Thursday, July 30, 2015

Various - Slumberland

Waveform Records: 1997

Ambient dub was definitely on the wane in the latter half of the ‘90s, most roads the genre could take thoroughly explored in Beyond and Waveform’s early years. And while producers could still make good tunes, stylistic expansion was necessary to stay relevant in an ever-changing musical landscape. For most, that meant getting into trip-hop or psy-dub, generally music that had some common, groove-based lineage with ambient dub. Waveform, on the other hand, went for the ambient audience, indulging in a brief run of deeply meditative, synth droney, occasionally New Agey compilations and albums. So, to remain relevant, the label sought an even more specialist crowd - makes total sense.

Taking their early first steps into uncharted and unchartable music is Slumberland, a compilation of eight tracks featuring ambient music for dreamy times, to lose yourself in as the melatonin overwhelms your brainpan. Yet it’s not all synths noodling about – okay, it mostly is, but there’s a few variations to take in here.

Georg Brunn’s Crater Lake is about as ambient as ambient gets, pure floating bliss with calm, soothing voice pads, never sounding like tepid New Age angel choirs. It’s also quite brief too, just over three minutes in length, practically a doodle where this form of music’s concerned. Might I also add that, for the longest time, it never occurred to me that the title was in reference to the actual Crater Lake – the spacey tone of this piece always had me conjuring thoughts of moon craters. If you were hoping for something lengthier though, Hemisphere’s Samadhi has a similar tone, reaching a breezy eight-and-a-half for your enjoyment.

Then there’s the stuff that owes some debt to prog-rock of the ‘70s. A Produce’s The Golden Needle makes use of pulsing pads and spaced-out guitar work, while Sky’s On The Shores Of The High Priestess is nearly fifteen minutes of wave upon wave of primitive synths washing over you. For the record, Sky’s apparently a group of seven members, and this track comes from the hopelessly obscure 1988 album Dreams on the utterly lost label Magic Music. Seriously, only one person at Lord Discogs lists it in their collection, yet somehow Waveform got the rights to use this track. To be fair though, Sky has had a number of songs on various New Age collections throughout the ‘90s, but I sure don’t see anyone rushing out to find lost ‘treasures’ like The Dream Age Collection or New Age Digital. Speaking of New Age, Om’s Starfire sounds as chintzy as New Age could get in the ‘80s. Ah well, they couldn’t all be winners here.

Surprisingly though, Slumberland has enough going for it that it’s just as enjoyable to take in with a proper listen as it is sleeping music. Far East meditation from Lucia Hwong, eerie Middle-East excursions with Sanjiva, and electro-beatnik musings from Witchcraft round out a solid entry in the Waveform canon. Maybe there’s something to all this noodling synth music after all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Various - Slinky Presents: Superclub DJ's - John Kelly

Slinky Music: 2001

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t DJ John Kelley, the Moontribe member rinsing out at West American desert raves. No no, this is DJ John Kelly. It’s all in the pronunciation, see, that slight inflection that differentiates UK dialects and Californian slang. Go on, say it aloud. What, you still can't tell the difference? Whatever, it took nearly two bloody years to finally made that callback gag, and ain't no way I'm letting it go to waste with this one opportunity. This is what's called humor, people!

Also humorous is the notion of the Slinky brand, truly a testament to the bloated scene that was British superclubs at the turn of the century. It's understandable that institutions like Gatecrasher, Renaissance, and Cream would have enough market clout to promote their own DJ sponsored CDs, t-shirts, fanzines, and other paraphernalia. Slinky though? Was there really so much money floating about that any club night pulling a few thousand punters could have global reach? Even way off on these shores of the far West, you'd find Slinky CDs clogging up shelf space, always sitting there, stupid expensive from import fees, trying to pass itself as on par with the big boys of the era. Little on those mixes looked appealing though, whatever hits of the day the same ol' anthems rinsed out on other prestigious mixes. God, even calling Gatecrasher 'prestigious' feels dirty, but compared to Slinky, it seems apt.

Fortunately (?), after the megaclub scene crashed, so did Slinky as a super promotion, their label folding and several of their releases easily found in clear-out bins for a soft fiver. Even then their CDs didn't look worth the investment, but seeing a double-disc from DJ John Kelley was enough enticement for a purchase. Wait, when did he ever play superclubs in the UK? Oh, wait, this is DJ John Kelly. Who’s he now?

Just kidding. Mr. Kelly paid his dues on the British DJ circuit throughout the '90s, often rubbing shoulders with all the big names and famous jocks while flooding the market with mixtapes. He definitely deserved a spot at a superclub, though it seems after Slinky's brand collapsed, so did ol' John's output, Lord Discogs finding little trace of his material these past ten years. So he either retired, or has gone deep underground. I'd do a search but chances are I'd come across his American doppelganger instead.

Oh, this 2CD mix? Eh, there's not much worth getting detailed about. CD1 is hard dance, at that weird crossroad point where NRG had faded but hardstyle hadn't quite taken off yet, and very little flow between tracks throughout the bosh. Utterly skippable, though hearing Picotto's Komodo again was nice. CD2 goes proggier, and builds well for a good while before getting stupid with novelty tracks, though hearing Minimalistix' Struggle For Pleasure again was nice. Mr. Kelly sounds more comfortable mixing these tracks, but most of his chosen tunes are forgettable. Yes, even that useless Tiësto remix of Innocente.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Eminem - The Slim Shady LP

Interscope Records: 1998

Seven years wasn’t long enough for the bitter aftertaste of Vanilla Ice’s brief dominance at the top of the charts. Perhaps that shameful moment in hip-hop’s history could never be cleansed from public consciousness, forever ruining whatever hope white rappers not named Beastie Boys might have in breaking it in that scene. Heck, the only other marginally successful Caucasian group in ’97 was ICP, and few gave them much care since they were so thoroughly committed to their clown show, no one took them seriously. And hip-hop are serious musics, see, dealing with serious issues of the day, and serious stories of rags to riches. What could a white boy from Detroit know of hardships in America?

Plenty much, turns out. Via an extreme persona dubbed Slim Shady, Eminem offered a look inside the side of life below the poverty line for American Caucasians (re: white trash), a topic almost unheard of in the world of rap. Punk rock, sure; metal, of course; blues and country, sometimes yeah. Hip-hop though, that's music for the black community, performed for the black community – how could they relate to the things Mr. Mathers dealt with?

Not much, to be honest, but they couldn't deny his skills on a microphone, spitting out battle rhymes and telling stories on par with any of the best MCs of the ‘90s. It was enough to draw the notice of Dr. Dre himself, hearing fresh fire in the kid from Detroit that hadn't been heard in hip-hop for years, the old guard all too comfortable in their established roles. Eminem had the talent, the unique perspective, and the drive to take the world by storm; all he needed was the guidance, which Doc' Dre provided. Then they released the corny-ass My Name Is, instantly dividing the MTV generation on whether Eminem could ever be taken seriously.

Oh all right, it was mostly me, but I don't doubt I was alone in suspecting Eminem nothing but a novelty one-hit wonder after that video. Hell, even the stuff he was graphically detailing wasn't too far off from the shock humor of South Park and Jerry Springer. Hip-hop associates kept telling me, “Don't judge him by that one song, it's the worst one off the album. You gotta' hear the rest of it, man!” Yeah, yeah, I'd nod, but considering I had yet to take my proper rap plunge, fat chance I'd ever hear The Slim Shady LP in full. Still, tracks like Guilty Conscience, My Fault (aka: the mushrooms song), and Role Model did find their way to my ears at the odd house party, and I couldn't deny they were fun, twisted tunes.

But nay, it wasn't until after hearing The Marshall Mathers LP and growing to appreciate Eminem the artist that I finally went back to The Slim Shady LP. And lo’, it was indeed a good album, a wild, reckless ride through lower class society’s worst traits. I sure don’t want to stay there for long though.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Sleeps With Angels

Reprise Records: 1994

Sleeps With Angels is one of the best albums Neil Young and his Crazy Horse ever put out, yet hardly gets mentioned in discussion. True, some of their other records had more impact on rock’s landscape – no one's taking away classics like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps. This one though, note for note, chord for chord, guitar for piano, drum for flute, distortion for melody, Sleeps With Angels is a beautiful album. Not because it paints a pretty picture, oh no! These are some incredibly bleak songs, topics of death, decay, and depression all presented in as grungy a way as blues rock can go. There's something captivating about all this misery though, like scenes out of an art-house film without the pretentious waffle that comes with it.

For instance, the criminally overlooked song Driveby, which deals with drive-by shootings and the tragedy they so often create. Young doesn't preach, laying out one senseless scenario after the other, the music he and Crazy Horse provide marching at a sombrely pace as though they're funeral pall-bearers. Their harmonized chorus, simply the title of the track, is such a heart-breaker, you wonder if the band themselves suffered a drive-by death in the family.

