Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Speaking in Code

Suppose you were married and one of you was a documentary filmmaker while the other was really into electronic dance music. You decided to combine your interests and make a documentary about the music. You then lined up an impressive list of people who agreed to participate in the film including DJs and producers Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, DJ, producer and founder and owner of the BPitch record label Ellen Allien, producer, co-founder and owner of the highly respected Kompakt record label Wolfgang Voigt, and Robert Henke aka Monolake, co-founder of Ableton, and co-designer of the original Ableton Live.

With these people on board, think of the documentary you could make about electronic dance music! You could focus on the music itself, or the technology used to make the music, or the business of making, playing and selling the music. Amy Grill, the film maker who made Speaking in Code, didn’t do any of these things. You first get an idea that Speaking in Code might turn out to be a great opportunity wasted very early in the film when Grill’s voice over tells you that she decided not to focus on the music but on the people. Okay, so you make a documentary that focuses on what life in the electronic dance world is like for the people who produce and play the music. Grill didn’t really make that film either. Instead she made a documentary that is largely about . . . Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day.

Speaking in Code is almost literally a pointless film. There’s no unifying idea that structures the documentary. It’s as if they had the idea to make a documentary about electronic dance music and that’s as far as they got. They spent a lot of money (Speaking in Code has many, many segments of Day (the husband) whining about the state of their finances), shot a lot of aimless film, and ended up with, well, a lot of aimless film. With no coherent ideas about the music, the production of the music or the business of the music to give their footage some structure they decided to make it about “the people” and the people they decided to make it about was themselves.

All of the people mentioned in the first paragraph above do appear in Speaking in Code but very little of interest is done with them. For example, in addition to interviews with Wolfgang Voigt it looks like the film makers were given fairly good access to the people and the business of at Kompakt Records. What we get in the film is someone leading Day through the Kompakt record store saying “This is the section devoted to X type of music and that is the section devoted to Y type of music” while Day looking awestruck says things like “Wow! This is the greatest record store in the world!”   That’s about as deep as the insight and analysis of the subject matter gets.

As far as what life in the electronic dance music world is like we get the camera following someone around who is saying things like “This is the room where I made this track” and “This is the new urinal we have in the bathroom” (I’m not making this up). We get a lot of “we’re all one big happy family” accompanied by film of the big happy family eating together. And so on.  It’s almost as if for all that they’ve immersed themselves in the world of dance music, the film makers really don’t know, or don’t want to know, very much about it.  It’s all “here we are with this famous DJ”, and “here we are in this famous DJs toilet” and “here we are in this really cool record store”, and “here I am on the plane flying to Europe to go clubbing (again . . and again . . . and . . .).

The film includes a segment of Robert Henke opening what appears to be a version of Henke’s Monodeck, a sophisticated midi-controller for live performance that looks like it might have been a prototype of Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Henke is clearly excited about the arrival of the Monodeck yet Grill doesn’t ask him what it is, what it does or why he’s excited about it. She basically ignores it. A bonus feature extended interview with Wolfgang Voigt has him happy and interested to talk about electronic dance music in general, how it has developed over time, and how he sees Kompakt fitting into the larger electronic music picture. From this short segment you can see that you could have made an interesting documentary built around Voigt and Kompakt alone. Grill didn’t even include it in the film. One of the things Voigt talks about is the limitation on roles for women in the electronic dance music business. Grill conducts several interviews with one of those women, Ellen Allien, but doesn’t ask her anything about this.

Instead of anything that might be of interest to people who are interested in electronic dance music we get more and more focus on Grill and Day as the film goes on. More interview time is given to Day than to anyone else in the film – or maybe it just seems that way because his role in Speaking in Code is more about relationship drama than about music.  Even when other people are allowed to speak, Grill’s documentary voice over tends to be about what it all means for her and for her deteriorating relationship with her husband. Okay, if the film is going to be fundamentally about Grill and Day’s relationship, is there something especially interesting about the end of their marriage as documented in Speaking in Code? Not really. From what we see in the film it looks like they went through what very commonly happens when people get involved in a serious relationship when they are fairly young and fairly inexperienced in making a life with another, grow apart, find themselves unable or unwilling to make the adjustments and commitments necessary to come back together and deepen the relationship to a new level, and split up. While these events are of profound importance for the two people involved, they are also a common and unexceptional learning experience that many people have undergone for themselves.  Perhaps a suitable subject for a scripted film but this is supposed to be a documentary about electronic dance music.

