Tag Archive: Toro Y Moi


Kirsty’s Review

Release of the Month

Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – Elements Of Light (Rough Trade)

The productions of German artist Pantha du Prince (Hendrik Weber) have always lived on emotional rather than physical tension. They are an evocative and organic flux that while not dance floor-friendly are impressive to behold; majestic and intimate at the same time. So “Elements Of Light” is a natural and logical extension of the ideas Weber has been incorporating for a while on the exemplary “Black Noise” and “This Bliss” albums. The richly harmonic tones produced by Norwegian group The Bell Laboratory’s real-world percussion bring flesh to the elements of classic minimalism that were folded in to Weber’s emotive techno of previous releases. His use of electronic instruments as a counterpoint to The Bell Laboratory’s clanging, chiming bells and their bell carillon, made up of 50 bronze bells with a combined weight of three tonnes, are seamlessly woven together with long stretches of the album naturally gliding and swelling in dynamics. It is so expansive and sweeping that the album needs to be experienced as a single, mutating composition. “Elements of Light” is full of adventure, buzzing with possibilities and surprises and absolute in its focus on music’s power to evoke emotions. This is not an unfocused, clinical instrumental album, rather it is driven by narrative, particularly when Pantha Du Prince and The Bell Laboratory venture into the mazy, complex 10 minute-plus pieces ‘Particle’ and ‘Spectral Split’. They direct listeners to follow paths and see how they all flow together to form the tracks’ body.

It’s in ‘Spectral Split’ that “Elements of Light” shows its many tones. From bleary ambience to a Steve Reich-ian use of minimalist momentum, to the weaving of classical and electronic dynamics and textures that Weber is so clearly enamoured with, the track demonstrates his astute understanding of the importance of anticipation and tension in dance music. Almost half of its 17-minute life is devoted to a slow build that finally explodes into joyful colour once all the layers click into place. This sense of release surfaces sporadically throughout and is fundamental to making it work, but it’s always delivered with a great degree of control and patience. The addition of Pantha Du Prince’s techno beats underneath that three tonne carillion can’t help but make the track sound triumphant and celebratory. ‘Particle’ juxtaposes ominous, church bell-like clangs with lighter tones that skip and twist across its surface. It’s almost giddy at times and doesn’t quite finish where the listener expects. Again Weber brings in those recognisable Pantha Du Prince beats and warm embracing swells of bass to act as an anchor, gifting the album with both a sense of wonder and comforting familiarity. ‘Particle’, like the album as whole, is full of surprise twist and turns. The flashes of inspiration are the points where the album really excels. These unexpected surprises are what make the album work. The final track ‘Quantum’ is built on understated ambience, a few glassy notes spinning in kaleidoscopic patterns as it blossoms in to a confident, bouncing techno track glistening with sparkling, fragile textures. Listening to “Elements of Light” is about absorbing the gradual, evolving transitions by which Weber and The Bell Laboratory travel from one point to the next then return. Their ensemble setup emphasises Hendrik Weber’s talent for arrangements, his way of interlacing electronic and acoustic sounds into a luxurious whole. By underlining his productions’ strengths: emotive, graceful, warm and rich, “Elements Of Light” illuminates Pantha Du Prince’s music from within.

Watch Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory perform ‘Spectral Split’ live:

Liam’s Reviews

Disappointment of the Month

Toro Y Moi – “Anything In Return” (Carpark)

I’ve been a fan of Toro Y Moi since his debut album “Causers of This” (2010) but this follow to the excellent “Underneath the Pine” (2011) is disappointing with its overall tastful and repeatition of sounds. It seems that Toro Y Moi has mostly retreated from the funk infused ambient pop of “Underneath the Pine” and instead opted to persue direction that recalls his dance music side project Les Sins. Opener ‘Harm in Change’ is the first track to adapt this style with its four to the floor beat, claps and piano chords its the epitome of bland house music. ‘Say That’, ‘So Many Details’, ‘Rose Quarantz’ and ‘Touch’ continue in this style with little separate them the same key sounds dominating (four to the floor rhythm, dance percussion, tasteful piano and synth pads and leads), its all very vanilla. Its not all bland dance music though with the funk returning on ‘Cola’ with its tough delayed beats and synth and delicous synth squiggles battling for attention with the lead vocals. ‘Studies’ has a similar feel though the falsatto vocals in the chorus are annoying and the seductive grooveS of ‘High Living’ and ‘Grown Up Calls’ are welcome too. However, were back to the bland with ‘Cake’ electronic balladry, the clumping beats of ‘Day One’. The quasi cosmic house of ‘Never Matter’ and ‘How’s It Wrong’ round out a disappointing third for an artist who’d excelled so recently, I hope that Toro Y Moi returns with something more like  “Underneath the Pine” soon.

