Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: Protonica - Form Follows Function

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

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

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

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

Review: Shed - The Killer

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

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

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

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

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Review: Echospace - Silent World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Dub techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Scuba - Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre: Breaks?
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Review: LSG - Into Deep

On Saturday night in Manchester, I had the pleasure of seeing Germanic techno-trance hero-legend Oliver Lieb play a three hour set, comprised predominantly of his own productions under various, innumerable aliases. It was a treat not so much for Lieb’s DJing skills (his mixing was fairly rough in places) but simply to hear the man’s work on a good soundsystem in a dark club. The truism “Sounds better in a club!” is often wheeled out in defence of bad records (What, you mean if you play this track really loud to a room full of people while you’re on drugs, it’ll sound better? Man, if only I’d considered that before dismissing it as a derivative piece of trash! I’ve now put far too much text inside these brackets and you’ll have forgotten how the sentence began when I close them) but rarely is it so apt as in Lieb’s case. His tracks don’t just sound better in a club – they come alive. This is true of techno as a genre, generally speaking, but Lieb is something of a rarity in that most of his tracks sound perfectly good even at home, so when the unexpected force of the basslines are added to the equation, the result is pretty mind-blowing.

It’s perhaps for this reason that I’d never really bought into the Lieb-love (shit bilingual pun alert!) until recently. He’s made a lot of good tracks down the years granted, but I’d been introduced to him as a serviceable but unspectacular tech-trance producer around 2001 and even checking out his seminal Frankfurt trance material from the early ‘90s had never quite shaken the impression that his tracks were missing a bit of magic. Turns out that magic was an enormous speaker stack. Who’d have thunk it?

I mention all this for almost no reason whatsoever, because the Oliver Lieb record I’m actually reviewing here is one of his few non-dancefloor pieces. I dug it out because one of the things I rambled to Lieb when I shook his hand post-gig was about how much I loved Into Deep, hoping to sound more knowledgeable and interesting than an average club goon who just mentioned one of the big hits. Having said that to him, I figured I should probably go back and listen to the album in question, just to make sure it was as good as I’d said.

It is, of course. LSG was Lieb’s most long-running alias and he managed to explore quite a few styles in that time, albeit mostly on a trancey tip. Into Deep was something of an exception: it’s trancey in mood, and there was a bonus disc with some versions that had clubbed up remixes of these tracks, but it’s most definitely not a club record, instead comprising of downtempo breaks and ambient.

Space, inevitably, is the place. I review a lot of shit space music, and it’s worth comparing and contrasting this album with the buckets of wibbly-wubbly pad nonsense that gets passed off as space music. Are you paying attention, lazy Internet space musicians? Note that the tracks actually sound different! Note how that gives the album a clear sense of journey, with certain tracks building intensity and others lapsing into quiescence! Note the clear, memorable melodies found on tracks like Quick Star that give you some lasting musical memory of the album after you stop playing it! Try it yourself at home!

The structure of the album is quite unique, certainly far from your standard structures. Unfolding steadily, the first four tracks are dominated by low-tempo breakbeat rhythms, a sequence that culminates with the absolutely hypnotic and beautiful El Tiburon. From there, things drop down into deep space ambience, with occasional splashes of rhythm reoccurring on tracks like I’m Not Existing (something of a Leftfield – Original homage, it must be said), but never building up consistent momentum until the closer, the brilliant Westside. The result is a journey that contours nicely, beginning and ending strongly and finding room in the middle to explore some serious heavy-duty ambience.

It took me a couple of listens to really get into, erm, Deep, but that’s because I was a stubborn 18 year old when I first heard it, and the rave reviews built up almost a determination to be disappointed by it. Ah, the follies of adolescence. Into Deep has gone on to be one of my favourite albums, and after listening back to it for the first time in a couple of years, I’m struck by how many strong moments it has – moments that have been drifting in my memory for years, and I’d forgotten exactly where they came from. It’s a rare feat to make a space record that can be so distinctive and memorable, but Lieb’s managed to do it here. This is not an album you can easily track down, but if you want a recommendation from me for one that is worth the hunt – this is it.

