ACL 2012: Electronic Observations

vinyl_never_die_by_axhellwood-d45ycs5 The first annual report.

I tend not to make New Year Resolutions, partly because I think that 1/1 is a fairly arbitrary date to start anything but mostly because I’m terrible at keeping them. My resolution to not make any more resolutions was about the only one that stuck for any length of time and I broke that last year when I resolved to start buying vinyl again. I’m not sure what provoked it, but probably the main impulse was starting A Closer Listen and realising that most labels sent their promo copies on digital format only. It’s the only way for labels to spread the word efficiently and cost-effectively nowadays, so I’m not complaining – however, special thanks are due to three:four who sent their review copy of Silencio on vinyl.

I did have to face up to the likelihood that I’d be spending more time reviewing albums through headphones, and that digital fatigue would set in. ‘Digital fatigue’ is the result of listening to digitally-compressed music files for too long in one sitting, and I was suffering. The solution: get the vinyl out again, where there’s more to the experience than just pressing play. You have to put the record on the platter, put the needle on the run-in, and then in 20 minutes or so, it’s time to turn it over. It provides a focus, plus cutting a long album into manageable chunks really does improve it. Whether or not vinyl sounds better than CD is a question of taste more than anything, I think, yet I was definitely sensing added vibrations.

One of the reasons that vinyl lost out to CD in the 1980s was the result of a concerted effort by the record companies to reduce the quality of the format, yet electronic music thrived on the 12” format because DJs used it, so there’s never been a time that the average beat-head hasn’t been able to get music on vinyl. But as DJs are themselves moving towards doing their mixes on laptops – and they’ll come back around eventually, don’t worry – many small labels are forging ahead with vinyl their format of choice, with a sideline in downloads. Unlike the major label releases of the 1980s, these are on proper, weighty, virgin vinyl with thick, shiny sleeves.

Visit a second hand shop and find pretty much any record on vinyl released between 1983-87 and you will be disappointed by the shoddy sleeve and flimsy disc contained therein, pressed on light-weight recycled vinyl. People went over to CDs partly because they sounded better than the vinyl equivalent, but arguably the record companies were complicit in making the LPs sound rubbish in the first place, making CD the standard in aural fidelity by default. Shameful, but not surprising when record companies get involved – CDs were cheaper to make, easier to transport and weren’t on many contracts to start with so were the proverbial cash crop.

So, my resolution has been aided by the production of new albums on quality vinyl, and the benefit has been the way I once again engage with music. My experience of sitting down whilst a record spins is not mired in nostalgia but actually remaining fully up to date, so I can appreciate the music for itself rather than browse wikipedia whilst I listen. The main test for me in 2013 will be whether to buy the new Autechre album on double CD or quadruple vinyl at three times as much. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Land-Observations-Digital-1024x1024That which was missed.

We get sent a lot of albums to review at ACL, and can’t hope to cover all of them, alas. On top of that of course is the vast number of records we don’t get sent – on the one hand, we don’t feel bad about not reviewing them, but that doesn’t mean we overlook them entirely (we still buy records after all). So here are ten albums that I’ve enjoyed this year, records we would have probably reviewed if we’d been sent them. There’s no order, except some kind of narrative from one to the next.

Land Observations ~ Roman Roads IV – XI (Mute)

To start off, an electronic album that doesn’t really sit comfortably alongside the others, as the only instrument involved is a guitar. But to house it under ‘rock’ feels wrong as much of its sensibility stems from electronic music. It’s largely loop-based, for starters, a sort of choir of arpeggiating guitars providing the backing for any tasteful lead instrumentation. The man behind it is James Brooks, formerly of krautrocky types Appliance and he continues their experimental approach, just without the pounding drums. By naming the tracks after actual Roman Roads in Britain, Brooks taps not only into the fascination of the road that Kraftwerk displayed in “Autobahn” but also the ancient impact that these roads had on the populace – the start of a network that criss-crossed the country and made travel a little bit easier for the natives as well as enabling the invaders to move men and supplies more efficiently. As Brooks has noted, these are the original lost highways.

