September 23rd- Akala- 10 Years of Akala

Kingslee James Daley better known as Akala has been a figurehead for the UK grime since its early days, he is as far as UK Hip Hop is concerned royalty mentioned in the same breath as Wiley and Roots Manuva. This compilation, the first I have recommended this year, is a collection of not only his biggest hits but also his beat freestyles and album tracks. It is an essential collection and if there were any justice in the world a copy would be given to every household in the UK.  The above statement might sound audacious but such is the importance of Akala’s lyricism and social insight it is one that is justified.

For the last decade or so and especially since the UK riots of 2011 Politicians, social theorists and journalists have attempted to understand millennials (those currently under 35 years old) and their outlook upon the world, most of the results have, like David Cameron’s Hug a Hoodie, been exceptionally patronising. If those behind such theorising had listened to tracks like Carried Away, which discusses war in the middle-east and war on the streets along, they may have developed a more well-rounded view.

The beauty of Akala is that unlike many other UK rappers he is able to discuss social issues and bigger problems often through a uniquely poetic approach as is exhibited on the tracks Comedy, Tragedy, History and Shakespeare. A passion for Shakespeare’s sonnets no doubt helps his flow and Akala has been able to use his knowledge of literary devices such as iambic pentameter to his full advantage. Having all of these skills at his disposal results in Akala having, alongside Kano, one of the strongest and clearest flows in the UK Scene.

Whilst Akala avoids the road rap style of Giggs and often completely swerves gangster based imagery it is worth noting that such avoidance doesn’t mean that he can’t go toe to toe with almost anyone out there when it comes to battle rap. This is evidenced on this best of collection by the brilliant inclusion of two of Akala’s Fire in the Booth sessions (for those who are unaware Fire in the Booth is a live Freestyle session performed by MCs for Radio 1) in which Akala shows an ability to diss smartly, vent social issues and displays a greater lyrical dexterity than almost anyone out there.

Too often Best of Albums are clogged with a list of singles and rubbish new tracks but Akala’s feels totally essential. Much like Akala’s career so far there is little filler and nearly everything is essential. I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to listen to the lyrics of Welcome to Dystopia and maintain that view.

One of the greatest embarrassments in the UK’s music scene is that Akala has not sold more records and is not appreciated nationwide in the same way the USA appreciates Nas. Hopefully this fully deserved and hard worked for best of will go some way to righting this wrong; because at these times of migrant crises, the rise of the extreme right across Europe, increased social alienation between the young and elderly, brexit and more beside we need a voice like Akala’s.

 

 

 

September 16th- Jam City- Trouble

2016 has been full of surprise and innovative releases and Jam City is not one to miss out on this. After achieving critical acclaim for his last release Dream A Garden the opportunity existed for Jam City to milk this cash cow that we call the music industry for all he could squeeze out of its dried out teet. But rather than aiming for personal riches Jam City has made the bold decision to surprise release his new album with no fanfare, no promotion and entirely for free. Some call this doing a Radiohead, I won’t as Radiohead were in a wealthy and comfortable position to give their music away, Jam City’s attempts to do this are much more selfless than that.

First track Send opens Trouble with dark hushed tones and bizarrely sounds like a soundtrack to a 1940s film before the bass and synth kick in and things become more uplifting. The track itself is brief as are many on here but extremely enjoyable.

One thing that is apparent throughout Trouble is that in his use of synth Jam City continues to be hugely influenced by films from the 1980s. Whilst the employment of bass takes things in a different direction from Jam City’s sources of influence some of the sounds feel as if they could have been beamed straight in from the soundtracks to Purple Rain or the Terminator movie, this is particularly the case with track 2 Cowboy and Inha.

In spite of the fierceness of tracks like Cowboy Trouble also contains many meditative moments like Wet GT, where Jam City drops the bass out completely and lets the synth do all the talking. These moments stray from the darkness of Trouble’s productions and end up resembling something closer to uplifting.

Night Slugs have gained a reputation as being the most forward looking grime label in the country and no one on their roster looks more to the future than Jam City. Nothing out there sounds exactly like a Jam City production and Trouble continues along this path untrodden.  This is very apparent on tracks like Sky, which whilst retaining a grime influence could also fit well within the realms of progressive and ambient techno or even Trance. This is no surprise given that one of Jam City’s biggest fan is Trance revivalist Evian Christ.

Despite the ambient, synth-y and techno inspired moments fans of Jam City will be delighted to hear that much of what is on offer on Trouble retains the dark bass driven vibe of previous acclaimed efforts.

One point of note is that for fans of past efforts it is worth noting Trouble is an instrumental album gone are the flourishes of vocals that littered some of the tracks of Dream A Garden. There is nothing here like Unhappy, this release firmly positions Jam City’s instrumental productions up front.

Trouble is an enjoyable listen partly because Jam City puts his productions first. It is also an album that firmly cements the producer’s status as being one of the most forward thinking bass-heads on the UK Scene. The fact it’s being given away for free is the icing on the cake.

With music this good we can only hope that Jam City’s selflessness draws in the wider audience he deserves.

