Given that this article is published at some point between the release of albums by Daft Punk and Boards of Canada, acts who have been making electronic music for a number of years – and share a similar slow-but-steady approach to releasing records – it’s good to see some other old favourites make an appearance for this column. Whilst there’s no shortage of fresh, exciting talents coming through, it is a definite boon that relative veterans of ten years and more are still producing music that excites the ears. (Jeremy Bye)
Aoki Takamasa ~ RV8
Aoki’s been making electronic records for over a decade now, although he’s probably best known for his collaboration with Tujiko Noriko, who makes a brief guest appearance here providing vocal samples. RV8 is Aoki Takamasa‘s debut album for the consistently excellent Raster-Noton, so he’s following the label identities closely; a geometric design, stripped down titles (“Rhythm Variation” 01-08) and a minimalist approach to his work that follows on from his EPs for the label. The rhythm is where it matters, with a funkified take on the techno pulse, over which dubby stabs and delays are layered. The majority of the tracks are cut from the same cloth, with the constituent parts being nudged around in order to create an entirely new track that nevertheless has a similar feel to the ones on either side. So the album works as a cohesive whole, but there’s enough variety crafted out by Takamasa that it doesn’t feel like being stuck in a thirty second loop for an hour; indeed on “RV03”, he slows the tempo, and introduces birdsong to give an almost pastoral effect, whilst retaining a steady (if slow-paced) beat. All the tracks fit together beautifully, built from the same dubby blocks; it’s like listening to architecture, all clean lines and polished surfaces.
Beat Detectives ~ Casual Encounters of the Third Kind
Woozy, disorientating electronica on a cassette-only release from the New York / Minneapolis trio Beat Detectives. The tape’s surface noise adds a further layer of haze to the music but the majority of the haziness is already there. There are nods to dance music in the titles (“Can U Feel It”, “D A N C E”), but this is definitely a home-listening release; relaxing with friends or coming down after a heavy night – it’s not recommended that you play it before going out, you’ll never leave the house. There are moments of sprightliness, such as “Hallway Tripping”, but mostly Casual Encounters of the Third Kind contains slowed down and scuffed up versions of any electronic genre you care to name (except that one, OK?). The Detectives’ most obvious peers are the similarly hazy beat excursions of Hype Williams, although the UK duo are possibly even more stripped down and rougher sounding; both owe a debt to the more ambient side of cLOUDDEAD. There’s invention aplenty going on here, and if it catches you at the right moment, it might just be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.
Gustaf Fjelstrom ~ The Fault EP
It’s the first work from Mr Fjelstrom for several years, although the impression garnered from his comments is that this EP (brought to you by the letter F, if the titles are anything to go by) is merely an apéritif for future forthcoming works. These melodic, downtempo tracks were composed over several years, but Fjelstrom has given them a polish and a remix before sending them out into the world, so it’s a cohesive quintet of tunes that are presented for our listening pleasure. The percussion is busy but not intrusive, the ambience suggests wide open vistas, and overall it feels like a coarser Ulrich Schnauss – in the sense that it’s not all smooth-out edges, and there’s still a little rough texture in the mix. It is this lasting impression that separates The Fault EP from many other releases of the neo-shoegaze genre; those who find this style of electronica a bit too polite normally may find enough grit here, especially in the closing “Field, Fade, Fracture”. But less of the ‘something to tide you over’, Gustaf – how about a full-length release?
Karelle ~ Richter
An intense twenty-minutes, Richter is another cassette release this month, countering any uncertainty about the medium’s resonance with experimental musicians. The opening “Cave” is an ear-cleansing blast of potent, dialled up electronica, with a ghostly screaming choir ratcheted up over industrial beats. It’s not exactly easy listening on its own, but from there things get more experimental, with “Caverne” a effective field recording of subterranean ambience. The final track is a mix of the two approaches, with invasive dialogue dominating chunks of the piece, and screams that could be machine-derived or – more chillingly – human. It’s a powerful work, gradually descending into the cavern, away from light, warmth and into a dark world, where we are left alone with our fears. Not exactly good time party music, then, but an EP than underlines the unlimited possibilities of electronica.
