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.
In 2003 Kraftwerk released their last (to date) album of new material, Tour de France Soundtracks. The 2010 Tour de France starts today. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider are the creative core of Kraftwerk and Hutter is an avid cyclist. I’m also an avid enough cyclist to have taken a trip to France for the sole purpose of spending a week in the French Alps cycling up and over some of the historic Tour de France climbs such as Alpe d’Huez and Col du Galibier. Put it all together and it sounds like today is the perfect day to review the Kraftwerk box set The Catalogue.
The Catalogue collects eight Kraftwerk albums that were released between 1974 and 2003. The albums in chronological order are Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World, Electric Cafe (which is entitled Techno Pop in The Catalogue), The Mix and Tour de France Soundtracks. Each album appears on its own disc which does not include any extra material. All eight albums were remastered by Hutter. Each album is packaged in a cardboard sleeve with a second interior cardboard sleeve for the disc. The set also contains large (12″ by 12″) booklets for each album. The booklets contain large pictures associated with each album and have their own slipcase. Unless you want to see readily available pictures of Kraftwerk becoming increasingly machine-like in appearance over time, the booklets are pretty much a waste of time and space.
As box sets go, The Catalogue is austere. All you get is the original eight albums remastered and a lot of heavyweight paper devoted to pointless pictures that anyone interested in the band has probably seen a thousand time before. There is no information about the band or how they went about making the music, no extra tracks, nothing. You get the eight albums. That’s it.
Is that enough to justify purchasing The Catalogue? That will depend on how much you like Kraftwerk and how good your sound playback system is. It would be difficult to overestimate Kraftwerk’s importance as a band. They came out of the exceptionally rich musical hotbed of late 1960s – 1970s West Germany that also produced the German electronic and rock pioneers who are collected on Soul Jazz’s recent and superb Deutsche Elektronische Musik collection. While they are sometimes classified with these bands, listening to Kraftwerk’s revolutionary 1970s albums after just having spent several weeks listening to Deutsche Elektronische Musik gave me the feeling that Kraftwerk were not only from a different time, they were from a different planet.
Kraftwerk weren’t ahead of their time, they were outside of time altogether. They didn’t sound like the future, they shaped the future. They were the dominant influence in establishing electronic music as a form of popular music. They influenced the early days of House music and that influence can still be heard in electronic dance music, especially in the techno genres and subgenres. Some of their music sounds like it could have been made yesterday and there are any number of techno groups with established careers today who are still haven’t gotten to the point Kraftwerk were at 35 years ago. They were a dominant, perhaps the dominant, influence on the development of synth pop in the 1980s. They played a crucial role in the establishment of hip hop when Afrika Bambaataa released the Arthur Baker produced “Planet Rock” which ripped off the melody line from Kraftwerk’s immensely influential “Trans-Europe Express” and combined it with the drum track from “Numbers” off of Kraftwerk’s Computer World. (For more on Kraftwerk, see our review of Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music).
What all this means is that The Catalogue is a great buy for people who have an interest in electronic music or who are interested in the development of any of the kinds of music listed above and who don’t know the band or don’t already have their albums. What about people who already have this music?
The key factor here is the sound. Kraftwerk were more than pioneers of popular electronic music in the sense that they were among the first to use electronic instruments. They weren’t just making sounds and music using the instruments available to them at the time. In many cases they were building or rebuilding the machines that made the sounds so that they could make the music they wanted to hear. They didn’t just create electronic music, they created a significant part of the fundamental alphabet and language of popular electronic music by creating the machines that made the sounds that defined the genre as we know it. Kraftwerk cared deeply about what it sounded like.
Hutter still does. His remastering is an enormous improvement over what has previously been available on CD, especially for the earlier albums (and six of the eight, Autobahn through Computer World, were released before CDs became commercially available in 1982). Sound engineers who mix music talk about making room in the mix for each instrument. This usually involves using parametric equalization to separate the frequency range occupied by an instrument from the range occupied by other instruments, reducing the overlap in the frequencies shared by different instruments, and panning instruments with similar frequency ranges to different locations on the soundstage. The sounds Kraftwerk created to make their music are sculpted so cleanly and so precisely out of the frequency spectrum that it sounds like making room in the mix for each instrument wasn’t an issue. Every sound has it’s own specific frequency range and it feels like you would be left with an empty hole in the mix if you took a sound out, like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. Panning comes across like it was planned on the centimeter level. The sound on The Catalogue is brilliant and pristine.
This will only be of importance if you have the sound reproduction gear that will allow you to hear it. You’re going to need decent speakers, amps that can drive them, and a DAC that is better than what you’ll find in an iPod or a stereo-in-a-box from Best Buy. If you’re planning on listening on MP3, forget it.
