September 30th- Bon Iver- 22, A Million

Ever since 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar to an amp and went electric folk musicians have sought various ways to explore and expand their sound and audience through the use of electronics. Bright Eyes did this huge acclaim on his Digital Ash in a Digital Urn LP and more recently Laura Marling has also ditched the acoustic guitar for one with a power supply. The extension of folk going electric has also run to rock, with Radiohead infamously changing their sound with the release of Kid A, and more recently to hip hop, with Kanye West’s Yeezus taking on industrial techno. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million owes a lot to all of these releases in its change of direction and artistic vision but perhaps most greatly it is indebted to the last release, as the vocal and production styles of Justin Vernon’s close friend Yeezy are a very strong influence on 22, A Million.

All of the above highlights clearly that those who purchase a copy of 22, A Million expecting the delicate folk of Bon Iver’s debut LP are going to be disappointed. There are elements of delicate folk and that stunning icy high pitched voice appearing on tracks like 00000 Million but even here a sample of Fionn Regan echoes across parts of the track adding something different to what has gone before. This referencing of contemporary folk artists occurs in other places as on track 4 where Bon Iver samples Paulo Nutini, it almost feels as if when reverting to the folk of old Bon Iver still wishes to cut n paste to express.

22, A Million treads a different path from what has gone before it and is littered with samples, vocoder and synth, which is coupled effectively with the folk that made Bon Iver an international success. At points the fracturing and confrontational style becomes difficult for the listener but in a very good way, a way, which in fact is again very comparable to Kanye West’s Yeezus. The first two tracks of 22, A Million conform almost whole heartedly to this stylistic and confrontational change, so much so, that in fact when some acoustic guitar and non-mechanised vocals appear on track 5 they act as a form of welcome relief.

Bon Iver is with 22, A Million challenging his listener to explore something else. To explore a more fractured sound in a more fractured world, he is confronting what folk can and should be in a post-modern world permeated by technology and the results are staggeringly effective. Track 3 is a perfect example of this: It’s a folk love song fed through a brutal vocal effects machine, to the point whereby it sounds like a robot voice from a Kanye West nightmare, yet with the story telling lyricism and heart ache roots the track contains many folk elements.

Bon Iver has always painted a dark and tortured picture of the world on his LPs often portraying emotional and personal turmoil and 22, A Million does feel similar in this vein. Yet even when plumbing the depths of darkness, as he does here, Justin Vernon finds beauty and despite being as dark as the night 22, A Million is as beautiful as the moment you spot the light of the first visible star.

Like those that went before him Justin Vernon has successfully changed his style and with 22, A Million is a very worthy contender for album of the year.

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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.

Tunes of the Month August 2016

 

  1. Sam Spiegel & Ape Drums- Mutant Brain- Released last year but now part of a stunning spike jonze video for kenzo this is certainly worth checking out:

 

2. Massive Attack- The Spoils- Best thing they’ve done since Teardrop? Easily.

 

3.  Caspa & Rusko- Fruity Loops- Proof the controversial bro-step originators do sometimes make a good tune, Wiley freestyled over the top of this (worth looking up in its own right)

 

4. FrancisandtheLights ft Bon Iver- Friends- Kanye West’s current favourite tune and a bit of a sunsetter, also rinsed by Zane Lowe on Beats Radio

August 26th- Carly Rae Jepsen- Emotion Side B

One of 2015’s acclaimed cult hits was Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, a brilliant 80s inflected Robyn influenced pop record, which lived up to its title and was adored by critics but unfortunately didn’t sell as many copies as it deserved. The reason for this? Who knows, maybe it was the hang-over from Jepsen’s first single Call Me May Be or the lack of much marketing around the release. Whatever the reason it’s lack of crossover success was a shame as the album was pure pop brilliance.

Jepsen has followed Emotion by releasing Emotion Side B essentially the studio off-cuts from last year’s album.  However, if these are off cuts it certainly doesn’t show, everything is polished, perfect and hugely enjoyable. The 80s vibe and Robyn influences remain and those who enjoy that sound will love this album. It might also be a safe bet to say that anyone who enjoys Chrvches might also enjoy what Jepsen has to offer here.

The opening two tracks are straight up synth lead 80s pop, anthemic and love obsessed. They are enjoyable and smart. And that is perhaps one thing, which is on show most here, this is pop, but pop for adults. There is a brain behind each track, which gives the album strength over the work of many of her peers.

Track 3 the One is perhaps the strongest on the album and could easily be a lead single and is indeed good enough to be most pop musician’s main single let alone their album off cut.

