October 30, 2009

Yokota - Psychic Dance (2009, Harthouse)

I have been a fan of Susumu Yokota's techno and ambient records since I heard the widely-acclaimed "Sakura" and its follow-up "Grinning Cat", two fantastic psychedelic ambient albums in the vein of Brian Eno's classic works, and featured on many album-of-the-year lists at the time. As I further explored Yokota's prolific catalog, I realized that he alternated between lush ambient abstraction and straight-ahead deep house/techno, with several amazing albums and 12"s deconstructing disco samples and soulful house grooves, my personal favorite being the '02 full-length "Sound Of Sky". Since then, Yokota has released roughly one album each year, with each one exploring a different genre or variation of techno or ambient. In '06 he released the brain-bending "Triple Time Techno", which applied the waltz meter of 3-beats per bar to techno, followed by the more-abstract, melodic "Love Or Die", moving back into ambient/experimental territory. Back in the mid-'90s, Susumu released two albums and a couple 12"s on the seminal German techno label Harthouse, and 12 years later he has returned to his "Yokota" alias with a full-length digital download-only release called "Psychic Dance". The album is a strong return to Yokota's oldschool, acid and minimal techno roots, eschewing strange time-signatures and melodic textures in general for heavy, intricate drum machine programming with lots of weird spatial effects and filter tweaks. Occasionally some harmonic chord stabs enter the mix, but for the most part these are purely rhythmic explorations, with each track named after a different neurochemical/drug like "Ritalin", "Paxil", "Betanamin", etc. The vibe is high-energy and pounding, slightly industrial-edged and very dance-able, referencing modern minimal, progressive and Detroit styles. Yokota's masterful programming and sound library are showcased in a new techno format, with many intricate layers of rhythmic elements constantly shifting in and out of the mix, keeping things interesting and engaging. At 76 minutes long, its worth the 8 bucks!

October 28, 2009

Convextion – s/t (2006/8, Down Low Music)

I have to admit I am very much a late-comer to Detroit techno, and basically never even heard Juan Atkins or Jeff Mills or Underground Resistance or any of the other “masters” of the genre until the last couple of years. In '06, the Echospace Detroit camp of Rod Modell and co. released several double-12”s with a lot of buzz around them: a remix collection and re-issue of Convextion's “Miranda” from '96; a similar remix & re-issue set of Model 500's “Starlight”, a “classic” minimal Detroit techno track from '95; and the fantastic Deepchord release “Vantage Isle”, the latter both featuring remixes by Convextion. Convextion is one of several aliases used by TX-native producer Gerard Hanson, who released a relatively sparse selection of five 12”s over a period of 8 years from '95 to '03, considered very high-quality slices of Detroit/dub techno and commanding high prices on eBay, plus some electro-oriented 12"s as E.R.P.. In '06, Convextion finally released a full-length 2LP collection of tracks composed over the previous 10 years, but I didn't get a chance to hear it until it was released on CD last year. While I was at first slightly put-off by the Detroit sound, which has a very raw, synthetic-sounding quality with a heavy focus on minimal synthesizer patches, bleep-n-blooping arpeggiators and relatively simple, plodding drum machine programming, but I gradually realized that the album was just extremely pleasant to listen to and created a very hypnotic, chilled out atmosphere. The ten tracks are somewhat of an homage to classic Detroit and '90s styles, and even from my own limited listening experience I can recognize elements of early '90s techno blended with a nod towards the Basic Channel sound. The tone of the album is abstract and mysterious, with the steady beats functioning more as a trance-inducing throb than a dance-able groove. The long tracks steadily evolve and change up regularly enough to prevent monotony, and the synth programming is top-notch. Without making use of any trendy DSP FX or vocal samples, the album manages to maintain a timeless quality. Its not exactly innovative or ground-breaking territory being explored, but its relatively rare to find a full-length album of home-listenable techno music that works from beginning to end, which Convextion accomplishes impressively.

October 25, 2009

Late-October misc. round-up!

Well, I have been in heavy work-mode this month, and realize I haven't been thinking in “review” terms much. So I thought I would just post a few blurbs of things that I have been listening to or reading this month, but haven't felt motivated to write more than a sentence or two about.

Chris Ware's “ACME Novelty Library” - I was never much of a comic book fan, although I did my time as an anime geek in the mid '90s (when Pokemon hit the US I realized being an anime fan had “jumped the shark”, so to speak), and I grew up reading Tintin and Asterix. One comic I have been a long-time fan of, however, is Chris Ware's “ACME Novelty Library”, best known for the “Jimmy Corrigan – The Smartest Kid In The World” series, not to mention the blatant uncredited “inspiration” for Stewie from Family Guy. The comic has an incredible visual style suggestive of old-time newspapers and vintage early 20th century comic art, a slightly twisted sense of humor, and a heavy melancholic mood. I recently discovered that Ware had started a new series, and was self-publishing annual hard-cover issues of the “Novely Library”, including a collection of his new “Rusty Brown” series about the pathetic adult life of a comic book nerd in the '70s. The most recent issue was #19 released last Fall, so presumably a new installment is due anytime now. Strongly recommended even if you aren't a traditional comic book fan.