I have enjoyed Kraftwerk’s music for a long time. We already had almost all of the music contained in The Catalogue and our two main sound reproduction systems are capable of producing the immaculate sound of these remasters. For me, The Catalogue was not only a worthwhile purchase, it was essential. The great strength of the collection is the sound. The weakness is that there’s nothing new here in terms of content. If you’re new to Kraftwerk, The Catalogue is highly recommended. If you already know this music the value of The Catalogue will depend on how important the improved sound of the remasters is relative to duplicating music you may already have in your collection.
How do you pick one or two Kraftwerk tunes as illustration? Impossible. I’ve been listening to the albums while writing this review so I’ll just rip a track from the disc that’s currently playing. The sound of this MP3 doesn’t capture the sound quality that is the main strength of The Catalogue.
Massive Attack grew out of the soundsystem/DJ collective The Wild Bunch over 20 years ago. Membership in the group has been flexible and they are known for having had a wide variety of vocalists fronting their often dense, well-crafted productions. The original core members Andrew Vowles, Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja were eventually reduced to just Del Naja. Heligoland marks the return of Marshall.
The list of vocalists on Heligoland looks promising with Damon Albarn, Martina Topley Bird, and Hope Sandoval among others. It all starts well enough with “Pray For Rain” which features TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on vocals. Downtempo, somewhat menacing, with an astonishing vocal break that brings the Beach Boys to mind, it’s a terrific cut. While the next few tracks aren’t quite at the level of “Pray For Rain”, they are sufficient to maintain interest and attention with intriguing production and revolving vocalists.
It doesn’t last. Before very long Heligoland sinks under its own weight. Similar tempos which become monotonous, aimless beats and needlessly obscure lyrics delivered in sing-song monotones quickly turn Heligoland into a set where everything sounds pretty much the same. The changing vocalists helps somewhat but it’s not nearly enough. Heligoland is unrelentingly dreary and well before it’s over you’re wondering if it will ever end. A disappointment.
“Pray for Rain” with Tunde Adebimpe on vox
Pantha Du Prince’s music is usually categorized as minimal techno. I don’t know if this is a good categorization or not. To me, he sounds more interested in melody than the music producers and DJs who are usually given the minimal techno label and his music often doesn’t sound too minimal to me. While Pantha Du Prince makes good use of space, there is a lot going on in his tracks. It may be quiet, but there’s a lot there.
Weber often uses chime and bell-like timbres or percussion instruments like marimbas and xylophones to carry melody or provide texture which gives his music an ethereal, mysterious quality. He also favors quiet, slightly discordant drones as textural devices. Rhythm can be carried by a complex of changing instruments throughout a track. This is music that is as much or more about listening as it is about dancing.
Black Noise is a quiet album and won’t satisfy during those moments when you want high energy music. However. it’s also the kind of album that reveals more of interest the more time you spend giving it your attention. It took me awhile to get into Black Noise but once I gave it several listens it began to reveal its secrets and Pantha Du Prince had me hooked.
Opening track, “Lay in Shimmer”
Ripperton is a Swiss DJ and producer who chose his music moniker based on his love of Minnie Ripperton. Niwa (which means “garden” in Japanese) is his his first solo album although he has released numerous singles in the house, minimal and techno genres both as a solo act and as part of Lazy Fat People.
Niwa is a very laid back album. The tracks that have a house groove, and many do not, tend to be the kind of mellow, calm house you play when you want to come down and gently hit the flow. This is more about appreciating how the quiet sounds providing rhythm and accent work together than it is about shaking your ass. Several of the tracks are little more than a simple melodic riff laid over a pad or a sound effect like falling rain. As befits an artist with a strong background in techno, rhythm often predominates.
There may not be a lot of energy on Niwa but there is talent. Ripperton has a good ear for timbre and an better ear for rhythm. His tracks are carefully constructed so that attentive listening is rewarded with a sense of appreciation for a quiet sound carefully and precisely placed for effect.
Niwa isn’t likely to be anyone’s idea of a party album but for quiet background music that is much richer than the bland pablum that is often marketed as ambient mood music and which will reward your time when you give it your musical attention, it might be just the thing.
“A Simple Thing”, one of the more uptempo tracks on Niwa (the track begins with 11 seconds of silence)
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
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
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
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
Now this is what I’m talkin’ about. Radio Slave is Matt Edwards, a prolific producer of an astonishingly wide variety of electronic music. In addition to Radio Slave he is also know as Rekid, and Matthew E, as well as being one half of the duos Quiet Village (with Joel Martin) and Sea Devils (with Thomas Gandey). Fabric 48 is his entry in fabric’s long-running studio mix series and it’s a killer.
The set opens quietly enough with the Michael Cleis Deeper Remix of Baeka’s “Right At It”. It then quickly turns to the deep tribal rhythms that define the set with Radio Slave’s “DDB”. The next track up is again Radio Slave with “I Don’t Need a Cure For This” which is about as good a characterization of Fabric 48 as anything I could come up with. “I Don’t Need a Cure For This” is the first of four tracks that is one of the better sequences I’ve heard in a mix in a long time.