Monokle ~ Mirrors
An EP of busy electronica from St Petersburg’s Monokle, which balances washes of atmosphere with propelling beats; the title track is particularly effective, with the kick drum pushing things on just when required. There’s plenty of variety going on here, even though the four tracks sit close to each other stylistically. “Garden” is underpinned by a short, catchy piano figure; “Virgo” has a supple bassline but goes over to the dark side with an unsettling vocal layered over the music (it’s almost too weird at first, but then gradually makes sense). The billows of sound and crackles of atmosphere give Mirrors a grainy quality, and the tempo is certainly sprightly across the EP; it would be interesting to hear Monokle strip away some of the layers and make a few tracks which are less ambient and more techno; as it stands though, this is just dreamy.
Morris Cowan ~ Six Degrees
In contrast to the monochromatic lines of Takamasa’s album cover, Six Degrees arrives in a swirling riot of colour, which certainly piques the interest, as if the cover artist had a neat, well-ordered design and then decided to mix it all up into a Jackson Pollock-style painting. At the very least, it suggests there’s a busy mind at work, flittering from one idea to another which dovetails with the opening brace of tracks here. “Forum” is a gentle, near ambient piece in 3/4 time, swirling around like it should be on a French romcom soundtrack. Following that, though, is “Serialiser”, which settles down to a housey 4/4 tempo, enlivened by congas and steel drums. It doesn’t stay settled for long, taking in several tangential diversions along the way; echoing the circus waltz of the first track at one moment, sounding like an end-of-level fanfare at another while the beat becomes a bit more slippery than expected. This, then, is the hyperactive creativity of Morris Cowan, making busy house-style tracks that almost trip over themselves in the rush of ideas that pour out. There’s too much to take in one sitting, you’ll have to sit there in a daze trying to process everything. And then play it again and again.
µ-Ziq ~ XTEP
It seems like it was only last month that I reviewed Mike Paradinas’ return to music-making with Heterotic. As if to underline his new lease of creative life, he resurrects his best known alias, µ-Ziq, with an EP and an album to follow in July. XTEP is a short twenty-minute romp through five tracks that haven’t made it to the full-length and it’s a very strong appetite-whetter. The opener “XT” borrows certain sounds from Mike’s alias Jake Slazenger’s “Slowdance” (the gentle piano chords, the trumpety lead) and builds into a track that’s unmistakably µ-Ziq, a jaunty, jazzy track that may cause uncontrollable grinning to the listener. Elsewhere, Paradinas flies around stylistically, with “Ritm” sounding properly old-school techno, down to the “Strings of Life” piano riff, and for “Monj2”, he brings back some of the distorted percussion sounds that were a staple on his early records. Xtep is a great, lower profile return for µ-Ziq, and builds up expectation nicely for the forthcoming Chewed Corners – if these didn’t pass muster, what’s the rest like? I can’t wait.
Ocoeur ~ Light As A Feather
Teaching Venn Diagram a thing or two about accurate album titles (see below), Ocoeur‘s second album is indeed a light, bright and breezy record, infused with playful melodies and thoughtful arrangements. There’s plenty of use for musical boxes, plucked strings and pianos here, as well as a drum machine to anchor some of the tracks to a definite pulse – similar traits to Ruxpin’s album (also below), so no surprise they’re on the same label. I can hear elements of Max Richter on Light As A Feather, as well; not merely the delicate string arrangements, but in the subtle use of elemental effects, such as the rainfall on “Envol”. There’s a moment the start of “Dream Pursuit” that is purely acoustic instrumentation and for a moment or two I wondered if this was really electronic music – but then the beat kicked in and took the track in a whole other direction – with Dr Who-esque bassy rumbles and a tightly wound drum pattern. It’s not easy to balance the two worlds of acoustic playfulness and electronic rigour, but Franck Zaragoza manages it with ease.
