Thursday, 26 April 2012

Review: T.Power - The Self Evident Truth Of An Intuitive Mind

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this before, but I really love drum 'n bass. I've been listening in some capacity since back in 2005, but until about two or three years back my listening was mainly confined to checking out the looming classics of the scene (Timeless, New Forms, Colours, Logical Progression, etc.) It was, strangely enough, a track on a James Zabiela mix that really sparked the love affair. I can still remember exactly where and when I was - holed up in a rented room in Liverpool on a weekend early in March, 2010. I had moved to the city for a temporary contract (testing videogames, if you can believe that, for a now defunct company called Bizarre Creations) and I didn't know anyone and didn't have any money to go exploring, so my free time was spent in a tiny, horrifically decorated spare bedroom surfing the Internet (this is all starting to sound remarkably like a conventional blog isn't it? Don't worry, we'll get back to obscure genre-wankery soon enough). This particular afternoon I fired up Beatport looking for the track I'd heard on Zab's mix (Altair - Collateral, a gorgeous tune you should run to Youtube to hear) and uncovered a whole world of new music. ASC and Covert Operations, Lm1 and Offworld Recordings, Alaska and Arctic...

I spent five weeks in Liverpool, living out of a suitcase and playing videogames for money, and it was possibly the happiest five week period of my life so far. I can vividly recall the friends I made, the books I read, the football matches I watched and the music I was listening to, all a gloriously nostalgic swirl now. That this period coincided with my initial, giddy courtship of the genre has no doubt influenced the powerful emotional sway drum 'n bass retains over me, but I've explored so much since those five weeks two years ago, and the remarkable thing about drum 'n bass is just how exciting it still is to me, even now.

For most of us, the most exciting time of our entire music life is those first couple of years. Something - usually one seminal, seemingly random record - sparks off the love affair, immediately converts us from casual radio grazers into full blown music junkies. This moment typically happens early in adolescence, and for the next few years all of music is still new to us. These moments when you discover and fall in love with someone genuinely, shockingly new to you come in abundant swathes when you're a teenager, but they become far rarer soon after that. To most of us serious music-heads, almost everything is familiar, just endless recombinations of already-heard influences and precursors. That initial shock of the new is the lost high we keep chasing. It's what drives us to listen to weird shit like drone and field recordings and post-everything omni-wank. Something, anything to jolt the senses again. Drum 'n bass, more than any other genre, keeps that feeling of wide-eyed adolescent wonder alive inside me. Every time I think I've figured out the borders of the sound, I'll discover someone or something hailing out of the "drum 'n bass" scene that forces to me to take stock and re-evaluate my own musical knowledge.

The Self Evident Truth Of An Intuitive Mind (finally!) is a drum 'n bass album from way back in 1995, back from the days when the genre really was in a state of frighteningly rapid mutation. In 1995 the whole idea of a drum 'n bass album was new and strange. In that context, even the most inventive record can't help but sound somewhat primordial in 2012, but you can still feel distant reverberations of the exihiliarating future shock listeners must have been hit by when they first heard the mind-bending breakbeat science of Goldie's Jah. What this album must have sounded like back then I can only imagine, because it still sounds remarkably fresh even now.

The one mark against T.Power's album is it's clearly wrapped in the "intelligent drum 'n bass" pretensions that speak of the naivity of the era. As well as the cloyingly smug title, the tracklist is divided into two halves: Intellect and Emotion, one denoted by geometrical shapes, the other by colours. Ooh, deep man. Intellect separate from emotion? What is this, a 1950s sci-fi movie? No wonder the ruffneck junglists went to war on self-congratulatory records like this one.

The music itself is fantastic though. The binary split down the middle of the record may not stand up to close philosophical scrutiny but it's a damn interesting way to structure a record. The "intellect" tracks are more synthy and influenced by techno and early IDM, with lots beautiful melodic flourishes and clean, pretty synths and arps. Halfway through a brief skit of sampled dialogue from various news reports signals the switch into "emotion", and a more straightforward dancefloor jungle sound - more dub, more chopped up amens, more live instruments processed into the mix and also a few cheeky ambient/prog house samples (listen out for traces of Amorphous Androgynous - Ephidrena in the midst of Turquoise).

