Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Androcell - Entheomythic

Celestial Dragon Records: 2009

Tyler Smith sure doesn’t seem hurried in putting out another Distant System album anytime soon, no matter how much I may wish for it. Guess I should check out his other project, Androcell, in the meantime, despite my hesitations. Hopefully it won’t turn out like other psy dub efforts, many talents squandered on erratic, middling compositions pointlessly copying the Shpongle template with nothing of consequence on offer. Why yes, I’ve been burned by too many of those said producers, making gambles on anyone other than trusted labels a self-defeating chore. Tyler Smith though, he delivered the goods with Spiral Empire. It wasn’t an album that was psy dub in the typical sense, true, but still a comparatively enthralling experience just the same. Surely those captivating sound-craft skills are found within Androcell as well.

I’ll have to answer that as a yes, if Entheomythic’s anything to go by. Okay, Mr. Smith’s only released three Androcell albums to date (with plans for a fourth soon), so it’s not like I have a huge sampling to choose from. I only went with this one to see if there might have been some residual Distant System stylee lurking here, since it came out a couple years after Spiral Empire. Maybe Efflorescence would have been the better option though, as that was about the time Androcell was getting chummy with Aes Dana, and some Ultimae rub-off may have-

Holy COW, am I ever stalling. Get to the bloody point already!

Unfortunately, there’s not much ‘point’ to be made with Entheomythic, and that’s kind of a problem where writing a review’s concerned. This is definitely a psy dub album, with ample indulgences of trippy world-beat and vibey mind-bendery, though thankfully never overstuffed with samples and sounds for psychedelic’s sake (I could do without some of the cornier ‘taking mind-altering drugs is good’ bits of dialog, but that’s personal quibble). Smith knows his way around a catchy groove, and finds quirky ways to make each track stand out just enough from genre tropes: a wobbly didgeridoo bassline in Ganja Baba, some punctual stutter effects at the peak of Desert Nomad, spacey trance pads in Synchromystic, robo-chants in Higher Circuit Experience, extended solos in Night Sorceress and Dub Gardens. Come to think of it, Dub Gardens reminds me a lot of mid-era Banco de Gaia, what with all those dubbed-out ethnic chants and lengthy organ builds. Neat-o!

Another plus is Androcell’s sense of atmosphere and mood, easily transplanting me to an outdoor party in the middle of the woods, sexy belly-dancers on a stage under summer night stars; also, hashish. And if I’m to interpret the track titles literally, he even executes a narrative of sorts: go on a journey, find a mystic woman, go on a mind-journey! Okay, as psy dub albums go, it’s not a unique story, but I appreciate the attempt. Entheomythic doesn’t seem interested in challenging psy dub expectations anyway. Music’s solid though – I gotta’ stop being so cynical with this genre.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Bug - Angels & Devils

Ninja Tune: 2014

It wasn't fair. Kevin Martin's aim with London Zoo was showcasing the hot sounds of the UK capital's grime and dancehall scene, but the album ended up being critically hailed an instant classic that would be impossible to follow upon. So goes the journalistic narrative anyway, one which The Bug hadn't planned for. And all because London Zoo dropped at dubstep's flashpoint of crossover interest, thus any and all bass heavy music from the UK was re-purposed to fit the story arc of “This Is The Sound Of The Future!” by every two-bit writer of electronic music (guilty as charged). It was deemed a Very Important Record in the way it demonstrated dubstep’s exciting potential, even if the music within had only a tangential relationship with that scene’s growing dominance.

Point being, if journalists and folks were figuring The Bug would set out to produc another trend-defining LP for our current times, then they're in for some disappointment. I wasn’t though, perfectly content in knowing ol’ Kevin would deliver his music on his terms and not the expectations thrust upon him. He’s earned the respect to do whatever he wishes, even if he took his sweet time in figuring that out.

If you longed London Zoo never ended, the good news is Angels & Devils more or less carries on from that album. Mr. Martin found himself a solid groove then, and there’s little reason to upset that apple cart when he can still tinker with his winning formula of dancehall grime and crushing dub bass. For instance, he’s invited more female toasters to this LP, including ambient drone ma’am Liz Harris (aka: Grouper), Hype Williams member Inga Copeland, and relative newcomer Miss Red. They all make up an ethereal first half of the album, where Buggy gets to indulge in the chill side of his dub works. Also an added wrinkle to his sound are trap snares (especially in Void, Function, and Mi Lost), because of course there would be.

Let’s be honest though: The Bug’s ace in the hole remains dancehall demolishing tracks, and he delivers in the back half with his chosen devils. Flowdan’s back! Warrior Queen’s back! Death Grips’ now here (wait, didn’t they disband?)! And the bass... well naturally that’s here. There’s nothing subtle about these tracks, coming in ugly, primal, and as aggressive as the most ghetto-dank grime hole you could lose your sense of self in. More please!

Oh, wait, Angels & Devils is already over. Damn, that went by quick, and felt like it was missing something too. I can’t say it’s a lack of ‘album execution’, since it provides exactly what it says in the title: an LP of two halves, one light, the other dark. I guess the unenviable comparison to London Zoo’s too much to overlook, as that record had impeccable album narrative and flow from start to finish, whereas Angels & Devils just comes as it means to go (wha...?). Oh, what the heck, I’ll take it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Souls Of Mischief - 93 'Til Infinity (20th Anniversary Edition)

Jive/Get On Down: 1993/2014

Damn, son, this ‘Deluxe Edition’ of Souls Of Mischief's 93 'Til Infinity ain't kidding about its deluxivenss. Packaged in a spiffy booklet, bundled with two CDs, including exhaustive liner notes and a lengthy essay detailing not only the making of this album, but nearly all the Hieroglyphics history to boot, it’s got everything covered. Then they went an extra mile by having a gatefold play a portion of the titular cut like a tinny music card. I've never seen one of those for a CD. Why hasn't Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The 36 Chambers ever gotten similar anniversary treatment? It was released the same year as 93 'Til Infinity, and that was a far bigger album than this one.

Talk to any discerning hip-hop head though, and they’ll point to this Oakland crew as equally worthy of critical praise. Can't say it's a fair comparison, considering the radically different career paths taken since their debuts - Wu-Tang became commercial juggernauts, while Souls Of Mischief (and the rest of Hieroglyphics) floundered in the underground as the '90s played out. Okay, 'floundered' is harsh, but when you drop an album as hot as 93 'Til Infinity, a long prosperous career should have been in the bag. Still, they maintained that all-important 'respect' thing hip-hop acts of all walks of the streets crave.

If you don’t know, Souls Of Mischief are A-Plus, Phesto, Opio, and Tajai of Hieroglyphics, the West Coast hip-hop crew that includes Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (I’ve mentioned him once or thrice). They appeared in namedrops on Del’s debut, and thanks to having Ice Cube’s blessing, the extended Hiero members got their chance to shine here - not a second’s wasted on their part. Whether taking lesser MCs to task in battle raps (Let ‘Em Know, That’s When Ya Lost, Never No More, Limitations, Make Your Mind Up), delivering cautionary street tales (Anything Can Happen, What A Way To Go Out ...dear God, this one’s nasty!), or getting a little ‘conscious’ about their future (Tell Me Who Profits, the titular cut), this album’s filled with insanely dense and vivid lyricism. And they’re not bashful in showing off their spittin’ swagger either, mixing in multi-syllable words with razor-sharp punch lines. Gander at this bit from Opio: “Eruptions, and rusting, when I'm thrusting, cuts men; Into microscopic particles, molecules, atoms; Attack 'em, hack 'em, never slow, never slack; I'm invincible...” Hell, I could post the whole verse, but self-limiting word-count forbids.

Then there’s all the ace beats, raiding plenty jazzy loops and samples that’d have DJ Premier turning his head, yet filtered into a stoned-out West Coast vibe. Honestly, it’s almost textbook ‘underground hip-hop’ production, but then Hieroglyphics helped popularize the sound in the first place.

CD2 has remixes and instrumentals, which only hardcore fans would care about. I’d stick with the original version of 93 ‘Til Infinity if you’re interested in taking the plunge, which I fully encourage. You’ll definitely wonder why you slept on this album so long after. *cough*

Friday, September 26, 2014

Omnimotion - Omnimotion

Waveform Records: 2002

The album that got me checking out Waveform Records again, for what that’s worth. It'd been a long absence by yours truly though, figuring the label had faded off forever. Then I saw Omnimotion sitting on the shelf, recognizing the distinctive Waveform logo on the jewel case spine. I had no idea who Omnimotion was, but the cover was intriguing, a widescreen picture of some long abandoned railway, buried beneath the dusty wastelands of a future apocalypse. Why yes I had been reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series at the time. Is it worth reading past the third book?

