Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Various - This Is... Techno

Beechwood Music: 1996

Before they became notorious peddlers of dodgy electronic music compilations, Beechwood Music was known as peddlers of respectable indie music compilations. Meanwhile, their sub-label Mastercuts was a haven for those scouring the funk and soul archives in search of rare groove, classic jazz, and other vintage rhythm records trainspotters obsess over. Even their early forays into house and techno were respectable offerings, the minds behind the CDs clearly as involved in the UK’s acid house years as any regular punter. For all intents this was a class print on the independent market before they started getting their fingers deep into the cheap, bilge churn.

This Is… Techno came out in the mid-‘90s, as Beechwood was transitioning from ‘what was’ to ‘is now’, and already out the gate you see the problems surfacing. The cover art is astoundingly tacky, assaulting your retinas with ugly typeface, including an inexplicable italicized boldface in the back-half of a four letter word. I just… why? But never judge a record by its cover art, right? All that matters is the music within, and the tracklist does feature plenty bona-fide classics, with a whole slew of problems saddled alongside.

The first three tracks are as pointed as any in this case: Prodigy’s Poison, Josh Wink’s Higher State Of Consciousness, and Carl Cox’s Two Paintings & A Drum. Something sounds… off, in Poison, as though I’m listening to a rougher master rather than the smashing album cut. Higher State, meanwhile, makes no mention of it being Version 1, a mix closer in vibe to deep house than the famous tweekin’ acid funk of Version 3, for which I’m certain ninety-five percent of folks buying this would have expected. And don’t worry, trainspotter in the back anxiously waving at me, I know full well Carl Cox never released a track called Two Paintings & A Drum, though the EP of the same title did hold his Phoebus Apollo. Which is the track we get here, in a severely edited form. Dammit, Beechwood.

Those are the most erroneous examples though. Mostly we get a lot of well rinsed-out anthems you should know off by heart (Plastikman’s Spastik, LFO’s LFO, Moby’s Go, Leftfield’s Open Up, The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, Aphex Twin’s Digeridoo, Underworld’s Dark & Long, Carl Craig’s Dreamland, and others). Not a terrible selection of tunes, but hardly an adventurous assortment either. If you’ve even but dabbled in electronic music, you’ve likely got a few somewhere in your collection, with little reason to get this as well. True, most Beechwood compilations were designed with the impulse buyer in mind, giving them an easy starting point should they wish venturing further. This Is… Techno works in that regard, even if the information provided is sometimes grossly inaccurate.

And those infamous in-house ‘exclusives’ Beechwood was notorious for? Yeah, there’s a drab few scattered about, most of which are repurposed for the bonus mini-mix on CD3. In that context, they… actually do a good job representing techno’s rhythmic potential? Huh, go figure.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Various - This Beat Is Hot... The Compilation

Sony Music Entertainment: 1991

Not the first and most definitely not the last time a hit single was used for the launch of a compilation. Did Dance Pool have any long-term plan with this? Like, could This Beat Is Hot go on to become a running series? Would every subsequent B.G. hit earn its own compilation? Damn, we could have had a Colour Of My Dreams series, a Can We Get Enough? series, and a Stomp series! That didn’t happened, but it still boggles my mind that The Prince Of Rap’s This Beat Is Hot was hot enough to earn a compilation based on it. I don’t recall the track having any presence here in Canada, and believe me we weren’t oblivious to charting dance hits from Europe in the early ‘90s (C&C Music Factory, Black Box, Snap!, 2 Unlimited).

But a compilation named after his breakout single B.G. The Prince Of Rap done did get, marketed across both continents for maximum profit margins. This entailed giving both America and Canada different track lists compared to the European version. Like, radically different, to the point they’re almost completely seperate CDs. Hell, even the title track, This Beat Is Hot, has different mixes between the two, us folks in the Western Hemisphere treated to an extended Get Into The Rhythm Club Mix over the radio friendly 7” Remix on the east side of the Atlantic. Oh, and the track actually properly kicks our compilation off, whereas poor B.G. is relegated to third-track status in Europe. On the compilation named after his hit single!

C&C Music Factory’s Here We Go got the pole position in Europe, but we didn’t get that track at all over here, nor second track Let’s Go Back from Sake Stars, middle track Fue Amor from Jazzy Mel & Marcello Figueras, and final four tracks Shine On from Sold Out, What Is This Thing Called Love? from Alexander O’Neal, Bright Lights from Victoria Wilson-James, and Daddy’s Little Girl from Nikki D. Both versions do get a Culture Beat tune, but us folks are treated to I Like You versus them folks enjoying No Deeper Meaning.

I won’t get into the additional differences between the American and Canadian versions, though we do share Lil’ Louis’ French Kiss, Secchi’s I Say Yeah, and Double Dee’s Found Love. Exclusives to Canuckistan residents include world beaty Shamen’s Call from Dance 2 Trance side-project Peyote, Dana Dawson’s Tell Me Bonita, and Céline Dion’s Unison, a horrendous stab at penetrating the lucrative gay house scene any vocal diva worth her salt was shooting for. Seriously, those… snares, utter rubbish, and hearing a rap alongside Ms. Dion clashes in all the cringiest ways.

Oh yeah, the music! Lots of hip-house in its last throes before morphing into euro-house, some italo-house, and ample soul singin’ with funky grooves. This Beat Is Hot is a fun little CD for some throwback music, but if few of the tunes I named above ring a bell, it’s for good reason, that.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Perfect Circle - Thirteenth Step

Virgin: 2003

Remember two years ago (!) when I reviewed Tool’s Ænima, wherein I also mentioned checking out the spin-off band A Perfect Circle? It was all that hype, see, Virgin’s marketing muscle promising a stellar new alternative band, one that would change the landscape of rock’s domain for years to come. Yeah, whatever, I’m busy digging into all that Wu-Tang Clan backlog, y’know, not to mention my continued quest in gathering whatever electronic music I could to my music shop of the hinterwaylands near Haida Gwaii. Still, that cover of Mer De Noms looked cool, sitting there in stacks of six, awaiting pick-ups from eager CD buyers. Some of our clientele had clued me into neat acts before, which I’d have missed otherwise. Maybe this one, what with that Chris Carter’s Millennium style artwork going for it, will have something intriguing within. After playing a few songs though, I shrugged with an indifferent ‘meh’, then went about replaying a nifty DJ mix from some Turbo label.

The media blitz for the follow-up Thirteenth Step aside, I pretty much forgot about A Perfect Circle, the band’s music falling well outside my listening habits. Over time though, I’ve made friends with those who do include alternative rock music into their daily diets. Friends who’ve eagerly quaffed from Tool and Perfect Circle goblets. Friends who were looking to offload CDs, of which I eagerly quaffed from their collections into mine. Thus here I am reviewing more music from Maynard James Keenan, a proposition I never thought happening again.

Actually, to call A Perfect Circle a Keenan project isn’t accurate in the slightest. He may provide the bulk of lyrics and pipes to support them, but the genesis behind the band lies with Billy Howerdel, who’d spent his time prior mostly tuning guitars for Tool. Billy’s demos impressed Keenan so much that he requested being the new band’s frontman, with a who’s-who of ‘90s rock musicians rotating in and out since Perfect Circle’s formation (James Iha, Twiggy Ramirez, Troy van Leeuwen, Josh Freese, and others). Man, no wonder Thirteenth Step reminds me so much of a ‘90s album, especially for a 2003 release, when garage rock, emo-punk, post-grunge, and nu-metal were ruling the world of rock.

And I cannot deny, this is a darn good album. Melodic and melancholic for the most part, sporadically heavy and urgent as needed, with Keenan’s singing quite enjoyable so removed from pretentious Tool trappings. Thirteenth Step essentially chronicles the crippling effects of addiction, from its enticing allure to the crushing fall, with a small hope of recovery at the end. Though a few tracks stand out on their own, it’s an album that works best as a long-play, especially with the lingering bit of guitar hanging in the air at the end of final track Gravity. It feels like there’s more to follow, maybe even a secret song. And you wait for that release… waiting… waiting… For a proper follow-up album that never materialized. So cruel, this longing…

Friday, March 25, 2016

Adrian Younge Presents Souls Of Mischief - There Is Only Now

Linear Labs: 2014

Adrian Younge probably would have broke out of contemporary funk-n-soul obscurity eventually, a talent behind the producer’s console as much with nearly instrument he takes within his hands. When he teamed up with Ghostface Killah to produce one of the Wu-Tang man’s best albums in a decade, it was all but guaranteed he’d have the plumb choice of working with any number of top list rappers out there. Thus it was a surprising move on ol’ Adrian’s part that his next project was with backpacker favorites Souls Of Mischief. That Mr. Younge would be a fan of the Hieroglyphics crew makes sense given the musician’s background, but to convince A-Plus, Opio, Tajai, and Phesto into the booth for a throwback album of sorts? Now that’s some earned industry clout, mang.

