CD/Digital releases

Client is dead; long live Northern Kind!

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Take a large helping of electronica, add more than a hint of retro, a dash of attitude, and then bestow on the combination a northern accent. The result might have been Client, Sarah Blackwood’s project for the last 5 years—were it not for the fact that Client have proved themselves an increasingly boring and inept outfit, their last two albums (particularly this year’s Command) stultifyingly bad and a major disappointment to those who, like myself, feel that Blackwood still has one of the finest voices in pop. Nay, nay and thrice nay, the result now has to be Northern Kind, a duo who’ve been active for a couple of years, and whose second album, WIRED:, was released last month.

But let’s rewind to their first album, 53°N, which dates from 2007. It’s an extremely impressive debut, both capturing perfectly the synthpop sound of the early 1980s (think Erasure) as well as sounding thoroughly modern; it’s not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Having mentioned Blackwood already, i should point out that Northern Kind’s singer, Sarah Heeley, has a voice of similar range but different demeanour; while Blackwood is like a female Ralf Hütter (that’s a compliment), Heeley has a gentle vibrato that nicely shades her singing, and prevents her sounding aloof. The first few tracks of 53°N get the ball rolling, but it’s not until track four, “Millionaire”, that the album really takes off, the musical scope and horizons seeming to expand instantly. The tempo isn’t that fast, but an incessant, gymnastic bassline pushes the song along relentlessly, supplemented with assorted synth melodies, electronic drums all over the place (think Pigeon Street), and some really great singing from Heeley. “Thoughts of You” at first sounds remarkably close to early Client (that’s also a compliment), although far more melodic, and the chorus is nothing like them, poignant and softly melancholic (Client, like so many, mistake cynicism for melancholy). These two are the standout tracks; of the rest, “Home” is a great song, bringing to mind mid-’80s Pet Shop Boys (think Actually), Heeley even sounding rather like Neil Tennant. Also notable is “Sometimes”, a hard-hitting song, with abrasive sawtooths cutting the air in and around the lyrics; “Loser”, after it, is similar but more up-tempo and lyrically aggressive. It’s a splendid first album, effectively presenting Northern Kind’s credentials—and at this point one must mention the duo’s synth-smith, Matt Culpin, who’s clearly responsible in no small point for their distinctive sound. Read more

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When worlds collide: the dazzling, bi-polar explorations of Hecq’s Steeltongued

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It’s perhaps not too fanciful to say that music today has two ‘poles’: one characterised by the presence of beats (in whatever form), the other by their absence. Occupying each end of an impossibly wide continuum, these poles have both had their creative bars set extremely high, from the intricate, rhythmically irregular convulsions of Ryoji Ikeda and Autechre to the lush, elliptical driftscapes of Aphex Twin and Biosphere. Aesthetically, there would appear to be a infinitude of differences between the two—they could even, in fact, be called opposites—and it’s no doubt a symptom of this that most artists are emphatically one or the other; i did, after all, describe them as ‘poles’, and indeed the decision of whether or not an emphasised pulse is to be a feature of an album is arguably one of the most fundamental, even defining decisions for any musician. It’s not surprising, therefore, that examples of artists combining these contrary poles in their work are rare. Alva Noto’s collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto (particularly Insen) bring skittering glitched beats into a softly drifting context; Aphex Twin’s career has visited both poles, although never within a single album; and most recently, Autechre’s Quaristice project saw them to some extent attempting to forge a synthesis of the two. The attempt to combine pulsed and unpulsed musics would seem to be akin to pouring oil into water; the two can sit happily together, but never actually blend. Often, the result becomes a kind of aural illusion, the listener able to focus on one element or the other, but never both at once, suggesting some kind of fundamental incongruity. That is, until now.

For six years, and as many albums, sound artist Ben Lukas Boysen, better known as Hecq, has focussed on beats, creating in my view some of the very best beat-oriented music ever made (if anyone does, Hecq puts the ‘I’ in IDM)—A Dried Youth must rank as one of the most assured, successful debut albums by any artist. But from his second album (2004’s Scatterheart) onward, on tracks such as “Madison I” and “Midnight Generator”, he began significantly to deviate away from the glitching pulses into more amorphous territory, digitally stained ambient miniatures that do not simply sit cheek by jowl with the beats, but surround, penetrate and interconnect them, bonding the album together like electronic glue. Subsequent albums Bad Karma and 0000 continued to drop hints at Hecq’s ambient interest, hints that were abruptly writ large in last year’s Night Falls. Unexpectedly—and quite courageously—the album is almost entirely absent of beats, occupied by generously-sized quasi-watercolours, their canvases daubed in nocturnal ambient hues, at times (“Nightfalls”, “Red Sky”) touching on orchestral and choral textures. Sonically dark it may be, but laden with a profound and joyous light, the album was a clear statement of intent from Hecq, an assertion of the importance and value of beat-absent music in his output; and above all, it posed the tantalising question: what next? Read more

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Frail, impassioned and allusive: Polly Scattergood

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Of late, i’ve been revelling in new releases from a number of British female singers, all of whom deserve much wider appreciation. First up is the superbly-named Polly Scattergood, whose self-titled debut album was released early last month. Scattergood—her real name—is an alumnus of the BRIT School, an inconsistent institution that has churned out numerous successful musicians, from the talented (Imogen Heap) to the banal (Katie Melua/Adele) to the disturbingly talentless (Amy Winehouse). Thankfully, Scattergood is very much at the Imogen Heap end of the spectrum, her songs often very unconventional, her voice capable of both aching fragility and disconcerting caprice.

