Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Various - United State Of Ambience III - The Colonial Collection

Moonshine Music: 1995

A few months and two-dozen releases later, Moonshine offered up a third edition to their United State Of Ambience series. This would be the last of them, and indeed the label’s final foray into the ambient genre period. Interestingly, Moonshine’s early fascination with acid jazz would also cease shortly after this, instead moving onto trip-hop in subsequent years for their obligatory downtempo contributions. They did try their hand at a Café Del Mar type compilation - Ibiza Afterhours - but didn’t do much with the concept beyond ape all the popular tracks. By and large, Moonshine’s flirtation with the chill side of electronic music all but ended by the year 1997, finding better success in promoting harder club tracks like big beat, jungle, psy trance, happy hardcore, and gabber. Whoa, wait, aren’t you supped to ‘slow down’ the older you get?

Volume three of United State Of Ambience comes with an… interesting sub-line: The Colonial Collection. Ah heh, doubt that would fly two decades on now. But yeah, I get what Moonshine was trying to do here, suggesting an ethnically influenced assortment of tunes, but without falling in with tired buzzwords like ‘ethno’ or ‘world beat’, terms discerning dowtempo heads considered past their sell-by date at this point. Thus music inspired from former colonial claims is the tag: love it or lump it to your heart’s content.

The opening track comes care of Skylab, in the form of the ultra-spliffed nu-jazz outing Next. Huh, not terribly ‘colonial’, that one. It’s a decent track, with an interesting sample near the end of rumbling thunder slowed waayy down. A friend once thought it was someone moving a heavy stone slab unearthing an ancient treasure. Heck, maybe that’s what the sample is, given this compilation’s theme. I’m sticking with thunder though.

A few returning names must be brought up now. Electric Skychurch naturally is here, closing this CD out with the minimalist, meditative ambience of Outside. Salt Tank is also here, with a moody, tribal little number with Big Dipper that sounds nothing like what you’d expect of Salt Tank. Foregoing side-projects, Rabbit In The Moon comes correct here and does their thing with Dubassex. And while not exactly well-known in this scene, UK ‘space techno’ legends LA Synthesis show up with Du Androidis Dream, a lush ambient techno piece that has nothing to do with ‘colonial chill-out’, but whatever, I like hearing it anyway.

An interesting note about United State Of Ambience III: Electronic Empire-Building is its licensing/label-raid of Australian print Psy-Harmonics. Artists like Zen Paradox (Steve Law), Aquila (the O.G. Aqulia, according to Lord Discogs), and Lumukanda bring more of that ethnic flavor, but with a trippy, Planet Dog bent. And finally, two unknowns add ill’ trip-hop (Granule’s Withered In My Knapsack) and dubby-hop (Grain’s The Suspenders Of Acrobats), unsubtle in hinting where Moonshine’s downtempo muse was wandering that year. Still, can’t help but feel this CD was what they wanted the first United State Of Ambience to be.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Various - United State Of Ambience II - Mid-Atlantic Sessions

Moonshine Music: 1994

Moonshine wasn’t foolin’ in hitting the streets hard with their relaunch. Following their first forays into the ambient compilation market, they pushed out another acid jazz collection (no, really, it was popular!), two more DJ mixes featuring famed jocks Paul Oakenfold and, um, Keoki, plus the start of their Psychotrance series. Oh, and inexplicably, a CD that included euro house from Glam, Bizarre Inc, Snap! and 2 Unlimited came out in this bundle. True, there was some Prodigy, Atlantic Ocean, and X-Press 2 on Handraizer, but man, does that disc look dodgy for a print quickly establishing itself as a purveyor of sounds from the underground.

Still, what point is there in releasing a compilation if you can’t capitalize it into a series? None, says they, and Moonshine put out another United State Of Ambience the same year. Huh, that was remarkably fast. Did they have another selection of tracks ready to go or something? Perhaps so, volume two coming with a thematic sub-title and everything. Right, the first one had a loose ‘tribal ambient’ idea running through, but the message was muddled with an unfortunate spotty track list. Seems whatever mistakes were had on the first one were promptly corrected though, Mid-Atlantic Sessions a far lovelier, consistent, wonderful, and ace compilation compared to its predecessor.

First improvement is some actual star power up in this (ambient) house. No offence to Young American Primitive and Dubtribe Soundsystem, but few were aware of these names way back in ’94, to say nothing of Rabbit In The Moon side-projects. On United State Of Ambience II, however, we get tracks from Orbital, One Dove (with an assist from Andrew Weatherall), and Salt Tank. Okay, Electric Skychurch too – he was about the closest thing to an early Moonshine star anyway, especially his breakout track Deus, included here as the opener. One Dove does an utterly epic world-beat dub thing with Transient Truth, Salt Tank offer up their chill version of Eugina in Sargasso Sea, while an edited cut of Orbital’s funky Attached tops out the heavy hitters. Yeah, not sure where Moonshine got the idea of Attached being part of the ambient-scape, but why waste a perfectly good tune if you’ve got the license for it?

And though the surrounding tracks are mostly rounded out by unknowns, they hold their own in complimenting the heavy (chill) hitters. Ambient dub gets its due with Aurora Borealis’ Aquacular Subsun and Synthetix’ The Tao Of Dub. The ‘angelic ambient acid’ side Deus did so well is also explored in Somnambulist’s Deeper Sleeper and Influx’ Dreamscape, and Grain returns for another minimalist tribal-dub track in Sixteen. Best of all, no sappy Pure Moods styled world-beat!