Solange – “True” (Terrible)

From the buoyant opening single ‘Losing You’ to the pounding 80’s drum machine and bass guitar twangs of closer ‘Bad Girls (Verdine version) the quality and pop nous on display on “True” never lets up. In a world full of swallow and bland R&B and pop music Solange finds that combining the best elements of 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s R&B is the best way to revive this stale genre. The song’s are unfussy yet also catchy and instantaneously command the listener’s attention with their crisp production, plentiful hooks, melodies and often minimal arrangements. The synthetic and real instruments are expertly balanced and the melodies are always present and correct asserting themselves while never being in your face. In a world where every pop song and star is screaming personality and desperately trying to grab everyone’s attention, it’s refreshing to hear someone who can actually articulate their emotions and personality while taking a step back and communicating at a normal volume. “True” is perfect pop music and I can’t wait to hear what Solange does next. I hope she continues to make her unorthodox but striking pop songs.

Mountains – “Centralia” (Thrill Jockey)

I have to admit to being sceptical when I heard that Mountains were releasing a new album, as I’d been really disappointed by their last album “Air Museum” (2011). However, by the end of the opening track ‘Sand’ I already felt that this was a band heading back to the sound of their finest album to date 2009’s “Choral”. ‘Sand’ establishes one of the two main strands that the album is split into; this is the half of the album that focuses on complex layering of analogue synths with gorgeous warm interweaving synth melodies and floating modulated pads creating a lush soundscapes that swills around your head. Track two ‘Indentical Ship’ introduces the second strand of the album with more acoustic instruments e.g. acoustic guitars and piano dominating the mix and changing the feel of the track to a more spacious and sparse while remaining just as effective as the more complex ‘Sand’. ‘Circular C’ picks up where ‘Indentical Ship’ left off but there is a great section part way through where the synths and acoustic instruments blur together being apart and one at the same time, it’s a stunning effect the band repeats on the intro of ‘Living Lens’. ‘Tilt’ expands on band’s kosmiche musik influences with its acoustic guitar and bowed strings adding a post rock feel to an already impressive sound palette. One important difference between this album and “Air Museum” is that the later felt like an uncharacteristic wash of sound, that merely aped the band’s beloved kosmiche musik this album even when the influences are worn on its selves contains enough invention and emotional tension to make it stand out from the many other acts making this type of music. Whether you’re already a Mountains fan or are intrigued by this review, I’m confident you’ll find agree this is another great entry into Mountains back catalogue.

Release of the Month

A$AP Rocky – “Long.Live.A$AP” (Polo Grounds/RCA)

On his much anticipated debut album A$AP Rocky manages to both upgrade his established formula with the high production values of a major label hip-hop album and explore new sonic and emotional territory. For the first half of the album his trademarks abound e.g. chopped and screwed vocals, noise ambience and a ton of self confident swag. However in the second half he finds himself backed up by music that sets a more sombre tone. ‘Fashion Killa’ is the most feminine feeling track by far with its chopped up choir samples and breathy female vocals giving it a light feel, it’s almost a love song and a potential pop single. ‘Phoenix’ which is produced by Danger Mouse utilise bass guitar, piano and sighing vocal harmonies to stunning effect, delay and pitching effects are used in a subtle and psychedelic way, a subtle nod of A$AP’s trademarks. ‘Suddenly’ showcases A$AP’s story telling abilities (not something he’d shown before) and is a master class in tension and release. The first of album is no worse for conforming to A$AP’s established formula the album opens with a thunder clap that gives way to the familiar ambient synth washes and 808 beat drop before A$AP struts onto the track, however the chorus begins us a twist with a picked electric guitar melody backing what may or may not be A$AP singing. It’s followed by ‘Goldie’ with blunt percussion, tough hip-hop beats and chopped and simple metallic synth melody. Other highlights include the guest heavy ‘Fuckin’ Problems’ and ‘1 Train’ in which A$AP seems totally at home amongst some of the biggest and hottest MC’s on the current hip-hop scene. Overall “Long. Live. A$AP” is a triumphant debut album and the first Album of the Year contend for 2013.

Liam’s Recommendations

A$AP Rocky – “Long.Live.A$AP” 14th January (Polo Grounds/RCA)

“Long.Live.A$AP” is the highly anticipated and much delayed début album by the MC who showed so much potential on the “LiveLoveA$AP” (2011) mixtape. Production comes from Clams Casino, Hit Boy, A$AP Ty Beats, Soufein3000, Joey Fat Beats and Rocky himself.

Mountains – “Centralia” 21st January (Thrill Jockey)

The America drone duo return with their seventh album and the follow up to 2011’s “Air Museum”.

Toro Y Moi “Anything In Return” 21st January (Carpark)

Sonic Fiction favourite Toro Y Moi returns with his third album in January. The first single from the album ‘So Many Details’ sees Chaz Bundick exploring similar territory to his last album “Underneath The Pine”.

Kirsty’s Recommendations

Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – Elements of Lights 11th January (Rough Trade)

Sonic Fiction favourite Hendrik Weber (Pantha Du Prince) has teamed up with Norwegian musicians The Bell Laboratory for a new collaborative album, “Elements of Lights”. The video previews below, display the German techno producer and The Bell Laboratory creating an ambitious symphony of electronics, percussion and a special bell carillon, a three-tonne instrument consisting of fifty bronze bells.

Pantha du Prince & the Bell Laboratory – Trailer 1 from Sandra Trostel on Vimeo.

