4th November- Yussef Kamaal- Black Focus

London’s underground music scene, its pirate radio, small clubs and bars have recently been witness to a bubbling undercurrent of exciting and experimental Jazz. This is driven in part by the duo Yussef Kamaal; who are themselves inspired by Miles Davis, Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder crew alongside drum and bass, especially the jazzy variety played by the likes of 4Hero and Spring Heel Jack. There’s a vocal sample part way through closing track Joint 17 which sums this musically milieu up perfectly: “You create your own reference point and that’s what Jazz has always been about” and that is exactly what Yussef Kamaal are about here on Black Focus.

Whilst the album does contain a smattering of electronics the largest percentage of what is on offer here is live instrumentation by two exceptionally talented musicians. Part of what makes Black Focus so engaging and exciting is the very fact you are keenly aware that two guys are making this with a reduced level of computer reliance compared to others who make a similar sound. Their ability is outstanding. Nowhere on Black Focus is this clearer than in the album’s drum work, which is both subtle and yet front and centre. To listen to the drum work of Yussef Kamaal is to hear a thing of great beauty.

Black Focus feels and sounds like the product of all of its many influences especially on tracks like Strings of Light. However, when your influences are so diverse and critically acclaimed this is certainly no bad thing. It would be incredibly exciting if this album were to herald more experimental and jazz inflected values returning to UK Drum and Bass instead of the jump-up style, which has dominated for the last decade.

There are parts of Black Focus where the album takes a more chilled dub and jazz vibe, like in the opening to the track Remembrance. Upon hearing this anyone who remembers 90s genre Acid Jazz may be filled with terror. However, these and fears are misplaced as Yussef Kamaal are aware of musicians’ mistakes past and balance the album’s more chilled moments with snapshots of breakbeat drums and technical wizardry.

Black Focus is an experimental album which will appeal to both Jazz and Drum and Bass fans alike. Whilst also being the perfect album to play on a lazy Sunday morning after the Saturday night before. The talent that sits behind it, is a reminder of just how brilliant live instrumentation can be. Let’s hope Yussef Kamaal inspire a few young minds to pick up a drumstick or a trumpet rather than a Mac and a copy of Garageband.

 

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October 28th- Max Richter-Black Mirror (Nosedive)

 

Contemporary classical music has been going through a bit of a spike in popularity recently part of this is due to the fantastic output of the Erased Tapes label alongside others such as Francesco Tristiano and Petre Inspirescu to mention just a few names who are pushing classical music forward and helping to develop a new audience for the genre outside of Radio 3. Central to and an inspiration for much of this has been the work of British composer Max Richter, who gained critical and commercial acclaim with his genre-splicing contemporary classical album The Blue Notebooks.

Richter’s use of piano, strings and synths often creates soundscapes, which are both haunting and beautiful. In other words he is the perfect person to compose a soundtrack to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, which has returned to critical acclaim on Netflix.

Throughout Richter’s soundtrack there is a juxtaposition of heart aching beauty and dark undertones. A great example of this is Dopamine 2, whereby strings and shimmery synth create an atmosphere of serenity before the use of string plucking and bass are introduced creating a much darker and jarring effect. The play-off between the two worlds Richter is creating is simply stunning.

Despite Richter’s ability with multiple instruments Piano takes central stage here apart from on a few electronic leading tracks like Nocturne. Many of the piano pieces on the soundtrack adopt a similar melody or key as to the lead track On Reflection, in doing so Richter drags the listener back to central haunting environment.

The overall effect Richter creates on this soundtrack is for the listener to feel trapped, through the use of similarity, repetition and juxtaposition the listener is transported into a similar state to that of the main protagonist in the Black Mirror episode. As far as conveying the central feeling of the character Richter is brilliantly successful. And whilst sometimes unsettling the overall sound is one of beauty.

However, step away from the Black Mirror episode and Richter’s soundtrack works very well as a stand-alone piece of music. Perfect listening for early morning train rides or late nights in bed when you are unable to sleep.  The fact this release is available for £1.96 on Itunes makes it an absolute steal and well worth your investment.

