Tag Archive: Blondes


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New York duo Blondes released their self-titled debut album last year to much acclaim, it even made number seven on my Top Ten Alternative Releases of 2012 list. That album tapped into influences ranging from Steve Reich’s minimalism, to house music via Cluster kosmiche musique. On “Swisher” the duo take a subtly different direction leaning much harder on more obvious dance beats and sounds.

The album opener has a familiar feel to the first album though the percussion is heavy and grows in intensity as the track climax’s giving way to the techno shuffle of ‘Bora Bora’. The track combines a techno beat complete with distant snare, deep bass drum and insistent hi-hats with busy percussion, a minimal bell-like synth melody and creaky yet metallic synth slivers. Despite its title, alluding to tropical climbs ‘Bora Bora’ is one of the darker tracks that are sprinkled across the album. ‘Andrew’ takes things to a more upbeat and house vibe with it lithe four to the floor beat and sighing female vocal sample. The track’s main melody appears after a couple of minutes suggesting a different emotion, sadness, though the track swings back to a more positive feel with the riser and filter sweep effects that dominate its final minutes.

Next up is ‘Poland’ arguably Blondes best track to date to. It begins with an echoing acid synth bass line and four to the floor bass drum, swiftly followed by chattering, fast hi-hats and a synth arpeggio. Around three minutes in a glassy synth melody and new purposeful blocky synth bass enter giving the track remained purpose. The track continues to grow and oush forward until around six minutes in when everything drops away leaving just the drums, synth bass line and the delayed occasional synth swirl to slow ease the track out. Its followed by the energetic and incredibly percussive ‘Clasp’ (even the synths are percussive) which is another track that has a darken, colder edge than previous Blondes tracks. ‘Rei’ takes the dark edge to its logically conclusion with a punishing almost industrial techno beat playing beneath rushing synth arpeggios and pads that whooshing and bubble up over the top of the beat. Definitely a track that could hold its own in techno Mecca Berghain. The album closes with ‘Elise’ with its fizzing and whirring synths, a four to the floor bass drum (woody, acoustic), a sunrise synth pad and insistent electronic cowbell. Later in the track s synth bass line drops, swiftly followed by a clap, creating a house feel.

Though “Swisher” doesn’t feel as good as Blondes debut track for track and I miss the kosmiche musique touches “Swisher” is a solid collection with a few great highlights (‘Poland’, ‘Clasp’ and ‘Rei’). The duo have both made steps forward towards a new darker direction and shown they can make more conventional dance tracks but maybe lost a little of what made them stand out in the first place.   

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5th  August

 

Blondes – “Swisher” (RVNG INTL)

The duo of Sam Haar and Zach Steinman was last heard demonstrating this transcendent practice – one favoring analog serenity to digital flare – on the duo’s 2012 self-titled debut album. Tracks were titled with conceptual dualisms, released on opposing 12” sides prior to album compilation and gleaned house and techno rudiments with spiritually escapist split ends.

Around the release of Blondes, Haar and Steinman advocated the humanistic side of dance culture, mentioning the meditative potential of electronic music as channeled through their interest in the physicality of music making, such as hardware instrumentation and improvisation. At the same time, Blondes’ live performances steadily flared up in various types of venues, mostly outside of the DIY spaces the duo got their start: the traditional club, the art museum, the open air festival, and some of the best sound systems throughout Europe.

The evolution of sound systems on which Blondes played created a curve along which Haar and Steinman built a universally impactful sonic experience. After rehauling their gear and settling into a new studio space, Blondes’ busy year ended in an intensely focused production period during which Haar and Steinman sculpted the boldly detailed Swisher.


Moderat – “Moderat II” (Monkeytown/Mute)

Back in 2009 Apparat and Modeselektor teamed up for what seemed like a one off album release. However, they’ve announced a new album the Moderat side project. Combining Apparat’s emotive soundscapes and Modeselektor’s twisted hard hitting club beats, this album promises to dominate underground dance in 2013. You can see the art and track listing for “Moderat II” here.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/69467838″>Moderat “Bad Kingdom” | Monkeytown Rec.</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/pfadfinderei”>Pfadfinderei</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

12th August

 

The Bug – “Filthy” EP (Ninja Tune)

The Bug is back in full effect with the “Filthy” EP, and has hooked up with the inimitable Danny Brown and his King Midas Sound cohort Kiki Hitomi for the ferocious “Freakshow”. It promises to be a great taster ahead of the long awaited “Angels and Demons” album.

19th August

 

Free the Robots – “The Balance” (self-released)

Shortly after the release of his excellent In Other Worlds EP, Free The Robots is on to his full-length, The Balance. Santa Ana’s Chris Alfaro plans on dropping the album on his own accord. With features from just Jessie Jones and Jonwayne, this album is sure to be yet another expansive and exploratory instrumental adventure.

Julia Holter – “Loud City Song” (Domino)

Loud City Song is Holter’s first studio album proper, and it both continues and furthers the singular vision of its predecessors, 2011’s debut Tragedy and last year’s Ekstasis, as she experiments with intricate arrangements of words and pop melodies to build both an individual collection of songs as well as one unified story–a “song” of songs.

1.       Julia Holter –“Ekstasis” (RVNG INTL)

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It was obvious at the time of release that with “Ekstasis” Julia Holter had created something special and the album was made Release of the Month for March and then topped my “Top Ten Albums of the Year… so far” in June. Little has changed since then and while there has been some serious competition nothing has matched Holter in the Alternative category.

