Friday, July 11, 2008
SSGs are givin' you High Fives
A note/disclaimer before we begin: we individually compiled our lists without any cross-consultation. All the lists therefore represent our idiosyncratic tastes... and this goes for the layout. Okay, here goes – SSGs' top 5 albums for 2008 so far:
I think this year's been an interesting one so far. We've seen a lot of high-quality material; several perfectly-executed simulacra of classic styles; a whole lot of forgettable Abletonised drivel; and some other works that defy easy categorisation, or even cognition. It's the last bunch that have really moved me. These are the works that nothing could have prepared you for – the albums that 'fell to earth'. So my top five is as follows:
1) Move D and Benjamin Brunn – Songs from the Beehive
I've already reviewed this puppy for RA. A lot of (ahem) people didn't like my high-falutin' language and overly-intricated descriptions. Who could blame them? ...Me! No, 'but seriously', this was an album that sent me into all kinds of rhapsodies. It's one of those great works I try to foist on people, including my classical and jazz friends who 'don't get' electronic music. I bought a new pair of speakers the other day (Dynaudio Audience 42s to replace my aged KEFs) and after I forked over the money, they let me upstairs to the 'silly room' where the dreams of middle-aged middle-class men come true. I listened to D/Brunn's 'Radar' on a 20,000 system... wow. I think the guy in the shop was bored by the slowly developing track, but for me this is just a superb piece of music, and on the ridiculously expensive speakers, it was like getting licked, hearing liquid, and having goosebumps all at the same time.
2) Matmos – Supreme Balloon
Everything is analysis, process and rule-governed 'projects' to Matmos, which can be incredibly stifling. But as a research student, I can kinda dig it. This album is supposed to be them 'letting go'... except that it's still totally rule-governed: it's *all* made with vintage synths. As such, there's a lot of Raymond Scott here, a lot of Peter Thomas, a lot of Tangerine Dream... maybe a touch of Vangelis? Then a healthy dash of Switched on Bach and so forth... Man, it's just amazing how cool all this vintage gear sounds, and it's so easy on the ear! Much nicer to listen to than so much of the compressed-to-shit, clean melodic tech-house that's about (which I like too, but it wears me out and can be very mono and dull). This project would be just a folly (tra la la), but then there's the title track. FUCK ME. This is easily one of the coolest compositions I've heard all year. Can't stop playing it.
3) Kangding Ray – Automne Fold
Ray (or just Kangding to his mates) is fantastic: imagine monolake learned how to write songs – imagine Apparat learnt the beauty of restraint. This album manages to be 'high-concept digital minimalism' as you'd expect from Raster-Noton, but it's also warm, soothing, and 'well played'. Took it home from the pub the other night on the headphones, and (with the help of maudlin-ising liquor) I got all teary listening to this. It's bleak, it's dark, but it's also fragile and warm and expresses a lot of vulnerability. Turns out his last one's just as good, too, if you can't get enough.
4) Kelley Polar – I Need You to Hold on While the Sky is Falling
KP is just so hyper-melodic. Virtuosity often leads to dubious music (BT, Steve Vai), because quite often (usually? always?) taste and style is more important for expression than technique. It's true – think about people who 'can't sing' like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Would you rather listen to them, or a 'technically gifted' nightmare who looks like a trussed-up whippet in a cocktail dress... you know who...
These are great songs, and actually far more new wave and less disco than they appear. My ipod kept on bringing on John Foxx after Polar (who understands the logic of the pod's 'random' function?) and, aesthetics aside, there was a lot in common. But that's not the main thing, which is the incredible colours of the melodies, and the way they lift you. Listening is like the aftermath of good loving – you'll be humming all afternoon.
5) Jacaszek – Treny
Nothing's better than this one for a sadsack, cold afternoon watching the grey clouds drift by. Very Murcof-y – and if you dig Max Richter, Rune, Colleen, or any other such tones and timbres, you're likely to be as enchanted by this as I was.
Runners up? Lots, and many of these didn't make the cut simply because although I enjoyed them immensely, they lacked originality and/or were simply collections of previously released EPs. And with the Four Tet, the disqualification is on a technicality: it's an EP.
