Monday, 20 June 2011

Hello Everything - Squarepusher

Jazz... I've never been a fan of jazz. It's surprising then that when it arrives in electronic packaging I accept it so readily. So eagerly. I suppose that this unexpected coupling of the electronic, one of the few styles of music that still retains most of its secrets, with something such as jazz which has just passed it's 100th birthday, offers a striking contrast of the new and the old, yet they work so well together. Or at least Squarepusher manages it...

Of course, it isn't quite as clear cut as this. Squarepusher doesn't simply take jazz and convert it into corresponding bleeps and whirs. Jazz just happens to be the prevailing influence throughout the album. A vast proportion of "Hello Everything" also emanates an 8-bit, space invaders style atmosphere - implanting images of 80s arcades, not least from some of the song names Squarepusher chooses to use such as "Planetarium" and "Theme From Sprite", which adds some complications. On top of this there's the raw energy and enthusiasm that's injected into many of the album's offerings. Take "Welcome To Europe" as an example, it simply does not relax its fast tempo and manic layering. Instead of relying on intermissions and bridges to create energy, Squarepusher achieves the same efect by having the song shift between multiple loops that differ enough to provide variety but not too much as to lose a sense of cohesion. It's a master display of dynamic song writing.

This same variety, same energy and same willingness to not resort to lazy song making is prevalent throughout "Hello Everything". The dark ambiance supplied in "Orient Orange" is a world away from the incredibly catchy "Planetarium". Squarepusher simply does not settle down, though he risked compromising a prevailing sense of "Hello Everything" as a complete album and, to an extent, did allow some of this sense to slip. In any case, the heavy jazz influence and sci-fi tone do wonders to hold the album together, without it I can't help but feeling that "Hello Everything" would become a bit messy.

Being even the slightest bit messy is not something that the album can afford to do. Squarepusher uses a tremendous amount of layering in almost every song on the album. The ability on the listeners' part to be able to search for and explore each track requires the very calculated, very precise kind of structure that is given to us. Squarepusher doesn't borrow from his electronic- brethren by constantly mixing up the drum patterns and bass to keep things varied. The more buried layers (drums, bass etc.) tend to be quite repetitive, leaving space for the more immediately audible synths to constantly change while retaining a strong sense of structure.

"Hello Everything" really is a very good album indeed, albeit just a little patchy in places. It's perfect blend of the old and the new make it a must have for any electronic-nut and well worth a look for anyone else.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Fantastic Planet - Failure

Space rock is not the medium in which you would expect a story to be told, especially a story such as the one featured in "Fantastic Planet". Failure retell a tale just as hopeless and depressing as it is grounded in gritty realism. The immediate contrast is fitting for the main theme, the process of use, addiction and rejection of heroin. Memories of the drug are portrayed through a filter thats similar, in the drifting, detached way of space rock, to the effects of the drug itself. So with "Fantastic Planet", Failure is not merely describing front-man Ken Andrew's memories, they're letting you experience them first hand.

Structurally, "Fantastic Planet" mirrors the chronology of Andrew's drug use. The beginning displays regret, a complicated sequence of chimes (something of a reacurring theme in the album) is introduced before the next two songs introduce us to Andrew's character. He's desperately affected both by the loss of breaking up with his girlfriend and having been left without a purpose in life. "Segue 1" marks his entrance into chaos and despair, it begins with a single chord but quickly splinters into multiple layers that twist around each other, never quite fitting into any comfortable place and then finally rolling into something more controlled. The songs that follow incorporate a large post-grunge influence, with crunching chords and lyrics that are not so much sung, rather shouted, at the microphone. This section of the album ends with "Blank", the moment where Andrews caves in and takes the drug. He casually tells us:

"I like the blank way
I fill up my life
I'm living on the moon."

"Segue 2", and the following songs before Segue 3, admittedly mark a rather weak point in the album. While they document the use of heroin and the relief that it offers well enough, it's devoid of the chaotic emotions that overshadowed, and made, the songs before and it doesn't even approach the raw beauty of the songs it proceeds. If we're brutally honest, the section borders on bland at times, though omitting the section would be impossible unless you would want to degrade "Fantastic Planet" from an album into simply a collection of loosely associated songs.

Ultimately this doesn't matter, because Segue 3 and the songs that come after it create the best ending to any album most of us are likely to ever set our ears to. "The Nurse Who Loved Me" begins softly, the chorus of "She's got everything I need. Pharmacy Keys." is barely whispered before the song explodes into a wave of sound. Andrews then bellows that same chorus, throwing all of his emotion at the microphone in an endearing display of a man who has little to live for and desperately clings to all that he has left.

