-school, Planet Dog “technorganic” sound. Hoo, remember that term, anyone? It wasn’t any sort of ambient dub or world beat that’d come before, oh no; rather, a fusion of the two, with a psychedelic twist. Okay, it’s essentially psy-dub in its primordial form, but it was a distinct sound that fell by the wayside when Simon Posford’s work as Shpongle informed everyone that that was how psy-dub was to be done thereafter (what is Posford, the Hawtin of psy?).

So The Core features ample use of nature samples, worldly beats, organic instrumentation, and dubby soundscapes, but with modern production chops. You find full-bodied bass sequences in New Time Nomads, Neveritized, and Leaving The Known, occasional glitch rhythms spicing things up throughout, and nary a cliché use of ethnic vocals. All of which is naturally mastered with the trademark Ultimae panoramic touch. In a funny way, I feel this robs Huttenlocher of his distinctiveness among the roster. Instead of having a fresh, unique sound hanging with the big boys, he gets mushed into the soup along with everyone else. And sadly, as I Awake doesn’t carry nearly the same pedigree as Carbon Based Lifeforms or Asura (etc, etc.), The Core becomes lost among all the top-tiered acts.

This is another rich album of chill-out music from the label, of that there is no doubt. With track durations of reasonable length, few noodly bits crop up, and moods run the gamut from bright and exotic (Leaving The Known, Inferno) to dark and mysterious (Reflecting Impulses, Reclaim). I Awake may not carry the recognition of Ultimae’s all-stars, but he must be doing something right if the label got dibs on his debut.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Markus Schulz - Coldharbour Sessions 2004

Armada Music: 2004

An ear turning cynical isn’t difficult upon realizing the Grand Armada Marketing Plan. By 2004, Armin was pushing his brand from internet darling to global domination, but he’s a savvy one, that van Buuren. He couldn’t corner every potential market with just his own, preferred style of epic, uplifting trance. Why, some folks actually considered it cheesy, unserious music! They wanted something deeper, of more substance and nuanced; groovy like progressive house, but not the dark, minimalist tribal stuff Digweed and his brethren were pushing as the ‘nu-prog’. Fortunately for Armin, there was a chap who had no problem promoting a style of prog that could act as that branch, offering deeper rhythms folks with ‘matured’ tastes craved, but retaining enough melodic hookiness such that they need not wander into the untested waters of tech-house. That man was Peter Martin, also known as Anthanasia.

Okay, it’s really Markus Schulz, but damn, Perfect Wave shows up again on this Coldharbour Sessions mix, possibly making it the biggest McProg anthem of all time – the genre’s Age Of Love, so to speak. Well, maybe not.

Anyhow, this was Mr. Schulz’ proper opening statement with his new direction of sound, after remaining stuck in the underground years prior. Following this DJ mix, he’d establish his own Coldharbour Recordings (an offshoot of Armada, naturally), cultivating his accessible form of prog, thus winning him a legion of cultish fans to this day; the Grand Armada Marketing Plan unfolds. Alright, enough cynicism from me, as I must admit I didn’t pick this up for another one of my retrospective projects. Nay, I bought it because, um... I’m kinda growing fond of this sound.

I wasn’t against it back in the day, but all the related aggressive promotion caused a dismissive knee-jerk reaction from me. A decade later though, no one’s promoting this sound anymore, so it’s easier taking the music on its own merits. And yes, all the criticisms one can levy against McProg are here, although as we’re in the genre’s infancy, very little comes off too cliché. The low, grumbly basslines are ever present (especially in any of Schulz’ Coldharbour Remixes), occasionally some sap seeps in (almost always whenever a vocal comes about ...fuck Satellite, no matter the remix), and ol’ Markus nearly succumbs to ‘breakdown overload’ with the opening of Disc 2; beyond that, however, there’s little I can find fault with on Coldharbour Sessions 2004 within its own merits.