The first thing that struck me about “Ekstasis” is the brightness of its sound, gone is the shadowy and foggy atmosphere’s of last year’s excellent “Tragedy” replaced by a sharp and incisive production job to revival today’s most intelligent pop stars. Ok, so Holter’s not going to be the next million selling pop star but this album’s production is almost the opposite of “Tragedy”’s. Then there’s the effortless feel of a lot of the music, despite many of the tracks being over 6 minutes in length. There’s no feeling of over indulgence even when a saxophone rears its head on ‘Four Gardens’ and ‘This Is Ekstasis’ everything here earns its place and makes sense within the context of the songs. It would be tempting to compare Holter to her many contemporaries within the hypnogogic pop genre especially her friend and collaborator Nite Jewel. Though her use of delay and reverb create similar feelings/images the musical content aims instead to transport the listener further back than the 1980s and into the ancient world which Holter is so interested in. With “Ekstasis” Holter has created her own sound world that seems to subtle reference pre-existing sounds/genres and rhythms without ever sounding directly like anything you’ve previously heard. An artist who can switch with ease between different sounds and sections without breaking a sweat or alienating the listener, Holter is an artist with a bright and long future ahead of her.

2.       Matthew Dear – “Beams” (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear returns with his fifth album under his own name and “Beams” is another great work from an artist who has consistently delivered the good over the years. “Beams” differs from Dear’s previous solo albums as its not produced by him but Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid, most famous for their work with Fever Ray and Blonde Redhead, of which Dear is a fan. The album combines the dark sounds of Dear’s last album “Black City” and the Talking Heads influenced techno-pop of his masterpiece “Asa Breed”. Due to his superior production and song writing skills Dear makes combining these two different but not unconnected sounds seem like child’s play and the result is an effortless feel throughout the album.  The album begins with the singles ‘Her Fantasy’ and ‘Earthforms’ the former a tropical sounding techno pop track of the highest quality the latter Dear self described “ deepest delve into a straight rock song”. The album swiftly moves on to another tropical sounding track in ‘Headcage’ the groove led title track of Dear’s EP from January this year. Two more upbeat groove based tracks in ‘Fighting is Futile’ and the Talking Heads influenced ‘Up and Out’ whizz by and give up the more electronically inclined second half of the album. This starts with the Surging synth bass line and techno beat ‘Overtime’ that are barely contained by speakers. ‘Get the Rhyme Right’ returns to similar territory to ‘Earthforms’ but with the emphasis on twisted synths and distorted guitars that smother the drums and bass in their electric filth! Things get more sparse and down tempo on ‘Ahead of Myself’ with Dear’s breathy vocals given minimal synth and drum machine backing. Then album enters the home coming straight with ‘Do The Right Thing’ a song that starts with just a bubbling and bouncing groove topped with lo-fi simple melody but steadily and sublty develops into a full and rounded track thanks to Dear’s masterful arranging. He finishes the album with the one-two punch of ‘Shake Me’ a dark torch song that recalls Depeche Mode of their most moody and magnificent and ‘Temptation’ a slow burner that repays the listeners patience tenfold! All in all “Beams” is a great album from an artist well into his career showing that he can still learn and keep the listen guessing  and satisfied even after all this time.

3.       Orcas – “Orcas” (Morr Music)

The debut album from this Seattle duo leaves me lost for words, one of those albums that are difficult to describe without selling it short. However, I will endeavour to paint a picture of this heartbreakingly beautiful music. The dominate sounds are plaintive piano, twanging to ethereal guitars and vocals and various crackles, hums and heavily processed electronic sounds. These simple elements are manipulated to create different textures, atmospheres and emotions across nine tracks. Though the duo have created a sound of their own there are some influences/inspirations suggested by the music including Peter Broderick & Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s soundtrack work, the noise abstract pop of Broadcast (who are covered on the album) and indirectly reminds me of the latest Oneohtrix Point Never album “Replica”. All this is held together by the songwriting touches that are subtly weaved throughout the album helping this album raise above more generic ambient and experimental music releases.

4.       Raime – “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” (Blackest Ever Black)

On their debut album “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” Raime have thrown down the gauntlet to all artists currently working on electronic and experimental music, “up your game before it’s too late.” Though it wasn’t the duo’s intention the album sounds like the soundtrack to an unreleased film, subtly referencing John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” score or repositioning Ennio Morricone’s work to an industrial post-apocalyptic world. The duo expand on the critically acclaimed 12”s by adding emotional depth and a more organic sound via the use of field recordings, foley samples and acoustic instrumentation such as guitar, violins and cellos. Whereas the 12”s focused strongly on the duo’s jungle and industrial influences they broaden their range here to include post-rock, the doom metal of Sunn O))) and Earth and of course those previously mentioned soundtracks. The duo also manage to maintain a balance between the dark, heavy sounds and lighter, brighter sounds; another progression from the earlier 12”s. Raime have produced one of the debut albums of year, one that leaves many more established acts in the shade. Long may these soundscapes shapers continue to reign supreme.

