Monday, August 31, 2015

Tiga - Non Stop

Different: 2012

Hard to believe it was a full decade before Tiga released another standalone mix CD onto the market. After a trio of solid sets on his own label Turbo, and a stellar offering to DJ-Kicks, the Montreal native seemed primed to become one of the top jocks on the market. Then he discovered an innate talent at producing pseudo-pop music for a savvy clubbing audience, and he's hardly looked back since. He still did the DJ circuit, but it wasn't where his hype focused on, letting his artist albums do the talking for him instead. Thus, the only mix CD to his name between DJ-Kicks and this is a double-disc joint effort with Adrian Thomas called inthemix.05, which I assume is associated with the Australian website of the same name? Doesn't matter, since it's essentially a forgotten set compared to American Gigolo and Montreal Mix Sessions, and way overshadowed by all the quirky singles he was putting out during the mid-'00s.

Back to the heavyweight CD-mix jam we've ended up though, which can only signify one thing for Mr. Sontag: career reinvention! C'mon, it's how this story always goes. Trendy tastemaker makes mark on club scene with definitive DJ mixes, sustains a lengthy career with the sound, sound falls out of favor, jump on a fresher sound to stay relevant. Or, if incredibly uncanny, manages to create a new sound all on his/her own, but I doubt even Tiga could do that. Nay, he's instead fallen in with some of the biggest festival headliners around these last few years, like Boys Noize and the Mad Decent posse. Wait... he already was pals with them, back when he was the star and they were getting their breaks. Okay, never mind, this theory's the bunk.

In reality, Non Stop is nothing less than a statement on where Tiga's musical influences currently resides. Not a terribly adventurous concept then, but considering it's been such a long time since he gave us anything in a physical form, I'll take it. Like many of his sets from the past, Mr. Sontag is fearless in throwing various genres and styles into his mix, often using transitional snippets and blending tracks together for mash-ups ranging from cheeky to thrilling. Past attempts were often rather rough though, vinyl technology just not up to snuff in providing studio-perfect blends. Not so with Non Stop, every mix and layering sounding effortless and smooth – thanks, studio hands! Some might quibble it detracts from the sort of spontaneous, on-the-fly set Tiga's been known for, but I contend such tinkering only perfects the musical journey he's always taken folks on.

The music itself runs the gamut from warped AFX acid to bumpin’ Adam Marshall tech-house to tribal Lula Circus funk to thumpin’ Blawan techno, and proto-trance Homeboy-Hippie-FunkiDredd old-school rave. Yes, in that order, with all the gradual changes in tempo and genres that comes with it. Non Stop is a fun mix, all said, but then you’d expect nothing less from Tiga.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kitaro - Ki

Canyon Records/KuckKuck: 1981/1982

Ah, good ol' Kitaro, the Japanese composer often credited with creating New Age music many moons ago. I doubt it was his intention to do so, his musical upbringing well off the beaten path of your traditional mystic synth wibbler. Hell, the guy was practically banned from learning music while growing up, his parents intent on gearing him to take over the family business. Kitaro said nuts to that, essentially bailing on his home to make his own way in the world, working small jobs while writing music on his spare time. Damn, this is sounding like an old-fashioned 'hippie goes West to start folk rock band' story.

It gets even better! After joining the Far East Family Band, their touring eventually took them to Germany, where Kitaro met krautrock synth legend Klaus Schulze, and started studying his mastery of many of the latest and greatest keyboards around. Already fond of the sounds created by synthesizers, Kitaro adopted any that he could afford into his repertoire, and left Far East Family Band to start a solo career. Before doing that, however, he travelled throughout eastern Asia, picking up musical styles along the way.

Point is, mock the New Age scene if you must, but Kitaro himself definitely earned his stripes (to say nothing of his plaudits in the ensuing years). Between original compositions, tons of score work, collaborations with unexpected chaps (a guy from Megadeth, really?), and plenty of awards and nominations, he has very little left to prove to the world of music. Or maybe this is just a big ol' ramble justifying why I picked up a couple Kitaro CDs from a used shop a couple months back. Hey, even the store clerk raved about Kitaro as I was buying them, so clearly he's got fans lurking everywhere, right? So it goes.

Thus, let us go way back in time, more than three decades past and when Mr. Kitaro was building a name for himself. Ki was his fourth album, but he’d also released two soundtrack albums for the Silk Road television series, plus a live album too. Later that year, he’d release a Best Of collection too, which is utterly bonkers for such a short time span. Ki is essentially the cap on the earliest stage of his career, where his synthesizer melodies and shimmering, pulsing sequencers defined his sound. Later he’d start incorporating more traditional instruments into his compositions, so if you fancy way ancient synth music, this period is a good starting point in dipping your toes into Kitaro’s tones.

Or maybe not. I cannot deny this music is very calm, soothing, folksy, and charming – New Age, yes, though often with more orchestral punch. Plus, if you don’t care much for Far East melodies and harmonies, Ki won’t do much for you either. Dammit though, there’s something captivating about Kitaro’s use of pads, minimoogs, and spacey synths, like exploring mysterious, strange lands through the use of sound. Ain’t that what great music do?

