Friday, 30 December 2011

Review: Marconi Union - Beautifully Falling Apart

Beautifully Falling Apart
I discovered Marconi Union quite recently when I read an article claiming they'd created the world's most relaxing song. This turned out to be horseshit, but the song was still pretty good, so I enqueued Beautifully Falling Apart for further listening. And guess what? It's pretty damn relaxing, like a lot of the post-rocky droney ambienty stuff it resembles. The music is a mixture of hazy texturalism and carefully placed delicate melodies. The tracks are deliberately soporific, as you'd expect from a band who deliberately set out to make the most relaxing track ever, but they're also quite interesting, with minimalist string arrangements and occasional guitar strums adding real-world instrumentation to the soundscapes.

It's very difficult to find much to say about this album. If I were still a real music journalist, this is the kind of shit that drive me into some over-reaching conceptual angle or polysyllabic word assault. It's really fucking chilled out and nice to listen to, okay? I like it a whole lot, but can it really be considered a classic? I don't know. Maybe I'll go back to this album dozens of times, or maybe I'll never play it again. The trouble with this droney stuff is it's really hard to find bad things to say about it, but really difficult to get excited about individual releases. This might be something I'll put on as background music when I want to fall asleep on some hung-over afternoon, but it doesn't get my pulse racing. AND THAT'S THE DAMNED POINT.

Overall this yet another extremely pleasant but not particularly great ambient/shoe-gazey/drone thing, and quite frankly I've heard enough. The next one I listen to is probably going to get a critical kicking for being the straw that broke the camel's back.

(I should add that I wrote this review a few weeks ago, but due to a laptop crash it stayed as a draft on my blogger account and is only now being uploaded.)

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Blue Motion - Stay Forever

Blue Motion Stay Forever
Before I listened to it properly, I thought Blue Motion's debut LP Stay Forever was a drum 'n bass album. A minimal drum 'n bass album, certainly, but still a drum 'n bass album. It came out on Influenza Media, who are one of my subscribed labels on Beatport, and who pump out soulful melodic minimal drum 'n bass. Stay Forever certainly starts with a drum 'n bass track, the brilliant Walking Through The City, which opens on field recordings of a bustling city street and slowly unfurls an increasingly complicated drum 'n bass rhythm over super-moody ambience. However, that's about as up-tempo as the album gets (not very) and from there it actually gets progressively moreambient, until we're in ASC territory. The beatwork may be derived from drum 'n bass, but this is not an album about the beats, for the most part. I guess you could call it post-dnb, because minimal barely seems to cover how tenuous the connection is. There are a couple of soulful, slightly syrrupy moments such as One Step Away From Your Love, but for the most part this is extremely dark and moody.

Once I'd recovered from the unexpected direction of the record, I began to enjoy it massively. I know the term "deep" is about as wanky as it gets when describing music, but honestly this album is extremely deep. As in, it makes you feel deep. I don't mean it makes you feel intellectual and sophisticated, I mean you feel immersed. Lost. Floating. Around the eighth track, I did start to get just a tiny bit bored, but then the beautiful closing track The Path Unwalked got me back onside again. This, put simply, is a rainy day album. Music for watching raindrops splatter the window pane that separates you from the grey world outside, where everything looks cold but you still feel warm. It's melancholic and chilled and meditative. It's pretty fucking awesome, is what I'm trying to say.

A lot of guys are jumping on the minimal bandwagon right now, but Blue Motion manage to avoid making wallpaper lounge music. This is an album that would stand up to the most ardent ambient fan. I definitely feel this is going to need a few repeat listens to really decide just how good it is, but at the moment it's certainly hovering towards a 9/10. I guess I would have liked one or two up-tempo tracks near the end to vary things up a little, because although there are modulations in mood it does start to sound a little samey for a spell. For now, we'll mark it down as an 8/10, but I've been listening to music for long enough to know when an album's gonna be a grower, and this one has the potential to really become a favourite.

Genre: Ambien /drum 'n bass
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10, possibly maybe

Review: Onra - Chinoiseries Part 2

Onra Chinoiseries 2
French beatmaker Onra finally follows up his excellent Chinoiseries album from 2007, and it's every bit as good as the original, possibly better. Chinoiseries is a project in which Onra strip-mines retro Vietnam vinyls for samples and then builds a dense instrumental hip-hop album from the results. He's obviously not the first person to do this - Madlib has done lots of geographically themed albums in recent times with his Medicine Show series - but I think Onra is a better beatmaker than Madlib. At least, I enjoyed these albums way more than anything I've heard from Madlib.

Onra basically follows the Stones Throw formula as defined by guys like Madlib and J Dilla (particularly his legendary Donuts album from 2006) - 30-40 ultra-short tracks per album, creating an ever-changing sampledelic beatscape where brilliant hooks, funky grooves and amusing vocal samples appear and enrapture for about thirty seconds before vanishing forever. It's a different approach to DJ Shadow-esque instrumental hip-hop, and occasionally you wish some of the more delicious cuts went on for 4-5 minutes instead of tantilising you for mere moments, especially as Onra is immune to making bad beats. He's found so many great samples here you could stretch the Chinoiseries material out to four or five conventional albums, easily.

With these albums, it's all about the strength of the samples, and consequently the richness of the sample source. A lot of the weaker albums of this type disguise the lack of solid hooks with endless quirky vocals, skits and rapid cuts between ideas, hoping you won't notice that nothing is holding your attention for very long because there's nothing to grab it in the first place. Not only has Onra struck gold in terms of finding plenty of great samples, he's also the first Westerner I've ever heard to make a retro-Vientamese themed album. The source is so unusual and underexplored that these albums can't help but sound fresh to anyone who doesn't have a collection of 1970s Vietnamese jazz LPs

Okay, yeah, this is basically a beat-tape with no real structure, held together as a listening experience by embracing its inherent fragmentation. And yeah, if you've already heard the original album you might find this to be "more of the same". But this is high calibre head-bobbing material, so densely constructed it stands up to more intensive listening, and it's got more musical content that many artists fit into their entire discography. Worth a listen if you're into instrumental hip-hop, and if you're new to the genre - oh man. You've got a treat in store.

Genre: Instrumental hip-hop
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Review: Antares - Exodus

Antares Exodus
More psy-trance here, this time from 18-year old baby-child Antares from Suntrip Records, and his debut album Exodus. Well, technically I suppose this is goa-trance - less in the way of those super-engineered basslines and more acid drenched old-school melodic goodness. I'm pretty sure that's the difference between psy and goa, although after ten years of listening to trance I'm still buggered if I can say for sure. Either way, those of you whose Albums Of The Year lists consist entirely of 125bpm techno records are going to run away crying from this album.

Honestly, I really enjoyed this album, but my God is it exhausting. There's a run of tracks in the middle, particularly 11-minute Aurum Solis, that just feel like never-ending outer space hallucinations. I've been to psy-trance parties without being on drugs before and it's a serious test of endurance (no wonder they have those chill-out rooms full of ambient dub and dope smoke), and even without having to dance to these tracks I'm getting a similar sensation. It's total sensory overload.

It's worth sitting through this middle stretch, though, because both the beginning and end are awesome. The opener, The Exodus, is a real beauty, a piece of low-tempo cyber-dub full of lush sitars and summery vibes, while second track Mysticism unfurls into a piece of liquid trance. Once you come out the other side of the Beyond The Infinite section, there's the delights of Mount Meru and the appropriately star-streaked Astral Plane to savour, and then another low-tempo groover to close on in Sun Sanctuary. Well, I say low tempo, this one is still at 125bpm, which is Peak Time Madness to the Resident Advisor massive. The album essentially has a pyramid structure, rising in energy and intensity to a mid-album peak and then bringing you back down again. The apex of this structure is a little too much for me, but the bits on either side are pretty damn excellent. And best of all, this is an unabashed, undiluted goa trance album that manages to be almost completely devoid of the unbearably cheesy references to LSD, bongs, extra-sensory perception, consciousness expansion or ancient alien colonists that blight so much psy/goa. I scarcely thought such a thing was possible.

I don't think this one is quite as good as Artifact303's album Back To Space, which also came out on Suntrip Records, has a better name and better artwork and is probably the best trancey album I heard all year. But I do need to relisten to Artifact303 and in the meantime this is a bang tidy album. It's not particularly original - in fact it could probably have come out in 1996 and everyone would have been too addled on acid to have noticed the anachronistically good production quality - but this sound is pretty rare these days, which means this counts as a Revival rather than a Rehash. In other words - it doesn't really matter if something's been done before if it was done so long ago it sounds fresh to hear it again.

