Back in some kind of groove this month, with the one column, and 9 releases for your delectation. Numerous genres are covered, although hopefully the Ultramarine album will be one that unites everybody; maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but it’s a hit with me. Having grown up listening to Soft Machine’s Third from my dad’s collection, the sound of Robert Wyatt guesting on United Kingdoms was a genuine join-the-dots moment for me, as his distinctive tones linked up the jazz/prog rock with pastoral electronica and techno and suddenly I was finding more and more connections between the records of the previous generation and my own fresh purchases. It’s wonderful when things suddenly make sense, and I hope something on the list below has a similar effect. (Jeremy Bye)
Deco ~ Timescales
Although LA producer Deco has been involved with music for the best part of a decade, first Djing and later running a label, Timescales is his debut album. It has all the tropes of a debut too, with Deco showing off his different influences in the space of an hour with bits of dub, soul, ambient, house and more cropping up here and there across the duration. Thankfully for the sake of coherence, the dominating sound on Timescales is the bass, flexible, muscular and dubby, providing both the anchor and the engine room for all the tracks. The result is an album that’s loosely speaking a dubstep record, thanks to the reggae touches that are spread liberally across the majority of tracks. Deco’s use of vocal samples (the futuristic space port announcement, shout outs to the ‘West Coast’ and ‘Kingston’) are a tad formulaic and make the music seem less vital and fresh than it actually is; it’s a shame the same level of creativity used on writing the basslines couldn’t have been extended to the voice extracts. Still, it’s a mighty impressive debut and shows much promise for the future.
Lower Spectrum ~ Little Appeal
Lower Spectrum are seriously under-selling this accessible album by calling it Little Appeal. If there was a watchdog who monitored such things, I can imagine that a firmly worded letter would be sent with the instructions that the name be changed. ‘Much wider appeal through melody and atmosphere than they give themselves credit for’ might be be more appropriate, for although it is considerably more verbose, it does give a better idea for the unwary. The album opens and closes with piano-centric pieces; “Invocation” is suitably spooky and atmospheric whilst the closing “Vapours” is all broad brushstrokes and epic intensity with some post-rock dynamic thrown in for good measure. These tracks suggest producer Ned Beckley is leaning quite heavily on his main job as a soundtrack composer to bookend the album. In between, whilst the piano remains, it is less dominant and arrangements are agreeably rhythmic and glitchy, with the trombone-textured “Sanctity” being a particular stand-out. There are a lot of pleasing ideas on this album which add up to an album that impresses on first listen and gets better over time. Little appeal? Not a bit of it.
Misty Conditions ~ D’ZZZZ
A collaboration between Henry Collins and Richard Wilson, Misty Conditions play a sort of lo-fi Trap, coupled with the odd blast of glacial ambience to keep things interesting. Collins and Wilson sound like a fairly unpromising duo on the surface, like they should have ‘Estate Agents’ after their name, but they previously operated as Burnkane (Wilson) and Shitmat (Collins), the latter famed for piling on the bpms and cranking up the distortion on any kind of music he could lay his hands on; it was kind of exhilarating hearing the gabba-in-overdrive that was the result. Some of that approach has carried over to the glitchier moments of D’ZZZZ, with morethan a hint that Misty Conditions aren’t taking themselves that seriously, that there’s only so much that they’d get away with if they were playing it to a crowd of Trap devotees. The more off-beam tracks are balanced by some more straight-forward tunes, such as “D’mmmm” which weaves cut up R&B vocals – that old stand-by – into a beguiling mixture. At a guess, I’d say it’s Wilson who’s responsible for the more danceable stuff, with Collins lobbing in the head-scratching moments into the mix. But it’s a combination that works well, both personalities meshing to produce a record to make you dance and smile – although not necessarily at the same time.
Morgan Zarate ~ Taker EP
Hitting like a slow motion tumble down the stairs, with the synth power-chording its way through an increasingly epic melody, opener “Pusher Taker” is the standout here. The bassline is supple like a gymnast, the beats crack into position like troops on parade, but Morgan Zarate has programmed the rhythm section to go at half-speed to what you might expect, like the start of Rustie’s “Surph”, so it’s the antidote to all those hopped-up Guetta tracks that have the annoying habit of cropping up every five minutes everywhere you go. Credit too to vocalist Roses Gabor who opts for breathy and enigmatic rather than bellowing out inanities. Taker is a proper EP, with four complementary tracks – “Far Too Late” is the other one with a guest vocalist, with more lurching beats and soaring synths. It’s good but not as strong as the opener. The instrumentals, “Katsu” and “Tayo” are equally strong, the latter full of metallic percussion and pounding drums. Zarate and Gabor have clocked up plenty of hours on the dance scene so that they are virtually veterans by now. But Taker is as fresh as anything else around at the moment – a bang and a clatter and the world is theirs.
Params ~ Grids Grains & Waves
This new release from Params both looks and sounds like it is an lost gem from the Clicks & Cuts-era Mille Plateaux label, a undiscovered album that somehow slipped through the cracks and has only just been rediscovered. Albums which today seek to channel the glitch and graininess that seemed ever-present at the turn of the millennium often find they are dragging some influences from the intervening decade along for the ride, but that doesn’t happen on Grid Grains & Waves. It is an album that sounds entirely untouched by changes in technology or different approaches to music-making, and is all the fresher for it. As if to underline its old school credentials, Params looks to maths and science for the track titles, so the album opens with “X Rift” and “Y Inductance”, with no suggestion of the tongue-in-cheek approach of Misty Conditions above. Listening to Params, the realisation dawns that I haven’t immersed myself in this sound for years, and there’s probably an entire generation who have missed out on the original wave of glitchy, dubby electronica – in which case investigate Grids Grains & Waves. There’s no school like the old school.
