Monday, November 30, 2015

Loverboy - Collections

Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment: 1997/2004

I've gone on and on about how much I canned The Police and Boney M as a toddler, but a third act got significant play too: Loverboy. Okay, it was in fact just one song, Turn Me Loose, which I had to operate my father's reel-to-reel rig to hear. My memory's hazy on the exact age (at least pre-school), but I gotta' hand it to my younger self for figuring out that contraption, just to hear those early synths, catchy chorus, and thumping tom drums. And the way it builds, mang, layers of guitars and synths and drums, with key changes for solos, it all blew my young mind. At five thirty-eight in length, Turn Me Loose may as well have been a prog rock epic, and boy did I ever take every chance to play it again, when I wasn't distracted by toys and picture books and TV and backyard bush forts. Ah, the hectic life of the four year old.

That’s just one perspective though. For many, Loverboy came to represent ‘80s rock at its best without crossing that terrible line of banal corporate radio cheese. They were shameless in giving us arena anthems, and though they rocked the hot coloured leather pants, they never went full hair metal either. They’ve been immortalized on Saturday Night Live, their other huge hit Working For The Weekend featured in the classic Swayze-Farley ‘Chippendales’ skit. Yeah, that’s now two bands I’ve covered in this Collections series that have been featured on SNL. Just a coincidence, I’m su- wait, Lord Discogs is telling me something. Oh my God, there’s a radio vinyl with both Loverboy and Blue Öyster Cult concert material on it! This is too weird. It must be Columbia promotions doing this. The defunct label’s getting back at me for never taking them upon their penny deals!

Whereas Johnny Cash had too large a discography for Collections to do him justice, and Dr. Hook had too few albums available due to label politics, Loverboy’s reign is just about perfect for the ten track limit. Almost all of their singles from the ‘80s make the cut, only missing out on early tune The Kid Is Hot Tonite (at the time way overshadowed by Turn Me Loose and Working For The Weekend), Jump (there’s only one worthy Jump from the early ‘80s), and Lovin’ Every Minute Of It (wait, what?).

If you’re not familiar with the rest of Loverboy’s singles, here’s the obligatory run-down: When It’s Over is a pseudo follow-up to Turn Me Loose. Take me To The Top has some chunky synth work. Hot Girls In Love is typical ‘80s cock rock. Lucky Ones needs a Rocky montage but not as much as Queen Of The Broken Hearts and Strike Zone, while Dangerous and ballad This Could Be The Night has the hallmarks of a rock band succumbing to hair metal tropes.

But hey, Loverboy helped usher in the synth-heavy rock anthem era of that decade. They were the ‘80s!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

One Thousand.

Not reviews. Not releases reviewed. Just posts, which includes a few fluff updates in there. Like this one! Guess folks expect some pomp for this accomplishment of sorts, so here it is.

Johnny Cash - Collections

Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment: 1994/2004

On the other hand, when faced with a daunting discography like Johnny Cash’s, having limited access to an artist's discography can help ultra-cheap hits packages like Collections. He wrote, performed, and released music at a remarkable clip for much of his early career, finally slowing down once the '80s hit (damn you, '80s!). While you can point to a number of solid standouts that are obligatory in any retrospective (Ring Of Fire, Walk The Line, Folsom Prison Blues), paring everything down to a mere ten is ridiculous. Only a box set buffet could do The Man In Black justice, but I’m not that interested in his music, so this morsel of an appetizer will suffice.

Even having this seems more a point of necessity, no music collection respectable without one of the giants of country music within. Yes, even if you can’t stand the thought of twangy crooners. Mr. Cash carved out a unique niche within that music culture, a gravely baritone, free prison concerts, and somewhat reckless lifestyle painting him as a classic Western outlaw. Nor was he strictly a country performer either, jumping between rockabilly, blues, and gospel tunes whenever the inspiration hit him, the disparate genres often blending together in his music. He was among the first in taking country out of its insular Nashville scene, exporting it to audiences who’d have little other interest in what all them cowboys were singing about. There’s a whole lot more I could get into, but I’d quickly run out of self-imposed word count. Maybe read one of the many biographies out there. Or watch one of the many documentaries. Or a biopic or two.

I’ll probably never delve into Mr. Cash’s discography enough to figure out what his essential works are, so I’ve no idea whether the selection of Collections does him justice. It obviously has his two breakout hits in I Walk The Line and Folsom Prison Blues, both from his 1957 debut With His Hot And Blue Guitar. From the following year is Big River from the album Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous and I Still Miss Someone from The Fabulous Johnny Cash. Yeah, country album titles weren’t terribly creative back in the day. Eh, where’s Ring Of Fire among all these, you ask? (no, pretend you did) That came later, released in ’63, when Cash signed to Columbia, and appearing on the album Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash. Man, great song titles, but lousy ones for LPs, every time.

The rest of Collections rounds up some of Cash’s more well known tunes and covers of the late ‘60s, including a live prison performance of the hilarious A Boy Named Sue. Capping things off is a ’76 cover of the Wayne Kemp number One Piece At A Time. Man, this recording’s far too polished for a capper on this version of The Man In Black story. Why couldn’t the original Super Hits have come out after he’d done Hurt?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show - Collections

Sony Music Entertainment: 2001/2004

Making a greatest hits package for the southern rock act Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show was a no-brainer, the '70s replete with their memorable tunes. Whether early oddball jams or latter radio-ready fodder, any label would have plenty to choose from. Except Sony, who only had access Hooky's first three albums on Columbia. After switching over to Capitol – and dropping “The Medicine Show” for legal purposes – Dr. Hook saw much greater success, even if their quirkiness was sanded off in the process. This puts Collections into something of a conundrum, getting hands on the group's break-out hit and most memorable hit but denied the bulk of actual charting singles. The only recourse is filling the majority of this 'super hits' CD with songs that really aren't hits at all. Maybe it'll at least give a decent overview of Dr. Hook's beginnings then.

Before getting into those beginnings though, we must talk pre-beginnings, specifically the most famous face of Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, and what’s up with his look (yes, the guy on the cover). The man was born Ray Sawyer, and had bounced around music gigs before growing dissatisfied with the whole thing. Deciding to do the right thing – the proper societal thing – he set out to Oregon to find his way in the wide world of logging. One car crash later, he lost his eye, and concluded the rock Gods wanted him back in the music world. And that’s why we always think of Dr. Hook as that guy with the eye-patch, massive side-burns and country hat, even though George Cummings was the main architect of the group, with Sawyer a contributing guitarist and vocalist. Ol’ Ray was never the actual Dr. Hook, though the band’s name was inspired by the eyepatch he wore, thoughts of pirates and connecting Captain Hook to the image. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense, but then drugs, y’know?

Of course, the other reason everyone thinks of Sawyer as Dr. Hook is he does vocals on their most famous hit, Cover Of The “Rolling Stone”. It tells the tale of finding all the fame and fortune of being a superstar rock band, but still suffering the indignity of never making the cover of the respectable magazine. Before that came out though, there was Sylvia’s Mother, a southern rock ballad that’s more representative of the music most associate with Dr. Hook. I doubt it’s been covered by as many burgeoning bands as Cover Of The “Rolling Stone” has.

As for specifics, four songs come from their first album (Sylvia’s Mother, honky-tonk Makin’ It Natural, pervy I Call That True Love, tender Kiss It Away), four from their second (fetish love-in Freaker’s Ball, country-blues Carry Me, Carrie, ultra-Nashville If I’d Only Come And Gone, plus ”Rolling Stone”), and two from the third (bar sing-along Life Ain’t Easy, generic ballad You Ain’t Got the Right). Yeah, these guys can run the gamut of topics and styles. Sweet harmonies too.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Blue Öyster Cult - Collections

Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment: 1998/2004

Blue Öyster Cult is a famous hard rock band from the ‘70s, and a very important group in the popularization of cowbell. No, wait, that was a Saturday Night Live skit with Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell, playing up the fact BÖC’s best known song has an incredibly distracting cowbell in it. Seriously, have you ever heard (Don’t Fear) The Reaper? What am I saying; of course you have, especially on your Classic Rock station, where you can hear all the songs from your dad’s (grandpa’s?) youth. It’s not like these blue cultists cultivated the cowbell, most of their songs almost devoid of it (at least what’s on this Collections CD anyway). For such a smooth slice of stoner rock though, hearing that *clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk* in the percussion is obtrusive, jarring, and perfectly ripe for comedic send-ups. It’s just a shame a whole generation now only thinks of Blue Öyster Cult as that cowbell band. Don’t folks know they’re actually that Godzilla band?

Seriously though, BÖC’s story reads about as cliché as most rock bands of the era goes. Started out doing psychedelic rock, got a bit darker and heavier when Black Sabbath became a thing, scored a major radio hit (The Reaper, yo'), and started chasing them dolla' bills after such success. Naturally, it alienated their long-standing fanbase, and they were quickly abandoned by all but the most dedicated of followers. Even a return to form in the '80s couldn't turn their fortunes, and soon the band was relegated to the has-been bargain bin of your record shops, an occasional glimpse of recognition afforded them when getting in on a '90s stoner soundtrack. Hey, I told you this was a standard story.