Heck, a couple tunes even bring late-‘90s prog-house to light (Junk Science’s Jataka, Luke Chabel’s remix of Matsumoto & DJ Yoshi’s Dreamer), while others offer themselves as pleasant Balearic or vocal numbers (wow, Elevation’s Somewhere’s harrowing). Perfect Wave aside, many familiar tunes are remixed to fit Schulz’ style, finding its groove early and maintaining it throughout. Despite lacking much in challenging music, it’s all perfectly pleasant, deep-trance vibes, and none too stale at this early stage. Coldharbour Sessions 2004 definitely deserves some props for that ten years on. Still, Schulz ain’t no Chris Fortier.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Jean-Michel Jarre - Chronologie

CD-Maximum: 1993/2000

So maybe I wasn't so far off in assuming Chronologie was Jean-Michel Jarre's attempt at a clubland-crossover after all. That's all it truly was when I first wrote the review for Jarremix, an assumption based on remixes of the singles and watching the Chronologie 4 video (so early '90s!). Had I properly digested all of the Frenchman’s discography before hand, I might have gleaned a clearer perspective, but as it stood I was working off the major hits. Heck, the only reason I picked up Jarremix back in the day was it was one of the few trancey albums I stumbled upon. I had no idea who ol' Jean was at that point, and even after enjoying that collection, it was many moons before Monsieur Jarre's legacy came into focus for yours truly. We all start somewhere though, and now that I have the spending cash to dig in properly, it's time to start up the Jarre collection.

Seeing as how the Chronologie remixes were my introduction, I figured it appropriate to make this album one of the first purchases (along with the only Jean-Michel Jarre album you're supposed to have, even if you're not much of a fan of Jean-Michel Jarre – but that one's all the way down in the 'O's). Chronologie 4 was also the tune that let me stop worrying and accept ol’ Jean’s sappier tendencies. Make no mistake, for as many sublime moments in his discography, Jarre has also gone full synth-pop fromage too, and anything of that sort released in the ‘90s just couldn’t hold up.

That was my long-time thoughts anyway, but the wonderful world of post-millennium space synth made me realize something: Chronologie 4 is totally space synth, in fact an expertly crafted example of such. Those charmingly dated synth tones, pumping rhythms that have you cruising the cosmos, and gloriously epic melodies, it’s what nearly all modern space synth composers strive for. Of course, this is a retroactive classification, but there it is.

That’s just one track though. The first half of Chonologie has Jarre doing the modern classical thing, including an eleven minute opener, while Part 2 ups the tempo with peppy synth-pop rhythms and church organs, sounding like his earlier works. The back half is far more early-‘90s in tone, and aside from Part 6’s groovy house vibe, is hilariously dated, especially so Part 5 and Part 8, what with hip-hop beats, freestyle orchestral-hits and fake record scratches! Dear Lord, Part 8’s what’s played during the credits of a bad comedy.

It was a poor end the original album, but in the year 2000, a Russian label got the distribution rights and, attempting to entice those who’d already bought Chronologie, included a slew of remixes of classic Jarre! Eh, cheap studio knock-offs, more like. There’s a few tracks I know in the list (Oxygene , Magnetic Fields, Calypso, etc.), and none hold a candle to the remixes found on Jarremix. Impossibly high standards set for Jarre remixes, that album did.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Krusseldorf - Bohemian Groove

Beats & Pieces: 2010

I never ordered this, nor did I find it in a CD shop (pft, as if those exist in Vancouver now); rather, it came bundled with my last Ultimae splurge. Wow, not only does the always-ace chill label include great music, classy digipaks, cool postcards, bookmarks, and incense, but now free CDs too? This is better than radio promos other labels offer: it's a proper LP from an established artist! Okay, it was likely a packaging error (though I wasn't missing anything), so it’s not a big deal. Still, never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Uh, that’s kinda what I’m supposed to be doing at this blog though.

Anyhow, Krusseldorf goes by Simon Heath on his passport, while others still may know him as dark ambient project Atrium Carceri. I haven’t heard that one, though his recent Sabled Sun off-shoot looks interesting, further exploration of dark ambient but with a sci-fi twist (“in space, no one can hear the synth drone”). In either case, it’s a far cry from what we get on Bohemian Groove, essentially a psy-dub album. Guess that makes sense if Ultimae had this floating around. I’m not sure if this is the established Krusseldorf sound or just a one-off, but considering all his other releases at Lord Discogs suggests the likes of Shpongle and Ott (to say nothing of Ultimae regulars), I’ll trust my instincts; a psy-dub album, then.

