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Guest Review: Monolake – Silence (2009, imbalance computer music)

04/02/2011

“There is no general rule. I often just open Live to explore an idea, and end up doing something else because I found an interesting detail along the way. Or I have to work on a highly specific project, and have to discard a lot of the results because they do not work in a given context. Instead of throwing them away, I keep them and this might form the basis for another composition.” – Robert Henke on his compositional process

When Sergey wrote a guest review on my blog The Death of CDs back a while ago, I felt the need to return the favor. However, I didn’t know exactly what I should write about. The dynamic sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “f#a#infinity”? The shoegaze glide guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”? The etheral pad sounds and Jonsi’s falsetto vocals in Sigur Ros’s “Takk…” and/or “( )”? There were so many choices, alongside trying to write new reviews for my own blog. Now, I finally found an album that pleases me. The album, in question, is Monolake’s latest release, “Silence”.

If you aren’t familiar with Monolake, you might be familiar with or have heard of the digital audio workstation Ableton Live and all its features. Robert Henke, one of the members of Monolake, is also one of the founders of Ableton, alongside his friend Gerhard Behles, who at one point was a member of Monolake, but left around the early part of the millenium to focus on Ableton. Robert, however, continued Monolake. “Silence” is actually composed almost entirely using Ableton Live, with additional sound design and sequencing from Max/MSP and the newly released Max for Live, and additional hardware reverb.

Monolake’s sound can be mainly categorized as minimal techno, but “Silence” breaks the definition. Whereas minimal techno and ambient music can be found on this album, there is particularly a dubstep influence as well, without the famous wobble bass that one would expect from dubstep. Combining synthetic sounds from Ableton’s Operator, Tension, and Analog instruments with found sounds, Monolake creates a cold and desolate atmosphere on this album. Warmth is extremely sparse, and the coldest of sounds are everywhere. This may be due to the fact that the album has not been compressed, limited, nor maximized at all. The sound is intentionally raw, allowing all the dynamics to come through.

Really, and I have to be honest, I couldn’t go through track by track to find the lowlights or the highlights of the album. As I am writing this, I am at my bedside, listening to the album. I don’t even know which song is playing at the moment, whether it is track 4 or track 8. The album demands to be listened to in full, without interruption or shuffling on your iPods, and heard as an experience. The result? A cold, stark techno album, bridging the gaps between ambient, minimal techno, and dubstep. An almost groundbreaking album that is unlike anything I’ve heard before. An album that, though it could be possible to dance to, would more be suited to be listened to while sitting down and relaxing. A riveting experience full of industrial bangs and clangs. The soundtrack of winter (yes, though the album shows a street covered in snow, nothing could describe this album more than merely being a soundtrack of winter). 9.5 out of 10 stars.

Album: Silence

Artist: Monolake

Genre: Minimal techno/ambient/dubstep

Released 2009 by imbalance computer music

Available at all major retailers!

Album review: Low – “I Could Live in Hope”

21/01/2011

Low are basically the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The bassists came and went, except Zak Sally, who stayed in the band since “Long Division” till “The Great Destroyer” – now that they’ve recorded their ninth album with a new bass guitarist Steve Garrington and are about to release it this April, I thought I’d revisit my favorite album by them, and one of my personal all-time best.

This is their first full-length, recorded with John Nichols on bass guitar and produced by Mark Kramer, the producer for all the Galaxie 500 output. Unlike their contemporaries who also played slowcore, Low were more minimalist – Parker’s drumset was even reduced to just a ride cymbal and snare, that she hit with brushes. The bass guitar work is just as minimal, often reminding of Joy Division’s Peter Hook, so that left only Sparhawk’s guitar and close harmonies with his wife in the forefront. Both are magnificent.

