Autechre – Tri Repetae

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Autechre finally comes to resemble their form. Considering how long their career has lasted, there is no ‘final form’ to Autechre but this is one of the essential steps, one that sounds less like progression more like a discovery of a new way of making and listening to music. It must’ve been impressive when it was released, helping to define IDM. Nowadays it still sounds important, but importance doesn’t equal good music. Important records are good for a spin. Good music is still good after you’re dead.

That’s the big problem with this album. Most of the good things about it is how it helps you understand the genre IDM better, yet not much here stands on its own. IDM is a useful term for music that’s all over the place. Some of it consists of drums without rhythm clashing against one another. Some of it is pure, fragile melody. Some of it is both of these at the same time, yet the label is still useful. Yes, how you listen to music defines how you judge it. A lot of Brostep tracks sounded much better once I went to a club.

At its best, this album helps you see a vision of IDM that’s not purely ambient and not purely experimental, but somewhere in between. Autechre use both melodies and steady beats to create something else, only what this ‘something else’ is supposed to be, and what good is it, isn’t clear.

They seem to try to paint a picture of a cold universe, one where there are only machines who can only calculate and produce. Imagine a technological utopia only without humans. Cars drive from place to place. Assembly lines move. Listen to “Clipper”, and you can see the office opening up in front of you. Printers print and calculations are being made, yet there are no humans.

It’s not a cold, hostile universe. It’s not a utopia either, but something in between, a weird middle ground. If people say the music is emotion-less and for machines, they use it in a very specific meaning. Autechre aren’t without passion, but rather music expresses a character of a machine with no emotions and no hostility. While Electro-Industrial bands painted the machine as directly connected to humanity, either stomping on it or a result of our flaws, Autechre imagine the machines without the human observer.

Why would anyone want to listen to such a thing though, especially for around an hour? I remember a specific moment where “Clipper” hit me, a moment where that song was perfect for. Such moments are rare. I was young and had trouble with the new found emotions of love towards women – who would’ve known – and that song felt like an escape. It was a world so far from the human experience that it gave me a respite from this annoying and all-too-human emotional turmoil.

Moments like these are rare. Rarely did it happen that I needed or could disconnect completely from the human experience. Even if I wanted to, most of this album doesn’t have this effect. “Clipper” rarely does, even if it still remains a beautiful piece. The vibe of this album is too distant from human experience, too robotic for it to be interesting.

Such complains have been raised against later Autechre albums, but these are at least weird. Here Autechre are so perfectly ordered there is nothing to look at. It’s the aural equivalent of looking at your fax machine. Translating it to music is interesting for the sake of experimentation, but not much beyond that. The old cliche of elements colliding and erasing each other appears here yet again. The beats are too hard for the melodies to shine, but the beats aren’t hard enough to dance to. Everything about this album is middle-of-the-road.

Still, it’s Autechre we’re talking about and there are roots of their brilliant sound design they’ll develop later. There’s also the charm of knowing that they never made something like this. Everything else is either too ambient or too glitchy. “Clipper” has been mentioned already, but it’s the highlight – capturing the album’s aim so perfectly, it’s partly the reason why everything else sounds pointless. “C/Pach” and “Eutow” are more danceable and sound like they might fit in a DJ set, although you may need to adjust the bass a little. “Overand” is the purely melodic one of the bunch and stands out without the concept. Everything else is impressive technically, but is interesting only at the beginning and the end.

Listen to this once to understand IDM and Autechre. They deserve all the praise they get. Autechre are truly one of a kind and are worth putting effort to understand them. Yet this record is only worth a single spin or so. Spend the rest of your time on later records, where the ordinary world of clanging machines became an adventure.

2 repetitions out of 5

Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future

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It’s amazing Underworld are still capable of making an album this good. Dance music has passed them by. They’re now remembered more by beard-stroking critics than dancers. “Pearl’s Girl” is a banger but it will just confuse the people over at Ibiza. They have existed for, what, 35 years? Just so you’ll have a clear picture, Hyde was born in 1975. He spent most of his life in Underworld

Dance music is now completely different. Underworld specialized in artistic and long-winded dance music. It’s not about bass drops or catchy hooks, but atmosphere and grooves that lock the listener. There’s a culture shock effect when you listen to their old material. In a way, nobody actually wanted this record. The same audience that danced their lives to “Cowgirl” are now too old for clubs and weirded out by Skrillex. Does anyone still hear “Cowgirl” at clubs?

Underworld should be tired by now after 35 years and losing relevancy. Listening to Barbara, and all of this vanishes. Yes, they sound out of touch. Yes, they sound old. They sound like this in the best way possible. There’s no drugged audience to cater to or fans who aren’t sure if they want a copy of their most recent hits. Dance music passed them by so they can do whatever the hell they want.

The album is a logical progression for Underworld. It feels like all this time they were meant to get here. Underworld’s vision of dance music has always been highly artistic. It was dancefloor friendly, but also disconnected from dancing. Weird ideas overpowered grooves. Songs go on for a while, slowly morph until you’re engulfed by them. Nothing has actually changed in this album.

