Tag Archive: Perc Trax


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.

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Some releases we missed in July

Eric Copeland – “Limbo” (Underwater People’s Records)

The latest solo effort from Eric Copeland of Black Dice is not exactly what you’d expect from a member of that group. True there’s plenty of lo-fi sounds and noise on the album’s six tracks but they are rendered in a pop context. There’s hip-hop influenced uses of grooves and sampling, some house/techno inspired rhythm drum machines patterns and pad textures and wonky hooks aplenty. ‘Double Reverse Psychology’ opens the album with its mix of Submerged vocals, twanging guitars and pleasantly plodding rhythm all spectacularly skewed by Copeland on one of the album’s highlights. ‘Louie, Louie, Louie’ is another highlight matching funky lo-fi wah-wah guitar and charming churning synth to create a weird pop ditty. Elsewhere Copeland is less successful with his unusual hybrid ‘Muckaluk’s Heavily filtered synths, stabbing bass and quick fire rhythm never truly coalesce or convince, ‘Fiesta Muerta’ meanders though a swinging lo-fi groove and vocal and sax samples without ever catching fire. ‘Tarzan and The Dirty Devils’ comes closest to an out and out house track with its breathy vocals and airy house style drum machine rhythm and pad textures but doesn’t reach the heights of  ‘Double Reverse Psychology’ or ‘Louie, Louie, Louie’. The album peters out with final track the sci-fi tinged ‘Lemons’. It’s seems the Copeland is coincidentally going for similar territory as PLVS VLTRA mentioned elsewhere in this post but falls short of this aim for most of “Limbo”, though there should be enough here to keep Black Dice fans happy.

Perc – “A New Brutality” (Perc Trax)

The new EP from the head of the esteemed Perc Trax label is a fantastic addition to his impressive back catalogue. The EP opens with a single ear splitting tone before thundering bass drums kicks in bringing with it resonant filter swept techno synths and a punishing bass line, the title “A New Brutality” couldn’t be more apt. The pace and heaviness doesn’t let up on ‘Cash 4 Gold’ with its clattering electro hip-hop style drum pattern, corroded synth noise and glassy spooked synth melody that dominates the second half of the track, at which point it takes on a Lynchian vibe. ‘Boy’ is an electro meets techno banger complete with heavy industrial drums. The EP rounds off with ‘Before I Go’ where things get more contemplative with crunchy field recordings backing dark reverb heavy piano chords. “A New Brutality” is an essential purchase for anyone interested in underground dance music.

Toby Dreher – “Freiluft” (Rotary Cocktail)

Working alone and as one half of Dreher & Smart, the productions of Berlin native Toby Dreher have featured on a range of German labels, including 3000°, Perplex Recordings and Dekadent Schallplatten. His debut album, “Freiluft” will be released on his hometown’s Rotary Cocktail Recordings. The digital-only record is made up of ten tracks that reflect Dreher’s skills as both a DJ and live act. Ranging from driving techno, electronica, dub-techno and hypnotic techhouse, “Freiluft” is a well crafted debut. Reflecting the moody and swirling techno of Berlin are tracks such as ‘Imagination’ with its filtered textures, low bass line, scratchy hats and thin delayed melody and ‘Spurensuche’’s rainy atmosphere, resonant bass line and metallic textures. ‘Chordhose’ stands out as a showcase of Dreher’s production abilities. It features a driving beat, tonal percussion and harsh textures that flash in and out of view. The track gradually builds in intensity with dissonant strings and drilling textures added underneath an irregular synth note. A silken vocal sample contrasts the abrasive noises.  Elsewhere is the pitch black techno of ‘Headrush’, which comprises of male voice singing melodically underneath a second distorted voice, a distant clap, an intensely resonant bass line and zinging hats. The only true misstep is ‘Shurly’. Its misplaced use of a piece of well-known dialogue from a 1980 spoof film just doesn’t make sense in the context of the track’s dark, sweeping minimal techno and feels a little like an A-level music production effort. “Freiluft”, while not a greatly imaginative or fresh album, is a solid release that will find favour with fans of Skudge et al.