Friday, August 28, 2015

ACE TRACKS: April 2013

It was bound to happen at some point. Like, after eight years of attending, there had to be a down year among them – law of averages and all that, right? This isn’t to say I had a bad time this year, oh no! However, I can’t honestly say I had a great time either, compounding stresses keeping me from ever quite ‘letting go’ as I typically am wont to do at Shambhala. I had a forty-hour stretch of non-sleep, and believe me it wasn’t chemically induced insomnia. Definitely has given me pause on how to proceed with next year, provided I can get rid of the debt these two summer trips have accrued upon me. Live and learn. Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of cool music that I reviewed way back in APRIL 2013!



Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Various - Frosty
Various - Freebass Breakz & Sub Funk Beats
Various - fabric 61: Visionquest
Various - FabricLive 50: D-Bridge & Instra:mental Present Autonomic
Various - fabric 47: Jay Haze
Various - fabric 36: Ricardo Villalobos
Various - FabricLive 32: Tayo
Tony Anderson Sound Orchestra - Focus On Hollywood

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 0%
Percentage Of Rock: 12%
Most “WTF?” Track: Yes - The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) (soo trippy)

Yes, I feel your anguish at not getting to hear those chintzy synth-pop covers of famous movie and TV themes. Maybe not so much at the lack of cuts from my first Fabric Project (on a budget) though. Shame, as the music from Tayo’s mix definitely needs more lovin’. Aside from that, this was another month of totally random music (trance, ambient dub, tech-house, acid jazz, jungle), so I went with another alphabetical arrangement. This time, however, I’ve gone in reverse! Thrill at hearing songs with titles starting with “W” and “T” early in a playlist!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Liquid Stranger - The Intergalactic Slapstick

Interchill Records: 2009

Yeah, I went on a recent Interchill Records splurge too. And why not? The label’s just across a strait of ocean water, practically next door in Canada terms. I’ve never been let down in my dabbling with their output, so why not check out a few artists further. Say, look at all those Liquid Stranger albums. Mr. Stääf’s found himself a home with Interchill, which explains his huge popularity on the festival circuit around my slice of the planet. I’m almost certain I’ve heard him at Shambhala, and anyone that gets a tune on an Ultimae CD must have a sound I’ll find appealing. On the other hand, Liquid Stranger does have an album out on Rottun, they who be responsible for the popularity of bro-friendly, raging hosebeast dubstep. While I can’t possibly see Interchill ever promoting the stuff, I don’t doubt some of it wormed itself into Liquid Stranger’s palette.

As for Mr. Stääf, he made an immediate impact on the dubby chill side of downtempo with his debut The Invisible Conquest, offering up trippy reggae dub without falling into the psy side of things. Flash forward two years and we have The Intergalactic Slapstick, featuring cover art that looks like it was intended for a quirky Israeli psy trance compilation. Make no mistake though, Liquid Stranger’s having none of that scene, staying the course with his dub influences while adding in a few new sounds that had developed in the time since The Invisible Conquest. That’s right, he’s gone Burial!

No, of course not, but he did adopt the style of another ‘dubstep’ producer who gained a ton of critical acclaim during those years, namely The Bug with London Zoo. There be grimey dancehall on here (Rough Road, Full Metal Jacket, Tantrum), including Madame Warrior Queen herself for a guest feature on Mutants. While not quite at Kevin Martin’s level of crushing bass attacks, Liquid Stranger handles himself within the genre most excellently. What’s funny is The Intergalactic Slapstick didn’t even start out that way, the first few tracks sounding like carry overs from his first LP. He bridges the two styles of Jamaican dub rather wonderfully though with Soundboy Killa, bringing in the dancehall toasting while keeping things on the laid-back, cavernous bouncy vibe the best reggae dub goes.

And yes, there’s that other development in dubstep present here too: the gratuitous mid-range wobble. Not much of it, thankfully, but gads that sound never ceases to grate. Most annoying is in Dub Missle, with so much pointless meandering mid-range that- wait, suddenly it changes to spacey pads and reggae echoing off the cosmic plane. Dub Missle is awes- ah, shit, there’s that stupid wobble again. Argh!

Liquid Stranger ends The Slaptastic Interspacer rather oddly. Bodily Needs features quirky dialog detailing the neccesity for health and sex over a tune that’d have The Orb giggling, Lotus goes full world-beat boppity-boo, and closer Dew Point sounds like… Kitaro? Huh, never underestimate one’s influences. Still, solid album all around.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Opus III - Guru Mother

PWL International: 1994

Opus III are known for two things: being responsible for early UK house hit It's A Fine Day, and Orbital sampling said hit for Halcyon (and on and on-om-nom). They could have been known for so much more though, had they carried on longer than two albums worth. The talent was definitely there, productions capably toeing the line between respectable club anthems and easy home listening. They had a marketable look with Kirsty Hawkshaw as the face of the group, a distinct voice and presence in a scene filled with pretty but unremarkable singers.