Moonshine knocked it out with United State Of Ambience II. At a time when ‘ambient house’ compilations were aplenty, the label found a fresh angle to approach it from (psychedelic sky-church music!), and executed it perfectly. If you see this in a used-shop, don’t hesitate in snatching it up.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Various - United State Of Ambience

Moonshine Music: 1994

Though the label that Steve Levy and Dave Audé built got its start in 1992, the Moonshine that came to dominate much of the American electronic music shops didn’t really take form until 1994. The scene’s growing momentum was inescapable, and the print was quick to capitalize on it, expanding the print’s potential while rebranding with a spiffy new logo that’d carry them into the future. They also abandoned most of the hardcore rave that marked their earliest output, taking on other genres that were defining a surging counter-culture. The first of these was an acid jazz collection (hey, it was popular in the early ‘90s!), followed by a progressive house rinse-out from Sasha and Seaman (dude!). Another edition to their already popular Speed Limit 140 BPM series followed that, with a compilation featuring the chill, trendy genre next: ambient.

Only trouble is I don’t think the boys at Moonshine quite knew much about ambient yet. The liner notes open with “Ambient music is the sound of unification, a gathering of tribes.” Que? What’s that got to do with ambient music? Had they not heard of anything from Eno, Orb, Aphex, or Roach? Meditation music, I can buy as having attributes of ambient, but most of the stuff gaining critical plaudits in art houses and chill-out rooms had little association with yoga meets and drum circles. Nay, what Moonshine’s actually peddling here is a world-beat collection, with some meditative, minimalist dubby stuff thrown in for flavor. Makes sense, what with groups like Enigma, Deep Forest, and so on about the closest thing most folks in America associated with electronic ‘chill-out’ music in those days. Throw a pile of public domain ethnic samples into a soup with tribal beats, and you too can have your very own ‘ambient’ compilation on the market!

I shouldn’t be too hard on Moonshine though, as they likely didn’t have much in the way of licensing options at this early stage of their lifespan. Some utter unknowns are floating in this tracklist, a couple of which only made appearances here. League Of Nations’ Impossible Religion sounds like it wandered off from a Pure Moods CD, and Goa: Season Of The Monsoon from Rhythm Method is only marginally better.

Of more interest are way early efforts from Hawke (Gavin Hardkiss) and Dubtribe Soundsystem, both doing ultra-moody, minimalist dub works, coming off like PWoG tracks. Side projects also get a look in, most prominent of them being the Rabbit In The Moon ambient venture LunaSol. Both Dawn’s somber piano-n-pad work and groovy world-beat action of Butterfly are wonderful tunes, almost worth the price of United State Of Ambience alone (especially since you can’t find them anywhere else). Young American Primitive doing his eclectic chill thing in Expansion, and Electric Skychurch doing their prog-house thing in Creation rounds out an… interesting compilation, to say the least. United State Of Ambience at least maintains its manifesto of ‘tribal ambient’ throughout – just a shame only half the tracks hold up though.

Various - United DJs Of America Volume 17: Scott Hardkiss (Original TC Review)

DMC: 2001

(2017 Update:
One of the very, very,
very few perfect scores I gave out while writing for TranceCritic, and I still stand by it. Admittedly, what Scott Hardkiss does here probably isn't as impressive these days what with digital DJing making eclectic sets like these much easier to produce. Heck, such CDs were quite marketable and profitable for a short while a number of years back, kitchen-sink sets earning all the critical plaudits. Just makes Scott's effort here all the more remarkable having done it on vinyl, practically in spite of scene hype focusing its attention elsewhere.

Sadly, Scott passed away some four years ago now. Before then, he'd finally released a full-length album in 2009 called
Technicolor Dreamer, all the while continuing to put out singles and working the DJ circuit until the end. Truly one of San Francisco's legends, taken far too soon.)

IN BRIEF: More house than a suburban district.

United DJs Of America: remember this series? If not, don’t feel too bad - it’s understandable. Despite having a number of highly respected names tied to it (Bones, Bambaataa, Knuckles, Vega, Farina, Craze… loads more), DMC had difficulty maintaining a consistent distributor, flopping around on several during its eight year run. In the end, it folded when the American dance industry entered a mild recession in the year of ‘03.

Shame, then, that San Francisco based DJ/producer Scott Hardkiss should be offered a go at this series so late in its run. Most likely know Hardkiss as that guy behind God Within and White Dove, but he was mixing up acid, breaks, and house on the West Coast scene for longer than that. As something of a recluse from the spotlight, he never quite broke out the way many of his peers did. And when finally given the opportunity to do so, his contribution to the United DJs legacy went largely unnoticed. And that, my friends, is an even bigger shame, as Hardkiss put together possibly one of the finest mixes the series ever saw.

For all its resilience and ace talent, the quality of United DJs often varied. It wasn’t uncommon for a classic release to be followed with an achingly average one, often due to the limitations DJs put themselves in by sticking to their chosen styles. Hardkiss, though, is a wildly eclectic DJ, and wouldn’t be satisfied with settling for a few forms of house. So, he went and made a mix with all of them!

Well, not all of them. Deep house is absent because this isn’t the kind of set for it. Electro house is obviously uninvited to this party either, since this release comes before that sound had really emerged. And of course euro-house is just too poppy. But yeah ...everything else - prog, acid, disco, tech; it’s all here.

So if this is such a varied mix, why did it go unnoticed? First impressions can go a long way, and in this case the opening tracks may have turned many away. Hardkiss starts with prog, and in 2001 this stuff was everywhere, with many sets sounding no different from the next. You’d be forgiven for dismissing this as Just Another Prog Mix based on the beginning.

But unlike many prog sets that drag with tension builders and transition tracks due to the room of two discs, Hardkiss knows he has far less time to get everything he wants in the seventy-four minutes a single CD offers. With no wasted meanderings, he mixes into his trademark funky acid house with Electric Skychurch’s Liberty and peaks the trip with a kaleidoscope of bubbly psychedelia in is rub of Tom Chasteen’s Freedom. And soon after that, we’re off into a festive atmosphere with The Heartists’ Bolo Horizonti, where Hardkiss gives a nod to New York as well with David Morales’ remix of the same track right afterwards.

You’d think these quick transitions between such different types of house (we’ve gone through at least four by the mid-way mark) would clash with abrupt mixes, yet Hardkiss keeps things flowing just fine, each track complementing the next without sounding forced. By contrast, a number of DJ mixes that attempt house sets of this nature sound like an MP3 player put on Random. Either it’s a testament to his skill as a DJ, or most other DJs have just grown lazy over the years by sticking with only a couple styles.