Ruxpin ~ This Time We Go Together
Another veteran of electronica, Iceland’s Ruxpin first came to my attention when he did a remix off his countrymen and women, múm’s first album, when he must have been all of 19. Whilst the latter have changed their style somewhat in the intervening years, Ruxpin’s latest album harks back to the gentle pastoral electronic music that caught the ear of a wider audience at the turn of the millennium. It’s a match that suits him well, with fluttery melodies on flutes and xylophones (or their digital equivalents) over analogue synths and discreet percussion. It’s a familiar sound, but a welcome one, especially when it is done with the smooth confidence and melodic skill that Jonas Thor Gudmundsson has made his stock in trade. Several of the tracks have vocals from guests which are unobtrusive but help to bring an extra dimension to the album, which at sixteen tracks long benefits from a little extra variety. There’s a lot of first person plural in the song titles here, as Ruxpin invites us along for the ride – and this time, we will go together.
Spazzkid ~ Desire
Mark Redito (aka Spazzkid) mentions Bibio on this album’s bandcamp page, which is handy because it’s good reference point for Desire; as is the work of Dan Snaith as Caribou. Redito sings on several tracks and he is the typical home-recording vocalist; whispered, and multi-layered to cover up a lack of range but clearly from the soul, in stark contrast to the talent show clones who lose all emotion in exchange for multi-octive wailing. Judging by his sleevenotes, Redito was drawn back into music-making after a break, and the freshness is apparent – the ‘woo’s and off-mic giggles on the jaunty “Forgiveness” and “Marquez” certainly sound like a musician rediscovering the joy of creativity again. The songs are mainly built on pared back R&B-esque rhythms and decorated with delicate melodic hooks, (often on xylophones); the singer of Skymarines making a guest appearance on “Candy Flavored Lips”, otherwise it’s all Redito and a fine job he does. I was slightly put off by the name Spazzkid, but actually that’s the only negative thing I can say about this album. Desire is going to soundtrack my summer alongside Bibio’s Silver Wilkinson.
Venn Diagram ~ The Desolate Sound of Extinction
Presumably, you’re looking at the title and thinking ‘now that sounds like a cheery listen’, which was my response too. I can’t quite fathom Oscar Finch’s motivations for titling his album such, as there’s no real immediately obvious desolate sounds within. It’s certainly not desolate, being crammed full of busy percussion and brief melody hooks, particularly “The Emperor’s New Rhodes” (showing that Finch does have a way with a title), which has jazzy rhythms and the eponymous warm Rhodes sound that enlivens numerous funk and fusion albums. The rhythm tracks, which pitter-patter across the stereo range with gleeful abandon, provide the cohesion for the rest of the music, which is at times, perhaps, a little slight; such is the delicate balance of creativity. The title track, which is in three parts and lasts over 17 minutes, is slower and more thoughtful, with layers upon layers of sampled dialogue; the voices gradually become more dominant towards the end but, and maybe the last couple of minutes could be classed as bleak, if not desolate. But they are uncharacteristic moments on an album that doesn’t really live up to the title – in a good way.
Willem Gator ~ City of Sadness
There’s a brief conceptual link between the cover of City of Sadness and the music within, as the image of the old Chinese man standing in a cave is soundtracked by some traditional-sounding Chinese themes, which certainly piques the interest for the rest of the record. We’re only a couple of minutes into “Bridge”, however, before we’re whisked, via the flashback harp effect beloved of old TV shows, back into an electronic present. Willem Gator has been releasing records for over a decade and seems to have cultivated a future tourist persona, staying in cities for short periods but always drawn back to the East. It is a clash of cultures that is most obvious on the first track occurs in subtler ways elsewhere on this album; the baggy piano and beat of “Kaohsiung Incident” are joined by some oriental themes that gradually filter through, and there are flashes of dialogue on a couple of tracks that are in Chinese. It is the melodies that carry the album, however, along with a distinctly Paradinas feel to the percussion. The oriental conceit provides a neat little embellishment, but it’s the tunes (both old and new) that are the core of Gator’s work and he packs City of Sadness full of them.