April 30, 2009

Ivy – Realistic (1995, Seed)

I happened to see Ivy opening for They Might Be Giants on their John Henry tour in upstate NY in '95. My memory is still vivid of entering the concert hall (gymnasium) as Ivy were in the middle of playing “15 Seconds.” I was so struck by the perfect, slightly melancholy pop melodies, and the scintillating guitar strum and vocal pattern that fades out the song, I was mesmerized. I don't recall much of the rest of their set, except that it was all very catchy and I knew I had to get their CD ASAP. I also bought a bag of TMBG promotional coffee that night, and indeed it was the very best TMBG concert I had the pleasure of attending (out of a total of four in the '90s). But Ivy still holds a place in my permanent collection of '90s alternative rock greats, and their debut album “Realistic” is just about as good as it gets. Everything seems just right in these songs, the production is great, the guitar effects have a perfect tone (love the wah pedal), and Dominique Durrand's vocals are sweet and soothing. The songs are short and catchy, and the album has a great summer vibe. Top notch alternative pop music. Their next album “Apartment Life” was excellent as well, and featured a vocal appearance by James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins, which helped increase their indie credibility a bit. Check them both out! More recently they did a cool dance-y cover of The Cure's “Let's Go To Bed.” This is one of those bands I really wish I had bought on vinyl when I had the chance...

April 29, 2009

Rhythm & Sound – s/t (2001, Rhythm & Sound)

Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald have long been considered pioneers in the techno genre for their early-mid '90s releases under the name Basic Channel. In a period of two years they produced nine 12”s that are still considered “classic” by today's standards. The style was incredibly deep, echoing and other-worldly dance music that accentuated the hisses and pops associated with house records and transformed them into an active element in their musical spectrum. In the next few years they would continue releasing a great volume of 12”s under the names Maurizio and Round One through Round Five, where they began to incorporate sounds from dub reggae as well as vocalists to their spacey rhythmic workouts. In '97, the pair regrouped under the name Rhythm & Sound and started a collaboration with reggae vocalist Paul St. Hilaire aka Tikiman. Rhythm & Sound developed on the foundation established by the Basic Channel sound, and took it in a dub reggae direction, incorporating authentic vintage equipment such as the Roland Space Echo and spring reverb, which feature heavily on old '70s and '80s reggae records. The buzz of distorted filters, tape hiss and crackling vinyl were brought more to the forefront, ebbing and flowing around the mix like waves of ambient static. The dub reggae sound was reinterpreted and stripped down to show its rhythmic connection to minimal house music, and essentially this was the beginning of the dub techno sound which has become more popular in recent years, and frequently emulated and developed upon by artists like Deepchord and Echospace, Quantec and others. Rhythm & Sound's self-titled CD, released on their own label in '01, was their second full-length and my personal favorite as it is the most ambient and experimental of their work. The CD collects tracks from five of their 12”s, with only one featuring any vocals, the haunting throb of “Smile”, featuring a drifting spoken word flow from a vocalist named Savage. Many of the tracks leave the 4/4 pulse of techno behind entirely and explore pounding, echoing chords and pulses of sub-bass, while sheets of soft noise ripple and swish around the stereo field. This is music to get lost in. Rhythm & Sound's other CDs feature tracks from their Burial Mix 10” series, which are more song-oriented, featuring a vocal mix and then an instrumental dub mix of each track. The vocals are contributed by classic reggae artists from the '70s and '80s, and have a fantastic chilled out sound. This music is best heard on vinyl! (BONUS TIP: Mark & Moritz now run a dub reggae re-issue label called Basic Replay, which has re-released some of the very best of the back catalogue of the classic Wackies reggae/digidub label from the early to mid '80s!)

