Sunday, 12 August 2012

We're Back!

As long time readers (yeah, as if I have those) may have noticed, I haven't updated this blog for months now. This was down to a number of boring technical issues I can't be bothered to explain. Anyway, as the splurge of new material below will evidence, IANAMJ is back in business. I still can't upload reviews at will, but they will appear in occasional bursts of adjective-blah. So hang tough: more is in the pipeline.

Review: ASC – Out Of Synch

He’s at it again. Out Of Synch is the third ASC album in the last twelve months, and has been billed as his “return” to 170bpm, or as some sort of successor to 2010’s Nothing Is Certain, the album that finally broke him to a wider audience. I personally don’t see this as much of a stylistic return, because he never stopped making minimalist, moody beat-driven material in the interim, it was merely confined to his EPs. But what I do see it as is another ASC album, and so another reason to get excited.


Predictably, I love this album. I was actually quite surprised by how much I like it – the man has gotta be due a disappointing effort soon, right? Nothing Is Certain was undeniably a very good album, but the one I’ve played the least out of all post-Covert Operations ASC output. Out Of Synch, though, isn’t really a dancefloor album, and it isn’t a drum ‘n bass album. The Autonomic sound is on the outer edge of danceable drum ‘n bass, but while many still associate James Clements with it, he was merely passing through, on his way to post-genre electronic mood music. Out Of Synch contains a couple of techy, rhythmic tracks that could work on a dancefloor, particularly in the second half, but they represent the vertical edge of an upward curve in intensity. Most of the album is much more sedate.


Favourite moments? The dub-techno influenced textures of opener Spheres, the enveloping wash of electronic loveliness that is the fantastically named Oneironaut and the absolutely majestic, haunting masterpiece that is A Song For Hope, the jewel in the album’s dark-hued crown. Waves of electronic static shimmer in the background like cosmic dust before being washed away by murky dark matter pads as a beautiful chanted female vocal echoes through the intergalactic ether. It’s a truly transcendental moment, impossibly vast and sad and utterly mesmerising.


So yeah. It’s a great album (obviously) but it also contains a few standout moments that elevate the overall experience into something truly memorable. The texturology and immersive sound design Clements has honed on his ambient excursions are reapplied here to a more sparse, techy exoskeleton that will probably appeal to the avant-techno aficionados in the building. With yet another album slated for release this year (a resurrection of his Mindspan alias, apparently), I’m beginning to hope he <i>does</i> put out something at least mediocre soon, because I’m worried I’ve become a fanboy who’s incapable of any kind of objective appraisal. ASC could put out an LP consisting entirely of field recordings of clowns being tortured to death, and I would still give it 8/10. You heard it here first.



Genre: Er…
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Hypnotic Duo – The Album

This is one of the most laughably lazy releases I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s like an open admission that all the criticism I’ve levelled at thoughtless digital album releases is spot on. Not only could Hypnotic Duo not even be bothered to name their album, they couldn’t even be bothered to give it any cover art, either. The artwork for this album looks like the lid of a cheap German yoghurt. This album can essentially be summarised as being to progressive house what a 1kg box of Cornflakes is to breakfast.


Hypnotic Duo are capable of some good tunes, perhaps most notably last year’s Pulse, which was a hit amongst the kind of DJs who play this kind of trancey-progressive stuff. However, most of the tracks on this album don’t come anywhere near their best efforts, instead being a boringly mediocre selection of blah-prog. And no, that isn’t a real genre. A few of the tracks are good, but most of them are just very average, the kind of progressive you tend to hear played by mediocre local DJs, the kind that’s easy to mix and blends well into tech house but really, if we’re being honest, is an entire movement of music that will be forgotten in about ten years time. And with that, I’m bored of talking about this album.


Genre: Progressive house
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Review: Hol Baumann – Human

According to Last.fm, I’ve already listened to this album, which is quite terrifying considering I have no memory of doing so. This is exactly why I started this blog in the first place, damn it. This isn’t even a bad album. Not a classic by any means, but I would never be so cruel as to label it “forgettable”. I guess this is the side-effect of streaming music online. Without any physical purchase or concrete memory associated with the record, this “fire and forget” approach to music listening means you can totally lose perfectly decent albums.


Anyway, Hol Baumann is a jobbing French downtempo producer who has cropped up on many Ultimae compilations, and here gets a full album all to himself. His sound is very much defined by a combination of glitchy low-tempo breakbeats and acoustic instrumental loops, with the occasional sampled vocal thrown in. It’s all very moody and, um, post-trip-hop (hey, don’t ask me man…) and there are one or two stand-out tracks, album centrepiece Benares being a prime example, where some complicated glitch-work and infectious synth riffs add to a more energetic and posturing twist on the record’s default formula.