Syclops – I've Got My Eye On You
The Mole – As High as the Sky
Osborne – Osborne
Prosumer & Murat Tepeli – Serenity
Four Tet – Ringer
There have also been some outstanding EPs, mixes and recent promos/leaks, but we'll have to save them for another time. Okay, over to Dave.
Dave: Thus far 2008 has been an excellent year for albums. Probably the best for the last 2-3 years. However, it's been the non-techno albums which have fared best. Therefore many of the albums on this list are of a non-techno nature.
1. Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing
I've often felt that the glitchier side of mnml sounds like musicians making accidental noise. However, Fuck Buttons sounds like noise artists making accidental music. Benjamin John Power and Andrew Hung started out as straight up noise artists who specialised in brutal live performances but as they moved into a studio environment rhythm, melody and even traces of song structure started to enter into the mix. The end result is an album which takes elements of drone, ambient, techno, psychedelia, shoegaze and noise. It's probably the most original sounding album i've heard since Mu's "Afro Finger and Gel" and a great example of how a different approach to music can yield fresh ideas.
2. Rhys Chatham - Guitar Trio Is My Life!
While I found the recent detroit debate rather interesting, it wasn't something i contributed in as i find it pretty much impossible to classify what techno is. Also, i'm pretty sure whatever my classification is wouldn't be shared by many others. I believe Radiohead's "Kid A" is a techno album as is PiL's "Metal Box" and Pansonic's "Kesto" To me techno is more about philosophy than just sound. It's about taking minimal mechanical structures and electronic tones and creating something falsely human from them. So this is probably why i think this is the best techno album of the year so far. Rhys' guitar trio project involves a drummer, a bassist and several guitarists who are instructed to play the same chords/rhythms for a set period of time with an initial buildup followed by a breakdown then one final wall-of-guitar onslaught. Spread over 3 hours is 10 performances of the same song only with different players who are each allowed to add their own subtle styles to the mix. So each performance takes it's own shape with the guitars combining into different amplified shapes and textures. Despite the minimal approach and strict limitations in structure, and sounds Guitar Trio Is My Life manages to be highly engaging and expressive over 3 hours. It's like the guitars take on their own personality and i get the same "falsely human" feel i'd get from traditional techno. Oh yeah and it rocks too.
3. Move D and Benjamin Brunn - Songs From The Beehive
Everyone has labels or sounds that they struggle with getting into. Dial has always been a label i've wanted to like but just can't get into. It always sounded nice enough and I know it's skillfully produced but it always left me cold. However, i find Move D and Benjamin Brunn's added analogue warmth and squelches really engaging. As Pete said in his RA review, Songs From The Beehive is able to transport you to another place. It's a feeling i haven't had so intensely from a techno album since Wearemonster.
4. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
So this is an album that takes New Order-esque pop and adds elements of electro house, indie and 90s techno-pop. This has been attempted so many times before and before In Ghost Colours i honestly didn't think it would be possible to pull this off so well. So where exactly does Cut Copy work where so many have failed in the past? Simply because of some excellent song writing and the midas touch of DFA's Tim Goldsworthy. This is a superbly crafted pop album which is well paced, cohesive and full of catchy hooks. What more could you want from a pop album?
5. Paavoharju - Laulu laakson kukista
I've always loved Finnish Phych-folk but only in small doses as it was a little to abstract. But for their latest album Paavoharju have inserted bursts of pop amongst their psychedelia. The album sounds like an old dusty mix tape with moments of staticy folk interspersing moments of europop, straight up fold and piano ballads. With such a wide range of sounds squeezed into a 35 minute album Laulu Laakson Kukista really should sound like a mess but it sounds anything but.
it really was hard to keep this list down to just 5 so here's another 10 that missed the cut:
Kangding Ray - Automne Fold
Raster Notion micro-glitch with an infusion of pop
Times New Viking - Rip It Off
Noisy lo-fi art punk with great energy and hooks.
