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Albums Of: November

Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters – Tomorrow Is Another Day

Here Ulrich collaborates for a second time with The Engineers‘ guitarist, Mark Peters. Although their first outing, Underrated Silence, was rather a smooth, unchallenging, even unmemorable ride, well within Ulrich’s comfort zone, I found myself sticking it on surprisingly often, coming back to its enveloping, easy-on-the-ear sounds. This second effort is more confident and more of an equal partnership. The tempos vary slightly more widely and the guitar playing takes an increased prominence in the compositions. It is even reminiscent, in parts, of Mike Oldfield‘s Tubular Bells work – in a good way, if you like that sort of thing (and I do).

Midlake – Antiphon

After two classic albums of British-influenced folk rock (2006’s The Trials Of Van Occupanther and 2010’s The Courage Of Others), Midlake had to restart their resume following the departure of their lead singer in 2012. The musical chops are still there and the new singer, drawn from the existing ranks, does a fine job, but I can’t help but feel there’s only half an album’s worth of really diamond material here on Antiphon. It gets off to a great start for the first 4 or 5 tracks but then trails off to a rather unmemorable finish.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Another marquee release for 2013, this gave me the idea for the recent Double Albums post. Bringing in a disco influence isn’t wholly original these days (!) but it is a great move for Arcade Fire and suits them down to the ground. There are some lovely songs on here, with solid rhythmic foundations although one or two plodding rockers could have been left out (e.g. Joan of Arc) as they don’t fit the mood effectively. I’m not convinced it works as a double album – if one or two tracks had been cut and the 6 minutes of quiet rewinding chopped off the end of the otherwise excellent slow-building Supersymmetry, it could have made one hell of an epic single-disc. However, plenty here for early thrills and to come back to.

Kiln – Meadow:Watt

Electro-acoustica, or something. A laid-back but incredibly detailed, meticulous sound. Some of this sounds a little too much like their previous album (Dusker – 2007) – so much so for one of the tracks that it had me checking whether it was a remix. However, they do bring some lovely piano melody to the mix of one or two, as well as some more head-nodding beats. Overall a charming, engrossing listen.

Nils Frahm – Spaces

One of the new breed of ‘modern classical’ artists, this is nominally a live album, although there isn’t much crowd noise beyond deliberate snippets of applause. Nils clearly specialises in delicate piano musings but is no one-trick pony – the tracks here that up the tempo or bring electronic sounds into the mix are highly effective. It’s a lovely, varied selection of pieces and a great taster of his style and ability.

Albums Of: October

CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe

After quite a few more ‘experimental’ releases recently, it’s nice to have two this month (this and Haim) that are decidedly ‘pop’. CHVRCHES, a trio from Scotland, produce excellent, energising electro-pop. The singer has a lovely pure, delicate-but-powerful voice and the backing is full of massive synths and spine-tingling builds. Good stuff!

Haim – Days Are Gone

This is simply great pop music. I love the fact that this band is made up of three sisters, obviously all highly talented musicians. Their style is quite throwback, with strong shades of Fleetwood Mac and even Shania Twain (in a good way!). The songs are catchy and the context of these girls being sisters lends them something of an intimate, confessional quality.

Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

The oddly-named Oneohtrix Point Never is a synth-boffin of the most modern vintage. He takes scraps and oddments of sound from all sorts of unlikely sources (old commercials, VHS tapes, who knows) and combines them with synthesised noises into an unsettlingly neon-bright collage. There is more than a shade of ’emperor’s new clothes’ to this and I haven’t made my mind up yet. Most reviews online seem to love it but I can’t quite work out why…

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind

Electronica stalwart Four Tet seemed to have a bit of a bee in his bonnet when he announced the release of this album, his first studio album since 2010’s excellent There Is Love In You. On Twitter, he ranted, “no pre order, no youtube trailers, no itunes stream, no spotify, no amazon deal, no charts, no bit coin deal, no last minute rick rubin,” as if to say ‘damn you if you expect something nice from me.’  There is a bluffness about the album, too, and initially I didn’t take to it at all. He uses some samples of aggressive-sounding MCs on pirate radio stations, which were what stood out on first listen and were too consciously hip for my liking. However, further listens revealed the contrasting light to that shade, the melodies and the structure to what is sometimes rather a ‘bitty’ album. I’m liking it more each time I hear it.

