Thursday, 26 January 2012

Review: Rustie - Glass Swords

Glass Swords was one of the most critically important albums of 2011 in electronic music, if only because it inspired Simon Reynolds to write an article about maximalism. This album seems like the kind of thing Reynolds loves writing about, particularly his current narrative about "omni-music", in which he figures that the Internet and the availability of music means your average listener is bombarded with a huge selection of music from across the world and throughout history, with all the usual barriers of time and place demolished and the music set adrift in non-space. A 1970s Bollywood soundtrack and an acid house retrospective are now separated by nothing more than a couple of centimetres of white space on a screen. The result is "omni-music", music that takes influence from anything and everything, that is effectively genreless and fits into no conventional musical lineage.

Glass Swords often feels like exactly that kind of album - a mish-mash of everything from garish Euro-trance supersaws and helium pitched rave vocals to primary colour '80s synths and heavily processed guitar chugs, with the inevitable post-dubstep rhythmic intoxication that no halfway experimental electronic musician can withstand these days. At times it feels extremely poppy, at others totally off the wall. Most of the time it feels weirdly like both at once. I can understand why Reynolds labels it "digital maximalism", even if I'm raised on a diet of 15 minute Blue Amazon club cuts and so these little three minute ditties don't feel too massive to me. The general mood is one of overload - most of the time the album feels giddily upbeat and restless, songs ending alarmingly, new ones firing up in a scatter-brained frenzy of randomly superglued ideas and sounds.

Rustie comes across as some pilled-up successor to FlyLo, and like Cosmogramma there's far too much happening here far too quickly for me to take it all in in one listen. Reynolds likens this disorientating listening experience to the mind-numbing information overload that comes from the iPhone existence of the 21st Century. Whether Rustie's album will coalesce into a more sensible listening experience once I've given it a few more runs-through remains to be seen. What I can say after just one listen is that this is a very hard to dislike this album. It combines the instant impact and digestibility of its pop influences with interesting ideas and combinations, managing to sound at once like everything out there and like no other record you own. That's a winning combination, and one not many can pull off -off: genuinely experimental and unusual music that is still very easy to listen to and enjoy. Rustie never feels self-consciously arty or like he's pushing any of his off-the-wall ideas for the sake of being different.

Rather than bleat on about it, I'll simply leave you with the Simon Reynolds article, which sums up the album and most of these ideas in his usual effervescent adjective attack style. Try listening to the album while you read - it's not very long and if you alt-tab between a couple of other things you can probably stretch out the article to last until the end. Reynolds, and Rustie, would no doubt approve.

Genre: Omni-music
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Desolate - The Invisible Insurrection

The first time I heard Desolate's album The Invisible Insurrection, I told myself I needed to give it a second listen before writing up my thoughts. That first play was through my speakers at a fairly low volume while I was doing some laundry, which is not an ideal context for listening to, well, anything, so I gave it a second shot walking home at 4am in the rain. This, after all, is an album that came with the recommendation of being a spiritual successor to Burial.

And guess what? It sounds pretty damn moody in that context, as you'd expect anything with Burial comparisons to do. That said, the Burial reference is, I think, a little lazy overall. Yeah it's moody and mournful, yeah there are occasional plaintive female vocal fragments, and the drum effects on a couple of tracks sound a bit like Burial's crackly 2-step samples. Stylistically though, it's pretty different. The core of this album is a series of delicate piano motifs, around which the crackliness and the female shards are arranged. The drum work is extremely minor and distinctly secondary, whereas Burial often talks gleefully of his love of classic garage "rollage", and his music is as much about the skittery, paranoid rhythms as it is about the stuff going on above it. This is Burial-esque in the sense it evokes the same mood as Burial, rather than in any particular techniques.

And really, this isn't nearly as good as Burial. Well, obviously. I doubt Desolate himself ever made the comparison, but plenty of other critics can and they've coloured my expectations, the bastards. This is definitely a mood piece, a 45 minute atmospheric backing for those moments late at night when you're walking home in the rain. But nothing on here really scrapes the soul in the way so many Burial tracks do. Think about the way Burial sampled a sound effect of a shell case ricocheting off a tiled floor from Metal Gear Solid - an incredibly distinctive and arresting sample that evokes an entire sonic headspace of coldness, isolation, discard, all in one little sound looping back and forth in a larger track. Production tricks here don't get any more adventurous than sampling gloomy film dialogue during moody intro segments - things we've heard countless times before. They're functional but not inspirational. People have already thought of them. If I were writing an atmospheric downtempo night-time record, I'd pencil that kind of thing in without thinking, whereas I'd never think to sample the falling shell case. This is an effective album, but it's nothing that a whole bunch of people couldn't have done by writing out a few morose piano sketches and throwing in a whole bunch of atmospherics and samples. It's background music, in other words, music that only really comes alive when set to imagery or put in a certain context. Very good background music, I should stress, but the world isn't short of that.

Genre: Late Night Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Spatial - Spatial

Spatial's self-titled debut is very much what I would call a pretentious record, and I personally am not a fan of the word "pretentious". Most people who use seem to be suffering from intellectual insecurity, and invariably it's levelled at anything vaguely arty or intelligent that makes the accusor feel a little uncomfortable. But Spatial's album is, for me, pretentious. It has trappings of artiness that aren't matched by the content. The (visually) abstract artwork and the (semantically) abstract numerical track titles are a red flag, and the very name Spatial seems to echo the rhetoric of early-20th Century modernist abstract art, or something. The music itself could also be called "abstract", insofar as that term could be applied to music (NOT as a synonym for "weird"). There are no live instruments here at all, and only isolated slivers of sampled human vocals, chopped up and deployed in typical dubstep/garage style. It's very difficult to discern anything in the way of structure in these stripped down tracks - most of them are just skittery broken beat rhythms with minimalist bass pulses and odd loops that are added and occasionally subtracted.

But, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no point to most of these tracks whatsoever. They drift by in a directionless blur. If this is supposed to be dance music, it's a horrifically sterile and funkless approximation, and if this is supposed to be listening music... then why? What are we listening out for here? There seems to be a trend amongst these self-consciously experimental techno/garage/omni producers to take dance music and just strip it down a lot until it just becomes difficult to listen to, this difficulty probably intended to make the music "challenging" and therefore worthwhile. I don't think it is. I think this is a fucking boring record for the most part.

Dubstep and the subsequent post-everything diaspora has always been quirky, weird music and Spatial has merely abstracted it out a little further. Congratulations. Such a worthewhile artistic enterprise. Most of these tracks sound like the idle creations of a child picking their way through FL Studio for the very first time. The sound design is remarkably uninteresting, the tracks explore an extremely limited set of ideas and the interaction of the various musical elements doesn't go past the most laughably simplistic of counter-pointing and the occasional bit of call-and-response. I imagine there are atrociously hairstyled crowds somewhere in London that actually dance to this stuff, but it does not elicit any notable response from me except irritation that I wasted an hour of listening time on it.

