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White Noise: August 2011

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Balam Acab – Wander / Wonder

Label: Tri Angle

I've been waiting for this album to come out for nearly a year, and as we moved into 2011 it was easily top of my most anticipated LPs; so I was a little on edge on first listening to Alec Koone's debut album. Turns out I needn't have feared, as this is without a doubt one of the most elegant and brilliant electronic releases in recent years.

Koone's previous release, See Birds, came out on Tri-angle records when witch house was the most hyped thing on the planet, and suffered slightly from being incorporated in the genre. Many of the other 'drag' artists had none of his subtly or elegance of composition, but thankfully the EP continued to gather interest months after release and almost broke free from the restrictive labelling, but with the brilliantly titled Wander / Wonder Koone has shown that he is in a league of his own.

The thing is, Koone has hit on a winning formula. In his gorgeous but brief EP See Birds we heard synth melodies and ambient washes build subtly only to be pummelled by dense bass and electronic effects akin to bubbles rising through water. This tended to be all topped off midway through by superbly manipulated vocals that suited each track to a tee. Here all the ingredients are the same but the whole is pulled off with an unexpected finesse and elegance, resulting in an assured and deeply beautiful album that rewards listen after listen and is without a doubt my personal pick for album of the year so far.

Water is clearly the theme of the day here. Besides the actual water samples littering the tracks, the voices and melodies sound submerged, only occasionally bursting for a few glorious seconds to the surface before returning into the depths. The aquatic theme is also fitting in terms of sequencing, in that while they can be picked apart as singles, the tracks also flow together wonderfully. Koone stated in an interview that he wanted it to be a more open-ended listening experience, and by all means he has succeeded. This lends the LP a free-flowing quality so it can be listened to as a whole or in whatever order you want. The other reason this is so important is because his sound mutates so organically, which is especially notable within the field of electronic music where the human aspect can so easily be removed. These tracks blend the synthetic sounds with a strong emotive pull seamlessly to ensure the listener is never too alienated nor too comfortable, resulting in a listen that is both beautiful and profound.

It feels to me almost as if Koone is one of the few taking electronic music in a new direction. While M83 achieves emotional punch through melodramatic teen-angst synths, Acab's labelmates on Tri-Angle trade in dramatic spookiness and the UK's freshest artists are rehashing the past in more and more innovative ways (not that any of these are bad things), Koone's compositions evoke an emotion that is both curious and ineffable, as interpretative as they are powerful. The closest comparison would be electro/acoustic crossover artists like Shlohmo and Shigeto, but all the more power to Koone for achieving these effects while keeping every sound firmly in the electronic domain.

I've been talking about the LP generally quite a bit because it's difficult to pick out and comment on favourite tracks; there's so much to say about all of them. That's not to say these songs are hard-going, part of Koone's brilliance is that his songs are so welcoming in their dreamy ambience, ghostly voices and on-point beats that it could take a few spins to realise how much depth there is to his composition. If you do seek out intricacy in these tracks, there's a wealth of detail to be unearthed. Welcome sets the scene, building a tense bubbling noise with respirator effects to a fever pitch before an intensely reverbed beat clatters across the soundscape (literally from left to right). After this we hear those vocals that are so uniquely Koone's own: disconnected but moving, situated somewhere between a ghostly choir, ethereal children and the incongruous operatic tones from old records. The effect is far from limited; although there is a unity in their overall sound, the voices range from hopeful to melancholy, strengthening to downright threatening. It's also worth mentioning that in an electronic climate where artists are chopping vocals so finely (see Mount Kimbie, Pariah etc.), Koone's choice to leave them as comprehensible fragments is refreshing and lends the tracks a greater sense of structure.

The next three tracks tie together magnificently; Apart comes to life with real strength, leading into the shimmery Motion which combines a deep bass with pretty strings and a perfectly timed clacking chime. After this Expect is similarly lush and impressive, with a different structure as the slow melody and twin vocal layers (the regular ghost voices combined with angelic harmonies over the bassline) compete with the mutable bass which builds in pace to a threatening speed, made all the tenser by those seesawing strings. Koone's music works so well because of its contrast; the undeniably pretty (in the best sense of the word) is always undercut by a melancholic longing, just as the light melodies are combined with that deep bass.

Oh, Why is definitely a standout (if I was forced to pick one), building with sublime innocence to a subtle and soaring crescendo, made especially superb by the dueling of that continuous high-pitched wail with those bubbling synths towards the end. In the final couple of tracks the water level significantly rises (literally, you'll hear it). The brilliant ambient stretches that precede each song proper are extended here, and as the drops in each track wash over the listener like another crashing wave in an endless sea, here those waves are spaced further apart and all the more powerful for it. Await is fantastically understated and intensely sorrowful whilst dark and redemptive closer Fragile Hope builds over a lengthy yet subtly precise intro to an unshowy but perfectly pitched finale. The last track also has one of the most stunningly nuanced beats I've ever heard, a fragile juddering undermining its own force, and the track leaves the listener with feelings of uncertainty and the most curious positivity, but more than anything the desire to hear the tracks all over again.

