Thursday, December 31, 2015

System 7 - System 7 (Original TC Review)

10 Records: 1991

(Update 2015:
I've still yet to take the plunge into System 7's full discography. Shame on me. There's no reason I shouldn't have by now, especially with so much online streaming available at my whim. Maybe that should be a New Year's resolution, to finally take in the entirety of Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, and all their quarter-century of System 7ing. It's not like I expect some wild, unfortunate genre experiments along the way, the duo essentially sticking to their psychedelic trance, prog- rock jamborees through the years (decades!). If anything, their debut remains the least System 7y thing they ever System 7'd.

This review isn't as cynical as I remember, though why I had to get my hate on with the accordion, I don't recall. No wait, I was still feeding off the backlash of Samin's
Heater, that's why. I suppose I couldn't help but let my Gen-X jadedness get the better of me too, snickering at such earnest lyrics. Funny how a few extra years of added wisdom has mellowed my stance on them now. That is wisdom I feel now, right? Maybe just gas.)


IN BRIEF: A prog rocker gets chummy with dance culture.

Probably the last name you’d expect to have a trendy club hit in this year of 2008 would be Steve Hillage’s System 7 project. Although he and Miquette Giraudy have long been respected figures within dance music, their tendency to skew towards the psychedelic side of the electronic spectrum hasn’t earned them the spotlight since that style’s mid-90s heyday. Yet along comes Mr. Minimal-Marmite-Man Dubfire with one of his remixes, and propels the latest System 7 single Song Bird high into some of the more hip dance charts out there.

Such seems to be the story of Hillage’s career. It isn’t so much you’d expect him to fade into obscurity, but for all intents and purposes one would assume his contemporary relevance should. After nearly two decades as a prog rock guitarist, Hillage discovered acid house when Alex Paterson of The Orb fame discovered him. System 7 is born soon afterwards, gained a plethora of fans amongst the early goa-trance scene, became a fixture at Glastonbury’s dance tent, and just when you’d think this project has slipped away into irrelevancy, it’s thrust once again into the presence of another generation of party-goers. Perhaps that hippie attitude has provided Hillage with plenty of good karma after-all. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but even if this recent mini-thrust back into the spotlight is to be his last, Hillage has done plenty in his career to deserve such good will.

Really, I don’t think anyone would have expected Hillage to be a fixture within dance music culture for so long given the rather unique plunge System 7 first took. This self-titled 1991 debut is a strange relic of its time, where scene networking could yield powerhouse collaborations of the sort found on here. Along with Dr. Paterson, you have Hillage working with techno-don Derrick May, at-the-time ace-producer Paul Oakenfold, Steve Waddington of The Beloved fame (remember them?), and Martin Glover (Youth) just on this album alone (the System 7 moniker would go on to include work with Laurent Garnier, Juno Reactor, Carl Craig, Greg Hunter, Drum Club, and recently Jam el Mar and Eat Static - whew, but is this ever a namedrop session). Yet, because System 7's concept was more about Hillage’s forays into dance music, the idea of this being some kind of electronic music supergroup was never really considered.

Nowadays, this album has mostly faded from the collective clubbing consciousness for various reasons. For one thing, it remains the only album that hasn’t been re-issued on Hillage’s new A-Wave label, although legal complications with the distributors - UK-based Ten and American-based Caroline (whom had to change the group’s name to 777 over other legal complications) - may have something to do with that. Primarily, though, it tends to be neglected since it bears little resemblance to the sort of music the project would go on to be known for.

And just what kind of music is on here? If you’re familiar with Stereo MC’s, that’ll give you a starting point, because another thing that easily dates System 7 to the early 90s is the incredibly liberal melting pot of genres on offer. There’s house, techno, ambient, soul, breaks, prog, pop, and even hints of psychedelia. With so many different influences contributing, there was no possible way a cohesive style would dominate throughout. Heck, where does one even start when describing what these songs sound like? How about the material that isn’t dated?

The Derrick May pairings easily sound fresh even today. Thumping techno cut Altitude remains superb, with Listen and ambient-intermission Fractal Liason finding the Detroit native’s futuristic touch working wonders with Hillage’s spacey guitar work; any of these offerings could hold their own in a modern-day set. Meanwhile, Alex Paterson’s ambient house specialty can be felt on Sunburst, along with his studio wizardry in Dog, coda-like follow-up Thunderdog, and the straight-forward club-cut Miracle (where Oakenfold lends his talents as well). The production on these is quite remarkable too, where it seldom feels like you’re being fed simple dance loops. There be practiced musicians in them studios, my friends, with arrangements that make ample use of their experienced song-writing skills.

On the other hand, the vocal songs are way early 90s. Whether it be Aniff Cousins’ contemplative raps (think a proto-Maxi Jazz) or Olu Rowe’s soulful singing, their themes remain constant. Freedom Fighters, Habibi, Bon Humeur, Dog, and Strange Quotations all feature lyrics that feed off the “good times are coming” attitude that was prevalent in much of the Western world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. All fine and well, I suppose; you certainly have to admire the optimism. However - and this may just be a generational gap thing - some of the messages delivered in these songs strike me as New-Agey Boomer platitudes, something that was quite common in adult pop music of the time. Looking back on it now with the benefit (detriment?) of cynical Gen-X hindsight, one can’t help but feel a little embarrassed that all the hope of social and political change of that time never gained much traction. Musically these songs are fine (well, aside from that accordion in Strange Quotations), but whether you enjoy the lyrics or not will probably boil down to personal preference. Interestingly, vocals were seldom utilized by System 7 after this release.

Anyhow, fast-forwarding back to 2008, System 7 is certainly a product of its time, and frankly has a difficult time holding up. It’s seldom mentioned when talk of early 90s releases is taking place, and despite the strong musicianship on display, remains lacking in anything one could identify as ‘classic.’ If you’re in the market for electronic music from that era, you’ll find definite worth in this album. However, for those instead just looking to get acquainted with System 7's discography, the Point 3 releases are a better starting point.

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

Aphex Twin - Syro

Warp Records: 2014

Hey, remember when there was a new Aphex Twin album? Boy, it sure was an exciting time when that new Aphex Twin album showed up out of nowhere. Everyone got to wax nostalgic about what Aphex Twin's music meant to them again. Music rags got to write up Aphex Twin retrospectives for the fourth or fifth time. Journalists got to pontificate on why Aphex Twin is such a Very Important Person in the world of techno again. Folks were just plain ol' happy to see Aphex Twin active again, even though Richard D. James hadn't left in the first place. And we wouldn’t take him for granted as we did following Druqks, no sir. We’d keep him on that pedestal he earned back in the ‘90s, forever proclaiming the new Aphex Twin album an LP without peer, beyond compare, the best new music now and forever, a- oh, wait, no one’s talking much about Syro anymore, are they. Damn, maybe he should stop flooding his Soundcloud with so much music, let us soak in an actual album for a change.

So Syro: the record with a simple title and a dozen confounding song titles (and a hilarious expenses list that runs for six foldouts!). Rumours abound as to why the RDJ’d One felt compelled to give the world another full-length of music, though as with all things with the man from the lands of Cornish, it was probably all just a whim. Like, did he really need money again? Would Warp Records really pester him to fulfill a record deal? Nah, more plausible he just wanted a chuckle over the salivating reactions at seeing the Aphex Twin moniker reactivated. Nice of him to supply us with a solid album of tunes in the process.

While no two releases from Are Deejay ever sound the same, this does have some similarities to his mid-‘90s work than anything else. There isn’t so much micro-computer editing, drill-n-bassing, or real instrument keyboard doodling, but rather getting a playful groove on, tinkering with some sounds and effects, and riding an electro acid-funk jam wherever it may lead. Considering how much Aphex Twin always sounded weird and alien, it’s odd hearing him doing something that sounds much closer to our earthly realms. True, it’s future-Earth we’re dealing with, but we’re still on good ol’ terra firma just the same. Get some shuffle on with, er, that third track. Or find yourself at a robot junglist party with, um, those last run of tracks. Or feel that throwback rave anthem with the fifth cut.

Look, I’m not gonna’ actually name these tracks. They read like computer gibberish, probably are just some random nonsense Jamesy Boy slapped together, and only gave them ‘proper’ titles so stuffy music journalists would look like bellends trying to write critical prose with Syro u473t8+e [Piezoluminescence Mix] as part of a sentence. Well, I ain’t falling for that, I tell you what.

Anyway, Syro is a good album from Aphex Twin.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Kon Kan - Syntonic

Atlantic: 1990

I’ve been severely neglecting my Canadian content this past month. Better get to it before our new Liberal overlords send me a fair-weather warning of forced patriotism. Wait, do they even care about backwater bloggers? How could they even enforce such a thing? Would they suddenly turn my review of Hot Chip’s DJ-Kicks into something by Arcade Fire? No, they could never be so nefarious. The blues, maybe, but not our boys in red (note: I voted orange). As luck would have it though, I get to meet my monthly Canadian content quota by reviewing an album by a synth-pop act whose name is a play on that quirky bit of legislation, Kon Kan. See, it’s Canadian content, backwards! Eh? Eh? Pah, witty Canuckian humor is lost on all y’alls.

