Friday, September 23, 2016
Another one of the great “what ifs?” of emergent UK house music, Electribe 101 was primed for crossover triumph. Talented musicians in the studio, a bourgeoning starlet in Billy Ray Martin on vocals, and Tom Watkins as their management (he of Pet Shop Boys’ success) – what could go wrong? After a strong debut album in Electribal Memories, things fell apart, including a Depeche Mode support tour that had fans booing them off stage. So it goes in this business though, and the players went their separate ways, Billy Ray Martin finding fame as a solo artist, and the remnants of Electribe 101 rebranding themselves as the reggae roots loving group Groove Corporation. And because the future G.Corp had a fondness of the dubbier side of that music, they fell in with the trendy ambient dub scene of the early ‘90s – having their studio in that movement’s home of Birmingham didn’t hurt either.
A couple early efforts on Beyond’s seminal Ambient Dub series gave Groove Corporation some underground buzz. They soon signed to the newly formed 6 x 6 Records (they of Sasha & Digweed’s Renaissance fame), their Passion E.P. giving them even greater buzz with the progressive house contingent. Things looked mighty good for the boys of G.Corp when Co-Operation finally dropped in 1994. It’s got the reggae soul, dubby-hop, and just enough crossover appeal for a record out in 1991. Ah, whoops, sorry, guys, but have you heard what Leftfield and Massive Attack were up to around this time? Kinda’ puts your sound a bit out of touch, no matter how classy it all comes off. Things never get to ‘cod reggae’ levels on this album, but tracks like Showtime, How Did It Come To This, Rain, Twist & Change, and You feel strictly aimed for a little chart action. Can’t believe the UK was too fussed for these sounds anymore, especially from a group initially gaining its critical plaudits well away from the mainstream. Some of their proggy house tunes do make the cut (Roots Controller, Hypnotherapy, Passion), while others get right proper with the reggae dub action (Pray, This Is How I Stay, Ghetto Prayer), so Co-Operation does have a nice blend of both for favored parties of either or.
Still, maybe Groove Corporation suspected they were leaving their ambient dub followers in the dust with an album with such pop leanings, hence a limited edition version including a second CD of such music. This is where G.Corp’s in their element, tunes originating or remixed into dub instrumentals before repurposed with vocals on the Album Prime. Folks liked this bonus disc so much that Groove Corporation re-released it as an independent album with a couple additional tracks a few years after the fact, called Co-Operation Dub. Seems most of the group’s early compilation duty comes from this CD (A Voyage On The Marie-Celeste, Return Of The Skunk Unlimited Orchestra, Ghettoprayer (Deep Blue Dub)). Hm, maybe that’s why I have a bias towards it.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
I’m flabbergasted. Stooptafried. Diskumbunkulatorated. Have had my world twisted inside the outside. Made very wery flummoxed in the bummox. Caught just a bit of guard. Cheetah has thrown me for a loop in how unconventional an Aphex Twin record can be. Where are the drill-n-bass beats? Micro-glitch edits? Synths and pads painting outwardly imagery within the furthest reaches of your lucid dreams? Not even something hidden, like that infamous visage of your grinning mug only visible within a spectrogram? There’s some fun acid in Cirklon, but nothing that’ll challenge the norms of what’s expected from a TB-303 workout. And I wouldn’t count the short sonic doodles of Cheeta1b ms800 and Cheeta2 ms800 as anything worth getting fussed about, unless that’s where Mr. Dee James is hiding one of his trademark pranks.
Or maybe there isn’t any sort of catch to this EP. Perhaps, after years of challenging what we expect from electronic music, Aphex Twin has finally decided it’s time to release some ‘normal’ dance tunes, with easy rhythms and pleasant tones. No more IDM, no more ambient; no more experiments, just plain and simple techno. Sorry, I wanted that to rhyme, but ‘trance’ is the only thing that works there, and the one thing we can all agree on is Aphex Twin has never, ever been trance. Except for perhaps Polynominal-C, if you squint your ears in the right direction.
