Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: Steve Hauschildt - Tragedy & Geometry

Steve Hauschildt - Tragedy & Geometry
Steve Hauschildt (or Ambient Steve, as he isn't known) is one member of the Emeralds, a relatively popular ambient act beloved by the blogosphere. The connection should be pretty obvious if you've ever listened to the Emeralds, because Ambient Steve's solo work is cut from a very similar cloth. The Emeralds specialise in making ambient music characterised by abundant use of arpeggio synths. Arp-bient, if you will. And since Ambient Steve is the keyboardist and synth player for the Emeralds, no surprise that Tragedy & Geometry is an album that consists almost entirely of arpeggiated synth lines, the kind that old-school synths made by people like Korg and Roland can churn out immediately at the flick of a switch.

The thing about synth arps is that they're very pretty, and they're very hypnotic (hence why trance is so in love with them) but they're not particularly relaxing. In fact, listening to an Emeralds album is quite an exhausting experience, because you're constantly being bombarded with sparkly cascading melodies that never stop and hit countless notes every minute. This isn't so much of a problem if you're making high energy music (like trance), but since the Emeralds invariably take the ultra-pleasant play-book to ambient, the intended effect of calmness is demolished by the methodology employed.

Tragedy & Geometry (or Tardegy, as I just amusingly misspelled it) manages to be more reserved in this respect than the last Emeralds album, and it is a very pretty and distinctive sounding record, but the constant over-use of one technique is a little wearing, especially when that technique is not any masterpiece of sound design or studio craftsmanship, but rather a triumph of something fiddling with a vintage synth until they found a cool sound, and then making a career around it. And, quite frankly, heavily arpeggiated ambient has been done. It's been done decades ago and it's been done a lot better than this. For an all-time zennith, I recommend listening to Banco De Gaia's astonishing 35 minute ambient opus Kincajou (Duck! Asteroid!). This, by comparison, is unambitious fare.

Genre: Arp-bient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Friday, 24 February 2012

Review: Swarms - Old Raves End

Swarms - Old Raves End
This is the second album from 2011 I love that has the word "rave" in the title yet sounds nothing like rave either as music or social gathering. Amusingly, "Old Raves End" is almost exactly synonymous with Tim Hecker's "Ravedeath, 1972" and I think the two would go together remarkably well as a combined listening experience. But where Tim Hecker explores the meeting point between ambient, drone and neo classical, Swarms is very much a dubstep act. A lot has been made of dubstep, and particularly the Burial flavour of melancholic near-ambience shot through with haunting vocal wails, being the generational echoes of a social post-rave comedown as expressed by people just too young to have gone to the original acid house and hardcore parties of the late '80s and early '90s. In other words, dubstep is a youth generation mourning that the utopian future of ecstacy and communal partying never came to pass, brutally truncated by the government and the collapse of the rave scene into self-devouring corporate superclub culture. Hence the title.

Now, you could deduce from this that Swarms are Burial imitators, and yes, like almost everything else still making honest-to-God real atmospheric dubstep right now, there is a lot of Burial to be heard in this record. But there's also a more pastoral, expansive edge to the desolation. Old Raves End is only the third album released by US label Lo Dubs, the other two coming from the outstanding British producer Clubroot. Clubroot's album II-MMX was one of my favourites of 2010, the first one to take ambient dubstep into the great outdoors, with gorgeous results. And like Clubroot, Swarms use combine the grainy atmospherics and skittery, distant percussive emissions with more live, acoustic instruments and gentle melodic swells. The result is a more widescreen, panoramic soundscape, the gaps between each dislocated bass thump seeming much larger than the cramped urban spaces you'd hear on, say, a Jack Sparrow record. This album reminds me of the rusting hulks of dead industry that I used to walk through as child - skeletons of the dead mining industry of the north of England half reclaimed by resurgent undergrowth. Perhaps in this context the fragmented ruins are tent poles and rotting speaker stacks left over from the great outdoor raves of the acid house explosion, an elegaic ode to UK dance music's pastoral history.

As the unusually serious and faux-poetic mode of this review may have hinted, I genuinely love this album. The fusion of dubstep with various ambient environments was always where I thought the genre should have gone. I said not too long ago that "dubstep is over", splitting irreconcilably into brostep aggression and experimental abstraction. If that's the case, then Old Raves End is a fittingly beautiful epitaph.

Genre: Dubstep
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Andy Stott - Passed Me By / We Stay Together

Andy Stott
Another of my purchases while merrily cavorting in London-town last weekend, it simply does not get much more trendy and credible than Andy Stott's double EP salvo. An experimental ambient/dub techno sound released by Mancunian label Modern Love (who gave the world The Coldest Season) finally re-released in CD format in a gorgeous cardboard sleeved double pack, cover engorged with moody monochromatic photography of oppressed ethnic minorities. Oh yes. The guy behind the counter at Rough Trade nodded approvingly when I handed it over and commended me on a good purchase. I felt a warm glow inside, a sense of inclusion and belonging. Here I was, some bright-eyed boy from a parochial backwater being inducted into the inner circle of obscure trendster cliquedom. I felt an elitist thrill surge through me as I swaggered out into the chill night air. Is this, I thought, not what music is all about?

No. No it isn't. The reason I paid a slightly eye-watering £22 for this package has less to do with the wanker points I scored (guiltily pleasing though the transaction was) and more to do with the fact that I have to spend money in at least one independent record store every time I visit another big city, regardless of whether it's financially prudent or whether I really want any of the music available. You should have seen some of the shit I bought while I was in New York. Besides, these releases had recieved so much hype and adoration I'd been dying to hear them, and to see them on the shelf in front of me in a newly released CD double pack was an unexpected pleasure.

