Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Best of 2012!

Firstly, an apology. I haven't updated this blog for almost four months, and you're probably sick with worry that I've fallen off a horse and sustained serious spinal injuries that have put an end to my irreverent adjective abuse. Well fear not: I'm still here and in good health, it's just my laptop which is ailing. Hopefully 2013 will see a return to some kind of normal service. For now, here's the consolation of my End Of Year list.


In years gone by, I have used my End Of Year list as an opportunity to discover new music, hanging back until everyone else has finished and cherry-picking the best. This year I'll do things a little differently. 2012 was the first year in memory where I genuinely felt connected to upfront music, both as a very active clubber and as a personal listener. As such, this year's list-making festivities are less a measured appraisal of the "Best" of 2012, and more an compendium of the special moments from the last twelve months, hence the slight contraction of each respective category. Not all of these records have memories attached to them - some are included merely for being brilliant - but all mean something to me.

Albums of 2012:

01. The Future Sound Of London - Environments 4
It feels slightly odd saying the FSOL made the best album of 2012, but that's only because it's so rare that an act can genuinely keep improving after over twenty years of making music. Since the beginning of the Environments series in 2007, the FSOL have made arguably their best material, long after they ceased being relevant to all but diehard fans like myself. This epic psychedelic trip across a primordial savannah plays out like some sunstruck hallucination, trippy, grandiose and genuinely unlike any other album I've ever heard. It was also the soundtrack for one very distinct and happy moment in 2012: walking home on a balmy August evening and pausing by the canal to stargaze and send a text to someone special. A fleeting moment of serene perfection in a madcap year.

02. Solar Fields - Random Friday
2012 was a truly grim year for British weather, even by our own inauspicious
standards. On the rare moments when the sun did shine, it always seemed to be
accompanied by Solar Fields' widescreen opus: effortlessly the best trance long
player since the days of Vibrasphere. Whether falling asleep sunbathing in the
garden or staving off comedown blues in a Bloomsbury park in London, I always had
this album on hand for those blue sky moments.

03. Scuba - Personality
There's been a critical backlash against this album, of course: a whole lot of
wordsmiths irate that they got a totally different Scuba to the one they signed up
for. Well fuck 'em, because this album is just a huge amount of feel-good fun, with
an airy, expansive and totally distinct production sound that reinvigorates its
liberal '90s breakbeat influences. It already feels like a classic, however much
other scribes might protest.

04. Tineidae - Lights
Tympanik Audio is something of an electronic sleeper cell, routinely ignored when
conventional label lists are compiled, but a haven of challenging and out-there
electronic experimentation for those who know. I wouldn't even know how to begin
describing Tineidae's album (haunting glitched out future bass IDM mutation?) which
is a pretty big compliment.

05. Andrew Lahiff - Inner Worlds Returning
Lahiff has been a go-to-guy for space music for a while now, but on Inner Worlds
Returning he channels his inner Vangelis and conjures an ethereal edge to the
wishy-washy pads that elevates this album into what will surely be a career best.

06. Clubroot - III: MMXII
One for the rainy days (and there was no shortage of those) and bitter mornings
huddled under bus stops after long night shifts. Clubroot took a step back from the
epic expansions of his previous album and rediscovered the dank, claustrophobic
dread of dubstep's urban origins. There are still transcendental moments here, but
they're accompanied a harder and more intimidating edge than most post-Burial
chilled dubstep can muster.

07. Petar Dundov - Ideas From The Pond
Neo-trance? Kosmichemuzik? Ambient techno? One of the most hypnotic and engrossing
albums of the year, either way. Bizarrely overlooked by just about everyone's lists
so far, I loved this album so much I bought the CD when I saw it in a record shop
just to give Dundov some hard-earned pennies.

08. Claro Intelecto - Reform Club
Another absorbing slow-mo melodic techno excursion but one with a very different
mood to Dundov's album, Claro Intelecto aims for Detroit melancholy and knocks it
out of the park.

09. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes
I didn't move in hipster circles quite so much in 2012, so I almost missed the
release of FlyLo's new album. He reigns in the everything-everything omni music
ambition of Cosmogramma in favour of a smokey neo-noir jazz bar vibe that works a
treat. "FlyLo goes opulent" is how I'd sub-head it if I were a lazy hack, and I am.

10. ASC & Sam KDC - Decayed Society
ASC is the Lionel Messi of electronic music. Busting the received wisdom of quality
over quantity, he has put out a mere three full artist albums this year to go along
with multiple EPs, podcasts, mixes and soundtrack work. This Chernobyl-themed
collaboration with the excellent Sam KDC is the best of his albums, haunting post-
apocalyptic ambient with a signature ghostly emotional residue. Late night music if
ever it existed.


EPs of 2012:

01. Deep Space Organisms - Deep Space EP
Out of nowhere, DSO returned one day with a new two-track EP. There's nothing here
that hasn't been done on previous DSO releases, but with their output now seemingly
down to one EP every three years and nobody else even coming close to this level of
tripped out cryo-sleep spaciness, there's no danger of boredom setting in anytime

02. Cosmithex - Shipment EP
Cosmithex has already established himself as quite simply the best in the business
for fresh sounding progressive trance, and this EP was an absolute gem. I've heard
all four tracks crop up in various places and danced to them on more than one
occasion across the year.

03. DjRum - Watermark EP
DjRum probably left more of an impression in 2012 with his excellent podcast
contributions, which softened more than a couple of post-party descents to earth.
The Watermark EP doesn't quite have the startling newness of last year's Mountains
EP, but contains in the same vein and the quality doesn't dip at all.

04. Burial - Kindred EP
Just when it feels impossible that Burial's misty vocal-manipulations won't outstay
their welcome, he brings out another magnificent EP to quash such notions. The
tracks keep getting longer, somehow over-familiarity is kept at bay.

05. Acoustiks - Stargazing EP
Once a year there seems to be an EP of pure old-school atmospheric jungle
revivalism, and Stargazing is another welcome time capsule from 1996. Cozmoz also
goes startlingly into 4/4 kicks halfway through, adding a welcome twist to the


Stand Alone Tracks of 2012:


01. Sam KDC - Synaesthesia
No special memory attached to this one, it's just quite simply the most spine-
tingling piece of electronic music I've heard all year.

02. Incube - Starscream
A track so good I stopped everything and spent two days making a drum 'n bass mix
around it, barely pausing to eat in the process. It still hits me like an adrenaline shot, every single time.

03. John 00 Fleming - The 10th Life (Artifact303 Remix)
The original wasn't half bad, but Artifact303 blows it clean out of the water. An
absolutely insane piece of acid-drenched dayglo psy-trance madness that sounds
unreal on a club system.

04. Airwave - Atlas Winds
No other track destroyed so many dancefloors for me in 2012. It particularly brings
back memories of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, when I saw Airwave in Manchester one
night and high-tailed the length of the country to hear J00F drop it again in
Brighton the following night. Instant classic.

05. ASC - A Song For Hope
The stand-out from his well-received Out Of Synch LP is this spine-tingling strand
of vocal gossamer. An entire sci-fi saga in four and a half minutes.

06. Cosmithex - Aquarius
This deep slice of acid could have slotted neatly onto the Shipment EP. Pitches up
like a dream to turn into an absolute monster.

07. DFRNT - Silent Witness
After threatening to get lost in regressive dubstep-blah, DFRNT popped up with an
album of gorgeous dub techno ambience, of which this opener was the definite

08. Geomatic - They Come From Within
Geomatic attach a more conventional industrial thump to their utterly unique
Lovecraftian tribal vibes on this one-off for a Tympanik label comp. Let's hope a
new album beams down soon.

09. John Talabot - When The Past Was Present
The anthemic highlight of a very good debut album, I particularly associate this
one with a very long September walk into Clumber forest, one of my favourite places
on Earth.

10. Airwave - Oyama (Terra Ferma Remix)
A second Airwave track but really it's all about Terra Ferma's remix, which is such
a defiantly old-school piece of acid trance it will never get played by anyone, and
so deserves rewarding here for its excellence instead.

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

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, 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

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