Not that Souls Of Mischief had fallen off, disbanded, or anything like that, but as each member focused on their solo careers following the turn of the century, few figured they’d find reason to reconvene. Even 2009’s Montezuma’s Revenge didn’t hint at much future collaborative work between the foursome, and it looked to remain as such until Adrian approached them with his wishes and dreams of a vintage Souls Of Mischief LP.

But what, pray tell, is a ‘vintage SoM’ record? Anything that recaptures the spirit of their debut, 93 ‘Til Infinity, is my guess. The clever lyrical wordplay, the brash actions of youthful bravado, the vivid depictions of street stories, all presented with a Bay Area sense of laid-back, free-stylin’ vibe. In the case of There Is Only Now, these facets are presented in the form of a singular narrative – yes, even the ‘brash youthfulness’, despite all these MCs having aged two decades since 93 ‘Til Infinity. It helps the events of this album are loosely based on a real-life event, specifically being present during a shooting. Though they weren’t actually involved with the incident, Souls use it as a catalyst to weave a tale as though they were, with Tajai even being ‘taken out and captured’ by a perpetrator named Wormack, a part played by Busta Rhymes, of all MCs.

Much of this album chronicles the Mischievous Souls’ worries for their fallen comrade, concerns of the state of their neighborhood that such a thing could happen, reflection whether retribution is justified in this case, and their measures to seek their own brand of vigilantism. Remarkably, a guest spot that drops in for some sage advice is Snoop Dogg, coming off like a wise elder of this scenario despite him and Souls having little age difference between them. I won’t spoil the ending, but it does leave a bit open ended, letting the listener come to their own moralistic conclusion.

Throughout it all, Adrian Younge provides a musical backdrop befitting of a classic blaxploitation picture, and should you ever get lost with the plot, a radio DJ occasionally drops in as an ongoing narrator. Huh, I’m getting DJ Professor K of Jet Set Radio flashbacks. I’m sure Souls approve.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Kurupt - Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha

Attic: 1999

For all the time Kurupt’s spent in the Westcoast hip-hop scene, he’s never quite crossed over on his own as so many of his peers did. Pairing with Daz Dillinger as Tha Dogg Pound certainly was successful, and he’s made many memorable appearances on albums with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac… basically anyone on Death Row Records during the label’s glory years. By the time he ventured out as solo artist though, the Death Row empire was crumbling, no longer a sure thing in an evolving hip-hop scene (much less a safe working environment). So off Kurupt went, establishing his own Antra Records print, and dropping nothing less than a double-LP as a debut. Um, oversell much?

Right, every rapper was doing the 2CD deed in the ‘90s, but usually with some established market, and Kurupt’s rep was as an ace wingman, not an MC who could carry two discs worth of material. The fact Kuruption! did end up as strained, thinned, and disappointing as it did surprised no one. It also unfortunately made interest in the quick follow-up Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha fly way under the radar, folks figuring Kurupt just wouldn’t have much luck in the solo scene. Turns out everyone who thought as such were dead wrong, Young Gotti bringing the fire here for a record that became a true underground hit.

From the quality of the beats, to the quality of guest spots, to the quality of… well, everything, Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha is some top grade Westcoast rap. Snoop Dogg makes multiple appearances, along with Nate Dogg, Xzibit, Soopafly, Daz Dillinger (naturally), and a plethora of associated homeboys you probably never heard of (nor care to know). And just in case you forgot his Eastcoast roots, Kurupt has a wicked boom-bap session with KRS-One in the bonus cut Live On The Mic. Boom-bap, on a g-funk rap album!

The beat flavors don’t just end with an outlier or two, this album offering a bumpin’ mix of styles. There’s way old-school rap with Loose Cannons, block party bounce (Who Ride Wit Us, Represent Dat G.C., Girls All Pause), orchestral looping (Trylogy), smooth g-funk groove (It Ain’t About You, Neva Gonna Give It Up, Ho’s A Housewife), and more. Even when the lyrical content goes more misogynistic than I’m comfortable hearing, I can’t help but keep bobbin’ to that funky-ass Moog action (Your Gyrl Friend). Throughout it all, Kurupt is fired and inspired, out to prove he stands tall in gangsta’ rap. He definitely done did that here.

While Dr. Dre’s 2001: Chronic Harder would overshadow the hip-hop world at this time, Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha comes off like an opening volley from the Westcoast – lighting up from nowhere, reminding everyone how united everyone still was despite their label wanderings. It may not have been Kurupt’s intent to make a statement for his geographical brethren on this album, but he nonetheless released one of the best Westcoast LPs of the late ‘90s.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Snoop Dogg - Tha Last Meal

Virgin: 2000

Though Snoop Dogg’s commercial revival with The Neptunes was still a few years off, the Long Beach resident was seeing a significant turnaround in his career when this album came out. Hot off the heels of the epic Up In Smoke tour and classic spots on Dr. Dre’s 2001: The Re-Chronikling, those who figured Mr. Broadus had lost the plot in joining No Limit Records were lured back by the promise of a return to Westcoast G-funk roots in Tha Last Meal. Technically, he’d already made those reconnections in his prior album, No Limit Top Dogg, but after the poorly received (yet two-times Platinum selling!) Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, you can forgive folks being wary of anything else ol’ Snoops would put out on Master P’s print.

Well, worry not, for he’s got Dr. Dre in the studio for three cuts on Tha Last Meal …which is the same as Top Dogg. Ah, well, we also get Dre-blessed Scott Storch in here, plus Snoop-blessed Meech Wells, and Westcoast alums DJ Battlecat and Soopafly. Also, in a remarkable coup, Timbaland, at the peak of his powers, provides two cuts, including Set It Off, an absolute banger of a track. The only No Limit Records representation is second-to-last track Back Up Off Me, with all the dirty South gang vocals, cussin’, and cheap beats you’d expect from the label. It’s also the dumbest cut out of seventeen. Shock, I know.

So music wise, we’re firmly in Westcoast G-funk land throughout, and hey, Snoop’s brought in a bunch of his buddies from the region too. Kokane takes up the bulk of guest spots, doing warbly croons in choruses. Nate Dogg gets in a few verses, including a wonderful little ditty in Set It Off. Long time Dogg Pound associate Butch Cassidy also shows up, and Snoop’s gotta’ get his short-lived posse Tha Eastsidaz in there somewhere. In a surprise spot, N.W.A. alum MC Ren and Ice Cube drop some bars in the awesome Set If Off (have I mentioned how dope this track is enough?). And through all this sausage fest, Eastcoast star Eve has a great tag-up with Snoop in Ready 2 Ryde, while another Westcoast legend, The Lady Of Rage, shows up in… wait for it… Set It Off!

So how’s ol’ Snoop on the mic, then? He’s still a gangsta’, still down with DPG, still smokin’ that endo, playa’-hatin’ hoes, and all that. Vintage Snoop, though a couple things do lyrically date Tha Last Meal. One, there’s a lot of Bill Clinton quips, because late ‘90s. Two, he’s dropping hints of a career less centered on rapping, and being a business mogul instead, including owning his own label, producing new talent, and the whole shebang. While that all came true after a fashion, it seemed he was more thinking of hanging up the mic for good, hence Tha Last Meal. Then along came a Pharrell, and put to rest that plan.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Hell - Teufelswerk (Original TC Review)

International Deejays Gigolo: 2009

(2016 Update:
An unforgivable, glaring omission in this review: I left out all the co-producers! No
wonder those two tracks sound like throwback electro, it's Anthony Rother behind the sound deck with Hell. Of course CD2 has such a consistent vibe throughout, Peter Kruder (of he & Dorfmeister fame) lent his craft to the project as well. And whoa, Mijk van Dijk had a hand in the tech-haus tracks? I'd never have known without looking at the liner notes, these tunes some distance from the techno he made his name on in the '90s. Then again, if Hell could evolve, why not Mijk?

It's almost unfathomable that
Teufelswerk remains ol' Helmut's last LP. Not that he was ever a prolific producer before, but seven years is quite the gap, with no sign it'll stop increasing, a smattering of singles all to his name in recent times. There were a couple remix albums released for this one, yet those were roughly four years after the fact. At this rate, we might see a 'cover' LP anytime now!)


IN BRIEF: Back in Hell.

I doubt DJ Hell (Helmut Geier to his elders) ever intended for his label - International Deejay Gigolo - to become the tastemaker of all things electroclash. Yet by releasing one classic record after the other, it trapped him in that genre, such that it was all folks expected of him, even though his musical career had spanned far more than sleazy electro. Still, perhaps it was a blessing disguised as a curse in the long run. As electroclash faded from clubbing tastes, so too did the impossible expectations on Mr. Geier; however, his prior success helped keep some degree of interest in his career. After all, he managed to burn a fresh trail into clubland before, and folks are always eager to see if someone can twice strike gold in this fickle business.

Well, Hell ain’t havin’ that. Having already carved out his place in the Electronic Music Hall-Of-Fame, he’s not terribly interested in being a trail-blazer again. Instead, Mr. Geier appears quite content in simply make dance music for the contemporary crowds with his own spin on the template. Yes, this means tech-haus music …er, as per his current definition of it. And since his former high-status in the scene has afforded him plenty of good-will, Hell decided to also get in touch with his indulgent side along the way.