Either of these halves would have made for a great album if fleshed out, but combined together in such a fluid manner they create a remarkably eclectic and varied listening experience. It's this variety that's quintessentially drum 'n bass: this is a genre that can incorporate just about any musical influence or ancestry, provided you can time-stretch it across a rapidfire breakbeat. What's more, all the tracks flow seamlessly into each other, resulting in a nigh-on perfect "all the way through" listening experience. You know, like albums are supposed to be played. Damn MP3 kids.

I'm not quite of the opinion put forward by some that this is the best drum 'n bass album ever. I can't quite think of a better one off the top of my head, but I can think of a few that are similarly excellent, and the whole thrust of this damn overlong review-article-thing is that drum 'n bass is constantly surprising me, so there's sure to be some genius albums out there I haven't even heard of yet. Even so, there are precious few electronic dance albums from 1995 or earlier that stand up as well as this one. If this record came out next week it would probably be one of the albums of the year. As it stands, this is testament to the creative vitality of drum 'n bass. No other dancefloor genre has ever spawned an album half as accomplished as this within three years of its inception. None.

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

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Review: Kevin Kendle - Deep Skies 3 - Light From The Pleiades

More floaty spacey ambient, this time from Kevin Kendle. I don't know much about this guy, but he appears to be leaning alarmingly towards the New Age scene, that much reviled world of dreary pan-pipe music intended to soundtrack alternate healing apothecaries. Check out this excerpt from his biography:

"His music is inspired by nature and landscapes and is very suitable for any situation where a calming atmosphere is desired, such as aromatherapy, therapeutic treatments or relaxation in the home."

Ugh. It gets worse too - Kendle self-styles his music as "intelligent new age", which is almost too obnoxious to bear, for innumerable reasons. Thankfully the music itself isn't quite that bad, at least when Kendle takes a trip through the outer rings in full on deep-space mode, as he does on the Deep Skies series of albums. This particular album is number three in that series, and it's getting reviewed entirely because I've already listened to the others in those strange, distant times before this blog existed.

The bulk of this album sounds a lot like the music of Andrew Lahiff, who I reviewed recently in a blog entry that contains all the useful insight that would otherwise go into this one. And as I said in that review, there's a whole galaxy of almost identical sounding music being made out there. True, Kendle occasionally busts out a few guitars and arpeggio riffs and goes into washed out space-rock mode, as on opener Dance Of Electra, but there's absolutely nothing here that has moved the genre on in any significant sense since Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene album, and that was made in 1976!

Anyway, I'm not going to waste our mutual time by over-detailing this: lots of thick pads, lots of wibbly-wobbly spacey sounds, pretty much the most stereotypical approximation of ambient music imaginable. Nice to listen to in the background, nice to fall asleep to, even nice to bust out a bit of aromatherapy, apparently. Functional music, little more.

Genre: Intelligent New Age (IE: Bog-standard ambient)
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: ASC & Sam KDC - Decayed Society

Another ASC release, another spurt of uncritical fanboy love from myself. Honestly, I've had to forcefully stop myself from listening to every track, remix and podcast James Clements puts out or signs to his label, because otherwise there'd be no time left in my life for non-ASC-related music.

He's back with his second ambient album in the space of a year, this time in collaboration with minimalist drum 'n bass producer Sam KDC, who is awesome in his own right and has already contributed fruitfully to ASC's Auxiliary label with the excellent Symbol #3 EP last year. KDC's music was always imbued with a hefty dose of enveloping ambience even when he was in drum 'n bass mode, so it's not entirely surprising to hear them come together on a fully fledged ambient LP.

Decayed Society is, according to ASC, "loosely based around the events of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986", and so as you'd expect it's an extremely bleak and haunting listen. That's no bad thing though, as ambient generally needs to be centred around a controlling idea or concept if it's to become more distinctive and memorable than the vast array of unfocused wishy-washy pleasant noodle-muzak out there. All the best ambient records have strong themes that permeat every second of the listening time and create a strong atmosphere. which is clearly something the endless hordes of laptop-wielding blogbient producers still need to realise. On Decayed Society the duo also avoid going the opposite direction into the unremitting despair of dark ambient, which is oppressively and directionlessly bleak, and as such equally boring as blog-friendly blandbient. ASC and Sam KDC manage the crucial trick of emotional contrast by tempering the bleakness of some of these pieces with an edge of melancholic beauty that sounds all the more touching given the emotional context.

