Saturday, 26 May 2012

Review: Solar Fields - Random Friday

I've been delaying my review of the new Solar Fields album for a little while now. Generally when I review something on this blog, it's immediately after (or sometimes during) my first listen, and that's because generally these days I'm not a listeners who likes to play things over and over, especially albums I really like. When I was younger I used to find my opinion of albums would change radically after more and more listens, and the only reason I kept listening to them so much is because I only owned 30 or 40 CDs. These days, with a more keenly developed ear, I can usually listen to an album once and get a pretty stable impression of it that holds true on repeat listens. There are still a few albums out there that are very much "growers", but the main difference is I can now consciously identify when a record might take multiple listens to really sink in.

Random Friday is one of those albums. Not because it's particularly complex or esoteric, but because it's such a vibrant and cohesive listening experience it doesn't feel entirely fair to play it simply on your laptop while surfing the web or reading. This is an album you want to take places and imprint with distinctive moments. Really, this is a summertime album, one that will be on repeat for warmest parts of 2012 and one that I can already tell is going to be a personal classic, one to reach for on those all-too-infrequent British days when the skies are blue and the sun is hot.

There's just something about summer that is richer than any other season. That's not to say I don't love the other seasons - autumn and winter have their own powerful atmospheres and accompanying playlists of albums that should only be played on a frosty morning or in an orange-brown tinted autumnal forest. But the unseasonable seasonableness of the last few days have reminded me that summer is a sensory assault the other seasons just can't match. In winter the numbing cold tends to drown out everything else, whereas in summer there is a symphony of blooms and smells, sounds and wildlife, vivid colours and an intense, life-affirming warmth about everything. Winter music benefits from being more minimal and stripped back, summery music should pile on the auditory explosives.

Solar Fields, less-better-known as Swedish music man Magnus Birgersson, is an artist who is clearly in touch with seasons and nature. He is the centrepiece of Ultimae Records, a label that specialise in a particular brand of ambient, which is often linked to psy-chill but is better defined as "panoramic ambient". They frequently release season-themed mix compilations and all their album artwork is dominated by images of nature and the outdoors. Solar Fields is a specialist in just that breed of ambient, but he's a versatile artist, dipping into shoegaze on his last album, but also occasionally making album forays into trance. Not just any trance either, but some of the best and most distinctive trance being made by anyone in the last ten years. As you'd expect from an ambient producer, it's trance music with almost unparalleled atmospherics and expansive sound design to complement the driving beats.

His last album to do this, 2007's Earth Shine, is regarded as something of a treasure amongst the serious-thinking trance community, so news that he was returning to "upbeat" material was greeted with some clamour. The result is Random Friday, an album that deserves to stand alone from Earth Shine, and is in many ways even better.

First, some necessarily genre quibbling. While Magnus makes music that can't neatly be pigeonholed, in general terms Earth Shine was closest to being morning trance: the kind of melodic, mellow material generally played at the end of all-night psy parties as the sun is coming up and everyone is feeling blissed out. The tracks were very fast, mostly hovering around the psy-standard tempo of 145bpm, and unusually for a Solar Fields album didn't segue into each other, standing alone as eight DJ-friendly cuts. Random Friday is perhaps more of a progressive psy-trance album. It's slower, chunkier and throbbing with low-end warmth. While comparisons are inevitably made between this album and Earth Shine, in terms of style it's perhaps more instructive to think back to previous up-tempo Solar Fields tracks such as Infection 268-7 (although that kind of referencing is probably utterly pointless in a review like this, because anyone that intimate with the man's discography has almost certainly already bought and repeatedly played this album, and is impatiently waiting for the part where I reconfirm their own impressions).

It's also more of a traditional Solar Fields album as it's a continuous journey, the danceable tracks seguing elegantly into one smooth journey, all of which is book-ended by mood-setting ambient pieces at the start and finish. As individually brilliant as the tracks on Earth Shine were, the second half of the album disintegrates into a succession of ultra-long tracks that don't really flow together. Here it's the opposite: there is perhaps no track on Random Friday quite as stand-out brilliant as Summer, Black Arrow or Brainbow, but the album as a unit works far better. This is not to say any of these tracks are bad - indeed most of them are quite magnificent, particularly the sprawling mid-album epic Daydream and the propulsive Cobalt 2.5, which updates the HUVA Network track from 2009 in fine style. The first three tracks unfold in grand style, leading into high-altitude cruise of the album's mid-section. The appropriately named Landing Party slows things down into with an expansive intro that cleverly samples elements from Summer, before unfolding into a polyrhythmic layering of triplets and 4/4 pulses that leads into the high-tempo finale of the album. It all reaches a climax with Perception, a ten minute opus with shades of Underworld's Rez, a suitably draining festival-closer where you can almost feel the first rays of morning sun dancing across sweat-slicked skin.