Genre: Post-future-UK-wankery
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Review: Orbital - Middle Of Nowhere

I fucking love this album. I fucking love Orbital, who made at least three albums that would probably all make it into an all-time Top 10 list if I didn't feel so guilty and let some other guys into the limelight. The Brown Album speaks for itself, and Snivilisation is another album I love to death, but in a violation of conventional wisdom I've always preferred Middle Of Nowhere to In Sides. In Sides is often seen as the best of Orbital's albums: it's the most ambient, the most cinematic, it has the longest tracks and it coincided with their peak of mid-90s "electronica" popularity. Middle Of Nowhere took three years to follow it, during which time the Hartnoll brothers suffered from terrible writer's block. Style actually resulted from Paul going into the studio with a kid's stylophone and simply seeing what sounds he could get from the toy, making percussion sounds from the "click" when he unplugged it, as a way of battling through the band's lack of ideas. In the end, the album was seen as a step backwards because it was a return to upbeat, danceable material after the sombre, politically-minded introspection of In Sides, and consequently disappointed many a critic. Most people heard the thumping breakbeats and punchy keyboard riffs and dismissed this as a more straight-up, cheerful party-time record.

But you know what? They were wrong. Middle Of Nowhere is actually one of the darkest Orbital records, and a supremely underrated album. There's a recurring theme of negativity and nothingness on almost every track - just look at the repeated usage and punning of the words "No" and "Nothing" in the lyrics and track titles. "Why can't anyone hear me?" cries a distorted vocal on Spare Parts Express, "No good, nothing changes. Nothing" mourns a malfunctioning robot sentience on I Don't Know You People, while on the bleakly beautiful Otono (Autumn), vocalist Pooka breathes "I want nothing at all". Frankly, I do not know how anyone who has actually paid attention to this album can call it happy or trivial, and yet people seem to take one listen to it, hear the crunching robot-funk of Nothing Left and the pseudo-big beat madness of ...You People and draw their conclusions from there.

I also do not understand how people have said this was nothing new from Orbital, again a conclusion that seems entirely drawn from the presence of some loud bass thumps. If you think this album sounds anything like The Brown Album you are an absolute fucking idiot. The glorious opener Way Out -> (Orbital certainly knew how to open a fuckin' album) features sampled operatic vocals and live trumpets that sound almost spaghetti western, a vibe that had never been done on an Orbital track before. It leads seamlessly into the sprawling Spare Parts Express, another exercise in writer's block where the duo threw in everything they had lying in the studio into one ever-changing electronic journey that morphs multiple times before reprising gloriously at the end. I have all of Orbital's albums and I've listened to them all countless times and they had NEVER fucking done this before that track. There are more vocals here than on any previous Orbital album, used in different kinds of tracks to what we'd heard before.

But anyway. I shouldn't have to answer decade old complaints from idiot critics on behalf of the band. Yeah, this is one of the most danceable Orbital albums. Nothing Left is the one Orbital track I've managed to seamlessly slot into a DJ set, while many a big beat DJ got mileage out of You People. The acid vortex headfuck halfway through Nothing Left 2 does bring back memories of Impact (The Earth Is Burning). But if this is a dance record, it's still a supremely clever and off the wall one. I actually think the writer's block they battled through and the subsequent unusual creative strategies probably resulted in the most unique Orbital album, which is why this one is still seen in some respects as the odd one out in their discography, the most neglected chapter in the narrative. Green is basically a techno album, and not a particularly good one, while Brown is a superb widescreen expansion of UK rave music at the time. Snivilisation and In Sides are undeniably out-there, but now I'm older, wiser and better-listened I can hear a huge amount of Kraftwerk in those records. But Middle Of Nowhere? It's sort of a collision of everything Orbital had previously done, but with more of the vocal collabs and inventive sampling that defined their post-millenial output, and some thumping beats that nobody had expected to hear from them again.

In retrospect, this was probably the beginning of the end for Orbital, not because it's in any way a bad album but because they never really recovered from the struggle of making it. In many ways this album is a triumph of two musicians forcing themselves to work through crippling writer's block, but it was clear they were running out of new ideas, that the spontaneous spark of their earlier work was gone and they weren't cut out for the hard graft or complacent repetition of the late-career period. The Altogether was a disaster, and I basically believe that's because they were forcing themselves to make music. Blue was a good swan-song, but it was deliberately devoid of new ideas, and I personally don't like any of their post-reformation material.

Anyway, I love this album to bits. I've heard it countless times since I first bought it in a HMV in Middlesbrough when I was 17 and going to an open day for the University Of Teeside. I remember it was a particular favourite to play when I'd stayed up all night to correct a broken sleeping pattern. I would take the dog for a walk at 6am in a delirious sleep-deprived world of weak winter sun, and the opening sweep of Way Out ->; was intoxicating, dizzying, the beginning of a wonderful musical journey. Now it's 5.35am, I've come back drunk from a shit abortive night out I didn't want to go on and I'm ready to sleep, and I had no plans to play the full thing but I got so sucked in I've listened to it start to finish and I love it as much as I ever did as a sore-eyed teenager. The only problem is that the player has gone straight through into the beginning of Snivilisation, and I'm worried I'll still be laid here awake listening in another hour. Good lord, I fucking love Orbital.

Genre: ERROR.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: Fourward - Episodes

Fourward Episodes
I've no idea where this came from or why I've listened to it, but Fourward's album Episodes turns out to be a pretty enjoyable slice of neurofunk. Pop neurofunk, I'd call it, if such a thing could possibly exist. Drum 'n bass, and dubstep, and a lot of bass music generally, seems to increasingly segregate its hooks from its dancefloor action, which often leads to that disappointing feeling when a track that sounds so awesome in the breakdown turns into the robotic madness of a rabid Optimus Prime once the FILTHY BASS DROP kicks in. Fourward are far from above deploying that cliché - in fact, they use it pretty damn often on Episodes, but for some reason it doesn't bother me too much on here. For some reason, I find this album endearing.

Neurofunk is a pretty tough genre to love, because it's basically apocalyptic male rage embodied in one music genre, and yet, terrifyingly, I seem to be getting into it. There's even a moment of monstrous wobble-stupid brostep on here in the form of Temptations, and I even quite like that track. And right now I'm damned if I can explain why. I guess this is just a rare neurofunk record that actually sounds fun, and the poppy interludes and breaks are all really well done. Just witness the hip-hop break in the midst of Simple - genius!

In many ways, drum 'n bass seems to be one of the most isolated of electronic genres. Sure, thanks to Pendulum and Chase & Status a lot of kids are listening to the popped up stuff, but serious electronic fans still seem to ignore drum 'n bass more than any other area. People are scared of it, they can't handle it. Episodes is packed full of drum 'n bass stereotypes which will turn a lot of people cold straight away. Hell, I still can't figure out why I'm not annoyed by this album. But that right there is one of the great things about music, and art - you can rationalise it as much as you like, but sometimes it just appeals or appalls you on some gut level. And I like this album. Deal with it, people.