5.       King Felix – “Spring EP” (Liberation Technologies)

The “Spring EP” picks up where Laurel Halo left off with the “Hour Logic EP” last summer, though she has some tricks up her sleeve and the music is a lot harder to pin down. Here the rhythms wiggle and squirm restless and constantly shifting not settling into a smooth groove, this is one of the things that makes the EP so exciting you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. The first three tracks are all a variation on the same theme, Halo is so inventive within this limitation that the listener is never bored by the central theme. Halo carves out her own style while referencing the glory years of early Nineties Detroit techno. The other crucial difference between this EP and “Hour Logic” is that whereas many of the tracks on the previous EP sound submerged beneath water this is Halo least veiled work to date; she lets the tracks reveal themselves and breathe all the elements able to exhibit themselves equally. The “Spring EP” is a fantastic addition to Halo’s discography.

6.       Ekoplekz – “Westerleigh Works EP’ (Perc Trax)

Back in January this EP was marketed as Ekoplekz’s first venture into dance floor territory and listening to it you can hear why. However, Ekoplekz still keeps his trademark sounds front and centre but he uses space more effectively and percussive sounds and deep bass provide the forward motion needed in techno music. Of the three originals ‘Ekoplatz’ sounds most like his previous material while being underpinned by techno bass and percussion, the other two ‘Narco Samba’ and ‘Xylem Teardrops’ are more stripped and danceable, while Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) remix of ‘Ekoplatz’ follows a similar template but adds electronic woodblocks, more structural dynamics and some of Kirk’s own idiosyncratic dub sounds. A highly recommended release for those into the darker side of dance music.

7.       Blondes – “Blondes” (RVNG INTL)

Blondes self titled debut album is one that hard to do justice to without its sounding like a repetitive bore-fest, which it is far from. The duo fit into both the modern dance music camp alongside the likes of The Field, Gui Boratto and other Kompakt techno alumni and alongside current ambient and hynagogic pop acts such as Laurel Halo, Teengirl Fantasy and Rene Hell amongst others. Blondes manage to fuse these two opposites together in way that plays to the strengths of both, you never feel the dance elements are getting bogged down by the atmospherics or that the atmospherics are dominated by the dance elements. The duo encompass a range of emotions across the album from the brighter tracks like ‘Gold’ and ‘Amber’ to the dark and subdued ‘Pleasure via drowned Kraftwerkian synth work on ‘Business’ and foggy tension of ‘Water’. One of the album’s strength is that despite the amount of recycling there is (every second track is a re-versioning of the previous track) the variety on show is impressive as is the duo’s ability to keep the listener engaged and excited by these same/similar elements. At the time of release I said the following of “Blondes” “Blondes have not only created a contender for Debut Album of the Year but an early contender for the Album of the Year itself”, as you can see the album has stood the test of time.

8.       Neneh Cherry and The Thing – “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound)

When it was originally announced that Neneh Cherry and Swedish jazz trio The Thing would be releasing an album full of reinterpreted versions of songs in a range of genres from post-punk to hip-hop via jazz itself, the collaboration didn’t make sense to me. However, after a little internet research and hearing two tracks from the album my mind was changed and I got quite excited about the prospect of this album. It didn’t let me down either with The Thing more restrained than they usually are and Cherry on dazzling form on vocals. The album opens with a version of Cherry’s ‘Cashback’ (one of two originals on the album) featuring fantastic twangy double bass, a drum break and counterpoint sax playing off her melodious lead vocal. Things get striped back on a twinkling vibraphone heavy version of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ before a return to a more aggressive tone with the drum and double bass assault of ‘Too Tough To Die’ (Martina Topley Bird). ‘Sudden Movement’ is the other original this time written by Mats Gustafsson of The Thing, a dark and dusty yet up beat jazz number. The tempo slows again for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’ with Cherry trying a half sung half rapped vocal over twangy double bass and subtle arching sax. There are also two nods to Cherry’s father Don (a famous jazz musician, The Thing take their name from one of his songs) the first is by Don himself the ghostly and experimental ‘Golden Heart’ the other is a track original by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman whom Don Cherry complete his jazz apprenticeship with, this track is a sparse finish to a busy and fiery album full of passion and heat. Recommended to fans of the unexpectedly enjoyable!!!

9.       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 soundscapes 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.

10.     Peaking Lights – “Lucifer” (Weird World)

“Lucifer” showcases a more immediate version of their sound from previous foggy lo-fi releases. In fact along with Julia Holter’s “Ekstatis” this album proves that lo-fi home recordings can have a clarity and immediacy without sacrificing the grit that made them attractive in the first place. “Lucifer” acts a cooling balm or cool stream water leaping at your feet instead of the more humid and clammy sound of 2011 brilliant “936”, though it’s a little unfair to directly compare those two albums “Lucifer” demonstrates the duo ability to subtle evolve their sound while still using the same basic sound set. Maybe the biggest difference musical is that Peaking Lights have chosen to create more up tempo track this time round compared with leisurely to sluggish pace of previous work, this seems to run in tandem with their new clearer and more immediate sound. The best examples of this are the funk strut of ‘Dream Beat’, the pumping bass and purposeful drum beat of ‘Live Love’ and its darker musical twin ‘Midnight (in the Valley of the Shadows)’. Peaking Lights also add some new elements to the album such as marimba on ‘Moonrise’, piano on ‘Beautiful Son’ and an Oriental melody on ‘Live Love’, that it would e great to hear more of future releases. All in all I’d through recommend “Lucifer” to Peaking Lights fans, those who are curious about the duo or those whose interest is piqued by this write up, it’s well worth investigating.