So... is Andy Stott any good? He's alright. Of the two EPs, Passed Me By is the more poststep/ambient and We Stay Together is a closer to a traditional dub techno thump. What sets Andy Stott apart from the billions of others doing these sounds right now is his remarkably unique sound design. The thick, dark, subterranean sound of everything in his music may not be particularly cheerful, but it's moody as hell and unlike just about everything else out there right now. This is very much dance music past the point of being danceable - this is a distant mutation of anything called techno or dubstep. Really, this is rhythmic ambient.

It's unfair to judge this is an album, because it's two EPs furnished with a couple of bonus tracks and sent out into the world. These are explorations of closely related ideas, and if Stott did release an album I'd hope he'd put a lot of thought into programming and structure that is obviously lacking a little when you play two EPs back to back. Of the two, my preference goes to We Stay Together, particularly the remarkably atmospheric and deep opener Submission. I can't honestly say this is some of my favourite music of 2011, but it's definitely amongst the most interesting.

Genre: Ambient/poststep/dub techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: Passed Me By - 7/10 ¦ We Stay Together - 8/10

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Urban Myth Club - Open Up

Urban Myth Club - Open Up
I can't remember where I got the listening recommendation for Urban Myth Club, but at some point it ended up on my Spotify playlists. According to their rather self-congratulatory bio, Urban Myth Club are well known enough to have been in the iTunes Top 30, although that's a fairly abstract achievement. Suffice to say I knew nothing about them before I pressed play on their new album, Open Up. What did I hear, you ask? A very listenable collection of downtempo breaks, dear reader, that's what!

Now "downtempo breaks" is a pretty vague description, but none of the alternatives are much more helpful. "Avalanches-lite" is perhaps the best I can think of: lots of sampled hooks, spoken vocals, nice and pleasant summery vibes... you know the drill. You've heard Since I Left You a million times, and probably quite a few of its imitators as well as you sat around waiting for a new Avalanches album, before eventually getting bored and giving up on the genre. This kind of stuff was massive shortly after the turn of the millenium. For a while, it seemed like the only guys in electronic music making any money were the likes of Lemonjelly, Royksopp and Blue States (was that last one a little too obscure for you?). Now all of those guys are pretty much forgotten, consigned to those second-hand bargain bins where all the music seems to have come from 2002, fighting for air alongside a thousand shitty hard house compilations and Craig David albums.

This is soundtrack music. Nokia-tronica. It's designed as background music for that fictitious hyperreal city where all the mobile phone adverts are shot, the ambiguously Euro-American one where all the streets are sunny and clean and suspiciously empty, and a small cast of young white middle class protagonists wander around while magical things happen to them as part of over-reaching visual metaphors for changing their phone tariff.

Anyway, what the fuck was I talking about? Oh yes. Urban Myth Club. As you should have discerned by now from the preceding nonsense, I'm not exactly sold on this sound. It's... lightweight. Pleasant, vaguely poppy, inoffensive. Most importantly, the formula has been rinsed to absolute death in the last ten years, and I've still to hear anyone do it better than the Avalanches. This album might sound nice on a summer's afternoon while you're chilling in the garden with friends, but I've got a billion and one albums that do that better. It may be very listenable, but it's also very average.

Genre: Sugar-free Since I Left You-step
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Monday, 20 February 2012

Review: 01-N - Zero

01-N - Zero

Psy trance is an incredibly inconsistent genre. Even with the reliable producers, for every good track you get two or three that are mediocre at best, and outright cheesy shit at worst. The psy scene as a whole is incredibly tolerant towards shit: shit tracks, shit DJs, shit programming of a night. I don't just mean aching mediocrity, like the trendy deep/tech haus scene, or the questionable taste of the brostep massif. I mean a scene where the punters are clearly on so many drugs their minds are somewhere outside their own face for most of any given night. Psy trance is the druggiest scene imaginable, and despite what Bill Hicks has told you, drugs have an inverse relationship with quality control. It's hard to be discerning when you're tripping balls, maaaan.

I mention all of this because I've been increasingly playing psy-trance as part of my DJing activities, and trawling for quality tracks is nigh-on impossible. It's hard enough in any genre these days, but I conservatively estimate there's around a 200:1 ratio of shit/mediocre/annoying tracks to every one genuinely good one in the psy scene. I only trawl on Beatport, where stuff you have to pay for is available, and paying for things goes against the hippy mentality of the psy scene, so Beatport only represents a small fraction of what's being made. There's a whole ocean of free psy-trance out there, most of it even worse than the stuff they charge for. Finding a producer who releases consistent quality in this genre is a rare epiphany, something to cling dearly to.

I found 01-N while trawling Beatport, and after 30 minutes of listening I had crated 14 of his tracks. I don't do that with anyone, let alone a psy-trance producer. This guy is good. What's more, he's consistently good. Okay, some of his tracks are a little bit clichéd, but psy trance is the most clichéd scene of them all. It endlessly regurgitates the same annoying sounds (you know exactly which ones), the same cheesy spoken samples about consciousness expansion and the exact same bassline in every fuckin' track. By the standards of the genre, 01-N is the least clichéd producer of all time.

His style is best described as "full on" psy trance, although this genre has a profusion of ridiculous sub-sub-genres, none of which I understand: forest trance, morning trance, twilight trance, psy-tekk, psy-dub, psy-chill, prog-psy, dark twilight progressive forest trance... Basically, all of his tracks are very, very fast and energetic: we're talking 145bpm as standard here, which is enough to make low-neck, sunglasses wearing nu disco kids burst into tears and hide behind a pillow. His music is also unusually melodic, with none of the dreary sledgehammer bassline assault of most high-energy psy. A lot of psy, particularly through a big club system, sounds more like pounding techno or hard dance than it does trance, but tracks like Transzendence are akin glowstick-flavoured Euro trance having a panic attack. Perhaps this is because 01-N is a Japanese producer, and the Japanese have always favoured ludicrous high-energy melodic music over dark and hard minimalism.