The album sounds most like a re-visiting of Dubnobass from a grown perspective. Barbara has those same techniques, only this time it’s softer, calmer and more satisfied with itself. Underworld don’t sound like they’re pushing forward because they don’t need to. “Juanita” was a desperate attempt at proving everyone how Underworld was the best 90’s dance act. “I Exhale” opens with stomping drums that aren’t aggressive. Underworld are fine dancing on their own.

From there on the album grows more reflective. It gets better until it finishes with the godsmacking of “Nylon Strung”. It’s a house classic and easily one of the best songs of the year. At first, it’s just a blissful house track. Then halfway through it you realize it’s pure bliss. The best thing about it is how effortless it sounds. Underworld are now experts. They know the genre inside out and how to make it work.

The sequencing also raises the album quality. Albums like this make you realize how important sequencing is. Every track sounds better in context. “I Exhale” is the loud, long opener that needs to grab attention and set the stage. It’s also the most different track here, and it needs to be done away with first. “Low Burn” and “If Rah” are typical Underworld track – developing slowly, and having both a strong atmosphere and groove. The ambient middle sets the mood for the last two, which pull the whole ‘Blissful House’ thing. “Nylon Strung” can only be a closer – a song so happy that celebrates its own album.

A lot of bands lose relevancy as they age. It shouldn’t be this way. When you work, the harder and the more you practice the better you get. Yet in music artists often drop their classic in their first years and vanish. Something about art makes people run out of drive, or ideas, or passion. Old age in artists is generally a bad sign.

An album like Barbara is the ideal album by elder statesman of a genre. Underworld are going whereever they feel like it. They’re disconnected from modern Dance music, so they just explore their euphoric side with “Nylon Strung” and their Ambient Pop in “Motorhome”. Nowhere in the album do they sound tired (Okay, perhaps on “I Exhale” for a bit). They don’t have to push themselves and make a “Juanita” anymore. After establishing a unique personality, all you got to do is mine it.

The album title is appropriate. Underworld do sound like they face a shining future. This won’t gain any critical attention since, in the end, the music sounds too old for this. Albums that generate buzz are contemporary. That’s a shame, because it’s not an insiders-only album. You don’t need any experience with music to enjoy something as beautiful as “Nylon Strung”. Hopefully there’s more where that came from.

3.5 nylons out of 5

Knife Party: An Overview

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Knife Party are a weird story. It seems whenever Rob Swire tries something, he immidiately moves to something else. This technique can lead to a very diverse catalogue, but that’s not really what happens in this case. It seems Swire is more afraid of repeating himself than wanting to explore new ground, He shouldn’t be. Both Pendulum and Knife Party mastered their genres. While he abandoned Pendulum soon enough before they will lose their personality, Knife Party was different.

It started well enough. Their first two EP’s were released in the span of 2011-12. This was the beginning of Brostep’s traditional sound, a little before wild experimentation became common. The dominating sounds were mid-range bass wobbles and laser-like blips. Adding a little melody was common, but they always used abrasive sounds for that.

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The first EP mastered that style. The scene had a lot of talented producers but no one matched Skrillex. No one could make their Brostep as ridiculous as his. His music was almost a self-parody. Knife Party sounded exactly like Skrillex but got it right. “Fire Hive” either screams in your ear or bass-talks. “Destroy Them With Lazers” has bass roars and lazer sounds.

It was almost a classic. It could have been, actually. Knife Party also released a DJ mix with some unreleased tracks which were just as good. There’s no reason not to release “The Box” or “Suffer”. The dumbest decision was to scrap “Zoology” which featured Skrillex. There’s a full-length version which is possible the original and not just a fanmade remake. Anyway, that song epitomizes what was so good about the scene. It had the funky rhythm of Moombahton but with the Heavy Metal aggression of Brostep.

Rage Valley was even better. Every song tackled a different genre and made everything around it feel a little pointless. “Centipede” is ridiculously heavy and it’s not actually loud. It’s just the BOOM at the beginning of the drop that makes it so intense. “Bonfire” was a hit that deserved all the hype. It switches constantly from roars, mid-range and melodic synths. Every little part is catchy on its own, and the alternating between them gives it a hyperactive energy. The sound of the drums is also perfect. Although “Sleaze” isn’t as good as “Zoology”, it first showed that Knife Party could make bangers without being loud.

Things started go downhill with Haunted House. It’s a great EP, but this is where Rob Swire focused on Not Being Brostep rather than making good music. The result is trend-hopping. It’s not so bad here because “LRAD” destroys almost every other Big Room track. It’s hard to think of a Big Room track that matches it and isn’t made by a Brostep artist. There’s “Wizard” and “Epic”, but that’s it. The VIP mix of “Internet Friends” also destroys the original. It adds more to the first drop and adds a Brostep one at the end. If you don’t count “Zoology” because it’s unreleased, then that’s their masterpiece.

Abandon Ship was where Rob Swire got completely lost. There were some traditional tracks there. There was some experimental tracks that kept the aggression. “404”, for example, is a weirder version of Big Room that’s pure genius. A lot of the tracks see Knife Party hopping on trends that aren’t very good, or they don’t give them a new spin.

