Some Releases we missed in April and May

Kwes – “Meantime” (Warp)

The debut EP from Warp’s latest signing Kwes who been producing music for the likes of DELS and Micachu for a few years but this is his first solo release and the first to feature his vocals. The four tracks here only add up to 16 minutes music in total and so are merely a small taster of what’s to come but they certainly whet the appetite. Beginning with ‘Klee’ which brims with familiar synth sound though I can’t put my finger on where I’ve heard them before and delicate vibraphone melodies. We then move on to the first vocal track ‘Bashful’ where things get more up-beat and spacious and Kwes is accompanied by wobbly Rhodes piano on the delirious chorus. ‘Honey’ follows a similar pattern with woozy synth and lo-fi beats surrounding plaintive but sweet vocals. The best however is saved for last with the 7 minutes of ‘Igoyh’ providing the greatest evidence of this young producer immense talent with it gentle synths, soft focus feel and up lifting chorus making Kwes one to watch.

Blockhead – “Interludes After Midnight” (Ninja Tune)

I was quick to praise Blockhead’s last album “The Music Scene” (2010) but was quick to fell out of love with it on return visits. “Interludes After Midnight” promises to be an album that I enjoy for a lot longer as repeats reap greater rewards. The album consolidates everything that Blockhead has achieved in his solo career to date but crucially also learns lessons from “The Music Scene” and achieves it ambitious aims where that album had failed. In the end “The Music Scene” felt like Blockhead was just getting to know his new software Ableton Live but the album actually feels ‘live’ and can’t be directly attributed to the sounds or techniques of any particular software. Regular fans of the Ninja Tune labels output will instantly warm to this music and bares comparison to Bonobo’s solo work and “Sound Mirrors” by label head honchos Coldcut, as well as 70’s T.V. and soundtrack music, particular Bernard Herrman’s “Taxi Driver” score. The arrangements on “Interludes After Midnight” are inventive throughout a classic example being ‘Never Forget Your Token’ which starts out with electric piano and oddly pitched male vocals but ends with a twisted electric guitar unrecognizable from its first half. These arrangements could be jarring but instead feel completely natural as Blockhead’s well thought out concepts and production nous holds everything together. It’s rare to find a beat maker as distinct as Blockhead and he deserves far greater recognition and praise than he currently receives. All-in-all a superb instrumental hip-hop album; where ambition is matched by the quality of each track from top to bottom.

Forward Strategy Group – “Labour Division” (Perc Trax)

“Labour Division” is the debut album by U.K. techno duo Forward Strategy Group following a series of EP’s that have garnered much attention on the techno underground. The album begins with a tension building intro track ‘Indent’ before this really get going on the electro tinged ‘Mandate’ with its arpeggiated, tough bass synth underpinning delay heavy synth FX’s and minimal drums and hi-hats, a real techno juggernaut. From then on scene is set and the duo switch from the disjointed industrial rhythms of ‘Mandate’ and ‘Elegent Mistakes’ (which fits perfectly into Perc Trax current developments) and out and out techno thumpers all filled with tense and taut atmosphere, found sound and influences of 80’s electronic music and experimental post-punk sounds. Tension only lets up on ‘Nihil Novi’ a lighter and more spacious track that features noises that cut through the drums sound and like a steam train. Though “Labour Division” serves first and foremost as functional techno album with plenty of tracks that will be spun in DJ sets, there is also enough experimental sound design and percussion sounds and patterns that it sometimes recalls peers Factory Floor and Carter Tutti Void live electronic mutations. “Labour Division” is an album through and through, properly paced and conceptually put together not like a majority of techno albums that are either an extension of a DJ set or DJ tools. Like their label boss Perc and his own album “Wicker and Steel” Forward Strategy Group are leading the way in innovative techno music.

Biggest Disappointment of the Month

This month’s biggest disappointment isn’t a release as we haven’t been disappointed by anything this month. The disappointment is that Doseone’s new album “G Is For Deep” release date was moved to 11th June meaning we couldn’t write about an album that promised great things. Still it’ll be with us all soon.

Walls – “Coracle Remixe” (Kompakt)

‘Drunken Galleon’ (John Tejada mix) is one of the best remixes on the EP. Its solid rhythm and liquid guitar chords create a  soaring anthem for a sunset while the gentle synth melody lifts the track up, maintaining the sensitivity and emotion of the original.  For ‘Raw Umber/Twilight’, a standout from “Coracle”, brothers Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt pull out its opening refrain and, in true Köln style, massage it into a sparkling and mesmeric lush techno track. Hard-edged electronic music producer Perc’s remix of ‘Sunporch’ consists of a punishing snare drum, squelching mids and echoing screams, twisting the original’s beauty into a mechanistic thump. Less impressive is the second remix of ‘Sunporch’ by Holy Other who trashes the original’s beauty to fit his own formula. It’s doomy and filled with sluggish tails of reverbed snare.