PLVS VLTRA – “Pantheon” (Spectrum Spools)

The debut album from Toko Yasuda best known as keyboard player in the touring bands for Blonde Redhead and St. Vincent is chock full of genre hopping and mashing oddball pop tunes. All created with a lo-fi aesthetic the album regularly recalls the work of M.I.A., Peaking Lights and indirectly Micachu and The Shapes, in place it also reminds me of Dutch lo-fi pop artist Solex and Brazilian electro pop band CSS on the reggae referencing title track. Despite these aesthetic and sometimes stylistic similarities this record has pretty unique spin on pop music warping it into many diffuse but still tuneful shapes. Yasuda also keeps the hooks and melodies coming even on the most esoteric tracks e.g. ‘World in Words’ which is dominated by pumping bass drums that underpin delay heavy vocals and twinkling cheap synth sounds or ‘Yume’s submerged tropical sounding techno. “Pantheon” is a promising debut from an artist who I hope goes on it create many more albums and develop this fantastically oddball take on pop music.

Biggest Disappointment of the Month

The Alchemist – “Russian Roulette” (Decon)

What can I say about the new album by hip-hop producer The Alchemist? Well, it appears he set out with good intentions and an over arching concept for the album but he falls short in a year packed with quality hip-hop releases. The OTT guitar solos and overtly smooth lounge jazz instrumentation sound like something you’d have heard in an airport lounge in the 70’s and leave a bad taste in the ear. This may well be the effect The Alchemist is going for, but it’s a displeasing sound. This is all the more surprising as The Alchemist has deservedly held a health amount of respect in the hip-hop community and recently had a revival of sorts producing quality tracks for the likes of Curren$y and an excellent collaborative project Gangrene with Stone’s Throw’ Oh No. There are many better producers creating (mainly instrumental) hip-hop concept albums, in fact I’d point you in the direction of Blockhead’s “Interludes After Midnight” for an excellent recent example. Whatever you do don’t buy “Russian Roulette”.

Outer Space – “Akashic Records (Events 1986 – 1990)” (Spectrum Spools)

The second album from John Elliott of Emeralds side project Outer Space is not a bad album; however it isn’t significantly different to anything Elliott, Emeralds or any other Emeralds side project has done to date. The same elements are present here as on those releases the synth arpeggio, the dark drones, the yearning synth melodies, the occasional effect or discordant melodic riff but it’s all the same. The opening track ‘Ellipse’ is the biggest disappointment it spends five minutes building tension and gaining more and more synth elements including a purposeful arpeggio before breaking down into an ambient second half that just fizzles out. The second track ’11:30’ begins in an equally promising manner with spectral synths intertwining and then being joined by a bubbling arpeggio and deep probing bass, however it then deplorably defaults back to the Emeralds template. ‘The Fifth Column’ repeats the same formula, ‘October 27th, 1989 – Bay Village, Ohio’ repeats the structure of ‘Ellipse’ with a digital arpeggio replacing ‘Ellipse’s all analogue sounds and on final track ‘February 8th, 1990 – Ashland, Ohio’ the Emeralds formula rears its head again. If your fan of Emeralds or the original kosmiche music they are inspired by you may like this album. Having said that I’m a fan of this genre of music but find it frustrating that modern artists such as Outer Space do little to move the genre forward, happy to merely recreate it perfectly.

Aesop Rock – “Skelethon” (Rhymesayers)

Aesop Rock new album sees a solid return for his long awaited sixth album, his first album exclusively devoted to his own productions, Rock having moved on and away from regular collaborator Blockhead. The album also features no guest rappers and the only other vocalist who features is Kimya Dawson (ex-Moldy Peaches). The album opens with Reverb heavy picked guitar and synth effects of ‘Leisureforce’ the chorus of which recalls TV on the Radio, in fact throughout the album Aesop Rock’s production heavily reference alternative and garage rock. This helps make sense of the collaborations with Dawson and Allyson Baker of Dirty Ghosts and gives the album a clear identity that separates it from Rock’s previous albums. The closest comparisons to Rock’s music on his album I can think of are fellow rap-alt. Rock experimentalist Busdriver and Rock’s former label boss El-P and his industrial aesthetic. The album’s highlights include the throbbing synth bass and cutting hip-hop beat of ‘Tetra’, dark head nodder ‘1,000 Clock’, ‘Racing Stripes’ with its clattering drum break, chopped up vocal stabs, funk guitar and bass and Rock flow smooth over the top and ‘ZZZ Top’ with its killer drum break, stabs and funk guitar lick. Overall this album won’t disappointment Aesop Rock fans and he his first attempt at producing a whole album is admirable, however “Skelethon” lags behind the other hip-hop releases we’ve recommended this year.