April 28, 2009

Steve Roach – The Magnificent Void (1996, Fathom)

This is another “all-time favorite” ambient album. Steve Roach has been prolifically releasing albums since the mid-‘80s, to the point where he now has an astonishing back-catalog of nearly a hundred releases! His style ranges from drifting tonal ambient music to tribal, pulse-driven textures utilizing traditional ethnic sound sources like didgeridoos and frame drums. Some of his work focuses on layers of shimmering arpeggiated synthesizer sequences slowly morphing over long periods of time, while other works have a more formless, drifting essence. Whatever elements are utilized on any given album, Roach’s music is always meant for deep listening, mental journeying and transcendental experience. In fact Steve used to sell padded eye-masks on his website along with his CDs, suggesting that listeners immerse themselves fully in the listening experience. At the time I found this album I was reading a lot of material by consciousness gurus like Tim Leary, Terence McKenna and John Lilly, as well as Stanislav Grof’s book The Holotropic Mind. I can’t recall if I found The Magnificent Void while searching for Grof, or if it was just a coincidence, but the album features a long quote from The Holotropic Mind on the back cover, and the music is Roach’s attempt to embody the transpersonal experience of “the void.” The music is a perfect fit for this concept, like the sounds of an out-of-body-experience captured on CD. The mood is hardly “chill out” or “new age-y” ambient, rather thick clouds of sound unfold and envelope the listener, slowly dissolving and shifting as time passes. There is a sense of mystery, of being lost and moving through unknown sonic territory. The sound is from electronic sources, but has been so heavily processed through Roach’s racks of equipment that it is impossible to point to any recognizable, “earthly” sounds. On the proper sound system this album can be a very visceral, intense experience, and still sounds fresh today, thirteen years after its release.

April 27, 2009

Metro Area – s/t CD (2002, Environ)

Metro Area takes the best elements of '80s dance music and strips away the vocals and most of the cheesiness, leaving the essential components of funk intact for some very fresh, organic-sounding dance music. Slap bass, hand claps, quirky synths, tambourines and cow bells are all here in a fresh, updated dance sound. Some of the tracks could probably pass for obscure b-sides from '80s house records, and in fact Metro Area helped broaden my taste to where I started paying more attention to disco and '80s house music rather than dismissing them as “too cheezy” or “dated”. Now I can appreciate the rhythmic breaks and instrumental interludes, the dub mixes and edits that strip away the corny diva vocals. Metro Area released a series of four 12”s from '99 to '01 and then compiled most of the tracks onto a self-titled CD in '02. Since then there have been three more volumes of the 12” series, and the Environ Records label, which is run by Morgan Geist (half of Metro Area), has been releasing a great selection of electro, disco and '80s-styled house records, particularly from Daniel Wang and Kelley Polar. Last year, Metro Area also released their edition of the excellent Fabric mix series, a DJ mix of “mutant disco” and underground '80s dance tracks. There is a great video of one of their live sets from '03 that has been floating around the net for a while, you can see it here. (BONUS TIP: Spirit Catcher also offers a great interpretation of this sound, check out the “Fission Trips” 12”!)

