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.

April 1st 2016- Babyfather- DJ Escrow Presents BBF

Dean Blunt is a difficult bastard. Contrary to the point of impossible. Thriving off of conflict. His albums are built around fractured sound intent on putting off his listener. And Blunt employs all of these techniques fully and wonderfully on this Babyfather album.

Babyfather’s album DJ Escrow presents BBF sounds like many things all at once: a grime mixtape, the soundtrack to a Kidulthood style movie and the most fucked up pirate radio station to ever air. There are a multiplicity of sounds taking place throughout each track, which means that repeated listening is required to make the experience rewarding. It is of course worth noting that as this is Dean Blunt repeated listening is difficult as Blunt has set out to challenge and aggressively confront the listener.

Much of the album’s subject matter deals with the state of being young and Black in Britain today. However, Blunt doesn’t just reach the usual conclusion of it’s tough and everyone is against you. But instead aggressively attacks black youth for lacking cohesion and losing their way and for turning repeatedly to almost tragically comic violence. This criticism is also volleyed at the door of the Grime music industry with pot shots taken at its lifestyle and MCs including Wiley. Much of this is revealed through the skits between each track which are garbled out in distorted machine-like voices that sound as if they have come from a Garage MCs nightmares.

DJ Escrow presents BBF also includes a sizeable amount of mocking gunshots and sirens ring out regularly you sense Blunt has included them as a send up more than anything else. There is both real anger and mocking in the presentation of this record.

There are, however, real moments of beauty such as Meditation and Motivation though Blunt rarely lets these tracks develop and build beyond a couple of minutes length before plunging the listener back into an urban hell. Several tracks consist of white noise, feedback, bass and MC shout outs yelled over the top, you’d think based on these tracks that Blunt has got himself a weekend job with the C.I.A.

The aggression and sense of challenge presented by Blunt on this record is however all part of the brilliance of the experience and after several listens you come away with these sense that Babyfather have produced a record which approaches and sums up very differently Britain’s current urban landscape. Coming out as it does a few weeks after Kano’s brilliant Made in the Manor. You are left feeling that British MCs and Urban producers are finally finding a voice and moving away from simple Road jams.

If you like a challenge and enjoy the music of Arca, Kanye West’s most recent albums or anything Dean Blunt has previously put out then this is for you. But if you don’t want to approach music with an open mind and some patient repeat listening then I would advise you avoid the thrilling challenge of DJ Escrow presents BBF.

February 12th- Kanye West- The Life of Pablo

To say Kanye West is a divisive figure is an understatement, he is a man who brings forth equal measures of both passion and hatred amongst millions. But also one who sells millions of records and has created some of the most unique and incredible hip hop records of the past 15 years. In my view Kanye West is a man who has knowingly turned his life into art, created a character and to some extent become that character. His life is a vortex of meta-narrative swirling ever faster and tighter with the distinctions between reality and story line growing ever more lost like Dorothy being whisked from Kansas to Oz.

As far as album launches go Kanye certainly played the showman: a fashion show, an album launch, twitter melt-downs, two days of delays and eventual exclusive release on Tidal. Mr West has been the ultimate hype man, but beneath and away from this how does the record hold up.

The Life of Pablo starts off slow and dark and introspective, words you often associate with Kanye West and not an unexpected start to a Yeezy album. Ultra Light Beam is the stand out of the first three tracks with soulful vocals, stretched bassy sythns and the repeated refrain of: “This is a God Dream” Chance the Rapper also contributes a stand out verse. It’s a great start and not that uncoventional, which given Kanye’s last two albums is a surprise. However, from here things get very weird.

Famous starts off as a traditional hip-pop song with Rihanna vocals and heavy bass kicking-in around the two min mark this is coupled with a Kanye rap .As soon Kanye has shouted his bars, the track breaks down with a sample of Bam Bam by Nina Simone taking up the remainder of the track in a thrilling way as grime style shout outs pop over the top.

Feedback starts unexpectedly with feedback before experimental beats kick in, the beats are some of the strongest on the album and feature a Sandy Rivera sample. This sample isn’t the first or last from a house legend on the album and it is very clear that Kanye has been taking in the history of Detroit and Chicago’s electronic music scenes prior to the release of the Life of Pablo. The track ends with West making his political statement on recent police shootings in the USA through a chant of: “The Police taught us hands up” which is repeated till close.

Lowlights and Highlights oddly feel incomplete both feature soulful samples but as soon as things get started on each track they are quickly closed out. Here in lies one of the downsides of the album, there are some great ideas on show but Kanye doesn’t allow all of them to fully develop. Much of this you feel is intentional to create an aggressive, jarring and confrontational experience for the listener, this is achieved much to the annoyance of some critics.

Freestyle 4 features dark strings, experimental beats and some of Kanye’s best rapping in a long time. Waves follows and is one of the tracks that has courted most controversy on the album seeing Kanye and Wiz Khalifa publicly fall out, this distraction is a shame because it is a strong track with brilliant production from Hudson Mohawke.

FML and Real Friends see a return to dark introspection with Yeezy looking into his own failings and also to those who have hurt him in the past. As tracks they provide insights into the character of Kanye although how much of that you can believe and distinguish as the truth is now almost impossible to know.

Wolves is one of the few tracks here to have already been released although the Life of Pablo version differs from that of the single and features and a guest spot from the increasingly illusive Frank Ocean it’s great stuff and Frank’s voice is as alluring as ever.

30 hours and No More Parties in L.A have  been up on Kanye’s soundcloud for awhile now as part of his Good Friday music project. The latter is the stronger and features some great verses from Kendrick Lamar who puts in perhaps the strongest rap performance on the record.

Facts again has previosuly appeared with its bizzare Bill Crosby reference, however look beyond this and the beats are stellar, head nodding and built to be blasted at full volume. There is real anger locked in Kanye’s flow as well and it is one of the most aggressive tracks on the album.

The clsoing track Fade however for me is the real stand out with brilliant house samples from Robert Owens and Louis Vega much of the feel of the track echoes the warehouse rave scenes of the 80s and 90s including samples, basslines and vocals, all of this produces a strong close to the album.

The Life of Pablo is a fractured sounding album which intentionally sets out to challenge and confront the listener. However, you are rewarded with repeated listening as samples, broken beats and vocal snaps become clearer. The list of samples, producers and guest vocalists is endless and one suspects will be a list that attracts much analysis over the next few months. Suffice to say on the producer front Hudson Mohawke, Cashmere Cat and DJ Dodger Stadium put in strong turns though you get the feeling that despite all the features and samples it is Kanye’s hand that guides and directs everything. This leves the impression that The Life of Pablo like the Life of Kanye is really his own personal art project. However with such strong and intriguing material this is no bad thing.