Pantha du Prince & the Bell Laboratory – Trailer 2 from Sandra Trostel on Vimeo.

Honourable Mentions

Death In Vegas – “Trans Love Energies”

This album came out nowhere back in September and knocked me for six, a great comeback album if ever there was one. Admittedly it’s not always the subtlest of albums, both in terms of wearing its influences on its sleeves and in terms of its sometimes simplistic nature. However, these complaints are minor with Richard Fearless finding a balance between his art-rock and electronic music influences and blending them into a visceral whole. Though it may not be the most original album released this year it’s a joy to listen to and Fearless show he’s still a master of his music domain. His whispered vocals (which sometimes recall Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers) and those of collaborator Kate Stelmanis (Austra) are the icing on the cake. It is well worth getting the 2 CD edition too, which features remixes and instrumental versions of album tracks plus five non-album tracks all of which equal the quality of the album itself.

Spank Rock – “Everything Is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar”

After 5 years Spank Rock returned this year with a second album ‘Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar’. This combines tracks that consolidate what Spank Rock achieved on previous album ‘YoYoYoYoYo’ and while moving into new areas like four-to-floor dance music, grungy distortion and Can sampling single ‘Energy’. Spank Rock also tries out singing on ‘The Dance’, ‘Baby’ (on which he achieves an excellent Prince impersonation) and ‘Energy’ and does so with aplomb. The triple dance floor whammy of ‘The Dance’, ‘#1 Hit’ and ‘Turn It Off’ are the biggest departures but also the greatest successes. During the second half of the album the majority tracks recall ‘YoYoYoYoYo’s’ electro sound but here it’s been expanded and built upon to incorporate tribal vibes, industrial touches, grungy distortion and on ‘Baby’ a phat funk groove. Like on his debut, Spank Rock pushes the envelope of electro hip-hop successfully bringing together disparate elements and combining them as if they should be together. An excellent album full of energy, humour and electro.

DELS – “GOB”

Dels produced an authoritative debut album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound on a complete and engaging record. The first half is full of heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to the album covers more serious topics including the recent political problems in the UK, rape and domestic violence. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. Dels is a hip-hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen – “A Winged Victory for the Sullen”

A Winged Victory for the Sullen is a collaboration between Adam Wiltzie of Texan ambient duo Stars of the Lid and contemporary pianist Dustin O’ Halloran and their self titled debut album is where their two styles meet in the middle. The music shifts in and out of focus as the two musicians interact, knowing when to play together and when to let the other have space, when to build a wave of sound and when to leave room between them. One of the remarkable things about the album is how cohesive it sounds, as if the duo had been working together for years and understood each other’s every musical move and how to compliment it. The reason for choosing this album is best summed up by Sam Cleeve of Drowned in Sound “While Wiltzie and O’Halloran both have their obvious contemporaries to draw parallels between (Hammock; Eno/Frahm; Arnalds), this emotive disc balances a hushed intimacy and vast expanse that places it in a unique sonic terrain.”

Toro Y Moi – “Underneath the Pine”

Back in February I described Toro Y Moi’s “Underneath the Pine” in the following way, “from its chiming and droning intro track right through to the last rhythmic charge of ‘Elise’, it does no wrong. A fantastic concoction of ’80s style funk riffs and grooves matched with emotive soundtrack backing and the glorious rush of good pop music, it’s a leap forward from his impressive début ‘Causers of This’” Since then I’ve had more time to contemplate the album and its subtleties, discovering the stylistic similarities to Stereolab (who featured in his mix for The Quietus) and deepening my admiration for the lush atmospherics present in the tracks and the way that the singles ‘New Beat’ and ‘Still Sound’’s infectious upbeat energy contrast with the album’s more thoughtful moments such as ‘Good Hold’ and opener ‘Intro/Chi Chi’. On the surface “Underneath the Pine” is full of simple pleasures but reveals more and more with each new play.

Top Ten Album’s of the Year

10. Battles – “Gloss Drop” (Warp Records)

 As with any Battles release there’s a lot to take in and one listen simply won’t cut it in terms of any real in-depth analysis. The trio made a good first impression proving they can do great things without former member Tyondai Braxton, whom was always seen as a key band member. This is definitely a Battles album yet they’ve shed some of the uptight, over thought jazz-prog that had previously manifested itself in a frustrating way. This is a looser, freer band. Drummer John Stanier is able to make his techno influences much more explicit, this and the Carribbean/Latin/Calypso touches that are littered throughout the album add a new rhythmic interest and lightness of touch that are both great new additions to the Battles sound. This isn’t a band trying to play techno or calypso through; rather they are trying to fold these influences into their already established sound. Another interesting facet of the sound is that on many of the tracks feature ambience and background sounds that evoke grey concrete that is juxtaposed with the lighter and happier calypso influenced melodies and riffs. ‘Gloss Drop’ is a bold statement from band that could have collapsed but has instead shown a new strength.