Fortunately for Collections, we’re mostly dealing with their early-to-mid ‘70s material, only two songs making the cut from the ‘80s. Of the latter decade selections, Burnin’ For You is probably the only other Blue Öyster Cult hit you’ve heard of, even if you didn’t realize it was a Blue Öyster Cult hit. Elsewhere Black Blade sounds like a stab at Who or Queen on the operatic bent, but they work in bloopy synths and an actual vocoder (!) for an energetic climax, so it’s awesome.

As for the rest, there’s Rolling Stones boogie rock (This Ain’t The Summer Love), chipper proto-punk rock (The Red And The Black), weird classic bar rock (O.D.’d On Life Itself), and lengthy freak-out psychedelic rock (7 Screaming Diz-Busters) – these all came from their second album, Tyranny And Mutation. Damn, guess that’s the Blue Öyster Cult album you’re supposed to have, even if it doesn’t have (Don’t Fear) The Reaper on it. There’s also Flaming Telepaths from Secret Treaties, which fears no piano, chorus, guitar solo, or dated synth too overblown or garish, but a lot more fun than pompous prog rockers go. What’s with the hard cut though? Did the original smash into Astronomy, or does the single intentionally leave you hanging like that? C’mon, BÖC, who’s the joke on? I gotta’ know!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

ACE TRACKS: January 2013

The time: a long ago past, in the previous decade of our 21st Century. The item: a grocery store displayer showcasing a pile of ‘greatest hits’ CDs from a remarkable assortment of artists I knew of but almost certainly would never buy. Names like George Jones, Roy Orbison, Kris Kristofferson, Quiet Riot, Joe Cocker, and Bangles. There were a few acts that did interest me though, and at a crisp $5 a pop for ten songs, saw no harm in indulging some. These were part of a Sony Music series called Collections.

What I hadn’t realized was they were re-issued Columbia discs, originally titled Super Hits. Windows Media Player knew though, ripping them to my harddrive as such. I never got around to adjusting them until now, and a good thing too. If they’d been in their correct alphabetical order, I’d be committed to reviewing a week’s worth of non-electronic music in that first month of this blog’s rebirth, undoubtedly chasing away those dozen or so stray eyes that had wandered here. Now, three years on, such occasional genre dalliances on my part is expected, so no harm in talking about these Collections CDs. Which acts did I buy? Stay tuned, folks!

Okay, that out of the way, here’s some of the best music I reviewed way back in January 2013.


Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Various - Elemental Chill Vol. 2: Earth
Various - Elemental Chill Vol. 4: Water
N-Trance - Electronic Pleasure
Various - The Electro Compendium
Various - Earth Dance
Laurent Garnier - Early Works

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 3% (that’s only including tracks with actual rapping in it tho’)
Percentage Of Rock: 3%
Most “WTF?” Track: The Sonic Voyagers - Endless Missions, Pt. 2 (what are those cut up voices saying?)

Oh god, thank my stars that The Electro Compendium isn’t on Spotify. I don’t think anyone could handle a playlist with that much electro. Bummed about the lack of Laurent though, all those tasty early techno, acid, and trance singles out of reach. Well, if you just really on this player for your music options anyway. Also, what’s up with so much ‘90s euro dance being rare on these streaming services? I see ample amounts of karaoke options, but none of the originals. For a genre that did big business back in the day, you’d think some label would scoop of the rights to all those hits.

Not much else to say about this playlist. With a significant chunk of January missing, it’s made for a relatively short outing. I guess music along the lines of DJ Shadow’s downbeat hip-hop has the most presence, but generally it’s a varied collection of music folks should come expect of these things by now: trance, house, ambient, acid, and gypsy music.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tiga & Zyntherius - Sunglasses At Night

International Deejay Gigolo/Turbo: 2001/2002

This could have bombed so badly. True, Tiga had an edge in underground cool thanks to his DJing and label Turbo, and might have even eked out a tidy side career making gritty techno or groovy acid as many of his chums and associates were doing. However, electroclash was plenty filled with singer/producer tandems, all doing a take on deconstructionist ‘80s kitsch, with little need for another in a too-rapidly saturated scene. Mr. Sontang had something unique to his credit though, a talent – nay, gift! – that all the Hacker & Kittins or Felix & Melistars or ADULT & Nicolas didn’t: a male voice! No, really, that one attribute probably gave Sunglasses At Night more presence on every electroclash collection of the time, an island of Y chromosome in a sea of double-X. Then again, with everyone going for the detached androgynous delivery, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

More important though, Sunglasses At Night gave Tiga a tremendous shot of confidence in his own singing voice, leading to a surprising career in charming, quirky synth-pop singles. It’s not like he wanted it either, but producing pal Jori Hulkkonen – the Zyntherius one – convinced him he had the talent to pull it off. And while there are electronic treatments to Tiga’s voice that likely masked any early imperfections, the charisma Mr. Sontag exudes comes through in spades, an icy-cool calm for a song that was incredibly camp in its original Corey Hart version. With Jori’s minimalist electro and infectious synth arpeggio complementing Tiga, you have an instant electroclash hit. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why choose Sunglasses At Night as a cover to begin with, it’s a Canadian thing. Remarkable, then, that Tiga & Zyntherius took a song Europe never registered in its heyday, and made it one of the most overplayed singles of 2002.

On this Turbo edition of the single, we get a TVG remix instead of the Chris Liebing rub as found on the original International Deejay Gigolo EP. This was a short-lived pseudonym between Tiga and Mateo Murphy, taking all that trendy ‘80s retro stylee and feeding it through some fun techno action. Such is the case with Sunglasses At Night too, essentially the techno version of the electro original. Also on here is B-side Sweet Sedation, which I’m assuming is a cover of the 1984 grinding industrial track of the same name from Test Dept. It’s kinda’ hard to tell because the original is almost anti-music, with shouty, garbled, incompressible lyrics. Tiga instead goes for sneering seduction while Zyntherius provides a slow, slinky EBM groove, and is possibly one of the coolest forgotten tracks in Tiga’s discography. Impress your trainspotting friends by playing this at your next electroclash retro party!

As big a record Sunglasses At Night was for Tiga, it was merely a catalyst, the beginning of what’s proven to be a successful career with many more hits to his name. Not bad for a track the singer had doubts over.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Faithless - Sunday 8PM

Arista: 1998

I know I'm supposed to declare Sunday 8PM the only Faithless album you're supposed to have, even if you're not a Faithless fan. It is, after all, the best of their discography, an excellent summation of the group's musical talents, nary a duff track in the lot, and all that good rot. Doing so, though, sells the importance of Insomnia on Reverence way short. I can guarantee there wouldn't be a Faithless as we’ve come to know them without the success of that single. Rollo and Sister Bliss would likely have retreated to other pet projects, absent of critical kudos, legions of fans, and piles of money-cash. Insomnia was so big, everyone doubted they could have topped it, and the debate still lingers whether God Is A DJ does the deed or not.

Still, Reverence was the experiment, everyone working together to see if their vision could work. Lo’, they succeeded, but having spent such a brief amount of time on it (a month!), what could they do with more prep and production? The answer is Sunday 8PM, an album that takes everything that made Reverence such a charming excursion and refines them into a wonderful whole.

You’ve got the chill-out instrumental opener The Garden fusing all sorts of influences like trip-hop, acoustic folk, and cinematic dub. You got rugged conscious hip-hop fused with melancholic orchestras on Bring My Family Back. There’s crackly folk-hop Postcards, which actually samples a Dido song released that same year rather than cut another vocal for the track – guess Rollo couldn’t help being efficient there. Why Go? goes for the full soul croon, which I thought was sung by Faithless’ still-employed soul-croon extraordinaire Jamie Catto. Silly me, he’s on the gospel-hop Hour Of Need, whereas that silly-hatted DJ Boy George gets the vocal on Why Go?. Elsewhere, Dido gets an actual song for herself in Hem Of His Garment, while Maxi Jazz throws in another sexy song with She’s My Baby. His shining moment on this album though, is Killer’s Lullaby, a chilling tale of sinister thoughts and deeds. The production on this track is positively stunning, starting with a soft, unassuming ambient session, then unleashing harsh trip-hop weirdness, and hitting a climax of cascading harpsichords and apocalyptic choirs, ending with a final, quiet denouement. Holy descent into madness, Batman!

Oh, and there’s two smashing club anthems in here too, God Is A DJ, and Take The Long Way Home. You’ve heard them, especially the former. I don’t need to talk about them as much.