Kirsty though, she sensed the group getting a little commercial for her taste, and Opus III disbanded. Ms. Hawkshaw then went on to provide vocals for, um, BT, Tiesto, Lange, and Delerium. Hey, there's some respectable collaborations during that period too (Orbital-proper, Swayzak, Hybrid), but man, did trance producers ever line-up for ol' Kirsty's pipes. Not sure what happened to the other three members of Opus III though. Even Lord Discogs provides little.

Fortunately, they went out in fine fashion, their sophomore album Guru Mother a remarkable record for the year 1994. This is progressive house as its finding its footing, figuring out what it could be, and maybe getting a little ‘epic’ in the process. This is BT music before BT had made a name for himself with Ima, Grace music before Oakenfold got tired of the goa thing, and Renaissance music just as that seminal clubnight was making Sasha & Diggers deities behind the decks. There’s sing-along house anthems (Dreaming Of You, When You Made The Mountain, Hand In Hand), darker, chugging prog numbers (Outside, Guru Mother, Sushumna), ethereal trance groovers (Release The Joy, Elemental), and chill, bliss-out ambient pieces (Cozyland?, When She Rises). Listening to this album two decades on, I’m astounded Guru Mother isn’t talked up more as one of those Very Important progressive house records. Were Opus III really seen as that much of a one-hit wonder that all their other efforts were so dismissed?

Perhaps so. I certainly never gave Opus III much care in all these years. Heck, the only reason I’m reviewing Guru Mother now is because I noticed it during a recent used-CD shop splurge. Of course I knew of It’s A Fine Day, but that song wasn’t on here. And that cover, man does it ever look cheesy, more suitable for a medieval folk group than anything with a dance beat. Then I recalled a similar sentiment shared with a Rupert pal long ago. He’d bought Guru Mother solely for recognizing Opus III as the It’s A Fine Day group, and was surprised how much better the album turned out compared to that single. While I didn’t doubt his judgment of Guru Mother, I simply couldn’t get past that cover, much less the photo of Kirsty Hawkshaw looking like some woodland pixie on the back. Just no way Guru Mother could be class, no way at all.

God, was I an arrogant idiot sometimes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Another Fine Day - A Good Place To Be

Interchill Records: 2015

Here I thought only Psychonavigation Records could pull new material out of older producers. Not that Interchill Records isn’t an appropriate spot for Tom Green’s long, long, long gestating project Another Fine Day, but who’d have ever thought it’d see the light of day again? After some promise of being among the musical leaders in a post-Orb/Beyond ambient dub world with Life Before Land, Another Fine Day’s output practically dried up. Guess those gigs with the Big Chill crew kept him busy, another LP not showing up until the year 2000 on Six Degrees Records (they had a knack for rescuing former Beyond acts). Following that, Another Fine Day seemingly went on permanent hiatus, Mr. Green using his own name for the odd project here and there (music for MRI’s, really?).

Brushing off the moniker ol' Tom has done though, so where do we find the man who was pegged as one of ambient dub's seminal musicians many years ago? Why jazz, of course! I mean, doesn't everyone go jazz eventually? Not even electronic-leaning nu-jazz or danceable acid jazz, but full-on loungey, psychedelic jazz-jazz , showing off skills with multiple instruments and the like. Not that it's an unprecedented move for Mr. Green – he got noticed way back for this very reason, utilizing regular instruments at a time when almost everything was sample-based. Two decades plus is plenty of growing time for a musician though, electronics now playing a rudimentary role in productions, expectations of old-old school fans be damned. Wait, are there any lingering Another Fine Day fanatics that would think this? If so, let it go, guys. Even Sounds From The Ground moved on from ambient dub, and they were churning the stuff out up to this decade!

As I’ve often stated, I’m no expert in the field of jazz, especially when unconventional and obscure instruments are used. Mr. Green does play piano, organ, wind instruments, and double-bass, but he also throws in several more that I honestly haven’t a clue about without a cheat-sheet, and the CD digipak isn’t helpful there, much less Lord Discogs. Like, the track Spanish Blues, man are there ever a lot of different ethnic and familiar sounds floating about its laidback hip-mod groove, but what are half these instruments playing? Many tracks in the first half of A Good Place To Be are like this, though Mr. Green lets the piano carry many other pieces in the back half of the album, with various field recordings maintaining a running theme of sorts. Also, if he’s playing all these instruments, holy cow, talk of talent!

I almost feel guilty, then, for enjoying the somber, droning ambient and piano pieces scattered throughout instead (Enfolded, That Path, Andy Woz Here). Their simple, familiar style is comforting after being musically challenged by the jazz. At least they gave me a solid reason to repeatedly go back to A Good Place To Be, where after much replay, the rest of this album finally sunk in proper deep.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Various - fabric 49: Magda

Fabric: 2009

No, I'm not indulging in another Fabric On A Budget run. I bought this because I actually wanted to have it, hear it, and most likely replay it at some future date. There's tons of Fabric mixes like that out there, though many aren't budget-conscious friendly (UK importing's killer on the finances, even when the disc itself is less than a buck/quid/pig's foot). If I'm buying a Fabric mix on a not-so-budget, why this one in particular? Why not one of the cooler names that have graced the franchise's DJ mix series, like Weatherall, or John Peel, or LTJ Bukem, or Global Communication, or (namedrop, namedrop, ad infinitum)? Heck, why settle for fabric 49 for that matter, when the nearby, milestonic fabric 50 is so much more very important? Alright, I admit it! I got a crush for Magda. Le'mee alone about it now.