Zero is his second album, and is basically a highly fun collection of hugely energetic and upbeat party tunes. It seems that when you strip away the darkness and twisted drug mania from psy it's actually a huge amount of fun, and this album is a blast to listen to. It ends with a customary downtempo track, which all psy trance albums must include as part of an ancient blood rite, and Levitation is actually a really fucking good piece. I'd almost say it's the best thing on the album. Usually, obligatory downtempo tracks on dance albums suck hard, but for some reason they tend to be great on psy albums. Perhaps it's for the comedown from the masses of drugs they've all been taking.

All in all, this is not big and it's not clever, but it is loads of fun and very well made from start to finish. I enjoyed listening to this considerably more than the raft of drearily credible records I've chewed through in recent months, and look forward to stealing all of these tracks for various DJ sets.

Genre: Psy-trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Cosmithex - Visions Of Sound

Cosmithex - Visions Of Sound
I said a little while back, in my review of Magnus' album, that J00F Recordings basically only releases one specific sound. Well, clearly I was wrong. The label has been expanding its sound somewhat recently, and in Cosmithex they have something new and very awesome to add to the roster. Cosmithex makes balls to the wall, no-nonsense trance, like everyone else on the label, but his sound doesn't fit neatly into the dark prog-psy sound of J00F. There's a more old-school sensibility here, notably in the lashings of scorching acid lines, and also a tough, techy edge.

Whatever little sub-genre you want to shove it into, it doesn't really matter. Visions Of Sound is an absolute stone-cold motherfucker of an album. I've had it for about a week now and I can't stop playing it. Now, you may think of me as a complete hypocrite here, because this is basically an album of non-stop club bangers, the kind of album I've criticised others for making. I guess some clarity is needed here, because I've only criticised others for doing it badly. As I said in the Orkidea review:

If you're going to do an album of pure dancefloor cuts, that's fine. Just make sure you know how to make three or four different kinds of dancefloor cut.

Cosmithex, crucially, has a different kind of club cut for every track on this album. Every track has a different tempo and a different take on the same core sound - an impressive balancing act. There are throbbing tracks, all out bangers, more floaty, atmospheric tracks, deeper brooding cuts, heads down momentum builders and many more. It's hard to decide which tracks are highlights - I love Beyond Time, Alchemy, It's Only A Dream, Projection... ah hell, I love them all. What's very, very important here is that these tracks are all club cuts, but that doesn't mean any of them have boring percussive intro-outro sections that eat up valuable listening minutes, kill the momentum and have no business being on an album in the first place. All of these tracks have proper intros and don't labour over the outros either - one or two tracks simply fade out. All of this makes them quite hard to DJ with, as I've discovered when trying to mix them, but it means they're so much more interesting and work so much better in the album context.

I'm not going to blather on about this album too much, because the number that's about to follow should impress upon you just how impressed I am by it Only time will tell just how much I love it when the initial honeymoon phase has worn off, but for now this is just fucking ace in a way too few albums this year have been.

Genre: Trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Review: Machinedrum - Room(s)

Machinedrum - Room(s)
I had a day out in London recently, and managed to find time to pop my head into the trendiest of record stores - Rough Trade. I couldn't browse as much as I'd liked, because there was a live gig in progress at one end of the building, but I still managed to look over the electronica section. Despite its reputation, I was slightly disappointed to find Rough Trade doesn't really carry a wider selection than other trendy but slightly more provincial record stores I've been in - Manchester's excellent Piccadilly Records is just as good, for example. No matter how trendy, these places just cannot hope to match up to what the Internet has on offer. Physical record stores really are obsolete.

Still, while I was there I did manage to pick up a couple of suitably trendy items, one of which was the much-hyped Room(s) by Machinedrum. This album has been widely touted as one of the highlights of the post-step scene in 2011, so naturally a lot of shuffly pseudo-garage rhythms, bright videogame synths and fragmented vocal stabs are on offer. I didn't realise until after buying this that the guy behind Machinedrum is also one half of Sepalcure, whose album I reviewed a month or two back. I said of Sepalcure that it sounded disappointingly like a retread of what Joy Orbison was doing two years ago, and to an extent the same is true of Room(s).

For slightly intangible, probably bullshit reasons, I did enjoy Room(s) more than Sepalcure's album. For the first few tracks I had a sinking feeling of "Oh, more of this damn Hotflush bullshit. This is what I get for paying £15 for an album I haven't heard", but as the album went on I got more and more into it, no doubt helped by the listening context of a night-bus journey home. Just about everything that springs from garage and dubstep sounds better in an urban, preferably dark context. Machinedrum uses more vocal samples, chopping and arranging and weaving them together in a way that is much more pleasing than the ugly synth patches of guys like Spatial.

Sadly, I'm just not sold on this whole sound. The rhythmic side of it does nothing for me. I was never big into garage but these days I appreciate the rolling rhythms, which were eminently danceable. I couldn't dance to this album, though, no way. Maybe some people can, but it doesn't work for me, and this is music predominantly structured around the underlying rhythms. It is basically just samples arranged and looped over a rhythm. There's rarely much in the way of structure - tracks simply add more layers as they go on, and the loops are more like riffs than expansive melodies. If you're not hooked on the rhythms, you're not going to be hooked on the whole package.