Genre: Drum 'n bass
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: The Black Dog - Liber Dogma

Black Dog Liber Dogma
Oh yes. After reviewing a whole bunch of respectably boring techno, I was beginning to lose faith in the genre. Leave it to an old dog to teach the new kids how to do a dancefloor techno album properly. Liber Dogma shits all over every straight-up techno album I've heard this year, and it comes from some of the oldest heads in the business. The Black Dog shouldn't really need any introduction, as they're one of the very first British acts to do techno, they released on Warp back in the glory days and they've enjoyed a real resurgence in the last few years. Last year's Music For Real Airports was a bit of a career high, a conceptual ambient record inspired by innumerable frustrating hours spent in airports that registered well with everyone. In light of that, the return to heads-down techno is a bit of a surprise, but the Black Dog have always been primarily a techno act and perhaps they were getting frustrated with everyone else getting it wrong.

Firstly, they know that an album is meant to be listened to in one sitting, and they actually compose tracks especially to be heard in that context. What this means is no full-length club cuts with dreary extended lead-ins and outs that just bog down the record. The tracks on Liber Dogma all segue into each other seamlessly, sounding more like a DJ set or live show. And basically, that's a good thing. You can still mix all of these tracks, especially if you're as inventive as any good techno DJ should be. Techno is a dancefloor genre, and any dancefloor genre sounds best when played as it would be heard on a dancefloor. It's such a simple concept, yet so few artists seem to realise.

It's not just that they cut out the downtime either. Liber Dogma actually has a direction and a structure as a listening experience. It starts off with sparkly melodic elements that have long been a feature of The Black Dog's techno productions. Dave Wave Creeping is a fantastic opening track, with an enormous bassline, and the opening run of tracks flows seamlessly. Then midway through the melodic side drops away and we have ten or fifteen minutes of heads-down techno, before reaching a glorious Detroit-esque breakdown in Hype Knot 7, which is classic Black Dog through and through. Then it's back into the no-nonsense club grooves. The flow of this record really is beautifully weighted, and it's a classic example of how proper contextualisation can get maximum effect from tracks. Although there are a hatful of fantastic stand-alone tracks on this album (Dark Wave Creeping, Eden 353, Black Maria, etc. etc.) there are also a lot of tracks that would be considered "filler" if they weren't deployed in a way that added momentum and contrast in the right places.

Plenty of techno producers have made great albums by going extremely ambient or textural or conceptual, but it's pretty rare to hear an album that really delivers danceable techno you can still listen to at home and enjoy. With Liber Dogma the Black Dog have absolutely nailed it, and all the pretenders need to tune in and start taking notes.

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Hiroshi Watanabe - Sync Positive

Hiroshi Watanabe Sync Positive
Hiroshi Watanabe is one of those producers who you've almost certainly heard of at some point or another. His most famous alias is Kaito, releasing what we are obliged to call "neo trance" on Kompakt Records, the trendiest of uber-trendy German labels, but he's had a billion other aliases and done soundtrack work for videogames and animé and stuff. He's the kind of name a lot of people take for granted. Yeah, he releases a lot of good stuff but he's just Hiroshi Watanabe. You don't have to follow his career because you know he's out there and always releasing music, so you can just have an occasional listen without feeling you've missed out on much.

Perhaps that's because most of his music sounds pretty similar: extremely soft and generally extremely happy melodic techno, which frequently uses endlessly pulsing rhythms and repetitive melodic motifs in a way remniscent of trance, or at least the idealised conception of trance, divorced from the Euro-shlock or hippy-trip of the real thing. Generally my problem with Watanabe, particularly when operating as Kaito, is that his music is just completely unerringly happy. Not only do all the tracks sound fluffy and dreamy and warm, but every single sound in every single track is warm and glowy and happy as well. Listening to any of his albums all the way through generally ends up feeling like you're drowning in candyfloss.

To an extent, this complaint still applies to Sync Positive. There are moments, particularly on Sleepless Dream, where I felt my teeth rotting inside my mouth from the sugar content of the music. However it must be said that Watanabe has tempered his instincts a little here and there are a few tracks that are better than anything I've heard from him before. The opening track Days is a good example, with a burbling acid riff that is a little edgier and ravier than you'd expect to hear, and thus provides a nice counterpoint to the soaring piano melody. This is still a very cheerful album, as you'd expect from something called Sync Positive that has a picture of a fairground on the cover, but there is at least some variety and contrast here, exemplified in the track Happiness Sadness, which sounds both happy... and sad!

I'm sure ardent Watanabe fans will point out dozens of examples from his discography where he's done all of this before, but I've never been taken with his work enough to hear everything he's done. The thing about Watanabe is his sound doesn't quite fit in anywhere - it's probably closest to techno, but only by process of elimination. Really it's just danceable melodic electronic music, in a sound he has largely made his own. This is actually a really good album - it's the kind of thing I've always wanted to hear from him, but haven't until now. And seriously, some of these tracks are fucking killer, which more than makes up for the occasional overly saccharine moment. I don't think Watanabe is pushing his sound far enough to really make this a classic (and no, dipping into downtempo female-wail on the closing track isn't experimental, it's just an unwanted flashback to 2001), but it's still an extremely solid and fulfilling album from someone who is an extremely good musician and producer, just not always a daring and sophisticated artist.

Genre: Melodic techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review: Per Byhring - Ettertid

Per Byhring Ettertid
I honestly do not know a damn thing about this album whatsoever. On this guy has less than 200 listeners, which is microscopic even by my standards, and a search of his name and the album comes back with his Soundcloud page as the top result. Even his supposed Per alias has less than a thousand listeners, and that's a name shared with a Latvian beatbox group. Per Byhring is, in other words, a complete unknown. He doesn't even have a Discogs page.

So how did I find this album? Well, Spotify recommended it to me while I was listening to another, completely unrelated album. Not sure why, but perhaps when you're dealing with such minute listener bases, the odd explorations of one or two listeners can influence its recommendations algorithms. It was a surprise that this album is so utterly unknown, because it's remarkably well written and produced for a guy who basically seems to be right at the start of his career. I know as well as anyone that great musicians who can produce fantastic, professional-sounding records can still linger in total obscurity, but this is the kind of album that should be garnering at least a cult blog following.

So what does it sound like? Well it's instrumental and mostly electronic, with lots of 4/4 DOOF-DOOF-DOOF beats, but it doesn't feel like a dance record at all. It's more like one of those hipster-techno records, of a similar ilk to The Field or Four Tet. And no, I don't actually think Four Tet makes techno. Lighten the fuck up. There's lots of live instrumentation, particularly guitar leads, and rich interwoven melodies. The percussion is not particularly clubby, but the beats do feel a little more lively and propulsive than all that trendy gloomy techno I've been writing about. The mood of this album is mostly chirpy and upbeat, so it does make sense to have an upbeat dance thunk underpinning it. It's all delightfully put together, with a real "proper musician" feel to all the songwriting.

