Wednesday, December 28, 2016

High Contrast - True Colours

Hospital Records: 2002

It may come off as ridiculous hyperbole to claim this album forever (and a day) changed the way Hospital Records went about doing drum ‘n bass, but it’s pretty much the truth of the matter. Liquid funk as a genre already existed as a nebulous idea, though with few clear, identifiable traits dozens of producers followed up with. High Contrast almost single-handedly codified how the new-fangled ‘fast soul music’ concept would be done on London Elektricity’s print, everyone following Lincoln Barrett’s form in defining one of this century’s most popular strains of d’n’b. Heck, if a mighty Pendulum hadn’t come along with their own style, liquid funk could very well still be top dog to this day.

So yeah, True Colours (or True Colors for y’all yanks), a Very Important Record in the history of d’n’b, but not exactly the best album out of High Contrast’s discography. Frankly, that would be his confident sophomore effort, High Society, if nothing else than for the liquid funk stylee coming fully formed and furious on that record. Or maybe Tough Guys Don’t Dance, what with its liberal sub-genre hopping. True Colours though (or True Couleur for the Francophones) is clearly Mr. Barrett in his early stages, more conservative in his productions, perhaps a little unsure whether the whole liquid funk thing would catch on beyond a flight of fancy for casual heads. Well, London Elektricity believed in it, abandoning any pretensions of carrying jazzstep’s legacy in favor of High Contrast’s fresher, brisk beatcraft with hooky soul samples galore.

For sure there’s some gems of the genre within True Colours (or True Rangi if you speak Swahili). Make It Tonight was the first single High Contrast put out, nearly a year prior to his debut full-length dropping, and I can’t be the only one noticing that string hook bears some resemblance to Codename John’s Deep Inside Of Me - hey, soul samples can come from the recent past as well as some dusty ‘70s 7-inch. Passion also came out in the year 2001, closing in on the sound that would turn Hospital Records into a dominating force, though that bass tone’s a bit rough. But yes, the definitive liquid funk classic, Return Of Forever, is the opener, bringing nearly everything you expect of the genre (such a glorious string section!). Perhaps the only surprising thing regarding it now is how the build-drop template doesn’t tear out as hard as liquid funk typically does - they were still defining them, after all.

A few jazzsteppy numbers round out this ten-tracker (Music Is Everything, Remember When), but by and large True Colours would rather let the ‘fast soul music’ mold settle than fool with eccentricities. That general lack of diversity in True Colours may be a turn-off for liquid funk followers who came to the genre late in the game, though I’d be astounded if such quibbles were deal breakers for that scene’s fans. They really are a devoted, passionate sort.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Pantha Du Prince - The Triad

Rough Trade: 2016

Pantha Du Prince is Hendrik Weber, a very important person in the world of techno. Along with analog-loving sorts like The Field, he helped ease the scene out of its stuffy pretentions by injecting playful, melodic elements within. It was a desperately needed development following the dry, dank era of minimal ‘this are serious music’ techno, and ol’ Pantha toed the line between tough, functional beatcraft and heart-tugging sentimentality as capably as any producer. By the time his Black Noise album dropped in 2010, folks were so warmed by his charming bell tones and shoegazing timbre, the transition from minimal tech-house singles was practically an afterthought, proclaiming this was the proper Pantha Du Prince stylee all along. Well, except for those stubborn hold-outs from his earliest Dial days – sorry, guys, he ain’t going back to the micro-haus anytime soon.

Still, Black Noise came out in ye’ olde year of 2010, such an age ago compared to where techno has developed since. Bringing melody into your works is no longer such a taboo stylistic choice within this scene, all manner of producers getting their analog pad and hypnotic arp works on. Some see it as the growing influence of indie musicians ‘discovering’ techno (thanks, Pitchfork!), thus bringing their tricks of trade into the scene as well. For sure the shoegaze side of things has long shared attributes with chill-out genres (going by a wack moniker of, ugh, ‘chillwave’), but that it penetrated the traditionally uptight techno scene was remarkable. Oddly, whenever I hear this stuff, I keep thinking of trance music, albeit of a far classier sort than you’ll often find labeled as such. All hail ‘neo trance’!

What I’m trying to get around to saying is Pantha Du Prince’s style of shoegaze-tech-minimal-neo-prog-haus isn’t the shining beacon of light within a dour scene it once was – plenty of producers have caught on that you can make techno that’s rather chill too (but not ambient techno, that’s something different). That leaves his long awaited follow-up to Black Noise - The Triad - existing in a strange no-man’s land of expectations. Folks adored the last record, but are they really hankering for a return to that sound after so long, and with so many other options now available? And what of that all-important Artistic Evolution we demand of our techno heroes? Whatever is Pantha Du to do?

Carry on from Black Noise, it seems. The Triad is just as melodic with the bell tones and shoegazy with the floating vibes, though perhaps a little lighter on the dancefloor effectiveness. There’s a few tough basslines about (Chasing Vapour Trails, Lichterschmaus) but this is one subdued record compared to his early material. Ol’ Pantha’s far more interested in exploring open spaces between his beats and bells, with floating vocals, layered instrumentation (guitars, yo’!), and expansive pads edging his music ever closer to the domain of progressive house to my ears. I therefore dig this album, though it’s so stubbornly mellow, I find my attention drifting too often.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Symmetry - Themes For An Imaginary Film

Italians Do It Better: 2012

What might this little item be, sitting so coolly in the CD shelves? Looks like an anonymous act going by the name of Symmetry, using vintage red SSD LCD font, offering up music for a motion picture that only exists in the imagination of the musician creating said pieces. And we have a hot dashboard for a hot car, cruising a hot dusk leading into a hot night. If that don’t get my retro synth senses tingling, then I haven’t been paying attention to this hot, little synthwave genre developing over the past few years. Not that this album has much to do with that particular scene, Themes For An Imaginary Film having a far more nuanced story behind it than your typical synthwaver inspired by Jan Hammer and John Carpenter. Come, pour yourself a mug of rum-n-nog, gather round the digital hearth, fire up a Yule Log YouTube, as I tell the tale of Themes For An Imaginary Film.

Themes For An Imaginary Film comes care of Johnny Jewel, he of the Italians Do It Better label, a print that made its name peddling retro disco and synth-pop for a modern era. He’s also helmed a number of groups within said label, including Glass Candy, Chromatics, and Desire, building quite the rep’ as one of Los Angeles’ foremost tastemakers. No small feat given the cutthroat nature of Tinseltown’s entertainment industry, but it was enough to get him a foot in the door of Hollywood’s music scene, landing his output a few licensing deals along the way. Johnny Jewel though, he aspired for more – nothing less than scoring a complete film would satisfy his drive.

Say, what’s this, a movie called Drive is in need of a soundtrack with a synth-poppy retro sound? Johnny Jewel can do that absolutely! Oh, wait, they already got a composer, industry man Cliff Martinez - they only want a couple songs from you instead (one Desire, one Chromatics). Aw, but ol’ Johnny already made a bunch of tunes for potential use in your indie movie about cool-bad guys doing cool-bad things with cool-bad cars, a double-LP’s worth in fact! Well, save it for your own use then, maybe release it separately under a new guise like Equipoise or Synergism.

At 2CDs in length, I’d say Themes For An Imaginary Film is a lot to chew on, except many of these thirty-six tracks come off like half-formed background pieces. A few hold their own as individual works of moody electro (City Of Dreams, Blood Sport), cinematic synth-pop (Jackie’s Eyes, Streets Of Fire) and reflective ambience (Hall Of Mirrors, Ghost Town). For the most part though, these are pure score fodder, interstitial music bridging moments between dialog. Still, with a little refinement and culling, I can definitely hear how these could have been used as an alternate soundtrack to Drive.

As for Johnny Jewel, he’d finally get his scoring break with the crime drama series Those Who Kill, and last year’s flim Lost River. Perseverance!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

William Orbit - Strange Cargo III

I.R.S. Records: 1993

The only William Orbit album you’re supposed to have, despite most folks buying up Pieces In A Modern Style as their One True Orbit album instead. Without the success of Strange Cargo III, however, there may not have even been a Pieces In A Modern Style! Okay, that’s stretching things. Ol’ Will already had a decent reputation in clubland as a remixer throughout the early ‘90s, providing rubs for an eclectic assortment of artists (Prince, Nitzer Ebb, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Betty Boo, Peter Gabriel, Sven Väth, The Cure, The Shamen, The Human League, The Madonna). He was also actively making music under various guises since the early ‘80s – synth-pop in the group Torch Song, ravey UK house with Bassomatic. William ‘Orbit’, though, was Mr. Wainwright’s main creative outlet, where he artistically indulged himself with ambient, pop, funk, and whatever genre fusion struck his fancy at the time – hoo, is the first Strange Cargo ever dripping with ‘80s fusion.

