Tag Archive: Ninja Tune


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“The Balance” is Free the Robots aka Chris Alfaro third album after his self titled debut album (2008) and “Ctrl Alt Delete” (2010) and his profile hasn’t been higher than its is now. Despite being associated with the Low End Theory club night and the L.A. musicians such as Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer etc it’s taken a long time for Alfaro to emerge from their shadow. But he’s here now and we’re all the better for it.

The album opens with the heavy reverberant piano chords and downbeat drums ‘Ophic’ which features a swirling organ melody and the smoky vocals of Jessie Jones. ‘Reflect and Reform’ starts off with wah-wah filtered synth and female voice singing ‘la la la la la’, then a huge, slow moving hip-hop beat drops and a glassy, whistling synth hovers over head. Around 1 minutes 30 seconds in a busy, fast tumbling drum beat and computer game synth bass and melodies kick in, before the woman returns around 2 minutes in. The song changes again with the last minute this time sounding like a glitch hop beat with a simple more reflective lead synth melody over the top.

‘Parallaxis’ kicks off with an upbeat drum break, bass guitar and muted guitar riff, this intro reminds me of getaway music. Then the track breaks down to a head nodding hip-hop beat and synth bass splurges. An 8-bit synth melodies kick in around 1 minute and 30 seconds, before the chase music feel returns brief. Then the track switches back to the head nodding beat. ‘Innervision’ explores the more electronic side of the Free the Robots sound and features slow and stretched electronic drums, twangy, spooky guitars and detuned sounding synths. Later a slow synced LFO bass line drops and takes over. Voice samples are placed in the background throughout. A warm electric piano melody kicks in for the last quarter of the track.

‘Blindfold’ matches thick analogue synths that dive in, bubbling up and bringing in a rolling hip-hop beat full of flams and rolls before an organ melody take over lead duties. Later on great slabs of synth bass dominate the second half of the track and a computer game synth melody hovers above it. The album’s title track is another highlight combining dark reverberate piano chords, a complex beat full of rolling bass drum and snare. These are followed swiftly by a resonate synth melody and a counter point played on organ comes in after 1 minute 30 seconds. The melody becomes a yearning flute around 2 minutes 30 seconds in.

“The Balance” is a good title for this album as Alfaro attempts to bring together many disparate sounds and genres that it could all go wrong so easily. Yet he found a balance between all of these elements and created a great album out of them. Definitely one for fans of Flying Lotus and anything on the Ninja Tune and Stones Throw labels.

FILTHY-FRONTCOVER

After a series of limited edition 7” singles tensed what was to come with his forthcoming “Angels and Demons” album The Bug gives us the biggest sneak peak yet with the “Filthy” EP.

The EP opens with ‘Freakshow’, which features the uniquely voiced U.S. M.C. Danny Brown and Kiki Hitomi The Bug’s collaborator from King Midas Sound. The song begins with Hitomi singing “freakshow” through a haze-y dub delay before distant and disturbing horns come in swiftly followed by Brown and a bass drum, then the full slow moving beat and crusty, creaking synth bass line kick backing the horn riff. As the track progresses towards to dizzying climax The Bug amps up the intensity of the track adding more delay and gritty texture to the mix and ramping up frequency of the drum rolls. Next up, is ‘Dirty’ on which Flowdan lyrical destroys the history of Grime in four minutes flat. He’s performs this over a fizzy lo-fi brass samples and slow echoing drums.

The second half of the EP begins with the echoing piano chords of ‘Kill ‘Em’ then a distant synth figure comes in before the full beat (featuring a clanging snare) kicks and provides backing for Daddy Freddy’s maundering dancehall flow. The Bug then utilises the same backing track on ‘Louder’ this time featuring Flowdan and a different set of drums. The only other difference is that ‘Louder’ is more dynamic than ‘Kill ‘Em’. However considering this is the best and catchiest track on the EP it’s not a compliant to hear it twice.

