Sunday, June 25, 2017

808 State - ex:el

ZTT: 1991/2010

The beginning of the end, where a lot of old-school 808 State fans are concerned. Which is funny because the Manchester band hadn't been around for that long, so it's not like they had much time to develop ardent purist followers of their acid house sound. They done did though, their debut album Newbuild commonly hailed as a Very Important Album in the world of UK acid, frequently name-dropped by numerous Very Important Artists of early UK techno. They carried that momentum into Ninety, even scoring a radio hit with Pacific State in the process. So you bet when third album ex:el was announced, anticipation ran white hot within UK clubland for what the lads from up 'nooth' would bring.

A bandwagon jump, it would seem. Or leading the charge in England's brave new rave world, depending on who you ask. You were almost obligated to get ravey with it in the years 1990-92 – even traditionally rock bands were having their stabs at the 'Madchester' sound. Where opinions get split, however, is whether 808 State's cleaner, crisper approach to songcraft ruined what made the 'real heads' of UK acid house fall in love with them to begin with. How dare they abandon the raw, unpolished, don't-give-a-care production that enamoured so many to Newbuild! Instead, ex:el is filled with ear-wormy hooks, thumping rave beats, and guest vocalists from stars past (Bernard Sumner of New Order) and future (Björk).

The trick worked, ex:el going on to be the band's highest charting album (methinks some residual Pacific momentum helped). No less than five tracks out of thirteen found their way into the 808 State ten-year retrospective 808:88:98, including the big rave anthems Cübik and In Yer Face, the mellower jams of Lift and Olympic, and the Björk featuring Ooops. And some contend that still wasn't enough music off here, tracks like the other Björk tune, Qmart, bouncy reggae-influenced Leo Leo, or percussion-heavy Techno Bell just as worthy contenders for any 808 State 'best of' collection. Not the Newbuild hold-outs though – they think nearly everything off ex:el is rubbish, total crossover bollocks or some-such. It's definitely a slicker-sounding album, and no amount of gritty guitar or blaring synth riffs can hide that fact. After four years making UK techno though, you can't blame the band for getting better at production.

The thing that strikes me so odd about ex:el is how the singles are all back-loaded. What, did 808 State not figure folks would be down for tunes like acid cut Nepharti and pseudo-ballad Spanish Heart unless they were on the LP's A-side? Considering the notion of the 'rave album' was still in the process of gelling, it's rather ballsy on their part not hitting you with all the familiar anthems right out the gate.

And in the end, ex:el is one of the finer pure rave albums that era generated. It may not be 808 State's most definitive work, but it's a whole lotta' fun front to back.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Gorillaz - D-Sides

Parlaphone: 2007

So Gorillaz have been back in the spotlight these past six months, and absolutely I'll be getting around to their latest album. Maybe I'll even kayfabe it too, 'cause that's always fun, buying into the mythos Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have crafted for their virtual band. We should be so blessed as to have a rag-tag assortment of miscreants, misanthropes, and misunderstood musicians shining a perverse spotlight on contemporary pop music. Okay, we already do have that, but no band features a member making deals with literal demons (and record executives), while another spends her non-music time slaying other demons. I wonder if the demon world has an underground scene dedicated to sampling the forbidden fruit of Gorillaz tunes.

Anyhow, as with every new album from this band, there's a multi-media blitz crossing all mediums promoting it, including new videos. And when you watch one Gorillaz video, you can't help but start watching all of them, then getting wrapped up in the lore all over again, taking in the short cartoons, the audio books, the puppet shows, and all that. It's just a shame there's but the three albums to satisfy the music craving though, a scant sampling compared to all the surrounding paraphernalia associated with the Gorillaz brand. And I've already got them, so what else is left? Oh yeah, the b-side collections. I totally missed out on those, didn't I?

Well, no longer, and gosh dag'it, why did I skip out on these in the first place? I suppose I wasn't quite so enamoured with Gorillaz at the time, and didn't think a double-disc of b-sides, alternate takes, and remixes of the Demon Days sessions was terribly enticing. Dammit though, that album just seems to get better every time I play it back again, so there's bound to be a few dope tunes that just didn't quite make the thematic cut. Yeah, a few.

If you felt Demon Days lacked the first album's wild eclecticism, D-Sides offers it in spades, twee hip-hop (Hongkongaton) rubbing shoulders with electro-punk freak-outs (Murdoc Is God, We Are Happy Landfill, The Swagga), electro-reggae (Spitting Out The Demons, Bill Murray), dream-pop (68 State, Hong Kong), and bizarro synth-funk (People, Rockit). Then there are the tunes that completely defy definition, (Stop The Dams, Highway (Under Construction)), so don't even try. Just sit back and chill-vibe on these wonderful slices of weirdo-pop, son.

CD2 holds all the remixes, and is a veritable who's-who of trendy indie dance-punk sorts of the mid-'00s. Hot Chip is here! Soulwax is here! DFA is definitely here, with their twelve-minute rub of Dare, which spends it's entire second-third building and building and building, only for a very long, minimal outro that undoubtedly had DJs all a'twitter. As these are remixes of the main Demon Days singles, the selection isn't terribly dynamic, tracks like Kids With Guns and Dare getting three apiece between the nine cuts. Fortunately, I quite like Dare, in all its incarnations. Play on, daughter.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Bug vs Earth - Concrete Desert

Ninja Tune: 2017

First Kevin Martin made shockwaves as The Bug with London Zoo. Then he retreated from the alias to focus on a new project with Roger Robinson as King Midas Sound. That did awesome-sauce as well, and it looked as though he'd find a way to flit between the two projects, dedicating his Bug works to the dancehall and grime side of his muse, while working out the dubby, droned-out soul portion of his brain with King Midas Sound. He even got started on a running series with the latter (Edition), inviting like-minded artists in for a little collaborative work. A couple years pass, and it looks about time for either another Bug effort or a second Edition. Figures Mr. Martin opted for a little of both in Concrete Desert, giving us a Bug album that also serves as a collaboration with a prominent drone musician.

Said drone musician is Dylan Carlson, he of the drone metal band Earth and member of the Rasputin Look-Alike Club. Seems they're credited as kicking off that whole scene within the metal pantheon, getting their start sometime in the early '90s. Hey, Kevin Martin was also doing rock music of a sort back then, though more of a post-punk, noise thing that led him to exploring all things dubby later that decade. They have different approaches to their chosen craft, but the endgame seems the same: finding the musical nuances in the empty spaces between notes and sounds.

And Concrete Desert definitely does that. Something of an ode to outer Los Angeles as viewed through a David Lynch lens, there's plenty 'nuff drone tones to go around. In fact, the longest cuts on here go entirely beatless, American Dream and the closing titular track both breaching the ten-minute mark as Misters Martin and Carlson feast off of each others feedback fuzz, sustained guitar timbre, and heavy dub production. These could fit snugly in the dark ambient camps in how bleak and dispiriting they come across. Even the ambient opener City Of Fallen Angels, while a tad more melodic and calm, still comes off suffocating, as though choking on desolate urban heat.

That's all well and good, but folks coming into a Bug album expect some crunchy, bass-heavy beats too. For sure he delivers, though even these come off sparse, more in service of Dylan's evolving drone. Gasoline has a strident march that Dylan's guitar rides on, Snakes & Rats assaults you like a sonic cannon, Don't Walk These Streets quickens the marching pace as all manner of tonal wickedness lurks in the shadowed alleys, and Broke... kinda' reminds me of a NIN interlude.

Nate Patrin of Pitchfork calls Concrete Desert “neo-neo-noir music”, to which I say, “fuck off, Pitchfork, and your retarded hyper-hyphenated genres.” They are right in saying that it “draws you into its discomfort” though. These are far from inviting tones to hear, but Bug and Earth craft such a seductive, sonic dance, you can't help but wander these desolate streets regardless.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Autumn Of Communion - Autumn Of Communion 4

Carpe Sonum Records: 2014

I've been buying music from Mick Chillage. I've been slowly getting up to speed on Lee Norris. Seems I've no choice but to finally spring for an Autumn Of Communion album, the collaborative project between the two. No, wait, this shouldn't sound like a chore, though it does feel like a challenge at times. They made their debut as AoC on Fax +49-69/450464, which wound up being among the last albums the label released before Pete Namlook's passing (apparently the last). You bet that's made it a tantalizing collectible now. The project wasn't homeless for long though, finding a comfortable spot in Mr. Norris' newly established ...txt print, where they've released several albums since. But as ...txt typically has ridiculously short-runs of CD pressings, finding affordable hard-copies of such albums has proven most difficult for late adopters (damn, wish I hadn't missed out on that Polydeuces ...mmm, Saturn beauty shot...).