Even before throwing this on, I was leery. It’s a genre that can hit some exhilarating highs, yet is seldom achieved by only but the most frequently name-dropped. Too many producers are content to sound like Posford or Bluetech without adding a fresh twist on the template, and matters aren’t helped when they lack comparable studio gear. As Mr. Heath additionally works a studio engineering gig, you’d think he’d make a good showing if it, but nay, the music on Bohemian Groove, while spacious, comes off just as plastic as most average psy-chill acts.

Right, it’s partly my fault here for listening to a chunk of CDs with the Ultimae Mixdown™ recently. And if space synth has taught me anything, who cares about quality of sound so long as the musical craft holds. The first couple tracks off Bohemian Groove are fine, though not terribly challenging where psy-dub arrangements are concerned. Third track Inbound raised a few red flags, however, and fourth cut Nobs is just… oh dear, it’s psy-muzak. Never have I heard such a listless, saccharine tune in this genre, and Lord help me I hope to never hear it again.

That sadly soured my initial impressions of the rest of this album, but I’ve softened since. Most of it settles into a blissy, comfortable psy-dub groove, the plastic sheen even turning charming after a while (yay clickity-glitch rhythms). Occasional instrument choices may lift an eyebrow (no, guitars, no), but nothing dire. Still, Bohemian Groove is conceptually so middle-of-the-road for psy-chill, it’s stuck at the fork in a highway. What nonsensical metaphor?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Connect.Ohm - 9980

Ultimae Records: 2012

A curious one, this. Connect.Ohm is a collaboration between Alexandre Scheffer and Hidetoshi Koizumi. They more commonly go by Cell and Hybrid Leisureland, respectively, and aren’t exactly Ultimae regulars. They’ve certainly contributed many tracks to various compilations, and have also released an album or two through the label, but they are by no means exclusive in the same way Solar Fields and Carbon Based Lifeforms are. Still, they must have curried enough good will with Mr. Villuis for him to indulge them with a collaborative LP on his label. There wasn’t even any pre-release single or exclusive compilation cut leading up to 9980, at least nothing I’m aware of officially. Maybe a sneak-peak podcast, but I wouldn’t know of it; I don’t do podcasting.

For those not in the know, Cell tends to explore ambient techno along the lines of CBL, whereas Hybrid Leisureland is what you’d get if Harold Budd was from Japan, and with more pads than pianos. Not sure if I’d go so far as to say something cliché like this is a match made in heaven (…wait), but minimalistic ambient-scapes can work with anything, and Scheffer and Koizumi liked each other’s mojo enough to merge their styles.

The result is about what you’d expect from such a pairing: low key, subtle, spacious, and occasional rhythms that are barely a pulse, although the opener Evolution 1:1 settles into a typical ambient dub groove. Mmm, feel those restrained bass drops as you float on grey clouds. It’s also about as upbeat as 9980 gets, though subsequent ‘rhythmic’ tracks work their own unique pace too. Titular cut 9908 indulges in glitch, while Mol comes off like Solar Fields with its charming melodies and gentle harmonies. Fossil gets deeper into dub rhythms, and Take Off goes a tad tribal. Mind, the rhythmic differences between these tunes are marginal, but when dealing with such minimalism, it’s all I’ve to work with.

Still, this is an ambient album through and through. With tracks an average of seven-to-nine minutes in length, you bet we have some noodly bits going on, not to mention good ol’ ‘laptop drone’. Second track Snow Park sure takes its sweet time developing, three minutes passing before even a hint of rhythm or melody emerge. And even when it does, it’s but a faint whisper of piano and bleepy backings. What keeps you engaged are those harmonizing pads, gradually building upon each other. Yet whereas most producers opt for a rapturous climax, Snow Park gently ebbs away, a brief bit of extra piano the closest we get to a proper peak. Other ambient pieces like Gentle Perception and Time To Time By Time work in similar fashion.