“EDM Trend Machine” bangs, but there’s nothing unique or charming about it. It’s a very straightforward Deep House track. “Begin Again” and “Red Dawn” tackle worse trends. The former is an Avicii rip-off that’s saved only because of SWire’s vocals and the structure. The second is an attempt to stick a few samples from ethnic music to make us think it’s original. It sounds like a David Guetta B-Side (only with better production).

All of it bangs (except “DIMH” which has no point), but it saw Knife Party shedding their ‘seizure music’ and replacing it with, what exactly? Inoffensive dance music? I know that loudness isn’t actually praised in EDM. The best-selling tracks in Beatport are rarely weird or inventive or ridiculous. It’s mostly a typical House track with those annoying Melbourne Bounce sounds. It’s something that’s kind of rhythmic, kind of melodic but never anything that will distract you from staring at bouncing tits.

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Why did Knife Party try to appeal to him, making dance music that’s suited to fade to the background? Their latest EP is the worst offender. For some moronic reason they decided their collaboration with Tom Morello will be on his album (We already heard that promise) and replaced it with a JAUZ remix. They should’ve kept the remix and get rid of “Kraken” or “PLUR Police”. If Abandon Ship had some quirky or odd moments,this has none. The drops here are exactly the same, only using slightly different notes. The wobbles and bass plucks of “Parliament Funk” are great, but that’s one song out of 3. They couldn’t even make a different second drop.

I don’t get it. I understand getting disillusioned with a scene. Many artists moved away from these sounds, but they expanded their horizons. Skrillex, Kill the Noise, Dillon Francis and even Barely Alive aren’t just about 140 BPM drops with bass growls. Dillon and KTN actually released average LP’s, but they pushed themselves and tried new ideas. KTN mixed his bass growls with Deep House or did a weird Disco track. Dillon tried his hand at producing Pop music and it worked.

Knife Party have very high levels of production. As generic as “PLUR Police” is, it still sounds better than anything like it. I hope the new EP was just a transition record, something they had to get out of their system. Their previous material is some of the best Bass Music has to offer. For all of Rob’s cynicism, that’s his scene. There’s no reason to move away from it. Aggression may dominate, but experimentation is encouraged. The top labels have plenty of weird artists in them. Never Say Die did sign LAXX after all. Hopefully, Knife Party will come back to themselves. If not, we still got 3 classic EP’s and a decent LP.

Next up: Top 10 Knife Party songs.

Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5

The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

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If your main gripe with The Day Is My Enemy is the lack of new ideas, maybe you should reconsider your status as a Prodigy fan. Maybe, all these years, they just weren’t for you. You thought they were, because they were brilliant. They were just brilliant in a field that’s less important to you. If you want to hear how far Electronic Dance Music can be pushed and still be banging, maybe you should try MUST DIE!, Jack U or Chemical Brothers.

The Prodigy’s sound is not original and never was. People were simply too stupid to notice the common ground between Dance, Rock and Hip-Hop. No classic Prodigy song is great because of its uniqueness. The Prodigy’s music always had one aim. It wanted to bang. It’s no different than early Skrillex. They found some variety in their sound, but the heart never changed. Even when they went from the Rave of Experience and Jilted Generation to the Big Beat of Fat of the Land, the music function in the same way.

The closest thing to a new idea in The Day is My Enemy are the few very rock-based tracks, the drumless “Beyond the Deathray” and the House-influenced title-track. Only “Beyond the Deahtray” is actually new territory. It’s an instrumental that’d be much more at home in Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. Their music already flirts with rock, so when they shift the focus to the guitars and the vocals in “Medicine” and “Wall of Death” it’s logical progression. As for the title-track, there’s something unique in its house-inspired rhythm and how it sounds like it was recorded from a battlefield.

All the rest sees Prodigy revisiting old ideas, with various degress of success. The few experiments they did in Invaders Must Die are chucked away. Everything here is driven by aggressive breakbeats, lots of noises and shouting. Every track can fit an old album. “Destroy” is from The Fat of the Land. “Roadblox” brings back the fast pace of Jilted Generation. “Rok-Weiler” is from Always Outnumbered. “Wild Frontier” with its melody (and some of the best sounding breakbeats ever) can fit in Invaders Must Die. Even Flux Pavilion can’t add anything new. On “Rhythm Bomb” he just adds some wobble noises to typical Prodigy rhythms.

You don’t even need to get over the feeling of Deja vu. Almost every track here is a winner. “Ibiza” is the only track that could be left off and the album won’t be worse off. I understand the guys are pissed at the modern EDM scene, but the track only has a decent break and someone ranting over it with a heavy accent. Everything else here explains why nobody else pursues that sound. It will be very hard to beat Prodigy in their own. We’ve heard tracks like “Medicine”, “Roadblox”, “Wild Frontier” and “Destroy” before, but these tracks are just as good as the old ones. Prodigy’s discography isn’t too big yet, so as long as they’ll keep revisiting the same ideas with the same brilliance I’ll keep listening. The old sound of The Day is My Enemy isn’t the sound of old people lagging behind the times. It’s old masters coming back to explain why the sound was so popular in the first place.

3.5 roadblox out of 5