Soulphiction - Do You Overstand
Beautifully executed soulful house music from Jackmate
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - Dig Lazarus Dig
Cave strips back his sound and comes up with his best work in years
Syclops - I've Got My Eye On You
Maurice Fulton doing his thing with predictably awesome results
Maju - Maju-5
5th in the excellent series of ambient soundscapes from this Japanese collective
Growling - Lateral
Largely guitar driven ambient drone
Hercules & Love Affair - S/T
Yes it's not as consistent as i first thought but still a great disco-pop album regardless
Portishead - Third
The fact Portishead was able to reinvent themselves so effectively after such a long absence is probably the most pleasant surprise of 08 so far
Yellow Swans - At All Ends
Doom metal meets dark ambient drone in all its sinister glory
1. Jacaszek: Treny (Miasmah)
On ‘Treny’ Polish artist Michał Jacaszek deftly blends classical elements with electronic manipulations, crafting 11 pieces of hauntingly beautiful melancholia. There’s a touch of gothic here, with operatic female vocals gently floating through the tracks that are slightly reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. There’s a hint of Murcof too, with subtle micro-edits and subterranean sounding bloops appearing here and there. A layer of gauze is thrown over the album, with crackles, static and hiss evoking hazy feelings of nostalgia for times long past. The atmosphere is funereal, but unlike some artists on the Miasmah label Jacaszek refrains from taking proceedings into areas of unease and dread, and actually turns up the lights (slightly) for the album’s final track. With every track locking together perfectly to create a fully realized vision, Jacaszek has produced not only the best neo-classical release of 2008 (so far), but also one of the best I’ve heard in the past few years. This is nothing short of brilliant.
You can listen to the first three tracks of the album over at Jacaszek’s Myspace page, and you can see an excerpt from a live performance here.
2. Move D & Benjamin Brunn: Songs From The Beehive (Smallville)
With Pete’s rather excellent review for RA perfectly capturing the feel of Move D and Benjamin Brunn’s second full-length collaboration, I’m not sure I can add anything more. But I’ll give it the old ssgs try.
For me, the pleasure of ‘Songs From The Beehive’ comes from enjoying the ebb and flow of the tracks as they take their (ahem) sweet time in gradually unfolding, tracing lazy circles as they do so. This is particularly true with the album’s four longer tracks, with the shortest of these almost 12 minutes long and the longest clocking in at just over 20. Despite their length, the tracks are not “epic” or “huge” in feel; instead, with the palette of soft, smoothly flowing sounds that D & B employ, the tracks are gentle and comforting, washing warm waves of aural honey over the listener. Yet as Pete pointed out in his review, there’s groove here too, which is essential for sharpening the tracks (ever so slightly), giving them structure and drive. The result is one of the most sublime albums of the year so far … I cannot recommend this highly enough.
You can preview the tracks over at Smalleville’s Myspace (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to the “whatpeopleplayer”). And massive props to Smalleville for securing such an amazing album for the label’s first full-length release.
3. Kangding Ray: Automne Fold (raster-noton)
For those who’ve come to know and love (or perhaps loathe) raster-noton’s experimental/digital aesthetic, Berlin-based artist David Letellier’s second album for the label as Kangding Ray is something of a surprise. Melodies. Vocals. Organic instrumentation such as violins and a detuned piano. Song structures. A lyric sheet in the CD. Hang on – this is a raster-noton release, right?
Indeed it is. Letellier combines these elements with many of the hallmarks of the label’s sound, as he deploys crisp digital beats, higher-end frequencies and rhythmic bursts of hiss and static to create an album that feels very clean and pristine, yet also very warm and organic. It’s this contrast that makes ‘Autumne Fold’ such a fascinating album, and the way in which Letellier so perfectly marries these seemingly opposing sounds is amazing.
Of course, the raster-noton label has seen melodies and organic instruments before, most notably on Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s absolutely brilliant collaborations. Yet the extreme restraint and austerity of those albums made them difficult for some listeners to approach. With ‘Autumne Fold’ Letellier has crafted an album that is both extremely interesting and extremely accessible. Amazing stuff, and another feather in the cap for raster-noton.