Cry also stands out as a lovelorn and brilliant pop take on a struggle with male emotions and expression as Jepsen sings about the difficulty of trying to read men when they struggle to express themselves in the way they may want to but have been socially constrained from doing so. It’s a sophisticated attempt to explore the dynamics between men and women in the modern world over subtle pop synths. And works exceptionally well.

Part of what makes last year’s album and this new EP so brilliant is the production, which is poppy yet mournful, clever and insightful, much of this influence has come from Dev Haynes, of Blood Orange fame, who has an ear for a great pop hook and has spent a lot of time in the studio with the one time Canadian pop idol star.

If you are a fan of alt pop music and enjoy Lapsley, Halsey, Chrvches, Robyn etc then this EP is for you, I doubt in fact there will be many better pop records released this year. Here’s hoping a few more people are listening this time around as Carly Rae Jepsen deserves your attention.

 

August 19th 2016- Frank Ocean- Blond

I think it’s safe to say the world can agree very little good came out of Hurricane Katrina, lives were lost, a city and its culture decimated and we all learned that, as Kanye West put it, George Bush doesn’t care about black people. This tragedy is made all the worse by the fact that, from what has happened in Baton Rogue in 2016, lessons weren’t learned. Despite all the immense sadness of Hurricane Katrina one small ray of light came from that disaster that light is the career of one Frank Ocean.

In 2008 Christopher Francis Ocean was a freshly enrolled student about to start university in New Orleans, after Katrina hit, Christopher’s accommodation, university and home studio were all under water. The tragedy prompted a re-think and a move to L.A to start a music career. A chance meeting with Tyler the Creator helped further fuel Ocean’s fire and from all of this the award winning and globally acclaimed debut album Channel Orange was born.

Then, after all of this…nothing. Fans were kept waiting, fans were often trolled, zero media was given, many false rumours were overheard, deadlines were missed, a visual album arrived, which felt like a marketing stunt. Then, finally on August 20th 2016, after a lot of nothing, the world got a new Frank Ocean album; Blond.

The album opens with new single Nikes. It’s a perfect album opener kicking off with auto-tuned, high pitched almost un-intelligible vocals, until around half way through the song, when Frank’s voice kicks in. And what a voice it remains, soulful, mournful and rich it hits the listener like a tsunami of honey.

The production on Nikes is slightly weird and darker than anything on Channel Orange and goes some way to highlight the overall feel of the album itself. Sure the Beach Boys and Beatles influences are still present in Ocean’s vocal harmonies but beats wise this is a darker beast and certainly a product of its influences and contributors. Who Ocean claims includes: Jamie XX, Arca and SebastiAN.

The album does feel claustrophobic but intentionally so, with the subject of many of the tracks turning inwards onto Ocean himself. There is however still room for plenty of Ocean-isms like Seigfried’s: “I’m living an idea, an idea from another man’s mind” or the same track’s reflection on: “Two kids and a swimming pool”. Ocean’s world remains one of constant self-questioning.

Stand out track and surely second single White Ferrari has all the hallmarks of being a huge hit. Lyrically it has a similar vibe to tracks like American Wedding, forbidden relationships. It’s a subject, which Frank frequently returns to and one which is prominent again on Blond.

If there is a criticism of Blond it is that Ocean’s subject matter is all too often same-y and self-reflective. Given everything that has happened in America in the last 4 years, it would have been nice to see Frank offer his voice on the subject. Instead any social commentary is reserved to a handful of segments mostly on opening track Nikes with its references to Trayvon Martin.

Blond is dotted with interludes, which set out to make a grand point about either drug use or relationships. However the most enjoyable element of these interludes is the looped backing track, which is itself beautiful. It feels a shame that its melody is wasted behind pseudo-social rambling.

Closing track Futura-Free is another stand out at 9 minutes it may feel long but much like Pyramids the track is broken into segments and there is a lot taking place, so the listener is never bored. The production on Futura Free is also open and allows the track to breathe more, giving the album a positive though still self-reflective close. The track ends with distorted elements of what sounds like vox-popped interviews on life’s big questions such as; what was your first memory? This is all looped over a beautiful melody. The answers given are childlike and joyous contributing to the overall positivity of the track. Futura Free might be the most complex track on here but it is also one of the most beautiful. And that description really does sum up Blond (and Mr Ocean himself) beautiful but complex.

-apple music exclusive so follow the link below for the video to nikes, cheers steve jobs.

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/post/idsa.06571398-669c-11e6-9b66-283cdffd1e01

 

 

 

 

August 12th 2016- 65DaysofStatic- No Man’s Sky OST

Warning this recommendation may include clichés and lazy gratuitous uses of the word epic! You have been warned.

