electronica

Free internet music: Access to Arasaka

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Apologies for the silence on 5:4 for the last couple of weeks, but i’ve been completely wiped out by ‘flu during this time, and have only started to feel relatively human again in the last day or so. Very belated then, i’m going to spend the remainder of January in the same way as i did in 2018, starting the new year by showing deference to the financial repercussions of the festive season, and teasing out some of the more interesting music that’s available online for no money whatsoever.

i’m going to begin with US musician Rob Lioy, who releases his music under a name derived from one of the megacorporations in role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020Access To Arasaka. It’s possible to speak quite broadly about the Access to Arasaka back catalogue due to the fact that Lioy’s musical approach has remained pretty consistent. It’s primary characteristic is a dichotomy between motion and stillness, the former articulated via energetic, often heavily-glitched beats placed emphatically in the foreground, the latter as layers of pitch and harmony that drift in the middle- and background as well as, crucially, bass drones that despite often being implied more than heard, nonetheless tend to feel omnipresent. It’s an archetypal ambient/electronica amalgam, but there are numerous ways that Lioy’s work stands apart from the large amount of music that explores this kind of conjunction.

It’s partly down to the music’s sheen: every Access to Arasaka track has the same kind of futuristic noir atmosphere that permeates Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. As such, the music displays an array of opposites. Its ultra-modernity is matched by a gritty, even dirty demeanour; the beats in particular are often encrusted with digital grime and squelch such that they sound not so much new as a resurrected manifestation of something potentially much older. The liveliness of these beat patterns – which, when present, are almost always front and centre – is countered by the way Lioy grounds each track over a drone, resulting in music that inhabits a sharply defined and perhaps delimited environment, within which it remains somewhat tethered in place. One of the most beguiling opposites that characterises Access to Arasaka is the fanciful sense that, far from being actively composed, these might almost be compositions created by the computers themselves, as if banks of ancient data had begun burbling into life and sought to arrange their contents according to some kind of artificial intelligence. This arises in part from the austerity of Lioy’s aesthetic, which treats its elements of beats and bass with such aloof, monochrome intensity that it becomes almost fetishistic. Another way of putting it might be to say that Access to Arasaka is cold and unemotional, yet of course the way one responds to such music may well be the complete opposite. Read more

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Björk – Crave (Odd Duck Mix); Hearts & Bones; Undone

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In my most recent mixtape, exploring the noble art of the remix, i included a track by Björk – ‘Crave (Odd Duck Mix)’ – that i mentioned had been made available as a download back in 2001, but which was no longer available. There were in fact four tracks that Björk released as downloads at that time, and since three of them have been unavailable for over a decade, i thought it would be interesting to revisit them.

It’s worth saying at the outset that throughout her career Björk has been more responsible than most musicians for cultivating an extensive catalogue of remixes of her songs. i began collecting her work in 1993, the year she began her solo career (having left the Sugarcubes), and each successive single felt like a substantial release, usually coming in the form of two or sometimes three CDs (later including videotapes or DVDs) containing a mixture of additional songs and remixes of the title track. The number of these remixes was at times considerable – one of her earliest singles, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993), had as many as seven – but beyond this, these singles would also frequently include new renditions of other songs: ‘Violently Happy’ (1994) had acoustic versions of ‘Anchor Song’, ‘Come To Me’ and ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Isobel’ (1995) featured a harpsichord version of ‘Venus as a Boy’, while ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (1995) – one of Björk’s only singles never to have been remixed – included three versions of ‘Hyperballad’, a song that wouldn’t be released as a single until the following year.

Björk’s predilection for remixes has remained consistent, reaching a peak during the late 1990s (the Homogenic period) when ‘Bachelorette’ (1997) and ‘Alarm Call’ (1998) were treated to ten remixes each. More recently, 2011’s Biophilia was supplemented with a series of eight singles collectively titled Biophilia Remixes containing a total of 17 remixes, and while there are far fewer of them, a handful of remixes have been released to accompany her last two singles taken from Utopia (2017), ‘Blissing Me’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’. Furthermore, in addition to singles Björk has also regularly released anthologies of remixes, including The Best Mixes from the Album Debut for All the People Who Don’t Buy White Labels (1994), Telegram (1996), Voltaïc (2009) and Bastards (2012). Remixes are clearly a logical extension of the restless imagination and urge to collaborate that drive Björk’s creativity. Read more

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ionnalee – Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten

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The fact that i’ve only written about Swedish musician Jonna Lee‘s music very occasionally belies the fact that i feel she’s one of the most inventive singer-songwriters at work today. This has been the case from the outset of her revamped career in late 2009, when she was posting anonymous YouTube videos that got everyone wondering who on earth was creating this stuff, through her three albums as iamamiwhoami, all of which have featured towards the top of my Best Album of the Years lists: kin in 2012, bounty in 2013 and Blue in 2014. Since then, she’s undergone something of an enigmatic identity shift, combining her old and new personas into ionnalee, a hint that her work is now a bit more personal.