For the most part though, Baumann is destined to be one of life’s average musicians, an accomplished producer with great sound design and a few fancy glitch set-pieces, but someone mining a fairly well explored seam of home listening music without adding anything soul-scrapingly brilliant enough to the equation to rise above the level of supporting cast in the beautifully photographed epic of Ultimae Records.


Genre: Glitch-hop (I suppose)
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Nick Warren – Global Underground #024

Towards the end of its life, the Global Underground series drew a lot of flack for recycling the same guest DJs over and over again, and one of the most contributors was Way Out West man Nick Warren, who in total mixed at least thirteen billion entries into the globe-trotting progressive house mix series. This Icelandic-themed effort from 2003 was supposed to be his last, as even he was getting bored of posing moodily in front of far-flung crepuscular skylines, but in the end he returned for another three entries.


Warren is a flawed yet interesting DJ, not a smooth mixer but always with an eclecticism bursting to escape from the confines of his usual THUMP-THUMP progressive house sets. He is perhaps at his best when he goes into the chill-out-room mode which he honed as the back room DJ at the Vision club in Bristol back in the early ‘90s. Normally he wouldn’t get chance to do so on a Global Underground compilation, but someone decided at letting him have his crack at making a Northern Exposure for the ‘00s. The resulting compilation obviously isn’t that good, but it’s still unusual enough to qualify as a note-worthy diversion from the dreary procession of identical GU 132bpm prog house mixes, and is perhaps the most complete snapshot of Nick Warren the DJ, flaws and all.


The format is pretty similar to Northern Exposure. Disc one takes in all manner of downtempo oddities, new and old, including some frosty ambient dub, a splash of funky house and plenty of hi-tech progressive breaks. Disc two is a more straightforward romp, the tunes falling broadly into the progressive house category but with a warmer, groovier and deeper edge to them than the usual GU big-room fare.


While the eclecticism and individual merits of the tracks used in CD one is impressive, the journey overall feels slightly wonky. The downtempo dub of the first three tracks has an old-school ambient house vibe about it, and also a chilly atmosphere that reaches its apex with the chanted vocals of Atlas’ classic Compass Error. From there, however, Nick decides to segue into the ultra-cheerful shoegazey flourish of Ulrich Schnauss, an inclusion that seems at odds with the rest of the entire disc. The injection of dancefloor groove from Planet Funk shortly afterwards also feels weird, as it has so little to do with what comes before and after. After these early wobbles, the mix settles down into an introspective progressive breaks showcase, the talking point obviously being the three-track amalgamation that takes in Burufunk’s twisted basslines, Global Communication’s trippy ambient and an extended vocal sample discussing the apocalypse. Psychedelic indeed, but the vocal sample personally strikes me as too busy, too long and too out-of-synch, drawing attention away from the music and to this weird interjection.


Disc two, as mentioned, is pretty straightforward. The first three tracks are absolutely lush, and my love of Aural Imbalance is well documented so a twelve-minute run out for Aural Navigation (Part 2). Later on, the disc settles down into head-bobbing but not particularly captivating material, with two vocal tracks (Rise and Headpusher) that border on cheesy.


Nick’s mixing is computer-perfect and everything is sumptuously harmonic, but the compilation is ultimately lacking in enough stand-out tracks to forgive the occasionally weird flow. It’s certainly the most interesting GU mix I’ve ever heard, but perhaps not the best despite the commendable risks taken.

Genre: Progressive ambient breaksy thing
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Cool Breeze – Assimilation

I have a habit of listening to genres in the most offbeat way possible. It’s almost like I want to deliberately alienate myself from anyone I might actually relate to (cries into pillow). When I say I like trance, it’s generally about as far removed from what most people would call “trance” as possible, (no bad thing, I’m sure you’ll agree). Likewise, when I claim to enjoy hip-hop, it’s generally stuff with absolutely no rapping or mainstream appeal whatsoever.


Cool Breeze’s album Assimilation is exactly the kind of hip-hop I love, although perhaps “hip-hop” is the wrong word. Acid jazz? Breakbeat funk? Sample collage? Beat making? Whatever. Assimilation may have been released on relatively unknown label Dorado back in 1995, but it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Ninja Tunes and their roster of delectably funky ‘90s jazzy hip-hop acts like DJ Food, The Herbaliser and Coldcut. If that doesn’t immediately give you a picture of how this album sounds then you need to brush up on your music history, maaaan.


