Monday, 5 January 2009

Three extraordinary albums

To "celebrate" the first day of this blag, I'm doing a post here to briefly "review" three albums that, for one reason or another, I consider extraordinary. Some of them you might already know, some you may not: what matters here is the insight into music, whether it serves as recommendation to try new stuff or to retry old stuff with different ears. I won't tackle on anything particularly obscure, so don't expect much snubbery.

Oh, and don't expect download links either. If you REALLY want to download this stuff, you should be able to do that yourself without my assistance, and I'm not here to promote that sort of stuff. AAAAnyway:

1. Selected Ambient Works, Volume II - Aphex Twin

Yeah, I'm definitely not breaking new ground here. This is a stone cold classic, and if you don't have it, you should. Why? Because there's hardly anything else like it! The previous "installment" in the "series" was hardly any Ambient the way Brian Eno originally coined it, but then again, Ambient was defined more by its intent and purpose, not by its sound. So, the music there was strongly rhythmic, accented, even quite dynamic at times. The difference is that Richard D. James invested a lot more on textures and layers than on dance patterns; thus "Ambient Works".

This one, however, dumps the rhythms almost entirely, and instead of merely focusing on textures and layers, it IS textures and layers. But hey, it's not at all what you would expect from your everyday Brian Eno record. In its original issue, the album has 25 tracks, is almost three hours long, and only one track has an actual title -- the only identification given to the tracks are "pie-chart" diagrams and images associated to them, which resulted in the tracks having "unofficial" titles given by fans, none of which are used by the record label or by James himself.

So with little else to focus on, we turn to the music. And what music! These 25 tracks actually cover up a pretty wide array of moods and textures; in parts, it's gorgeous to the point of bringing your defences down without pity; in other parts, it's radically unsettling and even -- dare I say it? -- frightening. Challenging the "Ambient" label, the album doesn't let down in terms of variety: some tracks have slow transitions between different parts, giving a feeling of motion; some tracks rely on melodies, chord patterns, percussion rhythms, musique concrète-like sound collages or hypnotic riffs; some tracks work marvellously as background "thinking" music, while others are so radical that they're bound to wake you up from your sleep and give you nightmares. And the album is structured in a way that you can treat it not like a "mood piece", but as an elaborate journey. It's true that sometimes the nuances between tracks are so minimal that portions of the journey end up as indistinct gobbles of sound, and since the tracks are long and samey, you might get the urge to skip to the next one in aching curiosity to see what awaits you. But be calm! The album is worth enjoying in its entirety.

Highlights I can mention are the first and third tracks on side A, two incredibly beautiful pieces that challenge the notions of "ambient" with unforgettable sketches of melody; track two on side B gives me the creeps, as its main synth pattern has a "breathy" quality that makes me think of crawling alien creatures, while the following track has an oddly bluesy swing to it. The following two tracks make great use of subtle, understated rhythms to add an hypnotic effect. The last track on side C and the fourth on side D have a collage-like structure, while the second on side D and the last on side E are pretty close to Brian Eno. For more gorgeousness, try "Blue Calx" and the second track on side E. Finally, the final side is just scary! The faint echoes on the first track barely prepare you for the relentless "drilling" sounds on the second track. The third track just goes on and on for 11 minutes with the same hypnotic plinky keyboard, while the last one is pretty close to a horror film soundtrack, with haunting string-like chords, echoeing percussion and menacing harmonies. Freaky!

If you're willing to chase it, the only complete issues of the album are the original UK vinyl triple LP editions, available on "limited edition" brown vinyl which is more common than the regular release. The UK CD misses the second track of side E, which is a darn shame, though it is available on an ambient compilation album. The US CD also omits the fourth track of side A, which is plain nasty. Either way, getting this album is a wise decision. Don't miss it!

2. Dots and Loops - Stereolab

Nothing fairer than paying homage to the band that inspired this blag's name, right? And Dots and Loops is not only my favourite Stereolab record, but also one I've been INTENSELY obsessed on during the second half of 2008. Somehow, everything about it just fits and sounds perfect. It's true that it lacks the hyperactive and playful experimentalism of Emperor Tomato Ketchup and the defiant boldness of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, but it MORE than makes up with fabulous arrangements, deeply layered and detailed, and melodies that are bound to stick to your brain for a long while.