The result of which is this here double-CD album: Teufelswerk. The Night half is primarily the tech-house trip, though with ample nods to electro-proper, New York clubbing, and robo-German fetishism sprinkled about. Day, on the hand, is a downtempo, experimental, ambient, etc. etc. trip through Hell’s muse. For now, let’s look at the Night disc.

Having not totally abandoned the electroclash, Hell brought in Roxy Music man Bryan Ferry for a little vocalizing on opener U Can Dance; however, this is mostly a solid tech-house groover that gets the album started in fine fashion. Right from the onset, you can tell there is more thought and consideration into what constitutes a good house track, as Hell doesn’t get bogged down in ‘minimal’ wankery, simply laying out his rhythms and letting the hooks weave about.

From there, it’s one solid tech-house cut after another. The robots take over in Electronic Germany and Bodyfarm² with sinister electro-tones and eerie atmospherics. There’s nods to the minimalistic takes on tech-house in Friday, Saturday, Sunday and The Disaster, which are fine for what they are, though not quite as thrilling as some of the other tracks here. Hellracer gets in touch with acid, and Wonderland dabbles in some Latin-tinged melodies.

Then, of course, is The DJ. It features Sean ‘P. Puff. Diddy-Daddy’ Combs blathering on about how DJs need to play full twenty-minute versions of house tracks, a not entirely daft suggestion. The backing track Hell provides for the monologue dips into the best vibes a sweaty New York club often suggests (whether it’s still true or not being irrelevant). This track has caused a bit of controversy for no other reason than it’s P.Diddy cussing on the monologue, but who really cares? I’m sure if the naysayers didn’t know it was Mr. Combs doing the talking, they’d enjoy it just as much as any ‘monologue-house’ tune.

If you’re going to ding Hell for anything on this disc, it can be for the fact that, ultimately, we’re not hearing anything remarkably fresh here. Not that this should come as a surprise – Hell wasn’t known as much of an innovator back in the 90s when he was still making house and techno, and now isn’t much different. Night is a competently made CD of tech-house that you’ll enjoy from start to finish, provided you fancy tech-house at all to begin with.

For the more adventurous out there, Day will definitely please. Right off, Hell channels the spirit of 70s synth composers for Germania, giving us a true ambient sonic delight with spritely melodies and trancey backing arpeggios. After that, it’s thirteen minutes of Angst, which moves from a chilled jazzy build to a second half consisting of noisy, abrasive glitches – mmm, more of the former, please.

There are a few sonic doodles and experiments scattered about the rest of Day but only three fully-formed tracks left; and even then, I Prefer Women To Men Anyway and Hell’s Kitchen are mostly about experimental soundscapes anyway. Nay, it’s on final track Silver Machine that we get a proper song again, with Hell doing one of those ‘indie-tronica’ ditties along with one Marsmobil on vocals. It’s a pleasant enough way to close out this often musically-wayward disc.

Across two CDs, Teufelswerk is hardly dull and certainly worth an investment. The only thing to be wary of is we are hearing a DJ Hell that is quite comfortable with his status in clubland, resulting in an album that prefers satisfying a personal muse rather than a general audience. The other thing too is, as a songwriter, Mr. Geier isn’t quite as strong as some of the more notable names in this field (Garnier, Craig, etc.) so those who fancy artistic indulgences might not be as impressed. Therefore, it may be wise to take Teufelswerk with a grain of salt.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2009. © All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Perturbator - Terror 404

Blood Music: 2012/2015

Perturbator made his label debut with I Am The Night on Aphasia Records, but around the same time he also self-released this, Terror 404. I’m not sure why Lueur Verte passed on this one, especially since much of the French print’s early output centered around the James Kent project. Did neither feel it worthy of the proper-label treatment? Rather odd if so, considering the realms of digital distribution has very little upkeep, and even less quality control. And even at this early stage of his career, Perturbator was showing signs of being a cyborg titan of the synthwave movement, so why not flood your fledgling label with his material? On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Kent had enough of a built-up pre-following that he could release a ‘proper’ album, plus an additional one on his own in the same year without spreading his material too thin. Considering he also put out three singles in 2012, that’s one Hell of an official debut in the world of music.

In any case, it doesn’t matter whether Terror 404 or I Am The Night got the nod on Aphasia, as both were re-issued on Blood Music this past year, in all the limited edition, ultra collectible formats you can handle (and burn money on if you’re a hardcore completist). The black vinyl, the red vinyl, the blue vinyl, and the clear with blood splatter vinyl! The black tape, the red tape, the gold tape, and the… metallic red foil tape? The digipak CD, the… oh, that’s the only format in disc form. What, no super-retro longbox version? Minidisc? Ain’t nothing more hipster than that, yo’.

Probably the biggest difference between Terror 404 and I Am The Night (and latter album Dangerous Days) is the lack of implied narrative in Terror 404. For one, there’s no written blurb giving the listener a specific idea of the album’s theme. Number two, some titles of Terror 404 are lifts of c-grade movies and actors of the ‘80s, with a very specific focus on Scream Queen Linnea Quigley’s work. Thirdly, I’m just filling space here so I can make it to a forced four-oh-four point: Perturbator doesn’t present the tracks as a movie narrative anyway.

Sure, he’s got an Opening Credits, a Nightmare Interlude, and an End Theme (credit roll!). Granted, the whole of Terror 404 plays out as a strong album of tunes regardless of cinematic themes. Yes, there’s a sweet assortment of punchy, crunchy synthwave (Terror 404, Savage Streets, X-Calibr8, Shadow Force ‘84, The Darkest Alley), peppy, hi-NRG synth-pop (Payback Pursuit, Linnea Quigley Horror Workout, John Holmes VHS Nightclub), and slower, reflective tunes (Mirage, End Theme). One can easily glean a consistent theme throughout, an homage to the ghetto cinema of the ‘80s. And Terror 404 is great for that aspect alone. Compared to Dangerous Days though, where Mr. Kent crafted a fully-realized cinematic experience, this album’s a touch behind. As it is an earlier effort from the Night Driving Avenger, what would you expect?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Sounds From The Ground - Terra Firma

Waveform Records: 1999/2000

What was like being a fan of this duo in their early years? Was there any inclination they’d go on to release several albums in the new millennium? Kin definitely gave Sounds From The Ground some presence in the world of ambient dub, but the genre itself was in decline as the ‘90s drew to a close, trip-hop and other downtempo styles at the forefront of scene dominance. Whatever momentum their debut generated didn’t amount to much in the short term, and Nick Woolfson even spent some time working with other producers before rejoining with Elliot Jones for a sophomore Ground Sounds effort.

Still, the duo must have known they had a good thing going to not only reconvene nearly a half-decade later, but also establish their own Upstream Records print to release their own material. It doesn’t matter they initially only used it for Mosaic and a reissue of Kin, then let it sit fallow for a decade before resurrecting it from digital dust. Sounds From The Ground had the foresight, the clairvoyance, the forevoyance, to know they’d be in this together for the long haul. This early in their partnership though? Who could have predicted such a fruitful discography would emerge given the gap between Kin and Mosaic?

Enough questions about that. Here’s the answer to the question currently burning your noggin, which I’ve dodged with my own musings. Terra Firma is the Waveform Records version of Mosaic, the label once again tinkering with an original for stateside distribution. In this case, Waveform re-arranged a few tracks into different positions, jettisoned a pair of tunes (Snow, Circle & Star), and added two instead. The first, Shine, appears to be an exclusive to Terra Firma, while the second, Mineral, saw some compilation duty in releases from Planet Dog and Echo Beach. Shine is an interesting tune in the Sounds discography, something of a light atmospheric jungle track with jazzy vocals overtop.

In fact, this whole album has quite the laid-back jazz vibe going for it, more so than much of their work in the following decade. You can’t deny the influence Kruder & Dorfmeister were having on the downtempo scene at this time, with acts like Thievery Corporation and Jazzanova emerging as hot, new talents in K&D’s wake. Woolfson and Jones were undoubtedly no less influenced, leaving behind the ambient dub that marked their prior work in favor of a different approach to their craft. They didn’t stick with the pure lounge jazz for long though, soon retreating back to tried and true groovy, dubbed-out vibes, even within Mosaic/Terra Firma itself. If I can glean any difference between the two album versions, Waveform opted for back-loading the ambient dub stuff, whereas Mosaic mixed everything up.

In either case, this sophomore Sounds album is fine enough.Their best work was still a couple albums along though, finessing what they learned here. Fear not, Fans Of Sounds From The Ground in the year 2000, your future is bright!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Autistici - Temporal Enhancement

Dronarivm: 2015

Autistici is someone I regret coming into so cold. As with many larks and flights of music buying fancy, I picked this up with no prior knowledge of the artist and no checks of prior material. I can never tire of that thrill in random chance purchases, browsing through shops where cover art is your only clues of what’s within (erm, and good sorting). And I cannot deny some of its present with Bandcamp pages, having a label’s output nicely laid out for your perusal convenience. It’s definitely led me to a few splurges these past couple years, content in the knowledge my monies are feeding a more direct route to the artist than most options (or, in the case of used shop shopping, not at all). While neither Autistici nor the label Dronarivm are names I’ve any familiarity with, their association with others that I do know was enough for the blind pickup.