9. Chancha Via Circuito – “Rio Arriba” (ZZK Records)

This album by an Argentine hip-hop producer Pedro Canale fuses J Dilla-esque beats to traditional Columbian cumbia percussion samples, melodies and vocal samples to create a heady and humid hybrid that recalls walking through the South American jungle after dark. Like all the best hip-hop producers Canale has a deep understanding of the music that he is sampling but doesn’t respect it to the point that it limits his innovation. His music and grooves feel organic but also as if they’ve been subtly subverted in his sampler. “Rio Arriba” isn’t all about the beats. He uses atmosphere to evoke a time and place and is one of the only new hip-hop producers I’ve heard who achieves this to such a high level, you don’t just hear the time and place either but feel the emotions of the singers and the instrumental tracks so brilliantly convey. It’s difficult to properly describe Chancha Via Circuito’s music but with “Rio Arriba” he has created the debut album of the year.

8. The Horrors – “Skying” (XL Records)

I’ll admit to never having been taken by The Horrors and other than the excellent track ‘Sea Within a Sea’ I didn’t see what all fuss was about with their last album “Primary Colours”. However, their new self-produced album “Skying” finds them striking a balance between clear melodic lines and thick, swirling psychedelia. Previously the band sounded muddy with the melody submerged low in the mix. There’s also a new feeling of purpose to tracks like ‘Still Life’, ‘Moving Further Away’ and ‘Endless Blue’. The band combine the motorik rhythms of Neu!, the English psychedelia of late 80s Julian Cope and the power ballad dynamics of Simple Minds (not something I thought I’d ever be recommending) into a punchy pop-rock package. They’ve left behind the restrictions of recreating gothic post-punk sounds and the doom laden, muddy psychedelia of previous albums and have emerged as a band that delivers where once they merely promised.

7. Tune-Yards –“Who Kill” (4AD Records)

Tune-Yards delivers on what was hinted at on her debut album ‘Bird-Brains’. Strong vocal performances and use of vocal layering are ever present as are the hip-hop rhythms that dominated her debut. She also brings a host of surprises, the processing of vocals through a modular synth, pop melodies that pack a punch and a day-glo sound indebted to both African music and dub yet at the same time all of her own. Though the album dips towards the end ‘Doorstop’ and ‘You, Yes You’ show there are yet more directions in which Tune-Yards’ sound can be developed. In addition to this the album reflects its time through its politically engaged lyrics and of protests both personal and local. In a year dominated by protests and political upheaval, “Who Kill” provided a vibrant soundtrack. All-in-all this is a great album from a unique artist.

6. The Field – “Looping State of Mind”  (Kompakt)

This year Axel Willner delivered another great album as The Field and continued to evolve his glacial techno sound. His music is now warmer and more organic (see ‘Arpeggiated Love’ and ‘Burned Out’), while his grooves have become funkier and more human recalling those found on LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver”. The best way I can think to describe “Looping State of Mind” is LCD Soundsystem grooves matched with the inverted dance structures and Tangerine Dream influenced kosmische music of The Field’s typical productions. A match made in heaven.

5. Tamikrest – “Toumastin”  (Glitterhouse Records)

This is another great Taurag album that throws down the gauntlet to Tinariwen (who’s “Tassili was a massive disappointment). Though there’s a lot of familiarity to the Tamikrest sound these young men find a way of subtlety incorporating new influences into the template. From the funk bass that underpins ‘Tidit’ and ‘Tarhamanine Assinegh’ to the Western rock guitar of ‘Adjan Adaky’ and magnificent closer ‘Dihad Tedoun Itran’ via the regular and clever employment of female vocals as a counterpoint to a very male sound, this shows there is more to Taurag than fans already know. The band masterfully conquers both the more groove based and moody and downbeat material with confidence and ease. This is great album from a band full ideas who’ve possibly yet to reach their full potential.

4. Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” (Capitol/Grand Royale Records)

With this album the Beastie Boys returned to form creating their best album since “Hello Nasty” (1998). They went back to basics and came up with a collection of short punchy songs full of energy, hooks and humour. Though the album is a thoroughly Beastie Boys creation they do seem to have rebooted their sound, with the help of producer Philippe Zdar, concocting a new synthetic retro-futuristic Beasties sound. The album’s 16 tracks whizz by in a blur and it’s hard to pick out favourites in this heady brew but if pushed I’d go for ‘Make Some Noise’, ‘Non Stop Disco Powerpack’, ‘Too Many Rappers’ feat. Nas, ‘Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win’ feat Santigold and excellent instrumental ‘Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament’. The only disappointment is that ‘Tadlock’s Glasses’ finishes far too soon.

3 . Mark McGuire – “Get Lost”  (Editions Mego Records)

At first “Get Lost” seemed like business as usual for Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire, All the typical traits of McGuire’s guitar playing are present especially his fuzzy lead lines and repetitive yet hypnotic delay heavy rhythm patterns and guitar-synth drones aplenty. However, the more I listened to the album, the more it became clear it was almost a direct relative of the collaborative work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp particularly 1975’s brilliant ‘Evening Star’ album. The colourful washes of sound swirl around the stereo image and immerse you but are perfectly balanced with the melodic lines that weave in and out of them. I didn’t think that McGuire could equal last year’s amazing “Living With Yourself” but with “Get Lost” he’s managed it and combined the best elements from all his previous releases into a cohesive whole.

