April 30, 2008

Heat Index: January-April 2008

With a third of the year down, Michael F. Gill lists and rates his favorite and not-so-favorite releases of 2008.

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December 18, 2007

2007: Year In Review, Part One

Welcome to part one of Beatz By The Pound’s year-end roundup for 2007, containing the staff’s favorite dance singles, albums, mixes, producers, and labels of the year.

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October 8, 2007

Cobblestone Jazz – 23 Seconds

Techno and jazz. On the face of it, it’s two genres of music that have little to do with one another. But ever since techno emerged out of Detroit in the late ’70s and early ’80s, artists have been trying to combine the two. Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra project featured Francisco Mora, Craig Taborn, and Rodney Whitaker to name but a few, while Underground Resistance has proffered the idea of Hi-tech Jazz as their update on the form. To these ears, however, it’s always been hit and miss (with the focus on the latter). There’s something inherently awkward about grafting genres onto one another – and when it’s done properly it usually ends up being called something else entirely.

So leave it to three white Canadians to do it right, eh? Mathew Jonson, Danuel Tate, and Tyger Dhula are childhood friends from Vancouver, who have seemingly figured out what’s eluded producers for years – how to mix improvisatory live elements with a booming four-to-the-floor beat. It’s simple, apparently. Take filtered synth basslines, a few mutable elements that work within an easy harmonic framework, and a steady drum to wrap it all around.Those mutable elements are usually what each track lives and dies on: for “W” the trio works with a vocoder and a percolating synth line, while “Lime in Da Coconut” utilizes a rapidly evolving melody that sounds like the aural equivalent of a “Stars” Windows 3.1 screensaver. “Slap the Back” and “23 Seconds,” however, repeat past success to diminishing effect near the album’s end. It’s a tightrope: the frequently employed vocoder that makes “Peace Offering” sing weighs down “Change Your Apesuit” and the indelible groove of “Saturday Night” is almost entirely absent from “Hired Touch.”

As a long-time fan, it’s hard not to count 23 Seconds as a bit of a disappointment. The trio’s singles on Wagon Repair have been of such high quality that anything less than excellence seems unthinkable. When the trio find an uninspiring theme to work around for seven or eight (very long) minutes or so, it’s a taste issue, rather than a talent one. Cobblestone, as you might expect from the lengthy songs and minimal amount of elements to each, are a powerful live experience and that’s still the way they’re best heard. 23 Seconds is just a reminder – and a handy collection for those who still fear vinyl and mp3s.

K7 / 223
[Listen]
[Nina Phillips]


September 18, 2007

Basteroid – Upset Ducks

At first it’s hard for me to imagine Upsets Ducks being used for dancing. I mean, I’ve felt that alchemy before, where physically encountering the music at proper volume in a dark and sweaty room consecrated to moving your ass makes even the most unassuming jams take on dimensions you couldn’t imagine in your most feverish headphone dreams, but Sebastian Riedl’s long-playing debut under the Basteroid name is too captivating in its insular, rough-and-smooth way to imagine listening communally, let alone dancing. The opening “16 Steps Away from the Stars” especially soft shoes its could-be-huge raft of interlocking burbles, melodic stabs, and static washes into something that seems to be continually turning away from the listener into somewhere more private and inaccessible; sure enough, having to be the pursuer just makes the attraction of the track fiercer.

Which isn’t to say at all that Basteroid sounds difficult or obtuse or dull; each track here packs all the “cloudbursts, breakdowns, and big hooks” that Peter Chambers summed up as the hallmarks of Areal’s sound in Beatz semi-recently. The artist and record that Riedl’s work here summons unavoidably to mind for those of us who are happy observers but not necessarily devotees of techno is The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime. But as good as that record is, the title is maybe even more appropriate for Upsets Ducks (although I wouldn’t want to lose Riedl’s sense of humor); Axel Willner’s opus opts for the in-your-face sparkle that makes his name so appropriate (think field as ground versus object, not plot of land) whereas the sneakier apogees of Basteroid get to the same heights by rougher, subtler, more sublime means.