Of course Cheetah isn’t normal in a traditional house or techno sense, but it’s definitely the most conventional sounding tunes in Aphex Twin’s repertoire in some time. The Analord series Ritichie Jameson released as ‘AFX’ is a close cousin, and we could even dig super deep into the way-back era of Polygon Window for another comparison. I’m honestly so very tempted in tossing the ‘deep’ tag onto CheetahT2 (Ld Spectrum) and CheetahT7b, in that these are some seriously slow, lazy downbeat vibes. I’ve heard they can be played at either 33 or 45 should you snag yourself the vinyl, but as I have no such medium within my possession, I’ll assume these slow versions are the correct versions as Jichard W. Rames envisioned. Besides, that acid bassline in CheetahT7b is just too damn groovy at 33 to not be intentional!
As mentioned, the Cirklon tracks get deeper into the acid funk. Cirklon1 offers more mint TB-303 bassline business, while Cirklon3 (Колхозная Mix) goes more electro. For all us CD collectors, we get bonus cut 2X202-ST5, another charming piece of drum machine foolery. There’s nothing extra special about it beyond clap fills, simply content in letting the mild acid bobble about a techno break. It’s about as b-side as any track can get, but don’t tell the vinyl enthusiasts that – they’re already miffed about losing out on this for their Aphex Twin Completist Collection. Look, you already got some of the best Analord material on the Black Crack, so you can let us have this. I wouldn’t recommend Cheetah for anyone but such Aphex completists though.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
DJs and producers hiding behind masked gimmicks are far from a unique thing in dance music. And I’ve gone on record as being a fan of the concept, even when I’m not a fan of the music they make and perform (hi, deadmau5!). It adds a saucy bit of spice to club culture, where the mantra of most scenes is to lose yourself in a sea of like-minded yet equally anonymous individuals. Having some bloke with a cool t-shirt and nice haircut bobbing behind the DJ’s deck as all lights flash upon him sullies that. If you must make your playing of other people’s music the focus of the night, why not add to the atmosphere with your own mask or costume? Such is the manifesto Claptone preaches, always donning a golden-beaked harlequin facade, a rather unsettling sight given such masks’ reputation as adorned by plague doctors.
Fortunately for Claptone, he’s more than just his gimmick, one of the surprising new stars in an overstuffed house scene. Would he have gotten to this point without the mask? Eh, probably, though you cannot deny it gave him a substantial boost. Groovy, soulful gems like No Eyes, Puppet Theatre, and Dear Life were gonna’ get repped by all the very important deep house jocks regardless, but as performed by a DJ committed to his act? Now that’s just mint, m’boy! And despite the rising fame, Claptone’s done an admirable job maintaining his obscurity. Still, I’m certain the Google return for “who is Claptone” is accurate, if only because the beard matches. The Berlin hometown is also a solid clue in this Police Squad level of sleuthing.
Anyhow, Charmer, the debut album from Claptone. The first thing that struck me while listening to it is how much it feels indebted to Hercules & Love Affair. Yeah, ‘member when vintage deep house last had a big resurgence, some eight years past? It didn’t linger (for reasons), but if it had, the music on this record is likely the sound that would have carried on in its stead. Taking garage and soul of days long past and giving it a modern sheen, all the while throwing in an assortment of indie crooners famed and obscure - sounds familiar, don't it. Singers included here are Jay-Jay Johanson, Nathan Nicholson, Young Galaxy, Peter Bjorn, Jaw, and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (one of the most insufferable indie rock band names ever). And while the deep end of house generally rules Charmer, Claptone finds room for a few bumpin’ acid cuts too (The Music Got me, Party Girl, Your Body), plus a little Latin vibe in Ghost.
