Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Best of 2012!

Firstly, an apology. I haven't updated this blog for almost four months, and you're probably sick with worry that I've fallen off a horse and sustained serious spinal injuries that have put an end to my irreverent adjective abuse. Well fear not: I'm still here and in good health, it's just my laptop which is ailing. Hopefully 2013 will see a return to some kind of normal service. For now, here's the consolation of my End Of Year list.


In years gone by, I have used my End Of Year list as an opportunity to discover new music, hanging back until everyone else has finished and cherry-picking the best. This year I'll do things a little differently. 2012 was the first year in memory where I genuinely felt connected to upfront music, both as a very active clubber and as a personal listener. As such, this year's list-making festivities are less a measured appraisal of the "Best" of 2012, and more an compendium of the special moments from the last twelve months, hence the slight contraction of each respective category. Not all of these records have memories attached to them - some are included merely for being brilliant - but all mean something to me.

Albums of 2012:

01. The Future Sound Of London - Environments 4
It feels slightly odd saying the FSOL made the best album of 2012, but that's only because it's so rare that an act can genuinely keep improving after over twenty years of making music. Since the beginning of the Environments series in 2007, the FSOL have made arguably their best material, long after they ceased being relevant to all but diehard fans like myself. This epic psychedelic trip across a primordial savannah plays out like some sunstruck hallucination, trippy, grandiose and genuinely unlike any other album I've ever heard. It was also the soundtrack for one very distinct and happy moment in 2012: walking home on a balmy August evening and pausing by the canal to stargaze and send a text to someone special. A fleeting moment of serene perfection in a madcap year.

02. Solar Fields - Random Friday
2012 was a truly grim year for British weather, even by our own inauspicious
standards. On the rare moments when the sun did shine, it always seemed to be
accompanied by Solar Fields' widescreen opus: effortlessly the best trance long
player since the days of Vibrasphere. Whether falling asleep sunbathing in the
garden or staving off comedown blues in a Bloomsbury park in London, I always had
this album on hand for those blue sky moments.

03. Scuba - Personality
There's been a critical backlash against this album, of course: a whole lot of
wordsmiths irate that they got a totally different Scuba to the one they signed up
for. Well fuck 'em, because this album is just a huge amount of feel-good fun, with
an airy, expansive and totally distinct production sound that reinvigorates its
liberal '90s breakbeat influences. It already feels like a classic, however much
other scribes might protest.

04. Tineidae - Lights
Tympanik Audio is something of an electronic sleeper cell, routinely ignored when
conventional label lists are compiled, but a haven of challenging and out-there
electronic experimentation for those who know. I wouldn't even know how to begin
describing Tineidae's album (haunting glitched out future bass IDM mutation?) which
is a pretty big compliment.

05. Andrew Lahiff - Inner Worlds Returning
Lahiff has been a go-to-guy for space music for a while now, but on Inner Worlds
Returning he channels his inner Vangelis and conjures an ethereal edge to the
wishy-washy pads that elevates this album into what will surely be a career best.

06. Clubroot - III: MMXII
One for the rainy days (and there was no shortage of those) and bitter mornings
huddled under bus stops after long night shifts. Clubroot took a step back from the
epic expansions of his previous album and rediscovered the dank, claustrophobic
dread of dubstep's urban origins. There are still transcendental moments here, but
they're accompanied a harder and more intimidating edge than most post-Burial
chilled dubstep can muster.

07. Petar Dundov - Ideas From The Pond
Neo-trance? Kosmichemuzik? Ambient techno? One of the most hypnotic and engrossing
albums of the year, either way. Bizarrely overlooked by just about everyone's lists
so far, I loved this album so much I bought the CD when I saw it in a record shop
just to give Dundov some hard-earned pennies.

08. Claro Intelecto - Reform Club
Another absorbing slow-mo melodic techno excursion but one with a very different
mood to Dundov's album, Claro Intelecto aims for Detroit melancholy and knocks it
out of the park.

09. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes
I didn't move in hipster circles quite so much in 2012, so I almost missed the
release of FlyLo's new album. He reigns in the everything-everything omni music
ambition of Cosmogramma in favour of a smokey neo-noir jazz bar vibe that works a
treat. "FlyLo goes opulent" is how I'd sub-head it if I were a lazy hack, and I am.