By the end of final, planetarium track Winter Sorrows, however, the common criticism of nearly all ambient albums of this nature also rears its head with 9980: music amounting to little more than pleasant fluff. True, but with a good pair of headphones, is it ever exquisite, pleasant fluff.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Rule Alteration Going Forward

*Whew* That's the 'L's finished, and thus I'm at about the mid-point through this insane listening/blogging project. While I'm by no means halfway completed going through everything I have (much less if I decide to restart at the beginning to accommodate the first few letters for completion's sake), this does at least mark the mid-point of the alphabet (including numerical titles as one 'letter') - and no, 'Q' barely counts in this project, trust me on that.

It also creates a slight problem with Rule #1, whereby anytime I purchase something new that falls behind in my alphabetical list, that release goes to the front of the queue. This wasn't such a big deal when I was dealing with but a few letters, but I'm now facing half an alphabet, and growing longer with each completed letter, thus the potential backlog list increasing with each new bundle I buy (as you'll see shortly), which I feel gums up my regular progress.

So, a modification of Rule #1. Instead of automatically listening and reviewing new purchases as they arrive, they'll remain in a 'to-review' pile until I've made at least half-progress through a current letter. For instance, as I've just finished 'L', I'll now review my alphabetical backlog, then carry on through 'M'. Upon finishing up through the mid-point of 'M' - in this case, 'Mi' - I'll go through the backlog again, and so on. This also gives me the chance to properly digest new material instead of jumping into them so cold.

That's all on this small update. Time to go identify minerals for marks.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

µ-Ziq - Lunatic Harness

Virgin: 1997

Aphex Twin was the king of IDM. Squarepusher was the revolutionary (yes, even among revolutionaries). µ-Ziq was the guy that got to hang out with them, taking on their styles, even carving out his own niche in the process. The man from Planet Mu never quite hit their highs, though during the ‘electronica’ boom, I’m sure some record executives figured they’d have another Come To Daddy success on their hands by signing Mike Paradinas. Virgin plucked the µ-Ziq man up for his fourth full-length, and the results were about as you’d expect an IDM wonk making a crossover: charming, challenging, seductive, abhorrent, and just plain nuts.

Right off the first track, Brace Yourself Jason, you can hear the lineage: frenetic jazz-fusion rhythms that made Tom Jenkinson such a darling with fans of challenging techno, coupled with those ambient pads that made many a Rickity Da Jam-Man tune sound so utterly alien. It’s a cool track, though not really distinctive of µ-Ziq - not that I know exactly what is Paradinas’ distinct sound, as I’ve only two albums worth, including this one. If I’d make a guess, however, he shows more love for the classical side of IDM, the sort of music inspired by Mozart and the like (say, would Amadeus be an IDM wonk of his era?). Many of the subsequent tracks feature cute, elegant melodies as played on synths that one suspects were formerly in the hands of modern classicalist composers of the ‘70s. Not an entirely unique approach to music-making then, but definitely innovative when complemented with equally infantile hip-hop rhythms.

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a crossover album (probably not)? Very well, here’s some of that trendy ‘drum and bass’ stuff, though clearly on the agro-tip with Approaching Menace. This tune’s what it would have sounded like if Dillinja really went fucking evil; less bass-bin punishment, more feral nastiness, and all distortion on those snares. In case that’s too much for you, µ-Ziq offers a few pleasant atmospheric tunes as a follow-up, bridging the gap between IDM’s breakcore and jungle’s amen breaks.

The back end of Lunatic Harness is mostly experimental stuff, including aggravating industrial-noise nonsense in Wannabe, a total Aphex Twin jump with London, and some orchestral glitch to finish off in Midwinter Log (I bet Lodsb was paying attention). Thus wraps up my generic recap of what goes down in this album.