ASC's last ambient album, The Light That Burns Twice As Bright, was in many places equally grimey and desolate, but in technique generally more droney and loop-based, with also a stronger prevelance of grainy, "misty" textures, as befitted the theme of label Silent Season, which aims to put out music to soundtrack the dew-soaked rainforests of Vancouver Island. Decayed Society is a sparser and more sonically dynamic record, with KDC's fondness for embedding found sounds and field recordings into the mix also shining through. Chimes, drops of water in the dark and fragmented radio transmissions can all be heard in places, not quite looping in linear fashion but cropping up at resonant moments. There's more space in the mix, and so these fragments of real-world noise become more isolated and anguished.

The album unfolds slowly, the opening tracks more dark and less beautiful, and it only really starts to hit home with the brilliant Block 4 halfway through, where flowing subterranean water fill ups the soundscape and underpins the emotional outpouring of the piece. The second half of the album allows more moments of beauty and sadness to creep through the crumbling brickwork - the last minute or so of Skala is particularly affecting - and No Safety Zone is a perfect piece to end on. The slow and low-lit opening stretches of the record may initially seem a little inert and uninvolving, but they perfectly set up the second half of the record, and help construct the kind of emotional development that great albums possess.

The Light That Burns Twice As Bright was undoubtedly a very good album, but Decayed Society is markedly superior in almost every respect, to the point where it's prompting some serious re-evaluation of that previous record. The controlling idea combined with the influence of Sam KDC's techniques on ASC's typical excellence really take it up a notch, and this is sure to be one of the ambient records of the year. Like the last album, it's only available on limited release, so if you want a physical copy to treasure, head on over to Surus and snap up a copy. This one's going up there alongside the Intex Systems album and the Sci-Fi Files series in the pantheon of ASC genius.

Genre: Ambient.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Review: Andrew Lahiff - A Perpetual Point In Time

Here's a question for you: what exactly is "ambient" music? What does the word make you think of? In its most literal, synonymous sense, it means "background" music, but a large number of ambient musicians (and listeners) would bristle at this definition. Brian Eno, who is so often credited with inventing the term in a musical sense, has the slightly more nuanced definition:

"[Music that can be] actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener"

Still, Eno's definition is still imprecise and subjective - after all, I know plenty of people who listen to pop music and mainstream radio as a background noise while working to drown out distractions (which strikes me as a misuse of time that could be spent listening to ambient). A lot of people coming from a dance music perspective seem to use "ambient" as a synonym for "beatless", and you'll be hard pressed to find a piece of beatless electronic music that isn't ambient. But equally, lots of ambient music still has percussion of some form or another, sometimes even a steady thump that might distantly resemble a dancefloor beat.

For what it's worth, my hastily bullshitted definition of ambient would be music that emphasises the creation and maintenance of a powerful surrounding mood above all other artistic goals. This doesn't have to involve a lack of beats or even a lack of energy, but generally these things are used to make people dance (or flail wildly around if they have long hair and wear black). Again, there's always subjectivity in interpreting what a musician was trying to do with any given track, but defining music entirely by objective characteristics like tempos, instruments and scales is boring and doesn't make for interesting music journalism. Especially as I'm a talentless hack who can't tell my melodic minors from my major pentatonics.

I'm rambling on about all this because Andrew Lahiff makes what I would consider the purest form of ambient imaginable - or, at least, the closest to what we all think of when we hear the word "ambient": the kind of floaty, spacey, wibbly-wobbly tuneless electronic noise-stuff that brings to mind Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and other bearded synth hippies who wandered around 1970s West Germany in a lysergic swirl whilst laying down the foundations of the genre.