I always remember seeing the name Kon Kan around, though not in any significant way. I mean, they were a Canadian synth-pop act, making dance music at a time when dance music was gaining a fair bit of popularity in the early ‘90s. They’d almost be obligated the occasional guest spot on whatever hip club music show was airing on MuchMusic at the time (X-Tendamix? Might Master T have interviewed Kon Kan at one point? Ooh, you know that’d be some retro YouTubing there). By the time I’d finally immersed myself in ‘techno’ though, they’d already folded as a group. Well, ‘group’ is a stretch of a word, Kon Kan primarily the creation of one Barry Harris. He’d update his sound for the euro dance crowds in the group Outta Control, all the while making underground house records solo and harder stuff with career remixer Chris Cox as Thunderpuss. Mr. Harris has stayed active to this day, and even suggested dusting off the old Kon Kan name with original vocalist Kevin Wynne. Because nothing old stays old, right?

Point being, there’s a lot of history to this name, and is hardly a one-and-done deal despite Kon Kan never getting bigger than their debut, Juno Award winning single I Beg Your Pardon. I sure didn’t know all this when I picked Syntonic out of a used shop. I just recognized the name from a house compilation, and took a chance after a quick listen of the first few tracks. Honestly though, I’m still wondering how that initial impression convinced me to buy this sophomore effort. Yeah, Victorious is undeniably catchy in that New Jack Swing sort of way, but dear Lord so much else on here sounds way dated.

Obviously I can’t expect blinding sonics from a 1990 Canaidan synth-pop album, even one backed by Atlantic Records, but a few tracks do work on those terms. Lead single Liberty! is just as peppy as anything from the Pet Shop Boys, Can’t Stop The Fire gets more to Harris’ house side, andTime is good cheesy italo fun, even if the chorus apes Trooper’s We’re Here For A Good Time. Overall though, Syntonic is just another long forgotten collection of dated dance pop.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Police - Synchronicity

A&M Records: 1983/2003

“Hey, The Police, you’ve just release your most popular album ever! You’ve redefined the new wave rock movement yet again, and are adored by millions of people across several continents! What are you gonna’ do next?”

“We’re breaking up, because we can’t stand recording with each other anymore.”

Aww, yeah, they went out Beatles style, and in a funny way, Synchronicity is a little similar to Abbey Road too. Side one of both albums has something of a slapdash approach with individual offerings from the band members, whereas the second half plays like a mini-album concept from one member. Er, that’s all I got on the comparison.

But yes, Synchronicity is where The Police became house-hold names and radio staples on every pop station. Everyone knows the ode to obsessive, stalker-ish love, Every Breath You Take. Even if you somehow missed it back when, you definitely heard it after Puff Daddy nicked Andy Summers' plucky guitar hook for the Biggie tribute I'll Be Missing You. Meanwhile, the spiteful Wrapped Around Your Finger (that tempo change!) and moody King Of Pain (it’s like a continuation of Ghost In The Shell!) were not quite as ubiquitous as Every Breath You Take, but are no less recognizable the moment they come within earshot. And though the title track (and fourth single) is way '80s new wave with all the synthesizers and guitar effects at play, it remains a permanent fixture on many retro rock playlists. Not bad for a band that had to scrap its way through the British rock scene a mere seven years prior, and could only manage one instantly identifiable hit per album (Roxanne, Message In A Bottle, Don’t Stand So Close To Me, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic).

So the singles were huge, getting everyone to rush out and grab what was sure to be a great album. I can only imagine their shock, then, upon hearing that infamous side one of Synchronicity. The titular opener is peppy enough, though not as memorable as Synchronicity II on side two. Walking In Your Footsteps has some neat electronic drum programming, a tribal rhythm that’s clearly inspired by what Peter Gabriel was up to. Next is O My God, a requisite Police new wave jam that’d often serve as filler in other albums, and a weird choice for a third track. And then Mother hits, the wacked-out Andy Summers contribution that sounds like… Arabic prog-rock paranoia? I haven’t a clue, and no one else has either. At least his other song, bluesy Murder By Numbers, has a clever message within its macabre lyrics. Oh, and Stewart Copeland, in an attempt to get back to their punk roots, provides the short, incidental Miss Gradenko. When you compare these tracks to the astounding songs Sting was writing though, it’s no wonder ol’ Gordon felt the need to go solo. Oh, if only folks could have known what was to come from that career. Wait, they did, it’s called Tea In The Sahara.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Positive Life - Synaesthetic

Beyond/Waveform Records: 1994/1995

Another act from the early days of Beyond, another act that seemingly disappeared shortly after. Stefan Pierlejewski's project as A Positive Life was as vital to the seminal ambient dub label as either Higher Intelligence Agency or Another Fine Day, yet has an even smaller discography than their scarce offerings. Was he unable to find another home after Beyond folded? I'm assuming he maintained some presence out there, playing the odd gig and such. Still, considering how prevalent his name was with the early ambient dub scene, it's bizarre seeing all reference cease with The Lord That Knows All past the mid-'90s. There’s nothing on offer with Mr. Pierlejewski’s pre-Beyond either, essentially starting with the Oscillate nights. For all intents, A Positive Life sprung into existence right from the start, flashed brightly, then went his way into the deep, dark night from whence he came.

As for the music he made, it’s less ambient dub by way of Original Rockers, and closer to Higher Intelligence Agency, though with a heavy lean on acid and trance. Really, A Positive Life always was an odd-man out on the Ambient Dub compilations, his tracks often more uptempo compared to the laid-back vibes and sonic explorations of the deepest dub. His sound was never true-blue trance though, as I can’t possibly imagine hearing this stuff on labels like MFS or Rising High. It’s just too ambient at the same time, but with enough of a hypnotic rhythm to keep me boppin’ about. Dammit, how can something sound so over familiar, yet totally unique? This just don’t make any of the sense, mang.

Synaesthetic is slightly different in its Waveform Records incarnation, tracks rearranged, plus an additional, unreleased one included. Par for the course with Waveform, and as with their other re-releases, this one looks better than the Beyond version. This one does a good job of keeping the tempo on a climb as the album plays through before easing off into proper ambient pastures, whereas the original had them all mixed up instead. New track Warehouse 5am serves as a proper warm-up to the A.P.L. stylee, getting you familiar with the simple, loopy nature of his music. There’s burbling acid, ethnic samples, swirling pads, and a sense of dubby bliss as it glides along. Follow-up Bathdub explores much of the same vibe, though comes with a stronger rhythm and more overlaying acid-dub. Both end on the bubbly, floating Aquasonic though, as it they should.

Midway, things get downright groovy with a thick bassline in Lighten Up!, and eerie with spacey acid in Pleidean Communication, but the biggest ‘hit’ off here (re: appeared on all the compilations) is The Calling, co-written with Mr. Pierlejewski’s original project partner, Patrick Morsman. If the opening ambient bleepiness and angelic voice sound familiar, it’s because Michael Cretu nicked it for his Enigma track Out From The Deep. I’ll take the trance thump and squelchy acid of A.P.L. over New Agey guitar strums any day though.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest VIII"

Aniplex: 2005

Dragon Quest making its way into the realms of 128-bit power was a bit of a surprise, them consoles almost too powerful for the simple stories and gameplay the series enjoyed. Yuji Horii got around the expectations of stellar graphics and complex plots by presenting the game as a cell-shaded cartoon, a relatively new technique for 3D gaming. It retained the whimsical sprite-based look of Akira Toriyama’s artwork, while offering up an incredibly open world to explore. Deceptively simple, yet remarkably complex, Dragon Quest VIII was more than fans could have hoped for, and helped reinvigorate interest in the series for a new generation of gamers. It was the high times of the Nintendo era all over again!

Even ol' Koichi got to try something new for this game. For the first time, he was crafting music for a gaming system that could handle all the original orchestrated music he wrote, with no compromising to MIDI or soundcard limitations. This allowed him a session that sounded expansive and full, rivalling even his older symphonic suite recordings. After all, if you’re playing a game where you have free range to explore a vast world, you want a score that invigorates that sensation. A recording capturing the echo and reverb of a symphony hall certainly is an effective way of doing that.

Where Dragon Quest VIII’s score excels in sound design though, it unfortunately lacks some in the melody department. For sure, you can still find ample amounts of charming music in that vintage Sugiyama-san stylee. Strange World opens with a lovely bit of harp, soon giving way to flutes, brass, and grand strings, losing yourself in the wide fields of the overworld you explore. ...Remembrances... will tug at your heart as so many of ol’ Koichi’s ‘sad’ pieces do. Healing Power Of The Psalms is an apt title for the game’s church theme, soothing strings granting one a respite from the trials of the road. And yet, there’s very few compositions that actually sticks with the head, a surprising lack of leitmotifs. Heck, I don’t think any of your playable characters get themes to their names, though to be fair that hasn’t been a Dragon Quest staple since the 16-bit era. His compositions here sound more intended for a movie than a video game, which isn’t surprising given the nature of most games of the modern era. Man, what I wouldn’t give to hear some catchy ditties with that hall recording though.