After listening to Random Friday a few times and letting the thoughts rattle around my head, I've had a realisation: this might actually be my favourite Solar Fields album yet. It contains the widescreen structure and vivid detail of his best ambient works, but also the irrepressible sparkle of his uptempo works. I just wish Summer cropped up somewhere on this tracklisting, because it would work so well on this album, and remains the finest Solar Fields track by a nose. If that wish were granted, this might be an all-time favourite, and if I mint some memories to go with it, it might still be. For now, it will have to settle for being the best album I've heard in 2012 thus far. Although there are so many crackers in the pipeline, it faces a fight for the title.

Genre: Panoramic trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Pole - 1 2 3

Pole 1 2 3
After giving Upwellings a bit of a kicking for being a pleasant but utterly redundant re-run through dub techno stereotypes, I figured I may as well give some coverage to one of the pioneers of dub techno, and who better than Pole? If, that is, you want to beg the question about whether there's any "techno" in Pole's music at all. Pole took the dub techno of Basic Channel and co even further into the realms of ambient electronica by almost completely deleting any reference to the dancefloor. He also has a good claim at being one of the pioneers of the glitch aesthetic in comtemporary electronic music, augmenting his minimalist sonic environments with trademarks hisses and crackles.

As so often in the history of electronic music this, innovation and advancement is intrinsically linked with a technological fuck-up. The legend goes that back in 1996, Stefan Betke (the name on Pole's passport) accidentally dropped a piece of studio gear called a Waldorf 4-Pole filter. The filter was damaged but still worked, and if anything became far more interesting in its malfunctioning state, as it started to add a distinctive glitchy crackling sound to the music it was used on. This glitchy sound worked perfectly with the detail-rich, textural nature of dub techno and was explored by Pole in a trilogy of simply titled albums - 1, 2 and 3, released at the end of the '90s and collated a decade later into this box set.

Listening back now, the early material of Pole is both fascinating for just how influential it sounds, and also faintly dated because of how frequently it has been imitated. While I won't deny the attention to detail and micro-arrangement of processed samples, clicks and pops and the deepest of basslines, the sound and concept of this album are still extremely minimalist and have gone on to crop up in thousands of subsequent records. This is most definitely music for those who like to play extremely close attention, because there isn't a broad brush-stroke to be found. To a listener who does like to zoom right in on the tiniest details, Pole's music is undoubtedly an incredibly rewarding listening experience. To those who would rather hear glitch integrated into larger-scale compositions and don't find it individually interesting to warrant a three album exploration, this trilogy will probably grow tiresome quite quickly.

Whether you buy into Pole or not, something that is undeniable is that there is much more love and attention put into this music than the third-generation imitations from labels like ZeECe, even though the music is over a decade older. Pole simply sounds next-level compared to the imitators, even on the most foundational material here. While these three albums undeniably sound pretty fucking similar, the complexity of the music also increases with each one, as Betke grew increasingly adept in the studio. It's possible to queue up all three albums and embark on an epic three hour voyage into some extended glitch symphony that evolves with almost microscopic detail over time. Although if you can hold your attention span over that length of time without the aid of drugs, you should really be putting your talents to the aid of the air traffic control profession, or something.

Genre: Dub-glitch-disco. 
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Upwellings - Crackles

Upwellings Crackles
It wouldn't be entirely fair to say dub techno is a redundant genre, but it certainly sometimes feels that way. After you've topped up your history by familiarising yourself with the output of Basic Channel and their eponymous label (and subsequent sub-label Chain Reaction), you can pretty much subsist on the modern releases of the Echospace label and their small roster of artists (most of whom are aliases of Rod Modell, it seems), occasionally dipping into some Yagya if you get bored. Dub techno is about as minimal and narrow as sub-genres get. While its exponents will suck on their jazz cigarettes and talk vaguely about "spatial dynamics" and "reshaping", this style of techno is, in practical terms, differentiated from minimal techno almost entirely by its use of muted dub bass and those signature "deep chord" stabs that will be instantly recognisable once you've heard a few dub techno releases.