 

http://www.factmag.com/2016/10/27/max-richter-soundtrack-black-mirror-nosedive/

October 21st- Nicolas Jaar- Sirens

 

Subtlety, Space and Silence are not qualities, which many would associate with modern electronic music especially in this post-EDM, brostep-inspired environment, in which we now live. However these three qualities are ones, which Nicolas Jaar fully inhabits. As a producer Jaar first attracted attention with his staggeringly excellent album Space is Only Noise, which has been lauded by many as being among the greatest electronic albums ever released. After some free downloads and an award winning essential mix Jaar now returns with Sirens, which quietly builds upon those omnipresent qualities within his work of: subtlety, space and silence.

Sirens kicks off with around 20 seconds of silence almost making the listener question whether the record has actually started. Fooling the listener from the off and putting them on edge with silence is an old trick but an effective one, it leaves the listener feeling unsure and uncertain and primed for the unexpected (of which Sirens contains muchs of). The silence is gently broken by the use of an effect which sounds like it was borrowed from an LTJ Bukem Record circa 1997. The track Killing Time is, much like everything on Sirens, a slow burner, which has been broken in to many seperate acts and then re-assembled into one track, it’s a skill, which fans of Burial will be familiar with and it is well employed here by Jaar.

Much of what makes Sirens such an engaging and interesting listen happens in the background. It is almost as if the listener is being told to pay attention to what happens in the shadows or the most interesting moments  could pass you by. You figure Jaar is a people watcher.

The complexity of Sirens is staggering there are multiple layers to every track: uses of samples, gospels choirs, jazz instrumentation, classical instrumentation, techno and much, much more besides. It will take the average listener a lifetime to decipher every element of Sirens. However, unlike lesser artists, it is this complexity, which makes Sirens entertaining rather than unlistenable.

There is a certain bleakness to Sirens, which fans of Jaar’s work will be familiar with but this bleakness is often balanced with such beautiful instrumentation that often it attains a strange alluring quality, which adds to the mystery of the album and certainly keeps the listener from tumbling into a self-pity party.

The reviews, which have so far appeared for Sirens have been over whelmingly positive with the album being called high art and its creator a genius. Whether these compliments are true or not I shall leave down to you. However, I will say that Jaar is a musicians musician who has, in Sirens, created a complex beast, which lives within subtlety.

October 14th 2016- Kuedo- Slow Knife

It’s been a stand-out year for Planet MU with exceptional records from Konx-Om-Pax and Ital Tek and now to join that run is the new album from Kuedo. Kuedo is the new project of Jamie formerly of Bristolian dubstep duo Vex’d. For fans of Vex’d Jamie’s work as Kuedo will sound hugely different but none the less brilliant.

For the release of Slow Knife Jamie has claimed that he was influenced by film scores particularly those which are inflected with dark synths, think Vangelis and John Carpenter’s works and the soundtracks to the Alien films. This influence shows throughout. Slow Knife is the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.

Many of the tracks on Slow Knife feel as if they were born of and exist within darkness, however, beauty and light can also be found on tracks such as Love Theme. Jamie has put his synth to fantastic mood giving work and the listener is frequently transported from the sounds of a dark cave to those of light ascending to heaven and back again.

There are elements of Mumdance’s weightless genre especially in the deployment of subtle bass tones throughout the album. Additionally the synth heavy elements of this album will ensure that fans of Aphex Twin’s early and more ambient works will find much to love here.

Slow Knife is a beautiful album which easily does its creator and various reference points proud. Kuedo’s has with this album proved that it is most definitely the Slow Knife that cuts the deepest.

October 7th- Kate Tempest- Let Them Eat Chaos

Like only a handful of others before her; Bob Dylan, The Streets and Saul Williams, Kate Tempest blurs the line between poet and musician, this was put to brilliant effect on her acclaimed debut album Everybody Down and is once again in evidence here on Let Them Eat Chaos.

Part of what makes Tempest’s work so enjoyable is her ability to tell a story and maintain a cohesive narrative, all too regularly failing at one of these is the downfall of a concept album. But with concept album number 2 under her belt it is clear for Kate this isn’t a problem. Let Them Eat Chaos opens with two tracks which paint the scene and setting for the story we are to bear witness to, the setting being London in the here and now and more specifically a street familiar to the everyman. Let Them Eat Chaos is the story of the common man and woman in a socially and personally chaotic time. More than this it is the story of how our individual dramas often prevent us from seeing the impending greater storm that is just around the corner, in the case of Let Them Eat Chaos the storm is one of social disorder, xenophobia, the banking crisis and political corruption.

