June 30, 2009

Boards Of Canada - Hi Scores (1996, SKAM)

Boards Of Canada are a duo from Scotland who are among the most well-known IDM artists since the mid-'90s, with their releases on the influential Warp Records and super-limited SKAM label. Their style presented a new interpretation of trip-hop and downtempo atmospheres, with an experimental IDM influence, and a focus on vintage-sounding, slightly-detuned synthesizer tones and obscure film samples. Like Aphex Twin, many rumors regarding Boards Of Canada's production methods spread on forums during the late '90s, but as far as I can discern, much of BOC's instrumentation was produced on "a pair of Roland SH-101s" and all of their material was recorded on reel-to-reel tape for a more authentic analog sound (at least this applied to their earlier releases). While '98's "Music Has The Right To Children" is considered the break-through album that really got people paying attention, I first heard a big buzz online around the "Hi Scores" EP released on limited 12" in '96, but didn't get to hear the material until '99 when it was reissued on CD and distributed in the US. The EP has a more heavily IDM-influenced sound than subsequent albums, but also features the trademark BOC sounds and melancholy melodies. "Nlogax" and "June 9th" are the most unusual of the selection, the former with a sound that brings to mind a merging of Bochum Welt with Metro Area,and the latter bearing a strong resemblance to Autechre's rhythmic sensibility, with both still incorporating recognizably-BOC synth programming. The other four tracks clearly present the seeds of compositional and sonic styles that would become BOC's focus, leading up to the phenomenal "In A Beautiful Place In The Country" EP in '00 and subsequent albums. "Everything You Do Is A Balloon" is a particularly haunting and catchy piece, which inspired a very cool fan-made video. I only wish that vinyl editions of '90s-era BOC was more available in the US...

June 29, 2009

Harold Budd - Lovely Thunder (1986, Editions EG)

Harold Budd is one of my favorite ambient composers, most well known for his piano compositions and improvisations, such as on the classic collaborations with Brian Eno "Ambient II" and "The Pearl". He has also explored electronic ambient textures in his own melodic style on several recordings in the '80s and '90s, and "Lovely Thunder" is one that I've returned to many times. Budd recorded the pieces while working with gothic/dream-pop group Cocteau Twins, with whom he released an ethereal pop-tinged album "The Moon And The Melodies" in the same year on the influential 4AD label. The tracks are all familiar Budd territory, but unique in their instrumentation, as they were produced in the Cocteau Twin's studios and make bolder use of digital synthesizer sounds. The mid-'80s synth sound has a distinctly "dated" quality to it, but the production and tone of "Lovely Thunder" is such that the sounds have a warmth and haunting, ethereal texture that predates and assumably inspired a lot of '90s-era ambient music. While the vinyl edition featured six song-length sketches, the CD also adds an extended piece entitled "Gypsy Violin", nearly 21 minutes in length, which explores longer-form drone territory as well as orchestral textures and soloing with a very digital '80s feel. Each piece has a different emotional tone, generally exploring soft-spoken mystery, melancholy and drama. In his following album, "The White Arcades", Budd reintroduced his piano to the mix, and worked in more abstract, ambient directions along with slightly less synthetic-sounding instrumentation. Budd has released many high-quality albums over his nearly-40 year career, but I especially enjoy his work from the '80s.

June 26, 2009

King Midas Sound – Dub Heavy - Hearts & Ghosts + Cool Out 12”s (2009, Hyperdub)

After getting everyone's attention by introducing Burial to the world in '05-'06, Hyperdub has continued to release a steady stream of quality 12”s every few months, including debuts by many other promising artists on the experimental outskirts of the dubstep and hiphop scenes. I love the chiptune-inspired quirkiness and bass heaviness of the Quarta 330, Zomby and Samiyam releases, and the reggae dubstep stylings of both of LV's killer 12”s. More recently, a new duo called King Midas Sound has made an appearance, first with '08s “Cool Out,” which featured one original vocal track and two abstract remixes by cutting-edge, IDM-tinged hiphop heads Dabrye and Flying Lotus. King Midas Sound is a collaboration between Kevin Saunderson, best known for his many releases as The Bug, a punishing, distortion-heavy take on the dancehall and dub sound, and vocalist Roger Robinson, who has several releases of his own on the Altered Vibes label which I haven't heard. Their second 12”, “Dub Heavy – Hearts & Ghosts”, released earlier this month, totally blew me away with its deep, chilled out dub sound. The songs have a traditional dub reggae style to them, but with a futuristic, gritty sonic palette. My first impressions were that it reminded me of the mid-'90s Massive Attack sound, like something from “Protection”, but with a fantastic updated sound that I don't think I've heard anyone else do anything similar to recently, if ever. Both 12”s have elements of down-tempo, hiphop and dub techno, presenting a fascinating blend with a forward-thinking vision of what could be the next step for these genres. “Too Long Dub”, for example, has a pounding 4/4 throb and hissy textures that are reminiscent of Deepchord/Echospace, yet with a different rhythmic sensibility and composition style. According to the King Midas Sound myspace page, there is a full-length entitled “Super Heavy” forthcoming, of which four demo tracks can be heard in their audio player. I will be keeping my eyes peeled for the release date!