This really is an album that should have got a whole lot more attention than it actually has, and it's still a bit of a mystery to me. It's not particularly that I love this sound - it's a little bit too cheerfully upbeat for me to really bite its arm off. I always like some emotional contrast in any album, to prevent it becoming monotonous. However, I could level the same complaint at any number of critically adored albums, and this is still a very good album that could shift thousands if the likes of Pitchfork found out about it.

Genre: Pastoral-guitar-house (?)
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Monday, 16 January 2012

Review: Morphosis - What We Have Learned

Morphosis - What We Have Learned
Yet more trendster techno, Morphosis' debut album What We Have Learned is yet another product of Delsin Records. And once again we get a solid but unspectacular album that never really catches fire or excites any great emotional response from me. It really does seem like 90% of the hyped electronic albums you hear these days fall into this category. I honestly do wonder if anyone really loves these bassy, moody techno albums. I'm sure a lot of people like them, but I just struggle to imagine anyone really loving them, having any kind of profound experience when listening to them that wasn't facilitated by a lot of drugs.

At least with Morphosis I can understand the hype, because this is a pretty unique sounding album as far as techno goes. Granted, there are still a lot of 4/4 beats that would be absolutely fucking useless on a dancefloor, but these tracks aren't structured like dancefloor cuts at all. A lot of them have the "sound sculpture" design a lot of the more self-consciously arty techno aspires towards, where the tracks barely have any obvious structure at all, but rather add and subtract sequencer layers so incrementally it's difficult to spot any kind of obvious changes or passages. The production and sound design is also pretty unique, and much has been made of Morphosis' use of improvisation and uncorrected playing errors. A lot of techno doesn't quite sound three dimensional outside a Funktion One soundsystem, but this album is seriously bass heavy and textured even through a laptop soundcard. It's definitely a record with its own sound, which is always a worthy feat.

Trouble is, though, and you know where this complaint is going, there just aren't enough stand-out tracks. There's a, erm, stand in track, namely Too Far with its utterly rubbish female vocal, but the only track I would classify as even close to being considered "great" is Kawn, with its barrage of nightmarish metallic synths and doomy apocalyptic melodies. I don't think this is a bad album - it certainly feels like more of an original and worthwhile piece than, say, Conforce's album, but at the same time it wasn't necessarily any more satisfying to listen to. Really, it's just those shitty, shitty beats. None of the rhythms or percussion programming on this album is remotely interesting. If you're going to make some weird, off-the-wall electronic record, cut the fuckin' beats for once, because they're so stereotypical and limited. It's at odds with everything else this record seems to be about. And don't tell me that this is just intelligent or artistic dance music. I don't believe dance music is necessarily unartistic or uninteresting, but interesting dance music is music that is clever in how it makes you dance. Smack My Bitch Up is a clever dance record. This isn't. Morphosis makes clever music with a tacked-on beat you can shuffle one foot to and nod your head a bit.

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better

DJ Shadow The Less You Know The Better
Well goodness me if I'm not actually reviewing an album you might have heard of. DJ Shadow has almost a million listeners on, which makes him the most popular artist I've reviewed thus far on this blog by an absolute landslide. As a music fan, I almost never get to take part in these "pop moments". The closest I've come this year was Gang Gang Dance's album, and Gang Gang are hardly what the kids are listening to. Well, maybe the terribly hairstyled, charity-shop outfitted, mid-20s kids who wander around the student neighbourhoods, but I find those people bizarre and incomprehensible, so I definitely don't feel any sense of communal joy there.

DJ Shadow is not exactly Lady Gaga, or even Radiohead. There are definitely people I know who would ask "Who is he?", to which I would reply "Just your favourite DJ saviour" because I'm an obnoxious jizz-twat who thinks it's cool to reference obscure lyrics. But even so, DJ Shadow is pretty big. Endtroducing is one of the classic albums of the 1990s, and also one of the classic albums of my adolescence, possibly my single favourite album of all time. It was one of those crucial albums at the age when I first started listening to full albums, around the age of 16 or 17, that I took everywhere on my CD Walkman and played to absolute death. I used to play half of it on the way to sixth form and play the second half on the way back. I used to play it when I walked the dog, I used to play it when I was depressed. I still play it around once a year, usually in the autumn when the leaves have fallen, and it still sounds as great as ever. I think Simon Reynolds summed it up perfectly when he said the album inspires what he called "Deep Time", the kind of child-like deep immersion you get from being totally lost in a great book. That's a feeling I get from a lot of my very favourite music, and Endtroducing is one of the greatest examples of all.

DJ Shadow, of course, suffered immensely from that classic grand narrative of the music world - the Perfect First Album, and the inevitable artistic struggles that resulted - struggles such as The Difficult Second Album and Should You Give Fans More Of The Same? It's perhaps no surprise that most of his subsequent albums have self-referential titles that implicitly discuss the artistic process. Titles like Private Press and The Outside seemed like oblique statements that Shadow was making the music for himself, rather than acquiescing to the expectations of his fanbase, while The Less You Know, The Better seems like a lament on the crippling feedback loop of the self-aware mature artist who can no longer just create but is constantly thinking back to what he's already done, what people expect, what people want, what would surprise people. DJ Shadow, to me, is someone who badly wants to go back to the days when nobody knew who the fuck he was and he didn't know what the fuck he was doing, and he made the best, the most honest music of his life.

I honestly feel bad for Shadow, because he'll never get over Endtroducing. No matter how many dismissive comments he makes in interviews, no matter how much better he feels he is as an artist, that album is a soul-scrapingly genius work, one that the entire human collective will only top once or twice in a generation. Shadow is simply never going make a better record, and to have basically reached your artistic apex at the start of your career is a depressing thing. He knows he can't just remake Endtroducing - it will never be as good the second time around, so he tries to move forwards and do something totally different.

And to be fair to him, I have enjoyed his later stuff. The Outsider is generally agreed to have been a serious misstep, but The Private Press was a solid album and The Less You Know ain't half bad either. He has gone in an increasingly dancefloor-oriented direction as time has gone on, which is the opposite path most artists take but obviously reflects his desire to escape Endtroducing. True, The Less You know sounds like an inferior version of The Avalanches but it does have its moments. The theme of this album seems to be one of unrequited love, which results in a few extremely touching moments.

And since this has thus far been remarkably like a proper review with a thoughtful analysis of an artist's motives and statements, allow me to make it a 100% digital-diary entry blog post. Because this theme resonates with me quite hard. I was supposed to see DJ Shadow live when he was touring back in December. In fact, a girl who works at the venue asked me if I was going to come down. A girl I really like, and wanted to talk to. I couldn't make it because work spurned my request for the shift off, and I never got to see this girl. And although we tried to arrange to meet up a couple of times after that, it couldn't happen then either for various different reasons. In the end I was so frustrated by the situation I tried too hard to force it to happen. I got a little too bossy with this girl when she really wasn't in the right place to be bossed about. And she fell out with me, and we haven't spoken since. I sent her a text last night and she didn't reply, and now I'm sat here with the depressing knowledge that I've fucked it up and this girl is ignoring me, probably forever.

