Tuesday, February 27, 2007

RUBENS Carnivalesque (Herb Recordings)

Herb Recordings 2007
10 Tracks. 55mins16secs

Herb Recordings

Scotland is once again taking the lead on the melodic electronica front with this rather fine debut release from Rubens, a duo formed of Mark Flanagan, who has previously been spotted transmitting from Glasgow under the ~ism banner, and Ayrshire-based Gordon MacDermid, AKA Gump. Yet, this is about where the connection with at least part of the Scottish electronic scene ends. As its title leads to think, Carnivalesque exults with refreshing joie de vivre and enchanting playfulness. Music flows through its ten tracks like a wild highland stream, jumping from one to the next with disarming ease.

Released on relatively new imprint Herb Recordings, Carnivalesque follows the band’s first appearance on the digital-only compilation Natural Environments, released in the second half of last year, and is Herb’s first CD release.

Carnivalesque resonates with echoes of early Warp-era electronica a la Black Dog, Autechre or B12, sprinklered with essence of mid-seventies Kraftwerk, Cluster and Tangerine Dream, the lot blended into voluptuous swathes of synthetic waves and unashamedly upbeat and modern electronica. Right from the opening moments, the pair set the tone with crystalline acoustic guitars layered over crisp electronics on Vertical Hold, and swirling melodies on the uplifting Breaking Into Smile. Within the first ten minutes, Rubens deploy an impressive armada of sounds and moods, wrapped up in disarmingly simple and confident pieces, that it is a wonder how they could sustain the pace for long and continue to deliver. Yet, they do, time and again, from the epic Ferris Wheel to the dense sonic clouds of Cayla’s Third and Winter Broth, carving wonderfully evocative melodic themes within translucent electronic formations, always reaching higher, pushing further, creating dramatic landscapes on which melodies flourish and develop at will, drum loops grow ever more intricate and dense, sound formations constantly change shape and appearance.

Even on the more subdued and introvert terrains of pieces such as Giraffe, Blue Belles Burn Slowly or After Now Is Next, Flanagan and MacDermid balance rampant melancholy with impressionist touches and inspiring arrangements to consolidate the overall mood of the record. Carnivalesque is intrinsically organic and warm, with vast cinematic open spaces and more intimate moments alternating with insistent regularity, denoting impressive maturity and judgement from the band. This is a record made by human beings, for human beings.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007


Touch 2007
03 Tracks. 50mins09secs

Buy it: CD
Chris Watson | BJ Nilsen | Touch

Back in 2000, Swedish musician recorded a series of storms over the Baltic sea, and consequently suggested that him and fellow Touch sound artist Chris Watson coolaborate on a project focusing on weather conditions.

Watson, once of pioneering electronic outfit Cabaret Voltaire and, later, of The Hafler Trio, is an established wildlife recordist, who has, beside his three albums for Touch, worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and recorded nature for a variety of wildlife programs for the BBC. After a few years away from the music scene, he returned in 1996 with his first solo album for Touch, Stepping Into The Dark, which was built from recordings he had made all around the world during previous years.

Stockholm-based Benny Jonas Nilsen first emerged in the early nineties under the pseudonym of Morthond (later Morthound), with his debut album, The Crying Age, published on Swedish imprint Cold Meat Industry when he was just fifteen. Nilsen reinvented himself as Hazard in the mid nineties and released a handful of ambient records for Malignant, Ash International and Touch, before eventually publishing music under his own name.

Storm features three extended tracks, with Watson claiming No Man’s Land, which opens, and Nilsen Austrveg, which closes the album, the pair collaborating on the middle track, SIGWX. The two solo tracks span just over fifteen minutes each while the middle piece clocks in at just under nineteen minutes. Each piece is based on a series of recordings made on the artists’ respective coastlines and documenting everything from wildlife (especially in Watson’s piece) to sea conditions, wind and storms.