There’s a great deal of variety here; unfortunately, it doesn’t make for much of a cohesive listen. That’s often a problem with these IDM full-lengths: the producers have so many ideas bubbling in their wacky heads, they’ll struggle crafting an LP that can be enjoyed front-to-back. The classics are obviously the exceptions, and while Lunatic Harness was well-received by this particular scene, it’s remained in the realms of EDM niche to this day. Still, I can’t think of a better µ-Ziq album to get your feet wet with. Give it a shot if you’re curious about Mr. Paradinas’ output.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sounds From The Ground - Luminal

Waveform Records: 2004

After jumping around labels for their first decade as Sounds From The Ground, Jones and Woolfson finally settled on Waveform to handle most of their distribution upon releasing Luminal. It also started off a sort-of trilogy on their part, exploring all that one can explore within the realm of ambient dub. I've already covered two here, Brightwhitelight and High Rising. And now we've come to the end, at the beginning. Huh, who'd have thought I'd do this in reverse. In a nutshell, the duo was a bit all over the place for their first few releases, which likely explains their label jumping too. More recently, they've explored darker downtempo, glitch and drone, but I'll get to that's for reviews much later on. Figures in the middle of this career they’d settle into a comfortable rhythm.

As Luminal was the first in this trilogy, it doesn't quite reach the highs of High Rising. For what it's worth, though, I find this one more interesting than Brightwhitelight. There's still some of the duo's acid jazz background cropping up (they'd released another album but two years prior on Ninja Tune sub-label Nu-Tone), so it’s not all ambient dub all the time. Heck, opener Stampede wouldn’t sound out of place on a Thievery Corporation album, sans occasional galloping horse samples. In fact, if you’re at all familiar with Thiev-Corp’s first album, Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi (and shame on you if you’re not), you’ll find yourself in familiar territory with the first couple tracks off Luminal.

After that though, it’s proper dub t’ings. Whether with cascading synth washes in Razz and Poems, smoky reggae roots in Tumbledown and Ten Tons Of Dope, funky upbeat numbers like Burning Bright and London Fields (which includes a lengthy intro of ambient pad bliss), or a soulful jam with Move On, the thick bass and spacious reverb is in full effect. Yep, Luminal definitely sounds good for a mid-‘00s Sounds From The Ground album. Yessir, it does. So... um, how’s things with you?

Look, there’s little more to say on this one. Everything I can say about how this album sounds, I’ve covered in the other two reviews I mentioned above. I’ve plumb run out of things now, and I fear it’s selling Luminal short. Hell, I’m selling ambient dub as a viable genre short, aren’t I? Guess it can’t be helped. Like so many branches in music, sometimes a genre will have stronger connection to a listener than others and, for whatever reason, ambient dub hits that sweet spot for yours truly, despite the simplistic nature much of its produced in. For others, it might be minimal deep-tech, others still dub techno or noodly drone. I can vibe on some of those too, yet more often than not, this is my go-to sound, nicely presented from the ground.

I do give Luminal a recommendation if you’re even a casual fan of blissy downtempo vibes, but it ain’t a big deal if you pass on it either.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Juno Reactor - Luciana

Metropolis: 1994/2008

It's just what you had to do, back in the '90s. For whatever reason, to be taken as a serious auteur within electronic music, an album's worth of ambient noodling was a necessary addition to your discography. Most of the time it was as a side project, likely in collaboration with Pete Namlook or Dr. Alex Paterson, and Ben Watkins was no exception, getting chummy enough with Mr. Orb to release this here Luciana as a second album. Goodness, shooting for artistic greatness but a year after Transmission. Was anyone even aware of Juno Reactor's existence, beyond the incredibly young goa trance scene?

Maybe not, but ol' Alex had a new label, Inter-Modo, and he needed some fresh material to promote it with. The self-titled album from ambient 'super-group' FFWD was the first and Luciana became the second. The third album was from Autocreation, then the label promptly folded. Huh, guess Dr. Paterson was a might bit too distracted to maintain such a label, the result of which creating incredible scarcity of these three originals, and stupid-inflated prices to procure a copy. Well, until Metropolis fucked things up and re-released Luciana for a reasonable sum of coinage. Weep, oh ye' Juno fans who sprung fifty bones and a leg on Ebay for the original. Weep for our smug amusement.