All this, of course, is just a roundabout way of making excuses for whatever gaps of knowledge I’ll undoubtedly commit in the next few hundred words. For Autistici, or David Newman in the Sheffield phone directory, strikes me as an artist that requires a proper full-discography plunge, if only to understand how his craft has evolved over time. Temporal Enhancement is his fifth album on a fifth label, despite the fact he has his own print (Audiobulb Records). His approach to music is less musicality, and more explorations of singular sounds, going for pure abstraction of field recordings, noises, and manipulations of natural tones. His music can be quite soothing, melodic, and calming drone, but he’d just as soon go noisy and harsh with a cacophony of experimental percussion. Taking in quick Spotify sampling, the one clear consistency through all of Autistici’s work I noticed is never resting on singular ideas for long, elements coming and going even if it creates a complete tonal clash within the track itself.

So too is the case with Temporal Enhancement, a collection of six tracks, most averaging four-to-five minutes. There’s also a nine-plus minute closer, and a whopping seventeen-minute composition smack in the middle, and as good a summation of the album as any.Habituation Of The Heart darkly drones along for a significant amount of time, ghostly voices and electronic sparks creating an oddly spacious yet claustrophobic setting traditional industrial sorts would approve of. Just when creaking, contorting sounds make the atmosphere almost unbearable, a release, with gentle heartbeat pulsing through soft white noise, distant lullaby and children at play easing you out.

Temporal Enhanncement as a whole plays out like this, abrasive sonic assaults making up the first half, with gentler, dubbed-out works making up the backend. Mr. Newman described this album as an exploration of the human condition, and with titles like Opened Up Too Quickly, Thinking Before Feeling, and The Grotesque Physicality Of Waiting, I’d say he sums things up just fine, if in a rather over-stimulated fashion at times. Mm, Ritalin with a Xanax chaser.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Black Dog - Temple Of Transparent Balls

General Production Recordings/Soma Quality Recordings: 1993/2007

Though not as critically acclaimed as The Black Dog's contributions to Warp Records, their debut album on lesser-known General Production Recordings was no less highly sought after. Because when you develop a cult-like following of fans based on scene respect, multiple aliases, rotating members, and a significant gap of new material, every item in your discography becomes essential. It don't matter whether it's a seminal EP, or a wack dalliance collab', some records you will hunt and commit top dollar for. Or just wait for a friendly future label to re-issue the obscure stuff for a new audience. Patience will always be a virtue, always.

So it is with Temple Of Transparent Balls, the official first album from The Black Dog. Technically, Ken Downie, Andy Turner, and Ed Handley had an LP out just prior to this one on Warp, though Bytes was more a compilation featuring their other projects and aliases (Plaid, Xeper, Balil, others), thus presented as Black Dog Productions. That whole ‘currently being signed to General Production Recordings’ fact may have had something to do with it too. Give some credit to the front-runner for ‘Most Generically Named Music Label’ though, taking a chance on the trio as a kick-off act, and rescuing The Black Dog out of self-release purgatory.

If the Warp association and Plaid lineage didn’t clue you in yet, Temple Of Transparent Balls is way old-school UK techno - finding its way out of bleep rave of before, yet not quite there with IDM of af’aire (?). There’s quite a bit of adventurous music making going on in this CD, though a good deal of familiarity too, the opening salvo of Cost I and Cost II a prime example. The first features a lone, spritely arp doodling along for four out of the track’s five minutes, finally joined in by a bouncy electro beat. Meanwhile, Cost II has all my Higher Intelligence Agency triggers flashing, which isn’t a bad thing, but does send me into double-take mode. For the most part, Temple Of Transparent Balls plays half-and-half with the experimental and traditional techno, alternating between the two throughout. As can be expected of an act still in their early years, the traditional stuff is mint, but the attempts at leftfield techno definitely needed some refinement.

Thus you get cool tunes like brisk, beatless 4, 7, 8, Detroit breakbeat of Jupiler (not a typo... maybe), acid funk of Sharp Shooting On Saturn, peppy jazz-fusion of Mango, and Aphex ambient techno of In the Light Of Grey. Elsewhere, there’s muddled space tachyon techno in The Actor And Audience, droning cyber-mamba Kings Of Sparta, and dull, mind-numbing grit-techno in Cycle (at over seven minutes, the longest track too, unfortunately). These have interesting ideas, but lack finesse in arrangement or choice of sounds.

Nay, the only truly enjoyable oddball track is The Crete That Crete Made, a lazy, hazy jaunt with dubbed-out organs and warm pads. It’s like getting stoned at a seaside Renaissance fair.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Skin To Skin - Temenos

Waveform Records: 2002

Skin To Skin is another ultra-obscure act that Waveform Records made a habit of signing at the turn of the millennium, many of which didn’t do much after. So it also seems to be the case for this duo of Lena Måndotter and Ronnie Hall, but their page at Lord Discogs is rather bizarre. Obviously we have this album Temenos in the database, but sitting beside that is another called Walking On Water, claiming to be a folk and country rock release. That’s worlds different than what we have on this CD, so is it the same Skin To Skin? The cover art of Walking On Water does feature a lady/dude tandem in sunset, standing on water, so possibly. There’s also a single under the Skin To Skin banner, In The Shadow Of Love, with genre tags closely resembling Temenos (tribal, ambient, minimal (?)), but this one has a three-piece featured on the cover.

Going further down the Discogian Hole, Lena Måndotter apparently has a solo album out called Songs Of Leonard Cohen, released some time after all the Skin To Skin material. A very brief Google search reveals a little more, but I’m already way off track even finding basic background info about this group. The only thing I can conclusively link all this together is the fact every version of Skin To Skin is from Sweden. Naturally then, Temenos has an ancient Grecian vibe going for it.

Whatever the origin or ongoing story behind Skin To Skin, Temenos is clearly music modeled on the TUU template. Music that’s very meditative, conjuring images of Pagan rituals of cultures old and lost. Right, the Greeks aren’t really a forgotten civilization, but much of their fantastical mythology fits the bill. Thus when I hear the lengthy, minimalist rhythms, intermittent strums of acoustic guitar (bouzouki?), and droning chants of Temenos, Pt.1-3, I can’t help but think of seers assembled at oracles gazing to the heavens, seeking signs and favors from the Olympians above. Temenos itself is a site intended for meditation or reflection, so I’m not so off there.

Clocking in at nearly thirty minutes in length, Temenos, Pt. 1-3 is clearly the main feature of the album, but Side B of this CD does find further explorations of Skin To Skin’s sound. Daimon nearly hits the eighteen minute mark on its own, going from soothing calm to deeper chant throughout its run. There’s more musicality going on in this one, a clear progression compared to the meandering Temenos, but remains a rather sparse piece of meditative ambience. Final two-parter Nekyia goes dark and ominous, fitting considering the origin of the word (rite by which ghosts were called up and questioned about the future, according to WikiGod). Between both tracks, it runs a tidy nineteen minutes, gradually building from Skin To Skin’s minimal, meditating style to a heavier, dubbier groove; rather if Banco de Gaia was slowed right the f’ down. Hmm… k-holed world beat? Nah, that’s a stupid tag.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Adam Freeland - Tectonics

Ultra Records: 1999

I intended starting this review with another “only specific release of thing you need, even if you don’t like it” quip, and why not? Adam Freeland’s Tectonics is heralded as one of the essential DJ mixes of the nu-skool breaks scene, an opening statement of a genre that had a significant, successful run of influence. Almost overnight, big beat breaks were pronounced dead, everyone anxious to get on this crazy new sound where punchy, bass-heavy rhythms and cutting-edge production tricks dominated. When the PR sticker on the CD proclaimed Tectonics represented the future of electronic music, you actually believed such hyperbole after that final broken beat had faded in chill bliss. I mean, we were witnessing the birth of a whole new genre, mang, with music within to back it up!

And the truth is nu-skool didn’t see many mixes that topped Tectonics in subsequent years. Plenty of solid CDs on the market, sure, with numerous DJs finding a comfortable niche within the scene, and a significant amount of time passing before it all collapsed within inevitable sub-genre stagnation. Yet when folks and fans reflect on all of nu-skool’s accomplishments, few items ever come close in fondness or reverence than Tectonics. Not bad for a mix that is only about one-third nu-skool.

Hence why I can’t in good conscience recommend this CD as “the only nu-skool breaks yada yada etc.” - more than half the tracks aren’t of the genre. Hell, the last couple tracks could even be considered from the realms of house. Vigi & Flip’s Freak Frequency is a hard, tech-house stomper with the sort of growling bassline Funk D’Void liked using for a time, while Layo & Bushwacka!’s Deep South has the steadiest ‘breaks’ rhythm you’d ever hear in a set such as this; Freeland sure was paying attention, practically lifting the pattern wholesale for his future ‘rock’ remixes. Also in the back half of Tectonics, 3 Mile Island’s Liposuction goes more Florida, Motion Unit’s My Mind more electro, and Proper Filthy Naughty's Stitch Up more progressive. Elsewhere, Audiowerk’s Impulse Transmission is full-on electro, while Bushwacka!’s rub of Leuroj’s Isokora is the closest thing to ‘traditional breaks’ on the whole mix.