Despite being a debut, the naïveté suggested by Polly Scattergood’s voice isn’t particularly noticeable throughout the album’s 10 tracks; it’s a confident, assured debut. On the other hand, lack of experience has its own kind of freedom, and this is perhaps best demonstrated on the surprisingly lengthy opener, “I Hate The Way”. Beginning with great delicacy, Scattergood’s voice extremely close-miced, it treads a path that worryingly suggests a ghastly emo track is to ensue: “I hate the way I bleed each time you kiss me”. Yet what follows is nothing of the kind, an increasingly fraught and insistent elegy, one that follows a nicely unconventional structure; at the middle 8, the song opens out into beatless gurgles beneath an angelic countermelody, while the coda abruptly descends into a surly, obsessive and deeply insecure monologue about wanting to gain the beloved’s attention away from “all those other girls”. It’s an impressive, deeply honest track, and also something of a statement of intent: baring the soul in an unconventional manner is to be expected. Read more

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Playing around in digital detritus: Venetian Snares – Filth

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Is it me or is Aaron Funk’s output beginning to slow? Nine months on from last year’s Detrimentalist, Funk is back with a new Venetian Snares album, Filth, released in late April.

Opening track “Deep Dicking” is a paradigm for the whole album, hyperactively squelching around in digital detritus; sounds, flurries, gestures, beats and burps passing by at breakneck speed. Underpinned by a relentless, almost happy-hardcore beat, it has a potent manic quality, suggesting Venetian Snares at its best, breaking apart familiar beat elements, scrutinising them, reassembling them, creating disturbing collages from the fragments. It ends as it began, playing around in the dirt of the album’s title, after which “Crashing The Yogurt Truck” continues in such similar fashion that it could almost be a ‘part 2’. The Speak and Spell is brought out of retirement (last heard 5 years ago on Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding) and folded into the mix, along with increasingly retro twangs redolent of the TB-303 and TR-606. This is taken further in “Labia”, ploughing a distinct faux-analogue furrow, at times bringing to mind Aphex’s Analord series, before abruptly cutting off. There’s only time for a snatched breath before being plunged back in, with “Mongoloid Alien”, where the cyclic intensity assumes fever pitch, obsessively repeating the title ad nauseam. “Chainsaw Fellatio” (no, i don’t know either) is the first to reduce the frenetic pace, although the slower, swaggering tempo has the effect of making all the surrounding ephemera seem, if anything, faster at times than before. Read more

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New free EP from Nine Inch Nails et al.

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Almost a year on from their last tour EP, there’s now a new 6-track EP from Nine Inch Nails, together with their tour buddies, Jane’s Addiction and Streetsweeper (the new project from Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello). Titled the NINJA 2009 Tour Sampler EP, it features two tracks from each artist and, considering the quite different styles of each act, hangs together surprisingly well.

Jane’s Addiction contribute first, with “Chip Away”, a wild, pounding, tribalesque track that never lets up for a second, even during a momentary shift to hand-claps and rim shots. They pick up their instruments for “Whores”, a fairly formulaic rock number that is, nonetheless, pretty compelling.

NIN’s “Not So Pretty Now” clearly comes from the sonically anæmic With Teeth era; despite being an exciting track, it’s predictable and not one of Trent’s finest achievements (which of course means it’s in keeping with With Teeth). “Non Entity”, on the other hand, is superb; the tempo is sluggish but somehow driving, and as the textures develop, the song seems to be a perfect synthesis of ideas from numerous NIN releases, including Ghosts. It’s the best track on the EP. Read more

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A shining example of synth-ballad: Röyksopp – Junior

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when adverts seemed to be full to bursting with music by, first, Moby (Play), then Goldfrapp (Felt Mountain) and then Röyksopp (Melody A.M.). Such exposure does little to help these or any other albums, at best distracting from, at worst suffocating, their genuine achievements. It’s good, therefore, to hear Röyksopp’s new album, Junior (released on 23 March), before it’s made its way into the wider world; i’m hopeful that the band will resist the advertising community this time, as it’s a release well worth hearing on its own terms. Read more

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Future Imperfect: Freezepop – Form Activity Motion

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Dear oh dear. It wasn’t terribly long ago that i was lauding Freezepop‘s most recent album, Future Future Future Perfect, and it was with some excitement that i approached their brand new release, a remix EP, the title of which would do Kraftwerk proud: Form Activity Motion. Essentially, just two songs have been chosen for the venture: “Frontload” and “Thought Balloon”, two of the best songs from the album—and this is where the problems start. In choosing a pair of such high quality songs, they’re immediately laying down the gauntlet to remixers to do something that can live up to those originals… a gauntlet that is most emphatically not picked up. One of the most prominent problems with these attempts is that they’ve clearly been created by people with minimal understanding of the harmonic direction of the originals. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, of course, but in both songs it’s quite subtle, and certainly very effective; in many of the remixes, the harmonic progressions have been bowdlerised as though they’d been left in the hands of beginner music students. Read more

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