And that’s the point, because “I Could Live in Hope” does something that bands with ornate arrangements could never reach with purposefully limited means. At times, even the guitar and vocals take backseat in significance towards all the reverberation and delay. That is to say, Low make good use of both “positive” and “negative space”, or whatever they call it. Of course, I can’t say that they made the musical equivalent of a Tibetan mantra or Japanese haiku – that’s Piero Scaruffi’s domain. But still…

I’m pretty much at a loss for words right now because as of this very moment I’m in a knee deep depression. Naturally, slowcore and even more importantly sadcore would be the last music you’d turn to when you feel like that, but the thing about Low is that they may be slowcore, but they’re not sad. The only moment that may be brushing “sadness” is the centerpiece of the album, “Lullaby”. A 10-minute gutwrenching epic that it is, it is immediately followed by the simple, yet hopeful “Sea”. “I could live in hope” indeed. And that this album is closed off by the cover of an American standard “(You Are My) Sunshine”, only adds to the “hope” element.

Also notable is that despite Sparhawk and Parker being Mormons, they never bring their religious views to the forefront. In fact, lyrics here are as minimal as anything on the record, and as such play the role of just another instrument, but they also convey some subliminal meaning only a listener can decide. Admirable because I’m not too keen on following any religion whatsoever, though there might be oblique references. Whatever it could be, it only increases the magic of the album.

I haven’t said much about the other songs on the album, but as such it doesn’t matter. “I Could Live in Hope” is greater than just the sum of its songs – one of the more atmospheric offerings around, it’s the best possible response to the prevalence of heavy music today. Well, that was the whole intent of forming Low, actually.

Highlights: “Cut”, “Lazy”, “Lullaby”, “Sea”, “Sunshine”

Lowlights: none

Album review: Derek Palmer – “In Motion”

15/01/2011

Remember my previous post on The Bermuda Triangle’s “Wonderland”? Remember me mentioning Derek Palmer’s “In Motion”? Well, I’ve finally gotten an access to it (thanks to the man himself – one of the most awesome people around :D) and I’ve listened to it a couple of times. Currently on my third listen, and I’ll type the review as I go on listening, but it won’t be as expansive as the Simmon Manalo review.

Derek Palmer is from Monett, Missouri, and he predominantly makes either uplifting trance, or cinematic / soundtrack scores. Of course, “In Motion” is his uplifting trance album. While it doesn’t really feel like an album, but rather a collection of recent tracks, it still flows just like your usual record – and also there’s a tendency to re-use certain sounds, but that’s not as blatant as “Wonderland” did it. The tracks keep to the same pace, they may be slightly faster or slower, except “Sakura” the ambient opening track. That said, none of the tracks feel like they were produced hastily – they’re all killer, no filler. Though, you might count “Sakura” as one, but that’s up to you.

Having said all this… there are two guest spots courtesy of The Daunting (aka Sophia Kounoupias), “I Will Fight” and “In This Land”. The latter is considerably better, both in terms of vocal performance and production – easily the best track on the album, with “Changing Tides”, “Venice” and “Oceanic”. “I Will Fight” is in half-time, it got a single release with a dozen remixes or so, out of which the Noizz Factor mix easily rivals, and even exceeds the original. That said, Sophia’s performance there isn’t the best.

All that said… well, it’s hard to speak about this album in terms of individual tracks, because they’re similar in sound and style. One of those instances, when people shrug it off and say that the sum of the parts is greater than every single track you could pull off the record – EVERY track here is representative of “In Motion”.

There, I confused myself.

How did I determine the tracks I loved the most then? Melodic content, that’s how. As I’ve already said, “In This Land” boasts an awesome vocal performance from Sophia, and that’s what propels this track forward, in instance of “Changing Tides” it has to be the formant sort of sound towards the breakdown, “Oceanic” has a great progression…

I’m not really sure how to continue. To wit, “In Motion” has to be one of the best-produced albums in 2010, that explores all the directions where uplifting trance can go. As already mentioned, “In This Land” is the best The Daunting moment all year (out of music released commercially), and “Changing Tides” together with “Oceanic” are some of the better-written electronic music tracks of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I could’ve shrugged off the relative monotonousness (compared to “Wonderland”, a moot point) but if it’s good, it’s good. I’m anticipating anything that Derek makes this year.