Genre: Goa trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Magnus - Signal Strength

Magnus Signal Strength
Magnus - Signal Strength is probably the best album to come out of J00F Recordings this year, marginally shading the Digital Blonde's album and considerably shading, and then drawing comedy moustaches all over J00F's own album, which to be honest wasn't up to much. J00F, for those who don't know, is John 00 Fleming, British trance DJ and probably the most reliable big name trance DJ by a long shot. After a long career spent dabbling uncertainly in psy-trance and progressive, he seems to have settled neatly into that hybrid of the two: progressive psy-trance, or prog psy and his sets seem to get better and better as years go by. J00F and his label basically stand for dark and driving trance music, usually beginning in deep and atmospheric prog territory and moving into face-melting full-on psy trance. In a club it's absolutely awesome to behold - J00F is one of the few DJs I travel around the country to see. In an album format, however, it's not quite that inspiring.

J00F: The Record Label is both blessed and cursed by a signature sound. On the plus side, it's got its own corner in the market - a totally distinctive style that is cultivated by a dedicated stable of artists who are generally guaranteed to deliver quality. On the downside, this means that the entire J00F catalogue basically sounds the same. Fine if you're a DJ and you're going to play a few of these tracks in your set, but sitting at home with the headphones on for 80 minutes listening to an album, it's not so fun. Especially when your living room doesn't contain a monstrous soundsystem and hundreds of ravers going nuts to the music. Again, this isn't necessarily a problem, because J00F is a dance label that caters to DJs, and they do a damn fine job at that, but I don't really see the point in a label releasing artist albums like this one. There is virtually no concession here to making this suitable for home-listening. These are all club tracks, and good ones, but 12 full club cuts with the DJ-friendly intro/outros is just a bit dull to play at home. It's not like the days when you'd buy an album of full cuts for the value-for-money: now we can just download and DJ our favourites anyway, and there's no need to pay for the filler material. As I complained about with the Scenic & Advisory album, it feels totally insignificant which order the tracks come in - you can randomise the tracklist and the listening experience will be almost identical. 12 good tracks an interesting album does not make.


Another issue is that Magnus commits a sin I think quite a few prog-psy producers are guilty of - quite a few of these tracks go on for too long and only become interesting for the last few minutes. It's like these guys think a club track must be 7-8 minutes long, regardless of whether they have the musical content to fit into that time, and I don't get why so many of these tracks have such ultra-long build-ups. I've got no problem whatsoever with ultra-long dance records: I love a good Sasha track that goes on for longer than a Greek epic, but only if there's a point to them being that long. There are a few class cuts on this album - Hypnotic, Signal Strength and Raven Rock stand out in particular - but honestly I just stopped listening to this album towards the end and put something else on, because I was getting bored. In that respect, this is the classic pointless dance LP - good tracks, no reason whatsoever to ever listen to it all at once.

Genre: Progressive psy-trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Friday, 23 December 2011

Review: Carbon Based Lifeforms - Twentythree

Carbon Based Lifeforms Twentythree
Carbon Based Lifeforms are one of Ultimae Records' core acts, and Twentythree is one of precisely three new artist albums the label put out in 2011. Ultimae, as I've mentioned previously, do not fuck about with this kind of thing, and so just about anything they release is going to be brilliant. You don't even need to listen sometimes - if you're in the mood for some panoramic ambient, you know it's going to be there, you know there'll be an album you haven't heard yet and you know it'll be extremely good. And bang - Twentythree is extremely good.

CBL are pretty versatile - they can do acid heavy trip-hop, floaty space music or minimalistic droney ambient equally well, and Twentythree mostly focuses on the latter, with a little bit of field records thrown in on Kensington Gardens and the faintest of electronic rhythms on Somewhere In Russia. Most of these tracks are extremely "inert", which is to say they don't ever appear to be going anywhere, or moving at all, but they draw you in to a galaxy of ultra-deep sound. No coincidence that one of the tracks is called Inertia. This isn't the most fun album you'll ever hear, and if you need outright melody to enjoy your music you'll probably be bored stiff by it, but Twentythree is what I would call an expandible album - it works equally well at extremely high volume as at extremely low volume. You can play it quiet and it's good background noise, but put the headphones in and it becomes unbelievably vast, to the point you're soon in total headspace.

Granted, this isn't an album I'll be playing too regularly. Few of the Ultimae releases are, with the exceptions of the HUVA Network albums and Solar Fields' trance album, but that's for the reasons mentioned earlier. There are twenty equally good albums I could pick from on this label, so each individual one won't get much relistening unless it's mega special. This isn't quite that stellar, but it's still comfortably better than 90% of the albums that have been released this year. We're just spoiled for choice with Ultimae.

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Seathasky - The Past In My Mind

Seathasky Past In My Mind
Another drum 'n bass album from Offworld Recordings, Seathasky's full lengther The Past In My Mind is considerably better than Scenic & Advisory's bore-a-thon. Adopting a more minimal style, Seathasky fuses the halved up beats and dubstep-influenced big bass swells that are so trendy in drum 'n bass right now with atmospheric washes and lots of melody. Plenty of other people are doing the same thing right now, but this is still relatively new territory, and Seathasky doesn't just dwell on it for the whole time - this album actually has some legimitate liquid on it as well. Listen to Love For You, for example - plaintive, soulful female vocal sample, sombre and pretty pianos, strings and stuff. This is liquid, albeit not quite as upbeat as usual.

There's also something of a controlling idea here, and therefore more of a distinctive emotional mood than just vaguely chilled. For all intents and purposes, this seems to be a break-up album, with track titles like Over, Heartache, Glass Heart and Forgetting You all pretty big red flags, and even the cover art is suggestively poetic. A happy blue sky is visible through a window but the perspective is trapped within some grey, miserable, peeling old room, symbolising how the artist feels figuratively walled off and detached from a happiness he still knows exists. We're putting that English degree to good use here, motherfuckers.

Anyway, as all this suggests, The Past In My Mind is a melancholic but still delicately beautiful record. The minimalist percussion and construction of the early tracks gives way to more complex beats and more developed pieces later on in the album. There's development here, an implication of an emotional journey. This doesn't just make the album good for arty wankers like me to write about, it makes it more interesting to listen to, because there's change and variety and a reason to actually play from start to finish. This is a legit attempt at an artist album, in other words, a release with a reason to put 80 minutes of music together on one release. So many artists just do not seem to understand the point of an LP, they seem to think that making ten decent tracks in a row is enough of an achievement, even though there's zero reason why those tracks couldn't have just come out as separate singles or EPs.

This isn't the best album I've heard all year by any means, or even the best drum 'n bass album. Seathasky is a good producer, but there's not an awful lot I can discern that sets his work apart from a legion of other producers. There are entire record labels that exist to release music that is sonically and emotionally very similar to this. However, this is a genuinely touching record - it makes you feel exactly what the artist was experiencing when he recorded it, and for 80 minutes or so it can influence and even dominate your own mood. It also ticks all the boxes of a good artist album. For these reasons I'm gonna give him a highly respectable bullshit arbitrary number of 8/10, and quite possibly a sneaky entry into my End Of Year Top 20. Oh yes. I'm sure you entire life has been building up to this moment, Seathesky - the point where some idiot with a shit blog that nobody reads quite likes your album! Merry Christmas, dude.

Genre: Minimal/liquid drum 'n bass
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Scenic And Advisory - Paradigm Shift

Scenic & Advisory Paradigm Shift
Scenic & Advisory's album Paradigm Shift is a bit of a reversal of the good-not-great albums I've reviewed recently, because rather than having a couple of awesome tracks propping up a lot of average ones, it's consistently "meh" across the board. Scenic & Advisory, aside from being the most stereotypically named drum 'n bass act of all time, are signed to Offworld Recordings, one of my favourite record labels. They are capable of some very nice tracks - Moondust from 2010 was a killer, as is the more minimal and glitchy First Sunrise they put out on Rotation Deep's "Definitions Of The Deep" compilation earlier this year. For the most part, though, they're one of Offworld's less interesting acts.

They pump out what most people erroneously label "liquid", which means smooth and melodic drum 'n bass. Except this isn't liquid, and since the album is so dull I'm going to take a moment to rant about this misnomer. Liquid, or liquid funk, was a style of drum 'n bass that became popular about ten years ago. It basically means "soulful" dnb, or housey dnb, depending on how you look at it. Diva vocals, pianos, funkiness all abound. Hospital Records and High Contrast are key names. Scenic & Advisory do none of this. Their drum 'n bass is actually atmospheric drum 'n bass - chilled, melodic, spacey, but apparently nobody uses the word "atmospheric" anymore in this context and anything that doesn't sound like a battle mech having a seizure gets labelled "liquid" just because it's a bit smooth and chilled.

Anyway, that dealt with, this is twelve tracks of excellently produced but extremely unmemorable liquid/atmospheric/wallpaper music. Good to put on while you're cleaning the house or doing some work, boring if you actually concentrate on it. There are one or two tracks that could be extracted from the dullness and sound pretty good in a DJ mix if they're bridging some other, more interesting tracks. Rising has some nice pad work and some bleepy trancey bits and Just For You was pretty good as well.