The house music continues jumping all over the place as the set carries on: funk is brought in courtesy of C-Mos’ 6-2 Young; having earned our trust with his track selection thus far, Hardkiss gets away with the goofy fun of Plastika and Conga Squad’s Disco Rockin’; energetic tech injects a dose of adrenaline with Jark Prongo’s Rocket Bass (and yes, that is Push It sampled there); good-natured hip-house from Armand van Helden and Common take us out with class; and sprinklings of San Francisco’s disco funk fill in the gaps.

Critiques then. Surely there has to be something that doesn’t hold up on this half-a-decade old set. Honestly, there’s very little worth criticizing here: track arrangement is superb and the mixing is mostly unobtrusive. A couple technical issues pop up but hardly hinder; in fact, it adds to the charm of this set, giving it a rawer live feeling and thus making Hardkiss’ few DJ tricks all the more engaging. And even if you don’t fancy house music, you’ll nonetheless enjoy the positive San Fran vibes that ooze from these tracks.

Steady readers of this website probably realize these five-star ratings are rare, but Hardkiss’ foray has everything we look for in a release that earns it: diversity, creativity, and - most importantly - enjoyable engagement from start to finish. Don’t miss out on this overlooked gem.

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Various - Unfold #2: Christopher Lawrence

Moist Music: 2008

It's taken forever to finally get Christopher Lawrence into this blog’s archives! Whatever is the matter with me? Don’t I have any of his CDs in my collection? Sadly not, this one technically an abandoned TranceCritic promo that I neglected to review for reasons that utterly escape me now. As for never having picked up a C.L. mix or album, I have no excuse for it other than inexplicable apathy. I’ve seen his name for almost as long as I’ve been buying trance CDs, the chap a fixture on Moonshine after the turn of the century. Though I didn’t buy them, I generally liked what I heard, a tougher take on trance at a time when most jocks were getting fluffier and banal (or abandoning the genre altogether). When that label folded, he soon set up his own Pharmacy Music print, which he continues to run and promote podcasts through to this day. Along the way, he joined John ‘00’ Fleming in championing psy trance as the new hotness for proper trance t’ings, so aces in that development.

It’s during this period we find ourselves with Unfold #2, a short-lived series from Dutch label Fektive Records, and given an American release by Moist Music. Interesting note about Moist, a number of Moonshine refugees found new homes there, though it’s merely a roundabout coincidence that Lawrence finally ended up there too. Unfold itself was designed to highlight some of trance’s most notable old-school DJs still kickin’ out an underground sound, the first volume of which featuring Fleming (of course). A third edition had Marco V - an odd choice for the late ‘00s as he’d moved on from trance by that point - and that was all she wrote for Unfold (so sayeth The Discogs).

As for ol’ Chris’s go here, yeah, it’s a full-on psy set. Perhaps another reason I wasn’t quick in doing a review of this was my interest in the sub-genre had dwindled when this came out. I’m pretty sure I did like it somewhat, just not enough to inspire fingers to keyboard. Weird, because this stuff is pretty good all things considered. I only recognize a few names here (Mad Hatters, Cosmonet… Spacecat?), and I think I’ve heard some of these elsewhere (Basic’s Toyster and Audio-X’s And We Survive have very familiar, punchy hooks). For the most part though, it’s a classy, energetic collection of tunes for this style, with little of the random wibble the Israeli scene churned out. A few early tracks – Brain Damage’s Waiting For My Angel, Mad Contrabender’s Illegal Hardware and Killer from Gaudium Vs Dualsnug (god, these names) – even get my vintage senses tingling. Unfold #2 isn’t the best starting point for Christopher Lawrence, but it’s serviceable if you fancy the psy of the era.

Eh? CD1 of this two-discer? Oh, it’s just C.L. fitting in with the electro-progressive-plod-house of the time (hey, Mark Norman!). The opening track from Spooky (New Light (Strobelight Mix)) is nice, but the rest… yyy-eeah.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Aquascape - Underwater Stranger

Altar Records: 2011/2012

Label raids are good fun and all, but there does come a point where all the intriguing releases run out. There’s only so deep down the rabbit hole one should explore before considering just how necessary total and utter completion of a label collection is necessary. No, it’s true – no single print is one-hundred percent infallible. Plenty are ace, top grade even, with track records shaming many of their contemporaries. A perfect run of platinum quality releases though? Not bloody likely. Even my all-time favorites (Ultimae, Turbo, Waveform …Cryo Chamber yet?) have a few CDs in their catalog that, in hindsight, I really didn’t need to have. To say nothing of other labels I’ve dug into over the years.

Take Altar Records. They’ve a few acts I’m quite committed to scoping out with each album, and digging further has revealed a number of solid CDs along the way. That said, the label’s assorted yoga and meditation offerings definitely are not on my interest list, nor can I say I’m committed to checking out every psy-chill act that gets signed to them. Having exhausted most of the recognizable name, however, I’m left with an alternative selection process: does it have interesting cover art? Well hey, this Aquascape looks unique compared to the usual ultra-mystical stuff Altar goes with - simple, elegant, inexplicable manta ray. Sure, I’ll give this a shot, fits nicely with the ‘water theme’ I was splurging with at the time anyway.

And boy, was I not expecting this. A decent collection of psy-chill, sure, Altar’s early track record pretty spot on for this sound. Aquascape though, they kinda’ slipped by my attention, even after giving their Voice Of The Universe track on the Air compilation an Ace Track honor. The duo, comprised of Andrey Kostomarov and Anton Salikov, didn’t stick with Altar for long though, mostly contributing to Tunguska Electronic Music Society compilations and, more recently, Plusquam Chillout. Lord Discogs tells me they’ve only released one other album since Underwater Stranger, a digital LP on Tiger Grass Records called Sunrise In Fog. Damn, I hope that’s just incomplete information, because if this album’s anything to go by, they’ve got a good sound going for them.

