While Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith isn’t a familiar name she has been playing music from a young age, at 13 she was writing rock anthems using crude sampling techniques. Three years later she was paired with a mentor who was a film composer he taught to use Pro Tools and Kurzweil samplers her first real introduction to music technology, she has said of that period “My mind was blown by just how many textures you could get and how much control you could have”. However next move was to attend the prestigious Berklee Music College to study classical guitar and piano, while there she formed folk duo Ever Isles. After graduation she moved back to her childhood home of the Isle of Orcas were a neighbour lent her a Buchla modular synthesiser for a year. Initially she just used it to process her voice and guitar continuing to compose in the same way. Once she started to use as in the sales many other features she found a way to create the orchestral music she’d always wanted to compose. “EARS” (her second album after 2015’s Euclid” and many collaborative efforts) finds Aurelia Smith combining all her many experiences and styles into a cohesive and organic whole.
The album’s opening track ‘First flight’ begins with a bubbling synth arpeggios that fade in and are quickly joined by slow-moving thin synth chords. Then a short sharp riff joins in, things continue like this with the riff dropping in and out. There a saxophone rifff and third synth melody introduces themselves out of nowhere before everything drops away to heavily vocoded vocals with a synth melody and chords following them. Shortly afterwards we return to the previous synth heavy section, again that melody comes out of nowhere and gives way to the vocals. The song then stops abruptly giving way to the thin organic sounding synth chords and reverberant electronic percussion of ‘Wetlands’. The track has a relaxed atmosphere and more space than in the opening track. When he first section dies away there’s some borderline cheesy vocoder though it’s one that works organically within the mix like Boards of Canada or Black Moth Super Rainbow. These two references don’t seem to pop up a lot when Aurelia Smith’s music is discussed cheese compared to a lot of female synthesists such as Laurie Spiegel and Susan Ciani , these comparisons are without merit they are somewhat limited to one aspect of the music and the person making it. The album also regularly reminds me of the brilliant ‘Choral’ album by Mountains near the great marriage of the synthetic and the organic.
Next up is ‘Envelop’ which begins with a slowly ascending synth melody and thin wispy synth chords open this track. A second counter melody weaves its way through the track giving it a sad feel where before it been contemplative but neutral. The track shifts into a new section of the see-sawing synth melody and a flute-like counter melody playing call and response parts in the form of short riffs that help the track gain momentum again. Smith again enters with her vocals that this time they are more natural sounding there may be some vocoder but it’s very subtle if there is. The similar ‘When I Try I’m Full’ features a slowly ascending synth chord that rises before quickly turning into a chord progression that hangs in the air. The chords drop away and a light muted synth arpeggio plays, it’s joined soon after by a more digital almost video game-like arpeggio. Smith sings some light vocal harmonies and almost nursery rhyme like melody across the top of the synths. The third track with an ascending opening ‘Rare Things Grow’ is up next, the long held synth notes ascend over the top of drip drops of electronic percussion, at first the percussion is sparse before coalescing into a loop. A saxophone solos over the top all of this before the track breaks down with the sax and Smith performing a call and response. Then the bass drum and sax player alone before a new synth arpeggio and Smith’s vocals emerge.
Closer ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ combines a bubbling synth arpeggio and bulbous pulsing synth bassline to back Smith’s vocoded vocals. Woodwind synths cut in and out of the mix. The track is relatively fast when compared to the other tracks on the album and has an urgent feel. Things breakdown around four minutes in with pulsing mesmeric pads the only thing left in the mix, now feels as if watching blazing sun go down from a car or high-speed train. Then the section changes again with what sounds like a xylophone playing a simple rhythmic riff before being overcome by bold digital synth riff and a swarming high pitched flute-like arpeggio. These elements fall away around eight minute mark and the track is led by buzzing pad, high synth arpeggio and phat digital bass riff. The flute sound returns to the mix for the final push to the end of the track.
All in all I found “EARS” to be a beguiling bucolic album that more than lives up to the many names she is frequently compared to e.g. Laurie Spiegel, Susanne Ciani (with whom Smith will be releasing a collaborative album with in the future) and Julia Holter. Much music made on modular synthesisers in contemporary music is associated with nerdy white men making music that since more interested in the process this creation than the result. There is no such problem with “EARS” which is lively and demands repeat listening, highly recommended.
Prodigy & Alchemist – “Albert Einstein” (Infamous)
“Albert Einstein” sees two hip-hop veterans team up for a collaborative album for the first time, after much work on Mobb Deep albums and some of Prodigy’s solo albums. Prodigy has been rapping since his teen years and has been releasing music as both part of Mobb Deep and his own solo albums for 20 years. The Alchemist is a producer of some renown who also started his career as a teenage in a duo called Whooligans and releasing his first production job 20 years ago.
