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’, 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 started 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 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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Vector Lovers - Vector Lovers (2017 Update)

Soma Quality Recordings: 2004

(Click here to read my original TranceCritic review.)

I remain woefully neglectful of those two Vector Lovers albums between this and iPhonica. I simply don’t know if I’d like them though. I mean, I’ve heard some of the singles Martin Wheeler put out around that time, and they’re all tech-hausy, or deep-techy, or dub-hausy. Fine if you’re a DJ looking for some rinse-out material, but I enjoyed Vector Lovers for the touching electro melodies and groovy robot funk, so I haven’t been in a hurry to- Eh? They’re not like that? How can I corroborate this info? Oh yeah, Spotify. Guess I should do some ‘music journalist research’ on this then. Hold on.

*a couple illuminating hours later*

Um, oh wow. Huh. I had no idea. Just goes to show you can’t judge an album by its associated singles, eh? Still, despite my primary reservations, I’d likely have dropped some cash for those albums if I spotted them on the cheap. A decade on, and they still haven’t come down from full price, some of them fetching upwards in the hundreds of dollars now, which is mind-bogglingly bonkers. On the other hand, these are decade-old CDs now, released on a label that probably didn’t have a huge production run of them in the first place. For sure Soma Recordings has clout in the world of techno – they got this particular album into the Vancouver shop I stumbled upon in the year 2006 after all – but even they must run out of copies eventu- Eh? They still have copies for sale on their online store? Um, oh wow. Huh. I had no idea. Say, that British Pound isn’t doing so well right now either, is it?

Since my original TranceCritic review of Vector Lovers is already plenty and exhaustingly detailed, here’s some additional items of interest I gleaned in my Spotify trawl of Mr. Wheeler’s music. First off, the 2011 Electrospective didn’t just gather up a ‘best of’ collection of Vector Lovers, but also offered them up as ‘remastered’ versions too, essentially beefing them up musically, practically turning them into remixes. For the most part these are handled with enough class as to not render the originals moot, but Spotify does, replacing the original tracks with the remastered versions on the albums too. That… just might make the CD copies rare collectibles now, the only place one can hear the originals. Incidentally, five tracks from Vector Lovers made the cut on Electrospective.

Another track that did was an A2-side to the Electrobotik Disco single, Shinjuku Girl. It’s a nice little downtempo electro number in that easily identifiable Vector Lovers stylee, but I must draw attention to another cut off that EP, Electrobotik Disco Part II. Holy cow, if you thought the album version, or even Electrosuite, was ace dancefloor material, this tune takes all that robot future-funk, then feeds it through a galloping techno beat that’d have all the ‘electro’ guys of the mid-‘00s quivering with hearts in their eyes. How have I missed this for over a decade!?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Lorenzo Montanà - Vari Chromo

Psychonavigation Records: 2015

And now the conclusion of Lorenzo Montanà’s Trilogy on Psychonavigation Records. One. Year. Later. No, really, we last left off from Leema Hactus on May 17, 2016, and now we’re on May 19, 2017. I swear to God and all His subsidiaries that I did not plan for this remarkable cosmic coincidence; that we’d be at nearly the exact same spot in our solar orbit as the last review. In fact, I had no idea things had lined up like this until I went back through my previous Lorenzo writings for a quick refresher in his music. I feel like such an event should mean something, but my feeble man-ape brain can’t comprehend the significance of this fated alignment. Someone tell Hawking! Someone tell Tyson! Someone tell Daruwalla! Someone tell the Dalai Lama! And The Pope? Mm, nah, don’t bother telling him.

Scaling things back to what’s important, Vari Chromo (translated as ‘various colors’ …or ‘lemur colors’? Huh?) was Mr. Montanà’s third and final album with Psychonavigation. Since then he’s flirted with a few different prints (Carpe Sonum, …txt, Projekt), and squeezed in a couple collaborative efforts with Alio Die and Mick Chillage too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. If you might recall, I noticed a pattern with his previous solo outings, where the quality of his LPs would alternate between “eh” and “AY!” As we’re now in his fifth album, this should be an “eh” then, right. Absolutely not! Perhaps it was that Carpe Sonum record between this and Leema Hactus that was the downturn LP. May have to dig further into this flimsy theory.

But nay, Vari Chromo is indeed Mr. Montanà’s sixth record, and another darn good one at that. He’s added a couple new items to his sonic palette, one of which being sporadic piano passages. I honestly don’t recall hearing him use the ol’ ivories in any previous album, though considering I’ve still yet to take in those Labyrinth albums with Pete Namlook, I may have simply missed them. Look, they’re darn expensive, what with being double-discs that include a 5.1 mixdown option, a hopelessly useless feature for yours truly as I remain stuck in renter’s purgatory (damn you, unaffordable Vancouver housing!).

As per most Lorenzo albums though, we get a nice assortment of ambient techno, crisp skittery beats, and charming melodies that’ll melt your heart. There’s a couple moodier numbers too (Spoot, Tek Kyah), but nothing too off the beaten path. Vari Chromo also finds Mr. Montanà indulging outside his comfort zone, Hy-Brazil worming a little Latin rhythm into his click-glitch beats, Green Room feeling the ethereal flow, and Anya taking on the modern classical stylee for good measure. Then just to show off, Lorenzo drops a twelve-minute long space ambient cut, with cosmic pads, subtle acid burbling, and all that good, vintage Fax+ vibe old-schoolers will never tire of (*cough*). Is it too much that I demand collaboration with Carbon Based Lifeforms after hearing this?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Vitalic - V Live (Original TC Review)

Play It Again Sam [PIAS]: 2007

(2017 Update:
Considering this was my first Vitalic review for TranceCritic (or ever for that matter), I'm surprised I didn't go heavier on the background info. Maybe I'd name-dropped him enough times prior to not need it? Eh, just as well that I didn't, this review already super bloated as it is. All the ranting, raving, and point-making I do regarding live album mixdowns could have easily been summed up in a few sentences, but for some daft reason, I go for a few paragraphs on the subject. Probably trying to cover my ass in defense of whatever counter-arguments could be made in favor of this CD, an obviously moot point now.