Anyhow, to say this album blew my mind is... not accurate, now that I think about it. There aren’t any big melodic moments or instantly earwormy hooks, few fresh synth sounds or clever sampling techniques; yet Omnimotion remains among one of the most captivating LPs I’ve ever listened to. It’s why I dread reviewing it, even skipping it when it popped up for one of my TranceCritic Random Reviews long ago - had no faith in my writing ability to justify my praises, you see. Hell, I still don’t know how to write about it, Omnimotion defying many genre conventions you'd expect of downtempo or chill-out music. It's got touches of dub, world beat, ambient, and smatterings of Omnimotion's (one Stephan Lundaahl) classically trained background thrown in for good measure, that comes off both totally familiar and utterly unique. What's remarkable about all this is how subdued the atmosphere is, like a meditative calm surrounds the generally sparse and desolate soundscapes our fine Swedish producer's created.

The best I can describe this album is by the feelings it imparts. Imagine your absolute worst Sketchy Sunday morning. You know the sort. The night out before (either Friday or Saturday) had started fine and fun, but something set you off on a bleak mood, and by the time you got home, you were feeling mighty low. It's not depression, but you can't quite escape this fog of being. When you wake up (and you can never go back to sleep), everything seems faded and grey. Yet, despite all this, a sense of peace permeates your soul, the gentle music of life easing you out of melancholy. It's not much to hear – quiet raindrops outside your window, mild rustle of a breeze through leaves, a whisper of a neighbour's wind chimes, the chant of a wise ancient culture, recollection of a nurturing mother's lullaby – but it's there, and enough to feel at peace with yourself. Existing isn’t so terrible after all.

Yeah, sorry about this ‘review’. I know its annoying reading interpretations of music when all you’re after is facts, opinions, and critiques. Like I said, I’ve got nothing, pathetically failing you in this endeavour, my friends. You’ll have to hear Omnimotion for yourself and form your own thoughts on the music. Maybe you’ll come to the same conclusions as I have, left in speechless tranquility.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Neil Young - Old Ways

Geffen Records: 1985/2000

Old Ways is regarded as one of Neil Young’s all-time worst albums. Don’t worry though, he’d probably admit it as such, the music within as much a protest album as it is a collection of throwback country jangles. David Geffen, growing annoyed by Young’s casual disregard for making chart-friendly music anymore, filed an actual lawsuit against him for not making music “representative of Neil Young”. Um, Mr. Geffen, have you heard his discography? Even before signing to your label, he’d been musically all over the place (rock, folk, blues, punk, art-house film). True, Trans and Everybody’s Rocking were new roads taken, but what else was he gonna’ do in the ‘80s? Big band jazz?

Anyhow, while faced with this lawsuit, ol’ Shakey reunited with his Nashville buddies, recorded some country-as-fuck jams intended for his new album, and if Geffen whined about it, he’d go so far as to make this his permanent new sound, essentially voiding the lawsuit. Man, that’s fighting dirty. What about your fans, Neil? All those who loved the Crazy Horse material? Or the heartfelt folk ditties? The three people fascinated by the synth-pop exploration? Forget it, this is about principle, and standing up against big corporate bullies who believe money and lawyers can get them anything they want. Taken with that context, Old Ways just might secretly be Neil Young’s most awesome album ever!

(note: I bought this album before I knew of its history; any of Young’s story, if I’m honest. I’d just gotten into his music, and figured everything would sound like either Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon. Definitely a crash course in discovering his erratic muse, this.)

But nay, this album’s about as country as the old West could twang. Opener The Wayward Wind even features a full orchestra, sounding like it belongs as in the opening credits to a Clint Eastwood movie where he talks to tree. Following that is Get Back To The Country, as silly a hoe-down jam as you’ll ever hear, including a Juice Harp! It’s my favorite ‘bad’ Neil Young song. Other songs like Misfits and Bound For Glory sound like they were intended as “everyday people” folk ditties, repurposed as western tunes here. The rest are pretty generic country tunes – does anyone really care if there are any more real cowboys?

Still, even if Old Ways was executed as a backhand against Geffen, Young seldom half-fasts his creative whims, fully embracing this ‘persona’ of rugged farmer and cowboy of the land. He even roped in country mainstays Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on harmony duties (to say nothing of the manure-ton of Nashville session musicians, including a few Stray Gator alums), with live shows that were a hootin’ good ol’ time if you were into that sort of thing. I honestly can’t give this album much of a recommendation though, as it’s incredibly genre-specific and the odds of anyone reading this on an electronic music blog being into country are zilch to none. Get out of here, Contrarian Sykonee.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Vitalic - OK Cowboy

[PIAS] Recordings: 2005

Electronic music was desperate for the Next Big Thing to manifest itself during the mid-‘00s and, thanks to the immense buzz behind his debut Poney EP, Vitalic was counted upon to deliver said all-time classic album that would define the decade. Instead, four years after, he released OK Cowboy, a solid LP with lots of fun music, perhaps one of the strongest albums to emerge from the dire year of 2005. However, because it leaned so heavily on Poney EP, it wasn't the classic folks expected, and considered a letdown. Oh well, back to propping up Mylo as EDM’s generational talent.

Now, how to follow that paragraph? Almost everything else I say about OK Cowboy from here on out will come off as hyperbolic gushing. Yes, I know this isn’t a perfect album, but as far as I’m concerned, it does everything it needs to smashingly well. You’ve got the old hits that made Mr. Arbez-Nicolas the talk of the underground, you got some new stuff that’s equally on par, you got ‘filler’ tracks putting several other electro-sleaze techno producers before and since to shame, and you have chill, artistic indulgences that not only prove ol’ Pascal’s far from a one-trick Poney EP, but help break up any album monotony in the process. What else can he do to make OK Cowboy more awesome? Well, maybe including You Prefer Cocaine somewhere, but three out of four Poney EP tracks probably was stretching things a little.

It’s nigh impossible to discuss this album without talking about what made ol’ Pascal’s first single such a revelation at the time. While DJ Hell’s International Deejay Gigolo print was already finding sexy new ways of combining EBM intensity with techno functionality, Vitalic added unabashed laser-kissed anthemage to the mix. The way Poney, Pt. 1’s synths and La Rock 01’s acid unceasingly build and build over pummelling rhythms were visceral reminders of techno’s raw potential energy (an attribute somehow forgotten by techno’s old guard of the time). Throw in bizarre, discordant vocals as though imagined in a David Lynch fever dream, and even the relatively subdued Poney, Pt. 2 stands out as a highlight among classics.

The other tracks, then. Could they hope to match those tunes? My Friend Dario says, “Oh Hell yeah!” with guitar riffage as infectious as any of hair metal’s best. Plus, one watch of the video, and you’ll forever be air guitaring along should you hear it play out. No Fun’s more of a typical electro-house take on the same idea, while Newman goes straight for the headbang thrash of the sound (it’s like Daft Punk’s Rock ‘N Roll, but great!). The hidden gem among all these is Repair Machines, a surprise electro-body workout that never got its due.

About the only thing that kept OK Cowboy from earning proper classic album status was a killer single near the end, but the final run of tunes are worth sticking out for. Marching drums to take us out, Vitalic? You so crazy!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Space Manoeuvres - Oid

Lost Language: 2005

John Graham probably never intended his Space Manoeuvres side-project to go anywhere, the alias likely only created as a means to release Stage One as a one-off. It was years before any significant follow-up with this guise appeared, and by then most of the hype for another Space Manoeuvres tune had faded - heck, when he released Part 3 in 2004, he piggy-backed it on Quivver. So when a full album of Space Manoeuvres material did appear, it caught most by surprise. Well, if you had any investment in the progressive scene anyway.

Maybe Lost Language convinced Graham to give Space Manoeuvres the proper LP treatment, or he’d simply produced enough back-catalogue with the alias to warrant a release such as Oid. The latter’s most likely the answer, as this album’s little more than a gathering of tracks old and new. At least it gave Lost Language an excuse to re-release Stage One again, since it’d been a whopping seven years since that tune had first come out. Oh 2005, how many trance anthems did you recycle?

Whatever, I’m always game hearing Stage One again. The ridiculously infectious synth stabs, lovely sonic depth justifying the space handle Graham aimed for, classy progressive trance rhythms, and those dialog samples! Tell me your spine doesn’t tingle at the mere mention of “Any crew?” “Negative.” It doesn’t? Oh, you haven’t heard Stage One yet. Come back after you have.

By the time Graham got around to producing most of these Space Manoouuooveeerees tracks, late ‘90s progressive trance was already out of fashion, the simpler Coldharbour stylee the new hotness. Thus Part Three and Quadrant Four would fit snugly in a Markus Schulz set of the time, but with a groovier space aesthetic. While not as memorable as Stage One (and let’s be honest: nothing else on Oid is), they’re solid offerings for the sound. Oh, and Zone Two was produced specifically for Oid, so don’t go thinking the track titles are a direct chronological record of Space Manoeuvres tracks – though Zone Two does have some similarities with his 2001 dark prog single Pluto Disko.