I gave Alchemist’s last solo album “Russian Roulette” a bad review as I felt it’s production was unnecessarily over the top but he’s manages to reign in these tendencies on his varied and solid album. Prodigy’s lyrics stick his hardcore hip-hop roots with street raps and subjects the order of day, however his ability to change his flow and tone across the album is impressive and keeps the listener engaged.
The album’s highlights include ‘IMDKV’ with its double time bass drum, sharp piano chords, punishing synth bass and chaotic acoustic drums circle around Prodigy’s vocals and piano in the centre of the track. ‘Give ‘Em Hell’ matches dramatic strings with subtle hip-hop drums to demonstrate Alchemist can tone things down when it’s appropriate for the song or section of a song.
‘Death Sentence’ sees Roc Marciano join the party as he and Prodigy trade hardcore New York rhymes over deep, pulsing bass guitar, acoustic drums, thin swelling strings and an ethereal synth melody. ‘R.I.P.’ features Prodigy’s Mobb Deep partner Havoc and Wu Tang Clan legend Raekwon and features great use of the classic sample “U.F.O.” by ESG, which is used textural instead as the main beat and adds an eerie atmosphere to the track. On ‘Bible Paper’ things get vey cinematic and recalls Redman classic “Smash Sumthin’ while the lush strings of ‘Brezee’ and ‘Raw Forever’ sound like lost gems from a Blaxploitation soundtrack by Isaac Hayes.
All-in-all “Albert Einstein” delivers classic hip-hop sounds from two highly respected veterans, it’s not a game changer but is a very good hip-hop album, especially for fans of classic hardcore hip-hop.
Young Fathers – “Tape Two” (Anticon)
The Scottish trio Young Fathers had self released one E.P. called “Tape One” before they found their perfect home in alternative hip-hop label Anticon, famous for releasing the music of cLOUDDEAD, Why? And their experimental-emotional hip-hop peers.
“Tape Two” opens with the emotive “I Heard” which immediately establishes that this is a group that can 1) write a great song, 2) features some of the trio’s signature sounds e.g. ghostly reverb vocals, subtle use of drums and percussion and 3) that the comparisons to TV on the Radio are fair. ‘Come to Life’ sounds like The Neptunes gone lo-fi with its dirty synth bass, tribal beat and Pharrell-like lead vocals. ‘Only Child’ puts the tribal drums upfront alongside deep piano chords tough start-stop rhymes. ‘Queen Is Dead’ is the most explicitly hip-hop track with its siren synth sound, hollow sounding bass drum and hard hitting but wet snare drum. ‘Freefalling’ sees the trio embracing a heavy Dub influence with its bass line and atmosphere aping the Jamaican genre’s sound. ‘Mr. Martyr’ is a dark and mournful highlight with sparse and deep drums and offbeat tambourine combing with distant synth chords, distorted synth bass and mournful guitar melody to create a great soundscape for both the lead vocals and rap verses. ‘Way Down In the Hole’ combines glistening synths, the group trademark lead vocals with tribal drums, siren synth effects and dirty synth bass to stunning effect. “Tape Two” finishes with the thin tribal drums, ascending and descending synth chord progression and deep synth bass buzz with spine tingling piano to round out an incredible release from a trio who promise to only get better as they evolve.
Aceyalone- “Leanin’ On Slick” (Decon)
Aceyalone is a seasoned rapper having been releasing solo album’s since 1995’s “All Balls Don’t Bounce” and having founded the Freestyle Followship in the early 1990’s. “Leanin’ on Slick” is Ace’s thirteenth solo album and kicks off in a fine style with the simple yet funky percussion, deep bass and wah-wah guitar of ’30 & Up’ which set the tone for this funky album that screams summer. It’s quickly followed by the title track which throws a James Brown vocal sample into the mix, so far, so funky. Horns make their first appearance on ‘I Can Get It Myself’ which also sports a great tumbling drum break.
‘What You Gone and Do with That’ changes the formula up with some popping electronic drums replacing the acoustic breaks that have filled the album so far and synth brass replacing the real thing. However, the track loses none of the funky swing present throughout the album. The formula gets another twist on ‘I’m No Cassanova’ with its Stax Records soul groove and lead guitar and again on “Working Man Blues” which adds acoustic guitar and the Cee-Lo Green singing the songs chorys and “Things Get Better” which revolves heavily around the lead vocals and vocal harmonies of Daniel Merriweather.
On the rapping front the album will be a letdown for those who want top draw innovative rhymes and flow, it’s not that anything wrong with Aceyalone’s rapping it’s just he’s not saying or doing anything new. Personally I enjoyed his rhymes and he can definitely deliver the mature lyrics and controlled flow of a rap veteran but it’s the musical backing that’s the star of this album. Overall though this one of the best hip-hop albums of year so far despite this one criticism.
Action Bronson and Harry Fraud – “SAAAB Stories” (Self Released)
With “SAAAB Stories” Action Bronson and Harry Fraud have delivered their best release and most varied release to date. Both rapper and produce are at the top of their game and pushing each other to do greater things.