Another feature of Sunday 8PM that trumps Reverence is just how well it flows together, including partial mixes between some tracks. The first Faithless album had good flow too, but this one’s sequence is sublime, shifting moods from introspective to exuberant, from harrowing to jubilant. It’s definitely one that deserves the full play-through treatment, though any track stands strong on its own too. Yes, even that titular sonic doodle in the back half. That bass pitch, mang!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Biosphere - Substrata²

Origo Sound/Touch: 1997/2001

The only Biosphere album you're supposed to have, even if you're not a Biosphere fan. What an odd thing to say, considering most point to his first two albums, Microgravity and Patashnik, as the classic Biosphere stylee. But then Geir Jenssen had to go and make a classic ambient LP with Substrata, all but cementing his legacy as one of the premier acts in the genre. Okay, he already had done that, though not everyone was into the sci-fi bleep techno either. When you go full-on ambient though, with the pads and the layers and the drones and the field recordings, you get the attention of all ambient heads, from the Eno old-schoolers to the Namlook nu-stylers, and all the savvy Roach-Orb-Obmana disciples between.

Specifically, Substatra marked a significant change in how Mr. Jenssen treated his Biosphere project. Instead of crafting music with a sci-fi, futuristic bent, he set his sights closer to home, grounding his compositions within our earthly domain, and localizing them deep within his native lands of northern Norway. This is dark, moody ambient that glows bright within the reflections of crackling fires against snow covered fields. This is spacious ambient as heard echoing off jagged, glacial mountains. This is intimate, melancholic ambient, absorbed while huddled in a lonesome cabin outpost during the dead of Arctic Circle winter, aurora borealis cascading across Ursa Major and Casseopeia. These are all metaphors and similes that have undoubtedly been oft repeated when describing Substrata since its release nearly two decades ago. I want my kick at the can though, darn it all.

Substrata is essential ambient, of that there’s no doubt. It’s one of the most unique offerings of the genre, and responsible for many future attempts at emulating droning winter chill. However, that isn’t the album you’re supposed to have. No, that would be this 2001 version, Substrata², which includes a remastering of the original, plus a second CD containing the two bonus Japanese tracks, and score work for an old-timey Russian silent film Man With A Movie Camera.

The latter came about when Geir was approached by the Tromso International Film Festival to write a new soundtrack to the 1929 original, I suppose to give a modern interpretation based on film-maker Dziga Vertov’s notes. Though they share similar aesthetics, Man With A Movie Camera is more abstract than Substrata, and probably makes better sense when viewed with the film. Meanwhile, the Japanese tracks are more like Biosphere’s earlier works, The Eye Of The Cyclone doing the upbeat sci-fi ambient techno thing, while eleven-minute long Endurium going for the slower, downbeat take on that style. Both sound like they were works Geir produced before abandoning beats altogether for Substrata proper. As b-sides though, these are mint.

Anything else I write here is elementary. If you haven’t heard Substrata yet because of some preconceived doubts of its brilliance, let my voice add to the choir that the hype is justified, and spring for the double-disc version while you’re at it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Circular - Substans

Ultimae Records: 2009

When I reviewed Circular’s Moon Pool last year, I mentioned their previous LP on Ultimae, Substans, was “a good album, but didn’t ignite much buzz”. While the second part of the sentence is true, I’m having difficulty supporting the first. I listen to this CD, hear things I like, sounds that are evocative, comforting, and interesting, even discern a loose mood around icy Nordic ambience, but God, does that latter third of the album ever evaporate in haste from my memory. Hell, even as it plays, Circular’s exercise in minimalist sonic textures and timbre fails to penetrate my cognizant synapses. I lie down with headphones, only to conk out after the uptempo cut Hurumburum (track seven out of thirteen). I go for a stroll with Substans on my other headphones, my only distraction the sidewalk in front of me – I start thinking of Transformers comics (!) during my wanderings. I literally have the album emanating from my living room speakers as I type this, and I completely missed hearing the guitar fuzz drone of Walking On Sand. Dammit, Facebook wasn’t that distracting for those three minutes.

Point being, a good album shouldn’t have moments that lose your attention. Once or twice, I can see it happening, as we live in an incredibly distracting world, but not with repeated play-throughs. I’ve thrown on Substans at least a half-dozen times since getting it a couple years back, and at least a third of it still remains a mystery to me. I can’t think of any other Ultimae release that’s accomplished this.

Such a shame. The surrounding tracks on Substans are fine pieces of music, if a little slight on execution. For the first third of the album, there’s a sense of sonic exploration, no two tracks similar in style, and typically alternating between low-key or a brisk pace. Rablekok has a deeply dubbed- out rhythm with gentle electric guitar treatments, whereas follow-up Little Girls Eat Chocolate is a charming piece of spritely chill ambience. Time Machine has a glitchy acoustic thing going for it, and is paired with darker ambient techno on Bits (Chernozem Remix). Wie Geht’s, Minsk? sounds about as close to vintage Ultimae psy-chill as this album gets, and appropriately enough has the prog psy Hurumburum come right after.

Finally, at the end of Substans, there’s Nothing But Dead Landscapes, a nine and a half excursion through droning ambient, pulsing ambient techno, and future-shock soundscapes, with a little electric guitar dub thrown in at the end for good measure. This track, above all else, deserves that Future Sound Of London comparison folks were often throwing about with regards to Circular’s music, and shows the potential of their songcraft better than anything else on here. Oh, and Biosphere too, especially with the icy ambient drone of Isroser right before it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to recommend Substans for anyone other than Ultimae completists. Despite the “good album” ideas present, they don’t coalesce into a strong, long-form whole.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Institute Of Frequency & Optical Research - Subspace Messages (2015 Update)

Jump Cut: 1994

(Click here to read some ramblings about bad mastering.)

I swear there are mind controlling subspace messages out there. They're sending their signals to my subconscious, you see, insidiously forcing me to continuously talk about this hopelessly obscure album of rough acid techno from the mid-'90s.

It all started so innocently, wandering into that used music outlet looking for a few cool, unique scores I wouldn't find in the regular stores. Little did I know those subspace messages were already penetrating my neural pathways, guiding the tiny extraocular muscles within my eye socket towards that lonesome looking white cover with the DNA strand plunk in the middle. Readings of my memory membranes had alerted these shadowy individuals of my fondness for nerdy-named electronic music, knowing I couldn’t resist buying this album with barely a sound check involved. Somehow the masterminds behind these quantum level wavelengths had the foresight I’d end up contributing my thoughts of music to the internet, thus maintaining the Institute Of Frequency & Optical Research’s legacy long after their name had been left to the mists of techno history. They waited patiently, letting the CD sit within my towers for an opportune moment when their music would be brought to light once more.

They chose their target well, realizing my insatiable need to prove that Chaos Theory rules supreme would incite me to introduce the Random Review concept at TranceCritic. That, despite a large collection of music, even the most hopelessly forgotten and abandoned works could be resurrected within the public’s ears if only by mere chance. Sensing their time finally at hand, I was sent the subspace messages intended for motor control of my arm and hand. Despite closing my eyes, doing a quick spin, and running my fingertips up and down the tower, I was manipulated enough that my second Random Review choice ended up being this album. The masterplan unfolds, where, despite the general lambasting and shoddy penmanship displayed in that TranceCritic review, a few dozen more folks in this world came to know of the Institute Of Frequency & Optical Research. Er, yeah, that was one of the doggiest reviews on TranceCritic in terms of views. Guess you just can’t beat reader apathy.

How such a CD sourced from the UK ended up in the backstands of a Surrey pawn shop remains a mystery. Perhaps a former hapless victim of these Subspace Messages overcame his mind control, fleeing as far West as he could go, hoping to toss it into the Pacific Ocean where a giant octopus might mangle it for good. He couldn’t commit though, the subspace messages overriding such desire. He could at least get some money from it though.

At least I know I’m not alone in my mental manipulations, Lord Discogs telling me nine others have suffered this fate. Honestly, it was the fact this was even in the database’s early archives that convinced me it was a website worth keeping tabs on, plus help contribute with my own rare gatherings. Yay for small achievements!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Scuba - Sub:Stance

Ostgut Ton: 2010

Sub:Stance may as well be the turning point of Scuba's career, going from dubstep darling to tech-house tease. True, the hints didn't come to fruition for another couple years after this CD, but the very fact he's palling around with Ostgut Ton, they of Serious Technos Only acts like Surgeon, Shed, Klock, and Dettmann, had to give some signs of his future developments. Okay, there’s also the nugget of Mr. Rose hailing from Berlin, thus likely having ties with the Berghain posse regardless. It’s a pairing that was all but inevitable, what with Scuba's early techno dystopian approach to UK bass music.

What I find most interesting is that it was with Ostgut Ton that he made his commercial DJ mix CD debut in the first place. Why not do it on his own Hotflush print? Too many licensing issues? A friendly favour? Come to think of it, most of his mixes have been online efforts (podcasts, streamers, Boiler Room rinse-outs), this and DJ-Kicks about all he has for hard copy options (and a Mixmag offering, but who cares about those). Maybe he’ll do a Balance or fabric one soon, since he’s all about that house now.

In 2010 though, Mr. Rose was still mixing in the heady post-dubstep tuneage, with many of the trendy names of the time getting a look in. There’s Sigha, Pangaea, Shackleton, Mount Kimbie, James Blake, and Joy Orbison, including his one big track everyone wouldn’t stop playing back then, Hyph Mngo. Man, looking at that list, it’s like reading a super-hip indie write-up from back then, dropping names and proclaiming this is the future of music, forward-thinking while honouring the past’s influences. Dubstep was moving on from its inner-London roots, ready to take on all urban locales with techno hand-in-hand, Scuba seemingly ready to play the part of lead and general. Then a Skrillex happened overnight and changed everything. Oh well.