Seriously though, seeing the cover of her contribution to the Balance series got me reflecting on her other mix CDs – er, all two of them - and whether they stood up now that minimal and simmering tech-house isn't as popular as it t'was a decade past. I’d long known she had a different approach to the sound, one not so hard-focused on gazing into the microscopic lint of techno’s navel. She had the foresight to see Hu-Man Friend Hawtin’s wacky minimal branding for the malarkey it was, one of the first of the M_nus camp to go their own way. She even established her own label with Troy Pierce and Marc Houle, chaps who both shared her sentiments in the way minimal was going in the back-half of the ‘00s (re: wrongly).

Magda’s a DJ whose actions have earned plenty respects from me is what I’m saying, even without taking in a huge amount of her output. Not that there’s much to dabble within the CD market anyway, fabric 49 only her second official mix disc, coming three years after She’s A Dancing Machine. Heck, if you think that’s a mighty gap, Balance 027 took twice that time to spur Madame Chojnacka back into the mixing studio (a couple promotional stints with Resident Advisor and Trax Magazine notwithstanding).

Obviously, Magda wasn’t doing another epic stitch-n-slice mix with seventy odd cuts for Fabric, but she still packs in over thirty spread out over the course of the CD, averaging about two loops/layers/mixes within each indexed portion. Artists range from old-timey weirdos (Goblin, Yello) to trendy tastemakers (Robert Babicz, Gaiser, Cristian Vogel, Jimmy Edgar), plus requisite contributions from her own close circle of contacts (Marc Houle, Heartthrob, Luciano). Of note are selections from outlier Berlin label ~scape, who I know almost nothing about. Help me, Lord Discogs!

The music mostly keeps to her realm of loose, low-key tech-house groove, with splashes of techno bleep and IDM quirk thrown in for good measure. You know what’s gone from this ‘minimal’ mix though? White noise hiss! Plinky-plonk monotony! Oh man, so wonderful hearing such a set from late-‘00s era fabric.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Solarstone - Electronic Architecture 3

Black Hole Recordings: 2014

Ain’t no way epic, uplifting, melodic, cheesepuff trance could make a comeback, all the former heroes of the sound chasing the lucrative festival market and the awful music that comes with it, loyal fanbase be damned. Anjunabeats? Forget it. Ferry Corsten? Not really. Armin? Pft, he was never that good anyway. And yet, one name did hold out, quietly going about his business without much fanfare, steadily building a respectable reputation as one of the few, classy purveyors of a sound that defined a generation of clubbers at the turn of the millennium.

Who'd have thought the Solarcoaster guy would be the one, eh? Richard Mowatt wasn't even that busy a chap during the '00s, at least compared to your usual tastemaker within the trance scene. An album or two, a DJ mix CD here and there, but nothing to suggest he'd become the curator of a style having long thought tired and stale. Even the first Electronic Architecture, released around the same time as his album Rain Stars Eternal, didn't get that much notice as the old standard bearers still churned out their bilge. Slowly and surely though, old school fans of melodic trance noticed Solarstone was doing something different with his mixes, something respectable and, dare they say, credible in an age where trance is routinely mocked. This and his Pure Trance series have gone on as reliable mixes for those who still yearn for the early 2000s, providing fresh sounding tunes with a distinctly vintage feel.

Naturally, I was suspicious of such praise, but after the surprising turn with In Trance We Trust 020, maybe Electronic Architecture deserved a listen-hear too. I may not have much fondness for the ultra, epic, melodic, fluffball brand of trance Solarstone occasionally dabbles in, but his Balearic and chill moments are usually good. And with three CDs to work with, I felt the odds were in my favour.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad. CD2 has all the trance I just can’t care much about, and is bursting with far too many got’dang full-stop breakdowns, ruining any momentum it has going. CD1, on the other hand, goes proper Balearic for a good while, with plenty groovy prog rhythms and floating vibes throughout before ramping the energy up for a strong finish. It’s progressive trance that plays to Solarstone’s strengths without overindulging in them. Okay, technically so was the uplifting stuff on CD2, but CD1’s style more class, yo’.

Now, CD3, that was a surprise. Filled with downtempo reinterpretations of tracks off CDs 1 and 2, I wasn’t expecting much. Some pleasant ambient pad work and a trip-hop beat would have sufficed, and the first few tracks provided as such. Then things get gnarly (Razorbeam), spacey (Red Orbit), and even gloriously wide-screened (Metal Jaws). While not quite at par with Ultimae’s best (obviously), there’s some seriously epic sounding chill-out on display in this disc, almost worth the price of Electronic Architecture 3 alone. An ace first disc doesn’t hurt either.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kraftwelt - Electric Dimension

Hypnotic: 1996

Everyone always asked, “What sort of music might Kraftwerk make in the ‘90s?” Music about bikes, most likely, and they did too, once the 2000s made it very hip to sound like Kraftwerk again (especially if you were the real deal). Before that though, the Düsseldorf posse essentially bowed out of the ‘90s with The Mix, seldom heard from in the ensuing decade and leaving a slew of folks inspired by their work to make their own interpretations and reimagining of the Kraftwerk stylee. Okay, it was more a smattering than a slew, retro-electro revivalism still a few years off, but one act broke out of outright obscurity into quirky side-glancing with their efforts: Kraftwelt. What’s that, you’ve already read the Audio Science side-project back-history in my Retroish review? Well then, let’s just get right into the first album, Electric Dimension.