10. ASC & Sam KDC - Decayed Society
ASC is the Lionel Messi of electronic music. Busting the received wisdom of quality
over quantity, he has put out a mere three full artist albums this year to go along
with multiple EPs, podcasts, mixes and soundtrack work. This Chernobyl-themed
collaboration with the excellent Sam KDC is the best of his albums, haunting post-
apocalyptic ambient with a signature ghostly emotional residue. Late night music if
ever it existed.


EPs of 2012:

01. Deep Space Organisms - Deep Space EP
Out of nowhere, DSO returned one day with a new two-track EP. There's nothing here
that hasn't been done on previous DSO releases, but with their output now seemingly
down to one EP every three years and nobody else even coming close to this level of
tripped out cryo-sleep spaciness, there's no danger of boredom setting in anytime

02. Cosmithex - Shipment EP
Cosmithex has already established himself as quite simply the best in the business
for fresh sounding progressive trance, and this EP was an absolute gem. I've heard
all four tracks crop up in various places and danced to them on more than one
occasion across the year.

03. DjRum - Watermark EP
DjRum probably left more of an impression in 2012 with his excellent podcast
contributions, which softened more than a couple of post-party descents to earth.
The Watermark EP doesn't quite have the startling newness of last year's Mountains
EP, but contains in the same vein and the quality doesn't dip at all.

04. Burial - Kindred EP
Just when it feels impossible that Burial's misty vocal-manipulations won't outstay
their welcome, he brings out another magnificent EP to quash such notions. The
tracks keep getting longer, somehow over-familiarity is kept at bay.

05. Acoustiks - Stargazing EP
Once a year there seems to be an EP of pure old-school atmospheric jungle
revivalism, and Stargazing is another welcome time capsule from 1996. Cozmoz also
goes startlingly into 4/4 kicks halfway through, adding a welcome twist to the


Stand Alone Tracks of 2012:


01. Sam KDC - Synaesthesia
No special memory attached to this one, it's just quite simply the most spine-
tingling piece of electronic music I've heard all year.

02. Incube - Starscream
A track so good I stopped everything and spent two days making a drum 'n bass mix
around it, barely pausing to eat in the process. It still hits me like an adrenaline shot, every single time.

03. John 00 Fleming - The 10th Life (Artifact303 Remix)
The original wasn't half bad, but Artifact303 blows it clean out of the water. An
absolutely insane piece of acid-drenched dayglo psy-trance madness that sounds
unreal on a club system.

04. Airwave - Atlas Winds
No other track destroyed so many dancefloors for me in 2012. It particularly brings
back memories of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, when I saw Airwave in Manchester one
night and high-tailed the length of the country to hear J00F drop it again in
Brighton the following night. Instant classic.

05. ASC - A Song For Hope
The stand-out from his well-received Out Of Synch LP is this spine-tingling strand
of vocal gossamer. An entire sci-fi saga in four and a half minutes.

06. Cosmithex - Aquarius
This deep slice of acid could have slotted neatly onto the Shipment EP. Pitches up
like a dream to turn into an absolute monster.

07. DFRNT - Silent Witness
After threatening to get lost in regressive dubstep-blah, DFRNT popped up with an
album of gorgeous dub techno ambience, of which this opener was the definite

08. Geomatic - They Come From Within
Geomatic attach a more conventional industrial thump to their utterly unique
Lovecraftian tribal vibes on this one-off for a Tympanik label comp. Let's hope a
new album beams down soon.

09. John Talabot - When The Past Was Present
The anthemic highlight of a very good debut album, I particularly associate this
one with a very long September walk into Clumber forest, one of my favourite places
on Earth.

10. Airwave - Oyama (Terra Ferma Remix)
A second Airwave track but really it's all about Terra Ferma's remix, which is such
a defiantly old-school piece of acid trance it will never get played by anyone, and
so deserves rewarding here for its excellence instead.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: Protonica - Form Follows Function

Protonica are something of an unsung name in the trance scene. They specialise in a rumbling, bassy and drawn-out prog-psy sound that brings to mind the good old days of the early '00s when names like Vibrasphere, Human Blue and Son Kite were in their pomp, and progressive psy-trance was the refuge for many a jaded trance fan. Perhaps it's because this sound has somewhat died out in recent times, with "prog psy" (or psy-prog, or whatever) now signifying something altogether darker and harder, with names like Ovnimoon, E-Clip and Ritmo banded together as "progressive" psy-trance, even though I personally think all that stuff (entertaining as it can be) is essentially just full-on psy slowed down and smartened up a bit.