And so much of Sleeps With Angels is like this. Prime Of Life details the insidious nature of tabloid magazines ruining the Royal Family, the titular cut touches on Kurt Cobain's suicide with distortion dragged through the ugliest gravel pit, Western Hero forlornly recalls past glories of an old cowboy, Trans Am forlornly recalls past glories of a Trans Am, Safeway Cart paints a portrait of ghetto decay, and the epic fourteen minute long Change Your Mind tries consoling with extreme depression, wary of the spectre of suicide ever lurking in the shadows. My God, it wasn't that many years prior Young gave the world the sentimental Harvest Moon, much less teaming up with The Horse on the free-wheeling Ragged Glory. Even the one 'cock rocker' on here, the hilarious Piece Of Crap, rants on about disposable consumerist junk. What made them turn so dour? '90s, man, f’n '90s.

I wonder if that’s why Sleeps With Angels doesn’t receive the same Boomer plaudits as Young’s older work. The songcraft is all here, Neil & Crazy as tight-knit yet wonderfully loose of a unit during their ‘90s resurgence, but older folks just don’t talk it up much. Are the topics too touchy for his traditional audience, a sense of all the things that generation had worked for run ragged and cast aside by Gen-X’s emergence upon adulthood? Figures Young found a common link between the two with his music, the grunge aesthetic he helped pioneer turned into musings on the state of the nation. Its topics the adults could relate to, but wrapped in a package appealing to the teens, and all the more brilliant for it. Sadly, that also lands Sleeps With Angels in a nowhere land between disparate music scenes, often neglected by both.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Kiko - Slave Of My Mind (Original TC Review)

Play It Again Sam [PIAS]: 2008

(2015 Update:
I keep thinking
Slave Of My Mind will wear off on me, the attributes I found charming back in 2008 finally sounding campy or derivative. I keep thinking the only reason I gave it such praise was for its lack of things I disliked back then - the electro-fart nonsense, the minimal plonk-wank, the stoopid-club fodder. It never happens though, the thin line between tasteful and wack continuously toed with finesse. This is a fun album for a mild bit of brooding dance music, and is a shame Kiko never followed up on it.

Not that he hasn't been busy though, still cranking out singles by the cart load. Taking in a few of his more recent ones, it seems Kiko's gone the way of house music again. Tech-house, deep house, a little techno on the side - all the usual sounds you'll find in typical underground clubs I guess. Aww, why you no darkwave no more, Keekee? It's bound for another resurgence in the near future if nu-new retrowave movements have any momentum going for them.)



IN BRIEF: A misstep, or misunderstood?

Christophe Dallaca, or Kiko as he’s more commonly known in the clubbing community, had a promising leap into recognition during the first half of this decade. A part of the French techno connection that was injecting elements of italo and New Beat into their music, he was amongst the early adopters of electroclash, and even survived the backlash with subsequent acid hits such as Jack In The Box. Yet, while compatriots such as The Hacker and Vitalic have maintained a respectable profile as the years went on, Kiko seems to have faded off.

Do I have an answer for such occurring? It could lie within his second album, Slave Of My Mind. It would seem, as with so many others this past year, the Frenchman’s been influenced by the German aesthetic. Not to say Kiko didn’t have an inclining for moody minimalism in the past but not to the degree we have on this album. Gone is the italo, and even his native country’s influence is mostly absent; as such, so is much of what made Kiko… well, Kiko.

And unfortunately for Monsieur Dallaca, he isn’t adding anything to the German sound that hasn’t been touched upon for the last couple years. When everyone from Dutch trance producers to UK prog jocks to nearly every house producer under the sun are taking a stab at it, Kiko would have had to do something utterly revolutionary to stand out from the glut. Sadly, Slave Of My Mind doesn’t have anything close to that, and as a result we are left with a collection of tracks that are nicely produced but difficult to distinguish from the pack. Thus, Kiko fades from public consciousness.

That said, Slave Of My Mind does venture into territory few seem willing to frequent: darkwave… of a sort. The titular track and World End Rock Up reach into the gloom that made up much of the industrial-goth sound that’s been quite popular in German circles, all the while using melodramatic-yet-slight synth strings to sell the vocal angst. Wrap it up in techno beats, and you have a pair of tracks that’ll probably come across a bit too ‘hands-up’ for serious crowds, yet too dismal for general audiences. This easily makes Slave Of My Mind and World End Rock Up the best tracks on Kiko’s album, as they aren’t blatantly pandering to any group in particular, and are infectious dance numbers to boot.

Aside from additional vocal number So Time, which is a relatively average stab at injecting angst into a typical electro-house tune, the rest of the tracks don’t venture far off the murk-techno path. And although this is nothing any connoisseur of techno wouldn’t have heard before, Kiko still manages to craft hooks that are quite infectious despite being comparatively subtle; it’s difficult writing off stuff like PH-1 and Sunburn when they so easily get lodged in your head. He even takes a competent stab at that ambiguously named sub-genre neo-trance, throwing spritely glitch-melodies in Preludia and Alone In The Dark; it’s what Sander van Doorn’s album could have sounded like if the Dutchman had made a point in his tracks rather than dickering around with go-nowhere ultra-effects builds.

What Slave Of My Mind could have done without, however, are the three ambient doodles thrown about the album. They aren’t altogether awful, mind, just rather pointless; I’d have preferred seeing one of the b-sides to the singles show up instead (Maximale would have made for a killer contribution!).

I’m sure there are a number of folks out there that would disagree with my assessment of Kiko’s latest; after all, he’s no longer the Kiko most enjoyed years back, nor will he win much favor with the ‘I are serious techno serious fan’ groups. Damn it though, this is my review and despite the rough edges, Slave Of My Mind is quite enjoyable. You won’t be blown away by it, but it’s still entertaining from start to finish, which is more than can be said for most albums on store shelves. Put this one in the front-running for the Unduly Neglected Albums Of 2008 category.

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

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ott - Skylon (Original TC Review)

Twisted Records: 2008

(2015 Update:
Nothing helps appreciation of an album grow like being exposed to inferior examples of the genre. Not that I didn't enjoy Ott's second LP way back when, but I felt his production a bit too slick for a trippy style like psy-dub. What he
does have, however, is flow, sounds and samples making sense in their utilization. Since Skylon dropped, I've heard all manner of tracks that throw in so much wibble, it renders tracks nearly unlistenable, and the advent of dubstep mid-range random wobble often made matters worse. Less really is more in some cases, y'know.

Ott hasn't been up to much on the production front since
Skylon. He released another LP in 2011 called Mir, which I haven't heard because rumor mill contends he also went a little dubsteppy on that one. *sigh* No one could escape it that year, so I don't blame him catering to the festival market a little. Maybe I'll give it a check sometime, but considering I've yet to even hear Blumenkraft in full, I'm not in any rush for more Ott music. Skylon's plenty for the time being.)

IN BRIEF: Warm fuzzy feelings.

As my fellow writer [Jack Moss] said, “Another psy-dub album?” I suppose he has a point - for a genre of music that maintains a highly niche following, we do tend to cover a fair amount of it. However, the enigmatic Ott has garnered himself a higher profile than your average psy wibbler, having provided studio production and engineering for several rock bands before delving heavier into electronic music. It was his pairing up with psy legend Simon Posford for the Hallucinogen remix album In Dub that gained Ott the most critical notice though, and has since often worked with as collaborator on several high-profile releases (Shpongle and Dub Trees, to namedrop just a couple).

Having fiddled away in studios for most of his career, it came as something of a welcomed surprise when Ott released a full-length album of original material way back in 2003. Although Blumenkraft didn’t receive huge recognition beyond the genre’s faithful, it did cement the reclusive producer as one to keep an eye out on for future releases. Half a decade since that solo debut, Ott provides his follow-up in Skylon.

And where do we find The Ott (yes, this is the only name he provides) in this year of 2008? Not moving that far, to be honest. Much of his psy-dub execution remains unchanged, within his sonic scope and the genre as a whole; anyone who’s had a passing familiarity with this kind of music since even the Megadog era won’t find much innovation. Reggae rhythms, trippy atmospherics, cultural-fusion, ethnic samples... stop me if you have heard this before.

What Skylon lacks in inventiveness, however, Ott more than makes up for in musicianship. Mellow melodic moments that move the mind and soul? Yep. Catchy chants that hook into your mind? You bet. Intriguing effects-play that tickle the ol’ psyche in imaginative ways? Ya’, guy. Beats and bass giving your feet a case of the funky shuffles? F’sure. There may not be many songs offered on this album, but each one delivers in a way that is quite satisfying as the CD plays through.

In case that broad stroke of a description isn’t incentive enough for you to check Skylon out, here are some highlights to pique your curiosity further: The Queen Of All Everything, after lazily cruising along with melody, hits a lovely little synth climax - not to be outdone, dub-cut Signals From Bob pulls the same, with results that are thrilling for the ears; Daisies And Rubies is quite the free-flowing bit of spacey dub, with musical indulgences to spare, but the theremin towards the end is a delight to hear; if Ott was ever given the opportunity to cross over, the bhangra-influenced Rogue Bagel proves he definitely has the chops to pull it off; just as potent a dancefloor weapon is Roflcopter, where dubby breaks, cheeky samples, and trippy effects make this track a potent weapon for those outdoor parties.