With “Filthy” The Bug has delivered a great stand alone EP that also whets the appetite perfectly for “Angels and Demons”, can’t wait to hear the album!!!  

1.       Killer Mike – “R.A.P. Music” (Williams Street)

Killer-Mike-R.A.P.-Music

Killer Mike and El-P’s collaborative album 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 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” was the first landmark hip-hop release of 2012, a great year for the genre as a whole.

2.       Nas – “Life Is Good” (Mercury)

Nas returns with the superb new album “Life Is Good” a top hip-hop release in a year packed full of high quality hip-hop releases. Though the album doesn’t quite reach the heights of hip-hop classic “Illmatic” the quality rarely drops over the albums 14 tracks (18 on the deluxe edition). Nas balance’s a selection of solo joints complimented by well chosen collaborations with the likes of Large Professor, Amy Winehouse, Mary J. Blige and Anthony Hamilton amongst others. He also strikes a balance between hard hitting hip-hop tracks e.g. ‘The Don’, ‘Summer on Smash’ and ‘Accident Murderers’ with lighter summer jams e.g. ‘You Wouldn’t Understand’ and ‘Reach Out’ and jazz inflected tracks e.g. ‘Cherry Wine’ and ‘Stay’. Strings and piano are the dominate instruments and compliment the mature subject matter about the recent events in Nas’ life and his new found optimism. The cinematic scope of “Life Is Good” is stunning with Nas demonstrating that he has the gravity to compete with other blockbusting rappers like Jay-Z whose similar productions can sometimes sound hollow and overblown. The album rarely lets up its relentless pace but this no bad thing and none of the tracks out stay their welcome. On his most personal album to date Nas doesn’t pull any punches is his brutally honest tales of his own past and present, matching the vivid production of No I.D. and Salaam Remi (best known as Amy Winehouse’s producer on “Back to Black”) every step of the way!

3.       Flying Lotus – “Until the Quiet Comes” (Warp)  

The much anticipated “Until the Quiet Comes” starts as it means to go on with subtle shuffling beats of ‘All In’ with bells and chimes that lead the way harmonically and melodically. These elements become the glue that holds together this elemental, organic and sophisticated release from the highly regard Flying Lotus. For much of his career he has balanced ghetto fabulous beats, drum ‘n’ bass/UK Bass music undertow with his families’ roots in jazz and spiritual music and this continues on “Until the Quiet Comes”. However, it’s the cool jazz and calm spiritual music that is the dominate force whereas previously it had played second fiddle to the glitches, electronic breaks and huge bass rumble of the current music scene. Not that the modern glitches and deep penetrating bass lines and beats are absent, they just play a subtler supporting role with the exception of the ‘Sultan’s Request’ and its thick, brittle digital sounding synth bass, which gets twice as heavy in the second half of the track. The album also sees Flying Lotus utilising vocal samples and guest vocalists much more effectively, a particularly good example is Thom Yorke’s contribution to ‘Electric Candyman’ in which Yorke’s vocals are expertly and sparingly used, whereas they appeared anonymous on “…and the world laughs with you” from “Cosmogramma” (2010). “Until the Quiet Comes” initially feels like it might greater longevity than “Cosmogramma”, which though it really hit home on the first couple listens, its impact dulled over time. It was also a busy and demanding listen, whereas space is utilised throughout “Until the Quiet Comes”, which allows the listener to “fixate on any one sound and extract feeling from it.” Time will tell if this feeling becomes reality but one thing’s for sure Flying Lotus has delivered a more than worthy follow up to what often viewed as his masterpiece.