I suspect Misters (*deep breath*) Oldenborg, Christiansen, Schmidt, and Gylsen had ideas for a Kraftwerk type album long gestating before Hypnotic gave them a green light to go forward with it. How else to explain Electric Dimension arriving as a fully realized concept LP a year after their contributions to Trancewerk Express (Cleopatra’s Kraftwerk tribute CD)? Why, there’s even short interludes of mechanical chugging (Clockworked), future-land terraces (Neocafe), and cyber-city vistas (In The Rubbertree Forest), giving a track count of a whopping nineteen in total! Most cuts hover around the four-minute range and work in some aspect of Kraftwerk’s signature sounds: modulating radio pulses, quirky Moog melodies, bare-bones electro rhythms, starry-eyed looks at futurism. Missing, however, are robot voices, catchy pop moments, and a sense of innovative craftsmanship that defined so much of Kraftwerk’s output.

Obviously, no one could replicate the band that Ralf and Florian built, Kraftwerk very much a product of their krautrock time. And nor should anyone replicate them for that matter, the music made in those eras perfectly filling the pop-leaning, experimental testing, rhythmic savvy electronic void folks had yet realized needed filling. Newer genres like electro and techno grew from their works, so it’s just as well Kraftwelt’s sound leans more Detroit and post-Berlin Wall German. They still retain a certain futuristic kitch in some of their tracks (Vox Box, Adventures In Orienta, Sci-Fi Memento, Bon Voyage), but others are simply following the dystopian Detroit approach to electro (1187, Confusion, the titular cut) while using sounds that may have featured in a Kraftwerk cut. Not quite a tribute act, then.

Electric Dimension is still an interesting album though, especially for something released in the mid-‘90s. Ain’t no one was making electro sounding like this, and seldom ever since, most retro-futurists and electro fetishists going for grit and gauche rather than Metropolis allure. There still isn’t enough substance behind Kraftwelt to warrant a second album’s worth of material, much less that overkill of the single Deranged (original track isn’t even that good). As a one-off dabbling in sounds and styles of a bygone era of electronic music though, Electric Dimension is worth the diversion.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Shamen - Boss Drum

Epic: 1992

Nope, I still don't get it. Okay, there's songcraft on display with this album, and I cannot deny a few of these tunes getting my head bobble on. Other tracks though, they just sound undercooked, rote rave filler even for the year 1992. I appreciate The Shamen may not have been at the top of their game with Boss Drum, the tragic drowning of bandmate Will Sinnott deflating some of their creative spark. With an LP that turned out as commercially successful as this one did though, I expected more, something richer than a smattering of catchy tunes rounded out with stock UK acid house rhythms. It makes what The Prodigy were up to the same year all the more dynamic, corny chipmunk vocals and all – to say nothing of proper underground acts and burgeoning ‘intelligent techno’ sorts.

But first, how did we get here? What was it that made The Shamen so darned popular that their acid albums could reach platinum sales, urging similar 'indie rock goes rave' acts like Primal Scream, EMF, and Jesus Jones to have a go? Truly it t’was a sign of the times, a youth movement within the UK seldom seen anymore, where sheer scene popularity could propel any act to the top of the charts, radio play be damned. Of course, it didn’t hurt The Shamen were chummy with credible names like Oakenfold, Orbital, and Mixmaster Morris, very soon getting plenty other up-and-coming cool producers in on their singles for remix action. They may have had the chart success, but kept a foot in the warehouse parties and illegal raves just the same. Then it all went tits up, the group becoming too successful with obvious chart chasers while the second Summer Of Love ground to a sudden and crushing halt. Almost overnight, The Shamen came off a relic of an innocent time, where silly tunes like Ebeneezer Goode could pass off as convincing. No, time for rave music to get serious, dark, gritty, and strictly for the underground.

Its remarkable how much of a flash-point Boss Drum comes off like now, the last big hurrah of UK acid house. There’s still a pile of chipper, lovey-dovey feel good vibes oozing from tracks like Space Time, Phorever People, and chill-out cut Scientas, as though The Shamen believed the party would never end. On the other hand, tracks like goofball ragga-house Comin’ On and throwback rave cut Livrae Solidi Denari (I see what you did there, har har) suggest they were running thin on fresh ideas too. Also, I can’t decide if Re:Evolution is brilliant on the production front (that slow build!), or utterly naff due to Terence McKenna’s ongoing hippie-drippy monologue.