Okay, enough quibbling. Here are a couple cool standouts with this score. Far more percussion is used compared to previous symphonic suites, with a highlight being the blocks and glittering bells of Mysterious Tower. Also, while a standard ‘big boss’ battle theme retains the sluggish tempo of most Dragon Quest games, the final-final boss theme picks the pace up considerably, making for a thrilling battle theme. Not quite as epic as the awesome Fighting Spirit from Dragon Quest III, but it’s right up there!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 7

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

Towards the ends of Dragon Quest III and VI, you encounter a small, sealed off realm. Here resides a population of people kept in perpetual misery, suffering, and depression, which the Archfiends of these games love to feast on (somehow). Through pluck, guile, and a little demon slaying, you rescue these people from their circumstances, overcoming the bitterness consuming their lives. Nice little parables for sure, especially for a series steeped in altruism. So when Dragon Quest made its leap to the Playstation, it took those singular events and spread it for the course of an entire game. Each sealed realm you visit and free restores the world from a single, isolated island like a giant jigsaw puzzle. No, literally! You go around collecting shards, piecing them together, and- Well, no sense revealing everything. I’ll just end with the knowledge this is one long RPG, and one of the bonus bosses is God. Yes, the God, with the flowing white beard, robe, etc.

Ooh, I said ‘end’ in the last paragraph. That can segue into this review, as we’re also at the ‘end’ of this seven disc box set, which features music played at the ‘end’ of the game, specifically during ‘end’ credits. Also, I’ll now ‘end’ these forced quotations.

So you defeated the big bad of the realm, rescued a princess or two, became a legendary hero in the process of fulfilling prophecy. Now you can get back to rebuilding your sacked village, raising a family, and take up the family fishing business. It a funny turn how the triumphant victories of the older Dragon Quest games became more humbling and simple in later editions. Hell, some conclusions come bitter-sweet, no more so than Dragon Quest IV where defeating the villain was an act of necessity brought about by manipulation and betrayal. Have I mentioned how frickin’ awesome that game’s plot is for the 8-bit era? Man, even the Ending (IV) music is ridiculously epic, especially in its fully orchestrated version here. Movies don’t get end credit scores this grand.

That essentially concludes the symphonic suite portion of the box set, but what’s this? Extra room on CD7? Sure, a little of that was taken by the ‘heaven’ compositions at start (Dragon Quest IV through VI centers on a ‘Heaven’ arc, or Zenithia in the original translation), but that still leaves plenty space at the end. Yet there are no more recordings of symphonic suites. What can be used to fill out that gap? Why, original VGM of course!

Two pieces from Dragon Quest VII never got a symphonic upgrade, gypsy folk ditties titled Toura Dance (VII) and Restoration Prayer (VII). Not sure why that is, though I’ve heard rumor ol’ Koichi had difficulty composing them with an orchestral backing. Wait, this from the guy that made symphonic chiptunes? A few more pieces were added to the 32-bit upgrade for Dragon Quest IV, including new mid-boss battle music and a theme for the main antagonists. They’re, um… disappointing.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 6

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

Stateside Dragon Quest fans just couldn't catch a break in the 16-bit era. Denied the fifth game, no hope of seeing the upgrades of the first three 8-bit games, and pretty much shit out of luck on number six of the series, it wasn’t until late in the next generation of gaming that we saw anything new. Even emulation could only take us so far, the games growing more complex with the text dialog. Dragon Quest VI became infamous during those dark times as The Game That Could Not Be Fan Translated. Many attempted the mighty task, some even coming close to completion, but like Dragon Quest V, we’d never see an official version until it made the port to the DS. Shame, because I find the main character’s origin in that game possibly the most creative of all them all (you are not the dreamer, but the dream...).

Disc six finally brings us to the music that soundtracked many a grinding session: battle themes. Every great RPG must have a good battle theme, music that gets you equally pumped fighting the most pathetic Slime to the most dastardly Archfiend. Koichi Sugiyama definitely knows his way around a thrilling composition, standard fight music quick and punchy, with a dash of the ol’ derring-do. He even throws in an occasional twist or two, Death Fight (II) changing time signatures, and Battle For The Glory (IV) working in a crescendo. Okay, that’s common for orchestral music, but this was done with the original Nintendo soundcard too. That just wasn’t done, mang, yet here he done did it!

Though mid-boss battles are a staple of the series since the first game, it wasn’t until Dragon Quest V and the additional MIDI storage of the Super Famicom that Sugiyama-san provided music for these fights. Though they are unique compositions, they’re essentially beefed-up takes of the standard battle music. Meanwhile, the final boss music of Dragon Quest often goes the opposite way, with slow, brooding pieces, thumping kettle drums setting a sluggish pace, as though your final test is a battle of endurance and survival against ancient evils. Makes sense, as most of the final bosses are ancient evils, large demonic behemoths whose steps shake the ground they walk upon. Probably.

The only game to buck this convention is Dragon Quest III. Gruelling Fight, played during your confrontation with the Archfiend Baramos, brings urgent strings, sinister horns, and a refrain that’s all sorts of tense, exciting, and kick-ass. And that’s just the fake-out final boss music! No, the main attraction from this game is Fighting Spirit (III), a medley of the standard battle music (which is great!), an extended interlude of the classic Unknown World played on harp, then all Hell breaks loose for your true final battle. Furious strings, crashing percussion, bombastic horns... holy cow, this piece has it all, and is, by far, the best final boss music in the whole series. How anyone can resist getting hyped listening to it is beyond me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 5

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

Dragged out of 8-bit land kicking and screaming, Dragon Quest made its debut on 16-bit with V, where better graphics and storytelling were promised. Well, it didn't do much with the Super Famicom's capabilities (not even some Mode 7?), but surely Yuji Horii and his cohorts would give us a grand epic narrative showing the world why the series deserved its amazing success in Japan. Eh, not quite either, the game never getting a localization in America (much less Europe) until the year 2009, die-hards forced into alternative methods to play the game. Fortunately, the world of emulation was blossoming on the early internet, and there was enough Dragon Quest interest to support fan translations of the game.

And while Dragon Quest V didn’t amaze in graphics, it more than made up for it story. Not for the overall plot, mind you, that still relatively standard fare for the series (monsters up to no good, prophesized hero must overcome, etc.). Rather, it was how the narrative bucked convention, your main character’s arc primarily his journey in finding his missing mother. Starting as a young boy travelling with his father, he’ll witness his brutal murder (!), is forced into child slavery (!!), escapes and finds the time to take a wife, discovers he has a lineage of nobility, and yet doesn’t turn out to be the prophesized hero destined to save the world. Mang, that was unheard of in RPGs! Your main character always is the hero! Who is it, then? You don’t find that out until he saves your ass, for your character eventually gets turned to stone and is left to erode for several years. Did I mention this game loves to gut punch your emotions a bunch?

Eh? Oh, right, CD5 of the box set. This one features music played when travelling by other means than foot. Having a sea faring vessel is standard in most RPGs, but your method of flight often varies from game to game. Final Fantasy famously likes airships, and Ultima once used star crafts before the series realized that was daft for a fantasy setting. Dragon Quest, meanwhile, has never settled on a standard mode of air transport. Such means have included a resurrected phoenix, a hot air balloon, a magic carpet, a flying bed (!), a winged horse, and a floating rock vessel. Y’know, for a game series called Dragon Quest, you’d think there’d be more flying on dragons.

Truth be told, I find this the weakest of the CDs. Aside from a few lovely pieces (Heavenly Flight (III), Sea Breeze (IV), Over The Horizon (VII), most of Sugiyama-san’s compositions here meander about with little to hook you in. It does recreate that feeling of an endlessly open world to explore, but I can’t say this is a CD I reach for often. Oh, and I absolutely hate those ship waltzes for Dragon Quest II and III. Too damn goofy, even for a disc with a song titled Flying Bed (VI).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 4

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

Dragon Quest IV was a remarkable game when it came out, one of the last true greats of the 8-bit era. Featuring multiple characters, each had their own 'chapters' before coming together for a final chapter, breaking conventional RPG storytelling in the process. The game even established many tropes folks now take for granted in the genre (hero village sacked, tragic villain, prophecy, etc.). Koichi Sugiyama, already showing amazing finesse with the Nintendo soundcard, outdid himself yet again with this game. I’ve touched on several pieces and themes in the previous CDs of this box set, and I will several more times before we’re done.

While the game remains a favourite for many (*cough*), it unfortunately was way overshadowed by other big RPGs of the time. Final Fantasy IV had made its sexy debut on the Super Nintendo, leaving Dragon Quest IV’s clunky Nintendo graphics well in the dust. Meanwhile, in PC gaming land, Ultima VII: The Black Gate burst forth, proving that series remained top dog of the yard. Still, Yuji Horii wasn’t trying to outdo Lord British’s games, just make simpler versions of them. That, and the dungeon crawling of Wizardry.