No, the prog-psy I'm talking about is the stuff from about ten years back, that all seemed to hail from Sweden, and consequently brought to mind images of Scandinavian panoramic countryside in drawn-out, deep and atmospheric tracks that went on for hundreds of years. Protonica's first album certainly had something of the outdoors about it, with track titles such as Ice Impressions and Upstream suggesting an album designed for long late-evening walks in snowy countryside. New album Form Follows Function isn't quite so evocative, but musically it's not so dissimilar to the Good Old Days: closer to that vintage '90s progressive house sound, but with the carefully designed basslines and occasional mind-bending synth twitches of psy trance. Tracks like Greece, Motion Control and Emerge aren't actually that long for trance records, but they unfold at a patient and rewarding pace, their slow and hypnotic bleeds of groove and melody feeling very 2002. But in a good way.

Form Follows Function isn't a spectacular album - there's no real structure that I can discern, the tracks all being so long and patient as to be self-contained journeys in themselves. There's also not a great deal new going on here, as the fairly wistful and nostalgic tone of my descriptive passages will have indicated. That said, this particular strain of psy-trance was fairly underground in its day, released through obscure psy labels and largely overlooked in the superclub progressive scene at the time. I'll wager there's more than a few kids who've got into trance, psy or progressive since those days who've never really heard this sound, and so are unlikely to have it tainted by over-familiarity. And I'm sure there are plenty of psy hippies out there still weeping over Vibrasphere's split who will welcome a new album in a sound that's died out to some extent. Form Follows Function could well be an album to take out with you as the nights draw in, the weather gets colder and you've got a craving for moody, drawn-out wintery dance music.

Genre: Progressive psy-trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Shed - The Killer

Apparently, Shed's new album The Killer sounds a lot like his previous albums. I wouldn't know, because I haven't heard either of them (gasp!), and although I could bullshit you with some vague implication to the contrary (Berghain! Output! 2008!), that's not my style. So I'm one of the few reviewers out there who's going into this album without reference to his previous work. So Shed fans: this review ain't gonna tell you much. Although let's face it, Shed fans have already heard the album and if they're reading this at all it's probably because they're looking for other people on the Internet to validate their opinions.

As someone free of Shed-knowledge, this album should sound fresh to me. And it does. I've heard Shed's sound described as "crunchy", "bathometric" and so on, which makes sense. Funnily, the record I'm most reminded of when listening is Leftfield's 1999 album Rhythm & Stealth, which featured similar thunderous genre-bending techno material. The ambient timbres on opener STP3/The Killer also remind me of Snakeblood, Leftfield's contribution to the soundtrack of Danny Boyle's The Beach. Have a listen for yourself on Youtube and decide if you think I'm chatting total horseshit or not. Also, I've just noticed that the cover art is vaguely reminiscent of the iconic woofer from the cover of Leftism, albeit without those famous shark teeth.

Anyway, near as I can work out, Shed specialises in well-engineered, booming and somewhat experimental techno, unorthodox in construction but still feeling heavy enough for a dancefloor. He likes breakbeats and odd spoken vocal loops, and occasionally he dips into UK-future-post-step influences, as is the law these days if you want Resident Advisor to pay attention to your release.

But while I respect the individual sound of his music (even if other reviews suggest he's content to repeat much of it), little to nothing about this album honestly stimulated me very much. There's a sterility about most of these tracks - they all have some memorable loop or element or somesuch, but none of these earworms are particularly things I want stuck in my head. I always hate saying things like this, but I honestly struggle to imagine anyone getting any kind of strong emotional reaction out of these tracks, and while they certainly have a warehouse-ready heaviness to their sound design there's none of the genuine sweat-dripping energy or rave spirit of '90s techno. I can respect what Shed does here, but I honestly can't get remotely excited about it. I'll stick to my Leftfield, I guess.

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Echospace - Silent World

Finally. After months of delays, re-delays and fiddly-ass online purchasing contrivances, I have the new Echospace album. Such was my excitement at finding it on the shelf in Rough Trade I’m pretty sure I actually did a small jig of triumph, punching the air like some music hipster McEnroe, triumphant in my acquisition of esoteric dub techno.

