Archive for October, 2013

bizarroMUSIC: Apollo 440 (review)

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

the

(rather lacklustre)

return

of

APOLLO 440 

 

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Apollo 440 (A440) have been around since the wild west days of early 1990s electronica, part of the cross-pollination of dance, rock and hip-hop elements that artists like the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and the Prodigy made their reputations with.

A440 had always remained a fringe member of that genre, never really scoring the classic, cult status of these contemporaries.

They did enjoy some success with their reworking of Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin’ About Love, into a rollicking dub, drum n bass anthem that, while derided by rock purists as opportunistic, has aged relatively well, sounding as fresh and ground-breaking now as it did then.

Their Electro Glide In Blue album remains one of those grossly underrated albums from an era where pickings, as far as dance music was concerned, were slim. A heady mix of powerful, eclectic beats, cinematic rushes of synths and  strange sampledelic ideas managed to bridge the no-man’s land between Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and modern EDM rock, the effects of which can still be felt in the music of Radiohead (and its various hybrids), Pendulum and leftfield hip-hop. Electro Glide… was a dance Rosetta Stone, an alternative blueprint of tropes that have become the norm in today’s more progressive music, both electronica and alternative rock.

That said, the group, helmed by Trevor and Howard Gray, along with some fascinating long-time collaborators like indie-soul singer Ewan McFarlane (The Grim Northern Social ) and Mary Byker from grubbo-electronica pioneers Gaye Bykers On Acid, have never really capitalised on that initial critical success, releasing sporadically since then with collections that, while very good, lacked any kind of concrete identity. Their Dude Descending Down A Staircase album, their last full album in 2003, was a funky, clever concept work that brought together such vast and different influences like hip-hop, polymath philosophy and Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a little ahead its time, the album was hardly noticed by anyone outside of the most hardened and conscientious fans of the genre.

Dude Descending a Staircase

And so to The Future’s…

their latest album which, on the face of it, brings together the ideas of those two previous albums into one collection. Musically, the synth riffs and beats are pure 90s, and while done well and sounding really good, seems a little lazy. The song Smoke And Mirrors is a prime example of this: a little time machine back to an abandoned warehouse somewhere outside London in 1993, sounding like a C+C Music Factory riff with the bass turned up way too high. By today’s standards of dance electronica, where even the most mundane pop music contains at least some interesting electronica soundscapes, A440 here seem to be lacking imagination. It continues into A Deeper Dub, a song, again, that would be comfortable on Electro Glide…but here, seems  like a 90s throwback.

But there’s good news, though, for students of modern philosophy, at least. Love Is Evil is a dubby, bluesy Floydian walk-in-the-rain soundscape wrapped around a distant spoken word sample of Slavoj Žižek, renowned cultural dissector known more for his slobby lisp and tendency to warble on for hours in said lisp about B-movies and bad art. It makes for an interesting musical marriage here, anthemic almost to the point of turning into a stadium-sized cock-rock over-indulgence, but that’s a good thing. “There is nothing,” implores Žižek, “I mean that quite literally”, in-between Ewan McFarlane Robert-Planting about a world without real love. It’s not a particularly good song, but stuck in between all the clichéd electronic beats and tepid glitchy synthesis, it stands out by virtue of being just a good musical idea.

The next track Odessa Dubstep gets right back to business of being stuck in the 1990s again, and does what it says on the box: martial beats, squiggly bits of arpeggios and orchestral Shostakovich samples. It’s all fun and danceable, but nothing new here.

As an avid fan of A440 I really want to love and enjoy the album for its fun and dancebility, its disposability and funky ideas, but to sit still and attempt to dissect the well-produced but mediocre sum of its parts is a little difficult without ridiculing its blatant ignorance of electronica music trends of the last ten years.

But before it’s all over, there is one more philosophy lecture, this time with influential discordianist-mystic Robert Anton Wilson discussing the power of synchronicity on the song Fuzzy Logic, and it manages to lift the album a little with half a smidge of a truly original musical motif, executed well enough for you to sit back and say, without the cynicism that listening to the album so far has built up, “that’s a great song”. A slow atmospheric build up evolves into searing emotive climax of guitars and keyboards that just manages to avoid cliché. It ends far too soon, as the album closes with Music Don’t Lie, sounding like a PiL B-side that has a lot of emotional catchiness, but that once again, as with the rest of The Future’s…would have sounded good in 1995. Today, it just sounds a little cheerless.

apollo-440-506be164b03be

Despite having some good moments scattered inside mediocre envelopes, I was expecting better from a usually strong musical collective, but it all lacks innovation and originality.

Song writing:  – nothing new is explored, might consider trying new, different collaborators.

Originality:  – too much reliance on throwback 90s dance music clichés.

Lyrics:   – interesting lyrical ideas and use of spoken word samples, all let down by the music.

Flow:   – despite the haphazard mix of genres on the album, from rock to dance, dub to drum n bass elements, the schizophrenic qualities of this collection, and A440’s well-deserved reputation for throwing in interesting juxtapostional ideas into the mix, stand out as one the album’s few virtues and saving grace.

Production:  – though clichéd and stuck in the 90s, the sound mix and well considered production values on the album are actually very good, it doesn’t quite save the album, though.  

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bizarroMUSIC: what the heck is ‘dubstep’?

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

DUBSTEP RULES? OK?

Devastated-Compact-Disc

*Extract from an abandoned record review of the MINISTRY OF SOUND DUBSTEP VOLUME 3 compilation

As a reasonable, rational fan of music, my introduction into the mysterious world of dubstep electronica (the sound of which, I believe, has been officially defined by scientific propellerheads as ‘a faulty hairdryer, a dot matrix printer and your mother-in-law being dropped down the stairwell of an abandoned haunted insane asylum) seemed like a daunting proposition.