Also, one thing that I've realised from this little trip is that listening to music for free on Spotify devalues it a little bit. The acid test used to be "Would I pay to own this album?" Really, if you wouldn't pay for an album, it isn't worth talking about. If I'd known what Room(s) sounded like before purchasing, instead of going on the word of a bunch of people with different tastes to me, I wouldn't have forked out £15 for it.

Genre: Post-step
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review: Consequence - Test Dream

Consequence - Test Dream
In my opinion, the miniature revolution that occurred in drum 'n bass after the dubstep explosion has been more interesting than the post-dubstep sound itself. In a way, minimal d'n'b (or Autonomic) is part of post-dubstep as a movement, if not as a genre, because this stuff probably wouldn't have existed without dubstep. Granted, drum 'n bass has been steadily paring down the percussion right from the start, but most of this stuff is so minimal that you'd struggle to find any relation to drum 'n bass whatsoever if you didn't know the BPM count. And really - what is drum 'n bass if it isn't double-time breakbeats? We've already heard every possible musical fusion in the genre, from ragga to jazz to techno to funk to trance to ambient to stadium rock... Drum 'n bass is such an open genre, the rhythm was the one thing we had to hang on to. Now that's gone, we're left with two possibilities: either drum 'n bass is an infinite genre, or Autonomic isn't drum 'n bass at all. It just came out of that melting pot.

I mention all of this, instead of getting to the fuckin' point and reviewing the new Consequence album, because Consequence is a big part of this movement and Test Dream goes a long way towards summing it up. He releases on dBridge's label Exit, and dBridge helped invent the Autonomic movement. So what is Autonomic? Rhythmically, it's like the emaciated corpse of drum 'n bass, half-step rhythms halved and halved again. Melodically it tends towards experimentation, with a general trend towards bright, retro-sounding synths playing out repetitive motifs and elements of techno and ambient cropping up everywhere. When confronted by it, old-timers love to shake their heads and say "If this came out ten years ago, we'd just call it IDM." But then, they say that about just about everything these days, because old timers don't like to admit anything new has happened since they last took MDMA.

This is a bit of a patchy album. Most of those patches are interesting, even pretty good, but a few are extremely annoying or unsuccessful. Take Lovershell which simply repeats a hookless retro-future melody endlessly over a broken beat. It stops near the end then starts up for another minute. Nothing really changes, nothing really happens. It's boring, it's a sketch of an idea that somehow was deemed to be worth six minutes of listening time. Then there's Magda Trench, which is little more than a bunch of faux-atmospheric sound effects that come and go over a heartbeat rhythm. For a little spell in the middle of the album, Test Dream sounds like a poor imitation of everything that's uninterestingly trendy in electronic music - directionless, creatively malnourished "experimentation", irritating retro-future sonic textures that deliberately evoke some non-existent '80s-nostalgia Neuromancer vision of 8-bit cyberspace, and quirky, undanceable rhythms.

Luckily, there's enough here that stands out to keep Test Dream from being a waste of money (Oh yes - I paid to hear this bastard. It doesn't get more retro than that!), most of them clustered near the beginning and end. Re-Occurring is a lovely piece of sparkling ambient, Oden is a gorgeous piece of almost-conventional melodic digitised drum 'n bass, and the closing trio of tracks are an effective spin on moody, urban post-step. On balance, there's more good than bad here, so Test Dream warrants a listen, even though it's a pretty uneven listening experience not always a successful one. This is one of those albums where you would grab your favourites and add them to a larger playlist/mix, rather than play the whole thing.

Genre: Autonomic/minimal drum 'n bass/
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes

Egyptrixx Bible Eyes
A little while ago, I was lurking a dubstep forum when I happened across an "Albums Of The Year" thread. A couple of guys on there were moaning that there hadn't really been many great albums from 2011, and someone else dismissed this notion and posted a big list of albums. Thus far, everything I've heard from that list has been irritating and gimmicky.

One of the albums on the list was Egyptrixx - Bible Eyes. And guess what? This album annoys the hell out of me. It follows a pretty basic formula, alternating between tracks of pseudo-melodic post-step awash with detuned synths, and longer tracks of 4/4 house defined by incredibly annoying tuneless "hooks" that loop out forever. He is one of those producers that has managed to somehow induct himself in the blogosphere hype circle, so this album duly got reviews from all the major outlets, most of them dutifully replying with middling-to-good verdicts before mostly forgetting about this album before the end of the year. This is basically an album of straight-up club tracks that loop and add and subtract in very standard and wholly uninteresting ways, except that the constituant parts are designed in a slightly unusual manner.

I really can't be bothered to spend too long thinking about this album. I don't like it, I don't think it's very interesting and I have little that is witty or insightful to add. Thinking of interesting ways to describe such dull music is what burned me out on being a music journalist in the first place, and now I'm not even in their fucking army anymore, I'm off to listen to something more interesting. Now get off my porch.

Genre: House/post-step
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Review: Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting

Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting
Here's another rare example of me reviewing something relatively popular. Even if Jamie Woon is far from a household name, Night Air was a pretty big hit in 2010 and I've even heard Lady Luck from Mirrorwriting played on the piped-in music at work from time to time. In fact, when I heard it I had that "Oh shit, it's this massive pop track!" sensation. This is also in part because Jamie Woon is a way poppier artist than I'd usually listen to. I don't mean that in the sense of being popular - I listen to guys like The Prodigy who've sold countless millions of records, but in that his music is essentially singer-songwriter pop music with verses, choruses, big hooks and pop polyphonies.