Thus Orbit was no stranger to DJs the world over, and the UK. If anything, they were quite receptive to whatever music he produced, though perhaps with a cautious ear, Orbit so often toeing the line between savvy club weapons and blatant crossover material. Whatever misgivings DJs might have had with Mr. Wainwrights’ earlier material, however, was quickly assuaged when Water From A Vine Leaf dropped as Strange Cargo III’s lead single, practically a re-introduction of Orbit to a whole new generation of ravers and punters unfamiliar with his ‘80s output.

An instant classic in Balearic and progressive house circles (remixes from Spooky and Underworld helped), playlisted by all the Very Important DJs, and even picked up by the mighty Virgin for distribution, it would be one of Orbit’s most successful singles ever released under his own moniker. Oh, and it also introduced clubland to Beth Orton, her vivid dialog about four young girls giving her water from a vine leaf (just dropping it onto her tongue) almost single-handily making her an in-demand vocalist for producers (Chemical Brothers sure noticed).

It’s tough topping such a single, so Orbit doesn’t even try, instead spending the rest of Strange Cargo III genre hopping and blending styles of the time as he typically did with this series. A few more progressive tunes show up (Into The Paradise, The Story Of Light, A Touch Of The Night, Gringatcho Demento complete with a squalling guitar solo), proto trip-hop naturally gets a look (Time To Get Wize; Best Friend, Paranoia), hints of his future dalliance with modern classical make appearances (Harry Flowers, Water Babies), and ethnic-fusion chill-out drops in for a bit (A Hazy Shade Of Random, The Monkey King, Deus Ex Machina). Phew, is that ever an earful.

By no means is Strange Cargo III a perfect album. It does drag with Orbit’s indulgences in the back-half, and a few tracks have dated some. Still, it’s far more interesting than much of his work following Ray Of Light, totally deserving the praise it earned way back when.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Apócrýphos - Stone Speak

Cryo Chamber: 2016

I can tell we’re nearing the end of this massive backlog, because this is the last of all those Cryo Chamber CDs I picked up this past year. Except for the stragglers hiding out in the letters below ‘T’. There’s also another small bundle I recently bought too (darn winter sales…), but y’all will have to wait until the (hopefully not-so-dread) year 2017 for reviews on those items. Ooh, suspsense…

This will be my thirty-first Cryo review (!!), twenty-seven of which I’ve done in the past eight months (!!) (!). I know I keep reiterating this point now, but despite having such an ‘unpresidented’ crash course in dark ambient, you’d think I’d be growing hip to the tricks, trades, and clichés the genre has to offer. Such to the point that I can guess how an album of the stuff will play out with but a glance at the cover art and track titles.

Like Stone Speak, from Apócrýphos. It’s got weird looking obelisks in the middle of a desolate landscape, a region that looks ravaged by volcanism, everything reduced to ash. So some sort of cataclysmic natural apocalypse went down, and these mysterious looming towers are either the cause or the monuments to said event. Hey, the 2010 monoliths literally blew up Jupiter to create a new star, advancing the evolution of creatures living under the ice of Europa. Maybe something similar is going on with this picture, a sacrifice of sorts so others may live and thrive in their stead. That would suggest music within with some ritualistic connotations (because obelisks), but generally eerie, dreary ambient and droning dirges, reflecting on the aftermath of said cataclysm. See, no trouble at all.

Well, I was mostly on point. Robert Kozletsky, the man behind Apócrýphos, began the project with The Prisoners Cinema on Canadian print Cyclic Law. Later that year, he joined the Cryo crew with the collaborative album Onyx (featuring Simon Heath as Atrium Carceri, and Cyclic Law mainstay Kammerheit; aka: Cities Last Broadcast). Prior to that, he worked with Jakob Detelić as Psychomeanteum, and with Kyle Carney as Shock Frontier. A solid resume in a short period of time, all said. Mr. Kozlesky’s angle is taking strolls through abandoned macabre areas (old burial grounds, ghost towns), recording the still sounds that permeate such locales. That would explain the sense of recently deceased I get from Stone Speak …how can you capture that on tape anyhow? *shiver*

Only six tracks make up this album, most around the nine-minute mark. The first few develop in similar ways, a lengthy empty drone with field recordings establishing a mood, eventually morphing into dark, reflective pad work to end off; tracks in the back-half of Stone Speak generally evolve in the reverse direction. Some of these pad tones do an impeccable job tugging at the ol’ emotion endorphins (wow, Tenebrous is lovely), which I honestly did not expect from this record. Seems dark ambient still has a few tricks up her sleeve yet.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Various - Splash!

Raum Records: 1995

Gander at some names in the tracklist: Laurent Garnier, Biosphere, Pete Lazonby, Josh Wink, Paul van Dyk, Carl Cox, Blake Baxter. That’s seven bona-fide legends of techno and trance on a double-disc compilation, all for an easy-breezy five bones off my back. And hey, Sunbeam, Doug Laurent, Scooter, and Joe T. Vannelli also show up, so maybe there’s some fun Euro cheese floating about too. Can’t see how such tonal clash can make for a consistent playback, but perhaps this Splash! compilation has an amazing gameplan, with plenty of unknown producers rounding things out into a cohesive whole. Price is worth a purchase just to find out. Right, about the only thing that interested me was the Mark Bell Remix of Novelty Waves, but there’s gotta’ be a few more worth the piddly investment. Sure, a few…

But what is Splash! in the first place? This comes care of Raum Records, yet another German dance label that sprung up in the wake of the collapsed Berlin Wall. Their biggest claim to fame is the _00% Underground compilation series, while releasing singles from such luminaries like Estelle, Marc Noise, C.O. Injection, Robotnico, and Insane (4). Ah, hmm… so Raum Records didn’t amount to much at all. Far as I can tell, Splash! was released to kick the label off with hot acts and spiffy advertising – literally making a splash on the German techno ‘underground’. They had the right idea, just none of the important licensing to make it happen.

For all the class names I listed above, it seems Raum Records got the most forgettable material from them. Carl Cox’s rub of Garnier’s Astral Dreams is just bog-standard euro techno. van Dyk’s go at Voices In Harmony is a useless radio edit. I have no idea how German trancers Sunbeam got their hands on Lazonby’s Wave Speech, and Bell’s take on Biosphere was completely disappointing for yours truly. Baxter’s Reach Out is at least an agreeable go at deep Detroit house, and it’s interesting hearing Winks’ Meditation Will Manifest, essentially his stab at a Spastik type of techno builder. Did it really need to be over fourteen minutes though? Small wonder it seldom saw compilation duty (R & S Records being stingy with it may have contributed, begging the question how Raum Records secured the rights for this release).

The rest of Splash! pretty much contains the standard acid and German trance of the era, with few of the charms the successful labels offered. Scooter does a remix for Ultra-Sonic’s Check Your Head, and with so much rubbish surrounding him, Baxxter’s “posse” shouts are somehow enjoyable. Holofonic Dream from Deanna Troi (yes, really) uses pad synths that reminded me of Morpheus 7, which makes sense given it’s the same guy (Ufuk Yildirim), Jeyênne’s Japanese Train has a vocal sample that sounds like a pisstake on Dance 2 Trance, and Groovemaster K. tries his hand at Soliloquy House. Everything else? Forget it. Not even worth a two-spot. Find yourself a Ravermeister CD instead.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Black Dog - Spanners

Warp Records/EastWest Records America: 1994/1995

The only The Black Dog album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not a The Black Dog fan. At least for casual music consumers, it was the only proper album you would get from them, because it was the only one most folks knew about. Their early self-released material may have been seminal works of leftfield techno, but mostly languished in obscurity from all but the most enlightened heads. It wasn’t until they snagged a spiffy deal with Warp Records that everyone finally took notice there was something interesting going on from this UK trio. Alas, those who initially slept on their early material would never see a glorious run following Spanners, Andy Turner and Ed Handley leaving to pursue their Plaid prospects. That left Ken Downie in the dust, Black Dog receding into an on/off project until hooking up with a pair of Dust brothers (no, not those Dust Brothers …or those other ‘Dust Brothers’) into a Black Dog Renaissance enjoyed to this day. It looked dicey for a while though, Spanners but a tantalizing tease for a promising legacy.

Another thing that propels Spanners above every other LP the group put out during the project’s Phase I era is how it’s the most album-album of all this period’s releases. Bytes was more a compilation of the group’s solo projects, Parallel a gathering of their earliest singles. Temple Of Transparent Balls, while officially The Black Dog’s first full-length, still came off like a smattering of disconnected tracks, understandable given the disparate muses the group clearly had. Spanners could have come off the same way too, had they not done a bit of clever track sequencing, linking the various main tracks with minute-length transitional pieces, or Bolts, as they titled them. They’re the glue holding Spanners together.

No, seriously, it’s remarkable how flowing this album is thanks to these experimental doodles. Opener Raxmus is a dub heavy piece of trip-hop business thick with THC haze, while second proper track Barbola Work sounds like the charmingly chintzy techno-salsa Yello might have made. These tunes have nothing in common, yet they sound natural in such close proximity thanks to Bolt 1’s weird, brief sonic experiments bridging the two. And Spanners is like this throughout!