Each track on Let Them Eat Chaos tells the individual story of a character suffering with personal strife whether that be dissatisfaction, grief, love, loss, work, drink and drugs etc each character is awake at 4.18am traumatised in some respect by the thoughts of their own lives. Tempest tells each tale compassionately and passionately leaving the listener with the thought that there’s a little bit of me in each one of these people. Relatability really is one of the triumphs of Let Them Eat Chaos, the events and stories told will resonate with almost any millennial out there. Tempest has adopted an omnipresent approach to her generation looking at its problems from above and then sketching them out with stunning lyrical dexterity for all to observe.  Of course this is partially the point of Let The Eat Chaos to show that we are not alone in our problems and that even within difficulties there exists commonality.

The final track of Let Them Eat Chaos sees a literal and figurative storm break and each of our 7 characters leaving their various houses to observe the spectacle. Tempest is of course stating very clearly for the listener that sometimes despite our problems there is a greater storm which unites us. The imagery used is beautiful and her point is adeptly made. Adding further strength is the fact that Tempest doesn’t offer the listener any solutions to the various problems on show, this is not preaching to the choir but a state of the nation address. Let Them Eat Chaos says here we are, this is my strife and this is our society. The effect is refreshing in a time where every other musician is saying who you should vote for, who you should save, what celebrity is it and who is not, instead telling you how to think Tempest has painted an overview and left the choice up to you (though an awareness exists of what Kate thinks too).

Let Them Eat Chaos is a brilliant and complex piece of story-telling which only further cements Kate Tempest’s position as a reluctant voice of her confused, lost, embittered and embattled millennial generation.

 

May 20th-Melanie De Biasio- Blackened Cities

Over the last 5 years there has been a staggering resurgence in the interest in Jazz amongst contemporary musicians. This is best and most infamously exemplified by the work of the Brainfeeder label and Flying Lotus. But others have gotten in on this act too including: Four Tet and Neneh Cherry and of course Kendrick Lamar. Jazz musicians for their part have always embraced experimentalism and have been open to many of these collaborations, it was through just such a collaboration that I discovered the Belgian Jazz vocalist Melanie De Biasio. Last year Giles Peterson oversaw a beautiful remix project of the jazz vocalist’s work. And from first listening to Blackened Cities it is very clear the success of this project and jazz’s new found prominence has rubbed off on Melanie.

However, Blackened Cities is not De Biasio doing techno, far from it but what influence is apparent is found within the space which is granted to instrumentation. On previous efforts De Biasio’s voice is centre stage however on Blackened Cities it is almost pushed to the side. Instead of being in the forefront it is her voice intertwines more closely with the sounds happening around her. It’s a change in approach, which really alters this track and makes it sound out from previous work.

Traditional Jazz piano and instrumentation remains but contemporary electronics and effects are introduced to the extent that the start of this track sounds like something produced by Godspeed! You Black Emperor, which is certainly no bad thing.

The overall sound here is one of darkness and sparseness but beautifully so. The track feels like one which is built for daydreaming whilst starring out over a grey rolling sea on an early winter’s day. This sparseness is also perfectly balanced by the drums, which provide a late 90s trip hop feeling to Blackened Cities.

The jazz vocal stylings of De Biasio’s previous albums generated sufficient success and critical acclaim for her, not only generating five star ratings but breaking the top ten album chart in her home country. So there is a real sense of risk and experimentation to what is being done with Blackened Cities, a one track album at 24mins in length, however, what is being done here is done so beautifully and so successfully that De Biasio will generate even further (deserved) acclaim.

Some of De Biasio’s fans may be put off by this track however they are likely to be replaced be legions of news fans of enjoy her growing experimentation on show in Blackened Cities. Fans of Radiohead, 90s trip hop and the previously mentioned Godspeed! You Black Emperor really will find something to fall in love with here. This one’s for the daydreamers.