June 25, 2009

Tread – Tread 3 (2002, Norm)

Hiroshi Watanabe is best know for his series of releases on Kompakt as Kaito, which turned a lot of heads in '01-'02 with a fresh interpretation of trance techno that reviewers ended up calling “neo-trance”. Most people are not aware that Watanabe had been active in Japan since the mid-'90s producing 12”s and music for video games, including the Beat Mania series. At the same time as the Kaito material was being released worldwide, Watanabe was also collaborating with Takehiko Kitahara, a fashion designer and graphic artist with whom he runs the Norm label, and releasing albums under the name Tread only in Japan, and later, the UK via Third Ear. Whereas Kaito explored multi-layered, high-energy synthesizer riffs and pounding trance beats, Tread is more along the down-tempo, “chill out” side of house music. The tracks have a slow-burning groove, with gentle, undistorted instrumentation, and minimalist, unprocessed drum machine patterns that sound influenced by Theo Parrish, although simpler and less experimental/jumpy. Although centered around 4/4 house beats, most of the tracks are 100bpm and under, making them less appropriate for the dance floor and better suited for lounging and head-nodding. The tone alternates between chill, blissed out and a bit melancholy, with a funky edge throughout. Tread produced five albums between '01 and '05, each consisting of around 8 long tracks, with similar striped covers with a different color scheme for each release, each representing a season of the year (“Tread 3” being Summer). I guess the 5th album wasn't originally planned in the series, and does not appear to feature the same cover style. I personally found “Tread 3” to be my favorite and the most catchy, but all of the Tread material is worth hearing and explores similar territory, plus I have to admit I haven't heard the most recent “Tread 5”. I also have really enjoyed Kaito's 12”s and “Special Life” album on Kompakt, but when I am not feeling so high-energy, Tread makes excellent low-key house music.

June 24, 2009

Nobukazu Takemura – Kobito No Kuni (Unreleased Tracks ~1999) (2007, Moonlit)

“Kobito No Kuni” is the most recent solo-release by Nobukazu Takemura, and his first since '03, although it is actually a collection of out-takes from my personal favorite time period of his works. Following the ground-breaking “Child & Magic” album in '97, which merged futuristic IDM and drum'n'bass programming with minimalist, neo-classical instrumentation and singing children, Takemura went deeper into abstraction with a pair of CDs produced for fashion designer Issey Miyake's shows in Italy in '99 entitled “Milano” and “Finale”. Both albums were firmly in the experimental neo-classical mode, using synthesized and real classical instrument sounds to create abstract textures and patterns that bring to mind Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but with a glitchy computerized edge. Takemura also developed his innovative “skipping CD shuffle” sound production technique around this time, in which he created spontaneous, glitchy looping patterns from brief snippets of what sounds like distorted chamber music. This method was used to critical acclaim on '99s “Scope”, released domestically by Thrill Jockey, which introduced many Americans to Takemura's sound. Beginning with the “Sign” EP in '00, Takemura began experimenting with generative hyper-IDM beats and lo-fi computer voice singing, taking his music in another, even more futuristic direction, but leaving behind much of the simplicity of his earlier neo-classical work. I am glad to find that “Kobito No Kuni” collects over 70 minutes of such material, and while two of the tracks clock in at about 18 minutes apiece and could probably have been half that, for the most part the pieces keep constantly moving and shifting in unexpected ways. The textures are at times both warm and organic, mellow and playful, as well as cold and digital, without getting too far into noisy DSP freak-out territory. According to Takemura's website, which has been “under construction” since '06, he spoke in March this year at the Japan Society in NYC alongside Steve Reich, and has recently relocated from Kyoto, Japan to Germany. I have been a big fan of Takemura's Childisc/Moonlit labels for nearly a decade now, and hope that more material along the lines of “Kobito No Kuni” will get released soon.

June 23, 2009

Theo Parrish – Sound Signature Sounds (2000, Sound Signature)

Theo Parrish is a house artist and DJ from Detroit who has been putting out original, abstract, lo-fi dance records since the mid '90s, and now runs his own Sound Signature label, releasing a steady stream of his own and his friends' 12”s each year. I first heard a buzz about Theo on internet discussion forums around the release of his “Sound Signature Sounds” CD, which collects tracks from the label's first six 12”s. The aesthetic is minimalist and organic, with unprocessed drum machine beats, gritty low-bitrate samples and live-feeling synth chords and melodic improvisation. Hints of disco and funk rhythms enter the mix, and the mood is deep and soulful, yet largely instrumental save for some abstract looping vocal samples in the background. I love the jazzy feel to the chord progressions and the constant live change-ups in the drum patterns. All the elements of Theo Parrish's later musical composition styles make an experience here, from tribal African drumming, quirky synth programming to endlessly repeating hypnotic disco loops which he later explored on his fascinating Ugly Edits 12” white-label series. Along with fellow Detroit deep house master Kenny Dixon Jr. aka Moodymann, with whom Theo has collaborated on the KDJ label, Theo Parrish is outspoken on the roots of modern dance music as coming from African sources, and considers his DJ sets to be musical history lessons in motion. My personal favorite era of Theo Parrish 12"s is '96-'02, but to be honest I find something I enjoy on almost everything he releases, including his more recent full-length and EPs with organic live house band 3 Chairs, and his '08-'09 Sound Signature 12"s on an extended blunted space-jam tip are well worth hearing!

June 22, 2009

Gregg Kowalsky – Tape Chants (2009, Kranky)

"Tape Chants" is fellow-Mills-grad Gregg Kowalsky's second release for Kranky, a US label long-established as an innovator in ambient and post-rock experimentalism. The album is based on a series of live performances/installations, in which an array of cassette tape players were placed around a room, playing recordings of minimal sound sources such as sinewave oscillators, mixer feedback, and contact mic recordings. During the peformance, Gregg would walk around the space and adjust the volume of the tapes, allowing the acoustics of the room and the position of the listener to play a role in the reception of the sound. For the "Tape Chants" album, the surround-sound element has been lost, but many of the recordings used in the performances have been incorporated into the mix, along with some subdued percussive elements played on what sound like the inside strings of a piano, and according to the liner notes there is also gong, motors, water, glass, etc. The result is a very organic-sounding, slightly lo-fi ambience which brings to mind early electronics recordings of the '50s, and feels very far away from modern digital glitch-futurism. The sonic textures are mysterious, hazy, hissy, occasionally static-laden, with a meditative warmth combined with an experimental edge. There is a slow but constant sense of movement provided by the shifting fuzz of what sounds like short-wave radio static or ancient modular synthesizer grit on tape loops, as well as other-worldy sounds that I am guessing are field recordings or contact mic textures; organic yet alien. The drones are occasionally punctuated by distant percussive strikes and abrupt dynamic textural changes, with some soft bass thrumming on the fourth track "VI-VII" provided by Marielle Jakobsons. "Tape Chants" is a very deep, soft-spoken album with an original ambient sound, which I would love to hear/see recreated live!