Some track pairings don’t require Bolting, the ten-minute Detroit techno cut Psil Cosyin leading wonderfully into the tribal ambient thump of Chase The Manhattan. On the other hand, the laidback pastoral-hop of Pot Noddle only works in isolation, especially considering follow-up End Of Time is about as straight-forward a spaced-out techno cut as The Black Dog ever did. Bolt that right up, ol’ ancient sci-fi sounds of Bolt 6!

I will say, however, that due to all these interstitial Bolts, Spanners does feel overlong - nineteen tracks total, a third of which are Bolts. By the time final track Chesh is toying around with nods to modern classical harping, I’m about ready to tap out. So much eclecticism in this album. Just… so much…

Cosmic Replicant - Soul Of The Universe

self-released: 2014

Another album from the Cosmical Replicantian One I snagged for free at the ever-awesome Ektoplazm.com. However, this one differs quite a bit from the other, Landscapes Motion, and not simply because Soul Of The Universe is a proper full-length album (the other was more a mini-album). Just based on cover art alone, it’s almost as though we’re dealing with two entirely different producers: one a barren picture of rock and dirt, the other a rather cheese-ball bit of New Age space CGI. Another key difference is that Landscapes Motion came out on Pureuphoria Records, whereas Soul Of The Universe was strictly self-released by Cosmic Replicant, with no label backing. Wait, I understand why Landscapes wouldn’t have been picked up by Altar Records, that five-tracker far closer to the domain of dub techno than anything a psy-chill print would have interest in. This album though, it’s totally up Altar’s alley, about as psy-chill and prog psy as anything they’ve put out.

Wait-wait…! Prog psy?? I thought Cosmic Replicant was all on that bleepy downtempo shi’. Since when has he done something as comparatively hyper-active as prog psy? Possibly right from the beginning on his debut album Future Memories, but I still haven’t taken that LP in full yet, so I cannot confirm nor deny Pavel’s always had an inclining. Lord Discogs tells me there’s ‘Progressive Trance’ on that album though, so I’ll take it that The Lord That Knows All isn’t deceiving on that front.

But yeah, most of what I’ve heard from Mr. Shirshin seldom breaks the 100 BPM mark, hence hearing the dub techno off Landscapes Motion being such a surprise (to say nothing of the unexpected genre leap). Having more uptempo material on Soul Of The Universe has truly thrown a wrench into my preconceived notions of what a Cosmic Replicant release may entail. If he suddenly puts out a dark ambient opus on Cryo Chamber or teams up with Banco de Gaia for a remix, my tidy compartmentalized music world shall be split asunder as only AstroPilot has proved capable of doing thus far. Not bad company at all.

Dodgy cover art aside, Soul Of The Universe is a solid enough album of psy prog-n-chill tunes, such that I’m surprised Altar Records didn’t pick this up regardless. Were they afraid of Cosmic Replicant overload with Mission Infinity already slated for release on their 2014 calendar? And while having prog psy on this album was surprising enough for me, I’m just as impressed by Mr. Shirshin’s handling of the genre, each finely crafted examples of the sound that fans shouldn’t overlook. My only quibble with Soul Of The Universe is its lacking the identifiable ambient ‘bleep’ techno vibe that I’ve come to expect from Pavel, the downtempo cut I Robot and chill acid tune Exotic Species about the closest we get in that vein. Kinda’ makes this album difficult to stand out from the annual glut of prog psy without those distinct HIA charms.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Galaktlan - Sinine Platoo

Kohvirecords/Carpe Sonum Records: 2002/2015

Carpe Sonum Records does reissues too? Wait, of course they do. I already reviewed one of them, Gabriel Le Mar’s Stripped - though that was but a two-year gap between digital-street date and spiffy CD re-up. And despite finishing the album way back in the yesteryears, I can’t really call Si Matthews’ Tales Of Ten Worlds a reissue either, since it never saw an actual release until Carpe Sonum tapped it. There could be more concrete examples I’m missing – I’ve only started scratching the surface of this label’s brief catalog – but I’m hard pressed to come up with a better one than Galaktlan’s Sinine Platoo. This came out way back in ye’ olde age of 2002, on the hopelessly obscure Estonian print Kohvirecords. Galaktlan was one of that label’s primary producers, though that’s not saying much. Kohvirecords released a scant twenty items over the course of a decade, featuring the likes of Uni, Barbariz, Pastacas, and Paf - names on the tips of everyone’s tongue, I’m sure.

Galaktlan was probably the most prolific of the old Kohvi’ roster. Born Taavi Laatsit, he made his debut on that label as Vonsuck, formed the group Uni with Hendrik Luuk, hooked up with Aivar Tõnso as Kulgurid, teamed up with a few more Estonians as Kismabande, and eventually found another home with SekSound. Not sure how he got roped into the Carpe Sonum continuum for a reissue for his debut Galaktlan record. Like, he wasn’t even included with that mega-ultra super-deluxe Pete Namlook tribute box set Die Welt Ist Klang! Someone at the Carpe Sonum office must have been a fan, eager to expose the (slightly larger) world of contemporary ambient techno to what the great nation of Estonia was up to in this scene many moons ago.

Some interesting things for sure, if Sinine Platoo is anything to go by. Not revolutionary or groundbreaking by any stretch, but interesting. At first I was hit with a sense of Gas 0095 déjà-vu, the first couple tracks vibing a similar scientific-music aesthetic Mat Jarvis utilized. Heck, Sulase Surm could have fit quite snuggly in that album alone. Follow-up tracks -15, Mina Kaheks and Videoton are closer in tone to the O.G. ambient techno stylee Aphex Twin spearheaded, but feature such small, skittering rhythms, I still can’t shake that Microcopics feel. Please don’t tell me folks would try labeling this as ‘glitch’ nowadays. It’s ‘micro’, yo’!

Some tracks go for a funkier, bouncy rhythm (40 000 Lampi, Klavestra), others more abrasive compared Galaktlan’s typical electro beatcraft (-15, Veneetsia). These are miniscule differences though, such that you’ll hardly notice it without paying studious attention to them – which you likely will, considering the minimalist vibes we get here. This reissue also sees a couple bonus tracks, including an even older track Num, a clicky electro thing Mille Plateaux sorts would like. Then there’s Sulase Surm Repriis, a minute-long piano piece from the way-future year of 2013. Huh, don’t get how that ties into Sinine Platoo at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

E-Mantra - Silence

Altar Records: 2012

A decade past, when Israeli full-on was dominating the psy market, a few plucky producers started taking the scene back to its goa roots. Naturally, this tickled the fancy of old schoolers bemoaning the commercialized fate of their cherished music, but the revisited sounds of crunchy acid and Indian tonal scales never led much of resurgence. Still, it was enough for fans of vintage goa that anything of the sort was welcomed, giving high praise to the likes of Khetzal, Ra… really, anything released on the Suntrip Records print.

E-Mantra is among that label’s consistent acts, plying his trade among the compilation market before making his debut in 2009 with Arcana. For a goa trance record in the modern era, it was received well enough, and anticipation was high for a follow-up. So of course Mr. Carpus took a left-turn towards the realms of psy-chill for his sophomore effort, releasing Visions From The Past on the fledgling Altar Records in 2011. It… wasn’t met with quite the same enthusiasm, but hey, that proper goa trance album everyone was expecting (Pathfinder) surfaced later the same year, so no harm no foul. Undaunted by that lackluster reaction to his sojourn into downtempo, E-Mantra released another such album with Altar the following year, Silence. And again the year after that, Echoes From The Void. And again after that, Raining Lights, with just one additional goa album in all that time (Nemesis… ooh, I think I see what he did there!). E-Mantra now has more psy-chill records under his belt than goa CDs, a development I’m sure almost no one expected while hailing him as one of neo-goa’s champions. Maybe that was Mr. Carpus’ plan all along!

Coincidentally, these repeated ventures into the domain of psy-chill has made E-Mantra one of Altar Records’ core acts. I never intended to hold out checking his work on DJ Zen’s print, as I reasonably liked his scattered material on the label’s compilations. Just another one of those ‘I’ll get to it once exhausting all the super-sexy looking options’; it happens. As for why I picked up Silence in particular, it was for no better reason than I was in a blue, underwater mood while sifting through Altar’s material, and got everything that fit the oceanic theme I was vibing on. I’m jonesing for that Water compilation review just as much as everyone else, yo’!