Watson’s recordings were made on the North East coast of England and Scotland, during October and November, between 2000 and 2005 and present a rather active series of soundscapes, with vast colonies of sea birds drowned in an increasing cacophony as they get more agitated, rough seas and animal noises. The latter bring an organic, almost human, dimension to the piece, especially in the second half when Watson introduces recordings made in a cave.

Nilsen’s piece is built from recordings made on Gotland and Öland, two neighbouring islands situated in the South East of Sweden. Here, Nilsen focuses primarily on the evolution of weather patterns and the impact it has on his environment. As sounds of waves breaking on the shores, strong winds and rain appear to constantly battle for supremacy, an underlying rhythmic pattern slowly emerges, with organic loops spreading over several minutes as the elements take it in turn to dominate.

Taking its name from a weather forecast term indicating significant weather, SIGWX sees Watson and Nilsen bring their respective recordings together and confront their findings, from various life forms to evolving weather patterns and environmental noises. Watson’s meticulous formations provide a rich backdrop for Nilsen’s more exposed recordings, resulting in an exceedingly dense and dramatic piece.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this record, Watson and Nilsen present here an incredibly detailed and vibrant document, which not only charts landscapes and weather conditions, but also captures a myriad of particles of wildlife and places them in a very particular context. These three sequences are extremely vivid and realistic, leaving the listener to wonder whether they may be experiencing these for real.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

ZAINETICA: Redirection (Boltfish Recordings)

Botlfish Recordings 2006
14 Tracks. 76mins25secs

Zainetica | Boltfish Recordings

While Redirection is only Zainetica’s third album released on CD, London-based artist Mark Streatfield has, since Escaping Dust (2003), accumulated an impressive body of work, from MP3-only EPs and albums on labels such as Boltfish, IVDT, Enpeg or Laced Milk Technologies, to countless compilation contributions. He has also been running his own imprint, the ever-excellent Rednetic, releasing music from the likes of Joseph Auer, Mint, Utility Player, Cheju and The Vizier of Damascus.

Streatfield’s first foray into music dates back to the drum’n’bass days, but, in recent years, he progressively moved toward gentler terrains. His debut album, Escaping Dust, was a masterful exercise in classic electronica, with echoes of early Black Dog, Beaumont Hannant or Ritchie Hawtin giving it a solid base. Redirection shows very similar affiliations as Streatfield serves subtle melodies wrapped in beautiful analogue soundscapes and organic textures. Yet, the general pastoral tone of this record is often interrupted with more urban emissions, especially with pieces such as Dolorous, MI, Redirection or Divided adding a considerable amount of grit to this otherwise rather corporeal collection. As he assembles corrosive glitches and harsh electronic textures over angular rhythmic sections, Streatfield almost imperceptibly redefines his musical scope, incorporating new sounds and ambiences into his blend of classic Detroit techno and early Warp-era electronica.

Although the music appears effortless, as each track gently flows into the next, the level of complexity is high. Working from rudimentary sources, Streatfield builds his compositions bit by bit, applying layers with parsimony to focus on the chore structure of a piece and avoid any distracting elements. Redirection is however anything but austere. Streatfield opts for warm soundscapes and sprawling atmospherics to offset the minimal structures he toys with, alternating between vivid formations (Inception, Dolorous, Concept, Hidden, Daylight) and more subdued moments (Central, Maglev, Close), and even dabbles with folk elements on the delicate Underfoot, on which a treated acoustic guitar lands on a abrasive bed of white noise and distrotions.

A logical evolution in Streatfield’s prolific body of work, Redirection is an incredibly diverse, yet focused and consistent record. Streatfield is never shy of showing off his influences, but, as he continues to gain maturity and confidence, his music remains truly original and fresh. This is electronic music at its cleverest and most human.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

POLE: Steingarten (~Scape Records)

~Scape Records 2007
09 Tracks. 45mins06secs

Buy it: CD
Pole | ~Scape Records

It has been a while since Pole’s Stefan Betke’s last poured his bouncy grooves down our ear canals, and it is fair to say that the electronic caravan has moved on a fair bit. Betke has certainly not remained on the side of the road though, as this new slice, his first output since his 2003 self titled album, proves at length.