Fundamentally, there’s not a whole lot to separate Assimilation from the ranks of similar British albums that were released between Paul’s Boutique and Endtroducing, but Cool Breeze is an assuredly talented sampler and beatmaker. His basslines are pleasingly warm and dubby, his tracks laced with cool soul and B-boy swagger, and his humour is sly without being irritating. The album also contains two brilliant standouts. First up is the achingly beautiful Can’t Deal With This, a languid summer groove where Rhodes stabs intertwine perfectly with guitar lacks and a heart-melting vocal performance from Imaani, who apparently went on to be a runner up at Eurovision. Then there’s the Kid Loops remix of Tik Tok (Come On), which emphasises the spacey dub atmospherics of the outrageously funky original while allowing the low-slung dub bassline to continue making love to one of the most infectious jazz flute samples ever uncovered.


The supporting cast of tracks are very strong, including (importantly) the opener and closer, and the only weak spot is the rather bizarre Charlie Don’t Surf, with a somewhat cheesy anti-war stoner vocal. Assimilation may not be remarkably different, but it’s a cut above the crowd in its genre, far better than many of the critically heralded efforts by contemporaries such as Mr Scruff or DJ Vadim, and deserves an honorary status as a forgotten classic.


Genre: Downtempo jazz-dub-ninja-breaks-hop.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Clubroot – MMXII III

Clubroot has been one of my favourite dubstep producers pretty much since he sprung his eponymous (music hack alert! Music hack alert!) debut back in 2009, a record I will always associate with my first few weeks living in the city, staring at distant lights in the inky winter darkness through the window of my bare room. The first album was compared, predictably to Burial, as it invoked the same sense of dark melancholic ambience through a dubstep framework, even through Clubroot’s music already had more of a widescreen sweep to it than Burial’s claustrophobic urban paranoia.


It was on the follow-up album, MMX II (see if you can figure out the release year) that Clubroot stepped firmly out of Burial’s shadow and into blinding light. MMX II took the deep bass pulses and fragmented rhythms of dubstep out of the city sprawl and into the great yonder – enormous panoramic soundscapes conjuring starlit images of savannahs and forested mountainsides. It was a revelation.


MMXII III is apparently the concluding chapter of a trilogy of albums, and like the final line of a haiku it neatly brings the previous two albums together. Admittedly, part of me is disappointed that the remarkable sonic expansion isn’t continued outwards to stratospheric dimensions, something which seems possible during the engulfing ambience of the superb opener, Ennio’s Eden and later on in the ambient lull of Murmur Interlude. For most of the opening act, however, the album goes back underground with some deep, dank, bass-heavy dubstep, alternately swinging between percussion-heavy, almost tribal material like Garrison that brings to mind Jack Sparrow, and full scale dungeon darkness such as Summons, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Kryptic Minds album. This is also an album that puts the “dub” back into dubstep. The origins of the sound are oft-forgotten by the more ambient proponents, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, MMXII III brings some authentic dread back to proceedings.


In the second half the division between darkness and light becomes less pronounced and the melodies seep into the rhythms, and it becomes a more obvious successor to MMX II. The album ends on a very strong note with a final flurry of beautiful, mournful and emotionally complex pieces. The closing track Restraint brings together everything that makes the album – and the trilogy – so great, a horizon spanning intro melting into morose vocals, twitchy rhythmic spasms and a haunting piano refrain.


There are moments on MMXII III where the darkness threatens to consume, and overall it is just slightly too regressive into standard dubstep reference points to quite match the trope-busting opulence of its predecessor, at least in my perpetually starbound eyes. Still, this is the most emotionally complex Clubroot album yet and unquestionably one of the best albums of 2012 I’ve yet heard.


Review: CJ Bolland – The Analogue Theatre

If you were to rank DJs solely based on how many times I’d seen them, CJ Bolland would actually be right near the top. This has much to do with the fact he is something of a legend in Leeds due to his association with The Orbit, and so still regularly gigs around the area at retro events. I don’t go see DJs more than once unless I had good fun though, and Bolland is an expert exponent of the pounding, relentless techno that was so popular in the ‘90s at places like The Orbit. Seeing Bolland live in a sweaty warehouse is a truly visceral experience that puts a lot of other dance music firmly in context.


In light of Bolland’s reputation for such thumping techno nastiness, The Analogue Theatre is a surprisingly accessible album, with as many mid-tempo breakbeat-infused tunes as all-out bangers. This is perhaps because it touched down in 1996, when the “electronica” boom was just kicking off in the US and underground heroes were making various pleas for mega-bucks success. It’s fair to say that this is not the most original album of 1996 – many of the tunes sound much like MFTJG-era Prodigy, and People Of The Universe is basically a straight-up imitation of Chemical Beats by everyone’s favourites Brothers. Although I have a huge fondness for this kind of material, I’m not going to pretend that this formula of riotous big beats and squelching 303s was anything more than the brostep of its day. The production, meanwhile is distinctly rough-and-ready: punchy and effective but lacking any of the fairy dust found glittering in the backdrop of the more illustrious records from this period.