Genre: Space Music
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Deep Dish – Penetrate Deeper

Ah, the joys of second hand record shopping. The Vinyl Exchange in Manchester’s northern quarter has long been one of my favourite pre or post-party haunts, with some of my favourite albums found on the cheap in the shop’s eclectic second hand dance section. It was on a sunny Saturday afternoon coming down from seeing German tech-trance legend Oliver Lieb that I flicked through and found Penetrate Deeper, which is one of those compilations you Read About And Mean To Check Out.

I’ve never really been much of a house-head (although admittedly I seem to be reviewing a lot of it right now, huh?) but this 1995 compilation is one of those releases that transcends its genre of origin, attracting a certain breed of journalistic adjective. Seminal. Ground-breaking. Classic. You get the picture, don’t you? It’s one of those records that makes you feel vaguely incomplete until you finally get round to hearing it, usually with the shrugged and slightly anti-climactic conclusion “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

I’m not entirely sure why Penetrate Deeper has such a classic status, as I’m not versed on the vicissitudes of the ‘90s deep house scene, but even I can read the inlay and recognise that this was the springboard for some of the biggest names to emerge from the American dance scene in the 1990s. Deep Dish obviously went on to become deep-prog titans in the second half of the decade, achieving cross-over fame and then splitting up into the hilariously antithetical entities of Sharam and Dubfire. It’s also hard to ignore the recurring name of Brian Transeau on the tracklist, who obviously became BT shortly afterwards; the darling child of Sasha who helped change the direction of UK progressive house before going on to remix N*Sync, score films and eventually become an insufferable pop-trance twat. Then there’s the stealthy presence of John Selway (as one third of Prana) before he became one half of Smith & Selway, creator of a string of classic dance records and remixes over the past 15 years. I bet nobody could have predicted those disparate career paths when this compilation touched down back in ’95. “The best is yet to come”, reads the inlay, not realising that so too was the worst.

I cannot honestly say whether or not Penetrate Deeper was as ground-breaking as its fans will claim, but whether or not this sound had been done elsewhere first, it’s easy to spot the origins of Deep Dish’s trademark sound: pounding, rhythmic and hypnotic deep house awash with rubbery dub bass textures and jazzy chord stabs, the kind that would layer so well with progressive house in their sets. You can also hear the genesis of Transeau’s pioneering “epic house” formula here: all you need to do is thrown in some hippy chants and flutes and layer everything with trancey pads and you’ve got his 1995 classic album Ima, which made Sasha so weak at the knees he spent most of that year playing little else in his sets.

The compilation itself makes the most of a fairly limited set of material: the album may run at 14 tracks but they comprise of only 8 originals, with remixes of almost everything used. It’s also two separate 32-minute mixes: after Carl Craig’s remix of Relativity is rudely faded out (even though they had five minutes of disc space spare at the end!) it starts again, with sampled ocean waves signalling the start of a second mix, and alternate remixes of tracks we’ve already heard once. A little cheeky perhaps, but the various mixes offer enough variety to stop it all sounding overly samey. Of the two mixes, my favourite is definitely the second: the flow is tighter, the mixing busier and the remixes used are generally superior. Listeners unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of ‘90s club production may find things a little dated and linear. This is pure house music, consisting of carefully fettled loops that are stacked and layered and brought in and out of the mix in neat phrases, over and over again. The two DJ mixes don’t really go anywhere, and don’t particularly intend to. This is “house music, all night long”, a never-ending groove of filtered, dubby funk.