At the end of Oid, Graham indulges himself a little outside the traditional prog template. While Pentexplorer goes on the downbeat (it’s space-hop! ...or not), Division Six has ol’ John posing the question, “Hey, remember progressive breaks?” Why yes, yes I do. They were awesome. So is Division Six for that matter. Not so awesome is The Seventh Planet though, or rather Stage One (Leama & Moor Mix). I can hear they were going for a blissy chill-out vibe, but compared to similar material Ultimae was kicking out at the time, this is cheesy pap. Blegh.

Forgetting that last track, Oid’s a fine enough album of spacey prog, though don’t go in expecting Stage One over and over. That may disappoint some, but considering the odds of a Space Manoeuvres LP coming to light were long anyway, I can’t complain with the results.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Boys Noize - Oi Oi Oi (Original TC Review)

Boysnoize Records: 2007

(2014 Update:
Who'd have thought after the great 'maximal' techno wave of 2007 crested and passed, it'd be Boys Noize still standing tall half a decade later? Justice, Digitalism, the whole Ed Banger crew - all faded and, while not gone, seldom discussed anymore. Meanwhile, some German who seemingly jumped on the bandwagon kept going and found a comfortable role within the burgeoning EDM festival scene. I suspect it's due to Ridha's canny adaptability as a DJ, whereas the others were more producers-first by comparison. Either that, or being buddies with Tiga sure does pay off in this industry.

Also remarkable is how the good parts of
Oi Oi Oi hold up. You'd think they'd be totally dated by now, but Boys Noize somehow tapped into a timeless bit of dance music excess, like AC/DC at their cock-rockiest best. Even the drabber points of the album sound fresh now that we're not constantly bombarded by tracks of this sort. The Battery's still dogshit, though.)


IN BRIEF: Proper L.E.F.

Mr. Ridha’s been a busy boy in recent years. After seemingly ready to coast along on an electro-house euro-trashy blend as Kid Alex - forever earning royalties from Fame and Young + Beautiful - he goes and realigns his focus more on the Boys Noize alter-ego, as it has more in common with the kind of material that has Justice the talk of the town. Way to go and jump on the bandwagon, Mr. Ridha!

Heh, actually, that’s not accurate but it does seem the ‘maximal’ push is in full-on attack mode now, with singles and albums from several Europeans ready to rescue techno from the navel-gazing ‘plink-plonk’ monotony of minimal. Berliner Alex Ridha is the latest to offer his take on the sound, and he doesn’t hide his influences much. In a nutshell, take one cup of Daft Punk’s uncanny knack for finding a catchy loop and doing next to nothing with it, take another cup of the siren-like squall of 808 State’s Cübik, sprinkle in a little unpredictable glitchy spice, and you’ve got the bulk of Oi Oi Oi.

And Boys Noize is indeed noisy. Having gone to the Hard School Of Spinal Tap Rock, every big riff he comes up with is pushed to the threshold of volume; those little red lights on your monitors will be earning their keep when tracks like & Down, Superfresh, and Oh! blast forth. It makes for quite the drunken rowdy sound, which is perfect sense with a few beers in your body and the testosterone is flooding your system. When Ferry Corsten was blathering on about his Loud Electronic Ferocious direction [in 2006], Mr. Ridha’s material is probably what everyone was expecting. But is it music? Er... not as much.

For sure, there are some blinders on this album. Oh! is like capturing the perfect storm of dance music excess: rhythms that pound, incredibly infectious robo-vocals, and reckless distorted riffs that Ridha can barely contain from destroying the speakers. Opener & Down captures this feeling too, although doesn’t fire with quite the same intensity.

And sadly, & Down’s execution is where a number of these cuts lie: an unfortunate gray area of exuberant but unfulfilled potential. There’s only so many times you can hear a short loop play over and over and over before you ache for something more done with it. Even Daft Punk, whom practically wrote the book on this technique, don’t get away with it all the time (and do more than they should in my opinion, but that’s another rant for another time). Of course, these work great in a club environment, where one’s attention span doesn’t last much longer than ninety seconds, yet the fact remains it leaves something to be desired on the musical front. Arcade Robot, Shine Shine, and Lava Lava all hint at something special in their opening minutes but fail to deliver in the end, continuously running round and round in the same sonic circle (although Shine Shine does come away the better for adding an additional loop along the way). By the time Don’t Believe The Hype rolls along - probably one of the best tunes to be had on Oi Oi Oi - Boys Noize’s whole distorto-filtered loop sound has gone from ingenious technique to gimmicky shtick.

Ridha does inject some variety into the proceedings, producing a few tracks that dabble away from the ‘maximal’ sound. However, with the exception of Let’s Buy Happiness - a more intuitively melodic track than the others - most of these are little more than passable electro diversions. Again, they suffer from the same problem as the other tunes, in that not enough is done with them, going through the motions as far as this sound is concerned and coming off as mere album filler. Superfresh attempts to blend a few ideas together but makes use of a horrid chunky nu-electro fart bass noise that is ridiculously over-the-top and completely lacking in finesse ...which is probably the point, but still doesn’t make it any good.

And then there are the batteries. Wu-Tang sounds like a lame Tone Loc instrumental, yet is a masterpiece compared to the disaster that is The Battery. Take one monotone fart bass sound and loop it over a bare-bones breakbeat for five minutes; throw in the odd hi-hat fill, and you have one of the most idiotically awful cuts I’ve heard all year.

Still, perhaps these are just unfortunate stumbles. The Berliner is fully capable of coming up with the goods, as is evident with his excellent remix of Feist’s My Moon My Man (included here as a bonus). Listening to it in the closing moments, thoughts of ‘what could of been’ only strengthen as you realize Oi Oi Oi would have been much more had Ridha not settled on the simplest of dance music arrangements.

In the end, the Boys Noize debut is a mixed bag. Yes, the highlights are awesome but the album as a whole comes up short in the musical department, and no amount of cranking your amps to eleven will ever hide that fact.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2008. © All rights reserved

Saturday, September 20, 2014

P.M. Dawn - Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience

Gee Street: 1991

Another CD that didn't make much sense in Teenage Sykonee's music collection. I kinda' remember the reason for getting it though, P.M. Dawn's Set Adrift On Memory Bliss being one of my first make-out tunes. I think I mentioned in passing to an aunt I'd be interested in their album, and behold come Christmas, there's P.M. Dawn's (nearly three year old by that point) debut LP under the tree. Thanks, I guess.

As for P.M. Dawn, they had an intriguing run for most of the '90s, in that they found a 'gimmick' that should have fallen flat on its face: Religious Rap. Not that themes of religious spirituality and praises of God/Allah/Jah/etc. haven't been common in hip-hop, but typically as an aside to whatever an act's main focus is. And even if said rapper does make it a focus, it's often in a bellicose manner, that Judgement Day affects everyone, so you'd best have accounted for all your sins in this life, lest the Almighty strike thee down when your body's six feet deep.

P.M. Dawn said, “Nah, we can all be blessed and blissed, right?” After all, those soul records DJs loved sampling were filled with benign spirituality, so wearing their non-confrontational hearts on sleeves went brothers Prince Be and DJ Minute Mix, becoming one of conscious rap’s earliest successes in the process. Unfortunately, due to their unaggressive approach to the craft, they also turned into a mild joke, regarded as the only hip-hop act white people felt comfortable listening to (that wasn’t Will Smith). An unfair assessment, though it’s hardly a surprise their album sales steadily dwindled as gangsta rap rose and dominated within the general hip-hop discourse.

Having such a huge hit in Set Adrift On Memory Bliss probably didn’t help either, follow-up singles unable to capture the charm of that sample of Spandau Ballet’s True coupled with smooth, vibey lyrics and solid R&B beats. The bulk of *deep breath* Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience follows the same general vibe as that tune, though with more of an upbeat hip-hop bent. The few tunes that do break mould are either closer in tone to rap music you’d expect of the early ‘90s (Comatose is far funkier with Prince Be applying Serious Conscious Lyrics; Shake’s aimed squarely for the club, with Todd Terry producing no less), while others go off the deep with the spirituality (The Beautiful is practically a beatnik ambient-funk jam session).

If this all sounds rather lame, well... sucks to be you. I won’t deny P.M. Dawn’s a hard sell in this day in hip-hop age, even for those curious about Golden Age records. Both lyrically and music-wise, there’s little here that’ll surprise even a casual participant of the scene. Yet The Utopian Experience is remarkably affable, soul music that leaves a pleasant glow within without being cloying or schmaltzy about it. Can’t say that about much other ‘pop rap’, now can we?

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Human League - Octopus

EastWest: 1995

Seriously now, how many of you even knew The Human League had an album out in the mid-'90s? Maybe if you were in the UK at the time, you heard some buzz (it placed Top 10 on their charts), but seeing as it's their homeland, that's not much of a surprise. The rest of the world sure didn't give much hoot about Octopus though – Hell, wouldn't surprise me if most figured Phil Oakey's group ceased to be before the '80s even ended. Is that any way to treat one of new wave's most innovative acts? Sure, their blatant turn to chart-topping synth-pop may have soured those praising the original line-up (re: before the two chicks), but still.