2. Apparat – “The Devil’s Walk” (Mute Records)

On his new album Apparat displayed a new skill for writing immediate and engaging material, a difficult balance that has been masterfully struck without surrendering any of this enigmatic artist’s mystery. The album doesn’t instantly recall Apparat’s previous solo work and has more in common with the Moderat project he formed with Modeselektor in 2009, specifically the dark gothic atmosphere that pervades throughout. It seems appropriate that Apparat should switch to Mute Records for this release as many of tracks indirectly recall Depeche Mode at their finest and Apparat’s vocal even sounds like Marc Almond (Soft Cell) minus the camp edge. Apparat’s greatest achievement here is combining modern production techniques with strong song writing. His song are now more memorable and emotionally evocative.

1. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” (4AD Records)

A breathtakingly ambitious album featuring North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, and twisted synth arpeggios all working together where they could fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’, this is the album Gang Gang Dance have been threatening to make and impresses instantly whereas previous songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. After a few listens it becomes clear there’s some strong links to “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective (who are both friends and contemporaries of Gang Gang Dance). The use of psychedelic electronics and rhythms rooted in hip-hop are present on both albums. However, Gang Gang Dance add plenty to this and produce their own unique sound, which is an upbeat opposite to the melancholy of Animal Collective. An interest coincidence is that “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was Sonic Fiction’s Album of the Year 2009 and ‘Eye Contact’ takes pole position for this year. From opening 11 minutes epic ‘Glass Jar’ to the closing ‘Thru and Thru’ with its twisting snake charmer like Eastern melody, tribal percussion and clubby beats and synths via the Sade-esque ‘Romance Layers’ beats the heart of exhilarating experimentation meeting the forward rush of club music and the exoticism of traditional music from around the world. As No.1 in my list there is no higher recommendation!

Spotify playlist:

Sonic Fiction Top Ten Album’s of the Year

Observations

Just like last year two words have loomed large for me this year: Ambient and African; and I have continued my exploration of these types of music. I’ve found myself getting deeper into Ambient music both old and new, especially with FACT publishing their 20 Best Ambient albums in the summer with Steve Reich and Pat Metheny’s – “Electric Counterpoint”, Main’s – “Firmament II”, Bobby Beausoleil soundtrack for “Lucifer’s Rising” and “Ambient 3: Day of Radiance” by Brian Eno and Laraaji  amongst my favourites so far. A spate of new releases towards the end of the year that I’ve enjoyed include “Music for Confluence” by Peter Broderick, “Tragedy” by Julia Holter and “Glimmer” by Jacaszek, “El Tren Fantasma” by Chris Watson, “Replica” by Oneohtrix Point Never and “Tragedy and Geometry” by Steve Hauschildt of Emeralds.  On the African side of things I started the year with the purchase of the Congotronics vs. Rockers compilation album, which was swiftly followed by the debut album of the Kasai Allstars and though I wasn’t listening to much African music during the summer I followed the progress of the Congotronics vs Rockers tour via their blog and towards the end of have enjoyed Analog Africa’s “Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso”, a great compilation covering the rich and varied music of this small and obscure country during the ‘70s.

Some releases have taken a little longer to grower on me than others for instance “A Creature I Don’t Know” by Laura Marling narrowly missed out on being part of my Honourable Mentions yet it has slowly but surely grown on me since its September release. I also recently revisited Laurel Halo’s “Hour Logic” EP and went from liking it to loving its infectious energy matched with abundant atmosphere. I’ve also been on and off with a few artists/albums the main culprit being Maria Minerva who I’ve liked and then found dull and then liked and then found dull again. Albums by The Rapture and Megafaun have also failed to fully convince me, though they still could.

Sonic Fiction’s predictions for up and coming new bands/artists for 2011 mostly seemed premature as many of artists with now release their debut albums next year. Still DELs and Balam Acab produced good debut albums and Laurel Halo and Blondes both had a steady stream of releases, maybe we’ll have better luck next year.

Still to come this week Vier’s Album’s of the Year and Observations.

by Liam Flanagan (Sonic Fiction editor)

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Stereolab – “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” (Duophonic, 1996)

This month’s selection is a cult album of the highest order regularly cited by critics as one of the best albums of the 1990s (and in some cases ever) and universally heralded as Stereolab’s “high water mark”, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” is an album made up of disparate influences and elements that have been masterfully combined into a coherent and thoroughly digestible whole. Their fourth album saw the band not only consolidating all their earlier achievements but pointing the direction forward into more diverse and often more difficult territory. The album stands apart as the band were able to overcome the difficulties they faced in putting together such a complex and uncomplimentary sound and still coming up with great results.

