Friday, July 28, 2006

Back To The Future

I really need to do something with the Links section of this blog. As a useful resource, it's fast becoming obsolete. A lot of the URLs are now outdated and there are plenty of new sites and MySpace profiles I could add were I to find the time. Rest assured that it's on my 'to do' list.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on some records from the giant backlogue....

2005 was not a terribly illustrious year for electronic music, but just beyond its mid-way point, 2006 already shows much brighter prospects. Regular readers will already know (at least from my Mercury Music Prize analysis) that, like many other music bloggers on the internet, I'm thoroughly captivated by the self-titled album on Kode 9 from Burial. I cannot claim to know very much at all about the dubstep scene, or the immediate heritage of this music, aside from occasional listens to North London grime pirate radio stations (I'm more familiar with the mainstream end of the spectrum - Dizzee, Roll Deep, Lethal Bizzle etc). Sometimes I find it baffling, disorientating and disjointed - sometimes it is simply propulsive and compelling. 'Burial' is a more complex beast. It is decidedly minimal - the beats are syncopated, unusual and located far from conventional dancefloor rhythms, but not in the more predictable stutter, click and cut mode of most of the music unpalatably termed IDM. Melody and harmony are also subsumed to droning atmospherics, but again these found sounds and looped synth effects are well outside conventional parameters. This is the sound of damp city streets after dark - there's a vague sense of menace lurking beneath the surface, but also the familiar and comforting streetlight glow. There are abstract echoes and unexplained sounds, subtle shifts of tone and mood. The term 'urban' music so beloved of those who need to create lifestyle tickboxes for music consumers might be far better employed here. This is instrumental music that captures the paradoxical claustrophobia and expanse of London life better than anything else I've heard this year. The genre term 'dubstep' seems apt - the subtle shifts in sound do recall the ingenious productions of Scientist or Lee Scratch Perry, although the emphasis on bowel-quashing bass is not quite so marked. The rhythms clearly descend from the two-step and garage scenes, but they are made fractured, confusing and completely hypnotic. Sometimes it sounds like there's too little going on here - but listen closely and it quickly becomes hypnotic. A marvellous hybrid sound and one of the great achievements of 2006 so far. Yet outside the genuine internet buzz that has built a strong word-of-mouth profile, will it get any albums of the year plaudits come December?

Completely different in sound and approach, and a great deal more playful, is the latest album from Matmos. Wary listeners could be forgiven for looking at the title ('The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast') and running a mile for fear of some pretentious nonsense. This prejudgment might well be exacerbated by the fact that Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt have demonstrated a consistently 'scientific' and proscribed approach to music making. Well, this is certainly sound collage, but it's also full of wit and invention. Its overarching concept (a series of compositions written in honour of dead gay icons) gives it coherence and (whisper it) maybe even some warmth (certainly it's rich in delirious humour).

If Matmos have in the past been perhaps too in thrall to their conceptual concerns - this time, the theme allows them to run wild in all directions, and one of the fascinating elements in listening to this record is picking up the personality traits and characteristics in each icon that may have contributed to the sound of the track. Sometimes the inspiration is blindingly obvious, such as on 'Buttons For Joe Meek', in which the duo construct what is more a gleeful homage than original concoction, recontextualising the Meek psychedelic sound for the modern laptop era. 'Snails and Lasers For Patricia Highsmith' has a smoky, noir-ish atmosphere, with Amy Vallaincourt's French Horn (a wonderful instrument heard all too infrequently in modern popular music) helping to recreate the tension and mystery of classic Detective movie soundtracks. The superb 'Steam and Sequins For Larry Levan' is easily the grooviest concoction Matmos have yet created, with its irresistible house-meets-disco beat, energising bassline, clavinet riffing and early 80s percussion samples. It's clearly influenced by the sound Levan himself pioneered as a DJ at the Paradise Garage, but it's also possible to hear the textural influence of Arthur Russell and Dinosaur L. By contrast, 'Semen Song For James Bidgood' has a decidedly more abstract, melancholy and sophisticated sound, with floaty, layered atmospherics partially reminscent of Portishead. It's another example of the duo moving well beyond their comfort zone.

That said, the baffling sample wizardry has certainly not been abandoned. In fact, it's still the central aspect of this record's sound. Yet, when you've sampled rhinoplasty operations, what can you do next? Well, look at what MC Schmidt is credited as playing on 'Tract For Valerie Solanas' - a cow's uterus, reproductive tract and vagina! Let's hope the Animal Rights militia don't get hold of this record! Even more ridiculous is 'Public Sex For Boyd MacDonald', a track that actually comes close to fulfilling the promise of its title. It apparently features samples of 'anonymous sex acts recorded at Blow Buddies during International Bear Weekend'. Delightful!