The tale of The Human League will make for a wonderful VH1 special, following the classic rise-fall-return-respect story that channel loves churning music documentaries over. While everyone knows of their peak years (you’ve heard Don’t You Want Me Baby, guaranteed), the group fell on dire times not long after. Label problems, studio problems, and irrelevancy problems all plagued them, finally bottoming out at the turn of the ‘90s with Romantic?, an album that did so poorly that Virgin cancelled their long-term deal with them. Damn, that’s cold. It’s like Virgin flat-out confirming what the pop world was chortling: if you sound like “The ‘80s”, you have no place in the hot NOWness of “The ‘90s”.

Then “The ‘80s” became fashionable again, and The Human League saw their career rebound and appreciated, having persevered through the dark times when most would have hung things up. And that was long after having a gold-selling album like Octopus in the middle of the decade that forgot them! Hey, it’s like I said: did you even know this album existed?

For that matter, what’s even on Octopus? Synth-pop, as only The Human League does it. Guess you gotta’ hand it to Oakey for sticking with what he knows. There are some undeniably upbeat tunes here that’ll worm their way into your earholes, each with production that sounds crisp for the times without betraying the vintage analog quality the League made their mark with. These Are The Days is a fun, spacey little jaunt; One Man In My Heart, though riding Ace Of Base’s success, is charming; Cruel Young Lover makes use of breaks and electro sound effects, not to mention clever chord sequences on Oakey’s part; electro-space pop House Full Of Nothing is triumphant, defiant, and undoubtedly a little autobiographical; and instrumental John Cleese, Is He Funny? sounds like a stab at progressive house, though a tad dated by ’95 standards.

That all said, if you’re the sort who figure The Human League begins and ends with Dare, Octopus won’t interest you much. For that matter, I can’t say fans of the pre-Dare era would spring for this either. This album’s still as synth-poppy as the genre gets, but if you’re fine with a little more of the stuff in your life, Octopus will satisfy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Type O Negative - October Rust

Attic: 1996

Though I was a teenage ‘technoboy’ through and through (with a smidge of the hip-hop), somehow Type O Negative’s October Rust found its way into my early CD collection. Was it peer pressure from metal associates? A chance at impressing the sexy goth chick in Drama class? Raging hormones after seeing the video for My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend? Nah, none of the above. As is so often the case with teenage boys of the mid-‘90s, it all comes back to Mortal Kombat. Type O Negative was one of the featured metal bands on the movie’s soundtrack (despite the song not even being in the flick), one of the cooler offerings of the genre I found there. Then, while working a music shop, I noticed October Rust had come out, throwing it on out of curiosity. And wow, this is some neat sounding metal. Atmospheric, catchy, varied – all things I sought in music. Sure, I’ll get this for myself, and hey, maybe some of the perks mentioned above would play out (they didn’t).

Type O Negative had some crossover success in the ‘90s, a decade where they only could have done so. While goth culture’s existed before and since, a romanticism with paganism and Wiccan religion had its closest brush with mainstream popularity at the time (thanks, The Craft!), and with dreary themes and Peter Steele’s gravelly drawl, Type O filled the role remarkably well. Hell, even the title of this album, October Rust, instantly brings to mind forests littered with red and brown leaves in bitter, cold autumn evenings. Beyond that, you have song titles like Be My Druidess, In Praise Of Bacchus (not a pagan god, but connected to ritualized hedonism just the same), Wolf Moon, and Haunted. Ooo, creepy stuff.

While I don’t buy into these themes much more than a passing indulgence, I definitely can get behind Type O’s music making. Wolf Moon features a simply awesome, spine-chilling build and explosive riff, greatly enhanced by Josh Silver’s backing keyboards – makes me want to strip naked and run through the woods under a full moon with my own ‘druidess’. Elsewhere, Red Water (Christmas Mourning) has to be one of the bleakest holiday jaunts around, a sludgy dirge with great droney guitar distortion and haunting synth work.

The band wasn’t all doom and gloom though, quite willing to show a fun side as well. The aforementioned My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend harkens back to good ol’ ‘60s psychedelic boogie, including a keyboard refrain that’d have Ray Manzarek bobbin’ his head. Along the same vibe, they cover Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl, because of course these guys would be influenced by ol’ Rustie. Following that is one of their daftest tunes ever, The Glorious Liberation Of The People's Technocratic Republic Of Vinnland By The Combined Forces Of The United Territories Of Europa, an interlude sounding like a metal victory parade of Prussian forces in the modern era, complete with airplanes, tanks, crowds, and whatever else Pink Floyd might have included in The Wall. Glorious indeed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Joel Mull - The Observer

Harthouse Mannheim: 2007

As always, it's stupid having expectations of an artist I barely heard much prior music of, yet was I ever disappointed in Joel Mull's The Observer when I got it. Not just let down by the album itself, but the process of buying new electronic music in general. It seemed, for the first time ever, I could no longer trust what I found on store shelves in delivering unexpected awesomeness, every CD potentially hiding electro-sleaze nonsense, crummy trance bollocks, or minimal-wank plonk, no matter who the artist involved was. So disillusioned I’d become that I practically gave up on 'blind purchases' for new CDs altogether, only buying sure things from artists I trusted. Well, in the local shops at least. Online buying was a whole other matter.

Goodness, Mr. Mull's sophomore LP must be dire indeed to ruin all hope I had in take-chance music collecting. No, not really, though it sat languid in my racks for a number of years. I'd already moved on from my dashed expectations (“weren't you supposed to be atmospheric ambient-electro techno?”), but the fact remained The Observer is very much a product of its time, the oh-so fashionable minimal era that many got in on last decade, and promptly abandoned this decade. The whole middle portion of this album features plenty of functional, bumpin' tech-house rhythms with requisite “this are serious music” menacing tones and random sound-effect hooks that probably sounds cool while drooling on ketamine, but utterly forgotten about within an hour. Can't fault Mull's production chops though, as I'm sure any of these cuts would work in a modern set, provided DJs still play minimal tech-haus of this sort (kinda' doubt it).

That all said, the early and ending tracks have me kicking my ass that I didn’t give The Observer another chance until recently, as these are the sort of tunes I did expect out of Mull. Enter Your Moment is all kinds of dubby, trance bliss, while Klangfarben and Sunny Hills are the sort of Norman Feller styled tech-house I can get into. Following all the minimal drudgery, we’re treated to a brief bit of ambience that is Intermezzo Aqua. Then Mull gives us some downtempo ambient techno in Mirage, a solid loop-techno workout with Altitude, spacey electro-funk on Zero Point, and finishes with, erm, another forgettable tech-house cut. Oh well, almost an ace conclusion, but man, how did I forget about these in the first place? That initial impression must of really sucked balls.

More importantly, these bookend tracks don’t come off as dated as the other middle ones. Not that I really blame ol’ Joel for getting in on the minimal tech-house bandwagon, since everyone in techno had to if they wanted their records played by the cool, very important DJs of the time. I’m just glad he found room on his album to fit in some tunes of lasting substance. It makes returning to The Observer a welcome proposition, even if it’s for half a CD’s worth.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wyatt Keusch - Object-Relations

Force Intel: 2011

Poor ol’ Wyatt probably never had a chance. Getting a release on Force Intel (an IDM sub-label established during Mille Plateaux’s 2010 re-launch) would already make getting exposure difficult, but just take a gander at his album here - it looks like a Mille Plateaux release at Mille Plateaux’s Mille Plateauxiest. A title of Object-Relations suggests weird, abstract math-glitch, and having each track simply called Object doesn’t help either, to say nothing of the egg-headed cover art. It’s the sort of release where even latter-era Autechre would give a cautious glance over.

Of course, Wyatt Keusch’s debut LP is hardly anything as I’ve described above – well, mostly. Opener Object 01 is exactly as I described above, but it’s only two minutes long, so don’t let it dissuade you from checking Object-Relations further. Thing to keep in mind with Force Intel is they clearly had old-school IDM in mind, even if the artists assembled adapted many production advances into their sounds. That means, hey, ambient techno! Real, honest-to-God melodies; delicate, haunting beauty lurking within technology’s cacophonous assault. I’m overselling, aren’t I?

Can’t deny I’ve given Mr. Keusch’s work much regard, Object-Relations only receiving a play by random chance before now. I knew I kept it for some reason after receiving the promo, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember why, and as mentioned, the cover art wasn’t terribly inviting for a memory refresh. After hearing those nice ambient tones in Object 07, spritely bells in Object 08, and general bliss-out of Object 09, I’d say this album’s worth a listen if you can find it at all.