Jherek Bischoff – “Composed” (Leaf Label)

On “Composed” Bischoff tries to mix and balance the worlds of contemporary classical and indie-pop with much success. However, sometimes he falls into the trap of selecting sounds and combinations of sounds that are a little too tasteful, meaning some of the tracks feel bland. He’s most successful when he abandon’s convention such as on the excellent single ‘Eyes’ (featuring David Byrne) and closer ‘Insomnia, Death and the Sea’ (featuring Dawn McCarthy) with its immense string drone recalling Fever Ray and its cinematic melody sticking in your head while the track sweeps you away with its intense climax. The album often recalls 60’s orchestral pop composer Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg but this no mere retread with Bischoff classical training and pop nous providing structural twists and turns that take this beyond atypical ‘lounge’ music. However, as stated earlier he does seem to play to safe in terms of sound palette and this leaves the listener dissatisfied, this taken into consideration it seems that this album should please fans of both these genres but may leave others wanting more.

Ursprung – “Ursprung” (Dial)

Acclaimed techno producer Pantha Du Prince and experimental artist Stephan Abry (Workshop) have collaborated under the name “Ursprung” (“origin” in German) and now deliver a self-titled ten-track album. The structure of “Ursprung” seems based on alternating a few standout showpieces with tracks that fulfill an experimental role yet don’t fully provide an exciting listen in return. The opening ‘Mummenschanz’ is a gentle track that weaves minimalist guitar chords and phrases into ambient textures above a pattering bass, understated melodic phrases and a  snare drum rhythm that sounds like a relaxed Neu! cut. ‘Ohne Worte’ features an interplay between guitar and bass drone and eventually evolves into an uneasy groove of guitar phrases that are pulled along by a thudding bass drum, percussion and metallic textures which builds to a frenetic climax. ‘Exodus Now’ is the album’s centrepiece: dense with guitar chords, cold synths, percussion, motorik, Neu!-inspired rhythms and buzzing noise. The hand of Hendrik Weber (Pantha Du Prince) can be heard in the fleet-footed hi-hats and bell-like percussion. The move to African-sounding percussion and a solid melody halfway through the track adds an extra dimension. Texturally and atmospherically ‘Exodus Now’ is mesmerizing, a true standout. Beginning with dissonant ambient sounds and processed guitar, ‘Lizzy’ is the closest thing on “Ursprung” to what could be called techno with its sort-of danceable bass line and complimentary techno drum rhythms, percussion adding a frenetic touch underneath a playful melody. Waking the listener up after the slumberous ‘Nightbirds’ is ‘Kalte Eiche’. A clap and glistening synth arpeggio are interrupted by a thundering bass drum and stuttering snare rhythm. Clipped male vocals sit above a second male voice that sings harmonic notes all the while the stuttering rhythm refuses to slot into place. ‘Kalte Eiche’’s unconventional structure is complex and constantly shifting, providing an exciting listen.

These five tracks are filled with emotional strength coupled with stunning atmospherics and textures, motorik rhythms and delicate minimalistic guitars underpinning it all.  The other five, while fascinating to listen to, are too cold and abstract to capture the listener’s heart. A track such as ‘Seiland’, a conversation between abstract bass, mid-frequency chords and rapid, high frequency notes, contains textures that are difficult to assign to a particular instrument thus creating a jarring listen. ‘In Aufruhr’ also fails to provide any depth to its watery textures and background atmospherics. Musically it compares to Harmonia but lacks their grace. After Pantha Du Prince’s astounding “This Bliss” and “Black Noise” listeners may expect the same union of beautiful melodies, emotional depth and high production values and half of “Ursprung” does deliver this but the other half, while being intelligently composed, the deficiency of the all important emotional content disappoints.

Laurel Halo – “Quarantine” (Hyperdub)

Laurel Halo’s debut album arrives on a wave of hype and it’s fair to say that the air expectation and nature of album don’t make great bed fellows. This is an experimental pop album with the emphasis being on the experimental, full of ambient noise, lush synth pads and dominated by Halo’s newly unadorned vocals. It’s these vocal that don’t sit right, especially in the albums first half and on the first playback. However, with repeat listen these elements feel less out of place and make sense within Halo’s compositions. At first it’s tempting to compare “Quarantine” to the work of her boyfriend and contemporary Oneohtrix Point Never, but this unfair as Halo has carved out her own niche and is trying to achieve different things with her music. She is subverting pop music from within, while Oneohtrix Point Never subverts it as an outsider. Another crucial difference is that “Quarantine” seems to have a more current sound, driven by producer based techno and electronic music rather than 80’s advert musak, this helps make sense of why the album has been released by Hyperdub a label at the forefront of dance music. In fact the album sit slap bang in the middle of a ven diagram of electronic pop, ambient and dance music, one third ambient sound, synths and noise, one third pop melody and vocal and one third subtly propulsive dance inspired arpeggios and production. “Quarantine” is the result of two and half years of development for Laurel Halo and consolidates and expands her sound demonstrating everything she’s learnt along the way but keep enough mysterious to keep the listener intrigued.

El-P – “Cancer for the Cure” (Fat Possum)

In some ways this is business as usual for El-P, all the usual signifiers are in place, his lurching, crushing beats, massive dirty synth bass-lines, stuttering vocal samples, stabbing instrument samples. However, one that’s no bad thing and two I believe this is an artist who subtly evolves his sound with each new release. The first difference that jumps out at me is that whereas in the past there were only hints of film music influences on El-P’s production’s “Cancer For The Cure” makes this explicit with a majority of the tracks shot through with a dystopian atmosphere akin to John Carpenter’s soundtracks to “Escape From New York” & “Assault on Precinct 13”. The album also features a couple of El-P’s most minimal and spacious tracks to date in ‘Stay Down’, ‘Sign Here’ and ‘The Jig Is Up’, in addition to this melodic vocals feature on ‘For My Upstairs Neighbor’, ‘Oh Hail No’ and ‘Works Every Time’. The album feels more thematically together than “I’ll Sleep When Your Dead” (which was great album) and this makes the album feel like it’ll maintain it impact over a longer time. “Cancer For The Cure” runs Killer Mike’s (El-P produced) “R.A.P. Music” album for best hip-hop album of far!!!

Drokk – “Music Inspired by Mega City One” (Invada)

It’s hard to describe this album without overusing the words analogue synth(s) but here goes. The album uses just one synth as its primary mode of composition but Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and BBC composer Ben Salisbury manage to make limitation the mother of invention creating everything from intense drone heavy soundscape to arpeggio led tracks via more delicate and reflective moments. In many ways the album bears comparison with this year’s other imaginary soundtrack album “Themes for an Imaginary Film” by Symmetry and though it’s not as ambitious as Symmetry’s album its equal as satisfying a listen. Drawing on many classic synth soundtrack staples such as John Carpenter, Vangelis, Walter/Wendy Carlos and with hints of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and other T.V. music from the 70’s and 80’s. However, repeat plays reveal this isn’t an album that merely imitates and pays homage but is an equal to those great synth soundtrack composers, the album throbs with the tension of a Carpenter score, while Vangelis arpeggios abound and experimental sounds that the Radiophonic Workshop and Walter/Wendy Carlos are thrown in at the appropriate moment and to keep the listener guessing. If Symmetry’s album is the Hollywood blockbuster then “Drokk…” is a homemade marvel and all the better for it.

Top Release of the Month

Killer Mike – “R.A.P. Music” (William’s Street)

Killer Mike and El-P’s collaborative is called “R.A.P. Music” with good reason, it does everything that a modern hip-hop album should. The album has a consistency rarely present on guest and producer heavy albums while it manages to cover a lot of sonic and emotional territory without anything feeling off or put on. The music veers from huge sounding synthetic bangers (‘‘Big Beast’, ‘Southern Fried’ and ‘R.A.P. Music’) to emotive epics (‘Ghetto Gospel’, ‘Reagan’ and ‘Anywhere But Here’) via Southern rap flavoured tracks (‘Willie Burke Sherwood’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘Jo Jo’s Chillin’) and Killer Mike’s flow is just as diverse ranging from the enunciated words of ‘Reagan’ to the super speedy ‘Southern Fried’ and every point in between. What “R.A.P. Music” shows is that when hip-hop is stripped down to its core and rebuilt from button up, in addition to this despite his confident persona it’s clear that Killer Mike isn’t an egotist. He tells stories about other people in his life and discuss wider political issues, the lyrical themes that have been central to hip-hop since 1982 but feel so rare in 2012. “R.A.P. Music” is the first landmark hip-hop release of 2012 and I’m optimistic this can be a very good year for the genre as a whole.