While these are all good tunes, its undeniable the nu-skool offerings on Tectonics stood out from the pack, thus why this mix is remembered as a premiere example of the sound. The opening salvo of B.L.I.M.’s Chronologic, Makesome Breaksome’s Pig Chase, and the exclusive Tectonics from Ils is undoubtedly one of the strongest starts to a nu-skool set ever committed to disc, and it’s no wonder everyone fell over their heads hearing it (“Whoa, you can put d’n’b bass in breaks?”). Then you have the bangin’ build of, erm, Bangin’ from Apex, plus the phenomenal, ah, Hip Hop Phenomenon collaboration between Tsunami One (Freeland and Kevin Beber) and BT, all tracks regarded as definitive anthems of nu-skool. With Freeland setting them up as mix centerpieces, yeah, small wonder Tectonics is considered such a seminal nu-skool CD.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stephen J. Kroos - Tecktonick (Original TC Review)

Anjunabeats: 2007

(2016 Update:
See 2007 Sykonee. See 2007 Sykonee make ridiculous generalization about trance producers making breaks. Point at 2007 Sykonee. Laugh. Laugh at 2007 Sykonee. Ha ha ha. What a nob. I don't even recall what his problem was, a rant that comes totally out of nowhere. Laugh especially hard at the fact I actually like
Oxygenation now. Maybe it's that new-found appreciation for McProg's more charming attributes, but Kroos does good in bringing the grumbly low-end/twinkly high-end style to the realms of broken beats. The nu-skool leaning Elecktronick can be left well behind though.

Kroos wasn't long for the world of trance, moving onto tech-house and prog shortly after this album, releasing several singles on Anjunadeep in the process. Eventually he left Anjuna', finding a new home on Spring Tube where he continues releasing music to this day. While keeping with the tech, he's also incorporated deep house and chilled IDM into his repertoire. So a fairly well-rounded career since dropping his debut, even if significantly diminished in scene presence since.)



IN BRIEF: Bringing the past to the present.

Expectations are a dangerous thing when it comes to music. While they may be different for everyone, if an artist doesn’t reach a previous peak (much less surpass it), their subsequent releases are often met with disappointment. And this tends to hold true not just with producers, but everything from DJs, compilation series, labels, and even whole genres.

This can work other ways too. The obvious is when your expectations are so low, to hear something that is surprisingly decent can skew an objective impression. More common is coming across a release that breaks the norm of what you are used to, and impressions are no less susceptible.

The ultra-melodic trance label Anjunabeats hasn’t been known for its diversity but they seem to be showing signs of moving beyond the clichés of late. Among the artists doing so for them is Stephen J. Kroos. The Dutchman’s been producing since the late 90s, having small success when his singles found homes on compilations like Mega Trance 1.0, Ibiza Club Trance, and The House Sound Of Dance Tuning Disco (?). A few years back, Anjunabeats took Kroos on, and turned heads by providing a sound much of the epic trance brigade were unfamiliar with.

Let’s make something clear though. Despite claims to the contrary, Kroos’ music isn't revolutionary. In fact, he’s merely doing the same thing as newer producers like Paul Moelands, Sander van Doorn, and the Discovery squad are: taking trance back to its roots. A time before the Corsten clones, the overblown breakdowns, the schmaltzy lyrics, and everything else that sent the genre into Punchline Land. I can see how kids who figure trance begins and ends with Armin van Buuren’s radio show would find Kroos’ material quite different from the norm. However, folks with Pre-Dutch Explosion knowledge will find his style familiar (I’ll spare you the synth-sample trainspotting).

And this is A-OK. Although often regarded as tech-trance these days, this is more-or-less how the genre sounded when it was showing great promise as savvy party music. It builds on layers, letting the rhythms drive and the melodies subtly tickle at your mind. It was effective in the mid-90s, and it remains effective to this day. If stuff like deep house and Detroit techno are able to get away with recycling winning formulas, why not trance of this nature too?

Anyhow, let’s get to the particulars of Kroos’ album Tecktonik.

After a bit of ambient noodling opens things up (of which several others crop up throughout as interludes between tracks), Stephen wastes no time in letting his audience know this isn’t a typical Anjunabeats release. 4 Your Taperecorder is a techy banger that has only one thought in mind: working the dancefloor. Fortunately, it works fine on the homefront as well, with catchy hooks and vocal samples keeping your attention. Follow-up Sadistick is something far more familiar with the Anjuna faithful. A standard prog-house excursion, Kroos does the style justice with suitable dark grooves and moody atmosphere. Less effective is Tony McGuinness’ lyrics: unnecessary fluff. Why is the Above & Beyond man even here? As one of the label heads, did he insist on having at least one vocal number on this album. Thankfully, it’s a one-off, and we’re right back into Kroos’ winning style soon after.

And nothing over-fancy here, folks. Just simple energetic trance. The rhythms pump, the melodies work, and the breakdowns never dawdle. Hell, Innerstatistick barely has any downtime at all, with a not-a-breakdown-at-all moment lasting less than thirty seconds; and merely used to introduce one of those oh-so vintage ominous sci-fi samples no less! Kroos’ offerings tug at nostalgic strings while keeping his sound firmly in the present. I’d say I’m about ready to be converted to the Cult Of Kroos.

But then he decides to take a stab at breaks. Oh dear...

My friends, there are many constants in the cosmos, one of which is trance producers seldom make good breaks. With most of their attention paid on atmosphere and melodies, they forget the one ingredient that makes breaks good: da funk. Kroos is no exception to the rule, with his offerings blander than white bread. Oxygenate isn’t that bad when he lets the effects direct the flow of the song, but Elecktronick is far too dependent on rhythm to carry it, and the track suffers as a result. And sadly, Tecktonick ends on a limp note. Frankly, the final ambient doodle Sphecktralizm would have been a great closer had Kroos explored the psy dub possibilities an extended version of it hints at. Instead, Formalistick is the main show, but doesn’t have much going for it as such. It’s a fine track to be used in DJ sets but remains musically limited, with a lead hook that ends far too soon; just as you’re warmed up to it, we’re already heading into our perfunctory rhythmic lead-out.

This by no means makes for a weak album though. While the second half of Tecktonick doesn’t quite match the first, there’s still enough here to warrant your attention. The ‘let-trance-do-what-it-do-best’ mentality to many of these cuts shows the ol’ girl still has some life after all, and Kroos’ production suggests a promising future for his career. Well, such that he won't have to worry about being on compilations with names like Veronica’s Mega Music Dance Experience again.

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lee 'Scratch' Perry - Technomajikal

ROIR (Reachout International Records): 1997

Lee 'Scratch' Perry and one of the guys from Yello? Sure, why not. Stranger collaborations have gone down in electronic music. Collaborations such as... um... well, certainly none along the way of The Orb or Pete Namlook so often indulged in. Those pairings made some sense, musicians with common synergy feeding off each other’s vibes. This is true for many scenes in electronic music, and though cross-pollination doesn't happen often, it hasn't stopped an occasional producer’s flight of fancy in trying something with someone outside their comfort zone. Guest rappers from the world of hip-hop don't count since that’s mercenary work unintended for a full LP's worth of material. This just might be the oddest pairing in electronic music I’ve ever seen then – most definitely within my own collection of CDs anyway.

Quick rundown of the players involved. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (aka: The Upsetter; aka: The Prophet; aka: Super Ape; aka: Pipecock Jakxon; aka: Toots; aka:...) is a Jamaican legend, often credited with being among the earliest pioneers of reggae dub. He’s produced countless records, famously burned down his own studio in a fit of paranoia, then moved to Europe for an extended bout of ‘quiet time’. Though nearing his 80th birthday, he continues to make music and tour in some limited capacity. In the other corner we have Dieter Meier, vocalist of synth-pop fusion weirdos Yello fame, carving out an incredibly unique sound of blended traditional Latin influences into a future-leaning world. Though often name-dropped as inspiration by many contemporary producers, their approaches to music was wildly different; not to mention their lifestyles. Perry was a Jamaican immigrant eccentric, whereas Meier was a millionaire industrialist making music as a lark. Nope, nothing in common at all.

Except for the fact they both were living in Switzerland. Ol’ Dieter, a fan of the Super Ape, got in touch with ol’ Lee, and convinced him into some sessions in his studio. I’ve no idea if the two had any idea of what they’d make, and legend purport Perry was barely committed to the project at all. Mr. ‘Scratch’ apparently went so far as to record his vocals outdoors, though given his famously eccentric behaviours, that part isn’t so surprising.