Silence is definitely a stronger offering of psy-chill than E-Mantra’s first venture into the genre, Mr. Carpus finding a firm footing within its style and tropes than simply slowing down his goa sounds (alleged complaint of his first). There’s pleasing, flowing melodies (Since You Were Gone, Shadow Skies), groovy dub-heavy numbers (Ecouri, Night Walker, Prelude), pure ambient pieces(Passing Through), and amalgamations of all three (Touching). Samples, tasteful. Songcraft, skillful. Excessive wibble, nonexistent. Yep, Silence has everything I’d look for in a psy-chill album. Just wish it stuck in my head better after it plays. It’s frustrating when some music ends up like that.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Enmarta - Sea Of Black

Cryo Chamber: 2015

So have you heard about this dark ambient label called Cryo Chamber? Perhaps so, if you follow that scene much, though I suggest caution should you venture into the print’s domain – you’ll constantly be met with musicians and producers with bios that continuously stump Lord Discogs, blank slates with no history, only futures. Come to think of it, a lot of dark ambient labels have this, but understandable what with digital prints offering such a low entry bar. Heck, I could probably get published on any number of online labels in this scene, though I wouldn’t recommend it, my Dronescape Bleakcore Succubus-Step sounds simply too hard for any human being’s earholes (outworld beings, most welcome). Cryo Chamber, however, appears to have some quality control over their output, bringing in producers with some prior releases to their name, or at least a bit of history with Lord Discogs. Not so this Enmarta chap. Save the releases on Cryo, his profile is a barren waste with The Lord That Knows All: no picture, no bio, not even a birth name given. C’mon, Lord Discogs, you’re supposed to be the best at this whole OCD database thing.

Fortunately, Last.fm offers a few details regarding Enmarta. The project is helmed and performed by Siegfried Leiermann, an Italian viola player who plucks his trade with the Reggio Calabria Philharmonic Orchestra. In between tours, he started making dark ambient, his practiced instrument one of the key features of his music. Undoubtedly this was enough of a unique spin on the genre’s tropes that Cryo head Simon Heath gave Mr. Leiermann a CD deal – I’ve noticed Cryo does love its actual musicians within its ranks, whether guitarists, pianists, choirists, and now violists. Enmarta has two albums out with this label, The Hermit coming out but a few weeks ago. Because I’m never timely with this blog though, here I am reviewing his debut from seventeen months past, Sea Of Black.

Okay, right off that’s one of the more cliché dark ambient titles I’ve come across. The theme that runs through this album also has all the hallmarks I associated with the genre way back when I knew very little about dark ambient, beyond being a creepier, experimental off-shoot of gothic and industrial sorts. Track titles like Dark Asylum, Nekrosis, and Putrefaction Chamber certainly paint the sort of abhorrent setting of dark rituals and decay typical of earlier examples of this scene. The titular opener even features throat singing among its droning tones and soft chimes, surely no greater method of portraying someone deep in the throes of intensive meditation. Dark Asylum is surprisingly benign in comparison, light twinkling synths offering glimmers of radiance within the murky pads. Aesthetics and Nekrosis gets back to the atonal drone Cryo loves, but also feature somber passages of a distant viola – oddly, this is about the extent of the instrument’s presence throughout Sea Of Black. Huh, guess Enmarta was more interested in creepy sounds and discordant pads to finish out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tangerine Dream - Rubycon

Virgin: 1975/1995

Often considered the definitive stamp of Berlin-School establishing itself as a Thing. Phaedra may have helped set the stage for synth wizards sequencing their synthesizers into outwordly compositions, but that album still had a little left-over psychedelic rock lurking too, with comparatively smallish pieces not so dependent on Moog manipulations. Rubycon does away with the short tunes altogether, serving up two lengthy tracks that would eat up the full running time of your standard ‘70s record side. Not that it was Tangerine Dream’s first tackling of this most pretentious of prog rock pretensions – their earlier experimental work with less synthesizers would drone on for complete A and B sides too. Heck, even Phaedra, the song, ate up one whole side of its record. Actually composing and performing such behemoths weren’t easy though, especially with archaic equipment like the Mellotron, Double Moog, Synthi A, Arp 2600, Vcs 2 Synthi, and gong. Simply putting the effort into one composition, then easing back into a few shorter works for the same album is totally understandable.

Tangerine Dream though, they were feeling mighty bold after the success of Phaedra - the plumb record sales that came with the Virgin deal undoubtedly helped ease whatever creative strain the trio might have faced. If one such track could earn them all the praise and plaudits, why not produce double the amount with their next effort? Surely Froese, Franke, and Baumann were now familiar enough with their toys and tools that, whatever kinks or troubles that might have occurred in the recording of Phaedra were well ironed out now. Indeed they were, Rubycon critically hailed as an even better album than Phaedra, though didn’t sell quite as well. Look, they can’t all be genre defining records.

Side A features Rubycon, Pt. 1, opening as most kraut albums of the day typically do: minimalist tones, vibrating timbre, weird ambience, placing the listening in a bizarre cosmic domain. Strings and soft voice pads eventually enter, followed by the pulsing sequencer and soaring spaced-out organs and synths most associate with the Berlin-School sound. Tune gently fades out with a few effects, and I can’t help but think of Pink Floyd’s One Of These Days as it does. I’m sure the similarities are entirely coincidental; no way prog musicians style-bit one another, nosiree.

On the flip of my CD, Rubycon, Pt. 2 opts for a creepier start than its predecessor, with discordant Mellotron choirs intoning some alien ritual. The rhythmic synths kick in much earlier in this piece, building in prominence as additional synth solos with delay effects join the fray. The final third is mostly taken up by calm, modern classical doodling, all the while maintaining Tangerine Dream’s outworldy aesthetic. Feel free to make the requisite 2001: A Space Odyssey comparison at any point as Pt. 2 plays.

Naturally, Rubycon’s yet another Very Important Album in electronic music's every growing history. The inspiration and imitation of many future producers is difficult to miss in this one.

Monday, December 5, 2016

No Mask Effect - Quick Smart

Psychonavigation Records: 2016

It was a long time coming, about fifteen years before it came to fruition. Some said it could never happen, the odds just too against all conventional wisdom. The effort it would take, the soul-searching undertook, making sure the event was justified and earned. That it wouldn’t be some flight of fancy spurred on by nagging sense of unfinished business, but the culmination of years – nay, decades!(ish) - of plucky perseverance, vile guile, and steadfast conviction that this day would come. Yes indeed, folks, my collection of Albums starting with the letter ‘Q’ has finally doubled to a whopping two whole releases, No Mask Effect’s Quick Smart joining the lonely domain Jurrasic 5’s Quality Control lorded over for so long. Oh, and Keith Downey, label head of Psychonavigation Records, also makes his producer debut with this album too. Woo!

Okay, I can’t claim I intended to get Quick Smart for that reason alone. Come to think of it, I didn’t plan on getting it at all. The bizarre Ambelion reissue of Trance ExperienceI did though, and when I ordered a copy for myself, No Mask Effect’s album showed up instead. Uh huh… Well, maybe this could turn out intriguing too. Keith Downey’s been label running for over fifteen years, hearing plenty of musicians in that time from various facets of ambient, downtempo, IDM, and shoegaze. What sort of sounds would he incorporate into his own works? Blissy ambient drone? Groovy chill techno? Effects-drenched guitar jam wank? Yet another Boards Of Canada ‘homage’?

Nah, none of that – well, a little of the first. Mostly though, Quick Smart is a field recordings album, musicality almost nonexistent beyond some abstract pad noodling. Opener Downtown makes use of eerie tones as sounds of passing vehicles, chirping birds, rumbling motors, and brief bits of distant dialog overwhelm your ears. It honestly sounds like Mr. Downey took a microphone stroll through a park beside a highway rather than a major urban centre, creating a weird disconnect between soothing calm and jittery unease. Sense sounds more like bustling downtown, what with noisy crowds and vehicle activity, all the while an unrelated tribal rhythm percolates underneath. And will someone answer that damn phone, fer gads’ sake! Fourth track Grass is practically a white-noise assault with the cacophony of field recordings in play, the only thing musical here being some buried bits of… Beethoven, I think?

Really, the only track on here worth a look-listen is third cut Transfer Of Deed, Pt. 1 & 2, and at over twenty-one minutes in length, I’m sure ol’ Keith intended it as such. The first half features some rather pleasant ambient pad work before all d’em field recordings enter the fray, while the second part goes for a more throbbing approach to the craft. At least this piece is carried by actual music, though rather muddied and minimalistic. And if I’m in the mood for that, I’d sooner plop on Andrew Heath again. He’s at least subtle with his field recordings.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

ZerO One - protOtype2

Waveform Records: 2000

I suppose the prime reason I put off gathering more albums from ZerO One is familiarity. Not so much that I knew exactly what music I’d be getting from Kevin Dooley’s project, but given the rather scientific aesthetic to the name and various titles, making an educated guess of ‘bleepy downtempo’ wasn’t hard. And that’s a sound I was comfortable knowing would always be there, waiting for me should I finally indulge in it. In the meanwhile, what else is Waveform Records offering for my interest? Ooh, names like Phutureprimitive, Omnimotion, Eastern Dub Tactik… those are all strange, new, and different from what I’m familiar with – let’s check those out first! And what the hey, Waveform sure seems to like that Sounds From The Ground a lot, I should hear what they’re all about too. I had to eventually finish exploring all the other Waveform material though, and thus it has come to pass, few releases left but those trusty ZerO One albums I always knew were waiting. What, am I some player working the Waveform meat market, finally settling for the unrequited love? Perhaps so.

protOtype2 was ZerO One’s second album, released two years after his debut on Waveform. Considering third record on the label, ozOne, wouldn’t come for another seven, and the follow-up to that, sOnar, yet another half-decade from that one, protOtype2 was definitely a comparatively quick release. Mr. Dooley isn’t the most prolific producer, is what I’m saying, so either this is an album of leftovers from his self-titled debut, or he was just feeling a super-surge of creative energy as the 20th Century drew to a close. Hey, maybe he was worried about a Year 2000 Apocalypse. At least a quarter of the country was!