Daphni ~ Jiaolong (Jiaolong)

Four Tet ~ Pink (Text)

daphni-610x610Dan Snaith and Keiran Hebden are buddies and it’s likely that they cooked up the idea of this pair of albums together, rather than working in isolation. Having made a string of steadily improving and increasingly popular albums – electronica with hints of shoegaze and jazz proving both an inventive and durable sound for late night listening sessions – both turned back towards the dancefloor for their latest works, both of which were released in a series of limited 12”s before being compiled into ‘proper’ albums.

Perhaps the main inspiration came from their Djing gigs, where they would look at the crowds lapping up four-to-the-floor club bangers and wondering why their own music wasn’t quite right for that moment. Snaith seeks inspiration from dance rhythms around the world and throws in a little bit culled from jazz fusion (a flute here, a keyboard solo there) and whilst there’s more focus on the kick drum than his usual work, it should appeal to the Caribou fan who still goes clubbing.

Four_Tet_Pink_sleeve_FINAL_websitePink, meanwhile, sounds exactly like a Four Tet album usually sounds but with slightly higher tempos and a little more focus on the rhythms (some people are saying it’s a house record but I don’t hear it). A track like “128 Harps” could have appeared on any Hebden album ever, pretty much, and it’s possibly only the lack of a few interludes to add some beatless space that will stop Pink getting as much play as, say, Rounds; it’s really only the opening of “Peace for Earth” that the drums stop for any significant amount of time.

Two slightly tangential releases from a pair of electronica heavyweights, then, that go back to the dancefloor roots of their music. That the tracks were all released on singles over a decent chunk of time prior to being packaged up as an album means that both will be considered closer to compilations rather than official follow ups to Swim and There Is Love In You respectively but that really shouldn’t be the case. It will at the very least be interesting to see how these excursions influence their next albums.

Ricardo Villalobos ~ Dependent And Happy (Perlon)

villalobos dependent and happyIf you were confused by the formatting of the previous two albums, then the new release from Ricardo Villalobos may bring on a nosebleed. Dependent And Happy once again enjoyed the multiple single approach, only this time the fourteen tracks were spread across five slabs of vinyl in three EPs. The majority of these tracks were then taken by Villalobos and mixed into a CD-length album. So the choice is clear: if you want a seamless 140bpm techno experience, head over to the CD shelves if you still have a local record shop. Alternatively, if you want nearly two hours of music then go for vinyl. You’ll be turning the discs over a lot but, on the other hand, you now have the opportunity to create your own mix.

There are three things to bear in mind with Villalobos: he likes sticking to the same beats-per-minute on all his work and he is quite happy to go on (and on) with tracks regularly sailing past the ten minute mark. Most importantly, not only is he a DJ of epic repute but he also makes interesting and experimental records that shouldn’t work but do. Perhaps it is because of his slavish dedication to the same tempo that he can get away with putting all manner of weird sounds (snatches of folk songs, crowd ambience, any number of glitchy clicks and pops) over the top of his barely-there melody lines. Whatever he’s doing though, it works, because Dependent And Happy is an album that pulls you in to the exclusion of everything else. What it should be in terms of its format arrangement becomes increasingly irrelevant the further along you go.

TNGHT ~ TNGHT (Warp)

TNGHT-coverFrom the long, trance-inducing workouts of Villalobos to the short, ADHD-sating beat flurries of TNGHT. The production duo of Hudson Mohawke (straight outta Glasgow) and Montreal’s Lunice fit five tracks into the same time frame as one of Ricardo’s tracks, and whilst their aims – to make you dance – are the same, the methods are totally different. This is the logical next step from HudMo’s Butter album; stripping away any extraneous sounds and building up the rhythm and basslines. Each track seems to take a sample from a Tarantino movie soundtrack as its jumping off point and then just throws ideas at it. Most of them work too; and such is the skill of the production team that it never feels overloaded. There’s so much space on “Bugg’n”, for example that it’s a straight off the shelf backing track for the rapper of your choice. In fact, that’s the real motivation behind TNGHT – to set the duo up as producers du jour for the hip hop community. They’re already getting calls on the back of it and if it works they could be the new Neptunes. If it crashes and burns then they can go back to the solo work, or have another crack at TNGHT, the aural equivalent of necking too much Haribo and spending the night on a sugar high.