Meanwhile, Sub:Stance does a good job of providing various rugged rhythms and deep basslines. Scuba runs the gamut from minimalist dub (Sigha’s Early Morning Lights, Badawi’s Anlan 7) to UK garage nods (Joy Orbison’s two cuts, George Fitzgerald’s Don’t You), and technobass beasts (Surgeon’s Klonk Pt. 4, Untold’s No-One Likes A Smart Arse, Intra:Mental’s Voyeur), with plenty of abstract broken-beats spread throughout (James Blake’s rub of Mount Kimbie’s Maybes, Ramadanman’s Tempest). As with his DJ-Kicks set, the mixes are quick and surgical, tracks seldom lasting longer than three minutes with only their key features utilized. No sense dawdling on repetitive loops and pointless drum programming, right?

Another similarity to that future mix is ending with an unabashed, hands in the air anthem, in this case Joker’s Psychedelic Runway. Given how heads-down and dark Sub:Stance generally is, it’s shocking hearing such garrish synths and cock-rockin’ rave riffs set to a standard dubstep break. Though considering Scuba ended his Boiler Room set with Madonna’s Vogue, I suspect he can’t help but go for the cheeky climax every time. I will always approve of such shenanigans.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sub Focus - Sub Focus (2015 Update)

RAM Records: 2009

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

I was dreading hearing Sub Focus' debut album again, despite the generally positive ‘dumb fun’ feels I recall initially having. Like, was I once forgiving of cheesy moments or generic tune writing because the beats or hooks hit me in a good mood before? Or had I been absent of such questionable music long enough for a quick dip in and out of the Fromage Pool, before retreating back to the safe, comforting confines of the Serious Music Sauna. As I age, that pool looks ever less inviting, sending cold bitter chills through my spine at the mere thought of dunking a toe within. At least, that's how the story's supposed to go. I dunno, maybe one year all that is happy hardcore will consume my everlasting being until the day I've raved into my grave.

Still, despite his incremental forays towards main stage festival fodder, Sub Focus has remained a popular name within drum 'n' bass' fold. It probably didn't hurt that, even in his early years, Nick Douwma’s sound was nicely accessible, never so rough-n-tumble or weirdly abstract to chase away recently converted junglists. They were ready for something more than Pendulum, but not that much more. You’d think that’d get him disowned by hardliners, yet I’ve talked to many veteran d’n’b heads that still look forward to a Sub Focus set. He’s somehow found that sweet spot of keeping a foot in each side of the scene. Probably doesn’t hurt he’s completely up front and honest with his poppier dalliances, always a plus in the almighty Respect Game. Sure, make your token electro house track, we’ll patiently wait it out for another rockin’ banger.

Sure enough, once I got Sub Focus playing again, I was quickly swept back in by the fun vibes Mr. Douwma gives us …for about half the album anyway. Between the heavy hitters (Let The Story Begin, World Of Hurt, Rock It) and the headier moments (Follow The Light, Last Jungle, Deep Space), you have a solid collection of d’n’b that goes down the earholes nice and easy. By the way, is it just me, or is that a riff on the Nightmare On Elm Street theme in Deep Space? Probably just a coincidence, but I can’t help but think of Freddy …In Space! when I hear it, a movie that should never, ever, be made.

As with my original listen though, this album tanks hard following the silly speed garage of Move Higher. Not just because of my low tolerance of that genre either, as the jungle cuts in the back-half simply aren’t as dope as the opening salvo, save the spacey Triple X. And, wait a moment, is that a chill-out dubstep anthem at the very end? Wow, how did I miss that before? They weren’t that common in 2009.

Overall, Sub Focus has held up fine. The things I don’t like are due to genre bias, but that can be said for the tunes I still dig too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Phutureprimitive - Sub Conscious (Original TC Review)

Waveform Records: 2004

(2015 Update:
I get it. Really, I do. It's not as drastic a change as some made it out. The music on here, with all those rubbery time-signatures, it has kindred spirit with wobbly basslines and all that. Plus, it's not like Rain couldn't help himself, what with having roots in the Pacific Northwest, where the likes of Excision's Rottun Recordings have come to dominate the festival circuit Phutureprimitive toured about on. Maybe he heard plenty enough from those big stages all the younger bassheads were congregating at, where he could get a piece of that lucrative pie. Or maybe throw a few shockers in the face of die-hard psy dub hippies. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Still... dubstep? Really,
dubstep!?

This review does a very poor job detailing just how unique sounding
Sub Conscious is, especially since no one's repeated what's one here - difficult detailing music without other frames of reference, after all. That includes Rain himself, most of his latest offerings content recycling sounds found in every main stage dub/brostep act. We thought he'd return to this style some day, but seeing as how he's almost gone full-Skrillex now, we'll just have to settle for this one excellent album of a bygone era instead.)


IN BRIEF: Music of the future and past.

Well, it’s been a while since we dipped into these waters, eh? Shpongle’s swan song from two summers ago [2015 Edit: LOL, ‘swan song’] was the last time we reviewed anything in the warm, bubbly realms of psychedelic dub music, which is a shame given just how wonderfully diverse this music can be. Unfortunately, with so many styles of electronic music demanding our attention, fringy forms tend to get overlooked in the process.

However, I wouldn’t deem psy dub as fringe as, say, drone ambient. In fact, this form of chill music has settled into a nice little niche. Filling in for the lengthy noodly ambient productions the likes of The Orb and The Irresistible Force used to make, this is the music often heard at underground and outdoor parties attended by raving refugees. It doesn’t have the accessibility of MOR chill fodder, but nor is it so impenetrable that it’ll chase away the curious.

Hailing from America’s Northwest, the man simply known as Rain has been a part of this scene for over a decade, although kept a relatively low profile. Toiling away in his own studio, he eventually emerged with this album: Sub Conscious. Here, under the pseudonym Phutureprimitive, we find a fusion of downtempo vibes common in many underground scenes. Ethnic soundscapes, psychedelic synths, and dubby atmospherics are all melded, with neither attribute dominating the direction of a song.

While you won’t find any specific leads, Rain’s music doesn’t dawdle on go-nowhere tangents either. Rather, minor melodies and drum patterns flow from segment to segment within a track itself, maintaining an overlying theme throughout. And although the general tone of Sub Conscious tends to remain dark, tribal, and melancholic, it isn’t without its bright spots as well.

Probably the most intriguing aspect of Rain’s productions is his time-signatures. I’m no expert on this subject, but I can definitely tell when a song seems ‘off’ when compared to traditional 4/4 rhythms. And most of what you hear on Sub Conscious contains such moments where you’ll mutter to yourself, “Now that’s kind of odd.” It’s one of those nifty little subtle things that causes you to take notice of what’s actually going on in a song rather than just hang back waiting for a catchy melody or calming pad to emerge. And while these tracks aren’t super-dense so there’s a million-and-one things to discover with dutiful attention, there certainly are plenty of interesting bits to chew on during the course of a song’s playing time.

With the general information out of the way, how’s about some particulars then? That, I’m afraid, can be a bit tricky in this case.

As mentioned, the songs on this album aren’t conventional. Opener Rites Of Passage is as clear an indication of the sorts of arrangements you’ll mostly encounter. Groovy rhythms start out, sounding neither strictly organic nor synthetic, with subtle, similar effects floating in the background. Eventually, a simple, dark sweeping synth gives us our first clear melody, with additional ones bubbling in the background. Then, we move onto some tribal chants; then, a stuttery synth; then, a new stuttery synth, this time building in prominence; then, a different rhythmic section (including a different time-signature, if you’re keeping tabs on minute details like that); then, new chants; finally, orchestral swells. All the while, previous elements bubble up, maintaining a cohesive theme throughout. Skillfully, each new section feels like a proper transition from prior ones, and never sounds like self-indulgence or useless attention-grabbers. And none of these various sounds, synths and effects outshine the other, each of them finely tuned to harmonize on the same wavelength as the next.

Like this opener, many of these songs progress naturally rather than take unnecessary tangents, usually starting from a few basic ideas, then gradually building upon them to a logical conclusion. If this sounds too structured, trust me it does not come across this way, again thanks to Rain’s use of time-signatures. It lends itself an unpredictable atmosphere to the proceedings, and should the opening rhythms and minor melodies snare you, you’ll stick with it to see where the song will lead next.

Rites Of Passage throws most of Rain’s sonic ideas together; the rest of the tracks tend to stick to more singular themes while maintaining his eclectic production. Darkness and Elysium rely mostly on ethereal textures, including flowing female voices rather than tribal chants (all original, no sampling). Follow-up Ritual goes darker, conjuring up ancient tribal temple gatherings in Latin America. (Note: I could complain about some of these titles, as they are annoyingly cliché, but that’s not terribly important)

Adding some variety to these ethno-psy-dub proceedings is Spanish Fly, making use of flamenco guitars and percussion. Additionally, the song completely changes pace mid-way through, settling into a much slower rhythm than at the start. At first I thought it was just a breakdown of sorts, but was quite surprised to hear it to the end.