There are a couple of criticisms that could be levelled at this album. Firstly, I've heard people describe Balam Acab's sound as 'samey'. My response to that would be to give the songs more time and allow the detail to reveal itself, because each of these compositions are wonderfully unique while at the same time unified by their overall sound. And although I referenced a 'formula' earlier, the album is more a profound exploration of a particular sound than similar rehashings of a winning structure. The other is that the collection of tracks is too short, and it's certainly true that 37 minutes is on the short side for an LP. However I've already stated the album lends itself magnificently to repeated plays, even working brilliantly when set on a loop, there is so much here to discover. Furthermore, the short runtime feels appropriate in an album of such elegance and concision where so much is said over and over again with less, and this is especially laudable in a climate where tracks are all too often stretched to bloating point by self-indulgent instrumental sequences.

I keep using the word 'curious' to describe the emotive effect of this LP, and it's purely down to my own ineloquence that I can't quite put my finger on what feels different about the way it moves the listener. All the feelings here are submerged and blurred, as if by painting emotions with the broadest brushstrokes Koone is masterfully making them intricately and personally applicable to anyone who chooses to listen in. However it makes you feel, the album is endlessly beautiful, fantastically detailed and masterfully subtle. Although the LP doesn't have the high-octane pull of some of the work of his contemporaries, Koone takes the quiet road to aim at something beyond the simple 'Oh shit, this sounds good' reaction, and has diligently crafted a superb album which, if you let it, will worm its way past your brain into your heart and stay there.

This won't be a 10/10 album for every listener, but it is for me. I'm not giving the score because it's the best LP ever recorded but because I feel its as good as it possibly could be. The emotions are treated with a tender abstraction that only electronic music allows, and I'd be surprised if there were many fans of the genre who didn't recognise the unquantifiable innate beauty of these songs. As a piece of art it makes you feel and it makes you think, all the while taking the admirable road of understatement. It sounds like nothing else, and could be said to be a quietly bold statement on the possibilities of electronic composition. As a whole it seems to me one of the most unique, intriguing and moving electronic albums of recent times. Get listening.


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Monday, 29 August 2011

Sepalcure - Fleur EP


Your Love

No Think

This EP slipped under my radar on release in January, but I think it deserves some more attention, and better late than never. Here Praveen Sharma (aka Braille, who has a promising-sounding EP out next month) and Travis Stewart (aka Machinedrum, whose recent release Room(s) is without a doubt one of the best LPs of the year so far) build on the ideas set out in their debut Love Pressure EP with fluency and skill, combining their choppy aesthetic with house and dubstep influences and a strong helping of what makes their music stand out so much; warmth.

The best accolade that can be given to this release is that there is no obvious standout; although the title track Fleur is brilliant, each song is a unique and separate composition, and my favourite tends to shuffle to whichever I'm currently listening to. These tracks combine a superb technical mastery, primarily the most fluid and organic sampling this side of Hotflush labelmates Mount Kimbie, with a gorgeous artistic aesthetic which makes every track generously lush and refreshingly warm. Furthermore this confident and coherent release is composed of individual tracks which never sit still, constantly remoulding themselves to encompass new sounds and influences, an impressive achievement.

Opener Fleur phases into existence before introducing perfectly pitched percussive clicks and a soulful vocal line, settling into a rhythmic and vibrant tune bursting with detail. Vocal samples here are manipulated masterfully, edging out the coolness of the interrupted phrases so favoured by contemporary choppers to blur the lines between voices and instrumentation, creating a blissful and natural sound. After this Your Love picks up the pace, with snares and kicks punctuating the air. Two samples court each other rather than dueling for prominence, the wordless melody proving especially remarkable. Around the third minute the track settles into a gorgeous groove, guaranteed to get heads bobbing, before dissolving back into the musical ether. A good outro rarely makes or breaks a track, but this is just another example of the superb attention to detail shown throughout this EP.

Third cut No Think is the longest track, taking a few cues from grime for a dark and pacey composition. Here the voices are less comforting, repeating and shifting pitch towards the close in a beautifully haunted manner, like Burial's ghosts glitching their way out of existence. Inside is a beautiful and short ambient stretch that lets off all the steam that has been building over the course of the EP magnificently, very comparable to Where Did We Go Wrong on the Room(s) LP.

Here two producers have stepped up their game more than could have been expected, crafting a brilliant set of 4 tracks which are distinct yet unified. If the trend continues, I'm not sure I'd be able to handle the quality of their next release. 


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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Summer Break

It's summer and I'm on holiday, so updates will be slow over the next few weeks. There should still be a few reviews to come though.


Friday, 19 August 2011

Lunice – One Hunned EP


I See U


For those who were content to believe that America and the UK were the only places to find bleeding-edge dance tracks, Canada has been stepping up to the plate big time over the last week. First we had Prison Garde's superb mixtape Système Hermès, and now newcomer Lunice has released one hell of a first EP as a mission statement to dancefloors and bedrooms everywhere. Not just this, his label Lucky Me has certainly hit the mark on signing fresh talent, from Machinedrum's fantastic footwork abberations to Jacques Greene, who could be called an angelic counterpart to Lunice's 8bit grime.

This is grime in tone more than musicality, breaktaking single and standout I See U starts off broody with aggressively pacey percussion and ghostly synths, recalling a home-listening witch house experience more than anything else. However halfway in an aggressive bassline rises up, you feel that you didn't realise it was missing until it arrives, and it immediately beckons you onto your feet. Not only is this track brilliantly put together and hugely powerful in its raw aggression, that great bassline symbolises Lunice's unexpected approach which continually has you guessing at what will come next; these 6 tracks are far from predictable and your mind is never really safe from the assault of his synths.