Laetita Sadier – “Silencio” (Drag City)

With her new album Sadier deliver another solid if unspectacular album. It’s solid enough and there’s the odd surprise but overall it feel very familiar. ‘Silencio’ focuses on the influence of French music on Sadier especially Serge Gainsbourg’s late 60’s output. Another influence that runs through the album (and in Sadier’s career) is that of The Velvet Underground. The albums highlights include ‘Fragment Pour Le Future De L’homme’ an upbeat French Disco track, the Latin inspired rhythms of ‘Find Me the Pulse of the Universe’, and ‘Auscultation To The Nation’ a combination of the Velvet Underground rhythm guitar and Gainsbourg style string arrangements. All of these songs show off Sadier’s new found skill for music arranging something that wasn’t present in her previous solo albums or those by Stereolab side project Monade. However, with the exception of these highlights the album never strays from the formula that Sadier established with Stereolab over 20 years ago or replicates long established generic styles and central influences. Though they aren’t bad songs or it’s hard to get away from these facts. Despite her best efforts to leave behind her past it haunts this album from start to finish.  

Beak> – “>>” (Invada)

A distinct improvement on their debut album, “>>” builds on that albums basic foundations and builds a charmingly crooked house on top of them. The central theme of album seems to be horror music and ghostly sounds as horror organ and retro delay/echo/reverb effects are a feature of a majority of the albums tracks. This is no bad thing as the bands understands these tropes and are not merely creating a facsimile or pastiche, these sounds achieve their aim. It would also be too simplistic to call this a krautrock album as though some track revolve around motorik grooves this very much a band with their sound and aesthetic, they don’t sound like Can or Neu! just obviously enjoy their music. There is a much broader and more imaginative sound palette from post-rock guitar riffs to Dub effects via Horror music organ this is a much richer sound and more developed sound while it still holds onto the energy and rawness of recording a band in a room. What’s more tracks like ‘Ladies Mile’, ‘Wulfstan II’, ‘Liar’ and ‘Yatton’ all have riffs and hooks that will stay with people for a long time after their first listen another thing that Beak>’s debut album lacked. All in all “>>” is a great album full of power yet subtle that masterful uses tension and release to create an engaging experience.

Micachu and The Shapes – “Never” (Rough Trade)

“Never” the new album from Micachu and The Shapes picks up where their debut debut “Jewellery” (2009) left off, retaining its lo-fi experimental pop sound and subtle developing it. The development manifests its self in the strong hooks that litter the album and Micachu’s previously monotone vocals finding a greater melodic range. The album gets off on the wrong foot with the first three tracks ‘Easy’, ‘Never’ and ‘Waste’ lack the remainder of albums hook and structural twists and turns. Luckily these tracks fly by in a few minutes (as do a majority of the tracks) and things pick up with ‘Slick’ and it’s swinging lo-fi hip-hop stylings. Next up is single “Ok” the melody of which recalls classic Stereolab, then ‘Low Dogg’s fat distorted synth bass crashes in and takes the listener a filthy thrill ride. ‘Holiday’ is a weird pop gem with a seasick melody. All that and were only halfway through the album. Other highlights on the album include ‘You Know’ a bouncy lo-fi pop song with Micachu’s distorted vocal dominating over the Shapes brittle shuffling backing, ‘Fall’ with its resonate melody and dark yet ethereal ambience and  the near psychedelic ‘Nothing’ the album’s most emotive and epic song. The band’s DIY instrumentation and oddball tendencies will put some people off but this an album that rewards those who decide to explore its experimental pop songs.

Top Release of the Month

Nas – “Life Is Good” (Def Jam/Universal)

Nas returns with the superb new album “Life Is Good” a strong contender for Album of the Year and 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!

“I don’t like things that are too obvious…If you, as a listener, are always putting something in a certain cupboard, I’ve never liked that. If you say, this is jazz, this is pop, this is…experimental techno and all these kinds of things, I don’t like that. I want to make it that somebody can create his own language… That’s what I tried to do. I’ve always tried to do new tracks, sounds that you don’t know, that you can’t define.” Moritz von Oswald, The Wire, July 2009.