Over the last decade 65DaysofStatic have built up a reputation and cult following by playing a more upbeat, more electronically influenced version of the instrumental rock style, which has brought fame to the likes of Mogwai et al. The word epic has probably been used to describe their sound on more than one occasion. However, in the case of this release the soundtrack to the game No Man’s Sky, such a term is entirely appropriate.

No Man’s Sky is, in terms, of scale the largest video game to have ever been made, with over 18 quintillion planets to explore, which are created through a regeneration engine. The scale of the game is vast. 65DaysofStatic have taken this vastness into consideration when creating the soundtrack.

All the usual dynamics of a 65DaysofStatic album are present and correct in this release with the main dynamic being; rock instruments that sound like electronic trickery. However, to reflect the style and vastness of the game, the band have slowed their sound down. Unlike previous efforts tracks are drawn out over 10+ minutes and instead of sounding like music from a future rave each track sounds exactly like the purpose it was intended for, a space themed video game. Of course this isn’t saying 65DaysofStatic have been unimaginative in their creation rather that they have achieved the task set out before them. The fact they have achieved this and that no track feels overly long is an added bonus.

One of the strongest points of 65DaysofStatic’s previous releases has been their ability to bring positivity and energy to instrumental rock, a genre, which often distinctly lacks both of these credentials. Whilst for the No Man’s Sky soundtrack 65DaysofStatic have sacrificed energy they have pleasingly retained a sense of positivity. Nothing on this record wanders off into GodSpeed! You Black Emperor territory. For this the band deserves credit as exploring space to the sound of a track like Mladic would have been (let’s face it) depressing.

In selecting 65DaysofStatic to create this epic soundtrack it would seem the game’s creators knew exactly what sound they wanted: Spacey, epic, and instrumental without any hint of depression, the band have delivered on this. Whilst some of the energy of their previous releases may have been sacrificed, the results remain engaging and at times beautiful, this is especially apparent from the opening chords of many of the tracks, which are drawn out and emotive.

The track Supermoon is a good example of nearly all the positives of this record, with its drawn out chords to open, beautiful piano and up lifting beat, it is perhaps the strongest individual track on here. Though a good soundtrack is never about one element but rather a composite whole and this is the best and most enjoyable way to engage with 65daysofStatic’s No Man’s Sky effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even if you have no intention of playing No Man’s Sky this release is still a worthy listen. Kick back and enjoy one of the UK’s most under-rated cult bands doing what they do best, it’s erm…epic!

August 5th 2016- Compton White- Compton White EP

August 5th 2016 will probably best be remembered for what did not come out and not in fact what was released. Like every other reviewer I was intending to recommend this week that you listen to and unnamed and unmentioned artist whose album failed to materialise. So whilst my album for the week has been thoroughly trolled, I have instead opted to recommend a little gem that came out a few weeks ago.

Compton White  makes what could be described as dubstep and post dubstep but those titles don’t really do this release justice as it doesn’t fit neatly into either one of them.

The album opens with a production titled Track 2, perhaps a little mocking of the listener before things get underway. However, with such a beautiful, complex arrangement that contains stuttering bass and broken rhythms any irie the listener felt towards the title of the opening track is easily dismissed.

Track 2 Hounslow stutters to life before exploding with the sort of bass that post dubstep producers forgot how to make. However, rather than veer towards the Skrillex button Compton White’s productions remain of the more studied and refrained bass banger and in that sense whilst Hounslow is bass-y as hell it is much closer to something Mala and Coki would drop than Flux Pavillion. This I am sure you’ll agree is a plus point to any dubstep track.

Doubled Diamond offers a more up-beat Burial take on Dubstep with crackling sound effects and a sunset synth vibe. In fact one of the real points of interest about Compton White’s first EP is that of use of Burial style subtle and fragmentation to his otherwise up beat bass driven tracks, it’s a technique which creates a nice juxtaposed sound throughout the EP. It is also one which is applied technically proficiently avoiding any ham fisted copy-cat sound-a-like accusations.

The EP is also littered with vocal samples and snapshots, which sound as if they are taken from a movie, often employed at the end or towards the end of each track each sample is well used and provides a neat method by which to break the EP’s tracks up.

The Compton White EP is a short release its six tracks flying by in a matter of minutes. However, what is on show suggests depth and complexity and shows buckets of promise. It is also to the producer’s credit that he has managed to squeeze so much into such a short EP. This may be Compton White’s first release but on the basis of the material on show here, he has an exciting time ahead of him.