Lowlights, then? None, really. About the only fault one could be nitpicky about is sometimes Ott’s production can come across as too polished. While it never seems as though he’s unintentionally stripped the soul of his music in the way other studio-obsessives have, nor does Skylon really have any of those pure unpredictable psychedelic moments that some of the best psy-dub albums of the past contain.

Of course, there’s also the argument this isn’t the kind of music that everyone will enjoy, but if psy-dub isn’t your bag then chances are you haven’t even read this far to begin with. Besides, Ott has managed to produce an album that should be appealing to those looking to get their feet wet. Although long-time connoisseurs of the genre may come away somewhat underwhelmed, Skylon offers more than enough infectious rhythms, pleasing melodies and engaging harmonies to please all parties.

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

BushX - Sixteen Stone

Interscope Records: 1994/1996

This being a Canadian blog, I must call this band BushX. The Can-Con Commission is ruthless, often breaking knees over preserving our heritage, including making sure a home-grown Bush band doesn't get overshadowed by a foreign Bush band. What's funny is with the immense popularity of Gavin Rossdale's group, Roy Kenner's group got more publicity for their infringement lawsuit than any of their music garnered - from the Gen-X crowd anyway. What's even funnier is it worked, my brain still subconsciously treating this album as a BushX record, not a Bush one. This, despite the fact BushX technically no longer must be called BushX within our borders. Guess after London Bush disbanded for a while, Toronto Bush saw little need for anal-retentive clarification of whose Bush is whose.

Anyhow, Sixteen Stone. This was a ridiculously popular album back in the day, though I'm hard pressed to think of anyone admitting they throw it on anymore. It certainly hasn't aged as terribly as many other post-Nirvana grunge bands, but nor does it have the gritty charm of the original Seattle invasion. BushX sound just a little too polished with their distortion, a little too clean-cut in their angst, a little too big label produced for a supposed grassroots music scene. And yet almost no one initially wanted to sign them. Grunge from the UK? Balderdash!

Super success notwithstanding, the band has a humble beginning, Gavin and fellow guitarist Nigel Pulsford joining forces through a mutual love of Pixies. They're competent musicians, knowing their way around feedback and riffs that are heavy, dreary, and all that good grunge stuff. I dunno though, it all feels off, even to these ears that have as little exposure to the genre as a '90s teenager could hope to achieve. Matters aren’t helped when Gavin just doesn't strike me as a 'proper' grunge leading man, y'know? I cannot deny he's got stage presence, a look and voice just as impressive as Cobain's wretchedness, Scott Weiland's hot mess, and Eddie Vedder's pearly whites. Wouldn't he be better served fronting a traditional heavy alt-rock band though?

Whatever. Machinehead’s a kick-ass tune, no one can ever deny that. Most of the other songs rock well enough for a casual listen, and I’m sure almost every girl made out to Glycerine before Aerosmith stole BushX’s teen dance thunder. Hell, even Ishkur was a big enough fan to get this limited edition 2CD version with a bonus live recording included. Explain yourself there, mang.

Ishkur: “I had that? I had no idea.”

Dammit, doesn't everyone obsess over their CDs?

Honestly, I was curious to hear how disc two sounded, whether the studio polish of CD1 capably translated to stage performance. Screaming girls aside (because of course), it was pretty cool, the band sounding much looser and Gavin’s singing straining in a cool sort of way. Maybe the band realized this rougher sound served their music better, going with Steve Albini for their second album. It didn’t serve their sales though.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dogon - The Sirius Expeditions

World Domination Recordings: 1998

I’ve probably said what I’m about to write before, but I’ve been writing these reviews for nearly thirty-two months now. I’m bound to repeat myself a few times, return to salient points, and reiterate former rants when appropriate after a ton of time has passed between. And this fact, this tidbit of aged wisdom I’m about to impart, it needs repeating, must be repeated so we all remember its sage advice such when another generation emerges that deserves the knowledge. Whatever is this bastion of high intellect I’ve bequeathed upon thee hence, and shall do so posthaste? Yes, what is this peon of insight that will bring clarity of mind and soul to all that who shall now read it?

An album like Dogon’s The Sirius Expeditions would never have gotten attention without the ‘brick & mortar’ music shop, and that’s a darn shame.

Actually, I don’t know if that’s true anymore, what with a million and one micro-meme genres popping up every year now. A lot of those seem to start out as a joke though, something done as a lark to impress fellow young bedroom producers on a /mu/ hub, but man oh man do they get attention. Dogon, however, have some serious talent behind them, musicians that know their way around a studio and song craft. They’re loosely ambient, but that doesn’t stop them from going all esoteric with pseudo-jungle beats and whatever it is they’re doing in Plexus (big beat acid Orb jam?). They do ridiculously sentimental New Age tunes (Pah), mysterious ethnic –fusion dub (The Round Buddha Factory, Melonheart), sun-kissed hippie festival glaze-outs (a cover of Pink Floyd’s Fat Old Sun, and sorta’ follow-up Joven Flaca Luna), and brooding, meditative ambience (Locus Voci, The Unknowable). Naturally, the titular twelve-minute cut runs the gamut of all these features, then goes for the super-epic orchestral build to sell that cosmic journey.

Okay, I’m way overselling The Sirius Expeditions. The tonal shift throughout this album is jarring, making for a difficult playthrough. This is the sound of a group (primarily Miguel Noya and Paul Godwin, with assorted musicians joining in for the fray) with a ton of ideas but knowing full well their reach will be limited. Lord Discogs lists scant else by Dogon, two other albums and little more. So they go for the gusto, indulging in all their idiosyncrasies while proudly proclaiming “we’re not commercial, we’ve came to grips with ourselves with that”. It’s a wacky ride that’s at times exhilarating, other times charming, but equal parts confounding. I’ve played this many times over, thinking this will be the time it all clicks, yet something consistently holds me back.

Hey, at least I’m giving it repeated plays, something that can’t be said of many other CDs in my collection. And I’d never have gotten it too, if it hadn’t been idling on that Virgin Megastore shelf so many years ago. Praise be the random chance purchases, and all the bizarre musics that may come with them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Depeche Mode - The Singles 86>98

Mute: 1998

Depeche Mode, the band everyone loves when they want to get in touch with their darkside, and will get beaten to a bloody pulp by the South Park goth kids for it. Depeche Mode, the band that’s seen so much reinvention over the years, even their long standing fans have formed tribes based on which version is the one true Mode. A band that had a singles package released before their most recognized songs hit the radio waves, followed the year after with another ‘greatest hits’ album to accommodate those, and was still followed upon by some of their most famous songs. They soundtracked everything from foppish New Wave clubs to nebbish S&M dungeons to family friendly mall speakers. They’re the band you enjoy until their sound falls out of fashion, secretly admire while no one’s looking, then proclaim a long-standing devotion when it’s cool to do so again.

So yeah, Depeche Mode has had a career, one lengthy enough for retrospectives dividing their different eras. Obviously the mid-‘80s record The Singles 81 → 85 covered the early portions of their discography, but albums Black Celebration, Music For The Masses, and Violator came after. These LPs held the songs Stripped, Strangelove, Behind The Wheel, Enjoy The Silence, A Question Of Lust, A Question Of Time, A Question Of Your Personal Jesus… Basically every song we’ve come to associate with Depeche Mode (that reverb!), even those who contend Just Can’t Get Enough is their crowning achievement.

Naturally another greatest hits package had to capitalize on these singles. Like, shortly after the ‘90s took form, when their darkwave synth-pop sound could no longer stand toe-to-toe with trendier sounds like industrial rock and raving techno. Get a few extra dollars from their fans and- wait, Depeche Mode’s still going? What’s with this ‘adapting with the times’ strategy of theirs? It’ll never work, “never” claims the critics! Well, the band must have been doing something right, for they managed a whole second CD of singles from their ‘90s efforts.

Honestly, CD2 of The Singles 86>98 isn’t as memorable as CD1. The albums released during that period - Songs Of Faith And Devotion and Ultra - have their fans, and it’s remarkable the band navigated the ‘90s as capably as they did before ‘80s revivalism gave them another boost with 2001’s Exciter. Yet, hearing them go all distorted in I Feel You and Useless, or try trip-hop with Barrel Of A Gun, doesn’t quite mesh with how I, a passive fan, fancy the group. Leave the angst-ridden sonics to Nine Inch Nails, and give me more of that cinematic melodrama bombast in Little 15. Wait, why is that song on CD2?