Jack Dice ~ Block Motel (Modern Love)

Jack-Dice-Block-MotelSneaking out at the end of the year comes the debut EP from another duo, which again is more hip-hop than anything else – and there’s quite a lot of the ‘anything else’ here too, with nods to dubstep in the bass lines and techno in the sparse construction of the tracks. The four tracks are full of fresh invention, and it is hard to quite be sure of where they are going next – a bit like TNGHT but at a much slower tempo. The duo are made up of Walker Chambliss, the manager of hip-hop duo Main Attraktionz and John Twells, who runs the Type Records label as well as having a musical CV as long as your arm. The combination of different influences pays dividends here; Chambliss’s love of southern rap means that the beats are well-crafted, whilst Twells’ background in experimental electronica keeps the tunes full of interesting sounds and atmospheres. This is dance music for sure, but there’s enough weird stuff going on over the top to keep an ACL reader happy.

Raime ~ Quarter Turns Over A Living Line (Blackest Ever Black)

IslBGConsisting mostly over ‘weird stuff’ and dispensing with much in the way of foot-tapping, booty shaking fun, Raime‘s debut album, following on from a couple of EPs, looked further back and slower, in a manner of speaking. Drawing on the industrial sounds of Coil, Throbbing Gristle and acolytes, Quarter Turns offered a dark, insomniac’s vision of the night, full of menace and fear. The beats were slow, and often buried under a layer of street-noise and static; this sensibly concise album dealt mostly in atmosphere at first, gradually becoming more dubby across its duration. The previous releases had prepared us well, but this was still a surprisingly powerful work, thanks in part to the track sequencing. It is much more than a mere update of Industrial music, shrugging off the weight of the past to make something fresh and vital-sounding.

Andy Stott ~ Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

LUXURY-PROBLEMS-575x575Stott’s clearly been listening to similar records as Raime, but he imbues his work with a lighter, brighter sound – less lurking in the subway at night, more walking across fields on a fine spring day, albeit with the sound of the motorway rumbling away in the background. The slightly naïve vocals of Stott’s former piano teacher Alison Skidmore give Luxury Problems that little unexpected edge that has been perhaps been missing from some of his earlier work. I must confess I’d been left somewhat cold by some of Stott’s earlier work, as it tended to buckle under the weight of his influences but this is an excellent album from start to finish. The dubby techno sound remains but now there’s added atmosphere, a more explicit connection to the industrial inspirations and a hint of cut-up folk in the vocals. It all sits together beautifully; dense, brooding and wonderfully alive.

X-TG ~ Desertshore / The Final Report (Industrial)

8683735320054-1024x1024Originally intended as Throbbing Gristle‘s swansong, Desertshore was recorded in front of a live studio audience, as it were – the complete sessions then released in a limited box set. Then Genesis P. Orridge left the group and shortly after reconfiguring as X-TG the remaining trio were then ripped asunder by the tragic unexpected death of ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson. Left to pick up the pieces, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti have put together an album that pays tribute to not just Nico – for it is her Desert Shore album that they cover here – but also Sleazy, and in a way puts Throbbing Gristle to bed at the last with The Final Report.

For the pioneers of Industrial music to bow out in this muddied way seems fitting – this isn’t a Throbbing Gristle album, yet it is likely the closest we will get to a ‘farewell’ TG album. In contrast to the artists they have influenced (some of which are above), X-TG have produced an album in Desertshore that is stately and full of clean textures. The guest vocalists are for the most part well-chosen – Antony is in devastating form on the opening “Janitor of Lunacy” – and the notion of covering a Nico album makes some kind of sense by the end. The Final Report is a colder, bleaker voyage into the industrial heartlands – which disc you play will depend very much on your mood but both provide the sense of a chapter closing.

Erol Alkan ~ Another “Bugged Out” Mix and “Bugged In” Selection (!K7 Records)

Erol-Alkan-Another-Bugged-Out-Mix-1024x1021It would be a bit odd to do a electronic overview and not include any mix albums, although it seems that this year has seen a decrease in the numbers. As I observed a few years back, when reviewing the Fabric series, with the proliferation of websites providing mixes for download without the cost / hassle / compromise of licensing tracks, labels opting to follow this route have to release something exception to make their investment back. Some are surviving, thankfully, and there’s a tip of the cap to Late Night Tales who continue to make uninspiring indie bands look good with their selections.