Once Riedl hits the late period trifecta of “Pulsador de Alarma”/ “Allright” / “Un Dos Windows” it’s clear that although he’s not so headphone-pointillist as Willner he’s at least his match in crafting snarky movers that don’t so much burst at you as slyly insinuate themselves into your hindbrain. Like a lot of listeners normally so devoted to the Word, or at least the Voice, I can’t say I can actually hum any melodies even after weeks of devoted (obsessive?) listening, but I do find its steady, building pulse threading its way into more and more of my waking life.

Even as the construction of this album apparently disturbed the waterfowl outside his studio (especially the buzzy, grainy “Attention: Upsets Ducks,” I’d imagine), Riedl was crafting a near seamless 70 minutes that deserves to rival Willner’s big debut for the affections of those who normally listen to things with guitars in them.

I lack the technical or genre vocabulary to communicate to the diehards the difference in technique between, I can only talk about emotion: The Field is more like the sensation of sunshine on your face, a train ride to a new city, leaning in to kiss someone; Basteroid evokes instead the feeling of finally leaving work for the day, walking alone through your city late at night, falling asleep to the muted sound of the party next door. That the former is more obviously, maybe even aggressively ‘good’ as a set of signifiers is true, but there’s at least as much space (if not more) in my life for the latter. Riedl is definitely still capable of tearing up a dancefloor but he along with his contemporaries have finally learned the hard lessons of techno’s rich history of trying to make albums: how to craft an experience beyond that of getting up and moving, while still allowing the latter response. The result is rich and compelling enough to warrant repeated listens even from the neophytes.

Areal / AREALCD 6
[Listen]
[Ian Mathers]


September 7, 2007

Deepchord Presents Echospace – The Coldest Season

2007CD/AlbumDubTechno

Dub techno is a bit of a challenging listen, much in the same way, say, free jazz is. On first listen, the genres are practically opposites, but in approach and execution, they are remarkably similar—it isn’t about the melodies, it’s about the sounds and the feelings. The “challenge” in free jazz is to follow all the different parts down their winding paths and to see the craft and invention in its rendering. The “challenge” in dub techno is the opposite, to find the excitement and movement in what at first sounds like a static and unmoving piece.

Since dub techno was pioneered by the Basic Channel camp in the early ’90s, casual listeners might not even have noticed much progression—after all, the template is basically the same concoction of deep, muted, echoing chords, subsonic bass lines, compressed hi-hats, and lots of tape hiss—and much the way that Ornette Coleman might sound just like Anthony Braxton to the untrained ear, so might Maurizio sound just like Thomas Brinkmann. Dig a little deeper into either genre, however, and the subtleties and nuances become more and more apparent, and one’s appreciation deepens. The devil may be in the details, but so are the thrills.

Detroit native Rod “Deepchord” Modell—he and Chicagoan Steven “Soultek” Hitchell are partners in Echospace, also a label—has been operating as a shadowy entity for some time now, unleashing limited-run singles over the years that fetch crazy sums on eBay. Now with this, their highest profile and best-distributed release to date, the pair have stepped up and released their masterwork. Judged on its own merits, The Coldest Season should stand as one of the best electronic releases of the year, and one of the best dub techno releases in the last decade.

Certainly, one can appreciate the music here on strictly a background level. The album definitely conjures a mood, and played at a low level, it creates a suitably laid-back, chilled atmosphere—downright icy, in fact. The beats don’t kick in on opener “First Point of Aries” until well past the three-minute mark, giving the swirling, hissing synths plenty of time to work up some steam (or frost, if you will). The tracks tumble and roll into each other through the entire first half of the album, each track morphing into the next, but distinct in themselves, and listening to these transitions, admiring the little differences from track to track, is half the fun of the dub techno experience. “Ocean of Emptiness” is nearly 12 minutes of beatless space; “Celestialis” is a shuffling, almost funky drive through the big city at night. Tiny trails of melody drift, barely audible, through “Sunset,” while “Elysian” ups the percussion and twists and turns the mix actively throughout its, almost aggressive. The biggest and best thrills are saved for last, however, as the closer “Empyrean” is the most inventive and downright catchy thing here, with a percolating rhythm track, spooked-out organ stabs, and a truly inspiring drop out. If anything here makes you leap for the repeat button, it’s this. Otherwise, just playing the entire album on a loop will do just fine, thanks.