Oh yeah, we’re dealing with the ‘dungeon’ disc with CD4 - woot, I can segue like this all day! Any good RPG needs its caves where monsters dwell, hoarding all sorts of treasures to loot. Appropriately, Sugiyama-san composed pieces reflecting ominous shadows, creepy crevices, and claustrophobic caverns. With Dragon Quest II, towers were introduced as another form of monster infested locale, and ol’ Koichi approached this music from a different angle, compositions often urgent in pace, melodies suggesting mischievous shenanigans by whatever devilry may lurk in long abandoned rooms. This feeling of lofty unease was best captured by Screams From The Tower Of Monsters (VII), where sinister plucked strings give way to woozy violins and flutes, every so often interrupted by the echo of horns, as though you’re just hovering at the edge of a thirty foot drop. Watch that final step, wily hero; it’s a loo-loo.

Oops, you fell off and splattered on the ground below. Or fell into a cunning trap by Demonites in that tower. Or crawled too deep into a dungeon, meeting a horrible end at hoards of Horks, or in the den of a dozen Green Dragons (damn you, Road To Rhone). Whatever the case, as the classic Dragon Warrior saying goes, “Thou art dead.”

As these can be a common occurrences in Dragon Quest, Sugiyama-san saw fit to include mournful pieces for those ‘game over’ screens, typically titled Requiem or Elegy. In the first few games, you’d be resurrected by Kings, but later it’d be at churches or shrines with priests (Houses Of Healing with shaman, for the religious-wary early Nintendo games). Such holy havens deserve music worthy of humbling piety, which are provided as counters-points to the various requiems. It marks a rather soothing end to CD4, a blissful contrast to the foreboding tones of the first half.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 3

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

For the first two Dragon Quest games, you played as the descendents of a legendary hero known as Roto (or Erdrick). For all the great deeds you did in those games (save kingdoms, rescue princesses, defeat a God Of Chaos!), folks sure still talk mighty highly of that person from way back. Just what was his/her story anyway? Dragon Quest III tells that tale, though it wasn't immediately apparent. For the most part, it plays as a typical RPG, going from town to town, kingdom to kingdom (all suspiciously familiar), completing quests and finding treasures to finally bring down a big bad threatening the world. That wasn't the whole story either, but enough plot. The game itself marked the series' proper foray into the realm of classic pen-and-paper RPGs, with multiple party member classes you can swap in and out to your heart's content.

With such customization available, Dragon Quest III has been a fan favourite through the years, even as the game's mechanics grow ever more archaic. It's gotta' be that soundtrack that keeps drawing them back. Koichi Sugiyama outdid himself with this game, composing several pieces bringing to mind derring-do, swash-buckling, high adventure. Heck, the overworld theme he wrote for this game is titled Adventure (III).

Speaking of overworld themes, that’s what CD3 of this box set covers. Unknown World from the first Dragon Quest is probably one of the most famous little loops in jRPG history, which ol’ Koichi recycled in future pieces too, including Endless World (II) in Dragon Quest II. This piece also introduced the idea of overworld music serving as leitmotifs for your party characters, an idea explored amazingly for Dragon Quest IV’s ten-minute opus Comrades (IV). With just a few measures of music, you can glean the sort of person these funny little sprites are supposed to be: slow French horns signifying an honor-bound soldier, perky trumpets suggesting an impulsive princess, flutes and cellos for a jovial rotund merchant, spirited gypsy rhythms for a fiery dancer... you get the point. Once all these characters come together, the sound of a triumphant fanfare in Homeland ~ Wagon Wheel’s March (IV) swaggers its way to inevitable victory over the forces of evil. Oh my, I’m fanboying all over the place, aren’t I?

There’s no overworld theme for Dragon Quest V on this CD, that piece part of that game’s township medley instead for some reason. Later, as the games encompassed more than one world to explore (Dream dimensions! Underwater! The past!), they utilized the medley style themselves, though always came back to an adventurous ditty by the end.

That leaves a little space on CD3, where some of the sadder music in the Dragon Quest pantheon is found. Make Me Feel Sad (V) is an apt title, that game having some truly heart-wrenching moments throughout. Dragon Quest VII, meanwhile, gets two melancholic pieces, Days Of Sadness (VII) and Sarabrand (VII). That’s definitely a game that earns its tragic situations, believe you me.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 2

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

The success of Dragon Quest guaranteed a sequel. Hell, Yuji Horii had a franchise on his hands, though just how big the phenomenon would grow, few could know in those early days. At least as big as Mario, some had to assume, and like the series featuring super plumber brothers, a quick follow-up to the first game hit the shelves in Japan. Dragon Quest 2 was also brutal hard in that old-timey RPG way: excessive grinding, unfair puzzles, and wonky balancing. Ask any longtime Dragon Quest fan about the Road To Rhone, and you’ll be met with stares benefiting a PTSD survivor.

Not that I blame the game designers for the difficulty. They were no doubt learning how to expand upon their initial ideas as they went along, yet forced to meet deadlines without enough playtesting. Koichi Sugiyama may have felt similar constraints when composing for Dragon Quest II, the music not quite as memorable as the first game. Even II’s symphonic suite sounds flat compared to the other sessions.

Anyhow, CD2 of this box set features music heard as you stroll through the various towns of Dragon Quest, buying gear, engaging in gossip, discovering clues in what ‘they say…’ before embarking on a new mission. Sugiyama-san typically wrote these to sound folksy, bustling, and chipper, a respite from the grueling travels over the world. As the games grew more complex, it increased the various types of places you might visit, giving ol’ Koichi more freedom in the music he’d write. Around The World (III) features exotic locales like ancient Egypt and traditional Japan. In A Town (IV) gives us the series’ first instance of contemporary music with ragtime casino tunes, plus an epic crescendo for a coliseum tournament.

When the games made their jump to 16-bit and 32-bit, they could store an increased variety of music, which led to Sugiyama-san composing lengthier medleys. These couldn’t be summed up with simple names either, each piece quite distinct within each composition. Thus, we get titles like *deep breath*Melody In An Ancient Town ~ Toward The Horizon ~ Casino ~ Lively Town ~ Melody In An Ancient Town (V) and *deep breath*In The Town ~ Happy Humming ~ Inviting Village ~ Folk Dance ~ In The Town (VI). I think even ol’ Koichi realized that was getting cumbersome, simplifying Dragon Quest VII’s township medley down to Strolling In The Town (VII). See, it gets the same gist across.

Added to the end of CD2 are two love themes, Melody Of Love (V) and To My Loved One (VII). They primarily feature touching violin solos, followed by charming strings and flutes. As for why have such music, a major component of Dragon Quest V centers around your character finding a wife – gonna’ need a strong love theme to sell that story, yo’. And while your character doesn’t have as involved a storyline in Dragon Quest VII, you sure do witness many blossoming romances along the way. D’aw.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Koichi Sugiyama - Symphonic Suite "Dragon Quest" Complete CD-Box: Disc 1

SME Visual Works Inc.: 2003

So I'm a Dragon Quest fan (Dragon Warrior to all you O.G. RPG players out there). Sure, it was never the 'cool' option, but what it lacked in hardcore gameplay (your Ultimas) or style (your Final Fantasys), it made up for in pure, simplistic charm. It's a series that never had to oversell itself, remaining grounded in heart-warming tales of right and wrong, where altruism is its own reward. Bonking a few hundred Slimes for that shiny new copper sword wasn't such a bad way to pass the time either.

The success of Dragon Quest is a tale of all the right people falling into place. Game designer Yuji Horii finding a way of simplifying elements of computer RPGs for an eager Japanese audience just getting into their Famicom/Nintendo home consoles. Artist Akira Toriyama, hot off the success of his manga Dragonball, creating several iconic character and monster designs for the game. And, in an unprecedented move, composer Koichi Sugiyama coming on board to create a soundtrack for the game. Already experienced in films, TV, and anime, he helped change the craft of video games music, such that they'd no longer be rote, bleepy loops, but pieces of lasting standing. He set about doing this by writing the music as he would for a fully orchestrated composition, then squeezing it down such they'd mimic what he wrote with those tiny little soundcards. In the process, Sugiymama-san’s work for the first Dragon Quest game become just as iconic in Japanese pop culture as anything from the Mario and Zelda camps.

Remarkably, it proved so popular that actual interest grew in hearing these simple melodies performed with the backing of a complete orchestra. Who knows whether ol’ Koichi ever intended the compositions to be heard as such, but his series of symphonic suites became must-haves for every fan of the series, their success kicking off symphonic suites for other video games too. This particular box set gathers up the first seven Dragon Quest scores, arranging them based on themes and settings within the games themselves. As this is CD1, the music visited upon are the Overtures (re: title screen music) and the castle themes, which many a Dragon Quest adventure began.

I cannot deny hearing the opening trumpet fanfare of the Overture sends a ton of nostalgia endorphins flooding through my noggin, but seven straight versions of it is complete overkill. The first, Overture March (I), at least provides an extended play on the theme, and Roto (III) mixes things up with marching snares. Beyond that though, you’ve heard one Overture, you’ve heard them all.