Interestingly,
V Live was a limited-run release, of only five thousand "specimens". Considering many CD runs seldom crack the one thousand mark these days, I find that hilarious such a number is considered limited. Erm, I also don't have a physical copy of this, but I doubt I'd have to pay much to snag a copy if I really wanted one. Which I don't. Yeah, this hasn't held up at all, espcially now that Vitalic's added three more LPs to his resume since (called the date of the second one here!). I wouldn't mind hearing another stab at a live album from him though - fix the issues I had here, and we're good to go!)


IN BRIEF: Not OK, cowboy.

Vitalic has to be both the most exciting and the most frustrating new producer of this decade. In a time when fresh ideas are rare, Mr. Pascal Arbez-Nicolas has not only made an undeniable impact with his work, but double-lapped damned near everyone else in the process. His debut Poney EP will probably go down as among the most important singles of the 00s, and the follow-up album OK Cowboy kept his star firmly in place. Unfortunately for fans though, the Frenchman has an irritatingly sluggish output rate. True they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and lord knows Vitalic’s followers salivate at every whiff of a new tune, but for someone who’s shown so much promise it’s almost criminal that Pascal has kept a cool head and resisted the temptation to release tracks en masse. At this rate, you’d think he was trying to mimic Leftfield’s career from the 90s (which means don’t expect a new album until about 2009).

Given his small discography, the idea of a live album seems odd. More so is the fact over half the tracks on here are either new or unreleased cuts, some of which have been specifically made for his live shows. While this sounds exciting on paper - fresh Vitalic material, live setting - I could not help but feel some slight apprehension going into this. The idea of a live album often revolves around hearing an artist’s material in a different context, which in itself is good stuff, but two problems all too often crop up in the process, and V Live falls victim to both.

Let’s address the most prominent one first: the mixdown. The whole point of recording something live is to capture the show as though you might be hearing it there in person. This includes the sound resonance of the club/hall/tent/stadium/field, appropriate crowd noise, and, the trickiest bit, the energy of the event itself. Any imbalance often creates a lackluster atmosphere - muddy music, for instance, or a lack of spectator presence reducing the whole ‘live’ aspect in the process; both seem to be a common fault of many a live rock release. It’s funny, then, that V Live suffers from the exact opposite problems.

Frankly, it sounds like Pascal recorded two sources: one somewhere in the middle of the crowd, and another directly in the main output. Then he apparently took the former master and gratuitously fiddled with the volume during the mixdown. The end result is music that is mostly computer clean, with crowd noise and hall reverb jumping in and out at extreme volumes throughout; at some points the cheers are the loudest thing you hear, other times it disappears into barely a whisper.

For the life of me I cannot imagine a hall as excitable as this one would get that quiet at key points of this concert, especially when in the early going pandemonium is likely with a mere pitch bend; their enthusiasm is borderline ridiculous. I’ll grant the killer cuts - La Rock 01 will forever kick like a kangaroo mule - but why on some of the lesser moments like, say, Follow The Car? It doesn’t seem to matter what Vitalic does, they’re just in awe of seeing the Frenchman live. This crowd would cheer if he banged on a keyboard for an hour. Probably.

No, their frequent absence in the final mixdown must be deliberate, and it makes for a live recording where you either find yourself lost among a sea of caners, or stuck in one of the monitor speakers. It’s disconcerting, and hardly an ideal representation of a live Vitalic show.

But who cares about all that so long as the tunes are mint, eh? After all, Pascal didn’t become the sensation he is by producing the odd gem with a bunch of mediocre wank to fill out his discography. So yes, La Rock 01, My Friend Dario, and newer cut Bells all deliver. However, they also deliver just as effectively on the albums or singles they were initially featured on and very little is done here to give them a fresh spin, which leads us to Problem #2.

Some of the most utterly bland live discs I’ve heard are often the result of hearing tunes that are near-identical to the versions heard on the original recordings. It’s fine and all to hear it while you’re actually there in concert - who doesn’t enjoy hearing their favorites played out, after all - but to have a similar rendition on yet another disc at home is redundant. If I’m going to pay money to have songs I already have, it’d better be significantly different or presented in a unique context. And there is little significantly different or unique in the way Vitalic performs his familiar songs on V Live. Honestly, I’ve heard several DJs make better use of his tunes than he does here.

What about all those new cuts though? Surely they’re worth picking this up for, right? Well, assuming you haven’t yet downloaded some set rips to hear them, mostly they’re effective club bangers containing a catchy Vitalic twist. Though none of them are quite at the level of some of Pascal’s highlights, Anatoles will probably be rubbing elbows with Poney Pt. 2 and No Fun on a ‘best of’ CD down the road. And besides, chances are you’ll be hearing the best cuts on future albums or B-sides to singles anyway. Unless you can’t possibly hold out for non-live versions of them, you’d be better off waiting and seeing rather than picking V Live up solely for these tunes.