Early SKAM vinyl – Thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can track down just about any “rare” release that anyone has ever made a big deal of or paid insane amounts for. Among IDM fans, the SKAM label's early releases are considered some of the most collectible and drool-worthy, with people paying hundreds of dollars on eBay for a Lego Feet 12” or one of the MASK compilations, at least back in the early '00s. I suspect the crazed demand has died down since the tracks have hit Youtube and other online sources, and for me it is fascinating to hear what the fuss was all about; some beautiful electronic abstractions and oldschool glitchy rhythms, an occasional diamond in the rough, and a lot of dated, somewhat-annoying experimentation aka “wankery”. Highlights for me are the early Gescom 12”s, marking Autechre's transition from “artificial intelligence tracks” to “insane/genius Wintermute computer-deity music”, and of course the early works of Boards of Canada and Bola.

Stars Of The Lid – I finally got to hear the epic 3LP “Refinement Of The Decline” and “Avec Laudanum” EP and was truly blown away. Deep, lush and organic, classical-sounding drones and memorable melodic passages all made with stringed-instruments and horns. Reminiscent of a more-soothing GY!BE. What made me laugh, though, was the somewhat inappropriate track titles. Do tracks like “That Finger on Your Temple Is the Barrel of My Raygun” or “December Hunting For Vegetarian F-ckface” suggest moody, minimal drone ambient pieces or rather something like quirky indie noise-pop songs to you? They sound like Smashing Pumpkins track titles to me...

Tom Heasley – has two new CDs out on his in-house Full Bleed Music label, one a collection of jazz trio recordings from '99, and the other a new set of live drone improvisations with Stuart Dempster and Eric Glick Reimann, some really great stuff! I actually wrote a review of it last week but found out the CD hasn't been officially released in stores yet, so I'm going to wait until next month to post it.

Labels I am digging – Contexterrior and Tuning Spork putting out great minimal stuff, taking the intricate Villalobos sound in a more dance-able direction. Balihu Records compilation on Rush Hour collects some great '90s-era disco-tinged house tracks by Daniel Wang and co, great Metro Area-style sound. Kompakt with a new Kaito album, a new Total collection, a great 12” by Coma with a smooth, minimal groove, and a new full-length by.. Gus Gus?? Remember the killer “Polyesterday”? Hyperdub 5 Year compilation generating a well-deserved buzz, bring on the King Midas Sound full-length!

Finally, here is a charming anime-style ad for Louis Vuitton, based on the psychedelic artwork of Takashi Murakami, which has made an appearance on Nobukazu Takemura's “Finale” CD cover as well as more recently at the SF MOMA. Music by Yellow Magic Orchestra!


October 19, 2009

FREE DL: The Black Dog - In The North EP (2009, Dust Science)

The Black Dog have relaunched their Dust Science record label, releasing futuristic dubstep and what they are calling "dark house" tracks, with a focus on their local Sheffield, UK scene. To celebrate, they launched a viral internet campaign promoting a free MP3 release, and today the link arrived in my mailbox. Titled "In The North", the EP collects four new tracks by Dust Science artists, all new to me, besides TBD:

A1. The Black Dog – Tesco (Dark House)
A2. Carl Taylor – Walk On By
B1. Grievous Angel – Show Love v1
B2. The Bass Soldier – You Still Live With Your Mum

[links removed 11/4/09]

The EP will only be up for free download until Nov. 4th! The Black Dog's track is the highlight for me, along with The Bass Soldier's blend of dubstep effects at a minimal house tempo, and the whole release is a nice selection of UK techno. I've been told its grim up north...

October 12, 2009

BONUS LINK: Sonic Warfare by Steve Goodman

During my time at Mills College, I wrote my MFA thesis on The Use of Sound For Control, Healing and Empowerment, and have often thought about expanding or updating it many times in the last few years. I found, however, that the more I learned, the more questions it raised, and the more implications of major "classified" warfare applications I came across. While my thesis gave examples of some of the military applications of sound, as well as subliminal audio in public spaces and broadcast signals, I also ran into a lot of conflicting data, and particularly denials that any such activity was happening, or even possible; for example I would find de-classified research from the CIA showing they had a strong interest in subliminal audio influence, post WWII, but mainstream newspaper articles down-playing it and calling it nonsense. I also found that some of the more metaphysically-oriented elements of "sound healing" research I had studied in school really did not seem to have much "proof" to them, or provide any method to verify their validity; for example, there are multiple schools of thought in assigning different tones or frequencies to the "chakras" or energy centers in the body, but the actual source for this data is totally obscured in history, and may have come from a totally non-scientific, or just intuitive/"channeled" source. So, on one hand we have the military applications of sound being essentially covered-up, downplayed or unreported, and we have the "sound healing" applications muddied with lots of vague, spiritually-oriented data that do not necessarily have any scientific validation behind them (although most proponents of sound healing would tell you they simply haven't been scientifically validated YET, and practical evidence suggests there is "something to it"). I was left feeling like it would take a whole book to fully research and explain all the various viewpoints involved, and even then I suspected that the questions would not be answered. And so, I was excited to find a link to Steve Goodman's blog for his upcoming book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect And The Ecology Of Fear. Goodman is the founder of the innovative Hyperdub label, widely credited with bringing dubstep to the global stage, and a solo artist under the name Kode 9. Goodman is also a musicologist and sonic researcher, and has turned his focus to the military uses of sound. He also posts regular articles and videos on his blog, and has even referenced some of the same articles I came across in my own research at Mills. I am glad someone has taken on such a massive, and relatively "dark", subject and I look forward to seeing what he's uncovered, and his conclusions. The book is available for pre-order online and is printing at the end of December.