Berlin-based producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald established Basic Channel in 1993. Building on the techno dialogue between Detroit and Berlin in the early nineties and the duo developed a slender but adored catalogue of stripped, ultra-minimal releases that compacted together techno, dub and ambient. Besides Basic Channel, the pair also operated under the ambient-leaning label Chain Reaction and other numerous projects: Cyrus, Phylyps, Quadrant, Maurizio and Rhythm And Sound.

This month’s Classics Critiqued covers “BCD”, a collection of their seminal 12” vinyl records. I have picked “BCD” because, as well as been a personal favourite, its tracks have been incredibly influential on this current generation of techno DJs and producers and without Basic Channel’s existence the genre’s landscape would be very different yet they and their releases are seldom covered in mainstream music press.

Germany’s techno scene was conceived while the country began to redefine itself in 1990.  With Detroit techno serving as their main influence and Berlin as the natural capital, Germany’s youth built their first dance music scene. The no-man’s land that sandwiched the Wall still remained after its collapse, leaving many buildings uninhabited during the year-long reunification process; as such the unclaimed and derelict spaces served many with the opportunity for club locations. Dimitri Hegemann and his Interfisch label peers found a series of underground rooms in the redundant Wertheim Kaufhaus (once Europe’s largest department store), on the Potsdamer Platz artery. The group took on their newly discovered space and named it Tresor (vault or safe in German). Hegemann recalls in Dan Sicko’s expert book ‘Techno Rebels’: “We were the place where East and West kids came together, musically…” Tresor was vastly important in bringing together the once divided generation and became one of a number of clubs in Berlin that introduced thousands to techno and united people through it. Also at the heart of the capital’s techno scene is the Basic Channel-linked record shop and distributor Hard Wax. Co-owned by Ernestus, Hard Wax had and still retains a high regard for Detroit techno and its principles and was central to the explosion of the genre in Berlin.

Rather than being culturally significant in the way that Tresor was, for example, Basic Channel’s value is in their influence on techno’s sound, aesthetics and preference for anonymity; that “let the music do the talking” mantra. As with Drexciya and Detroit’s Underground Resistance, Basic Channel infused techno with the mythology that would become as fundamental to the genre as its steady bass drum. Rarely permitting press coverage and by choosing a purely functional and unyielding name, Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus divorced themselves from the outside world with a self-contained production and distribution house that included their studio, label, Dubplates & Mastering facility and Ernestus’ Hard Wax. As with some techno artists, Basic Channel can be an alienating experience for those uninitiated in the genre and near impossible for a casual listener to penetrate; record sleeves contained little information but for a Berlin fax number and a sticker instructing “buy vinyl”. The cryptically named tracks, murky and populated by machines churning and throbbing, have little humanness or apparent emotional content.

Throughout the first half of the nineties, Basic Channel were one of Europe’s first techno innovators. Ernestus and von Oswald defined dance minimalism early on, both through a love of repetition as a form of change and a desire to let the music speak for itself. The tracks, released on their eponymous label, were termed ‘dub-techno’, owing to the subtraction of all but the genre’s most essential ingredients, which were then reconstructed to merge Jamaican dub, 4/4 bass drum pulses and dissonant synthesisers swallowed by rippling delays and reverb. They restrained techno’s energy to untethered pulses and glancing synths that churn and wash below a surface of fog and crackle; ‘murky’ is a signature adjective. As respected electronic music journalist Philip Sherburne wrote, the pair were making “music of horizontal energies, sinking in and spreading out.”

Their pioneering catalogue has informed the work of Monolake (Robert Henke is an alumnus of Dubplates & Mastering), Drexciya, (another duo who until recently have been unfairly ignored by music press) Hard Wax and D&M associate Pole and Plastikman, who, alongside Basic Channel, form an important family from which minimal techno was born. Later Vladislav Delay, Thomas Brinkmann, Beat Pharmacy, Echospace and DeepChord incorporated the moist grooves of their music into different templates. Their aesthetics can be traced in labels such as Ostgut, Delsin, Stroboscopic Artefacts, CRS Recordings and Perc Trax, while contemporary DJs and producers Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, Voices From The Lake, Skudge, Morphosis, and the mammoth Berlin techno club Berghain are closely related to this renaissance in the duo’s catalogue.