Right, their take on psy-chill does occasionally dip close to the shores of sappy New Age stuff, but never such that I get my cringe on. Mostly, we’re fed a steady diet of dubby grooves, acidy sounds, and guitar solos. Oh yeah, Anton provides various acoustic, flamenco, and spacey guitar work. While not on the level of Steve Hillage, it adds a fresh dynamic to your standard psy-chill tropes.

I won’t deny Underwater Stranger lacks the sort of tunes that leap out and grab your ears by their balls (!?), but it’s an album I find enjoying front-to-back every time, easing me in for a smooth, chill ride as I go about my business. Music good enough as wallpaper, but dynamic enough for those times you want a little zone-out time too.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Murmur - Undertone

Meanwhile: 2007

One more album initially slotted for a spiffy TranceCritic review that fell completely through the cracks. I had no idea what I was dealing with upon seeing that cloud covered cover. Maybe some ambient? I mean, with a name like Murmur, it was probably some really calm, soothing, clever pad work – not exactly the old website’s bread ‘n’ butter, but at least interesting enough that I’d find a few talking points worth exploiting into a cumbersome 1,000 word review. Well, none of that, Undertone turning out as one of the dub technoiest dub techno releases I’d yet heard dub techno done go in the year 2007, and there was a lot of dub techno getting all dub technoey on our asses that year, I tell you what. If we were one of those trendy online rags hyping all that dub techno bizz’ness, maybe I’d have gone through with a review, but man, was I ever drawing a blank on this one, growing tired of the endless DeepChord rip-offs and Basic Channel clones.

Still, there must be something to Murmur’s debut LP if I’ve kept it around all this time, sparing it the same indignity of a quick plummet into the Recycle Bin among so much rancid, rubbish hardstyle. Because for all its repetitive faults, I still cannae deny myself a good ol’ bit of dub reverb tickling the hairs within my ears. Plus, I’ve come plenty far in my ability to wax the bull when talking up any ol’ release now, so what fear should I have now in taking on Undertone?

Finding out more about the men behind the alias, turns out. Lord Discogs provides not a clue, a mere link to a MySpace page I’m almost certain is defunct now. Half a dozen releases are tagged to the Murmur handle, finally drying up in 2010. The print they established with Bovill, Meanwhile, continues to this day, though with a ridiculously glacial output – the music Meanwhile makes is minimal, an so is their release schedule! (haha, such waxed bull). Poking about the webs a bit further, I discovered at least four other Murmurs out there, all coming out after this one. Some of them are post rock or metal, another might be the same guys doing drone ambient but could just be a coincidence, and the fourth offers festival bangers with titles like Break Glowstix Not Hearts. Safe to say that’s someone else.

Undertone, meanwhile (on Meanwhile!), is an incredibly clinical study in minimalist dub techno’s attributes. Beats are typically soft, very few hi-hats getting in the way of all that cavernous resonance. Other tracks are your standard explorations in dub-drone, going wherever the reverb takes you. A couple tracks (Bloodclot, Slip) could work as transitional pieces in a deep techno set, but little here is intended for dancefloor rinse-out. Nay, smoke that fat blunt, throw on your best audiophile headgear, and chill the fuck out with this collection of tracks. Peace.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bluescreen - Undercurrents

Shadow Records: 2001

That the label that gave America an early taste of Ninja Tune and all things trip-hoppy, abstract-funky would throw its hat into the trance game was remarkable, daft even, among the most unexpected things I’ve ever come across in my music buying time. Still, with that scene popular enough with young punters, what harm was there in giving it a shot with a couple, nicely-priced compilations in Trance Sessions? Besides, it helped promote one of their signed acts, one Anthony Voitik, or Bluescreen as he goes by here.

This debut album came out a short while before Trance Sessions did, in of itself remarkable. Forget that whole ‘jumping on the trance bandwagon’ angle the compilations kinda-sorta reeked of, Shadow went and signed a totally unknown dude for a trance album. Not just any trance either, but deliberately old-school leaning stuff, tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from MFS’ heyday, a style almost extinct by the year 2001 courtesy of the drudge-Dutch invasion. How’d they even make contact with him? Mr. Voitik hailed from the literal opposite end of the continent from Shadow headquarters, mostly residing in the hinterlands of British Columbia. For a time, only a few streets away from me.

Okay, full disclosure: I know ol’ Anthony. Like, went to the same high school as him. Drank at the same house parties as him. Rode four hours in his car to the same bush raves in Smithers with him. This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to those living in major hubs of electronic music (London, Detroit, Berlin, New York City, San Francisco, Montreal… Vancouver?), where talent of all sort mingled with regular joes as they grew up. When I say our hometown is out on the fringes of Western society though, I ain’t kidding. It’s amazing that anyone from there ended up getting a record deal for a trance album, much less on a well-known trip-hop print like Shadow Records.

Thus me saying I like Undercurrents obviously comes with degree of bias, since I quite like the brand of trance Mr. Voitik enjoyed as well. If you fancied yourself some of that Paul van Dyk vibe but hated his turn towards the pop side of things, you’ll probably like this too. There isn’t much in the way of surprises, Bluescreen mostly sticking to an easy-going, traditional template to his tunes. Of notables diversions, he goes a little prog-house with Vanishing, Daybreak has some fun with the acid, and Surfacing works as a nice summation to the melodic points touched upon throughout. Aliendisco is about the only tune that leaps way out of Mr. Voitik’s established comfort zone - it’s speed garage, but with a sci-fi twist. I’ve never heard another speed garage track do this, much less produced by a trance guy. Corsten hasn’t gone there. Lieb sure never went there. Armin hasn’t gone there, and he’s gone to some wack places over the years. Tiësto probably would have though, if there was money to be made.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Fred Everything - Under The Sun

Turbo Recordings: 2000

West coast deep house was growing mighty popular at the turn of the century, especially out here on the West coast (who knew!). And while San Francisco was generally considered the hotbed of funky, groovy chill vibes perfect for lounges and beach parties, Canada had a few talents making inroads on a scene long dominated by Chicago transplants. Fred Everything was probably the biggest of this bunch, slightly odd considering his Quebec origins, not to mention his first major record deal was with UK print 20:20 Vision. Still, his tight, loopy beatcraft fit snugly with the likes of Mark Farina and Miguel Migs, remaining a consistent presence in the deep house scene throughout the ‘00s, eventually finding a natural home with OM Records. No, wait, that deal only lasted a few years, all the while working on establishing his print with Lazy Days Recordings. That one’s lasted a little longer (to this day, in fact), though Fred’s output has slowed as of late (edit: but with quite the uptick this past year!). He’s still truckin’ along though, never abandoning the deep house vibe that defined his early success.