Her new album, Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten, is released today. i’ve been listening to it a lot throughout this week, and while it’s still early days in terms of really getting to know its fifteen songs, first impressions indicate that, despite her name change, they’re a clear continuation and development of the characteristics that made her music as iamamiwhoami so fresh and exhilarating. Above all, i was struck again by the way that although Lee uses conventional verse-chorus structures in her songs, they never sound remotely formulaic. That’s partly due to the creative ways that structure is used, confused and occasionally abused in her work, but mostly down to her unique mixture of irresistible beat and bass combinations and anthemic choruses, presented with utterly forthright conviction. Read more

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Free internet music: Press Charges

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There’s so much i could write about in this series looking at free internet music, that i think it’ll be something i’ll have to return to regularly from now on. For the time being, though, i’m ending this series with an album that’s one of the most imaginative and effective reworkings of existing material that i’ve ever heard. It’s by Irish musician Dunk Murphy of whom, it must be said, i’ve seriously wondered over the last few years if he can do no wrong. He’s the creative force behind the project Sunken Foal, whose three Friday Syndrome volumes (released in 2012, 2013 and 2015) are all absolutely stunning demonstrations of his unique experimental approach to blending acoustic and electronic sounds into something that, stylistically speaking, is very hard to describe, but if we were to call it electronica then that wouldn’t be entirely untruthful.

In between volumes 2 and 3, in 2014 came Press Charges, which appears to be a one-off project, but on its strengths one hopes it’s something Dunk Murphy will return to in the future. Murphy has taken a dozen songs by Smokey Robinson – either more recent solo tracks or older numbers recorded with The Miracles – and used just the vocal line, around which he has created an entirely new musical context. It’s worth stressing that knowledge of the originals is not in any way vital to enjoying this album in its own right; far from it, as one would expect from Murphy they’re a sublimely enjoyable collection of punchy, soul-infused tracks that strike a perfect balance between the edginess of their beat and bass patterns with the overtly lyrical streaks running throughout each song. However, spending time with the originals goes a long way to highlighting just how ingenious are Murphy’s reworkings, which in every case bears almost no resemblance to the original arrangement, yet manage to stay utterly true to the song’s underlying lyrical tone. Read more

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An inner conflict of cosmic proportions: Man Without Country

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Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist and find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.

If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West and the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf and Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety and in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres and textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more

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A spine-tingling fusion: Alone Architect

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A release i’ve been anticipating for a while came out recently: the self-titled debut EP from Alone Architect. Much of the best electronica-fuelled songwriting in recent times has emanated from Canada, and Alone Architect is no exception, being the project of Montreal musician Jeff Feldman. Feldman posted a couple of teaser tracks online some weeks back, one of which featured the unique vocalisations of Elsieanne Caplette, chanteuse of the outstanding duo Elsiane. The song in question, “The Incision”, proved absolutely captivating, and promised big things for Feldman’s forthcoming EP; it does not disappoint.

The EP comprises six tracks whose brand of electronica is dark bordering on nocturnal. But it’s not yet another generic exercise in pseudo-post-apocalyptic knob-twiddling; on the contrary, rhythmic drive and overt lyricism pervade Feldman’s darkness, adorning it with splashes of colour and lightening its heavy undertones. Opening track ‘Moth to Flame’ exhibits both, although with a sense of distance. Feldman spends some time establishing layers of accompaniment (drawing heavily on the spectre of late ’70s Jean-Michel Jarre), and when his voice finally enters, the lyrics are bent out of shape almost to the point of obscurity. However, this is more than just a song—the absence of a chorus in its structure reinforces the point—and its climactic moments are carried by music alone, the words falling silent. It’s followed by the goth-inflected “Not Alone”, sung by Angela Boismenu whose voice seems to combine the best aspects of Cher and Amy Lee. Laid back in tempo, it nonetheless packs no little punch in the choruses, a punch that Feldman ramps up as the song progresses. Lyrically, despite the convolution of its poetry there’s real passion here, made all the more potent by a switch to triplet rhythms in the middle 8 and the abrupt fragility at the start of the coda. Read more

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Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective

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Of all words associated with the digital era, there’s one that is ubiquitous like no other: ‘remastered’. It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known and loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, and to that end dusted and polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form. Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious and shamefully unmusical use of – among other things – compression in the vain attempt at making the sound ‘stand out’ (the so-called ‘loudness war’). This kind of treatment, under the banner of ‘remastering’, is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the ‘original vision’. Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up and remastering them for posterity. Titled The Catalogue, an eight-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, and the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers. It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month.