Speaking in Code comes across as the kind of film you get when a Facebook-addicted, it’s-all-about-me kind of person makes a documentary. If you get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching the sad decline and dissolution of a marriage, Speaking in Code might get you off. If you’re interested in electronic dance music, be forewarned.  If Speaking in Code had been made with an idea about some aspect of  electronic dance music that could have given the film structure and coherence, it could have been a very interesting documentary.  But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
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08/06/2010 Posted by | DVD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: James Holden, DJ-Kicks

James Holden insists that his recent entry in the DJ-Kicks series is dance music.  That it may be, but it doesn’t sound like a typical DJ mix designed for club play.  In fact, it doesn’t sound very much like anything else in the common genres of dance music.  Holden appears to be thinking well outside the club on his DJ-Kicks.  He’s on the path of realizing some of the immense potential of rhythmically-oriented electronic music but I wouldn’t be surprised if hard-core dance fans don’t care for the album.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is propulsively rhythmic although he’s working with a pulse more than with a beat.  The rhythms are straightforward but it’s not the simple 4/4 that drives most House music.  He also makes frequent use of atonality, discord and occasional noise elements in his mix.  However, Holden does this in an exquisitely musical way.  This is not at all easy to do and Holden pulls it off both consistently and well.

Of all the DJ mixes I’ve reviewed here in the past several months (along with the ones we’ve listened to at home that haven’t gotten reviewed) I can’t think of one that holds together as a single coherent body of music as well as Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  Its rolling rhythms give it a beating heart, its steady underlying pulse gives it breath, and its atonality and discord give it emotion felt but not fully understood.  It’s like some great beast whose life you share for a time.

Needless to say, I like this album very much.  However, my enjoyment may be affected by the other kinds of music I listen to.  I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, learning about, and developing an enjoyment of adventuresome forms of jazz – the kind of music that caused Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch to piss themselves in outrage and panic back in the day.  Some of this music can be highly atonal, discordant and arrhythmic.  Taken in that context, the discord and atonality of Holden’s DJ-Kicks sound tame.  Listeners who are less familiar with this type of music may find it less enjoyable.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is not a typical club-oriented dance mix and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the album you want.  If you’re looking for something different in the world of rhythmic electronic music, DJ-Kicks might be just the thing.  Holden’s deeply musical use of atonality and discord greatly enrich his mix as well as providing a excellent means of entry into a different musical world for listeners who are looking to expand their horizons.

A segment from James Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  The fade at the end does not appear in the original.

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08/05/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts, Breaking the Fourth Wall

Time and again I’ve expressed dismay because producers of electronic dance music rely on the same sound palettes or, even worse, repeat the same 1, 4 or 8 bar pattern so many times that the listener becomes stupefied by monotony.  Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts doesn’t have this problem. Breaking the Fourth Wall is rich with different timbres and compelling grooves.  It’s one of the most exciting and interesting single-artist CDs I’ve heard in the dance music category in months.

Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts is a musician out of Montreal named . . . wait for it . . . Guillaume Coutu Dumont (Ringo should have thought of this).  He started out as an anthropology student, began playing percussion at age 17, got involved in a funk band, dropped anthropology and was accepted into a music program in percussion, and then shifted into electroacoustic composition.  Finding the academic environment too narrow and limited, he split and began making his own music.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is his second album.

If I had to give a single characterization of the type of music Dumont produces on Breaking the Fourth Wall I’d say something like tribal but that doesn’t really do it.  He uses a variety of percussion instruments, synths and even vocal lines to build layered grooves that are often very strong in rolling, propulsive rhythms.  He also makes exceptionally good use of jazz-influenced horns.  Before firing up Tuned In To Music I spent many years deeply involved in listening to and learning about jazz.  My first Parametric Monkey track, “Horns of the Moon”, is built around the interplay between an alto and tenor sax because of this background and I’ve often wondered why dance music producers don’t make more use of jazz instrumentation.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is an excellent example of just how well jazz-influenced horns can work in dance music context.

While not everything on Breaking the Fourth Wall works for me, the album is filled with original and interesting tracks.  Album opener “Mindtrap” combines a Miles Davis style muted trumpet with a powerful driving rhythm.  “32 Tonnes de Pigeons” is moving  along nicely on what sounds like a Farfisa organ based groove when Dumont drops in a ghostly trumpet that is very reminiscent of Nina Rota’s instantly recognizable theme from The Godfather.  He then works in a smokey late-night sax and it all hangs together beautifully.  “Walking the Pattern” and “Decennie” are built around samples of either a preacher addressing a congregation or an organizer motivating an audience.  “Radio Novela” features vocalist Dynamike over a groove that’s so deep and funky I simply cannot stop playing it.