The rest? Yah, there’s a bunch of tracks prior to those three. Most of it is the sort of glitchy stuff you’re expecting, though not unbearable like some IDM goes. I honestly can’t tell if Keusch has sped his rhythms up to ridiculous levels, or micro edited them into infinitesimal pieces – neither would surprise me. Yet no matter how frenetic his beats get, there’s still songcraft going on with each piece/track/object, clear structure and progression in how things play out. Not my thing, but if you’re into the braindancier side of IDM, you may like Object 02-06.

Bonus tracks? Can a digital album really have bonus tracks? I’ll grant in the context of the album, Object 10 and Object 11 don’t really fit. The former’s got some weird trip-hop vibe going for it, while the latter seems like it should be on Lodsb’s album full of glitchy, orchestral breakcore. I sure like this mess more than most of the other tunes on here though.

Speaking of messes, I better get this review wrapped up. Object-Relations isn’t that challenging of an album to get into, but man did it sap my inspiration to write about. I feel like I’m trying to describe advanced calculus principles using music notation, and failing miserably in the process. Probably didn’t help I pretty much failed Calculus 2 as it is.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jliat - The Nature Of Nature

JLIAT: 1997

It's finally come to this. I thought I could avoid it, never have to deal with 'albums' like this one. I sure as Hell never buy them for myself, and it could easily have remained lost in the external harddrive storing all this music. I certainly have no obligation reviewing these, all those tracks merely back-ups for Electronic Music Guide 3.0, and not what I deem part of my official collection. I had to get curious though, didn't I? Now my media player has them lodged into My Library, and since these are technically full albums, I must honour my self-imposed rules. That's what I get for file maintenance.

Still, it wasn't so bad at first. Most of the one-track LPs I've reviewed thus far had at least something of interest about them, if not the actual music then the background behind it. And heck, if I can kick out a decent review of Robert Slapp's The Eternal OM, a one-hour piece of literally nothing but looping chants of “OM”, then surely I can review anything thrown at me. Come at me with your noodliest piece of wank, Ambient Bros!

Actually, I should hope for more compositions that 'noodle' about, which is simply a snarky way of saying music meanders, like a winding river on an open, flat countryside. Thing about those rivers (and musical pieces) is you're at least going somewhere with it, even if it's at a lethargic pace. The Nature Of Nature doesn't, at all. For seventy-two minutes! Play but a second's snippet worth, and it'll be near identical at every other point along its duration. I don’t mind drone ambient like this as shorter pieces, but taking it to these extreme lengths is a waste of time. The only segments I noticed this unending, overbearing piece of one-chord drone showing any variation were occasional subtle melodies looped every ten minutes (I think), but they're so buried beneath the dominating synths they're practically moot. Oh, and a bit late in, I heard some added static effects, which turned out to be a slightly loose wire near the head of my headphone cord.

That right there is the selling point for drone pieces like The Nature Of Nature: how each listen will be different, either from outside stimuli impacting the experience, or the brain’s attempt at pattern coercion out of something that has no conceivable form. Jliat (James Whitehead) is a self-professed disciple of John Cage’s ‘non-music’ approach to the craft, self-releasing several albums with titles like Still Life #5 (6 Types Of Silence), My Computer (go ahead, guess), and A Long Drone-Like Piece Of Music Made With Synthesizers, Samplers And Digital Delays Which Attempts In Its Minimalism To Be A Thing In Itself Without External Reference, Having An Analogue In Certain States Of Consciousness Where Being Is Experienced Also, among other artful pieces. If The Nature Of Nature’s anything to go by, his body work certainly is not for the faint of heart. Or easily distracted.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Neotropic - Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock

Ntone: 1998

Probably the biggest takeaway I got from King Cannibal's super-splooge Ninja Tune lovefest Way Of The Ninja was the blunt reminder of how many artists I should check further music on. Not so much the main roster acts, though Mr. Tobin was definitely a priority. Nay, it was the folks on the sub-label Ntone that got my attention. Truthfully, Ntone was my first exposure to the Ninja squad, with the compilation showcase Tone Tales From Tomorrow Too. Quite an introduction, though hardly representative of what the parent label was all about, Ntone serving as the more leftfield outlet of Coldcut's extended crew.

One of the mainstays of Ntone was Neotropic, or Riz Maslen to the London bobbies (did I get the slang right?). Though not there at the very beginning, she stuck around until the label closed shop in 2001, even earning the honour of having its final two releases, the album La Prochaine Fois and single Sunflower Girl. So yeah, an Ntone institution, and a necessary starting point in checking out anything further from the label.

That said, I had little idea of what to expect going into Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock (man, is that ever a British sounding title). I expected some broken beats and trippy jazz-hop, because even as a sub-label, the Ninja Tune association couldn't be overlooked. Would Ms. Maslen take weirdly bizarre paths though? Play things a little safer? Confound all expectations and go shoegaze? What even is the Neotropic stylee to begin with?

I certainly wasn't expecting an eleven-minute long titular 'opus' for this album. As Grand Openings go, it isn't that long, but compared to the rest of Mr. Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock's tracks, it's ginormous, outpacing nearly every other cut by at least twice as much – only the illbeat trip-jazz-hop You're Grinding Me Down gets close, and even that's a 'mere' seven minutes long. As for Burbank’s Strawjelly Alarmist Watch, it’s got orchestral segments, thick dubby beats, saxophone bits, creepy tits, and at least three changes of course in its duration. Quite the ambitious bit of songcraft, ‘tis, one that’d be difficult to top elsewhere on the album.

Erm, she doesn’t, if I’m honest. Still, there’s still good music found here for those who can’t get enough of Ninja Tune’s take on trip-hop and all that rot, with quite a bit of variety within the downtempo sphere of sounds. Acid jazz (Gutted), nu-jazz (Insane Moon, Vacetious Blooms), abstract jazz (Cremation), ambient jazz (Saucer Song), ambient-ambient (Sideshow Man), and other assorted ill-bent stuff (Under Violent Objects, Beached, Apple Sauce, Vent). Oh, and a big beat track too (Ultra Freaky Orange), because 1998.

The only trouble with M.BSAC is it doesn’t feel like a cohesive album; rather, a gathering of assorted tracks and productions Neotropic made whenever the muse struck her. Fine and all if you don’t mind an erratic trip-hop excursion, but you’ll forgive this chap’s suffered expectation when an LP starts with something as aspiring as this one does.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Circular - Moon Pool

Ultimae Records: 2014

Circular was another act that got a bit lost in the Great Ultimae Artist Expansion of the late ‘00s. Already brimming with LPs from new-to-roster names like James Murray, I Awake, and Cell, the duo of Bjarte Andreassen and Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik (thank you, c+p!) made their debut to the label with Substans. It was a good album, but didn’t ignite much buzz when surrounded by much other high-class Ultimae music. I think the problem was part of its PR, quick to name-drop Circular’s musical influence as a selling point. Hey, having some sonic similarity to The Future Sound Of London’s not a bad thing, but when FSOL’s already releasing music of their own that same year (the Environments series, remember?), why not go to the source?

Even then, claiming Circular has much in common with ambient ethno-techno of the ‘90s is a hard sell within the current psy-chill scene. There’s been remarkable growth and evolution in the loosely tied genre, some of which Ultimae itself was instrumental in. Taking on an old-school leaning act may not sound all that appealing to folks eager for the cutting edge of chill-out stylee. This had to be on Circular’s mind in the half-decade since Substans: how to sound current while retaining the classic vibe they enjoy so much. I mean, the Ultimae Mixdown™ can only get you so far.

Thus we come to Moon Pool, and by George, Jove, and Jolly The Green Giant, I think Andreassen and Gjelsvik figured it out. Opener Lunokhod (named after the ‘70s Soviet Lunar rover missions) feels like an encapsulation of all the classy things one may find in ethno-chill, new and old. There’s Balearic samples (chants, acoustic guitars, the sea washing ashore), expansive pads enveloping you in an ethereal embrace, chirpy backing synths providing subtle rhythmic build before revealing thick, dubby beats in the back-half, and just being utterly lush on the ears. Not much else on Moon Pool quite packs in that much of a perfect blend, but considering Lunokhod’s the longest track here (thirteen-plus minutes), it’s not surprising it comes off like a centerpiece of this album, point man status notwithstanding.

While Lunokhod may be the highlight out of the moon gate, the rest of the album more than holds its own. There’s pure ambient bliss-outs (Selenic Light, Meteorites), mildly uptempo acid-chill (Ashlands, 3 Moons, the latter of which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Solar Fields LP either), a touch of the world-beat (Synchronous), and your obligatory darker Aes Dana collaboration (Imbrium). Tying it all together is a loose theme built around, well, Luna, giving this album a strong sense of journey from start to finish, no track deemed a pass, much less stand alone (beside Lunokhod at least).