Fortunately, Misters Norris and Gainford did contribute an LP to another fledgling label that spun-off from the epic-mega Namlook Tribute project, Carpe Sonum Records. Seeing as how Autumn Of Communion were honorary Fax+ alum, it was only appropriate that they'd offer up some new tunes for the Carpe Sonum crew, who tend to have lengthier CD runs than their ambient techno brethren. Praise the Techno Gods!

Even more appropriately, AoC produced a clutch of tracks that fall in line with Fax+ of old, all the while keeping things sounding modestly modern in the process. Autumn Of Communion 4, so named because it's the duo's forth proper album under the handle (d'uh), makes no bones about the style you're in for. I mean, just look at that cover art! My God, is it ever lovely, losing your gaze in a star-studded field of winter twilight, a leafless canopy serving as silent sentinels to the secrets above. And damn if the twenty-minute opener Ocean Of Religion doesn't feel like you're actually out there in the wilderness, losing your gaze in the great beyond. Distant percussion echoes from afar as lovely pads and soft timbre weave in and out, subtle astral-chatter meshing with field recordings throughout. I want to actually play this piece in such a setting, though the local park field at summer midnight might do in a pinch.

The rest of AoCIV is taken up by two longish tracks (Leaving Island, Zren Keen), and two shorterish tracks (Through The Motion, Animated Religions), which honestly sound like from different sessions than Ocean Of Religion. While still featuring lovely synth work, they're less spaced-out, coming off more grounded in songcraft, though Religions does reach some upper atmosphere vibes. Island mostly performs as a pure ambient outing with sporadic dubbed-out beats, Keen gets a little heavier in its rhythm department, and Motion is... groovy ambient? Is this a thing? I think this should be a thing.

But yeah, Autumn Of Communion 4 is as wonderful an album as you'd expect with the players involved. Miss at your own peril!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harold Budd & Brian Eno - Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror

Editions EG/EMI: 1980/2009

How does one follow-up a genre- nay, scene-defining album? Carry on with business as usual, I guess, and that's what Brian Eno did in the immediate aftermath of Music For Airports. It's not like he had plans to create ambient music as a critical benchmark and cultural touchstone, 'music as abstract art' ideas already explored throughout the '70s. All Music For Airports really did was crystallize those concepts under an easily identifiable banner. It wasn't Eno's manifesto to be the vanguard of an entirely new approach in music-making, more content playing the role of producer for numerous new wave bands emerging out of Britain and New York. Then again, one does not title an album Ambient 1 without some inclining this was a concept that would see future interpretations as a series. Kinda' committed yourself there, Eno ol' chap.

He couldn't tackle this wide-open field of potential music exploration on his own though, hence calling in one Harold Budd for a little collaborative work. Mr. Budd, having worked behind the scenes with jazz and minimalist musicians as a composer since the mid-'60s, released a proper debut album in 1978 called The Pavilion Of Dreams, released on Eno's own Obscure print. In fact, ol' Brian helped produce it, finding Budd's lengthy and sustained 'soft pedal' approach to piano playing gelling nicely with his notions of abstract minimalism. If anyone should join the ambient jamboree Eno was itching to set off, Harold was a perfect pairing. Having an actual pianist making the music instead of manipulating tape-loops is always preferable, right?

And yet, it was the looping nature of Music For Airports that gave it such a distinct characteristic that it spawned an entire genre of music. With Harold Budd laying his feathery touch upon the ol' ivories though, The Mirror Of Plateaux comes off less an ambient record, and more a modern classical one, where traditional musicianship remains in charge of a composition's direction. It's still very loose and improvisational, mind you, but you can't help but see Budd performing it, whereas ambient music typically prefers removing the notion of a musician at work altogether. At least, that's how it evolved over time – ironclad genre rules were still in the process of development at this early stage.

As for how Ambient 2: Plateaux Boogaloo sounds, it's fairly similar to Budd & Eno's later work on The Pearl, though with less of a coherent theme going on beyond music making for its own sake. It's mostly delicate piano noodling or soft organ diddling, with some synth pad in support. Not Yet Remembered breaks mould with a choir pad, and Wind In Lonely Faces adds bell and bowl tones, but that's about as adventurous as this album gets. Pleasant? Yes. Calm and soothing? Absolutely. Essential listening? Eh, The Pearl was a better pairing of these two's talents, but Plateaux Of Mirrors is a fine effort all around, a fitting companion piece to Eno's Ambient series.

Tangerine Dream - Alpha Centauri

Ohr/Esoteric Reactive: 1971/2011

Any chronicler of Tangerine Dream claims every album of theirs is an Important Stepping Stone in the band's development throughout the '70s, how each LP led to another new wrinkle in their sonic tapestry. And that remains true for their sophomore effort Alpha Centauri, though consensus states this one isn't as important as the others that came later. I don't agree with that entirely - at least on a conceptual level it's a significant change of direction from their debut Electronic Meditation. Even by title alone, you can tell this one's aiming for sending you on a journey somewhere specific, no matter how abstract and psychedelic the music gets. It just so happens space was the place everyone thought was the new hotness at the time, moon landings and Stanley Kubrick movies inspiring folks with their own takes on cosmic exploration. Plus, you can totally get away with sounding all weird and shit, because does anyone know what music at Alpha Centauri actually sounds like? Heck, we didn't even know what sounds Saturn could make yet! Freeform imagination songcraft abounds!

First up, because this is way-early Tangerine Dream, don't come into this album expecting anything like their mid-'70s genre-defining Berlin-School synth-wizardry sound. Nay, this is the band still in their psychedelic rock phase, though definitely pushing the boundaries of what could still be technically classified as 'rock music' within this nascent kraut offshoot. Opener Sunrise In The Third System serves as an intro of sorts, only four-and-a-half minutes long while building upon organ operatics and spaced-out guitar sounds. If this doesn't sound like you're out on the fringes of an extra-terrestrial planet, then you don't know your kosmische.

That one's fairly straight-forward as songs go on this album though. Second track Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola settles for nothing less than musique concrete abstraction for a good two minutes of its start, all pinging synth zaps and shimmering laser-lights; it's like you're riding the comet itself! Oh yeah, Comas Sola refers to a comet passing near Jupiter at the time, so this piece wants to recreate a journey on said comet, and potential collision with the big ball of temperamental hydrogen. I'd say they pull it off, much of the track a meandering, dithering piece of synth strings, organs, and almost inaudible guitar strums. Two-thirds deep, drums emerge, flutes be a tootin', and the track erupts in a cacophonous, psychedelic freak-out. If you feel that's too rocky for your Tangerine Dream music, check out the 2011 bonus track Ultima Thule Part One, where the band does a full rock-out as any psych-band could.

Still, the titular cut is the main attraction, running twenty-two minutes long. Yeah, it's one of those pieces, where the band seems to be fluffing about for an endless amount of time. Some weird synth noises here, an extended flute solo there, a little choir action and spoken German radio-chatter elsewhere, not much linking it all together. Methinks some refinement in their song-writing is still required.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power

ATCO Records: 1992

The only Pantera album you're supposed to have, even if you're not a Pantera fan. Any metal fan worth their salt will have this though, for no other reason than that cover. Imagine what it was like being a longhair back in the day, wandering into your local shop in search of something that was keeping the thrash fire alive. The standard bearers, Metallica, had left a void with their deliberate crossover effort the year before (the black album), any number of metal bands potentially stepping to the plate to take over. But Megadeth aimed to follow Metallica's lead, Slayer was between albums, and Anthrax was getting all chummy with hip-hop. No, someone new had to take the mantle, and believing their fresh, groove-orientated take on thrash could do the trick, Pantera aimed to drop the heaviest metal album ever with Vulgar Display Of Power. And to make sure they got your attention, they dropped the most fucking metal cover art ever onto store shelves, something you just couldn't look away from and had to hear what lay within. Paying a dude $10 a punch for the perfect shot never had such rewarding dividends.

More than anything, Vulgar Display Of Power marks a flashpoint in the way metal would be approached in the '90s. No more falsetto singing, Phil Anselmo instead bringing that underground hardcore growl to the forefront and never relenting, save a pair of obligatory ballads. And that bassline needs pitching right the fuck down, practically buried in the mix, so that it grinds like a machine – many subsequent thrash and death metal bands lifted this technique wholesale, such that the Pantera clones forced the band to go even heavier in Far Beyond Driven, just to keep pace.

But those guitar riffs, mang! Dimebag Darrell showed plenty of skill in albums past, but in unleashing their inner beast with Vulgar Display Of Power, he went to a whole other level (a new level!). For sure he let's Pantera's groove carry the load, his guitar tones featuring some of the heaviest crunch and feral snarl ever heard in the genre to that date. But he gets to solo time, and geez'it, the guy's just gone, mang, just gone. Gander at Rise, already an intense tear-out session, taking shredding to glorious highs. It's about the only remnant of '80s thrash on this album, everything else feeling '90s as fuck. Hell, even the 'ballad' This Love comes off more Gen-X pissed-off than whatever passed for sentimental in the decade prior. Other 'ballad' Hollow feeds more off '70s melodrama before getting to the punchy stuff to finish out.