I guess there’s no harm in slapping a second disc of material to an essential first, but was there no other way of summing up thirteen years of band’s career? CD1 has all the songs you know and love, CD2 has the fans-only material. So much cake that needs eating too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Aldrin - Singapore Tribal

Muzik Magazine: 2001

After a solid string of free CDs from Muzik Magazine, Singapore Tribal was such a letdown. No cool new sounds like electroclash. No tasty club hits like Chocolate Puma or Bent. No exposure to UK exports like grime or nu-skool breaks. This was just house music - kinda’ dark, a bit like the opening portions of a (then) recent Danny Tenaglia mix, but well outside my interests. If I was gonna’ get down to a brooding, dubby mix of house-based grooves, I’d get my fix from the prog camps, not this ‘tribal’ thing. Thus Singapore Tribal languished in my collection for years upon years, not even roused for a pity play. And finally, now forced to revisit Aldrin’s mix for Muzik Magazine, I must kick thyself with much gusto and shame, for oh Lord what I wouldn’t give to hear something like this out in this day of age!

I should have had more faith in Muzik, having bestowed upon Aldrin Quek praises like “Best New DJ” and “one of the world's finest residents”, referring to his home behind the decks at Zouk in Singapore. Clearly I wasn't ready for this sort of house in my life, but I also single out two other factors that soured me to Aldrin's mix CD. First, the mastering is rather rough, with frequent clipping of bass kicks. Maybe Aldrin prefers a gritty, muddy sound in his sets, but having grown used to crystal clear dynamics from Digweed mixes, I wasn't vibing on it at the time. Second, a big piece of this CD’s promotion went into a big new remix for Inner City's Big Fun, which is a big ol' bore as far as I'm concerned. The fact I'm certain none of y'all have hear of D-Wynn's tech-house rub of the Saunderson classic only proves trend-hopping remixes are seldom worth the hype. Ultimately though, Singapore Tribal didn't do it for me because I expected compilations from my free Muzik CDs, not DJ mixes. How dare a UK magazine not meet a single young Canadian adult’s expectations!

Master Sky Fairy willing though, age grants us the wisdom to learn from our earlier follies, and I came around to the sounds Aldrin was pushing. It still doesn't excuse me from ignoring a solid mix CD from Mr. Quek for so many years, but I'm pleasantly surprised that Singapore Tribal pleasantly surprised me with this playthrough. While the mastering is still too rough for my liking, and that Big Fun remix is still a big bore as a closer, the rest is pure dopeness. Thumping tribal business from Peace Division and Khaimar, chugging dub work from Jeff Bennett, bumpin’ tech-house from Jay Tripwire, and deep acid groove from Aldrin himself easily makes up for the few weak moments. Aldrin's mixing is mostly smooth throughout, momentum kept on the up such that one can easily get locked into a sweaty groove in a hot underground climate. Damn, I want to hear this stuff at a club again...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Andrew Heath - The Silent Cartographer

Disco Gecko: 2014

In one of the great cosmic coincidences within my music collection, CDs from Simon Heath is followed upon by a CD by Andrew Heath in my alphabetical organization of album titles. I don't think they’re related. Even more coincidentally though, they both produce ambient music. Okay, given the amount of ambient I have, it's not that great a coincidence.

Plus, they're at complete opposite ends of the ambient spectrum. S. Heath makes dark, brooding ambient as Atrium Carceri and Sabled Sun, while A. Heath makes calm, meditative ambient as, um, Andrew Heath. Also, the former has quite a few releases to his various aliases, whereas the latter has very little. Lord Discogs claims Andrew floated about in ambient obscurity with Felix Jay as Aqueous, releasing a few albums in the '90s before all musical records of him disappear until very recently. Somewhere along the way, Toby Marks got wind of his music, and signed him to his Disco Gecko label. And now you know why I'm reviewing The Silent Cartographer in the here and now. Like, if Banco de Gaia reps the chap, there's gotta' be some dope transmissions coming in from Mr. Heath (no, not signals).

After taking in this album though, I'm left puzzled by the Banco bump. The Silent Cartographer is ambient at its most traditionalist, with soothing synth tones, delicate piano touches, and occasional soft percussion. The opening titular cut, running at thirteen minutes in length, harkens back to some of Pete Namlook and Dr. Atmo’s work as Silence, lazily idling along with soft pads ebbing and flowing while various field recordings come and go. There are birds chirping, water running, boats creaking, and… repair work near the end? It’s all very relaxing though, perfect meditation music if that’s your sort of thing.

And so is the rest of the album, little variation in terms of mood and tone. The Twilight World uses pad synths with more prominence as it develops, Shoreline (Found Object) has a pleasant planetarium vibe going for it, Still Point works in a little vinyl crackle for extra warmth, and The Poet’s Dream feels ‘old-school’ with some vintage synth sounds used. For the most part though, these ten minutes pieces are led by piano, and here’s where I make the inevitable Harold Budd comparison. What, were you expecting a Hybrid Leisureland one instead? Can’t be helped, Mr. Budd casting a long shadow in the ‘piano ambient’ scene. The shorter Paper Boat sounds like something right out of his work with Brian Eno in The Pearl. Say, maybe that’s why I picked up The Silent Cartographer, figuring this album would represent the historical drama I keep believing The Pearl is based upon.

Mm, no, it’s definitely because of the Banco bump. You’d think a guy known for ethnic-fusion beats would curate artists of similar ilk to his label, but maybe Toby Marks has long had an unrealized soft spot for art house ambient too. Don’t expect Mr. Heath at a Megadog reunion though.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sabled Sun - Signals I-III

Cryo Chamber: 2014

One does not simply let a sci-fi concept rest on its singular story, not when there is an entire world created. Simon Heath felt there was more worth exploring with his Sabled Sun concept, but wasn't keen on getting bogged down with divergent side-stories, sub-quests, or cul-de-sac tales. Enter the Signals series, digital-only compositions of hour-long ambient drone, loosely tied with the other Sabled Sun albums as companion pieces, but not integral to the main narrative – so like DLC, then?

Honestly, for as much as Mr. Heath's project intrigues me, I only had mild interest in these tracks. I barely indulge in lengthy drone of this sort as it is, preferring the genre in manageable bite-size chunks. Not to mention I remain a staunch believer in only committing hard cash to hard copies, even as the market continuously erodes the need for such mediums (however, it will never erode the ‘want’). On the other hand, unlike other fields of drone, the idea of dark space ambient has a certain allure, a suitable pairing capturing the harsh reality of desolate nothingness that is much of the cosmos. Maybe I'd check out Signals on a streaming service some day, even if I'd never get a chance to review it here.

Then I discovered a three-disc set of Signals had been released. Well, that settles that.

Though it really goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: if you don’t care for dark droning ambient music, Signals won’t change your mind. These are about as dark and droning examples of the genre as you’ll likely find, though followers of Mr. Heath claim his work as Atrium Carceri is among the best of recent artists, so maybe this is decent starting point too.

Or maybe not. Signals I is almost an endurance test to get through, completely atonal and sonically crushing on the psyche. Running with the Sabled Sun setting, it feels like I’m trapped in orbit of a dying planet, waves of radiation bombarding me from above and below. There’s no emotional resonance here, just stark existence, unable to escape the calamity before me. Only as the droning ambience slowly recedes is a respite granted, though somehow I’m much lonelier because of it. Signals II feeds off of that feeling, also featuring a persistent humming drone throughout though much more subdued and spacious. The first twenty minutes of this track also has an intermittent high-pitched sound, like a transmission trying to pierce the desolate vast emptiness of the cosmos. The droning then changes pitch, and a similar sound briefly plays, as though finally responding to the desperate signals of before. Then nothing but the ebbing waves of drone after that. Dear lord, this is some bleak stuff.

If any of these CD-length tracks have hope it’s Signals III, where minimalist musical tones lend human emotion to the concept. Really, this is little more than a dirge, but man, after feeling such inhospitable isolation in the previous two Signals, any connectivity is welcome.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

ACE TRACKS: May 2013

So, enjoying all these ‘S’ albums? It’s been nearly two months since I started with this letter, and I’m not even finished the first half of them, at least another two weeks’ worth to go before hitting a midway point. And If you think that’s hefty, you should see the alphabetical backlog that’s accumulated in that time! Holy cow, I may need a cutoff with that, lest I never find a way back to my ‘S’ albums. This was all so much easier two years ago. Remember how swiftly ‘F’ and ‘G’ flew by? I do, because I just made a playlist for ACE TRACKS: May 2013, when I was reviewing those CDs.


Full track list here.


MISSING ALBUMS:
Various - Global Underground Departures
Various - Global Underground 31: Dubfire - Taipei
Jim ‘Shaft’ Ryan - Miss Moneypenny’s Glamorous Grooves
2 Unlimited - Get Ready
Del Tha Funkee Homosapien - Funk Man (The Stimulus Package)
AK1200 - Fully Automatic

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 50%
Percentage Of Rock: 6%
Most “WTF?” Track: Nine Inch Nails - At The Heart Of It All (why does this sound like some random Aphex Twin cut?)

The hip-hop percentage is misleading, as I’ve included the entirety of Gang Starr’s Full Clip double-disc ‘best of’ at the end, which is indeed about half of the total songs in this playlist. Also, I’m not sure I can even qualify the selected rock songs as rock at all. The three Police entries find Sting pushing the limits of what a rock song could be in a New Wave world, and the NIN cuts (re: remixes) are definitely out of leftfield here. This was also another rather short Playlist sans Gang Starr, that May eaten up by plenty more double-disc entries (two NIN albums, a GU, plus another 2CD DJ mix). I’m surprised this came together as capably as it did, what with moody ambient music, tech-doff house, and psy trance all mixing things up. Well, the opening portion anyway.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Filter - Short Bus

Reprise Records: 1995

It’s been a long while since I dealt with any of Ishkur’s old CDs. Okay, there’s been a scattered few that had actual ‘techno’ on it (win an Ishkur t-shirt if you guess which ones!), but nada from his pre-rave days. I bring this up because it’s the only reason why I’m reviewing Filter’s debut album today. Obviously I’d never have bought this for myself, though the possibility of it being a gift from an aunt always lingered. Seemed every guy I knew who had some hard rock or alternative rock or industrial rock collection had Short Bus in their CD pile. You couldn’t escape it, even in store shelves long after Filter had faded from public discourse. You’d spot it in ‘90s rock retrospectives, the cover art distinct and memorable. Yet, beyond one major track, does anyone recall any of the tunes off this? I sure don’t.

Yeah, yeah, not like I should know of Filter’s work, since their music scene was well outside my interest. Hear their music I did though, primarily because their brand of Nine Inch Nails metal made for ample edgy soundtrack fodder. In fact, they were tapped for the lead single off Spawn, collaborating with The Crystal Method on (Can’t You) Trip Like I Do. Right, ‘collaborating’ is used very loosely here – more like sang over an existing Crystal Method cut, but Spawn was one big ‘yawn’ anyway, amirite?

Point being, Filter’s the sort of alternative rock one easily identifies with a specific era of music. That post Trent Reznor, pre Limp Bizkit sweet spot of aggressive distortion, angst-filled singing, yet just enough strength of songcraft to take it seriously enough. Like I said, perfect for goth-inspired movies such as The Crow, Demon Knight, Valentine, The X-Files, 3000 Miles To Graceland (huh?), The Cable Guy (wait), and Little Knicky (oh come on).

Short Bus, then. I guess it’s good. Hey Man, Nice Shot, the opener tune about R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide, I most certainly have heard, because that song was on nearly every alt-metal compilation you could think of. MTV Buzz Bin, Family Values Tour 1999, Freedom Sucks Vol. 2, The Next Generation, Absolute 90’s, plus a number of those soundtracks listed above. Most of the tunes off Short Bus sound like it, some a little sludgier, some a little brisker, all heavy with distortion and shouty lyrics. I’d make a quip about how all industrial metal sounds the same, but Nine Inch Nails sounds pretty different song to song, and it’s not like ninety-percent of techno isn’t recyclable either. One thing I do like is the requisite acoustic tunes (Stuck In Here, So Cool) have a neat bit of distortion fuzz playing in the background. Like, some sort of sonic sift or sieve.

For as hopelessly ‘90s as Filter come across, they’ve managed a career lasting to this date. Good for them, I say, though one ride on the Short Bus is all I need for my Filter fix.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Magda - She's A Dancing Machine

M_nus: 2006

Magda is Madgdalena Chojnacka, a very important person in the world of techno. Because she’s a woman, see. And women don’t do techno apparently, but she does, making her important. Bunch of hogwash far as I’m concerned – the likes of Ellen Allien has long made a mark on the predominantly Boys-Only club of clubbing culture, with plenty more female jocks rising in prominence this past decade. Magda though, she had the benefit of being pals with Richie F’n Hawtin, the most very important person in the world of techno during the mid-‘00s. Despite being long time friends even before moving to Berlin, she got tagged as something of a hanger-on, also a bunch of hogwash as far as I’m concerned. So she benefited from being part of M_nus’ inner circle. At least she came out of the minimal fiasco with some integrity intact (unlike too many others I won’t namedrop).

For one thing, she never flooded the market with material, sticking to the touring circuit and letting the great M_nus hype machine do the rest. Smart idea, what with the minimal scene quickly growing flooded with plink-plonk nonsense and dry-as-dirt DJ mixes. There was always something just a little more unique about her sets though, a bit of funkiness in a typically sterile environment. Come see the cute DJ, stay because she’s got your feet locked on the floor!

When Magda finally did put her name to a physical format though, she went out of her way to challenge the norm, following in the Plastikman’s footsteps in rethinking the idea of what a DJ mix could be. She’s A Dancing Machine lists seventy-one tracks in its list, all cut, looped, spliced and Ableton’d onto a single CD. Yes, it’s minimal techno, but this is how such music is best served, using snippets, bits, and pieces for an icy cool mix. Things are constantly shifting and changing, all the while maintaining a sense of forward momentum without getting lost in monotonous effects wank. For the love of an 808, I cannot understand why so many minimal mixes don’t do this. DJs will layer once or thrice, but always in a clinical manner, seldom with the same sense of loose groove Magda employs here. I don’t doubt constructing sets of this sort takes a ridiculous amount of time, so it’s easier to just do the standard mix CD of lining up your tracks of similar genre origin. Compared to She’s A Dancing Machine though, such sets are a right bore, far too safe and predictable. Here, I’m constantly engaged by every little quick twist and turn played.

Okay, this still are mostly serious minimal techno, with all the familiar names of that era popping in. Magda’s debut mix CD won’t convince you to check this music further once you’ve long written it off. If you’ve a little curiosity over what that scene’s big fuss was though, She’s A Dancing Machine is one of the better offerings available to soak your ears in.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Chris Duckenfield - Sheffield Mix Sessions

Turbo Recordings: 2001

Way back in the long ago time, when Lord Discogs had yet to achieve its deity prominence among all things electronic music databased, Chris Duckenfield was as mysterious to me as the planet Pluto (woo, timely namedrop!). For the longest time, this lone mix on Turbo Recordings was his only entry, baffling a decade-younger Sykonee to no end. Why had Tiga tapped this virtual unknown for a DJ mix? After scouring Scandinavia, what prompted him commissioning a jock from the UK? Who on Earth was Chris Duckenfield, and what relationship did he have with the Montreal label? How has a guy with such a class mix CD on the market gone so unnoticed? Is he just some Sheffield local with a die-hard following, or has he done anything else of note, even in his native country? And why is there some screwy mixing going on in this set?

To answer that last question, the track indexing on this CD is gibbled. The mix from #9 occurs at #11, plays as normal through #12, while the expectant mix from there has already blown by at #10. I’d give titles but with things as wonk as they are, I haven’t a clue which is what, though I can definitely confirm that Symbiosis’ Oxygen is a mint cut within all this. Was it just my copy of Sheffield Mix Sessions with this error though? If not, poor form, Turbo, I trusted you. Chris Duckenfield trusted you!

Okay, back to Mr. Duckenfield. Despite Vassal Discogs not having much info in 2003, ol’ Chris’ profile has filled out nicely since those dark days. He’s apparently been around since the early rave days, producing along with Richard Benson as RAC, releasing an album on Warp in their formative years. Following that he teamed up with Richard Brown (Chris loves his Richards) to form Swag and release two LPs and a bundle of EPs to this day. Then there’s a ceaseless DJ career, and my mind boggles as to why Sheffield Mix Sessions remains his lone entry. Did Tiga have to twist Chris’ arm to even get this out of him? Man, they could have at least offered a snappy bio in the CD’s inlay.

As for this mix, we get ourselves a good ol’ deep session of house music direct from the tasteful times of 2001. The opening portion features names like Nigel Hayes, Jazzanova, and Morgan Geist, with a vibe that’ll have you itching to cruise out in a Mitsubishi. And even with a fucked-up track index, the middle portion of Chris’ mix is still good funky, deep tech-house fun. The final sequence goes for the tribal dub business that was quite popular with the serious house heads of the time, and would sadly fall out of favour when all things minimal became the norm. Hmm, I wonder if Duckenfield fell in lockstep with that trend too. Considering he released a 2006 single called Modern House Is Rubbish under his Duckbeats alias, I suspect not.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Juno Reactor - Shango

Metropolis: 2000

Shango is about as transitional an album as a transitional album can get. Not that we were aware of it back when Juno Reactor dropped his fifth LP in the year 2000, though one could definitely suspect Ben Watkins leaving his psy trance legacy in the dust. Bible Of Dreams already hinted at a muse looking for new roads to travel, fresh genres to explore. Maybe he'd start dabbling in that burgeoning psy dub thing, or take a stab at another ambient concept album. Ooh, industrial rock and big beat is still popular, especially with movie soundtracks – why not make a few tunes geared for TVT's latest cyberpunk thriller?

I don’t know about that, but hearing some of his Bible cuts featured in movies and video games must have given Mr. Watkins a shot of inspiration, envisioning his music in cinematic terms rather than outdoor party fodder. It's the only explanation I have for opening Shango with a track stampeding out of a Robert Rodriguez grindhouse Western. Pistolero's got the flamenco guitars, Mexican samples, bank robberies, and a ton of energy to spare, desperado rhythms furiously galloping across the arid lands of Chihuahua. No matter what you thought Juno Reactor might bring to this album, I highly doubt anyone figured it'd be something as off the dusty trail as Pistolero.

And then he changes gears straight after with Hule Lam, a collaboration with long-time South African traditionalist troupe Amampondo that goes deep into the tribal conga fury. Er, I honestly don't know which African ethnicity they draw their music from, though this song was oddly featured in a dancing mini-game tie-in to the movie Madagascar 2. Wait, what? Talk about licensing to the extreme. I hope none of the kids vibing on Hule Lam checked out the rest of Shango, only to have the fierce, terrifying meditative Badimo assault their senses shortly after.

If you're getting a feeling of musical whiplash with these descriptions, fret not for that's one of the problems with Shango as an album. Masters Of The Universe marks the midpoint of the album, and it’s the closest thing to a tear-out psy trance outing you’ll find. Following that are two versions of Nitrogen, the first having a lending hand from Orb members Alex Paterson and Greg Hunter for a thumping dubbed-out excursion, the second more of a conventional industrial-trance tune (with some mint drum fills thrown in throughout!). And while you can always count on a nice ambient closure on most albums, Shango ends with two, neither having much to do with each other. Solaris is a dark ambient outing with chants and such, while Song Of Ancestors comes off like the credits sequence to whatever movie Watkins had in mind for Pistolero.

That’s Shango in a nutshell: an LP with many great ideas and cool tunes, but little holding it together. Come Labyrinth, Watkins would tie his inspirations into cohesive whole, but here he’s figuring out just how far he can take Juno Reactor.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Various - Shadow: Hed Sessions 2

Shadow Records: 2002

What's that, you say? You don't care about Shadow Records' genre explorations and just want to kick back with some down low funky urban vibes? First off, props to you for being that dedicated to defunct label to even have developed such standards. I didn't even know y'all existed out there. Hell, I was surprised to find any Shadowheads even when they were in business. Folks knew of them, sure, but more as an outlet for older releases from Ninja Tune, DJ Cam, or Kruder & Dorfmeister – only hardcore fans of trip-hop and jazz-funk gave the label's massive extended roster much notice, and even then plenty of names slipped through the cracks. Goo needs more love, yo'!

Where was I going with this? Oh, right Hed Sessions. This was the sort of compilation that served Shadow Records best, focusing on the sound that made the label’s breaded butter while throwing the spotlight on acts that had fallen through the downtempo cracks. Hell, given the massive size of the that scene and all its variant genres (trip-hop, illbient, acid jazz, nu-jazz, dub, funk-fusion, abstract-step, sprockets), it’s more of a chasm than a crack producers could disappear down. Forget the obsessive techno collectors, I’d like to see someone gather all there is in this field of electronic music!

The first Hed Sessions did as the Hard Sessions did with two tracks per five selected artists. Hed Sessions 2 mixes things up a little by drawing upon more artists instead. There’s also a repeat from the previous volume, in that Saru (Steve Branson) appears again, though in remixed form. Wait, Subterra already was remixed on Hed Sessions, and now we get another remix of that track in Hed Sessions 2? Damn, pimp your own acts much, Shadow? Whatever, the dubbed out version of Suck In Love’s good stuff. Why am I talking about Hed Sessions as though I’ve already reviewed it?

By the by, Blend is on here thrice. Once offering a remix of Greg Long’s Economic Freedom, and getting remixed himself by DJ DRM in Addicted and Greg Long for All That Dub. Ah, a little ‘I remix you, you remix me’ action going on here. And for the love of dub, I hope y’all remember me mentioning Blend some twenty months ago (!) – his Echo Warrior album is exactly the sort of thing I was blabbering on about above there.

Other tracks on Hed Sessions 2 include trip-groove hoppin’ Goldiggin’ from Cordovan, jazz-funk hop of Banana Jazz Hop from Toye, floating jazz-dub vibes of Nikita’s Dream from Swirlbent, and space ‘n’ spliff turntable action of Darkness from Raging Family. If you recognize most these names, you either know them personally, or already have this CD, because this is literally the only place Lord Discogs recognizes them. Still, though walking the same paths Mo’Wax and Ninja Tune had long treaded, these are all fine tunes, definitely deserving of more exposure even if the artists aren’t around any longer.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Various - Shadow: Hard Sessions

Shadow Records: 2001

When Shadow Records started their big push out of underground obscurity, they knew more markets than their traditional blazed-out audience needed attention. Fine and all continuing the promotion of trip-hop, illbient (aka: trippier hop), and abstract jazz funk, but geez, look at all the bank house, trance, and techno was making too. It wouldn't hurt to dabble a little in those scenes, would it? No, not at all. Just set up a couple new compilation series as an introduction, offer them up at a reduced rate to entice the curious, and scour the lands of America for talent interested in a record deal. Search high and low for them too, oh Shadow lords, even the backwaters of northwestern British Columbia (yes, this did happen!).

Hard Sessions was set up as the label's showcase of the more aggressive acts within Shadowland’s sphere of interest. While mostly overlooked d'n'b (though ASC makes an early career appearance in Hard Sessions 2!), in a move that surprised many, this first volume features techno from Dietrich Schoenemann, a veteran of the ambient and experimental circuit. He'd released material on Shadow's ambient parent label Instinct, so it's not like ol' Diets was a complete unknown, but what's he doing here on Hard Sessions? For that matter, what's he doing offering up head-down pulsing techno workouts with his two tracks here, Dark Sight and Autumn Ground? The former thumps with all the minimalist fury of a Jeff Mills cut, and the latter goes for the dark, tribal jugular of a 4am bender in a dank warehouse. It’s not the hard, bangin’ shit, but it’s solid stuff, and totally at odds with everything else on Hard Sessions. Hey, I appreciate Shadow’s attempt at subjecting die-hard junglists to something outside their comfort zone, but maybe an entirely different compilation dedicated to techno would have been a better option.

Including the two Dietrich cuts, ten tracks make up this compilation, two per artist. The artists range from the highly prolific to the hopelessly obscure. For instance, Hard Sessions opens with smooth flowing tech-step ofSo Dark Now from Magnetic, or David Harrow to Lord Discogs. He had two albums on Shadow Records, plus a few more LPs following that label’s folding. Then there’s the other work David Harrow’s accomplished as High Stepper, Technova, Oicho... holy cow, does this guy have a huge discography! Then there’s Illform (Quentin Allen), who only released but one album of d’n’b with Shadow, though had a little more success with deep house as Karu after. Quite a contrast there, mang’.

Hanna, another prolific producer, provides more d’n’b with a jazzy bent, while weirdo cybernetic, abstract, broken-jungle one-shot group Droid rounds out the rest. No, really, I can’t think of any other way to describe Droid. It’s like Amon Tobin’s more spastic moments fed through a Detroit jazz factory. Worth a listen just to believe. So is Hard Sessions too, if you ever stumble upon it on the cheap. Discover a few great producers in the process!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Parlaphone: 1967/2009

The only Beatles album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not much of a Beatles fan. If you’re a totally predictable, cliché music collector anyway. Most folks don’t bother with the albums, getting any number of the greatest hits packages for their Beatles fix and calling it a day. Sgt. Pepper’s though, we’re told is a must have, an essential have, resting at the peak of a rock ‘n’ roll mountain of Very Important Albums. So get it folks do, because why not, it’s got cool songs on it like A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and the epic A Day In The Life. I think everybody’s day should end with a massive piano chord slowly ebbing away as sleep takes you over.

Yet I wonder how many actually play the whole album through. Any Beatles fanatic obviously does – to not indulge their concept LP in its entirety is punishable by eternal Yoko yodeling. Do casuals have much care for George Harrison’s complete dive into Indian meditation music in Within You Without You though? Do the screaming fangirls of yore suddenly fantasize becoming a meter-maid, thus wooing the fancy of McCartney in Lovely Rita? Did a bunch of starry-eyed hippies marvel at the production ingenuity of carnival funfair ode Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite? I somehow suspect not, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band faring no better than any other number of Beatles albums of their studio era. This album has a massive gap between songs everyone knows intimately, and songs folks would have trouble identifying as part as one of the rock music’s most beloved records. “Oh yeah, Fixing A Hole’s totally a Beatles tune, it’s off one of those white albums, right?”

I know I’m dodging a proper review of Sgt. Pepper’s, but my analysis is moot. The record is almost a half-century old, and is so thoroughly dissected by music historians, the only original angle I can offer is anecdotal. Speaking of, my road trip with my old man gave me a chance to pick his brain about many things music related, including this album he insisted we bring. He was a young teenager then, swept in by Sgt. Pepper’s unique vision, realizing the possibilities of what rock music could achieve. I can appreciate Sgt. Pepper’s impact on those terms too (plus, y’know, just vibe on all the great tunes), but to hear it described as a game-changer from someone who was actually there when the album first dropped, a wistful look in his eyes at remembering how all the old rules were shattered, does give it a fresh perspective. She’s Leaving Home’s just a nice, mellow song on a good album to my ears, but is remarkably poignant to his.