April 25, 2009

LABEL PROFILE: Echocord Records, Denmark

Echocord have been releasing a few 12”s every year since 2002, and several full-length CDs along the way, in the style of minimal dub techno and ambient electronica. They came to my attention first by releasing a series of Mikkel Metal 12”s, who had also been making a stir on the Kompakt label around the same time. Metal’s music has a great melodic sensibility and fuzzy, somewhat lo-fi tone, and often features organic instrumentation such as guitar. His tracks have a techno sensibility, but often stripped down to its bare elements and then experimented upon. A great series of Mikkel Metal Rmx 12”s present reworkings by a variety of dub-influenced artists I’m a fan of, including Dub Traktor and Substance. Echocord also released a pair of phenomenal EPs by Rod Modell (aka Deepchord) in ’03 and ’04, two of his best releases and also unique in that they are still actually available for mailorder today. Fenin’s 12”s are worth hearing, excellent, energetic, dubby techno. Brendon Moeller has also been an artist worth paying attention to, as each of his deep tech-house releases seems to be getting better and better (“Electricity” was a favorite last year, although not released on Echocord). Finally, Quantec is an artist to watch, one of the new breed of producers who are taking the Rhythm & Sound/Deepchord concept and basically just….. doing it again and again. But Quantec has enough of his own sound going in to his productions that they stand up on their own, and hell I love the dub techno sound so I can’t really complain, although I think it is a little bit of overkill putting out six 12”s, two CDRs, and a full-length-worth of dub techno in the space of one year. The “Unusual Signals” album from last year is definitely worth a listen, and I was especially excited by the dubstep-style remix of “Ray Of Hope” by the artist A Made Up Sound (aka 2562), which presents a great new concept in where the dub tech sound could go next. “Ray Of Hope” was released on Echocord’s sublabel, Echocord Color, which is focused on releasing limited edition, colored vinyl.

April 24, 2009

Samiyam – Rap Beats Vol. 1 (2008, Brainfeeder)

Samiyam caught my attention when he released a 12” last year on Hyperdub with four tripped-out hip hop instrumentals in a warped chip-tune style. The production struck me as hyper-futuristic and off-kilter, and very listenable in spite of the fact that I don’t usually have much patience for chip-tunes, as they tend to be inherently extremely lo-fi sounding. When I checked out Samiyam’s myspace page, I found he was selling a CDR of his Rap Beats with hand-made covers. I ordered a copy, as I think the best way to support an artist is buying merch from them directly. It kind of took *forever* to actually arrive in the mail, but the wait was worth it. Rap Beats Vol. 1 features 24 untitled tracks, most of which don’t break the minute-and-a-half mark. But the beats themselves are genuinely brain-bending and very fresh. Layers of funk samples cut in and out with surreal film clips and sound fx, over a bed of not-quite-quantized hip hop beats. It is like a new kind of triphop to my ears. Lately I have heard some similar instrumental styles coming from some labels in Amsterdam, but Samiyam seems to be the best of the bunch so far. Every element in each track seems almost perfect, and the short length actually works really well, although I suspect ideally they would be mixed into each other seamlessly in a live set. This seems to be Samiyam’s method in concert, a killer clip of which can be seen on Youtube. Samiyam has been collaborating with Flying Lotus, a fellow LA local who has been having a big deal made of him in the hipster press lately, so hopefully we’ll be hearing a new full-length soon.

April 23, 2009

Bochum Welt – R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) (2008, Rephlex)

I learned a lot about ‘90s-era electronic music from collecting and studying Aphex Twin and the many labels he released through and artists he collaborated with, which is often how my interests move from one artist to another. Aphex Twin’s own Rephlex Records label had already put out over 50 releases by the time I had heard of them in the late ‘90s, and today they are right on the verge of breaking the 200th release mark. Along with 12”s by Mike Paradinas, owner of Planet Mu Records, Luke Vibert, Cylob and DMX Krew, some of the best early Rephlex releases were by Gianluigi Di Costanzo, aka Bochum Welt. Gianluigi was a collector of vintage analog synthesizers, which he programmed to create all of the sounds on his tracks from scratch. The result is perky, uptempo electronic music in an IDM style (“Intelligent Dance Music” was a frequently used ‘90s term for Aphex Twin’s style of music; beat-oriented but not necessarily danceable). The warm, sweeping tones and bleeps seem to embody and express the essence of what musician’s love about old analog synthesizer sounds. There is a classic, vintage, yet timeless sound to the production, reminiscent of “older” 70’s and ‘80s synth artists like Kraftwerk yet undeniably futuristic. Tracks are generally short but sweet, some focusing on distorted percussive drum machine jams, others an arrangement of buzzy synth strings and melodic leads. Sort of like music for imaginary ‘80s video games. Three of Bochum Welt’s early Rephlex EPs have recently been re-released together with a new album on a 2CD set under the title “R.O.B.”, a reference to Nintendo’s commercially unsuccessful yet loveable Robotic Operating Buddy. The “Martians and Spaceships” album on Fuzzybox from 1999 is also a long-time favorite.