What makes this album interesting is the quality of the production work. This may be essentially a soul/r&b/pop fusion album, but some of the production is absolutely lovely. Will Bevan (AKA Burial. Duh.) crops up on co-production duty for the first three tracks, and since I already spent the entire Desolate review gushing over Burial's production you should know that means this is some hot shit. Even the non-Burial tracks are beautifully produced, with a clean and understated sound that's still awash with lovely little details, and just enough nods to dance music to win over the reference-hungry club heads - the occasional vintage breakbeat loop or reverbed dub snare. There's also the brief ambient-ish interlude of Secondbreath, which is a little admission that "Yeah, we're fucking awesome producers. Let's just show that off for 45 seconds of instrumental prettiness."

Most of all, though, this album has solid gold pop hooks. Night Air is an obvious one - even after the first time I heard this track, I could sing along to it, while Lady Luck provoked the aforementioned "This track is massive, isn't it?" response, slotting in easily alongside mass-produced manipulative pop on the radio. But even non-single tracks like Shoulda and Middle are infectious ear-worms. Woon has also got a fantastic, distinctive voice that drapes all over the instrumental backing and has an ocean of smokey atmospherics all by itself.

Like most pop albums, it goes top heavy with the chart smashes and trails off into slightly less memorable material late on. But even then, the production here is opulent enough to keep things interesting, and because this is a 12 track pop album it's a pretty breezy listen, not taking up 80 minutes of you life like these insufferable bloated prog web albums. Yeah, I may listen to a lot of weird shit, but that doesn't actually mean I don't like pop music. When it's done well, pop music hits the spot harder than almost any other type of music. I like a small minority of pop songs - usually enormous classics from the 1970s or whenever, but when I do like a pop song I tend to play it to absolute death. Mirrorwriting is (for the first half, at least) an example of pop music done well, that rarest and most satisfying of things.

Genre: R&B/pop
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Vladislav Delay - Vantaa

Vladislav Delay Vantaa
Like most of you who actually recognise the name, I know Vladislav Delay (real name Sasu Ripatti) mainly for his work as Luomo, particularly his brilliant and hugely influential 2000 album Vocalcity, which totally reinvented the sonic textures of house music and still sounds remarkably fresh over a decade later. Since then he's become a fixture of the experimental electronic world, albeit the kind of fixture I don't really bother following at all. Vantaa is his tenth album under this alias, and since I haven't heard any of the previous nine I am totally unqualified to discuss this record in any kind of proper context with respect to his previous output. I've no idea if this is a totally new direction for the project or if it's a tired, staid retread.

What I can say is that Vantaa manages the impressive feat of sounding like just about nothing else I've ever heard. Reviewers are calling this "electronic dub" but it has no resemblence to King Tubby, The Orb or even Moritz Van Oswald, with whom Ripatti occasionally collaborates. I appreciate that dub is as much about an approach and a methodology, about the use of delay, sonic spatialism and studio reshaping, as it is about thick basslines and swaggering spliff beats. Still, this is totally out there for me, and I've heard most flavours of electronic weirdness, dubbed up or otherwise. You can sort-of hear the heavy, rhythmically assembled electronic textures that informed his micro-house work as Luomo, but here they've been cut loose and abstracted out so "rhythmic textures" is pretty much the only description for what's going on here. I've mentioned the word "abstract" a few times on this blog, but this really does seem like music at its most abstract. Synths are simulacra - they have become a set of instruments unto their own. Usually you can pick out stuff like "pads", "keyboards" and "acid lines" that may be totally synthesised, but still form a common sonic discourse, a set of sounds and techniques common to the field. Very little electronic music has really divorced itself from the basic building blocks of traditional music. Vantaa doesn't contain any of these reference points. Even the beats are so blurred out and occasional that they barely qualify as percussion at all, sounding like just another carefully arranged noise in the overall mix.

Anyway, long-term Vladislav Delay fans are probably scoffing at this naive future-shock, because they've heard this whole thing nine times before. For me, this is quite a rarity - getting taken back to those days early on in your music-loving life where you hear something so different to what you're used to that you really can't respond to it much more than thinking "This is weird". It's a feeling most consistently achieved by Autechre, but I know Autechre by now so I'm braced for impact when I go into one of their albums (and besides, their last album sounded a lot more like their borderline-accessible early '90s output). I want to say I liked this album, but I'm not sure if I did. For the first time in years, I've encountered a boundary to what I can comfortably listen to and process.

Genre: Abstract electronic dub
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: ???

Review: Exoplanet - Nothing Divides Us Here

Exoplanet Nothing Divides Us Here
I'm not entirely sure why I listened to Nothing Divides Us Here, because I knew in advance what Exoplanet does, and I knew I don't really get a kick out of it. Exoplanet releases on web label Proton and its sub-lable Particles, which tends to put out a lot of glitchy, melodic and not-very-danceable progressive stuff you never hear in clubs, because most of it isn't very danceable. It's like a sound without a scene. Exoplanet basically does a particularly atmospheric and dark take on that sound - a lot of tracks here are essentially just rhythmic ambient pieces, totally unsuitable for the dancefloor.

On the face of it, that sounds like exactly the kind of stuff I'd enjoy, but his music easily becomes wallpaper fare, lacking strong melodic or rhythmic cores and stagnant and unchanging in mood. I don't particularly like using the word "sterile" when critiquing electronic music, because this is all inhuman bleep-bloop computer shit and so it's pretty much sterile by default. Calling it sterile is almost as bad as calling it "soulless". However, there's just something about Exoplanet's sound that is really dry - it doesn't move me, doesn't seem to try very hard to excite or unsettle or do anything. It's atmospheric, but it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which atmosphere is being evoked.