Aggro-groove stompers dominate the album (A New Level, Walk, Live In A Hole, Regular People, By Demons Be Driven), with furious tear-outs breaking any potential monotony (Mouth For War, Fucking Hostile, Rise), though Pantera aren't hesitant to change tempo mid-track either. Something for every metal-head on here, then. Get it, and storm that lacrosse field with the fury of a thousand moshers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Enigma - Voyageur

Virgin: 2003

I can't say Enigma fell off after this album, Michael Cretu having released three additional albums since, including one this past winter after an eight year absence. And while hard sales are no where near what was enjoyed at the start of this project, he's retained enough of a dedicated following that his streaming figures remain respectable (so sayeth The Spotify).

Yet ask casual electronic music followers these days what they think of those albums, and they'll answer you with “Who's Enigma?” Then you'll try to educate them on albums like MCMXC a.D., and singles like Return To Innocence, and maybe they'll mention hearing their moms play those when they were kids, to which you'll realize you're getting just so very old and want to retreat to comforting sounds. Like the familiar, seductive, soothing refrains of classic Enigma, yeah, that'll do the trick, and by the by, have they released anything new lately? Ooh, here's some stuff on Spotify, may as well check that out.

Not that I blame folks for figuring Engima's time had passed. By the fourth album, The Screen Behind The Mirror, it felt as though Mr. Cretu was stuck recycling old habits; at least even he recognized the sound had grown stale. Following a greatest hits package proclaiming closure on the first chapter of Enigma's story, he came out with this album, Voyageur, a stated deliberate change in direction and song-writing. What that was supposed to lead to remains anyone's guess.

Rather, the main talking points surrounding Voyageur almost always bring up what it lacks compared to Enigma of old. No more ethnic chants and Gregorian sampling, gone are the vintage woodwinds that always immediately identified a Michael Cretu production. Both “Curly” M.C. and his wife still provide a few vocals, but more vocalists have been added to the table too. In fact, this is the 'poppiest' Enigma's ever sounded, songs short, concise, and radio-ready should any of them catch on. Only two did, the titular cut and Boum-Boum, both dancier options. Not so dancey as Look Of Today though, with one of the catchiest hooks I've ever heard in the Enigma canon (and well it should, being an interpolation of ABC's The Look Of Love).

Elsewhere, Incognito gets rockier, Page Of Cups aims for a little chill-out compilation action (it failed), and tracks like Weightless and The Piano dip closer to the New Age side of Cretu's muse. Meanwhile, In The Shadow, In The Light and closer Follow The Sun shoot for the emotional, spiritual feels, and I can't say I'm getting the feels from them like other Enigma tunes. There's something lacking, the same strident confidence you'd hear from Cretu's production no matter how overblown the music could get. Maybe its the result of trying something different, a feeling-out process after so many years relying on familiar songcraft. And Voyageur is fine enough on that regard, but that's about the only lasting impression this album ever generated. Ain't no one humming Boum-Boum, even then.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Craig Padilla - Vostok

Spotted Peccary: 2002

As usual when confronted with a different language than Canadianese, I had to do a quick search online for a 'vostok' definition. Like, I assumed it had something to do with a cold, wintery climate, but you never know with these musicians, so often unearthing obscure minutiae for inspiration. Eh, I can simply check the liner notes to find out? Ah, that would be handy, if I had the actual CD to do so. Besides, where's the fun in that? I should attempt some pseudo-sleuthing 'round these here parts. To the Wikisaurus!

And wouldn't you know it, I've turned out some unintended nuggets of knowledge-drop gold here. 'Vostok' is general term in Russian for 'east' (in reference to the Orient), but has many other references too. The Vostok rockets, for instance, which included the Vostok 1 mission, mankind's first ever spaceflight. It's also one of the craters on Mars that the Opportunity rover explored. Plus, here on good ol' terra firma, there's a Vostok Bay way out on Russia's eastern shores. There's also Vostok watches, Vostok Gas, Vostok Games, and Vostok motorcycles. I now know more about 'Vostok' than I do the artist behind this album, Craig Padilla.

Mr. Padilla has floated on the periphery of the ambient world for two decades now, getting an early start on the old MP3-dot-com website. After a few years there, he found other prints to release music on, including Space For Music, Groove Unlimited, and Spotted Peccary, Vostok being his debut with the latter. He remains a steady producer to this day, though no where near the level of output some ambient composers generate. Incidentally, this isn't my first brush with Craig Padilla, having touched on a contribution of his to the first volume of Ultimae's Fahrenheit Project. I didn't even recall that until I was checking out the chap's Lord Discogs entries, though you can't really blame me for it. His Beyond Beta was a nice piece of layered pad ambience, but didn't stand out so much compared to- what, I gave him ACE TRACK status too? Oh dear... um, I have no excuse for him slipping my mind then. Shame on me.

And yes, Vostok is in reference to Lake Vostok in Antarctica, a body of water submerged beneath many layers of ice. Due to the overwhelming pressure above, it isn't frozen solid, instead slowly melting and refreezing over vast expanses of time. Padilla aimed to recreate what it might be like trapped within that deeply isolating place, with nothing less than the single-track LP form doing the trick. Running over fifty-one minutes long, Vostok is quite the minimalist piece, gradually adding and building layers with droning thrums, distant rhythms, and glistening synths lazily meandering along. Some two-thirds in, the track retreats for some spritely synth doodling, but soon brings everything back for a... well, not a climax – this is ambient after all. Wait, lengthy build, breakdown, return, lead-out. Oh my God, Vostok is 'epic ambient', isn't it!

Ceephax - Volume Two (Original TC Review)

Rephlex: 2007

(2017 Update:
I haven't delved into Andy Jenkinson's material as much as I'd like, and that's almost entirely due to his discography's lack of CD options. Vinyl, digital offerings, tapes... absolutely, but the compact disc is a rare beast when it come to the Ceephax Acid Crew story. Not having a steady label doesn't help either. After the pair of albums on Rephlex, it appeared he'd taken a further step up the IDM ladder in releasing
United Acid Emirates on Mike Paradinas' Planet Mu.

That was 2010, and he's barely touched the LP format since. A few singles have cropped up though, almost all through Andy's own Waltzer print, so at least the project has kept going in some capacity. He might be moving on from the Ceephax stuff though, dipping his feet into the soundtrack business this past year on the Troma film,
Essex Spacebin. Eh, never heard of Troma? They of Toxic Avenger infamy? Yeah, that studio. How on Earth did Ceephax hook up with those wackos?)


IN BRIEF: An acidy timewarp.

If rumors are to be believed, acid is on the verge of a huge comeback. Really, it’s already been burbling just under the radar of clubland. Acid house, in sharing a similar aesthetic, can often be heard in ‘minimal’ sets. Meanwhile, the whole maximal techno camp shows no qualm in letting the ol’ TB-303 loose. And of course those wiggly-squiggly lines never left the psy trance scene. Now that it’s been twenty years since the sound first exploded into British consciousness, you can be rest assured there will be a flood of retrospective releases celebrating everything acid.

In the meantime, we have Andy Jenkinson, one of the new breed of IDM producers who fell in love with acid and honors it like it’s still the early 90s. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. As the younger brother of Tom Jenkinsion (aka: Squarepusher), he seems to also enjoy making other leftfield sounds like ‘drill’n’bass’, analogue ambient, and even casiocore.

Initially the Ceephax moniker was established to deal with that side of his work while the more cumbersome-named Ceephax Acid Crew tinkered with trance. Hah, no, of course it’s acid. Anyhow, upon getting signed to Rephlex (founded by some guy named Richard D. James - perhaps you’ve heard of him?), Andy merged the two together and released two albums dealing with these different aspects of his productions: Volume One, from earlier in the year, featured his IDM side of things, while this here Volume Two takes on the TB-303 and ambiance.

And while he doesn’t stretch the sound too far off the beaten path, he struts his acid stuff with winning results. Tracks like Snifter’s Acid, Scary Pollution, and Cold War Acid has it bubbling and squiggling along. Elsewhere, Andy cranks the tweakin’ up a few notches in Acid Schroeder, Acid Breezer (have I typed ‘acid’ enough yet?), and Vulcan Venture. In all, it’s a fun assortment of 303 indulgence, but there is an elephant in this room that also has to be dealt with: production quality.

When I say Andy honors the early 90s, it isn’t merely with fanciful aesthetics; I mean it literally. Rhythms are incredibly tinny by modern standards, with under-powered sounds and arrangements that don’t stray far from techno’s raw roots. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this was a release from Rephlex’s birth-year rather than fifteen years on. At some points, you have to wonder just what these may have sounded like had he brought his production into the 21st century. For example, Vulcan Venture is a smashing exercise in pounding techno, a beast of a tune as is. Yet what if it had been made with modern equipment? Monstrous is what it would be!