When you delve into the software that is available to electronic music producers you immediately realize that the possibilities for manipulating rhythm, timbre, instrumentation, groove, melody, and just about anything else you can think of are virtually limitless.  You also realize that the producers of electronic dance music have barely scratched the surface of what the tools they use will allow them to do.  Guillaume Coutu Dumont ain’t like that.  He’s thinking outside the box and the result is that Breaking the Fourth Wall is a solidly grooving album that doesn’t sound like yet another genre-driven dance music CD.  Check it out.  Recommended.

“Radio Novela” featuring Dynamike

“32 Tonnes de Pigeons”

07/20/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Various Artists, Kompakt Total 10

Kompakt’s Total 10 reinforced an idea I’ve had for a long time – pay attention to your intuitions.  They’re not always right but they’re always worth considering.  Total 10 is the tenth in an ongoing series of yearly compilations from Kompakt Records.  I picked it up after thoroughly enjoying Ewan Pearson’s We Are Proud of Our Choices, a mix put out on the Kompakt label.  I read somewhere that Pearson was trying to create the quintessential Kompact mix with We Are Proud of Our Choices so I thought Total 10 would be a great CD.  It came into rotation and I thought wtf? this isn’t at all what I expected.  It sucks!

I was all set to write a review focused on what a big disappointment the CD was but this intuition I had kept nagging at me to give it another listen.  I did – with the same result.  Didn’t like it.  Give it another listen.  Do it again.  Again.  I was on the verge of writing the review but the sense I was missing something wouldn’t leave.  This was unusual so I set Total 10 aside and came back to it several weeks later and listened to it with fresh ears.  Click!  Free of preconceptions Total 10 came clear.

Kompakt formed in 1998 and came to be one of the dominant record labels in the exceptionally vibrant German electronic music scene in the 2000s.  They are known for hitting the sweet spot that combines micro house and minimal techno with pop music (often in the form of vocals) and ambient.  Their music tends to have a solid dance-oriented groove driving a soundscape that is quieter than peak hour dancefloor House music.  One of their releases, Immer by label co-founder and co-owner Michael Mayer, was named by Resident Advisor as the top mix CD of the decade 2000-2009.  Total 10 fits this image.  It’s a two disc collection of varied electronic dance music that shades toward quiet and is deep in groove and high quality production values.  I sounds very good on good playback gear.

I ended up putting a lot of time into Total 10 and it was worth it.  The CD took me on a voyage of discovery that opened up new musical vistas for me.  Hard to argue with that.  There are still some aspects of Total 10 that I don’t much care for, I can comfortably say I don’t enjoy some of the more loungey vocals for example, but on the whole I’ve come to enjoy this collection quite a lot which is a complete reversal of my initial reaction.  And the good news is that this is number 10.  There are 9 more to explore.

Justus Köhncke’s “Give It To Me Easy”

Gui Boratto’s “No Turning Back” Wighnomy’s Lakkalize Rekksmi

07/09/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Frictionalism 1994-2009

Something interesting happens if you make music and you get to the point where you put it out there for other people to hear.  You begin to get feedback from your audience telling you that they like this, they don’t like that, and they like this better than that.  When this happens you find that the feedback begins to shape the music.  You want to make music people will like and you start to think in terms of what seemed to work in the past when creating new music.  At first it was about what you liked.  Over time it becomes about what you like that works within the boundaries defined by what your audience likes.  When the music gets picked up by an industry that’s all about making more money, the perceived expectations of the audience change from being a contributing factor to being the dominant factor.  The industry controls the means of “making it” in the music business and the industry is only interested in music that will make money.  As a result, music  is mass produced by the industry to fit narrowly defined genres designed to be marketed to the industry’s perception of what the audience will buy.  Music within a genre is designed to fit the rhythmic/melodic/timbral template that defines the genre.  Within a genre it all starts to sound the same.

For every musician or music producer you’ve heard of there are hundreds, possibly thousands like Parametric Monkey that almost no one knows about.  They make music and their audience is very limited.  Some of these people want to make it in the music business and they create music that is consciously designed to have the characteristics that define popular, mass marketed genres.  The popular forms of music largely determine the music they make.  For others, the focus remains more on making the music they want to hear.  Their music is affected by the music they hear but it is not determined by it.  Their music tends to have something unique and distinctive about it.  Which brings us to Anthony “Shake” Shakir.

Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, the Belleville three, are widely and rightly recognized as the “founders” of the immensely influential style of music called  Detroit techno.  One of the most influential albums, maybe the most influential album, in establishing Detroit techno was Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit released in the UK in 1988.  Legend has it that the term “Detroit techno” came from the title of this album.  Atkins, May and Saunderson were involved in the production of nine of the twelve tracks on Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.  One of the remaining three, “Sequence 10”, was written produced and mixed by Anthony Shakir.

Shakir’s career didn’t follow the same path as Atkins. May and Saunderson’s.  He didn’t get the recognition, he didn’t get the industry support (not that the Belleville three got much in the way of industry support compared to, say Madonna), he didn’t always have state-of-the-art music production gear or know-how.  When the other pioneers of Detroit techno put their energies into building their careers in Europe where dance music found a much more enthusiastic audience than it did in the USA, Shakir chose to focus on Detroit.  (He has multiple sclerosis which may have been a contributing factor).  What Shikir did do was continue to make music.

Shakir’s music has a quality you sometimes find in music made by people who remain focused on making the music they want to hear at the expense of music that fits more neatly into the recognized mass-marketed genres.  It’s unique.  Shakir’s music isn’t unique in the sense that it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  He listens to dance music, particularly techno-oriented dance music, and makes music that is strongly influenced by what he hears.  However, he adapts the sounds, structures and styles he hears to make music that is uniquely his own.  The result is music that is wonderfully fresh.  It’s like music you know looked at from a viewpoint you’ve haven’t considered before.  If you don’t pay attention, the familiar elements can lead you to categorize what you’re hearing as just another example of this or that style of music.  If you stop and listen to what you’re hearing, a new world opens up before your ears.

Frictionalism 1994-2009 does what its title proclaims; it collects fifteen years of Shakir’s music on three discs.  Shakir may have been largely unknown throughout much of his career but it wasn’t because in following his own muse he was making music that would appeal only to him.  He has a profound musical sense and Frictionalism 1994-2009 is an extraordinarily rich collection of music.  This isn’t the kind of collection that has a large production run and unless lightening strikes where it did not before, it’s unlikely to get a second production run when the first one is gone.  If you like techno-oriented dance music, have open ears, and are prepared to give this collection the time and attention it deserves, pick Frictionalism 1994-2009 up before it’s gone.  It’s a treasure.

There’s so much variety and such high quality on Frictionalism 1994-2009 that I’m completely at a loss to choose a representative track.  Here are a couple chosen basically at random.

“March Into Darkness”


07/01/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review, Matias Aguayo, Ay Ay Ay

Ay Ay Ay is something you don’t come across all that often in dance music – an album that doesn’t sound like anything else.  Matias Aguayo is a DJ and music producer from Buenos Aires and he has built a unique and intriguing set of tracks for Ay Ay Ay.

As the music on Ay Ay Ay doesn’t fit neatly into the typical categories of dance music, it’s difficult to describe.  First, it’s definitely dance music.  Danceable rhythms predominate.  Often the rhythm is twisted toward the more complex and interesting grooves of latin music.  Aguayo also relies heavily on his vocals as both a rhythm and a weirdly melodic instrument.  “Weird” is actually a good descriptor for certain aspects of Ay Ay Ay as Aguayo is constantly inserting odd sounds, timbres and rhythmic flourishes.  The result of all this is music that is both unpredictable and wholly groove saturated.

When you listen to something like Ay Ay Ay it’s hard to avoid the realization that, even with its seemingly endless catalog of minutely differentiated sub-genres, dance music is only scratching the surface of what can be done with today’s production tools.  Software for making electronic music is so powerful, flexible and easily available that dance music – indeed any kind of electronically produced music – is only limited by the imagination of the producers.  The more people follow Aguayo’s lead and step outside the accepted boundaries, the richer dance music is likely to become.  If you like dance music and have open ears, Ay Ay Ay is worth checking out.

Menta Latte from Ay Ay Ay

06/25/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Renato Cohen, Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks

Renato Cohen is a DJ and music producer working out of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  He achieved international recognition with his track “Pontape” released in 2002.  Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks is his first album.  I came to the CD by way of loving what Danny Howells did with Cohen’s track “Magica” on his Renaissance The Mix Collection.  Howells used “Magica” as the climax of his mix, Cohen opens Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks with it. Either way, it’s a good track.