The rest of the album thematically carries on in similar fashion as the first half, with the eclecticism between tracks always fresh and never overcooked. At times the percussion gets more tribal (especially in Drifting) but will be naturally followed up with easy-going dubbed-out grooves (especially in Submerge). In one of the few instances of predictability on Sub Conscious, closer Dissolve is a straight ambient track, although still contains Rain’s intriguing style on it.

So, does all this talk of diverse arrangements and nifty sound collages and somber melodies make you want to rush out and buy this release? If no, I can guess why: you’re wondering where all the catchy hooks are.

Frankly, as with many forms of psy-dub, catchy bits aren’t the focus. Despite some really good minor melodies, there aren’t any that repeat long enough to get firmly stuck in your head, much less be humming later in the day. Add to the fact 4/4 rhythms are nonexistent and you have an album a casual listener is going to have trouble getting into. Rain’s production may be clear and concise, but it is still unconventional, especially in electronic music circles.

However, if what you desire in your music is uniqueness and deep engagement, then Sub Conscious should be on your Wantlist. Even if the idea of ‘ethno-psy-dub’ strikes you as bizarre, the music on this release will satisfy nonetheless.

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


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gabriel Le Mar - Stripped

Le Mar Production/Carpe Sonum Records: 2013/2015

I've seen many variations of the 'in dub' album over the years, but this is the first I've seen the process being called 'stripped'. I suppose there’s a distinction between the two: dub remix albums are all about giving original tracks spacious room, drawing a few specific elements out, almost always on the low end of things. A stripped track, I assume, takes things more in a minimal route, retaining the core musical ideas while removing any extraneous effects and fluff from the original. I honestly don't know though, this album being my only exposure to what a stripped album might be. It could simply just refer to the fact every cut is beatless, as the sub-title of each track states.

Given the idiosyncratic nature of Gabriel Le Mar’s discography, it’s not surprising he’d give some of his music the ol’ rework. Born with a last name of Mastichidis, his early career saw him flit between various forms of techno, ambient, psy, and world beat, all with a dubby bent. He’s also worked with a few well regarded groups like Saafi Brothers and Aural Float, and Lord Discogs is telling me I’ve had Gabriel Le Mar tracks since the year 2000. Wow, I had no idea, though listening back, those were the more dope cuts from that Ambient Dub compilation (which, for the record, has no ambient on it). Since then, he’s also apparently dabbled in breaks, progressive house, trance, tech-house, electro… geez, Lord Discogs, are you on the level here? What hasn’t this guy done?

A ‘stripped’ album, until now. Originally digitally self-released a couple years back, Carpe Sonum Records has given Stripped the physical format treatment, as they do for many folks featured on Fax +49-69/450464 at some point (yeah, ol’ Gabs has even collaborated with Namlook). Going by the info provided by The Lord That Knows All, at least half of these tracks have previously been released on other recent digi-albums from Mr. Mastichidis, though I’m assuming in an un-stripped form. Since Discogs’ record keeping of MP3 and WAV albums isn’t as comprehensive, the same could be true for the rest. Then again, having an original track called The Beat (Beatless) is the sort of cheekiness any producer can’t resist for a concept like this.

For the most part, Stripped goes the dub techno route, with nary a kick drum in earshot. This leaves some tracks coming off like builds that never reach an expectant climax (Deep State (Beatless), Auf Dem Wind Davon (Beatless), Firecracker (Beatless)), whereas others are quite content cruising in a techno simmer (Lectron III (Beatless), Paddy Fields (Beatless), Far Out Of Reach (Beatless), Dreamtechnologies (Beatless)). And though each track keeps to its promise of being beatless, there’s never any lost rhythm, a rather ample amount of Detroit funk flowing throughout. Only two tracks, iGeorge (Beatless) and Deepulse (Beatless), tread anywhere near proper ambient waters. This all makes for very interesting techno, though strictly a genre-savvy option if you’re down for groovy dub.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tangerine Dream - Stratosfear

Virgin: 1976

A significant album in the Tangerine Dream discography, this one. For most of their early existence, the group Edgar Froese built willfully, skillfully, and probably stonedley indulged in all the wayward freeform excesses psychedelic rock could bring them. Then they brought in synthesizers, adding to their sonic possibilities, even abandoning traditional instruments altogether for a brief while, ushering in the nascent Berlin School of krautrock. Through it all, you’d be hard-pressed to hear anything resembling a catchy hook or hummable melody, because who’s got time for that when you’re constructing alien soundscapes for a receptive, tripped-out audience? That all changed with Stratosfear, in particular with the titular opener where several very memorable, very obvious melodies emerge as the ten minute piece unfolds. What were Tangerine Dream doing, aiming for higher chart action with this?

Perhaps a little. No doubt that Virgin deal gained them much wider recognition the world abroad, but even other forms of lengthy, sequenced synth music was gaining popularity. Along with plenty other Germans getting in on the act, you also had Frenchmen (Jarre), Greeks (Vangelis), Japanese (Tomita), British (all them prog rockers), and even Americans (Synergy) having a go with various amounts of success. As many of these musician adhered to a more modern classical approach to the craft, they had no problem injecting melodies and leitmotifs into their compositions. Naturally, for Tangerine Dream to keep pace and not be left in krautrock obscurity like Can and Cluster, they’d have to take a similar approach to their works as well. Thus Stratosfear comes off like a long-lost piece of baroque on par with their synth manipulating contemporaries. Or the group just wanted to try something different.

Worry not, ol’ ye’ old-school Tangerine Fans of old, for the rest of this album has them harkening back to the ancient times of traditional instruments as well. The Big Sleep In Search Of Hades melds synths with harpsichords, plus out comes the flute again! Man, it’d been a while since the Dream Team of Tangerines used that little pipe. The song itself has some folksy charm to it, sounding like the sort of music you might hear in a fantasy movie from the ‘70s. Oh yeah, Tangerine Dream were set to do their first ever film score for the movie Sorcerer the next year.

The second half of Stratosfear plays more to the group’s freeform music making, though even these compositions have more structure going on than prior works. 3 AM At The Border Of The Marsh From Okefenokee is another work that wouldn’t sound out of place in a movie during a tension-filled scene of sneaking across fields. Lastly, Invisible Limits runs through various sequences of quiet synths and flutes, pulsing prog rock jams, abstract experimental diddling, and a peaceful denouement of piano and flute: a condensed summation of Tangerine Dream, then.

Stratosfear isn’t the definitive Tangerine Dream album, but it is a good blend of their seminal work with the poppier leanings they’d go in later years.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cirrus - Stop & Panic

Moonshine Music: 1999

I feel Moonshine Music oversold us on Cirrus being The Next Big Thing. Not that I blame the label in marketing the Los Angeles breaks duo as their answer to The Chemical Brothers and The Crystal Method. Big beat was big business as the ‘90s drew to a close, but there was only so much big money a label could gather with compilations that (possibly) required big licensing fees. DJ Aaron Carter and Stephen J. Barry had a good look to them, in that so-‘90s L.A. way, and were more than capable of kicking out the jams in various genres, though acidy breaks was their main call of expertise. They could have simply carved out their niche and stayed on the low-key, but after Moonshine had so much success in their promotion of “Superstar DJ” Keoki, another kick at the Crossover Can couldn’t hurt. Or not, if it meant licensing out Cirrus tracks to all manner of receptive video games.

Anyhow, Stop & Panic was the second single from the group’s second album, Back On A Mission. There were no other singles from the LP following this, Cirrus quick to move on from big beat before the year 2000 reared its head. This cut is all big beat though, with guitar licks, fierce crashing percussion, tweaked as fuck acid, siren calls, time stretched vocals of the title, and a little record scratchin’ for good measure. In other words, a good thrashing time.

This being Moonshine, you can’t have a single without a DJ Dan remix, and Dan does the deed with his typical disco funk rub of house. Just in case you felt the original was too much big beat and not enough proper breaks, The Coffee Boys (re: just one guy named Paul Grogan) strips things down some, giving space for the acid to shine without a bunch of other sounds cluttering things up. I’ve talked about DJ Micro’s go on DJ Aaron Carter’s mix CD Lit Up, in that I just mentioned it there as a surprise ending to the hard acid techno set. Still, it was used well in that context, whereas on this single it’s possibly the driest of the remixes. There needs to be more than just siren-wailing bosh in my acid techno.