Highlights: “In This Land (feat. Sophia)”, “Changing Tides”, “Oceanic”, “Venice”

Lowlights: none

Album review: The Bermuda Triangle – “Wonderland”

08/01/2011

Well, seeing as The Death of CDs review a couple of albums that I made (Coral Orange & DJ Future Sphere? Yeah, that’s me.) I decided to return the favor and review one of the albums that I actually cared about and listened to in full in 2010. Otherwise, there would be much more albums that would override it as one of the best in 2010, still “Wonderland” turned out to be in the top 10 for the last year.

Well, The Bermuda Triangle is Ian Felpel. Also known as Insomnious Noise, Ian makes music that’s pretty hard to classify: is it electro house? Or is it IDM? Or is it trance? “Wonderland”, in particular, was his attempt at creating a “shoegaze trance” record. At first it seemed like a plausible concept, but later on it deflated and 13 tracks devolved to 9. So, if we compare it to yours’ truly “Desolate & Stardust” (can’t resist) with 13 tracks in almost 62 minutes, “Wonderland” is the epitome of “brevity is wit” in electronic music: 9 tracks in 44 minutes. Impressive.

But still, its main flaws, personally, are a relative lack of diversity. If you’re a first time listener, try to discern “Wonderland” from “Feelings That Language Cannot Describe” from a track featuring Jean-Luc Stoufflet “Indeterminacy” from “Centralia Will Burn On Indefinitely”. Of course, melodies will differ and all that, but seeing as they are all in the same key, and use sounds far too similar…

That said, “Feelings That Language Cannot Describe” and “Indeterminacy” are among the best tracks on the album: “Feelings” is a call back to the best track on “Weird”, “A Night at the Wildwood Beach”, with all these majestic progressions and whatnot, and the collaboration with Jean-Luc Stoufflet “Indeterminacy” is easily the most melodic on the album. The other tracks that are worth mentioning are “A Little Bit of Old-Skool IDM” (literally) that is a break from the mold of the album’s usual fare and a great minimal techno excursion in the vein of Plastikman’s “Consumed”; “Why Did You Do It” with The Daunting, here as simply Sophia (because that’s her given name!) which is the most high profile collaboration here – but still, her vocal performance doesn’t compare to “In This Land” from Derek Palmer’s “In Motion” which is easily her best moment in music released for purchase last year.

The lowlights here have to be the intro, interlude and outro, but luckily they aren’t too long so that doesn’t really impair the quality of the album. Still, what can I say? The Bermuda Triangle’s “Wonderland” is a worthy follow up to “Weird”, cutting down on the ambient side and focusing more on the dance side, which is as formidable. What it lacks is a bit more variety, that doesn’t take on the whole musical spectre, but in the genre itself. Nevertheless, it is one of the better albums released last year. Take notice.

Highlights: “Feelings That Language Cannot Describe”, “A Little Bit of Old-Skool IDM”, “Indeterminacy”, “Why Did You Do It?”, “Wonderland”

Lowlights: “How It Starts = How It Ends”, “Psychedelic Forest Intermission”, “How It Ends = How It Starts”

Album review: Annie – “Anniemal”

05/01/2011

Yeah, right. You can call it the most glorious ass-pull of a favorite album, but I don’t care: Annie’s “Anniemal” is one the best pop records of the past decade. There, I said it.

Why should I be ashamed anyway? This album has some brilliant music, coupled with equally great production and Annie’s thin, breathy vocals, at times reminiscent of Sarah Cracknell (of Saint Etienne fame) or Kylie Minogue or Britney Spears…

…but seriously, they don’t call Annie “Kylie Minogue hipsters don’t have to feel guilty about liking” for nothing.

Well, OK then. So, the backstory behind this album is that five years ago Annie and her boyfriend Tore Kroknes made music together, releasing “The Greatest Hit” in 1999. Unfortunately, Kroknes died of heart complications two years later, and Annie started work on her album all over again, bringing in collaborators like Richard X, Timo Kaukolampi of Op:l Bastards, and… Röyksopp. This could explain why does this album sound so bittersweet, but still cheerful; and probably why does this album even sound.