The castle themes, however, are quite lovely, if you enjoy your sombre string section music. Chateau Ladustorm (I) is probably just as iconic a piece as anything from the first Dragon Quest game, though Menuet (IV) gives it a good run too. The latter games saw fit to add horns to the mix, but nothing beats those bassy cellos for setting a regal mood.

Friday, December 18, 2015

ACE TRACKS: December 2012

Fair warning: for the next week, I’m embarking on a quest. One where I know few, if any of you, are willing to endure with me. This was a long time coming, a project that started out even before my days at TranceCritic, though never saw completion. In fact, it was a trial run of sorts, getting the handle on writing music reviews on the internet, though in this case for an already accepting audience. It is also, by far, the geekiest thing I will write about, as this upcoming 7-disc box set is, by far, the geekiest thing I have in my music collection. With barely a smidge of electronic music within, I don’t blame you if y’all check out after the first review. And fair enough if so – have a holiday from this blog, return after Boxing Day. However, if by chance you area fan of this gaming series (!!), then think of the coming week as a big ol’ holiday present.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s get to some ACE TRACKS of three got’dang years past. Holy cow, there was still only one Hobbit movie when I was listening to these!


Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Various - Disco Dub House: Mixed By Carl Michaels
Various - Dimensions In Ambience 2
Technical Itch - Diagnostics
BKS - Dreamcatcher
Ornament - Bleu
Felix Da Housecat - Devin Dazzle & The Neon Fever


Percentage of Hip-Hop: 14%
Percentage Of Rock: 29% (if you want to include The Downward Spiral as rock)
Most “WTF?” Track: Charles Manier - Bang Bang Lover (Dance Mix) (what the Hell is he saying!??)

Bloody stupid album version of Absolutely Fabulous cutting off at the peak of the track. Seriously, who does that? So stupid, and I’m so sorry y’all must suffer hearing it that way too, no full version available on Spotify. Also, way too many cool albums missing as well, but so it goes with the older stuff.

What we do get for Decemeber 2012 is a lot of ambient dub (shock!), a little tech-house smash, a filling of ‘electronica’ mint (Underworld! Daft Punk!), a dash of dream trance cheese, and bunch of Snoop Dogg with Trent Reznor at the end. Straight forward enough, with a few fun sequences thrown in there. *whew* Almost finished the ACE TRACKS backlog too. Savor these times, friends.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Paul Oakenfold - Swordfish: The Album (Original TC Review)

London-Sire Records: 2001

(2015 Update:
Did anyone get the parody in this review? My extended riff on the only good part about the movie, John Travolta's opening monologue regarding Hollywood's lack of realism? Guess you'd have to hear it in the first place, which I doubt many reading this ever did. Well, here's a good ol' linky to it on YouTube for you to get your kicks in. Now you can read this old review as intended, as envisioned, as ordained.

This was a fun one to write, especially coming off that horrendous album of 'original' material Oakenfold had released the same year. It's held up much better too, at least in that vintage turn-o'-the-millennium prog-trance stylee folks continue reminiscing over. I'd make a quip about the same being untrue for the movie, but I still haven't seen it, and probably never will. The version of
Swordfish playing in my head based on the few clues given by the music here is almost certainly leagues better than anything committed to film.)


IN BRIEF: Better than remembered.

The year 2001. Such a memorable year, wasn’t it? No, I’m not referring to that incident; I mean before then. A time when we felt complacent and self-assured about things. A time when we still felt the buzz of the 90s, the silly Y2K superstitions having blown away with the wind. A time when young loves and romantic rendezvous was heartfelt and genuine (well, in my neck of the woods).

The year 2001. Remember how great electronic music was then? When electroclash was new and exciting? How house music was at glorious heights courtesy of the French? How NRG was dying off (well, I celebrated)? When seeing the name Oakenfold in production credits still equaled class?

Oh, yes, my newbie readers. Even if folks were divided on the merits of his DJing in those days, few disputed Paul’s worth as a producer, his track record throughout the '90s impeccable. Despite never actually spearheading any genre, whatever style he jumped on could be counted on as a worthy addition to the movement.

So, does anyone remember the buzz surrounding his involvement with the soundtrack to Hollywood’s faux-hacker thriller Swordfish? I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t, as it was buried under the other hype going into the movie: John Travolta doing the post-modern villain thing; Halle Berry showing nipples for an outlandish fee; Joel Silver, still flashing ‘bankable’ from The Matrix, being promoted as the hot producer for the flick. Yeah, Paul’s involvement probably didn’t register much in the minds of the movie biz faithful.

But, oh, did it matter in clubland. As far as many were concerned, this was the closest thing to a solo Oakenfold album yet (his work with Grace is often regarded as a collaborative effort), and his huge fanbase was eagre to check out the results.

Right, right. Swordfish isn’t exactly all Oakenfold. Three tracks don’t have his imprint on it, and one isn’t even from his label (the Lemon Jelly song, which unsurprisingly sounds the most unique amongst the others). Everything else, though, finds Paul getting his fingers in. Whether as producer, remixer, or collaborator, the Oakenfold (and Andy Gray, heh) touch is felt. Although you can definitely hear how these tracks would work in the movie itself, their worth isn’t hindered if you haven’t seen it (er, like me). Between clear-cut songs (Jan Johnston’s Unafraid; N*E*R*D’s Lapdance; the Planet Rock remix), trancey Perfecto cuts (Dark Machine; Muse’s New Born; Patient Saints’ On Your Mind), and obvious made-for-movie moments (Speed; Password), every one of them holds enough musical strength to keep your attention.

Holding everything together, and raising the bar on this release, is the maintained theme. While most soundtracks of this nature grab a collection of random, if not similar sounding tunes and hope for the best, Swordfish’s keeps the moody techno-trance tone intact for the duration. Even if the BPMs vary by ten or twenty, it flows naturally from song to song. This is arguably the most consistent soundtrack I’ve heard, short of orchestral and true solo works of course.

Unfortunately, Paul’s work here was doomed to soundtrack tie-in failure. There were no clear-cut singles to promote it and no big anthems tearing up the clubs from it. The final nail in the coffin was Swordfish’s own lackluster performance at the theater. Without a sizable audience eagre to hear the music associated with the flick, the soundtrack’s sales were paltry. Oakenfold’s ‘debut’ project was quickly forgotten with an unremarkable whimper, his attention now focused on a proper artist album. So endeth the Swordfish saga.

But what if - now this is the tricky part - what if folks looked past the theatrical tie-in. No movie, no hype: just treat it as a concept album, a collaborative effort with Paul’s ideas leading the charge. Lock, stock. Still no good? C’mon. How much Hollywood marketing thrown out the window would it take for the fans to reverse their stance on this soundtrack’s worthiness? And this is early 2001! There’s still optimism, still a lack of cynicism, and Paul’s star, Paul’s star is still shining!

Now, fast forward to today; diff’rent time, diff’rent place. How quickly we are to mock Oakenfold and slam anything he does in a matter of hours. An, an easily laughed at story, from Swordfish to Lively Mind. A sell-out stumble. Again, again. Relentless. Trip, splat. One after the other. All displayed on the ‘net: downloaded, compressed, mocked, and ridiculed; you can practically see the ship sinking. And all for what? A mansion, a plane? A couple million pounds of blow to shoot straight up the nose?

As easy as it is to point to Swordfish’s failure as the beginning of Oakenfold’s end, looking at just the music itself reveals some actual thought and consideration going into this. Treated as a collection of moody, trancey tunes, there’s some decent material to be had. And, no matter what you may think of Oakenfold these days, Swordfish is at least worth a pick-up should you ever spot it in a bargain bin along with the DVD, as some of these cuts don’t deserve to be lost with bungled Hollywood hype.

Well, just a thought.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)

RCA: 1983/2005

While Eurythmics had an album out prior to this one, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) may as well be the duo's debut regardless. In The Garden didn't generate much interest, most folks unsure whether these two transplants from The Tourists were worth keeping tabs on. Even when Lennox and Stewart changed course to the synth-heavy sound we commonly associate with early Eurythmics, the turnaround discourse wasn't immediate. The first couple singles, This Is the House and The Walk, passed by with barely any notice, and third EP Love Is A Stranger made the barest of impressions on the scene. You have to wonder if, at that point, the Eurythmics story was on the brink. Might have Lennox and Stewart called it quits if the next single for their sophomore album failed as well; perhaps receding into avante-garde endeavours, or maybe reforming The Tourists for another kick at the new wave can. Heck, they might have even split themselves, frustrated that their creative synergy kept falling on deaf ears! Fortunately for them, that single was Sweet Dreams, and it changed everything for Eurythmics.

There’s nothing I can add to the choir praising this track that you haven’t read or discovered for yourself. Do you know much about the accompanying album though? Maybe you do, if you were there at the beginning, rushing the shops to hear more of this strange detached new wave synth-pop as performed by a group taking Bowie’s androgynous style to new levels. However, I wager most only know it as ‘that album with the two great songs on it’, and skip it for a greatest hits package instead. It’s not like This Is The House and The Walk got folks talking – maybe too much brass in The Walk.