Darkside – Psychic

As this excellent, if quite long-winded review points out, “If the internet has done anything for music, it seems to me that it’s smashed the notion of genre into tiny useless pieces.” But, as I have mentioned before, I rather like the weird and wonderful new genres that can be synthesised to suit the purpose of describing music, using words that have plenty of attached-meaning. So, when I say this is like ambient-house-disco-blues, that’s evocative of something, at least – whether accurate or not! Either way, I really like this and it’s unlike anything else that I’ve come across. The tracks unfold gently and it has  a deliciously composed and produced combination of electronics, instruments and voices.

Albums Of: September

Volcano Choir – Repave

Here’s Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame (plus appearances on Kanye West albums, of all things!) teaming up with members of lesser-known post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees. Basically post-rock with singing, which Sigur Ros have shown can be done quite effectively.

Steve Hauschildt – S/H

Steve Hauschildt of (sadly now defunct) Emeralds is a synth/drone experimentalist and gets his own ‘remastered retrospective’ here on Editions Mego, a la (former) bandmate Mark McGuire‘s fantastic A Young Person’s Guide To in 2011. This is drifty, impressionistic ambient music and there’s an enormous amount to take in across the two discs – nearly two and a half hours’ worth.

Trentemøller – Lost

Anders Trentemøller‘s debut album, The Last Resort, remains one of my favourite electronic albums, a virtuoso but, crucially, thematically-consistent set of wintry techno. His follow up, Into The Great Wide Yonder was bewilderingly different, all over the place stylistically and without enough strong tracks to carry the weaker ones (weird surf-rock-techno-freak-outs). Lost bridges the gap between the two approaches quite effectively, although it still only occasionally touches his best and suffers from a surfeit of guest vocalists. He’s clearly a highly talented producer but he needs to decide whether he’s a vocalist’s accompanist or the main attraction.

Albums Of: August

Washed Out – Paracosm

Washed Out‘s Within And Without was one of my favourite albums of 2011, so I picked this new one up without hesitation. I’m pleased to say it’s more of the same; as with what I said about Beach House‘s Bloom last year – when you have nailed a particular sound this good, it can definitely be milked for more than just one album’s worth. Stylistically Washed Out isn’t a million miles from Beach House, either, both occupying some of the ‘dream pop’ space, but Washed Out is much more, well, washed out, really. There’s a lovely saturated, hazy atmosphere but not so much that the tunes and harmonies are lost. A lovely carefree, summer vibe, too.

Blondes – Swisher

Blondes came to my attention via their distinctly ‘indie’ take on house, on last year’s self-titled 12″s compilation. Swisher, then, is their debut proper and it’s considerably more obtuse. It sounds quite … grey to me, although their method (I think) of partly improvising the tracks keeps things a little more ‘organic’ and it is quite hypnotic. Not an immediate favourite but one I’ll give a chance to, longer term.

Forest Swords – Engravings

Every now and then a record surfaces from relatively obscure origins to garner rave reviews from (seemingly) all quarters. I can’t help but sit up and take notice on such occasions, particularly when said album comes from the home-listening end of electronic music. Forest Swords‘ first full length is one such example. Everyone seems to be loving this at the moment but I’m not totally convinced. It is certainly a pretty original blend of languidly slow dub(step) beats and slightly mournful samples of instruments and voices. He has a weird way of placing his sounds in the mix with varying amounts of reverb that makes them sound oddly disembodied, like objects half-glimpsed in murky water. As you can probably tell, I’m not quite agreeing with the rave reviews (yet) but there’s enough here to keep me coming back. It may well be a grower…

Donato Dozzy – Plays Bee Mask

Believe it or not, given the artist and title, this is ambient techno, not some sort of hyperactive happy acid hardcore. I think this is Donato Dozzy (of 2012’s awesome Voices From The Lake) remixing a track by an artist called Bee Mask into 7 movements. Anyway, it’s pretty, ambient drifting and plinking-plonking and rather nice generally, although I’ve only put it on a few times so far.