This isn’t an entirely bad release but casual fans of Vitalic will undoubtedly come away underwhelmed. There are few surprises in Pascal’s set and the crowd unfortunately is more annoying than entertaining. Although it’ll probably still be some time before we see another full-length album from the Frenchman, V Live doesn’t have enough going for it to make this a worthwhile tide-over. When all is said and done, only completists will find long-term satisfaction with this.

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Alphaxone & ProtoU - Stardust

Cryo Chamber: 2017

Now this is a pairing I wouldn’t have expected. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have expected Alphaxone to pair up with anyone, beyond the now-obligatory yearly Cyro Chamber ‘Old Ones Tribute’ jamboree. He’s worked in conjunction with other dark ambient folks on thematic compilation albums, specifically Tomb Of Empires and Tomb Of Seers, but those are still solo outings from Mr. Saleh, merely contributing a piece of music for those particular projects. Lord Discogs tells me this is his first true collaborative effort though; across any alias he’s had this past half-decade. Maybe he’s done others even The Lord That Knows All doesn’t know about, but I kinda’ like Stardust being his first for a simple reason: it fits a narrative!

In case you missed all those Alphaxone reviews I did last year, there’s been a slow, steady conceptual migration in his works from terra firma to the great beyond above. Well, after leaving some alternate dimensions filled with graylands and some-such. However, it’s lonely in space [citation needed], so now that he’s finally out among the stars, perhaps a little company was called for. Enter ProtoU, fresh off her work exploring Southeast Asian crypts, joining in on a little solar surfing. I’m not sure how Ms. Cats knows Mr. Saleh, but I imagine after those Cryo Chamber Collaboration epics, a few emails were exchanged for future reference.

As the name implies, Stardust is a space ambient outing, and surprisingly not so bleak as the dark practitioners of this sub-genre go. For sure it’s got its fair share of isolationist drone, tracks like Sub Signal, Consumed, and Observing Quasars doing the ‘cosmic emptiness’ thing you’ll typically hear in this field. It’s tempered with subtle melodic passages though, plus a surprising amount of field recordings lurking just out of hearing range. Even the latter two tracks of the ones I just listed provide some synthy tonal counter-balance to the atonal nature of space drone, music that feels just as in awe of its surroundings as it does meek and insignificant. Nicely captures the whole ‘we’re all star-stuff’ notion, despite so often confounded by such implications.

If anything, this album feels less about exploring the cosmos at large (something of a daunting task), and rather chilling out on some fringe of civilization, far from contact but not impossibly alone. There’s still star-gazing going down, but more like being at an outpost, or remote colony, pushing the boundaries of our cosmic influence. Hence a track like Planemo Dreams, a lonely track with rainfall/static for sure, wiling the time away on some far-flung dwarf or rogue planet. Counter to that is Versus, which features the cosmic drone, yet also has tweeting birds, and an almost positive twist by track’s end. Then at the conclusion of Stardust, Alignments goes synthy old-school, and Returned’s drone gradually turns into brighter pad washes before fading out into static. Whatever this mission was, it’s safe to assume it’s accomplished. How remarkably upbeat for a dark ambient release.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dronny Darko - Spira Igneus

Cryo Chamber: 2016

Sure enough, about the same time I get to one of Dronny Darko’s latest albums on Cryo Chamber, he goes and releases an even newer one. I’m constantly behind the eight-ball on Mr. Puzan’s output, forever chasing, never first out of the gate. Yeah, yeah, that’s all due to the stipulations I place upon myself going through new music, but it feels strangely coincidental this keeps happening. About the same time I was catching up with his prior LPs of Earth Songs and Neuroplasticity, he put out a collaborative work called Rites Lost on Sparkwood Records. I suppose if I hadn’t been so lax on reviews this year, I’d have gotten this particular review for Spira Igneus out about the time his other recent collaborative effort with Ajna came out, Black Monolith (ooh, a double-LP is it?). But as it stands, I’m reviewing Spira Igneus as Abduction has hit the streets. Thus concludes my convoluted method of bringing y’all up to speed on Dronny Darko’s musical endeavors since last we saw of him on this blog (almost a year ago!).

As with Outer Tehom, Spira Igneus is the sort of dark ambient most folks associate with the genre: moody, creepy, something something occult. Far as I can tell though, the idea of ‘spira igneus’ is a wholly unique concept, not drawing upon any specific piece of obscure folklore. My very, very rough Latin translates this as ‘the fiery tower’, or something to that effect, which shouldn’t be a surprise given there’s an actual tower on the cover of this album. The art kinda’ reminds me of the end of The Neverending Story, when The Nothing has consumed all of Fantasia, save the Ivory Tower, though in this case, it looks like even the lair of The Childlike Empress isn’t such the beacon of hope as in that movie portrayed.

And damn straight Spira Igneus is all sort of crushing, suffocating bleakness as only the most classic dark ambient goes. Mostly it’s of the minimalist droning sort (of course), with added sounds and effects complementing a particular track’s theme. Opener Scriptures has chants lurking in the shadows, as does Three Rulers, though even more indistinct here. Rotten Orchestra sadly doesn’t feature any cacophonic instrumentation, but does bring machinery hum and clankery to the mix. Endless Cave holds low throbs and plonks as though mimicking endless echoes in deep caverns. Grey Echoes has echoes of their own, though emerging like shrieks penetrating the relentless drone, such that even its omnipresent tone recedes in fear. The ‘big’ track on here, ten-minute long Forbidden Wisdom, comes off like a trip through your own psyche, slowly losing yourself as though you’re overwhelmed by whatever unholy secrets the spira igneus keeps closely guarded. Ol’ Dronny definitely knows his way around some warped soundscapes.