June 19, 2009

Tetsu Inoue – Inland (2007, Fax +49-69/450464)

Tetsu Inoue is an ambient and experimental electronic musician with a prolific catalog of releases since the early '90s. Much of his material was released on the Fax +49-69/450464 label run by Pete Namlook, a hyper-prolific artist in his own right, known among other things for his Pink Floyd-inspired "The Dark Side Of The Moog" ambient collaborations with kraut-meister Klaus Schulze. The Fax label was known for releasing one-time pressings in very limited editions, usually 500 to 1000 copies, which made much of Inoue's back-catalog unaccesable and over-priced for many years. "Ambiant Otaku" from '94, for example, is widely regarded as an essential ambient classic on discussion forums online, but due to its scarce availability of 1000 copies, would regularly sell for upwards of $200 on eBay, as did other Fax releases from the early '90s. Thankfully, Fax has embraced iTunes to distribute much of their catalog in high quality MP3 format, and all of Inoue's albums and collaborations are now available for usually $9.99 per album. My first exposure to Inoue's music was on the more digital glitch end of the spectrum with '97s "Waterloo Terminal" and the '98 Tzadik release "Psycho-Acoustic". Considering the time period, both albums are incredibly futuristc, making use of the latest DSP effects, granular synthesis and bitcrushed field recordings. While some of the tracks have moments of soothing ambience, the tone is generally more abstract, electro-acoustic and slightly noisy, without being overly abrassive. In '07, I saw an announcement that a new Tetsu Inoue solo album had been released that was receiving comparisons to his classic works. While the CD was only available in an edition of 500, the album was available in high quality digital format online, along with the now-reasonably-priced "Ambiant Otaku". Having heard both now, I understand the comparisons, although I can also hear how much Inoue's production technique and musical aesthetic has evolved in 13 years. While "Ambiant Otaku" features repeating tonal structures and arpeggios over a bed of shifting synthesizers with a just-slightly-dated early '90s feel, "Inland" is more formless, abstract and cinematic, featuring constanly morphing clouds of calm sound with a futuristic digital edge. The music is gentle and enveloping, with some slightly melancholy passages and lots of depth and mystery. Each of the 8 tracks has a distinct pallet of sounds, but all flow together, exploring similar ambient territory. I am unfamiliar with much of Inoue's back-catalog, but many consider his Fax releases to be ambient "classics", so probably anything you can find is worth hearing.

June 18, 2009

Space Machine – 3 (2004, Important Records)

I first became aware of Yamazaki Maso, best known for his Masonna project, when I was active in the cassette tape trading scene online during the mid-'90s. My main focus at the time was collecting live tapes of industrial group Skinny Puppy, but I encountered many obsessed “noise music” collectors with long lists of tapes by Japanese artists such as Merzbow, Aube, Keiji Haino, and Masonna. My experience with Japanese noise music is that it is very difficult to listen to unless played at low volume, which I suspect defeats its purpose. Masonna's CDs, for example, are mastered at unbelievably loud volumes, such that one must either turn their stereo way down to minimum levels or risk exploding their windows/brains via sonic attack. Merzbow's sonic aesthetic typically revolves around a squealing cat-with-its-tail-slammed-in-a-door distortion effect. While I find the artistic merit of such “music” questionable, I admire these artists' salesmanship and ability to market their micro-limited edition, often hand-made releases to collector geeks in the US and noise otaku in Japan. In '01, during a year in Japan, I encountered Maso's debut Space Machine album “Cosmos From Diode Ladder Filter”, which caught my eye with its cover featuring a vintage EMS VCS3 synthesizer (as used on the classic Dr. Who soundtracks). Apparently, in '00 Maso had begun experiencing ill health and had to curtail his Masonna performances, which often involved intense screaming and self-abuse onstage. This break allowed Maso to mellow a bit and focus on his amazing collection of vintage modular synthesizers. The aesthetic of Space Machine is to produce vintage-styled electronic cosmic drone music, inspired by early electronic artists of the '50s and '60s. The result is, in my opinion, much more listenable than his previous Masonna material, and a fascinating tour of sounds from rare synthesizers that collectors would have to pay thousands of dollars for apiece, not to speak of getting them into working condition. In '04, Space Machine's third album “3” was released domestically by Important Records, making it the first of the series available in the US. The album consists of six untitled studio tracks and a 40 minute live performance recorded in Osaka featuring fellow Japanese experi-mentalists Kawabata Makoto and Nakaya Kouichi. The studio arsenal for this recording includes the Roland System 100M modular synthesizer, Moog Sonic Six, EMS VCS3 and others, plus '60s and '70s-era echo chambers, tape echoes and analog delays. While the sound is abrasive at times, there is a certain cosmic sensibility that seems unique to Japanese experimental music, and makes for some fascinating deep listening. Maso has also applied his vintage synthesizer techniques to retro '60s psychedelia with his Christine 23 Onna project, featuring distorted groovy beats and catchy guitar hooks. Look for '02's “Acid Eater”!