Albums Of: July

μ-Ziq – Chewed Corners

Bold, bright and inventive. I’d go as far as to say this is Mike Paradinas‘s most accessible album in his μ-Ziq guise. There’s none of the abrasive snarl of some of his work, replaced instead with technicolour synths and a couple of almost euphoric trancey-house tracks.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

This is immense – a hypnotic tour de force of an album. Fuck Buttons have moved away from the tinny-high-end single-chord-euphoria of 2009’s (Andy Weatherall produced) Tarot Sport to a darker, heftier sound, though no less grand in scope. And they have nailed it fantastically. It is at turns gripping, visceral, alien and magnificent. Suffice to say it has been getting a lot of play.

Albums Of: June

Wow – what a month for new music!

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Top notch electronica. Jon Hopkins has been producing music for a while, both for himself and other artists – working with Brian Eno on Small Craft On A Milk Sea and co-producing (with Brian Eno) Coldplay‘s Viva La Vida, for example. He’s released a few albums under his own name but never quite nailed down a distinctive style. Until now. Immunity is a brilliant listen from start to finish – a superbly composed and paced album, ebbing and flowing between hard and soft, excitement and calm.

Kelpe – Fourth: The Golden Eagle

Kelpe‘s brilliant debut album, Sea Inside You, was released in 2004 and remains one of my favourite electronic albums. His follow-ups,  Ex Aquarium and Cambio Wechsel, were rather one-paced – he seemed to get sidetracked by crude synth noises and lost much of the depth, melody and intricacy of his debut. I was close to giving up on him but Fourth: The Golden Eagle is a welcome return to form – a better balance between his early subtlety and later bombast.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Wow! Like Daft Punk the month before, these electronica heroes return after an extended hiatus with a masterpiece. I love it and may even go as far as to say it might be my favourite ‘Boards’ album…

Sigur Ros – Kveikur

Having dropped a member to become a three-piece, this is a welcome blast of fresh air after 2012’s somnambulant Valtari. The remaining rhythm section have their moment, unleashing some uncharacteristic feedback snarl on several tracks. It’s good but almost routine for Sigur Ros now and I feel as if their last three albums – this, Valtari and <long Icelandic title> – could probably have been condensed into one diverse highlight-reel of a long player. I’d love to hear them do something completely different.

Holden – The Inheritors

Fascinating Pagan-inspired electronica/techno from this distinctly unprolific artist (last, and pretty much only, release, 2006’s odd mini-album, The Idiots Are Winning). It doesn’t sounds like anything / anyone else – the beats shuffle, often straining against the boundaries of their time signatures; the melodies come from unexpected sources (in some cases actually generated by randomised software) and there is an unpredictable, chaotic quality to it all, like the uneven lump of carved rock that features starkly on the cover.

Albums Of: May

Deerhunter – Monomania

I’ll let you in on a ‘secret’: I don’t really like punk music. However, I do like Deerhunter and they are sometimes described, by themselves as well as others, as a punk band. I also don’t like being hypocritical. Oh dear. Well what this is really about, of course, is genre and the vagaries of its definition – ‘punk’ obviously has a wide meaning and part of what Deerhunter do falls under its umbrella. In fact, Deerhunter have much better terms to describe their music – evocative self-invented micro-genres such as ‘ghost rock’ and ‘ambient punk.’ I love this kind of pigeonhole side-stepping and they continue it by labelling latest effort Monomania “file under: nocturnal garage.” This album is billed as them ‘going back to their roots’ as a punk band, partly eschewing the increasingly lovely reverb-drenched dream-rock sound that had been developing over previous albums. As such, I find this a relatively difficult listen and slightly frustrating in parts – the overtly ‘punk’ style dominating many tracks, with their usual dreamy subtle brilliance replaced with simple bashed guitars and harshly mic’ed-up vocals. I get the impression that punk ‘fans’ (and I have read several reviews to this effect) will appreciate this for exactly the reasons I’m not so keen. Having said that, this is still Deerhunter, so there are several gems amongst the rough – for example guitarist Lockett Pundt‘s lovely The Missing, sandwiched between two crude slices of garage rock early in the album’s voyage.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

A whopping eight years after their massively underwhelming, and possibly self-parodying, Human After All (2005), up pop dance music heroes Daft Punk with a thirteen track collaboration-filled magnum opus. Their landmark classic, Discovery (2001), may be a jumping off point, but this time rather than using samples they seem to have built everything meticulously from scratch. The result is almost brutally smooth, so far into cheese it comes out the other side completely straight-faced as a serious proposition. It sounds beautiful and effortlessly intricate – there is an exquisite level of detail lurking beneath the streamlined exterior. Often my issue with collaboration-heavy efforts such as this is that the producers change style too much to fit their guests, resulting in a muddled collection of genre experiments. On the contrary, such is Daft Punk’s vision on Random Access Memories that every collaboration fits the unified whole and it really feels like a proper Album. Most importantly, it’s a damn joy to listen to.