Now honestly, I didn't know this girl awfully well, but I did know her well enough to know she was an extremely cool, smart and funny person, a lot more beautiful than she seemed to realise, and I even know that she kind of liked me, that if I'd not been such a clown I might actually have found some happiness with her. So when, on this album, on tracks like I've Been Trying, a sampled blues man sings:

I've been trying to get you to love me
I've been trying to make you care
I've put forth a lot of effort
But I just don't seem to get nowhere hits hard, it makes me feel like crying. The theme continues throughout the album. On the next track, Sad And Lonely, a beautifully sad woman sings: "Young ladies take a warning / Don't waste your affections on a young man so free". It reaches a peak on the astonishingly powerful Give Me Back The Nights, which uses a recording of a forgotten amateur poet reciting one of his pieces, in which he laments the endless years of his life he wasted, lonely, chasing the love of people who spurned him. By this point in the album I'm just about ready to kill myself.

Now honestly, this isn't a great album. There's a big slew of tracks in the middle that are boring and forgettable as hell. But on these little moments, the album resonates with me. It speaks to me about my problems, my heartache, my struggles. For the rest of my life, when I listen to this record I'm going to think back to that girl and the moment I fucked it all up. This is far from the best album of 2011, but of everything I hear all year, this one might be the single one in years to come that actually makes me remember the time, the things I cared about, the mistakes I made, the things that might have been.

Genre: Hip-hop
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Actraiser - Art Of Balance

Actaiser Art Of Balance
I've had a sudden realisation: Actraiser might just be one of my favourite producers of the moment, and not just because he's named after a childhood favourite SNES game. I've been aware of him for a while, mainly because he released on DFRNT's Echodub label, who gave away a bunch of excellent free compilations last year. But even though he's already demonstrated his versatility with genre-blurring club bangers like the wildly brilliant Wip3out, I still had him pegged as an atmospheric/ambient dubstep producer. Until I heard this album.

Because this album is barely even dubstep at all. For the most part, it's basically an instrumental hip-hop record, and a gloriously warm and soulfully jazzy one at that. And if there's one genre that really cannot fail, it's instrumental jazzy hip-hop. This is a totally unexpected result from Actraiser - if there was any sign this album was coming, I certainly haven't heard it in his older work - and what's more, this is possibly the finest body of music he's made yet. To switch styles so effortlessly and audaciously is a real achievement. What's more, he varies it up excellently, dipping back into dubstep rhythms and structures later on, whilst still maintaining the characteristic warm sound that defines the album. Track titles like Lounge Lizard and Jazz Club even playfully mock the milquetoast Kenny G-isms that pseudo-jazzy downtempo music so often falls into, while the music itself nimbly sidesteps these pitfalls.

I was so impressed by this album, I immediately went back into his discography to listen to his other recent stuff, to see where this came from. It turns out his latest EP, Odyssey To The West, sounds absolutely nothing like this, either! That EP consists of similarly brilliant but totally different weird proggy-techno-y dancefloor cuts. Actraiser, it seems, can do absolutely anything he wants. How many other producers can produce everything from dubstep to hip-hop to techno and do it this well? Not many, and even fewer who've only been releasing music professionally for a couple of years.

Unlike so many of the other nice-but-forgettable or solid-but-unspectacular albums I've heard in my quest to find the best of 2011, this is an album I immediately want to go back to - I'm already thinking of all the different times and places I want to play it. I listen to so much music I sometimes think I'm becoming bludgeoned by it, burned out, unable to hear the genuinely good stuff anymore. Then I hear a producer like this and I get genuinely excited again, and I remember why I'm constantly searching through the trendster techno and wallpaper blogbient.

Genre: Instrumental hip-hop/jazz-step
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Ishq - Skyspaces

Ishq Skyspaces
Ishq is another ambient guy who I discovered through ASC's ever-brilliant Deep Space Mix Series, and like 36 and Iambic and all these other guys he (she? they?) makes droney field-recordingy slightly shoegazey ambient. I've voiced my suspicions about this style before - namely that it seems way too easy to make nice, pleasant, credible sounding music through droney field recording techniques. And true enough, Ishq is churning out two albums a year right now, which is not the behaviour of a producer who really has to slave over every piece he puts out.

Still, Skyspaces is very nice. The evocative titles accurately connote the pleasant, scenic expansiveness of the music, which is the most part haunting and gorgeously melancholic. Tracks like The Sun Arcs A Smile and A New Day, for all their bile-raising sappy titles, do stand out from your typical soporific blogbient haze and delicately caress my heartstrings. And there is even a bad track here - the incongruously gloomy Distant Shores, which sounds EXACTLY THE FUCKING SAME if you skip through it at random. This all suggests a creative craft with a bit more riding on it, the capacity to make a piece that's notably good or bad, rather than blandly pleasant.

Again, though, the question is whether I'll ever go back to this album. This kind of ambient seems tailor-made for the endless info-bombardment of the Internet music scene, which is perhaps why the producers are so frighteningly prolific. Someone who professes to like this style will probably listen to dozens of albums like this every month, endlessly flitting through more and more pretty ambient albums but never really going back and repeatedly listening to any of them. The advantage of this album is it has highlights, which makes it perfect for cherry-picking for ambient DJs, but I honestly just do not think I'll go back to it, ever. It all makes me wonder: at what point does this stuff become indistinguishable from New Age?

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Phutureprimitive - Kinetik

Phutureprimitive - Kinetik
Let's be honest here: dubstep in in 2012 is, basically fucking boring and played-out. This may sound like complete elitist underground hipster snobbery, but I barely listened to any dubstep in 2011. The style is just done. None of it is interesting any more. All the good guys in this scene have gone off into the weird and wonderful realms of post-dubstep, future garage, UK funky or just electronic weirdness. But because the genre is so ubiquitous, it's now hybridising wildly with scenes that have abso-fucking-lutely nothing to do with the London urban bass music scene. Such as the psy hippies. So we get this: Phutureprimitive's album Kinetik, the latest and most prominent example of the nascent psychedelic dubstep (or psy-step, or whatever) sound.

Phutureprimitive used to make psy-dub and ambient, and so I suppose ostensibly it's pretty obvious that he'd eventually extend his dub interests to dubstep. Except, of course, that dubstep, or specifically the loud mid-range wobble nonsense that is so popular right now, has abso-fucking-lutely nothing to do with dub at all. Make no mistake: this is not some organic continuation. This is a total bandwagon jump.