With this in mind, it's quite remarkable that such an essentially limited style has garnered such a fanatical cult of listeners, and indeed why it does exist on more than about three labels in total. However, when done well (which increasingly means: "when done by Echospace") this is one of the deepest and most immersive sounds in music, pure headphone material that can completely envelope the listener in ultra-textured sound design. Echospace in particular pay a ridiculous amount of attention to timbre, sampling extensively and obsessively from field recordings to find the perfect textures for their tracks and then endlessly tweaking those samples until they've created a sound richer and more three-dimensional than seems possible. The problem lies when you don't have that level of audiophile perfectionism invested into the music. Stripped of the highly focused genius of its best operators, dub techno rapidly starts to sound as limited as it actually is.

Now, this may be a narrative I've completely invented, but the "pure" dub techno sound (as opposed to those who've merely incorporated it into broader sound pallettes, a la Trentemoller or Luomo) seemed to resurge all at once when Echospace released their critically acclaimed album The Coldest Season in 2007. An ultra-refined update of the classic Basic Channel template, the album was a smash hit amongst a certain type of listener and critic, and overnight seemed to spawn an entire legion of new dub techno producers, all making similarly grainy, misty, wintery shades of dub techno.

All of which brings us, at long last, to Upwellings, and more generally the ZeECc label, which was founded in 2009 and has been pumping out an enormous quantity of just-quite-good dub techno ever since. Crackles is a serviceable approximation of the dub techno template: it's got the dub bass, it's got the moody, low-key ambience, it's certainly got the chord stabs. And yes, listened to through a good pair of headphones in low light it's pretty atmospheric.  The trouble is that it doesn't sound nearly as rich or detailed as anything Echospace and co are putting out right now, and indeed it doesn't sound a great deal different to countless other ZeECc acts like Gradient, Nautilus Project or Textural Being. It is, essentially, a tastefully derivative record: nothing new, but it'll remind you of some of electronic music's most distinguished luminaries.

Now, this review may seem like more a review of a genre than of an artist, but that's usually a warning sign in itself. This is a review of dub techno because Upwellings is pretty much as generic as it gets, and there's almost nothing about his music, aside from the occasional sampling of live drums (most notably on Drum's River), that is unique. The amusingly pretentious promo-blurb may claim:

...these tracks draw from many club influences: tech-house, minimal-techno, dub, and they perfectly blend with the nocturnal current trends, without forgetting to bring some enigmatic and irradiant touches

...but when set against the utterly standard dub techno of the actual record, this ends up being an unintentional echo of LMGM's hilarious guide on How Not To Write A DJ Bio:

Glittersnizz’s musical style reflects his eclectic influences—from high-modernist integral serialism to jazz-funk fusion to Armenian epic poetry to 80s hair metal—all distilled down to pure, crystalline minimal techno.

To conclude, my verdict on this album is pretty similar to that I've often expressed about pleasantly bland and tastefully forgettable blog-ambient: it makes for good mood music, but with so much of it available and so little to distinguish each individual record, there's little to recommend this album in particular. You can effectively cue the newest ZeECc release the next time you fancy some dub techno that isn't quite top drawer, it'll be much the same.

Genre: Dub. Techno.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Review: Orbital - Blue Album

I'm on a bit of an Orbital binge this afternoon, and following on from Wonky I decided to give Blue Album a listen, which is a record I haven't played for quite a few years now. Released in 2004 when the band originally made the carefully planned decision to split up, this album was a self-conscious summary and reflection of their career, right down to the in-joke title.

As such, this album pretty much reviews itself. Early rave origins! M25! Green Album! Glastonbury 1994! Festival favourites! The Altogether was crap! Vague guesses at which classic Orbital anthems each track is supposed to retread!