 

January 29th- Rihanna- Anti

 

Anti, it’s a brave statement of intent to set ones’ self-up as Anti for if you don’t immediately seem anti enough or your sense of anti is unclear you come in for immediate criticism. Rihanna on her latest release has aimed for the Anti pop record and perhaps taken a sly dig at the lack of artist freedom in the record industry. But one of the strongest criticisms of this new release is actually all of this Anti statement is rather bogged down behind the patchy music. Somewhat this is true.

Anti, starts well enough and the opening tracks especially Consideration and latest single Work provide a more experimental edge to Rihanna’s pop cannon. This experimental edge can be seen in part to be inspired by Beyonce’s latest self-titled release. One of the producers of that album NoID pops up with brilliance all over some of the tracks here. The sound of the album is influenced in part by NoID, Arca and the slew of hip hop and RnB albums which have incorporated their sound. However, the strong opening to the album is spoiled by the track James Joint which feels like music for an elevator, there is sadly an idea there but the production and development is stunted and the track is left bogged down.

The track that has attracted all the attention for this release is Same Ol Mistake, which is a cover for a very recent Tame Impala track. Much of the attention has been driven towards the merit of covering such a recently released track. However, this focus is misplaced as the cover is actually a rather lovely one which like many tracks towards the end of Anti aims to allow Rihanna’s voice to come to the forefront.

The juxtaposed nature of the start and end of this album highlight its curiosity. The starts feels like a producers’ experimental playground whereas the latter half of the album comes over as a vocal workout for the artist. The lack of balance between the two is perhaps one of the elements missing on this album and one which leads to the jarring feel of Anti.

Despite the criticism this release has come in for it is an endearing album of an artist trying something different. Ideas may not be fully formed and some concepts seem misplaced but repeated listening turns out to be rewarding as little elements of each track bubble to the surface. There is a sense that perhaps the album would have been improved with the inclusion of Bitch Better Have…and this rings true especially towards the end of the album, the track would’ve broken things up and provided some more grit.

Rihanna is to be praised for this release, especially so considering gone are many of the collaborations and featured artists that have previously adorned her albums. All but two tracks are solely Rihanna. That said Anti’s real featured artists are the producers behind the record and of those there are almost too many to name.

Until Kanye West releases Waves later in the month Anti and the debates surrounding it will be the pop presses main focus of attention, such is the mark of Rihanna and her global reach these days. And despite all of this focus Anti will sell bucket loads, over 1 million copies in its first week in the USA, however the way to really appreciate this record and get under it and Rihanna’s skin is through repeated and rewarded listening.

Not quite Anti but certainly a departure.

(Rihanna’s exclusive deal with Tidal unfortunately means no track link this week)

January 22nd-Rabit + Dedekind Cut-r&d

Call it what you want; grime 2.0, weightless or just plain old grime last year was a crowning moment for the producers behind grime music. Instrumentals became almost more vital than the MCs spitting on them. Mumdance produced a staggering fabric mix and albums by Visionist, Mumdance and Logos, Arca and Oneohtrixpointnever appeared in countless best of the year lists. Two producers who have also found themselves tied to this rise are Rabit and Lee Bannon (under the name Dedekind Cut for this release). Rabit released the brilliant Communion last year whilst Lee Bannon produced Pattern of Excel and in 2014 the old school jungle referencing, and well worth listening to, Alternate/Endings.

On R&D these influences and the two producers combine incredibly, with the end product being one of the most exciting releases since Burial’s Rival Dealer. The comparison is apt, for much like that release Rabit and Lee Bannon have avoided traitional song structure in favour of producing something beautiful out of ugly, contrasting and aggressive fragments. Sure the reference points of jungle, grime and weightless hang all over these short few tracks, but what is interesting and exciting to see is the way in which the producers have broken apart their influences and then stuck them back together again almost violently with (one might assume) some cheap pritt stick (which they were later caught sniffing in the back of the studio).

Each listen reveals something new: a voice in the background, noise mutating into music, street level aggression, ghostly breathy bass, all are subtly hidden and woven amongst the layers of this album. Mary Anne Hobbs on previewing the release was so blown away she played the whole thing in one unedited cut, that unedited cut is included on the release and well worth listening to as a seperate track to the four parts which comprises the full release.

There always exists, when throwing away formal song structure, the danger that the end product is unlistenable. Far from falling into this trap Lee Bannon and Rabit have created  something, which becomes more listenable and rewarding everytime you press play on your IPod.