Moving away from the monochrome aesthetic of previous records, the cover of Steingarten depicts one of King Ludwig II’s fantasy Bavarian castles, built to protect him from reality. The album itself also moves away from Betke’s original template as he ornates his minimal dub radiation with various soundscapes. His liquid grooves are still found sprinkled all over these nine tracks, but more often than not in vaporized form. Whereas radiating bass lines were regularly found at the heart of his compositions, they have been moved so far in the background that they almost disappear, leaving frail melodic structures to curve under the weight of various other elements.

Steingarten also marks a return to entirely instrumental music forms following Pole’s brush with hip-hop on his previous output, which featured a handful of vocal contributions from American rapper Fat Jon. Here, there is very little of the digital urban grit left. Instead, Betke veers toward Chain Reaction territory once again by starving his compositions of oxygen until they appear emaciated. It is then only that he inflicts violent electric surges by way of treated electric guitars, which are in turn pebble-dashed over the skeletal techno forms which relentlessly drive the groove (Winkelstreben, Düsseldorf, Jungs) or applied in colourful layers on more subtle pieces. This process is not entirely new to Betke, yet it is the first time that he dares such contrast in tone, and it often pays off. His obsessive minimalism however sometimes wears a tad thin, as on the rather uneventful mid-section of the record. Schöner Land and Mädchen are uncomfortably linear and leave a slight bitter after taste as the listener is caught up between utterly precise sonic forms and left wondering whether a particular track has only just started or whether it has been going for some time.

When Betke asserts a more exuberant side of his musical persona, the mood changes entirely. While Warum, Achtenrbahn or Düsseldorf are quirky electro moments bubbling with Detroit enthusiasm, the latter featuring the most coherent melody found on this record, Sylvenstein reveals that the Pole of old is still lurking in the background, and Jungs shows off a shiny body built up out of a steamrolled Autechre carcass. The album concludes with the rather poetic Pferd, upon which Pole relies to draw an interesting line between past and present without appearing at all nostalgic or arrogant.

As the title suggests, Steingarten is a chaotic and unpredictable affair, with arid moments and rich patches alternating with insistent regularity. While Stefan Betke’s music was never conceived to entertain in the more common sense of the word, there are times here when a glimmer of fun is perceptible, albeit in the distance. Despite appearances, Steingarten is a Pole album through and through, but Betke is clearly older and wiser now, and his music has become more open and concrete.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

THE MARCIA BLAINE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: Halfway Into The Woods (Highpoint Lowlife)

Halfway Into The Woods
Highpoint Lowlife 2007
11 Tracks. 61mins01secs

Buy it: CD
The Marcia Blaine School For Girls | Highpoint Lowlife

Scotland has been delivering some fine electronic acts with insistent regularity, from the beautifully melodic and innovative Boards Of Canada to some of the acts from the Benbecula stable. The Marcia Blaine School For Girls, a trio hailing from Glasgow, have released some very promising EPs on Static Caravan, Awkward Silence and Metal On Metal, since they first appeared in 1997, and the compilation of Scottish electronica they put together for Highpoint Lowlife in 2005, Some Paths Lead Back Again, which predominantly featured work from the collective and its satellite projects, as well as tracks from the likes of Izu or Chris Dooks, was a rather tasty appetizer.

In 2005, Highpoint Lowlife released the excellent debut album by Marcia Blaine member Ruaridh Law, under his Village Orchestra guise. Halfway Into The Woods shares with Law's cut a flair for beautiful melodic themes wrapped in lush electronic soundscapes, layered over crisp rhythmic pattern. The Marcia Blaine crew however expand on the gentle psychedelic tones and create elegant shimmering pieces which appear to continuously blossom and morph. Right from the outset, the collective set the tone by progressively building The Secret Of The Mezzanine from an ethereal wave into an ever changing series of colourful sonic patterns. From there on, nothing comes to disturb the Marcia Blaine purpose as they progressively close the door on reality and unveil their fantastic dream world. All the way through, the tone alternates between moody pieces (Boris, Last Game Of Mercy, Pink Inside) and mesmerizing intricate compositions (Rude Mechanical, Last Game Of The Mercy, Qoelet). Elsewhere, MBSFG dip their feet into surprisingly pop territory when they incorporate vocals into their dense electronic structures on the effervescent Still and Yugo Or Iago.