Basic Channel have become a synonym for vaporous dub-techno and their legacy is such that they are consistently referenced in press releases and artist descriptions within electronic music magazines yet journalists rarely explore their career or catalogue. A search through the archives of FACT, xlr8r, Resident Advisor, Pitchfork and The Wire will reveal hundreds of references to Basic Channel though disappointingly only a couple of articles written about them. Ernestus and von Oswald built a body of work that needs to be investigated. They were instrumental in the creation of a new culture in techno and theirs is a 20 year heritage whose influence can be heard in hundreds of artists. They are widely acknowledged to have perfected the dub-techno sound and without them techno would be a markedly different genre.

Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald have grown into the genre’s figureheads and “BCD” is an essential synopsis of one of the most important names in all of techno. As von Oswald stated in his interview for The Wire, “It’s not about status, It’s not about legacy; it’s about listening.”

Vier

Spotify playlist:

Various Artists – BCD

or if you don’t have Spotify listen to three minute previews at Hard Wax’s website.

Prologue

After a great 2011 in which our views went through the roof and we got many more comments, I hope Sonic Fiction can continue to build on this. I hope that this is the year we finally get a constant dialogue going between us and our readers. From the outset I wanted to provoke debate and have been conscious to try to encourage this in my posts. It’s really encouraging to read and respond to positive comments and I hope the comments section and our Twitter feed become places where debates and conversations around Sonic Fiction’s content and music in general can be had. I will also try where possible to post more often, though this may come more through tweets rather than full posts. In addition to this our electronic music columnist Vier and I will both be recommending albums as well as singles, EPs, mixes, mixtapes and anything else we feel is worth your attention and readily available.

Thank you to everyone who reads the blog and thank you to all the commentors and followers.

Liam Flanagan (Sonic Fiction Editor)

Recommendations

Ekoplekz – “Westerleigh Works EP” out now (Perc Trax)

Ekoplekz was one of my favourite discoveries of last year even though it took me forever to get round to listening to him and I didn’t mention him on Sonic Fiction. This new EP is a bit of departure as it is his first release designed for the dance floor and features a remix from one of his heroes, Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire). Expect the usual analogue noisiness but with a four to the floor backing.

Oliveray – “Wonders” out now (Erased Tapes)

As 2011 wound down I bought A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s eponymous debut album and it got a lot of spins in late November and December. Included with the CD was a code that could be used to download a free Erased Tapes sampler. So I download this and automatically had several new artists to check out. Oliveray is a collaboration between two of the Erased Tapes artists, new classical pianist Nils Frahm and multi instrumentalist Peter Broderick. If these two artists’ catalogues are anything to go by this could be a jewel in the label’s crown for 2012.

Matthew Dear – “Headcage EP” 16th January

(Ghostly International)

Ahead of his new album “Beams” due later in 2012, Dear will release a four track EP. For the first time Dear isn’t the producer, instead that is handled by Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid (Fever Ray, Glasser, Blonde Redhead) and on ‘In The Middle’ he hands vocal duties to Johnny Pierce of The Drums. Reviews suggest that this EP both picks up where Dear left off with “Black City” (2010) and folds current influences such as Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo and Autre Ne Veut into his dark techno pop mix. Find out if Sonic Fiction agrees next month.

Amadou & Miriam – “Dougou Badia EP” 23rd January (Nonesuch)

A new digital only EP from the Malian Tuareg legends that precedes their new album “Folila”  out on 26th March. The title track which features Santigold and Nick Zinner(Yeah Yeah Yeahs) can be heard here.

Errors – “We Have Some Faith In Magic” 30th January (Rock Action)

One of our favourite bands at Sonic Fiction are back with a new album. The first single ‘Earthscore’ is a three part epic. It starts off almost cinematic with big synth swells and pounding tom toms all topped off with reverb heavy vocal sighs, then it breaks down into a four to the floor rhythm, bubbling arpeggios and a typical Errors guitar and synth melodies. Then the guitar line descends giving way to an almost breakbeat style rhythm and new theremin style lead synth before finally clattering to a close. Though this is a lot to take in the first couple of plays it soon becomes clear this is a continuation of Errors’ evolution and that they’ve taken a leap forward that promises much for this album and their future. Lets hope they get the attention they deserve. Listen to ‘Earthscore’ here.