For the most part Fabric 48 is jungle music. Not jungle as in drum and bass electronic music-related jungle but rain forest-type jungle. Maybe tribal would be a better word. Forward-driving propulsive and loping rhythms keep the set in a solid groove that is very hard to resist. The set lets down a bit with one of those laid-back spoken raps by the chick with the sultry voice things that some producers of electronic music seem to love with Nina Kraviz’ “Pain in the Ass” but it gets it’s groove back when Kraviz loses the rap and gets to the rhythm late in the track. If you focus on a segment o fFabric 48 it can come across as repetitious and boring. However, if you relax your attention a bit the music can carry you away and once that happens it’s hard to stop playing it.
To my eye the CD art is particularly ugly but the idea is to listen to it, not look at it. Fabric 48 may hurt the eyes but it’s a treat for the ears and those parts of the body that have a tendency to move in sinuous and uncontrollable ways when in the presence of a mighty groove. If this sounds good to you, check Fabric 48 out.
Segment from Fabric 48
Global Underground is a UK record label that specializes in dance music. Their signature series of CD releases involves taking a DJ who is well known on the international club scene to a particular city and presenting 2 CDs worth of music performed in a local club. The 27th disc in the series features Danny Howells at Miami’s Space club. The first disc contains a mix Howell’s played shortly after sunrise on the club’s terrace on a Sunday morning. Disc two is a mix he played in the main room of Space several hours earlier.
Howells is a first rate mix master with a finely developed ability for sequencing tracks and both building and sustaining momentum. Many well-known DJs impose their approach on the music they play by infusing their mixes with percussion or synth overlays and transitions between tracks that embody the “sound” they have used to brand themselves in the international club scene. While this may thrill club goers who are constantly reminded that they are in the club with the famous whoever-it-is-this-month, it tends to reduce a mix to a tedious sameness when heard on CD. Howells doesn’t have this problem. He adapts his contributions to the music playing right now which gives his mixes a real sense of direction and development.
While the Global Underground mixes are usually classified as some variant of House, Howells has a broad and eclectic taste in music which adds to the feel that his mixes are developing and going somewhere. He is especially good at building momentum leading to an exhilarating climax which he then ramps down and builds back up again. You’re doing something around the house with this music playing and you find yourself dancing before you even realize you were listening to the music.
Disk 1 starts slowly. There are interesting things going on in the opening tracks in the mix but if you’re not paying attention they can be overlooked in the fairly steady 4 by 4 beat laid out over the top. But Howell’s knows what he’s doing and he’s setting you up. The first four tracks are a slow buildup which culminates in Ame’s “Shiro” before he drops the funk bass bomb on you with the Salt City Orchestra Nightclub mix of Sneaker Pimp’s “Post Modern Sleaze”. From that point on the mix just flies. Disk 2 is more intense and driven as would be expected from a mix played during peak hours on the club’s main dance floor. Both mixes are excellent although I marginally prefer disk 1 as being a bit more nuanced.
If you enjoy dance music and are looking for an eclectic mix that avoids the samey-samey sound of too many DJ mixes, Howell’s Miami: Global Underground #27 is a good bet.
If you like this mix you might also enjoy Howells’ Renaissance The Mix Collection.
Ladytron is an interesting band. The group is made up of Mira Aroyo who sings, Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt who play keyboards and Helen Marnie who both sings and plays keyboards. Hunt and Wu are from Liverpool, Marnie is from Glasgow, Scotland and Aroyo hails from Sofia, Bulgaria. They attracted a lot of attention with 2002’s “Seventeen” from Light & Magic. Velocifero is their fourth studio album.
The first impression you get from Ladytron is that they do dance pop driven by analog synths. Kind of an 80s thing. It doesn’t take Velocifero long, however, to demonstrate that Ladytron are much more than a Human League wannabe band. Their sound is thick and more than a little dark. The three keyboard players meld layer upon layer of electronic loops, effects and instruments into a rich stew. This is dance music with heft.
Bands that make electronic music often find themselves caught up on the Scylla of loops that repeat too often or crashing and sinking under the Charybdis of too many instruments and effects piled one atop the other. Ladytron avoids both traps which is remarkable when you consider that there are three electronic musicians playing. There sound is full and deep without being cluttered. They also compose and play with both confidence and a high level of mastery over their instruments. Ladytron does both live music and DJ gigs and their control of their software and electronics is masterful. Their music is so polished it gleams.
Ladytron’s music occupies a strange place that’s somewhere between pop songcraft and dance music. On the one hand, their songwriting skills are well beyond those of the typical band making electronic dance music although they have some way to go to reach the level of musicians who are all about the craft of writing songs. On the other hand they have a grasp of groove, beat and rhythm that is out of reach of many song writers. It’s a difficult musical space to occupy and some of their songs work better than others. It’s also a unique musical space. They don’t sound like other bands, but I expect music critics will come to say that other bands sound like them.
Imagine glossy black leather, polished silver chrome, gleaming black enamel, sleek, powerful, locked into a solid groove without breaking a sweat. That’s Ladytron. If it sounds intriguing, check Velocifero out.