Thankfully, his production is of a high enough quality that you're always happy to just go with him. Opener Glow is a lighter affair fusing clattering hip hop beats with an angelic sample, there's an ethereal glow to these sounds and when the 8bit melody emerges from the blinding light it's almost too much to take in. Lunice is clearly a fantastic producer, and he has a knack for picking out great sounds that litter his soundscapes, from the drag-inflected sliding percussion and bell sounds of EP highlight Juice to the nausea-inducing pitchshifting in Guardian. There's always a lot going on here, but the compositions are well spaced to suit headphones or a dancefloor, and never feel crammed like they threaten to every so often.

I See U also has a couple of remixes included at the end of the EP. The Blessings' remix changes up the track by changing the positioning of the layers, adding some hard-edged synth and a vocal sample, but doesn't really add a whole lot to the original track. However the second remix is by Night Slugs' crunk master (and White Noise favourite) Girl Unit, who is also probably the closest producer to Lunice releasing at the moment. This second mix seriously hits the spot, bathing the composition in grand synthlines and ramping up the sounds of the original to a super-threatening fever pitch. It's worth saying that the only negative thoughts I have on the EP are more subjective. Bricks is fairly forgettable sandwiched in between two fantastic tunes, and I personally find the untreated synth breakdowns in Guardian and And She Said a little treacly and nauseating, but that's just me.

Combining furious 8bit manipulation and darker grime emotions isn't completely new territory, and on the first few listens the EP could potentially sound like something from Zomby but these tracks are both richer and ultimately more satisfying. Lunice may not be re-inventing the wheel here but this EP, especially the first half and that stunning Girl Unit remix, is a taut selection of fantastically produced dancefloor fodder that definitely demands your attention.


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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Machinedrum – Room(s)

Label: Planet Mu

I've been working on a review for this album before DJ Diamond's Flight Muzik (the other big footwork LP of the last month or so) even came out, yet the review didn't come easy. Even though these are two immensely talented producers weaving better-produced compositions out of the same juke cloth, it seems to me the intent of these albums could hardly be more different. Footwork originated with the dancing style of the same name in Chicago a couple of years back, and Diamond's LP was a celebration of the different styles it could take in while welcoming a whole new audience to the genre, and to a great extent was a success. But Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, for whom this is in fact the 7th album (although you might not know it), seems to be driving at something else.

The celebrated vocals are both ubiquitous and surprisingly deep in the mix, less adding to the dance staples of rhythm or beat in their clipped sample-form and more evoking mood and atmosphere. On opener She Died There the vocal sample never stops after it starts, just submerging and re-appearing at different points over the stutteringly fast beats, and it doesn't quite feel like they're being used to the same effect as standard (and generally oversexed) juke vocals. Because I suppose at its heart this isn't a footwork album, it's not really a dance album, and it's only questionably an album designed to be listened to at home; so the only conclusion I can draw is that this is something blinding and new. In fact, it's easier to ascertain the quality of this record than label it in any way, because from the composition side of things it's absolutely fantastic. The production is detailed and always extraordinarily fast and confident without ever causing a sense of fatigue. It's also sequenced flawlessly, following a mood arch that starts with the paranoia of the aforementioned opener, rises to the ecstatic high of Come1 and ends in the atmospheric uncertainty of closer Where Did We Go Wrong with all the requisite stages in between.

It's hard to take the LP apart for discussion as it all hangs together so delicately, but suffice to say none of the tracks feel out of place and each opens up its own pleasures and individual qualities with repeat listens. Sacred Frequency is an early highlight, layering searingly bright synths with frantic rhythms and a submerged vocal sample that brings a darker quality to the sound, lending the track a depth that easily outstrips most of Stewart's contemporaries. Another euphorically upbeat track is the album centrepiece Come1 in which Stewarts abandons the untreated drums of his juke stablemates to contrast stabby rave piano chords with a free jazz rhythm, both a great achievement and the kind of detail it is absolutely unnecessary to notice in order to enjoy the track.

This track is followed by another fantastic cut, Youniverse, which offers a darker energy through fever-pitch beats where it sounds like you can hear the hand slapping the drumhead. This is twinned with a undulating organ tone that shifts in pitch, adding an oddly unsettling warmth to proceedings. The middle belt of the LP is fortified by another brilliant track immediately after, the unbelievably energetic GBYE in which micro-edited samples duel over an insanely dense drum pattern and you can just hear a snatch of 'I love you' before the sample is whipped away and replaced.

Towards the end of the album there are a few tracks that veer slightly from expectations. In Lay Me Down the vocals are twisted into something that sounds almost tender, like a footwork-style RnB ballad, but there is still an insistence that every space in the track is filled; by a beat, by a synth, by a human voice. Which brings me to a parallel that you might've already seen coming. The stone I must touch is of course one of the only untouchable 'dance' albums in the last 10 years, Burial's masterwork Untrue. Now I'll say straight out, this album is not as good as Untrue (but then, what is?) But it combines the washes of digital production with the incongruous appearances of human voices to a similar end; to evoke an emotional impact. And I do genuinely find this a moving album at some points. Come1's ecstasy dissolves into the ether like the emotion itself, the voice on U Don't Survive soulfully states “Now is the time to be alive” before being swept off by another round of breakneck percussion, but the message stays with the listener. There is an unutterable warmth to the vocals used that's impossible to shake, and perhaps most affecting of all are those of the closing track, Where Did We Go Wrong. For the first time in 49 minutes, the sound is allowed space to breathe, an ambient wash rising over record hiss and lost voices without a trace of a beat, and after such a relentless period of fascinating energy so stimulating you don't even know what to concentrate on, it's a sobering close indeed. But that's not to say the track is out of place. Indeed, the only feeling to expect after the highs and lows of such a startling pace is the fallout period, where indecision and contemplation must play a role in proceedings and it functions perfectly, a beautiful end to an amazingly consistent album in which every sound has its place and a superhuman level of control is displayed throughout.