The album also contains Bolland’s two biggest hits: the Prodigy – Poison pastiche that is Sugar Is Sweeter, which became a huge chart hit thanks to Armand Van Helden’s misleadingly titled Drum ‘n’ Bass Mix, and the tech-trance monster The Prophet, which has been inducted into the pantheon of Trance Anthems thanks to Paul Oakenfold (and latterly Tiesto) closing almost every set he played with it for the back half of the ‘90s. These two tracks alone have probably made Bolland enough money to eat on for the rest of his life, and surely don’t require any description from me.


If anything gives The Analogue Theatre more listening value than as simple mid-90s nostalgia fare, it’s the occasional moments when Bolland interpolates gleaming strains of Detroit futurism into the madness, as evidenced on the lush opener Obsidian or on the thumping title track. These delicate moments hint at Bolland’s roots in the serious techno scene, and are a timely reminder that even the most savage of techno producers are usually capable of some beautiful pieces of music when they so desire. The Analogue Theatre is no classic and probably not listed at the top of Bolland’s production resume, but it’s an enjoyably derivative romp through the mid-90s nonetheless.


Genre: Hackers soundtrack shit.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Johann Kotze – Ambient Nasqueron: Ambient Space Sci-Fi

Honestly, don’t ask me how the fuck I found out about this album. When you abscond into the musical non-space of Spotify you can very easily end up listening to an album only three other people on Earth are aware of – the musician, the musician’s mum and the musician’s mum’s dog. It’s a great way of divorcing music from its critical surroundings so you have an unbiased perspective, I suppose.


Being Ambient Music is apparently the label of yoga trainer and new age musical waffler Johann Kotze. It’s basically space music of the kind I’ve banged on about numerous times before – the kind of floaty, spacey, predominantly pad-based galactic audio wallpaper that I tend to stick on when I want to fall asleep or when I get in from work. This review would be totally redundant, if this weren’t such a hilarious artefact of the new age music world.


This album doesn’t really exist in any official sense – it’s self-published and Kotze has managed to upload it to a few online stores and Spotify, but there isn’t even an official artist on the MP3 tagging. It’s also apparently “Mixed by Prana” (who I initially took to mean the psy-trance artist), even though it isn’t really mixed at all in a DJing sense and the music was probably all created with one keyboard and usually consists of maximum three layers, so doesn’t require much mixing in a production sense either. Your guess is as good as mine.


What initially intrigued me to carry on listening even after I realised I was in the hands of a new age guffmeister was the claim on his website that this album is inspired by Ian M Banks’ sci-fi novel The Algebraist. I haven’t read The Algebraist yet, but Banks is one of my favourite authors and so I was hooked in. Without having read the novel it wouldn’t be fair to comment on whether Kotze has captured the mood of the story, but what I can say is that Ambient Nasqueron is about as
predictable approximation of “space music” as you can ask for. You can probably imagine exactly how it sounds in your head. The structure of the album is also quite odd. 27 tracks is a pretty large number for an ambient record, and there is a weird modulation of running times – tracks varying from twelve seconds to twelve minutes in length in a manner that is so random as to seem pointlessly deliberate. Yet the musical content is largely interchangeable, all of the tracks being extremely bland and too clich├ęd to be remotely absorbing.


Kotze is pretty unashamed about the wallpaper nature of his music. In fact, it seems to be quite a proud selling point, as his website claims:


His Ambient Music [is] ideal for therapists and spas, yoga, meditation, for use in cafes, lounges and other public spaces with an interest in Consciousness Music.


Pass me the healing crystals, I’m sold. In all, rather predictable honesty, this is rubbish. It’s not even as pleasantly pretty as the other forgettable space-junk I review around these parts, although some of the shorter skits may actually come in handy for future ambient DJ sets. In fairness to Johann Kozte though, he does have another spacey album called Ethereal Chime which is actually a lot better than this, so he’s not a totally useless musician.

Genre: Galactic audio wallpaper
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 4/10

Review: Relaunch – Recall

I’ve pretty much stopped paying attention to Mistiquemusic these days, with exceptions made for a few reliable acts – including Relaunch, of course. The label has just turned over to new hands so the A&R may improve in the coming months, but right now Mistique will just put out any track their producers give them, and the result is an inundating wall of mediocrity out of which the good stuff struggles to emerge. What started out as a reliable source of quality modern progressive house accelerated into a production-line where the owners just couldn’t say no to anyone.