Meanwhile, one of the more inventive and influential DJs, Erol Alkan, returned with a mix of two halves for !K7, the first disc – the “Bugged Out” Mix – being a cracking warm up disc for a night out, with a good choice of talent providing the beats. A few classic tunes, such as Model 500‘s “No UFOs”, sat alongside established names and new talent in a seamless whole, topped off with the obligatory (for an Alkan mix) “Forever Dolphin Love” by Connor Mockasin. The vibes given off by that laidback classic fed directly in the second disc, the “Bugged In” Selection.

These things are clearly subjective, but it’s a hard heart that doesn’t give a little ‘woo-hoo’ at seeing the likes of Shack, Plush, Robert Wyatt and Buffalo Springfield on what is, essentially, a dance CD. This is Alkan’s great strength as a mixer – the artists above shouldn’t really be alongside Chromatics and Space Dimension Controller even on the ‘chill out’ second disc yet here they are, and the mix is tastefully done with not too much pitch-shifting to get the tracks to fit together. So at some point, the person who bought this album for the “Bugged Out” name will experience the widescreen longing of “Expecting To Fly”, and then have it followed by Plush’s “Soaring And Boring”. This is the sort of thing you’d put on a mixtape to a friend, and feel smug about, nevermind on a CD set aimed at a DJ’s fans. Chapeau, Mr Alkon, chapeau.

Label of the year.

3801493315-1PUBINF003There is only one contender for this in 2012. Public Information only released five records this year – plus one so limited I shouldn’t really count it – but they were all blinders. It is a bold time to actually start up a label, but by producing limited runs of physical copies and releasing a combination of old, archived material and new, undiscovered, artists PI are managing to forge ahead. They’re not unique in this approach – Blackest Ever Black are operating along similar lines – and it does seem the best way for a fledgling label to establish a foothold.

PUBINF006_Packshot_500The mixture of the old and new work impressively well. A early pioneer of homemade electronic music-making, F.C. Judd was introduced to those who had overlooked him before, in the charming, homely Electronics Without Tears, wherein Fred introduced some of his own tracks and experiments in sound. Tomorrow’s Achievements was another collection of library music – this time Parry, and in a time period (1976-86) that’s usually overlooked in favour of the early 70s. This album contained tracks clearly designed to soundtrack space adventure and other futuristic endeavours, giving it plenty of modern sounding synths. The sound of old synths making the sound of the future results in an album that sounds out of time but not noticeably dated.

3131154521-1The other albums came from US producer Austin Cesear – he also provided the 50-copies-only mixtape – and Russian duo Love Cult. Austin’s Cruise Forever mixed up dubby floor-fillers with atmospheric passages and its slightly schizophrenic nature makes it hard to pin down; theoretically it should appeal to lots of people which probably means the opposite will happen. It’s well worth investigating however and he’s definitely one to watch in the future. Love Cult have clearly been listening to Seefeel and My Bloody Valentine, yet they take these influences and produce an album that transcends both. Perhaps it’s the subtle influence of Russian folk music that infuses Fingers Crossed alongside the waves of drone and feedback that gives it that little something extra – whatever the case it’s a cracking little record, particularly recommended to fans of the aforementioned bands. It’s better than the Seefeel comeback album and will make a suitable replacement for those waiting for that elusive new MBV record.

PUBINF007_Packshot_500Public Information released all these albums, except Fred Judd, on limited run vinyl – lovely heavy vinyl with beautiful covers in glossy sleeves, and in the case of Ekoplekz‘s Dromilly Vale EP, without a reprint. As a result, these are records that are listened to properly with the needle placed in the groove and the record flipped over midway through. It’s bringing the listening experience back, and although PI aren’t unique, they are indicative of the direction that music labels, particularly on a small scale, are heading.

… That’s just a handful of the albums we’ve missed in 2012 at ACL and we can’t promise to be more comprehensive in 2013.  But we will try.  Thank you for all your support and happy listening.  (Jeremy Bye)

2 comments

  1. Anonymous

    Are promo copies usually lossy? I experienced ‘digital fatigue’ with my old crappy headphones, but since getting hi-fi headphones I haven’t felt tired of listening to digital music.

  2. JB

    Thanks for your comment. Most promo copies usually are lossy, as it happens, but my ‘digital fatigue’ is more than just lossy files – it’s how I engage with the music. There’s only so much I can listen to on headphones before I want to hear music fill a room’s ambient spaces. Hopefully I’ll be able to expand on this in the future. //JB

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