Still, once the album does gets a few tracks under its belt, these production limitations don’t seem to matter as much. It’s rather like watching a classic sci-fi movie: yes, the special effects are hilariously primitive by today’s standards, but when the plot is solid enough to grab your attention, you don’t even notice it. And the plot in Volume Two is indeed solid.

Or rather, Andy’s tracks are good enough to enjoy even with the unapologetic restrictions he places upon himself. Whether with funk or with reckless energy, all of his acid workouts will hook you in (well, aside from the go-nowhere loopfest that is Scary Pollution). But especially so with the lovely melodies he interjects into his tracks, proving there’s more to his work than a love of what acid can do for you.

These melodies manifest themselves more prominently in his ambient excursions, which bookend the album. Opener LW Traveller is interesting but noodles a bit too much. However, as a somber minimalist piece, closer Ravenscar is quite nice, even if Andy does get a tad over-experimental towards the end of it. Still, at least it isn’t quite as wank as the stuff he does in TX Ogre.

Ultimately, your decision to commit debit to disc with Volume Two will depend entirely upon whether you enjoy old school acid techno. As easy as it is be fooled into thinking so, this isn’t a throwback album; Andy simply likes vintage equipment and makes ample use of it - warts, limitation, and all. If you do too, then by all means hop on the ride with the Ceephax Acid Crew.

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

L.S.G. - Volume Two (2017 Update)

Superstition: 1996

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)


I may have overstated Netherworld's importance. I'm sure there were other records around the time that did a better job defining the progressive trance template than this one. Do any of them kick as much ass as Oliver Lieb's mini-opus though? I think not. What were some of its competitors in the year 1996? X-Cabs' Neuro? De Niro's Mind Of Man? Transa's Prophase? Bangers for sure, but comparatively simple and straight-forward when stacked against all the stuff happening in Netherworld. Who else had the balls to include an electro bridge in the middle of an anthem? Yeah, it's a feature that goes overlooked since most remixers jettison it in their rubs, no matter what direction they take it - it's all about the vocal sample and those gated pads, man. What I wouldn't give to hear a late '90s electro hero take this tune down their gnarly paths though. Anthony Rother, maybe? Dopplereffekt? Boris Divider? Boris...? Boris...?

Speaking of unexpected remixers... Holy cow, did you know Banco de Gaia did a remix for Volume Two? I sure as Hell didn't! Not in all the years I've followed both Toby Marks and Oliver Lieb (two decades strong) did I hear of this. Yeah, I knew Lieb offered a rub on the Kincajou single, but I had no clue the remix favor was returned. Yet there it is, included on a supplemental record full of remixes and Vinyl Cuts care of L.S.G.'s original home of Superstition. Ah, hm, I think I see the problem there. Netherworld was the only real EP to emerge from Volume 2, and that was handled by Hooj Choons - I'd almost argue Netherworld was specifically custom-made for that print, so out of sync it was with the rest of Lieb's L.S.G. works around the time. Any other remixes of Volume Two tunes would undoubtedly get way overshadowed in this marketing scenario, so Jules Verne must thank his lucky stars Hooj picked up his rub as well. Hey, more Netherworlds, amirite?

As for Banco though, he took on the industrial-breaks of Get Out for his rub, and it's... okay, I guess. Right, so there's another reason I never heard of this before: no one really gave a toss about it. Lieb's go with Kincajou was already a stretch, and while ol' Toby brings some tribalistic drumplay in his take with techno, it's no surprise he seldom ever tried his hand at it (think Gnomes Mix of Kuos).

Another surprising remixer in that original vinyl collection is Terry Lee Brown, Jr.; aka: Norman Feller; aka: another classic German trance producer that shared some songcraft attributes with Lieb. Obviously they ventured on drastically different paths from this point, but it's cool seeing the two on the same record nonetheless. Mr. Feller even does something different with his rub, a typical Terry tech-house cut he was producing at the time, but with snippets of various tracks from Volume 2 thrown in. He called it Terry's Patchwork Of V. 2. Cute.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

36 - Void Dance

3six Recordings: 2015

Anyone worth their ambient salt these days knows about Dennis Huddleston’s 36 project, but it still feels like he flies under the radar. It’s that name, y’see, one of the most ambiguous handles you’ll ever come across in the world of music (remarkably, Lord Discogs states this is the second (2) usage of a ‘36’ alias). Good luck doing a Googling without the ‘ambient’ accompaniment, though why anyone would search for such a thing without that context is beyond me. It would be much easier if Mr. Huddleston wrote his musical nom de plume as it’s intended to be said: Three-Six, or even offered as his label, 3six Recordings. Ah, ahh, bet you were saying it as ‘Thirty-Six’, weren’t you! Okay, not you, who is all in the know about this stuff.

Name aside, Mr. Huddleston has built himself a tidy career this past decade, making his debut in 2009 with Hypersona, and steadily gaining all the plaudits along the way. He’s released nearly twenty albums and singles across various formats, been featured on Very Important Ambient blogs such as Headphone Commute and A Strangely Isolated Place, and playlisted by AstroPilot, ASC, and Ultimae Records. Not bad for a chap who’s somehow built his ambient mini-fiefdom primarily through independent means.

That said, I can’t comment on much of his music, as I’ve only taken in a few releases thus far. For some reason, I want to savor the mystique with the guy’s work, feeling his discography is an embarrassment of riches I shouldn’t binge on too soon. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the 36 brand of ambient is some sort of revolutionary, groundbreaking, immaculate sort, but damn if it doesn’t hit all the blissy triggers my brain-matter desires. His sound has been described as ‘glowing melancholy’, and I’ll say it’s apt.

Void Dance is 36’s seventh album (or eleventh if you want to include a series of tapes), which Mr. Huddleston claimed as culmination of his music writing up to that point. For an LP that is about as singularly ambient as ambient can get, there is a decent amount of diversity too. For sure you get the standard layered pads and droning timbre, but each track offers something different enough such that Void Dance doesn’t come off like an endless loop.

Hold On and the titular cut go the bright synth route, Equinox and Endless take a more modern classical path, while Stasis Eject, Nova, Diamond Rain, and The Last Light do the old-school, warble-crackly ambient sound. A couple tracks show a little rhythmic potential, Pulse Drive adding hi-hats and Tomorrow’s World getting its Berlin-School arps on. And let’s not leave Sine Dust out of this recap, such a lovely slice of melancholy ambient that includes ghostly vocals like so much future garage goes.

Oh yes, get yourself some Void Dance if you’ve yet to sample the 36 stylee. It’s a tasty entry point, even for folks unfamiliar with the genre.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Billy Idol - Vital Idol

Chrysalis Records: 1987/2002

What a beautiful, bizarre beast the Billy Idol story is. You’d be hard pressed coming up with a “Top 10 Most ‘80s Acts” that didn’t include this chap, riding the New Wave brigade in his own style while dominating a fledgling MTV viewscreen. He got his start in the world of punk, his former band Generation X having some mild success, but sensing that scene too limiting for his ambition, left the group with guitarist Steve Stevens for a solo career. You could label Mr. Broad a sell-out, but he did it in such an impeccably innovative way, you can’t help but admire the brazen boldness of it all. Take all that punk style and attitude, puree it in a futuristic New Wave sauté, and aim for nothing less than arena rock stardom. It took a little while to get there, but by the time Idol’s second album Rebel Yell hit, he was one of the biggest stars of the ‘80s.

Yeah, the MTV thing played a major role in it, but let’s not overlook what helped build Billy Idol’s early buzz. I mean, it’s the whole point of these remixes, extended version of his biggest hits ready for use in clubs all over the world, and especially New York City. For a short time, Vital Idol was the closest thing to a greatest hits package you could get from him. Most of his biggest singles feature here, though most glaringly not Rebel Yell - I guess that one’s just too ‘rocky’ for the disco dancehalls.

All those other Idol cuts though, they’re here. White Wedding, Dancing With Myself, Hot In The City, and of course the perennial high-school dance/late-night wedding favorite, Mony Mony (go on, say it, you child). What’s interesting about Mony Mony is this was the only place you could find the track before a proper greatest hits collection came out, the original appearing just on an early Idol single. And truth be told, these extended versions are the ones I’m most familiar with, primarily because Vitol Idol was an essential CD for any mobile DJ worth their salt in the ‘80s. Since my old man had a side-business doing such gigs, you bet I can’t hear White Wedding without expecting that synthy Part II (denied every time on the radio).

For my money (money) though, it’s the back-half of Vital Idol that’s more interesting. Here you find tracks like Flesh For Fantasy, To Be A Lover, Love Calling, and Catch My Fall, tunes that aren’t anywhere as prevalent on the radio, much less as these extended versions. They do get rather repetitive at times, dragging out rhythmic sections for a few builds before the chorus returns, but man, is that breakdown in To Be A Lover ever a trancey one. Still, unless you just gotta’ have slightly longer, dancier version of Billy Idol songs, Vital Idol remains a fans-only option. His various greatest hits packages are far more comprehensive of the man’s body of work.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Stuart McLean - A Story-Gram From Vinyl Cafe Inc.