For the most part Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks is a fairly straightforward collection of club oriented dance tracks that are competently produced.  However, Cohen steps away from the routine in some unexpected directions.  Instead of including his major hit “Pontape”  on the CD, Cohen gives us “Pontape Jazz” which is a reworking of the track by the jazz trio New Samba Jazz supplemented by a horn section that includes Bocato, a well know Brazilian trombone player.  Although the track would be fairly unexceptional on a samba-influenced jazz album, it’s completely unexpected here and it works very well.  If Cohen can open the ears of dance music listeners and club goers to a melding of electronic dance music with jazz sensibilities and instrumentation he would be doing everyone an enormous favor.

Another track that takes an unexpected direction is “Cosmic Man” which opens with four quick chords that sound like we’re about to hear a run-of-the-mill disco track and then drops into a driving rhythmic vocal provided by Marku Ribas who is revered in Brazil as a samba-rock vocalist.

While Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks may not be widely cited as an album of the year contender, the straight-ahead dance tracks are well done and the tracks where Cohen tries something different are worth repeated listens.

“Cosmic Man”  featuring Marku Ribas from Sixteen Billion Drum Kicks

06/17/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Review: James Zabiela, Renaissance The Masters Series – Life

The Masters Series is yet another series of DJ mixes from the UK club/record label Renaissance.  James Zabiela is a UK DJ who first came to prominence in 2000 when he won a contest for home grown DJs run by Muzik Magazine.  Life is his second mix in the Renaissance Masters Series; a review of his previous mix can be found here.

Zabiela first attracted attention as a DJ who was both skilled with turntables and oriented toward the breakbeat sub-genre of electronic dance music.  Breakbeat tends to shift away from the heavy emphasis on an unvarying 4/4 rhythm that characterizes much House music and focuses on more complex rhythms and counterpoint, syncopation and polyrhythms.  Zabiela’s interest in breakbeat can be heard to great effect on Renaissance The Masters Series – Life.

There’s good news and bad news about this mix.  The bad news is that the music is occasionally interrupted  by some guy making portentous pronouncements about life and the meaning of it all – or something.  Whatever.  It’s shallow and pompous to the point of making you cringe every time he opens his mouth.  If you’re in a state of glucose deprivation from a night of serious dancing, are several hours into a thoughtlessly mixed drug cocktail, and are old enough to think you have attained some insight into the world and young enough to not know that you really haven’t, these pronouncements might sound insightful. if not they’re just embarrassingly juvenile.  It’s hard to believe somebody somewhere along the line didn’t say “Uhh, wait a minute, let’s rethink these voice overs” during the production of this mix.  They’re there, they’re inane, they’re brief; you just have to live with it.

The good news is that the music is terrific.  Zabiela starts very mellow and slowly builds in complexity.  However, he almost always chooses interesting music so that even the most laid back parts of these mixes – and they can be very laid back – are always enjoyable and intriguing.  Zabiela both sequences music and transitions between tracks very well which gives these mixes a feeling of coherence.  This sense of unity is bolstered by his heavy reliance on techno-oriented house music which ties the mix together on a timbral level without leading to everything sounding the same.

If you can deal with the voice-overs and would like a mix that tends more toward the laid back than toward a hands-in-the-air club raver, Zabiela’s Renaissance The Masters Series – Life is highly enjoyable.

06/16/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Thisisnotanexit, Manifesto #1

Thisisnotanexit is a small UK record label and Manifesto #1 is a two disc label compilation.  From the title of the album and the picture chosen for the cover of the CD booklet you might expect something along the lines of post-punk or dance punk.  You get a taste of that in opening track “Messages” by Detachments but the collection quickly turns to what the label is known for – electronic music that is more or less dance-friendly and which is blatantly unconcerned with labels, genres or being associated with a uniform sound.

Disc 1 is an unmixed collection of 15 tracks that are previously unreleased.  There is a wide range of music here and almost all of it is interesting in one way or another.  If there is one primary style it might be nu-disco but listeners will get the wrong idea if they think Manifesto #1 is a nu-disco collection.  Breadth of vision, not uniformity of style, is the watchword here.

Disc 2 is a mix done by Simon A. Carr.  Of the two, it is aimed more toward the dance club.  However, like disc 1, there is a breadth of styles on display ranging from the space disco leanings of Prins Thomas’s remix of Hatchback’s “White Diamond” to the techno orientation of Serge Santiago’s remix of They Came From the Stars I Saw Them’s “Moon Song”.  They Came From the Stars own version of “Moon Song” closes the disc and it doesn’t sound anything at all like  the Santiago remix (or anything else on the CD for that matter).