Finally, progressive trancer Deepsky rounds out the single with a decidedly old-school take on the genre. Seriously, that pitch-bending sawwave is straight out of the bible of Jam & Spoon tricks, even right down to the breakdown where you hear nothing else. I’d keep thinking I’m hearing Follow Me instead of a Stop & Panic remix were it not for the vocal being dropped in throughout. This couldn’t have been a coincidence. Deepsky had to have done it deliberately, just figured no one listening to a Cirrus single would ever know the truth. Well, fool’s on Mr. Blum, as I am one such person! Clearly though, this is among the utmost useless information I have in my possession.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Various - Stockholm Mix Sessions 2: Jesper Dahlbäck

Turbo Recordings: 2000

Though I had read positive things about Turbo in American-based magazine Mixer, Stockholm Mix Sessions 2 was my proper introduction to the label. It didn’t tell their whole story, of course, but it told enough to get my attention and check out more of what they had to offer. Well, after the cover first lured me in for a closer listen anyway. Seriously, what is it with apartment architecture that makes for such captivating photo art? It doesn’t have anything to do with the music inside, yet it instantly gives the sense this is a class mix through and through.

And oh man, is Mr. Dahlbäck’s second mix for Turbo ever class. I knew deep house well enough before, mostly thanks to the likes of Mark Farina and… um, okay so I didn’t have that much experience with the genre by the year 2000, but I’d heard plenty from assorted mixtapes making the rounds. Point being, my primary exposure to the sound was that of the West Coast bumpin’ style, and maybe a little deep Chicago for good measure. I was completely unaware there was an entirely unique strain of European deep house going on, much less being cultivated by guys from Sweden (should have paid more attention to Mixer’s words). It was house music steeped in cinematic soul, dubbed out to the outer reaches of your mind (or the Mediterranean patio), funk but a distant concern. Not that Stockholm Mix Sessions 2 is lacking in groove, but this is music I see myself enjoying at a classy dining lounge or ultra-chill afterparty than any typical club or beach event. Or Hell, cruising down the streets late at night, what with Metro Area’s Atmosphrique in the third position here (know your post Days Go By Mitsubishi ads, folks).

What marks Jesper’s second mix so much better than his first is just how incredibly smooth it is, much of which isn’t his own productions. For sure he works a few in (another remix for ADNY, plus two different collaborations as Sunday Brunch and Brommage Dub), but they’re complemented by the surrounding tracks vibing off what they bring to the mix. For instance, Cpen’s Pirate’s Life features the same super-spacious sound that Sunday Brunch’s Things You Said does, but also works in a bit of solo Moog that’s to die for. Come to think of it, this mix has a lot of solos in it, mostly keyboards, organs, and the like. So much soul-jazz, without going nu-jazz.

Many memorable names (I:Cube, King Britt, Luomo, Casey Hogan, The Rurals) rub shoulders with relative unknowns (Tribedelic, Moonchildren, Pascal Rioux), running from broken jazz-beat through the deepest end of house music, back to the Balearic beaches with Latin soul. Aside from one jarring transition mid-point (Luomo seldom makes things easy), Dahlbäck’s mixing is nigh flawless, making Stockholm Mix Sessions 2 the best mix CD he’s ever point out. Er, and his last one too. Adam Beyer would take over the series after this.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Various - Stockholm Mix Sessions: Jesper Dahlbäck

Turbo Recordings: 1999

Before there were Angellos and Axwells and Prydzes, there was an original Swedish house mafia; well, ‘techno’ mafia anyway. You should know all these names, because I’ve continuously name-dropped them when it comes to Turbo Recordings’ early years, but their story goes further back than that. No genre was untouchable to these mavericks from the realms of Stockholm, and at the start of it all was Jesper Dahlbäck, kicking out the hard acid jams as you do in ‘92.

For much of that time since, he’s worked under collaborations and aliases, perhaps The Persuader most prominent of them all. As Swedish house music turned trendy, he found some success with his cousin John, working together as Hugg & Pepp. And while Jesper didn’t have anywhere near the stupid-excessive work rate as John, he’s kept a steady stream of singles and off-albums going to date, mostly finding his niche in groovy tech-house and heady acid.

Backing up though, when Tiga was tapping all these unheralded Nordic Europeans for albums and DJ mixes on his Turbo print, Jesper was a shoe-in to kick things off. Going the mix CD route was a tad surprising though, what with years of experience in productions. Maybe Mr. Dahlbäck had mostly signed his output and aliases to other labels already, or perhaps the intent always was to go the DJ mix route, in this way allowing a smattering of own productions through the licensing department. Could Turbo not have been ready for proper LPs either? I don’t know how it went down in the discussion between Tiga and Jesper, but whatever the case, Stockholm Mix Sessions is the first commercial mix Jesper released. And he totally… proves himself capable in the field of deep house. Er, sorry, not the most resounding call of confidence there.

To be blunt, I was spoiled by his second Stockholm Mix Session, which I heard first. Hell, that was my first exposure to Turbo in general, but those are details for another review. This one’s no slouch though, but a couple factors have me hesitant giving the automatic three thumbs up over its deserved two.

One, Jesper’s mixing isn’t the most refined here, especially in the first half when he’s running through various forms of deep house. The tunes are all mint of course, bringing in soulful funk (Nordelius & Ressle’s With Us Around, Blue Six’s Sweeter Love) or quirky dub (Natural Rhythm’s Eclectic Dub, Gemini Sounds’ Elevate Your Fellow Man) to the mix. He even makes Isolée’s Beau Mot Plage sound fresh in layering a vocal overtop it. Smoother mixing, as found in the second half, would have made this portion much better. However, the back half mixing probably benefits hugely from a run of five of Dahlbäck’s own works, earning quibble number two.

Still, that Let Me Luv U from Jii Hoo and Slussen (Erot Remix) combo in the middle …hot damn. Forget the quibbles, this CD’s house is too mint to care about such things.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Purl - Stillpoint

Silent Season: 2015

Purl is Ludvig Cimbrelius, a chap who's released a ridiculous amount of music in the last few years. Just under this name alone, Lord Discogs lists ten albums. Then there's Alveol, providing at least another dozen assorted albums and singles. Throw in a number of one-off aliases like Surr, Xpire, and Ziyal, and you have one busy body. So it goes, though, for the digital market of dub techno and ambient, producers almost necessitated to flood the field with their droning synths and treated field recordings to stay with the pack. Fortunately, Silent Season has a leg up on their competition in cultivating a consistent theme with their releases, music that invokes imagery, moods, and feelings of residing in their base of the Pacific Northwest. As that too is my region of residence, it's made connecting to their output easy as slicing a salmon fillet.

Except, as I write this, I'm not currently in Vancouver, but rather Edmonton. Where the skies are big and blue, with nary a rainforest, mountain, or rocky shoreline in sight. Where it is not mild and damp, but cold and wintery. Where- *glances out window*... Well, I'll be darned. Drizzle. Grey clouds. Reasonable temperatures. I've somehow brought the Pacific Northwest weather to the northern Prairies. Guess I can write this review of Stillpoint while here after all.

And sure enough, the opening track, Havets Sang, begins with the sound of rain on old growth forests, crashing waves against seaweed strewn beaches, and deeply dubbed-out synth drones wrapping you up in early morning blankets of fog. Yeah, sorry, my similes remain stuck in BC coast trappings. How would an appropriate Albertan one go, 'rolling hills full of farms and bison'? Surely not as rain heavy as we get in this track anyway.

Honestly, the music on Stillpoint goes more warm and comforting than what I just described. The follow-up tracks of Baleine and Wilderness maintain the ambient form, but bring in some deep, dub techno groove, then we get... Oh my! Melora, dear God, is this ever a lush piece of ambiance, with gentle angelic vocal treatments, ebbing and flowing as only the best ambient does. I know I've heard this kind of music hundreds of times before, but this one's still as gorgeous as anything I've ever heard. Who cares if it's named after a poor episode of Deep Space Nine [citation needed], Melora's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Many of the remaining tracks maintain the ambient dub techno mold, though some of them start suspiciously sounding like trance – or very brisk ambient techno anyway. Granted, that's part of Purl's MO, creating music that's very hypnotic and meditative. It does get a bit repetitive, but Mr. Cimbrelius use of layered pads, timbre, and distant beats makes for a captivating listen regardless.

Stillpoint is a great collection of dub techno, bringing remarkable warmth to a genre that's more often so cold. Huh, seems remarkably appropriate here, somehow. Ah, I'm just imagining things, probably.

Friday, November 6, 2015

David Bickley - Still Rivers At Night

Psychonavigation Records: 2006

Psychonavigation Records had a CD fire sale of their back-catalog over the summer, forcing me to splurge on a label as I've never splurged before. You bet that's generated a massive queue of music for my next alphabetical backtrack, to say nothing of the regular releases that have piled up during my sojourn of “S”. This here Still Rivers At Night from David Bickley is the first release of that label trawl that I'm finally reviewing, thus providing me with the opportunity to warn thee of the near future: there will be obscurity, oh yes.

I’m still stunned how Psychonavigation just sprung up out of seemingly nowhere a few years back, yet had been quietly going about its business throughout the ‘00s. Hell, I wonder if even they realized they’d have such a turnaround, given the rather sedate release schedule of their first decade in existence. Take this release, with a catalogue marker of PSY 015, released 2006. The label’s breached PSY 100 this year, and they’d only just reached PSY 050 in 2011. So... from about three releases per year, to about a clip of over ten per now. And all done with a plethora of obscure artists at that.