Speaking of that early success, here’s Mr. Everything’s first full-length effort, Under The Sun. Naturally this came out on 20:20 Vision, but as ol’ Fred had ties to the Montreal club scene, tastemaker Tiga was there to offer a Canadian (and thusly American) distribution deal on his trendy Turbo label. Win-win for both players involved, as Under The Sun wouldn’t get lost in cumbersome import technicalities, and Turbo could finally have its first proper album out on the market after a long run of DJ mixes (ADNY’s Selections ’97-2000 was more a compilation, if you want to get finicky technical about such things). And while I won’t complain about the geometric architecture cover photo for Turbo’s release, it does seem odd they’d replace the overhead cross-country ski race shot that made up the 20:20 Vision version. Strikes me as more authentically ‘Quebec’, is what I’m getting at, but maybe Tiga figured that was a little too on the nose for the music’s target audience. Who am I to question Tiga’s judgment, eh?

If you know anything about deep house from the early ‘00s, you’ll be familiar with Fred Everything’s sound. Sometimes he goes funkier (Let You Down, Derby, Universal Mind), other times jazzy (Without), or simply soulful (Another Soul). Nor is he beholden to a strict house rhythm, getting acid jazz shuffly on Good Morning, or having a stab at retro electro with Huggin’Kissin. And speaking of the retro, how about a touch of talk-box action in Revolution, sure to get your Daft Punk triggers flaring.

And that’s Under The Sun, a solid collection of deep, groovy vibes all about, and now a review lo-o-o-ng overdue finally finished. What, don’t you remember I promised this when going through all those Mixed Goods burned CDs of mine? That I basically lifted this album for one of them? Back in… oh wow, that was a while ago now.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Inspectah Deck - Uncontrolled Substance

Sony Music Entertainment: 1999

As a rebel without a cause, Inspectah Deck leads the charge, forever one of Wu-Tang Clan’s most fiery spitters, but rushing into battle with no clear objective. He’ll drop that philosophical bomb atomically, but what of the follow-through? With a half-dozen albums deep of evidence, he seldom seemed capable of sustaining that first-strike verbal carnage into a lasting campaign. At least, that used to be the charge laid upon one Mr. Hunter, but his recent work as Czarface having redeemed a solo career that never delivered the classic record hip-hop heads expected of him. Who knew adopting the persona of a cyborg crime-fighting mafia-don that can shoot frickin’ laser beams from his eyes would do the trick? I think Czarface is all about that, if the art is anything to go by. I should look into it.

For now though, let’s check out Uncontrolled Substance, Inspectah’s debut from 1999, four years overdue and coming out when Wu-Tang hype was on the wane. Even getting the whole Clan in to help on a project was proving difficult at that point, most members focusing on solo work while building up their own protégés. Compounding problems further for the Rebel INS was the fact the early demo beats RZA had written for his debut were lost in a studio flood, forcing that album to be scrapped and started over. Yes, we were denied vintage mid-‘90s RZA beats with Deck undoubtedly spitting fire over them all, with the full Clan in support.

Instead, we get okay beats from RZA protégés 4th Disciple and True Master, though Deck’s own productions outshine most of theirs. RZA himself provides a pair of beats too, though are far from his glorious early, gritty sounds. Guest spots from the Wu fam’ are sadly minimal, with U-God and Masta Killa only offering a couple verses, and a few additional guest spots from second-tier affiliates like Street Life and Killa Sin.

Ultimately, it’s all on the Rebel INS to carry Uncontrolled Substance, and he does excel there, mostly dominated by battle-raps no one else in the Clan can top, with other stuff mixing things up throughout. There’s hood tales like Word On The Street and Trouble Man (with Pete Rock funk at the board on that one); clubbier offerings like R.E.C. Room and Movas & Shakers (why can’t I ever get Deck’s lyrics of “Bartender! Two Kahlua and milk with crushed ice in the blender” out of my head?); conscious diatribes like The Cause and Elevation (with a Deck beat that was reused in Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele); and some jams for the ladies too (Lovin You, Forget Me Not, and the slinky noir-funk of Femme Fatale… wait, that’s two reviews in a row with a Femme Fatale… the odds, mang!). Strangely, it’s a couple interludes, where Inspectah’s freestyling over a pounding 808 beat, that get me charged the most. They’re only ten seconds each, but damn if I wouldn’t pay good money to hear a full record of that!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Perturbator - The Uncanny Valley

Blood Music: 2016

I keep bringing this up with every Perturbator release now, but I can’t help it, fascinated by Blood Music’s dedication to their artist. They go bananas in the various ways you can own a physical copy of Mr. Kent’s music, putting most labels to utter shame with their swag. Even top-ten producers of electronic music don’t get such a roll-out as this synthwave maestro does. Lord Discogs currently lists fourteen different releases for The Uncanny Valley: this includes the usual coloured records and tapes Blood Music offers, but multiple box-set versions too, with patterned artwork on the vinyl itself (the blood splatter one appears particularly popular). And did I mention the graphic novel? There’s a graphic novel with The Uncanny Valley! Me being CD-me though, I had to settle for the lone, requisite digipak option that- wait, there was a deluxe CD option that included the graphic novel and a bonus EP? Well f

I have to wonder whether James Kent always had ideas for a comic or novel or short film series with this ongoing tale of Perturbator: Night Driving Avenger before settling on music. Because if The Uncanny Valley is any indication, he must be sitting on a wealth of material for future use, continuously building upon his future-shock dystopian universe with every release. This time out, he’s added a fembot cyborg partner in his avenging exploits, plus a whole new antagonist in the Cult Of 2112. Seriously, are there any other electronic producers as dedicated to story arcs as Perturbator? Metal bands, sure; some hip-hop projects, definitely! But techno or house? Hardly, producers content at making tools for dancefloors or headphone commutes. Who’s got time for ongoing narratives when there’s singles to sell?