October 10, 2009

Slowdive – Just For A Day (Remastered & Expanded) (1991/2005, Castle Music)

I have been a long-time fan of the shoegaze genre since I first heard My Bloody Valentine, along with “dream pop” music pioneered by gothic-tinged artists on the 4AD label like Cocteau Twins, in the early-mid '90s, but I have to admit I totally missed Slowdive during their active career. In '03, I found two of their CDs, “Souvlaki” and “Pygmalion,” in the cheapo used bin at Amoeba Records in Berkeley, and was instantly in love with their sound. Blending the aforementioned MBV's distorted guitar sound and alt-rock sensibility, reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins to my ears, with Cocteau Twin's ethereal vocal soundscapes and dreamy rhythms, Slowdive produced three albums of some of the most pleasant, abstract pop music of the '90s. I think the '94 CD “Souvlaki” may have been the band's most popular release, with a darker, melancholic tinge and more perceptible, song-form lyrics, while the following year's “Pygmalion” was apparently regarded as a “let down”, seeing the band exploring more electronic, minimalist and experimental territory, which I actually really enjoyed. Still, my favorite album has to be their first CD from '91, “Just For A Day”, which was reissued in '05, remastered with a second CD full of their first EPs and a '91 Peel Session. The sound is soothing and hum-able, with catchy melodic hooks and a steady, reverb-laden drumbeat, spacey synthesizer pads, endless layers of guitar drones and blissed-out vocal harmonies. I hadn't encountered Slowdive's EPs before the reissues, but they are all just as high-quality as the album tracks, with the epic two-part “Avalyn” and the sublime “Shine” standing out as intense and beautiful highlights. “Souvlaki” and “Pygmalion” were also both remastered and reissued in '05, with another bonus CD included with “Souvlaki” compiling the rest of the band's EPs. All three albums are absolute classics of '90s shoegaze!

October 8, 2009

Loscil - Strathcona Variations (2009, Ghostly International)

[Once again, I find that 'real life' has impinged on my internet/music review time. I also wrote most of a post the other day and then had the whole thing spontaneously delete, with no ability to "undo", so I am not really feelin' it. My "144 Pulsations Of Light" CD is now out on Kranky, and I have been busy preparing live Ethernet sets as well as DJ sets of deep house, Kompakt and minimal-oriented techno stuff and dubstep. I found two local club spaces with good sound systems, and will begin a hopefully-regular series of gigs in the next week or so!]

Until recently, I never paid much attention to Myspace, but since I've been trying to promote my Ethernet material, I set up a myspace page and added a bunch of my favorite musicians as my "friends", although I know only a handful of them in real life. What I like about Myspace, though, is that many artists use it as a place to post links to new free stuff they've made, which otherwise tends to get missed, or is unreleased elsewhere. In this case, I happened to come across Loscil's page, and noticed a new MP3 release announcement. Loscil's previous release was the '06 Kranky album "Plume", which I have to admit I haven't actually heard (although I recently found his excellent '01 debut CD "Triple Point" and was intrigued to find that parts of it had a lot in common, sonically, with my own CD, though I wasn't familiar with his work before a couple months ago). More recently, I found a very nice free full-length netlabel release compiling Loscil's more minimal drone-scapes, called "Stases: Drones 2001-2005", featuring twelve extremely subdued but pleasant textures, some apparently "based upon the backgrounds" from his Kranky album tracks. The netlabel release makes a great companion for Loscil's new "Strathcona Variations" EP, a collection of three ambient pieces totalling about 20 minutes. The tracks are a soothing blend of organic pads and pulsing electronic sounds, with subtle hypnotic rhythms and moody, classical-sounding orchestral passages. The third piece of the set, "Midnight Princess," has a somewhat forboding atmosphere, but overall the EP is low-key and pleasant deep listening music. Best of all, its only $3, so go grab it along with the free "Stases" collection (and don't forget Windy & Carl's "Akimatsuri" for $2 from Amazon.com)! Bargain drone bonanza!