One thing I must give The Shamen credit for though is the titular cut of Boss Drum, one of the earliest examples of the emergent dark, chugging genre of progressive house. Not that I figure they intended it to be held up with the likes of Leftfield, but props for that, eh?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Adham Shaikh - Basswalla

Black Swan Sounds: 2015

As finely crafted his ambient compositions are, Adham Shaikh couldn’t keep recycling them into a lengthy career. Okay, he could, though it’d be difficult topping Journey To The Sun, and given the various musical influences he’s encountered in his travels, you know ol’ Adham would feel the creative itch to explore them. That naturally led to more ethnic fusion tracks, no doubt helping his headline status on the outdoor festival circuit. The times though, they keep ever changing, and bass heavy jams from the realms of dubstep and glitch hop have encroached even the crustiest hippie tent. Instead of retreating from these developments, Mr. Shaikh’s taken them on full-stop with his latest album, Basswalla, a concept I won’t deny being apprehensive about. Too many psy dub and world beat types who've jumped on that bandwagon turn out tunes that come off like rote imitations of those genres.

And sure enough, the opening titular cut delivered what I expected. There's a solid beat in there somewhere, but man, why throw in all those out-of-sync mid-range wobbles? Yeah, I get it – it's what all the dubstep guys do, but it's never sounded much good, no matter what a generation of rage-heads claim. It sounds like ol’ Adham’s only included them because it's just what fans of the sound expect to hear, damn the pointlessness of it all.

Of course, Mr. Shaikh promptly slaps some humble pie into my cynical face immediately after, delivering the solid album of funky, worldy vibes I was hoping to get. Second cut Sabadub has the hallmarks of a track-long build, yet doesn’t leave me feeling wanting in the least. Collective hits the groovy dub business with plenty of ethnic dabbling and rising harmonies. Vibe Hunter’s a bit goofier with its hip-hop and electro funk leanings, but follow-up Beyond I comes correct with mysterious ambient noodling before unleashing a proper world-beat funk jam. Still Shakin… hot damn, that vocal at the end! India-meets-Flamenco Rumba Dub has more modulating bass throbs, but it’s not at all obnoxious as so much dubstep goes. By comparison, Crossroads is almost quaint, the sort of ethnic-fusion dub tune you’d expect of Adham Shaikh’s discography, but he closes out with an incredibly clever track in Water Prayer. Already seriously ear-wormy and hip shaky, the added use of splashing water as another piece of percussion is wonderful, something I don’t hear nearly enough, at least not in the way utilized here. The only other track that felt out of place is Cultivation, a bhangra-hop tune including a rap from local Shamik. Yeah, the man responsible for an ambient classic now has a rapper. Weird.

Also, one more niggling point. The album’s called Basswalla, but if I’m honest, there didn’t seem much bass-bass; y’know, the ultra-rumbling kind that punishes sub-whoofers. It’s all very clean low-ends, never overwhelming other frequencies. It’s not a deal breaker, the tunes on this album sounding find as they are. Man though, a serious ear-drum rattler or two would have been mint.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Alucidnation - Aural Architecture

Interchill Records: 2013

A lucid nation is the state of which my head currently resides, swimming in post-festival flu and medications galore. I was so sure I'd escaped it too, not feeling any symptoms even after a few days back home. That's what I get for being so cocky about my health on the ride home, my car mates all suffering from wretched states of being as I casually smirked. Oh, why didn't I wear that filter for the nine hour exodus? Now I must endure a six day stretch of work while being ghetto high. Okay, enough grumbling.

Alucidnation is Bruce Bickerton, a chap who's been involved in the chill side of electronic music for some fifteen years now. He got his break while involved with Big Chill Recordings, a group also known for making a tidy buck with chill-out themed music festivals in the UK. Primarily though, he self-releases his own music, much of the Alucidnation back-catalogue available only through mail-order. And, hoo boy, is there ever a lot of it, so there must be something to this 'press to order' music business model.

Every so often though, Mr. Bickerton puts something out on a proper label. His last such venture was with Interchill Records, who have plucked the odd Alucidnation track for their compilations over the years. Guess both parties felt it appropriate giving the fiercely independent project a little extra promotional love, and a well deserved bump at that. It's been too long since Tom Middleton gave Alucidnation some spotlight way back on The Sound Of The Cosmos - time for new ears to discover this guy.

A self-described melancholic, the music on Aural Architecture reflects such moods without going too mopey about it. Really, the first few tracks are rather chipper for a music intended for the downtime of one’s day. Protocol grooves along with a chill Balearic vibe, Spring breaks out the ol’ acoustic guitar alongside a soft, high tempo that’d make Solarstone weak in the knees, and Jammy Dodger gets my Petar Dundov senses tingling.

Things go dubby for a few couple tracks after, then Aural Architecture melts into a stream of dreamy piano pieces (The View From The Balcony I, Tresaith, A Place In The Sunshine), ultra-chill dub rhythms (A View From The Balcony II, A Melancholic), and pure ambient drone (One Zero Two), all wrapped in an aura of static fuzz. Summing all these various tones and styles is the nigh eleven-minute long closer Genetics, a strong wrap-up to a lovely album sending the listener out with a blissy smile. D’aw, I’m getting all the feels here.