Things kick off with ‘2 Virgins’ the first of several slower and more contemplative tracks on the E.P. its slow reverse intro and strings off set by sweet picked guitar and sour distorted guitar solo flow underneath Bronson and his hype man Big Body Bes’s rhymes. ‘Triple Backflip’ picks up where ‘2 Virgins’ left off with its gliding electric piano, snapping snare and round and warm bass drum, in the second of the track these elements are joined by mood enhancing subtle strings and nice picked guitars. ‘No Time’ is a highlight with its soloing electric piano, jazzy bass guitar and head nodding bass guitar a perfect backing for Bronson’s smutty rhymes. ‘Strictly 4 My Jeeps’ is a summer banger that comes closer to matching the brilliant ‘No Time’ and also gets your head nodding and foot tapping. ‘Alligator’ demonstrates Bronson’s storytelling abilities and with its downtempo and spooky yet dirty synth recalls Fever Ray’s excellent self titled debut album. Album closer ‘Seven Series Triplets’ rounds things out nicely with its picked bass guitar and pulse quickening beat the perfect setting for verses from Bronson, Prodigy and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon.
“SAAAB Stories” sees Bronson moving away from the perception of him as a food and sex obsessed Ghostface Killah impersonator and in fact I’d have to agree with Potholes in my Blog’s assertation that on this release he sounds closer to Ghostface’s Wu Tang tag team partner Raekwon. “SAAAB Stories” is the best hip-hop release of 2013 bar Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah’s exceptional “12 Reasons to Die”, this is an essential release!!!
Boards of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest” (Warp)
After all the mysterious codes, album playback’s in a desert and media hype we finally have the new album from Boards of Canada. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” doesn’t disappoint and stands up alongside the rest of Boards of Canada’s stellar back catalogue. There are two things that you notice after you first listen to the album 1) this isn’t a playful album filled with childlike nostalgia like “Music Has The Right To Children” (1998) 2) this is the most rhythmic Boards of Canada album to date from the drum beats the verge on hip-hop at times to the Vangelis style arpeggios and shifting synth textures.
The album opens with synthetic horn fanfare that purposefully recalls the introduction to an 80’s T.V. show, however this is a misleading and by second track and single ‘Reach for the Dead’ a few minutes later its clear this is going to a much darker proposition. The next track ‘White Cyclosa’ plunges us further into the darkness with its dread inducing synth drone, minimal echoing synth melody and unsettling shifting synth tones that rear their ugly head two minutes in. On ‘Jacquard Causeway’ a semi industrial beat competes with a curving synth melody and its counterpoint. As the song progresses more echoing synth melodies are added and the beat has acoustic layers added and feels looser as time goes on.
With its thin lightly modulated synth line and ethereal sounding vocal textures ‘Cold Earth’ is one of only tracks on the album that recalls earlier Boards of Canada releases albeit with a skittering beat and melody that jumps erratically around the beat and stereo field. ‘Sick Times’ also recalls earlier releases but with a darker, tenser atmosphere and thick, serrated electronic drums competing for the listener’s attention. ‘Collapse’ acts as the centrepiece to the albums palindrome structure it’s groaning reversed vocal effects set the disturbing tone and the Vangelis style arpeggio is another one of the albums key tropes. Next up is the album most playful track ‘Palace Posy’ with its bouncing synth bass and melody play off an almost head nodding hip-hop beat later a delayed synth stab and rhythmic synth melody kick and give the track yet more rhythmic variation, the closest thing to pop song that Boards of Canada have produced to date. ‘Split Your Infinities’ is another album highlight that opens with huge swath of synth drone and twinkling distant synth arpeggio, all this is underpinned by a crunchy beat and lo-fi vocal sample that come in, in the tracks second half. After the intensity of ‘Split Your Infinities’ and ‘Uritual’ the lighter and more pleasant ‘Nothing Is Real’ gives the listener a chance to relax, a pattern it repeated across the album’s structure.
The closer trio of tracks is one of the finest I’ve heard this year, starting with the digital degraded rhythmic synth riff and deep twanging bass guitar of ‘New Seeds’ which recalls Ennio Morricone’s finest soundtrack work but with a modern electronic twist. The track also has some great vocal textures and treated acoustic drums. ‘Come to Dust’ perfectly balances the darker and lighter elements of the album sound combining a deep synth drone and distant vocal texture with a spacious beat and synth melody and topping it all off with a fast moving arpeggio. The album finishes with ‘Semena Mertvykh’ and the album deepest and darkest synth drone which is twinned with a synth melody so distant it sounds like its coming from down a deep pit, static and tape hiss add to the track’s creepy, dark atmosphere.
There was a eight year wait between Boards of Canada’s last album “The Campfire Headphase” and “Tomorrow’s Harvest” but the wait was worth it with Boards of Canada producing another exceptional album.