I do wonder if some did back in the day upon receiving this for overblown value. For as rare as this particular album once was, rare ambient albums are rather common, at least in terms of number crafted, if not quantity released. There’s tons of this stuff out there, and unless you’re a dedicated collector, much of it perfectly skippable. One can only take so much noodly synth pad work and dithering sampling before it all blends together into mushy ambient soup. Maybe if something totally unique went down in the creation of such pieces – say, produced live with ‘70s gear bought second-hand from Tangerine Dream, inside a derelict outpost on Edgeøya at the Spring Equinox – it’d be worth such investment. I rather doubt Luciana is one such example though.

Even for minimalist dark ambient drone, this single track does drag at sixty-one plus minutes in length. It certainly shows Mr. Watkins’ industrial roots, all menacing, brooding soundscapes and disconcerting synths weaving in and out as a pulsing, mechanical throb guides you through a desolate landscape. I imagine this is what would be playing while riding that monorail in Stephen King’s third Dark Tower novel. Occasionally a vocal chant comes out, other times a squealing animal (mutated whale calls?) or a patch of dialog, but by and large the same bleak mood is maintained throughout.

Luciana’s an interesting piece, for sure, and Juno Reactor fans well certainly get a kick out of it, Watkins demonstrating quite a bit of musical potential even at this early stage. Still, it’s little more than an ‘ambient b-side’ to the Juno Reactor discography, hardly a critical item to have for the casuals.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Shamen - LSI (Love Sex Intelligence)

Epic: 1992

The Shamen were a pretty big deal in the UK, one of those seminal bands of the British acid house wave that many talk of reverentially. For the longest time though, I couldn't understand why – Hell, I still struggle with it. Maybe it's just bad luck on my part, my first exposure to them primarily the chart action goofy shit like Ebeneezer Goode and Destination Eschaton; it'd be like only knowing The Beatles by Yellow Submarine and Ob La Di, Ob La Da. This here LSI (Love Sex Intelligence) single sure didn't help convince me of The Shamen's legacy, plucked from a used store shelf in the hope of learning what the big deal was.

The lead single off Boss Drum, them boys of The Shamen have a message here, yo'. Sex, it can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, mang, 'cause everybody be gettin' AIDS an' shit (...wait, wrong decade). So be smart about your hook-ups – even better, hook-up for love, not party-induced lustiness. It'll be better for the heart and soul in the long outlook, isn't that right? Yeah... yeah. Or, I dunno, I barely pay attention to the lyrics, as redundantly repetitive as they are. Maybe they were pressured into doing a 'positive sex education' single, to show that they weren't all about mashy rave bedlam as the press would have you believe. And when the UK media still wasn't buying it, go all in with Ebeneezer Goode.

Okay, good message, but oddly dated to the early ‘90s despite, for all intents, it should be timeless. Maybe it’s just the delivery, or because the smash-hit sex education single of that time, Salt-N-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex, draws every similar tune into its sphere of association.

Enough words, let’s get into the music proper. The original is UK acid house, including little trance-voice plucks for a hook and a chuggy rhythm. Erm, not progressive house though, as it’s too brief and clearly aimed at the charts. Maybe one of the remixes would tap that genre, but if it did, the US version never got it. Instead we get the requisite House Remix (done by The Beatmasters, of course), another House Remix care of E-Smoove (a bit more garage on this one), the requisite Techno Remix provided by Ed Richards, and the requisite Rave Remix by Frank De Wulf. Yep, I believe that’s all the markets covered, at least where America was concerned. Maybe the Germans got a Trance Remix on their copies. They’re all functional tools for the time, and I can’t see anyone needing them in their arsenal these days, beyond a “hey, remember The Shamen?” moment in a set. And even then, LSI is one of the last tracks I can think of getting such a rinse-out.

The Shamen put out quite a few clever productions in their time. Sadly, LSI isn’t one of them, and figures I’d end up with a dull collection of remixes at that. The search continued...

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