You can listen to five tracks from the album over at Kangding Ray’s Myspace, and check out more sound samples at his website.
4. The Mole: As High As The Sky (Wagon Repair)
Ladies and gentlemen, The Mole hereby presents the feelgood summer album of 2008. Incredibly fun, funky and infectious ‘As High As The Sky’ is packed full of highly danceable disco/house tracks that are positively loopy. Yes, I am indeed making a groan-worthy pun here, because one of the great joys of the album is its many loops that spin around and around and around. I know that sounds rather simple, but as with many things that seem simple (there’s actually a lot going on under the hood in these tracks), that’s why it works. As Hot Chip once sang, “Over and over and over and over and over … the joy of repetition really is in you.”
You can listen to some samples here. Also, please note that while the above Discogs entry I linked to is for the double vinyl, there is indeed a CD version of ‘As High As The Sky’ with 11 tracks including an edit of ‘Baby You’re The One’. (The CD version hasn’t been listed on Discogs yet.)
5. Peter Broderick: Float (Type Records)
I was starting to worry a little about Type Records; after releasing some amazing albums in 2006 and 2007 they had fallen silent. Thankfully, the label has finally come out of hibernation with Peter Broderick’s debut full-length ‘Float’, a lovely neo-classical album. The album’s ten tracks are built around piano, augmented by strings and other instruments (including a theremin and a banjo, both used to great effect). The arrangements are simple and uncluttered, allowing the instruments and the sweet yet melancholic melodies to come through loud and clear. However, there are some subtle treatments applied to some of the tracks, and there is a highly effective use of field recordings (which in the case of the album’s centerpiece ‘Stopping On The Broadway Bridge’ reminds me slightly of Rachels). At the tender age of 21, Broderick will no doubt be someone to keep an eye on in the neo-classical scene over the coming years.
You can hear two tracks from the album, along with some other tracks, at Broderick’s Myspace.
And the runners up:
Christopher Bissonnette: In Between Words
I’m not as enamored with ‘In Between Words’ as when I first heard it, mainly because while the six tracks are all excellent, they don’t fit together to create a cohesive whole. That said, the final two tracks are especially worth checking out.
Philip Jeck: Sand
Avant turntablist Jeck takes dusty and discarded pieces of vinyl and transforms them into engrossing soundscapes. Some may find the sudden bursts of noise off-putting, though.
Alva Noto: Unitxt
The most rhythmic Alva Noto release in a while. Yes, you can dance to it. Kinda.
Paavoharju: Laula Laakson Kukista
Wonderfully weird Finnish folk/pop with lovely orchestral interludes, all coated in a misty haze.
back to PC: That's all from us listwise, but stay tuned for my mouthpiece/rantpiece about some recent trendencies. That on Shunday, Shimon.
...and here's the rantpiece/thinkpiece, as promised. NB, this was written mid-June, and since then I've heard a lot of amazing albums. Cheers, PC:
We Were Never Mnml – June 2008
We’re now approaching the year’s half way point, and for me (and a lot of you I guess), it’ a time to sort through piles of papers and send off tax returns, as well as dust, stack and file the massive piles of books, CDs and records that have accumulated over the past six months. June’s a time for reckoning, for straightening, and for reorganising, so given that I’m doing a bit of summing up, looking back and re-focussing, I thought I might give some time to going back over a few of the albums that have popped up on our mutual radars since January, reassess their merits, and up or downgrade them, depending on how they’ve come out in the wash.