I can’t deny much of what I’ve written reads like many other chill-out LPs floating out there like so much fluffy clouds on a sunny day. This one though, this particular cloud, there’s something about it, catching your eyes just a little longer as it gently morphs into other forms passing across the blue above. Aural Architecture’s definitely worth that lingering gaze.

Monday, August 3, 2015

ACE TRACKS: July 2015

So Neil Young’s pulled his music from online streaming services. At least, until he feels the audio quality meets the high demand standards he deems worthy of his music. Aww, c’mon, mang, I pay for Spotify Premium, I gets the best possible quality from them. Why you gonna’ deny me the music in your discography that I really don’t have much interest in buying? Now I’ll never hear Landing On Water or Fork In The Road. And what of those who look forward to your songs in these monthly Playlists? No, no, I can sense all of your disappointment, Mr. Young’s music now as out of digital reach as Beatles albums. Dark times indeed, but here’s the ACE TRACKS of July 2015 regardless.


Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Sequential - Sequential
Tobias. - A Series Of Shocks
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Chris Duckenfield - Sheffield Mix Sessions
Aldrin - Singapore Tribal
Dogon - The Sirius Expeditions
Various - Slumberland

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 5%
Percentage Of Rock: 16%
Most “WTF?” Track: Any of the Eminem raps will turn your head if you’re a prude.

Review-wise, this was my most productive July yet. Not sure where I got the extra motivation to plow through it all – maybe those two weeks off in June did me more good than expected. Or perhaps I was simply anxious to hear all these disparate albums, compilations, and mixes, some of which were quite new to my ears (oh hi one-hit wonder grunge bands!). Others were CDs I’d long had thoughts about and were eager to share. This did leave for a rather eclectic collection of tunes though, so I went with another alphabetical arrangement, sans the inclusion of Depeche Mode’s CD1 Singles and Paul van Dyk’s CD2 Seven Ways at the end.

Incidentally, Spotify has sorted out their Local Files issue, so a complete tracklist including all the missing album songs is available, bringing the total runtime of this playlist a whopping 8.5 hours. Drawback of cranking out consistent reviews, I guess: all those ACE TRACK selections. Maybe I ought to start reviewing crummier albums?

The Beach Boys - Smiley Smile/Wild Honey

Capitol Records: 1967/1990

I didn't get too detailed about the music on Brian Wilson's Smile because it's so much more fun comparing those finished songs to the weird versions found on Smiley Smile. As mentioned, Wilson had the album pretty well planned out, but stress and timing (curse ye', Sgt. Pepper's!) derailed whatever progress he managed. The lead singles in Heroes And Villains and Good Vibrations still made it to the market more or less as intended, but the accompanying tunes were nowhere near properly realized. Part of that is due to their very nature within Smile's arrangement, often interstitial compositions building a thematic whole. As standalone songs though, they don't work as effectively, and definitely not in the versions we get on Smiley Smile.

For instance, Smile has Vega-Tables a bouncy bit of pop declaring one's love for, um, vegetables. Look, the vocals are catchy as Hell, and it’s cute hearing actual recordings of celery and carrots being chomped on. Vegetables, as it's known on Smiley Smile, is more minimalist, like a subdued hoe-down, including blowing into a glass bottle for a rhythm - oh, and Paul McCartney provided vegetable chomps on this version, so I guess that's one point in S.S.'s favour. Meanwhile, Wind Chimes sounds all eerie (!) and creepy here rather than reflective and charming in Smile. Then Fall Breaks Back To Winter is tripped-out woodblock and cuckoo clock nonsense, whereas the harmonic ideas are fully realized in the orchestral firestorm that is Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. And let's not get into the songs with tape manipulations and stoner dullness. Such wacky things might have been acceptable in the '60s, it’s clear most of these were studio jams used to filled space on an expectant album that had Good Vibrations on it.

I can't say enough just how brilliant that song is. When you break each portion down and hear what's going on, which instrument is being used (that theremin!), where each melody and harmony complements each other, its small wonder that it took months to complete. Selling that point are a few bonus supplements on this CD, one with a studio rehearsal, and another an early run-through. I'd say these features are only for obsessives, but I count myself among such folk when it comes to Good Vibrations, so there it is.

Speaking of bonuses, the perk of releasing '60s back-catalogue onto CD is the ample space the aluminum provided, such that they could cram two old-timey albums onto one disc. The follow-up to Smiley Smile was a throwback soul album titled Wild Honey, which some claim is one of The Beach Boys' best albums post-Pet Sounds. It's certainly a different LP in their discography, more emphasis on rhythm and blues than sweet pop harmonies. It also gave Carl Wilson a chance to lead on a few songs, and his coarser singing voice definitely added a rougher veneer to a group still thought of as preppy boys. Goes to show what aping Rolling Stones can do for one’s image.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Brian Wilson - Smile

Nonesuch: 2004

Smile was meant to be Brian Wilson's magnum opus, a career defining album that would elevate Americana songcraft above anything those UK invasion bands offered. He had the creative drive, the resources (studio equipment access, peerless harmony group in The Beach Boys), and the benchmark to top with Pet Sounds. Unfortunately, he didn't have a Paul, John, or even Keith on his side, and when The Beatles came out with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, poor ol' Brian realized he couldn’t top that ridiculously successful album. Despite having blueprints laid out, and even recording a few would-be singles that would feature in Smile, his efforts seemed so easily trumped by the Liverpool Four, it was more than he could take. Nervous breakdown beckoned, much of Smile abandoned, and one of rock music's most famous non-albums entered the realm of tantalizing “what if?” discourse.