Charmer is definitely an album that lives up to its name, always class and never overselling itself. Even the one major complaint one can levy against it – that all the rhythms essentially boil down to a stock thunk-clap-thunk-clap template – are overcome by Claptone’s sense of songcraft. Easily one of the best deep house records of the past year, this.
Monday, September 19, 2016
And thus we return to the frigid sounds of Ugasanie, or Угасание in his native Belarus. This CD came out the year before Eye Of Tunguska, and for a brief time held the distinction as one of Cryo Chamber’s first sell-outs. At least, I’m assuming that was the case – I haven’t always kept tabs on the label’s Bandcamp. When I first took a proper perusal of their catalog though, this and Signals IV-V-VI were the only items with the dreaded red “Sold Out” tag attached. And that was a shame for yours truly, anxious to take a deeper plunge into Ugasanie's dark ambient world that included music of spiritual kinship with Biosphere’s work. I mean, just look at that cover art! So cold and inhospitable, yet captivating and mysterious, a realm untouched by the hand of Man, daring the spirit into challenging one’s mettle against the harshest of this planet’s clime’s. Still, I wouldn’t want to trek across the alpine glaciers reaching deep into my British Columbian backyard in the dead of winter – I just like imagining doing so.
In any event, Cryo Chamber restocked their wares, and upon seeing Call Of The North back in, I quickly snatched that one up. Funny enough, another Ugasanie album, White Silence, has since been fully plundered from the label’s stores, but I got that one way back, so it’s all good. During that uncertain in between however, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this album that had folks swarming in for a closer listen. Was it really just that hypnotizing cover art, or was there something more, something deeper, a masterclass of dark ambient and drone craftsmanship that stood Call Of The North above all its Cryo Chamber brethren?
Well, it’s got a nifty little concept behind it. Unlike the explicit narrative of Eye Of Tunguska, this album deals with a unique topic, that of a condition known as piblokto, or ‘Arctic Hysteria’. Essentially, there are reported cases of people going mad during the long winter night, overcome by remoteness and, if you believe in shamanism, the power of aurora. As this is strictly an Arctic phenomenon, most reported cases attributed to isolated Inuit communities and early European explorers, it’s not widely researched, with some experts doubting its status as a mental condition at all. Still, worth exploring through ambient drone, where one’s psyche is already overcome by sound.
Call Of The North traces the path of succumbing to piblokto. The first few tracks set the mood (Without The Sun, Aurora), segueing into the album’s centre as the condition takes hold. This includes an actual recording of a yukutish man taken over with Arctic hysteria (erm, in the track Arctic Hysteria), in the form of singing as dogs bark and a fire crackles – so very Biosphere. Finally, the album ends in Freezing and Cold Wasteland, wherein I picture our sufferer followed that calling of the north too far into the icy plains of the poles. Darn tricksy aurora.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Most folks turn to this as the first Black Dog album, though that’s not exactly accurate. It features contributions from all of the group’s members at the time (Ken Downie, Ed Handley, and Andy Turner) operating under various guises from solo projects instead. Seems Warp Records, anxious in their continual expansion of the Artificial Intelligence series, wanted in on some of that buzz-worthy Black Dog action, but the group were already signed with General Production Recordings for an album deal. However, an exploitable loophole was discovered: take a smattering of EPs, lump them under the banner of “Black Dog Productions”, and have The Designer’s Republic design a track list that obscured these particulars. Sweet, now Warp Records can claim having a new album from The Black Dog in their catalog, sitting snug beside that Aphex-not-Aphex “Polygon Window” album. Man, did B12 give the early Warp this much fuss too?
Bytes contains tracks from nearly every alias the three chaps were using in 1993 (only one-off Twelve Days Of Night is absent). This includes Close Up Over, Xeper, Atypic, I.A.O., Discordian Popes, Balil, and Plaid. That last one you most definitely know, and funnily enough had a debut album out a couple years prior to this, Mbuki Mvuki, released on the label Black Dog Productions. Yep, the Black Dog boys briefly had their own label, which must be where all these various aliases originated from. Nah, that makes things far too simple for this story.