One of the results of this Mistique-spam is that they release a lot of artist albums that are bloated with too many tracks and not enough artistic decision-making or flow. Albums to Mistique are just a way of hurling yet more music out onto the marketplace, and there’s almost never any point in listening to one of them all the way through. And true enough, Recall pretty much fits the bill – it’s a whopping 14 tracks long, and all of those tracks are full-length club cuts, including three remixes of tracks by other artists and two versions of one track, Portugal. It also includes, oddly, a whole bunch of tracks that have already been released, unaltered in any aspect, including the entire Art Of Ambiance EP and even the Eliptique EP from two years ago on another label. As a result, the album goes on for years, and so much of it didn’t need to be included.


With that said, there is still a lot to enjoy here, if only because Relaunch is a very good producer whose rumbling, momentum-filled progressive works so well on the dancefloor but also has enough wisps of trademark Mistique ambience about it to keep it engaging on the headphones. Most of the best tracks have already been out for some time, including the remix of Aurora that has been long overshadowed by the excellent Airwave remix, and the still-brilliant Art Of Ambiance tracks. My personal favourite is still Blue Room, and not least because I’ve used it in one of my own mixes and heard it out on a dancefloor with bliss-inducing consequences.


Genre: Progressive trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Timewave – War

Timewave is one of the core group of great producers on the Mistiquemusic label who keep me coming back for more – the others being label owners Michael & Levan and Stiven Rivic (never has a production team been so badly in need of a collective alias), Kay-D and (more recently) Relaunch. But while all of these guys have released full albums in the last year or so, Timewave’s is the only one that actually seems to justify its own existence. His debut album on Mistique was the suitably spacey Solar System, still one of the best progressive trance releases of the past… ever, and on War he again shows how full length trance pieces can be integrated into an album format without it sounding fucking boring.


It’s not that Timewave is a notably better producer than Relaunch or M&L&SV (sigh). He is more overtly trancey, as his non-Mistique releases such as Supersonic and Relentless have increasingly demonstrated, but still capable of making the same kind of ethereal, superbly produced melodic progressive that the label specialises in. What sets him apart in an album context is simply his ability to get the basics right.


The funny thing is the trend has almost reversed. Ten years ago, most trance and progressive albums were still shit, but generally because producers seemed to think making an album necessitated a radical shift in their music, a need for downtempo pieces and ill-advised trip-hop pieces to showcase their “mature” side. These days the problem is that producers don’t seem to have any real reason for their albums to exist at all – they could easily be carved into three EPs without any harm being done. Somewhere between these two bumbling extremes lies a point where a dancefloor producer can stick to his strengths, but arrange his music in a thoughtful manner to actually make it interesting as a 70 minute listening experience.


War could be loosely called a concept album, themed around… well, take a wild stab in the dark. The track titles create a sense of narrative, beginning with the shock of unexpected conflict and gradually moving from resistance through to triumph. I’m not entirely convinced this journey is audibly reflected in the music, but it at least demonstrates a clear thematic unity across the album. The choice of conflict as a theme is, admittedly, an odd one – you would expect an album about war to be dark, loud and aggressive, whereas Timewave sticks pretty much to his standard brand of minor-key trancey euphoria throughout.


But while the implied theme may be dubious, the album itself at least makes sense as a journey. On Solar System he demonstrated a talent at spaced out progressive breaks, and on War he slows it down even further, into the realms of downtempo breaks that hover at 110bpm. These pieces are clearly too slow to be dance music, yet they still demonstrate all of Timewave’s strengths at building lush melodic atmospheres, and punctuate the dancefloor pieces without breaking up the overall ambience. The downtempo tracks bookend the album and also provide an interlude halfway through, essentially splitting the dancefloor tracks in half. It’s a well balanced structure – you get twenty minutes of prog, then the gears change just before things get repetitive, and then having slowed things right down for a couple of tracks he brings the hammer down for the second half, all main-room arpeggiated madness.


None of this is complicated and none of it is pretentious or overly artistic. Why can’t other good producers figure it out? Arrange your album into a clearly identifiable structure and provide a couple of moments of variety without stepping outside your strengths or fucking up the mood you’ve been building. The end result will get the best of tracks that might otherwise become dull when placed in an endless, pointless row of 128bpm swirly web-prog. In making the best of his talents, Timewave has provided an album that at least challenges Solar Fields’ lazy stroll towards the title of “Best Trance Album of 2012”.


Genre: Progressive trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10