As an aside, I’m continually fascinated by his construction of ‘perfect minute’ tracks that never feel too short or long. That’s some serious dedication to self-imposed constricts within one’s craft. I should know.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fjäder - Shades Of Light

Shaded Explorations: 2016

I forget how I stumbled upon this. For sure it was via a Bandcamp link, but given my conservative excursions through the website, it wasn’t intentional. Perhaps it’s because Shades Of Light came out on a label called Shaded Explorations. It just so happens that I did a review for Shaded Explorer this past half-year, and some Bandcamp Googling for the latter may have accidentally led me to Ms. Fjäder instead. I do recall, however, that the moment I saw the CD packaging displayed, I was intrigued; a black cover with an intricate cut-out, and a simple cardboard sleeve slipped inside. It’s always nice when hopelessly underground artists take extra care in crafting their ultra-limited run hard copies. A very quick sampling of the music confirmed Shades Of Light was at least electronic, so I took the gamble and waited for the goods to arrive for audio consumption.

And this… I wasn’t expecting this. Something dubby and ambient, sure, as the brief clips I played suggested as much. But ethereal dub techno with live instruments? (Pianos! Voices! Strings! oh my) Is this even a thing? I feel like this should be a thing, but I can’t say I’ve come across anything like Fjäder’s music before.

The lass behind the moniker, Ida Matsdotter, has been making music for a few years now, her most prominent bit of exposure coming at the tail-end of a 4CD M_nus box set titled Enter.Ibiza 2015. Cool that she got to rub shoulders with the likes of Slam, Beltram, and the Plastikman himself on that particular set from TM404, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she went overlooked regardless. Still, a couple more appearances on various compilations, podcasts, and the odd single has given her a decent start in the world of techno, thus we now arrive for Album Time with her debut of Shades of Light.

Opener Yellow Cosmic Sun is a beatless, dubby, droning piece with various strings and vocal snippets fed through heavy, throbbing effects, feeling more of a meditative outing than something intended for club use. Second track तूफान केंद्रअ (Google translate tells me this is Hindi for ‘eye of the storm’) brings in ethereal chants coupled with a marching rhythm that sounds like it’s being dropped into digital water. World beat with a dub techno twist? I can dig it.

The one consistent element I’m hearing throughout Shades Of Light is no genre fusion is off limits, a remarkable strategy considering dub techno’s staunch, stuffy traditionalism. There are a couple examples of that deep, minimalist, rolling warehaus thump in tracks like Abyss and Dragonfly, but elsewhere Fjäder breaks those beats up into something more akin to experimental trip-hop (Talk To You, twelve-minute long Vintergatan). There’s ethereal ambient (Shades Of Light), crushing drone ambient (Venus), and feedback-fuzz ambient (Hjärtans Fröjd). I also quite like that she isn’t afraid to manipulate her voice to such a degree it’s almost unrecognizable from other layers of timbre. No ego here, my friends.

EDM Weekly World News, May 2017

Happy Valentines Day. What do you mean it's not? We sure are selling the same amount of flower bouquets. You've never seen so many buggies filled with blossoms! As for the tragic events of this major bone-breaking news, like the murder-spree of a few years past, I'm sure these living jukeboxes will make a full recovery. Not so sure about their mixing 'skills' tho', but that hasn't stopped them from having headline careers yet.

Friday, May 12, 2017

ASC - No Stars Without Darkness

Silent Season: 2016

I guess if I wanted to know what an ASC album on Cryo Chamber would sound like, I now have my answer. Or maybe …txt, No Stars Without Darkness not exactly a dark ambient album. It sure is lonesome though, feelings of stark melancholy permeating the mood as one looks upon an endless night sky, feeling hopelessly remote from every grand tapestry the cosmos closely guards behind an opaque veil. It’s not a vibe I’m accustomed to hearing with Silent Season, is what I’m getting at. Passages of reflection, sure; dubbed-out drone is part of the label’s manifesto, and few things get you lost up in your own brainpan better than infinite layers of pad and timbre. I seldom get a sense of suffocating isolationism though. Like, it’s fine to take a solo hike through damp, coastal old-growth, but Van-City remains a few kliks away.

This one though, there’s just a little more isolationism, a little more bleakness in the void ASC is painting here, even going by track titles alone. Idyll Of Sorrow, All Come To Ruin, Nothing More To Give, Elegy For An Empty Shell …not the most cheering of themes here, and the music doesn’t liven the mood either.

Sorrow features mournful pads and down-trodden melodies as impossibly distant whispers penetrate the somber tone. A Moment Alone does the abstract, cosmic drone thing that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Alphaxone album. Ruin treads closer to a calming ambient vibe, though is so drenched in overdubs, it’s about as soothing as the stuff Aphex Twin offered on SAW II. Silence and Waning Hours add minute melodic content, acoustic guitar strums penetrating the desolation. And after eight tracks of oppressive drone, The Promise In Your Lies opts for a quieter piece to finish on, though no less spacious and vast in soundcraft, like you cannot help but forever keep staring upward in the futile hopes of seeing more stars in the infinite black above.

