Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Music Reviews

Sparkle Division: To Feel Embraced

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Artist: Sparkle Division
Title: To Feel Embraced
Format: CD & 12"
Label: Temporary Residence
In the electronica boom of the late ‘90’s, genre-smashing was everywhere, sampling was ubiquitous, and with the boom in popularity of the remix, every corner of labels’ back catalogues were mined. This led to some fascinating, and often quite underrated, remix compilations- “Electro Lounge”, “Motown Remixed”, the “Verve Remixed” series, and of course electro swing which blew up into a genre that’s still going strong (divisively) to this day.

In their debut album as a duo, ambient tape loop experimenter William Basinski and his former-assistant-now-collaborator Preston Wendel have managed to create their own original compositions that feel like one of those remixed compilations. Basinski’s saxophone offers up the centrepiece for the jazz and lounge side, supplemented by extra jazz samples and the occasional guest.

Meanwhile on the electronica side, it’s often a fairly familiar array of light beats, simple acoustic-sounding bass tones and a few appropriate digital sparkles. A few choice glitches and loops offer up referential interference, breaking up the jazz sounds in mostly non-invasive ways on tracks like “To The Stars Major Tom” (which given that the album was recorded in 2016, is presumably a Bowie tribute in its title, though there’s nothing musically to indicate it).

It knits together very nicely, many times. The soft, almost belearic loungey long sax notes of “For Gato” play nicely against a slightly stuttering light rhythm. Odd time signatures nibble at the edges of the spectacularly named “10 Mmmmkayy I'm Goin' Out Now and I Don't Want Any Trouble From You!”. Final piece “No Exit” is also a highlight.

It’s not all fun and games, far from it. It lacks the playfulness and cheekiness of some of the aforementioned remix albums- it seems the novelty has worn off, as it were. Tracks like “Oh, Henry!”, with upright bass and violin from Henry Grimes, is evocative noir, with the more urgent rhythm pulling in interesting ways against the late-night seedy jazz vibe. There are definite playful moments though- Leonora Russo’s bizarre scat singing on “Queenie Got Her Blues” being one.

Longest track “To Feel” is notable as a decidedly ambient piece that adds a substantial hiatus in the middle of the album, and which leads on to the husky title track, with Xeli Grana on sparse vocals.

It’s a really interesting fresh take on “jazztronica” (if I’m allowed to use that word), with the emphasis more on the jazz part. It’s rich in quality and has an authentic feel that blends the retro and the modern, and it’s an album with a lot of character.

Angelspit: The Ignorance Cartel

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Artist: Angelspit
Title: The Ignorance Cartel
Format: CD
Label: Black Pill Red Pill
Long-established industrial and cyberpunk band’s ninth album is the second in a planned “Hexe Trilogy”, after “Bang Operative” which was reviewed here last year. Despite lyrically being written prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, there’s clearly still plenty for the Chicago-based act to get angry about, because even compared to their previous output, this is a fast, hard, aggressive album centred around seething frustrated lyrics full of non-specific politics, fury and imperative.

“Eat The Children”’s lyrics aiming “fuck you”s at various targets and with lines like “it’s my right to breathe so get my hands off my throat”, which if it was written before George Floyd’s death, was horribly prescient. There are somewhat more generalised and cyberpunk-familiar themes of social control, defiance against submission to “the system” and so on. Besides a fairly liberal use of the word “hate” and swearing, there are more metaphor-driven lyrics encompassing The Woodsman and Vikings and some interestingly oblique references to fairy tales and monsters. Although I imagine it was tempting, individual politicians or incidents are generally not cited- but it’s not hard to imagine that many of these tracks are responses to certain events. Social commentary is the dominant theme, but there are a couple of exceptions- such as the more sinister and sexual “Hot Machine”.

This is all set over fourteen rigid cyberpunk tracks full of distorted drums, angry biting bass noises, and glitched guitar-like noises. It’s a familiar formula for the band, and for the most part it doesn’t throw up many surprises, but there are some little treats and production touches in there to give at least a little variety. Examples include the interesting throwback to early Prodigy-esque rave noises in “Happy Little Coma” and “Someone Else”. Like later Prodigy albums though, an entire album listen can be quite a tiring experience due to a lack of variety or interlude in tone. There are some slightly softer moments, such as the decidedly Depeche Mode-ish “Easy” and the darker final track “All Puppet No Master”, but for the most part it’s a fitting reflection of modern times and modern listening styles where these tracks are more likely to turn up as individual items on a playlist than as a whole album, with the typical song length of four minutes quite generous in the expectations of modern listeners’ attention spans.

A few of the counter-culture tropes do feel a little bit threadbare due to overuse now- for example I can’t comment on the uncensored never-on-YouTube videos created for each track and only available as a VHS tape direct from the band. But nevertheless this is still high quality cyber- and electro-punk with a strong heart and high production values. Roll on the third part of the trilogy. Given the state of the world at the time it must be getting written in, I sense it might end up being even more angry than this.