Now, there are many good songs on this album, but the stone cold classic is “Heartbeat”, produced by the guys who brought you “Eple” and “Poor Leno”. At one time, I considered making a list of the best songs of 2000’s, and while I thought that I had to listen to more stuff from the period to know better, all the lists I had in my mind had “Heartbeat” on #1. Deservedly so – this song is a pretty good example of making something complex out of easy stuff, with simple progressions throughout the verses and choruses. I’m not sure if you’ll share my enthusiasm, but you’ve got to agree that the last minute or so of the song sounds as if it’s elevating itself straight ahead into the stratosphere.

So, the other standout is “Anniemal”. My main praise goes to the progression: being unfamiliar with music theory, I’ll just say that it does interesting things. Right. And the production’s not too shabby, either. “Chewing Gum” sounds too much like Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” for comfort (still, a great song, but why? why did it rank higher than “Heartbeat” in the top charts?!) but that’s the schtick with the whole album – it purposely sounds like the Eighties, without any irony, kitsch or pretense.

Because of Annie co-writing ten out of twelve songs on “Anniemal”, this album feels more personal than anything you’d hear from Minogue, or Spears. And that’s the main reason why I hold it so close to heart – I’m not a girl, so I couldn’t relate to it all, obviously, but still this album pulls off being relatable and well produced in the same breath. And I just can’t resist liking Annie’s vocals… just like Rachel Goswell or Sarah Cracknell, if you subtracted their vocals from their respective bands’ work, they would sound the same, but they wouldn’t. (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” excluded.) Either way, this is a record worth checking out – and liking. Possibly even loving.

Highlights: “Heartbeat”, “Anniemal”, “My Best Friend”, “Come Together”, “No Easy Love”

Lowlights: “Intro” I guess

Love Songs on the Radio: favorite songs of 2010

02/01/2011

Recently, the brotherly blog The Death of CDs held a largely unnoticed poll for the best music released in 2010, and the only vote was cast by yours truly (my favorite album last year was, undoubtedly, Beach House’s “Teen Dream”. Just saying.). Now, the best song of 2010 that I chose was “F**k You!” by Cee-Lo Green, but as it seemed to bewilder Ian @ The Death of CDs because of its explicit content, Love Songs on the Radio will now post a list of other songs in 2010 that I think deserved being called the best that year. I still remain adamant in my belief that “F**k You!” ruled the year supreme.

Gorillaz – Doncamatic (All Played Out) (feat. Daley) / On Melancholy Hill / Stylo (feat. Mos Def & Bobby Womack)
These three songs by Damon Albarn & company were the most triumphant pop moments of 2010, if we discount the already overmentioned “F**k You!”. Out of these three, “Doncamatic” is the best song you could dance your heart off to, “On Melancholy Hill” is the most charming (and actually the best out of the whole bunch), and “Stylo” has the best guest performance – two words: Bobby Womack. Just Bobby Womack.

Kanye West – Devil in a New Dress (feat. Rick Ross)
If “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” winds up to be the “Kid A” for 2010s, this will be its “How to Disappear Completely”. All the other songs are gruesomely overrated.

Deadmau5 & Wolfgang Gartner – Animal Rights / Duck Sauce – Barbra Streisand
The best dance tracks of 2010, “Barbra Streisand” to most post-Soviet people who knew Boney M far too well was an earworm that dug into the brains of the listeners 30 years before this song was even produced; and “Animal Rights” is the best Deadmau5 moment since at least “The 16th Hour” that was covered here before the blog was restarted.

The Radio Dept. – Heaven’s On Fire / The New Improved Hypocrisy
“Heaven’s On Fire” is the noisiest, and “The New Improved Hypocrisy” the most political guitar-based pop has ever gotten in 2010. The latter is so true given the situation both in Sweden, and in Ukraine. Could be used for all the world, I guess.

Best Coast – Summer Mood / Wavves – King of the Beach / Green Eyes
The most hated hipster couple of 2010, Best Coast and Wavves made two of the most simple, straightforward records of the year – and couldn’t care less about the haters.

All the tracks that follow will feature no comments simply because I ran out of words.