No, seriously, it can’t be done. I know what you’re thinking: it’s paradoxical that we can’t see all the stars if they’re all up there, right? That’s the crux behind Olbers’ Paradox, after all. Well, there’s a reason space appears as black as it does. First off, the universe is big [citation needed], light taking time to reach us, some stars so distant that their photons will never strike our planet. This is due to the universe’s expansion, such light typically red-shifted across the electromagnetic spectrum from our vantage point, much of which is shifted so far, it’s beyond our visible range of sight. Interestingly, at the longest wavelengths (microwaves), the cosmos does light up as though it was filled with infinite stars – it’s called the Cosmic Microwave Background. With our limited visibility though, we’re stuck seeing only the closest stars (cosmic dust doesn’t help either), universal expansion blinking ever more out of our view. At some point, there won’t even be stars in the darkness. And that gives the sads.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kolhoosi 13 - Monuments Of Power

Cryo Chamber: 2016

*we now return to EMC’s series premiere of Cryo Chamber Idol, where budding dark ambient artists hope to win a deal with Simon Heath’s ever growing print*

Heath: “We have room for another act that deals with decaying civilizations. What’s your angle on this concept?”
Contestant 12: “We’re the Far-Flung Sons Of Camden Town. And we got… DEAD CITIES!”
Heath: “Yes, that’s what I’m after, but what’s your unique pitch?”
Contestant 12: “DEAD CITIES!”
Heath: “You just said-“
Contestant 12: “DEAD CITIES! D..E..A..D C..I..T..I..E..S.. D…..E.....A…..D…..C…..I…..T….I….E….S….”
Heath: “O-kay. Metal might be your thing instead. Who’s next?”
Contestant 13: “So, you know how all these post-apocalypse Hellscapes are set in the future, after the end-times? Well, how about a project where we put the listener at the cusp of everything falling about?”
Heath: “That’s kinda’ what Cities Last Broadcast implies in his name though.”
Contestant 13: “Yeah, but did he actually deliver on that?”
Heath: “Hm, not really. At least, not with the album we got, what with all that séance business and all.”
Contestant 13: “Right! But we got your back on this one!”
Heath: “Alright, sure. It’s lunch anyway, and I’m hungry.”

As for the name Kolhoosi 13, time to brush up on my Finnish. Seems this refers to Soviet communes (kolkhoz), where State-supervised peasant farming took place across the Eastern Bloc, with many kolhoosi granted autonomy after a time. Not so harsh as the gulags then, but no picnic in the summer either. It invokes a simpler, yet harsher time in Europe’s history, a product of a bygone era from a failed state. Unless, of course, society crumbles and we’re reduced to feudal tillage once more. As for the ‘13’, I’m not sure where that comes from. Maybe the chaps behind this project, Niko Salakka and Juho Lepistö, simply felt it had a nice ring to it coupled with ‘kolhoosi’.

Monuments Of Power is their debut album (natch'), and according to Lord Discogs, their debut anything. For the past couple years, Kolhoosi 13 have gone around gathering field recordings, looking for common themes in their samples, and found a fascination with mankind’s ode to the infrastructure that’ll outlast our hubris. At least, that’s the gist I’m getting from this album of almost pure drone.

The opening track, From Comradery To Sustenance, is quite effective in putting you in the middle of a war-ravaged area, scurrying and scuttling about crumbling ruins as mortar shells bombard areas far away, yet too close for comfort. And yet the distant sound of war is surprisingly comforting, as there’s little sign of humanity after that. Sometimes the clank of automated machinery and low thrum of churning engines accompany your haggard travels through an industrial wasteland, but there’s almost no music to nurture the soul here. This is ambient drone stripping away any vestiges of hope for a future, save those who find glory in our brutalist architecture.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

MO-DU - MOD01

Mata-Mata Records/...txt: 2015/2016

No, not Mo-Do, though I wouldn’t mind reviewing that charmingly cheesy Italian eurodance act at some point either. Come on, you already have Eins, Zwei, Polizei playing in your head at the mere mention of it. Their lone album of Was Ist Das? can’t be going for more than a buck or two on the used Euro market now. Maybe I should look into that.

But no, this is MO-DU, a side-project of Moduretik. Or maybe a new project, since the man behind it, Jan Jiskra, hasn’t put out any new Moduretik material for a few years now, save a retrospective in 2016. As Moduretik, he put out a few albums on micro-label Bleeder Ear of way-retro sounding darkwave tunes. It’s all rather under-produced, which I have no doubt is the point, capturing the messy vibe of musicians inspired by synth-pop of the early ‘80s, but trapped in the Eastern European bloc. Gotta’ make do with whatever gear you can grab, and get that stuff out on the streets of Prague while you can, before militsiya surrogates come a knockin’. There’s a punky, romanticism about it, which may be somewhat fabricated, but that doesn’t stop modern musicians from making tributes and odes to the era.

Then ol’ Jan tried his hand at another form of obscure European electronic music of those free-wheelin’ years, kosmische Musik, pairing up with Adam Holub as Neden, resulting in a self-titled album (on vinyl!). Jiskra must have been inspired by that session, as he didn’t wait around for Holub for another round of music making, striking out solo for more of that Berlin-School stylee as MO-DU. He’s released two albums now under the moniker, essentially self-released on his Mata-Mata Records print, with the first LP already out of print (because tapes). Somewhere along the way, Lee Norris stumbled upon it (was sent a demo?), because now we have a re-issue of MOD01 on ambient print …txt. What a strange journey this has been for Mr. Jiskra.