Vinyl Cafe Productions: 2004

As Canadian cultural icons go, I can’t say Stuart McLean is well known outside our borders. Obviously quite a few athletes, actors, and musicians has more fame, but even among comedians or media personalities I can run off a fair number before folks abroad draw blanks: Don Cherry, Red Green, Rick Mercer, George Stroumboulopoulos, Ed The Sock, Ron MacLean (no relation), Peter Mansbridge (okay, pushing it) …um, that Jian guy that doesn’t deserve any spotlight these days.

Nay, Stuart McLean probably ranks around Royal Canadian Air Farce as far as cultural impact goes, a steadying presence one could count on should they happen across his popular radio broadcast The Vinyl Café. And despite his death this year, he’ll likely live on with rebroadcasts, the show one of CBC’s most endearing. His skill as a storyteller was such that he could take the mundane minutiae of suburban life and have you captivated in the twists and turns each tale took. Seldom anything so zany as to be unbelievable, just simple events that anyone could find relatable (oh God, as I’m typing these words, I’m hearing it in Mr. McLean’s cadence).

The Vinyl Café revolved around a couple named Dave and Morely, and their two children Stephanie and Sam. Dave ran a record shop from which the series based its name on, though for the longest time, I kept imagining a coffee house filled with walls, stools, couches, and even specialized mugs covered in vinyl. I can’t imagine that being too appealing to those with allergic reactions to the material. When I clued in that wasn’t the case, I then thought McLean was reading these stories to an audience within a place called The Vinyl Café, because I didn’t tune in enough to think otherwise. Yeah, can’t say I was a studious follower of McLean’s work, but didn’t mind staying on the channel for a while should I hear his voice on the airwaves.

As the series was successful by Canadian broadcast standards, it naturally spun off books and CDs. A Story-Gram From Vinyl Café Inc. was the fifth double-album released under the banner (not including a Christmas album, because of course there would be one), gathering up a half-dozen selections from McLean’s storytelling tours. Yes, two discs worth, as each story typically runs around the twenty minute mark each. They can come off long-winded in the beginning, yet succinct by tale’s end.

And as for the stories included? Oh, the usual sort of things a suburban family may go through. A miscommunication over Dave perhaps dying (featuring lots of gifted lasagna). Morely joining a book club that’s ridiculously pretentious. A sapling growing in the gathered dirt of Dave’s old car. How Dave dealt with the labor of their first child. Dave’s feeble attempts to erase an accidental, disparaging message left on a neighbor’s tape machine, which includes hijinks with an oversized magnet that would have Wile E. Coyote thinking this is a little over the top. You know, everyday Canadian stuff.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sense - A View From A Vulnerable Place

Neo Ouija/Psychonavigation Records: 2001/2016

I feel dirty having this. It looked innocent enough, a simple reissue by a label that seemed to have its heart in the right place. They’d exposed me to a number of ambient and downtempo producers I’d have otherwise overlooked, including one Adam Raisbeck as Sense. To have an actual hard-copy of his debut album A View From A Vulnerable Place, quite out of print at this point, where’s the harm in that?

Perhaps none, but as time passed following this reissue, more of the bad habits and questionable business tactics going on at Psychonavigation Records’ headquarters started coming to light. There were prior rumors and hushed whispers on the subject, but few wanted to believe an ambient print would ever engage in such shenanigans – close-knit community and all, right? Then things completely blew up over a potential Peter Benisch reissue (dude!), and now Psychonavigation Records has currently disappeared from the internet - website, Bandcamp and all. I don’t want to get further into it here because this is supposed to be a review for A View From A Vulnerable Place, but… yeah.

So, Sense’s debut album, released in 2001, on an early Lee Norris label, Neo Ouija. I honestly wasn’t expecting ambient techno of this sort – rather more straight-forward ambient, since most of my Sense exposure comes from his pure ambient works. The rhythms have a crisp, electro aesthetic I associate with Vector Lovers and Lorenzo Montanà at this point (first exposures and all), though with less of the robot love in the former, and not as much IDM glitch in the latter. Probably a better comparison is to Norris’ own work around the time as Metamatics, but I haven’t taken in enough of that yet to give a definitive confirmation (he’s got so much music to catch up on!). As this was originally released on his print though, it doesn’t surprise me he’d greenlight a debut from someone with a similar sound.

Sense doesn’t do much challenging with his beatcraft, for the most part offering simple IDM rhythms - he more than makes up for it in the melodic department though. It’s all about those feels, man, and the childlike whimsy one gets when viewing the world from a vulnerable place. Probably also where I get the Vector Lovers vibe on this album, though Sense explores such emotions in a broader context than Mr. Wheeler does. Whether with twee synths, spritely tones, or muted strings, Sense doesn’t mince tugging at your innocent sentiments. The only criticism I can levy here is his palette does run rather samey throughout the album, but at a tidy ten tracks long (with one twelve-minute cut near the end) offering brisk, uptempo numbers to chill, downtempo tracks, it doesn’t wear out either.

A View From A Vulnerable Place definitely deserves its ‘small classic’ status in ambient circles, and hopefully an honest reissue will come about down the road, as the original don't come cheap. Not that this one lasted long either.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

ACE TRACKS: May 2017

You know what coincided nicely with me listening to all that jazz, man? Finally finishing up a series that has quite the love affair with jazz music itself, not to mention a whole lot of other Americana: Cowboy Bebop. I’d catch snippets here and there over the past two decades since it came out, but never sat down with a proper DVD set and binge-watch the whole thing. And to be honest, I still haven’t! Sure, I borrowed the series from a friend, but that was last autumn, and only this past May have I concluded my session.

Because I know these twenty-six episodes is all there is to the series (plus a movie), I wanted to savor each and every one, stretch the experience out as though watching it like a regular TV show. And by g’ar, I pulled it off too! For sure I was continuously tempted to hop to the next episode, the next disc, just to see What Happens Next, but my resilience and fortitude paid off, Cowboy Bebop now having settled into my memory membranes like a fine wine rather than a cheap beer. Of course, now that I’m going through the show again with the alternate audio track (what, doesn’t every anime fan do that?), I’m burning through the show again in no time. Whee!

Oh, how was Cowboy Bebop? Yeah, it’s a dope show, but I’ve spent plenty ‘nuff time rambling on about it here, so let’s get to ACE TRACKS of May 2017.


Full track list here.


MISSING ALBUMS:
Stormloop - Into The Void
Mystica Tribe - Island Oasis
Mick Chillage - (M)odes
MO-DU - MOD01
ASC - No Stars Without Darkness
Fjäder - Shades Of Light
Vernon - Soundstream

Percentage Of Hip-Hop: 0%
Percentage Of Rock: 5%
(Percentage Of Jazz!: 15%)
Most “WTF?” Track: Either one of the creepier dark ambient offerings, or an impressive jazz solo.

Yay, a ‘big’ playlist again! Sure does help that I’m on a good reviewing clip once more. Not sure why I’ve got a little mojo back compared to earlier in the year. Maybe I was excited to review four CDs of jazz? Not quite, though getting through some of these ‘V’ albums has definitely been fun. For such a small letter in my library – we’re already more than half-way through it! – some of my all-time favorite albums lurk in this bundle. It won’t be long before wrapping this one up, then another modest backtrack, then onto the last of the ‘big’ letters in this project, ‘W’. Fans of water-themed music rejoice!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious (Original TC Review)

YoYo Records: 2007

(2017 Update:
Remember when some Infected Mushroom fans figured this was the absolute worst the duo could reach? Haha, oh you darling dickens, just wait until a weird, parasitic, futuristic noise known as 'brostep' invades their sound. Maybe you'll accept the 'nu-metal' stuff after all then.

When I was writing this a decade ago (!!), I couldn't help but worry whether I had any right claiming authoritative insight on what metal fans would like. For all intents, IM lured in quite a few to the ranks of psy-trance, fascinated by the strange sounds and twisted production tricks unlike anything they'd heard paired with power chords and heavy riffage before. Going back to it though, this album still sounds overwrought and corny, making me embarrassingly cringe in the hopes the music's not leaking too much out of my headphones such that complete strangers give me The Look. But it's not like I haven't enjoyed pseudo-serious metal myself (oh hi, Pantera) - taste will always be subjective, and if
Vicious Delicious somehow does it for you (!!!), you shouldn't feel any shame in that. Only fans of Handsup should be ashamed of any pride in listening to that rubbish. Shame on you, Handsup fans.)


IN BRIEF: An attempt to appeal to the most moronic of metal fans.