This last bit is the interesting part, because apart from the self-explanatory One Perfect Sunrise (aka "Belfast + On + On"), not too many of these tracks actually line up neatly to past Orbital. Bath Time is supposed to be Style, I guess, in that it melds annoyingly trite and childish synth timbres and  melodies with genuinely pretty melodic inter-twiny-ness. And Tunnel Vision is sort of like the bleak, melancholic paranoia of something from In Sides... PETROL, perhaps. And Acid Pants has a 303 in it, so it must be Brown Album!

Generally though, it seems the whole "homage to past moments" thing was basically a neat excuse for coming up with a lot of tracks that are nice without being particularly new or inventive. The one exception would be the majestically sombre opener Transient. Nobody ever opened an album quite like Orbital, and Transient is an incredible curtain-raiser as good as anything they ever did. Elsewhere, Pants, Tunnel Vision and Lost would all have slotted neatly into previous Orbital albums. A personal highlight is the Christopher Eccleston-sampling You Lot, which is both a classic piece of Orbital social criticism and the most creative thing here, pressing a piece of sampled dialogue through a vocoder and turning it into it a twisted melodic hook.

The track that most people remember from here is One Perfect Sunrise, probably because it's gone on to be a staple of the Orbital live show, and also because a lot of people only really associate Orbital with this kind of serotonin-sunrise, last-track-of-the-night anthem. Personally, I always thought this one was a little cheesy to be perfectly honest, an example of how being self-consciously poignant usually results in becoming overblown. As some cheeky scamp on Discogs put it, it sounds like Paul Oakenfold remixing the Gladiator score.

My problem with this album is that it feels lightweight to listen to. I always skip Bath Time and Easy Serv because they are, quite obviously, joke tracks and just drag down the moodiness of the rest of the album, but deleting them from the tracklist leaves it running very short at only 7 average length tracks. Blue Album does contain some individually brilliant tracks, but it's an album lacking any concept, which probably explains why I haven't felt compelled to listen to it for the last four years.

Genre: Look, just stop asking me this about Orbital albums, okay?
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Orbital - Wonky

Amazingly, against all odds and all my cynicism, Orbital's new album is actually pretty damn good. There's been an awful lot of shit written about this album and about the band in various reviews and fan reactions. My favourite thus far: "It sounds like a return to the Green Album!" Really? There's also the standard issue wafflings about "house and techno" from idiot indie outlets who don't know how to talk about dance music so just lather on the canonic reference points every time they hear a bass thump. But one thing that everyone seems to have got right is that Wonky is better than we had any right to expect.

Since their 2009 reformation, Orbital have released a couple of new tracks, including the 2010 Don't Stop Me/The Gun Is Good EP. All this new material was really sub-standard and thankfully none of it has made it onto the album, but it hinted an Orbital who were far from their peak. This is, after all, a band who had been audibly running out of ideas for about five years before they finally packed things in with the unapologetically idea-less send-off Blue Album in 2004.

Now, granted, Wonky is still an extremely self-referential album. Orbital have been dining out on their own legend for some time now, and this album is jam packed full of references and cheeky samples of their own back catalogue. The opener of the album is a naked re-run of the glorious intro to Snivilisation, and Beelzedub is an amusing dubstep remix of Satan (that isn't actually as bad as that sounds either, erupting into a fury of old-school amens at the end, much like Skream's iconic remix of La Roux - In For The Kill). New France rips a synth from Spare Parts Express and uses it in almost exactly the same way. The strings at the start of Stringy Acid are a slight rejig of the heady outro to Out There Somewhere (Part 2). You get the picture?

In a sense, this is an apposite album for a band who are basically now a touring greatest hits live show, but it's a bit disappointing to see Orbital unable to do something creative and new without this constant admission of "Hey guys, we're this national treasure of '90s electronica, remember?" Yeah, I get it. You made a lot of music that defined my adolescence. Thanks for that. Can you make some music that defines my adulthood now?

All of this might sound very negative, but it's basically just the caveat that holds this album back. If they'd struck out to genuinely new waters, their shiny, glossy, poppy electro sound of 2012 would probably stand up in its own right. Orbital have always been pleasingly genre-less, but the sound that's most closely influenced their discography would be electro (specifically Kraftwerk), and the bouncey, sparse rhythms and shiny, chunky keyboard melodies here are a continuation with that. The main difference is that previous albums were usually shot through with darkness and sneering political irony, where as the Orbital of 2012 no longer seem to give a shit about those things and are content just to make Euphoric Festival Anthems (tm), so Wonky is pure blissed out electronica throughout. And to be fair, few acts can construct a more delicately weird slice of melodic electronic beauty than Orbital, and so Wonky is a gorgeous listen for the most part. The first four tracks are a veritable barrage of loveliness, culminating in the soaring New France, a track that ranks up there on the pantheon of classic Orbital sunrise anthems. The album has a lovely flow, with the tracks segueing into each other nicely, and it's a breezy listen with no downtime or cringe-worthy moments that have occasionally blighted latter-era Orbital.