This emotion is not something which can be said to be on at the forefront of the album. It's integral to the tone and to most of "Fantastic Planet's" effect, but for the most part it's only implied. The lyrics do not portray a man absorbed in his own self-pity but instead they shows the fragile inner-workings of the mind of a man who's close to the edge. While we are not instructed to, you can't help but sympathise with the man who's just let everything get out of hand and is almost powerless to prevent the inevitable spiral of losing absolutely everything, including his mind.

"Fantastic Planet" ends with "Daylight", documenting the moment where we emerge tentatively into the real world, confused and lonely, just as we were at the beginning of the album but grown more solemn throughout its duration. The chimes return, but now they seem beautiful instead of chaotic and the last few minutes of a pounding, instrumental barrage ends one of the most powerful experiences you can ask for.


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Banger EP - Dakent

These days, many emerging artists find it difficult to really make themselves stand out from the tide of their contemporaries. Individuality is something that we seldom see, whether that be from most ideas being already taken or that the "genre culture" (I just made that up, I'm very, very impressed with myself so bare with me) encourages people to pick what music they choose from a pallet of pre-determined styles in order for them to be recognised.

Maybe it would be a stretch to call Dakent truly original, after all the tags on their bandcamp page include "electronica", "ambient" and "post-rock", but in this day and age they're close enough. In the end, the style that they've already established for themselves is hard to pin down to any handful of inspirations. The general pallet of bells and screeching ambient effects is not something most people will be accustomed to, but it's something that you slowly get into and, with some self-persuasion, come to enjoy.

The manner in which Dakent chooses to distribute this style is, by contrast, quite run-of-the-mill. For the most part the music will build up in layers before reaching the final crescendo and then dampening down for the last 30 seconds or so. This is a tried and tested ambient structure and it works just as well as it does everywhere else. However the complexity of the layering is fairly impressive, with "Noon", the standout track on the EP, incorporating a number of layers that much reach into the double digits. There is an exception to be found with the title track, Banger, which follows it's namesake by introducing itself timidly before literally exploding into a wall of sound at around the 2 minute mark. It's surprising but most of all memorable, and very well executed.

Possibly the most memorable aspect, however, is how Dakent manages to seemingly pair the organic and the electronic. Whole tracks will play with a constant whine of crickets in the background, or the fluttering of wings while bleeps and feedback will swirl amongst it. The music is often slow and soft, allowing you to appreciate all that is happening at once and to truly appreciate the sheer amount of samples that you may have to strain yourself to hear.

A small word has to be said about the remixes, sadly they're bland and forgettable without exception and it seems the only reason they were placed on the EP was because remixes are expected. It's a shame really as it mars was is otherwise a solid, interesting EP. So "Banger" certainly isn't perfect, but it's incredibly impressive for a debut that seems to have gone unnoticed.


Friday, 27 May 2011

ISAM - Amon Tobin

I'm a junkie. I'm a junkie slowly decomposing from the despair of needing something I haven't been able to find. Hundreds upon hundreds of songs fought through by the week, only to yield nothing but maybe a fleeting glimpse of what I'm so desperately in search of. "Beauty can be found in everything", someone once told me... evidently the idea of universal beauty is true but it seems only temporarily.

It's been two years now.

I was 1 minute and 12 seconds into "Calculate" when it hit me, that warm rush that steals you from your body and leaves you there, drifting. The feeling of peace that knocks you down and smothers you as you smile, silently urging it to press harder. The fact that electronic bleeps, chimes, rattles and horns can have an effect like this (hell, the fact that any sound can have an effect like this) is a mystery. Personally, I'd like it to remain so.

The fantastic thing about electronic music is that it has no agenda, the composer sits at their computer and creates whatever they want without the fear of having to present themselves through lyrics. There isn't a chance to judge the person, only the music and it's a more pure relationship because of this. With electronic music, or indeed any music without lyrics be it classical, jazz or whatever, you are not interpreting the words but instead you are interpreting the emotion and feel of the music itself. Amon Tobin invites this beautifully, creating something that takes time to properly understand, as a result ISAM will mean something different to everyone.

To deviate from this late-night love letter to the partnership between the machine and the imagination, Amon Tobin's experimental nature is something that really shines through to give this album an edge. He's continued the trend from his previous album of collecting a huge variety of unique and often quirky samples that, in a logical world, should not sound as good as he makes them. The first-bite-of-an-apple crunch in "Lost & Found" for instance, which makes up the majority of the percussion, or the sci-fi lazer sounds that end "Morning Ms Candis" do not seem out of place before you start looking for them, which is what I think is most astonishing.