But is it any good? It's alright. Most of these tracks retain some pretty melodic bits inspired by psy-trance and ambient, which appeals to my taste. But almost every track features annoying mid-range wobble and other dubstep stereotypes, which turn me off immediately. I guess this is like people who hate dance music because they just can't hear past those stereotypical UNTZ-UNTZ-UNTZ beats - I should just accept that these sounds are part of modern dubstep and needn't preclude it from being interesting. But I still just can't get over them. So most of the tracks on here are a contradictory listening experience, where certain elements of every track are arousing my interest, and others are turning me off entirely. It makes the album quite difficult to judge. It's very weird liking approximately half of the sounds coming through your ears at any given moment, and hating the other half. It all just feels very forced, like these disparate sounds have been crowbarred together with no unity of effect. Deliberately loud, nasty sounds collide with delicate, pretty ones and the end result is disjointed and annoying. Certainly too annoying for me want to relisten.

Genre: Psychedelic bandwagon-hop.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Review: Aural Imbalance - Different Perspective / Intuition

Aural Imbalance Intuition
Aural Imbalance Different Perspectives
Taking a break from all that 2011 nonsense, I had a listen to a couple of CDs I'd ordered in physical form recently, both by Simon Huxtable, AKA Aural Imbalance/Deep Space Organisms/Concentric Flow/millions of other aliases. First up is Different Perspective, on Cadence Recordings, followed by Inuition on Within Records. The original plan was to settle down after a hard day's work with these albums and read some science fiction, as befits the glorious spaciness of the music, but after about 10 pages of an Adam Roberts novel I was distracted by multiple Facebook chat windows and have got no further. Damnit.

Luckily, the music sounds just as good when soundtracking Facebook as it does conceptual science fiction literature. Simon Huxtable, AKA Aural Imbalance, AKA Deep Space Organisms AKA the Illuminati Are Controlling The World's Governments Behind A Shroud Of Secrecy, is one of my very favourite producers. At one point his stuff was well-loved by John Digweed, Nick Warren and others, but then those people stopped playing interesting music and Aural Imbalance, Deep Space Organisms and The Entire Last Chapter Of James Joyce's Ulysses In One Go slipped away into obscurity. Which is a shame, because Huxtable made some of the most interesting electronic music of the last ten years.

Different Perspectie showcases his earlier direction, which is essentially classic '90s atmospheric drum 'n bass but spaced out beyond belief. Later on, Huxtable would move towards an extremely chilled out, near-ambient approximation of progressive house/trance, as expressed on Intuition. Really, though, the connection to either of these genres is extremely tenuous, and as time went on his music became increasingly weightless and ambient (although to be fair, he seems to have returned to more conventional dancefloor material in the last year or two). Really, Huxtable, AKA Aural Imbalance, AKA Deep Space Organisms, AKA Okay I'll Stop Now, makes space music that just happens to be influenced by '90s club sounds. Space music is a sort of trans-genre movement that goes back to the '70s and that focuses on music that (you guessed it) expresses the weightless, directionally expansiveness of deep space. Usually ambient, almost always hypnotic, space music done well is just about as good as music gets, in my opinion. And Huxtable's flowing, cascading, rhythmic take on the sound is some of the very best space music ever made.

Different Perspectives is both the older of the two compilations and the slightly weaker. Not because I like atmospheric drum 'n bass less than ambient trance, but because the tracks here fit conventional club paradigms a little more closely, and thus the music is just a little more earthbound. Additionally, this is more of a conventional DJ mix, albeit one comprised entirely of Huxtable's own music, and the mixing itself isn't quite as smooth as the music really demands. A couple of the transitions even sound borderline out-of-key, with definite moments of harmonic incompatibility that wake up the keen-eared listener and remind you that you're not actually drifting through the outer rim forever. The music is still fantastic though, building up a kind of weird invense space-intensity that reaches its crescendo with DSO's Differential.

As good as it is, Different Perspectives is just a trial run for Intuition, which is the musical equivalent of cryosleep. People love to talk about being "lost in the music" and all this corny shit, but honestly, four tracks into this album and it felt like I'd been listening for a lifetime. And I mean that in a good way. If you could purify the mental state I like to be put in when listening to music and express it in one ideal record, it would probably be this one.

Most of the tracks on this compilation were already available to listen to on Spotify, so I already knew I'd love this compilation, but hearing them mixed together into a 72 minute space odyssey was exactly what I wanted and unlike Different Perspective, the mixing is absolutely spot on for accentuating the music's qualities. Come to think of it, there would be no point in trying to read while listening to this music, because my eyes would just glaze over and glint with the light of a billion flickering galactic spirals. In fact, I'm going to stop writing this review for a bit and just doze off to the music. I'm quite serious. See you in half an hour.

...Okay, I actually fell asleep for 10 hours. Honestly. Having woken up, my thoughts are that Intuition is the kind of solid gold, perfect listening experience that only comes along a few times in your life, that makes you reassess just exactly how good all that other music you thought you loved actually is. There's a lot of out-there and weird music that I really enjoy, but don't always get the same direct, immediate hit from that I get from more accessible music. This is one of those records that I know is out there, but still sounds immensely gratifying to listen to. It is, without any shade of hyperbole, one of the best things I've ever heard.

Genre: Space music
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: Different Perspective - 9/10, Intuition - 10/10

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Review: Arctic Night - Mysteries

Arctic Night Mysteries
Arctic Night is one of my favourite modern-era progressive house producers, so when I unexpectedly discovered he had a full album out this year on Mistiquemusic, I fairly shat myself. He has a knack for creating tracks that seem to build up fantastic momentum, adding layer upon layer until you're plummeting through a gorgeously entrancing wormhole of progressive journey wankery. He has also a distinctive sparkly synth voice he uses on just about every track, which makes any of his tracks stand out instantly as an Arctic Night track. Reusing synth sounds can be lazy and lead to every track sounding identical, but this one is so distinctive and effective that I give him extra points for having created it.

Unfortunately, this album suffers a little bit from Mistique syndrome. Mistique are the premier progressive house web-label, and their problem is that they release absolutely everything, all the time. A&R for this label is non-existent. If you're on the roster and you make a track, they'll put it out. No overheads, no risks, no need for stringent quality control. Which is not to say the label doesn't release some fantastic music, or that this album is shit, but it does strike me as another lazy digital-release album, just ten tracks thrown out at once. I don't think any of these tracks are stronger than previous Arctic Night releases, or any more deserving of being released on an album. In fact, I'd say many of these tracks are a good deal more forgettable than Arctic Night's best work. In my opinion, an album is a more enduring artistic statement than a single or an EP. You put your best shit on the album, not just ten tracks you happen to have made and haven't already released. This is the problem with these digital albums - nobody ever includes previously released tracks on them. That just doesn't seem to be possible anymore, because digital releases are all about pumping out as much material as possible to maximise sales, and fuck creating the best possible listening experience.

The title annoys me as well. Mistique seem to specialise in this pastoral, faux-spiritual borderline trance-hippy nonsense. You cannot find a Mistique release anymore that doesn't have a title like Mysterious Wonder or Sadness of Fog or some damn shit. I would not dare play out a track called "Smells Of My Desires", because it would make my tracklist look fucking ridiculous, and yet there's a track on this album called exactly that.