Manifesto #1 is successful as a label compilation in that it leads to recognition of the label as a place to go for music that is very likely to be at least interesting and at best outstanding.  If you want a collection like this to present a uniform soundscape or a consistent style, then Manifesto #1 will probably not be attractive.  However, if you are a listener with open ears who is comfortable with the unexpected and who might be open to finding something different, Manifesto #1 is worth your time and Thisisnotanexit is a label you might want to keep an eye on.

Night Plane’s “Let The Right One In” (which is a terrific film, btw) from Manifesto #1

06/13/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Prins Thomas, Prins Thomas

Prins Thomas, along with fellow Norwegians Lindstrom and Todd Terje, are at the forefront of the dance music genre referred to as space disco, nu disco or nu Balearic.  Thus far Thomas has been most well know for his collaboration with Lindstrom on two genre-defining albums, his many often strikingly good remixes, and his record label Full Pupp.  The self-titled Prins Thomas is, to the best of my knowledge, his first full-length CD that is made up entirely of his own material.

I tuned in to space disco mainly through Prins Thomas when I had a run of especially enjoying different tracks on various mix collections and discovering that they were all Prins Thomas remixes.  Accordingly, I hunted far and wide to find his lightly mixed collection,  Cosmo Galactic Prism, a label compilation from Full Pupp, the unfortunately named Greatest Tits Vol. 1, and a set he did for the Live at Robert Johnson series along with his more easily found collaborations with Lindstrom.  With all of that as background, I was still surprised with Prins Thomas.

With relatively minor exceptions on two tracks, Thomas wrote, performed, “fixed and mixed” everything on Prins Thomas.  The breadth of the music in terms of the variety of instruments, timbres, and styles on the album is remarkable.  Thomas is not wedded to a limited number of synthesizers, multi-sampled instruments or drum programs.  He uses electronic and analog sounds with equal and great facility.  He is also a master at layering sounds together.  Any given segment of any track on Prins Thomas may be composed of any number of layered instrumental tracks and, without fail, they all work seamlessly together.  Prins Thomas is a masterfully crafted CD.  The skill with which Thomas combines such a wide variety of sounds results in an album where each track gives you no idea what the next track is going to sound like.  There is no identifiable “Prins Thomas sound” here unless immaculate production is counted as a “sound”.

The strengths of the CD are also it’s weakness.  The same breadth of instrumentation and variety of sounds and styles that describes the album is also a viable characterization of each of the tracks on the album.  From where it starts, you never know where any of the tracks on Prins Thomas are going to end up.  Thomas avoids anything like standard song structure and presents tracks that move from segment to segment on melodic or timbral paths that have little or nothing to do with repeating segments that might correspond to something like a chorus or a verse.  Many tracks are based on a fundamental rhythm that holds through most of the track but beyond that, anything goes.  The movements from one segment to the next are  smoothly accomplished but the overall effect is of a directionless music that just goes here and there.  Each track, taken alone, is expertly constructed and both interesting and enjoyable to listen to.  Listening to the entire CD can leave one feeling unfulfilled because it doesn’t seem to add up to anything.

I’ve listened to Prins Thomas many times now and every time I put it on I find the same thing happens.  If I focus my attention on the music I hear something new I didn’t pick up on before, I am presented with a wealth of ideas about how I could improve my own music, and I end up having had a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.  If my mind wanders while the music is playing I’m left with a feeling of emptiness because the breadth of instrumentation and lack of structure both within and across songs leaves you with nothing to latch on to if you weren’t paying attention.

Attiatte from Prins Thomas

06/07/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Ricardo Villalobos, Alcachofa

In a recent review of Michael Mayer’s Immer (which Resident Advisor named as the best mix CD of the decade) I wrote that I think that trying to construct a numerically ordered list of the “Best” CDs in a genre as diverse as electronic music or even electronic dance music is a pointless exercise.  That didn’t stop me from looking into Ricardo Villalobos’ Alcachofa which Resident Advisor named as the best individual CD released from 2000 through 2009.  Is it the best CD of the decade?  Who nows?  Is it a good CD that is worth listening to?  Absolutely.

Villalobos is a Chilean-born, German-raised DJ and producer who is most closely associated with different kinds of minimalist electronic dance music like microhouse and minimal techno.  Alcachofa (which is Spanish for “artichoke”) falls squarely within these musical styles with quiet, underplayed instruments and sounds, an emphasis on complex overlapping rhythms, and the use of timbres that are clearly electronically produced.  Villalobos also uses distorted and effected vocal bits as both tiny melodic segments and rhythmic elements.