Other bands might have shown potential to do what The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s, but the Liverpool Four had the access to top-end studio gear, work ethic, and commercial clout to realize such a vision first.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Atomic Hooligan - Sex, Drugs And Blah, Blah, Blah (Original TC Review)

Botchit & Scarper: 2008

(2015 Update:
I've made no secret real life events often have an effect on my initial impressions of albums - times when I've felt mighty low have resulted in some rather cranky-ass reviews in the past. On the flipside, overly positive reviews for unexpected items have occurred during happy funtime months, and I sometimes wonder if such was the case in Atomic Hooligan's second LP. There are things here that, by all rights, should have pissed off 2008 Sykonee, including the sounds in
Electro Ain't Electro, yet I gave it all a pass, instead praising the UK duo throughout. Oh, right, it's because that song totally called out my jaded presumptions on electro house, and Atomic Hooligan deserve all the props for that. It also doesn't hurt that Sex, Drugs And Blah, Blah, Blah honestly is good, holding up remarkably well for such a trend-jumpy album. Shame it didn't do much for Atomic Hooligan's career.

Seriously, following this, their Discogian profile dries up, and Last.fm doesn't offer much else either. They toured a little in the years after, managed two forgotten singles in 2010, and a fun, recent single called
Bass Crazy, but that's mighty sparse pickings for a duo that seemed primed for a lengthy, successful career. It's baffling, but maybe 'breaks-apathy' really did do them in for a while there. Well, breaks are making a small comeback, so no more excuses, Atomic Hooligan!)


IN BRIEF: Don’t let breaks-apathy hold you back.

Far be it of Misters Welch and Ryan allowing genre-pigeonholing to stand in the way of ambition. Even though they shared the same label with breaks-for-life names like Freq Nasty and B.L.I.M., these Atomic Hooligans were determined to produce a debut album that threw plenty of musical influences into the mixing bowl, settling for nothing less than a breakbeat long-player that could be enjoyed by all. They succeeded too, with You Are Here enjoying proper nods of approval from press and breaks fans. One problem though: no one else seemed to care.

Was it being tied to label Botchit & Scarper that hobbled their potential success? Possibly, as You Are Here never left the realms of the UK for wider distribution. Or perhaps the breaks stigma was just far too strong to shake off; despite strong followings of fans scattered about the globe, there hasn’t been much interest in the genre for years now. Whatever the reason, were you to ask a regular clubber how that new album Drugs, Sex & Blah Blah Blah is, you’ll more than likely be met with a puzzled look and the reply of, “Atomic Hoo’s-it’s-now?”

Or maybe not. As said, Atomic Hooligan are an ambitious duo, and they aren’t about to let a little thing like breaks-apathy prevent them from firing off an album that should hold them in the same league as The Chemical Brothers and Bassment Jaxx. There’s plenty on this here release that will easily appeal to a broad listener base, provided they have it within their feet to get wild and crazy when the party starts.

Fact is Welch and Ryan are excellent producers. No sonic space on this album feels like it’s gone to waste, with rhythms, melodies, and harmonies complementing each other in wonderful ways. Every guest vocalist - and there are plenty - is part-and-parcel to the track they appear on, seldom sounding out-of-sorts. Tracks are loose and fast, with none of the soul-stripping overproduction traps other studio experts oftentimes fall into. And yet nothing ever comes off messy or jumbled, but rather a kind of ordered chaos; Atomic Hooligan display a fine sense of just what it takes to get crowds worked up into a frenzy.

Take lead single Papercuts: it’s everything that a killer cut of breaks should be. The basslines are forceful and catchy, the vocals soulful and sassy, and the supporting layers add gusto to spare. Granted, the more ‘farty’ bits may have the naysayers rolling their eyes but chances are such folk aren’t terribly into the whole breaks vibe to begin with. Other party jams like Dirty, grimier Spread Good Vibes, and instrumentals Who’s Ya Daddy Now? and Weed are just as effective.

Then there’s the psychedelic edge to much of this album. Whether instrumental (er, Weed again), rockier cuts like Safeguard, big-band funk like Blah Blah Blah, or sun-kissed summer festival moments like closer Too Late To Be Afriad, you get the feeling Welch and Ryan had ‘60s hedonism in mind when letting their influences guide them through.

At the same time, though, they realized they have to appeal to modern tastes if they’ll get any kind of recognition beyond the breaks faithful. As a result, we have disco punk (I Don’t Care), nu-electro house (Electro Ain’t Electro), and riot-grrl rawk (Thief) scattered about. Honestly, these aren’t bad offerings of their respective styles - Electro Ain’t Electro is definitely a welcome surprise, easily one of the better examples of ‘fart’ house I’ve heard in some time (having tongue-in-cheek lyrics going “Electro ain’t electro no more / We don’t care, get your ass on the floor” certainly helps). Unfortunately, they also scream of trend-jumping, and will effectively date this album once these musical fads have passed. Hmm., well, perhaps not so much Thief, as it has more in common with Fat Of The Land-era Prodigy than anything current. Still, such tracks will most likely impede long-term enjoyment for the casual listener, so chances are any kind of future review of this album will have a slightly lower rating than it’s getting now. Heh, testy, these trends, eh?

Beyond such quibbles, however, Drugs, Sex & Blah Blah Blah is a strong sophomore effort from Atomic Hooligan. This is about as good as party-starting breakbeats get and with a little luck should help lift this promising duo to higher pastures.

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Paul van Dyk - Seven Ways

MFS/Mute: 1996/1998

I could never understand the praise heaped on Paul van Dyk's second LP. “Really?” my brain puzzled as I listened to the album proper. “This is considered one of trance's all-time greatest efforts?” It’s decent enough, if rather simple for 1996, but my gold standard for the era is, was, and always will be whatever Oliver Lieb was kicking out at the time. And Seven Ways is no Rendezvous In Outer Space.

I can’t even give it the pass I normally allow cheesier hard German trance of those years, the production much too slick and polished for that. There are charming moments for sure, like the old-school vibes of I Like It, the unabashed bliss-out of Forbidden Fruit, the snarling acid work of Beautiful Place, the floating space-trance of I Can’t Feel It, and Words tickling all my vintage German trance pleasure centres. The whole album is mostly continuously mixed, a nice flow maintained between energetic bangers and melodic groovers. Paul and his helping hands in the studio (MFS head Mark Reeder, Wolfgang Ragwitz, Johnny Klimek) put together a decent enough product here – nothing sounds cheap or lame but I dunno’. For something considered one of the best albums of ‘90s trance, I figured Seven Ways would be more definitive of the genre. Then again, van Dyk’s style has been copied and expanded upon so much over the years, his second LP can’t help but come off sounding rather ordinary in comparison. Such has long been his handicap anyway.

Eh? The second disc? Oh, how good could that be? It’s just remixes and B-sides for collectors, ain’it? Yeah, that killer BT mix of Forbidden Fruit lurks among the ten tracks, but do I really need to hear three alternate versions of Words? Oh fine, I’ll spring for the double-discer set – it’s about the same price as the single CD version anyway.

And... oh. Oh! Oh my...! CD2 is awesome! Production that’s beefier. Ample wicked acid. Arrangements working the progressive trance template to perfection. Right out the gate, you get Seven Ways (Star Wars), a mix that sounds so much fuller than the CD1 version of the titular cut. Why the Hell didn’t Paul use this one there? Following that is Today (Trance-Ambient Mix), a lovely bit of Balearic business, and after that Words (For Love), jettisoning the older-leaning sounds of the original in favour of something far more cutting edge for the time. Even the hard, bangin’ Curbed Headcase Mix of Words doesn’t sound out of place. Then there’s two killer versions of Beautiful Place, an additional tech-trance stormer of Forbidden Fruit, and even a bit of that pseudo-genre epic house going on with eleven minute Sundae 6 A.M..

I get it now. CD1 of Seven Ways was van Dyk of old, closing a chapter of his career. CD2 of Seven Ways is the van Dyk everyone loves and pines for a return to. Though futile at this late stage, let me throw my voice in with that choir.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Various- Set/4 - Essentials

Iboga Records: 2005

I probably should have reviewed this when I got it so many lunar cycles ago, back when my interest in prog-psy was still peaking and I could gush some two-thousand rambly words over it. I was late to the party though, and the fourth edition of Iboga Records' compilation showcase was already a couple years old anyway. Besides, their stylee would endure for years after, right? Ain't no way it could grow stale! Honestly, the warning signs were there, but before delving into those, let me bring you up to speed on what Set/4 is all about.

