Tag Archive: electronic music


EARS

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.

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Nevermen are a trio consisting of Doseone (Subtle, 13&God, cLOUDDEAD), Faith No More’s Mike Patton, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. The project initiated around 2008, after Doseone had appeared on the 2006 album by Patton’s Peeping Tom project, and Adebimpe guested on ‘Yell&Ice’ (2007) an album by Subtle. The trio announced that they were working on music together in 2008, and in 2009 Doseone announced that they had named themselves the Nevermen and had signed to Lex Records, also home to Subtle. All three members kept busy with their other commitments, most notably Faith No More’s reunion, so fans had to wait until 2015 before hearing the first taste of the group’s music. Singles “Tough Towns” and “Mr. Mistake” finally appeared in 2015, with the latter sporting a remix by Boards of Canada. The self-titled album by Nevermen (who had removed “the” from their name) finally appeared on Lex (in the U.K.) and Patton’s Ipecac label (in the U.S.) in February 2016. It was hard to know what to expect coming into this album between three unique collaborators though an interview with The Quietus had revealed that the group openly rejects the idea of having a frontman, and all three members contribute equally.

The consistent things throughout the album are the tag team effect used by the vocalists, the atmosphere of the tracks which are either icy intense or angry punky adrenaline rushes. It is easy to discern who created which part of the music and what role each vocalist is playing and the roles are always suited that vocalist. However, this never feels like a bunch of elements that are disperate but a whole as if this had been a band that around the years. There is quite an industrial feel to the album, not in terms of the genre Industrial music but the sound palette is quite metallic and there’s a lot of serrated then cutting guitar and synth sounds. The trio skilfully combine hip-hop, metal/rock and punk trash throughout the album.

The album opens with a cold metallic drone, then drums and vocals kick in with Tunde and Doseone the most prominent voices. For the verse Mike Patton take over for a few lines, then Doesone chips before Tunde finishes the verse., this an approach used throughout most of the album. The verse gives way to tribal drums and thin synth melodies of the chorus. Heavy guitars kick back in the second verse ramping up the tension before the drop to a bare guitar melody and bassline rumbling in the background. The sonic assault of the music and trio of tag teaming vocalists could be overwhelming in the hands they said this comes across as a strong album opener.

Up next is the Heavily treated drums and rushing synths of ‘Treat ’em Right’ these underpins trio of vocalists throughout the song’s introduction. Everything drops out to give way for a new more complex and percussive hip-hop rhythm before shifting into a rock style section with trebly guitar melodies. There is barely time to get to grips with one section the track before the next is upon you but is exciting instead of irritating. ‘Wrong Animal Right Trap’ combines thunderous drums and super distorted vocals that give way to heavy punky guitars and bass with the three vocalists harmonising before tag teamming through the rest of the song.

Tough Towns’ begins with a shifting synth atmosphere that fades in, eventually joined by glacial hip-hop beat and Tunde and Doseone harmonising. The track is very cinematic and atmospheric with a creepy vibe. It utilises a whole different tempo and tone to the other material so far, showing that the group is far from a one trick pony. The shift in tone and tempo continues on album centrepiece ‘Hate On’ with its spooky opening harmonies from Tunde which then break down to bells playing a sparse melody and icy atmosphere. A slow and loping beat and more vocal harmonies takeover before speeding up given way to a deep bass and slowly evolving vocal melody. A bit see processed percussion pushes the section forward as more synths join in underneath the vocals. The album the shifts between the more up tempo distorted and tense material and atmospheric slower tracks.

This is definitely album that can only really be made in the last decade, a modern melding of multiple genres and production techniques that pulls no punches. Compare to Young Fathers & Saul William’s “Martyr Loser King”. Along with Adrian Younge’s “Something about April II” this is an essential release in 2016. Go get it!

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

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Gary Numan isn’t music that normally gets reviewed on Sonic Fiction and I have to admit to having been more interested in the man’s personal struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome as a musician and human than a Numan fan, with the exceptation of his biggest hits. However, in recent years my interest has been piqued and now that Numan’s back and more high profile than he has been for years I checked “Splinter” and decided to give it a review.

The album was written during and after a period of years of depression that Numan experienced and as such the album is full of songs that talk about fear of getting older, struggling with having children, the depression and its affects including how his marriage almost broke up. So while the lyrical content is fascinating but on a similar thematic lines the music is very diverse ranging from the “creaky, gothic atmosphere of ‘Where I Can Never Be’ to the minimalism of ‘Lost’ via the dramatic, poisoned string arrangements of ‘The Calling’, monster disco floor-filler ‘Love Hurt Bleed’, the ultra catchy ‘Who Are You’ and slow build anthems ‘Everything Comes Down to This’. Numan even digs back into his with the brooding and relentless title track recalling the sound of his debut album “Replicas” (1979).” 