Lahiff is an online musician who gives a lot of his stuff away for free and releases thousands of albums every year, furthering my oft-stated suspicion that ambient is the easiest kind of "credible" music to make. From what I've heard, most of his albums sound pretty similar, which is why I'm only reviewing one even though I've listened to a hatful recently. This might make his music sound forgettable and cheap, but the  sumptuously evocative titles like "Canyons Of Lanterns", "Solar Awakenings" and "Gallery Of Glacial Thoughts" make my nuts tighten up, and there's something in the galactic sweep of his music that makes it more interesting than a lot of the aimless pad-noodling space muzak that passes for self-released ambient online these days. Believe me, there are endless free online labels who absolutely churn this shit out, and most of it is dull as ditchwater.

Unlike some of his other albums, the tracks on A Perpetual Point In Time segue into each other, creating a seamless atmospheric journey into the wonders of the somewhat generic but still ear-tickingly pretty cosmos. It really is nice without being particularly memorable, but as I mentioned earlier, there is something about his music that does make it more interesting than your average ambient album, and as such it fulfils Eno's premise that the music should stand up no matter how closely you zoom in on it. So next time you're at work and you need to drown out the irritating, ant-like scurrying of your idiot, white-collar coworkers and their depressingly pointless existences that sometimes get so far under your skin you feel like screaming and enacting a horrific office-based automatic weapon killing spree, don't turn to commercial radio but instead fire up Spotify and pipe in the soothing outer space space sounds of Andrew Lahiff. His music might not be terribly original, but it does everything you'd expect from ambient.

Genre: Ambient
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: Cygnus X - Collected Works

Cygnus X - Collected Works
If you've heard of Cygnus X at all, you probably know him for two tracks - Superstring and The Orange Theme, which were both remixed into stupid trance anthems back in the glory days of stupid trance anthems, and gave many a clubber an E rush at one time or another. If you know more about Cygnus X than these two tracks, you've probably an old school trance junkie. Collected Works is, predictably, a collation of Cygnus X's singles, mostly from the '90s, and pretty much epitomises the classic trance sound which Cygnus X produced and is totally unremembered for.

This flavour of '90s Germanic trance is about as purist as trance gets, and has an extremely limited appeal. To most trance fans it simply sounds too dated to appeal, and the kind of listeners who appreciate deeper and more vintage-sounding dance music usually find it far too fast and ravey. There is an extremely specialised breed of Internet-dwelling trance snob who actually enjoys this kind of stuff, the kind who accuse everything made after 1998 of not being "real trance". And I, ladies and gentleman, am one of those Internet-dwelling trance snobs.

If - and this is a big one - if you like classic old school melodic, acidic, extremely fast (often 150bpm) trance from the '90s, Collected Works is a good listen, although slightly pointless. The bulk of the tracklist consists of slightly shorter edits of every single track from Cygnus X's 1995 album Hypermetrical (and classic trance fans hate anything that shortens their ultra-long hypnotic journey tracks) as well as two mixes of Positron, and of course Superstring. There's a bonus disc of remixes, most of them pretty poor, but really not enough material to warrant a "collected works" compilation.

It's interesting to hear the original Superstring without Rank 1's boring, predictable arrangements and stupid uplifting basslines, if only to marvel at just how fast it is. Positron is a beauty, an old Sasha and Digweed favourite, and there are a couple of tracks (most notably Indakasa) that dip into breakbeat rhythms with surprisingly good results. I never liked The Orange Theme, which nicked its melody from the synthesised score to A Clockwork Orange, but the rest of the tracks are pretty strong, dated production aside.

Really though, the niche for this record is so narrow that you already know pretty much if you're going to like it or not. If you're just dipping into the roots of trance this could be worth a listen, but it hasn't aged any better than most of the material from this era.

Genre: Old school trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Review: Qattara - Abduction V02

Qattata - Abduction V02
Me, a week ago:

When I'm in a summery mood, there's only style of music worth hearing - early '90s progressive house!

As you can probably guess, the fine weather from last week continued, and despite owning absolutely loads of early '90s progressive house already, I simply had to have some more. The result was a second hand purchase of this, one of the few mid-90s prog compilations I don't already own. The same thing happens every summer - I get bored of re-listening to the same few trusty Sasha/Digweed/Dave Seaman mixes and convince myself that something more obscure and decidedly less classic is what I need.