With all this in mind, anyone going into The Coldest Season expecting some sort of radical departure from the dub techno style that has proceeded it will likely be disappointed. Basic Channel effectively invented the wheel of this genre, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t admire the latest models to roll off the modern assembly line. There are enough new wrinkles and, yes, thrills here to appeal to devotees and newbies alike.

Modern Love / LOVE 33CD
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


August 30, 2007

Brendon Moeller – Jazz Space

12"2007DubTechno

Beatz regulars might be familiar with my rendering of “Abletonitis”, the disease which seems to infect every promising Ableton-arranged track with the “limitations of almost infinite possibility”. Somehow, in being able to do almost everything, the program seems to prevent most people from doing, well, anything. Instead of painstakingly hand-programming drum patterns, writing hooks, and making sure the phrasing of all the instruments swing together as one on the one, you just stretch, mute, transpose, and if things are getting boring, drop in a ping-pong delay. Presto! The recent release of Robag Wruhme’s The Lost Archives function as Exhibit A in showing the corrosive effects of this sickness on talented producers, showing how lazy, formulaic and FX-dependent so many interesting music makers have become due to such “amazingly streamlined workflow” and the “incredible drag and drop VST plugins”.

Moeller’s Jazz Space should be just another victim of this epidemic, but somehow, the EP is more like the soundtrack documenting Moeller’s overcoming of the illness by doing pitched battle with several bouts of its symptoms. Sonically, we’re very much in the territory of T++ and Monolake, with dry, granular, and planar sounds rolling through spacetime, their flow interrupted by eruptions of parameter-tweaking breakdowns, which are kept in check by big, deep, round basslines.

“Pink Noise” reaches such proximity to Momentum-era Monolake that you’d have to flag a co-write on it, while “Jazz”, with its warm, friendly micro-boompty feel sidles up very close to Robag’s work on Vakant. But it’s “Space” which goes someway toward staking out Moeller’s very own place on the moon, working intimations of early new-millenium Force Inc into something approaching its own musical identity. While not nearly as accomplished or atmospheric as some of the recent Deepchord material, Jazz Space lays out a musical question-mark that flags the possibility of another talent taking their dub-tech workflow all the way to the cold satellites (and back), in a way that entertainingly re-frames the tried and true template of this narrow but seemingly inexhaustible sound-vein.

Third Ear / 3EEP 068
[Listen]
[Peter Chambers]


August 8, 2007

Various Artists – Death Is Nothing To Fear Vol. 2

Whereas the first volume of Spectral Sound’s latest compilation series featured a side-long groover from the label’s biggest star, Matthew “Audion” Dear, the follow-up isn’t dominated by one act at all. The four tracks here are uniformly excellent and of enough variety to keep even the most OCD listener satisfied, driven as they seem to be by genuinely, um, “spectral” sounds (or perhaps “ghostly” is a better description).

Spectral mainstay James T. Cotton’s “2 Keys” leads things off with more of his familiar funky-acid-by-numbers action, but hey, acid isn’t exactly built on the idea of diverse sounds, so you can hardly be surprised. Jonas Kopp remixes Plan Tec into a building, percussive nightmare with inspired (and masterfully restrained) use of some very cool horrorshow effects and knob-tweaking, and you might swear that Geoff White’s minimal popper “Apartmental” is a long lost Daniel Bell cut, bugged out and bouncing along.

The cream of this particular crop, however, is Mikael Stavöstrand’s “Can You See Through My Eyes,” a clattering, spooked-out ride full of inspired textures and percussive tricks that rumble over the track’s spine like a skeleton being dragged on a bumper. The Cotton track may be a little samey, but three out of four winners these days is a mighty fine ratio. Oh, and bonus points for the cute skull-&-hearts cover motif.