Because there's so much constantly going on here, it's not the easiest of albums in which to dig deeper, but I could hardly recommend a more worthy candidate of your time this year. This is a wholly original vision that has been realised fluently and without flaw, and to put it simply, you just can't say that about a lot of albums.


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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Songs to come down

For today's playlist I've created two short compilations of tracks to come down to. Whether that's after a really heavy night out or a difficult period emotionally, I think these tracks will suit any downer period. Not that these are really sad songs, I tend to prefer downbeat or curious to out-and-out despair in songs unless I'm in a serious sulk. So here are a couple of collections of tunes to relaxedly get you through those glum times.

I've divided the selection into two, an Acoustic playlist and an Electronic playlist. Please note these aren't strict names, for example I'm aware Baths and Shlohmo aren't really acoustic while Memory Tapes is only arguably electronic, but the titles just refer to the overall feel of the playlist. The other thing to mention is that I've compiled these playlists as downloads on Mediafire for the first time, so if you like them just click on the playlist title and take them with you wherever you go.

Enjoy! (or, you know, despair...)

Kicking off with a couple of classic tracks, firstly the suitably titled and pleasantly jazzy I'm Comin' Down by Primal Scream is both low-key and relaxed, proving a perfect intro. Lou Reed's soft vocals coast through Candy Says and we move onto more recent fare, such as Baths' ambient interlude Rafting Starlit Everlades and the over-exposed but not necessarily overrated The xx with the taut Infinity. One of Animal Collective's first truly brilliant tracks, Banshee Beat follows, with a tense and hushed soundscape full of twittering noises and Panda Bear's glorious wordless vocals at the end. Next a couple of piano tracks from more electro-centric artists; James Blake mournful debut closer Measurements* and Aphex Twin's slow and melancholy Nanou2. Beach House makes the first of two appearances with their particular brand of syrup-thick composition and Victoria Legrand's always-perfect vocals. Another downbeat Baths track moves through to Bonobo's gorgeous Black Sands which becomes grander and more fluid as it goes on, all rather impressively in waltz time. Then the ever-peculiar Books meditate on the meaning of the word 'aleatoric' and we enter a final stretch composed of some of my very favourite songs. The immensely simple and powerful Take Care by Beach House is without a doubt in my top 5 tracks, and this feeds into one of Do Make Say Think's best, the meditative Soul and Onward. How to Disappear Completely is majestic and sweeping, as well as being my firm favourite Radiohead track (cue arguments), and it suits the mood perfectly, leading into the final track; where we hear Jason Pierce's uniquely raw brand of sorrow in Spiritualized's comedown lullaby Goodnight Goodnight.

* - If I've put an asterisk next to a track it means it wasn't on youtube so won't play on the embedded player, but the song will still be in the downloadable compilation don't you worry

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This list is a little less melancholy. Opening with Shlohmo's brand new Sink which emotes through downbeat percussion and lush oriental synths, this is followed by the ever-weird Odd Nosdam of anticon fame, with The Kill Tone Two in which a dusky harp melody is damaged by drum machines and off-kilter rap. Mount Kimbie's Between Time twins slow reverb-laden guitar with sharp beats, setting up a very young Kieran Hebden's first big hit, Everything Is Alright. From here we move to more solemn territory, Nicolas Jaar's distinctive minimal soundscapes in the quiet and perfect Colomb, and How to Dress Well's deeply sorrowful Suicide Dream 2. Drifting into less emotional waters with another track from Shlohmo's new album which leads to the inimitable Boards of Canada's fantastic drone piece Corsair. This flows into Burial's most ambient track on record, the short but beautiful UK from his masterwork Untrue. Fennesz lifts the mood slightly with the melancholy fractured summer pop of Caecilia and then a one-two punch of Dilla tracks injects a little soul into the proceedings. After this Memory Tapes' lovely instrumental closer Run Out breathes life and hope into the melancholy sound with a gorgeous melody, followed by my very favourite Gold Panda track, the second You in which a beautiful operatic sample soars over switching beats. Then, let it all fade away with the Scottish duo once more, this time with Farewell Fire which loops more and more quietly until nothing remains.

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Sunday, 14 August 2011

DJ Diamond – Flight Muzik

Label: Planet Mu

The recent spate of footwork LPs, such as this and Machinedrum's excellent Room(s) may cause those just learning about the genre to ask why the Chicago juke scene has inspired such deeply experimental and abstract music on such a large stage, or even why label Planet Mu is pushing it out there so hard. Hopefully for those still asking, DJ Diamond's debut LP can bridge the gap between dance experimentalism and the electronic home-listening album by marrying the imperative movement in these tracks with the precision and attention to detail only found in the most obsessive beat-choppers.

For what are essentially tracks based on dance genres to work as an album, the mixing and sequencing is key. Luckily here the listener is given an LP where all of this has been taken into account, the tracks are formed like a DJ set with few discernible intros or outros, separating individual tracks and varying styles while keeping the general mood between cuts comparable enough to never feel particularly jarring. This seems an appropriate way to mix an album of footwork tracks, a genre so stripped and trippy that conventional song structure or sequencing couldn't have worked.