The rest of Sweet Dreams: The Album mostly find Lennox and Stewart doing the post-wave new synth-fusion soul pop thing they’re most commonly known for, though in a much stripped manner. As they had yet to blow up big, Stewart’s studio was still rather basic, making use of a mere eight-track console while recording. A lesser group would likely have crumbled under such limitations, but with clever song writing and Lennox’s powerful pipes bringing tons of soul to such a synthesized sound, the result was one of the more unique albums of the early ‘80s. They even got a little experimental, what with ethereal Jennifer and dubby This City Never Sleeps.

As with all re-issues, we get a few B-sides from that era, some of which are shocking. Take Monkey, Monkey from the Love Is A Stranger single: is that proto-techno I hear? It’s funky, instrumental, super electronic, and how has no one ever talked about it being from 1982? Or how about the proto-EBM Baby’s Gone Blue from the Sweet Dreams single? There’s also a Moroder remix of Sweet Dreams (!), and an early Coldcut remix of Love Is A Stranger (!!). Damn, forget the big hits, these are worth picking up this CD alone.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Swayzak - Some Other Country (Original TC Review)

Studio !K7: 2007

(2015 Update:
This was the last album Swayzak produced while signed to Studio !K7. They put out another LP a couple years after,
Re: Serieculture on the short-lived Japanese label Timothy Really (?), then split a short while later. David Brown carries the name now, producing techno as s_w_z_k, while James Taylor releases experimental material as Lugano Fell. Both are alright, I suppose, but clearly their best days are well behind, when they led the fashionable minimal dub surge at the turn of the millennium. Still, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if they reunited for a mini-tour. It's what all semi-popular club acts do eventually.

Obviously, their splitting turns this review totally dated, assuming the Swayzak story would have many more years. Instead, it now comes off as a last gasp attempt to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded field of minimal tech-dub house whatevers.
Some Other Country has held up decently enough for the time, Swayzak already pretty darn skill at this sound when everyone else was rushing into have their piece. If it didn't interest you before though, I'd check out their earlier albums before this one.)


IN BRIEF: In the groove.

There seems to be two journalistic camps when it comes to Swayzak: either you’ve been a dedicated chronicler of their decade-long career, or you only come across them whenever an album or single happens upon your desk. It’s created an odd assortment of reviews of their material over the years, where some will cast a spotlight upon the duo as though they have just as much star power as The Chemical Brothers, while others give them a bemused warming for their ‘just quirky enough’ brand of chilled grooves. Similarly, the old faithful are still waiting for Swayzak to come correct on their potential promise, while the opposite end of the spectrum are quite intrigued by their sonic tricks. Granted, this could be said for any number of acts, but Swayzak is indeed one of those duos that could have made it as big as, say, AIR, had things been ever so slightly different.

I suppose yours truly falls somewhere in the middle of these two outlooks when it comes to the UK duo; casual fans are like that. Unsurprisingly then, my thoughts regarding their new album Some Other Country does too. I write it as I hear it: this is a solid offering that keeps the Swayzakian ship steady on course, despite an apparent lack of care regarding a destination. They seem to have had their fill of stylistic exploration and are quite content to concentrate on song writing rather than experimentation.

This isn’t to say the album is devoid of variation. Swayzak willfully jump genres with cool confidence befit of a veteran duo with their talent. Techno, dub, minimal, and even malian influences all make appearances but are seldom the driving force behind what you hear. Rather, you get the sense they had a certain song they wanted to make, then decided to add a twist to it after the blueprint was laid out to give it a little more personality. And it certainly works in that regard.

For instance, opener Quiet Life has all the requisite trappings of a blissy slice of mellow minimal house: atmospheric synths, breezy vocals from Cassy Britton, and clicky backings. All fairly standard pieces as far as this sound is concerned, yet Swayzak add just a touch of uniqueness to the song that saves it from quickly fading from your memory - in this case, an odd lifeless voice stating the title which is in stark contrast to Britton’s own lyrics.

Another example? How about second track So Cheap? I’ve a feeling Swayzak had a discussion going something like this when making it:

James: “I say, David m’chap, this is a right pretty minimal track here, but it’s missing just a bit of something else. Fancy any ideas?”
David: “Hmm... well, I had this really crazy one. I don’t know if we should do it though.”
James: “Why, what is it?”
David: “James m’boy, it’s unlike anything those mainlanders in Berlin are doing. It’ll fly in their good ol’ faces.”
James: “Blimey, I’m sold! Do tell!”
David: “I fancied throwing in an actual... melody, y’know? Oh, we’ll still do some nifty minimal effects and all that rot, but let a melody carry it for good portions too.”
James: “Oh my... Who puts melody into minimal these days? It’s just unheard of.”
David: “I know, m’boy, I know. Fak it, let’s do anyway. Might go well somewhere before that Afro-jazz thingy we got going in Claktronic.”

Heh, okay, probably not, bad English accent and all.

Still, there are other examples of the duo throwing interesting twists to what would otherwise be pretty standard tunes in the hands of others. A confounding time signature in the proto-trancey Distress And Calling; having a tragic euro-artiste styled vocal provided by indie rockers Les Fauves on top of moody slice of brooding techno (Silent Luv); big bouncy bright synths at the tail end of gripping spacey dub in They Return.

Even when they play things straighter, Swayzak craft some decidedly moving tunes. No Sad Goodbyes featuring recurring guest vocalist Richard Davis is just as stirring as anything they’ve collaborated with in the past (“Taking us back to the dark street littered with good intentions...” Lovely lyrics!).

Some Other Country isn’t the dynamic release long time fans have been wistfully waiting for, as many of Swayzak’s tricks will undoubtedly be over familiar with them at this point in their career. However, despite being executed in such a low-key manner, this is still a reasonably enjoyable album. If anything, each track offers just enough interest to keep your attention as it plays through, a feat that is unfortunately rare when it comes to electronic full-lengths.

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Chemical Brothers - Surrender

Astralwerks: 1999

The Chemical Brothers were kings of the big beat castle, a deserved title considering they practically built the damn thing themselves. A string of classic singles, two seminal albums, and a live show then unparalleled in electronic music, it'd take much to dethrone them. As the 20th Century neared its end, however, many would-be usurpers were storming the gates, ready to nab the crowns off Simons and Rowlands. The Crystal Method came with the pitchforks; Fatboy Slim with the battering ram; Junkie XL with the wire-fu crew; The Wiseguys with a donkey. The Chemical Brothers were seasoned veterans though, and ain't no way they’d go quietly into the night. They had their own counter-attack in the works, y'see, a third album ready to hit shelves with just as much aplomb as Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole. Surely it would be another big beat masterpiece, proving once and for all they could never be knocked off their peak, their summit, their- No, wait, that's not right. They instead abandoned big beat altogether, releasing an LP of house and techno grooves. So that's why they named the album Surrender.

Really, The Chemie Bros had nothing to prove, deciding the time was right showing off other genres they could tackle. Making things easier in getting playlisted by all the very important progressive house DJs probably didn't hurt their decision either. Surrender thus comes with very simple caveats for all potential listeners: if you like their block rockin' beats and only their block rockin' beats, you won't dig this album. If you're a Chemical fan for life though - through the fun times and the 'artistic' ones – then you already have Surrender in your collection, don't you.

The more interesting question, then, is whether it was love at first listen, or it took some warming up to. I can't deny Surrender wasn't what I was expecting, especially with such a lacklustre lead single in Hey Boy, Hey Girl, at least compared to previous leads. I was also stupid burnt-out on The Chemical Brothers anyway, all the hype that went into Dig Your Own Hole necessitating a brief break from their sound. I think it was hearing the sub-whoofer demolishing Under The Influence on the WipEout 3 soundtrack that got me curious again. Video games can do that.

And there’s still vintage Chemical Brothers on here. Opener Music: Response has them big, beefy beats hitting, but this time coupled with some psychedelic electro. Let Forever Be once again teams up with Noel Gallagher as they forever chase The Beatles, while Asleep From Day, Dream On and the titular cut fear no starry-eyed sunrise at Glastonbury. On the other hand, Out Of Control sounds tailor made for the action movie crowd, The Sunshine Underground a massive festival climax, and Got Glint? a deep house club on acid (those claps!). All this is enough that I can vibe with Surrender on its own merits, a worthy capper to their trilogy of ‘90s albums.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Polygon Window - Surfing On Sine Waves

Warp Records: 1992/2000

The only Aphex Twin album you're supposed to have, if you want to have an Aphex Twin album that's not by Aphex Twin. No, the AFX stuff doesn't count, because you can totally tell it's the same guy. Who in their sane mind could tell Polygon Window was also a Richard D. James alias though? Not from a casual glance, no sir, though as soon as you throw this record on the player, it's pretty damn obvious. The main reason it wasn’t billed asan Aphex Twin album is ol’ Rich had yet to settle on a consistent alias, not to mention all the label politicking that went down in those days. His famous moniker was still an Apollo exclusive, he was using ‘Bradley Strider’ on his own Rephlex print, and ain’t no way Ffrreedom was letting go of Power-Pill. Thus, here’s Polygon Window making his debut on Warp Records.