ISAM has it's highs and lows just like every other album, but I have a feeling that they will be different depending on the individual. What you take from this music is entirely up to you. I just know that I see Amon Tobin creating order from chaos and the sense of relief in the lulls between. At times it sounds like a reserved celebration, but then there's a hint of desperation in "One Last Look" and a flash of something verging on anger in "Goto 10". Sometimes it suffers from some bumps in the flow with the contrast between songs often being too sudden, but for the most part this can be forgiven.

All I know is that this is the best rush I've had since first hearing Jupiter by Gustav Holst and that was 3 years ago; so chastise me if you will for a review that may seem too personal, too vague, too much... but thanks to this album I simply could not care less.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The English Reviera - Metronomy

It's gotten to the stage where just having the label of Indie Pop is enough to turn me off a band. There hasn't been a stand out album from the genre for a few years now and every album sounds exactly like the last, if even a little worse. It's depressing really, a genre based of innovation stagnating at such a fast rate... I'm impressed with my own observation there, it's very poignant; at least, that is until Metronomy came along and released one of the best Indie Pop albums I've ever set my ears to. The bastards.

This isn't a genre known for being deep: it's saturated with (not-so-)witty one liners, easy-to-strum-to guitar parts and too many synthesizers to count. Truth be told, it never needed to be deep; all that ever mattered was making a song that made you smile and was easy to listen to. With "The English Riviera", Metronomy don't exactly break the mold, but they do provide an incredibly solid set of songs that will stay with you long after you expect them to.

One of the hardest things to do with an album such as this is to find a tone and to stick to it. Too often there will be an array of obligatory songs (an instrumental, a ballad, an acoustic/piano one etc.) that usually come across as uninspired, ,present only for the sake of filling out space and at worse completely jarring. Metronomy create a tone somewhere in between calm and wistful. Explosions of electronic-energy are followed by lulls of bass-guitar driven outros. "The English Riviera" is certainly still capable of surprising you, but for the most part it will stick, albeit sometimes loosely, to this tone.

I'm not sure how Metronomy mastered the art of making songs so catchy, yet not annoying in the slightest, but pretty much every song on the album will be repeating itself in your head for a good few hours after each listen. Some of the synth parts seem somewhat europop-inspired in this respect, though again it isn't annoying, just incredibly simple and catchy. The prime example of this is "Corinne", initially it's driven by a bass line but before you're given a chance to relax into it you're hit by a constrained barrage of an oscillating synth and sci-fi sound effects, as well as the memorable chorus lyric of "I've got my heart tied up/ I've got my heart in a bind/ She just wants to dance all the time".

This isn't a formula that Metronomy stick to, in fact only a handful of the songs even use synths. The songs range all the way from sad and serious, with female guest vocals, to loud and energetic. The stand-out song, however, is "Love Underlined". It bucks the trend of ending on a slow, sad note by being, in many respects, a dance song. The build up, accompanied by lyrics of "We could never be in love/ but when you go you're all I'm thinking of", is sublime and possibly the most memorable portion of "The English Riviera".

The most remarkable aspect of this album is that even a month after release the songs still appeal to me. The tendency is for them to become bland after a few listens, but that couldn't be further form the case here. If anything, many of the songs have gotten better with multiple listens, notably "Corinne" and "She Wants". "The English Riviera" shows just what can be done with Indie Pop, and firmly places my faith back into the genre.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

Creep On Creeping On - Timber Timbre

"It's a bad, bad ritual,
But it calms me down."

That is your introduction to "Creep On Creeping On", the forth album from the Canadian folk collective Timber Timbre. It drones on repeatedly into your head, as depressing as it is oddly romantic, with "ohs" and strings swelling in the background, not the kind of feeling we've come to expect from Folk music, but it is certainly a refreshing one. But it isn't just Folk music that Timber Timbre are limiting themselves to, their album also shyly edges into blues.

Timber Timbre displays a knack for these small, poetic self observations, casually explaining that "All I need is some sunshine" in "Black Water" - lyrics like these are born from isolation and the music is richer for it, creating an atmosphere of damp, dark gloom. This isn't the kind of sadness we're accustomed to hearing via. high-pitched whining, this is the gruff reality of loneliness and hopelessness. And it's fantastic.