No, wait, there’s a bit of saxophone in here, on track two memOry. Did ZerO One want in on all that jazzy vibe Waveform was so eager in pushing around this time? After all, this is the same year they put out Kozo and Sounds From The Ground’s also kinda’ jazzy Terra Firma. Come to think of it, protOtype2 has me thinking more Sounds From The Ground than Higher Intelligence Agency, totally at odds of what I assumed this album would be.

For sure we get vintage, bleepy ambient techno scattered throughout, with occasional space pad flourishes, but this is one darn groovy dub record considering all the egg-headed décor. seArch opens with simple bleep goodness, then adds some ethnic chants and woodwind samples to the proceedings, promptly plucking the track from the ranks of ambient techno into the domain of world beat. blueShift has one sluggish, chuggish beat going for it, the sort illbient folks would approve of. thiNk could have appeared on any ol’ downtempo dub compilation of the time, and bOt has a nice tribal rhythm going for it.

And though unexpected, it’s still a nice surprise that protOtype2 dashed my admittedly narrow expectations. Better get checking those other ZerO One records, then.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

ACE TRACKS: November 2016

So that was a Hell of a month. I’m not even talking about the bit of ridiculousness that occurred just south of my Canadian border, though that was no sunshine park walk either, believe you me. Normally I don’t get sick this time of the year (unless you want to count having the SADS as being sick), thus it’s only natural that when I finally do, it’s one vicious attack on the ol’ immune system. Ah, probably needed an upgrade anyway, though I could have done without that post sinus infection – hurts th’ teef, y’know? That pales, however, compared to whatever it is that’s got my right ear all clogged up. What, did the Great Battle Of My Sinuses dump all the casualties down my Eustachian tube? Not fun having the feeling of water in my ear, being high in a plane, all the while suffering from tinnitus reserved for those most destructive nights out at shitty clubs. All this, and got the notice me rent's going up too. November 2016 was the 2016 of 2016 Months, I’ll tell you what. At least Captain StrangeMan provided a little respite from it all. And I reviewed enough material for a semi-decent ACE TRACKS list for November 2016.

Not to get too ‘woe is me’ up in here, but I have to admit feelings of sloggitude with this blog as of late. I’m forever committed to completion of this mad project though, so another month-long sabbatical is in order – it’s been over two years since the last one. I’ll finish off the current backlog (at least a half-month’s worth still!), then likely ride out January 2017 in true hibernating style, picking back up with the 'U's come February. Nothing but rest and relaxation. Except for work, that takes precedent. And another music project too, come to think of it.


Full track list here.


MISSING ALBUMS:
Kozo - Planned Penetration
Segue - Over The Mountains
Sounds From The Ground - The Maze
Randal Collier-Ford, Flowers For Bodysnatchers, Council Of Nine, God Body Disconnect - Locus Arcadia
Dopplereffekt - Linear Accelerator
Aveparthe - Landscapes Over The Sea

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 6%
Percentage Of Rock: 6%
Most “WTF?” Track: Anything Fear Factory - their aggressiveness is quite out of place in such a relatively chill playlist.

A fair bit of downtempo and ambient music in this one, though that’s almost par for the course with most of my monthly playlists. At least this one’s finally getting a decent amount of tunes from the current year within – only took me the nigh entirety of our current trip around the sun.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prins Thomas - Principe del Norte

Smalltown Supersound: 2016

Along with Todd Terje and Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas formed a trifecta of Nordic producers with a love of chintzy disco music set among the stars. Heck, Thomas and the ‘strøm One started out as a producing duo, way back a decade past, and the trio have mingled off and on since. Prins put out a consistent stream of singles in the meantime, finally biting the solo album debut bullet in 2010, and remaining remarkably consistent in his output since, a fresh long player of music every two years. And lo’, earlier in this Dread Year Of 2016 (when the Dread Year wasn’t so dreaded), Mr. Thomas came correct with another album for our enjoyment, this time a double-LP effort. ‘Cause when five of your nine tracks average twelve minutes long, you gotta’ spread that stuff out over multiple plates of wax.

Principe Del Norte is also a small departure from Thomas’ typical brand of cosmic disco, the first CD casting its eyes to another form of ‘70s music less focused on dancefloors but no less rhythmic: Berlin space synth. Lots of pulsating arps, spritely pads, escalating sequencers, and all that good stuff. What it definitely is not, is ambient – far too much rhythm going on for that – though a nice chill vibe does permeate throughout. A1 provides a solid, throbbing low-end with its contrasting arps, A2 treads towards ambient techno’s domain, while B gets indulgent with effects for much of its running time. On side A of vinyl two, C starts feeding freely off those vintage kraut vibes, and D shows no fear in going as full space synth as one can without kicking out a standard beat – plenty of percussion though.

(note: a truly admire Thomas’ pisstake approach in how he titles his material – one of these days I’ll hear 2 the Limited, mark my words)

Alright, now that ol’ Prins got his artistic wankery good and out, time to turn on disc two for some right-proper club vibes. And Principe del Norte, Part Two doesn’t waste any time providing us with some boogaloo, E reusing elements of A1 and A2 for a bumpin’ bit of deep disco funk out on the moon. F opts for the swelling pads ‘n effects road, so show no shame if you need to reach for those lasers while grooving to this one. And G, well gee, if this one don’t beat all with its steady rhythm and shimmering arps – why, trance, is that you sneaking in again? Don’t worry, the nu-disco hipsters actually like you a little now. H, on the other hand, knows it’s taking us out at that 4am timeslot, and brings a deep tech-house grumbler filled with distant dub. No doubt Berghein approved.

So I liked this double-LP a good deal, as did many folks with more journalistic cred’ than I. No doubt Principe Del Norte is gonna’ feature on all the Very Important Year End lists. Better get this to claim you’re still ahead of the curve, then.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Kozo - Planned Penetration

Waveform Records: 2000

This has been an album that’s long intrigued me based on cover alone. Something about the saturated blues inexplicably tugs at a strange reservoir of nostalgic endorphins I did not know existed. Packed in a family Sedan at some point in the ‘70s, casually cruising a California suburb (or Okanagan road) in search of a place to rest in that brief period in dawn’s early blue-shifted light. I have no actual memory of such an event, not even an implied dream, yet the artwork on Kozo’s debut sparks such imagery within my brainpan just the same.

And that’s not all! Studying the cover a shade longer, a different form of brain matter sparkling starts flooding, that of musical expectation. Forget the lonely suburb street with the humdrum motel – take a gander at those power lines! Coupled with the color pallette, and I’m thinking all sorts of weird, experimental, glitch techno, or fuzzy Boards Of Canada weirdness. Now obviously, this being a release on Waveform Records, such could never be the case, but it intrigued me nonetheless. Who exactly is Kozo? What music might actually be contained behind that curious cover art? Do I really want to take a gamble on a CD from Waveform’s more ‘adventurous’ period, when there’s so much tried, tested, and true grooves found elsewhere within their catalog?

That, above all else, was the reason I held out on Planned Penetration for so long, unsure of what sort of leftfield vibes I might get with this album. But I’m slowly catching up with getting Waveform’s entire discography, so it was inevitable that Kozo would find its way into my collection (Liquid Zen next, finally?). And lo’, it was true there was something quite unexpected within his debut album, though I was not prepared for what awaited me within. For you see, Kozo Ikeno is a trumpeter extraordinaire, and boy does he let his skill shine on through.

Straight up, I am utterly clueless regarding the full scale of trumpet musicianship. I know of the jazz greats (Armstrong, Gillespie, Davis, Baker), but by no means have taken in much of their work. Thus, whether Kozo’s skill on the trumpet is comparatively ace or bunk, I simply don’t know. What I can tell you, is he alternates between open and muted playing (sometimes playing off each other), mostly with a distant, hall effect in place, and in a woozy way that at times sounds weirdly flat and dissonant. He also provides his own electro and acid jazz beats in support, very minimalist stuff with a few glitch stutters thrown in for good measure. At times it sounds pretty cool and otherworldly, like I’m lost in a drugged-up dream haze of a road trip gone awry.