Wow, this year has been an exceptional musically and its been so difficult to narrow down these Top Ten Releases of the Year..so far and Honourable Mentions. Aside from the releases in this feature I’ve been enjoying releases by Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahms, Blockhead, Quakers, Andrew Bird, Errors, Black Bananas, Air, Islet, and Laurel Halo.

Honourable Mentions

Ital – “Hive Mind” (Planet Mu)

Ital’s debut album makes for an interesting listening experience, though this is dance music, it’s unlike to set many dance floors alight. However, this doesn’t make it the album a failure; in fact its inverting of house and techno music structures is a thrilling and disorienting experience. Though by no means a direct comparison its seems that Ital is attempting something similar to Axel Willner aka The Field though Willner inverts the structures of techno, Ital disrupts and stretches them to their limits. Another indirect reference point is that of Cabaret Voltaire’s 80’s era music (and founder Richard H. Kirk’s work as part of Sweet Exorcist, recently anthologised by Warp Records) this seems to a constant in the drum and the influence crops up most obvious on ‘First Wave’ with added disorienting rhythms and synths. The most obvious direct influence outside of dance music is the kosmiche musick of Cluster, Harmonia and to a less extent Tangerine Dream, in fact ‘Floridian Void’ (the highlight of the album) sounds a little like a dark techno take on fellow American kosmiche musick enthusiast Emeralds. I feel sure that the debate about ‘Hive Mind’ will continue throughout the year as it could well turn to be one of those albums the confounds and confuses as much as it thrills and provokes thoughtful analysis.

Clark – “Iradelphic” (Warp)

“Iradelphic” occupies similar sonic territory as the music put out by the Ghost Box label, especially the most recent album by The Belbury Poly, so it seems appropriate that Ghost Box co-founder Julian House produced the artwork for the album. The album combines folk elements such as acoustic guitars, double bass, acoustic drums and strings with synth drones, arpeggios, electronic drums and percussion and psychedelic effects. The icing on the cake is the vocals of Martina Topley-Bird who provides vocals on ‘Broken Kite Footage’, ‘The Pining Part 2’, ‘Secret’ and ‘Open’. The album divides itself into two song types of track more song based and more drone based soundtrack music/palette cleansers and Clark switches effortlessly between the two showing his diversity as an artist. Another string to his bow is that even the song based material features unexpected twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes. With “Iradelphic” Clark confirms himself as deserving of a place among Warp’s most vaulted artists, his varied career to date has rarely seen a drop in quality, he is the equal of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada.

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 ‘Elegant 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.

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”. Further to this the album repositions El-P as “a real hip-hop focused musician rather than a beatmaker”; the musicality is turned up to ten and so this already heavy music makes an even greater impact. 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” and Thee Satisfaction’s “awenaturalE” close for best hip-hop album of year..so far!!!

Symmetry – “Themes for an Imaginary Film” (Republic of Music)

On ‘Themes for an Imaginary Film” Symmetry aka Johnny Jewel and cohort Nat Walker (of Chromatics and Desire) cover a huge range of emotional and musical ground utilising banks of synths, drum machines, guitar, piano, orchestral percussion, Bassoon, Cello and Viola. Despite the vast array of moods and instruments on show the duo create a cohesive and impressive album that wastes non of its 2 hour running time. Though some of material and sounds used recall Johnny Jewel’s many other projects there much evidence of his application of more compositional techniques found film scores and he weaves this into this ambitious album with aplomb. From the song titles to some the sounds selected the album screams film score however this no mere pastiche, more a humble doffing of the cap to the many great score composers that have gone before. In addition to this is the fantastic sound design which ranges from lush, warm and beautiful through to cold, spiky and dissonant, Symmetry and their equipment can feel you with dread, put a smile on your face and everything in between. “Themes for an Imaginary Film” is an amazing achievement that could have so easily failed to live in to its ambition but instead goes above and beyond simply being a tribute to soundtrack music as it captivates and thrills the listener in equal measure. Two hours of instrumental music (with the exception of the last track) won’t be for everyone but it’ll be worth it for those who stick with this incredible album.

Top Ten Releases of the Year… so far 2012

10.       Mirrroring – “Foreign Body”  (Kranky)

Mirrroring is a collaboration that was bound to happen sooner or later between Liz Harris aka Grouper and Jesy Fortino aka Tiny Vipers whose individual styles are so obviously complimentary it was only a matter of time before they worked together. “Foreign Body” is the breathtakingly beautiful result of said collaboration and brings together the transparent drones of Harris’s songs with the picked acoustic guitars and soft vocals of Fortino. Their sound is both gentle and yet thoroughly engaging, it may be lighter than much drone music but it isn’t light-weight. The dynamics employed across the whole album are one of the most striking things about it and demonstrate these are skilled artists able to exercise control while never strangling the life and emotion from a musical idea. The two best examples of this are ‘Cliffs’ which builds to a peak at the halfway stage before repeating an even better version of the song for its second half and ‘Mine’ which starts with a simple drone and acoustic guitar combination builds to a peak and then gradually twists itself into ever more complex shapes. It’s difficult to find the words to describe this astonishing album; it has to be heard to be believed.