Everything about this album screams "lazy digital release", the kind of soulless, thoughtless album that gets splurged out all the time. The title is lazy - what does Paradigm Shift mean? Nothing. This is neither a change of direction for S&A nor any kind of alteration to the genre. Most of these titles are vacuous, surface-deep signifiers: "Altered States" or "Natural Progression" mean nothing, having nothing to do with any of the music. The one exception is closer, Mexican Man, which does actually sound Mexican. Other than that, you could randomise the track titles and they would have no more or no less significance. You could randomise the tracks themselves, and the album would sound the same. There's no journey here at all, no reason why the first track is the opener, or why the last track comes last and not first or fifth or wherever. But hell, you can put out this kind of album practically for free these days, DJs will download their favourite tracks from the cheese board of blandness and you'll earn a few shillings. Maybe Scenic & Advisory should think that if they put out something with a bit more effort in it it might just get into some folks' Best Of The Year lists and then lots of other people will check it out and you might actually sell lots more copies. Perhaps that's totally unrealistic, but at least a few guys on the Offworld label are willing to try.

Genre: Atmospheric drum 'n bass (Not liquid!)
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica

Oneohtrix Point Never Returnal
My first thoughts upon listening to Replica: wow, Oneohtrix has really moved forward in the last year. I liked his acclaimed previous album Returnal, especially the wall of ambient hatred that was Nil Admirari, if only because it was such a ballsy way to open an otherwise very pleasant record. There's a track that instantly prevents you from ever putting this CD on as soft, compliant background music, a track that forces you to actually pay attention to ambient music. Smart stuff. Replica, however, is miles ahead. It's practically a paradigm shift.

I actually saw Oneohtrix play live quite recently. I spent the entire gig sat on the floor, heavily sleep deprived, slipping in and out of consciousness and trapped in hypnogogia - that state just before sleep where dream logic begins to overtake and the world around you becomes blissfully surreal. It's just about the closest you can get to being on drugs without having to pay for them or come down from them, in other words. It sounded fucking awesome, as well, and amidst these waves of dreamstate I was aware that Oneohtrix was sounding a good deal more epic in the flesh than I remember him being on record. I guess it's because he was playing the material from this album, which is bigger and bolder in every way than what has come before. How apposite that there's a track on here called Sleep Dealer, which sounds like Oneohtrix branching out into FlyLo/Actress territory while retaining his signature blurry ambience.

Returnal was sort-of droney lo-fi ambient stuff with a lot of samples recorded from deliberately shitty sound sources, like non-HD Youtube clips. Replica is way more developed, with full-blown songs and shit. Totally ambient songs with no lyrics and only heavily processed vocal loops, but songs nonetheless, tracks with passages and phrases and stuff, rather than endless loopage. You can play any track on Returnal at any random point and it all basically sounds the same - big walls of dreamy retro synth pads. The tracks on Replica all sound very different - some tracks have skittery beats, some have pianos, some have big choral pads, some have chopped up vocal fragments. They're all pretty incredible as well. I'm seriously impressed by this. I don't know what he's been up to in the past 12 months, but not only has he expanded his sound far more than most artists could do in a single year, he's improved immeasurably. And now matter how varied the tracks are, they still have a characteristic Oneohtrix sound, courtesy of his distinctive production methods and sound design. The best comparison I can make is to Laurel Halo, who has also made similarly impressive expansions to her sound this year. Replica is very different to her work, but at the same time I think they'd go together very well in some experimental DJ set.

Overall, I'm pretty cynical of the fact that all End Of Year lists have the same 10-15 electronic albums on them, even though there's obviously a huge variety of (often quite similar) stuff out there that's just as good and just doesn't get covered. At times it looks very obvious that marketing and hype pushes certain records and not enough journalists bother to search for other material to bring to people's attention. Some things, of course, are fully deserving of the hype and this is unquestionably one of them. Replica will probably go down as one of the classic electronic albums of 2011, and I for one welcome our new gloriously hallucinatory ambient overlord.

Genre: Hypnogogic ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Sandwell District - Feed Forward

Sandwell District Feed Forward
Quite a trendy one this, Sandwell District's album Feed Forward has been a staple of every trendster's end of year list thus far and certainly the centre of critical attention in the techno sphere throughout 2011. I missed the chance to see them play live back in February and have been kicking myself ever since. Everything I've read about them thus far describes their music as cold, austere, dry... so it was quite a surprise at just how lush this album started out. Opener Falling The Same Way is the kind of melodic ambient techno I absolutely love. It doesn't so much push my buttons as mash its palm repeatedly on my keypad until my thoughts become nwbgvftrdwojhnwqtfrlvndj

Trouble is (and I'm afraid I've been saying this all-too-much recently) the rest of the album doesn't really live up to the quality of the opener. What's the deal with this? Is this actually a trend, or have I just happened to review a slew of albums with ridiculously strong opening tracks that then tail off into uninspiring solidity? Obviously it's common in rock/pop albums to go top heavy with the singles, but surely all these electronic guys are DJs? Don't you people know you don't open a DJ set with your best track? It's all about contextualising that music in a larger musical journey. And, once again, the only track that matches the opener is the closer, Speed And Sound, which combines restrained acid bubblings with a soaring stringy chord progression that is all Detroit and beautiful and shit. The rest of the tracks, however, are just solid and moody techno stuff that has occasional moments of atmospherics and a whole lot of beats that aren't particularly danceable. Jeez guys, way to make it look like I'm just falling asleep halfway through all these albums and only remembering the start and the finish. The middle of this album is a bit strange: there are three versions of Immolare in there, and while they all sound pretty different it's still very strange, almost like this is an EP that's been hammered out into a full LP.

And what's this madness!? Discogs tells me this originally came out as a 2x12" limited release in 2010 anyway, and has only later been released as a CD in 2011. The original release was 22nd December 2010, granted, which is barely 2010, and came after all the lists (except mine!) and so critically counts as 2011, sort of. But no. It's a 2010 release, damnit. Does this mean I've been reviewing this damn shit for nothing? It can't even count towards the list? Well, good, because it ain't good enough to get on there anyway. Even though it does feature two amazing tracks.

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10 (It's that stupid arbitrary rating again!)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: Zero Bedroom Apartment - Filmmuzik 1 + Ambient Works V1

Zero Bedroom Apartment Ambient Works
Depending on how you look at it, this is a double album or two EPs squashed together into one normal album. Zero Bedroom Apartment is the ambient side-project of some post rock guy I've never heard of, and I can't remember how I heard of this album either. Apparently these were originally extremely limited (250 copies) self-released albums that were presumably handed out at gigs. They've now been rescued from obscurity and added to Spotify for your listening pleasure.

There are nineteen tracks here and this is still a very brief album. Only two of these tracks are longer than three minutes and the rest average around 90 seconds, which is ridiculously short to someone like me who's used to listening to 13 minute Sasha tracks. It's impossible for such a rapid procession of such short tracks to sound fully developed or cohesive to me - this comes across as a succession of ambient skits thrown together, when it would have been nice to hear the best stuff expanded a little bit and turned into four or five minute pieces. Still, that probably does something of a disservice to the quality of the music here, which is unfailingly super-lovely throughout. Filmmuzik 1 is a bit saccharine at times, and my favourite tracks all come in the second half as part of the slightly darker Ambient Works V1. My picks are Sub Hydro and Ghostpark, which are both absolutely incredible and are definitely getting used in a mix sometime soon.

I don't know whether to consider this as one album or as two EPs. While the music is all very nice, it doesn't make for a great ambient headspace listening adventure. The tracks are simply too short and there are just too many undeveloped ideas, making it feel scatter-brained and oddly manic for such a chilled out record. I think Ambient Works might squeeze onto the EP list, but overall Zero Bedroom Apartment screams "side-project" a little too loudly to really be great.

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Sepalcure - Sepalcure

Sepalcure
And so begins the End Of 2011 reviewing. First up is Sepalcure's self-titled album, which is a UK funky/future-garage/post-dubstep thing out of Hotflush. I must admit, I haven't really followed the post-dubstep fragmentation. It seems that sometime last year, everyone got so sick of their music being associated with US brostep stupidity like Skrillex that they all collectively abandoned both the term "dubstep" and the 140bpm tempo. UK funky is one of the consequent styles. It's basically dubstep, with the skittery 2-steppy rhythms and the plaintive vocal samples, but it's generally at a housier tempo with warmer sounds, and so is considered much more "girl friendly" than the cold urban loneliness of trad dubstep.

I haven't really heard enough to genuinely offer forth insightful commentary on where Sepalcure's album fits into the genre. To me, this sounds like a lot of stuff that has come out of Hotflush recently. All these tracks seem to have the same bright videogame-y synth and manipulated female vocal stabs popularised by Joy Orbison's massive hit Hyph Mngo from back in 2009. Before I wrote that last sentence I didn't actually know Hyph Mngo was a Hotflush release, but Discogs has just confirmed it. So this whole album is basically a retread of that track. From two years ago. There are a couple of exceptions. Opening track Me is a grainy and atmospheric piece of Burial-step, which I suppose makes it even less original than the rest of the album, but since everyone's moved on from imitating Burial to imitating Joy Orbison it sounds quite fresh again. Then there's the beautiful ambient closing track Outside, which has more grainy Burial-isms and more female vocal stabs, but also some droney bits and distant pianos and no skittery rhythms whatsoever. This is my favourite track on the album by far.