Qattara were a short-lived and vaguely remembered trance duo, comprised of the vaguely remembered Alex Whitcombe and the decidedly more well known Andy Cato, who at this time was best known as progressive house producer Big C but went on to worldwide fame as part of Groove Armada. In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea how much these two DJ'd back in 1997, but they certainly weren't in the progressive elite. Consequently, this is one of those slightly odd '90s compilations that are put together by part-time DJs who were probably quite rough behind the decks, and find some... interesting routes between tracks on studio compilations.

Big C's mix on disc one is particularly strange. The tracklist lists Collapse - My Love as a "Link" rather than giving it a proper track number, and David Holmes' remix of Smokebelch is played twice, the second time listed as a "Reprise". I've never seen either of these terms used on a tracklist before, and to be perfectly honest it's extremely rare to hear a DJ play the same mix of the same track twice in the same set, especially at random points as it happens here. You occasionally see a DJ open and close a CD with the same track as a framing device, but the deployment here of Smokebelch seems to do nothing more than fit the tracks together harmonically.

The first six tracks of the set are all oldies that would have been extremely played out even by 1997 - classics don't come much bigger than Papua New Guinea, Chime and Energy Flash. (If you didn't immediately know the artists based on those track titles, consider yourself a newb and trudge shame-faced away to Discogs. Don't come back until you can tell me the difference between drum 'n bass and jungle.) From there, there's a cheesy ambient interlude courtesy of Collapse, then we move into some contemporary chunky progressive trancey-house, with lots of uplifting pianos and outdoorsy ethnic samples. Then it goes back into Smokebelch and gets funkier and more heads-down for most of the remainder.

Whitcombe's disc follows a similar pattern, and the weirdness here is less to do with unusual deployment and labelling of tracks and more to do with some mixing that is extremely rudimentary. There's another barrage of classics to open on, this time slightly more obscure. Now, old tracks are pretty tough to mix, and I've mixed the gorgeous Spooky rerub of Dr Atomic's Schudelfloss first-hand, but one thing you cannot excuse on a studio mix is key-clashes, especially from a DJ who also professes to be a musician. And yet the mix into Schudelfloss is just plain out of key. Okay, often you can get away with the bass being slightly out of key, but strings and pads almost always sound sour, and Schudelfloss opens with what should be a gorgeous nimbus of ethereal pad work, but in actuality sounds like a sharp downpour of acrid cow's piss, because it's all completely out of key.

Having fucked up the mix on one of my all-time favourite tracks, Whitcombe then bulldozes out of Visions Of Shiva's early '90s trance delicacy Perfect Day into Sasha's stomping remix of Horse - Careful, thus categorically ruining any flow he may have fashioned. From there he proceeds to build up a set of pretty well known progressive trance. Café Del Mar, Forbidden Fruit, Set In Stone, Hidden Sun Of Venus... all very standard for 1997. The closing stretch does reveal some rarities, which is why I bought this damn thing - I'd never heard the Outdare remix of Dum Dum's One Earth Beat before, and I actually like it almost as much as the First Life remix Sasha and Diggers used to cane. 7th Sense - Himalayan Dub is also a nice closer to an extremely uneven ride.

On the face of it, this compilation is a good mix of classics I already know and love, and some lesser known remixes and rarities, which should amount to a perfect, unchallenging sunny day listen. Sadly, some weird and duff mixing from Whitcombe and some bizarre programming from Cato turns it into a somewhat frustrating ride. To be perfectly honest, I don't even think this was mixed live on the decks - there are definite traces of editing and a few transitions that sound suspiciously digital. Either way, on a studio mix you should get the basics right - if you can't find a way between two tracks, don't just throw the crossfader and certainly don't clash the keys on your prettiest and best tracks. I know there's a relevant audience of about five people in the world for what I'm about to say next, but if you've seen this compilation before and thought about buying it... it's not really worth the £10 you'll pay second-hand. The tracks are good, but you'll already know most of them, and there's probably a Sasha set somewhere you haven't downloaded yet.

Genre: '90s Progressive
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 6/10