It's hard to isolate highlights as all the tracks bring their own unique nuances onto the established footwork style of shifting synths overlaid with aggressive percussion and repetitive vocal sampling, typically embodied in one of the straighter cuts, Pop The Trunk or fantastic early cut Vibe. What makes DJ Diamond's LP special is both the breadth of his stylistic influence and the attention to detail found across the album, seen everywhere from the taut bassline of Horns to the gorgeously shifting percussive noises and strings of Go Hard. Each track is a concise burst of tense energy, never going on too long and always accompanied by disciplined composition and an acute awareness of space in the sound, ensuring the listener is never completely overloaded.

Throughout the LP vocals and synths are clipped so finely that the music feels constantly unsettled, such as in standout opener Rep Yo Clique, but luckily Diamond's movement between samples is controlled enough that the songs unsettle but do not overwhelm, just as good footwork should, keeping production skills and dance-friendliness in the foreground. This is key, as by crafting an album rather than a set of singles Diamond has put a foot in the home listening market where production quality is more important and listeners are just as attentive to the detail and nuance of a track as its force and dance-ability. In Flight Muzik he has taken both needs to heart, as this album has both the high-end production that modern electronic music demands in order to highlight the skill and precision behind it alongside plenty of the weird sounds you only really get in bedroom productions, resulting in a happy 'best of both worlds' situation. This precision has to be partially down to his sample-based approach which allows him complete control to essentially chop everything to tiny slices of rhythm and melody and rebuild a swaying, dynamic sound that never slows even for a moment.

The breadth of styles Diamond has taken on is often spectacular, the bitter bass and slippy percussion of Torture Rack recalls the filth of stripped grime, following standout Decoded melts hard-nosed house and almost-hilarious trance chords into a swirling mass where there's nothing solid to hold on to, which is pretty much the goal of the genre where the speed of the melodic and beat changes is only matched by the blurred legs of those dancing to it. Elsewhere the heavy, minimal post-dubstep of Wreckage really emphasises the excellent middle belt the LP has to offer, and as it brushes up against the micro-edits of Digimon you'll be amazed at just how much rhythm and disparate stylistic influences Diamond can take in, reconstruct and put back out in so few tracks. Each track genuinely wows by itself, from the soul sample allowed to blare out before being chopped to microsamples in Snare Fanfare to the nausea-inducing vocals and irregular snares of Speakerz 'n' Tonguez.

This is clearly an album crafted with an enormous amount of skill and there a lot of great individual tracks here as well as an impressive whole, so it leaves me with only one more question to ask. For a genre so embedded in the juke scene that created it, how does footwork stand up in an LP which clearly isn't simply focussed on getting crowds moving but also being a stimulating home listen? There's no simple answer. Fans of J Dilla and his admirable legacy will enjoy the super-short tracks across the album in themselves as well as part of a whole and appreciate them for their concise expression. However I feel that others may find too little to hold onto here, even the simplest and most percussive of the shorter tracks such as the sweet Uh could sound like a mere teaser to someone who finds the entire genre alien. But at the same time, you can't get into every genre on a cursory listen, and this is certainly one of the broadest and most cohesive footwork LPs out there, so I'd definitely recommend giving this more than a single listen before deciding it's 'not for you'. And lastly, for those able to deal with the constantly shifting sound and who can take in the meticulously detailed production all in one go, you'll already be loving it, and the only problem will be working out how the average Joe can dance to it.


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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Shlohmo – Bad Vibes

It Was Whatever

Just Us


This has been one of my most heavily anticipated albums of the year, so I fear I'm not going to do the best job of an objective review, but damnit I can try. Here Henry Laufer makes the leap from his experimental beat-project EPs to a widescreen debut album which as well as harbouring his unique acoustic beatscapes and distinctive wordless vocals shows a surprisingly varied range of influences across its length.

Laufer's music has always been the most laid back of his LA beatsmith brethren and the 13 tracks here continue the feeling with style. His coupling of the acoustic guitar and super-relaxed beats is a wonderful formula that really has legs. It Was Whatever has a lusciously melodic looped guitar line that shifts subtly across the course of the track, while his wordless vocals are so deep in the mix they're almost imperceptible. But the thing about these tracks is all these details are what make it work, the record hiss and bird sounds add to the effect more than you'd think, creating a warmth and a genuinely rich sound that so many electronic contemporaries lack. The breakdown halfway through the track into digital clicks is a fluid movement and the two phrases couple to a simple and relaxing whole towards the close. In Parties a taut bassline accompanies the usual fare to bring a tenser quality to the head-bobbing track, and in Just Us twinkling synths overlay a reverb-drenched vocal line and contrast beautifully.

The sequencing is great, with the mood charted carefully and a few lovely two-part tracks. The breathtakingly lush Places (already released on an EP earlier this year) slides into Anywhere But Here which evokes the same mood and includes a lovely low-key melody of some more digital synths. Even better is the one-two punch of Get Out and Your Stupid Face, the first an onimous affair of clicks and vocals that swells in grandeur and scope towards its close where it moves into the dark and dirty bassline of the second fluidly.