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation – and, let’s face it, love – of Kraftwerk’s output goes both very deep and back many years. But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear. Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk’s first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian; there’s a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre. It’s a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf and Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being. As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming. 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 focused 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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Conflicted and inconsistent: the mentality and detriment of Venetian Snares

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Through the last few years, my opinion of Venetian Snares has been in the descendant. But from the outset, let’s be fair; while Aaron Funk has, on occasion, produced music that rarely rises beyond mere drivel—Songs About My Cats, Chocolate Wheelchair Album—he has also achieved some mind-blowingly brilliant creations: Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding and the wonderful Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. Venetian Snares’ output often gives the impression of listening to someone with Tourette Syndrome plugged into a cluster of samplers and effects boxes. At times, a sense of control is lost, resulting in a miasmic, dull mess (Making Orange Things)—but when the control is maintained, it can focus into a beam of shockingly vivid, effluvial rage (Winnipeg Is A Frozen Shithole). Funk, it would seem, is not always sure where the line is drawn between being extreme and being excessive. i think it has a lot to do with the fact that, since 2000, he has released no fewer than seventeen Venetian Snares albums, and around the same number of singles/EPs. Astonishingly prolific but, of course, quality and quantity rarely coincide. In this sense, i’ve come to regard Aaron Funk as something of a latter-day Darius Milhaud: a vast quantity of music, much (perhaps the majority) of which is formulaic and tiresome, but nonetheless containing a few gems that reveal the hand of an absolute master. Into this highly ambivalent context comes Detrimentalist, the first Venetian Snares album of 2008. Read more

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Versions, versions everywhere (plus a red herring): Autechre – Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae

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Early yesterday morning, after a number of the wrong kind of glitches at Bleep.com, the final tracks of Autechre‘s Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae became available. Versions, versions everywhere: and with this—after 44 tracks, totalling almost 5 hours—i think one can assume that the Quaristice project is at an end. i, for one, have found it to be a fascinating and thoughtful journey. As a whole, the project poses the question of whether any of the tracks from the original release should be regarded as ‘definitive’, or instead that all of the versions are different but equally significant expressions of a common (or even an uncommon) idea. My impression is that both contain some truth; there’s clearly some connection intended to be made, as the track titles bear similarities that invite comparison. Like its predecessor, Quaristice (Versions), then, this album may be heard both in its own context, as well as the wider one encompassing all three Quaristice releases. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 1: Biosphere

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Music emanating from the Scandanavian countries is always interesting, and often unusual. Once upon a yesteryear, it was all Abba (70s), A-ha (80s) and Aqua (90s), but they’re probably as glad as we are that that’s ancient history, and the sounds of 21st century Scandinavia are altogether more absorbing. The best of these sounds is as remote as their geography, a remoteness often palpably audible in the music. Perhaps the finest example is Biosphere, a Norwegian who is held by many (including me) to be an important figure in that most mine-ridden of fields, ambient music. While the comparisons to Eno are irritating, they do at least point to the significance that Biosphere’s music possesses. His early work is very interesting, revealing a cold (temperature, not emotion), distant quality, evocative of the north arctic clime where he resides. In fact, his work – which frequently incorporates field recordings (particularly the wind) of the sounds from that area – is often referred to as “polar ambient”. This was the main feature of one of his collaborations with the UK’s Higher Intelligence Agency, entitled Polar Sequences (the other collaboration, Birmingham Frequencies is the opposite, exploring more urban sounds). The turning point, though, is his album from the following year, Substrata – and it was, literally, a turning point, beats rejected completely, allowing the slowly-evolving soundscapes to become the altar rather than the reredos. and this is why the Eno-esque claims are annoying; ambient (from one perspective) may have evolved from Satie’s “Furniture music”, but it is capable of, and indeed has become, very much more than that. Arguably, the mere term “ambient” (as we’ve seen before) is somewhat unhelpful here, “polar” or otherwise. Biosphere’s work needs to be listened to, not merely allowed to float around the room while we “chill out”. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it defies words.

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