Circular may not have been a sexy purchase when they first joined Ultimae, yet I see no reason to skip out on Moon Pool here. It’s as class an Ultimae LP as anything from the main players of the label.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Troum - Mare Idiophonika

Tourette Records: 2010

See, this is the sort of release I expect from the dark ambient scene. Troum are comprised of former members of Maeror Tri, one of the few 'deep underground' industrial bands of the early '90s that could count on being name-dropped as highly influential and all that rot. That they would start doing experimental ambient stuff was inevitable, almost a requirement for any self-respecting industrialist really. The two members of Troum even have quirky cyberpunk names, Glit[S]ch and Baraka[H] (I'm guessing the “h” is silent). Throw in a multitude of LPs released in the past fifteen years, and you've got a dark ambient duo that's built up quite the legacy for themselves, on par with luminaries like Nurse With Wound and Merzbow. Good for them. Shame I didn't stumbled upon a stronger album than this as my first impression of Troum. Maybe a re-recording of a live performance wasn't the best point to dive in with this duo.

It has a great start, mind you, working a methodical, droning build with plenty of tasty dark ambient textures. Funny enough, it even opens with heavily-echoed bass guitar, which gave me pause in thinking I’d accidentally replayed In The Mist’s Lost. But nay, whereas van Cauter’s music retained his sludgy doom metal roots, The Self-Playing Ocean (the only titled composition on Mare Idiophonika) is clearly a product of the industrial scene, a sense of suffocating technology reverberating through your earholes as bleak, dystopian pads create a choking atmosphere of anxiety and dread. As I also mentioned in the Lost review, dark ambient is best when momentum is suggested, that the composers aren’t spinning their sonic wheels under the pretence of ‘minimalism for artistic sake’. Troum work an excellent build here, The Self-Playing Ocean creating a sense of musical pressure that begs for release of some sort.

That Troum would add a rhythm to the track makes sense, as it’s a logical step in maintaining The Self-Playing Ocean’s urgency. I just wish they’d have chosen one less bland than the repetitive tribal loop they settled on. What briefly did add an interesting new element soon turned into a distraction from all the weird, discordant sound drones going on, and lingers in a lo-o-o-ong fade out for well past any point of usefulness (about fifteen minutes worth). Once gone, you realize it didn’t add much of anything to The Self-Playing Ocean, the track working just as fine had the music remained solely on its dronier aspects.

Its retreat also marks an abrupt change for the forty-five minute long piece, settling into orchestral swells and such. Not a bad way to end on, but after the tedious middle portion, I've kind of zoned out on Mare Idiophonika, and not in the good way ambient music does – your mileage may vary. For me, the brief bit of blissy music tacked onto the end of the CD as a secret song was more enjoyable than most of The Self-Playing Ocean. No lame tribal loops!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In The Mist - Lost

Nulll: 2002

Did you know the death metal scene has a vibrant dark ambient sub-scene? Well, sure, you probably did, o' purveyor of Viking thrash and demon-doom grindcore, but what of the rest of you? Dark ambient mostly found its footing within abstract industrialists and fans of the Alien movies at a time when having any sort of synth work in your metal music was considered stupid and gay (Van Halen exempt, apparently). Yet as the '90s took form and production in metal albums grew more ambitious, creepy ambient textures made good sense for an interlude or two. Some musicians grew inspired enough to make whole albums of the stuff, creating tidy side careers within the dark ambient scene at large. One of the more ambitious chaps in this field is Stijn van Cauter.

Not content to simply make an album or three, the Belgian metaller established his own label, Nulll, using it as a platform to release a multitude of LPs under a multitude of project aliases. Doom metal act Until Death Overtakes Me was the big one, but he also released dark ambient and experimental works as Fall Of The Grey-Winged One, Dreams Of Dying Stars, Tear Your Soul Apart, and Dance Nihil (among other cheery names), most of which were one-off works of CDr-length single track music. Oh, and In The Mist as well.

Lost got a bit more buzz than van Cauter’s other projects for its comparatively different approach to dark ambient – more grey atmosphere, less doom and gloom here. I’ll buy that, this seventy-minute long piece of drone remarkably immersive considering there’s very little going on. Over ninety percent of its runtime is dominated by an overbearing bass tone fed with overlapping reverb and echo effect. Additional sounds like heavily-echoed guitar plucks and fret rides occasionally pierce the murk, but its long stretches between those islands of musical respite.

Interestingly, Lost starts with these guitar effects, as though the fog of drone has yet to settle in; conversely, the overbearing tone dissipates by track’s end, allowing an actual bass melody to emerge for the remainder five or so minutes. Lost may be drone ambient at its near-droniest, but damn if van Cauter didn’t expertly capture the mood of being surrounded and trapped by bleak, suffocating mist here. Those few melodic bits that do emerge are like the glimpses of scenery one might spot when searching for landmarks to find their bearings, only for van Cauter to cruelly snatch them away as the haze reasserts its sonic dominance on you.

As a piece of drone ambient, Lost’s pretty cool, one of the better examples of the genre I’ve heard in a while. For a form of music that seems ridiculously easy to craft, it’s also remarkably difficult to retain a listener for, many producers forgetting that lengthy drone does need a sense of progression, of change throughout. Within the context of In The Mist, van Cauter finds just the right balance of deep atmosphere and suggestive narrative.

Monday, September 8, 2014

U-God - The Keynote Speaker

Soul Temple Entertainment: 2013

I'm gonna' sound like a total Wu-Tang hipster here, but I was into U-God before it was cool. While I understand why fans of the Clan wouldn't rank Mr. Hawkins' MC skills as high as the other members, I've never understood the derision he's received. As the obligatory baritone of a full Clan of talent, he's always fit whatever hook or verse handed to him, with a be-boppin' style that sounds great to my white-ass ears. Seriously, just listen to him ride any beat, and realize he's just as talented as the rest of the Wu crew, even if it's within a specific role.

Right, I wasn’t so into him that I copped every release of his (okay, none), but when folks started hyping up his third album, Dopium, I nodded, figuring the general hip-hop community was finally cluing into what I long suspected: U-God is a great MC, and simply had a bad run of record label luck in launching a solo career. Interest in how he was to follow Dopium grew, heads wondering if that album was a fluke or if ol’ Golden Arms was finally on firm ground, ready to cement his legacy within the hip-hop canon. Enter The Keynote Speaker.

This is the sort of Wu-Tang solo album most fans anticipate, a member spotlight with guest verses from the Clan fam’ for followers of those particular MCs – The RZA getting an ‘Executive Producer’ credit doesn’t hurt either, even contributing a few beats for U-God to spit over (discordant soul in the ‘bad day in the life’ tale Room Keep Spinning; street noir in Get Mine; ?? southern screw in Be Right There?). One DJ Homicide provides the bulk of the beats though, mostly feeding vintage Eastcoast funk-n-soul loops that U-God has no problem riding. In fact, most of The Keynote Speaker feels like a mid-‘90s throwback, little in the way of modern hip-hop finding its way here. The aforementioned Be Right There aside, only Stars (epic trance synths!) and Golden Arms (trap!) come off contemporary, and I’m surprised I like these tunes as much as I do (strictly old-school, this white boy be). U-God himself sounds in fine form, and while his lyrical topics don’t stray far from his comfort zone (a couple street stories; “ya’ll doubted me, here’s proof of my skills”; etc.), it’s as I expected anyway. Baby Huey’s found his groove, so why ruin a good thing?

If you’re still uncertain whether to spring for a U-God album, The Keynote Speaker includes a bonus disc of Soul Temple Entertainment affiliated Wu material (it’s the label where many Clan members have found new homes on). There’s a couple cuts from Ghostface’s critically hailed Twelve Ways To Die album, Wu-Tang joints from RZA’s movie The Man With The Iron Fists, and a Shaolin Soul Selection mash-up from RZA himself, where he spotlights the original records he nicked many of his classic samples from. Almost worth the price of admission alone right there, mang!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Adham Shaikh - Journey To The Sun

Instinct Ambient/Interchill Records: 1995/2006

Yet another name checked off on my “Must Have In Respectable Music Collection” list. Fortunately, I haven't been quite so neglectful in gathering a few odds tunes of Adham Shaikh's discography as I was with poor ol' Amon, Shaikh often cropping up on ethnically inspired ambient compilations. I've even seen him play out a number of times at Shambhala Music Festival, the chap practically a fixture at the psy/chill/groove stage. As his base of operations is local, I've simply taken him for granted over the years, a musician I could dive into whenever I felt like it. And now I feel like it, so here we are. How about you?

Shaikh got his break with this album Journey To The Sun, originally released on Instinct’s short-lived, seminal ambient sub-label (called, um, Instinct Ambient). I won’t deny feeling a little smug going into this one, figuring the hype surrounding this LP was due to the usual scarcity of mid-‘90s ambient (though Interchill did re-issue it in the mid-‘00s). I mean, I’ve heard lots of ambient music. No, like lots of ambient music. Pre-ambient music, post-ambient music, nu-ambient music, and that. Spacey ambient, silky ambient, and sulky ambient; drone ambient, dark ambient, and dank ambient. Noodly ambient, wibbly ambient, whispy ambient, wanky ambient, meditative ambient, snoozing ambient, Ambien ambient. I’ve heard ambient in sets, I’ve heard ambient under stars; I’ve heard ambient on a walk, I’ve heard ambient engaged in talk. There just isn’t any way I can be surprised by this genre.