Ed Handley’s Balil had floated from a few seminal prints in its own right, among them R & S Records, Rising High Records, and Planet E; meanwhile, Andew Turner’s Atypic first appeared on Applied Rhythmic Technology (ART). The rest of these tracks and aliases seem custom made for this particular release, which further begs the question how this all came about. Like, was it really necessary for Downie to take on three different pseudonyms for this project? I’ll grant Discordian Popes stands out from Xeper and I.A.O., in that it’s a pure techno track, whereas the other two are more ambient techno, but there’s not that much difference between the three.
With no clear concept behind Bytes beyond showcasing the individual talents of The Black Dog’s members, it’s definitely a scattershot of a listening experience. The first few tracks lean more to the Detroit side of techno, though the seeds of IDM’s complex drum programming are clearly germinating within these efforts. When melodic elements are added in follow-up tracks, the notion of electronic music being as much suitable for ‘intelligent’ endeavors as dance floor utility is as evident as anything within the Artificial Intelligence series. Unfortunately, this is still one very ‘tracky’ album, much of Bytes’ middle jerkily moving from standard techno production to cautious experimental indulgence. Can’t fault that finish though, two blissy Balil cuts with funky Detroit action in the middle. Overall, this album's more consistent than the proper Black Dog debut, Temple Of Transparent Balls, though less adventurous overall.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
While the idea of Neil Young becoming a Chicago bluesman named Shakey Deal, supported by a nine-piece band called The Blue Notes, has some intrigue behind it, I wasn’t itching to hear the results. If anything, the controversy surrounding the project’s lead single, This Note’s For You, was far more fascinating, for the video was initially banned from MTV. Whoa, what hardcore content could have been within that made the supposed edgy music station so worrisome? Potentially pissing off corporate sponsors was all, but considering the video featured a Michael Jackson stand-in catching fire, you can bet the estate that helped build the station’s rep would get a might bit ticked. And yet, This Note’s For You won MTV’s Best Video Award that same year. Irony!
A good ol’ Young controversy is always worth checking out the associated material, but an album of modern blues rock wasn’t the most appealing. For one, studio recordings of the stuff seldom did the genre favors, especially with ‘80s production standards. Plus, this felt a bit of a bandwagon jump, this sort of music gaining traction with lots of rockers of the era. Well fool me on that one, the truth a simpler story. Yeah, big musicians like Eric Clapton and U2 were searching for the ‘roots’ of their music in America, and everyone celebrated Stevie Ray Vaughn’s return to grace, but beyond that? Nay, big band blues revival no more significant in the late ‘80s than before the sound’s resurgence at the start of that decade (re: The Powder Blues). Young’s dalliance with a backing brass band was just that, a spurt of inspiration he was quick to capture, then just as quickly move on once the tour was done. It's why beyond the titular single and maybe Ten Men Workin’, no one remembers much from the resultant album. Most of the tunes were hastily slapped together, basic songs that his band could riff over to their heart’s content – typical Neil Young, then.
Still, it was enough for many ace nights on the tour. A live album was even initially planned, but since the album proper didn’t sell that well, it was shelved, Young moving onto better things (like Rockin’ In the Free World). That didn’t stop a plethora of bootlegs from hitting the market though, especially for the die-hard collector as the tour yielded a bevy of new, unreleased material. Some of it occasionally sprinkled out over the years, including the epic Ordinary People two decades after the fact, but most figured these recordings were forever lost. Praise be unto thee, Archives Project!