Anyway, it's all about the music, maaaan, so let's pedantically judge that as well. As mentioned, not enough of these tracks are Grade A, high calibre Arctic Night shit. The one outright brilliant track is Excitation, which is also the longest track on the album and self-evidently the best. Even the name seems to be code for "And now it actually gets interesting". A few of the other tracks are very good, good enough to play out and do very well in a DJ set, but once again this is an album where you've got 10 full length club cuts arranged in a random manner, with no concession to creating any kind of flow or listening experience, and the resulting listening experience is homogenous and dull. This is another album where I would cherry-pick my favourites, mix them myself in a set and never listen to this album in its entirity. Which is all well and good, but as I often query - can't you just release two or three EPs and save the artist album for that point in your career where you're capable of doing it justice?

Genre: Progressive
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Review: Dominik Eulberg - Diorama

Dominik Eulberg - Diorama
I'll be honest: I expected Dominik Eulberg's new album Diorama to be yet more middling trendster techno. I don't know shit about Dominik Eulberg, except a vague impression of his trendiness and his technoness. He released an album on Cocoon, which is enough for me. I'm only listening to this damn shit in the interests of being fair (lit: looking more eclectic than I actually am).

Anyway, surprise surprise when Diorama actually turns out to be great stuff. It's quite difficult to put a finger on what genre we're operating in here. Techno, of the melodic, Germanic post-millenial ilk, seems to be the root of the album, but there's an awful lot here you won't find on a typical techno record. Live instruments, for one. Live drums at that! That's pretty much the antithesis of techno. That's like, folk, or something.

To elaborate in a a slightly less facetious manner, techno has often struck me as a self-defining genre, a simulacrum if you will (*puffs on pipe*). I usually struggle to tell outsiders what makes a particular track a techno record instead of a house record, or a trance record, or occasionally even an ambient record. Seriously - try it at home. Why is a Vince Watson track like Atom techno but not trance? Why is a Hardfloor track techno and not acid house? And what on Earth is tech house, and why won't people stop making it? Techno was once defined by a prescriptive external ideology about futurism, dystopia and how fucking depressing 1980s Detroit was to live in, but all that is totally obsolescent now in a world of the Internet, smart phones and overpriced energy drinks. Techno doesn't sound much like the future anymore, but rather a distinctly retro and old fashioned approximation of how the future might have sounded if 1982 had gone on forever, sort of like how Robocop is a vision of the future where we have sentient battle droids policing our streets but TVs are still made out of wood and weigh 250lbs. Most techno producers are quite purist and insular, endlessly re-referencing Detroit and the Belleville trio and Alvin Toffler and all this fucking shit, and I suspect techno is actually just a certain set of synth sounds and production techniques. Well, I suspect any genre of music is just a certain set of sounds and techniques... damnit, what was the point here?

The point is that techno has never featured live drumming and real instruments. They aren't in the manual. So when Dominik Eulberg (remember him?) uses them on his album, does that preclude this from being techno? Most of the musical elements here, pretty arpeggios and lush stringy chords, could belong to any number of genres, and there few of the classic techno signifiers in terms of textures and timbres. This is a pretty unique album, alright. I guess someone who's listened to loads of stuff off Kompakt or wherever can point out lots of hipster-techno that uses live instrumentation alongside pretty and melodic sounds, but nobody is reading this blog so that's unlikely to happen.

I don't just like this album a whole lot because it sounds unique, but also because it sounds good, in a way that appeals to me: melodic, atmospheric, trancey. It's a feel good record too, which you can't say about much techno. That whole DARKWAREHOUSEWANKERS thing doesn't work too well on a summer's day, but this is an extremely summery album.

Look, I'm going to be honest here - I listened to this album the other night, and I've been busy with work and stuff and I can't really remember the individual tracks right now. I just have a powerful yet hazy memory of this album being fantastic. It's almost certainly going to be on the end of year list, and after a few repeat listens granted to the shortlist contenders I'll be able to summarise it a lot more articulately than the horrific nonsense I've just typed. Or you could just go and listen to it yourself. That'd be cool as well.

Genre: Hipster not-techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Review: Conforce - Escapism

Conforce - Escapism
More trendster techno here, this time Escapism from Dutch producer Conforce, straight out of the uber-trendy techno label Delsin. Much like Sandwell District, this is dance music that isn't particularly danceable, trading instead on moody minimalism and understatement. Unlike Sandwell District, there aren't any mega awesome tracks, but as a whole this album worked for me a little better. It's difficult to say quite why Conforce's take on moody, low-energy techno would be more appealing than Sandwell District's. I guess there's more variety here - from eerie dystopian sounds like Aquinous Control to delicate Detroit-y optimism on Shadows Of The Invisible and Diversion, as well as more experimental sound sketches like Timelapse.

Really though, this is not a great album. It's certainly a very respectable album, a mature, credible, tasteful album. You get a lot of cool points for listening to this. But it's not great. I don't feel enough risks were taken here - there's not enough investment either in making a daring album, or a real fanatical attention to detail to elevate the minimalistic forms of these tracks into the kind of improbable depths you hear in, say, an Echospace production. This is sort of middle-of-the-road techno, it feels like a producer so careful not to ruin his cred that he doesn't push out in any particular direction. My favourite tracks are the more melodic ones, and it feels like Conforce could have made a pretty cool melodic techno album if he'd put his mind to it. The artwork is very, very cool though.

Genre: Techno
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Monday, 2 January 2012

Review: Sundial Aeon - Mimesis

Sundial Aeon - Mimesis
Holy shit! I've been thinking a lot recently that it was about time we had another album from Sundial Aeon, and when I checked up on Beatport today I find Mimesis, right on cue. And it's an absolute fucking banger as well. Their first album, 2006's Metabasis, was a psychill album that started out excellently and went off the boil slightly by the end. Then came Apotheosis which was a real leap forward in its integration of a variety of live instrumentation and compositional depth, while still remaining mostly in the chilled out end of the psychedelic spectrum.

Mimesis, on the other hand, is rocking. It starts out with a couple of big ambient introductory tracks that rack up the tension, letting you wonder if they're actually going to kick off with some big arrangements or whether they've gone off into more experimental, tuneless territory. Then in comes The Vortex Incident, which is slamming acid trance except only at 120bpm, and from there we're off. The tracks are a genre-defying melange of psychedelic atmospheres, driving trancey acid lines and thumping beats channelling '90s big beat and electronica, all at this weird 120bpm house tempo. I've honestly no idea what to call this. These ideas have been kicking around for a while, in the slow-mo psychedelic grooves of Asura tracks like Celestial Tendencies and the swaggering psy-dub influenced groovers that pop up on many psy albums, notably this year's Tropical Sunset by Artifact 303. But Sundial Aeon are really kicking it up a gear, not only in BPM counts but also in the switch to a more dancefloor-oriented mindset that the increased tempo entails. I would rave my face off to this album, even though it's way slower than the usual psychedelic dancefloor stuff.