Stereolab formed in London in 1990 out of the ruminants of guitarist Tim Gane and vocalist/guitarist/keyboard player Laetita Sadier former band McCarthy. They named themselves Stereolab after a department of Vanguard Records that demonstrated ‘hi-fi effects’ and set up their own label Duophonic to release a series of DIY 12”’s which would quickly gain much attention both for the band’s unique droning minimalist krautrock sound and the striking artwork they came packaged in. In 1992 the band signed to Too Pure Records and started to expand their line-up to include vocalist Mary Hansen, drummer Andy Ramsey, bassist Duncan Brown, keyboardist Katherine Gifford and multi instrumentalist Sean O’ Hagen (ex-Microdisney and future lead of The High Llamas). As the line-up expanded so the music evolved with a new lounge music influence making itself felt on “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” EP (1993) and the band’s political lyrics being scrutinised by the UK music press. Critics have often cited Marxist ideas in the band’s lyrics; however though the band has admitted in interviews to their lyrics being political they have refuted the idea that they are Marxist. “In a 1999 interview, Gane stated that “none of us are Marxists … I’ve never even read Marx.” Sadier herself has mentioned that she has read very little Marx.”

By the time the band released “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” in 1996 they were firmer established in the indie charts in the US and UK and had built a cult sized following across Europe. Their sound had expanded further with the poppier exploits of “Mars Audiac Quintet” and their work for Charles Long’s art exhibit “Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center”. However, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” would take the band even further out of their comfort zone because as Gane said, “otherwise it just sounds like what other people are doing” and Sadier, “you trust that there is more and that it can be done more interesting.” The album incorporates influences from hip-hip, funk, lounge music, French pop, and Gane’s person obsession – hi-fi effect records. The idea of a conventional ‘guitar’ band is almost completely abandoned in favour of a more flexible approach to sound, structures, grooves and arrangements. Stereolab were unafraid of using both cool reference points krautrock, funk, hip-hop and the decidedly unhip lounge music, French pop, hi-fi effects records and Burt Bacharach. As Gane put it, “to be unique was more important than to be good.” Produced by Tortoise’s John McEntire the album is multilayered but also loose and limber, not bloated by its extra detail but enhanced by it. From the opener ‘Metronomic Underground’ with its low slung funk groove and psychedelic build of Moog washes over the band evolving looped sound to the distorted alien garage rock sound of ‘Noise of Carpet’ and on to the ‘Cybele’s Reverie’’s swooping string quartet and the bouncy title track with its playful synth lines everything flows and works even though it really shouldn’t. The band’s impossible melting pot of intersecting influences somehow coalesces into some of the unique and genuinely brilliant music. Gane’s encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage music technology and techniques definitely gives the album an edge of many of Stereolab’s contemporaries e.g. Th’ Faith Healers, Quickspace, Pram, Laika etc. The sound of “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” is full of little tricks from the use of round panning (the guitar jumps quickly from left to right as the riff plays) on the guitar riff of ‘Tomorrow is Already Here’ to the delay applied to whole mix of ‘Les Yper-Sound’ causing it to lurch in and out of time towards its conclusion. In fact, the band animate the album using many unusual but brilliant use of the studio, guitar effects and analogue synthesizer that make the sound 3D (for want of a better word) and perfectly compliment the album’s retro futuristic artwork.

The album explores ideas of how consumerism has changed the world in a negative way causing society to feel confused and lost as capitalism forces them away from what Sadier believes society was built that is to quote “What’s society built on, its built words, built on words, built on work” (‘Motoroller Scalatron’) and “Originally this set-up was to serve society now; the roles have been reversed that want society to serve the institutions… alienation” (‘Tomorrow Is Already Here’). This is a theme that runs through the album and helps bind it together conceptually.

Since the album’s release it was unexpectedly included in the book ‘1001 Albums: You Must Hear Before You Die’ by Robert Dimery and Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s and as previously stated in universally heralded as the band’s “high water mark”. Though it’s difficult to pin point any direct influence “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” was had, Stereolab themselves spearheaded and inspired many forward thinking and similarly retro futuristic bands including Broadcast, Pram, Add N to (X), The High Llamas, and more recently Lali Puna, The American Analog Set and there’s even a hint of their sound and approach in “Underneath the Pine” by Toro Y Moi. 15 years on “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” remains as vibrant and vital as it did upon its original release!

Spotify playlist:

Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Liam’s Top Ten Albums of the Year… so far

Honourable Mentions

Peaking Lights – “936” – is  a lo-fi take on Dub that manages to cover a lot more ground than many of their more lauded peers. I can understand why the band have been compared to fellow Not Not Fun artist Sun Araw as they share many of his similar aesthetics (humid, reverb and delay heavy sound) and principle instrumentation (extended guitar lines, organ, repetitive but meandering vocals). Tom Tom Club also seems like a good reference point particularly for the vocals and ‘All the Sun That Shines’ and ‘Bird of Paradise (Dub Version)’. Definitely an album that’s worthy of soundtracking this summer like ‘On Patrol’ by Sun Araw soundtracked last summer.

Mogwai – “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” – a mixed bag from Mogwai (a band that has been criticised in the past for producing overly samey music across an album) featuring both the familiar epic post-rock tracks that made them an internationally known force and new directions for the band including using a vocoder and development of Neu! and New Order style rhythms and grooves on ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ and ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. I’ve read a lot of negative things about the use of the vocoder and more vocal tracks on this album and can’t say I agree with these opinions. The vocoder is employed subtly and sparingly and Stuart Braithwaite’s vocals have always been a good addition to Mogwai’s music and suit the song he sings on here. Overall I think this is Mogwai’s best album since ‘Happy Music for Happy People’ (2003).