If this album had come out in 1998, it would probably have been seen as a disappointment, but after quite a few years of being disappointed by Orbital, I'm really pleased by just how well this has turned out. I'm not hugely interested in political content to music, but in Orbital's case it always added some bite to contrast with their achingly beautiful melodies. That bite, along with slightly more adventurous and less repetition of former glory, could have resulted in a classic album, but frankly nobody's complainnig. Everyone on the Internet has already agreed it's not up there with their finest material (anything 1993-1999, basically) but it's probably the best thing they've done since then, and everyone seems pretty content with that. The Internet, for once, is right. .

Genre: Orbital-step.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Review: Vision & Canedy - Another Life

Now bear with me here, because I'm about to say something that sounds absurdly pedantic even by my standards... I think there's an important distinction between prog-psy and psy-prog. I know, sounds ludicrous doesn't it? Most people tend to use the former in conversation (you'll only relate to this if you hang around with enough DJs and producers to actually have music conversations this geeky) because "progressive" is still generally used linguistically as a prefix rather than a noun, which implies "progressive" is a modifier rather than a genre in its own right, a notion that I also think is incorreNONONOSTOPIT.

Ahem. Anyway, here's the distinction: from my extensive explorations into the colliding point of psychedelic and progressive dance music, I've noticed two distinct trends. "Prog-psy" = progressive psy trance, where as "psy-prog" = psychedelic progressive house. Get it? No?

Basically, there's a bunch of producers such as Human Blue, Vibrasphere and 12 Moons who make (made) high energy psychedelic trance, but with a deeper, more melodic and progressive vibe. Then there's a bunch of producers like Symphonix, Flowjob and Tomic who make chunky progressive house with some vague psy influences. The former would be prog-psy, the latter psy-prog. Got it yet? No?

Anyway, Vision & Canedy would probably be classified as prog-psy based on the labels they released on and the DJs who played them. Despite that, this music is a long way from resembling Human Blue and co. It's basically progressive house, deep, chunky and driven by rumbling basslines as opposed to being faster, trancier and more top-line. I suppose the distinction is identical to that of progressive house/progressive trance, which is a distinction a lot of people still can't really grasp, for complex genre-historical reasons I'm not going to go into here else we'll never end up reviewing this fucking album.

Another Life is basically a progressive house album, of the early '00s chunky dark prog variety, which is basically the point where the original spirit of progressive house (namely to sample anything and chuck in influences from any genre) was largely phased out in favour of the bass-heavy atmospheric grooves that had been the style's bedrock. When most people think of progressive house, they think of tracks like these: dark, long, chugging grooves designed to be mixed seamlessly together for hours on end into evocative beat journeys. Well, a lot of kids these days think of fucking Deadmau5 when you say "progressive house", but we'll not go there either.

The psychedelic influence really is pretty minimal - although I find that very little psy is actually psychedelic, apart from the day-glo madness of goa trance and some psy chill. It's mainly manifested in some commonly-used synth sounds and little elements that crop up in some psy. You know: the kind of microscopic genre modifiers that new listeners are flamed grilled in tears away from online forums for not spotting. For all intents and purposes, this is progressive house. Early '00s dark prog though, obviously. Let's keep it simple for the uninitiated, right?

So is it any good? Well, this kind of stuff is pretty much a winner if you get it right, in a reliable, unspectacular, would-do-a-job-in-a-DJ-set way. There are a few tracks that stand out in particular, Aeroplane or Mindbender for example, although I'm hard-pressed to tell you why those tracks sound any better than the rest, because the formula is nigh-on identical from track to track. There's also the obligatory slow-mo track that is customary on all psy-[whatever] albums, represented here by Laid Back. As usual, it's one of the best tracks, with a typical swaggering dub-influenced groove. I never hear any of these tracks out at psy parties, so I'm not sure why they keep getting made, but one day I'll collect enough to make a full set from them, and it will rock.