9.         Thee Satisfaction – “awe naturalE” (Sub Pop)

In “awE naturalE” Thee Satisfaction have delivered an energetic album filled tracks that both provide amply bounce need for a hip-hop jam but also manages to subtly subvert both traditional methods of creating sounds and challenge the overly simplistic ‘soulful’ vocals used so liberally in hip-hop music. It refreshing to hear an act pushing the limits of hip-hop while still managing to make music that moves your body. The fact that these tracks are stuffed to the gills with soulful vocals, jazzy tunes and an expressive emotional palette makes an engaging and entertaining listen. The half an hour run time demands that the album be played again immediately and is the album is equal satisfying and reveals more of its charms with each repeat listen. Never out staying their welcome and yet able to go distance on the longer tracks Thee Satisfaction will be a welcome addition to your music collection.

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8.         Peter Broderick – “http://www.itstartshere.com” (Bella Union)

This album picks up where Broderick left off with his last solo release “Music for Confluence” and features the same basic instrumentation acoustic/electric guitar, piano and violin. However, there are subtle and not so subtle ways this album manages to differentiate its self from “Music for Confluence”, firstly this isn’t a film soundtrack and thus allows Broderick more freedom of expression. The most obvious ways this freedom is expressed is the album brighter and sometimes more upbeat sound and the fact that Broderick’s lead vocals (which sometimes sound a little like Arthur Russell) dominate whereas only backing vocals were present on “Music for Confluence”. In fact the album features a lot more melodic materials full stop and married with Broderick’s expert use of harmony, reverb and others effects to create atmosphere it makes for much more dynamic material. Throughout the album Broderick successfully tightrope walks between accessibility and pushing the listener beyond their expectations. He achieves this not only with his melodic work and use of effects but also unpredictable song structures on ‘With The Notes on Fire’ (like two songs in one), ‘Colin’ (which initially sounds like the rest of the album before the introduction of percussion pushes the song in a new direction) and ‘Asleep’ and its use of crowd source readings of the lyrics from around the world that disorient and delight in equal measure. “Music for Confluence” is a great album and “http://www.itstartshere.com” is its equal and perfect companion piece.

7.         Blondes – “Blondes” (RVNG INTL)

Blondes self titled debut album sees the duo marrying together modern dance music influenced by the likes of The Field, Gui Boratto and other Kompakt techno alumni and modern Ambient and hynagogic pop acts such as Laurel Halo, Teengirl Fantasy and Rene Hell amongst others. Blondes manage to fuse these two opposites together in way that plays to the strengths of both, you never feel the dance elements are getting bogged down by the atmospherics or that the atmospherics are dominated by the dance elements. The duo encompass a range of emotions across the album from the brighter tracks like ‘Gold’ and ‘Amber’ to the dark and subdued ‘Pleasure via drowned Kraftwerkian synth work on ‘Business’ and foggy tension of ‘Water’. One of the album’s strength is that despite the amount of recycling there is (every second track is a re-versioning of the previous track) the variety on show is impressive as is the duo’s ability to keep the listener engaged and excited by these same/similar elements. Repeat listens reveal more and more detail and that music is underpinned by a subtle influence from the classical minimalism of Steve Reich and Meredith Monk (who the duo sample on ‘Lover’). All in all a great debut album that promises plenty for the future.

6.         Ekoplekz – “Westerleigh Works EP” (Perc Trax)

This EP has been talked about/marketed as Ekoplekz’s first venture into dance floor territory and listening to it you can hear why. However, Ekplekz still keeps his trademark sounds front and centre but the EP uses space more effectively and percussive sounds and deep bass provide the forward motion need. Of the three originals ‘Ekoplatz’ sounds most like his previous material while being underpinned by techno bass and percussion, the other two ‘Narco Samba’ and ‘Xylem Teardrops’ fill more stripped and danceable, while Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) remix of ‘Ekoplatz’ follows a similar template but adds electronic woodblocks, more structural dynamics and some of Kirk’s own idiosyncratic dub sounds. A highly recommended release for those into the darker side of dance music.

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

This 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 soundscapes 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 equally 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 reaches the same heights as 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.

4.         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.

3.         Orcas – “Orcas” (Morr Music)

The debut album from this Seattle duo (Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below) and Benoit Pioulard’s (aka Thomas Meluch) leaves me lost for words, one of those albums that difficult to describe without selling it short. However, I will endeavour to paint a picture of this heartbreakingly beautiful music. The dominate sounds are plaintive piano, twanging to ethereal guitars and vocals and various crackles, hums and heavily processed electronic sounds. These simple elements are manipulated to create different textures, atmospheres and emotions across nine tracks. Though the duo have created a sound of their own there are some influences/inspirations suggested by the music including Peter Broderick & Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s soundtrack work, the noise abstract pop of Broadcast (who are covered on the album) and indirectly reminds me of the latest Oneohtrix Point Never album “Replica”. All this is held together by the song writing touches that are subtly weaved throughout the album helping this album raise above more generic ambient and experimental music releases.

2.         King Felix – “Spring EP” (Liberation Technologies)

The “Spring EP” picks up where Laurel Halo left off with the “Hour Logic EP” last summer, though she has some tricks up her sleeve and the music is a lot harder to pin down. Here the rhythms wiggle and squirm restless and constantly shifting not settling into a smooth groove, this is one of the things that makes the EP so exciting you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. The first three tracks are all a variation on the same theme, Halo is so inventive within this limitation that the listener is never bored by the central theme. I’m not an expert on techno but it seems to me that Halo has carved out her own style while referencing the glory years of early Nineties Detroit techno. The other crucial difference between this EP and “Hour Logic” is that whereas many of the tracks on the previous EP sound submerged beneath water this is Halo least veiled work to date; she lets the tracks reveal themselves and breathe, all the elements able to exhibit themselves equally. The “Spring EP” is a fantastic addition to Halo’s discography.