This manages to avoid dry theoretical tedium because Matmos have incorporated have achieved a more successful musical synergy this time around, largely through intelligently deployed guest appearances. There are strings performed by ACME and the Kronos Quartet, unashamedly funky live guitar parts, and vocals courtesy of Bjork and Antony Hegarty (although both resist delivering anything predictable). 'The Rose Has Teeth...' is comfortably the best album of their career so far. What could easily have been an exercise in nostalgic meandering has turned out to be fascinating and wildly entertaining.

I was a little disappointed with Ellen Allien's last album 'Thrills'. It was full of headspinning repetition and came with plenty of energy but, for me, lacked the occasional beauty and emotional pull of her classic 'Berlinette' album. 'Orchestra Of Bubbles', written and recorded in collaboration with Apparat, is a great deal more successful. It still has the same relentless, pulsating quality that has characterised all of Allien's work so far, along with her decidedly minimal, breathy vocals, but it also teases more possibilities from this defiantly skeletal approach. The tracks deploying a cello are excellent, 'Retina' sounding eerie and beautiful, 'Metric' carrying a real sense of menace and suspense. The latter layers its repeated phrases to chilling effect and is thoroughly compelling. Elsewhere, the pleasures are more familiar. 'Sleepless' is grindingly rhythmic, a perfect insomniac anthem, with Allien's vocals adding to the drama and confusion. The myriad bleeps and noises of the lengthy 'Jet' build into something energetic and invigorating. Like much of the best electronic music, the success of 'Orchestra of Bubbles' lies in the subtle manipulation of very simple devices and ideas. It's an outstanding headphones album. It still doesn't quite recapture the cold heart of 'Berlinette', but it's not as stark and uncompromising as 'Thrills' either.

It's a bit debatable as to whether 'Everything', the debut album on Matthew Herbert's Accidental label from Micah actually fulfills its considerable promise. The accompanying blurb talks about Micah Gaugh's eager desire to rechannel the spirit of Prince and The Cocteau Twins, but the music is sometimes a little too sedate and polite to capture the inventiveness of either act. All this is a surprise given the refreshingly understated quality of Micah's voice, and the fact that production duties on this record were carried out by the frequently uncompromising Arto Lindsay. What should therefore have been a decidedly artful affair has ended up only partially successful, its questing spirit sometimes undermined by restraint and technical gloss. There's no escaping this record's enveloping pleasantries - its delicate, underplayed guitar motifs, hypnotic Fender Rhodes keyboards and superficially jazzy aura. Still, like a number of the much feted nu-soul artists of the 90s (Erykah Badu particularly), it tends to get stuck in a mid-paced groove. The opening 'Constant' is a glaring example of this, with metronomic and very basic 4/4 programming not allowing it to veer in any unexpected or interesting directions. The same problem mires the single 'Revelation' which tries very hard to find some soulful, gospel spirit, and would probably succeed were it not for the flat monotony of the beat. Elsewhere, the programming is less restrictive but the tempo rarely breaks above a gentle trot. It would be interesting to see whether this material might work better with a live backing band, rather than relying so heavily on the conventions of studio trickery (mind you, 'Nothing', the one track with something close to a live sound dangerously resembles lumbering 90s funk-rock merchants Living Colour and is thoroughly unremarkable as a result).

It's not all negative though, as there's much of promise here and the album proves that Micah is at his best when at his most quirky. The delightful 'Knitting' has more variation in the programming and plenty of melodic interest. In fact, it works brilliantly because Micah deploys the full extent of his vocal range, thoughtfully expanding the harmony for the song's chorus, but rooting it firmly with a distinctive pop sensibility. The multi-tracked Micahs that permeate the contemporary reggae gloss of 'Give Up' add depth and intrigue to an effectively hypnotic backing track. The combination of pop and soul influences hinted at by Accidental's press release also comes out more clearly in the title track, which benefits from a highly infectious melody. 'Operator' is astonishing, chiefly because it seems to be several different songs spliced together, and entirely different in approach from the occasionally stifling rhythmic control of the rest of the album. Best of all is 'Sutra', which departs firmly from the sultry soul template to search for a more unique space - it's highly repetetive, a little like a mantra, but punctuated by highly effective interludes of musical invention. More of this upbeat contemporary psychedelic soul (like Norman Whitfield refashioned for a laptop) would really have elevated this album. As it stands, for all its strengths, the minimalist electro-soul template becomes a little soporiphic after a while. Persevearance certainly pays off, but there's little doubt that Micah's best records are still to come.

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