As alluded to earlier, this kind of prog is basically a DJ's genre. It sounds incomplete without the long transitions and epic journey sets, so you probably won't want to listen to this album with its unmixed tracks very often. For DJs interested in this style, it's worth having a listen so you can snipe your personal favourites, because almost all of these would do a job somewhere or another in a set.

Genre: Progressive house
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Friday, 11 May 2012

Review: ASC - The Sci-Fi Files

Strictly speaking, this isn't an album at all, but I've come to the realisation that only reviewing albums and compilations is getting a bit limited, because there will be long-ish spells where I'm only listening to singles and EPs and so the blog goes un-updated for a week or two. At the same time, I don't want to review every damn thing I've been listening to, because that would become absolutely exhausting and reduce this blog's level of quality control, already desperately tenuous, to ruinous degrees.

Anyway, The Sci-Fi Files are a series of six two-track EPs ASC released back in 2008. ASC had plans for a lavish vinyl release with beautiful artwork, but due to publishing difficulties the series was tragically relegated to mere digital releases. I say "tragic" as someone who doesn't buy or play vinyl simply because I believe this is one of the best electronic music releases of all time, and it deserved far more than a poxy MP3 release. For me, this is really an album, albeit one that was drip-fed at the time of releases. These twelve tracks form a coherent body of work that deserves to be listened through in one sitting, preferably late at night in low light while considerably stoned.

My love of ASC is well documented here, so it's not lightly that I say that this is my favourite ASC release, probably slightly ahead of his still magnificent Intex Systems album. The Sci-Fi Files contain everything that makes James Clements' music endlessly rewarding. The music itself is an inventive hybrid of drum 'n bass styles - often minimal (and this was back in 2008, long before everyone and their dog had jumped aboard the Autonomic bandwagon), sometimes rhythmically complex, occasionally jumping into old school amen intricacy, often infused with IDM and techno genes and all bathed in ASC's ultra-moody, enveloping ambience. But what sets it out is the channel that ambience is tuned to - a particularly melancholic yet surgically clean strain of futurist yearning.

Unlike a lot of futuristic electronic music, this isn't simply "spacey" (although many tracks are still gilded with interstellar expansiveness), but rather "landscapey". These tracks are planetside, not offworld, which is a crucial distinction. They evoke images of otherworldly landscapes, often vast and glacial, of gleaming futuristic structures and bioluminescent alien lifeforms floating silently in liquid atmospheres. I guess the point here is that most space music is more interested in depicting the fascinating beauty of outer space, which is not in any way fictional. Space is fucking beautiful without the need of fiction - it's vast, haunting and endlessly thought-provoking. Science fiction is different because it's a fiction of ideas, imagination, expansiveness. It doesn't captivate simply by being set in space, and often it isn't. Science fiction is essentially fantasy, but rooted in thoughtful, more rigorous imagination, its utilisation of science adding resonance with our increasingly technologically dependent lives. You watch (or read) Lord Of The Rings and you know it has no relevance to our world, it's purely fantasy. Watch Blade Runner and you're immediately struck by how conceivably it could be the destination of our culture. Indeed, many commentators have noted how Blade Runner has actually influenced designers and architects in its aftermath, an example of how science fiction can actively shape the future it depicts.

ASC clearly understands this. He is, after all, an artist obsessed with science fiction, and these EPs are his tribute to the genre. And so the Sci-Fi Files don't simply do spaciness over and over again. They're brimming with difference ideas: the icey beauty of Earth Tones, the AI-controlled drum patterns of Holosphere, the ancestral quiescence of Defiant To The End. Although the controlling idea and general mood remains throughout, the individual tracks have endless variety to them, a galaxy of beautifully realised ideas. It's almost as if thinking about sci-fi freed up Clements' imagination to explore future soundscapes that he had never dreamed of previously.

Collated into one body of work, I cannot think of much else I love more than the Sci Fi Files. If ASC ever tops these tracks, I certainly want to be there to hear it. Twelve masterpieces of modern electronic music.