Take David Bickley. Have you heard of him? Okay, maybe if you’re from his native Ireland or a hardcore follower of downtempo and ambient music, the name’s crossed your path. Not mine though, except in one recent instance that didn’t even register with me at the time. The same year he put out this album, David also released a collaborative effort with Tom Green, the man behind Another Fine Day. In fact, almost all of Mr. Bickley’s Discogian credits list him as a collaborator or contributor to other artists. Going further back, he put out a few items under the alias of Hyperborea, which I know more for the Tangerine Dream album than anything else.

Hey, that’s a handy segue! While I wouldn’t call Still Rivers At Night a krautrock album, there are a few elements of that floating about, mostly in the synth-heavy Berlin-School vein. Hell, the titular cut could be right out of the late ‘70s with those vintage brisk, bloopy arps, sequenced modulators, and gentle pad waves. That’s about as easy it gets describing this album though. Mr. Bickley’s clearly had plenty of influences in his time in the world of music, and he finds ways of incorporating them in clever ways throughout. Traction Cities rides a laid-back trip-hop beat as a woozy melody ebbs in and out, Babygroove sounds like how psy dub might have gone if done by ‘70s German stoners, Zebo-Black glides along a minimalist electro rhythm with faded cinematic strings, and Cave 9 gets its psychedelic rock on while cruising the Amtrak in Detroit.

Ultimately, much of Still Rivers At Night reminds me of The Future Sound Of London’s more recent works. If that sounds mint to you, then this is a worthy companion to the quirkier albums in your collection.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Armin van Buuren - A State Of Trance 2006 (2015 Update)

Ultra Records: 2006

Oh what the heck. Though it's hi-lar-ious to leave my current thoughts of A State Of Trance 2006 out there in the ether, I feel like this needs a proper reassessment anyway. In the ensuing years following my bevy of bile, I had defenders proclaiming Armin's selection of tunes here wasn't so bad, not when compared to where the genre had gone since. And that's a valid point, all manner of sad bandwagon jumps and obnoxious productions (ugh, all that side-chain nonsense) still over the rim from 2006's vantage point. Hell, the idea of dubstep cozying up with trance was utter bollocks in the mid-'00s, yet here we in 2015, Seven Lions an actual thing. The euro trance scene has done more than enough to prove the old adage “it's never so bad that it can't get worse”, and there's been many instances of me going back to these old, lambasted releases, wondering just what zombie bug crawled up my ears to get me so irate. Maybe A State Of Trance 2006 was unjustly crucified, time and hindsight now offering a renewed perspective on Armin's mix.

Nope. In fact, it’s gotten worse! While On The Beach didn’t blow me away as a set, I found it agreeable enough as a proggy collection of tunes way back when. I haven’t a clue how I came to that conclusion before, because this sounds so dull to me now, spinning its wheels worse than the In The Club mix. The two tracks I pointed out as highlights – Zirenz’s Edge Of Space (Whiteroom Remix) and Incolumis’ One With Sanctuary - do remain the best of CD1, but everything else around them is useless plodding McProg and forgettable progressive trance. I mentioned Jody Wisternoff’s Cold Drink, Hot Girl as a mood changer, yet it serves no function in the context of this set. What was I even hearing? At least 2006 Sykonee was accurate in mentioning how lame that acoustic guitar in Sunlounger’s White Sand is.

As for In The Club, yeah, that’s gotten no better either. I ranted big about its problems before, but I could have summed it up with a single word: homogeny. There are twenty-three names listed among these tracks, and only five of them show any sort of personality outside the bog-standard epic, uplifting trance template: Stoneface & Terminal’s Venus for its distinctive rhythm and synths, Sander van Doorn’s rub of Control Freak for its Doorny beats, Thomas Bronzwaer’s Shadow World for those guilty-pleasure SUPREMEsaw synths, and van Buuren’s Sail for its awfulness. Everything else comes off like euro trance as disposable product, duplicated and churned out to meet Armin’s needs in presenting his singular, myopic vision of what trance must sound like. And this has been a problem with his music ever since!

With plenty other fresh takes on trance now available (prog psy! neo-trance! throwback trance! melodic, hypnotic techno!), settling for A State Of Trance 2006 as a standard-bearer of the genre is an exercise in musical denial.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Armin van Buuren - A State Of Trance 2006 (Original TC Review)

Ultra Records: 2006

(2015 Update:
My friends, this review is
awful! ...is what you want me to say, right? I won't deny this is one tedious slog, taking forever to get to any point and forcing the reader to wade through waves of bile to do so. This thing is seventeen-hundred words long, with maybe two or three paragraphs of a clear point being made throughout. Hell, I spent the opening three-hundred words building to a lame joke about the cover. Who has time to read that? Certainly no one in this day and age. And there's so much more that's just cringe worthy to read now: still doing track-by-track in some instances, rambling on about inconsequential details, and what the Hell was I going on about with constant reference to 'Glory Years'? I just listened to a DJ mix that sounds much closer to Millennial trance than this one, A State Of Trance 2004. This sounds nothing like that.

I was tempted to do a full Update review, as I've plenty fresh things to say about this mix, but that'd be cheating my ironclad rules. Besides, do I really need to spend any more words on
A State Of Trance 2006? I mean, just look at this review! It's a bitter, bloated beast, ornery and cranky for reasons I can't recall now, beyond my utter frustration with Armin's scene in general. All that hype, all that marketing, all that product and good intentions. All that waste of my time.)


IN BRIEF: Still living the Glory Years.

Armin van Buuren’s always been the guy who remains cheerfully optimistic in the face of adversity, and it clearly shows in his approach to music. His brand of uplifting trance is known to rock many a club night while putting sincere smiles on all those who hear it, equally enjoying the soaring melodies while Armin exuberantly lays down the anthems behind the decks.

But one has to wonder whether Armin is growing tired of his role as cheerleader for the epic trance brigade. After all, nearly every other DJ that helped build the style into the dominating party music that it was at the turn of the century has begun to move on to other pastures, leaving Armin to carry on in their stead. He’s certainly made ample use of being given the spotlight, as his star rose to the elites of popular trance DJs while promoting his A State Of Trance internet radio show as the premier source for new uplifting tunes. However, being stuck in that typecast has left him at a standstill for the last few years.

His artist album Shivers from last year saw him attempt to break that mold by creating songs outside the trance template. A worthy idea, but the results were uninspiring to casual happeners and met with annoyance from his hardline trance fans. Still, Armin knows if he wants to be held in higher regard outside his core niche, he’s going to have to step up his game. So, no more Mr. Happy Exuberant Nice Guy. With the grim determination of a DJ on a mission to bring trance back to its nostalgic highs, Armin presents to us the latest collection of the best trance music his radio show has to offer.

Well, one theory for the awful cover image at least.

Anyhow, here we are with Armin’s latest edition of his annual A State Of Trance series. As usual, there are plenty of complaints from listeners of his radio show that there are too many tracks which have been played to death. I’m still befuddled by this complaint; unless you are an extreme Armin fanboy that has got to have everything Armin puts out, this release really isn’t for the dedicated radio listener. Rather, the aim here is simple: compile the standouts from the program for those who don’t listen to it much (or, like me, at all), thus giving Armin the necessary promotion in places that are not the interweb - namely, music stores where money can be made. Fortunately for the non-radio listener and non-downloader, there are plenty of new, exclusive, unreleased tracks to be had in this edition, so if fresh material is what you’re after, you’ll get some bang for your buck.

Following similar themes set by previous editions, 2006 divides the selection of tunes between two different types of sets. Last year, Armin didn’t know if his audience would get the idea, so he gave the discs idiot-proof titles of Light and Dark. He seems to show a little more faith in his fans this year though, going for the slightly more descriptive titles At The Beach and In The Club. Since it’s the first disc here, let us start with the beachy music.

And Mike Foyle’s Shipwrecked is as fine an opener for such a theme as any. Pleasant piano melodies, seaside sound effects, and warm pads make up the bulk, with simple rhythms keeping the pace on easy cruise control. This is quite the blissy offering, easily putting me into a trancey, tranquil sense of waterfront calm.

...Only to be promptly taken out of it by the questionable guitar work in White Sand. I can kind of hear what DJ Shah was shooting for with this track, that of a loungey Mediterranean mood. Unfortunately it comes across as mere noodly finger plucking, without any kind of proper attention paid to stringing together a cohesive harmony. It’s like a poor-man’s Michael Brook with a dance beat.

We quickly leave these seaside tunes though, entering a stretch of moody vocal prog numbers, each followed by a charming instrumental to complement them. These are all quite nice to listen to, keeping the mood on a gradual climb with each track sounding unique from the previous without losing that all important flow. Although the tracks never quite lift beyond a few minor emotional peaks (most notably Junkie XL’s remix of Niyaz’ Dilruba and the Whiteroom remix of Zirenz’ Edge Of Space), they are effective in drawing you into a pleasant trance. It’s just as nice as background music as it is something you can absorb yourself into.

Once Jody Wisternoff’s Cold Drink, Hot Girl changes the general tone of this mix to something a little more groovey, Armin sees fit to gently ease us out of our blissy tenure with the ethereal setting of One With Sanctuary from Incolumis. No apparent hook to be had with this track; just gentle pad work with appropriate rhythms. Definitely a nice capper to this pleasant little disc.

