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.
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