  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs / Ready to Start / We Used to Wait / Empty Room / Month of May
  • Wire – Two Minutes
  • Discodeine – Synchronize (feat. Jarvis Cocker)
  • How to Dress Well – Endless Rain / You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin’ / Escape Before the Rain
  • Pantha du Prince – Im Bann / Satellite Snyper
  • Cults – Go Outside
  • James Blake – CMYK
  • Jamie Woon – Night Air
  • Flying Lotus – Computer Face // Pure Being or MmmHmm (feat. Thundercat) or Table Tennis (feat. Laura Darlington)
  • Klaxons – Echoes / Surfing the Void
  • Wols – Batyscaphe Finds a Music Box / Pixelord – Cheese Freak / Lapti – Circadian Rhythms / Nocow – Moai / DZA – J-Dat inc. (Listening MD in Dub)
  • Simian Mobile Disco – Sweetbread
  • Joy Orbison – The Shrew Would Have Cushioned The Blow / So Derobe
  • Four Tet – Love Cry / Angel Echoes / Plastic People / She Just Likes to Fight
  • Derek Palmer – Changing Tides / In This Land (feat. Sophia) / Oceanic
  • The Bermuda Triangle – Feelings That Language Cannot Describe / Indeterminacy (feat. Jean-Luc Stoufflet) / Wonderland / A Little Bit of Old-Skool IDM

I guess that wraps it up about the favorite songs of 2010. I don’t expect much from 2011, but nobody knows what we’re going to experience this year yet, so… let’s just be patient, k?

Album review: Nick Drake – “Pink Moon”

31/12/2010

Happy New Year from Love Songs on the Radio! While the occasion on which I write this review is happy, and all, the album I’ll tackle today absolutely isn’t. In fact, Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” is one of the best albums to listen to when you’re depressed, but it’s the last album to turn to when you do feel so, because it will promptly have you reaching for the razor – just like Joy Division’s entire output (will be reviewed in due time).

The main reason for this is the overall tone of the record – recorded quickly over just two nights or two weeks, according to different claims, “Pink Moon” is just Drake and his guitar – nothing more, except for the overdubbed piano on the title track. As a result, in comparison to his previous two albums’ ornate arrangements, “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Layter”, it sounds bleak and desolate. Even though Nick Drake could make a single acoustic guitar sound like several at once, on some songs he chooses not to: “Horn” and “Know” in comparison to “Things Behind the Sun” sound like they were played on one string. But elsewhere, Nick Drake is simply astonishing – no wonder he is considered one of the best guitarists that ever lived.

The songs are, as usual, of very high quality. The aforementioned “Things Behind the Sun” was an outtake from “Bryter Layter” sessions and was originally meant to have string arrangements in the vein of that album, but somehow it wounded up to be left off the record, and so Drake recorded it for “Pink Moon”. Some (for example, George Starostin) think that it would sound better with strings – even though my respect for the guy is immense, no, the song works better when it only has a solitary guitar accompanied by Drake’s gentle voice. The three songs that follow “Pink Moon” also qualify for the best on the album, but there’s nothing more I could say about them since they all are understated and gentle, and going into detail about their unusual tunings would be too pedantic.

The lyrics are simply crushing. Just take “Parasite”: “and take a look, you may see me on the ground, for I am the parasite of this town”. No small wonder Nick died two years later.

They say “brevity is wit”. “Pink Moon” consists of 11 songs, and lasts less than half an hour – compare to his previous two albums, where at least one song would definitely reach six minutes; and here the longest one just barely reaches the four-minute mark. That’s the part of this record’s appeal – while Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” is one of the most life-affirming, ambitious, extroverted records ever made (and it stands one step above this one in my list of the best albums of all time), “Pink Moon” is the complete inverse – downbeat, restrained, inward-looking – and succeeds on its own, without the bombastic arrangements that dominated his previous albums. (I don’t have anything against them, personally.) Just don’t listen to it when your neck is already in the noose.

Highlights: “Place to Be”, “Road”, “Which Will”, “Things Behind the Sun”, “Parasite”

Lowlights: none. Not even “Know” or “Horn”