1.         Julia Holter – “Ekstasis” (RVNG ITNL)

The first thing that marks “Ekstasis” out from both last year’s excellent “Tragedy” and her peers music is the brightness of its sound, gone is the shadowy and foggy atmosphere’s replaced by a sharp and incisive production job to revival today’s most intelligent pop stars. While it’s true that Holter’s not going to be the next million selling pop star this album’s production positions this music as “pop” and the abundance of hooks and melodies only reinforces this point. Then there’s the effortless feel of a lot of the music, despite many of the tracks being over 6 minutes in length. There’s no feeling of over indulgence even when a saxophone rears its head on ‘Four Gardens’ and ‘This Is Ekstasis’ everything here earns its place and makes sense within the context of the songs. It would be tempting to compare Holter to her many contemporaries within the hypnogogic pop genre especially her friend and collaborator Nite Jewel. Though her use of delay and reverb create similar feelings/images the musical and lyrical content aims instead to transport the listener further back than the 1980s and into the ancient world which Holter is so interested in. With “Ekstasis” Holter has created her own sound world that seems to subtly reference pre-existing sounds/genres and rhythms without ever sounding directly like anything you’ve previously heard. An artist who can switch with ease between different sounds and sections without breaking a sweat or alienating the listener, Holter is an artist with a bright and long future ahead of her.

10. Ursprung – “Ursprung” (Dial)

 “Ursprung”  is Pantha Du Prince (Hendrik Weber) and Stephan Abry. The pair previously worked together when Abry contributed “sound sources played on prepared instruments” for Pantha Du Prince’s exceptional album “Black Noise”. “Ursprung” (German for origin) is a flawed release, it seems based on alternating a few standouts with tracks that fulfil an experimental role but don’t deliver an exciting listen. Yet it deserves a place on this list for the five tracks that provide a union of beautiful melodies, emotional depth and high production values. ‘Mummenschanz’ is a gentle track that weaves minimalist guitar chords and phrases into ambient textures above a pattering bass and snare drum rhythm that sounds like a relaxed Neu! cut. After a short measure of interplay between guitar and bass frequencies ‘Ohne Worte’ evolves into an uneasy groove of guitar phrases that are pulled along by a thudding bass drum, percussion and metallic textures which build to a frenetic climax. ‘Exodus Now’ is the album’s centrepiece: dense with guitar chords, icy synths, Neu!-inspired rhythms and buzzing noise. The hand of Hendrik Weber can be heard in the fleet-footed hi-hats and bell-like percussion. A 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. ‘Lizzy’ is the closest thing on “Ursprung” to what could be called technowith its sort-of danceable bass line and complimentary techno drum rhythms, percussion adding a frenetic touch underneath a playful melody. On ‘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 harmonising second male voice all the while its stuttering rhythm refuses to slot into place. These five tracks contain emotional resonance coupled with stunning atmospherics and textures, motorik rhythms and delicate minimalistic guitars underpinning it all.

9. Mohn –  “Mohn” (Kompakt)

Kompakt pioneers Wolfgang Voit and Jörg Burger continue their long friendship with Mohn, a new project that comes with a self-titled album. In an effortless synchronisation of its parents’ styles “Mohn” (poppy in German) is full of atmosphere and sustained emotional resonance. The album contains nine tracks that could be an aural representation of a Casper David Friedrich painting: barren landscapes and colossal, other-worldly forces of nature erupting or the sound of the unnamed apocalypse that dominates Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is most apparent on ‘Schwarzer Schwan’, which begins with a ghostly synth and an immense bass drum that thunders under a delayed, drifting melody. The intensity rises as a second synth melody comes in and out of view. Male and Female voices enter singing held notes all the while that heavily reverbed bass drum thunders. Others are moments of fragility and beauty; any abrasive edges have been erased. Neatly sitting alongside Voigt’s exemplary work as GAS is ‘Ambientöt’, thanks to the long reverb tails that seep out into soft, sparkling atmospherics meanwhile ‘Saturn’ evolves into a track of delicate percussion and textures that flutter like a bird’s wings, recalling Cluster’s “Sowiesoso”. Flickers of the style of techno Voigt and Burger had a hand in creating can be heard in the sensual, slowly unfolding ‘Seqtor 88’ or ‘Ebertplatz 2020’, a wonderful decelerated ambient/techno track with a beautiful synth part that drifts in and out, gradually building to an intense yet sombre climax; full of atmosphere and emotional resonance. On the haunting and unearthly ‘Wiegenlied (lullaby), the listener is brought back to an uneasy sense of dystopia: a lone cavernous bass drum signals the album’s end, it is a final death-knell of a human-inhabited world and the beginning of a post-human one. Added together, “Mohn” couldn’t be anything other than a Kompakt release – possessing fleeting tension strong enough to upset the glistening ambient clouds and expansive minimalism.

8. Marcel Dettmann – “Landscape EP” (Music Man)

The main feature of ‘Landscape’ is a slow, muted melody that swells underneath hissing and thudding drums that are classic Dettmann. Their syncopated shuffle evokes a broken electro rhythm. Though it’s uncharacteristically subdued for Berghain’s master of thunderous techno, an unsettling cry that repeatedly rises from the mix is the embodiment of the agony and ecstasy of peak hour. ‘Landscape’ is the kind of track designed for a skilled DJ, like Dettmann, to build a set around; a track that is capable of providing surprising twists for years to come. The accompanying remix by Answer Code Request whips the track into a fever of tension, the bass lines punches harder, a syncopated 909 snare comes to the fore and that female cry is unbearably loud. It’s a remarkable track though even at high volume it feels strangely distant as if the listener is hearing it emanate out of Berghain’s lauded walls rather than from the centre of sweaty elation.