To say Infected Mushroom’s previous album IM The Supervisor was received with mixed reviews would be too kind. More specifically, it divided their fanbase into two solid camps: those who fully embraced the duo’s forays into metal riffage and singing, and those who wouldn’t give them another chance unless they knocked it off with the guitars and got back to making psy trance. Perhaps it's silly to have such expectations on them though. After all, they've clearly stated they’d rather try different music than stay in a specific niche. Still, this is the psy scene we’re talking about here - although fun, it is quite insular to the rest of the music world.

And unfortunately for such fans, Erez Aizen and Amit ‘Duvdev’ Duvdevani are showing no signs of which way they want to go either. They moved to Los Angeles to escape their Israeli scene stereotype, yet retain mostly a psy trance following whenever on tour. They’ve been featured on the cover of DJ Mag, but probably only as a means of that rag trying to gain some ‘underground’ cred for covering a psy act. And are they trying to be rock or trying to be psy? Who knows anymore. Even their latest album - Vicious Delicious - finds this split personality in full effect, with half the tracks sounding like either or.

I’m almost at a quandary whether we should be covering this release at all. When the duo embrace metal, it’s a full plunge; very little of their electronic background is retained beyond studio tricks that add to a track’s production. This isn’t like S.U.N. Project or other ‘buttrock goa’ acts that would use guitars as something to complement acid squelches; this is Infected Mushroom doing rap-metal, or prog-metal, or metal-metal. But an electronic act they still are, as the standard psy tracks on Vicious Delicious attest to. And ultimately, Infected Mushroom are more electronic than Neil Young, right?

For as large of a name Infected Mushroom is though, I’m amazed at how average their psy trance offerings are here. The track Suliman, for instance. With chunky rubbery hooks, vocal samples, and squelchy guitar licks, this could have been produced by any number of Israeli acts. Of course, its possible producers in Israel are copying the duo due to their success, but it doesn’t excuse them from sounding like everyone else either. Eat It Raw isn’t much better, going through so many meandering psy motions, you’d be hard pressed to remember it later. Change The Formality suffers from directionless writing too, but is redeemed by better sounds at play and an incredibly infectious vocal hook (and probably one of the best on the whole album, but I’ll get to the vocals in bit). Beyond, in avoiding many of Israeli psy’s more annoying clichés, is a nice trancer in its own right but sounds strangely out of place.

Ah yes. Israeli psy clichés. Let me talk to you about them for a moment. The title track Vicious Delicious is filled with the best and worst of them. First the good: the climax is great, with a build that just keeps piling the tension on and on; whenever full-on nails this it’s possibly some of the most exciting electronic music out there, and Infected Mushroom hits it wonderfully here. It comes in the last third of the track though, and you have to sit through a bunch of nonsense to get there: lots of rambling tangents, and lots of ridiculous sounds. What even is that? A burbling baby mixed with intestinal indigestion? Just idiotic.

Still, when compared to the duo’s metal offerings...

The flamenco-styled Becoming Insane is tolerable thanks to the catchy guitar licks but the rest of their offerings are hilariously awful. You'd think they were a couple of teens who'd just discovered Metallica for the first time. It’s bad enough their limp attempt at prog-metal (Heavy Weight) relies on the simplest of power-chords and acoustic melodies to get the long-hairs thrashing their heads (and I’m not talking about the hippies). It’s bad enough Forgive Me sounds like they were inspired by shit-rockers Nickelback. And it’s bad enough Special Place is a misguided combination of rambling Israeli psy with rock. No, the ultimate abomination is their attempts to sound like Linkin fucking Park!

Artillery is rap-metal at its most hokey. With one-time mainstream Canadian rappers Swollen Members in support, Infected Mushroom apparently never got the notice this style of music was officially declared uncool for a number of years now; ever since the initial fanbase of the genre grew out of their prepubescent stage and matured. While the raps are at least functional, 'Duvdev' sounds like he's shooting for Chester Bennington but ends up sounding closer to Chad Kroeger of the aforementioned shit-rock group Nickelback. Here's the actual chorus:

“Loooooooocccked insiiiiiiiiidde this caaaaaaAAAAAAggee agaaaaAIIIiiinnn!”

But guess what! Infected Mushroom decide they need to cover all aspects of metal on this release, and offer to their listeners In Front Of Me, a power ballad! Good God, no.

Folks may think I’m being harsh on Infected Mushroom because they decided to venture out of their familiar psy trappings, that I dislike their metal offerings because of their use of guitars and such. Not at all. Heavy guitars have often worked wonderfully in EDM, with Liam Howlett's usage the greatest example. Fact of the matter, though, is Infected's metal songs are just amateur at best and crap at worst, with songwriting at a level only young teenage boys would think is innovative. I’ll grant ‘buttrock goa’ was never exactly musically creative either, but at least it had tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of this fact. Infected Mushroom seems to believe these tracks are actually good. And production wise, yes I’ll grant they are. But make no mistake: Vicious Delicious’s metal is for beginners ...or psy trancers who are easily amazed at the inclusion of a guitar, judging by some of their fans’ reactions. I find if I reduce my brain to the thoughts of an angst–filled fourteen year old, the songs are tolerable but I shouldn’t have to rely on drinking a six-pack of cheap beer in the school park before 11pm to enjoy an album.

All in all, Vicious Delicious is an average psy trance release, and a metal release bordering on parody; there is no middle-ground. If Infected Mushroom stay on this path, they should have little trouble in continuing the alienation of their old fanbase, yet also satisfying them just the same. Trying to have your cake and eating it too has never been so apparent.

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Various - The Verve Story: 1944-1994 (Disc Four: 1962-1994)

Verve Records: 1994

Despite initially being vilified as ‘devil reefer music the [blacks] liked’ at the start, jazz had a darn good run at the top. One cannot discuss music of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s without its influence on culture abroad. But though it remained a significant player in the ‘60s, newer music began dominating the lexicon of a younger generation. Rock, folk, funk, R&B, and country were seen as the sounds of the Now and the Future (not to mention weird abstract noises from electronic contraptions), and if jazz musicians wished to remain relevant in general discourse, they had to adapt with the times.

Thing is, most jazz musicians didn’t give a lick about that. Sure, a few gained the attention of Very Important rock journalists (Davis, Hancock, Coltrane), but for the most part they were content in enhancing ways of approaching their craft. A ‘free’ method, if you will, eschewing the conventions of old to find more ways of playing all the notes. I can’t say I’m much of a fan of this expressionist era, all that technical skill coming off as musical masturbation. Give me something to hook on, mang!

Verve Records must have sensed the changing tides, branching off into other music after founder Norman Granz sold the label to MGM. They still had successful jazz records early in the Sixties, but as the decade wound down, so did their jazz output. The music here showcases some of the more ‘leftfield’ records they released in this time, including Latin sounds of Cal Tjader’s Soul Sauce (Guachi Guaro), Kenny Burrell’s Last Night When We Were Young, and The Girl From Ipanema with Stan Getz and João Gilberto. CD4 wraps this era up with the old bop standard Night Train as performed by Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. You know this tune from Back To The Future.

Speaking of the ‘80s, let’s time-jump two decades! *whoosh*

What’s Verve been up to in that time? Not a whole lot, mostly doing re-issues for Polydor after that media group bought them from MGM in ’72. Despite traditional jazz almost a cultural afterthought for much of that period, these sold well enough that by the late ‘80s, PolyGram decided there was enough interest in the music to warrant a semi-relaunch of Verve Records. They’d still continue the reissue business, but also start signing new talent as well, bringing back all that swing, bebop, and free jazz stylee to those who never lost the faith. Maybe they got in on that developing ‘acid jazz’ sound too, but there’s none of it with the small sampling of ‘contemporary jazz’ we get on CD4. And yeah, as with the ‘free’ stuff from the ‘60s, I’ve only a passive, technical appreciation for this stuff, nothing more.

Still, one can’t help but come away from The Verve Story with at least some appreciation of the music’s heritage. Verve Records is far from the whole story, but it’s a significant chapter of jazz’s legacy.

Various - The Verve Story: 1944-1994 (Disc Three: 1957-1962)

Verve Records: 1994

I’ve mentioned plenty ‘nuff my reservation in exploring jazz beyond the peripheral due to that scene’s daunting size. And hey, fair enough, right? There’s only so much music out there one can dedicate one’s time to. This habit don’t pay the bills (oh God, if only…), so my time remains limited. Nay, ‘tis easier to focus on what I’m properly passionate about, checking other stuff whenever the whim strikes me. Still, there’s another reason I’ve so often put jazz music on the low-end spectrum of my interest, and it’s entirely due to one instrument: the saxophone.