Stranger still, this album doesn’t sound like a pure ‘70s throwback, at least compared to Jan’s work as Moduretik. For sure the equipment used keeps things in that warm, analog era of electronic music, but the songcraft feels more of the ‘90s brand of ambient techno. Heck, opener Scoloyd wouldn’t have been out of place on Boards Of Canada’s last album, though to call MO-DO a Boards clone is quite a disservice, as there’s none of the trip-hoppy beats the Scottish duo are known for.

Nay, Mr. Jiskra keeps his rhythms as faithful to the old-school as he can, whether it’s clip-cloppy beats in Hangaduga, Sorson, and Kapusta, or something closer to synth-pop as in Asitrea. Elsewhere, he lets pulsing modulations and dubby effects act as his guide (Hicarn), or opts for the gentle ambient glide (Boditanka, Tongo, Ubitanka). It reminds me of the stuff those way underground ambient techno labels of the ‘90s would put out (hi, em:t!). Ah, no wonder this ended up on …txt.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Mick Chillage - (M)odes

Carpe Sonum Records: 2016

And yet another ambient album. What, is May gonna’ be The Month Of Ambient from now on? Don’t be silly. We’ve already had two non-ambient albums thus far, and following this, I count at least… um, hm. Well, a couple in the current backtrack queue that are half-ambient, so at least one fullish LP’s worth. It just so happened the comparatively scant items I bought over the winter were mostly of the chill sort, focusing on my primary preferences as I reeled in my spending habits. Once we get down to the ‘V’s though, we’ll start seeing more variety again, where the ratio of downtempo and ambient albums only constitute around… half of them? Ooh, but look – metal!

Enough side-tracking. Let’s get back to what’s important, yet another ambient album up for review. This one comes from Mick Chillage, whom we last saw on this blog over a year ago when I touched upon his Tales From The Igloo debut and remix album. The Irish native has been quite busy since then, the year 2016 seeing him release three albums, a mini-album, not to mention five LPs with Lee Norris as Autumn Of Communion, plus a triple-LP this year, if you want to designate a memory stick album as such.

How should we indentify album length in that format anyhow? Used to be was by the runtime of available physical medium. What was considered a double-LP in the age of smaller vinyl could easily fill a standard CD – thus an LP, once considered anything around thirty to forty minutes, was now extended all the way to eighty minutes, with double-LPs now anything beyond that mark. With albums potentially boundless in the digital age, there could technically be infinite-LPs, though it seems we still stick with however many pieces of physical medium they take up, whether CD, tape, or vinyl. But the use of USB sticks as a physical medium has thrown this convention totally out the window! All we can go by now is runtime length, with the traditional ‘fifty-to-seventy minute LP’ being a rough barometer in gauging an album’s official LP designation. Or maybe it’s time to throw all “ep, lp, lmnop’ standards to the dustbin of dated, obsolete terminology. What strange, uncharted worlds albums find themselves on the precipice of.

Alright, enough rabbit-hole side-tracking. (M)odes is a fairly standard LP of ambient music from Mick Chillage. The opening track Nico’s Gate uses some field recordings that sounds like we’re at construction site in the middle of the night, which serves as a rhythmic backbone as lengthy passages of pads and pianos play out. Midnight Mist, Suspended Thoughts, and Microscopic go for the bleepy minimalist ambient stylee that’ll get your Fax+ triggers going, while We Are Light goes old-school Iasos on our earholes. Closer Visitors adds a dubby beat to its ambient timbre, which makes me wish there were more moments like this throughout (M)odes to break up the ambient monotony. Still, gotta’ love those Chillage textures.

Phonothek - Lost In Fog

Cryo Chamber: 2016

Yes, I'm still astounded that Cryo Chamber keeps unearthing unique artists that must satisfy whatever micro-niche taste one might have. How does that selection process go, though? I mean, a dark ambient label that’s gained an impeccable reputation in such a short time must get sent demos constantly now, budding artists looking to make their mark with Simon Heath’s blessing. I can imagine it almost turning into American Idol:

Heath: “What sort of dark ambient do you make?”
Contestant 1: “I make cold, wintery music, like you’re traversing the Arctic.”
Heath: “Sorry, already got one of those. Next.”
Contestant 1: “No, wait, I meant ANT-arctic!”
Contestant 2: “Haha, too late. So yo’, check it, Sabled Sun, m’man! I’m all about that bleak, future-shock dystopia sound too.”
Heath: “Why would I add another artist that makes music like myself?”
Contestant 2: “’Cause – and this’ll blow your mind – it’s from the perspective of the Star Wars universe, man!”
Heath: “That… might be too specific for what we do here. Wait, aren’t you MC Chris?”
Contestant 2: “Uh, …no?”
Heath: *sigh* “And you, sir, what unique angle might you bring to Cryo Chamber?”
Contestant 3: “I play a trumpet.”
Heath: “Ooh, do tell!”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the trumpet is Phonothek’s defining characteristic, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve heard it so prominently used in a dark ambient project. From what I gather, there’s a whole sub-set of ‘industrial jazz’ or ‘doom jazz’ out there, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. Jazz musicians gotta’ try every form of genre fusion they can.