Generally, I think you’d have to say that 2008 has been a weak year for electronic albums, so far. A number of the well-received albums so far this year have been re-presentations of old formulas, and very few people have offered anything that’s bold, fresh and totally unexpected. A few of the best in this vein: Syclops’ I've Got My Eye On You, The Mole’s As High as the Sky, Prosumer & Murat Tepeli’s Serenity, Osborne, and Soulphiction’s Do You Overstand?!. Each of these are a great ride and all of them are worth checking for the charming, well-executed interpretations of house music they’re offering. But all the same I wonder: are any of them offering anything truly singular, anything really outstanding? Maurice Fulton’s Syclops album is made fresh by the maestro’s unique production style and recording techniques, his live drum sound and his wild, impressionistic piano playing. Even so, I've Got My Eye On You contains several tracks that were released as early as 2005 – so as great as it is, you can hardly call it a new album of originals. The Mole’s effort is a wonderful piece of long tripping easy listening tech-house with some very well utilised disco samples, but again, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done as well elsewhere many years ago. Serenity, likewise, is great, but here things are even more straight up retro – in fact, the album is more about producing ‘that feeling’ (ie a perfect simulacra of 80s house) than it is about exploring new possibilities. Do You Overstand?! is extremely well put together, but there’s a little too much cribbing of late 90s Detroit house going on – again, like Serenity, it’s a very well made simulacra of the ‘original’, with a wee something extra. Same goes for Osborne too, really, and, like Syclops, most of the best of it was previously released – so it’s a re-packaging of a re-presentation of the classics – a second-order simulacra. To the broad, reflective, and perhaps unanswerable question that considering this provokes: what does this say about where we’re at? What further innovations are possible, given the ‘rules of the genre’? Is it time to break a few of them? Or even abandon them all together?
I’ve mentioned both Luke Solomon’s Difference Engine and Kelley Polar’s I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling at length in this column in previous months as original albums that are doing something new, and while I’m not quite as enthusiastic as I was about them a couple of lunar cycles back, I maintain that both, in their own way, are attempting something original and interesting and are still definitely worth checking out. The same can’t be said for the big over-rated albums of the year: Claro Intelecto’s Metanarrative and Hercules and Love Affair. With the former you could almost feel people straining as hard as possible to like it, like the trick of squinting at a painting in order to try and finally see ‘it’. But is anyone still listening to it now? It sounded nice, but there was actually very little to really grab on to. In fact, I’d even say it’s the dullest thing he’s done, and a big disappointment. And as for Hercules, well, apart from Blind, is any of it really all that? Take that one sublime track out and it’s a three star album, at best. I tried to listen to it all the way through the other day and got so annoyed by the sixth track I had to can it.
In fact, of all the touted albums of 2008 so far, I’ll wager that only Move D and Benjamin Brunn’s Songs for the Beehive will make it into most people’s End of Year lists. Where does that leave us then? Well, either the best albums have yet to drop (a large possibility, given a whole six and half months to go), or we’re this year’s shaping up to be a fairly average crop full of well-made but unadventurous albums, most of which are overwhelmingly looking to the past for their inspiration. ‘From innovator to imitator/from imitator to respirator…’ But, of course, it is only June.
The same can’t be said for EPs though. I feel like it’s been a good crop, and a recent few have been truly exceptional. Alongside the Namlook/Pepe Bradock Subatomic Atoms EP and tobias.’ I can’t Fight the Feeling, The one I think of immediately is Ricky V’s new Vasco EP PT I double for Perlon – and speaking of Perlon, isn’t their consistency – or, as they would say, ‘superlongevity’ – incredible? I’m astonished that they’ve been able to keep the quality this good, without deviating from the label’s fundamental sound, for so damned long. Ricardo’s newie, being the latest of these, is hardly likely to convert ardent doubters, but for me this is real (if subtle) development of RV’s unique sound signature, with more sub-bass, more percussive detail, and a more thorough integration of the melodic elements with the rhythm than in recent ‘dissociative’ times. Most importantly, there’s something surprising about these tracks – you couldn’t listen to the first four bars and predict what’s going to go on for the following three hundred, unlike his Enfants, which was an extremely dull record that few people made could make work in the mix. As far as Vasco goes, the moody beast that is Electronic Water is really outstanding, but the best track on the whole thing is Shackleton’s remix of Moonstar, which straightens the rhythm and introduces a great vocal sample. Without a doubt, Shackleton, along with Peverelist and Appleblim, are three producers who are pushing something fresh, new and exciting, and their productive association with the minimal/house/techno spectrum is a welcome direction. Here’s to more of that in the coming months.