And now here’s Journey To The Sun, surprising me with something new and interesting. Damn.

The basic ingredients here are well-worn elements of the genre: calming synth tones, dub effects creating vast sonic space, sparse percussion, a little Indian-themed spice. The way Shaikh weaves them into play though, is simply haunting, a feeling of floating out of body, spirit free of form. I wouldn’t blame you for having doubts, this sounding like astral projection malarkey, but when I listen to Emergence, Zero G, and the titular cut, it’s like I’ve been unshackled from my Earthly prison, left to roam space as I wish. There’s plenty of other music that has this affect on me, true, but little that’s done it so immediate and completely as here. It’s awesome!

Things aren’t all soul-space-surfing on Journey To The Sun though, other tracks finding ways to find their chakra flow. Infinite Emanation has a mild world beat thing going for it, dubby ambient groover Liquid Evolution wouldn’t sound out of place on an Orb LP (especially at sixteen-plus minutes in length), and Ethereal Ion gives us a taste of ol’ Adham’s ‘70s krautrock influences. Throw in simple sonic doodles as interludes between the centrepieces, and you’ve yourself an ambient classic.

Seriously, if you’ve even the slightest interest in this genre of music, get on Journey To The Sun. I feel like a right idiot for having bypassed it this long. Gotta’ stop taking these albums for granted.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Oliver Lieb - Inside Voices

Psychonavigation Records: 2014

Remarkably, astoundingly, and even bizarrely, this is the first full-length album Oliver Lieb has ever released under his own name. In a music career that’s spanned twenty-five years, the closest he ever got was the relatively unknown 1993 “O. Lieb” LP Constellation on Recycle Or Die – it was re-released under his full name, but digital-only, making it a retroactive example. Thus, Inside Voices remains the the first proper album gracing Lieb’s full name. Psychonavigation Records must have a lot of clout to have convinced him to do so.

This is also Lieb’s first proper album of new material since The Hive as L.S.G. (no, The Unreleased Album doesn’t count – it’s ‘unreleased’), though he’s put out plenty of singles under various aliases in the decade-plus since. As such, long-time fans (*cough*) were abuzz at what ol’ Oliver would cook up for this curious ambient label from Dublin.

Well, ambient obviously. The initial comparison will fall upon Into Deep, but Inside Voices is far more subdued and minimalist than that L.S.G. album. For one thing, beats are practically non-existent here, occasional bass pulses and shuffly clicks from deep space about all we hear on that end. What rhythmic lines that do emerge are carried by backing melodic synths – not exactly arps, but tracks like Surface Tension, Dreamfields and Self-Aware Universe feature slight hooks with building momentum behind them. Mostly though, we’re dealing with lengthy sweeping pads, spacious sounds drenched with echoes and reverb, and minor-key chord progressions when melody does take centre-stage.

For anyone well-versed in Lieb’s discography, Inside Voices will sound overly familiar. Though he isn’t outright recycling prior music, there is a sense he’s playing things safe here, using many trusty synths and melodic constructs heard before. No doubt, it’s a different approach to his tropes, focusing on the sonic space between his recognizable techniques, yet I can’t help feel some disappointment in not hearing much in the way of new sounds. It’s a fresh album, with a fresh start (new ‘alias’!), on a fresh label (that’s been around for over a decade), so why not offer us fresh synths or fresh soundscapes? I mean, the Solieb stuff may have been trendy as all Hell, but at least it was different, something new in Lieb’s discography.

Of course, this is just my quibble, extra expectation placed upon a producer that doesn’t have anything left to prove. Even if Inside Voices isn’t treading waters far from shores since wandered, ol’ Oliver’s sound remains uniquely his – you won’t find an ambient album full of spacey synths and trancey chord progressions quite like this one, since no one’s come close to Lieb’s style of song craft. For any long-time fan of the chap from Frankfurt, that’s more than enough reason to pick up Inside Voices, especially with new LPs from Lieb growing ever more few and far between. Hey, maybe this’ll spark his creativity some more, productions and releases soon outpacing his blistering early ‘90s heyday. Hail Psychonavigation Records if so!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Orb - The Dream

Six Degrees: 2007

Now here’s a strange parallel: The Orb and The Simpsons. Both emerged at the same time (1989), had a critically and commercially heralded run for their first seven or eight years of existence, and then began a steady decline of importance as the current millennium took hold. Those who stuck around for new music/episodes insist things aren’t that bad, but even the hold-outs won’t deny the quality of product significantly dipped compared to the Early Years. There was even a minor, resurgent uptick in interest for both camps in the mid-‘00s, each finding a way to reignite discourse in their respective brands (The Simpsons Movie / The Orb releasing an album on trendy chill label Kompact). Of course, this has little to do with The Dream, but given the recent rash of Simpsons related topics flooding the internet, I couldn’t help but notice this while glancing back on The Orb’s discography.

The '00s were a weird time for the project fronted by Dr. Alex Paterson, drifting from label to label, seemingly aimless in their endeavors and growing ever more irrelevant as newer downbeat musics got all the press and plaudits. Perhaps growing forlorn for the good ol' days, the Doc' often reunited with his former Orb mates, or maybe his original posse would come a-callin' for some studio sessions. The Dream sees a return of Martin Glover (aka: Youth; aka: Killing Joke; aka: Dub Trees; aka: New World Orchestra; aka:...) for a full-length collaboration. Hey, that don't sound so bad, Youth quite instrumental in crafting The Orb's dubbier moments in the early days.

And yeah, The Dream delivers on those fronts, tracks like DDD (Dirty Disco Dub), Lost & Found, and High Noon tapping into all those tasty reggae-vibe jams that turned Perpetual Dawn into a classic (not to mention making ‘ambient dub’ a thing in the early ‘90s). But this is (was) the modern times, mang, and psy dub’s the fresh hotness where this sort of music’s concerned. Good thing Glover kept his ear to that ground, then, as The Dream has several takes on the genre Shpongle made popular. Gander at The Truth Is… (ethereal gospel!), Mother Nature (Middle-East riddims!), Katskills (trippy-dippy, hippies!), and Codes (rasta space-men!).

This being latter-era (re: non-Weston) Orb though, the productions aren’t ultra-dense sonic-soups, at times sounding shamelessly aiming for a little radio play (oh hi, A Beautiful Day). Also, the only thing that keeps The Dream from being a full-on Youth album is frequent use of quirky musical and dialog samples, often played through those Orb filters that’s practically a trademark of the project (heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if Doc’ Pat’ did trademark the technique) - par for the course where many Orb LPs are concerned.

Of course, the big question is how The Dream stacks against the classics. Take a gander at closer Orbisonia for your answer. Though not representative of The Dream as a whole, I challenge you to resist the feelings of warm Orb nostalgia on that one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ole Højer Hansen - The Dome

Olga Musik: 1990

It seems no matter your musical background (electronic, jazz, folk, Mongolian throat singing, hillbilly jug band), you can always find a welcome stay in ambient’s world. From classically-trained maestros to noise-experiment art-freaks to bedroom-amateur laptop wibblers, the entry point remains simple enough: have synths, so stack and pad them forever as the calming/terrifying drone weaves and ebbs to heart’s content. It’s no surprise, then, so much ambient is released on micro-labels and practically forgotten about overnight. Those that do create enduring pieces often have enough musical craft and clout to stick out from the pack, but even then they can go unnoticed without a little dedicated digging.

Ole Højer Hansen is one such talent I stumbled upon during an ambient excavation. He only has three albums to his name, this here The Dome being his final one. He then apparently disappeared into studios as a sound engineer and incidental music writer for TV and film – not a bad career trajectory, but still a shame when he could have done so much more.

Though his music was decidedly ambient, he also had some prog-rock background going in. Unfortunately, the ‘80s were a dire time to be a prog-rock musician, hence why many tried their hands at ambient compositions too. It gained a little interest for the first half of that decade, but by the second half, folks had generally grown disinterested in Eno’s musical creation (New Age, on the other hand…). That a guy like ol’ Ole would slip through the cracks is understandable in this context.

As Mr. Hansen is of the ‘old ambient school’, The Dome does have more musicianship than synth drone going for him. Subtitled into three parts of about 20-25 minutes each, you get jazzy keyboard improvisation and even mild rhythms throughout. Part 1 grows into a groovy little number, Part 2 is the purely meditative ethereal piece, and Part 3 evokes mystery and contemplation for the mind. It’s all very well produced, seldom (if at all) crosses the New Age divide, and all that said, I’m sure your eyes have glazed over reading this review.