June 17, 2009

Love Inc. - Life's A Gas (1995, Force Inc. Music Works)

A solid decade before “minimal techno” began to actually become “trendy”, if only by way of Richie Hawtin's M-nus label in the US anyway, Wolfgang Voigt was beating everyone to the punch with his Love Inc. project on the now-defunct German Force Inc. Music Works record label. Constantly defining trends and defying all completist collectors, Voigt has released well over 100 records under a huge array of aliases, beginning with his acid tracks under the name Mike Ink in the early '90s. His early tracks are storming and 303-drenched, taking the acid sound to its hardcore extremes, but with his Love Inc. project he really began to establish himself as an innovative experimental techno producer. Following a series of high-intensity, acid-tinged techno 12”s, “Life's A Gas” was Voigt's first full-length CD and has a great minimal tech-house sensibility. With a strange collage cover composed of classic '70s rock albums, the album apparently features samples from each album depicted, although I can only detect the obvious re-interpretation of T. Rex's “Hot Love” in the “Hot Love (Mike Mix)”, where the original track has been morphed into a psychedelic cowboy shuffle. Most of the tracks have a club sensibility paired with a mysterious, abstract synth instrumentation, while the downtempo “Where It's At” sounds like it would be at home on Aphex Twin's “SAW Vol. II”. The album itself has hints of modern dub techno, minimalism and progressive tech-house, produced with oldschool synthesizers and hardware drum machines with a great analog/digital hybrid '90s sound. Voigt continued from this point to venture further into abstraction with his Gas project, and founded the Kompakt label in the late '90s to release more catchy minimal and abstract techno, but the roots can be heard on “Life's A Gas”.

June 16, 2009

BONUS: "Retro Techno/Detroit Definitive : Emotions Electric" compilation liner notes by John McCready, July 1988 (re-edit 1991)

[bonus post: I found this great transcription of a late '80s compilation's liner notes about Detroit techno, with some great quotes by Derrick May and an interesting interview with Kevin Saunderson. I am mystified, however, by Kevin's statement that his favorite piece of gear is the Roland SD 8000.... I can't find a single piece of info on it. Perhaps he meant the Roland CR-8000 drum machine, which I am a big fan of and have used many of the sounds from in my own productions.]

"The Techno Rebels are, whether they recognise it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much a part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths." The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler.

"We're not really interested in tearing you up with the scratches and cuts tonight. We're more interested in...educating you for the future..." Derrick May, WJLB Radio Mix

It's 3am and the streets of America's seventh city are deserted as Derrick May pilots his car through a crumbling monument to the Second Wave - the age of industry and mass production - the age of Ford and Gordy who both ran their second wave empires from here. "This place is fucked man. It's finished," he says shaking his head incredulously. We pass a gutted building filled with holes that were once windows. Detroit is winding down the past and isn't sure if it wants to be part of the future.

Driving down Woodward Avenue, we pass the wooden house that was home to the carefully-honed pop soul of Motown. Motown was the musical backdrop to the Second Wave. Motown means nothing to Derrick May.

Via systems dance records like 'Nude Photo' and together with fellow artists Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, Derrick has invested his time, money and energy in the future.

Detroit rolls by like a discarded set from Robocop, a film set in the city's fictional future. "Now you understand why we make this music," he says, "We can do nothing but look forward..."

[continues] http://www.ele-mental.org/ele_ment/said&did/emotions_electric.html

Autechre - Incunabula (1993, Warp Records)

Warp Records defined the IDM sound in the early '90s with their Artificial Intelligence CD series, which featured some of the first releases from artists who went on to lead prolific careers and have been defined as innovators in electronic music, including Aphex Twin, Speedy J, FUSE (now better known as Richie Hawtin/Plastikman), and The Black Dog (aka Plaid). Autechre were a duo from the UK, and their debut CD "Incunabula" was distributed in the US by TVT (parent label of classic US industrial label/shop WaxTrax!) so it was actually obtainable in American shops unlike many of the UK-printed Warp releases at the time. Besides having very futuristic (for the time) and mysterious cover art featuring reflective silver text, the sound was utterly unique and much more advanced than other early techno I had heard at the time. I am still actually kind of blown away that "Incunabula" was released in '93. While there are some dated elements, mainly in the form of the oldschool drum machine programming and bleepy synths, all the sounds are put to excellent use and the end result can still be totally appreciated even if heard for the first time today. The album is particularly interesting from the viewpoint of Autechre fans, as it captures the group in a different form than they became known for in the following years, when they established themselves as cutting-edge masters of experimental, glitchy, industrialized IDM sound. They began to incorporate more samples and a much more computer-centered production approach as the '90s progressed, using the latest and most high-end digital software and gear, and the sound took on a somewhat more abrasive, psychedelic rhythm-and-texture-oriented focus. "Tri Repetae++" was also a favorite of mine in the '90s, released as a 2CD set in the US by TVT, which featured the essential "Anvil Vapre" and "Garbage" EPs on the second disc. If you were really lucky you could even spot Autechre's devastating and creepy "Second Bad Vilbel" video on MTV's late night attempt at a "rave music" video show, AMP, which incidentally was one of the first videos directed by Chris Cunningham, who went on to direct amazing videos for Aphex Twin, Madonna and Bjork. Autechre have reinvented themselves with each release, and have put out a fantastic collection of EPs and full-lengths over the years, and while I find a few tracks on almost every release that I enjoy, "Incunabula" is one that I've gone back to again and again.