Mostly though, I feel I’m missing something only true students of classic jazz would understand (and have I ever been skipping that class). Once I got used to what I was hearing, Planned Penetration did grow on me, but talk about your dashed expectations.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Segue - Over The Mountains

Silent Season: 2016

While Silent Season doesn’t have any particular core acts, there are a few producers who’ve frequently come back over the years. ASC’s practically made the label his second home now, while Purl, Shaded Explorer, and Edanticonf have contributed multiple times. One name that significantly sticks out for me, however, is Segue, as it was his album Pacifica that first drew my attention (that cover art!). It came out in 2013 though, when the Gospel Of Silent Season was thoroughly spreading out from the ranks of ultra, in-the-know dub techno disciples, so my crossing was inevitable. More interestingly, Segue was among the initial producers releasing material for the label’s 2007 netlabel launch – his Nostalgia EP ranks number two in catalog order. So, in a way, the adored dub techno print’s success might not exist without Segue’s help…? Yeah, that’s a stretch, but a fun little coincidence nonetheless.

Or maybe not, Jordan Sauer, the man behind the alias, originating from Vancouver. Makes sense then, the Silent Season posse would be familiar enough with his work to invite him over for a release or three. He’s floated about several labels since then, very little I’m familiar with (Sem Label, Dronarivm, Dtabloem), though he also had his own shared print in db (Duckbay). A fairly typical floater of a producer, all said, his most prolific output well in the past now. Guess Mr. Sauer was feeling a tad nostalgic for his homeland, returning to Silent Season once more, with an ode to those most rugged of West Coast terrains, the Coast Mountains. Sure, the Cascades get all the hype, what with their sexy volcanoes and geomorphic jewels (mm, Crater Lake…), but for pure, untamed alpine awesomeness, the Coastal Range is tough to beat our here in the West.

Some track titles will be instantly familiar to locals, though aren’t necessary to understand the music behind them. Sunshine Coast is all warm and fuzzy with glowing pads Boards Of Canada would swoon over, all the while a lazy hazy dub rhythm floats along. I know the folks around Gibsons are hippies (Green Party 4 lyfe), but maybe Sunshine Coast is a little too on the nose? Sea To Sky goes a similar dub route, spritely melodies sprinkling about as a heavy bottom end grounds the listener. Deep Valley has more a charming jaunt going for it, while Summits & Spires is almost a lullaby with its languid synths and deep dub. And hey, while you’re hanging out on these alpine glaciers, take in a little Aurora, opening Segue’s rich sound into a wide nightscape canvas?

I suppose the other tracks work for the setting, though they’re more generalized to any ol’ mountain range: Celestial, Exposure, Alpenglow. They too keep to Segue’s languid dub techno pace, though with the ample amount of local field recordings Jordan injects into his tracks (so much bird song in Exposure), it helps keep Over The Mountains firmly within British Columbia’s realm. Okay, maybe a little Cascadia too.

Halgrath - Out Of Time

Cryo Chamber: 2012

See, that was a decent little gap between Cryo Chamber releases, at least a week’s worth of time before returning to the dark ambient label once more. The Dread Year 2016, however, demands no less than two morbid musical offerings on my homepage at all times, and woe be unto thee who dare besmirch the Dread Year’s decree. All this suffering I’ve endured throughout the month of November? ‘Tis my penance for indulging a Summer Of Trance, seeking epic uplifting refuge from our dire times. Thus I will not taunt moody serious 2016 any longer, keeping as steady a stream of dark ambient as need be. I mean, I can’t afford to lose hearing in both ears, now can I?

Halgrath (or Agratha Mirrait, if you wish) was one of the earliest additions to Cryo Chamber after Simon Heath launched the label in 2012, back when the print was mostly a means of self-releasing Sabled Sun and Atrium Carceri material. Makes sense Mr. Heath would invite Ms. Mirrait over, as they both were featured on Cold Meat Industry before that seminal dark ambient label folded. In fact, Halgrath’s Arise Of Fallen Conception was among Cold Meat’s final releases. There’s a ‘from death, comes rebirth’ metaphor here, I just know it. Comes with this scene no matter where you go.

Out Of Time marks Halgrath’s debut with Cryo, featuring the sort of dark ambient I’d long associated with the genre as its default stylee. There’s bleak droning pieces (Down, Here, He Led Me Through The Dark Caverns), noisy industrial sonic attacks (Dark Dusty Corner, Lethal Injection, The Resistance), and meditative compositions drawing upon the occult for inspiration (Horoathea Mass Of Aegorath, Deep Underwater).

This last one makes sense hearing on this album, Halgrath having a background in opera – exploring aspects of Dark Ritual is part her whole manifesto. I mean, if an opening track of Summoning Of The Goddess wasn’t enough of a clue, I don’t know what to tell you. I was honestly surprised Out Of Time didn’t have more of that ethereal ambient going for it, offering more variety within its twelve tracks than most dark ambient projects offer in their whole discographies. We even get cinematic orchestral pieces (Follow Eternity, The Light Of The Earth’s Spheres) and melancholic piano dirges (We’ll Go Through Sorrow, Holding Each Others Hands). Pretty sure that’s every sub-category dark ambient indulges in, save outright nightmare-inducing field recordings, though I’m sure Halgrath could do that too if she wanted.

Out Of Time isn’t really the album for that. Seems the themes explored here are about souls lost in limbo, wandering between life and death, uncertain of where their hearts pull forthwith. Or is it about those who’d use a ritual to journey within limbo itself? Such is the narrative I get as this album plays out, each piece another step in going deeper into the nether-realms beyond our own. Aw, it ain’t that bad on this side, is it? *2016 lurks over shoulder*

Friday, November 25, 2016

Space Dimension Controller - Orange Melamine

Ninja Tune: 2016

I thought I’d have talked about Space Dimension Controller well before now, his Welcome To Mikrosector-50 a most pleasant surprise of an album when it came out in 2013. Then again, I thought I’d have nearly completed this massive listening project too, well passed the ‘W’s, and maybe even considering taking on the first few letters again for this blog’s completionist sake. Then again-again, I should have known more music would have come into my collector’s gravitational pull, sucked into my domain like so much cosmic detritus. My desire to consume everything and all knows no bounds, more insatiable than an unholy merger of Galactus and Unicron (Galacticron?). Good God, imagine if I could actually afford all that I wished to buy? I’d probably still be somewhere around the ‘G’s! (so much fabric, so much Global Underground)

Jack Hamill, the young man controlling all this space dimension, has kept a sporadic rate of output since first emerging with the moniker in 2009. R & S Records gave him his first major break in promoting his early singles and proper debut album, but he’s floated among a few other prints in the meanwhile too: Kinnego Records, Royal Oak, and now Ninja Tune. Whoa, talk of unexpected developments – what would the Ninja crew have in mind with a producer primarily focused on electro and loving nods to Detroitism?

Releasing the Space Dimension Controller archives, it seems. Orange Melamine unearths material from Jack Hamill’s teen years, back when he was still figuring things out about where he’d take his wayward muse in love with retro sounds. Seems the UK underground was just as much on his mind, as this album’s filled with jittery, post-dubstep beatcraft, a style Ninja Tune has shown plenty of interest in (at least, much more than R & S). In fact, Orange Melamine has a fair bit in common with all those influenced by Burial’s romanticism of clubbing days gone by, crackling hazy recollection of music from a fondly remembered Before Time. Rather than getting all misty-eared over UK garage and grime, however, Mr. Hamill has his muse set on retro-future sci-fi, as heard through the archaic crusty technologies of the 20th Century. For real, when I first heard The Bad People’s opening warbling distorted arps, I thought my headphone wire had a faulty connection!

Orange Melamine is a conflicting listen, one ear firmly in pulpy futurism, another in nostalgic fuzz, loosely held together with scratchy beats like so much sonic duct tape. Even the track titles flit between such sentiments - Adventures In Slime And Space, Multipass, Melting Velcro Shoes, Leader-1 (wait, the Go-Bots character?). Other times Mr. Hamill dabbles in simpler influences, like freak-out acid rave (Los Locos, Velvet Gentleman), pure electro funk (Gullfire), or Boards Of Canada trip-hop (Volvo Estate). It’s also all rather under-written compared to later works from Space Dimension Controller, but that’s unsurprising consider Jack’s age when making these. Definitely worth a playthrough though, if only for a different take on retro-future sounds.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fear Factory - Obsolete

Roadrunner Records: 1998

How does one follow an album that creates an entirely new form of metal in the process - a unique genre cross-breeding with industrial while never losing sight of its thrash roots, and that few would or could replicate for years to come? By getting super-artistic, naturally, settling for nothing less than a high concept ‘rock opera’ opus, exploring ideas and expanding themes only touched upon in Demanufacture. Fear Factory would fully commit to an LP narrative, with a distinct Three-Act story, all the while pushing their songwriting abilities beyond the full-throttle intensity that marked their prior work – so many different time-signatures, mang! It would be bold, it would be unprecedented, it would challenge metal in daring, new- wait, are those record scratches in Edgecrusher? Oh no, it’s too soon to hop on the nu-metal bandwagon!