I don’t know what else to say, The Dome hardly coming across as essential listening anytime soon. The only reason I did check it out was because of that cover (always with the cover art). Hansen strikes me as the sort of musician who’s incredibly competent at what he does, but is missing just that extra bit of creative spark that elevates others in this field of music. Perhaps that’s why he settled into a studio engineer career, but it’s not like he lacked potential for more. The Dome does provide moments of lovely synth work and captivating atmosphere – I’d wager Part 3 is worth the price of admission alone (whatever ‘price’ you may end paying). Unfortunately, one can say that for tons of lengthy ambient pieces, and when stacked against the genre’s long history, Hansen’s mired somewhere in the middle.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Chris Korda - Demons In My Head

Kevorkian Records: 1993

There's something wrong with Chris Korda's outlook on the world. No, not the cross-dressing thing – he's actually kind of good at it. No, not that whole Church Of Euthanasia thing either – I cannot deny there is some practical logic in this promotion of overpopulation prevention, tongue-in-cheek though this outlet may be. And no, his totally provocative approach to music making is hardly the stuff of oddness – performance art, t'is, and all that rot. No, what strikes me peculiar about Chris Korda is his relative reluctance at music making. Maybe he simply doesn't make time for it, or maybe he's an act some find too controversial to sign. Pft, as if. DJ Hell had enough gumption to give the Church Of Euthanasia an outlet during International Deejay Gigolo’s rise to fame, so Mr/s Korda couldn't be all that bad. Lord Discogs tells me he's been silent on the music front since the early '00s though, and if I can't trust the Lord That Knows All, where can I go to find out more? Oh yeah, that website.

Anyhow, Korda's debut LP Demons In My Head came out a number of years before the chap/gal got chummy with Hell, self-releasing it on the appropriately titled own-label Kevorkian Records. It's also a forty-five minute long, single-track album. Yay, noodly ambient drone, with industrial abrasiveness I bet.

Not at all, though there are sonically confrontational segments throughout. Truth be told, I was a bit hesitant going into this one, figuring this would end up being some Hellraiser-level dark ambient assaulting my sanity, but Demons In My Head seldom goes down those roads. Some thirty-five minutes in, a bit of reverse chanting coupled with a gargling deadite wail crops up, and that’s about as outright creepy as things get. So, something out of a Tool interlude, then?

Before we get there though, we have industrial clanking, hydraulics pumping, bleepy sci-fi dithering, children playing (ah, ol’ Chrissy was at the county fair at some point), reflective ambient tones, meditative New Age melodies, water running, water raining, water spilling, water pumping, water flushing, and water swirling in pools. Yeah, there’s a lot of water sound effects in Demons In My Head. Maybe Vodyanoi took up residence in Korda’s noggin. Oh, and he finishes off with your standard industrial noise assault. Haha, madness overtook him! Time to form a church with a bizarre concept.

What’s frustrating about this LP is it could have been indexed into individual tracks, as there are distinct sections and passages. True, listening to it in its entirety rather than selectable chunks forces you to take Korda’s narrative as a whole, and dark ambient always works best in this context. Still, if a story has a clear sequence of events as Demons In My Head does, why not clarify them with titled ‘chapters’? It only enriches the musical tale. Erm, when there’s actual music going on, that is. Ah well, at least there’s definite structure and flow here, more so than I was expecting.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Amon Tobin - Bricolage

Ninja Tune: 2007

So much music slips through my ever growing queue of “Must Hear Before I Go Six Feet Under” (I doubt Amazon will deliver to my bomb shelter following the apocalypse). Even with artists and labels I hold in the highest regard, there are unacceptable oversights and gaps on my part. Why has it taken me this long to finally spring for an Amon Tobin album? I like Ninja Tune. Like, really really like them – in a roundabout way, they were among the first 'underground electronic music labels' I dove into. Yet even with a number of their releases taking up space in my towers, one of their primary stars is noticeably absent. It’s like gathering Ultimae records while neglecting Carbon Based Lifeforms, or Hyperdub vinyl while bypassing Burial – you just don't do it, mang!

Right, it’s not like I’ve totally missed out on Tobin’s work, having heard a few of his Cujo works released when he was part of Shadow Records. And while Ninja Tune was quick to pluck him from that label, his sound left an undeniable impression on several up-and-comers featured in future Shadow releases, many finding inspiration in his fusion of jazz-jungle-hop. I’ve heard his work without even hearing his tracks!

Bricolage was his first album for the Ninja squad, and immediately found kindred souls among the likes of Herbaliser and Funki Porcini. All these guys, they loved the jazz vibes just as much as ol’ Adonai Santos de Araújo, and were always eager in finding ways of melding them with contemporary inner-city cool genres like trip-hop and jazzstep. Ol’ Amon though, he knew his production game needed something extra to stand out from the big guns. Bizarrely, he found it with IDM breakcore.

He doesn’t immediately reveal his intents either, the first few tracks finding the comfortable jazzy trip-hop vibe so many associate with Ninja Tune of the mid-to-late ‘90s (who do you think helped define it!). Yet there’s something more intricate going on with the drum programming - less reliant on using sampled breaks as the music’s backbone, and rather as genetic soup for reinterpretation. It’s Amon making future jazz out of classic jazz, and I can’t help but think of Squarepusher’s early work in this context. Not as frenetically experimental as Jenkinson’s material, mind you, but it’s there just the same.

Then Chomp Samba hits with all the feral nastiness of drill-n-bass’ intensity, and you realize you’re not in for the usual Ninja Tune romp. Tracks like One Small Step, Mission, and Bitter And Twisted keep the spazzy breaks going, all the while oozing a creeping menace with discordant cellos, trumpets, vibraphones, and saxaphones (among others). Dubby, trip-jazz-hop cuts like Defocus and The Nasty help keep Bricolage grounded with soul (not to mention some playful samba-stylee in One Day In My Garden), but we’re mostly dealing with aggressive music here, the sort one might expect on Warp rather than Coldcut’s print; a perfect LP for Ninja Tune’s musical growth, then. Welcome home, Amon.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Naughty By Nature - 19 Naughty III

ISBA Music Entertainment Inc.: 1993

Yo! This is Hip-Hop Sykonee, comin' in from another existence and taking over this shit. See, I'm the villain who could'a been, who should'a been, but wasn't because of a last-minute change of mind from the 'technoboy' here. Had I stuck with my original choice of First CD, this here Naughty By Nature sophomore album 19 Naughty III, my teenaged musical development would have been radically different, gorging myself on all these hip-hop talents. Yo, I might even be writing ill shit for RapReviews.com now, unlike the regular wack mofo you deal with on this back-water blog.

Sykonee Prime: Are you so sure of that? I had rap tunes on mixtapes. Hell, I bought the CB4 soundtrack the following year. Okay, it was to impress my peers, which was the impetuous in me initially choosing 19 Naughty III anyway. My enjoyment of ‘techno’ was naturally bred, with hardly any outside influences dictating what I should listen to for social acceptance.

HHS: That’s just it! Had you copped this first, you’d have played it just as heavily as your early CDs, if for no other reason than you didn’t have much choice of selection in your personal collection then. But check it, hommes, those repeated plays would have sucked you into hip-hop’s world, 19 Naughty III offering just enough a glimpse of the scene to check out more. Like, Hip-Hop Hooray. Damn, what a classic! Maybe not as cheeky as NbN’s breakout hit O.P.P. (yeah, you know me!), but if you were at any sort of club, you know this bomb would go off.

SP: I do recall waving my arms to the chorus at high-school dances. Still, it’s about the only song anyone remembers from this album.

HHS: Which makes the rest of 19 Naughty III perfect for the discerning underground head. Despite having crossover appeal, Naughty By Nature were never a Pop-Hop act, fully embracing the self-proclaimed ‘cruddy crew’ image they cultivated. They weren’t gangsta, but they could weave street tales (The Only Ones; Daddy Was A Street Corner) just as fine as any rap act. Or how about straight-up battle-rapping as a posse? Cuts like Take It To Ya Face, Knock Em Out Da Box, and Hot Potato have vicious lyrical throw-downs without degrading into ultra-violent parody. Plus we can’t forget d’em smooth-yet-dirty come-ones for the ladies (Written On Ya Kitten, Sleepin’ On Jersey, Cruddy Clique); none of that R&B bullshit here, Syk’G.

SP: The beats are dope too - tough Eastcoast flavour, and plenty block-party bounce going on for me to get my boogie-bop going walking to school with headphones on. Y’know, I’m kinda’ feelin’ what you’re preachin’. 19 Naughty III just might have been enough to steer me down hip-hop’s road after all.

HHS: Word. So, I get the blog now?

SP: Well, the next review’s of Amon Tobin’s debut.

HHS: Th’fuck?

SP: Nu-jazz spazziatic IDM, or something.

HHS: Err, yeah. Look, I gotta’ jam back to my reality. Damn, son, you got into some weird shit here.

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