R+D, which is only avaliable via Bandcamp,  is certainly aggressive, definitely loud and incredibly challenging but the rewards which can be had from listening to it are vast. Rabit and Lee Bannon have truly excelled in producing what will be one of the most experimental yet exciting releases of this year and is highly recommended for all fans of grime and jungle.

https://leebannon.bandcamp.com/album/r-d

 

January 15th 2016- Rubble Kings (original music inspired by the documentary)

Normally, upon seeing the “words music inspired by…” you would be correct in setting down your Ipod and deactivating your Spotify. And hell I wouldn’t blame you, those few words are normally the pre-cursor to all kinds of awfulness. Film soundtracks are often mind blowing, music inspired by films are very often terrible, as goes Lester Bang’s first law of motion picture soundtracks (or so it should). However, Rubble Kings is the exception to the rule.

Rubble Kings the album is inspired by the documentary of the same name, which traces gang culture and its influence upon the roots of hip hop in 1970s New York and is in itself a worthwhile watch.  Thanks to an exceptional cast: Little Shalimar, Bun B, Killer Mike, Run the Jewels and Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio fame) Rubble Kings does what a good music inspired by album should, it both compliments the film and stands as a great listen by itself.

Shalimar’s mostly instrumental tracks are the hidden gems of the album, sounding like a clash between music from an old 70s cop show and a James Brown backing band. There is a real sense of funk and even, whisper it, psychedelia running through them. They are both unexpected and a joy to induge in.

Elesewhere on the album Run the Jewels bring their usual witty machine gun fire flows which go further towards highlighting that they are the most vital hip hop group in the world at this moment, perhaps of any group since Public Enemy. Killer Mike provides a stand out turn alongside Bun B, a pairing which really should have any hip hop head excited. It should also come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his recent albums that Ghostface Killah’s verse on the track Same Damn Thing sounds typically thrilling and dangerous and supports the argument that his flow is truly up there with the best of all time.

As the album closes the focus shifts towards the gentrification of the Bronx and the changing nature of New York in the 1980s and 1990s with perhaps two of the funkiest tracks on the whole damn album in Shalimar’s The Piano District and Adebimpe’s closing track Phoenix. Both are again great listens that contain a maligned sense of beauty for the New York of the 1970s and for what grew out of the Rubble.

Rubble Kings is an intelligent hip hop album which is further added to by doses of Shalimar’s instrumental funk. Proving that even when an album is inspired by it can still sound inspirational.

 

Album of the Week January 8th 2016

Hinds- Leave Me Alone

The hype machine has been workong overtime with Hinds for awhile now, world tours, Glastonbury and sold out dates in London have all preceeded this release. The British music press and live audiences have fallen hard for the girls from Madrid but the question remains is the album up to much?

In a week where David Bowie released his latest effort Blackstar seeing him described as rebirthed and as unpredictable as ever. It’s Hinds who sound more alive, perhaps with the naivety of youth but certainly with the excitement of being in a band. And it’s this, a girl gang mentality which so refreshingly shines through on Leave Me Alone. Hinds are a band in it together and when they open their debut album with a track as strong as Garden you can’t help but want to be in “it” with them too.

The refernce points are thrilling; 60s girl pop of the Shangri LAs variety, coupled with California Surf Pop and indie rock circa 2001. It’s a mix which works well with tracks flying past at bottle-rocket pace, yet remaining catchy enough to worm their way into your brain and nestle there for the rest of the day. The best example of such a track is the brilliant Bamboo, a track which Hinds themselves have been rightfully boastful of  and despite the tags of rock and roll past clinging to Leave Me Alone, there is also something fresh about Hinds music much of which,  one suspects, comes from their pure energy and excitement.

One criticism that has been unfairly levelled at Hinds is that their vocals are not particularly strong or well recorded. But this critique misses the point. The ramshackle nature of the vocals on Leave Me Alone add to the sugar-rush thrill of the album, nowhere is this more audible than on the track San Diego.

Hinds have admited to struggling and being fed up with being asked what’s it like to be a rock and roll girl band. It certainly  will be a shame if the music press and public continue to focus on this subject. Because in doing so what will be overlooked is a joyous debut album, which deserves to be taken on its own merit.