Unfortunately, the resulting album of Technomajikal plays to neither of each musician’s strengths. Perry goes on about psychedelia, representing music, and being “x-perry-mental” with rudimentary lyricism that, for the longest time, I thought were samples from other works. Much of the music crafted are proto-goa trance rhythms and sounds, and though more dynamic than such beats typically go, it’s still not much better than the filler on any number of budget compilations.

With half the CD taken up with pointless remixes and alternate versions, Technomajikal ultimately comes off like a project that was only half-realized before pushed out so it wasn’t a total loss. The only track that reaches the ‘Lee Meets Dieter’ promise is final cut Crazy House, with all sorts of off-kilter ‘Scratch’ ad-libs and quirky Yello percussion. A shame.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Moodymann - Technologystolemyvinyle (Original TC Review)

KDJ: 2007

(2016 Update:
At first glance, this shorty review looks way out of touch, writing off the vinyl market as a hopelessly niche scene while new technologies grew in dominance. It certainly seemed as such a decade ago, but here we are in the here and now, records seeing a commercial resurgence not enjoyed since... geez, the early '90s? Have folks returned to the ancient format, abandoning CDs and digital? Ah, not exactly. Those dedicated and romantic buyers I mentioned before? They exploded, especially within an emergent hipster culture where a younger, numerous generation were gulping down fat pitchers of the Black Crack Kool-Aid. It's not that the sort of collectors changed, just that there were a whole heck lot more of 'em now. It's actually caused something of a pressing shortage with big labels hogging all the factories with re-issues, making underground records like this one more difficult to produce with any decent frequency.

Hey, wait, I don't collect vinyl! How do I even have this? Yeah, um, back in my TranceCritic days, we didn't always have the most legit sources for material to review. Guess this MP3 did steal Moodymann's 'vinyle' after all.)



IN BRIEF: Just one, son?

Really, just how dead is vinyl? CDs managed to supplant records in households, and in recent years clubbing culture - the last bastion of vinyl supremacy - has seen laptops and CDJs take over. Pressing plants and record stores have been closing en masse. Ask any label about their decisions to reduce their vinyl output, and you’ll largely come away with cost efficiency factors. For all intents and purposes, the Black Crack should be barely clinging to life-support.

Yet like the Spirit of Sauron, it persists. And while many kids would chalk it up to the dedicated, the old-school, or the romantics sustaining it, fact remains vinyl will forever have a part in music consumption. There will always be dedicated, old-school romantics who are collectors of classic formats (although online stores such as Juno proves the market for club weapons remains steady as well). There’s far too many of them to write off vinyl’s sustainability, even if it has become more niche than ever.

Thus, when house producer Kenneth Dixon, Jr. releases a one-sided, single-song vinyl of this sort, it’s far from a tactical error. His brand of vintage funk-and-soul grooves is clearly aimed towards those who have warm nostalgic feelings of the past, and a release such as this is unapologetic in its skimpy offering. It’s a record for people who like to collect records, the digital domain be damned (hence the tongue-in-cheek title).

Of course, this wouldn’t matter much if the song was crap, but the Moodymann has long been counted upon to deliver the house-flavored goods when called upon. With Technologystolemyvinlye, he once again draws influence from 70s funk, bringing us a house track that is decidedly fresh in this era of electro abrasiveness. Essentially divided into two parts, the first half is where you’ll find the most dancefloor effectiveness; among big band samples, the rhythms chug along as organs, trumpets, and guitars provide sizzling soul. The latter half goes more jazzy, with the main instruments indulging in a little solo action: its fine enough but far more suited for lounging moments.

I highly doubt this one little record will suddenly convert hundreds of downloaders to vinyl. However, fans of house music will be missing out on a gem of a track if they dismiss Moodymann’s celebration of the past as nostalgic silliness. He may be stuck in the ‘70s, but funk and soul has seldom seen better times since.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Various - Techno Trax Vol. 12

ZYX Music: 1994

Techno Trax was one of ZYX Music's premier compilation series in the '90s. Okay, I don't know if that's true, but I can confirm it was one of their most prolific, especially in the first half of the decade. This Vol. 12 came out when the series was but a mere three years old, and while its output was significantly cut back following 1994, it persevered into the new millennium. Took a couple evolutions to get there though, becoming Techno Traxx (with two x’s!) as the year 2000 drew close, then morphing into Techno Traxx – Step Into The Future going forward, finally ending in 2002. Including a megamix spin-off series, and various ‘Best Of...” additions, not to mention a dedicated entry into ZYX’s massive The World Of... series, and I’d say you have a proper successful collection of compilations on your hands. Well, you’d have to ask old-school folks from mainland Europe if that’s the case. I have no idea if Techno Trax was indeed a smash, or it was just a means for ZYX to churn out quick, cheap CDs into the market.

I imagine it was reasonably popular though, the series often featuring ‘techno’ hits of the day while staying just a foot within the underground. It’s early entries mostly contained classic rave tracks from acts like Altern 8, The Overlords, The Prodigy, L.A. Style, and, um, 2 Unlimited. Soon Techno Trax was also licensing out records from Suck Me Plasma, getting in on that burgeoning German trance thing as hardcore rave turned into goofy, happy offshoots. Once trance became the genre du jour of Europe, the series almost exclusively focused on that instead, their only actual techno pretty much the hard acid stuff. Not that Techno Trax ever had much traditional techno to begin with. Hell, the only such case on this particular double-discer is Love Inc.’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T., an early Wolfgang Voigt cut. Speaking of another ‘humble beginnings’ name on here, Robert Babicz shows up as Acid Warrior, doing acid techno in Acid Bites. ACIIEEEDDD!

Anyhow, it’s at this crossroads between techno-rave and German trance that we find Vol. 12. Some of the Techno Trax old guard show up with tunes, like The Prodigy’s Voodoo People and Moby’s Feeling So Real, but neither would appear in the series again. Meanwhile, names like Komakino, Jam & Spoon, Alien Factory, Paranoia X, DJ Tom & Norman, Acrid Abeyance, Legend B, and Nostrum should spark the synapses of anyone familiar with hard trance of the time. Can’t say all the tracks here are mint examples of the German sound though, no matter how many punchy, minor key melodies tickle my ears.

In fact, this whole compilation is kinda’ rubbish, and it’s all the happy hardcore’s fault. Whether ultra-lame covers of pop hits or super sap bilge, I just can’t stand this stuff. Only two tracks transcend the nasty cheese into tasty-cheese: Mark ‘Oh’s Love Song, and the hilariously ridiculous Rotterduck from Assi, another Komakino alias. He-he, wheee, squeaky toy!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Various - Techno Nights Ambient Dawn (2016 Update)

EMI: 1995

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

Easily the funniest thing about that old review is how much I'm dropping the acronym 'EDM' throughout, like it's become the acceptable alternative to the old catch-all term 'electronica'. Over a decade ago though, it really was, even if mostly limited to online discussion in web forums; a handy short-form since continuously typing 'electronic dance music' was much too cumbersome. How was anyone to know 'EDM' would not only enter the public lexicon, but turn out even more reviled a catch-all than 'electronica' or 'techno'? Surely not I in the year 2005, making it hilarious seeing it used so innocently back then. It does make me wonder what might replace ‘EDM’ as “WORST. CATCH-ALL. EVER.” for fans of electronic music. Oh, it will happen. Ten, maybe twenty years from now, when ‘EDM’ is a long, faded memory of a fad, something will come along as a new hotness, turning scenesters of old (re: the current kids) irate over a silly little word.

Speaking of passing time, holy cow does Techno Nights – Ambient Dawn grow more exceptional as the years tick off. Not so much for the music, though there are quite a few great tracks throughout (and that god awful Winter (Armani Mix) from Dave Clarke). Some cuts are showing their age (The Grid’s Texas Cowboy, Shamen’s Destination Eschaton (Hardfloor Vocal Mix), The Prodigy’s Weather Experience, Orbital’s Lush), but most remain as vital as the day they were crafted.

But putting together an ace assortment of tracks isn’t that big a deal, especially in this day of building your own playlists on streaming services. No, what astounds me about this compilation now is that it was even made at all. To be blunt, licensing is a bitch, and the thirty-seven tracks that makes up Techno Nights – Ambient Dawn come from all over the place. EMI’s clout is big, no doubt, and probably could have convinced the independent labels like Warp, XL Recordings, One Little Indian, Mute, Kickin’, and others for contributions to this project. The fact they also got all their major competitors – BMG, Virgin, Sony, WEA, MCA, Polygram – in on this is nothing short of remarkable. I can’t imagine something similar being put together these days, not without all manner of licensing hassle as labels continue consolidating their assets ever more protectively.

And even if they did manage a compromise, the result wouldn’t be anything like the track list we have here. I can’t think of any other commercial compilation where you’d find The Chemical Brothers, DJ Hell, Eon, The Beloved, and Plastikman rubbing shoulders with Philip Glass, Yello, Vangelis, and Brian Eno. Where big hits like Enigma’s Age Of Loneliness and 808 State’s Pacific 707 hang out with utter unknowns like Jam & Spoon’s Hispanos In Space and The Black Dog’s Raxmus. What would a comparable compilation even look like in today’s scene? It wouldn’t. I truly believe no one could pull off a sequel to Techno Nights – Ambient Dawn. I’d love to see an attempt though.