Genre: Sonic science fiction
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: 12 Moons - Solid State

Hey, you there! Want some free music? Head on over to Swedish producer Michael Andresen's site and he's giving away his music for free! FREE! Even though it's still available to buy in online shops! What an absolute hero. The three albums on there are all excellent, and the two ambient albums as Healer deserve reviews of their own, so let's focus on the one I've been listening to this morning: Solid State under his trance alias 12 Moons.

If you're into the psy/goa scene you probably recognise the 12 Moons moniker from his releases on the seminal Flying Rhino stable (that means record label). This isn't really a psy album though, certainly not in the conventional sense. I would personally call this progressive trance, in the old, accurate sense of the word, rather than the current uplifting-trance-at-130bpm-Anjuna-shit incorrect definition of progressive trance that has basically ruined online listening for me.

[What's this, a progressive trance mix? I'll definitely give that a listen. Oh no, wait, it's just a shit fluff trance mix, the DJ just doesn't know what "progressive trance" means. Repeat ad nauseam. And believe me, the nauseam sets in very quickly.]

Anyway, this is essentially progressive trance, although some of the tracks are a lot faster than you'd expect from prog trance, which generally chugs along at 135bpm (which, to be fair, is still pretty damn speedy in modern dance music). Some of the tracks here bang at north of 140bpm - Pilot in particular gallops at an eye-watering 144bpm, although it never feels hell-for-leather. In the psy scene they call this stuff "morning trance", which basically means the floaty, melodic but deep stuff you play at the end of an all-night party as the sun is rising and everyone gets tired and mellow.

I don't tend to play this very often, because the production/mastering isn't brilliant and so the tracks just don't sound quite punchy enough to mix in with other trance. However, having listened to it again, this is actually a brilliant trance album. I'd even go as far as calling it one of the best I've ever heard. Granted, the list of great trance albums is relatively short (and interestingly, most of them have come out of the '00s prog-psy scene) but there are still enough crackers out there to make this worthy praise. Andresen has a real ear for a melody and he manages to craft interesting and memorable arrangements without necessarily being a great producer. He's just a fantastic, old-fashioned musician basically, one who luckily enough decided to turn his talents to electronic music. The flow of the album is also incredibly sweet, with the tempo rising and falling smoothly across the running time rather than embarking on the kind of dull linear energy builds most trance albums, even the good ones, opt for. There's also a lovely ambient interlude right near the end of the album, which tees up the pulsating closer Flair nicely.

I could bang on about this one at length, but since you can go download it for free and listen to it yourself I won't over-complicate this review. Suffice to say that this is trance as it should be, a world removed from the cheesy pap most people associate with the term. And please don't be put off by the pace of these tracks, dull house heads. Just because it's at 140bpm doesn't automatically invalidate the quality of the music. The only thing that holds this album back from 10/10 legendary status is the lack of one of two really killer tracks. It's a narrow thing, though. Think of this as a 9.4999999/10 album.

Genre: Deep progressive psychedelic morning trancey trance-trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Photek - Modus Operandi

More seminal '90s drum 'n bass, this time Photek and his highly regarded Modus Operandi from 1997, generally regarded as a classic of the genre. I have previous beef with Photek, after getting into a big debate about whether his 2000 effort Solaris is genius or crap. Solaris is one of the most divisive electronic albums of all time, splitting fans right down the middle, but the argument against it is usually how inferior it is to Photek's previous efforts. Trouble is, Modus Operandi is a '90s classic drum 'n bass album I don't happen to particularly like. It's not that I think it sounds dated or anything, I just don't get on board with the concept.

If this album came out now we'd probably label it drumfunk - a sub-genre categorised by paranoid, twitchy atmospherics and complex, intricately programmed breakbeat science. Also a sub genre I don't really like. I can recognise the attention to detail and the powerful artistic intent behind this album, I just don't really like the atmospherics. This is not a danceable record, and it's primarily about the creation and maintenence of a mood, and I personally don't get any kind of emotional response whatsoever from the mood created here. Most of the tracks sound so completely sparse and cold as to be flat, dead, fading into background pattering such is their lack of engagement to the senses.

Nothing much more to say here, such was its failure to interest me I didn't register any specifics to pick apart, and I have absolutely no desire to relisten to this album just for the sake of educating you damn fools. From now on, I'm ignoring every Photek-related recommendation. Me and him just don't get along, it seems.

Genre: Proto-drumfunk
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 5/10