Obsolete (or ºBSΩLE†e, if you’re ace with your character map) was ambitious for a third recording effort, one that could have flopped had Fear Factory overreached their ability. Instead, the album would go on to be their best selling record, though clearly feeding off the positive buzz Demanufacture and touring generated (also, that cover of Gary Numan’s Cars, which obviously fit nowhere here). Things were definitely looking toppers for Fear Factory then, but a series of unfortunate incidents following Obsolete’s release put a serious grind on the band’s future prospects. Those are musings for another time though, if I ever review any of their albums between this and Genexus (not very likely).

The setting for Obsolete should be familiar to anyone clued into the band’s dystopian outlook, laying the future-shock stage plainly with opener Shock. Follow-up Edgecrusher gives us our protagonist – or antagonist if you’re cheering for the machine overlords – and aforementioned wiki-wikis aside, is a solid bit of groove-mosh. Stomp-thrasher Smasher/Devourer introduces us to the Edgecrusher’s foe, a police mech run amok (“you’re a loose cannon, Literal Walking Cannon!”), while Securitron (Police State 2000) gives us the ruling overseers keeping the rabble in check. All par for the course in this sort of tale.

The middle portion of the album gets into the society in revolt, ol’ Edgecrusher helping stoke the fires for freedom against humanity’s oppression from the robotic ruling class. This being Fear Factory, the titular cut doesn’t mince words in letting the silly homo sapien populus know their place in this strange forbidding world. Having original robot-fetish singer Gary Numan provide a digitized bit of opening dialog certainly helps sell that notion (hey, you already got him featuring in that Cars cover). Ol’ Edgecrusher seeks salvation of a sort in Resurrection, where the band’s propensity for grand theatrics soar high, ending the album on an uplifting, hopeful outlook for this ruined society.

No, wait, there’s one more track, Timelessness, a mournful dirge complete with backing orchestra (thanks, Rhys Fulber!). Seems our salvation was for naught, Edgecrusher captured and carted off to jail after all. Machinery always wins out in Fear Factory’s world. Resistance is futile.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sound Of Ceres - Nostalgia For Infinity

Joyful Noise Recordings: 2016

It had to happen eventually, genre lines so blurred these days as to fool even studious record store clerks. Yet maybe shoegaze has come far along in its development that it’s abandoned all pretense of being part of the Rock Domain, more content hanging out with dorky ‘electronica’ folk. This may just be the new normal, stumbling upon ‘dream pop’ where I typically hunt for techno and jungle. Still sends a strange shiver over my shoulder though, music that once was out in the indie racks now sneaking into my unsuspecting ears.

Gads, what an incredibly narrow-minded take on music. What if there is something in shoegaze pop that could win me over? Hey, I don’t doubt there is, but it’s not high on my bucket list. Truthfully, I’d probably have never given Sound Of Ceres a chance if I had any prior knowledge of them, or even took a pre-listen in the shop, their tunes just not what I was after that sunny day in Seattle.

But nay, I went in blind, lured by the intriguing cover art and suggested promise of music with a cosmic bent. Such was the idea behind this particular band anyway, the genesis of Karen and Ryan Hover looking to expand their earlier dream pop work as Candy Claws into something grander. It certainly is that, Nostalgia For Infinity the sort of thickly layered shoegaze that’s instantly catchy to the ear, yet contains so many little details, there’s always something new to hear with each playback. Eh, that’s part of the Sound Of Ceres manifesto too? Ah yes, the concept of ‘five orbits’, as presented in the album’s liner notes, each sonic layer a descending orbit for the listener to traverse. I can’t tell if that’s artistically pretentious, or musically playful. All shoegaze is like this, isn’t it?

Still, it’s a concept I can buy into. At first impression, Sound Of Ceres does the dream pop thing as fine as I’ve ever heard (disclaimer: not a whole lot), with Karen’s wispy floating vocals almost subsumed by layers of reverb. I have to pay actual attention if I’m to decipher her lyrics, after which I start noticing finer details in the instrumentation (guitar tones, electro drum kits, field recordings, retro synths, plucky electronics). For the most part, it feels like I’m listening to a long lost slice of Boomer psychedelic pop, all the folksy Americana of Brian Wilson’s best work, but fed through an idealistic, introspective lens with modern production chops. Oh, and final track Dagger Only Run reminds me a lot of Gorillaz’ Empire Ants - very similar cascading synth arp between the two. Or is that just a dream pop staple regardless? I honestly don’t know.

Maybe one day I’ll learn all there is to know of this genre. For now though, Sound Of Ceres provided a pleasant diversion from my same ol’, same ol’. In fact, it came off too sunny for this particular month. Must return to next April.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tiga - No Fantasy Required

Counter Records: 2016

For someone who seems primed for a glorious run wading through the pop charts, Tiga sure doesn’t like venturing there often. Every time he comes out with a new album with a couple instantly catchy club tunes radio stations wouldn’t have much problem playing, he retreats to the DJ circuit instead. Even after adopting a new live show in support of his third full-length No Fantasy Required, Mr. Sontag’s back to the relatively safe confines of rinsing out records on a regular basis. Not that I blame him for keeping to the scene that nurtured his rise from the early Montreal raves to globe-trotting stardom – the actual pop scene is a vicious, cruel mistress, more than capable of gnawing you to raw pulp before spitting you into a gutter. Tiga has no problem flirting with said mistress, but is wise enough to know any long-term engagement leads to more trouble than it’s worth.

Which in part explains the long wait between Ciao! and No Fantasy Required, seven years in the making. Mr. Sontag had definitely kept busy in the interim, releasing nine singles in that time. That’s almost enough for an LP right there, but only a few show up in this album, primarily the most popular of his quirky club anthems (Plush, Bugatti). Aww, no 100 with Boys Noize? Guess that one was too much of a one-off milestone to make sense in an album context. Also missing are a number of Audion collaborations (Fever, Let’s Go Dancing), but Matthew Dear lends his hand on a clutch of new tracks for No Fantasy Required anyway, so it’s a wash there.

I’m honestly surprised Dear’s serious approach to techno worked well enough with Tiga’s more playful style, 3 Rules’ goofy bounce as mischievous as anything Mr. Sontag’s done with Jori Hulkkonen. Less interesting is the Hudson Mohawke collaboration Planet E, the sort of moody acid cut with pitched-down vocals I honestly thought had gone by the wayside as of late. Really, the whole middle portion of No Fantasy Required drags with serious techno groovers, save a light, poppy deep house offering of Tell Me Your Secret where Tiga’s earnest singing shines wonderfully.

It’s these moments that serve No Fantasy Required best, highlighting Tiga’s ease with introspection even as nonsensical faux-posh ‘bugatti’ quips are what folks generally remember him for. The titular opener, Make Me Fall In Love, Don’t Break My Heart, and Blondes Have More Fun offer some of the deepest vibes ever heard on a Tiga LP, and stand in stark contrast to the motionless club tunes that eat up the album’s middle portion. Maybe it’s that Stuart Price factor.

Oh yeah, Price is here too, providing “Musical Assistance” to No Fantasy Required and Don’t Break My Heart. Talk about your ‘set pop stars retreating from the limelight all in together’ narratives! Like, I know The Thin White Duke kept busy with Pet Shop Boys, but you sure didn’t hear about it compared to those Madonna and Killers collaborations.

Perturbator - Night Driving Avenger

Blood Music: 2012/2015

The debut EP from Perturbator, self-released way back in ye olde age of early 2012 (before the dark times… before the Orange Emperor). Naturally, when Blood Music started reissuing his back-catalog, they went to bat with multiple limited-edition coloured records, a standard digipak CD, but no tape for this outing. Huh, guess that collector’s scene isn’t as obsessive as others if they can’t be bothered with singles. Why, back in my day, when tapes were all I could afford, I bought singles, absolutely. Okay, only a few – Bad Boys Blue’s Go Go (Love Overload), Intermission’s Piece Of My Heart, and 2 Unlimited’s Maximum Overdrive - but the market was there even in the waning days of commercial cassettes, so surely it exists in these waxing days of novelty cassettes. I’m honestly surprised Blood Music didn’t offer up a tape option for at least Night Driving Avenger.

I’ve also realized, despite having written three reviews of the chap, I haven’t delved much into James Kent’s pre-Perturbator fame. Right, there isn’t much to tell, but I’ve gotta’ burn some word count with a fresh angle, so here’s a few tidbits. He played guitar in various metal bands prior to adopting synths, which I can definitely hear in the way he constructs his tracks (lots of half-time bridges, which metal adores) - finally that Blood Music tie-in makes sense. His pop’s also apparently a well-known rock scribe, Nick Kent having written about punk music during that scene’s rise during the ‘70s, and publishing articles in all manner of respected rags (NME, Spin… Guardian?). Seems the Elder Kent also got into scuffles with some of punk’s icons, including Sid Vicious and Adam Ant. Hm, does this mean if James wants to live up to his father’s legacy, he’s gotta’ get it on with Simon Reynolds or Philip Sherburne? Okay, that’s enough.