Phonothek is primarily the brainchild of George from Georgia (oddly, I can’t find a last name for him), with a musical assist from his wife Nina. He has an orchestral background, and while the trumpet is his main sonic weapon of choice, he doesn’t rely on it, only half the tracks on this debut album of Lost In Fog making significant use of it. For the most part, Phonothek does the modern classical thing with ample instrumentation and digital manipulations, but in a loose, freeform, jazzy sort of way. This makes it quite the fun headphone album (those ping-pong sounds!), though a 5.1 system should do you fine in a pinch.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular theme with Lost In Fog other than weird, abstract music making for its own sake. When the trumpet playing does lead (Heavy Thoughts, Old Swings, Lost In Fog), it creates a melancholic mood, almost right out of a noir film. Some tracks use discordant strings or sampled voices to create unease (Last Train), sometimes it’s traditional piano (Dancing With The Ghosts), others chopping up synth pad and droning passages such that they seemingly play out of sync, yet flow together regardless (Something Happened). Meanwhile, Clown Is Dead goes from creepy to forlorn to positively strident with its ethereal marching. Yes, Phonothek has made ‘ethereal marching’ a thing, though wasn’t that Dead Can Dance’s thing too?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Porya Hatami - Land

Somehow Recordings/Inner Ocean Records: 2012/2013

This is the other CD I picked up from Inner Ocean Records’ Bandcamp, completing my collection of Inner Ocean Records CDs as available through the label’s Bandcamp. And if I do some serious hunting and digging, I could get all the CDs the Calgary print released, including Jarrod Sterling’s Distance Is Relative, Void Of Sound’s Black_White, and a remix album of this particular disc too. There might be more, but Lord Discogs doesn’t suggest any, so I’ll take it that’s all Inner Ocean made before transitioning to tape production and the occasional vinyl. I wonder what the cost-ratio with tapes is like. I’ll assume it’s cheaper than CDs, but seeing as how the discs are already pretty darn cheap, it can’t be by much. Is there more of a profit margin on tapes now that they have much greater hipster cred’ than in decades past, folks willing to pay more than the ‘free handout’ price of before? Land of confusion indeed.

Speaking of land, here is Porya Hatami’s debut album, Land. This version on Inner Ocean is actually a reissue, the first coming out a year prior on Somehow Recordings, yet another ambient micro-label that released well over one-hundred items between 2010 and 2013, all on CD. Holy cow! Most of their material is totally new to my eyes, though a couple familiar names do crop up, among them Lee Norris’ Nacht Plank guise. Say, is that where he and Mr. Hatami first crossed paths?

Porya’s style of ambient is mostly defined by his manipulation of field recordings coupled with a delicate touch of glitch-static, soft pads, gentle pianos, twee chimes, and other manner of minimalist melodica. He even released an album called The Garden, with track titles naming off the tiny animal fauna one might find there. Land is obviously larger in scope, but even here ol’ Porya takes a moment to gaze at the very small, with closing track Bug. The melody used in this one sounds as though it could have been sampled from a toy box, including some of the creaking wood one might hear when opening it. Or that could just be recordings played in reverse. It’s all rather abstract, Mr. Hatami aiming for mood over imagery, though I do often feel like I’m chilling by a river or in a field while this plays.

Eight tracks of around six to seven minutes feature in Land, each touching upon a different idea while following a similar structure. Some go super cutesy and tender (Autumn, Sea, Snow), others more droning and abstract (Rain, Storm), and sometime they’ll mesh the two approaches (River, Winter). It all does sound rather similar though, the sort of minimal ambient that navel gazes into its micro-glitch effects to such a degree that it seldom focuses on anything of substance for long, beyond the general tone maintained. Land is a nifty little album for those who appreciate ambient’s form over its function, but does get lost in the background rather easily too.

ProtoU - Khmaoch

Cryo Chamber: 2016

The pace some of these dark ambient artists release material, I swear. Hell, since making their debut on Cryo Chamber alone, a few are already on their fourth and fifth LPs, the wait for follow-ups short indeed. Names I only discovered this past year didn’t waste time in keeping the creative embers hot, some releasing two albums within the same twelve-month span. It makes maintaining an ear on every producer that’s caught my attention nearly impossible, even the ones that I really, really like and stuff. I’m only now just getting into the last five-CD bundle I bought, and already Simon Heath’s print has enough new material available that I’m itching for another five-CD bundle. I suppose I should be thankful that I’m this deeply intrigued by only one such label – if the likes of Ultimae or Silent Season had a schedule at this clip, I’d be financially insolvent in no time (bankrupt? never!).

As ProtoU, Sasha Cats has been one of the busier, um, cats at Cryo Chamber, four albums now under her belt. Two of those are collaborative efforts, but for the year 2016, she stuck to the solo scene, releasing both items within the span of eight months. Lost Here was a shade lighter as far as dark ambient typically goes, and rather ambiguous in ideas at that – felt more like an introspective record compared to other albums on this label with clear narratives and definitive themes being the norm. It also made it one of the easier albums for a dark ambient novice to get into, since it shared enough attributes with ambient-proper without getting lost in ultra-dense, uncomfortable head-fuckery.

If anything though, Lost Here felt like a feeling-out process for Ms. Cats. She must have been satisfied with getting that debut out of the way to not only quickly follow it with a second album, but one that has a clearer theme in mind. For those not in the know, Khmaoch is a reference to those who died from unnatural causes (suicide, murder, genocide, etc.), and, according to Southeast Asia mysticism, are now wandering as phantoms or spirits lurking about abandoned areas. At least, that’s my best assumption, the word khmaoch surprisingly sparse in Google searches when it doesn’t involve ProtoU’s album. Leave it to dark ambient muses to unearth all manner of obscure macabre folklore.