Talib Kweli – “Gutter Rainbows” –  a return to form for Kweli after the overly commercial and guest heavy ‘Eardrum’  (2007). Kweli seems to more at ease and freer, the album’s tone and variety a sign that he may have been under pressure from Warners while making ‘Eardrum’. It’s also telling that all the guests and producers who appear on this album aren’t established major label artists/producers and I think that’s a big contributing factor. The quality on the album only really drops once for ‘How Do You Love Me’ which is a little too limp and sloppy amongst tracks that have a lot more bit and depth. The major highlights are ‘Cold Rain’ (production by Currency producer Ski Beats) and Jean Grae’s appearance on ‘Uh Oh’, however its Kweli whose personality comes across strongest, on what could be his best album yet.

Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”

The Beasties Boys return to form after two patchy albums, full of short punchy songs that for the most part share a minimalist, lo-fi approach. It’s the Beasties gone back to basics and with found a new lease of life that explores new territory (for them) while remaining 100% Beastie Boys. Established with love this, new converts may well join the cause – all in all a triumph from restless creators always looking to evolve.

Dels – “GOB”

Dels has produced an authoritative début album that balances catchy, memorable tunes with experimentation, unexpected twists and turns and a signature sound that he can manipulate to give the album a curve. He starts with the heavy hitting, bouncy electro inspired tracks but the second half to that album covers more serious topics including the recent political problems in the U.K. and rape. Dels is able to change the pace and the atmosphere to suit these changes in subject and this is proof of an artist with more than one string to his bow and great future ahead of him. A Hip-Hop artist with substance to match his unique style.

Top Ten

10. White Denim – “D” – Though it may not be the album of the year I rashly predicted at the start of the month, though it has to be said ‘Anvil Everything’ and ‘Drug’ were pretty exciting tracks to be released in the run up to release. However this album is by no means a wash-out, it begins with a slightly misleading slice of Southern Rock but some reveals a diverse range from an ever developing and maturing band. From the wah-wah funk of ‘Burnished’ to the emotional ‘Street Joy’ via Latin rhythms of ‘River to Consider’ and many points in between this album is well worth investigation and like other White Denim album will probably prove to be another grown, rewarding repeated listening.

9. Low – “C’Mon” – A great album of two halves that sees Low experimenting with poppier sounds on the first half of the album and on ‘Something Turning Over’ while the reminder of the album revisits older sounds and influences but does so while providing some great songs. Some Low fans won’t (and don’t) like the poppier material but I think it can be seen as another string to their bow and not a conscious attempt to sell out. This is not a band producing Top Ten hits, but one dripping its toe into unknown waters and successful completing an experiment. The fact this album was recorded in a Duluth (Low’s home town) church gives the slow more open tracks and fantastic atmosphere and ambience and complaints some great songs. Once again Low show the patience and subtlety can go along way in a music world that seems constantly looking for something innovative and over simulating.

8. Chancha Via Circuito – “Rio Arriba” – A great hip-hop album that potential points a new way forward and demonstrates that there are really skilled producers working out the mainstream and America who can compete with their U.S. contemporaries. A breath of fresh Columbian air, this producer neatly side steps the comparisons to Jay Dilla to crave out his own unique style.

7. Tamikrest – “Toumastin” – Another great Taurag (desert blues) album that throws down the gauntlet to Tinariwen (whose next album is out 29th August). Though there’s a lot of familiarity to the Tamikrest sound these young men find a way of subtlety incorporating new influences into the template. From the funk bass that underpins ‘Tidit’ and ‘Tarhamanine Assinegh’ to the Western rock guitar of ‘Adjan Adaky’ and magnificent closer ‘Dihad Tedoun Itran’via the regular and clever employment of female vocals as a counterpoint to a very male sound, this shows there is more to Taurag than fans already know. The band masterful conquers both the more groovy based and moody and downbeat material with confidence and ease. A great album from a band full ideas and possible yet to reach their full potential.

6. TV on the Radio – ‘Nine Types of Light’ – This acts as a laid back sunny counterpart to their previous album ‘Dear, Science’ (2008). However, this isn’t an album that should be considered light or lacking in substance. Instead it’s a successful move into new territory for a band that continues to develop, improve and with this show that may just be one of the best bands of the last ten years. The album’s brighter moments indicates a softer R&B influence though in the latter stages of the album the band show their darker side on tracks like ‘Forgotten’ that strongly reminds me of the dense atmosphere of second album ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’  (2006) but always demonstrates what they have learnt since about space and light and shade. An album that proves sweet and sour can co-exist and that light is variable alternative not corporate cop-out.

5. Paris Suit Yourself – “My Main Shitstain”‘ – An eclectic début album is held together by a similarly punk spirit and commanding vocalist Luvinsky. The band produce a unique blend of street music that takes from soul, punk, post-punk and hip-hop while subtle embracing modern technology. The band is unafraid to wear to heart politically and graphically on its sleeve and are obviously confident in their own ability and style!! The world is there’s and I fully expect them to take it and make it their own.

