This Page

has moved to a new address:


Sorry for the inconvenience…

Redirection provided by Blogger to WordPress Migration Service
White Noise: July 2011

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Feature: The National – Reflections and Reviews for 3 albums

The National's ascent to indie-rock stardom has rightly been the subject of much critical interest. In an age where the band is a dying formula and generic rockers stretch their sound further to the extremities of the genre in order to garner notice here is a band's band; a guitar-bass-vocalist-drum outfit who have crafted a unique sound that does not try to escape rock but defines it, and more importantly who have created album after album of fantastic and profound rock songs. Their first two albums, The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, were good warm-ups for the full-scale assault the band were about to launch on the music industry, the latter album especially containing some really standout tracks, but in this article I will be concerning myself with their three most recent LPs; Alligator, Boxer and High Violet.

Matt Berninger is the frontman and lyricist of the band, imbuing each track with the weight of his deep woody baritone and the often spectacular skill he brings to crafting the band's lyrics. His voice is definitely worth more than a passing mention, because I'll be the first to admit that the sound of The National is not the most immediately arresting; on first listen nothing appears particularly different about the music but on repeated spins of each album one hears not only the taut instrumentation which perfectly compliments the individual mood of the tracks, but also Berninger's lyrics open up a world of fatigue, urban alienation, and a nuanced insight into the desperate plight of the white middle-class American man.


Baby We'll Be Fine

In the ballad of the deluded worker Baby We'll Be Fine on Alligator, Berninger reassures “All we've gotta do is be brave / and be kind”, and this line is symbolic of something he does so well- we don't believe this and neither does the persona (immediately after repeatedly apologizing profusely to his lover) but it is still said, as if desperate repetition can somehow make something true that every person feels should be true, all the while highlighting the massive undermining of expectations a 30-something New Yorker must confront in the face of the shining unattainable beacon of the American dream. Alligator deals the reader snapshots of men trying to cope and understand the shockingly modern and disappointing world around them, and every aspect of the music is precision-built to further the hollow emotion that represents the fallout of these ideals.

Arguably the album is the most musically varied of the three. Don't get me wrong, this is all indie rock, and closer Mr November is pretty much as indie rock as you can get, but the band suit these stories to soundtracks as diverse as the screaming explanatory chorus of Abel, “My mind's not right”, to the quiet and supremely beautiful tragedy of firelight ballad Val Jester all within the same cohesive sonic sphere, and this is a fantastic accomplishment in itself. However what really elevates The National in my mind is whilst focusing on crafting the perfect aural achievement of their themes and emotions they never lose sight of an all-important pop sensibility: I defy you to not sing along to the chorus of Karen once you know it.

City Middle

Many of the songs on the album deal with the disillusionment of the worker at a particular crisis-point in his life. Late track City Middle depicts in subtle imagery a middle-aged married man taking drugs and sleeping with young girls whilst being haunted by memories of the wife he loves and her fatigue from the routine that has set in upon their life. The chorus is light and airy showing the allure of this life, whilst the sombre throb of the last verse contrasts with the wife's repeated cries of becoming overwhelmed. However beyond these clever musical tricks Berninger never forgets to treat his carefully crafted characters with a light touch; these songs never get too serious. In his memory of her “in long red socks and red shoes” the evocative visual imagery is coupled with a humorous image of “you, pissing in a sink I think”, harking back to the excitement of their early love and all the while making sure the track never becomes too heavy. Friend Of Mine's insanely catchy refrain directed to the boss of a friend who is preventing the friends from meeting “Why do you listen to that man / that man's a balloon” is funny but the narrator's admission “I've got two sets of headphones / I miss you like hell” is a concise evocation of loneliness alongside the history of a friendship weighing down upon its present, a universal feeling that comes across all the stronger for its marriage to Berninger's humorous touches while displaying his unnatural ability to say so much in a throwaway line.

Looking for Astronauts

However, some songs on these albums take a stronger stance in a social direction. Looking For Astronauts tells of a man who has dreamed his life away while damning what Sylvia Plath calls America's greatest tragedy - “the expectancy of conformity”: in that a man can get to the stage where he must say “are we gone?” (in other words 'is it now too late for us to find our way, having taken a different path to the rest'). In telling this story he draws in through his “medium sized American heart” the crushing of individuality and emotional expression through failing to achieve the impossible goals set in contemporary life, ending with a side-swipe at news media's impact on American mentality where “that's all we want / something to cry for / and something to hunt”. This is all powered by a regular beat and pacing guitars that show a mind at work while the lyrics express the complexity of the themes. However, The National do not always stick on Alligator to being a band driven by lyrics.

Val Jester

This is most clear on the album's most emotive tracks, such as Daughters Of The Soho Riots and Val Jester. In the former, a slow melody plays across the narrator's love story set in a time of civil upheaval, and the looser pacing allows lines like “break my arms around the one I love” to shine through as a perfectly self-contained image of the sacrifices we all make for love. In Val Jester it is even clearer that instrumentation is not an afterthought; while Berninger intones the difficult acceptance of a child leaving home in beautiful and striking imagery such as “fill her coat with weapons / and help her get it on / because one day when she goes / she's gone”, it is the grieving violin that will make you want to cry, and the quiet build-up of percussion that helps you understand that the sombre and curious emotions being expressed here are merely a part of everyday life filtered through the band's unique lyrical and sonic poetry.

Alligator is a subdued record, and this fact immediately places it in harsh contrast with the majority of the rest of indie rock, from the generic pop-rockers to genuinely brilliant but undeniably overstated bands like Neutral Milk Hotel. However the band's willingness to craft something so delicate and detailed creates an expectancy that the listener gives the album time and patience, and it is undeniably time well spent. Here Berninger and co set out a mission statement to report the inner struggles of those whose problems are not obvious with respect and craft, a goal they continue to pursue in the next album they released, Boxer.


Fake Empire

Boxer was a consolidation rather than a radical step forward for The National, but in context it was consolidating a masterpiece with another one. Every aspect of this album has been tightened and tuned compared with Alligator, and their sound benefits enormously, resulting in a collection of songs staggering in both their craft and their consistency of quality across the LP that represents to my mind the dizzying peak of their career so far.

The album opens with the first of many superb tracks, Fake Empire. The semi-jaunty piano melody seems out of place compared to the volatility and extremes of emotions, particularly anger, portrayed in previous releases, but clearly demonstrates the song's theme of ignoring the ugliness in the world, focusing on the beautiful things to distract ourselves. It is soon undercut by Berninger's classic phrase “we're half awake in a fake empire” - a damning and concise perspective on the somnambulent and delusional everyday lives of the American middle class and for me the track proves an overture to the entire album in three distinct ways which I hope to examine.

Green Gloves

The first is painting in broad strokes the melancholy of these individual American adults, out of whom particular characters and circumstances will be picked out and realised with brilliant observational skill by Berninger's gorgeous voice and sharp lyrics all across the album. Some of these portraits are so acute they leave me starry-eyed in wonder, such as on the fantastically moving Green Gloves. The song tells the simple tale of a person exorcised from a friendship group who seeks to live vicariously through the experience of these former friends, with both the envy and the soft reverence of this physical betrayal into the lives of others denoted by the title. It all comes together in the haunting and faultless chorus “Get inside their clothes / with my green gloves / watch their videos / in their chairs”, Berninger sings in a tone one can only sympathise with, creating an image that is beautiful because of the way it is expressed. What this means is that as the chorus closes, “get inside their beds / with my green gloves / get inside their heads / love their loves” one does not wholly take the creepy image as the sole reading and instead the listener is left with a portrait of extreme loneliness, made all the more personal and moving because Berninger is singing about a process that is so deeply personal and secretive in its confession that the listener can only feel they are making the very same intrusion into the life of the narrator.

The second is the admirable and new sense of restraint on display here. Boxer succeeds because the band realised the sound of Alligator, while raw and evocative, was not sustainable, and so in focusing the subjects and toning down the harshness of the sound the band are able to treat their songs with a more sophisticated maturity in each track.

Mistaken For Strangers

However when the band do recapture their darker moments, such as on the menacing and brilliant Mistaken For Strangers, it's in a more mature light than previous efforts. The song deals with the sacrifice of individuality one must undergo in order to become a functioning working adult and entering into the corporate machine. The serious subject matter is backlit by the heaviest guitars on the album, turning lyrics of distanced meditation into a dark assault that paints de-individualisation as a real threat to the modern American man. The track also highlights Berninger's amazingly elastic wordplay, playing with existing imagery such as “make up something to believe in your heart of hearts / so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves” and adding layer upon layer of nuance, turning an aphorism of emotional openness into a condemning perspective on the necessity of falsity of values in the working world. This play on words is highlighted again and again throughout the album, creating lines like the fantastically evocative “I leaned on the wall / the wall leaned away” in Slow Show. Yet when Berninger sticks to his own lyrical ideas he is still fantastic and shows more complexity than on Alligator. On Mistaken for Strangers he calls the descent into the faceless corporate life “another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”, including the unexpected negatives to emphasise the undermining of expectations in entering the 'real world' after 20-odd years of education in the Western machine.

In other places on this album he continues to show a true mastery of his lyrics, in Start A War he states of his lover “You were always weird but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now”, showing with simple and effective poetry the changes their relationship has undergone to reach this point. This track is the middle point of what could be seen as a three-part relationship story arc beginning with Apartment Story and ending with Guest Room, in which he states what may be one of the truest universal fears in any relationship - “We can't stay here / we're starting to stay the same”.

Slow Show

However for me the most poignant relationship track on the album is Slow Show, a portrait of a man who is simply unsure – about his job, his relationship and the directions his life has taken. The characterisation is superbly sympathetic, the narrator admitting “Oh God I'm very, very frightening” when describing how he wants to be with his lover in the sweet vignette “I wanna hurry home to you / put on a slow, dumb show for you / and crack you up”. The track is beautiful and interpretable, but most of all nearly every line is stunning; from the simple and funny line “everything I love gets lost in drawers” which is also so poignant, to his feelings of neutrality and unreaction to his circumstance; “you could drive a car through my head in five minutes/ from one side of it to the other.” The song ends with a piano section apparently played by Berninger's friend and fellow indie favourite Sufjan Stevens, and here the narrator's longing that takes its lines from the track 29 Years from The National's debut album “You know I dreamed about you / for 29 years before I saw you” is what truly melts your heart towards anyone who can still have such an idealized idea of love and wants more than anything for it to just work.


The third change it denotes is a musical one, and that is the fact that Boxer is a remarkably percussive album, all started by the drums that kick sharply into the first half of this opener slightly more prominently in the mix than you'd expect and continue to drive the majority of the album through its course with a deft skill that paces Berninger's stories perfectly. And the true mark of their knowing skill at using more prominent percussion is when it finally drops for tear-jerking closer Gospel, a superbly nuanced examination of the disparity between the overseas war experience and how it is seen from the suburban home. Here Berninger shows subtly how the truth of war is softened in America in two ways. Firstly by its commercialisation and familiarity in US culture, “Invite me to the war every night of the summer” he sings, turning it into a social occasion bearing no similarity to the horrific experience itself which he hints at with the suggestion “we'll play G.I Blood”; contorting the war experience into the grotesque toyings of a child. In the refrain he softly requests from his love “Darling can you tie my string”, bringing the physical intimacy of a relationship to the uniformed harshness of war before intoning breathily “killers are calling on me”. It is the aural peace of his phrase that renders it so incongruous and moving, which couldn't at all be possible if it wasn't for the warm guitar notes without a trace of a drumline; showing the band at the very height not only of mastering their instruments but also with an acute awareness of when less is more.

If I talked in this feature about every track as much as I wanted to it would go on forever, but suffice to say in Boxer almost all of the songs are brilliant, and when they aren't they're still exceptional. I feel I need to say that the album does slightly lack the musical range and a touch of the poppiness of Alligator, but this is clearly a necessary sacrifice for the ever-lucid songwriting and composition that time after time is effortlessly masterful across the album. It was three years before The National released their next LP with only a brief EP to keep the fans interested, and when High Violet finally came it proved a band still on top of the game and more importantly, still willing to change.

High Violet

By the time High Violet was released, The National were officially a big indie rock band on the map, and so there was a whole new world of expectations heaped upon their new record. However after 3 long years of waiting the album shows more than ever that this is a band born to exceed expectations. After first listen it is immediately clear that High Violet is a grander epxerience, here they play with more abstract lyrical themes that still convey the same complexity of themes and emotions, as well as enormously increasing the range of musical composition and detail of production throughout. Although it's not a completely new direction for the band I'm not sure that's really what anyone wanted, and the album is surely different enough to warrant a lot of admiration when they so easily could have put out another Boxer. It's barely worth saying that this album is another grower, however much the band members dislike the idea, any fans of the band ought to know by now that a new release is worth at least a week or so of listening before even beginning to form a judgement. And just as before, their music reveals itself at its own pace, proudly unveiling layer after exquisite layer of beautiful instrumentals and genius lyrics that often hit uncomfortably close to home.

Conversation 16

The most obvious changes that have taken place are musical ones. Opener Terrible Love is accompanied by a distorted wash of messy guitars that sounds messy, raw and unexpected while somehow perfectly suiting The National's canonical sound. Also notably Bryan Devendorf firmly cements himself as the best drummer in indie music, from the brilliant pacing of Anyone's Ghost to the tense percussion of Conversation 16 the drums carry over from Boxer an uncommon and brilliant prominence in the mix. Making a welcome return from Alligator are Berninger's more unusual vocal turns which Boxer quelled. On that third album he screamed through Abel and belted out Mr November and here we have the perfect multi-tracked vocals closing Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and the winningly evocative close of Afraid of Everyone, “Your voice is swallowing my so-so-so-soul”, where the repetition of the first syllable aurally demonstrates the narrator's feeling of the loss of his identity painted by the lyrics themselves. Elsewhere Little Faith begins with guitars tuned to sound like machines and closes with distant piano notes in one of the most brilliant and nuanced musical additions to the album. What is most remarkable of all is that despite all this musical detail the band still manage to be subtle rather than showy, always applying new techniques with a taste and restraint so unusual in contemporary music.

In an interview just before its release, multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter besides Berninger Aaron Dessner said “it became more of a record that was about texture and different colours”. If the new musical styles are the competing and intertwining textures, colours are certainly apparent in the lyrics, from the “silver city where all the silver girls gave us black dreams” in Conversation 16, the “red Southern souls” of Little Faith and the “blue bodies” and “red violets” of Afraid of Everyone we see colour both in the words and in the lyrical and musical evocations of the tracks themselves; the dusty red heat of Bloodbuzz Ohio and the magisterial hues of England.

Bloodbuzz Ohio

Beyond these motifs The National are looking at the same themes; social issues are once more brought to the fore in some of these tracks. Lemonworld deals with upper-class guilt in a fabricated world where one can escape from the horrors of the outside world (recalling the themes of Fake Empire), a place the title shows as sunny and self-contained but fundamentally sour. He shows self-importance, “it'll take a better war to kill a college man like me”, that mingles with an inability to wholly embrace the superiority of this world and its false splendour; “this pricey stuff makes me dizzy / I guess I've always been a delicate man”. Bloodbuzz Ohio's refrain sums up the American economic situation in one concise swoop - “I still owe money / to the money / to the money I owe”, and Conversation 16's humorous choral line “I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'cuz I'm evil” emphasises the real fear that once one is stuck in the urban corporate machine it is all too easy to become zombified. A notable lyrical change in general is that although these are still often first-person tales they are less personal and more universal, more about America than the single people who live there, and so here the lyrics up the stakes onto a broader canvas just as the instrumentation does.

Anyone's Ghost

This is not to say these songs are emotionless. Anyone's Ghost is the story of a man whose lover is dodging him and has given him up even though he believes he was up to her high standards. His vindication that he was indeed up to the task are expressed brilliantly in short call-and-replies inserted into the metre of individual lines; “You said it was not inside my heart, it was / you said it should tear a kid apart, it does” he asserts midway through the track. The walk of the unrequited lover is beautifully evoked in the first verse “go out at night with your headphones on again / and walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead” showing Berninger can still tug at the heart-strings when he wants to; even clearer in the universally sympathisable chorus line “I don't want anybody else” which the whole band sings together for emphasis. Yet again, the emotional effect is a triumph of both lyrics and form, as this track would be nothing without the harsh beats of the drums or the tensely jittering guitars that slide around the end of the track and close it with a shudder.


My personal favourite on the emotional stakes is second track, Sorrow. The first line “Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, Sorrow won” is a personification of the bleakest kind, yet Berninger chooses to make this track about more than a depressive rut, as showcased in the stunning chorus where the narrator states “don't leave my hyper-heart alone on the water / cover me in rag and bone sympathy / 'cuz I don't wanna get over you”. Here we see a depressive man who has lost in love and is crying out that despite his depression, he needs company more than anything. The haunting choir voices at the end bring a profound emotional depth to the track, and it stands out as one of the most moving on the album. Runaway is another emotive powerhouse, this time more distant and reserved in the ballad form, with Berninger winningly crying out “What makes you think I'm enjoying being led to the flood?” to express the conflict between sticking out a relationship, whether familial or romantic, or leaving it behind. The real triumph here is that despite the notable lyrical abstraction, especially present in the taking away of the little personal details of the characters in previous tracks, Berninger's lyrics are still endlessly relatable and often uncommonly moving.

If I have one criticism of this album, it's that it clearly lacks the unshakable consistency of the previous two, especially Boxer. With the new grandness comes a slight tendency to become overblown, such as in anthemic closer Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and mood-setting opener Terrible Love that is more atmosphere than meaning. These are my personal pick of more disappointing tracks, and though these may be the favourites of others I have noticed that whichever songs come up as duds in your own listening, there is a consensus in that there are a few more here than in Alligator and Boxer.

However I must underline that this is a minor qualm when it is so unusual for a band to release another record that not only has so many moments of brilliance but also tries so many new directions. The National continue to improve over every release, and in High Violet they have crafted a sprawling and dynamic record in which the quality far supercedes any worries about consistency issues or an unremitting bleakness. It's the highest compliment you can pay a band of this stature that with High Violet they have made good on all the promises that Boxer made, while quietly redrawing their musical style in the process.

Scores and next steps

As this feature has in part been a review, I'm going to give the standard x.y/10 score to each of the albums, but the ratings will be more personal than my normal fare because of the nature of the feature.

Alligator – 9/10

Boxer – 9.5/10

High Violet – 9/10

The band have clearly improved over each album, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the scores should only go up with each consecutive release. Each record is a brilliant piece of music but for me the mixture of the personal touches in Alligator and the extraordinary quality of High Violet gives Boxer the edge and so it gets the top spot for me.

High Violet marked more of a new sound than Boxer did for Alligator, and so its slight consistency problems could either denote a misstep or a sound that needs to settle for its true brilliance to be unearthed. At the moment, I'm inclined to believe the latter, as the band have shown superb musicianship in understanding that an audience needs something fresh from each release while remaining aware that this should not detract from the quality of each individual record. All we can do is wait for the next album to see how they're going to fare now the band is more under the critics' and audience's spotlight than ever.

The National's career has proven to all indie rock hopefuls that the genre is far from dead, and they stand alone on the scene as a band unwilling to compromise quality for quirks and tricks. They have always been a straight-up band's band, and from such a brilliant backlog I think we have every right to expect the best from the next release.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, 24 July 2011

How to Dress Well – Just Once EP

Suicide Dream 2 (Orchestral Version)

Suicide Dream 3 (Orchestral Version)

The cover of Tom Krell's latest EP looks an awful lot like the cover for the new Washed Out album, yet the positioning of the subjects are telling in how they portray what the artists are trying to say with these releases. The Just Once cover is less sexual and the couple seem to be holding each other more in a desperate attempt just to stay together. Compared to HTDW's cover for his debut LP, Love Remains, which was an obfuscated image of rocks and a street this is effectively a symbolic mission statement – here the obscuring distortion is stripped away and Krell's falsetto set to beautifully composed orchestral soundscapes, and through this a new level of emotional intimacy is uncloaked in his composition.

New arrangements are generally not massively interesting to anyone other than die-hard fans of the particular artists, and normally I'd agree that a song is best heard as it was originally intended, however the personal feel to this release renders it outside this simple statement. Nominally a collection of Suicide Dream tracks, the third dedicated to a recently deceased friend of his, this EP forms an immensely moving orchestral suite than, when heard, is undoubtedly more than worthy of a separate release.

I'm going to jump straight into the standout track here, because it's just that good. Suicide Dream 2 was always a favourite of mine on Love Remains, and it's the only track here that unquestionably gains from the new instrumentation. The track is not stripped but aggrandised by this treatment and the emotions made so much more gripping – the haunting sorrow and desperate pleas are set here on a larger emotional canvas and when Krell's vocals come to the front of the mix with “no air / no air / no air” his voice really touches on something deep down, achieving a landmark moment where Krell's music is more emotive than it has ever been before. It also neatly demonstrates that the falsetto set in the middle of the sparse production on Love Remains is magnificent in its power and range, a fact that an album as broken and produced as his debut couldn't confirm so easily.

Elsewhere the tracks vary in quality. Suicide Dream 1 doesn't suit the new orchestral bearing quite so well, it occasionally comes off as slightly too sugary and loses the melancholy ambience because of slightly clichéd strings but this is no major qualm; and in my opinion most of the reason it suffers is because the original song wasn't quite as strong a composition in the first place. Decisions is nice and suits the other three tracks well, but I wasn't quite sold on the new 'clean' sound to the track and went back to listen to the original. On doing this it became clear that although the new instrumentation works, it nowhere near matches the power of the first because the song gained its weight from those drum beats echoing off into a void and Krell's vocals trying to rise from the dusty production, and without these nuances it's fine but nothing special.

The new track, Suicide Dream 3, which is specifically dedicated to a late friend, is harder to gauge as it has no specific predecessor. It doesn't immediately reveal itself to be a highlight but it works well with the others. However on repeated listens it becomes clear that this is a carefully considered composition that will haunt you long after you've left it, and specifically the fluttering marriage of Krell's vocals and the violin which swell and descend together achieves another flawless emotional peak for the EP.

So this is certainly a quality collection of songs, some brilliant and some pretty good, but it does leave me asking about his previous style: isn't the deconstructionist distortion his 'thing' that makes him a unique producer? The answer is undoubtedly yes, and if this was a sign of HTDW's changed direction for a sophomore album I would be worried, but since Krell has gone on record stating this is a one-off recording style I'm satisfied to see the EP more as a side-project curio borne of intense personal pain which only serves to continue the consistently high quality of his output over the last 12 months.


Labels: ,

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Araabmuzik – Electronic Dream

Streetz Tonight

Make It Happen


Most notable for being part of the new wave of cheap but taut gangsta rap producers alongside Clam's Casino and producing for the likes of Cam'ron, no one could have expected Araabmuzik's debut LP to be Electronic Dream, which is truly a genre unto itself. Surprises like this often bring interesting fusions out of the music world, and this is no exception as a curious fusion of 90s trance and instrumental hip hop; euphoric synths battered by knife-edge hip hop beats, all ruled over by original vocal samples from trance classics. However across this album another less pleasant fusion becomes apparent, that of a supremely talented producer who has no care for audio fidelity in his releases.

This is in some part understandable as the Youtube and download generation is used to hearing mushy beats streamed at 120, but where quality is usually only considered problematic to audiophiles with high end speakers, here it poses more of a problem than it might be expected to. Put simply, trance was always a genre where purity and clarity reigned supreme to create a euphoric experience: what's more transcendent than hearing the purest rising synth line courted by sensual female vocals touting euphoria while you're rushing your way into oblivion? And so here when the tracks are irritatingly mushy and garbled it hurts, such as on the brilliantly dark and tense Underground Stream in which scaling synths duel with aggressive beats to create a paranoid soundscape. The song breaks midway through for a climactic rush of extreme tension in thrashing drums and synths, but the quality of the sound itself takes any emotive reaction out of the equation because these noises sound like they're being dragged through mud, all the synths run a straight course and the beats shatter unpleasantly when they hit the unexpected ceiling instead of reverbing in the way a listener would expect.

Nor is this the only of the album's problems. There was a darkside to trance music, and I'm not talking bad-trip synths; this is the overblown arpeggios and catastrophic lyrics that sometimes accompanied well-intentioned dance tracks, and this side of trance unfortunately gets its time on this album. Tracks like Electronic Dream and Golden Touch sound smooshy and dull, and sampled lines like “Fall in love with music / fall in love with dance / fall in love with anything that makes you want romance” are cringeworthy and take appreciation away from the consistently top-notch production skills on display here. On top of this, the frequently sampled “You're now listening to Araabmuzik”, while indeed evoking the idea that the track's well-produced transitions create that this is to be listened like a continuous DJ set, interrupt the flow of the LP to a certain extent and feel unnecessary outside of a club scenario... yes, I know what I'm now listening to, thanks.

However I started with the negative to get it out of the way, because there are an awful lot of positive aspects to this album too. Araabmuzik's use of samples is often inspired, such as in standout second track Streetz Tonight in which a more laid back sound is adopted and the vocal line is continuously almost allowed to soar before being beaten back into place by hard beats with a deep reverb that creates a nuanced tension in the production which works exquisitely. The track almost adopts a verse-chorus structure between the two vocal samples used, and it rises majestically and euphorically like the best trance did 15-odd years back. Added to this, the second half of the album is notably stronger than the first. This is hinted at in Free Spirit's great synth line and Make It Happen's dangerously racing melody that fuses brilliantly with the beats towards the end of the track, but the whole sound really comes into its own in the last few tracks.

Lift Off begins with one of the most classic Ibiza-trance synthlines possible, but somehow it all works instead of feeling clichéd, probably because of those well-placed beats throughout. An eerie melody creeps through that adds another element to a simple but great track. This feeds into obvious album standout AT2 in which Araabmuzik harks most clearly to the gloriously druggy production of today's Southern rap and Low End Theory's beat-scientists, sparkling with lush production detail and really taking the listener on the journey that traditional trance so often evoked. Let It Go is another more euphoric take, slowing the pace with one of the best-implemented samples on the record. However this prize should go to final track Lost In A Maze, the only cut in which the trance vocals are allowed to run their course without sounding cringey, with well-textured percussion courting the sample with lush production details like the magical harp sound that takes the track to another level.

Araabmuzik hasn't used the most discipline in creating this album, either in terms of sound quality or excising some of trance's worse motifs, but when the mind of the producer is this sharp and instinctive, and especially when listened to as a whole, it's hard to care too much. What we have here is a fascinating fusion between genres that honestly works much more than it has any right to.


Labels: , ,

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Laurel Halo – Hour Logic


Constant Index

Hour Logic

After being premiered as a vocalist for Ford and Lopatin, Ina Cube crafted her first EP, King Felix, less than a year ago and here in her second she has taken a rather unexpected turn. While the most striking aspect of her last EP was her unique voice, here she almost completely abandons vocals to focus on the instrumental aspect of her songs. So does this surprising move work for the young artist? Well, sort of. Some of these tracks are great, some are rather dull, and I'd argue none of them are truly excellent.

There are certainly some strong tracks here. Aquifer is a brilliantly pacey cut with fantastic layering and some gorgeous touches, showing how adept Halo is at mixing different textures to create fizzing dancefloor techno. Second track Constant Index is without a doubt the highlight of the EP, but the fact that it's the only one to clearly utilise her vocals perhaps hints the move to a more instrumental style was a misstep. Either way, it's a rushing techno odyssey with gorgeously powerful vocals that soar through the tune. It was wise to mix them into the instrumentation, sometimes creating the effect of an epic background roar, accompanied by a destructive bass and a killer not-quite-drop late in the track which shows what she could be doing this whole time. Later title track Hour Logic is also quite nice, although a pounding 4/4 beat breaks in and contorts it seems more a stage to portray the exploration of tension and release in the glacial ambient tones she employs.

Unfortunately for every track which shines, another falls flat. Head is an journey through an ugly (not necessarily in a bad way) soundscape of lush electronic detail, but it ultimately gets a bit dull before it reaches its nevertheless well-orchestrated climax, ending with a final couple of minutes that are immersive and cacophonous but not quite an adequate pay-off for the wait. Speed of Rain is an interesting but forgettable diversion into IDM beats, and I would argue delving into the terrain of Aphex Twin and Autechre does her no favours in comparison. The melodies here are abandoned before they really have time to shine, and I feel the track hints that perhaps not just here but across the whole EP a few textures and ideas could be removed from the mix. I could go either way on final cut Strength in Free Space, the whole voice-as-intrument approach is done well, the pitch-perfect vocals competing with long tones and a quiet but important beat for prominence across the track.

Ultimately few of these tracks really shine, and while each is an interesting experiment the EP doesn't really come together as a whole that makes you sit up and take notice. However the fact that Halo refused to build upon the strong sound that she produced in her previous EP seems to me less an indication that this is a misstep but more proof that this is an artist who refuses to compromise her vision and that whatever comes next it will be unexpected and interesting. Let's just hope the next release is of a higher consistent quality than this EP, because there is clearly so much talent and so many ideas just waiting to find the perfect form to be expressed.

(P.S. - Check out Actress' awesome remix of Constant Index here)


Labels: ,

Zomby – Dedication

Natalia's Song

Digital Rain

A Devil Lay Here

Zomby is not exactly known in the world of production for being an agreeable person to work with. A frequent no-show at his scheduled performances including a gig at this year's ATP, he seems to have carried this image forward to this, his second full LP and his first on major label 4AD in which he constantly gives the audience almost what they want; a deeply talented but frustratingly mischievous artist who doesn't quite hit the highs he could so easily achieve.

This is nothing like any of his previous material, least of all his previous album, the fantastic rave-pastiche LP Where Were U In '92? - the only brief nod to rave is a klaxon introducing Panda Bear collab Things Fall Apart (hopefully named after the Chinua Achebe novel rather than the 50 Cent track), and while Lennox's vocals are better implemented than his turn in Pantha Du Prince's Stick To My Side, the track is no album standout.

The reason for this is that there is an awful lot of good material over these 16 songs, although unfortunately some seem all too brief. But to stay with the positive for a moment, there are some truly brilliant moments here. Nod to Burial Natalia's Song includes a controversial vocal sample but it's a great track consisting of an elastic beat and two layers of vocals, one a clipped breath tuned to percussion and the other the desperate vocal line that attempts to soar beyond the music but is never allowed to escape and complete the phrase, resulting in a dark and deeply claustrophobic early album standout. Alothea's intricate percussion is punctured by untreated synths and a gloriously deep bassline, feeding into the short but gorgeous Black Orchid which evolves naturally, raising classic 8-bit noises to the level of an epic, swirling symphony. Riding With Death is a darker cut that readies us for the game-y onslaught of Vortex which is a ferocious mangle of oppressive nintendo noise and background sounds, completed by off-kilter percussion that sounds like it's swirling around your head, earning the track its name.

Lucifer transitions nicely into another highlight, the icy Digital Rain which takes its cue from earlier Zomby release Digital Flora / Fauna with skittering synths over an arpeggiated backing and can-opening beats that sound almost like a parody of Burial's signature style. Another cue taken from the earlier EP is the frequent abandoning of outros which rather than being thrillingly disconcerting is realised as a series of irritatingly jarring moments when the album is listened to as a whole, such as between Black Orchid and Riding With Death. A Devil Lay Here is a racing and haunted journey through an electronic underworld, and in closer Mozaik a fantastically transformative beat is coupled with cascading synths and snappy snares in a sparse composition that shows how much Zomby can do with so little; a skittering, pacy and satisfying conclusion to an album for which 'satisfying' is not always an applicable word.

This is because a fair amount of the shorter tracks (3 clocking in at under a minute) are too slight. While electronic giants Boards of Canada and hugely influential producer J Dilla mastered the art of creating shorter tracks which feel like fully formed pieces, too many of Zomby's cuts feel as if they're moving somewhere, creating an expectation that is ultimately frustrated. While some like Vanquish work in short form, tracks like Salamander, Lucifer and Florence each feel like they could be stretched out into something great. This makes the album too frequently sound like a series of sketches, and although when listened to as a whole they flow justifiably from one track to another, it occasionally it feels as if there should be more to grab onto on these tracks.

This is a serious problem that will irritate on first listen, but after spending time with the album it's hard to care too much. There are so many excellent tracks here with immaculately detailed production (tellingly they are usually the longer ones), and Zomby's versatility as a producer is worthy of a huge amount of respect – that the album can flow from the eery witch house of opener Witch Hunt to the mournful piano of Basquiat and still sound coherent is an astonishing feat. So give it a go because this truly is the work of an amazingly talented producer, even if it may occasionally leave you wishing he'd settle and put in the time to flesh some of these pieces out rather than just making teaser-like showcases.


Labels: , , , ,

Dance and Electronic Roundup

Here I've collected the tracks I've been sessioning this week, brand new dance and electro from great albums and singles or from artists who are about to release a new LP. Just thought it might be nice to share some thoughts on what I'm listening to at the moment.

Silo Pass – Bok Bok

A track from the new Southside EP by one half of juggernaut label Night Slugs, Bok Bok. Throughout the EP he showcases weird sounds and full-throttle dance production, but here is where he connects most with the grime flavour that threatens to emerge throughout the EP. Opening with a spare buildup consisting of far-off voices, an enthralling beat and creeping synths, at the one-minute mark the track breaks down magnificently into a filthy grime bass that is dancefloor catnip. Despite the unusually long runtime for a dance track this cut never gets boring, with the bass receding and coming back each time bigger and more intoxicating than ever.

Streetz Tonight - Araabmuzik

Part ambient, part trance, the new album from gangsta-rap producer Araabmuzik was a big surprise to everyone. In this prime cut he incorporates classic 90s euphoria vocals in the form of a sped-up version of those from Kaskade's 4am, clipping the sample and never quite letting it reach its peak before it is battered back down by his snares and beats. The result is a completely hypnotising cross-breed of genres which is a prime example of the old adage that however uncool the genre you're reviving, a masterful control of tension and release can make any track a banger. You're now listening to Araabmuzik.

Unglued – Objekt

Harking back in some ways to older dubstep, the mysterious Objekt's (Berlin-based TJ Hertz) latest single was undoubtedly fantastic, but it was this B-side that kept me coming back for more. The track is stripped to a level of pure aggression, moving through several distinct movements before settling into a propulsive beat with acid and jazz tinges cheekily laced throughout. Added to this, after a minute or so of cut-throat beats and violent 2-step snares is one of the most explosive and messed up drops I've heard this year. Suffice to say there's a reason everyone's getting so excited about Objekt, and I expect this track to continue ripping up dancefloors for the next few months.

Open Your Eyes – XXXY

XXXY's particular brand of future garage has been attracting a lot of attention this year, and his latest release looks set not just to continue the brilliance of cuts like Ordinary Things but also to change things up and better them. Adopting a more jungle aesthetic, the drums on this track are exploding hardcore-style 808 beats that are absolutely ferocious especially after the huge drop, and an emotive element is woven into the mix with the sampled refrain “Let's go somewhere”. It's clear from the off that this Manchester-based producer is moving somewhere special, and with tunes like this I'm more than happy to go with him.

Laurel Halo – Aquifer

This is the opener from Laurel Halo's new EP Hour Logic, and it's a gorgeous techno-trance mindbender. Opening with fizzing liquid synths, the track builds slowly and carefully with subtle vocal snatches before the slow-drive bass kicks in to ground the crazy pace of those synths. Laurel Halo has shown a consistently cerebral output and this track is no different, showcasing her compositional skill beyond her astounding voice. It's busy but always lucid, and the distorted pipe-synth kicking in midway through the second minute lends an epic oriental grandeur to the sound introducing a steady beat. The layers are brief but expertly interlaced, declaring proudly that Arbor is one to watch.

Oh, Why – Balam Acab

The first full track from Alec Koone's album due out late August entitled Wander / Wonder. Balam Acab is one of my very favourite artists around at the moment and this taster shows that he's likely to deliver on his Triangle debut. Opening with his trademark treated vocals which sound otherworldly and unlike anything else, the track showcases a luxuriantly slow build that reveals gorgeous depth on repeated listens. The ethereal vocals are backed by a perfectly pitched loop of lazy synths and record hiss, introducing a bassline of masterful subtlety halfway in. Then the dubby bass kicks in accompanied by a soaring male vocal line, building quietly into a beautiful release of eery synths and straining vocals with instantly recognisable bubbly arpeggios breaking through the noise. Dark and beautiful, this promises great things for his debut LP. Another fantastic track from the upcoming album, Apart, can be found here.

Shell of Light (Shlohmo Remix) – Burial

I've saved my favourite until last, this track has been on daily repeat on my iTunes since I first heard it. Remixing Burial is a daring move, but Shlohmo's take on the gorgeous and all-too-brief end of Shell of Light is pitched perfectly, treating its source material with respect and turning it into something completely different. Opening with the untreated sample, the single vocal line is achingly emotive and only enhanced by the masterly bass and broken beats. Just before the 2-minute mark the track drops off and a sampled falsetto is laced expertly with the sample, creating a ghostly and beautiful song which is utterly hypnotic, demanding repeated listens in its thrilling interplay of lost voices, subtly insistent percussion and entrancing synths. An exciting sign of the quality of Shlohmo's debut album Bad Vibes which drops next month, from which a track can be found here.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Gonjasufi – A Sufi And A Killer



I've Given

Sumach Ecks has been called 'spiritual' by more reviews and magazines than I'd care to count, and although the yoga instructor-cum-songwriter has a definite edge of the spiritual to his music, I found the hype around the release of the album focused more on his neo-psychadelic spirituality than on the actual quality of the music. And the reason that this is such a shame is that this LP, produced by the illustrious likes of Flying Lotus and The Gaslamp Killer, is a thrillingly versatile and accomplished debut by an artist who is genuinely unlike anything else out there at the moment.

Although the album has a normal runtime of an hour there are 20 tracks here and it feels like a lot of material, indeed it is a testament to the quality of the songwriting that many of the shorter one and two-minute tracks feel like fully rounded songs rather than the irritating interludes we see so frequently in 21st century releases. However as a result of this the listener may be at first overwhelmed by the volume of different sounds and ideas coming across in the record, yet thankfully Ecks has circumvented this in two ways. The first is the hazy and trippy ambience instilled across the record, with dropped beats and psych-guitar reverbing all over the shop, lending the shorter tracks a needed coherence in the context of the whole. The second, and perhaps more notable achievement is his distinctive and distorted vocals which croak, howl and croon while veering wildly between clear and completely incomprehensible. Even with these assets, this album is not a particularly easy listen. Occasionally the transitions between tracks feels deliberately jarring, such as that between the melodic piano closing She Gone and the guttural roar which opens SuzieQ, and while the impression that there is a case of split personality to this records as it jolts around reinforces Ecks' central theme (showcased in the title) of the personal conflict between a peaceful yoga teacher and his violent past, the listener can feel more than a little alienated by the cacophony.

So its a good thing that this album is absolutely brimming with great tracks. Ecks certainly knows how to evoke trip-notic atmosphere in the likes of FlyLo produced third track Ancestors in which reverbed beats make it sound like a dusty offcut from the producer's stellar album Los Angeles, or in the exotic and snaking guitars of Kobwebz. He continues along the theme later in the album with highlights Change and Duet, the first a scratchy low-key soul number and the latter a bass-heavy piece with memorable vocal hooks and a game-changing sliding guitar soaring across the soundscape. As nice as these cuts are, the tracks that are a little different often prove to be even more spectacular. Sheep is a soothing ballad and Ecks' quietest moment, cut into gorgeously by a bollywood-esque female vocal sample that reaches a fever pitch before developing into a belting bluesy burst of lyrical schizophrenia, showcasing almost all of his best traits in a single track. Candylane is unashamed porn-soundtrack fare, and revels in this fact with Ecks' filthy vocals, while following track Holidays is a stripped beat with a building, clipped synth melody that is a breath of fresh electronic air after the crowded material in the rest of the release. Closer Made is a moody piece that seems crafted out of dust and melancholy horns, followed by a brilliant secret track that is all distortion and rock guitar. Meanwhile possibly my favourite track is penultimate cut I've Given which begins a gentle and faded guitar ballad before a minute in where the sound drops away, blending and building itself into a ferocious eastern-style synth melody that swirls blearingly around the listener with infectious energy before being superceded at the close by an electro-Hendrix solo. The transition is one of the not infrequent moments on the record where Ecks' true skill as a songwriter shines through as the songs seem to construct and deconstruct themselves beautifully without any outside influence.

It's not an easy listen both because of the distorted noise and the schizophrenic transitions, but there's an enormous amount of quality material across the record that outweighs the hype and backstory of its creator, making this a record that may at first be hard to like but after a few spins will certainly be easy to love.


Labels: , ,