7. King Felix – “SPRING EP” (Liberation Technologies)

This “SPRING EP” by King Felix (Laurel Halo working under a name taken from a previous EP) carries on the thread of the “Hour Logic EP”, notably the accelerated beats and ecstatic cries of ‘Aquifer’. The first three tracks, ‘SPRING01’, ‘SPRING02’ and ‘SPRING03’, are reconfigurations of the same instrumentation and theme, one that heavily references early nineties Detroit techno, in particular Drexciya’s underwater world and the sheen of early Model 500. Their rhythms are restless and shuffle constantly. Halo races the drums forward then scales them back to allow piercing synths to sit atop. The vast organ samples that screech through the opening of ‘SPRING 01’ are anchored by a visceral beat and razor-sharp synth textures. Only on the dramatic ‘SPRING03’ does she let a percussion-filled, 4/4 techno beat dominate. The final track, ‘FREAK’, is a collage of drones. Its sagging bass line looms underneath a quivering synth pattern and Halo’s submerged voice which merges into stretched-out chords. “SPRING EP” is coloured by its immediacy, moments of frightening suspense and an almost aggressive purposefulness. Though the four tracks string together as a narrative arc each presents a different personality and it is Halo’s ability that imbues the collection with cohesion.

6. Ital – Hive Mind (Planet Mu)

With his debut album “Hive Mind”, Ital disrupts and stretches the signifiers of techno and presents something that sits between the context of dancefloor and home listening. Starter ‘Doesn’t Matter If You Love Him’ takes those lyrics from Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ and chops and repeats the line until it becomes a faintly absurd mantra which then dissolves into a glitched drone. ‘Floridian Void’, a highlight, is a dark techno track containing an unsettling low end, queasy synthesisers, stretched-out vocals and a clap/hi-hat pattern that never quite slots into a liquid groove. Ital’s corruption of techno structure provides a thrilling yet disorienting experience, across “Hive Mind” there is an unshakeable sense of uneasiness:   the drums push yet don’t flow with a danceable ease and bass lines swing nauseatingly. Only until the final track, ‘First Wave’, is the listener provided with a breather, an ecstatic release of booming bass drums, a hands-in-the-air 303-aping bass line and rapturous synths; a blissful finale to “Hive Mind”. Outside of techno and wider dance music, the next clearest influence is the kosmiche musik of Cluster and Harmonia, which can be heard in the rising and falling harmonies in ‘Israel’. Many of the reviews of “Hive Mind” have discussed the album in analytical/academic rather than music/production terms, such as finding dystopian analogies within the paranoia-inducing elements that pervade ‘Privacy Settings’ to a life half-lived on computers or technology’s fast-forward-paced advancements. Yet to see and appreciate “Hive Mind” by its intelligent use and abuse of dance music signifiers increases the album’s longevity and emotional response and makes for a more satisfying and complete listen.

5. Blondes – “Blondes” (RVNG INTL)

Slotted between Kompakt’s elegant techno-pop and US dance music releases such as Laurel Halo’s output and the King Felix “Spring EP” (Laurel Halo’s pseudonym), “Blondes” captures a range of emotions and moods. Each pair of tracks are two versions of the same thematic idea, reflected in the paired song titles: ‘Lover’/‘Hater’ ‘Wine’/‘Water’, ‘Business’/‘Pleasure’. Similar to Kompakt’s model, the tracks’ dance elements are complimented by rich atmospherics and luxurious synths. Each track bears the duo’s extended, rippling approach to house and techno as do the slow builds and heady releases that contain a patient construction of melodies and texture.  ‘Lover’ opens the album with a Meredith Monk sample folded into a strident piece of late-night electronica. ‘Wine’ is calmer and smoother, a lithe vocal-filled track that flows into its partner, ‘Water’, a refined “Autobahn” recline that would fit beautifully in any Michael Mayer set. The Kraftwerk-esque ‘Business’ is set against the dark, subdued ‘Pleasure’. One of the most intricately constructed tracks is ‘Gold’, which follows its 4/4 guide through arpeggios, the distant sounds of percussion and Berlin techno melodies. ‘Gold’ and its pair ‘Amber’ glow in the distance, creating the album’s beautiful ambient conclusion. “Blondes” is a singularly impressive piece of work that enthralls and captivates.

4. Claudio PRC – “Inner State” (Prologue)

Claudio PRC’s debut album “Inner State” takes us deep into the abyss. It is a minimalistic world of profound and effortless deep, hypnotic techno and one that is filled with heavy atmospheres, foggy dubs and unrelenting beats. Claudio’s love for techno and production skills is displayed with confident poise. In his own words, “In most of my tracks, the electroacoustic side plays the more emotional role, where the atmosphere created by the sound research and processing are my means to tell a story, while the rhythm reveals my natural matrix of energy I use to give life to these stories.” Opener ‘Echoes’ is a pitch black techno track with a relentless bass line that fold into waves of static and hi-hats. Intense, snapping percussion tops a droning bass line and cloudy textures in ‘Transparent’ and beat-less ambient track, ‘Leave’, provides a reflective moment before the vitriolic beats of ‘Radial’ kick in. With “Inner State”, Claudio PRC shows great potential while Munich-based label Prologue maintains its status of championing high-quality techno artists.