Before saxophone fans get all in a tizzy, this isn’t some arbitrary hate on the horn’s heritage or stylistic preference. I generally enjoy the sound saxophones bring to the world of music, an important touchstone in giving blues, bebop, noir films, and Lisa Simpson their cultural identities. Unfortunately, there’s an audio range of the instrument that’s like needles on my eardrums, physically painful for reasons I don’t understand, generally anything above the mid-tenor through alto – lower tenor and baritone are fine. This gets especially trying when jazz musicians are playing with gusto, incidental reed squeaks making things even worse. I’ve read it attributed to medium, saxophones not surviving the transition into digital terribly well. Perhaps, but it doesn’t help the fact it remains one of the premier instruments of jazz musicians, and thus effectively curtailing whatever enjoyment I get out of the scene.

Take the opening track of CD3 in this Verve box-set, Crazy Rhythm with trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor saxaphonist Stan Getz. Holy cow, but is that rhythm ever crazy! This is some of the fastest jazz music I’ve ever heard, and super-props to Ray Brown (bass), Connie Kay (drums), Oscar Peterson (piano) and Herb Ellis (guitar) in staying so tight, feeding J.J. and Stan all the fuel for their solos. And Mr. Johnson does his thing, and I’m diggin’ it real good, and then Stan does his thing, and I enjoy it for his technical skill, but I don’t feel it so well, because his horn hurts my ears like so much high-tempo saxophone always does. This handicap totally sucks, it does.

Anyhow, CD3 sees the Verve machine in full swing (including a couple swing tunes, though rather subdued compared to the raucous Forties). Jazz is entering its ‘sophistication’ era, no longer the default music of choice for hep cats (culturally defunct) and cool kids (they prefer rockabilly), but upper-crust parties and college-educated professional adults. Just as well, as fancy musical innovations like ‘high fidelity’ and ‘stereo’ were getting their starts too, and only rich folks had the money for playback machines that could take advantage of it. There’s some nifty tunes here (Ella Fitzgerald getting her scat-bop baritone on, Stan Getz’s Night Rider further fusing classical touches with jazz, Jimmy Smith adding organ to the Verve legacy), but this is about where my interest in jazz music as a genre starts cratering. More on that in CD4!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Various - The Verve Story: 1944-1994 (Disc Two: 1953-1957)

Verve Records: 1994

Right, it wasn’t just the nifty box-set design that caught my attention when buying this. The name Verve Records does have some pedigree even to those as unenlightened of jazz’s storied history as I, so it was a safe bet checking out a 50th Anniversary collection for a proper knowledge-drop on the music.

To simply call it a jazz label hardly does the Verve print justice though, adopting many other scenes as tastes and trends shifted through the ‘60s and ‘70s. They brought us the Righteous Brothers, The Velvet Underground, The Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, and assorted folksy music too. Jazz remained Verve’s breaded butter though, and even as the music slowly dwindled from prominence, it found a comfortable role in reissuing its back-catalog, all the while gobbling up other jazz prints as labels consolidated their assets into mega-labels. They’re apparently now under the Interscope Geffen A&M Records banner, but not before making stops with MGM, PolyGram, and Universal. I can’t imagine founder Norman Granz figured his print would ever take such a convoluted journey.

Before he set up Verve Records though, Granz had a couple other prints. CD1 focused on his seminal Jazz At The Philharmonic concert tours (not so much a label, but a cross-label brand), and Clef Records, which ran for a decade before being absorbed into Verve. Around 1953, Granz set up another label called Norgran Records, though it too was consolidated into Verve in ’56. It’s this five year period that CD2 cribs its material from, the mid-‘50s in all its boppin’ glory.

Yeah, there’s a good deal of the bebop groove here that’ll have you realizing where the roots of rock’n’roll originated from – the rhythm guitar was getting more opportunities to strut its stuff, that’s for sure. Naturally I’m fonder of this stuff, though hearing more blues-leaning jazz doesn’t hurt either. And while swing was essentially on the outs by the Fifties, that didn’t mean big-bands went by the wayside too, quite a few offerings of ‘orchestras’ on display here (minimum six musicians present, singer optional). I can’t help but think of grand Hollywood spectacles of hip, urban life while hearing these tunes, which is in stark contrast to the more modest, quieter pieces like Art Tatum’s piano solo Tea For Two and Benny Carter’s My One And Only Love - now I’m at a stuffy cocktail party.

However, the most prominent new addition to the Verve legacy CD2 showcases is vocalists. Obviously jazz music had singers before, but when Granz established this print, it was with promoting singing talent in mind. This included such vocalists as Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, who he personally managed. In fact, the first official Verve release was a collection of Cole Porter covers sung by Ms. Fitzgerald. For my money though, that duet with Louis Armstrong (They Can’t Take That Away From Me) is the clear highlight. Dang near everything ol' Louis did was gold.

Various - The Verve Story: 1944-1994 (Disc One: 1944-1953)

Verve Records: 1994

Like any good and true ‘lover of music’, I had to eventually pay my pittance to jazz music. Where to start though? Its history is impossibly immense, with no hope of simply dipping one’s toes within - even the shallows are as vast as a continental shelf to the scene’s endless oceans. Acid and nu-jazz have provided me a few backdoor avenues, though only delayed the inevitable proper step into the world of swing, blues, bebop, Afro-Cuban, bossa-nova, smooth, cool, free, and a zillion others, I’m sure (and you thought electronic music could get convoluted in its genre demarcations). A ‘best of’ collection seemed an appropriate starting point, but how does one differentiate the soulless corporate cash-grab compilations from the earnest sets curated by authorative historians? Packaging is usually a good indicator of quality, hence why I impulsively sprung for a 4CD box-set celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Verve Records sitting in a used shop – the box has a nifty, faux-vinyl texture to it.

This, of course, means I must now write four reviews of jazz music. No, there’s no avoiding it, no loopholes in my arbitrary rules I can exploit. I’ve written reviews for Every. Single. Disc. of box-sets that include Neil Young, Pete Namlook & Klaus Schulze, Pete Namlook tributes, plus two centered around video game music. It’s only appropriate and decent that I afford jazz music the same prestige (shut up, Goa Trance – Psychedelic Flashbacks, you’re irrelevant to this discussion).

Think there’s not enough material to cover here? Please. I could easily spend four reviews discussing the players involved on CD1 alone, though most of it would be dry regurgitation of historical talking points. I have practically no intimate knowledge of such musicians like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, or Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra. I do recognize some names here though, like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Nat King Cole, and the ever-famous cheek-puff maestro Dizzy Gillespie, but that’s through sheer cultural osmosis. I can tell you how these guys were influential in the development of jazz music, but not why it’s significant with any sort of clairvoyance on my part.

Nay, the most I can offer here is detailing the ‘feels’ such music gives me, and yeah, CD1, I feels ya’. The disc covers the first ten years of Verve’s history (technically not even Verve yet, but I’ll get to that later), when jazz was moving on from swing and into its bop era. For the most part, I quite like this era, what with its brisk rhythms and free-wheelin’ solos (soundtracking cartoons of the time doesn’t hurt either). There’s an energy and zest for performing to the best of one’s abilities captured with these recordings, a chunk of which are live as performed in concert halls. Even the slower, bluesy numbers have enough soul in them I can’t help but hang on each note. Add in that authentically crap, crusty, ripped-from-records quality, and it feels like I’m transported to another time and place.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Groove Armada - Vertigo

Jive Electro: 1999/2000

I already mentioned Vertigo is the only Groove Armada album you’ll likely have, even if you’re not a Groove Armada fan, back when I reviewed The Remixes. That’s only true of American interests though, the duo enjoying plenty of sales numbers for follow-up LPs Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) and Lovebox. And despite a half-decade gap, Soundboy Rock did reasonably well in the UK, but it was clear their fame abroad was diminishing. A new wave rebranding for 2010’s Black Light generated a little sustained buzz, and perhaps they could have kept that going if trends weren’t so darn fickle in the world of club music. Instead, they’ve recently opted for that safest of fallbacks all producers succumb to, deeeeeeep house. Ah well, at least there’s precedent in their discography for it.

Vertigo always strikes me as the sort of album that shouldn’t have had much of a hope at gaining Platinum sales status, yet was destined for it regardless. The big singles off here were so ubiquitous in turn-of-the-century advertising, Groove Armada couldn’t help but generate bank from it, though I only heard Fatboy Slim’s rub of I See You Baby on this side of the pond. Still, the summery feel-good vibes of If Everybody Looked The Same and chilled bliss of At The River (mmm, sandy dunes and salty air) make for swell soundtracks accompanying visuals of beautiful people driving beautiful cars in beautiful locales. Instead, we got Moby.

The rest of Vertigo though, how does that hold up? Like, this is mostly an acid jazz record, right? It’s got those funky, groovy rhythms that isn’t quite house music (Chicago, Pre 63, Serve Chilled), ample amounts of jazzy instruments played as laid-back loops or in studio (orchestral swells in Whatever, Whenever, trumpet in Dusk You And Me, turntable scratches and Balearic guitar action in A Private Interlude), and hard-stomp soul (Your Song). There’s also some straight-up house action with In My Bones, plus the original I See You Baby cut, even if it is kind of a plodder. And for a closer, Groove Armada dabble in an eight-minute long trip-hop excursion titled Inside My Mind (Blue Skies) …at least, if you got the UK version of Vertigo. Fatboy Slim’s rub of I See You Baby was so popular though, it got tagged onto the end of American copies, which suits me fine. Ends the album on quite the peppy note, it does.