So this is far from an original album, but it is very well produced and none of the tracks are bad and it's book-ended by two very lovely tracks. All of which screams " will-play-one-or-two-of-these-tracks-occasionally-but-rarely-give-the-full-thing-a-run-out" respectability. Or 7/10, as it's known in the business.

Genre: UK Funky / Joy Orbison-wants-his-synth-back.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

And Thus Begins The End Of Year List

As 2011 draws to a close, everyone starts making their Best Of The Year lists. I read an article in the Guardian recently moaning about these lists, claiming they're not how people actually listen to music and that itemising an art form into endless qualitative lists is a bit soulless and wrong. Which is sort-of a fair point, but what's more important to me is that these lists help me find so much great music. Last year in making my Best Of 2010 list I checked out everyone else's list first, and probably 50% of my own list was discovered from reading other people's recommendations. I prefer to think of the End Of Year List as some communal festival of music sharing, where everyone gets together and swaps their favourite stuff and everyone learns something new and interesting.

Perhaps more importantly, I got really burned out on trying to stay bang up to date with music. I've heard something like 600 new artists in 2011 according to Last.fm, which equates to hundreds of albums and thousands of hours of music. All of this music was totally new to me, so whether it came from 2011 or not seems pretty secondary. I like just being able to go through a year not having to read every damn blog and feel like I'm missing out on good stuff, because I know when the end of year comes around, the good stuff will be collated. And yeah, sure - some stuff will go missing, but that will happen anyway. I always try and check out a huge variety of lists when compiling my own, because I want my list to be genuinely helpful. I want to show people music that exists outside the circles they usually operate within. The End Of Year List gets stupid when all the blogosphere sites are just re-ordering the same 100 records.

My list probably won't be complete for some time yet. After all, 2011 ain't over yet. Last year's list wasn't finished until February, and it might be the same this time around. I was really pleased with it last time around, even though I've since heard quite a few 2010 albums that could have gone on there. If I remade my 2010 list now, it'd probably look a fair bit different. But at the same time, my rigorous approach to listening to as much as possible for the list meant I really did hear more new music from 2010 than any previous year.

What this means for the blog is that for the next couple of months, almost everything I'm going to review is going to be from 2011. A lot of it is going to be really terse too, because there's so much to get through and a lot of it will unfortunately be shit. If I listen to five tracks of an album and it sucks, I'm not going to soldier through. So expect some decidedly miniature reviews at times.

Review: Gagarin - Biophilia


Yeah, this is more like it. When I reviewed Gagarin's last album, which was five minutes ago in real time but may as well be five hundred thousand years ago if you've just happened in from Google, I was impressed by his potentially widescreen adaptation of well-worn IDM techniques, but disappointed that he only took that approach on a couple of tracks. Well, his new album Biophilia does exactly that, and so it pushes all my pleasure buttons and potentially goes down as one of my favourite albums of 2011.

Now, I should point out that I don't know shit about Gagarin. I bought his last album blind from a second hand store, and Discogs tells me he'd already had four or five LPs out over a ten year career prior to 2008's Adaptogen. So perhaps he's already done this sound to death, Adaptogen was the boundary-pushing album and Biophilia is a regressive piece of unadventurous wank. This just goes to show that our prior listening experiences totally colour how we hear something, something a lot of music hacks don't seem to take into account. I can always spot a reviewer who's been given a promo CD and simply done some reading up on the artist before taking a listen. The tone is totally different from someone who actually knows the artists and/or the scene inside out. I tend to prefer the latter. Sure, talking like a scene insider can be totally alienating to today's MP3-hording eclectic hipster audience who just likes interesting music, man, and will give anything a chance. But I don't like this way the Internet gets people to listen to music without any consideration of its origin, just divorcing everything and interpreting it through the bland homogenising critical lens of the MP3 blog.

Anyway, back to Biophilia. What I like about this album is that it has lots of big, soaring moments in it, which is something not much IDM actually does. IDM is generally too clever-clever and self-consciously subtle and challenging to go for big, emotionally affecting moments that would really stir your soul. Which is not to put a slight on IDM as such - there's a lot to be said for music that doesn't just give you big, manipulative, obvious emotional cues, and the harder you have to listen, the more rewarding the outcome. But there is a middle ground we all move through. When you first start listening to music, and by that I mean really start loving music for the first time, you're drawn in by what we call Gateway Music - music which is very easily digestible and gives it you on a plate. By the end of your musical career you're listening to avant-jazz and minimal static drone, your listening ear has become so refined and weary only the deepest and most challenging music has any interest left for you. This is, of course, a massive and simplistic stereotypical generalisation, but at the same time it's essentially true.

Right now I've been listening to music properly for about a decade, and while I'm at the point I definitely want subtle and challenging music, I still like my big moments and certain approachable sensibilities to temper the experimentalism. Maybe in a few years I'll only want to listen to latter-era Autechre because the swelling cinematic moments on Biophilia will just sound way too obvious, in the same way I once used to get a massive rush from the huge breakdowns in epic trance records but now I find them totally childish and cringe-worthy. But at the same time, I've found my tastes are getting more stable as time goes on. When you're 15 years old you can double or triple the amount of music you've heard year on year, and everything is so new and different to you your tastes grow and change rapidly. I'm not by any means saying I've got to the point of settling into a listening rut, like all those sad bastards who only listen to music from the period just because they got into a long-term relationship for the record of their life, but even though I'm hearing hundreds, if not thousands, of new records every year across an ever-expanding array of genres, I now have a stable musical identity, certain things that consistently push my buttons across all genres and areas. That reflects in my DJing - whether I'm spinning drum 'n bass, dubstep, ambient or techno, there is a recognisable thing I look for and get out of music, and listeners always comment on that. And what that amounts to is a taste for enveloping, spacey atmospherics and a certain love of cinematic, dramatic sounds. All of which this album has in spades. This is basically an IDM album tailored for me.

Don't get me wrong, this ain't Hans Zimmer-joins-Warp. I also don't want to suggest this IDM for beginners, because that would be grossly unfairly. I'm merely musing on why this album hits the spot for me much more than the last one, and more than most IDM in general. There are plenty of reserved tracks on here, but also three or four that build up to beautiful crescendos and offer the kind of picture-painting evocation I want to hear. It gives the album more dynamics and variety, as well. The only track I don't like very much is the closer, Dopplar, which sounds like the background music from the village in some generic early-90s fantasy RPG where you buy health potions and chat to some sad-looking barmaid who had her father stolen by goblins. Which very much does not push my buttons. Videogame sounds in general can go fuck themselves in music. I grew up with a SNES as well, and MIDI bleeps still sound like shit, people. Anyway, to recap: this is excellent. Best new IDM album I've heard in quite some time.

Genre: IDM
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Gagarin - Adaptogen


Gagarin's album Adaptogen was another one of my blind second hand purchases. I say "blind" in the poker sense of calling a bet without having seen your cards, rather than the sense of buying something without even having seen it. That would be daft. Jumbo, Leeds' premier independent record store, has recently expanded its second hand section and every time I go in I give it a trawl. On this occasion I was in there with a friend, who despite never usually doing this kind of thing, got totally into the idea of second hand trawling. After I explained to her my usual tactics of determining interesting music ("Are there any words about the future or space on the cover?", basically) she triumphantly thrust Adaptogen in my face and insisted I bought it, all on the basis it's named after the first man in space.

Now, this album could have been anything. I looked in the inlay for clues as to the genre, but there was nothing forthcoming. The inlay of an album can tell you a lot about what to expect You can spot a rock album from the inlay immediately because it will say Guitars, Bass, Drums etc, where as an electronic album will usually say Written and Produced By. Other lines like "Additional drum programming by", "Scratching by" or "String arrangements by" or sample clearance information can all tip you off as to what the music within might sound like. Here it just said "All music by Gagarin". Not helpful. The only generic clues I could gather were from the track titles, which comprised of esoteric, one and two-word names like GAVVERS, AB PLAS and 'den BOSCH. This is a hallmark of IDM in particular, and suggested experimental, weird music in general. Whatever, £2.99 isn't much of a gamble, so here we are.

And guess what? Adaptogen is an IDM album, after all. That kids, is how to buy blind. Only trouble with buying blind is that you might be able to precisely pinpoint the potential sound of an album without having heard any of it, but that doesn't mean it's going to be any good. And sadly, Adaptogen is a pretty run-of-the-mill IDM album for the most part. The opening two tracks, Phormium and Golden Cap, run together into one majestically unfolding 10 minute epic that suggests something very special is about to unfold, but sadly most of the rest of the material sounds like a passable imitation of what Warp Records were releasing ten years prior.