June 15, 2009

Polygon Window - Surfing On Sine Waves (1993, Warp Records)

Since I listened to "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II" last week, I have been on an Aphex Twin kick, and revisiting some of my favorites in my collection. Released under the moniker Polygon Window, "Surfing On Sine Waves" was the first in the seminal Artificial Intelligence series on Warp Records, which spawned a whole new "intelligent dance music" sound in the UK and world-wide in the '90s. The early releases in the series have a strong "bleepy" feel, made mainly with hardware synthesizers and drum machines rather than the software-heavy laptop approach of modern IDM. This was also one of the few Aphex Twin albums that one could actually find in shops in the US during the mid-'90s, thus it was one of his first CDs I bought after "...I Care Because You Do". "Sine Waves" features Aphex Twin in acid house and hardcore-inspired ambient techno mode, composing mainly with minimal-yet-pounding drum machine programming and repeating, washed-out synthesizer tones. While the tempo and beats are on the dance-side of the spectrum, there is lots of reverb and minimal passages, with a mysterious, timeless sound (apart from the dated drum machine sounds, which I would rather call "classic"). There is a total absence of drum loops on the album, and sampled material is kept to a bare minimum, although used to excellent effect with the strange spoken samples on "If It Really Is Me" and the stomping "Supremacy II". The reverb-and-acid-synth-laden "UT1 Dot" and the beatless "Quino-Phec" could fit in well on "SAW Vol. II", while other tracks blend the ambient elements with a strong techno beat, such as "Quixote". In '01, the album was remastered and re-issued with two additional tracks from the original sessions, both in a more down-tempo/IDM style but still in line with the overall tone of the album tracks. Aphex Twin has taken his Polygon/Caustic Window hardcore acid techno sound in an ultra-futuristic-and-yet-slightly-lo-fi direction on his recent Analord 12" series, but much of his early '90s material still stands as all-time classic to me.

June 13, 2009

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Vol. II (1994, Warp Records)

Aphex Twin has been a huge creative inspiration to me since I was a teenager in the mid-'90s, when I found his classic IDM album "...I Care Because You Do" available from corporate music mail-order service BMG, which I was hooked on at the time. The album, like much of Aphex Twin's material, is both sonically fascinating, catchy and yet challenging, making use of bizarre synthesizer noises and experimental FX processing. Richard D. James, the mad genius behind Aphex Twin, is semi-infamous for his eccentricity, and has managed to spawn a significant cult of personality around his obscure releases, which is pretty impressive considering he makes quirky electronic music, and not stadium rock. Legends have grown about James driving a miniature tank rather than a car, about living in an old bank vault and locking himself in for days at a time making music, and building all his gear "from scratch" or at least modifying and hacking his equipment and creating "black box" FX units. Whatever the truth is, James has managed to inspire people's fascination and created a big collector's scene centered around the "major" IDM labels of the '90s: Warp Records, Rephlex, and Skam. Besides his beat-oriented IDM material and later excursions into high-speed drill'n'bass territory, Aphex has produced material on the more textural and ambient side of things. "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II" collects nearly 140 minutes of this material on 2CDs, and is an epic, ground-breaking, and timeless release. Continuing on the path of beautiful Aphex obscurity, there are no track titles per se, but instead there are round "pie charts" containing small wedges of photographs. Each "pie" relates to a sequence of tracks on the CD/LP, with the size of the pie slice proportionally related to the length of the track. Thus, some collector geeks with too much time on their hands have managed to put together a "tracklist" using descriptions of the photos, such as "curtains", "weathered stone", "domino", "lichen", etc. James has said that his inspiration for the album was his many lucid dreams he has had since a child, and his memories of the music and sounds he heard in his dreams. The music itself is a sort of looping ambient style, composed of repeating melodic motifs and synthesizer textures that build and fade in and out of each other. Far from formless, the tracks are harmonically rich and memorable, with catchy melodic hooks that remind me of the modern Kompakt Pop Ambient sound. Occasionally, faint throbbing drums make a distant appearance, such as on the haunting "grass" and "blur" (CD1-4 and CD1-7), while some tracks even enter a subdued rhythmic IDM territory, predating Susumu Yokota's ambient production style on the classic "Sakura". Snippets of vocal samples and laughter appear in a few of the tracks, but overall the sound-source is surreal and other-wordly, without sounding particularly dated or "synthy". Aphex Twin has never really returned to this production style since the mid-'90s, although he has never ceased to innovate in other genres of electronic music. "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II" is an album that can be listened to on "random play" and often yields new sonic experiences with each listen.

June 12, 2009

Pauline Oliveros & Stuart Dempster & Panaiotis - Deep Listening (1989, New Albion)

Pauline Oliveros has been composing and performing experimental electronic music since the '60s, and has long been considered a pioneer and innovator in the field. In the '80s she began releasing albums featuring her accordion improvisations, and experimented with digital processing and spatial environment recording, moving in a more free-form ambient, meditative direction. '89s "Deep Listening" documented her collaborations with trombonist Stuart Dempster and vocalist Peter Ward (aka Panaiotis). The group had discovered a vast underground cistern which had previously held 2 million gallons of water. Now empty, the space was found to produce a massive, sustaining reverberation of sound. The group improvised and recorded long textural drones in the space, four pieces of which are collected on "Deep Listening". The sound is other-worldly and enveloping, yet the instrumentation is entirely organic, consisting of Pauline on accordion, conch shell and voice, Stuart on trombone, didgeridoo, garden hose, conch shell and voice, and Panaiotis providing voice as well as found-object metal scraping on the fantastic fourth piece "Nike". The natural reverb obscures and washes out the sharp edges of the sound, while accentuating certain harmonics as they slowly decay over a period of nearly 45 seconds. Even percussive sounds are rendered into distant washes of soft noise. The tone of the music is at times haunting and mysterious, such as on the etherial "Suiren", as well as soothing and meditative, such as the long passages in "Ione". This album stands as one of the all-time classics of ambient music, and required listening for anyone interested in drones. Pauline Oliveros produced several more CDs throughout the '90s with her Deep Listening Band, while also writing and holding workshops on the practice of Deep Listening, a meditation practice centered on the focused observation of sound in one's environment. I had the privelege of attending a short workshop and concert Pauline held in North Carolina back in '02, and was inspired to attend Mills college, where Pauline had studied and currently teaches, to focus on studying the applications of sound for meditation and healing. Pauline is still touring and composing actively with her accordion and Extended Instrument System digital processing software. She also runs her own Deep Listening recod label, which has released a variety of excellent ambient and improvisation-based CDs over the past decade.