4. Toro Y Moi – “Underneath the Pine” – From its chiming and droning intro track right through to the last rhythmic charge of ‘Elise’, it does no wrong. A fantastic concoction of ’80s style funk rhythms and grooves matched with emotive soundtrack backing, expert use of effects processing and the glorious rush of good pop music, a leap forward from his impressive début ‘Causers of This’. In the past its been difficult to pin down Toro Y Moi’s sound and find useful reference points but recently mid 90’s Stereolab seems apt for this playful experiment in pop music.

3. Wagon Christ – “Toomorrow” – It would be easy to dismiss this album as a repetition of everything that Vibert has done as Wagon Christ and there is some truth to that. However, he has produced an eclectic album full of great tracks (there’s not a duffer to be found) that will please hardcore Vibert fans and those new to this long-term dance music fixture. A must for fans of Ninja Tune, Warp and Planet Mu most esoteric output!!

2. tUnE-yArDs – “w h o k i l l” – tUnE-yArDs delivers on what was hinted at on her début album ‘Bird-Brains’, strong vocal performances and use of vocal layers are an ever-present as are the hip-hop rhythms that dominated her début. She also brings a host of surprises, the processing of vocals through a modular synth, pop melodies that pack a punch and day-glo indebted to both African music and dub yet at the same time all of her own. Though the album dips towards the end ‘Doorstop’ and ‘You, Yes You’ show there are yet more directions in which tUnE-yArDs sound can be developed. All-in-all a great album from a unique artist.

1. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” –  A breathtakingly ambitious album that brings together North African guitars, club beats, Indian pop vocals, grime and electro synth bass, twisted synth arpeggios are all bought together and work where it should fail spectacularly. There’s a new found clarity and a massive step-up in the quality of the tunes on ‘Eye Contact’ this is the record that their last album should have been and impress instant, whereas in the past songs were either growers or too awkward to be properly embraced. Interestingly after a few listens it becomes clear there’s some strong links to “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective (who are both friends and contemporaries of Gang Gang Dance) the use of psychedelic electronics and rhythms rooted in hip-hop are present on both albums. However, Gang Gang Dance add plenty to this and produce their own unique sound. An interest coincidence is that “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was Sonic Fiction’s Album of the Year 2009 and this is currently in poll position for this year. Will it still be No.1 in December?

Spotify playlist:

Liam’s Albums of the Year 2011 … so far

Vier’s Top Five Albums of the Year 2011… so far

5. Lucy – “Wordplay For Working Bees” (Stroboscopic Artefacts) Lucy bypasses the traditional 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 busyness of the crowds assembled 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.

4. Planningtorock – “W” (DFA) Planningtorock’s (Janine Rostron) second album is rooted in the expression of her sexuality, which is conveyed by the swagger and sweaty atmosphere that recall the cabaret clubs in her adopted home of Berlin. The lascivious drawl of her pitched-down voice (as demonstrated with: “I know my feelings” on opener ‘Doorway’ and “I’m a believer of circular/suckular love” on ‘Manifesto’) coupled with staccato strings and thick, sensual orchestration makes “W” a powerful and rewarding release.

3. Morphosis – “What Have We Learned” (Delsin/Morphine) Composed entirely with analogue equipment and recorded over three days, Morphosis’ first full-length is a collection of gritty, percussive clatter that recalls the dirtier side of Krautrock. Built on round bass drums and foggy static with assertive grooves and synths that engulf the listener, “What Have We Learned” is the techno release of the year.

2. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact” (4AD) Building from the suggestions of bright pop displayed on a track such as ‘House Jam’ from their previous album “Saint Dymphna”, Gang Gang Dance have condensed their eclecticism and strengthened the pop melodies to create a highly impressive and ambitious fifth album. Singer Lizzie Bougatsos works her voice as instrument, in a way that justly recalls Karin Dreijer Andersson and Bjork, weaving it among the layers of polyrhythmic dance beats, electro-indebted synth riffs and glassy arpeggios. Key track ‘Mindkilla’ combines unhinged world-dance grooves with Bougatsos’ menacingly singing the lullaby ‘Mockingbird’, which encapsulates Gang Gang Dance’s approach for “Eye Contact”: ecstatic and woozy with an undercurrent of threat.

1. Nicolas Jaar – “Space Is Only Noise” (Circus Company) Much has been said of 22 year-old Jaar’s prodigious talent and his first album is rightly garnering critical acclaim. 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 in place of what could otherwise have been a pretentious clutter.

Honourable mentions:

Wolfgang Voigt – “Kafkatrax” (Profan) In typically eccentric fashion, Voigt has super-imposed his face on to Austrio-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka’s head for the artwork of Kafkatrax. The strange merge goes further with the music contained inside. Every sound except the bass drum is taken from a German audiobook 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 four alien yet groove-filled techno tracks.

http://www.kompakt.fm/releases/kafkatrax_1/embedded

http://www.kompakt.fm/releases/kafkatrax_2/embedded

Spotify playlist:

Vier’s Albums of the Year 2011… so far

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