Ack, but Armin decides to keep going. I’ve complained about him throwing on additional tracks at the end of a set when the lead-up to it suggests he’s wrapping up, just because it comes off as milking a CD’s length for all its worth even if you’ve said all that needs to be said. Still, his choice of add-ons isn’t too bad this time out. Even if Envio’s For You has the unfortunate distinction of being ‘one track too many’, it’s a decent track regardless.

Overall though, At The Beach certainly manages to create the atmosphere Armin’s title shoots for. Although a couple tracks feel out of place (I suspect the Karen Overton one may just be PR plugging, but that’s a rant for another review), none of them really detract from the overall tone set-up by Shipwrecked and, more or less, is brought to its natural conclusion at the end. It’s not a revolutionary mix, but works within its confines and should make for a nice summer soundtrack.

As for the second disc...

Shit...

My friends, this is awful!

Damned near every single fucking song does the exact same thing! I just need to provide a link to Fable’s Above for a description (2015 Edit: whoops, that link no longer exists!), and let that repeat itself. If you’re too lazy to actually click the link, here’s the gist of how it goes from start to finish: intro and outro beats matched; minor melody; breakdown, build, soaring uplifting melody, jump in the air with your fist pumping, supposedly cheering Armin on for selecting the ‘choon’; repeat. That’s it. The repetitive redundancy this disc contains isn’t that far removed from that found in hardstyle mixes. The energy is completely flatlined from the get-go, at no point ever seeming to lead anywhere other than just one breakdown after the other, and the predictability of it gets old fast. Were I to implement my Patent Pending Trance Drinking Game to this disc, I’d leave with a very tortured liver.

It’s not that all the individual songs on display here are bad examples of epic trance; put into a better set with more room to stand out, any one of them would probably be good peak time moments. However, Armin’s arrangement and mixing is so utterly bland, the tracks never get a chance to show any kind of personality, which is a far cry from the flavour to be had in the first disc. The beats are simply aligned, the keys properly matched, and that’s it. A robot could do the same job. Say, maybe that’s what gives with the blank look in Armin’s face on the cover: he’s been replaced by an android!

There are a couple points where this mix seems to break the mold, however slightly, but not always for the better. Highlights include: the better than average melody in DJ Governor’s Red Woods; some quirky synthy delights to be found in Stoneface & Terminal’s Venus; the SUPREMEsaw synths of Thomas Bronzwaer’s Shadow World (though that just may be familiarity sparking my interest, since I’ve already heard it on Phynn’s recent DJ mix for the In Trance We Trust series). Lowlights include: both Kyau vs. Albert tracks, who’s blend of bland adult contemporary songwriting with trance beats seems to kill just about every show of momentum; Armin’s own laughable Sail.

Actually, since he gives his own new anthem the spotlight at the end, I may as well give it the review spotlight as well. It’s as though Armin, still trying to create that one classic that will be played forever and ever, took a look at every single major hit in the past and fused them all together. The melody is super-stupidly simple, pretty much hitting single notes on every beat and played with just about every kind of sound you’ve heard in epic trance. You get bleepy synths that made PPK’s ResuRection the smash it was; you get plinky pianos that made Children the hit it was; happy-go-lucky rhythms which are vintage Ferry Corsten; and, of course supersaw breakdowns, sure to bring back Rank 1 memories. And that’s just the first fucking half! I’ll admit I have a soft spot for the voice pads, but Armin kills it with a horribly distorted synth sound in a second breakdown, which reminds me of Tiësto’s take on Adagio For Strings in sound, and The fucking Launch in ‘melody’, of all damned things. To complete the idiocy of trance clichés, he brings in stuttery supersaws alongside the distorted synth once the beat returns. What is this, epic trance meets hardstyle? Christ... Either this is meant to be a ‘tribute’ to the Glory Years of epic trance that totally missed the mark, or a very, very sick joke.

I honestly don’t know how anyone can take Armin seriously after this. At The Beach showed some promise, but In The Club destroys it in an instant with its tiresome re-hashing. In Armin’s mind, 1999 is still going strong, and I suppose with the continuous influx of new kids to the scene, he’ll be able to live off of that vibe for a long while still. He’s apparently made his bed with the Glory Years, and you can either join in with his never-ending ride or go elsewhere. Of course, once you’ve moved past that introductory stage A State Of Trance seems custom made for, you usually will.

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Armin van Buuren - A State Of Trance 2004 (2015 Update)

Ultra Records: 2004

(Click here to read my early rambly, rubbish writings.)

Hello, Armin, my old friend. Seems I must talk about you again. Not that I haven't mentioned you when discussing so many things trance - the highs, the lows, and the epic, uplifting in-betweens. Long ago though, I decided it wasn't worth my effort to “get” your music, as the Armin fanclub is wont to say. I suspected it even this far back, when you technically could do no wrong. You were still the scrappy upstart to the euro trance throne, the almighty Tiësto still King and Tyrant, with Corsten remaining the Duke of Dutchiness. Everyone likes an underdog, a talent on the rise, a hustler willing to make his vision come into being. The vision is to be Overlord of all things trancetastic, right?

Unfortunately, Armin's time at the top only eroded a once vibrant scene. It wasn’t entirely his fault, as all scenes must recede, tastes and trends waning as new ones emerge and take the spotlight. Trance though, in its desperation to remain the most popular gateway genre (and thus the most profitable!), hilariously jumped on many a bandwagon with ever increasing cringe-worthy results; Armin was no less guilty a shepherd during this time. There's been a minor return to trance's older strengths, but the scene's had to accept its losses in doing so, becoming purist and niche. That's great if you're willing to play for humble audiences and cultivate a savvy following, but Armin's brand has grown too bloated to take that much of a step back.

I'm astounded his long-suffering fans keep holding out hope he'll return to the sort of sound he played back on this DJ mix. Instead, he dangles them along, throwing an occasional vintage cut their way like so much scrap meat, continuously proclaiming he’s still playing trance, but constantly barraging them with trite dance pop and obnoxious stadium house in his efforts to reach a broad EDM audience. With Solarstone providing the full course meal these days, I must wonder why they settle for substandard product? Armin doesn’t deserve that much unrequited loyalty; no musician does.

Still, listening back to A State Of Trance 2004, it’s understandable how that devotion blossomed. There’s a lot of quality trance on here, much of it holding up remarkably well a decade on. A few problems do persist - Future Funland and Satellite remain pants, Sahara’s still corny, and the end of CD2 hasn’t a clue of where it’s going – but beat for pound, I enjoyed this more than I did before. Heck, some tunes, like Super 8’s Alba and Mono’s Rise, I’d totally forgotten about, and found myself vibing off them like they were fresh, new cuts.

Then again, maybe I'm biased to this era of trance than anything recent, these tunes closer in spirit to the Oakenfold Years than whatever it is we get these days. Yes, this is me saying the Oakenfold Years had some merit – even Armin believed so in his liner notes. Shame he all but ignores that now.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

ACE TRACKS: October 2015

An extra hour of sleep this past night? Pft, I totally wasted that the night before, where I slept for about eleven hours. I didn’t think I was that tired, but then again, I have noticed the fatiguing signs. The shorter daylight hours, leading me to rely more on ultra-caffeine to plow through, leading to nights with less deep sleep, and the cycle continues. I don’t recall having these problems before. Was it because I was a steady Rock Star drinker for twelve years? I had to quit those suckers earlier this year because of compounding chest pains. Heck, I ‘relapsed’ this past month to get through those rough mornings, and started feeling those pains again. Why? Why must this aging process limit societal crutches? Dear Lord, don’t let the same thing happen to music! Maybe I needed happier music this past October, but there be Beach Boys in th’ar. Here, take a listen.


Full track list here.

MISSING ALBUMS:
Sven Väth ‎– In The Mix: The Sound Of The Ninth Season
Various - The Sound Of Zero and One
Olien - Sounded Paratronic
Overdream - Soundprints
Peter Benisch - Soundtrack Saga
Various - Space Jazz
Der Dritte Raum - Spaceglider
Distant System - Spiral Empire
Jerry Goldsmith - Star Trek: The Motion Picture
James Horner - Star Trek: The Search For Spock

Percentage of Hip-Hop: 8%
Percentage Of Rock: 35% (it’s all Beach Boys)
Most “WTF?” Track: Horsemilk - They Milk Horses Don’t They? (that title alone …oh yeah, and Olien)

Ugh, so much great music, so much not on Spotify. I mean, this past month had me going through a number of albums I’ve endlessly namedropped over the years, and I can’t even share audio clips of them now. Well, unless y’all followed my advice and already copped yourselves some Benisch, Olien, and D. System.

That still leaves a bunch of cool music from other though: Thievery Corporation, AstroPilot, OutKast, and the aforementioned Beach Boys. If you’re feeling the SADS, maybe they’ll help add a little sunshine in your day. Yeah, that’s dorky, but so were they, so win-win, I say.
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