4.       Kid Koala – “12 Bit Blues” (Ninja Tune)

The latest album from the prolific Kid Koala takes a basic concept, expands on it and executes it to perfection. That concept is an album built around samples from old blues records put together using his trusty turntables and newly acquired Emu SP 1200 sampler. When I heard about this concept my initial thoughts were that this might be an overly dour album but Kid Koala proves me wrong with an album packed with hip-hop bangers that blow the cobwebs away!! Chirping synth and a vocal sample that says “the kids in rare form tonight” kick off the album before stride piano and boom-bap hip-hip beats enter to start off ‘1 bit blues’ properly, these elements turn out one of running themes throughout the album. But Kid Koala keeps the interest going with blistering guitar riff, analogue synth swiggles, sci-fi effects and a huge array of expertly deployed vocal samples. The highlights on the album range from the aforementioned opener, ‘4 bit blues’ where a down tempo hip-hop beat backs pitched down slurring vocal samples, heavy bass, brass and stride piano, ‘7 bit blues’ with its head nodding beat raucous guitar licks and subtle scratching and ‘8 bit blues (Chicago to NY to LA)’ with its expertly scratched vocal samples, neck breaking hip-hop beats and huge horns stabs. Kid Koala’s major achievement with “12 Bit Blues” is marrying modern sound elements such as the synths and the SP 1200 sampler beats with samples that date from close to a hundred years ago. As usual Kid Koala uses his turntables subtle to make the samples his own and add a modern rhythmic edge to his tracks. “12 Bit Blues” is a superb album that matches his career high “Carpel Tunnel Syndrome” and “Some of my Best Friends are DJs” track for track!!!

5.       Thee Satisfaction – “awE natural” (Sub Pop)

In “awE naturalE” Thee Satisfaction have delivered an energetic album filled tracks that both provide amply bounce that’s 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’s 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 affecting vocals, jazzy tunes and an expressive emotional palette makes an engaging and entertaining listen. From the opening disorienting swirl of ‘Awe’ to the fast moving finale of ‘Naturale’ via album highlights ‘Earthseed’ with its dark and dank atmopsherics and vocal the curve their way through notes, ‘Queens’ seductive and slippery groove and ‘Enchantess’ a darker twist on ‘Queens’ with pitched down vocals and a guest rap from Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces. The half an hour run time demands that the album be played again immediately and is the album is equally satisfying and reveals more of its charms with each repeat listen. Thee Satisfaction never out staying their welcome and yet able to go distance on the longer tracks, if you like original, warm music with depth and attitude “awE naturalE” will be a welcome addition to your music collection.

6.       Blockhead – “Interludes After Midnight” (Ninja Tune)

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

7.       El-P – “Cancer 4 Cure” (Fat Possum) 

In some ways “Cancer 4 Cure” 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” and “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.

8.       Oh No – “OhNoMite” (Traffic)

Oh No’s “OhNoMite”’s overall sound and approach harks back to classic 90’s hip-hop sound though the source material is entirely made up of samples from Rudy Ray Moore’s audio achieves drawing heavily on the soundtrack to Blaxploitation film “Dolemite” from which the album takes its title. As a result of this the album is pack full of funk loops, smoky jazz chords and swinging tough hip-hop beats that get your head nodding. The album is stuffed with guest appears but doesn’t suffer from attention deficit disorder, each MC contributing high quality raps that fit into the album overall theme. The old skool styling’s of album don’t get in the way of enjoying it, in fact it’s a major part of “OhNoMite”’s appeal. One of the stand-out elements of the album is the fantastic array of analogue synth sounds that feature throughout; it’s also a sound that doesn’t always bed in well in straight hip-hop tracks, in my opinion and Oh No’s production’s successful ingrate them with thrilling results. This is a thoroughly brilliant and refreshing hip-hop record that will appeal to fans of Madlib, The Alchemist and filthy funk 90s classic hip-hop.