There was a degree – a very small, extremely Internet degree – of discussion around this album before its release. Previous Echospace albums were released through Manchester’s uber-trendy Modern Love label, but for whatever reason Silent World has been put out through Echospace’s own label. Was the album too unoriginal and derivative for such a prestigious label as Modern Love? Or were Modell and Hitchsel trying to maximise profits from a name that has become so trendy in recent years, thousands of sales are more or less guaranteed? The truth is undoubtedly much more prosaic and boring, as it usually is when it comes to release dates and labels, but it made for a good bit of speculation while we all sat around and waited for this damn thing to actually come out.

Although you’re unlikely to notice while listening to it, much of the source material for Silent World is apparently derived from the Liumin sessions, (Liumin being their 2010, Japan-themed album – that’s as much factual info as you’re getting for the day, so make the most of it). One of the few core tenets of dub techno is that is a genre based around the endless “reshaping” of constituent parts, and previous Echospace releases have often revolved around one source track remixed and reshaped into ten or twelve totally different sounding pieces. Stripped of the field recordings made in Japan, and this feels like a different record altogether – the sweltering haze recalibrated into something slightly danker, darker and more forlorn in places.

NOTE: The following was written on a train journey during my third play through of this album, when I had no Internet to read up about the music. I’ve since discovered that the tracks are separated and named on the vinyl release, so strictly speaking the following text is redundant and makes me look silly and uninformed. So in that spirit, here it is. It at least makes for an interesting blind listen, my honest impressions of what’s going on, uncoloured by meta-information:

Perhaps the most notable thing you discover when listening to Silent World for the first time is that the duo have somewhat unhelpfully opted to block the entire release into a single 71 minute running track, even though it’s quite clear from listening that there are at least seven separate pieces of music contained within. For the most part, these tracks do segue seamlessly into each other, as is standard on Echospace long players, but there’s a moment about an hour in when the music just clearly stops and goes into something completely different.

As such, even though Echospace clearly don’t want us to divide the record up into constituent parts. I’ve taken it upon myself to analyse the music carefully and figure out the various section. Here’s what I came up with:

Track 1: Runs from the start (no shit) until about seven minutes in, a totally ambient piece comprising of drones, glitchy crackles and trademark Echospace texturology.

Track 2: An eleven minute piece, from seven minutes until about 18. The drones of the opening track bleed into this, which is a dub techno piece quite reminiscent of parts of Liumin.

Track 3: At around eighteen minutes, the track dies down and this moody piece creeps in. Another techno track, but with more distinctive Echospace crackles and audio mistiness, with eerie background acoustics creating quite a subterranean sound.

Track 4: Beginning at about twenty seven minutes, this is another Liumin-esque techno chugger that retains some of the subterranean vibes of the previous piece. Distant melodies echo occasionally in the background, fragments of the Jamaican dub ancestry of the record.

Track 5: In the thirty ninth minute this fairly short pieces starts to come in. Quite a percussive track, which might almost sound like a slice of dancefloor techno if it wasn’t so hazed out underneath layers of atmospherics. At around forty five minutes it begins to dissolve into droney pads.

Track 6: Possibly my favourite part of the album, this is a spaced out fourteen minute epic that is characterised by a squiggly synth refrain that brings to mind my favourite outer space explorers, Aural Imbalance. As the track goes on, some extremely grainy and lo-fi percussion enters proceedings, the kick drum muted and with most of its lower end frequencies filtered out. The track reminds me of something from the Vantage Isle Sessions, updated with the tropical haze of Liumin.

Track 7: Track six fades out quite abruptly around the hour mark, replaced by this moody, near-ambient outro piece that runs for the final eleven minutes. The field recording origins are slightly more apparent here, and the sparse, low-key rhythms tick away mainly in the background. This track is a superb example of how Echospace build audio environments – sounding for the all world like you’re trapped in some pitch black, hyperreal cave listening to the vivid soundscapes bouncing back off distant surfaces.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t particularly miss having the tracks divided up, because as with all DeepChord/Echospace/cv313/etc. material, this is soundscape music designed to be played continually from start to finish. It’s hardly the kind of record where you’ll want to skip forward to the catchy hits, unless you’re some futuristic alien species that finds refracted sound environments to be total ear hooks. In which case: please don’t enslave our puny race for not providing track separations on this particular cultural artefact, cheers.