I must admit, though, I did enjoy the album a bit more than I expected to. It certainly didn't blow me away, but it was decent enough mood music late at night. But really though, I don't see where this music fits. It insists on using dancefloor rhythms and templates even though it'd be utterly useless on a dancefloor, and yet these hinder its capacity to be genuine ambient music. There's plenty of great atmospheric dance music out there, but this is average at both aspects. Also, the track titles are fucking annoying pretentious faux-intellectual nonsense like "Even Impermenance Is Transient". What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Either it's a complete tautology or it's an outright oxymoron, and it's masquerading as some sort of philosophical epiphany, meant to add weight to the noodly non-prog it's attached to. It pretty much sums up this reasonable but ultimately forgettable album: It's Not As Deep As It Thinks It Is.

Genre: Progressive Nothing
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Martyn - Ghost People

Martyn Ghost People
Dutch producer Martyn has been around for a while, once upon a time producing drum 'n bass, but in the last couple of years he's built up a lot of trendy momentum, notably being given the gig to mix Fabric's prestigious 50th compilation in 2010. On new album Ghost People he's made the move to the trendiest of uber-trendy American bleepy-weirdness labels - FlyLo's excellent Brainfeeder imprint (Ooh - listen to me casually throwing around music journo terms like "imprint". I mean "record label"). Martyn's vaguely experimental post-dubstep skippety beats fit surprisingly well into the Brainfeeder sound, which is probably best defined as "glitch hop" - the result of a bunch of West Coast kids raised on Wu Tang records who've discovered psychedelics and Warp Records and promptly ran riot with their samplers and synths.

This album's been pretty well received, and pretty popular too - I even heard a track from it crop up on a Friday night in some self-styled classy bar in the city, which is not the kind of place you expect to hear bleepy electronic music. Personally, I think this is a very solid album with a few great moments, mostly book-ending the unspectacular mid-section. Little surprise, given the latent glowstick-love lurking just behind my eyes, my favourite tracks are the ones drenched in melodic trancey arpeggios. Notable candidates for Track Of The Album: the Spaceape-aided opener Love And Machines, which is really way too good to be a little intro thing, and the closing wig-out of We Are You In The Future. The trouble is that I've literally just finished listening to this album, and I really can't remember much about any of the tracks between those two. There's a vague impression of post-dubstep/future garage wonky beats and bleepy-bloopy videogame synths, the kind of shit which is ten-a-penny these days, as well as the odd funkless house kick he seemed to love using on his Fabric mix, but solid concepts of tracks and ideas have mostly departed. I can remember the vocal on Distortions, and a vague impression that the track felt woozy, but that's really about it.

I imagine a lot of Martyn fans will be frothing at the mouth right now, because they know this record inside out and can't believe I don't remember all those little details they love so much. Sorry guys. I'm not that much of a Martyn fan - his Fabric compilation didn't do much for me. I don't really connect with the musical traits he puts emphasis on, or something. It's probably telling that the tracks I do like and do remember are the ones that come over to my tastes more. I think if Martyn had integrated those arpeggios and clear hooky melodies into the body of the album a little more, I'd have loved it. Instead I'm left clawing for memories of an album that by-and-large passed by as background music. If a moment on a record really pushes your buttons, you remember that little spark. Most of this music didn't spark with me, so no matter how artistically accomplished it may be, it didn't impress itself upon me. I'll give it a 7/10 because I think I am being unfair here, and I can imagine this is one that improves with multiple listens, but right now I can't really say I enjoyed a record that I've mostly forgotten within 15 minutes.

Genre: Post-dubstep
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Friday, 3 February 2012

Review: Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker - Ravedeath
What got me interested in Tim Hecker's album Ravedeath, 1972 (aside from the huge amount of critical praise, natch) was the title. What on Earth does "Ravedeath, 1972" mean? This is an album that sounds neither ravey nor anything like 1972, so the mystery must go on. It does sound quite a lot like death, though. Indeed, it's pretty easy to pick up on a theme of mortality,transience and general negativity from the track titles and cover art. Perhaps these prescriptive trappings are the reason why the music brings to mind the likes of William Basinski and Richard Skelton - a sort of droney, ambient neo-classical fusion with lots of live instruments processed and treated to the very edge of recognition and certainly beyond any notion of traditional live ensemble performance. Basinski notably found a lot of crumbling old tapes of his early loops and in the process of transcribing them, captured the audible process of the tapes literally falling apart - hence The Disintegration Loops. Skelton takes the opposite approach - he leaves his instruments out in the elements of the northern English countryside until the wooden instruments became warped and knackered to the point the sounds they produce are as rustic as the stone wall he stashed them in over winter.

I don't know too much about Hecker's processes, except that most of this album comes from recordings made in a single day with a church organ in a hall in Iceland. (I'm still wondering what an album based on a church organ recording session has to do with raves or 1972). But the overall sound isn't a million miles away from Basinski or Skelton, and certainly the overall mood brings to mind that classic Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi - the beauty found in the melancholy of transience, expressed through small, time-worn imperfections. There are a few moments creeping through the album where you can hear the reverberations of the physical recording space, or on Analog Paralysis where the guitar fret board squeaks - an old trick beloved of acoustic musicians who want to emphasise just how raw and live their recordings are. It doesn't feel annoyingly twee here though, simply because most of the time the music is blurred and processed way beyond the realms of smug rootsiness. Instead these imperfections strengthen the overall mood and effect of the record.

This is a great album. You already knew that. Some clown writing on one isolated blog isn't going to drown out the collective roar of critical approval. Everyone has reviewed this and scored it highly - Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, Drowned In Sound, The Quietus, RA... all of those blogs and publications you do a weekly trawl through to see what music you should be paying attention. I should at least throw my voice in, however, and say that this is one of those occasions where the blogosphere has got it right. This is a really great album. If you haven't at least heard of it by now, you're probably not into that kind of music anyway and so you probably won't feel it. If you are on the same wavelength, you've probably already heard it. And you probably love it. You should do, at least. This is an album that pisses all over that pleasant laptop-nothing-drone I've been chewing through, it's an ambient record that's unsettling and moving and distinctive in method and result (although it's unfair to simplify this to mere "ambient"). Too much modern ambient is nothing more than abstracted "chill out", which is as limited and functional as "dance music". The best ambient records do way more than simply evoke bland pleasantness or softness or relaxation, they create powerful moods that move you and engross you. Ravedeath is the best ambient+ album I've heard from 2011 so far.

Genre: Ambient/neo-classical/drone
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Review: Kay-D - Sapphire

Kay-D - Sapphire
Kay-D is another one of the Mistiquemusic mainstays, and Sapphire is another Mistique prog album. Like Bvdub before him, Kay-D featured on my 2010 list with an album not awfully dissimilar to this one, and like Bvdub I was expecting a case of diminishing returns. I was also expecting another one of those "web label dance albums" I've been talking about - see also the reviews of Arctic Night, Magnus and Scenic & Advisory.

To an extent, Sapphire is totally one of those albums. His previous albums were too. And yet, I actually begrudgingly do really like this album, even if it is way too fucking long and doesn't really have any structure or purposeful order to the tracks. They're just really good tracks for the most part, in quite a varied way. His early stuff on Mistique was basically straight-up progressive trance at the new prog tempo of 128bpm (instead of 132bpm ten years ago), albeit extremely good and a bit of a throwback. Since then he seems to have slowed down even more (a few tracks are closer to 125) and cut out a lot of the driving hi-hat momentum in favour of a really chugging, bassy sound. Some of the basslines on this album are absolutely massive. Enormous. This is real early-in-the-night dance music, almost throbbing ambient music, definitely not the kind of stuff you can just speed up to 133 and rewind back to 2002 when Sasha was last genuinely good. I don't know if I'd actually dance to this in a club, but I'd certainly be glad to sit/stand hearing it if I'd actually turned up before midnight for once.

So there is evolution of sound here, and more importantly there are enough top quality bassy prog groovers to keep you coming back after the first listen. A couple of the tracks make for appropriately evolving super-long journey tracks,most notably Tonight with its processed female vocal, and the never-ending Internal Voice which starts off breakbeat and morphs into 4/4 halfway through. My favourite tracks, however, are slightly more concise. There's the brilliantly named Vagrant Positron, with an operatic vocal sample that reminds me of Spirits Dancing by Coyote enough to get nostalgically positive. It also has a ridiculously supermassive bassline, the kind that makes your neighbours file court actions against you. Then there's Twisted Synergy with what sounds for all the world like an acid line from a slamming techno warehouse monster transposed to a prog track and slowed right down to 125bpm. Very unusual, but oddly brilliant.

So although this album commits a lot of sins I would class as elementary and unforgivable to most other artists, Kay-D gets away with it because he keeps on delivering the goods. Yeah, it gets a little boring to listen to such a long album that's all bass-y slow-mo prog, but you just can't keep tunes this good down. It's basically a straight fight between this one and Michael & Levan's album for Prog Long Player Of The Year, unless Guy J turns out to have played a blinder.

Genre: Progressive
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Bvdub - I Remember

Bvdub - I Remember
Bvdub is prolific. That's the first thing you can say about this guy. He released something like 10 albums in 2011, which is absolutely ridiculous, and this is the only one of them available on Spotify. That's probably just as well, because Bvdub perfectly exemplifies my oft-stated theory that pleasant droney laptop ambient is seriously easy music to make. I haven't heard his other albums, but this one doesn't sound too different to last year's The Art Of Dying Alone, the only other Bvdub album I've heard. In fact, with one notable exception, it sounds almost identical. Now, he's obviously had a vast splurge of other music out this year so it's impossible for me to definitively state things about his overall sound and technique, but everything I've read online says these other albums are all pretty similar too.

I Remember is a lot of ultra-long, ultra-repetitive, loopy and droney pleasant laptop ambient. Sound familiar? Bvdub's one speciality seems to be in notably angelic, ethereal, transcendental sounds - he loves densely layered choral samples and other angelic light sounds, even though the overall mood of both the albums I've heard are extremely sombre. The Art Of Dying Alone was, obviously, an album about death, which explained the eerie transcendental sound and melancholic mood. I Remember isn't obviously themed around anything, but the musical content is pretty much the same, and the track titles are all pretty downbeat. Most of his albums appear to be pretty miserable, looking at Discogs. Brock Van Wey is clearly a bit of an emotional bastard, it seems. Cheer up man! Then maybe you'll stop remaking the same bloody record.

The one track that stands out from all this achingly beautiful but overall very samey sadness is We Promised, simply because halfway through you start to notice a distant techno throb behind all the choral tears-of-angels shit. Bvdub does also do a lot of dub techno (hence his name) and this track is the one thing I've heard from him so far that fuses his ambient and techno sounds together in this way. He's probably done this loads of times on other albums, because the idea appears here almost at random - halfway through the second track and never again on the album. Still, it impressed me because it's such an obvious fusion and yet it still works really well.

So yeah... yet another pleasant ambient album that probably isn't getting into the end of year list. Last year I put The Art Of Dying Alone in, because I was still fairly new to the world of blogbient, but you can't repeat the same trick and just throw a dub techno beat in at one point and expect me not to get a bit weary of the formula. The best stuff this guy has made is still his collaborative EP with ASC from this year, which was absolutely awesome.