There are two approaches to IDM. Some people will use it as a catch-all term for any interesting and experimental electronic music that has suggestions of a clubby origin. Some people will call Trentemoller IDM, for example. This interpretation posits IDM as a potentially infinite genre, that can sound like almost anything. The I may as well stand for "Interesting". The other approach is that IDM is actually quite a specific sound within electronic music, one popularised by the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Plaid, Squarepusher et al. You know that sound, full of glitchy, spasmodic beats and weird melodic passages. Adaptogen is like that, pretty much. And while that sound is undoubtedly extremely out-there compared to 99% of the music you'll hear in day to day life, it's generally dominated by the same moods, the same approaches and ultimately, the same generic markers (the musical equivalent of those short, weird track titles). While this genre is inherently clever-clever and challenging, that doesn't give it a free pass towards being good. It can still sound tired and over-familiar, and it can still sound boring and uninvolving. The opening two tracks here suggest an evocative, wide-screen take on the IDM sound that could be interesting, but sadly Gagarin doesn't really take that idea any further. I'll check out his other music for the promise shown here, but I won't be buying any more of his stuff blind.

Genre: IDM
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Fahrenheit Project (Part 1 & 2)

Fahrenheit Project Part 1Fahrenheit Project Part 2
On Thursday morning I woke up stupidly early after a night out, dehydrated and hung over to all fuck, and yet strangely unable to go back to sleep and put myself out of my misery. So I decided to spend the entire day in bed, slowly decomposing to the sounds of Ultimae Records' Fahrenheit Project compilation series. The Fahrenheit Project CDs are examples of something you only really see in the psy-music world: compilations comprised entirely of specially recorded, exclusive tracks that will never be released anywhere else. This kind of thing happens very occasionally in other genres - you often get exclusive tracks featured on compilations, but very rarely every track. In psy, this is one of the most common methods for putting music out there.

The result is pretty frustrating - go on Beatport and you'll find thousands of compilations entitled Goa Anthems Volume 57, featuring the occasional brilliant tracks amidst hordes of awful full-on stupidity. Slightly more promising are the downtempo compilations, which are a little less common and thus usually have a bit more effort put into them. They're often mixed and will feature reputable names such as Vibrasphere and Sundial Aeon, so the general quality is higher.

Ultimae Records are not your typical psy-trance/psy-chill label, anyway. In fact, if I may stray into unreserved hyperbole, they are probably my favourite label in the whole world, ever. And I mean that. Unlike most labels, especially in this digital age of web labels who seem to have confused a release schedule with the Dresden bombings, they only release four or five albums a year. They have an extremely recognisable core sound ("panoramic music for panoramic people") cultured by a reliable stable of artists, and so just about everything they release is extremely high quality. Not only that, but all their releases come in gorgeous digipack cases with booklets of beautiful photography, and their orders come with postcards, sticks of incense and hand written Thank You notes. This, people, is how you run a record label.

So when Ultimae put out a psy-chill compilation comprised of exclusive tracks, you know you're not getting any old shit. The Fahrenheit Project has been going since the label's inception back in 2001, and is their flagship compilation series. And so it's pretty fucking good. The first Fahrenheit is now ten years old, and so is understandably showing its age a little bit now. The tracks are pretty good, but they include more psy-chill clichés than the label's later output, when it really developed its own sound. Fahrenheit 2 is amazing, though. It starts out vast and ambient and then moves through some absolutely beautiful flowing pieces by Vibrasphere, Khetzal and Nuclear Ramjet that I can only describe as "ambient trance" - ultra-slow and definitely not for the dancefloor, but still rhythmic and feature endless cascading melodies. Towards the end it becomes totally ambient and spacey again. It's mixed by label manager Vincent Villius, AKA Aes Dana, and like most of the Ultimae compilations the tracks fit together so perfectly it feels like the various contributors knew what the gameplan was when they set out to make their tracks. You'd struggle to name an artist album that sounds more cohesive.

When I queued up the whole series in Spotify, I expected a lot of pretty background ambient music to hopefully fall asleep to. After Fahrenheit 2 finished, I had to stop the playlist because I was wide awake again. The music was too captivating and interesting for me to drift off. This is genuinely one of the best compilations I've ever heard - it goes right up there into my Top 5, which is pretty good company to be keeping. I might have to purchase the physical copy of this one, because it's one of those records so good you want the real thing sitting on your shelf. Especially when the physical copy is as beautifully crafted as the Ultimae CDs. I'm just hoping the later Fahrenheit Projects are nearly this good. You can buy the entire series on their website for 72 Euros, and you wouldn't believe how tempted I am.

Genre: Psy-chill
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: Fahrenheit 1 - 7/10 | Fahrenheit 2 - 9/10

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Blue Planet Corporation - Blue Planet

Blue Planet Corporation
If ever someone asks me to define what "trance music" is all about, what it should be about; the rare, fleeting ideal of a genre blighted with so much shit, I point them to Blue Planet Corporation. If you have to sum up trance in one single track, it would be the eleven minute launch into the stratosphere that is Alidade. There are better trance records, there are probably even better trance albums, but nothing as pure, sweat-soaked trancey trance as this.

Even the name is perfect. Blue. Planet. Corporation. It's practically poetry in how these three words encapsulate trance so perfectly, with such soaring evocation and sleek minimalist efficiency. Immediately there's spaciness and futurism, and also the lush expansiveness of "blue planet", but this is a lushness that is created not through nature but through science, technology, the machine. And then there's the tight order and quantized control suggested by the Corporation. The artist name instantly brings to mind a colossal inter-galatic terraforming conglomerate, entire worlds being transformed while vast shipping yards and construction platforms hang in outer orbit. These images are the perfect metaphor for the music on this album - ultra-long bleeds of beautiful high-energy futurism where delicate melodies are wrought from the chaos of swirling acid and precision-engineered beats.

This is trance in the proper sense, of how I think a trance record or even an entire set should unfold. At the start most of these tracks seem incredibly simple, the first two or three minutes might even sound boring. But trance is the music of star systems, nothing happens in 30 seconds. Layers build up until the music is flying along with ridiculous speed, and those opening minutes make sense. This ain't a record where every single second is packed full of ideas, but one where entire minutes are devoted to the larger picture. Building better worlds doesn't happen quickly, y'know. The tracks draw you in until you're totally entranced, and suddenly you look out of the port hole and see stars pass in streaky blurs and realise you're travelling at point five, past lightspeed and it's a rush like none other.

It isn't quite a perfect album. The opening ascent of Apex, Crystal and Alidade is so thrilling and face-melting that it would be impossible to keep up the momentum, and there is a slight mid-album lull with the more minimalist Atoll and Dialect. Again, though, these tracks may sound individually less impressive, but they set up the peak of Open Sea in the way all good DJs do - spacing out the explosives to give you chance to recover your energy, and place them in structuralist contrast for maximum effect. The last two tracks, Roma and Arcana, bring you right back down to alight on the planetary surface, still-hypnotic pieces of synthetic ambient material that finish the journey on exactly the right note.

For a long time, Blue Planet was extremely rare and ultra-expensive to procure, elevating it to the legendary status reserved for only the rarest and most expensive records. Usually this is because tales of the record's quality are second or third hand and reach almost mythical dimensions. After all, nobody is willing to admit they paid £100 for a duff album. Happily, Blue Planet has been reissued by Northern Exposure Recordings and now anyone can hear it for themselves. It lives up to the hype. I don't know if I can give it 10/10, if only because there's a moment in Micromega when that robotic Kraftwerk voice intones "trance dance", which was a bit of totally avoidable cheesiness that might shatter the magic to a cynical non-trance convert. But come on. Blue Planet Corporation. What a brilliant name. I love how the album is just called Blue Planet, as well. None of that lazy self-titled bullshit. The musician is the corporation, this is your terraformed world. In a lifetime of writing I'll never find a metaphor quite as perfect as that. The guy is French, too - English ain't even his first language! So, so jealous.

Genre: Trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review: The Irresistible Force - It's Tomorrow Already

Irresistible Force - It's Tomorrow Already
The Irresistible Force, as I'm sure you're aware, is the production alias of Mixmaster Morris, who along with The KLF and The Orb pretty much reinvented ambient music for the ecstasy generation. There's a lot of history I can't be bothered to recount as to how these three names, through the playing of much Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and other downtempo weirdness in the chill out rooms of prominent early '90s clubs and raves, brought the concept of sample-heavy, tripped-out come-down music to the acid house masses. Morris, for whatever reason, never achieved the fame and success of the other two. A few Irresistible Force productions have ascended to minor-classic status, but Space Is The Place or the remix of Coldcut's Autumn Leaves are never going to rank alongside Little Fluffy Clouds, Blue Room or What Time Is Love? on the pantheon.

It's Tomorrow Already is (to date) the last Irresistible Force album, and given it came out almost 14 years ago I think it's pretty safe to say there won't be another one. This was released on Ninja Tunes, long after the ambient house boom had burst and so is probably the least historically relevant of his albums, even though it's kept alive and in circulation by the enduring success of Ninja, which hasn't gone bust in the manner of most '90s electronic labels. It's a pretty nice album, but it probably sounded pretty dated back in 1998. Strangely it probably sounds less dated now because the '90s happened aaages ago and the development of ambient music between '92 and '98 seems small fry in this world of Kompakt and Oneohtrix Point Never. Everything from the '90s just sounds "classic" now, and the fact this shit had been well-covered by 1998 doesn't really matter because 1998 has been well covered as well. I hope this makes sense.