Of course, having a story arc linking your albums together might seem as little else than a gimmick, one that falls flat on its face without the music to back it up. And synthwave, a scene often filled with shifty retro-gimmickry, doesn’t lend Perturbator many favours without some evolution in his sound. Fortunately Mr. Kent is well up to the task, The Uncanny Valley his strongest album-album yet.

It’s got all the hallmarks of a strong musical narrative, with opening settings, reflective interludes, pulse-pounding climax, and philosophical denouement. Whereas his previous outing, Dangerous Days, was relentless in hitting you with the action, The Uncanny Valley spaces things out more, exploring different moods and tones while leaving plenty of room for those mint Perturbator high-octane cuts (holy cow, that Assault on The Cult Of 2112!). The opening tracks throw some wrinkles in his style too, Weapons For Children and Death Squad slowing things down some, treading into EBM and New Beat’s domain in doing so. That’s followed upon by a noir-jazz outing in Femme Fatale, because of course he’d go there eventually. Meanwhile, little beatcraft tweaks and sonic twerks add extra dynamics to his productions, leaving The Uncanny Valley some of Pertubator’s most accomplished song-writing I’ve heard. No pressure topping this one, lads.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

2562 - Unbalance (2017 Update)

Tectonic: 2009

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

That old review opens with an attempt by yours truly at cataloging dubstep’s myriad permutations into neat, tidy sub-genres, and for the year 2009, it made some sense. ‘Wobble’ had yet to morph into the now-commonly accepted nomenclature of brostep, mainly because it had yet to go full-bro on all our asses (but oh was it ever just over the horizon!). There definitely was an ‘atmospheric’ side to the scene, though most now refer to it as post-dubstep, or future garage if they don’t want their sound associated with the ham-fisted bro anthems dubstep at large ultimately catered towards. And finally I brought up ‘funky’ as a refuge for UK garage fans missing the glory days of Artful Dodger, or some-such. Yeah, I had no idea what the 2-step I was talking about there – UK funky is more an Afro-house thing, and I’d have known that too if I’d ever listened to the stuff back then. Dammit though, the UK bass ‘n’ urban scene was splintering into so many dozen-and-done micro-genres at the turn of the decade. Like I had much time, interest or care to sample all of it, no matter how much Pitchfork or Guardian were telling these were Very Important developments in music culture.

Still, the techno-infusion dubstep was seeing towards the end of the ‘00s intrigued me a little. Between Scuba, Sigha, Shackleton, and 2562, it seemed the genre was leaping out from the urban alleyways into bold, brittle dystopian cityscapes, all the hot journals just as quick at hyping this new development as any other. Alas, t’was as short lived as most hype goes, hotter hotness replacing their names, all the while dubstep soon regarded old, stale, passé, and poo after the bros invaded everything. Some went onto other genres, while others carried on despite the turning tides of fortune, retaining loyal fanbases within dedicated scenes, rather glad the spotlight no longer shone so bright upon their careers. Can’t say 2562 is one of the latter, however.

In the years since I originally wrote that TranceCritic review, Dave Huismans kept himself busy, but as with many of his ‘post-dubstep’ brethren, slowly moved on from the broken beatcraft of his early works. Shortly after releasing Unbalance, he took his 2562 alias out from his Tectonic deal, and started self-releasing material on his own When In Doubt print. Lord Discogs lists his last release as 2562 being The New Day back in 2014, a record with as much techno going for it as anything dubstep. Given how techno-leaning his music was already, it’s hardly surprising he’d go all the way with it eventually. His other alias, A Made Up Sound, has kept him more active in the singles market to this date, with a double-LP retrospective coming out just last year. That one’s gone as techno as anything coming out of Berlin now, so it must be serving Mr. Huismans’ career well enough. After relistening to Unbalance though, it does leave the current creative possibilities a little wanting.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Various - UK Space Techno, Vol. II

Millennium Records: 1996

Cheeky Millennium Records, marketing their sixty-percent goa trance compilation as ‘space techno’. They also had the balls to promote it as an ongoing series right out the gate, giving us a Vol. I no matter how successful the first one sold. It probably did reasonably enough, lasting all the way to a Vol. V in 1998. I somehow doubt even piss-poor sales would have prevented this Vol. II from hitting the CD shelves though, coming out the same year as Vol. I - Millennium was super-go on this no matter what! Oddly, I never saw the third or fourth editions over here in Canadaland, and I wasn’t invested enough in this series for a single disc’s worth of UK Space Techno to buy the fifth. Guess no one else was getting hype to that tag anymore either. If it sounds like acid and tastes like acid, just call it trance!

Hell, there’s no way to hide just how trance some of these tracks are, goa or otherwise. As with Vol. I opening with the classic Neuro from X-Cabs, Vol. II opts for a big, recognizable anthem from another hot, new act, this time care of Transa. No, it’s not Enervate, but the single that came before that one, Prophase. What do you mean you’ve never heard it? I know Enervate overshadowed nearly everything Transa ever did, but Prophase (plus b-side Transphase, included on CD2 here) were totally early progressive trance hits. Okay, should have been. Speaking of X-Cabs, there’s another pair of tracks from the famed Chris Cowie project on here (Avalon and Adena), both blistering cuts in that vintage Cowie stylee. Man, was that guy ever on fire in the mid-‘90s.