Spectral Sound / SPC-043
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


August 7, 2007

B12 – Practopia / Slope

UK duo B12 (Mike Golding and Steve Rutter) were a prime mover in Warp’s Artificial Intelligence movement in the early ’90s alongside acts like Richard James’ Polygon Window, Black Dog Productions, and Autechre. 1993’s Electro-Soma was their definitive statement. Fusing lush European sounds with Detroit-derived rhythms to great effect, it was fathoms deep and foot-tapping all at once. The five-track Practopia dates from 1996 and is just now getting a proper release (the original only made it to white label at the time), but still sounds like it sprung from some sleek Blade Runner-like futuristic society. Much like Kraftwerk’s timeless style, the classic melodic lines, Derrick May-inspired rhythms and sense of…space…place it firmly in the retrofuturist mold. The infamous cover of the original Artificial Intelligence comp features a robot chilling out in an easy chair with headphones on. This could easily have been what it was listening to.

The newly recorded Slope three-tracker, cut from the same template of sounds, is an altogether more bouncing and aggresive affair, built more on layered percussive elements than drifting keys and ambient washes. It’s good stuff and still distinctive, but lands closer to the Plus 8 sound than the original B12 recipe. The robot just might leave its chair for this one.

B12 / B1215 / B1216
[Listen]
[Listen]
[Todd Hutlock]


August 7, 2007

Adam Craft / Grindvik – Catch Me / NAND-Grind

Pär Grindvik’s “Casio” was the underexpected treat of the first Death Is Nothing To Fear comp on Spectral – a bubbling, blunt-grinding house track with the reduced booty feel of a lot of the 7th City material by DBX and his cohort of microboompty rump disciples. Here, on Grindvik’s own label Stockholm Limited, you get the expanded version of the same template.

Both sides by Grindvik and Adam Craft manage to be three things at once: percolating jack tracks, bumpy minimal house, and peaktime techno bruisers. It’s a tough tightrope to wangle wiggling on, but they pull it off. Kraft’s “Catch Me” sits much closer to a M_nus-variant of the theme, and would fit comfortably in one of Magda’s super-loopy sets next to a JPLS track. Grindvik’s meanwhile is bigger, meaner and a touch more old-school, coming closer to pre-raygun Audion or James T. Cotton, with a long series of tearing, filtered percussion loops and a bucking, waving bassline. Solid stuff.

Stockholm LTD / STHLMLTD 9A4C
[Listen]
[Peter Chambers]


August 6, 2007

G-Man – Quo Vadis

12"1990s2007DubTechno

Like Baby Ford and Mark Broom, Gez Varley is one of the few British producers from the dawn of the era who has continued to make interesting, relevant minimal music that still adds something to the original template he helped formulate. I first heard “Quo Vadis” on Richie Hawtin’s 1995 Mixmag compilation, a mix that has aged remarkably well and is still definitely worth a rinse, especially in light of recent directions in house-influenced minimal techno. Given the survival of the track in this context (or, more generally, the fact that it’s never really stopped being played), who better to re-release the classic than Styrax Leaves, a label who are (thankfully, actually) stuck in the best bits of ’90s techno, a place of patchy perfections at the best of times.

The drum sounds themselves are as dated as you’d expect, but it’s the subtle seductions of their patterning that help this release retain the breath of life. Stripped, deep, and long, the themes rise out of a flat gas of beats, repeating and slowly mutating through the addition, reduction, or substitution of one simple element. With nothing more than plodding, dogged repetitions, these tracks lumber forward, only allowing the slow revelation of a timbro-melodic theme to happen “in the fullness of time.” It’s a strategy that gave rise to a lot of exceedingly dull records, but Varley knows exactly which tone-pots to touch, and how. Listen to these puppies and dream of candyflips in a sweaty bunker, consoled only by the natural warmth emanating from the rhythm machines. It’s enough to make you slowly bug out.

Styrax Leaves / strx leaves 005
[Listen]
[Peter Chambers]


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