For starters, the focus here is on rhythm, but not just in clichèd percussive ways. The whole band combines rhythm and melody making one pretty much indistinguishable from another, so the music is booth groovy AND catchy. This goes from the gentle balladeering of 'The Flower Called Nowhere' to the irresistible "walk-to-the-beat" groove of 'Miss Modular' (gotta love those horns!!). Everywhere else, the famous combination of Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's vocals slip through melodies taking their cues from everything from 60's American pop to (maybe) French chansons, from Motown to Bossa Nova. To me, the album reaches its "climax" in two distinct tracks: first is 'Rainbo Conversation', a rich, delightful and invigorating Bossa Nova; and the second is 'Parsec', a piece that miraculously combines warp-speed drum 'n' bass with Bossa Nova. The goods keep coming with the laid back 'Diagonals' and the multi-part pieces 'Refractions in the Plastic Pulse' and 'Contronatura'.

Stereolab has a quite varied career, so unless you get focused on the first five or so releases, you're going to bump into a lot of different, exciting stuff; and Dots and Loops is one I consider a mandatory stop. Put this one on and be mesmerised.

3. Ultravisitor - Squarepusher

So this Tom Jenkinson dude likes to program drum machines and his laptop to produce absurdly convoluted and disoriented "breakcore" beats, and he also likes to sit down on his drumkit and go tappity-tap-tappa-tap like a jazz dude would, and he also likes to pick up his bass guitar and play some insanely complicated jazz solos with a weird ring-modulator-like pedal effect that goes "wWAAKOooOOAAawoOWwAAAAKKkkow", and he also likes to play classical guitar pieces on a Spanish guitar, and he likes to send his electronic machines on wild rushes of drum-'n'-bass. So in this album, he decided to do... ALL OF THAT.

In short, you could take this album as his "self-portrait", an album that basically gathers everything he did until then and carefully puts it together as one long (it fills up THE ENTIRE CD), seamlessly flowing suite, and it works to the point of being extraordinary. The styles bounce each other in a clever, interesting way, and propel the album through vastly different approaches at making amazing music. It gets hard to accuse him of noise-making hack when '50 Cycles' is preceded by the classical guitar piece 'Andrei', and it gets even harder to accuse him of jazzy self-indulgence when 'An Arched Pathway' only comes after the relentlessly melodic and thrilling 'Iambic 9 Poetry'. In short, Squarepusher covers up pretty much all ground here, without ever exaggerating.

I'd be lying if I said I like everything equally, of course. One interesting aspect is that the album incorporates live performances and floods then with obnoxious audience noise. On interviews, Squarepusher seems to purposefully sound like a jerk, and this gives me reasons to wonder what exactly he meant with these noises: one theory is that he was just being mean and throwing the spotlight on the morons that keep yelling and cheering along to his frenzied bass guitar workouts pretending they're enjoying every bit of his playing without truly knowing what they're doing, just so they won't look "uncool" to admit they don't get it; other theory is that he was just being mean with HIMSELF, sabotaging his own pomposity with the boldness of people who're just having a great time and a load of fun with it; or maybe he was just willing to connect with his audience, so I dunno. What I know is that 'An Arched Pathway' spends more than one minute assaulting the audience with unbearable snare rushes, and even though it fits in perfectly in the album, it sounds more like a "statement" than a sample of exciting noise. But it's alright.

Elsewhere, I'm grooving along to the unstoppable 'Tetra-Sync' and its evergrowing mix of layers and melodies, or being utterly carried away by the sonic washes of 'Circlewave', or having my brain exploded by the amazing 'Iambic 9 Poetry', in which he takes a simple yet beautiful jazz melody and runs it through vastly different styles: one time playing it nicely to a strong and accented beat, other time trashing it to beats with chaotic percussion bashing and broken rhythms, and other time driving it into hyperspace with increasing fury. That track alone is worth the price of admission -- though you shouldn't ignore the "hip-hop-from-Hell" of '50 Cycles', the pseudo-industrial solemnity of 'Steinbolt' and the gentle beauty of 'Tommib Help Buss'. This album is a great way to get into Squarepusher, and a careful reading on Wikipedia can show you the best way to delve in further into his music. Check the guy out, if you haven't already.

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