Goa trance obviously gets its tunes in, Cosmosis, Zart, Endora, Power Source, Mosti, and Ectomorph doing the business. Some crackin’ tunes from Cosmosis, Silicon Drum, Zart, and Power Source, but little else to recommend there. Hard acid has its obligatory tracks thrown in too, Dr. Octopus (alias of D.A.V.E. The Drummer) being the best of the lot. A young Lab 4 appear, though their Transformation is pitched down significantly for some daft reason – what, too hard for a ‘space techno’ CD? Spacer IV shows up again with yet another way out of place progressive house track, Jetson almost a precursor to the genre’s evolution into ‘prog’. And even regular ol’ Detroit techno gets a couple tunes thrown in, care of Darren Price’s Blueprints and Skeleton Crew’s Skeleton Coast. Actually, I’m not sure what to call Skeleton Coast, and nor does Lord Discogs, because it sure as Hell ain’t tech-house.

Overall a more memorable assortment of tune in the UK Space Techno franchise, even if the concept is straying further from whatever Millennium Records figured ‘space techno’ could be. Like, those two try-hard progressive trance anthems in V’s Anjuna (The Incredible Journey Mix) and The Bubble’s Squeek!. Good God, no! What’s so spacey about a lame breakdown with saxophone solo ripped from the ‘80s?

Various - UK Space Techno, Vol. I

Millennium Records: 1996

Yeah, I get why Millennium Records would eschew the ‘goa’ tag for its new compilation series. The European market was already flooded with tons of CDs offering trippy, acid-drenched dance music, with many a label rushing out to capitalize on hot buzzwords goa, trance, and the like. And fair enough, a lot of folks thought of early trance simply as ‘space techno’ (or ‘space house’, LOL), so it’s not that great a leap in logic in taking this angle. I dunno though; it still feels disingenuous promising ‘space techno’ from the UK, and having a good sixty percent of the tracks still feeling that rush of psychedelia from the shores of India. I sure wasn’t expecting so much goa trance when I picked this up way back when, nosiree.

What I was expecting was a whole lot of unknown names giving me another crash-course in all this ‘techno’ business going on overseas. I definitely got that, what with names like X-Cabs, Green Nuns Of The Revolution, Jon The Dentist, Darren Price, and Chris Liberator (as Star Power) appearing on this double-discer. Okay, so they weren’t outright unknowns, but who here remembers tracks like The Attic, or Neuro, or Desert Storm’s Scoraig 93, or Kenny Larkin’s rub of LA Synthesis’ Agraphobia? Hm, that’s all techno that’s rather spacey too, isn’t it.

I swear UK Space Techno Vol. I is filled with obscure goa trance, honest and true! Cosmosis’ rub of Disco Volante’s El Metro, for instance, or Monosphere’s Elysian Fields, or the Spectra Mix of Optica’s Alkaline PH9. And who can forget such forgotten gems like Isomise’s KHO Phang Gain, or Head-Doctor’s Train å Medellin, plus Polyploid’s Coaster Prefix? Certainly not I, since I’ve had this CD for two decades now (holy cow!).

Since this compilation tries to have its acid cake and eat its goa trance too, it creates an odd dichotomy of tunes that no amount of ‘space techno’ branding can overcome. CD1 isn’t too bad in this regard, hitting you early with simpler, recognizable tunes like Neuro and Spacer IV’s Arc 3 (I think it was) before moving onto psy leaning cuts, the odd acid techno tune breaking up any potential monotony along the way. CD2, on the other hand, opts for pure techno tracks for the most part, some of which are regarded as classics in terms of UK offerings (Scoraig 93, Agraphobia, The Simirillion (Svenson’s Trip To Gondor Remix), others not so much (Skintrade’s Andromraxess, Integrated Circuits’ Ghost 843). Having them assorted with trippy goa and hard acid from the Stay Up Forever posse doesn’t do them any favors either, coming off rather basic and monotonous compared to the busier cuts. I often don’t even remember much of what’s on CD2 until I throw the disc on again. Such is the case with so many double-disc compilations from the mid-‘90s though: a couple classics, a few unheralded gems, and a pile of agreeable filler lost to the ravages of raving history.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Lingua Lustra - Uhadi

Psychonavigation Records: 2015

Albert Borkent has been releasing music as Lingua Lustra for over a decade now, but started really cranking the releases out after the ‘10s took form. Guess that partnership with Databloem helped fuel the ol’ creative synapses just fine, to say nothing of the near twenty assorted digital EPs he spit out under his co-owned print Spiritech (Alireza Zaifnejad; aka. Blue Bliss also handles the print). In the meanwhile, he’s put out a few albums on assorted labels like Anodize, Lagerstätte, earthMantra, Bakshish Music, Electronic Soundscapes Records under his Sol Tek side-project (guess what music they release!), and finally Psychonavigation Records. And yes, I’d never have stumbled upon Mr. Borkent’s material had it not been for that discount haul on the part of the Ireland print, but oh is there so much tempting Lingua material to trawl through now.

That’s for another time though. For now, I’m left with yet another predicament of taking on yet another artist for the first time with yet another hefty discography I’ve nary the time to fully immerse myself in. I’m just gonna’ have to take Lord Discogs’ word that most of the Lingua Lustra stylee consists of similar ambient and drone soundscapes as I’m hearing on Uhadi, though clearly with less uhadi involved. And what is an uhadi, pray tell? Why, it’s that charming musical bow you heard on Leftfield’s Afro-Left, though that was the Brazilian version of the instrument (berimbau), whereas an uhadi is the original South African contraption.

It’s also a titular cut on this album, and most definitely the centerpiece clocking in just a shade under thirty minutes in length. What’s strange is there’s very little use of the instrument in that runtime, at least in any traditional sense that I can hear. Plenty of field recordings though, including passing airplanes and bird song, plus lengthy passages of pleasant synth pad and drone. Some mild tapping of an uhadi does emerge in short order, providing a minor rhythmic backbone to the track, but gradually fades out by the ten-minute mark. It comes back for around five minutes near the end, then the track completely changes course into something darker and dubbier. I should also mention I’m only assuming the gentle tapping is an uhadi. Doesn’t make sense to name a track like that without making some use of the instrument.