The point is I can see why Mixmaster Morris stopped releasing under this alias shortly afterwards, because he wasn't really going anywhere. The ambient house of the early '90s was addicted to retro, unlikely spoken samples ripped from obscure TV shows and this album is absolutely awash with them. In 1992 it was probably a cool gimmick, but by 1998 with Warp Records in full flow, there's just something a little quaint about this record. Most of the ideas here have been done in earlier, fresher albums and the production quality isn't really superior enough to distinguish it from those creatively vibrant works. There's only so many strange documentary voices talking about fish dances you can base a track around before people decide enough is enough. There are a couple of lovely tracks, especially opener Power, and if you're one of those poor, uneducated kids who doesn't know shit about the '90s this might just blow your mind. More likely it'll sound a bit dated and naff, though, which is the conundrum here. This album will appeal neither to the veterans (who've heard its like too many times before) or the newbies who'll already have mass-downloaded terabytes of stuff light years more developed than this small-time sample-pasting.

Genre: Ambient house.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Ott - Skylon

Ott Skylon
I listened to Ott - Skylon due to yet more Spotify-related wranglings. I knew I wouldn't have enough minutes to listen to a full album, and so I decided to play something where it would be pretty easy to get the gist. Ott is one of those names where you pretty much know what you're going to get, so unless the album turned out to be a career high slice of genius, I could miss out one or two tracks and not regret it.

As an aside I have - finally - subscribed to Spotify and now have unlimited minutes again, so there'll be no more of this penny-pinching faffing around when it comes to selecting listening material or dodging the restrictions. I'll explain soon enough, but none of it has anything to do with Ott or Skylon.

Anyway, Ott makes ambient dub. I've heard two previous Ott albums. His "In Dub" remix album of Hallucinogen, which is a weird hybrid project. It's got Hallucinogen's name on the front but it says "mixed by Ott", and is basically an album of Ott doing his ambient dub thing to a bunch of non-classic Hallucinogen material. Very odd conceptually, but fairly standard musically. I've also apparently listened to his 2011 album Mir, but I have absolutely no memory of it whatsoever, which is starting to happen with worrying frequency at the moment and is why I started this blog in the first place. I guess it's also because Mir was probably totally forgettable.

Ambient dub, you see, is quite a well-worn concept. You can't go to a psy-trance festival or event without finding a chill-out room where some dreadlocked hippy is pumping out dub bass beneath some quirky ambient washes. It had probably been around for decades even before The Orb made the fusion uber-popular in the early '90s (albeit under the trendier moniker of "ambient house") and people like Bill Laswell have thrown out dozens and dozens of albums under countless aliases, beating the concept to death. For my money, you still can't find a better execution of the idea than those first two Orb albums (...Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and UFOrb) but people are damned if they're going to give up trying.

Ott, as his Hallucinogen collaboration might suggest, is definitely on the psychedelic tip, but psy-dub is probably even less inventive than the other ambient dub out there. Psy-music tends towards cliché at the best of the times, and the combination of endless spliff haze and LSD trippiness results in an awful lot of music that probably sounded fantastic when the addled creators put it together, but sounds cheesy as all hell when played back sober. Skylon, to be fair, is mostly free of such stupidity. It has its nice moments, and is certainly well produced and opulent, but I really can't find anything to make this stand out from a wealth of very similar material floating around in cyber-orbit. It did chill me out nicely when I was lounging around in the living room before work, but that was probably because I was on the verge of falling asleep anyway and all it succeeded in doing was making me run late. Running to work in the rain ain't so relaxing, Ott-man.

If you look online you'll probably find a bunch of dub hippies eulogising over this record, but every psy-chill/psy-dub/ambient dub record seems to have at least three Discogs reviews jizzing all over it. Those drugs don't do wonders for the critical faculties, it seems. In my opinion, this is a very standard ambient dub album, with some nice instrumentation and some head-bobbing grooves, but there's nothing here that stands out to me. And the cover fucking sucks.

Genre: Psy-dub
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Review: 36 - Hollow

36 - Hollow
I've been listening to 36 - Hollow because it's been the first thing on my Spotify playlist for about five months now, and it's been annoying me so much I decided to just listen to it. I have a monstrous Spotify playlist where every interesting album I hear/read/know about gets dumped for future listening. You know all those albums you've been meaning to hear for ages, but never got round to? This list has all of mine, as well as every other album that I could possibly be interested in, ever. 36 is top of the list for alphabetical reasons, and his album Hollow looked pretty short, making it an ideal background listen while I did the morning Internet rounds before getting up and having a shower.

One of the things that was bugging me about Hollow is that I couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd heard about it. That's the trouble with the Spotify playlist - it's so mind-meltingly long it's measured in days and weeks, not minutes and hours - and if I've thrown something on there based on the tiniest recommendation, I can quickly forget all about it. That's sort of why this blog exists, because there's just no record of where all this music is coming from, and thus it's far harder to remember anything about it.

For a while I seemed to remember 36 as a psy-chill act, probably appearing on some Ultimae compilation or something mixed by Sundial Aeon. I had a vague impression of ambience, of prettiness. But when I started listening, these ideas didn't quite fit. Sure it's ambient and it's very pretty, but it isn't psy-chill, and while Ultimae release more flavours of ambient than just the psychedelic, this definitely wasn't from them. Hollow sounds more droney, more field-recordingy, with lots of long, blurry drones of textural fuzz and that "blanket of love" enveloping love-fog sound a lot of laptop/blog-ambient guys do so well. Eventually I remembered that I'd heard about this guy when ASC opened one of his excellent Deep Space Mixes with a 36 track. According to Discogs, 36 - AKA Dennis Huddleston - was "raised on a healthy diet of old skool hardcore and techno," but "these days he spends his time releasing highly emotive and melancholic ambient". Like ASC then, he's taken the unlikely path from SL2 - On A Ragga Tip to the type of ambient quiescence beloved by Brooklyn loft-dwelling beardsters. I blame atmospheric jungle for this.

I'm often suspicious of this "slow death by morphine" drone ambient, because there's absolutely loads of it out there these days, and it all sounds lovely and hazy and soporific. I have a theory that if you know the requisite production techniques it's almost impossible to do drone ambient badly. It's one of those genres where if you get the template down, it can barely fail. Also known as the "There's no such thing as bad dub" principle. This style, I suspect, is basically easy and yet it's guaranteed to provide classy, tasteful sounding results. That makes me somehow suspicious of it. I feel more praise is due to a genre where it's very hard to avoid sounding cheesy or trite, but when it's executed properly it sounds amazing.

With that said, there's something about 36 that makes him stand out a bit. For one, the sound quality is incredibly clear. This album is an absolute delight to listen to, even through the low bitrate streams of my cheap-ass unsubscribed Spotify account (audiophiles everywhere just inexplicably shuddered). A lot of this stuff definitely has that home-brew made-on-a-laptop sound, but 36's music sounds like it was finely honed. It's probably too clean and pretty for the hipsters, because they love their lo-fi garage aesthetic. It convinces them that the music they listen to is somehow more authentic and anti-capitalist. I'm making a lot of friends with this review, aren't I?

Anyway, while 36 definitely has lots of hazy, droney fuzz, he also uses lots of delicate, pretty little chimes throughout his music. There's semblence of real melody here, real arrangement, rather than just time-stretching stuff out into dreamy oblivion. There's also an actual atmosphere here - with lots of field recordings of rainfall and white-noise-weather blended into the mix, there's a feeling of vibrant pastorality to the record. It brings to mind walking through a rain-soaked forest in spring, each delicate chime another sparkling drop of water alighting on blossoming buds or punctured by pine needles. The cover art is perfectly selected, in this respect. There's a suggestion here of close artistic control that assuages my suspicions and makes this easily the best example of this genre I've heard so far.

Genre: Laptop-ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Friday, 9 December 2011

Review: Na-Hag - Lost Cities

Na-Hag Lost Cities
After complaining yesterday that I can't find anyone out there who sounds like Geomatic, I went and had another look. The result was a free download of Na-Hag's newest album Lost Cities. I don't know much about this guy at all, but he fits into that tribal-industrial area and crops up recommended lists for Geomatic, alongside the likes of This Morn Omina, Tzolk'In and Totakeke. The trouble is, while Na-Hag sounds quite a lot like all of these acts, he still sounds nothing like Geomatic. And okay, it's pretty unfair to listen to an album with such a specific expectation, but perhaps if Na-Hag hadn't self-promoted himself on Last.fm by linking to Geomatic's page and thus conning their fans into giving his album a listen, I wouldn't be this unfair. Piggy-back on their name and get judged accordingly, matey.