3. Orcas – “Orcas” (Morr Music)

Named after the mammal native to the Pacific Northwest where Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below) and Benoit Pioulard hail from, their new collaboration as Orcas blends poignant, twinkling pop songs with shuddering masses of electronic sounds; a fusion of song-writing with ambient minimalism that stands somewhere between the piano-based modern compositions of Peter Broderick, the Field’s highly emotive techno and GAS’ subdued beats and stately atmospheres. ‘Pallor Cedes’ sets the tone of the self-titled album with rising and falling drones and a clipped guitar rhythm sitting under softly picked acoustic guitar and Pioulard’s aching repetition of the phrase “like coming up for air”. “Arrow Drawn”’s clever use of vocal double tracking and harmonies slowly seep into the listener’s ears as quiet acoustic guitar and piano merge into ‘Standard Error”s floating loop of sighs. Calling to mind GAS and Irisarri’s work as The Sight Below is “Carrion”, an unhurriedly evolving hymn that encompasses a distant beat, echoed piano parts, an irregular guitar chord and Pioulard’s gauze-covered sad-eyed voice. A standout is their sublime, glacial cover of Broadcast’s ‘Until Then’, a poignant tribute to the untimely passing of singer Trish Keenan. Continuing the album’s use of piano, the track is built on a close-mic’d delicately played piano which frames Pioulard’s reflective vocals. Dark tones that lurk beneath the surface surge to the fore three minutes in compacting everything under coarse static until a sudden drop back to a solo piano, making for an emotionally charged song. Across the album Benoit Pioulard’s vocals glide along amid quiet piano and guitar notes and backing textures that rise and fall in gentle interplay, vinyl crackle and natural reverb adding an important touch of atmosphere. “Orcas” is a beautifully dignified album that summons a sense of space, understated progression and emotional depth.

2. Claro Intelecto – Reform Club (Delsin)

Reform Club sits in a dreamy, foggy haze of serene melodies and reflective emotion. It’s comforting and inviting while deeply tender, the meaty production gives the tracks a thick texture. The album’s nine tracks sit together in a unified way; cleverly avoiding homogeneity – a result of meticulous compositions and the freedom Claro Intelecto’s new label Delsin has offered. Opener ‘Reformed’ matches ‘Voyeurism’ (from the “Second Blood” EP) in pace and style. Metronomic hi-hats push the tempo to 120 BPM (‘Reformed’ is the fastest of the nine tracks) while a bouncing bass line and snatches of strings top a driving bass drum. A standout is the next track ‘Blind Side’, which sounds like a Basic Channel track for this decade: a deep bass drum pushes forward a mysterious melody that is submerged under churning dub-techno percussive elements and metallic slivers of hi-hats. ‘Still Here’ takes the tempo down to 96 BPM. Reverbed percussion sits upfront, striking the listener, and melancholic, dreamy strings are embraced by the bass drum; a theme throughout the album is the depth and warmth in the low end frequencies. The beautiful, fluttering synth that appears at 3:25 in “Night Of The Maniac” is something to behold as it flickers above sonorous beats and a dark melody that is set against a counterpoint bass line. Album closer ‘Quiet Life’ features piano and fluctuating sheer pads to form a delicate, touching conclusion. Musically, emotionally and production-wise, “Reform Club” is one of the strongest, deepest techno album of the past six months.

1. Voices From The Lake – “Voices From Lake” (Prologue)

Voices From The Lake is a project born out of a friendship between Italian DJs/producers Donato Dozzy and Neel. Following on from last year’s beautiful, lucid “Silent Drop EP”, the self-titled album extends and deepens their ambient techno explorations with an emphasis on the techno component.  Listening to “Voices From The Lake” is an immersive experience as the textured beats and unhurried rhythms pour with a deeply hypnotic flow. The deep wells of ambient sounds develop and unfold at their own pace, creating a intoxicating sense of tranquility. ‘Iyo’ imposes scattered hats and percussion against a humid backdrop. Its drones leads us into the next track ‘Vega’, which introduces a pulsing bass drum underneath a soothing pillows and layers of tiny hits of percussion. The pair’s reworking of the previously-released ‘S.T.’ is a revelation. After 30 minutes of bubbling and vibration, the album’s first bass line emerges, a gently ascending and descending chord progression that creates impact while remaining airy and translucent. Rhythm, texture and atmosphere are the key components of this album, creating an enveloping physical presence that asks for concentration; a meditative state of listening. “Voices From The Lake” is something that is alive and breathing. Its patterns shift and morph in minute detail, so subtly and patiently that it gives the album an unusual flow, a feeling like it’s floating. The construction is painstaking, so much so you can’t tell where one track begins and another ends.In the context of sound design “Voices From The Lake” has far more emotional resonance than most releases, it has a warmth that feels inviting. Except for the mid-album detonation of melody and beats, this album ignores techno’s linear structure by replacing the rise-rise-rise-peak-explosion-descend progression with one that places builds and falls into tiny pockets of a wider, complex canvas. Donato Dozzy and Neel have created a unique, entrancing release that supplies the closest aural equivalent to waldeinsamkeit since Pantha Du Prince’s “Black Noise”, my top-ranking album of 2010.

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