June 11, 2009

LABEL PROFILE: Jahtari Netlabel (Germany)

In the past few years, chiptunes have been gaining more popularity and respect in the music underground, with the sound crossing over into club-oriented dubstep and minimal techno productions. The concept is essentially a digital production technique using vintage computer synthesis software, hardware and/or effects to produce ultra lo-fi, videogame-esque tracks. Some artists get really into production with old Atari ST or Amiga computers, while others use Tracker software on PCs that has been around since the early '90s (I got my start on an ancient tracker software for the Mac around '96, and still use Jeskola Buzz today). Other people get into vintage digital synthesizers, NanoLoop software for Gameboy or Nintendo DS, or even build/modify their own sound modules. The outcome is typically gritty, raw-sounding electronic music that sounds strongly dated, yet with an experimental, futuristic direction. To be honest, I still associate a lot of what I hear with the "tracker demos" that one could find on the web throughout the '90s, and a lot of it sounds like second-rate videogame music. Still there are some exotic effects, textures and noises that can be coaxed from these digital tools, and I have been getting excited by some of the more recent developements in the genre. Jahtari started producing "digital 7"s" in '04, and caught my attention in '06 with a minor buzz around their Mikey Murka & Disrupt "Sensi Addict/Arcade Addict" release, which featured samples from a collection of vintage arcade machine recordings made by some kids in the '80s. Jahtari's aesthetic is to create Digital Laptop Reggae, using the lo-fi chiptune sounds to compose dancehall and dub beats. Entirely different from the "dub techno" sound, many Jahtari releases sound like vintage game music (such as Dubmood's "Atari-Ska", out-takes from some "Reggae Adventure Island". Other material by Illyah & Ltd. Candy adds smooth vocal elements and gets into abstract IDM territory, while retaining a strong reggae beat. I particularly enjoy the releases by label-boss Disrupt, which frequently features humorous and trippy samples from old films. The production is impressively high-end considering the lo-fi sound sources, and usually not too abrassive for casual listening. Best of all, most of Jahtari's material is available for FREE. They have also produced actual vinyl releases and a CD compilation, although it is probably unlikely you'll find them in US stores. Disrupt, Bo Marley, Rootah and co. are on tour all over Europe this summer!

June 10, 2009

Zomby - Where Were U In '92? (2008, Werk Discs)

Zomby started producing 12"s in '07 and came to "popular" attention with his "Mu5h/Spliff Dub" 12" in early '08 on Hyperdub, regarded as a major innovator in the dubstep genre, which is now morphing into a variety of genres that don't necessarily have agreed-upon names yet (I've heard the word "wonky", but I don't like it). Zomby's style merged futuristic reggae-inspired rhythms and effects with ultra lo-fi videogame/chiptune instrumentation. I was also blown away by his simple yet punishing "Liquid Dancehall" track on Ramp Recordings, a plodding halfsteppy track with bubbling synth sounds and '80s arcade game-esque effects. In late '08, Zomby released his first full-length CD on Werk Discs and caused a big commotion in the dubstep scene. "Where Were U In '92?" is an homage to the classic sounds of rave music in the UK in the early '90s, incorporating motifs and styles from jungle, d'n'b breaks, early hardcore and sample-heavy techno. The record is like a sonic time capsule and an insight into a scene that was before my time but whose influence I've heard in much of the best electronic music in the '90s and today. Big wobbling basslines, pitched-up vocal samples, echoing reggae toasts and airhorns all make appearances in the seamless mix, revealing the roots of the dubstep sound and just how futuristic the early UK sound really was. Based on the law of things returning to popularity every 20 years, I expect we'll hear more of this oldskool breaks-heavy sound in the near future. One example that impressed me last year was the Hyperdub 12" of Kode9 vs LD's "Bad/2 Bad", another homage to the early '90s sound, in this case a reference to the killer 2 Bad Mice. For a long time I felt like a lot of early '90s techno in particular was just too dated to really appreciate, but I am starting to appreciate the intricacies and technical limitations of the production. In fact, Zomby chose to produce "Where Were U" using only '92-era technology, specifically an Akai S-2000 and an Atari ST running Cubase, very impressive! Zomby has most recently released his second Hyperdub release, a 2x12" which typically gets priced around $20 in the US and is only about 21 minutes long, which seems a bit expensive to me, but ufortunately much of the current UK dubstep doesn't have any proper US distribution. The EP itself is really fantastic, however, and returns to Zomby's heavy videogame-influenced sound, with tracks that sound like a psychedelic Mario Brothers underground dance party, amazing! Zomby is currently on tour in the UK, and I'm really hoping more of this sound reaches the US soon...

June 8, 2009

Headhunter - Nomad (2008, Tempa)

Turning our focus back to contemporary electronic music, a dubstep album that really stood out last year was Headhunter's "Nomad" full-length on the excellent Tempa label. Headhunter had caught my attention the previous year with his track "Locus Lotus" from the "Iniate EP" 12", a storming 4/4 house track with a very strong reggae/dubstep influence, a style which I think people in the UK are now calling "funky house" or just "funky". The other tracks on the 12" explored grime territory with slow, half-step rhythms and big growling wobbly basslines, with some warm touches of dub techno pads and effects. The style is similar to 2562, who was also a big-name dubstep artist in '08, but on a more melodic and sometimes cinematic vibe, reminiscent of Burial. The production is top-notch as well, with constantly shifting textures and change-ups in rhythm that avoid the "dubstep pitfall" of over-repetition of one groove. "Nomad" starts with a strong, if by-the-books, dub techno track but quickly gets exciting with "Prototypes", a driving techno-influenced track with a dance-able dubstep beat. "Grounded" brings back the dub techno motifs, but set to a sick Burial-esque beat and heavy sub-bass rumbles. Lots of organic percussion mixed with futuristic digital effects add up to a very forward-thinking dance sound that I really want to hear more of in clubs. Slower, half-step tracks like "Baseflow" take the hip-hop inspired UK grimey sound in a hyper-futuristic direction, making for great, head-nodding chill out vibes. Just last week, Rinse FM put up a live Headhunter vs N-Type set for free mp3 download featuring many new Headhunter tracks! Check it!