And seriously, just about every track is a killer. I was a little bit worried about the opening, but those tracks actually cue up the rest of the record superbly. Every other track is solid gold as well, and they vary up and flow perfectly. The remix of Iced Melancholy Spectacle drops down into breaks, then Profundity Of Imagination trances it up again with some sparkly arpeggios. It works so well. This album excites me. It makes me want to go out and find more of this, now, and then make a mix out of it all. It is, quite simply, the shit, and out of absolutely nowhere is now my favourite thing from 2011.

Sundial have been one of my favourite producers from the psy scene for some time now, but they've not reached the same levels of respect or popularity as the likes of Solar Fields, Vibrasphere or Ott, when I think their music is every bit as good as anything these guys have put out. I don't like giving out top scores to things I've only heard once, because you need a few listens to see if an album really holds up to that kind of acclaim, but as soon as Mimesis finished I rewound it back and started listening again, and I honestly have not done that with any other new album I've heard in the last year.

Genre: Psychedelic no-fucking-clue
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10 (For now)

Review: Orkidea - 20

Orkidea - 20
Orkidea is one of the few people out there still doing uplifting trance well in 2011, and like the others he barely fits into what we'd call uplifting/epic/unicorn trance these days. The only other guys I can think of who does hands-in-the-air fluff so entertainingly are the Anjunadeep crew, most notably Jaytech, and those guys bring a definite electro-house genre-meld to the table. Likewise, Orkidea sprinkles his music with some chunky basslines and also more than a few retro '90s progressive trance influences.

I didn't enjoy his previous albums too much, but I saw him DJ recently I had a good time, and he was playing a lot of the material from this album, so I gave it a listen. 20 is a landmark in that it celebrates 20 years of Orkidea career, and thus is a retro-themed album consistently primarily of remixes and remakes of old material. Some of these are updates of his own hits - Beautiful and Unity most notably - and most are of other acts. The more famous tracks, such as Tilt and PVD's enduring trance anthem Rendezvous, are credited as Orkidea remixes, but the more obscure ones, such as the remakes of Sven Vath's Sun Down and early '90s rarity Hot Trigger by the shittily named Trax Beyond Subconsciousness (yeah, really) are credited under his own name. This is most convoluted in the case of Art Of Trance - Chung Kuo (Orkidea Remix), which is actually a remix of a remake of the classic piece of Vangelis synth nonsense from his 1979 album China. The only new track, to my knowledge, is the Solarstone collaboration Slow Motion II, which as the name suggests is already a sequel to a track from a couple of years ago and so is a bit retro in itself anyway.

All this might sound like an incredibly rag-tag and disjointed collection of material, but it works surprisingly well. There's a real mixture of track types here, from supermassive anthems like Beautiful to heads-down bangers like Hot Trigger. What makes Orkidea's take on uplifting trance so enjoyable is not necessarily that his melodies are any better (most of these ones are second-hand anyway) or that his ecstasy-gush is any less cheesy, but simply that:

1.His production is much more restrained and efficient that the grotesque gigantomania of most epic trance productions. There aren't 1000 layers of reverb and hi-hat turning every track into an ear-tiring wall of sound-spam.

2. His tracks actually some variety of formula and structure. They don't all build and break down in the exact same ways at the exact same intervals. There are tracks here that can be used in different ways in different places in different sets. He doesn't write every single fucking track to be the pay-load anthem of the night.

Nowhere is this quality more evident than in the Chung Kuo remix. I actually own the original Vangelis album, because I'm cooler than you, and the original isn't very good at all. This version is superb - the old '70s synth melody makes for quite a nice trance hook, especially spaced out across clubby beats as it is here, and there's not a single breakdown in the entire tune. It just cruises along with these exhultant synth chords flaring out every now and then. It really is a classy remix and without doubt it will be the enduring hit from this album. The other stand-out for me is definitely Hot Trigger, which is similarly devoid of momentum-killing halts, albeit in a far more banging mould than Chung Kuo. This is a perfect track for injecting some exhilirating melody into a dark and driving set, or conversely adding some momentum to a hands-in-the-air epic set.

There are a couple of tracks that stray a little far into eye-rolling rainbow unicorn glowstick territory. I love the ferocious bassline and synth explosions of Blackbird, but the lead melody is pretty simplistic and more than a little corny. I kind of hope someone does a dub mix of this, something to cut out the euphoric beats while retaining the driving beats. But while this album occasionally goes over the line, but even when it's not totally enjoyable it's never boring. You've got 12 full length club cuts here, but the 80 minutes absolutely flew by. It's the variety of tracks, the different listening experiences you get from each track, and also the sheer quantity of ideas - of melodies, of basslines, of structures - that constantly bombard you, never giving you chance to get tired of anything. Producers, take note: if you're going to do an album of pure dancefloor cuts, that's fine. Just make sure you know how to make three or four different kinds of dancefloor cut. A lot of people are probably going to shut this tab in disgust if I rate this album more highly than Sandwell District, but I genuinely enjoyed this one more.

Genre: Trance
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Review: Xplore - 44 Light Years

Xplore 44 Light Years
I've been meaning to buy Xplore's album 44 Light Years pretty much since it came out, which was the second week of 2011. In the end I finally got round to buying it on the 31st December 2011, for the train journey down to Godskitchen's NYE party. Back in January I was a poor man, you see, and waiting for it to come down in price from Beatport Exclusive status was worthwhile frugality. Then Beatport actually put the price up, and I forgot about it, and if I hadn't been trawling through my enormous Hold Bin I might have forgotten it existed altogether.

I didn't, though, and pleasingly so, because 44 Light Years is pretty good. Not special, not classic, but an extremely solid album. I wouldn't even call this progressive personally. My gripes about prog not being prog anymore are well documented, but even by the standards of 2011, I think there's a strong case that this is simply what I would call "spacey house". No, that's not a genre. It's just a description. There are a few beautiful sparkly melodic tracks in here that have solid, funky grooves underneath them. Not too funky, but house in the 21st Century isn't very funky anymore, unless it's actually just 4 bars of a disco track looped out for 6 minutes.

As with a lot of dance albums I've been reviewing, it does occasionally feel more like a bunch of club tracks thrown into one release than an essential one-shot listening experience, especially when you get three mixes of Emerald Amulet in a row. With that said, the intro track Ancient Artefact is an appropriate intro, starting with some pattering breaks and not kicking off into a house beat for several minutes. And the closing few tracks do feel more uptempo and driving, the tempo picking up and the basslines getting harder. The closer Awakening is also a suitably uplifting melodic send-off track as well, so there's definitely been thought put into the sequencing here and overall it flows pretty well. The only problem is you spend about 10 minutes, or an 8th of the album, listening to bare kick drums of DJ-friendly intro/outros, which bogs down the listening experience. A lot of producers generously combat this problem these days by including full DJ mixes of their albums as a bonus track, but not here.

To summarise, this is a nice album, and for DJing purposes I will get much use out of it, but I just don't find myself listening to this kind of album very often, and the exclusion of the full DJ-mix option prevents it from going up in my estimations.

Genre: Spacey house
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10