 

free download here: form.jotformeu.com/62573690129360

September 9th 2016- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Skeleton Tree

Death and grief and loss are some of the most guttural and difficult themes a songwriter can cover. These feelings are perhaps even harder to convey when they relate to the loss of your own son. But on Skeleton Tree it’s exactly this tragic situation, which Nick Cave faces head on. On the 14th of July 2015 Nick’s son Arthur fell to his death at the Ovingdean gap in Brighton, Skeleton Tree is very much the emotional document of a man coming to terms with the aftermath of this event. The portrayal of such emotions has relatively little comparison in the world of music aside from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven (also about his son falling to his death) but whereas Clapton finds redemption in the concept of life after death Cave finds none. Skeleton Tree is a brutal, difficult and brilliant listen.

Cave has always possessed an ability to deal with the dark and gothic but the added self-reflection on Skeleton Tree makes the album feel darker than anything that he has composed before. Cave’s words are as poetic as ever and the imagery he casts out on to the listener is, at times, given the death of his son is haunting. From lines describing falling to earth to hearing voices in supermarket queues, this is a portrait of grief and the beguiling way in which Cave describes it leaves the listener emotionally wrought for some time after the music has stopped. This is not however to say Skeleton Tree is unlistenable rather that it is emotionally draining and challenging, but then all too often brilliant music is.

The instrumentation on Skeleton Tree is sparse veering towards the electronic and littered with strings, synth and distorted bass and sound effects. It will be for some Cave fans a difficult listen in which a cult hero has taken a very experimental path. However, the arrangements on Skeleton Tree perfectly suit the subject matter of the album and force the listener into the protagonist’s claustrophobic and distressed world. There are influences of Bon Iver and James Blake throughout but Cave has really made any influences he has taken entirely his own.

Very few artists are ever faced with having to plumb the depths of human emotion in a way in which Cave has here. This decade perhaps only Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy written after his mother’s death and that of his hero Michael Jackson has come close. Though in its despair Skeleton Tree shares much more thematically with Johnny Cash’s incredible American Recordings series, in which the country singer faced up to his own mortality and the loss of June Carter (his wife). For this album to be mentioned in the same vein as Cash’s album series and West’s album (which many critics see as being the best of the decade so far) really is testament to just how incredible Skeleton Tree is.

Skeleton Tree is an exceptionally difficult and challenging listen but is a very real document of grief and emotional distress if you can bear to stick with the dark subject matter here (and you should) you will discover that Nick Cave may well have recorded not just the best album of 2016 but one of the best, most brutal and brilliant albums of the last ten years. Very special indeed.

 

September 2nd- Zomby- Ultra

For those who don’t know Zomby is one of what seems like many faceless electronic music producers who, like Burial (who appears here), have chosen to hide and obscure their true identity in favour of putting the music first. For Zomby this worked wonders with his stunning debut album Where Were You in 92? However, twitter tantrums, live meltdowns and punch ups with Hudson Mohawke alongside some mediocre releases has seen his anonymity used as a critique of his behaviour. Ultra you’ll be pleased to hear goes some way to right these wrongs, especially when compared to last year’s patchy XL released Let’s Jam.

Opening with trap influenced Reflection things get off to a lively start, reflection is also dotted with vocal snippets, which sound as if they have been lifted from a rave record circa 1995. It’s an enjoyable start to the record. Second track Burst sees the producer turning to the squelchy synth laden sound he has been become known for, it’s enjoyable but the track lives up to its name in that it is merely a 2 minute burst of sound. Not allowing tracks time and space to breathe has been a criticism of Zomby in the past, especially LP With Love, and Burst suffers from that same criticism.

Fly2 sees the use of a UK Garage inflected vocal repeated over stereotypical Zomby beats, it’s brilliant and is given time to breathe and flourish, and around the 2.50 minute mark changes pace, compellingly and completely throwing the listener.

The change in pace found on Fly2 is systematic of an overall change found on Ultra that being Zomby embracing the darkness of his productions by slowing things down, fragmenting his bass sounds more and even introducing some Burial inspired crackle. It lends Ultra some vital depth, which has been lacking from some Zomby released in the past. E.S.P stands as an example to this alongside the Burial featuring Sweetz.

Stylistically there are also plenty of Zomby’s influences on show, the man has always worn his inspirations on his sleeve and this is still true on Ultra. Rave horns are in place, jungle inspired bass and sound effects ring out over tracks like I and vocal samples and snippets litter the album. Zomby has always done this, but here on Ultra the nostalgia for rave past is as strong as it was on Where Were You in 92? It’s a device the producer uses well and the album feels all the better for it.

The track, which got everyone excited for this release was the Burial featuring Sweetz, with its Footwork inspired vocal sample and heavy, slow baseline, the track is a product of darkness and resides in the shadows perfectly. Given that it was made by both Zomby and Burial this should not surprise anyone. The track is fragmented and split into various bass driven sections and it continually leaves the listener guessing. Sweetz is also complex enough that it makes you yearn for the two producers to have a whole album over which they could explore and expand their join sound.

Ultra is not a perfect release there are some faults but it is a release, which is an exceptionally enjoyable listen and which never leaves the listener feeling bored. The strength of material on show here should also go some way to quietening those detractors, which Zomby’s persona has encouraged.