Albums Of: April

The Knife – Shaking The Habitual

This is an expansive and challenging artistic statement of an album, spread over two discs. It ranges from mechanical, almost tribal techno to droning noise, ambient drifts and grating metallic sounds but the unifying factor seems to be a sense of dissatisfaction at the world, either writ large or lurking in the background. The sound of decaying factories – the raves they might hold at night and their desolation during the day. It’s a difficult listen in parts (and it’s a good thing it’s broken up into two discs, although there is a single disc version without the 20-minute ambient drone track Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised that closes the first disc) and not one, I suspect, that I’ll sling on the player often, but compelling in its own dark way.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

And now for something completely different! The polar opposite of The Knife‘s opus, this is concise, bright, shiny and happy. Almost too cloying. In an understandable response to their fresh and unselfconscious break-out album, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, they have tried to one-up the layers of synths and 80s goodness, which has slightly obscured the immediacy of the melodies – however, early days with this yet and I half suspect that the diminished first impression will mean that it reveals its charms more gradually.

Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect

Nice to see a return from this collaborative outfit containing Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) and Boom Bip (of, er, Boom Bip). Their 2008 concept album, Stainless Style, about playboy car designer John DeLorean (responsible for the fantastic-but-flawed DMC12, made famous in the Back To The Future films) was perfectly pitched and nailed its 80s aesthetic with great tunes and lyrics. Praxis Makes Perfect‘s subject is the rather more obscure Italian publisher and left-wing activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. I have not had long to digest this (quite short) album yet, but my initial impressions are that whilst it is good, their subject matter this time does not mesh with their updated 80s style anywhere near as well as in Stainless Style (where lines like “Cause you’ll see my reflection / In Michael Douglas’s mirrored sunglasses” perfectly complemented the mirror-sharp production).

Albums Of: March

Bit late with this one! Some thoughts on albums that came out in March:

Heterotic – Love & Devotion

Nice change of direction for electronica veteran Mike Paradinas, here with his (new) partner Lara Rix-Martin, aided by Gravenhurst‘s Nick Talbot who sings on half the tracks. Mike’s last album as μ-ziq, a break-up album brutally titled Duntisbourne Abbots Soulmate Devastation Technique (2007), seemed like a bit of a cul-de-sac for the project, with every ounce of melody and harmony crushed under the weight of digital manipulation. It probably achieved its aim as a purging of negative feelings about a lost relationship, but as a listening experience it was overly intense yet oddly dull and unmemorable. Great, then, to hear him back on record following a totally different path. Love & Devotion kicks off with Bliss (quite an apt title), immediately harking back to mid-to-early-90s ambient house, with breathily soulful female vocals, handclaps and a bouncy bassline. Vocalist Nick Talbot enters for the second track, Blue Lights, which hits a tempo high as a driving house number, again complete with distinctly 90s-flavoured piano chords. From there, though, the mood darkens, the tempo slows and grey-sky machine soul is the order of the day. It is an intriguing mixture of atmospheric electronic sounds with deliberately retro flourishes (midi trumpet choirs etc.) and titles like Robocorp (in particular) heighten the sense of looking back with wistful nostalgia. It isn’t an immediate gem but certainly one to keep coming back to.

Locust – You’ll Be Safe Forever

Here Mark van Hoen revives his Locust project, which had previously been the outlet for his slightly more ‘commercial’ vocal-oriented tracks, albeit with his own deliciously dark/off-kilter twist. The last outing for Locust was 2001’s Wrong (a clever twin CD format) so it has lain dormant for quite some time. Now he’s back with a collaborator in tow (Louis Sherman, who I am not familiar with) and although it isn’t based around songs in the same way as before, it is at the more accessible end of his work, compared with some of the odd (but compelling) sound experiments to be found on last year’s excellent solo effort, The Revenant Diary. Crisp beats, the occasional uncommon time signature (!), expertly crafted ambiance, spooky vocals and an overall sense of creeping unease.

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