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Zomby - Dedication

Zomby - Dedication
Dedication is only Zomby's second proper album, which is a real surprise given the last one came out three or four years ago. Zomby is certainly not an artist who struggles for inspiration, the bastard. The Internet is awash with clips of stuff he has made and semi-shared. The guy infamously writes and then doesn't release billions of tunes. He claims to compose all the time, often merely on his laptop speakers while composing. A lot of the producers I know find it absolutely impossible to put anything together on anything but their studio monitors, fretting over bass clarity and mixdowns. Zomby doesn't give a fuck about that stuff. He'll throw something together on his laptop on a plane and polish it up later, the raw ideas being the important thing.

One listen to Dedication and you can figure out why. The longest track is 4 minutes, quite a few are less than one minute long. This isn't a guy who likes to develop his ideas too much. This is really a series of unfinished sketches. The whole album ends remarkably jarringly, almost as though he hacked the end off the waveform deliberately just to emphasise the point. The listening experience feels deliberately fragmented, as though fragmentation and dislocation are the intended effects of the record. Which is... interesting, certainly quite an arty approach, but is that merely a generous wrapping over a rather half-arsed present?

There's a wealth of ideas here - a lot of ambient chiptune things, some post-dubstep influenced things, even a (probably sampled) jazzy track at one point. But these are extremely undernourished ideas. The album gets away with sounding interesting because it's probably only got as many ideas as most albums fit into the opening five songs, and this way there's no requirement to make any of his doodles complementary. And so you listen to this oddly interesting album, tickled or intrigued by brief suggestions of brilliant ideas that go away as quickly as you've noticed them, and you get an overall sense of incohesion, of flittering ADHD. And at the end of it, with that ridiculously abrupt stop, I'm left thinking "Man, I'm glad I don't have ADHD."

Genre: Um...
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

(Serious) Review: John 00 Fleming - The 10th Life

John 00 Fleming Tenth Life

(NOTE: I don't usually do single/EP reviews on this blog, although I guess there's no reason why I shouldn't. I haven't written a "professional" review for quite a while and this is basically my version of a serious, functional piece of dance music writing, the kind of thing you churn out week in and week out when you do this sort of thing properly. I wrote this for demonstrative purposes, but I figured I may as well throw it up here as well.)

John 00 Fleming’s first new release since the decidedly mixed bag that was his debut album 9 Lives is a self-declared return to the dancefloor. The 10th Life is a sweeping prime time progressive trancer with a swirling ambient intro, driving riffs and a tight, terse breakdown that gives you just enough time to peer over the precipice before kicking back in in banging fashion. Clocking in at a versatile 133bpm, this track is equally at home at the business end of a progressive set or early on in a full blown trance work-out, depending on which direction you slide the pitch. On the virtual flip-side, The Astrophysical Nebula does exactly what it says on the tin: a spaced out slice of lower-tempo progressive breaks primed for opening sets and adventures beyond the outer rim. The punchy percussion and gleaming synth timbres bring to mind classic Planisphere breakbeat cuts like Spectrazoids and Cubed - no surprise then that Airwave is present here on co-production duties.

There was occasionally a sense on his album that J00F was straining a little too hard to adapt his sound to a home-listening context, resulting in some ill-advised vocal tracks that brought to mind the inevitable "grown-up" moments on dance LPs circa 2001. Here he returns squarely to his native environment of the dancefloor, and yet both of these tunes are hemmed with gorgeous atmospherics and deft production touches that make them just as absorbing to hear at home as under the strobes at your local superclub. This is one of John's finest releases to date and compelling evidence that you can aim squarely for the dancefloor and still hit headphone gold.

Review: Solar Fields - Until We Meet The Sky

Also Known As: "Solar Fields goes a bit shoegaze". I suppose it had to happen eventually - the poster boy of Ultimae Records has explored just about every direction of psychedelic ambient in a highly prolific career over the last decade, even taking time out to make a brilliant trance album with 2007's Earth Shine. Sadly, Until We Meet The Sky just sounds a little conventional to me, perhaps because I've had to plough through an awful lot of this stuff recently. Even the name - Until We Meet The Sky - sounds quite generic in a shoegazey, post-rocky ambient way. The collective, inclusive plural, the obligatory mention of sky/landscapes and the present tense all combine to evoke those standard shoegaze values of vastness, humanity and vague hopefulness. To pick another such album from one of my Spotify playlists, compare it with Iambic's last album Under These Stars We'll Sleep Again. See what I mean?

Now, you didn't come here to read a very flimsy stylistic analysis of album titles, but what I'm trying to point out is that this feels like a pretty unimaginative album from Solar Fields. Like I said - he's done just about everything else so far, but hopefully this is just an experiment because I would prefer more development of his grand, spacious, "panoramic" sound rather than a lot of tracks consisting of maudlin piano noodlings and crackly timbres.

With that said, this guy is still a master and even if the building blocks of this album are over-familiar, he pieces together a pretty damn good structure, working up from a low-key opening up to some real journey tracks such as Last Step In Vacuum and a suitably grand finale in the self-explanatory Epilogue. This is definitely a cut above the host of similar albums I've heard like this recently, but at the same time it feels lazy and forgiving simply to slap another 8/10 onto it. I don't actually think this is as good as the other Ultimae albums from this year, and coming from Solar Fields it's disappointing, which inevitably leads to slightly unfair estimations. Structuralism, and all that. Also, he does suffer a little bit from Ulrich Schnauss syndrome here, whereby the music comes a little too overblown and melodramatic in places. That has always been lurking in the background of Solar Fields' music, but usually it's constrained and the grandness is more sonic and spatial, whereas there are a couple of moments here where he cuts loose emotionally.

So yeah... if you really love Ulrich Schnauss, Lowercase Noises and all that lot and can't get enough of that sound, this is the album for you. Also, if you're just getting into that sound, the clichés won't bother you because you're still in the honeymoon phase where everything is fresh and new and exciting. It ain't exactly my thing, though, good as it is.

Genre: Shoegaze/ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10