Some state Surfing On Sine Waves as the best LP Mr. Dee James has ever put out. Yes, better than either Selected Ambient Works, better than his self-titled album, and even better than the best Aphex Twin album to come out in the last fifteen years, Syro. What could possibly be on this ancient record that has longtime Aphex fans proclaiming such a thing? Ambient techno, obviously, though some regular UK bleep and acid techno too. Nothing super mind-bending or obtuse for its own sake either - just interesting, intelligent tunes made in the Aphex aesthetic. As Surfing On Sine Waves was released as the second volume of Warp Records’ seminal Artificial Intelligence series (which included both compilations and artist albums), perhaps The Richarded One played nice with the fledgling London label. Or maybe he’d yet to discover his inner brilliant, wanker swagger.

The closest comparison Surfing On Sine Waves comes to the rest of Mr. James’ oeuvre is the first Selected Ambient Works. Hardly surprising since they were released around the same time, but these tracks are definitely more techno than ambient. Audax Powder has a gentle pad melody going for it, then changes gears to a bouncy rave beat. Dot goes for a moody atmosphere in robot Hell, and Quino-Phec is all sorts of dark, calming drone as found on the later volume of SAW. Reissues added Portreath Harbour and Redruth School, both sounding like early SAW session tracks that didn’t make the cut.

Other tracks fear no hardcore rhythm, Supremacy II getting its proper rave on, Quixote doing a techno-trance thing, and the titular opener showing them UK lads could go a little Detroit, should they so choose. Surprisingly, there’s some ‘conventional’ music here too, Quoth bangin’ percolating machine techno, If It Really Is Me rather drab piano techno, and an untitled track toying around with standard acid. Hey, Aphex Twin really is human after all!

At its best, Surfing On Sine Waves is a heavier, if simpler companion to James’ more famous work of the period. Not a must-have, but definitely worth the time invested.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

Epic: 2000

Finally I’m tackling the one Ghostface Killah album Wu-Tang fans and general hip-hop folks alike consider his best long-player, Supreme Clientele. Remarkably, it wasn’t even thought as such for at first, the very definition of a slow burner. For sure the hardline Wu fandom was tripping themselves over it, but this came out when the Clan was losing their dominance at the top of the rap world, many albums from other members lacklustre compared to the fiery opening salvo that marked their ‘90s output. That Ghost’s sophomore effort would get slept on isn’t surprising, Mr. Killah’s stock as one of Wu-Tang’s best solo MC having yet to be established. It still burned in the underground though, and if anything, Supreme Clientele was the record that kept everyone talking, proving that not all things Wu was on the wane. Then Tony Starks would surpass the rest of his Clan fam’ in popularity, and everyone chimed in proclaiming they always knew Supreme Clientele was dope. Right, of course.

Disclosure time: I have not actually heard this album as most have. Rather, I have a misspressed, early version that shipped out with the initial wave of Canadian copies. For the longest time, I suspected something was wrong with my CD, the tracklist and sequencing wildly off cue compared to what was printed. It didn't matter too much, as the album was boss from front to back, but I couldn't figure why one nine-minute long track sounded like three different cuts one after the other. At the time, I thought it was an artistic decision, that Ghostface was operating on a different plane with this LP, throwing the very conventions of properly indexing one's albums out the window.

Nah, guy, it was just the wrong one I got, is all. So I lost The Grain; I gained the soul-drenched In The Rain instead. And I still get all the ace cuts anyway, even if they’re in a different order. The bouncy club jams One, Cherchez LaGhost, and Buck 50 are all still here. The killer, crusty Wu production of Mighty Healthy, Malcom, Wu Banga 101 and Stroke Of Death (the beat loop is a freakin’ spinback!) are all still here. Most members of the Clan show up (no ODB because jail, and no Deck, though he does provide a beat), with everyone sounding on point and in classic ‘90s hunger mode. The various skits are okay too (haha, they’re already dissin’ 50 Cent), and are nicely shuffled off to the ends of tracks in this copy rather than given individual indexes. Okay, that’s a personal preference.

Apparently such discrepancies have turned this first-run Canadian copy into something of a collector’s item, going for easy triple-digits in some quarters. Huh, In The Rain is a cool track (found only on this CD), but is it really worth a couple hundred bones?

In any version, Supreme Clientele is among the best solo Wu albums out there. Essential listening for any fan of the Clan.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Flowjob - Support Normality (2015 Update)

Iboga Records: 2006

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

At the tail end of that very, very, very long original review of Support Normality, I quipped about how pricey these old, ace albums in the psy scene can get on the collector’s market. Hell, even lesser CDs have fetched remarkable prices at Discogs. From my pile alone, U-Recken’s Aquatic Serenade once sold for $143! The compilation Goa Spirit 3, $102! ICE MC’s Ice N’ Green, $81 (wait, what?). Several Ultimae albums have moved in the $75-$100 range, with plenty more psy leaning discs going in the tidy $30-$50 bracket. Flowjob’s sophomore album, Zentertainment, which I found weaker than their debut, brought home $40 for a former owner. Surely Support Normality then, a great collection of ultra-groovy progressive trance, would command a gracious price of… seven… teen… dollars? Are you kidding me? That’s an injustice! This should be going for well over $50! Did Iboga flood the market with too many copies or something? Am I blinded by some unaccounted bias? I’ll admit I was going through some interesting transitional times when I first came across this album, but still.

No, wait, let’s examine this. Did my situational living impact upon my reaction to Support Normality in a significant way? It’s no secret we often associate music with events in our lives, such that hearing a song can send a flood of memories from the time you first heard it. When I play this album back now, three immediate things come to mind: a rave where I had a bad 2CB trip, shitty Vancouver weather (even more so than usual), and being home wretchedly sick watching Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica. I can’t say these are at all pleasant memories on the surface, but they were significant, where after a year of big city bachelorhood, I was learning just what it took to survive in the Lower Mainland. Don’t be so irresponsible at parties, get some proper rainwear, and don’t binge watch such a depressing, brilliant sci-fi series. Oh God, the flood of feels, I tells ya’!

I suppose Support Normality provided a brief bright spot in that dour February of 2006. The chipper vibes, dubby synths, and oh-so infectious rhythms gave me a glimmer of optimism, rejuvenated my interest in electronic music in such a way that hadn’t happened since electroclash emerged onto the scene. Flowjob wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t heard before, but they did it with such finesse and skill, I was instantly hooked. They found a sweet spot that catered to my deep, dubby prog needs, the sort of music none of the genre’s standard bearers were crafting anymore, all content pursuing their own roads instead (tech, minimal, Mc.). It obviously didn’t happen like that for others, some probably bored by what Flowjob was selling. But no one can deny they have albums of similar connection to them as this one has with me.

PS: no, I’m not looking to sell anything from my collection, but if I was, hoo boy, would I clean up!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sander van Doorn - Supernaturalistic (Original TC Review)

Ultra Records: 2008

(2015 Update:
Some credit must be given here, as Sander did embark on a different path from what everyone else was doing in trance at the time. It was still mostly rubbish, and had too many copy-cats following in step within the year, but that 'Dutch minimal' sound of his was unique, even if it was only a passing fad. As with so many of his Netherlands brethren however, ol' Doorn's become the copy-cat rather than the innovator, his recent productions mere Garrix clones with a bit of that classic Doorn bass thrown in. Predictably, his stock on the DJ Mag poll - the only important poll for Dutch DJs - has plummeted. Maybe he'll get back to his tech-trance roots now? Oh, who are we kidding, he'd totally torpedo his festival time slots if he stopped catering-

This album, then.

Riff's still a dope track, but so much of this is just a big ol' nothing of music, more so now since I can't imagine anyone playing anything off here except Doorn himself. The whole 'minimal' tangent in Dutch trance never had much success to begin with, producers quick to hop on whatever new bandwagon they could hitch themselves onto. So it goes.)


IN BRIEF: Much ado...

Lately it feels like trance producers labeled as “the future/saviors” of the genre have become a dime-a-dozen; nearly any name with some status or string of minor hits has been branded as such in recent years. Yet when Sander van Doorn broke out of nowhere a few years back, his tough tech-trance productions and energetic DJ sets hinted at the possibility that perhaps someone would finally live up to that hype. Then he released Grasshopper, and everything changed. It appeared the Dutchman had hopped on the minimal bandwagon, resulting in a plodding effects-laden wankfest of techno that split much of his fanbase. Some were looking forward to seeing where he might go with the sound, while others hoped it was just a one-off experiment. Later singles Riff and By Any Demand hinted at the former as 2007 wore on.

A year now from that polarizing single, Doorn has come forth with his debut full-length titled Supernaturalistic. It arrived with very little initial fanfare back in early March but has since gained steam thanks to the hard work of PR teams pushing it in order to maintain his star-status. However, the actual listeners remain divided as ever, as the Dutchman’s new direction appears to dominate much of the album. For make no mistake about it - musically, this is about as bare-bones as dance music gets. Doorn seems to have settled on this basic formula: introduce thumping beats, establish a simple hook, break it down and build it up with waves upon waves of effects, hit the peak, and then-

Oh, hey, that was fun. Let’s move on.