Altogether, Penetrate Deeper’s reputation may transcend its genre of origin, I’m not entirely sure the music itself does. It’s always difficult for a 17-year old release (and counting – hello to future readers from the space year 2123!) to remain impressive in such a fast-moving and intrinsically technological genre as dance music, and sometimes you need to be immersed in the genre in question to look past the slightly yellowing stylistic edges. Of course, deep house fans should make every effort to own this, if only to look impressive name-dropping it at after-parties. For everyone else – if you see it for £5 on a second hand rack like I did, it’s a very solid, funky dive into a different era of house music. Just don’t go chasing it around on the Internet for double figure sums.

Genre: ‘90s Deep House
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: John Talabot – fIN

You’re a smart person, idealised imaginary reader. You don’t need me to explain everything for me. For example, you already know that you can enjoy a record a whole lot more or less depending on when and where you hear it, and sometimes records becoming intrinsically attached to certain memories and moments in life. I personally think that all my favourite albums have a definitive listen I associate with them. It’s one thing to listen to an album on your computer in your bedroom, but the ones that etch themselves into your soul are the ones you take outside to accompany with you. Often, these definitive listens happen almost by accident – there is nothing obviously special about the time or place you decide to put the album on, but once it begins playing there becomes a synergy between music and moment. And, of course, the same happens to particular songs as well.

But you already knew that, didn’t you reader? You’re currently fidgeting in boredom and wondering what my point is, perhaps already tabbing over to Facebook or Twitter to post something to the effect of: “Reading the new IANAMJ review… is it just me or this site seriously gone downhill? #JumpedTheShark”. Well, you should have been more patient, dear reader, because then I wouldn’t have had to type out this pointless paragraph and you would have already read the point. Silly reader.

The point is that I’m currently sat on a deserted train hurtling through the midlands of England on the way to London. I’ve got a week off work, a cold drink in hand and John Talabot’s album soundtracking the sunny countryside rolling past the window. Short of leaving the country and locating some beach or balcony overlooking the kind of vivid Mediterranean vista this album paints in your mind, I’m not sure there could be a better context for a first listen. If I were taking my first listen during the depths of a nuclear winter while holding the charred corpse of my dog in my hand, swearing vengeance as acrid tears burn down my cheeks, I probably wouldn’t be enjoying fIn quite so much. Which is just as well for John Talabot, because let’s face it – he needs the positive press of a IANAMJ review if he’s going to sell any records, right?

If you don’t know who John Talabot is by now, you’re probably just as well looking him up on Google, because the results will be a damn sight more informative than anything I’m going to write in such a whimsical, carefree mood. And my 15 minutes of free train wi-fi have expired and I’m damned if I’m paying for Internet access just to do some research and give my writing a veneer of factual basis or careful research. What do you think I am, a music journalist or something?

Anyway, as Google will have just informed you, John Talabot has become something of an instant hero in dance music in the last three or four years, specialising in a brand of gloriously sunny chilled Balearic house that absolutely everyone seems to like. fIN is his debut album, and manages that pleasing trick of simultaneously sounding bang up to date and totally timeless. The shimmering, Animal Collective-y vocals on Ekhi will tick all the right Pitchfork boxes, and the future garage vocal manipulations of closer So Will Be Now have probably already inspired some ludicrous spurt of purple prose from Resident Advisor. The majority of the other tracks are instrumentals, but they blend production techniques from slow-mo nu-disco and deep house with the occasional muted acid pulse or retro keyboard patch that comes straight out of the Ibizan house records that DJ Alfredo was playing back in the ‘80s. My favourite track, When The Past Was Present, even throws in some trancey keyboard riffage, which is always a good way to make me go weak at the knees.

It’s difficult for me to analyse exactly how or why these tracks are so good, because I don’t mix house or listen to it too often, and as such I’ve never spent much time deconstructing the methodology of the genre. And really, why should I bother? This is probably one of the most hyped dance music releases of the year, and I doubt many of you will need me to bring it to your attention. All I can say is that right here, on this sun-kissed evening train ride that will prefigure a week of R&R in one of the most exciting cities in the world, fIN sounds absolutely perfect. Just don’t bust it out when that nuclear winter sets in.

 Genre: Balearic house
 Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10