Thus Khmaoch is a bleaker, creepier outing than Lost Here. Quite a few sections where ghostly whispers, veiled cries, and haunting tones permeate the atmosphere, and that’s just the first track Bridge Of Storms. With ample amounts of shuffling stones, flowing water, and claustrophobic echoes, it feels like you’re a crypt explorer, unearthing whatever calamity created this realm filled with khmaoch memories. There are moments of distant, soothing pad work, as though the soul is easing itself into a restful slumber (Stygian Vortex, Dai Robsa Preah), but sometimes cruelly snatched away into foreboding drone just as you’re settled into a state of peace. No rest for even the innocent.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Mystica Tribe - Island Oasis

Silent Season: 2017

Of all the dubby releases Silent Season has brought us, I never expected something like this. Dub techno, sure. Ambient dub, absolutely. Even when getting away from music with a steady rhythm, going pure ambient littered with field recordings, there’s a touch of the dub resonance in all those layered timbre and effects. This one though, the debut album from Mystica Tribe titled Island Oasis, is unlike any sort of dub release I’ve heard from Silent Season thus far. Maybe I’d find something similar further back in the label’s catalog – of course I haven’t taken in everything they’ve put out – but this one, my friends, is a first.

And what sort of dub can I be talking about? Yes, what is this unprecedented, ‘brand new and good for you’ style that has gotten my head all double-taking an’ shit? Reggae dub, mang. As in, O.G. ‘70s stylee. The bare-bones production, simplistic melodic instrumentation, with the cavernous snare hits, dungeon-deep bass vibes, and echo effects emanating from the furthest reaches of Zion – all from the Book Of Tubby. Not that it’s surprising to hear throwback reggae dub nearly fifty years since its creation, as the genre’s been remarkably persistent even as new approaches and variations on its core concept continue being explored. It’s like the blues: you can do all manner of strange and different things with it, even taking it down roads that lead it into territory far removed from its original ethos, but there’s still something about returning to that vintage, uncomplicated, twelve-bar/stripped-down sound.

So that Silent Season would throw their hat into the reggae dub pot (tee-hee) is a bit of a surprise, but not totally out of left-field – probably an eventuality anyway. What’s caught me even more off-guard is the chap behind Mystica Tribe, one Taka Noda from Tokyo, Japan. Not that it should be – white folk have been making reggae dub for years now, so why wouldn’t someone from the land of the rising sun get in on that action too? From Jamaica to Britain to Japan, island nations gotta’ represent, yo’. And as Mystica Tribe, Taka’s released about a half-dozen EPs, some on SD Records, a print into techno of the acid n’ dub sort, and more recently with his own print. Those records mostly toed the dub techno line, making Island Oasis all the more surprising as a doe-eyed throwback of dub music (including an analog mixdown!).

As for the music, yeah, it’s a reggae dub album, with little in the way of surprises. The echo, reverb, and delay effects are well placed and suitably spacious, the bass has plenty of beefy resonance for your sub-whoofer needs, and there’s typically a different, though familiar, form of melodica leading in each track: organ, harmonica, piano, xylophone. It’s all stuff I’ve heard plenty times before, though interestingly, when I played it at work, one of my older co-workers remarked how strange and different it was to her. What, she never heard UB40?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Genesis - Invisible Touch

Atlantic: 1986

This past Novemeber, the third single from Genesis’ bestselling album Invisible Touch kept running through my head. Granted, Land Of Confusion is already one of those ridiculously ear-wormy pop-rock anthems of the ‘80s, but for the first time in my life, I actually found myself… relating to the lyrics? Wait, how can that be? I’ve long been suspect of the pseudo-genre of ‘Boomer Activist Arena Rock’. For all the good intentions that generation tried accomplishing throughout the ‘80s, most of it now reeks of pretentious self-righteousness, especially in lieu of little significantly having been accomplished with these songs.

Still, the video – one of the most memorable of that decade thanks to the puppetry involved – had me realizing just how eerily similar our current climate is compared to the one portrayed there. A bumbling, aging, feckless Republican President who dreams of being a hero in a scary world; celebrities believing they got the Right Stuff in banding together for Important Issues; Phil Collins looking like a muppet. Trying to make sense of it all, it really did feel like we were living in another Land Of Confusion for a new era. Who’d guess that Genesis would be prophetic three decades ago!

This got me curious about the rest of the album Land Of Confusion came on, whether there might be other prescient nuggets of foresight throughout. Never mind the reputation Invisible Touch has gained over the years as one of those ‘80s albums that absolutely reeks of the decade filled with chintzy, superfluous excess. Even looking at the cover-art, you can’t imagine it being made at any other time than when shoulder-pads, mullets, tinny production, and hall effects reigned supreme.

The album itself isn’t really all that political though – no more so than a typical pop album of the mid-‘80s. The remaining Genesis band members – singer/drummer Phil Collins, guitarist Mike Rutherford (aka: the tall bearded guy), and keyboardist Tony Banks (aka: the other guy) – had been off doing their own projects for the past few years; apparently Collins had a couple successful tunes on the radio in that time. When they reconvened for this album, they came in with no preconceived notions, no intended ideas. Just let the music flow naturally as it came to them. And yet, it still ended up sounding like a Phil Collins record. Must be that Hugh Padgham ‘invisible touch’.

So everyone knows the titular hit single (definitive ‘80s pop). Tonight, Tonight, Tonight sees the band indulge themselves a little more in their music chops, while letting Collins belt another power chorus. Anything She Does is one of those peppy jazz-funk things as done by British white guys with synths. Domino is a more ambitious rock outing at ten-minutes in length, and instrumental The Brazilian closes the album out reminding folks that Genesis once were Serious Prog Musicians too. Hard to remember that with two ballads on here, though Throwing It All Away is charming enough. In Too Deep though… yeesh.

Things I've Talked About

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