Lost Cities isn't bad. It's dark as fuck, like all of these guys, unsettlingly creepy and bleak throughout. I'm not one of those people who believe all art should merely entertain and leave us feeling happy or pleased. I love the horror genre, and have high praise for a lot of things that many people would consider extremely depressing or disturbing. The dark ambient/tribal industrial subset, like all of industrial/darkwave/goth shit, is almost exclusively focused on creating moods of darkness and despair, and this album packs a powerful emotional punch. It makes you feel fucking miserable, basically. You're not going to play this one on a summer's day any time soon. And not just because it's December right now (ooh - northern hemisphere crew make some nooooise).

The trouble is there isn't any poignancy to all this darkness. There's no melancholy. There's no beauty. Just as something that's totally 100% super-happy-fun-time with no darkness tempering the prozac rush sounds crass, so in a way does all this material. People rightly lambast stupid e-tard unicorn trance for being childishly cheerful, so why should these moody goth folk get away with such extremes? Because it's an unpleasant emotion, and so we can label it "difficult" and "challenging", and therefore presumably more worthwhile as art? I don't really buy into that. Obsession with darkness and death and misery is a pretty adolescent preoccupation in itself. Lord knows I was like that when I was 15. While it's impressive just how relentlessly bleak all these dark ambient guys can go, ultimately I don't think their music has anything incredibly complicated to transmit. There's no tension, no contrast, no release. It's all monochrome. That's probably why I love Geomatic. More than the fact they sample ethnic wailing to push my covert-hippy buttons, they put in those huge euphoric bits, which are not necessarily happy, but often angry or snarling but always charged and cathartic. And they can write a melody, and bang out a swaggering groove. There's not one melody on this entire album, and while there's lots of tribal percussion and a few thumping techno beats, it's all sterile and funkless. If ever there was such a thing as grim percussion, this is it.

The one exception to all this is album-closer Iron Bird (unless you actually pay for the album, then you get a proper album closer that might be amazing, I'm not blowing mad coin to find out), in which Na-Hag's bleakness suddenly morphs into some bizarre apocalyptic hip-hop, with a toe-tapping breakbeat and an obscured vocal that I'm sure is saying "Get on the floor" like you've just walked through the ashes of dead cities and wandered into some bizarre mutant b-boy throw-down. Maybe this is just my techno-idiot tastes coming through, but this is by far the most interesting part of the entire album. It still sounds nothing like Geomatic, but it's the one moment when Na-Hag isn't being incredibly stereotypical and bloody miserable. This is the kind of track I'll probably remember in about 6 years time when I'm making the obligatory Nuclear Winter Party Anthems mixtape. Until then, this one won't be getting many listens.

Genre: Not-Geomatic
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Review: Geomatic - Blue Beam

Geomatic Blue Beam
I love Geomatic, but they are irritatingly unique. Okay, I know shit about industrial, but for all my searching I can't find another band out there who sound anything like their hugely atmospheric, vicious tribal-ambient-industrial fusion. The best way I can describe it is some genetically tele-spliced fusion of Muslimgauze and HR Giger. Images of Lovecraftian dead civilisations and baroque alien other-ships crash landed on inhospitable planets abound. Hard, crunching industrial beats and robo-vocals form the core but instead of gloomy vocals and rock guitars we get menacing psy-tranceish ambience and much Middle Eastern/tribal/ethnic/I'm-a-racist-Westerner-who-doesn't-know-where-these-sounds-come-from-so-I'll-generalise influences. They used to be a fairly typical and boring dark ambient outfit but after seven years of apparently doing nothing they came out with Blue Beam in 2008, from nowhere, and with it came this new, unprecedented sound.

What annoys me about this act is they don't fit into either the industrial camp or the electronica camp, so I just can't find anything else like them. Which is especially annoying because I'm a DJ and when I hear massive cinematic tracks like The Bliss or the put-your-hands-up-for-Cthulhu anthem Turn Of The Coil with its sweeping, unpredictable chord progressions, I want to put them in a DJ mix and blow people's minds. This shit would sound incredible if used correctly in a psy-trance set, but as yet I've not found any way to do it.

Blue Beam is a bit of an uneven album, not so much in quality as in flow. I personally would have arranged the tracklist a little differently, and I suppose there's nothing to stop me doing that when I enqueue the album, except my respect for the artist's vision, you heretical bastards. The strongest material comes at the start and a few of the tracks later on are a bit too samey in terms of being dark, brooding mood pieces. I still love the album, but the opening feels like it's going to set up a really heavy alien invasion party album, but the energy level drops off somewhat into something more introspective. Their sequel album, 2010's 64 Million Light Years, does the same thing but I think that album has more of a sense of spacing out into desolate interstellar evil. It's the typical DJ thing to start off quiet and slow and then build up to the big stuff, and always much trickier to do the opposite and slow your album down without seeming to just be lapsing into filler. Fluke were always experts at doing it. I would have just liked it if Geomatic had included a more epic finale here. Still this is a bad-ass album and these guys deserve a lot more attention.

Genre: Tribal-ambient-industrial
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: The Future Sound Of London - Environments 3

FSOL Environments 3
I'm not entirely sure why I've been listening to Environments 3. I just had a sudden craving to listen to it, and it's been almost a year since I last gave it an outing. It's funny, because I love the FSOL and own almost everything they've put out, but I very rarely play any of their albums. There rarely seems an apposite moment to give Lifeforms or ISDN a spin, as dark and dense and weirdly brilliant as they are. The albums I do play tend to be their newest two - Environments 2 and 3, which a lot of people probably don't even know exist. Critical coverage of the band seems to exclusively focus on their past output - you'd be forgiven for thinking "pioneering '90s electronica act..." was part of their name - and the only new FSOL releases I've seen in shops are their various Archives compilations, which are just collations of unreleased material and/or their early dance records under various aliases, back when they'd churn out techno EPs because they knew they could make £2k a pop.

Although you can buy them on Amazon, the Environments series seems to be released and distributed through the FSOL's own label, which is maybe why they don't get into the shops. It's a shame, because I honestly believe the band is as good as ever - and Environments 3 in particular may be the best album they've ever released.

Environments was the great lost FSOL record - it was mentioned in the inlay of Lifeforms but was never released, and cropped up on countless Essential Mix and radio broadcast tracklists. Near as I can tell, "Environments" was just a generic name given to anything they knocked up in the studio to use in their radio shows that was never intended for release. Eventually in 2007 the band decided to "remake" this lost album and put out what was basically a poor pastiche of their '90s sound. Trippy, creepy sampledelica but with no real controlling idea, just a mess of odd samples and textural weirdness. For whatever reason, they decided to make it into a series - Environments 2 was totally new material and sounded nothing like the old stuff. It was also awesome. Then came Environments 3 which is possibly even better. This one does have a link back to old FSOL material, apparently being based on outtakes from Dead Cities, in much the same way Tales Of Ephidrena was based on material cut from Lifeforms. Honestly though, this album sounds nothing like Dead Cities for the most part. Some samples are reused - A Glitch In Cellular Memory is basically a reshape of My Kingdom, the guitar part at the end of Accompaniment For Melodious Expression is from some old FSOL track I can't remember right now, and so on, but the techniques, the mood and the sound are all radically different.

It's really tough to describe the sound of this album. Obviously it's ambient and experimental, but that says absolutely nothing. The band seem to be going in a much more neo-classical direction than their old samplescapes, with their time spent as an extravagent neo-prog rock band obviously reflected in more live instrumentation, and the collabs with composer Max Richter have rubbed off with lots of minimalist piano and occasional string flourishes. In fact, synth sounds are at a bit of a premium on the album - there are lots of electronic textures and processing, but Dead Cities was heavily electronic, with lots of drum machines and bleepy malfunctioning electronics sending sparks flying everywhere. The impression here is more of grand, lush classical compositions that have been warped and broken up and brought together into a semi-coherent sonic dreamscape. I guess it still sounds post-apocalyptic, but more in the sense of finding the ruined super-structures of a once-proud ancient civilisation in the sands of some desolate desert planet. You can see the outlines of traditional order and opulence, but everything is now fragmented and triumph has been greyed out to echoes of melancholy. It reminds me of the Salvador Dali painting Les Elephants with those creepy, spindly-legged elephants striding pointlessly across some post-apocalyptic twilight landscape, enduring Alexandrian monuments to an empire long since dead and forgotten.

I'd probably say this is one of my favourite albums, actually. Certainly it's my favourite from the Future Sound Of London, who are one of my favourite acts. The one thing that could potentially hold it back from 10/10 greatness is that when I'm not listening to it, I can't remember any particular passages from it, but that's probably because I've still only played it three times and it's not exactly a pop album. It's such a dense, ever-shifting album too. There are 18 tracks and some of them are very short, so it's not like a lot of ambient and electronic music where you've got five or six minutes of loopage to let an idea sink into your head. This album sounds different from anything else I've ever heard, even by the band themselves, and yet it's still recognisably "the FSOL". It shows an act still pushing their sound after 25 years in the business. Nobody knows about it either, which gives me the warm glow of hipster exclusivity. So fuck it, it's getting the 10/10. There's an Environments 4 promised in the inlay of this one, and I can't wait.