It’s a nifty piece of music all said, though clearly for ambient-lovers only. Frankly, I was more intrigued by the opening thirteen-minute piece Rise, what with its ultra-dubby groove, night forest field recordings, and lazy, hazy cascading bell tones – reminds me of something I’d hear out of the Silent Season camps. A few ‘shorter’ cuts round Uhadi out, including trip-hopper More Than Words Can Say, a tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on an older Shadow Records CD. Siren gets more experimental in the trip-hop vein, and closer Run brings the lowdown beatcraft into proper murk as foreboding strings play out. Holy cow, this really is Shadow Records revisited!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Orb - U.F.Orb

Island Records/Inter-Modo: 1992/2005

It’d difficult denying U.F.Orb as the group’s best work, though I can understand how others might enjoy their other albums more. After the genre-defining excess that was Ultraworld though, The Orb were quick in adjusting and refining just what they had on tap with their music. Cut out all that excessive ambient dithering (save it for the live shows, plus no one got the ironic ‘prog-rock’ joke of it all anyway), focus in on more groovy earworms that rave punters and chilled stoners could vibe on equally, and make each collaboration play to those particular players’ strengths rather than having them around just because you could. The result is six near-perfect tracks within the Orb canon, custom made for the ’92 crowds, and enduring to this day. Plus Sticky End.

Right, high claims signaling out U.F.Orb as most essential and all that, especially as it lacks those truly iconic Orb tunes everyone knows. The closest two we get are Blue Room and Towers Of Dub, each the fifteen-minute breaking behemoth highlights of the album, and the sort of cuts that turned Ultraworld into the double-disc effort it was. Hilariously, the original mix of Blue Room clocked in at a shade under forty minutes in length, a cheeky attack of sorts on the UK charts in pushing the limits of what constituted a single in that nation’s music scene. Hey, I wouldn’t mind hearing that on the radio – any chance to hear more of Jah Wobble’s bass work and Steve Hillage’s space guitar effects is ace in my ears. Nor did the British folk either, Blue Room peaking out at number eight, The Orb’s second highest single ever (only Toxygene’s done better, deliberately so).

Towers Of Dub is the other one, what with its charming bell melody, funky harmonica tootin’ from Marney Pax, and, um, towering layers of dub effects throughout (and can’t forget ‘that bassline’!). I suppose opener O.O.B.E. is a minor memorable tune off here, if anything for its inclusion on Live 93. It’s such an ultra-mellow piece of music though, about as ambient as anything The Orb produced in this era, and frustratingly quiet at times too. For some reason, the only part that ever sticks in my head is the sampled game of billiards.

What of the remaining three, then? How do they fit in the grand Orb lexicon? The titular cut, a modest six minute piece that may as well be proto prog-house, goes about its business as a decent enough transitional cut between O.O.B.E. and Blue Room. Close Encounters goes longer, grooving along on a similar sample-heavy house vibe. Finally Majestic, the obligatory Youth collaboration, keeps the proggy tone going, with a hook in its final minutes that’s as ear-vermis as anything else on U.F.Orb. How this one never turned out a single, I haven’t a clue. I suppose outside of Little Fluffy Clouds, most didn’t give The Orb’s early conventional dance tracks as much notice. They were defining other shit, mang!

The Orb - U.F.OFF - The Best Of The Orb

Island Records: 1998

It’s embarrassing admitting this, but U.F.OFF was the second Orb record I ever picked up. For sure I knew about all their previous albums (Orblivion was inescapable the year prior), even took a couple in as demos at music shops. For whatever reason though, I never bothered buying the Very Important Albums until well after the fact – wow, did Pomme Fritz really sour me on the Orb Experience that much? Yeah, cannot deny it did a little, but that whole ‘living in Canadian hinterlands’ where ‘electronica’ was scarce didn’t do me many favors either. Plus, having The Orb in your CD collection wasn’t exactly the ‘cool’ option around my peers, everyone more hip to The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and Orbital. So the conglomerate that Alex Paterson built forever floated on the fringes of my fancy, an act I knew important enough to respect, but not necessarily dig through. You can bet my last dollar then, that finding a handy Best Of retrospective would give me the Orb crash-course I so desperately needed – got me all Orb-woke, son.

Obviously, a tidy twelve-tracker of The Orb’s first decade of music making is only scratching the surface, mostly settling on radio-friendly versions (or 7” mixes) to tell the tale. This includes the Orbital Dance Mix of A Huge Ever Growing etc. etc., which isn’t a remix from Orbital. Little Fluffy Clouds always was the dancier cut from Ultraworld, whereas Youth’s rub of Perpetual Dawn gives the tune more house pep (and, that bassline!). Further along, DJ Asylum (a reworking of Asylum from Orblivion) hits fast and hard with the breaks and earworms compared to its album counterpart, there’s an Original Mix of Towers Of Dub that lacks the harmonica but adds goofy dialog between a cop and hippie in trial, and a new track of Mickey Mars answers the question of “what would it sound like if The Orb used that Native chant from Enigma’s Return To Innocence?”. The remaining classic singles (plus Pomme Fritz (Meat ‘N’ Veg)) are generally so short as to only offer their basic components before moving on to the next cut. Hell, the lone Orbus Terrarum track, Oxbow Lakes, doesn’t even officially appear, hidden away as a secret song long after Pi (Part 1)’s minute-long runtime fades out.

Still, hearing all these vintage Orb tunes finally gave me enough appreciation for their work to start digging further, which I done did. Strange that such a release would have come out but a third into the group’s existence though. Did The Orb conglomerate figure their time in the sun was done? No, but their deal with Island Records sure was, feeling mistreated and maligned by the Major at that point. I mean, the cover art and title of this Best Of couldn’t be less subtle about their feelings if they tried, which astounds me they got away with it at all. Just a shame their retreat led to some of their most inessential work too.

Things I've Talked About

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