Harmonious Thelonious – ‘Listens’ 30th January (Italic Records)

Italic will release the follow-up to 2010′s Congotronics influenced ‘Talking’ with an new album that we at Sonic Fiction hope continues this artist’s unique combination of “American minimalism vs. African drumming vs. European sequencing”.

Loops Of Your Heart – “And Never Ending Nights” 30th January (Magazine Records)

After his career ascension with “Looping State Of Mind”, The Field (Axel Willner) has created the side project Loops Of Your Heart. The first single ‘Neukölln’ trades The Field’s emotive sound for a more apparent krautrock/kosmiche musik style and points to the direction “And Never Ending Nights” will take.

Still to come this month on Sonic Fiction:

Next week – 2012 through my (biased) eyes: Catch Up #1 – a look back at some album that were released in November and thus excluded from our Albums of the Year and have now been throughly disgested.

Later this month – Classics Critiqued: Basic Channel: BCD by Vier.

1. The Field – Looping State Of Mind (Kompakt)

Topping this year’s chart is The Field’s “Looping State Of Mind”. The album, Axel Willner’s third, was the most, exciting, accomplished and wonderful releases of this year. Techno in its simplest form is music that can built using just a few loops and The Field expands on this method effectively; multiplying shimmering loops of vocals, synths and drums into one luscious, infinite circular track. Neatly building on the landscapes of his previous releases (“From Here We Go Sublime”, a collection of icy yet deeply affecting techno tracks, and “Yesterday and Today”, which covers a warmer krautrock-indebted area) to merge the best of both into a beautiful seven track blend of electronic music with warm synth arpeggios, droning, pulsing pads and that  Kompakt schaffel. The eponymous loops feel like they could last forever; building and dropping. Here’s to The Field’s next release.

2. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)

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

3. Morphosis – What Have We Learned (Morphine/Delsin)

Composed entirely with analogue equipment and recorded live over just three days, Morphosis’ first full-length is a collection of the gritty, percussive clatter that is a hallmark of dirty Berlin techno and haunting Arabic/Middle Eastern melodies (Morphosis is Lebanese), made all the more compelling as you can hear him hesitate and pull in and out of time while playing synthesisers on the live takes. Built on round bass drums, moody wanderings and foggy static with assertive grooves and synths that engulf the listener, “What Have We Learned” is the pure techno release of 2011.

4. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact (4AD)

Building from the suggestions of bright pop on a track such as ‘House Jam’ from their previous album ‘Saint Dymphna’, Gang Gang Dance have condensed their eclecticism and strengthened the melodies to create a highly impressive and ambitious record in the form of ‘Eye Contact’. Singer Lizzie Bougatsos works her voice as instrument, weaving among the layers of polyrhythmic dance beats, electro-influenced synth riffs and glassy arpeggios. Key track ‘Mindkilla’ combines unhinged dance grooves with Bougatsos’ menacingly singing the American lullaby ‘Mockingbird’, which encapsulates Gang Gang Dance’s approach for ‘Eye Contact’: ecstatic and woozy with an undercurrent of threat.

5. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Virgin)

The voices in the songs of “A Creature I don’t Know” often recall the female characters in John Steinbeck’s novels; their turn-of-the-century environment has hardened them and made them sexually ruthless and capricious. The spirit of Cathy who rips like a tornado through ‘East Of Eden’ possesses ‘The Beast’ and ‘Salinas’, Steinbeck’s place of birth. Yet the songs feel divorced from any particular time or place and lacking in obvious signifiers because Marling does without 21st century details and focuses on the timeless themes of love and desire. Brawling with these primal urges while ignoring current musical trends is a brave artistic choice and her use of symbolic language without putting forth her own personality give the songs the air of Marling as a centuries-old, wandering watchful spirit who has seen and lived everything. Her strengths lie in her commanding performance and her pure voice which carries equal weight whether in the middle of ‘The Beast’’s churning instrument storm or accompanied by just a guitar or piano.