On Milk And Honey, the trio swap light ethereal formations for darker, more chilling textures, concluding this album on a surprisingly unsettling and sombre note, yet, while the atmosphere becomes more oppressive, there is always in the distance a glimmer of light which guides the listener gently back to the real world.

As a teaser to this album, the band have made available a companion remix EP, free to download from the Highpoint Lowlife website, with contributions from Maps & Diagram, Izu, Dextro, Talve or Erstaub amongst others, each artist providing a different twist on the originals. While some choose to remain close to the Marcia Blaine sonic template, Izu, Erstaub, Dextro and Orphax turn the collective sound upside down and rampage freely through their delicate structures, throwing harsh electronics, electric guitars and isolationist forms against the trio’s graceful electronics.

With Halfway Into The Woods, The Marcia Blaine School For Girls finally deliver the fine collection of atmospheric electronica they have been promising for years. While the beautiful soundscapes and melodies deployed here will undoubtedly please those who fell in love with The Village Orchestra, the wider scope of this record, together with its consistency, is likely to gain the trio a whole new fan base.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

FUNKSTÖRUNG: Appendix (!K7)

!K7 Records 2007
11 Tracks. 52mins02secs

Buy it: CD
Funkstörung | !K7 Records

It is quite astonishing to realise that, in the ten or so years they worked together, Funkstörung only released three albums proper. Beside their own releases, the duo, formed of Michael Fakesch and Chris De Luca ran their own imprint, Music Aus Strom, for a while, produced a handful of records for other artists, worked on solo projects and remixed an incredible amount of tracks for people as diverse as Björk, Wu-Tang Clan, A Guy Called Gerald, Nils Petter Molvær or The Notwist, some of which have been collected in Additional Production (1999), Vice Versa (2001) and this latest offering.

While their sound placed the band in the direct vicinity of Autechre for a while, Fakesch and De Luca drifted toward more accessible terrains with their 2004 album Disconnected, before returning to their acid roots with the rather excellent vinyl-only Return To The Acid Planet offering two years ago, proving if necessary that they were most likely to be found where not expected.

Having gone their separate ways mid-last year, De Luca and Fakesch assembled this ultimate compendium of remixes as a bowing out act. Appendix is neither a retrospective of the band’s work, its scope being mostly centered around electro-funk and gritty electronica formations, with only rare occurrences of the surgical digital hip-hop that made their first album a rather interesting offering, nor a testament, but, as the vast majority of these remixes were done between 1999 and 2005, it provides an insight into the genesis of Disconnected and how their music had come to adapt so well to vocal performances.

Very much like Vice Versa, Appendix is an incredibly eclectic collection, which stretches well beyond the realm of their original heavy electronic assemblages, yet this still transpires to be the unifying thread between all the reworked tracks displayed here, from the stuttering hip-hop of Towa Tei’s Latte & Macaron or the liquid revision of Lusine ICL’s Sustain to the surprisingly quirky and radio friendly reshuffle of the Raveonettes’s Love In A Trashcan or the Breeders-esque remix of Enik’s No Fire. At times, this constant genre fidgeting can prove a tad tiring, but, when it works well, it is also a credit to the pair’s incredible aptitude to adapt to various situations.

All throughout their career, Funkstörung have fed their remixing experiments into their own work, which has in turn filtered down to further remixes. Thanks to this symbiotic approach, the band have followed unpredictable paths, sometimes to the detriment of credibility, yet, this constant recycling process has allowed them to thrive and challenge not only their audience, but themselves as artists.

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