Two CDs of various gigs stitched together is overkill, but damn if there isn’t tons of great music within. So many unearthed gems (Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me, Bad News Comes To Town, Doghouse), epic takes on classics (Tonight’s The Night, Crime In The City, Ordinary People), and all the bluesy guitar solos you can handle. A lot of trumpet and saxophone too, if that’s your jam.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
So Blue Lines, the album that kicked off Tricky’s career. Yeah, sorry for the lame intro, but all the good ones were used in the past two decades. The “Few Records Deserve The ‘Seminal’ Tag, But This One Truly Does” angle; the “Once In A Blue Moon, A New Genre Is Born” take; the “Would Bristol Be Such A Prominent ‘90s Music Hub Without Blue Lines?” thinkpiece; a “If You Listen To Five Man Army Carefully, You Can Hear Subliminal Banksy Messages!” waffle. But man, that Tricky guy, where would he be without Massive Attack? Like, I’m sure he’d have gotten an album or two under his belt regardless, but his work with this group certainly gave him a boost.
Okay, enough malarkey on my part. Let’s talk about this most important record in trip-hop history, despite it barely having any trip-hop in it at all. There’s definitely early aspects of the genre lurking throughout – tracks like Five Man Army, Daydreaming, and One Love feature that slow, hazy mood the genre built its reputation on. This is more a product of Massive Attack incorporating several urban influences into their sound though, which included reggae dub popularized by many a Jamaican expat residing in London. And while Bristol’s music scene was generally their own thing, the dudes behind Massive Attack were more than familiar with what was what in the elsewheres of their country. All that time as part of The Wild Bunch sound system crew provided plenty exposure to various musical movements, leading to the varied genre blending heard throughout Blue Lines. Not just the spliff-heavy hip-hop, but R&B, reggae, funk, and soul find their way inside this tidy nine-tracker of a record, often within the same song. It’s easy to hear why music journalists were creaming their pants over this album, thrilled at hearing so many classy forms of music expertly fused into a groovy whole.
And yet I wonder, was this really that big a deal back in the early ‘90s? Seems every second British album from across the spectrum was doing something radically different in genre fusion. I’ll grant adding dub production to hip-hop beats was unique compared to what America was doing, but this wasn’t exclusive to trip-hop in the slightest: ambient, house, techno, R&B (rock?), all got in on that action too. More often than not, Massive Attack stick to conventional music, sparingly pushing the boundaries into uncharted territory. Be Thankful For What You’ve Got is the sort of UK soul peddled for a few years then. Unfinished Sympathy, the breakout single of the album, has New Jack Swing going for it, though obviously drenched in gospel charm.
Still, if those are about the only nitpicks I can fault Blue Lines for, then this album’s reputation is more than deserved. Considering many ‘dance’ albums from this era are way dated, this one easily stands the test of time, its multitude of influences making it a timeless piece of music.
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Monday, September 12, 2016
While cruising through the annals of Lord Discogs, I took a classic double-take upon doing my cursory research into one Keosz. A very plain, simple bio is provided, claiming him a “Drum & Bass producer and DJ from Trencin, Slovakia.” Wait, what? I’m holding in my hands a Cryo Chamber CD, with Keosz’ name on it. Be Left To Oneself, his debut with the label (and first LP, if The Lord That Knows All is to be trusted) is totally a dark ambient release. Maybe not so bleak and twisted as Cryo Chamber typically goes, but definitely music that fits the print’s manifesto. After scoping out some of Keosz’ early singles, yeah, there’s a murky edge to his sound; he’s less of a traditional junglist and closer to the realms of sparse, minimalist microfunk. And as ASC’s proven, it’s not such a large leap from that into ambient proper. Still, it’s a weird transition seeing an EP on Future Funk Music within the same discography containing an album on Cryo Chamber.
The guy in question is Erik Osvald, and if there’s a common link between all his material, it’s that of stark urban settings. Cities in decay, its folk left wandering abandoned neighborhoods and industrial districts, living an almost feral existence - though not quite in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. So, he’s seen Detroit then. Eh, they say the Motor City is on the recovery as of late? Hm, may have to soon come up with new shorthand for failing districts. How long before that Brexit thing ruins London, y’wager?