June 6, 2009

Trattoria various artists – Shock City Shockers Vol. 1 & 2 (2000, 2001)

To wrap up my week-o'-Boredoms reviews, I thought I would address the other aspect of Boredoms releases that I find particularly fascinating: the freak-out collage compilation. As you have probably already figured out, Boredoms members like to make new band names for every little project they do, particularly front-man Yamatsuka EYE, who is also an accomplished, if totally insane, visual collage artist, and has even released his own art books, “Ongaloo” and “OK FRED x Death by Basel. This collage style is more in line with the traditional Japanese noise scene from the '80s on, a world of hand-made cassette releases, weird found-sounds and essentially unlistenable shrieking distortion. Boredoms stood out from this scene by applying the experimental production techniques to actual song-form productions and skilled instrument playing, retaining the chaos and sonic extremity of noise but bridging the gap to avant-garde, post-rock and even ambient experimental music. The first various Bore-related artists compilation was arguably produced by EYE's noisy found-sound Puzzle Punks project on the album “Pipeline” in '95, subtitled “24 Smash Hits by 24 Puzzle Punk Bands”. In actuality, the material was probably all created by EYE and band-mate Shinro Otake, with each track given a different artist's name including MC5 Or 6, Ganja Farmers, Ha Ha Ha, and Wipe Out Shock Shoppers. In '99, the Japanese indie label Trattoria released a compilation entitled “Shock City Shockers” which really blew me away with it's updated, noise-inspired sound, and featured several REAL bands and Boredoms side-projects including Psycho-Baba, OOIOO, Rovo and others. There are also several bands with questionable names such as PP Nights, WeyeW, XOX, and Skyeye, all of which essentially sound like out-takes from “Vision Creation Newsun” sessions and field recordings. The overall vibe is very psychedelic, with some ambient and tribal interludes as well as full-on noise freakouts. The second volume of Shock City Shockers is technically titled as an OOIOO album, as each track is ostensibly a remix of songs from “Green & Gold”, although the sonic result is often unrecognizable from the original versions, including remixes by some of my favorite Japanese electronic musicians, Kiyoshi Izumi and Nobukazu Takemura. More recently, EYE has released his own remix albums which continue this futuristic tribal psych-noise style, and pretty much any of this stuff that you can find for non-collectors-prices is worth hearing! (Bonus tip: look for EYE's mix album under his DJ name, DJ Pika Pika Pika, “Planetary Natural Love Gas Webbin' 199999999”, it is brain-bending! I also realize I completely forgot to mention the most recent Boredoms project, 77 Boa Drum, a massive “drum circle” comprised of 77 drummers playing full drum kits in a huge spiral, outdoors in NYC on 7/7/07. While the concept is fantastic, the actual sonic result did not really thrill me.)

June 5, 2009

AOA – Emotion Vacation : Silent Summer Collection (2001, Comma)

I have been listening to Boredoms projects a lot lately, so I thought I would keep it going and dedicate all the reviews this week to some of my favorites. One aspect of Boredoms that I've never gotten to experience is their live performances, particularly at outdoor raves and psychedelic festivals in Japan. From footage I've seen, their live shows, at least in the earlier '00s, had a strong dance and even techno element, with pounding 4/4 beats and drum circle percussion jams. This sound is captured on CD by AOA, the freeform trance project of Boredoms drummers Hira and E-da, with a shifting line-up of special guest musicians. The style is similar to the extended tribal jams on "Vision Creation Newsun", but with a more electronic instrumentation and a rave aesthetic. The material is apparently produced spontaneously around a foundation of 4/4 drum machine programming, with constantly shifting textures, synthesizer arpeggio sequences, and live drumming. AOA is a futuristic blend of Japanese psychedelic production techniques applied to Goa trance dance beats. The group released three full-lengths and two EPs in a period of five years from '98 to '02, and seem to have taken a break since, although the band members are probably just performing with their many other projects now, including Boredoms themseles. "Emotion Vacation" is the only AOA album that is easy to acquire outside of Japan, as it was licensed to Australian label Psy-Harmonics, where it is still in-print and currently on sale for $14AUD, which is about $11.50USD and includes world-wide shipping! My other favorite of AOA's is '99's "Surfin' Alright", which may be an even stronger album but is out-of-print and impossible to find.

June 4, 2009

OOIOO – Gold & Green (2000, Trattoria)

Another fantastic Boredoms side-project, OOIOO is composed of four Japanese female musicians, led by vocalist/guitarist/drummer/something-else-probably Yoshimi P-We. The sound is sort of like Boredoms doing more pop-oriented, song-form tracks, but making full use of their array of FX, strange instrumentation and unexpected sonic territory, with Yoshimi on soaring vocals. The vibe is playful and experimental, yet technically masterful and well-composed. When I got a chance to see OOIOO perform live in Japan, opening for Sonic Youth in '01, I was particularly blown away by the bands ability to perfectly reproduce their material from the album in live form. At one point, Yoshimi apparently detected some sloppy playing in the arrangement, and actually STOPPED the song and had everyone start over again, which only accentuated how technically flawless the performance actually was. “Gold & Green” is an album by a band at the top of their game, and while there have been several OOIOO albums since that take the sound forward, perhaps because I have such a strong feeling from their concert, this has remained my favorite. The songs are catchy and full of hooks, as well as many variations and rhythmic change-ups to really make your head spin. Although it took a long time, the album was finally released domestically in the US in '05 on Thrill Jockey, and in fact can now be purchased in MP3 form for a mere $10. If you want to get into Boredoms, but prefer something a bit less noisy, OOIOO is a perfect introduction to this fantastic Japanese psychedelic sound.