The album opens with ‘I Am Dust’ which begins with clanging percussion a feedbacking synth and guitars thatfeel both digital and dusty. Numan’s lead vocals and a screaming digital lead synth enter for the first verse, a hi-hat pattern drops part way through and gives the rhythm forward momentum. Then there’s a breakdown/bridge before the epic, tortured sounding chorus. When the verse kicks back in there’s a full rhythm track and ripping synth riff in place and the track powers forward!! The rhythm also gives the bridge and chorus an extra lift and more synth layers, there’s some a little more joyous in the chorus now. Next up is ‘Here in the Black’, scraping sounds and synths rise out of the dark, they give way to the dramatic strings, pizzicato synths melody and heavy guitar riff and thick bass. Everything drops away then Numan enters again singing in a whisper over thumping industrial beats, synths and deep bass. The second section returns with the strings amping the drama further and a vocal synth part cutting for a delay covered solo. Numan enters for a nasally lead vocal part, then everything drops away again. The verse section and whispering vocals enter again, halfway through a great drum break enters before the song is lifted up again for the instrumental chorus and then the nasally vocals.

‘A Shadow Falls On Me’ opens with deep echoing bass drum and cracking industrial snare/clap, swiftly joined by a feminine sounding vocal from Numan and treated detuned sounding lead synth. Hi-hats drop in around one minute in to fill out the beat and drive the track forward. Cruching guitar kick in for the last minute as a delicate melody falls over the top of tough backing track. ‘We’re the Unforgiven’ combines fizzing distorted electronic snare, subtle stuttering electro drums and cascading lead guitar during its intro. The intensity builds with the entrance of two rhythmic synths lines. Then everything falls away to make way Numan’s vocal on the first verse. Again synths build the intensity before things drift away and a synth and guitar briefly solo. The guitars and dirty synths take over the with a huge filth riff for the last two minutes of the song. The album closes with the emotive ‘My Last Day’, its opens with distant filtered percussion and synth textures that crawl along underneath reverb heavy piano and Numan’s lead vocals. Around two minutes the synth comes into view properly for a moment then everything is filtered away and the piano and vocals take over again. Three and a half minutes in the synth lead rises again and the percussion is unfiltered and tumbles beneath the piano and synth lead. There’s a yearning to the synth and piano melodies offset by the tribal percussion.

With “Splinter” Numan has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A man once paralysed by depression emerges to deliver a great throughly modern album that doesn’t attempt to cash in Numan’s 80’s legacy or newly heralded position as a influential figure for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Basement Jaxx. This is Numan’s (and collaborator Ade Fenton) truimph, so lets hope it isn’t anyone seven years before we get another one.

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I first read about Kwes in Clash magazine back in 2008 when he was featured in their Ones to Watch section. They were a little premature in their prediction but they were right about this producer’s great potential. Since then he’s colllaborated with Micachu and produced tracks on “GOB” by DELS and then signed to Warp Records and releasing his “Meantime” EP in April 2012. All his work to date has straddled experimental music, pop and hip-hop and “ilp” is no different, he went as far as defining his music as “free pop” as he recently explained to Clash magazine “Free-pop really is me pigeonholing myself, before other people do,” he explains. “Pop is what gave me that education and gave me the impetus to make music. It’s literally just letting it run, just letting the music-making run. It was all very free-flowing.”


The album kicks off with one of its highlights ‘Purplehands’ it opens with a field recording of swans quacking and flaaping their wings put through reverb before a thick synth bass drone and two high frequency synth drones take over. A slow, gentle melody seems to emerge around one minute twenty seconds in then the drones fade away and the reverbrate lead vocals of Kwes enter. A synth pad moves quietly below his vocals, after about thirty seconds a simple light beat drops as does a bell like melodic sound and bass guitar that leads into the songs lean yet swelling chorus. The song bursts into life with post-rock style guitars, bass and drums around four minutes and forty five second ins, the track breaks down again briefly with Kwes singing, occasional piano and synth. Then the guitars, bass and drums surge in again creating a wave for the vocal, synth and piano to ride. Next up is the single ’36’ it begins with a distorted, murky bass guitar plays alone, then a head nodding hip-hop beat drops, swiftly followed by a piano chord progression. Things break down for a verse at one minute forty five, leaving just the drums and Kwes vocals, the piano cuts back in partway through the verse to build towards the chorus. There’s a great bell melody that kicks around three minutes and fifty seconds in. It’s a great piece of experimental pop.  