NOTE: Thus ends the uninformed ignorance. Yeah, I didn't spot BCN Dub, forgive me for not having played Liumin too recently.

So, the bit you’ve impatiently scrolled downward to hear: is Silent World any good? Yes, obviously, but not without caveats. It moves on somewhat from previous Echospace releases, although the reuse of Liumin material inevitably results in a slightly familiar vibe. Really, Echospace are master craftsmen at teasing and tweaking the sonic textures of field recordings and other found sounds into headphone candy that makes the majority of techno sound absolutely two dimensional by comparison. Nobody else does it quite like them (as I’ve mentioned before while making huge, sweeping broadsides at dub techno as a scene) and so when you buy an Echospace record, you know what you’re going to get.

However, I’m not sure this is as good as The Coldest Season or Liumin, because it lacks an obvious and audible framing device to contextualise the soundscaping. There’s still plenty for Echospace fans to wrap their headphones around, but I suspect some who forked out the ludicrous pre-order fees for the full vinyl package may secretly be feeling slightly let down in terms of bang for their buck.

Genre: Dub techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Scuba - Personality

What a great album this is. I will freely admit that this is my first exposure to Scuba, who has been one of those names “I should check out” for the last few years. I’ve been well aware of his label, Hotflush, of course, but the man himself is still a bit of a mystery to me. However, while I was in London I embarked on an epic spending spree, picking up a whole bunch of trendy, sought-after and generally interesting albums that have been missing from my 2012 collection, and when I happened across Personality in Phonica Records in Soho (Namedrop! Namedrop!), I snapped it up.

Based on what I’ve read, and my impressions of Hotflush as a label, I would pre-emptively place Scuba as some sort of future-garage/techno hybrid. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to find out that Personality is essentially a breaks album, in the block rockin' '90s "electronica" tradition. Most of the rhythmic patterns here are breaks, and the tempo hovers around 125bpm for the most part, the one notable exception being Cognitive Dissonance, which drops into drum ‘n bass splashed with signature Hotflush vocal samples.

Now, breakbeat is pretty much my favourite dance floor rhythm, and one that’s all but died out in recent years, so as you can imagine I’m pretty fucking pleased that someone as big as Scuba has taken it upon himself to revive the form, even though I’m sure all the big blogs will have taken great care not to call a spade a spade and admit that such a good and popular album is coming out of such an untrendy genre.

Although with all that said, you shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Personality is in any way a conventional breaks album (whatever the hell that’s supposed to entail), because rhythmic bedrock aside, this is one of the most distinctive sounding albums I’ve heard in fucking ages. The acoustics and sound design are phenomenal – this album absolutely booms. It’s as though he’s captured the big room sound – the distinct and enormously pleasing sound of loud drums being played very loudly in large places – and compressed the effect down into your headphones. Lord only knows how these tracks sound in an actual warehouse space or large dancefloor, but if I had to guess I would say: probably fucking epic.

It’s not just the acoustics, either. This album steers remarkably clear of any generic sounds or samples in just about every department, the one exception being the aforementioned Cognitive Dissonance. Hearing an album like this illustrates just how unimaginative most electronic music producers actually are. We have the technology to synthesise or create any sound imaginable, and the majority of producers stick to the same boring little sets of genre sounds. The basic arrangements, polyphonies and modus operandi of this album are classic dance music, but the way it actually sounds is strikingly original. As someone who’s not heard any previous Scuba material I don’t want to strike out too far into the realms of journalistic bullshit, but it seems totally apposite that he decided to name this album “Personality”. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album with such a distinctive sonic signature.

And quite simply, this album is a huge amount of fun. Breakbeat at around 125bpm is just about the most digestible, danceable rhythm there is, and there is a straightforward energy to this record that you rarely hear in modern, trendy dance music. 

So… yeah. To put it simply, I like this album quite a fucking lot, far more than I thought I would. I’ve covered an awful lot of big, talked about records on this blog, and generally my reaction to them is wrapped in an air of vaguely esoteric disinterest. Personality is one of those fairly rare albums I think deserves the attention it will receive due to the name on the cover. One of the albums of 2012, no doubt.

Genre: Breaks?
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10