But these are all loose demarcations. At this point in their career, Groove Armada’s appeal lay in their blending of familiar genres into tasty morsels that played nicely on the radio. Whatever edgy, underground influences Misters Cato and Findlay held, they’re smoothed right the fuck out here - small wonder their recent, straight-forward attempts at new wave and d-e-e-e-ep house haven’t caught on in the same way. Still, if all you’re after is some light dabbling in chilled-out funk and soul while lounging on your patio, then you probably already have Vertigo in your folders anyway.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Vernon - Soundstream

promo: 1999

This CD caught my eye in the used-shop because I associated the name ‘Vernon’ with one Vernon Jerome Price, most famous for his hit Eye Q EP Vernon’s Wonderland. There’s more Vernons in the world of electronic music, but that was my first, so despite figuring this wasn’t the same Vernon, it was enough to check out on the flip regardless. And there I discovered Soundstream is a promo CD for a local DJ, which begs the question how this ended up in a used-shop. Where I paid money for it. Aren’t these supposed to be free? Whatever. Since the Vernon behind this mix is undoubtedly way under the radar of folks outside the southwest nub of British Columbia, commence the background info dump.

Vernon Douglas was a resident of one of Vancouver’s more successful underground nights, Deepen. This came at a time when the city’s nightlife was experiencing a radical shift, the main Granville Strip of clubs turning into homogenized bottle-service experiences filled with ‘bridge-and-tunnel’ douchery, earlier haunts for authentic underground house and techno forced out among the fringes of downtown. One such place was the Lotus Sound Lounge, a literal basement on the borders of the infamous Downtown Eastside. Clearly the perfect place for a proper underground venue, and Deepen found a comfortable home there in the year 1999(ish?). It nurtured such talents as overseas tech-house hero Jay Tripwire, dependable prog-house jock warm-up staple Kevin Shiu, and fabric contributor Tyler Stadius. I suppose I should also mention Deepen was my first ‘authentic’ experience at an underground club, while on a visit in Vancouver from my interior hinterland exile. Damn skippy that night at Lotus gave me incentive to move here. Heck, it was likely ol’ Vernon on the decks, but I can’t recall for sure.

Unlike his pals and associates working the decks each Saturday night though, Mr. Douglas never broke out of local fame. When Deepen came to an end some ten years ago, he moved onto a career in energy management and a quieter family life. He still dabbles with the label/podcast business (Deepen Sound), and will show up for a throwback rinse-out or anniversary love-in for those heady Deepen days, but it seems the hectic world of clubbing is in his past.

*whew* That was a mouthful. What do I have left for this promo CD, then? It’s definitely got that Deepen flavor to it, tech-house with a deep, dubby feel most associate with the opening portions of a prog DJ mix. Dot Allison’s Close Your Eyes is here, as is the Global Communications rub of Fluke’s Slid, and Hakan Lidbo’s Televinken on future Very Important Label Poker Flat Records. Vernon’s set does a decent, groovin’ build to a mid-set peak with Marino Berardi’s Numero 10, then takes the long ease-out into deep house’s territory for the remainder. Soundstream is essentially a strong sampling of what one might hear at Deepen in the year 1999, which makes sense given this is a promo disc.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Vermont - Vermont

Kompakt: 2014

[Obligatory United States Of America geographical joke]

Ah, haha-ha! Hoo, what a zinger that was, eh? And the way I tied it into [Contemporary Political Talking Point] with [Middling Movie Franchise], it just can’t be topped. What does this have to do with Vermont by Vermont? Well, we wouldn’t have gotten to this place without the guiding hands of such Very Important record labels like [Three Name Drops] and [Notable Artist/DJ], so you see, [Crushing Conclusion That’d Make Simon Reynolds Weep With Envy].

Vermont (by Vermont) is now three years old. Yet it doesn’t feel so long this was being talked up in the same, small window of reverent breath along side Tycho’s Awake, Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time, and Efdemin’s Decay. Yes, it was a fun time being a Very Important music journalist covering hip, underground electronic music that appealed to the chiller side of tastes. Naturally I was having none of that, concerned with reviewing Ishkur’s old CDs instead, but I cannot deny the cover-art for Vermont’s Vermont intrigued me enough to pluck a copy. I figured by the time I got around to reviewing this album (late 2015, lol), the hype would have passed and I could take in this music proper-like. But now this duo’s gone and recently released a sophomore album (II), which kinda’ makes this look like hitching onto a freshly revved hype wagon. I swear its pure coincidence, just like [Inflammatory Political Talking Point].

For those who missed it the first time around, Vermont (4) is comprised of Danilo Plessow and Marcus Worgull. The latter has DJ’d for a number of years now, and through Innervisions put out sporadic singles along the way. Mr. Plessow is more of a production journeyman, flitting from project to collaboration to remix to project over the past decade. I recognize Motor City Drum Ensemble among his credits, and his work with Joachim Tobias as Inverse Cinematics garnered positive buzz from deep nu-jazzy sorts, so a decent pedigree in the funky soul camps. That begs the question, then, of why he’d make a debut with Mr. Worgull as Vermont for an album of throwback ambient techno and Berlin-School weirdness? Just because they wanted to? What sort of [Calvin & Hobbes Artistry Quote].

The thing I recall most about Vermont’s Vermont CD is the general sense of disappointment it brought to those hotly anticipating it. The music is very humble and unfussy, going about its business without much care for ‘pushing boundaries’ or ‘changing the game’, as so many thought Plessow and Worgull would. It’s the sort of ‘ambient pop’ that Kompakt have had no problem promoting for years now - pleasing to the ear, crafty to the head, charming to the soul, with enough unique attributes to stand out from the pack (Guitars! Drums! Old-School Bleepiness! Theremin!), though not necessarily stick with you even after playing it over a few times. Vermont is an album that the phrase “good enough” was destined for. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Crystal Method - Vegas

Outpost Records: 1997

The only Crystal Method album you’re supposed to have, even if you’re not a Crystal Method fan. Hell, even fans might argue this is their only album worth having, a hefty chunk ditching the duo once big beat fell out of favor with popular tastes. I know I did, albums Tweekend and Legion Of Boom failing to spark much interest from me for a purchase. They still held a significant following with those albums though, which is more than can be said for The Method’s recent ventures into festival friendly mind-rot bosh. Not that folks shouldn’t have seen it coming - Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland have long kept their foot in the world of commercialism, whoring out their music to the highest advertising bidders in Hollywood and beyond. The difference is they’re lost riding overcrowded bandwagons now, whereas back in the day, they were at the forefront of the zeitgeist.

They couldn’t have picked a better time to drop their debut album Vegas than the year 1997. America was tentatively coming around to electronic music thanks to ‘rockier’ acts from abroad making profitable inroads (heavy Virgin promotion didn’t hurt). Just so happened that a little duo out of Las Angeles was also buzzing, reppin’ the Westcoast acid-tweakin’ breaks action, but implementing beefier beats too. It was similar yet distinct enough to stand out from the likes of Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, and damn skippy American media was eager in promoting a homegrown ‘electronica’ act. Thanks to compilation duty on Moonshine, City Of Angels, MTV’s Amp, and TVT soundtracks, The Crystal Method was everywhere you turned. You could not exist in the year 1997 without having Busy Child and Keep Hope Alive penetrating your earholes.

Still, Vegas isn’t continuously name-dropped in reverence to this day if it lacked the tunes to back it up. Yeah, Busy Child was ridiculously overplayed, but it remains a fun slice of acid funk. And Keep Hope Alive will never get old, big-beat acid action at its crystallized perfection. Trip Like I Do, which had that Spawn tie-in with Filter, if possibly one of the best album openers ever, while Cherry Twist, She’s My Pusher, and Vapor Trail make for agreeable chemical breaks filler on an album full of killer.

Elsewhere, Crystal Method slow things down to trip-hop’s domain in tracks Bad Stone and the spaced-out High Roller (“you got it”), all the while retaining their crunchy acid sensibilities (I think Moonshine tried calling this sound ‘hard-hop’, or ‘trypno’ – you do you, Moonshine). And to prove they aren’t just all about those block rockin’ beats, a couple ‘poppier’ tunes in Comin’ Back and Jaded add vocalist Trixie Reiss to the mix, though Jaded is darn ambitious for a seven-minute, crunchy, acid-soaked radio jam.

If my mentioning any of these tunes had them flaring up in your memory membranes, it just goes to show the impact Vegas made on electronic music. Two decades on, it still reverberates and overshadows everything The Crystal Method has done.

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