‘Cablecar’ opens with simple electric piano melody and beat with Kwes delayed vocal melody drifting over the top and a rumbling synth bass underpinning everything. Things gets more complex in the chorus with the melody rising and falling much quicker. Three minutes the track fades out and there’s just the beat and some spoken word phrases before the droning synth bass re-enters bringing with it everything else including a new glassy synth melody. At five minutes the song shakes off the droning bass and like ‘Purplehands’ is set free for its climax. ‘Hives’ combines a deep penerating bass line, fluttering percussion that’s heavy compressed, metallic percussion and and an ascending electric piano for the intro for the track. A destructive synth bass and computer melody take over before a hip-hop beat that cracks takes over, later filmic strings cut in briefly. The track sounds like an English an to Flying Lotus and like a lot of the album is incredibly cinematic. ‘Chagall’ opens with layered reverse sounds pan around the stereo field, then a deep bass guitar/synth emerges and underpins the reverse which are now joined by reverse vocals. Then everything drops out around a minute in, returns for a moment and then is replaced by a crunchy distorted reverse effect, everything returns again thus timeone by one the sound swelling and getting bigger and bigger. The album finishes with ‘B_shf_1’ a more uptempo version of ‘Bashful’ from the “Meantime” EP, at first I didn’t like this version (and still prefer the original) but after a second spin the track really grew on me.

With “ilp” Kwes has produced an album that is sonically, structured and emotional unique within the three genres he has chosen to combine. Across the length of the album he evokes a huge range of emotions from melancholy to happiness via repressed anger and it play out with an all enconpassing setting of his childhood growing up in Lewisham. In fact, the video and images that accompany Pitchfork’s stream of the album are a good starting point for the imagery that Kwes music plants in your mind. Only on ‘Hives’ does he sound like any one else and even then the sense of Englishness is very strong. Kwes has delivered an excellent debut album that lives up to the four years of on and off hype he’s experienced, can’t wait for the follow-up.

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Julia Holter returns with “Loud City Song” her third album in three years and the first to record in a studio instead of her bedroom studio. It is immediately evident that this album is both similar and different to those that preceded it. The album is again themed but this time instead of an Ancient Greek theme were transported to 1940’s Paris and the film/novel ‘Gigi’ and Holter’s home of Los Angeles the inspiration for the album. Holter also continues to play with both avant garde and pop music though whereas her previous albums felt grounded and homemade “Loud City Song” brings in elements of jazz and soundtrack music that make for more upbeat and sweeping arrangements.

‘Maxim’s I’ is a great example of the leap that Holter’s made on this superb album. It begins with quiet hi-hats & cymbals play in the distance overlapping each other. The tension rises with strings and heavy piano and a synth pad enter for the beginning of the song proper. A full drum kit plays beneath all of this and Holter’s sparse lead vocal. Then there’s a breakdown to piano and violin around 2 minutes 30 seconds in before a new drum beat and Holter enter creating something that sounds like a more muted version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire De Melody Nelson”. The first section and beat returns around 4 minutes in and is later joined by what sounds like a new thicker pad sound. Next up is ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ the most effective use of field recordings in one of her songs to date. The field recording of “the brisk footfall of her fellow passersby evokes claustrophobia, danger and paranoia (is she being chased? Or is it all in her head?)”, it sets the tone for the nervous and menacing song that follows perfectly.

‘Maxim’s II’ opens sharply with Holter’s lone vocal and surges of strings. Horns join in honking before a vibraphone enters followed by pounding drums and bass guitar. Everything breaks down around two minutes in with Holter sing over just a field recording. Then huge honking horns and orchestral percussion crash in and push the joyous track along. Around 4 minutes and 30 seconds in the beat breaks down into something more strict and industrial, globs of metallic guitar, thick synth drone and squawking sax make the tracks chaotic climax. Album closer ‘City Appearing’ is an example of something else Holter manages to deliver across the whole of the album which is expert use of dynamics and texture. It begins with just Holter’s naked voice and stark piano chords. Around 1 minute 30 seconds in a wet, subtle synth pad enters glistening and slow moving. A drum beat coated in reverb enters around 2 minutes 40 seconds in. Then 3 minutes 24 seconds in a double bass line enters giving the track new purpose. Around 5 minutes in the synth pad rises to a level that causes the track to feel both tense and swirly which is emphasised by the acoustic drums that shift about below the surface.

With “Loud City Song” Holter may have delivered her best and most fascinating album to, she has managed to make a record that is hugely ambitious and hugely satisfying for the listener. Holter has truly mastered using space, dynamics, texture and improvisation alongside melody, harmony and composing. She is able to paint pictures and evoke emotion with both field recordings and musical elements and effortless blend or move between the two. It is difficult to define, is she an experimental artist or a pop artist or both? Whatever she is it’s a joy to listen to and experience.

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