Monday, March 7, 2016

DJ Heather - Tangerine

Afterhours: 2000

Few lady jocks have had as much success in the world of house music as DJ Heather. Already a fixture in Chicago’s underground throughout the ‘90s, she gained a remarkable following from some of that scene’s premiere talents (Sneak, Carter, Farina, etc.), establishing herself as one of those ‘DJ’s DJ’ rather by accident. She never saw herself making a lasting career out of spinning records on the weekend, y’see, just a fun thing to do while socializing with artistic sorts around the Windy City.

But gained a rep for dynamic sets and skillful mixing she done did get, emerging from Chi-Town as one of the city’s preeminent DJs rinsing out the house beats. And though the fact she was a woman wasn’t a major part of her marketing, it didn’t stop her from using it as a platform to help promote other ladies in the field, including the SuperJane tour with fellow Chicago talents like Collette, Lady D and Dayhota. Several DJ mix CDs followed, including becoming the first woman to provide a set for the fabric series, and it seemed everything would continue on the up-and-up for Ms. Robinson. Well, not quite, mostly abandoning the mix CD market and sticking things out on the humble side of DJing. Her pedigree was more than enough to sustain a career without relying on the excessive promotional tactics employed by other jocks on the scene now.

At the turn of the century though, mix CDs were the best way of spreading your name beyond your local hubs, and DJ Heather got her start in this field with Tangerine on the prolific but short-lived Afterhours print out of Chicago. The style of music here won’t surprise anyone familiar with funky disco and soulful house of the era, Mark Farina’s mighty OM practically saturating American shops with the stuff. Heck, I’ve already mentioned a couple tracks off here in prior reviews (Studio Nova’s Moog manipulating Expansion Module, DJD’s funk talkbox anthem Shake It For Me), with a number of other well-rinsed records finding their way into this set too (Nick Holder’s Inside Your Soul, Derrick Carter’s 10, Les Maçons De La Musique’s No Time To Lose). These are mostly relegated to the bookends though, where you’re either capturing the listener’s attention with the familiar, or finishing strong with anthems.

The bulk of Tangerine is made up of rarities like Nostalgia’s deep filter-funk stomper 2 Da Floor, Majestika’s soulful organ cut Mind Magic, and Bert Dunk’s bouncy garage dub All In My Mind (and more!). Heather’s mixing has a couple shakey live transitions, but nothing that’s quickly recovered by another solid jam, each track distinct and fresh throughout. She finds her groove early and generally rides the same tempo to the end, only relenting at the very end with The Rurals’ Window Pain, a deep slice of jazzy garage that fades off into birds chirping in the morning light. I think most deep house DJs are obligated to end their CDs as such.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Si Matthews - Tales Of Ten Worlds

Carpe Sonum Records: 2015

I feel like I’ve seen Si Matthews’ name all over the place these past couple years, but the interwebs suggests otherwise. He has scant presence with Lord Discogs, barely any mention with Last.fm, and a rather minimal amount of Soundcloud uploads. If we’re gauging based on musical output alone (which I typically do), he’s among the most obscure ambient techno artists currently out there. Yet I don’t get that sense from Mr. Matthews at all, not one bit. What gives?

Apparently Tales Of Ten Worlds has been floating around in some capacity for about a decade now, initially being sent to Fax +49-69/450464 as a demo. Given the label’s insane rate of output, I’ve no doubt many aspiring producers inspired by Pete Namlook’s seminal print sent him material for consideration. It’s somewhat surprising then, that Mr. Kaulmann passed on Si Matthews’ demo, though his reasoning was sound enough. FAX+, y’see, just wasn’t doing the sort of spacey, minimalist ambient techno as offered here anymore. Then again, no one was supporting this sound in the mid-‘00s, at least with any significant promotion behind them. It’d be at least another half-decade before the calling allure of old-school ambient techno started its retro return within scene discourse. That didn’t stop whispers circulating among FAX+ die-hards though, of a mint, vintage sounding album existing, one that could have been deemed a new classic if Papa Pete hadn’t passed on it. And while Tales Of Ten Worlds would still likely never have had a second chance with Namlook’s label (just not jazzy enough?), someone would probably have picked it up eventually if Mr. Matthews found the right print to give it a shot. Fortunately for Si, Carpe Sonum Records filled that need in branding itself as the spiritual successor to FAX+, including releasing music that adhered to the label’s ‘90s style. Enter ancient quote about patience being a virtue.

Obviously then, if you’ve a hankering for ambient techno of old, you’ll dig Tales Of Ten Worlds. This is some truly classic sounding stuff, the likes of which had mostly fallen out of style as the ‘90s wound down. In some ways, I’m not sure it’s significantly rebounded yet, but clearly there’s enough of a market now that this album ranked high among many Best Of Ambient lists for 2015. And deservedly so, synth pad melodies exploring the cosmic bizarre while grounding the listener with soft rhythms and ethereal sequencers. Some are mysterious and subtle in composition (World 1, World 3, World 5), others are more peppy and benign (World 2, World 8). There’s moody ten-plus minute long pieces (World 4, World 7), plus brief sonic doodles (World 6, World 10). And what ambient techno album would be complete without a melding of all this in World 9?

Maybe not the most detailed description above, but Tales Of Ten Worlds doesn’t require much. It’s a modest collection of uncomplicated tracks, with enough personality to stand distinct and unique in a contemporary scene. Top tales all told, then.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Laurent Garnier - Tales Of A Kleptomaniac (Original TC Review)

[PIAS] Recordings: 2009

(2016 Update:
You just had to make another dig at minimal, didn't you, 2009 Sykonee? Boy, does that quip ever date this review now - like, who gives a rat's poop about Luciano anymore? Meanwhile, Garnier's still here, doing his thing as he's always done, even releasing another album this past year. This reads a bit gushy to my current eyes, but its no less reverent than any number of fans and journo-folks who've put hundreds to thousands of words detailing the Frenchman's career and class.

Unfortunately for this album though, it hasn't gotten any easier of a listen as time's worn on. For all the care and skill Mr. Garnier put into these tracks, they create such an erratic listen with a traditional playthrough that it's difficult for anything to stick to the ol' memory membranes. Funny enough, Laurent mentioned shortly after releasing
Tales Of A Kleptomaniac that he couldn't even stand listening to these tracks anymore, having spent so much time on them and all. Man, I know what that's like with some of my own writing, but I can definitely hear how some of this music's been micro-managed almost to a fault. Gotta' keep that muse fresh with new ideas, yo'.)


IN BRIEF: Does Garnier have anything left to prove?

No, don’t actually answer that rhetorical question; just ponder it for a moment. Then, once you’ve finished pondering, keep those thoughts to yourself. If you do that, then you might be able to dive into his new album, Tales Of A Kleptomaniac, without any of the ungodly expectations the Frenchman has become saddled with. Just accept the fact he likes to make music, and feel fortunate enough he’s successful enough to share that over-indulgent muse of his with you.

The simple fact of the matter is Garnier has established himself as the music-fan’s producer and DJ, thus has earned all the plaudits that comes with such respect; however, this also leaves his body of work incredibly daunting for the uninitiated, with very few clear-cut crossover singles to his name (The Man With The Red Face being the most obvious exception, especially recently). With a discography that is far from newbie-friendly, Garnier has been kept somewhat on the outskirts of top acts, even though he is a recognizable name. This new album isn’t likely to change that, which will probably suit his fanbse just fine. But, y’know, it’d be nice of him to, like, get the same kind of praise the Luciano Villalawtins of the world do, just once in a while, hm? Ah well.

So now that we’ve effectively frightened away the uninitiated, is there anything of interest for the Garnier connoisseur? You bet! In fact, there’s almost too much here. In being such a hoarder of musical styles, ol’ Laurent has assembled an incredibly eclectic collection of songs, such that I can’t see folks getting their vibe on to every track.

For instance, you may be totally down for more of his jazz-fusion techno-stomp, supplied here in the form of Gnanmankuodjii; but are you willing to go even deeper down the jazz tunnel, into an acid lounge with Garnier himself providing spoken dialogue in Dealing With The Man? Or perhaps you’re looking forward to some vintage dark trance vibes with Desirless that ol’ Laurent was known for way back in the day. That may sound good, but perhaps not the two hip-hop cuts - one with French lyrics, no less - if that isn’t your thing. Or maybe the thought of him doing dub reggae with Food For Thought makes you all giddy (*cough*); might you have the opposite reaction to Bourre Pif, a dabbling into drum’n’bass? Wait, what? That last one doesn’t make any sense. How could someone like one rhythm-heavy form of music but not another? Never mind that last one.