As mentioned, this was part of Iboga’s near-annual label showcase, a series simply titled Set. Deciding the label was ready to broaden its reach, the CDs went into overdrive, unleashing three volumes in 2005 alone. And instead of being generic compilations, they’d have unique themes to each edition, with a guest compiler brought in to sweeten the deal. Okay, so most of these names weren’t much bigger beyond the prog psy scene to begin with, but the final hard-copy volume, Set 11, had none other than John ‘00’ Fleming at the helm, so that’s cool. Following that though, it became a solely digital outlet for new material, erroneously titled Iboga Trance Classics ever since. Highly presumptuous declaring such tracks instant classics, no?

That’s the history of the Set series out of the way. How does the volume that kicked off this change of course hold up, then? None too shabby for the most part, a few of Iboga’s biggest names taking up tracks space (no Antix though). One of Yoni Oshrat’s earliest efforts under the Ace Ventura alias shows up with Cardiac Arrest, a strong outing of pulsing prog-psy hinting a promising future with it (and kinda’ squandered once it came to Album Time, but whatever). Following that is an early version of Nobody’s Perfect from Perfect Stranger, because if you’re doing the compiling of the CD, you may as well throw in an original production too. FREq, an early star of Iboga, gets in on the action with Lifeline, giving us another solid, trancey groover. And at the end of Set/4 is a spaced-out slice of prog in Ground Control from Zen Mechanics, one of the few full-on acts that kept the genre respectable through the tail-end of the ‘00s.

Then there’s the middle section, and here you’ll find early warning signs that Iboga prog-psy had potential problems. Tracks from Yotopia, Sunseek, Cubica, Pixel, and Ran Shani have solid groove and classy synth work going for them, but there’s little distinction between them either. So much material from this label suffers from ‘trackiness’, tunes that are decent tools played out but are balls for home listening. And if these acts are drawing blanks, it’s because they never produced much either, most succumbing to the one-and-done album deal. A few good tracks (that can be found elsewhere) unfortunately isn’t enough to recommend Set/4 to anyone but Iboga completists.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Various - Sessions: Steve Angello (Original TC Review)

Ministry Of Sound: 2006

(2015 Update:
Another review with a lengthy preamble attempt at defining genre terms and all that - 2006 Sykonee sure did that a lot. He also wasn't accurate in his prediction that trashy electro house had its day in the sun, though the imminent rise in minimal definitely curtailed its trendiness. He/I was bang on, however, in pointing out how much of a time capsule this mix turned out being. No one plays out tunes as dull as those found on CD2, thank God, and even that dirty Swedish sound fell out of favor when the SHM shifted their sound to the headline festival circuit. Clap-along anthems are in, thump-stomp farting basslines are out.

As for Mr. Angello... hoo boy, there's a mouthful. I don't think anyone could have predicted just how big he and his Swedish House Mafia cohorts would get, even with the level of fame he'd already achieved by the mid-'00s. Gotta' give him credit for making such bank with so little effort, but it feels like his success inadvertently left a scorched earth in his wake. Get money, get fame, get crowds, and who the fuck cares about its lasting impact on electronic music at large. Like, it's not
his fault so many producers tried copying his stuff, diluting the scene with absolute rubbish so many years after. Or maybe I'm giving the guy far too much credit.)

IN BRIEF: ‘Elect-' no, that’s not right at all. Hmm... dirty tech...?

The dust has settled, the hype has passed, and we’ve now had time to reflect. What at the time seemed reasonable is now regarded by many as a mistake, an obvious ploy to tag an already hot buzzword to something it really wasn’t. Yes, folks, it’s true. It would seem ‘electro’ house - the simple gritty throbbing offspring of tech house - is finally falling out of favor as that music’s unofficial title. I doubt anyone was entirely comfortable with the name but with no one coming up with something more concrete, promoters ran with it, anxious to capitalize on the sound. Now that ‘electro’ house’s popularity is waning, perhaps we can finally figure out what to properly call it (as was done with ‘techno’- sorry, euro dance).

As an unlikely source as it may seem, I think Ministry Of Sound nailed it on the promo sticker of their Sessions release featuring esteemed Swedish House Mafia member Steve Angello: “fuck-off dirty house music”. That captures the spirit of their sound perfectly! Those raw basslines are as dirty as it gets, like a synth dragged through analogue gravel. And funk? Soul? Hell no. This is house music with punk attitude, designed to get your head bangin’ and your body moshin’. Fuck off with those pretentious designs; we’re here to raise a ruckus. Well, maybe the ‘fuck-off’ bit can be done away with if you’re feeling prissy, but dirty house... yeah, I likes that. Loads more than ‘electro’ anyways.

Unfortunately, it matters little now, as the music’s already had its day in the sun. When you base an entire style around a single attribute (those basslines, duh), it quickly falls into the novelty trap: producers figuring the gimmick is enough to have any ol’ hit without writing a decent song, or even a catchy hook (I’m looking at you, Dreamcatcher). Dirty house (yes, that’s what I’m unofficially calling it from now on, until something more official and less half-assed than ‘electro’ replaces it; deal with it) quickly fell into this trap, tons of knock-off imitators plaguing the shops, diluting a good, if limited, idea. One year ago, this was the hottest sound bubbling up; even trance jocks were jumping on it. Today, a respected DJ only uses it sparingly (as they should), a token gesture towards those who still demand stomping farty basslines.

This DJ mix captures dirty house’s apex. At the turn of the year, it was fresh, exciting, and storming dancefloors. Angello and his partner Sebastian Ingrosso were a pair of the hottest names around. That time has long since passed though, and all the fever over a release such as this has quietly receded to the back corners, some even too embarrassed they were head-over-heels over something so obviously gimmicky. Is this what Angello’s Sessions is though, nothing but novelty? Or did this Mafia member put together a compilation that folks down the road can throw on and enjoy when dirty house has finally gone the way of speed garage?

Angello quickly says yes, proving to us he’s more than a one-trick pony in the house scene. The opening chunk of disc one sees a nice assortment of styles to warm us up: disco, italo, Latin, and even an unashamed ‘reach-for-the-lasers’ track with Stoppage Time. Nothing groundbreaking of course, but house heads will be pleased with the variety maintaining a building flow.

And then those basslines appear.

Actually, some of the farty sounds were in the former tracks, but they complemented rhythms rather than lead the whole. From Not So Dirty on though, it’s a distinguishing characteristic, and your enjoyment of disc one will depend entirely on how much you dig the dirty house sound.

For what it’s worth, Angello does provide a decent amount of variety between these tracks. Even if most of the hooks are predictable as fuck (dun, dun-dun, dun, d-d-d-d-dun-dun, and so on), a different synth patch each time does wonders to maintain interest. I’d even consider Angello’s own Chord - a track which brings this set to a peak - electro proper, as it has that robotic Neo-Tokyo vibe going for it. And yes, the rhythms pound along just fine; drunkenly and disorderly, sometimes with hints of funk too. This is house music best enjoyed with copious shooters and played really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really loud. Listening to this disc though, you get the impression even Angello realized the limited potential of this sound; it begins to bore towards the end and his final two tracks feel like tag-ons that have little to do with the rest of the set. It doesn’t help they plod along without any of the energy the previous tracks provided. Sadly, they hint at things to come in disc two.

His second set in this double starts interestingly enough. Opening with the moody minimal sounds of Mandarine Girl, then turning on its head with the kitschy Sexy As Fuck, it appears Angello is taking a stab at trashy electroclash and pulsing techno. Fine and dandy for a bit, and it even gets a nice peak with Trentemøller’s remix of Röyksopp's What Else Is There?

And then he goes minimal. Very minimal. Tediously minimal. Annoyingly minimal. Man, I know this stuff’s hipster points are through the roof right now, and jumping on this sound earlier in the year would have been considered a daring artistic choice, but not when it’s this boring. The end of disc one may be plodding, but it’s a Clyde Stubblefield solo compared to the tracks Angello lays down for most of disc two. Some hope of lifting us out of this ketamine daze appears at points, notably in Alto Voltaje, but the set always falls back to square one; many teases, no payoffs (Ingrosso’s own remix of Moby’s Dream About Me is brutal at this). I don’t expect minimal to be exciting or funky or contain huge riffs, but there should at least be something for my head to dig on, of which there isn’t much. The atmosphere, minimal’s make-or-break attribute, has no life. Few of the sounds bubbling about are interesting to hear, and when the only form of dancing one can do to this set is the Zombie Lurch, it makes for a very boring hour of music. At least Holden’s remix of The Sky Was Pink gives us something kind of melodic to end off on.

So, does Angello’s Sessions mix have enough charm to be enjoyed outside of its time? The first disc certainly does, although the phrase ‘this is sooo 2005' will undoubtedly be running through your head as it plays. The second disc... um, not so much. If anything, it’ll provide future music geeks with evidence why the minimal movement was perhaps a mistake - not that I think this to be true, mind, as there has been some quality in this style; just very little here. If you can find this double-disc on the cheap, it’ll serve as a nifty time-capsule in your music collection.

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

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