6. Wolfgang Voigt – Kafkatrax (Kompakt/Profan)

In typically eccentric fashion, Voigt has super-imposed his face on to the head of Austrio-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka for the artwork of Kafkatrax. The strange merge goes further with the music contained inside. Every sound except the bass drum is taken from German audiobooks of Kafka’s work, the samples of which Voigt has then sliced, layered and stretched to create several voices speaking in fragmented words and vowels. The abstract stratification of the samples re-produce the paranoia present in Kafka’s writing while Voigt’s experienced hand in intangible dance music knits the sounds into alien and unsettling yet groove-filled techno tracks. If techno is an endless, moving machine then it is albums such as this that keep it in motion.

7. Bjork – Biophilia (Nonesuch)

Autumn was dominated by the exciting news of Bjork’s return after a four-year break and reports that her new album “Biophilia’ would be accompanied by synaesthesia-inspired iPhone/iPad apps. Bjork’s seventh album wonderfully demonstrates her innate use of beautiful harmonies and melodies which shine over delicate, glassy timbres and malevolent basslines and breathless, digitalised rhythms. Her voice and words anchor emotions to the album’s scientific influence and the thread of innocence and wide-eyed fascination that runs through her celebration of the universe prevents any feeling of pretence or aridity. Even after four years away Bjork continues to electrify and surpass.

8. Skudge – “Phantom” (Skudge Records)

The Swedish duo’s debut sells itself on aerodynamic, stripped techno indebted to Robert Hood and Basic Channel’s dense dub techno grooves. Fractured bass lines are countered with dramatic synth stabs, snapping claps and the determined looping rhythms of ‘90s German techno. Standout track ‘Eleven’, which features a solitary, eerie hook over tough bass drums and a lone reverberating clap, is a lesson in contoured, skeletal composition. Geared primarily for the club, the productions are a balance of tension and release that jack and groove for several minutes. Skudge are a dance duo who people should have on their radar for 2012.

9. Gui Boratto – III (Kompakt)

“III”’s intention is built on slow grooves and dark, searing techno. Twin tracks ‘Geluchat’ and ‘Stems From Hell’ sound like Boratto deep in the bowels of Berghain. ‘III’ is hard and confrontational, abrasive and pummelling. Although it isn’t as captivating as his best album “Chromophobia”, “III” continues to display his skill as a producer: the bass drum pounds, bass lines growl and groove and grainy synths coil and graze. His use of peaks and drops are masterful; they tease and reward the listener; pure peak time clubbing. It demands to be played loud.

10. Washed Out – Within and Without (Sub Pop)

As the cover art displays “Within and Without”, Washed Out’s first full-length, is a sensual, physical release. Benefiting from the production work of Ben Allen, who worked on Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, “Within and Without” features delicate compositional flourishes such as the reverb-drenched, evocative harmonies on ‘Amor Fati’ and the cracked snare on ‘Echoes’ reward repeated listens, especially on headphones. The gentle arpeggios, slinking beats and soft, pillow-y atmospheres add to the album’s tenderness; the songs are intended for love-making rather than fucking. Album closer ‘A Dedication’ is based on a fragile piano line and Ernest Greene’s most direct vocal performance is the post-coital cosy-up.

Honourable mentions

Perc – Wicker & Steel (Perc Trax)

“Wicker & Steel” recalls The Black Dog’s “Real Music For Airports” release from last year.  Techno, industrial and almost aggressively dystopian with, the vocal grunts on “Start Chopping” aside, very little to humanise the intense percussion and scratching textures of the album’s first third. Slipping out of the abrasive distortion of the opening tracks a sinister mid-section, featuring the deeply unsettling “Pre-Steel”, builds on a more restrained dystopia with dispersed beats, detuned synths and horror-film overtones. The final third kicks back to an overdriven, unrelenting pace, particularly on the track ‘London, We Have You Surrounded’, which some have appropriated as the soundtrack to the capital’s disturbing riots in August. “Wicker & Steel” is an album deeply attentive to its own coherency, consistency and range.

Lucy – Wordplay For Working Bees (Stroboscopic Artefacts)

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

Planningtorock – W (DFA)

Planningtorock’s (Janine Rostron) second release is rooted in the expression of her sexuality which is conveyed by the sweaty atmosphere that recall the cabaret clubs of her adopted home Berlin. Her pitched-down masculine voice drawling sensually “I know my feelings” on opener ‘Doorway’ and “I’m a believer of circular/suckular love” on ‘Manifesto’ coupled with lavish, thick orchestration throughout makes “W” a challenging but rewarding album.

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