Night Driving Avenger is a handy little primer into what the Perturbator style generally entails, each track touching upon his various types of songs. Opener Grim Heart does the moody, cinematic build, the sort of music you’d expect of credit sequence at the start of an ‘80s pulp film. Electric Dreams goes slower, synthier, and introspective. The titular cut ups the tempo into a pulse-pounding action thrill ride, and Miami Sunsets brings it all together into synth-pop’s realm as our hero/heroine rides off into a neon-soaked boulevard. Oh, plus a charming chiptune cover of Flock Of Seagull’s I Ran, called I Ran To The Arcade. Cute.

What isn’t cute, however, is the mastering on this EP. Dear Lord, but is there ever a lot of muddy side-chaining, with no dynamics to speak of. I know much of Perturbator’s music is generally brickwalled, but it usually adds to the gritty dystopian nature of his tunes. Not here though, the Young Kent clearly still figuring his way around production. Rather remarkable, then, he got the knack of it so quickly with later releases. Shame Blood Music didn’t give Night Driving Avenger a remaster though.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Martin Nonstatic - Nebulae Live At The Planetarium

Ultimae Records: 2016

Ultimae Records has put out a few live recordings in the past, but it’s not one of their main selling points. Even then, it’s mostly via the label’s second-tier acts, like Cell, Circular, and Scann-Tec. And even then-then, such releases are regulated to the digital-only realm, hard copies extremely rare. Their last live CD was H.U.V.A. Network’s Live At Glastonbury Festival 2005, released in 2010. Guess Ultimae was overdue for another regardless, but it feels odd they’d give Martin Nonstatic the honors, a relative new recruit to the French label’s ranks. Then again, it’s not like the print’s fielding a deep roster as of late, options for a ‘second-tier act live album’ exceedingly small. Heck, at this point, Martin’s practically part of the starting bench, one of the few artists with a full-length album out on Ultimae in the last few years.

Previous Ultimae live LPs featured recordings taken from festival performances, but Nebulae Live At The Planetarium comes from a more intimate setting. Aww, no crowd cheering ambience? Of course not, folks at the Zeiss Planetarium in Bochum, Germany likely far too tripped out on the dome projections, man. Unfortunate there isn’t an accompanying DVD video though, displaying the visual splendor of the event as the music within plays along. Then again, how can you replicate a planetarium projection at home? Clearly a typical TV or computer screen won’t cut it. Even a home projector doesn’t do justice, still reliant on flat surfaces like a wall or ceiling. And what about the lasers, man? Everyone knows a good electronic music show at a planetarium’s gonna’ have a far-out laser show. Eh, I’m not fussy, at least some YouTube clips of the event would suffice. No dice? *sigh*

Forget the visual aspect then. At least we’ll get to hear some nifty reinterpretations of Mr. Nonstatic’s tunes. Slight problem in selling that angle though, at least in my case: I honestly can’t recall much of his music. For sure I know I liked what I heard from his Ultimae debut Granite, and should I pop that album on again, I know I’ll enjoy his chilled-out, dub techno vibe just the same. As I mentioned in my review of that CD, however, very little of it sticks to my brain matter, and playing Nebulae back, I honestly didn’t notice any significant differences based on memory alone. I do have sparks of recollection in some songs – the low throb of Granite, the guitars of Distance B, the heavy dub of Out Of Silence - but aside from a more expansive mixdown benefiting a live planetarium show, I couldn’t tell you the difference between these and the album versions without side-by-side comparisons. Which I can’t say I’m interested in doing for this CD.

Really, I was hoping for more tunes from Martin’s back catalog, but ultimately Nebulae is just a remixed version of Granite. A fine downtempo, dub techno album for sure, but hardly necessary if you’re not interested in the sound.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Souls Of Mischief - Montezuma's Revenge

Clear Label Records: 2009

I always wondered what ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ meant, figuring there was more to it than a kick-ass ride at Knott’s Berry Farm (The G-forces!! The G-forces!!). I thought it was fanciful Mexican folklore, the famed ninth Aztec emperor Moctezuma II arising from the dead to exact vengeance on the Spanish Conquistadors who killed him and murdered his people. So when I heard Souls Of Mischief had an album out of the same title, my first thoughts was something along those lines, except it was a case of indie, conscious hip-hop making its revenge upon the oversaturated ‘pop-rap’ of the time – everyone was bemoaning hip-hop’s death by the late ‘00s, after all. Then I discovered the general meaning of ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ in today’s society, which yes, I admit, has eluded me all this time (count my blessings, yo’). Ah, now it all makes sense when asked about the title’s meaning, Tajai quipped, “The deeper meaning is the album will make you crap yourself.”

However you read it, Montezuma’s Revenge was seen as something of a rebirth for the Hieroglyphics foursome, their first album together after nearly a decade of simmering solo projects. A-Plus, Phesto, Opio, and Tajai didn’t have plans for a reconvention of their MC powers, but a passing Prince Paul expressed interest in working with the Oakland crew, which sounds like an all-star project the likes backpackers around the globe could only dream of. One of the preeminent producers of indie hip-hop paired with one of the most respected groups from the Golden Years, all hanging out in the same studio, unleashing all their potential creativity into a mega-reunion collaboration super-project! Or not.

I admit the Adrian Young project There Is Only Now spoiled me some towards what a Souls reunion could truly entail. For sure there’s nothing to find at fault with Montezuma’s Revenge, as the group sound as fine as they ever have, and Prince Paul handles the dials with sleek professionalism while throwing a few trademark quirks in for good measure. And when compared to what hip-hop was doing on the charts in 2009, the laid-back beats and witty verbal dexterity on display must have been a welcome respite for the old-school heads. It’s just, with all the players involved, one kinda’ hopes for a little more than what we got here. A new modern-classic rather than experienced vets giving us acceptable examples of their tried and true abilities. Even Prince Paul has a bit of a pisstake with it all, a guest “Mr. Freeman” calling into the studio telling the lads they need to drop that “old-school shit, son”. And indeed Souls Of Mischief would, after teaming up with Adrian Young for that new modern-classic everyone had been dying for since ’93 To Infinity.

Montezuma’s Revenge feels more like a warm-up to the Souls’ resurgence in the current decade, a trial-run before all the members embarked upon bold new territory. Lord knows they needed it, and Prince Paul was more than capable in lending a hand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Aegri Somnia - Monde Obscure

Cryo Chamber: 2015

Oh, dark ambient, may you wrap your bleak, inky tendrils over my confused being, leading me into dreams, reflections, and realms that are as twisted reality to our own. The Dread Year Of 2016 shows no remorse, but it cannot compare to the strangeness your scene provides in a multitude of ways. Near futures where we blew it all up (us maniacs!), peaks into dimensions perverting our hypercritical sense of moral decency into twisted parodies upon ourselves, inner and outward sojourns into extreme isolation from humanity’s failings, pondering how the self can carry on in the face of so much strife and decay. Forever searching for those specks and glimmers of light and hope in an unyielding chaos of black.

I did not intend for this genre to provide so much escapist solace this year, but damn if it doesn’t do the job better than most of my traditional standbys. Or maybe it’s that whole ‘new novelty’ factor, sounds and songcraft that is fresher for yours truly. Oh, but that’s just so much less poetic.

Anyhow, Monde Obscure is yet another Cryo Chamber album I’m reviewing, because of course it is. I promise though, this will be it from the label for… a little while? There’s only a few left in this endless backlog, so they gotta’ be spaced out better than this last batch of EVERY. OTHER. CD. Though I’m quite enraptured by a lot of this label’s output, a little more variety needs to kick in soon. I didn’t undertake this wacky listening project just to hear the same ol’ over and over.

ANYhoo, this album comes from Aegri Somnia, or Jurica Santek to the Croatian Crab-Lovers Committee [citation needed]. The Latin alias translates to ‘The Patient’s Dreams’ in Google, referring to fever dreams, or dreams induced from madness – something to do with a suffering sickness. And while the project has existed in some capacity over the last decade, Mr. Santek hasn’t done too much with it, a sprinkling of a smattering of released material over that time. Still, with digital albums like Nothingness and Script, he developed enough of a cult following (yeah yeah, ‘cult’, ‘dark ambient’, har har), that Cryo Chamber gave him the greenlight to put out a new album under their banner, spiffy hardcopy CD and all.

With cover art of a burnt-out husk of an apartment tower, you’d expect Monde Obscure some post-apocalyptic business, but the tale behind this album is a much different. Rather, this charred building serves as a portal to another realm, one not for the faint of heart. As dark ambient records go, this one is heavy on the field recordings, music almost incidental to the whole. There are snippets of piano, pad, choir, and tonal drone, but Mr. Santek would rather guide you through creaking infrastructure, dripping water, burning hallways, and distant echoes of crowds shuffling beyond this mortal coil. Feels like I’m playing one of the good Silent Hill game while listening to this.

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