Friends and family may laugh or disown me, small animals and thin-skinned children might scurry when they cross my path. Perhaps I may find myself dancing inexplicably to the sound of microwaving popcorn, or even worse, enjoying it long enough to stop deridingly referring to the genre’s biggest pop star as Scallectrix and making a point of finding out what his real name is (Ricky or Buster, or something?)

Skrillex4

Whatever happens, I had to realise that, whether I like it or not:

Dubstep. Is. Here…and it may not be going away any time soon.

Naturally, as a flavour of the era, there are a great many starving artists, struggling musicians, horny DJs dabbling in dubstep today, and unless you’ve been spending most weekends in darkened, noisy rooms with dubious, noisy teenagers staring at a couple of paracetamols in the palm of your hand thinking: ‘what the hell is this?’, it is safe to assume you have no idea who or what is currently dropping the bass on this

truly!

Awesome!!

Track!!!

Right now!!!!…oh, that paracetamol just kicked in.

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Thankfully, the kind hardworking people at Ministry Of Sound, who, for almost twenty years now, have conveniently been compiling the best, the most popular and sometimes the most downright embarrassing popular electronic dance music onto CDs, have now made all things dubstep a little easier, a little more consumable, on this, their third volume of essential dubstep tracks.

As always, no matter what genre of dance music they highlight, MOS are good with flow and continuity on their releases, finding only the best and sometimes most obscure tracks that best display the genre. This being the third of the series, the selection is a lot more unusual, a little more exciting, opting to highlight some of the lesser known proponents of dubstep. Not always the best, but usually the most eclectic and interesting.

So, no Skrillex here, but there are other big names represented hero: Nero, DJ Fresh, Example; remixes by James Blake and Dirtyphonics and appearances by the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Ed Sheeran and Tasha Baxter. The rest of the artists, however, require a little more research, which means long, drunken evenings falling down the Bandcamp and Pitchfork rabbit holes, I’m afraid.

But I’ll try sum it up for you here, with a few highlights from both discs.

The pace is relentless from the first track. Dubstep is not known for its sultry ballads and sugary pop sensibility, although it does try once in a while. Its primary objective, as with all dance music, is to keep you on your feet. But often forgotten by other dance compilations, and something that MOS do well, is that you won’t only be dancing to it. You’ll be listening to it in your car, in the shower, washing dishes.

The mix has to be interesting, captivating, and cerebral almost. MOS almost get it right here. There are some interesting thoughtful transitions and short passages of melodic themes that ebb and flow with natural fluidity throughout. However, with over two hours of music across two discs there is a problem of too much runway. It never really takes off and takes flight in a way that a good old fashioned house mix or well-planned Ninja Tune compilation might achieve.

That said, it is a decent selection of varied sounds: a little (real) dub, a little bit of soulful house mixed and blended to within an inch of its life (see: Red (Chasing Shadows Remix) by Laid Blak), some great old school minimal drum n bass sounds crossing swords with unapologetic poppy riffs and runs (see: Young Guns by Lewi White, Ed Sheeran, Griminal, Devlin & Yasmin) and, above all, late into the mix, some of the most extreme, most offensive examples of the genre, most notably Cookie Monsta’s Ginger Pubes, which will quite possibly strip the panelling off your gramophone if you don’t get your settings right.

One noteworthy highlight from disc 1 is KOAN Sound’s Trouble In The West. Funky, with a great sense of drama, wrapped up in a seemingly out-of-place Tom Morelloesque riff, but manages to travel across the song’s different moods effortlessly.

Bare And Dastik’s King Kong is another of those paint stripper tracks, but this time so organically tribal and full of sensual otherworldliness, it defies the usual dubstep trope of relentless beats and overkill bass, to become much more than just another dance song.

Disc 2, as mentioned, loses bit of steam halfway through, never really deciding if the tracks should get you dancing or offend you with onslaughts of bass and percussion.

The highlight here is Tasha Baxter’s great vocals on Feed Me’s Strange Behaviour track. The disc mellows out pleasantly enough towards the end with the pretty but bizarre Cloudlight by Eskmo, all plucky glitches and sweeping sci-fi intonations.

Individually, none of the tracks really outstay their welcome, hanging around just long enough to create the mood for the next track and adding its own unique element to the mix as a whole.

The compilation serves its purpose as a good, concise introduction to the dubstep genre, but as with most commercial dance compilations, will most likely be redundant by the time you finish listening to it.

As a historical document for this current age in music, is might be useful, but in all likelihood, once we have all moved on to the next evolution, the next flavour in electronic dance music, this set will spent eternity on a shelf alongside aging copies of Bump, embarrassing us like old uncles who dance a little too youthfully at family gatherings.

deadmau5-i-sold-out-by-going-dubstep

Song writing:   – there are some interesting new ideas here, particularly the mixing of dubstep with other leftfield genres. Even for a commercial compilation, there is music here that has a lot of meat on its bones.

Originality:  – the dropped bass has become the genre’s calling card, but it is also becoming its noose.

Lyrics:  – evaluating commercial dance music lyrics is like wondering when Lindsay Lohan will win a Nobel Prize for science: pointless. Of what I can remember, there were some good choruses, now keep quiet, they’re about to drop the bass.

Flow:  – some interesting passages, but on the whole, a loss of momentum over two discs is jarring.

Production:   – thanks to technology, we’ve all become bedroom plagiaristic Phil Spectors, so it is surprising that some of the tracks here still manage to achieve studio-quality professional production, that are both unique and fresh. 

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