9.  Big Boi – “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours” (Mercury)

“Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours” is an ambitious and highly emotive album, one that fuses together 80’s funk, new wave and ambient synth textures with Big Boi’s trademark Dirty South hip-hop style. It is in short Big Boi’s pop album and rivals fellow OutKast member Andre 3000’s “The Love Below” as the finest pop entry in their respective back catalogues. This is the album that I thought I’d be hearing from Andre 3000 when he got around to making his debut solo album but Big Boi has beaten him to the punch. I’d go as far that is the most emotional raw and broad hip-hop since Kanye West released “808s and Heartbreak” (2008). It’s difficult to single out highlights on an album where quality level never drops from start to finish, this could be an overcooked and busy affair with seventeen tracks and many more collaborators but Big Boi and his opulent backing tracks gel with everything single contributor. Whether it’s the swarming strings of ‘The Thickets’, the 100% electro fest that is ‘Thom Pettie’ or the lush 80’s funk come-on’s of closer ‘She Said Ok’ it all just works even when it shouldn’t. Big Boi recently proclaimed his love of Kate Bush’s music and this influence runs through the whole album informing its lush synthetic and acoustic textures and arrangements. Prince is another 80’s pop star whose influence is a regular feature on the album and it’s no bad thing even on the out-and-out cheese fests of ‘Raspberries’, ‘Descending’ and ‘She Said Ok’, the influence is always present on 80’s funk numbers ‘Apple of my Eye’ and ‘Higher Res’. I didn’t think I’d be writing this but with “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours” Big Boi might have just trumped his debut solo album“Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty” (2010).

10.     Doseone – “G Is For Deep” (anticon.)

The long awaited new solo album by cLOUDDEAD co-founder Doseone is one of the finest releases by any member of that trio since their self titled debut album in 2001. It picks up where the last Subtle (a spin off project from Doseone and Jel of cLOUDDEAD) left off but with a much greater emphasis on space and pop hooks. Throughout Doseone strikes a balance between chip tune elements, deep probing electro beats and strong melodic content. The releases of cLOUDDEAD and their related projects have always used ambience in conjunction with beats and rapping but here it feels more like Doseone is tapping into a rich vein of dream-pop that recalls the Cocteau Twins in their 80’s pomp. The new found space and melodic clarity make for a more immediate listening experience though there are still enough twists and turns to keep long time fans interested, I’m sure some will see this as a compromise but this genuinely feels like a natural evolution for a unique artist.

Some Releases we missed in April and May

Kwes – “Meantime” (Warp)

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

Blockhead – “Interludes After Midnight” (Ninja Tune)

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

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

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

Biggest Disappointment of the Month

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

Walls – “Coracle Remixe” (Kompakt)

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

http://www.kompakt.fm/releases/coracle_remixe_12/embedded

Jherek Bischoff – “Composed” (Leaf Label)

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

Ursprung – “Ursprung” (Dial)

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

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

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

Laurel Halo – “Quarantine” (Hyperdub)

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

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

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

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

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

Top Release of the Month

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

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

This month’s Classics Critiqued comes from ones of the most unusual artists working in electronic music, Brazilian producer Amon Tobin who is to drum ‘n’ bass what Bach was to classical music of the 17th Century. Tobin is a true innovator who has been able to see past the limitations of his genre and created a style so unique that no-one has been able to imitate it.

Tobin’s career began while living and studying at university in Brighton, he saw a magazine advert for London-based label Ninebar who wanted artists to send them demos, Tobin’s demo was the cream of crop and he signed with the label in 1996. Initially Ninebar released a series of 12” singles featuring hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass production released under the name Cujo, the material from these 12” was later released as the Cujo album “Adventures in Foam” which attracted the attention of Coldcut’s Ninja Tune label. Though he was initially suspicious of Ninja Tune’s advances Tobin signed with the label as he could see “..all the artists on Ninja were being given free rein to be the weird, not-really-fitting-in-anywhere-else person that they were. I was not fitting in anywhere, I was allowed to breathe and develop. I felt very, very privileged to be there.” In 1997 he released his début album for the label and his first under the name Amon Tobin “Bricolage” a hyperactive adrenaline shot of epic drum ‘n’ bass. At this point Tobin was still refining his style searching for the elements that would make him stand out from the crowd. Tobin didn’t mind as he recalls in Stevie Chick’s Ninja Tune book “I remember going down to Music House to get my dubplates cut, sitting there with all these drum ‘n’ bass people in big Puffa jackets, and just feeling completely out-of-place, because my dubplates Disney voices singing on them, or some weird sound that would make everyone turn round and look at me like I was a freak. I realised I was never going to be a part of that, which ended up being a great thing.”