April 22, 2009

Burial – South London Boroughs 12” and s/t CD (2005/6, Hyperdub)

I was introduced to Burial's music after I saw SLB listed in the top 10 on a “Best of 2005” list which included audio clips, and was instantly intrigued by what sounded to me like a mix of Rhythm & Sound-style dubby chords over a 2step-ish beat with a fantastic woodblock sound instead of a snare/clap. As I read more, and observed the somewhat over-zealous (but perhaps deserved) enthusiasm of the hipster music magazines, I realized this new style was called “dubstep” and there was a lot more of it where Burial came from (the UK, mostly). Dubstep takes elements like massive sub-bass, skitter-y step-y rhythms, and pitched-up vocal samples from UK jungle, and slows it down to a more danceable house music speed, or sometimes takes it in a more hiphop direction (which I think is referred to as “grime” if I have all my genre names in order here..). It is especially refreshing to hear dance music that is not centered on a 4/4 kick drum pulse ala “disco music”. Rather, dubstep uses rhythmic motifs from African and Carribean dance styles, updated with modern plug-ins and heavy bass programming. Burial, via the record label Hyperdub, was the first introduction for many in the US to the dubstep sound. While the past couple years have seen some innovations building on his sound, Burial’s first two records are timeless and stand on their own as excellent works of electronic music. There is something haunting and mysterious about Burial’s music, and perhaps this relates to the fact that for a few years he was insisting on anonymity such that no one even knew the artist’s real name. The vibe is ominous and melancholy yet with a silver-lining, and a rhythmic intensity that compels you to “keep moving”. The track “U Hurt Me” sends shivers up my spine. The chilling, surreal juxtaposition of a Michael Jackson vocal sample over the clattering beats of Nite Train sum up the Burial sound perfectly: “Close your eyes, let that rhythm get into you.”

April 21, 2009

Coil - Time Machines (1998, Eskaton)

This is one of my favorite drone ambient releases of all time. Coil had a long history of making music with “magickal” undertones and symbolism, and this may be their most potent, altered-state-inducing work. Subtitled “four tones to facilitate travel through time”, the album is comprised of four long tracks (two are over 20 minutes each), each bearing the chemical formula of a hallucinogenic substance. Indeed, the album presents a very hallucinatory listening experience. Each track immerses the listener in a buzzing, shifting drone, constantly morphing and evolving, establishing and dissolving subtle patterns and repeating textures. The sound is electronic but essentially timeless, with some elements that resemble organic instrumentation like digeridoo or guitar feedback. Generally there is a warm, buzzy synth sound to the tracks. There is something unsettling and alien about the overall tone of each piece, which is a common characteristic in Coil’s music. I’m not entirely certain this would actually be good “trip music”, but then, Coil were on a whole other level, it seems, and they seemed very comfortable flirting with the darkness in their music. This is not what you’d call “chill out music”. Even if you haven’t got any 5-MeO-DMT on hand, Time Machines will serve as quite a consciousness-altering device on its own. I actually had the double LP edition of this release many years back, but sold it during a period of madness. “Essential” is a good word for this album.

Tanuki thoughts

This blog will house a new series of music reviews I've been writing in my spare time. I have collected and consumed a massive amount of music during my travels, well over 10,000 albums at this point, many from obscure, independent, foreign or just unpopular record labels. I have DJed all sorts of dance, chill out, and 80s new wave music at small clubs and parties in upstate NY and the SF Bay Area. Later this year I'll be releasing my first full-length CD of ambient electronic music on an American independent label. I love turning people on to new music, so I thought I would write up little blurbs about some of my favorite records as I come across them in my collection. I am aiming to write a few per week, so check back regularly.