And so it looked to remain as such, B. Wilson's mental acuity taking years upon decades to find its way out of grim-dark murk. Perseverance paid off though, eventually finding it within himself to write new music without the crushing pressure of critical and commercial success. Good thing too, because much of his output during the ‘90s wasn’t overly memorable. Old time fans supported him, but folks suspected his creative spark that propelled The Beach Boys to the top of the pop charts had long since faded. Just as well, Wilson truly no longer made for those ‘90s times anyway.

Then out of the blue, Brian announced that he’d finish his super Smile project after all, as it was intended way back in the ‘60s. Well shit, son (dad?), that’s awesome. Is there really any interest left for this album though? It’s a new century, a new millennium, and most ultra-fans of The Beach Boys had already pieced together finished songs and studio scraps for their own Smile bootlegs. Hell, Brian’s voice had considerably aged, and good luck getting the remaining actual Beach Boys into the studio after the bitter estrangement all those years had festered between the two parties.

All those concerns were for naught, the finished Smile a wonderful, amazing album from front to back. Essentially three parts, the first captures the nostalgic memories of carefree, youthful summers, especially while vacationing in touristy American locales, with Heroes And Villains the main attraction here. The second part goes more wistful and reflective, the big song off here being dreamy Surf’s Up. And the final part gets goofy and experimental; some pieces mere snippets of sound effects before changing gears to something else. Like, hot damn, that transition from the fire-storm of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow into the desolate In Blue Hawaii! Then to cap the whole experience off with the mighty Good Vibrations, you can’t help but want to stand and cheer for Brian Wilson, for seeing his vision come into being, triumphant in all the adversity he’d faced. Plus, y’know, there’s just a ton of great music all throughout Smile too.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Various - Slumberland (Episode 2: Awake & Dreaming)

Waveform Records: 2000

It didn't seem Waveform Records had any intention of following up the first Slumberland. The kick-off series [Number] A.D aside, most of their compilations were one-and-done efforts, a simple showcase of a particular genre of music. Frosty got in on that trippy acid jazz-hop vibe, Earthjuice went for a traditional dub look, and Slumberland surely satisfied whatever audience they had for dreamy ambient noodling. Their snoozing CD must have did better business than expected though, for why else would they bring us Episode 2 nearly three years after the first? Maybe groovy folks truly do enjoy calm, droning synths, so long as its presented in a package that eschews New Age mystical bollocks.

On the other hand, perhaps Waveform believed there was more to explore with the Slumberland concept, hence the write-up for Episode 2: Awake & Dreaming. Instead of offering music capturing the essence of deep relaxation, this CD focuses on transitional moments between alertness and inertness. Not so much the lucid state of mind though, the tunes on offer here having more rhythm to them, mostly light tribal beats or pulsating synths. It’s still a very calm collection of music, but there’s something of an old, ancient mystery to it all, like music sent from all our forgotten ancestors who somehow had digital means of recording sounds. Whoof, does that ever sound pretentious.

I’m gonna’ allow it though, because Slumberland 2: The Reslumbering, features quite a few names well outside the borderlands of what most folks consider electronic music producers. Oh, they definitely still make use of synths and sequencers, but you’d never find these names in the traditional “Electronic & Dance” racks at ye’ olde record shop. For instance, ones Mychael Danna and Tim Clément appear on here, Canadian individuals who’ve been making ambient music since the ‘80s – in fact, their composition Sunrise West, a pulsing bit of latter-era Berlin School work, comes direct from an ’86 album Another Sun. And while Mr. Clément mostly worked in tandem with Mr. Danna, one of his few solo outings also features here in the form of Beautiful Lady, a piece with eerie bells and pipes playing as filtered dialog goes on about out-of-body experiences. Then there’s Richard Wahnfried’s epic eighteen minute long Druck, making use of acoustic guitars, tribal rhythms, and wave upon wave of synths and pads. Who does this guy think he is, Mike Oldfield? Heh, close: it’s actually a pseudonym for the legendary Klaus Schulze, putting this track’s release date firmly in 1981! Holy cow, did Waveform ever do some digging for this compilation.

That said, the label’s spelunking for ambient music outliers resulted in a few chintzy pieces too. Tracks from I-Sense and Eleven Shadows are rather rudimentary offerings, and I can’t decide whether Janjiva’s Four Dimensional Interaction is suitably minimalist ambient techno or just undercooked, especially compared to the sharper Born Basic from Foundland. The ‘nice’ does still outweighs the ‘meh’ on Slumberland 2 though, and is a worthy sequel to the first.

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