From its opening track, “Easy Lee”, Alcachofa sounds like nothing else.  Villalobos is like the wise man who speaks quietly.  You have to pay attention in order to hear all that’s going on and when you do you are rewarded with something worth listening to that you’re glad you heard.  The tracks on Alcachofa are extended meditations ranging from roughly 7.5 to 10 mins. While the emphasis is on rhythm, it’s not the mind-numbing, quantized and overwhelming 4/4 used in some forms of dance music.  Rather it’s the kind of rhythm that can draw you in and take you off to some place you may not have expected to go.  Many of the tracks on Alcachofa are mysterious and eerie with odd and unexpected sounds which appear at carefully and precisely chosen rhythmic moments and are never heard again.  It’s the kind of album you can listen to fifty times and still hear new things you didn’t notice before.

The more I listen to Alcachofa, the more I enjoy it.  Does that make it the best CD of the decade?  Hardly.  However, it does make it a CD gets a lot of play in our house and probably will continue to do so for a long time to come.

“Easy Lee” from Alcachofa

06/06/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Various Artists, 5 Years of Hyperdub

We go through a lot of music in our house and the new material is coming in faster than I can review it which means the piles of CDs on the living room table are getting out of hand.  Rather than just shelve discs unreviewed I’m going to try  doing some short reviews that are designed to let you know what’s on the disc without going into a lot of detail.  This is my first stab at the shorter format.

Hyperdub is a London record label that specializes in dubstep, a currently very popular genre of electronic music that emphasizes sub-bass ( a lot of sub bass), sparse beats and samples.  The general dubstep approach has proven to be very fertile and admits of an increasingly diverse range of music.

Hyperdub was one of the record labels that first championed dubstep and 5 Years of Hyperdub is a two disc label compilation released on their 5th anniversary.  Tracks are not presented in any kind of chronological order, in fact Hyperdub’s early successes like Kode9’s “9 Samurai” and Burial’s “South London Burroughs” lead off the second disc.  The first disc is given over to a wide range of current tracks that provides a good illustration of how wide ranging dubstep is becoming.

5 Years of Hyperdub is an excellent collection that provides a very nice introduction to dubstep for listeners who may be unfamiliar with the genre and are looking to find out about it.  If this is a new type of music for you, it helps to listen with open ears and give these two discs several listens before coming to any hard and fast conclusions.  It also helps to listen on a sound system that is capable of producing subsonic bass.

Darkstar’s “Aidy’s Girl’s a Computer” from 5 Years of Hyperdub

06/01/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Various Artists, Rekids Revolution

In the previous review I wrote about how my enjoyment of Ewan Pearson’s We Are Proud of Our Choices mix for Kompakt led me to search out his Fabric 35 mix. This was a good idea because I enjoyed the Fabric mix as much or more than than the Kompakt mix.  I’d also written recently about how much I’ve liked Radio Slave’s Fabric 48 mix.  So, following the same strategy that worked so well with Pearson, I bought a copy of Rekids Revolution which is a three CD set compiling the music of Radio Slave’s Rekids label.  If following up a great mix with another mix from the same artist was a good idea, following up a great mix with a whole label’s worth of music from the same artist would be a better idea, right?  Wrong.  This was a bad idea.

Radio Slave is Matt Edwards,  Rikids is his label and he is featured on a good amount of the music on Rekids Revolution.  The first disc in the collection is a set of unmixed label originals; the second is a set of unmixed remixes, and the third is a mix built from label tracks by Spencer Parker.  Each of the discs presents 70+ minutes of music.

The major problem I have with Rekids Revolution is that too many of the tracks have about 30 seconds of ideas buried in something like 7 to 10 minutes of mind-numbingly repetitious music.  It is tedious beyond belief and getting through all three discs at least once in order to write a review was a chore.  As an example, the lead track on the compilation is Radio Slave’s “Bell Clap Dance”.  It starts with a nice rhythm pattern that then repeats endlessly as once every four measures a little fillup of rhythm (a hand clap with a fading delay or a minor variant on the cymbal/bell pattern) is dropped on the fourth bar.  This goes on for 64 (!!) measures and then a six note pattern that is too simple to even qualify as a riff is introduced which repeats over and over in different instruments until you’re ready to stick nails in your ears rather than have to listen to it again.  It’s enough to make you denounce the invention of  MIDI as the end of Western Civilization and thank whatever gods may exist for the inclusion of skip-track buttons on CD players.  It appears that this track is considered to be a highlight of the set because it is the only one that appears in various forms on all three discs.