Is it really fair to criticize Doorn for being formulaic? Dance music in of itself is formulaic; I may as well complain about oranges being the color orange. Frankly, you can do plenty with formula, and even if he doesn’t stray far from it, Sander seems intent upon trying a few different things within his narrow arrangements. By Any Demand’s funky guitar lick, for instance, is certainly an attention grabber, and as a follow-up to the pounding opener-proper Riff, hints at something fresh and fun. Of course, this being the New Sander, once the breakdown/build passes and the beats drop in on us, the track-

Moving on.

From here, the musical ideas retreat further and further, as Doorn lets his techno influences dominate. There are sprinklings of trancey melodies here and there, but for the most part are held in submission. This wouldn’t be so bad if for one problem: for all the perceived dark, tough, and threatening tones Doorn supplies, the general atmosphere of Supernaturalistic falls well short of truly ominous techy vibes. It’s about as menacing as James Dean -as played by a cigarette-smoking chimpanzee (especially when compared to the 800-pound cyborg gorilla that is L.S.G.’s The Black Album, even a decade on). And when all these tracks end on such limp notes as they do after big builds filled with effects, you begin to wonder-

It’s those minimal influences.

Yeah, minimal’s aesthetic has pretty much worked its way into everything. That style, however, is built around subtlety, nuance, and status-quo. A typical minimal track seldom goes anywhere, far more content to cruise along and play with effects or atmosphere than take you on a musical journey. Sander, it would seem, wants to have his cake and eat it too; he wants to join the minimal bandwagon but is still intent on producing stadium-sized tracks. As a result, you have stuff like Grasshopper, The Bass, and Dozer, where the dooft-dooft-dooft beats pack massive punch, the effect-builds are epic, yet there is little release after it all goes down. It’s like Doorn’s trying to make concert-sized anthems out of minimal. Heh, leave it to the Dutch-

I heard some of you enjoy good hooks.

The strongest melodies are found in a couple of tracks that are little more than interludes (Lobby; Outrospective), and aren’t really worth getting into since Doorn doesn’t seem interested in going anywhere with them. However, when he’s not dickering around with effect-builds that amount to nothing, Doorn does come correct with stuff that’ll get right in your head. The riffs found in Apple and, er, Riff are great, such that they have power even when Sander somewhat scales things back in the second half of them. And many of the other offerings on Supernaturalistic contain strong opening ingredients before they are squandered afterwards. If anything, a capable DJ could use nearly any track here as an effective tension builder in their sets, provided they drop a track with some proper direction right afterwards. In that sense, though, it makes much of this album little more than glorified-

Frustrating, isn’t it.

Supernaturalistic is a lot of squandered potential. As the album wears on, the teases grow tiresome and the lack of decent dance-music release annoys. It’s fine for a few tracks but why would anyone want to sit through an hour of it is beyond me. There’s a ‘hidden’ recording tagged onto Outrospective, of the wrap-up a gig Doorn played at, and it pretty much sums up Sander’s debut: slight variations of the same thing over and over (“The Wet Bar is now closed; get out!”; “Thank you for coming, now get out!” “If you want an autograph, get in line; otherwise, get out!”), a few moments that’ll entertain (“Don’t bum-rush the stage!” - I have to admit the picture of a bunch of scuzzy, impoverished-looking clubbers rushing the stage as though Sander has food-coupons makes me giggle), maybe hinting it’s leading to a winning payoff, but ultimately amounting to nothing of consequence.

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

Various - DJ-Kicks: Hot Chip

Studio !K7: 2007/2008

DJ-Kicks has been on the market for twenty years now, an incredible feat for any mix CD series. Wait, there isn’t any other with such an accolade! In terms of longevity, the closest comparison could be Pete Tong’s Essential Mix, but the Tongster never committed every entry to a physical format. On one hand, that’s a shame, because there’s been some incredible episodes of Essential Mix that are only available through unofficial, dodgy channels, and a physical medium would make archiving them easier. On the other hand, dear God, can you imagine the shelf space required if they were all on CD? Just keep that terabyte of info on an external harddrive, mang.

Of course, the vinyl and aluminum format has its limits too, printing runs only lasting so long before resources or interest fades. Still, with a respectable reputation and savvy marketing on one’s side, it’s easy enough to trot out the reissues, which Studio !K7 did for DJ-Kicks during their 2008 downtime. For sure there were some older mixes that could use exposure to a newer audience, but I’m befuddled by Studio !K7’s selection process here. Almost nothing from pre-2000 made the cut, while some incredibly (then) recent CDs were thrust back out on the market. Take this DJ-Kicks from Hot Chip, only a year old before being given the reissue treatment. Just… why? I can’t think of any reason this needed another version on the market, not to mention those from other recent mixes by Booka Shade, Henrik Schwarz, and Four Tet. Okay, maybe that last one – the Four Tet fanbase is rather ravenous.

In any case, Hot Chip, those highly eclectic electro-disco new wave pop weirdos, gives us a suitably eclectic mix full of electro, disco, new wave, and pop weirdness. And some tech-house too - everyone was obligated to play tech-house in the back-half of the ‘00s. Such variety is what happens when you invite five guys into the DJ booth though. Hell, even if this set only comprised the tastes of core members Alexis Taylor (the dorky one) and Joe Goddard (the cherub one), it’d still be all over the place. About the only route they could have gone was the mixtape method, and Hot Chip does just that. The opening salvo alone contains electro-pop soft-rock Nitemoves from Grovesnor, flirtatious back-and-forth hip-hop in Positive K’s I Got A Man, big beat soul-funk from Gramme’s Like U, and a mash-up of Subway’s Persuasion’s synth crescendos and choppy tech-house rhythms of Soundhack’s B1. Erm, I’m not sure which B1; Soundhack had a couple.

That’s what this DJ-Kicks entails: mini-sections of outlier tunes (Um’s The Man’s Got Me Beat, Young Leek’s Jiggle It, Nôze’s Love Affair) rubbing shoulders with trendy contemporary hotness (Dominik Eulberb’s Der Buchdrucker, Wookie’s Far East, Lanark Records’ The Stone That The Builder Rejected) and chintzy classics (Joe Jackson’s Steppin Out, New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle). If you don’t mind the stop-start flow of such a mix, then have Hot Chip’s DJ-Kicks a go.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Various - DJ-Kicks: Claude Young

Studio !K7: 1996

We're going way back into DJ-Kicks' history here friends. Back to the days when Studio !K7 was still mostly known for its X-Mix series and all those cool, trippy CGI video tapes accompanying them. No no, they really were cool, not dated at all. The power of retro will make it so! Ahem, anyway, the initial volley of jocks into this new DJ mix series featured a quartet of Detroit techno luminaries: Carl Craig, CJ Bolland, Stacey Pullen, and Claude Young. The first two are legends, no doubt. The third gestated within the underground for a while, but I've seen him having something of a career surge in recent years. And as for ol' Claude, man, where can I start with this guy? No, really, I'm asking that, because until this CD, I'd never heard of him before. How many Detroit Braggin' Points will this cost me?

Right, it's not entirely my fault, Mr. Young having mostly shied away from the mix CD format over the years. He’s also been all over the map regarding his album output too. Debut Soft Thru came out on Belgium Elypsia, sophomore Patterns The Album came out on Dutch Djax-Up-Beats, his third LP came care of Young’s own cynet:media print (based from UK!), and his latest effort of Celestial Bodies originates from Fountain Music in Japan. Maybe he’s got some proper Detroit vinyl under one of those many early aliases instead.

Whatever the case, folks don’t typically point to Claude Young as a legend for his productions, but rather his DJing, one of the most unique Detroit jocks to ever rock the decks. Approaching the art more from a turntablist’s perspective, he’ll often layer multiple dubplates, cutting back and forth between vinyls so rhythms mesh in ways never intended. So much poly’, mang, from tracks so minimal! Of course, in the post-Ableton era, such trickery is rather common, if not always expertly executed. Claude was doing it with the only tools any jock worth his salt needs though, and has earned all the props for it.

One of the likely reasons he hasn’t often committed these talents to the CD form is such turntablism is better suited in a live setting than recorded format. Young can pull all manner of sonic tricks from his bag, but if you’re not familiar with the tunes themselves, only an expert techno trainspotter will hear how a track changes up. Also, isn’t the whole point of turntablism the showmanship as well as the music being played?

Ah right, the music on this edition of DJ-Kicks. I haven’t talked it much, because there isn’t much to tell. It’s Detroit techno through and through (and lots of Mark Bell), going from the minimal stuff to bangin’ stuff to funkier stuff, all dope if you like your mid-‘90s techno. I found Young’s set took some time warming up, a bit heavy with the experimental cutting in the early going, but once the pace picks, hoo, it’s a fun ride, is what.

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