Sensum And Clunch ~ Sensum And Clunch
After my recent feature on Holodeck Recordings, I thought I’d better take a break from reviewing their releases, lest it seem like overkill. For a couple of months, it was easy enough to manage but then Sensum and Clunch‘s eponymous tape thudded through my letterbox – or at least whatever the digital equivalent of that is – and all plans were put on hold. From the opening bars, it was clearly a record too good to ignore for any self-imposed reasons. Sensum and Clunch is a beguiling half-hour of modular synth work, thoughtfully arranged into four stunning pieces of varying melody and density. It’s too simplistic to say that S&C are a beatless Boards of Canada, but they capture similar moods and themes in their work, and fans of the Scottish duo are directed to this without reservation. If there’s anybody left, then just imagine soaking in a bath of analogue synth music, making little waves in the surface, blowing foam bubbles and pushing a duck around – OK, it’s quite an indulgent bath and it does stretch the analogy somewhat, but if you want to lie back and let music wash over you then stick Sensum and Clunch in your tape deck.
Stitched Vision ~ Headland
Back when long playing vinyl records strode the earth and only a few brave souls armed with huge banks of synthesizers made electronic music, it was very much the norm to indulge in a side-long piece. Stick four, maybe five, shorter – in theory, ‘poppier’ – tunes on one side, but have the other to really indulge the artistic vision. It’s a trend that is becoming fashionable once more, partly I think because of the cassette market; the clear delineation of sides that was lost with CDs now makes a side-long track more feasible rather than sticking a 20+ minute track in the middle of the running order. It’s almost happening with Stitched Vision; whilst “Coastal Plains” clearly captures the spirit of the side-long epic, it’s sharing a side on the tape with the short “Repose”. Thus another theory fails when faced with reality – but it still works as a notion because “Coastal Plains” is immense. Stitched Vision plays nice with the synth burble-and-chatter on side one, which is pleasant and creates a fairly relaxing mood for the listener – continued into “Repose” – before his darker, edgier side takes over and we’re greeted by a strangely uplifting metallic-edged drone that half-masks a constant, slowly undulating bassline. It’s a harsh sound in the context of the rest of the album – almost industrial in a way – but it grabs the attention whilst the track slowly unwinds around it, evolving over its 17 minute duration. There are clearly two sides to Stitched Vision stylistically – this excellent cassette underlines the idea in a very literal way.
Ultramarine ~ This Time Last Year
Wow, this is a blast from the past, and a welcome one at that. Ultramarine first appeared in 1990 with debut album Folk before creating the popular favourite Every Man And Woman Is A Star and then, arguably, their masterpiece United Kingdoms. The history lesson is worthwhile because a) I was a fan at the time, and b) their influence has grown over the years, with their brand of bucolic, folky techno becoming increasingly prevalent. Ultramarine were well aware of their own lineage that stretched back to the Canterbury jazz/prog scene of the early 70s, hence their collaborations with Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers; even though the sound was different the spirit was the same and there was a lot more England than Detroit in those early records – although they were not completely insular, drafting in Carl Craig on remix duties to sparkle some techno dust on “Hooter”. The duo themselves shifted styles a bit after United Kingdoms but for their first album for 15 years, they are audibly touching on the Every Man And Woman sound. The basslines are punchy and fluid, the keyboards jazzy in places, and the carefully edited vocals provide a little extra colour in places. At times, in fact, on the likes of “Dugout” and “Eye Contact”, it feels like the only electronic element here is the drums, with real instrumentation carefully layered over the top. The stand-out track “Within Reach” is just a delight; in fact the whole album is wonderful, pastoral electronica as it should be done, by a couple of past-masters. It touches on the old Ultramarine but isn’t dragged down by it, so there’s plenty for the newcomer to enjoy, and for the long term fan, it definitely has its ‘something in my eye’ moments.
Vampire Slayer ~ Makeout Weird
An album with a shadowy, monochrome(-ish) cover and tracks titled “Feet Fetish” and “Nosebleed” may suggest something really dark and industrial, but Vampire Slayer avoids going too far in that direction and ends up with a record that balances the edgy and the accessible with aplomb. There’s the hiss of a drone at the start of “Yoma” but that ends up built around a choral vocal sample; the beats that open “Road Kill” are a brutal level of techno – but the Slayer pulls out of that a minute or so in and mixes in a much more textured percussive rhythm instead. It’s almost like an industrial album with ADHD, trying something really harsh before abandoning for something else, often lighter and more melodic. As such it’s a curious listening experience and not one that sits easily in any electronic pigeonhole. Despite its shifts in mood, often mid-track, Makeout Weird is a pretty likeable album, the ideas tumbling out over themselves with producer Valentin Torres almost struggling to keep up. It’s not an album if you want to settle in for a consistent 30-40 minutes of music, but if you want to be surprised by a change in direction a couple of times every track, then the Vampire Slayer’s your guy.
Edit: this column was amended on 18th October due to a release being pulled