Genre: Ambient neo-classical dreamscapes.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Review: Chris Cowie - Best Behaviour

Chris Cowie Best Behaviour
More Chris Cowie, this time his super-bloated double disc debut album Best Behaviour from 2001. Was this a big deal in 2001? Damned if I know, I was 13 and certainly wasn't listening to tech-house-trance-stuff. Thus far it's the only album he's released under his own name and he had his only Essential Mix appearance early in 2002, so I guess a fair bit of effort went into promoting it.

Discogs says this is a "progressive house" album but I think that's horseshit. I know progressive was bigger than God in 2001, and you can probably mix a lot of these tracks into a prog set, but really? Prog house? Pete Tong introduced the Essential Mix by saying Cowie's sound is "best described as tech house", which seems equally ludicrous in a world where tech house means Seth Troxler. There's definitely tech and house in here, and also some trance as well, but honestly I would just call this a techno album. Cowie was always a bit of a genre-blender, which is a strange thing to say given his tunes were almost always no-nonsense dancefloor groovers and bangers, but I guess that says a lot about how much us techno wankers split hairs when it comes to our genres. These tracks go BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM, okay? That enough of a description?

This is a very solid album, nary a bad track to be found, and it collates a lot of Cowie releases and remixes under various aliases. The problem is it's just too fucking long. Two discs, both of them full. Twenty two tracks, all well over five minutes long. There's almost three hours of BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM here, and as good as any of these tunes are, it's just a collation of various Cowie-thump from a bunch of different places, none of it ever intended to sit together and form an interesting home listening experience. And it doesn't. It just gets a bit boring. This is a total DJ album - if you're looking to get hold of a lot of reliable Cowie/techno/BOOM BOOM, then you can get 22 tracks of it here, in one place. But you're never going to play all of them. This is 2012 (almost)! We don't have to be subject to the tyranny of the 80 minute CD anymore! We just go on Beatport and cherry pick our favourite tracks to Jesus pose to on a Saturday night at our imaginary superclub residency. The one track that stands out from the relentless BOOM is penultimate track Time Flies, which is a lush piece of melodic Detroit sparkliness, a bit like what The Black Dog might put out if they weren't so relentlessly depressed. More like that next time you make something we're supposed to play at home, please, Cowie. Anyone who sits through his entire album is a tougher techno warrior than me.

Genre: Techno techno techno techno!
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Chris Cowie - Exposure II

Chris Cowie Exposure 2
I only listened to this because I was down to my last couple of free minutes on Spotify, and I've discovered that if you start a really long track with only a couple of minutes left, you can still hear the full track. Even if that track is an 80 minute continuous DJ mix compilation. Which this is. Yes, I really am that cheap. Although it turns out Spotify mysteriously gave me more minutes afterwards, so I listened to some more Chris Cowie (see next review).

I've sort-of been aware of Chris Cowie for years now. It's impossible not to be, given just how much fucking music he's made (we're talking literally hundreds of tracks across dozens of aliases), and I've known about his Hook label in passing. Hook was responsible for many a '90s trance classic, and so crops up on a lot of old tracklists. However, I recently noticed the entire back catalogue has appeared on Beatport and set about raiding it. Exposure II is a label-showcase for Hook from back in 2000. It doesn't have any of the famous Hook tracks on it (IE: anything by Transa or X-Cabs) and has more of a house/techno flavour, with tracks by 808 State and Frankie Bones cropping up. Hook may have been predominantly a trance label, but trance did actually originate from techno y'know, and Cowie kept that connection alive long after most trance DJs had completely forgotten it. I guess you could call the sound of this compilation tech-trance, but I've honestly never really figured out what tech-trance is exactly. A lot of these tracks are melodic and hypnotic, like trance, but have a very deep and thumping techno sound to them as well. To me, that's tech trance, okay?

This is a decent compilation. There's one track about 35 minutes in that melts my mind far more than the rest, but as it's an en bloc MP3 I can't tell one track from another, and can't be bothered to hunt out the track just to name-check it in this shitty review. So you'll have to take my word on this one. It's all very energetic and cheese-free, which was a difficult combination even back then. I can't say it really has too much structure or builds towards anything in particular. It's pretty much a fourth gear trance-out from start to finish, deep and driving. Good, but not great. Label showcases rarely are, unless the label in question is super-fucking-awesome. Hook was pretty awesome, but not quite awesome enough for a DJ to single-handedly construct an incredible DJ mix just from tracks released on it in 2000. And Chris Cowie isn't a fantastic DJ, to be fair. He always keeps the energy up and I think I'd have a great time at any of his parties, but he's not going to "take you on a journey" or deliver a truly classic set. He doesn't here, at any rate.

Genre: Tech-trance (?)
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Sander Kleinenberg - Global Underground NuBreed 004

Sander Kleinenberg NuBreed 004
I dug out Sander Kleinenberg's NuBreed 004 compilation because we were having a discussion about the Global Underground label's recent inactivity, and I made the faux-controversial point that none of the GU compilations were actually that exceptional, and this one was probably my favourite from them. Having made this point, I thought I'd better go back and have a listen to verify that claim.

I'm not an avid collector of the GU comps, precisely because none of the ones I've heard have really thrilled me. In fact, the series pretty much became a stick with which to beat progressive house around 2001. Progressive house (or just "progressive", because prog house circa-2001 had jack shit to do with the marvelously inventive material of Leftfield, Spooky and Underworld back in the early '90s that was the original "progressive house") was at that time at an all-time popularity boom, totally dominating 4/4 clubs. Every house, techno and especially trance record had to have a progressive remix on the flip, and the stuff was completely omnipresent even though a lot of people found it really boring and pretentious. Global Underground with its steady procession of identikit CDs by the same few super-DJs all playing the same sounds while getting flown around the world to have half their face photo'd in front of some exotic skyline, pretty much summed up how out-of-hand it was all getting, and the very name didn't do the genre any favours on the "pretentious" front. Seriously, you're running an intercontinental circle-jerk for jet-setting DJs who earn £20k a set and your CDs are selling in HMV. There is nothing "underground" about it.

And were any of the GUs genuinely that stellar? My favourite from the main series is John Digweed's mix from Hong Kong, which was super-deep, even if not terribly forward-thinking (it's not "progressive" if your CDs are just better-produced repeats of what you did on the second disc of Northern Exposure four fuckin' years ago, John). This effort from Sander Kleinenberg did take the top prize though for overall GU effort. It came from their semi-regular NuBreed series, which was a platform for the new generation of progressive DJs who weren't quite big-enough names to sell enough copies to get a gig on the main series. People like Danny Howells and Steve Lawler, who now seem like absolute dinosaurs who have been around for decades. The NuBreed compilations mostly sounded exactly like the normal GU comps, because none of the new generation (or nu breed, if you will) had any distinct sound, which is basically why the progressive scene spectacularly collapsed around 2004 before any of them could ascend to Sasha-esque levels of deification. The truth is that there was a lot of great music in the prog scene, even the millenial third-wave super-popular prog, but it increasingly became a bandwagon and all the tracks and DJs and compilations became increasingly interchangable until everyone was just totally bored of it.

If this all sounds like a discussion of progressive as a scene rather than a review of Sander Kleinenberg's compilation, that's because this compilation is actually totally typical of the prog scene in every way. I bought it for £1.99 from the closing down sale of some soon-to-be-defunct chain music shop a couple of years back, and I think I was just so stricken with thrift-phoria that I massively overrated the quality of the album. I remember the second disc in particular as being an absolute mind-detonation on first listen, but I think that was just uncritical glee at getting something halfway decent for £1.99. I love second-hand music shopping, you see, and especially love to convince myself I have found a gem every time I pick some shitty chill-out compilation out of a bargain bin for 99p, even though I'm really just paying to hear Moby's Porcelain yet again.

It turns out that NuBreed 004 is a pretty generic prog excursion, with a few good tracks and a lot of perfectly listenable ones but nothing to distinguish it from the other billion-and-one double disc'ers from ten years back. The highlight is definitely the last third of the second disc, which suddenly and violently ignites with Pariah's Keep The Peace, and Sander proceeds to lay down a slew of tough prog weaponry, most of it aggravatingly rare and unavailable today. This 20-30 minutes or so is undeniably awesome, but the rest is all pretty standard, though, right down to the way Sander mixes his tunes. I can hear nothing of a signature style to any of his transitions, and while he occasionally strings together two tunes in a way that makes it seem like the compilation is about to spread its wings, he never builds on that momentum. I mean, if this compilation had been a one-off, something unusual, it would probably sound fantastic, but familiarity breeds contempt.

So maybe there really aren't any great GU compilations. Although Nick Warren's Reykjavic mix is supposed to be something special, and actually looks interesting from the tracklist. So I'll give that one a listen at some point and report back.

Genre: Progressive proggy-prog.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10