Artist: Seskamol
Title: Reason
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Mille Plateaux
Reason from the relatively anonymous Seskamol is pitched as the launch of ‘hyperglitch’ music- “an evolution of glitch music” that “doesn’t mean more, or faster, or louder” but instead means “deeper and more interconnected”. In reality, on the evidence of this compact 28-minute mini-album of sonic extremes, it would appear that hyperglitch *does* actually mean more, and faster, and louder, after all.

It relies on stark contrasts. On the one side, there’s extremely mellow ambience and long faint and sustained reverberant piano notes, with some indistinct quiet spoken-word samples and found sounds. On the other side, this is pitted against flurries of extreme drum programming baked heavily with effects and distortion. Compared to EDM it’s a little light on the post-dubstep synthbass and sub-bass elements, preferring instead to focus on relentless percussive work. If you are looking for one track to successfully sum it up, “Destiny” or “Empty” are probably the best examples.

The second half of the album offers a more meaty depth, with the two longest tracks, “Epic” and “Summit”. The formula here is essentially the same, but in these longer pieces the ambiences are allowed to play out somewhat more richly, and with fewer interruptions. It leads to some lovely atmospherics, though it does play a little on the generic side, with a strong sense that you’ve heard these hollow tones and drones before.

I don’t think this is the birth of a new genre, to be frank. But if you like drones, but you also like the frenetic percussive energy release of artists like Venetian Snares, and if you love a good musical jump-cut, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this short album.

Artist: Only Now x Orogen
Title: Avuls
Format: Tape & Digital Download
Label: Sucata Tapes
The second full-length collaboration between Kush Arora (Only Now) and Lucas Patzek (Orogen) runs as a deep and slow series of bass rolls, gutpunches, atmospherics and effects, that feels like the very darkest elements of EDM have been untethered from their dance music moorings and allowed to go and live rough in a cave.

There are echoes of a more structured, underground vibe, such as the pitched-and-sped-up choral sounds in part one (somewhat “Rites Of Mu”-esque), or the metal-tinged building pulses and remnants of an industrial breakbeat in part three. However it can also detach itself completely from rhythm and even drama, such as in the soft sandpapery ambient washes that constitute part two, or the breathier waves of part six that feel like a sombre night at a dark beach.

A more cinematic flavour grows through the gentle arpeggios of part four into the atmospheric, if slightly on-the-noise, low choral chanting sounds of part five.

It’s a relatively short release- six numbered parts, totalling 33 minutes, but it’s supplemented by a 31-minute “megamix”. The term megamix seems almost comical here, bringing to mind superstar DJ’s, but instead it’s the same six pieces but sensitively sequenced together (and at times barely overlapped) into a single listening experience. As a single ambient journey it doesn’t take a particularly obvious route, or follow one single progression, but it does continue consistent with the soundtrack-y flavour.

The textures and production are top notch and it’s got more than enough character to make it engagingly weird and immersive. A very unusual electronica dive that deserves your attention, and all of it when listening.

Artist: Legowelt
Title: Unconditional Contours
Format: 12" + Download
Label: -OUS
For Unconditional Contours, Legowelt was granted rare hands-on access to the 5000 synths, organs, drum machines and effects units of the Swiss Museum for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)- but before you get excited, I’m afraid such access is only available to their artists-in-residence. The result that came out is a series of ten fairly short experimental tracks that showcase different synths, often citing them by name in the track titles, but which also for the most part hangs together as an album in its own right.

There’s an inevitable Tangerine Dream-iness about tracks like “Unconditional Contours Memory Moog” and “Swiss Fairytales”, although with the longest track only just over four minutes, there’s a certain staticness- each piece feels like a sonic vignette of a particular arrangement of knobs and dials, and none of them are allowed to truly evolve and progress at any length. The track “Evolution EVS-1 ProMars and Prophet 5” is an absolutely lovely melody, but it’s barely longer than its own title.

It’s certainly influenced by dance music as well as dream music though. Drum machines are brought into play in tracks like “Chateaux Dans Le Ciel Farfisfa Synthorchestra”, which goes quite Underworld-esque towards the end, and where the lo-fi and weedy aspects of old synth sounds seems to be enjoyed rather than avoided. The unexpected spoken word element in “Prophet Vector Synth Dazzling in the Sun”, with its talk of crystal cascades, vectors and forgotten paths, feels like a throwback to early ‘90s trance, but played out with early ‘80s synths, while the glammier beat of “SMEM23 Digital Clap Trap Promars Prophet” brings to mind T.Raumschmiere.

It’s mostly rather on the serious side, but playfulness does pop out very slightly in elements such as the rubbery bass tones of “Roxannes Magic Watch”.

It sits somewhere between a ‘proper’ analogue electronica album and a series of equipment demo tracks, but manages to provide enough of the former to be coherent. A bit more experimentation and ambition might have pushed the envelopes a little further, but it’s certainly got merit as a listening album for fans of the old synth sounds. Plenty of analogue synth enthusiasts will be feeling jealous over this one.


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