But for the most part, we already knew Shlohmo could do this. The lo-fi acoustic / electronic line that he treads along so delicately still works a treat, but thankfully his sound is given a bit of a workout elsewhere on the album. Sink begins with a looping guitar and some barely-there percussion, but slowly expands with a gorgeous Oriental melody and undefinable percussive noises, an ambient wash rising to drench the track in sudden and glorious emotion, evoking a longing that makes you ask if that emotive direction was always there. I Can't See You I'm Dead is a darker and denser affair, making headway for the most surprising track on the album, the aptly titled Trapped In a Burning House, which brings an intensity to Shlohmo's music unheard since early tracks like Hotboxing the Cockpit. A blacker-than-black bass crunch swells in true witch house style exuding malicious intent and terror, and I was really impressed by just how right Laufer got it in trying to evoke an emotion outside of a melancholy haze of weed smoke.

Best of all, this is an unerringly consistent listen, and barely any of these tracks are unremarkable. This is especially a surprise for a debut album, in which a few missteps are to be expected. Far from it, here Shlohmo has crafted one of the most gorgeously textured and wonderfully relaxed albums this year, and probably the best release so far from any artists on the LA side of things. All I can say is that this is a great job that will open up as a detailed and skilled composition on listen after listen, so get going.


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Monday, 8 August 2011

Dance Playlist and Track Reviews

So I've got another selection of great dance tracks for you guys, just a collection of tracks that have been worming their way into positions as permanent installations in my brain. Here we'll move through some lovely garage beats via choppy vocals to 2-step and a couple of choice remixes, all perfectly suited to getting you moving throughout the night. Also obviously these are all fairly high scoring as they're my personal pick of tracks. Enjoy!

Shower Scene – Huxley

This track just has everything. With its classic UK garage stylings it builds over a simple but brutal beat to a drop that could knock out almost any contenders so far this year. We are treated throughout to a tense vocal loop and some stabbing synths but it's the force of this track that makes it a winner, not the precious details. Gonna be a hard one to beat.


Locked – Four Tet

Hebden's latest single for Text came off his upcoming fabriclive mix. Four Tet crafts a simple house shuffle and interlaces a few meaty bass drops and a luscious pitch-shifting synth melody to create a real winner. It's restrained but tough while remaining pretty, exactly what we've come to expect from the Tet's more dance-orientated releases.


Another Girl – Jacques Greene

I know this isn't the newest track but in my opinion it's one of the best of the year so far and so I had to squeeze it in somewhere. Greene's shimmery, patient sound is made up of some sharp snares and deep bass throbs, but it's those emotive, sighing, story-telling vocals that give this cut its special shimmer and that will keep you coming back. That ecstatic looped sigh has gotta be one of the sounds of the year.


Culture Clubs – Ital

Again, I know this isn't super new, but I've not found space to plug it until now. Ital's new release for Not Not Fun's dance label 100% Silk is better than I could've hoped, and is definitely in my list of best tracks of the year so far. A simple house click is undercut by warping, pitch-shifting synths that never quite sit still, and when that vaguely tropical melody comes in it's too clear this track is on another level; a gorgeously detailed composition likely to cause euphoria.


RDI (Girl Unit Remix) – Breton

Fresh from club anthem Wut, the best of Night Slugs serves us a delicious slice of woozy bass in this remix. Sirens cry out over harsh synth loops and ocean-deep sub bass to deliver a hot (yes, and heavy) tune that it's very difficult to stop listening to. Gun gestures at the ready.


Box of Birds – Antix

Okay, a psytrance track from a while back is definitely not the 'coolest' inclusion into this playlist but I just discovered it and I really can't stop listening. Here a clipped distending rhythm contorts around a heavy bassline and immediately fills the room, resulting in a real unexpected dancefloor favourite for me. Each change is welcome and interesting while the core of the track is always guaranteed to get you moving, and that's all you need really.


Lotus Flower (Jacques Greene RMX) – Radiohead

I'm half harking back to the fantastic Twelves remix of Reckoner I put in a playlist a while back, this track luxuriously plays Yorke's inimitable vocals over a constantly shifting composition that switches up every minute into a new part. It's fantastic as a whole and one of the better Radiohead remixes floating around, but be sure to stick it out to the full-throttle beat masterfully conjured up in the fourth minute.


Into the Night (Nicolas Jaar Remix) – Azari & Iii

End of the night house closes the playlist with my very favourite track of the moment. Followers of this blog will know I'm a big fan of Nico Jaar, and the very simple reason for this is that everything he touches... well, you know. This masterful rework strikes me as a great deal more thought-provoking than A&I's straight-up original, with an emphasis on that warm piano and an irresistable beat coupling midway through. The acid deviation towards the end of the track is oh-so-welcome, but what really shines here is Jaar's teasingly clipped vocal samples that make you wait before the whole line is revealed in its isolated, emotive glory. As always, a stellar production from Jaar tinging effortless clubby warmth with the slightest hint of melancholy he so interestingly brings to his compositions.


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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Memory Tapes – Player Piano

Wait In The Dark



Dayve Hawk's long-awaited second album as Memory Tapes was always going to have to be a little different as the musical climate has changed since his fantastic debut, Seek Magic (reviewed here). Although his appropriation of touches of French house into his nostalgic, sunny sound shone when compared to other similar artists, chillwave is now a much more crowded genre and so in this album he was really going to have to push it to stand out from the crowd. Thankfully, he has largely succeeded in this, crafting a far more complex set of compositions that both incorporate more of Hawk's voice and a much warmer feel of live instrumentation beyond those great riffs.