The vocals reflect this in their deep, rumbling tones, sometimes lingering on a word a little too long or slurring but it does build the atmosphere, something Timber Timbre have obviously been keen to create. If accounts are to be believed they recorded some of the album in a converted church just for this purpose, as well as this they incorporate a wide variety of ambient effects. The feel of each song ranges from sad and reminiscent to, at times, haunting and a bit creepy; this is best displayed in the excessive use of strings in songs such as "I'm Too Old To Die Young".

Oddly enough, Timber Timbre do not fall into the trap of repeating the same tone and feel until it becomes monotonous. "Creep On Creeping On" ends with "Souvenirs", an instrumental piece just as beautiful as it is captivating. "Do I have Power" also bucks the trend by breaking off into a kind of manic, horn-led waltz half way through.

Sadly, it could be said, the most obvious thing about this album is how much it contrasts with the "Mumford and Sons" view of folk that many of us have been subjected to for the last few years. The "happy-beardy-men dancing round a fire with the fairies" view. "Creep On Creeping On" acts as the fish slapping you in the face, while folk often describes things that are almost surreal, Timber Timbre remain firmly entrenched in reality. Sullen, frank, depressing reality.

No boundaries are pushed in "Creep On Creeping On", so it would be wrong to expect something truly unique and awe-inspiring. As it stands, it's a solid folk/blues album from a songwriter capable of an uncountable amount of intelligent one liners that seems to have been sadly overlooked.


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes - Death Cab for Cutie

Think back to a time when not everyone had heard of Death Cab For Cutie, back when "the berets" conversed about the band in hushed voices so no one could overhear them and Death Cab would, in theory, remain as just another garage band. They had a right to be so protective for once, Death Cab's acceptance into the mainstream has made them, if we're honest, rather bland. Oh sure, since their recognition (which is well deserved just... unfortunate) they've spewed out some flashes of greatness here and there but it's clear that to some extent Death Cab are past it. Take front-man Benjamin Gibbard's side project "The Postal Service" as an example, it resulted in a truly phenomenal album that shows what he really can achieve but none of that greatness has been glimpsed in the more recent Death Cab albums.

So what have Death Cab lost since "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes"? In a word, heart. That doesn't really tell you anything of course, it's the kind of thing you're more accustomed to hearing in children's cartoons or in the second Indian Jones film, but hopefully I'll be able to justify it.

"We Have The Facts..." paints a picture of a drab Americana, full of one-off meetings, degrading friendships and lust over a girl about to marry someone else. It's not a happy picture, but it sure as hell is a believable one. I'm not sure if Gibbard intended his lyrics to transform what may have been a good, but otherwise slightly lacking album into a concept album, but they do anyway. It's not simply a random collection of songs presented to us in "We Have The Facts", but a peep-hole into Gibbard's life, something that isn't achieved at all in the more recent albums. Though to argue against myself I'd suggest that a life of tour buses and B-list fame may not be the most compelling writing material.

The lyrics that Gibbard incorporates in his album (and it is "his" album, he wrote all but two of the songs) are all that you can ask them to be: both witty and charming yet slightly depressing. He makes references to events but allows the listener to fill in the details. The chorus in "Title Track" of "Talking how the group had begun to splinter/ And I could taste your lipstick on the filter" showcases this perfectly. He's not a songwriter who's afraid to show his less than graceful moments, "Crashing through the parlour doors, what was your first reaction?/ Screaming, drunk, disorderly. I'll tell you mine", and this frankness on his part makes "We Have The Facts" a lot more genuine and easy to relate to than it would be otherwise.

If there is a criticism to be made about "We Have The Facts", it's that the band stays within the genre of calming indie-pop and doesn't even attempt to vary its tone. It can be upbeat, slow and most places in between but in the end it's safe. Some salvation is found in the fact that the tone which the album sticks with does complement the lyrics' subject matter, but this doesn't explain why there couldn't have been one or two songs in a different style. This isn't to say that there aren't some highlights musically of course, "Little Fury Bugs" brilliantly mixes quiet background distortion and slightly muzzled vocals with a fairly jaunty guitar part, it's just that it would have been nice if a little more variation was incorporated into the album.

It's sad that when you look at the newer Death Cab albums you see that musically they've come a long way from "We Have The Facts", which is ultimately quite simple though there is a beauty in that. However, while the music has improved, the feel has not. Newer additions seem too clean, too heavily mastered, too manufactured... the fuzzy tones of "We Have The Facts" are preferable to that every day of the week. When you add the lyrics that have long dissolved into made-up tales and petty social observations, it's disturbing to think that while gaining popularity, they've lost a lot of what made them so special in the first place.