June 3, 2009

Psycho-Baba – On The Roof Of Kedar Lodge (2000, Japan Overseas)

During my time in Japan, a good friend introduced me to many Boredoms side projects, including one that (as I recall) her friend had hand-drawn the intricate cover art for: Psycho-Baba. In this project, Yoshimi, the drummer of Boredoms but also a vocalist and song-writer in her own right with her band OOIOO, is paired with sitar-meister Yoshidadaitiki and fellow Boredoms drummer ATR on tablas and processed drumkit. The result is an incredible Indian raga-inspired experimental sound, with Yoshimi providing echoing vocals processed live through her Kaoss Pad and live drumming alongside traditional Indian rhythms and instrumentation. Occasionally futuristic digital FX play a role in the mix, providing a strong hallucinatory vibe such as on the aptly-titled “After Bong, Then Sleep”, but much of the music has a timeless, organic feel. Some familiar Boredoms experimentalism and tribal drumming make appearances, and the music is definitely on the noisier end of things, although with a dream-like feel and occasional interludes of droning ambience. This is thankfully one of Boredoms' side-projects that can be acquired in the US, as it is distributed by Japan Overseas and still in stock. Psycho-Baba released several live concert EPs in Japan as the phoentically-spelled Saicobab, which go off in more abstract, ambient directions, centered around beautiful, heavy sitar drones and vocal improvisation. Yoshimi has often reminded me of a Japanese Bjork, in the sense of being a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocal performer with a wild, free-form style. “Kedar Lodge” is a truly unique album and a masterpiece of Japanese/Indian psychedelic music.

June 2, 2009

Hanadensha – Narcotic Guitar : Imaginary Movie Soundtracks (1996, WEA Japan)

Hanadensha is one of many side-projects of Boredoms, the psychedelic super-group from Japan. In this case, it is a project of Hira, the bassist, and four other Japanese dudes, including Yojiro Tatekawa who has been drumming for the recent Boredoms tour-group V∞redoms. Hanadensha's early albums were more fuzzed-out, grungy metal rock that reminded me of The Melvins, but their sound was totally redefined for “Narcotic Guitar” and the subsequent EP trilogy produced in '96-'97. The vibe is experimental and a bit noisy, but mainly on the ambient end of the spectrum, with a strong shoe-gaze influence, to my ears. Repeating melodic riffs, laid-back and even jazzy rhythms appear at times, with some very indistinct mumbled/whispered vocals, but mainly this is an instrumental disc with a wild mix of electronic and organic instrumentation and sonic effects. Production quality is impressively high, predating Boredom's shift to kraut-rock tribal experimentalism, and in spite of some slightly piercing, noisy passages, the album as a whole is very listenable, as well as hallucinatory and constantly shifting. The cover also caught my eye at the time I was in Japan, as it is printed on reflective metal foil. Hanadensha followed up “Narcotic Guitar” with a series of 3 EPs in '97, each in a distinct style. My personal favorite is “Astral Pygmy Wave”, featuring two 20-minute long tracks of voyaging ambient tones, chanting pygmies and tribal drumming, excellent. The “Acoustic Mothership” EP is on the acid-noise end of the spectrum, and a bit abrasive, but well-produced. Finally, the “Doobie Shining Love” EP features more straight-forward, short song-form tracks, complete with vocals (“doobie love, love is a doobie, shining...” over and over), and oddly including the previously-released track “Star” from “Narcotic Guitar”. For a while these CDs were available by mailorder in the US, but they are long out of print now and admittedly may be pretty tough to find, but if you search hard enough you will find them! I was pleased to find today that EYE from Boredoms has allowed “Narcotic Guitar” to be put online for free download!

June 1, 2009

Boredoms – Vision Creation Newsun (1999, WEA Japan)

Boredoms is a project by a group of Japanese experimentalists who've been active in the noise scene since the '80s, and achieved some modest recognition in America in the early '90s on tour opening for bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. In the mid-'90s however, Boredoms shifted their style from crazed, boredom-induced freak-out noise to a more song-oriented, well-produced psychedelic and kraut-rock inspired tribal project featuring multiple drummers and a constantly changing group of musicians. I encountered the epic “Vision Creation Newsun” in record shops in Japan in '00, but at the time it was only available in a box-set that usually sold for around $100, including a bonus white t-shirt with white graphics printed on it that could only be seen in blacklight, and a small chip that made weird buzzing sounds when the box lid was opened. I was lucky enough to see the brain-bending music video for the title track on Viewsic, Japan's MTV channel, and I had the fortune of seeing Boredom's side-project OOIOO open for Sonic Youth there as well. I collected what material I could find (and afford) at the time, mainly side-projects as Boredom's material was very collectible and hard to find in Central Japan. When I came home to the US, I was pleased to find that Birdman Records had issued the album domestically in '01. “Vision Creation Newsun” is a dizzying voyage through cosmic psychedelic trance territory by way of pounding tribal drumming and distorted guitars, with Boredom's distinctive processing, editing and effects mixed in. The music has a fast, pounding rhythm, catchy guitar hooks and melodic patterns, and enough form to fend off total chaos, but with tons of experimentation along the way. This is some of the most psychedelic rock music I have ever heard, mainly instrumental except for some occasional whoops and hollers by front-man Yamatsuka EYE, who I also got to see perform several near-deafening DJ sets during my time in Japan (did you know he did the cover art for Beck's “Midnite Vultures”??). By taking the Japanese noise aesthetic and production methods and blending them with expert musical composition and song-writing, Boredoms set the experimental/noise bar VERY high and have continued to release innovative albums regularly, as well as tour in the US several times, all of which I have regrettably missed. The many members of Boredoms have all released a huge catalog of solo-albums and side-projects, many of which explore similar psychedelic territory as well as more ambient, trance and noise variations. Favorites of mine include OOIOO, Hanadensha, Psycho-Baba, AOA, and Rovo, and I will undoubtedly review several of them in the future!