Although some other reviewers have stated that his vocals don't work as high in the mix as they are here, I have to disagree. His voice is perfectly suited to the faded pop-disco he creates, and in this album he truly presents himself as a master of the pop hook. This is clearly evident across the LP; mid-album highlight Worries commences with a loping synth melody and semi-tribal beats, but the moment where these songs hit home is those fantastically catchy choral lines he writes, in this song the instruments erupt bouncily and he cries “Heaven is waiting / heaven is stood outside your door” and after you've heard it a few times you'll have to sing along.

Anthemic opener Wait In The Dark is another perfectly pitched dance pop track, with the introduction of a more untreated synth sound the pace and happiness of the song is instantly recognisable as a Memory Tapes production while sounding different enough to not feel like a rehash of the material from Seek Magic. His closing cries “If this is it / don't make me wait” are emotionally universal and worm their way into your brain, followed by the harsh, soaring synth line. The music can sound happy at first but the lyrical content (although I wouldn't call Hawk a lyrical genius his lines are simply and effective) presents tale after tale of romantic longing and fatigue, allowing the melancholy behind the guitar riffs to be heard throughout, such as in those reverbing beats on Today Is Our Life and the lushly emotive melody of Fell Thru Ice.

The latter is an especially notable cut as it is the first time his music has moved beyond the emotive effect of energetic longing to a genuinely mournful track, and his voice admirably carries the intense longing of the feelings expressed, reinforced by details such as the great bass kick. The album is full of great details like this showing Hawk is not only invested in the surface effect of his music, from the fantastic vocal looping at the end of Today Is Our Life to the near-pastiche surf riff following the chorus of Sun Hits that evokes wonderfully the titular sun. Another aspect of the album that really lets you admire the detail of the production is Hawk's outros which consistently sound like tracks in themselves, such as the submerged melody at the end of Fell Thru Ice II or the bouncing synths that mix with the theramin-esque synths at the end of another sure album standout, the laid back Offers.

There is a lot that is positive about this album, but I wouldn't say it quite matches the quality of Seek Magic. Cuts like Humming, Fell Thru Ice II and the musicbox songs are forgettable with only a few nice details that don't quite add up to worthwhile tracks. I don't quite know what to make of the strangely aggressive closer Trance Sisters, and although the last minute is a wonderful turnaround I'm not so keen on the first few and as a whole it sounds out of place on the LP. The other problem is that because these tracks are more wrought and complex, they lack the instant bouncy joy of those on Seek Magic.

However I wouldn't say that this is a disappointing sophomore album. If Seek Magic was excellent, this is still good. A second album ought to be an expansion of an artist's sound and themes and that is exactly what Hawke gives us, proving himself able to truly understand how to re-incorporate the sounds of his youth into his music all the while being acutely aware of how to construct a great pop track.


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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Feature: Halls

I first heard about the music of Halls (aka Samuel Howard from South London) when I found his remix of Gold Panda's excellent Marriage on the Marriage EP, but it still took me a while to check out his solo project. When I did, I was surprised not only by the quality of the material he's released so far, but also by the total lack of critical attention paid to his music which to my ears is more than deserving.


Although this remix doesn't jump out as immediately different as Star Slinger's full throttle dance mix or Forest Swords' total acoustic redraw, this is a subtle and detailed production that is well worth listening to. It keeps the sampled melody from Gold Panda's track but reworks the rushing momentum of the original in lighter synthlines, creating an ambient feel which calms without ever becoming the tiniest bit boring. The skittering beats increase slightly in speed giving the track pace towards the end, and ghosted French vocal samples are mixed well to produce a blissfully relaxed remix that seems to have so far gone ignored.

So from the basis of this track, I'm going to review the material that Howard has produced so far, and what I can find is an EP and a single released this year.

Halls EP

Chakra Drums 


There are more and more artists working with beats and ambient washes such as the Low End Theory group who I know I bang on endlessly about, but Halls easily carves a niche out for himself with his first EP. This record effortlessly showcases the core motifs of his sound. We hear time and again detailed and nuanced production which never gives up its sense of curious delicacy. Calming ambient textures and mixed with the low-key insistence of the percussion which is generally faultlessly implemented. The compositions are always subtle and lushly textured so they never become boring, perhaps placing Halls' work somewhere between Shlohmo's relaxed beats and Forest Swords' acoustic mystique.

Warsaw Radio Mast is a perfect beatless introduction to the EP, with ambient tones that wash across an ethereal Polish vocal sample that becomes lost in the mix, forming a slight piece in its own right but a perfect mood-setter for the tracks to come. This is followed by Shiner in which drumsticks snap in perfect time, reverbing over a slow, vaguely oriental synth melody and unobtrusive kick that paces the piece nicely. It's wonderfully melodic while remaining relaxed and restrained.

Cave Days is where the EP really gets going, with a clipped sample acting as a background like a breath that is continuously reset before being allowed to complete. The percussive snaps and smooth clicks sound here like Burial minus the urgent paranoia, and lay a path for a subdued but assured synth melody that courts a ghostly vocal sample which murmurs behind thick layers of haze. The middle of the song gives way to a restrained crash and a melancholy synthline which only empasises the longing of the core composition when it returns. This feeds into standout track Chakra Drums in which the customary clicks are textured with more digitalised percussion that feeds fluently into the relaxed sadness of the sound. The melody is gorgeous in its restraint and emotive power, and just like the ambient wash of Cave Days it is never allowed to fully emerge from the mix, showing an arist who understands the power of subduing his own sound for a quieter but more sophisticated emotional effect. This evolves into dolphin-ghost samples and a nuanced wind melody, and once more the beats build in power towards the close before being silenced like a snuffed candle. For me this track shows Halls at his best, a deeply atmospheric cut that explores more of the possibilities of his sound.