Getting back to the album, the point is there be a lot of musical variety on here, some of which may not be your cup of brie. However, it is all finely produced and enjoyable to those with at least a broad sense of taste -allow me to provide an example. Although I know it can be musical journalistic suicide to openly admit to not knowing much about a particular genre, I think you can all forgive me saying that I am quite clueless when it comes to French hip-hop - I've heard no more than half-a-dozen tunes in my life. Yet, despite not getting much out of Freeverse (Part 1) on an intellectual level, I still enjoy it on a ‘dumb’ level; that is, purely on what the music on hand offers. You get that sense of musical competence from Garnier on every cut here, and though you may not be compelled to suddenly start checking hundreds of French hip-hop acts out there, Garnier at least provides you with something that won’t have you quickly reaching for the skip button.

That said, there isn’t much on here that would convince one to check out these musical genres further either. Food For Thought is a great dub tune …for being on a Laurent Garnier album; fans of jazz-fusion, techno, and, yes, even French hip-hop would probably say similar things.

Tales Of A Kleptomaniac is another solid outing from Garnier, and the music’s far too good to give it anything lower than an 8. However, in allowing his muse to rob the kitchen of everything but the plumbing, it unfortunately lacks an elevating, crossover classic. The veteran Frenchman remains as daunting for the newbie as ever.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2009. © All rights reserved.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Mick Chillage - Tales From The Igloo Re-Told

Psychonavigation Records: 2014

While Oliver Lieb's Inside Voices introduced me to Psychonavigation Records, this was the album that got me digging further into the Dublin print's discography, though almost entirely by chance. If I’d sought out Inside Voices through my usual Amazon means, the Bandcamp option would never had exposed me to the rest of Psychonavigation’s recent catalogue. Doing a casual glance-over, I noticed a curiously cartoony looking item among the more credible pieces of cover art, sticking out like an ice-encrusted thumb. Despite never hearing the name Mick Chillage before, I dug a bit further into this oddball snowball of a CD called Tales From The Igloo Re-Told. Ah, a remix album then, with rubs from names like Gel-Sol, Lorenzo Montanà, Peter Benisch, Dialog, the New Composers... *record scratch*.

Waitwaitwait...! The Peter Benisch? That dude who made wonderful music at the turn of the century, then practically disappeared from Earth? What’s he doing on such an innocuous CD? Is this just a one-shot, some sort of curried favour for the label? Is this Mick Chillage guy a bigger deal than I could have thought? And what of the album-proper of Tales From The Igloo? Is it some masterstroke of modern chill-out music to have lured in so many highly respected names within this scene? I mean, Peter Benisch ain’t the only old-schooler on this remix project. David Morley’s here! Dr. Atmo’s here! Scanner’s here! Man, it didn’t matter that I’d never heard the original album, thus having absolutely no frame of reference for these ‘retold’ings – I had to get this just to hear what these chaps have been up to! Maybe discover a couple additional names in the process (that Gel-Sol, why he so familiar?).

My epic odyssey through Psychonavigation Records’ archives these past couple months have answered many of these questions. Without this CD enticing me though, there likely would never have been the label splurge, much less hundreds of words on my part chronicling all this music from the Dublin print. Well, maybe a few, just based on general consensus of essential albums from Psychonavigation.Tales From The Igloo-Prime was likely an eventuality - it does come highly recommended from most discerning ambient heads, after all.

Even without hearing the original album, Re-Told holds strong on its own merits. Mr. Chillage’s original compositions were already unfussy, so it isn’t much for our clutch of remixers to apply their own styles to the minute melodies Mick crafted. Morley, Montana, and New Composure do their ambient techno thing, while Benisch, Scanner, and Sense opt for something more on the widescreen tip. Dialog goes for a dubbier outing, Gel-Sol offers something abstract, and Dr. Atmo has old-school ambient house clear in his sights. Oh, and Mick indulges his full Biosphere on a lengthier rub on Hypothermia. All this diversity actually makes Tales From The Igloo Retold a stronger LP than the original album, though obviously defeats the simplistic charm Chillage had going on his debut. A yin-yang deal we got going here, then.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mick Chillage - Tales From The Igloo

Psychonavigation Records: 2009

It took a while, but with Mick Chillage's debut album Tales From The Igloo, Psychonavigation Records could finally claim to have a bonafide hit on their hands. Well, about as a much of a hit a micro-niche scene such as throwback ambient techno could ever achieve, but it’s something. Prior to Tales, the Dublin print had remained quite underground and relatively unnoticed, mostly giving folks with close ties to the local scene their promotion. This was technically also the case with Mick Chillage, Mr. Gainford spending much of his early career as a radio DJ on Dublin’s XFM. Though he never released anything official, The Chillaged One did while those years producing an assortment of techno, downtempo, and ambient items that were probably never intended for more than nearby playouts.

For all intents, having a fruitful career in LPs wasn’t high on his mind, but that Keith Downey boy, he never met a fellow Irishman that he couldn’t woo to his label. One successful album later, and not only was Mick Chillage off and shopping to several like-minded labels, but Psychonavigation Records also started drawing in other established artists to their print as well, growing their profile in the process. Or it was all just one big coincidence things turned out like this.

At first glance, Tales From The Igloo doesn’t come off as anything terribly unique or remarkable. It’s a vintage ambient techno album released at a time when ambient techno was continuously distancing itself from its past. Much of the old guard of that scene had long moved onto other music, or simply retreated into seclusion. Though always pointing to the seminal works put out by Warp, Apollo, and Fax+ as a source of inspiration, the new cats preferred pushing the genre into the realms of dub techno and clicky glitch. If there was a market for old-school leaning ambient techno, it was buried deep in glacial stasis, waiting to be thawed out when fondness for such retro sounds could flourish again. Tales From The Igloo seems to have been the tipping point that started the thaw, Mick Chillage uncompromising in crafting simple, elegant pieces that had folks namedropping ancient Biosphere, HIA, and Aphex Twin in association.

Even within the limited palette Chillage utilizes, he offers a nice array of tunes. There’s soft, brisk techno (Dubmarine, Melting Emotion, Floating In Hyperspace, Northern Lights, Precinct 14), moody Nordic ambient numbers (Hypothermia, Disturbed Earth, eleven-minute long Gateway Station), a couple tunes that meet midpoint between the two (Hidden Landscape, Rotation), and the requisite curious outlier in Under The Ice, a track with rather abrasive beats considering the surrounding music.

Another quibble with this album is the wonky track sequencing, most of the beatless, chill material lodged in the middle rather than the more sensible bookends of the LP. I often find myself drifting off midway through because of this, forgetting there’s some decent uptempo tunes towards the end. Not quibble enough, however, to not recommend Tales From The Igloo.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Front Line Assembly - Tactical Neural Implant

Third Mind Records/Roadrunner Records: 1992/2007

The only Front Line Assembly album you're supposed to have, even if you're not a Front Line Assembly fan. Heck, some make the case Tactical Neural Implant is an essential LP in the industrial scene period, though that's a bit of a stretch. For sure the band that Bill Leeb built grew to be one of the most popular during the early ‘90s, but industrial reaches far with its assortment of Very Important People. At best Front Line Assembly helped lead the charge in the world of EBM, but even they were quick to move onto different explorations of their sound, eager to try something else with each album or side project. That can make for some difficulty in knowing which of the roughly dozen FLA albums is a good starting point, if I hadn't already said the answer is Tactical Neural Implant right at the start of this paragraph.

First off, this is where Leeb and Rhys Fulber really hit their stride as a unit, taking what they’d learned in their first producing outing on Caustic Grip and applying it to some serious songcraft muscle here. Industrial music has always been about manipulating sounds into garish, abrasive attacks on the senses, things like ‘melody’ or ‘earworms’ treated as musical conventions intended for parody. EBM, with its heavy focus on rhythms, lightened a little on such sonic perversions, but was no less cutting in this aesthetic. Tactical Neural Implant, on the other hand, generally sounds cleaner than earlier FLA albums, relying more on grinding, mechanical samples and menacing synths rather than harsh effects to sell its dystopian vision. A good thing too, otherwise the many, surprising melodic moments throughout this album wouldn’t be nearly as effective as musical counterpoints if they were equally muddied and full of murk.

For instance, melodies in songs Remorse and Outcast don’t sound too off from Leeb and Fulber’s Delerium work, to say nothing of melodramatic closer Lifeline. Sample lyrics: “In the shadow, An angel cries;... Innocence confused, By hate.” Part of my brain wants to lambast these words as hokey goth poetry, but damn if Leeb’s bellowing doesn’t get stuck in my head with me eager to hit the replay button.

Still, these are outliers compared to the other songs, where Leeb opts for the snarling EBM sneer (Final Impact, Bio-Mechanic, Outcast, Gun) or fierce industrial growl (Mindphaser). And that’s when you can hear his words at all, some tracks rendering them all but indecipherable with vocoder effects (The Blade). I personally love it when Leeb’s voice morphs though, as in Bio-Mechanic where it grows ever more vicious and robotic in the chorus. Talk of insidious earworms too, Mindphaser the biggest hit Front Line Assembly ever released – heck, they named their website after the song!

Tactical Neural Implant might be a smite too catchy for industrial purists to take seriously, but that just makes it a great entry point for folks looking to cut their teeth on EBM. A tactical neural implant indeed.

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