Right off the opening titular track, Keosz presents himself as something different from Cryo Chamber’s standard dark ambient and abstract drone - there’s actual melody! True, it’s cinematic and melancholic, another aspect of this label’s repertoire that I’ve occasionally come across, but it’s less the norm compared to the print’s regular roster of producers. Most releases I’ve heard play out as self-contained narratives or works of conceptual art, and I don’t get that sense from Be Left To Oneself. This is music in need of a short film or video game to support it; score pieces that are perfect in setting the mood for something specifically visual rather than leading your imagination to do the visualizing for you. Keosz does offer some guidance in his track titles - Forlorn, Traitor, Insecure, Clearance, Before The End - but these are all quite ambiguous for an album released on a label that’s ace at painting vivid scenery. Maybe amorphous feelings are all there is to it, the title taken as literal interpretation.
At nine tracks in length, and only one breaking the six minute mark (not even reaching seven at that), Be Left To Oneself plays out rather briefly too. Still, there are plenty of lovely, orchestral passages scattered about, especially in the latter half with chants and rain morphing into static. Keosz definitely sells the mood of a lost soul wandering a city gone to waste. How Burial of him.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
A compilation where a label’s roster contributes new tunes in support of a theme? It’s been done. A lot. Almost a prerequisite for psy trance prints, and no doubt among synthwave’s lasting legacies. For sure dark ambient does this plenty too, including on Cryo Chamber a few times. At some point though, label head Simon Heath postulated the quandary: “Can we do more?” Why yes you can, t’was the answer, presenting a collaborative concept where folks on the roster all contributed to a single, long track rather than several separate ones. My, how very prog rock of y’all!
Seriously though, this was an audacious idea, bringing in about a dozen Cryo Chamber artists and associates for a single composition. How do you even get everyone in the same studio for that? You technically don’t, hence where the internet comes into play, linking everyone’s own studios. So this is a lengthy jam session then, with everyone playing their own drone for over an hour? No, that’d be horrible, and rather pointless, twelve dark ambient producers reduced to a cacophony of black noise.
Best I can figure, the Cryo Chamber Collaboration concept is like shared online stories, where individual authors contribute a few paragraphs or chapters, with the narrative picked up and carried on by another until the piece is finished. Now that… that is a damn cool idea, and one I don’t recall being attempted in music! Oh, I’m sure it has been done, probably with IDM wonks or jazz maestros, but this is the first time I’ve come across it. And I would have picked up the first Cryo Chamber Collaboration too, if it hadn’t been based on possibly the most cliché dark ambient critter out there, Cthulhu. That’s like making a trance tune based on a sunrise, or a house track about Jack.
Still, the project was successful enough to warrant a sequel, which gives us a double-LP effort based on the granddaddy of Lovecraftian horrors, the famed all-consuming, chaos-dimension spanning, tentacle space-monster, Azathoth. Hey, that’s cool – He’s kinda’ like one of my favorite characters from Marvel VS Capcom, Shuma-Gorath.
Azathoth brings in over twenty producers to the table. Some I’ve talked about (Alphaxone, Dronny Darko, Sabled Sun, Ugasanie), some I will talk about (Halgrath, Apocryphos, Cryobiosis, Randal Collier-Ford), and some are totally new to my ears (Therradaemon, Neizvestija). I can’t say I’m familiar enough with each artist to identify when one’s contribution ends and another begins, though you definitely notice changes in sounds, tone, and craft as each piece unfolds. CD1 essentially deals with arrival in Azathoth’s realm, mostly desolate space and foreboding menace. CD2 has more activity going for it, and thus far more unsettling passages as it plays out. Not recommended for napping music.
If you’re looking to get acquainted with Cryo Chamber’s brand of dark ambient, Azathoth isn’t the best starting point. Better to take in a few of the roster’s solo releases, then discover how all these disparate musicians meld their twisted minds into one.
Things I've Talked About
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