Kaleidoscope is a little samey having just heard the previous two tracks, but it retains the sense of calm that the beats imbue with ambient textures. A detailed synth line recurs just before the curtains briefly part to reveal the lost murmuring of children's voices, playground chatter deep into the mix which is more than a little unnerving. The EP closes, as it opened, with an ambient track, Rise. Here a deep ambient wash slowly builds in force before bringing in a synth with a harsher edge towards the close. It is a grand and fitting end to the record but here Howard is engaging with other, bigger artists doing similar ambient production and so the final track does sound a little rough and spare in comparison to Stars of the Lid or Biosphere.

I'm not writing about Halls because this is the best debut EP I've ever heard, because his music could use a little range and a more detailed soundscape, but for a new artist this is a remarkably accomplished piece of work. He unfailingly combines electronic and acoustic sound to great effect resulting in a restrained, delicate and moving piece from an artist who shows an enormous amount of promise if he can keep refining and improving his sound while opening his music up to greater possibilities.



On this short single release, Howard consolidates the merits of the sound of the Halls EP with a single and two B-sides. I'm not going to do a long form review for a single, but I can easily give a rundown of the tracks.

Title track Solace is the stunner here, and while not being radically different from any track on the EP it stands up clearly in its own right. An ambient wash opens the track to another crisply textured set of beats and a lovely bass hum, soon to be accompanied by those haunting vocals once more. The beats and vocals between Halls' tracks aren't massively easy to distinguish between, but the guy certainly has a way with a synth melody and this track proves this more than anything, with a fine-tuned synthline cutting through the misty sound to tremendous effect. There's a little more detail here than in the tracks previously released, such as the great looped outro or the interrupted bass.

First B-side Colossus has a faster beat that skitters and is routinely pierced by a harsher clap, creating more tension between the percussion and the vocals which here sound even more full of longing and melancholy than in previous tracks. Once more the contrast between the ambient tones and the sharp beats conjures a winner. Brave New World is an ambient finish similar to Rise on Halls EP, but I'd say this is a more accomplished track, partly because it doesn't overstay its welcome quite as much but also, although Rise did have some texture to its tones, here they are far more evident and although the individual droning notes will require patience as with any ambient or drone music, there is a lot of detail in the mix on a good set of speakers or headphones, particularly the almost-not-there vocals extruding from time to time.

Solace isn't a huge step for Halls, but it shows that his first EP was no one-trick record and that he has the ability to hone his sound between releases, which is a great sign of things to come. Each of these is a good track without needing to reference any past material too heavily, so get listening.

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Monday, 1 August 2011

Downliners Sekt – Meet The Decline


It's no longer uncommon to have an electronic artist maintain anonymity throughout their releases, but in a field where a name means less the music certainly has to be able to stand up and speak for itself. Downliners Sekt have already crafted an admirable discography jumping between genres that don't quite exist, and this EP, the third in their planned trilogy on Disboot, is a fitting closer.

Their last EP, the brilliantly titled 'We Make Hits, Not the Public' showcased a severe mixing of the remnants of UK garage into massive techno sprawls and it was by far their most accessible release. Now they move on stylistically once more, creating an EP of spare, reconstructed dance music. Here loose strains and bars are cast off into the ether to create tracks that feel both spontaneous and lovingly crafted at the same time, and at first it's a little difficult but upon repeated listens these tracks open up layer upon layer of broken beauty.

All I Can Hear Now opens the EP with a stuttering heartbeat across Burial-esque clicks. All the while guitars strum out and reverb into a vast void and ghosted vocals spill out. The overall effect is a patchwork sound that not only works fantastically from a musical standpoint but also aches with melancholy and longing.

Second cut Rising Saudade (a Portugese word for a curious nostalgic love) is a gorgeous standout track, with phased piano echoing across a lushly detailed and percussive soundscape, accompanied by those ethereal vocals once more. However this time the vocal samples are more clipped and dissolve back into the mix, giving the impression of a naturally evolving sound that does and undoes itself as the track continues. What gives the track its standout position is the stuttering beat that enters two minutes into the mix, tripping over itself with breathless emotive power while drowning those voices just before they ever completely surface. It's hard to describe but this sounds thrilling and completely new, at least to my ears. Locked Faces continues along the same vein, with loose beats dueling with lost vocals for prominence in a dusty soundscape that echoes with loss. Later the beats drop back in harder and sharper for a brief time before they sound like they run out of energy, resolving into a shifting pulse and layered bassy beats.

On final track, Hockey Nights in Canada, we hear a real change. This is by far the most introverted cut, with slow breaks replacing the stuttering beats. The sonic textures are harsher and more ambient, with some truly inspired choices such as the excellently jarring three-chord tone occasionally intruding upon the mix (you'll hear it). This is all set over the top of sampled hockey commentary, sounding like broken but recognisable sounds that come together in incongruous melancholy.

This isn't just a great EP because it sounds so fresh (it does) or because it's so restrained while so many contemporary electronic releases favour bombast (they do), but more than anything there is an artisan level of craft consistently on display here, each track is gorgeously detailed and warrants revisiting again and again. Although the EP deals more with melancholy and 'the decline' than their previous releases, their sound is undeniably delicate and often staggeringly beautiful, making this a must-have EP for me.


P.S. - I couldn't leave out the fact that Downliners Sekt give away all their material for free, right here. Enjoy!

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