It’s not all bad, however.  The Prins Thomas Disko-Tek remix of Luke Solomon’s “Spirits” is pretty good and Spencer Parker’s mix on the third disc develops some good moments.  But it’s not nearly enough.  “Bell Clap Dance” may be the worst example but too much of the music in this collection shares its problems.  Rekids Revolution holds over 210 minutes of music that has maybe 30 minutes of something interesting scattered here and there.  Maybe.  As evidenced by his Fabric 45 mix, Radio Slave can turn out terrific music.  Too bad it didn’t happen here.

My response to “Bell Clap Dance”  and Rekids Revolution has been pretty negative and it may say more about my tastes and interests than it does about the track or the collection.  Here’s the track so you can decide for yourself.  If you like this, you might really like Rekids Revolution.  If not, save your money and your time.

05/31/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Ewan Pearson, Fabric 35

I very much enjoyed Ewan Pearson’s mix for the Kompakt label, We Are Proud of Our Choices, so I looked for other mix CDs by Pearson and found Fabric 35.  Good move.  Pearson creates masterful mixes and Fabric 35 is a terrific CD.

There isn’t any part of putting a mix together that Pearson isn’t good at.  His segues from one track to the next are seamless even when the tracks are wildly disparate.  I bought Fabric 35 as a single track download (in wav format) from Juno Downloads and in places his transitions are so smooth I’m not quite sure where one track ends and the next begins.  Pearson also rarely lets interest flag with tracks that repeat the same few bars over and over again or sequential tracks that are highly similar in timbre or rhythmic structure.

A major part of what makes Fabric 35 so enjoyable are the tracks Pearson has chosen.  With the single exception of  100Hz’s “Trustlove” which hits the dancefloor DOA like a corpse dropped from the rafters in midset (at least for me, others like this track) every track on Fabric 35 is interesting and fits in the flow.  Many of the tracks feature dynamite vocals beginning with set opener Jahcoozi’s Robert Johnson’s 6Am X-Ray Italo Rework of “Ali McBills”, and moving through the Prince inspired Konrad Black Mix of Snax’ “Honeymoon’s Over” and Tobi Neumann’s Swinging Remix of Johannes Heil’s “All for One” and finally ending up with the astonishing “Berghain” from Aril Brikha.

Reigning over all of Fabric 35‘s many strengths is the groove.  It’s low, dark and relentless.  Ewan Pearson is a master and Fabric 35 is a masterclass in how to put together a mix.  Recommended.

05/28/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Various Artists, Work It Baby 10th Anniversary

Work It Baby is a French record label operated by DJ/producer Kris Menace.  Work It Baby 10th Anniversary is a standard label compilation spread over two discs that celebrates ten years of  survival in a difficult business.

Work It Baby (the label) is variously characterized as a purveyor of electro house, nu disco, funky, and club house music.  If you’ve paid any attention at all to electronic dance music you know that it has a bewildering array of micro-genres with names that seem to vary with who is using them and are of virtually no importance to anybody other than the partisan fanbois who are ready to go to war at any perceived application of their favorite label to a track they don’t approve.  What ever you want to call it, Work It Baby puts out music that has its sights set squarely on the dancefloor.

In addition to operating the label, Menace is an active participant in the music it releases; 11 of the 35 tracks on the compilation list him as songwriter, co-songwriter, remixer or editor.  His work is very varied ranging from the piano-driven disco thumper “Enamored” which he co-wrote with Fred Falke that opens the collection, through his own “Maybelline”, a drum and percussion workout that kicks ass, to his remix of Patrick Alavi’s “Power”.  Although presenting a wide range of electronic music, or even of electronic dance music, is not Work It Baby’s aim, there is a more variety here than you might expect.  Thirty-five tracks and you never get the feeling that you’re hearing multiple variants of the same three or four basic ideas.

One thing the engineers at Work It Baby do very well is the bass drop.  There are several points in these tracks, Xinobi’s disco anthem “Day Off” is a good example, where the lead in and the eventual drop will have your booty out of your chair and your hands up in the air before you know what happened.  I’d like to give you an example to hear but it ain’t gonna happen with MP3.

Overall, Work It Baby 10th Anniversary is a solid collection of dance music from a label who clearly knows what they’re doing.  If you like this kind of music, give it a listen.

Romantic disco – Lifelike’s Running Out from Work It Baby 10th Anniversary

05/22/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment