Tag Archive: Beastie Boys


This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Ultramagnetic MC’s – “Critical Beatdown” (Next Plateau, 1988)

This month’s Classics Critiqued choice is a sometimes overlooked cult classic hip-hop album by one of the genre’s most ground breaking and off the wall groups. In this article I will explore Ultramagnetic MCs’ originals, the making of “Critical Beatdown”, investigate ideas commonly discussed around the album, its lyrical content, production techniques and the context in which the album was released. I’ll also discuss the legacy “Critical Beatdown” has left.

Ultramagnetic MCs were formed in 1984 by the MC Kool Keith (aka Keith Thornton), Ced Gee (aka Cedric Miller) – MC/Producer, Moe Luv (aka Maurice Smith) – DJ/Producer and TR Love (aka Trevor Randolph) – MC while they were members of the New York City Breakers and People’s Choice break dance crews. After misfiring with their first single “To Give You Love” (1986) Ultramagnetic MCs released their first groundbreaking 12” the minimalist “Ego Trippin”. It featured the first use of the “Synthetic Substition” drum break by Melvin Bliss (later sampled by the likes of Naughty By Nature, Redman and Gang Starr and becoming a hip-hop staple) and some simple but devastatingly effective synth stabs. Amazingly the next 12” was even more innovative “Funky/Mentally Mad” showcased the two key talents of Ultramagnetic MC’s. “Funky” highlighted Ced Gee’s production skills. Based around a Joe Cocker piano sample (released almost ten years before Dr.Dre took the same sample and turned it into a bona fide hit in “California Love” by Tupac) it was a revolution in underground hip-hop. Meanwhile “Mentally Mad” showcased Kool Keith’s incredible freestyle abstract rapping style that dealt with everything from space exploration to sex. These 12” singles received critical acclaim and much support from New York’s biggest hip-hop DJs, setting up Ultramagnetic MCs as hip-hop next big act.

While he was working on the debut album that would become “Critical Beatdown”, producer Ced Gee worked on another nascent hip-hop act Boogie Down Productions’ debut album “Criminal Minded” (1987) which showcased a harsh minimalist brand of hip-hop not unlike that of Ultramagnetic MCs. “Critical Beatdown” wasn’t released until the following year, 1988, and this explains in part why it’s often overshadowed by classic albums by Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Jungle Brothers and Slick Rick, as well as competing with other sterling efforts from EPMD and Stetasonic. In short 1988 was water shed moment for hip-hop. Augus Batey (who wrote the sleeve notes for the 2004 reissue of “Critical Beatdown”) put it another way in a recent article on Ultramagnetic MCs second album “Funk Your Head Up” (1992) “Their 1988 masterpiece, Critical Beatdown, wasn’t the all-conquering hero history tends to have turned it into: crafting their inspirational unique style over a series of 12″ singles, Ultra would have achieved the impact their music merited had the paperwork permitted the LP to come out a year earlier. Throw it in the mix next to the three acknowledged foundational classics of New York hip hop’s early Golden Age – the 1987 debuts by Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions – and we’d today be talking about hip hop’s four horsemen, not the music’s holy trinity. “Critical Beatdown” is not only every bit as good as those records, a case can easily be made that it’s better than each and every one of them. It was hailed as a great album, but by ’88, it was just another one among many.”

When the album did arrive it showcased not only Ced Gee’s excellent sample choices and Kool Keith’s lunatic lyrical style but also Gee’s skills with the Emu SP-1200 sampler and his undeniably brilliant flow. Ced Gee was the first hip-hop producer that chopped up the breaks and instrumental samples instead of simply looping them, which soon became the norm for hip-hop producers the world over. The technique preceded the first sampladelic masterpieces “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys and De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” which would be released a year after “Critical Beatdown”. In fact, Posdnous of De La Soul admitted Ultramagnetic MCs’ influence in the 2004 reissue notes – “I think the only people that we looked to for a blueprint when we were making “3 Feet High & Rising” were the Ultramagnetic MCs. They were very different as well, how they rhymed, but they still had more harder-edged beats than what we were presenting.” Another innovation on the album was the proto-drum ‘n’ bass breaks of ‘Ain’t It Good to You’, a track that felt like it was tearing the very fabric of the samples apart as it hurtled towards its conclusion. Other highlights on the album include the organ driven ‘Ease Back’, turntablism anticipating ‘Moe Luv’s Theme’, the fantastically funky ‘Give the Drummer Some’, the tough hardcore ‘Break North’ and the ‘Louie Louie’ sampling ‘Travelling at the Speed of Thought’.

While Ced Gee and Moe Luv provided the ground breaking music it was Kool Keith who was the centre of attention when it came to the lyrical content of “Critical Beatdown”. Though he would later give himself over completely to lyrics about varied subjects such as sex or space exploration he still had one foot in the reality of the street on “Critical Beatdown”, which meant he was taken more seriously by critics and fans. However, the group chose not to focus on the negative things that were happening around them instead going with whatever “sounded good”. Keith’s style was freestyle both in the way he wrote and the way he delivered his mind-boggling rhymes.

“Critical Beatdown” would become instantly influential with Posdnous of De La Soul and Chuck D of Public Enemy praising their unique sound, lyrical content and flows would influence the creation of the former’s “3 Feet High and Rising” (1989) and the latter’s “It’ll Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988). The influence and innovation of Ultramagnetic MCs and “Critical Beatdown” can be heard in a huge amount of underground hip-hop and gangsta rap artists, everyone from Main Source to Cannibal Ox and many, many more.

Let me know what you think of “Critical Beatdown” in the comments or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Critical Beatdown” here.

Liam

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This mix was inspired by the random/shuffle function on my MP3 player. Every so often to plays back two or three tracks in a row that suggest they might work well mixed together/played back to back. Some of these are obvious combination for instance the final three tracks LCD Soundsytem into Justice vs Simian into DJ Touche and some less so e.g. ‘Yippie’ by Mouse on Mars into “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince. So after writing a lot of these combinations into my mobile and saving them for later I decided to attempt to put some of them into a mix in Cubase and this mix is the result. I’m a DJ just a music producer and music fan putting some disparate tracks together and seeing if it gels together. Would great to hear what people think of the mix.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Honourable Mentions

Death In Vegas – “Trans Love Energies”

This album came out nowhere back in September and knocked me for six, a great comeback album if ever there was one. Admittedly it’s not always the subtlest of albums, both in terms of wearing its influences on its sleeves and in terms of its sometimes simplistic nature. However, these complaints are minor with Richard Fearless finding a balance between his art-rock and electronic music influences and blending them into a visceral whole. Though it may not be the most original album released this year it’s a joy to listen to and Fearless show he’s still a master of his music domain. His whispered vocals (which sometimes recall Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers) and those of collaborator Kate Stelmanis (Austra) are the icing on the cake. It is well worth getting the 2 CD edition too, which features remixes and instrumental versions of album tracks plus five non-album tracks all of which equal the quality of the album itself.

Spank Rock – “Everything Is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar”

After 5 years Spank Rock returned this year with a second album ‘Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar’. This combines tracks that consolidate what Spank Rock achieved on previous album ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ and while moving into new areas like four-to-floor dance music, grungy distortion and Can sampling single ‘Energy’. Spank Rock also tries out singing on ‘The Dance’, ‘Baby’ (on which he achieves an excellent Prince impersonation) and ‘Energy’ and does so with aplomb. The triple dance floor whammy of ‘The Dance’, ‘#1 Hit’ and ‘Turn It Off’ are the biggest departures but also the greatest successes. During the second half of the album the majority tracks recall ‘YoYoYoYoYo’s’ electro sound but here it’s been expanded and built upon to incorporate tribal vibes, industrial touches, grungy distortion and on ‘Baby’ a phat funk groove. Like on his debut, Spank Rock pushes the envelope of electro hip-hop successfully bringing together disparate elements and combining them as if they should be together. An excellent album full of energy, humour and electro.

DELS – “GOB”

Dels produced an authoritative debut album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound on a complete and engaging record. The first half is full of heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to the album covers more serious topics including the recent political problems in the UK, rape and domestic violence. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. Dels is a hip-hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen – “A Winged Victory for the Sullen”

A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a collaboration between Adam Wiltzie of Texan ambient duo Stars of the Lid and contemporary pianist Dustin O’ Halloran and their self titled debut album is where their two styles meet in the middle. The music shifts in and out of focus as the two musicians interact, knowing when to play together and when to let the other have space, when to build a wave of sound and when to leave room between them. One of the remarkable things about the album is how cohesive it sounds, as if the duo had been working together for years and understood each other’s every musical move and how to compliment it. The reason for choosing this album is best summed up by Sam Cleeve of Drowned in Sound “While Wiltzie and O’Halloran both have their obvious contemporaries to draw parallels between (Hammock; Eno/Frahm; Arnalds), this emotive disc balances a hushed intimacy and vast expanse that places it in a unique sonic terrain.”

Toro Y Moi – “Underneath the Pine”

Back in February I described Toro Y Moi’s “Underneath the Pine” in the following way, “from its chiming and droning intro track right through to the last rhythmic charge of ‘Elise’, it does no wrong. A fantastic concoction of ’80s style funk riffs and grooves matched with emotive soundtrack backing and the glorious rush of good pop music, it’s a leap forward from his impressive début ‘Causers of This’” Since then I’ve had more time to contemplate the album and its subtleties, discovering the stylistic similarities to Stereolab (who featured in his mix for The Quietus) and deepening my admiration for the lush atmospherics present in the tracks and the way that the singles ‘New Beat’ and ‘Still Sound’’s infectious upbeat energy contrast with the album’s more thoughtful moments such as ‘Good Hold’ and opener ‘Intro/Chi Chi’. On the surface “Underneath the Pine” is full of simple pleasures but reveals more and more with each new play.

Top Ten Album’s of the Year

10. Battles – “Gloss Drop” (Warp Records)

 As with any Battles release there’s a lot to take in and one listen simply won’t cut it in terms of any real in-depth analysis. The trio made a good first impression proving they can do great things without former member Tyondai Braxton, whom was always seen as a key band member. This is definitely a Battles album yet they’ve shed some of the uptight, over thought jazz-prog that had previously manifested itself in a frustrating way. This is a looser, freer band. Drummer John Stanier is able to make his techno influences much more explicit, this and the Carribbean/Latin/Calypso touches that are littered throughout the album add a new rhythmic interest and lightness of touch that are both great new additions to the Battles sound. This isn’t a band trying to play techno or calypso through; rather they are trying to fold these influences into their already established sound. Another interesting facet of the sound is that on many of the tracks feature ambience and background sounds that evoke grey concrete that is juxtaposed with the lighter and happier calypso influenced melodies and riffs. ‘Gloss Drop’ is a bold statement from band that could have collapsed but has instead shown a new strength.

9. Chancha Via Circuito – “Rio Arriba” (ZZK Records)

This album by an Argentine hip-hop producer Pedro Canale fuses J Dilla-esque beats to traditional Columbian cumbia percussion samples, melodies and vocal samples to create a heady and humid hybrid that recalls walking through the South American jungle after dark. Like all the best hip-hop producers Canale has a deep understanding of the music that he is sampling but doesn’t respect it to the point that it limits his innovation. His music and grooves feel organic but also as if they’ve been subtly subverted in his sampler. “Rio Arriba” isn’t all about the beats. He uses atmosphere to evoke a time and place and is one of the only new hip-hop producers I’ve heard who achieves this to such a high level, you don’t just hear the time and place either but feel the emotions of the singers and the instrumental tracks so brilliantly convey. It’s difficult to properly describe Chancha Via Circuito’s music but with “Rio Arriba” he has created the debut album of the year.

8. The Horrors – “Skying” (XL Records)

I’ll admit to never having been taken by The Horrors and other than the excellent track ‘Sea Within a Sea’ I didn’t see what all fuss was about with their last album “Primary Colours”. However, their new self-produced album “Skying” finds them striking a balance between clear melodic lines and thick, swirling psychedelia. Previously the band sounded muddy with the melody submerged low in the mix. There’s also a new feeling of purpose to tracks like ‘Still Life’, ‘Moving Further Away’ and ‘Endless Blue’. The band combine the motorik rhythms of Neu!, the English psychedelia of late 80s Julian Cope and the power ballad dynamics of Simple Minds (not something I thought I’d ever be recommending) into a punchy pop-rock package. They’ve left behind the restrictions of recreating gothic post-punk sounds and the doom laden, muddy psychedelia of previous albums and have emerged as a band that delivers where once they merely promised.

7. Tune-Yards –“Who Kill” (4AD Records)

Tune-Yards delivers on what was hinted at on her debut album ‘Bird-Brains’. Strong vocal performances and use of vocal layering are ever present as are the hip-hop rhythms that dominated her debut. She also brings a host of surprises, the processing of vocals through a modular synth, pop melodies that pack a punch and a day-glo sound indebted to both African music and dub yet at the same time all of her own. Though the album dips towards the end ‘Doorstop’ and ‘You, Yes You’ show there are yet more directions in which Tune-Yards’ sound can be developed. In addition to this the album reflects its time through its politically engaged lyrics and of protests both personal and local. In a year dominated by protests and political upheaval, “Who Kill” provided a vibrant soundtrack. All-in-all this is a great album from a unique artist.

6. The Field – “Looping State of Mind”  (Kompakt)

This year Axel Willner delivered another great album as The Field and continued to evolve his glacial techno sound. His music is now warmer and more organic (see ‘Arpeggiated Love’ and ‘Burned Out’), while his grooves have become funkier and more human recalling those found on LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver”. The best way I can think to describe “Looping State of Mind” is LCD Soundsystem grooves matched with the inverted dance structures and Tangerine Dream influenced kosmische music of The Field’s typical productions. A match made in heaven.

5. Tamikrest – “Toumastin”  (Glitterhouse Records)

This is another great Taurag album that throws down the gauntlet to Tinariwen (who’s “Tassili was a massive disappointment). Though there’s a lot of familiarity to the Tamikrest sound these young men find a way of subtlety incorporating new influences into the template. From the funk bass that underpins ‘Tidit’ and ‘Tarhamanine Assinegh’ to the Western rock guitar of ‘Adjan Adaky’ and magnificent closer ‘Dihad Tedoun Itran’ via the regular and clever employment of female vocals as a counterpoint to a very male sound, this shows there is more to Taurag than fans already know. The band masterfully conquers both the more groove based and moody and downbeat material with confidence and ease. This is great album from a band full ideas who’ve possibly yet to reach their full potential.

4. Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” (Capitol/Grand Royale Records)

With this album the Beastie Boys returned to form creating their best album since “Hello Nasty” (1998). They went back to basics and came up with a collection of short punchy songs full of energy, hooks and humour. Though the album is a thoroughly Beastie Boys creation they do seem to have rebooted their sound, with the help of producer Philippe Zdar, concocting a new synthetic retro-futuristic Beasties sound. The album’s 16 tracks whizz by in a blur and it’s hard to pick out favourites in this heady brew but if pushed I’d go for ‘Make Some Noise’, ‘Non Stop Disco Powerpack’, ‘Too Many Rappers’ feat. Nas, ‘Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win’ feat Santigold and excellent instrumental ‘Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament’. The only disappointment is that ‘Tadlock’s Glasses’ finishes far too soon.

3 . Mark McGuire – “Get Lost”  (Editions Mego Records)

At first “Get Lost” seemed like business as usual for Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire, All the typical traits of McGuire’s guitar playing are present especially his fuzzy lead lines and repetitive yet hypnotic delay heavy rhythm patterns and guitar-synth drones aplenty. However, the more I listened to the album, the more it became clear it was almost a direct relative of the collaborative work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp particularly 1975’s brilliant ‘Evening Star’ album. The colourful washes of sound swirl around the stereo image and immerse you but are perfectly balanced with the melodic lines that weave in and out of them. I didn’t think that McGuire could equal last year’s amazing “Living With Yourself” but with “Get Lost” he’s managed it and combined the best elements from all his previous releases into a cohesive whole.

2. Apparat – “The Devil’s Walk” (Mute Records)

On his new album Apparat displayed a new skill for writing immediate and engaging material, a difficult balance that has been masterfully struck without surrendering any of this enigmatic artist’s mystery. The album doesn’t instantly recall Apparat’s previous solo work and has more in common with the Moderat project he formed with Modeselektor in 2009, specifically the dark gothic atmosphere that pervades throughout. It seems appropriate that Apparat should switch to Mute Records for this release as many of tracks indirectly recall Depeche Mode at their finest and Apparat’s vocal even sounds like Marc Almond (Soft Cell) minus the camp edge. Apparat’s greatest achievement here is combining modern production techniques with strong song writing. His song are now more memorable and emotionally evocative.

1. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” (4AD Records)

A breathtakingly ambitious album featuring North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, and twisted synth arpeggios all working together where they could fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’, this is the album Gang Gang Dance have been threatening to make and impresses instantly whereas previous songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. After a few listens it becomes clear there’s some strong links to “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective (who are both friends and contemporaries of Gang Gang Dance). The use of psychedelic electronics and rhythms rooted in hip-hop are present on both albums. However, Gang Gang Dance add plenty to this and produce their own unique sound, which is an upbeat opposite to the melancholy of Animal Collective. An interest coincidence is that “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was Sonic Fiction’s Album of the Year 2009 and ‘Eye Contact’ takes pole position for this year. From opening 11 minutes epic ‘Glass Jar’ to the closing ‘Thru and Thru’ with its twisting snake charmer like Eastern melody, tribal percussion and clubby beats and synths via the Sade-esque ‘Romance Layers’ beats the heart of exhilarating experimentation meeting the forward rush of club music and the exoticism of traditional music from around the world. As No.1 in my list there is no higher recommendation!

Spotify playlist:

Sonic Fiction Top Ten Album’s of the Year

Observations

Just like last year two words have loomed large for me this year: Ambient and African; and I have continued my exploration of these types of music. I’ve found myself getting deeper into Ambient music both old and new, especially with FACT publishing their 20 Best Ambient albums in the summer with Steve Reich and Pat Metheny’s – “Electric Counterpoint”, Main’s – “Firmament II”, Bobby Beausoleil soundtrack for “Lucifer’s Rising” and “Ambient 3: Day of Radiance” by Brian Eno and Laraaji  amongst my favourites so far. A spate of new releases towards the end of the year that I’ve enjoyed include “Music for Confluence” by Peter Broderick, “Tragedy” by Julia Holter and “Glimmer” by Jacaszek, “El Tren Fantasma” by Chris Watson, “Replica” by Oneohtrix Point Never and “Tragedy and Geometry” by Steve Hauschildt of Emeralds.  On the African side of things I started the year with the purchase of the Congotronics vs. Rockers compilation album, which was swiftly followed by the debut album of the Kasai Allstars and though I wasn’t listening to much African music during the summer I followed the progress of the Congotronics vs Rockers tour via their blog and towards the end of have enjoyed Analog Africa’s “Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso”, a great compilation covering the rich and varied music of this small and obscure country during the ‘70s.

Some releases have taken a little longer to grower on me than others for instance “A Creature I Don’t Know” by Laura Marling narrowly missed out on being part of my Honourable Mentions yet it has slowly but surely grown on me since its September release. I also recently revisited Laurel Halo’s “Hour Logic” EP and went from liking it to loving its infectious energy matched with abundant atmosphere. I’ve also been on and off with a few artists/albums the main culprit being Maria Minerva who I’ve liked and then found dull and then liked and then found dull again. Albums by The Rapture and Megafaun have also failed to fully convince me, though they still could.

Sonic Fiction’s predictions for up and coming new bands/artists for 2011 mostly seemed premature as many of artists with now release their debut albums next year. Still DELs and Balam Acab produced good debut albums and Laurel Halo and Blondes both had a steady stream of releases, maybe we’ll have better luck next year.

Still to come this week Vier’s Album’s of the Year and Observations.

by Liam Flanagan (Sonic Fiction editor)

Liam’s Top Ten Albums of the Year… so far

Honourable Mentions

Peaking Lights – “936” – is  a lo-fi take on Dub that manages to cover a lot more ground than many of their more lauded peers. I can understand why the band have been compared to fellow Not Not Fun artist Sun Araw as they share many of his similar aesthetics (humid, reverb and delay heavy sound) and principle instrumentation (extended guitar lines, organ, repetitive but meandering vocals). Tom Tom Club also seems like a good reference point particularly for the vocals and ‘All the Sun That Shines’ and ‘Bird of Paradise (Dub Version)’. Definitely an album that’s worthy of soundtracking this summer like ‘On Patrol’ by Sun Araw soundtracked last summer.

Mogwai – “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” – a mixed bag from Mogwai (a band that has been criticised in the past for producing overly samey music across an album) featuring both the familiar epic post-rock tracks that made them an internationally known force and new directions for the band including using a vocoder and development of Neu! and New Order style rhythms and grooves on ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ and ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. I’ve read a lot of negative things about the use of the vocoder and more vocal tracks on this album and can’t say I agree with these opinions. The vocoder is employed subtly and sparingly and Stuart Braithwaite’s vocals have always been a good addition to Mogwai’s music and suit the song he sings on here. Overall I think this is Mogwai’s best album since ‘Happy Music for Happy People’ (2003).

Talib Kweli – “Gutter Rainbows” –  a return to form for Kweli after the overly commercial and guest heavy ‘Eardrum’  (2007). Kweli seems to more at ease and freer, the album’s tone and variety a sign that he may have been under pressure from Warners while making ‘Eardrum’. It’s also telling that all the guests and producers who appear on this album aren’t established major label artists/producers and I think that’s a big contributing factor. The quality on the album only really drops once for ‘How Do You Love Me’ which is a little too limp and sloppy amongst tracks that have a lot more bit and depth. The major highlights are ‘Cold Rain’ (production by Currency producer Ski Beats) and Jean Grae’s appearance on ‘Uh Oh’, however its Kweli whose personality comes across strongest, on what could be his best album yet.

Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”

The Beasties Boys return to form after two patchy albums, full of short punchy songs that for the most part share a minimalist, lo-fi approach. It’s the Beasties gone back to basics and with found a new lease of life that explores new territory (for them) while remaining 100% Beastie Boys. Established with love this, new converts may well join the cause – all in all a triumph from restless creators always looking to evolve.

Dels – “GOB”

Dels has produced an authoritative début album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound that he can manipulate to give the album a curve. He starts with the heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to that album covers more serious topics including the recent political problems in the U.K. and rape. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. A Hip-Hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

Top Ten

10. White Denim – “D” – Though it may not be the album of the year I rashly predicted at the start of the month, though it has to be said ‘Anvil Everything’ and ‘Drug’ were pretty exciting tracks to be released in the run up to release. However this album is by no means a wash-out, it begins with a slightly misleading slice of Southern Rock but some reveals a diverse range from an ever developing and maturing band. From the wah-wah funk of ‘Burnished’ to the emotional ‘Street Joy’ via Latin rhythms of ‘River to Consider’ and many points in between this album is well worth investigation and like other White Denim album will probably prove to be another grown, rewarding repeated listening.

9. Low – “C’Mon” – A great album of two halves that sees Low experimenting with poppier sounds on the first half of the album and on ‘Something Turning Over’ while the reminder of the album revisits older sounds and influences but does so while providing some great songs. Some Low fans won’t (and don’t) like the poppier material but I think it can be seen as another string to their bow and not a conscious attempt to sell out. This is not a band producing Top Ten hits, but one dripping its toe into unknown waters and successful completing an experiment. The fact this album was recorded in a Duluth (Low’s home town) church gives the slow more open tracks and fantastic atmosphere and ambience and complaints some great songs. Once again Low show the patience and subtlety can go along way in a music world that seems constantly looking for something innovative and over simulating.

8. Chancha Via Circuito – “Rio Arriba” – A great hip-hop album that potential points a new way forward and demonstrates that there are really skilled producers working out the mainstream and America who can compete with their U.S. contemporaries. A breath of fresh Columbian air, this producer neatly side steps the comparisons to Jay Dilla to crave out his own unique style.

7. Tamikrest – “Toumastin” – Another great Taurag (desert blues) album that throws down the gauntlet to Tinariwen (whose next album is out 29th August). Though there’s a lot of familiarity to the Tamikrest sound these young men find a way of subtlety incorporating new influences into the template. From the funk bass that underpins ‘Tidit’ and ‘Tarhamanine Assinegh’ to the Western rock guitar of ‘Adjan Adaky’ and magnificent closer ‘Dihad Tedoun Itran’via the regular and clever employment of female vocals as a counterpoint to a very male sound, this shows there is more to Taurag than fans already know. The band masterful conquers both the more groovy based and moody and downbeat material with confidence and ease. A great album from a band full ideas and possible yet to reach their full potential.

6. TV on the Radio – ‘Nine Types of Light’ – This acts as a laid back sunny counterpart to their previous album ‘Dear, Science’ (2008). However, this isn’t an album that should be considered light or lacking in substance. Instead it’s a successful move into new territory for a band that continues to develop, improve and with this show that may just be one of the best bands of the last ten years. The album’s brighter moments indicates a softer R&B influence though in the latter stages of the album the band show their darker side on tracks like ‘Forgotten’ that strongly reminds me of the dense atmosphere of second album ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’  (2006) but always demonstrates what they have learnt since about space and light and shade. An album that proves sweet and sour can co-exist and that light is variable alternative not corporate cop-out.

5. Paris Suit Yourself – “My Main Shitstain”‘ – An eclectic début album is held together by a similarly punk spirit and commanding vocalist Luvinsky. The band produce a unique blend of street music that takes from soul, punk, post-punk and hip-hop while subtle embracing modern technology. The band is unafraid to wear to heart politically and graphically on its sleeve and are obviously confident in their own ability and style!! The world is there’s and I fully expect them to take it and make it their own.

4. Toro Y Moi – “Underneath the Pine” – From its chiming and droning intro track right through to the last rhythmic charge of ‘Elise’, it does no wrong. A fantastic concoction of ’80s style funk rhythms and grooves matched with emotive soundtrack backing, expert use of effects processing and the glorious rush of good pop music, a leap forward from his impressive début ‘Causers of This’. In the past its been difficult to pin down Toro Y Moi’s sound and find useful reference points but recently mid 90’s Stereolab seems apt for this playful experiment in pop music.

3. Wagon Christ – “Toomorrow” – It would be easy to dismiss this album as a repetition of everything that Vibert has done as Wagon Christ and there is some truth to that. However, he has produced an eclectic album full of great tracks (there’s not a duffer to be found) that will please hardcore Vibert fans and those new to this long-term dance music fixture. A must for fans of Ninja Tune, Warp and Planet Mu most esoteric output!!

2. tUnE-yArDs – “w h o k i l l” – tUnE-yArDs delivers on what was hinted at on her début album ‘Bird-Brains’, strong vocal performances and use of vocal layers are an ever-present as are the hip-hop rhythms that dominated her début. She also brings a host of surprises, the processing of vocals through a modular synth, pop melodies that pack a punch and day-glo indebted to both African music and dub yet at the same time all of her own. Though the album dips towards the end ‘Doorstop’ and ‘You, Yes You’ show there are yet more directions in which tUnE-yArDs sound can be developed. All-in-all a great album from a unique artist.

1. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” –  A breathtakingly ambitious album that brings together North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, twisted synth arpeggios are all bought together and work where it should fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’ this is the record that their last album should have been and impress instant, whereas in the past songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. Interestingly after a few listens it becomes clear there’s some strong links to “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective (who are both friends and contemporaries of Gang Gang Dance) the use of psychedelic electronics and rhythms rooted in hip-hop are present on both albums. However, Gang Gang Dance add plenty to this and produce their own unique sound. An interest coincidence is that “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was Sonic Fiction’s Album of the Year 2009 and this is currently in poll position for this year. Will it still be No.1 in December?

Spotify playlist:

Liam’s Albums of the Year 2011 … so far

Vier’s Top Five Albums of the Year 2011… so far

5. Lucy – “Wordplay For Working Bees” (Stroboscopic Artefacts) Lucy bypasses the traditional form and structure of techno for his début album. IDM, drones, oblique ambience and dub-techno combine to create a foreboding atmosphere filled with unusual timbres and textures. Partly composed of field recordings from Berlin’s streets and parks, the album’s title plays on the busyness of the crowds assembled on the city streets. The recordings tangle amongst disembodied vocals and abstract noises which build a sense of dissonant melancholia. When the 4/4 rhythm of  ‘Bein’ breaks out of the ambient climate it feels exotic and somehow forbidden as does album closer ‘Ter’ which filled with pattering percussion building to a stunning, hypnotic climax that contrasts the album’s darkness.

4. Planningtorock – “W” (DFA) Planningtorock’s (Janine Rostron) second album is rooted in the expression of her sexuality, which is conveyed by the swagger and sweaty atmosphere that recall the cabaret clubs in her adopted home of Berlin. The lascivious drawl of her pitched-down voice (as demonstrated with: “I know my feelings” on opener ‘Doorway’ and “I’m a believer of circular/suckular love” on ‘Manifesto’) coupled with staccato strings and thick, sensual orchestration makes “W” a powerful and rewarding release.

3. Morphosis – “What Have We Learned” (Delsin/Morphine) Composed entirely with analogue equipment and recorded over three days, Morphosis’ first full-length is a collection of gritty, percussive clatter that recalls the dirtier side of Krautrock. Built on round bass drums and foggy static with assertive grooves and synths that engulf the listener, “What Have We Learned” is the techno release of the year.

2. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” (4AD) Building from the suggestions of bright pop displayed on a track such as ‘House Jam’ from their previous album “Saint Dymphna”, Gang Gang Dance have condensed their eclecticism and strengthened the pop melodies to create a highly impressive and ambitious fifth album. Singer Lizzie Bougatsos works her voice as instrument, in a way that justly recalls Karin Dreijer Andersson and Bjork, weaving it among the layers of polyrhythmic dance beats, electro-indebted synth riffs and glassy arpeggios. Key track ‘Mindkilla’ combines unhinged world-dance grooves with Bougatsos’ menacingly singing the lullaby ‘Mockingbird’, which encapsulates Gang Gang Dance’s approach for “Eye Contact”: ecstatic and woozy with an undercurrent of threat.

1. Nicolas Jaar – “Space Is Only Noise” (Circus Company) Much has been said of 22 year-old Jaar’s prodigious talent and his first album is rightly garnering critical acclaim. Blending Ricardo Villalobos-esque intricacy with jazz-influenced piano, super-slow techno rhythms, obscure French film dialogue, saxophone and Nicolas Jaar’s own surprisingly deep voice, the album is over-confident but endearingly so. At points coolly sexy (‘Keep Me There’ and the title track), delicate and wistful (‘Too Many Kids…’ ‘I Got A’) and ambient palate-cleansing washes “Space Is Only Noise” is a diverse, self-assured and engaging album and it is a testament to Jaar’s skill that he has delivered such a promising début in place of what could otherwise have been a pretentious clutter.

Honourable mentions:

Wolfgang Voigt – “Kafkatrax” (Profan) In typically eccentric fashion, Voigt has super-imposed his face on to Austrio-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka’s head for the artwork of Kafkatrax. The strange merge goes further with the music contained inside. Every sound except the bass drum is taken from a German audiobook of Kafka’s work, the samples of which Voigt has then sliced, layered and stretched to create several voices speaking in fragmented words and vowels. The abstract stratification of the samples re-produce the paranoia present in Kafka’s writing while Voigt’s experienced hand in intangible dance music knits the sounds into four alien yet groove-filled techno tracks.

http://www.kompakt.fm/releases/kafkatrax_1/embedded

http://www.kompakt.fm/releases/kafkatrax_2/embedded

Spotify playlist:

Vier’s Albums of the Year 2011… so far

There were no massive disappointments last month so I’ll start by writing about a couple of average albums, then good albums, finishing with the best of the bunch.

First up is Canadian electro goth trio Austra’s – ‘Feel It Break’. This album definitely has its pros and cons; on the one hand its best tracks don’t suffer from being overly reliant on 80’s sounds to get its message across unlike many of their contemporaries. On the downside there’s only a few real stand out tracks and most these have already been out as singles for a while, the rest of the album does seem to be a repetition of their best ideas and by the end this becomes quite warring.

‘Air Museum’ by Mountains proved to be an interesting album, that I believe will need further listening to truly evaluate its quality. However, first impressions are mostly good; the tracks are never boring and seem to have one foot in the modern electro-acoustic/drone music camp and the other recalling early electronica and ambient artists such as Cluster and Kraftwerk. Interesting the tracks that bookend the album are the best and most organic, what occurs in between while good music and at least the equal of the bands contemporaries does raise the question, how much analogue synth music do we need?

The new Thurston Moore album ‘Demolished Thoughts’ is a solid effort that will please both long term fans and those that enjoyed his earlier solo album ‘Trees Outside the Academy’. Unlike previous Moore solo LP’s through this has a different feel, one that has more warmth and invites the listener in courtesy of Beck’s production and Moore’s more focused and tuneful material. Moore’s acoustic guitar blends brilliantly with the strings and Beck use these excellent performances to create space and dynamics using reverbs, echos and occasionally other effects and panning. The album is a lighter and brighter affair than I was expecting and this serves it well, its seems the most appropriate reference point would be ‘And Then Nothing Turned Its Self Inside-Out’  by Yo La Tengo, though this like a littler flip side to that album. In a couple of places the album reminds me of ‘Eureka’ by Sonic Youth associate Jim ‘O Rourke particularly on ‘Space’.

Though White Denim’s – ‘D’ may be not the album of the year I’d rashly predicted at the start of the month, though it has to be said ‘Anvil Everything’ and ‘Drug’ were pretty exciting tracks to be released in the run up to release. However this album is by no means a wash-out, it begins with a slightly misleading slice of Southern Rock but reveals a diverse range from an ever developing and maturing band. From the wah-wah funk of ‘Burnished’ to the emotional ‘Street Joy’ via Latin rhythms of ‘River to Consider’ and many points in between this album is well worth investigation and like other White Denim album will probably prove to be another grown, rewarding repeated listening.

The Beasties Boys return to form after two patchy albums, ‘Hot Sauce Commitee (Part 2)’ is full of short punchy songs that for the most part share a minimalist, lo-fi approach. It’s the Beasties gone back to basics and with found a new lease of life that explores new territory (for them) while remaining 100% Beastie Boys. Established fans with love this, new converts may well join the cause – all in all a triumph from restless creators always looking to evolve.

With ‘GOB’ Dels has produced an authoritative début album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound that he can manipulate to give the album an overall curve. He starts with the heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to that album covers more serious topics including the recent political probs. in the U.K. and rape. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. A Hip-Hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

A breathtakingly ambitious album that brings together North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, twisted synth arpeggios are all bought together and work where it should fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’ this is the record that their last album should have been and impress instant, whereas in the past songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. An album that gets better with every run through!!

Spotify playlist:

May 2011 playlist

Coming up this month on Sonic Fiction

Sonic Fiction Writer’s Albums of the Year… So Far

Classic’s Critiqued – ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ by Stereolab

Recommendations

* = I’ve already heard this album and this is my initial reaction

Battles – “Gloss Drop” 6th June (Warp) *

As with any Battles release there’s a lot to take in and one listen simply won’t cut it in terms of any real in-depth analysis. However, the overall 1st impressions are good with the band proving they can do great things without former member Tyondai Braxton, who was always seen as a key member of the band. This is still definitely a Battles album but they’ve shed some of the uptight, over thought jazz-prog that had occasionally manifested itself in a frustrating way. This is looser band, a freer band. Drummer John Stanier is able to make his techno influences much more explicit and this and the Carribbean/Latin/Calypso influences that are littered throughout the album add a new rhythmic interest and lightness of touch that are both great new additions to the Battles sound. This isn’t a band trying to play techno or calypso through; rather they are trying to fold these influences into their already established sound. A bold statement from band that could have collapsed but has shown a new strength.

Fink – “Perfect Darkness” 13th June (Ninja Tune)

The new album by Ninja Tune’s troubled troubadour promises much. I’ve only heard the title track and a little of the track ‘Yesterday Was Hard On Us All’ and they are both quite different. The title track is dark and ruminative and defly adds strings to the already established Fink folk sound. The later is closer to the dry and intimate sound of his most recent albums, both tracks have made me very intrigued as to what this album has to offer.

Blanck Mass – “Blanck Mass” 20th June (Rock Action)

This is the first solo album from Benjamin John Power one half of Fuck Buttons and the one pre-release track ‘Land Disasters’ is like a more ambient version of the typical Fuck Buttons sound. It’ll be interesting to hear what else Power has come up with on an album produced completely on a laptop, when compared with Fuck Buttons more lo-fi and hands on sound.

Popol Vuh – “Revisited & Remixed 1970 – 1999” 20th June (SPV)

To mark the 10th anniversary of the passing of Popol Vuh founder Florian Fricke, SPV are releasing a two-disc compilation. Disc one consisted of tracks collected from throughout the band’s life time including those from their famous soundtrack work with Werner Herzog. Disc two contains a series of remixes of the band’s material by the likes of Stereolab, Thomas Fehlmann, Moritz Von Oswald and Mouse on Mars among others. A compilation that will definitely be worth checking out for those new to these under appreciated electronic music pioneers.

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