With “Permutation” Tobin established his artistic formula not only  placing Tobin in his own space within drum ‘n’ bass but bringing him closer to the other artists on Ninja Tune while expanding the label’s reference points at the time. Stevie Chick puts the album in context, ‘“Permutation” located within drum ‘n’ bass a heart beating in jazz-time, and laced more meditative moments with bristling percussion… the likes of ‘People Like Frank’ firmly in Ninja Tune’s lineage of jazz-inflected hip-hop instrumentals, but also veers off in wild new directions, with bionic Gene Krupa snare-rolls sending supine, smoky bass-lines down inspired wormholes’.

Tobin’s music is so often considered (like a lot of drum ‘n’ bass music) on a purely technical level and, textural, in Tobin’s case. Little consideration is given to the emotional and melodic content of his music, which seems strange for music so rich in evocative sounds. In fact the man himself has said the following about this very subject, “I was just feeling my way, following my instincts…There’s no theory or formula I’m following. I respond to music on an emotional basis, and try to bypass anything too cerebral really, doing what feels good, and right”. Many emotions can be drawn from “Permutation”: dread, wonder, happiness, melancholy and wistfulness being just a few. In addition to this is Tobin’s ability to transport the listener to another place or time either through the music itself (e.g. the choral vocal sample on “Night Life” recalling childhood memories of the film “Willow”) or a well placed dialogue/vocal sample.

This ability to evoke strong emotional responses and use of film dialogue is key to understanding Tobin’s music. On “Permutation” there are references to David Lynch films throughout, opener ‘Like Regular Chickens’ features dialogue from the director’s début film “Eraserhead”, the title of  ‘People Like Frank’ is taken from a line in “Blue Velvet” and the song samples from two pieces from Angelo Badalamenti’s score to the film (‘Night Streets – Sandy and Jefferey’ and ‘Akron Meets the Blues’), while its thought that the ‘Fast Eddie’s title may refer to the character Mr. Eddie in “Lost Highway”. In addition to this the album is littered with samples from film soundtracks including “Taking Judy Home” by Luiz Bonfa and Eumir Deodato from the film ‘The Gentle Rain’ sampled on ‘Nova’ and ‘Kitty with the Bent Frame’ by Quincy Jones from the film ‘Dollars’ sampled on ‘Toys’. I also suspect other soundtrack samples are included on the album as Tobin has admitted to sampling Disney soundtracks and the choral sample on ‘Night Life’ sounds uncanny like one of the main themes from “Willow”. It’s the cinematic sweep, subtler and attention to detail present on “Permutation” that separates it and Tobin from his drum ‘n’ bass peers both then and 14 years later.

After “Permutation” Tobin could do little wrong following it up with two equally classic album “Supermodified” (2000) and “Out From the Out Where” (2002) and has received critical acclaim for the found sound explorations of “Foley’s Room” (2007) and “ISAM” (2011). In addition to these album his potential as soundtrack composer has been realised with projects including the soundtrack for video game “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory”, Hungarian horror film “Taxidermia” and Hollywood films including “The Italian Job” and “21” featuring commissioned material by Tobin among others.

Though there are few artists (except his current collaborator and fellow Ninja Tune signee Eskmo under the moniker Eskamon) who could be said to be influenced by Amon Tobin he raised the stakes for what could be achieved in sampler based electronic music with “Permutation” and changed the musical landscape forever.

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