The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

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(hed) pe – (hed) pe

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All this time, a great rock album was a click away.

(hed) pe are extremely talented and completely stupid. Their singer is versatile, capable of doing anything with his voice and has plenty of personality. His lyrics are often so misogynistic that listening to Lostprophets is more comfortable. They were a band Nu Metal needed. Nu Metal had plenty of weird bands, but it needed someone to go full retard. Bands flirted with genres, but very few threw themselves with conviction. No surprise the genre spat out a bunch of decent, but fairly one-dimensional bands. In the end, the experimentation was used mainly to drive angry and catchy rock tracks.

How can such a difficult task be done so well on the first outing? (hed) pe are genre-benders and you’d think they’ll need experience before dropping a classic. Yet here they’re fully formed. Everything you want in a Nu Metal album is here whether you’re looking for noise or experimentation or fun. It even beats Lostprophets’ debut (which doesn’t count thanks to Watkins) and Slipknot’s self-titled. It has consistent songwriting, variety and little of the misogyny that plagued later records. All this time I’ve been dying for them to drop a classic and here it was.

It’s a dizzying, confusing album. No album destroys the claim that “Nu Metal was generic and whiny” like this one. (hed) pe don’t even have to experiment with critic-approved genres like Deftones to gain credibility. Nu Metal, at its best, was about making the best Faith No More album that never was. Mike Patton was too preoccupied with being weird which took away from the song. King For a Day is an impressive album, but it’s more about the Jazz in “Star A.D.” and the screaming in “Cuckoo for Caca” than a good hook with a sound that makes it more fun.

The band creates a unique sound for each track, but it’s rarely tokenism. Their pool of influence may be more limited – primarily Hip-Hop and Punk Rock, but it allows them to explore these influence more deeply. You don’t bend genres by simply dropping a rap verse there and screamed vocals in the next song. You have to integrate it into your overall sound. Sometimes they isolate elements, like in “33” or “Firsty”. Mostly, the genres blur into each other. Even on Punk songs like “Circus” you’ll get a few rapped lines here and there.

It’s the sort of album you have to go song-by-song to express how varied it is. There’s the vague Heavy Psych of “Hill”. “Ken 2012” leans towards G-Funk. “Serpent Boy” is a straight-forward Rap Metal track that puts Rage Against the Machine to shame. “Ground” has a Punk-Pop chorus to it which makes it the melodic anchor of the album. There’s another ingridient that’s necessary for the perfect Nu Metal album – a mix of fun and anger.

Another unique aspect of Nu Metal was that it was both angsty and fun at the same time. Bands who didn’t borrow Hip-Hop beats still had its party attitudes. Many songs would sound great whatever mood you are in. That’s one reason no other Rock genre has yet to replace it. Punk-Pop was too silly. Grunge was too depressed. Metalcore and Thrash are so serious it’s funny.

(hed) pe perfectly captures the fun-yet-angry mood of Nu Metal. “Firsty” is the definitive angry song full of shouting about not giving a fuck. Its lyrics are full of refusing to be what people tell you to be. “Ken 2012” has macho bullshit and bragging, only to go full Metal in an angry, but still cocky hook. “Hill” is the only track that sinks to self-pity with the inspiration of Sisyphus. It’s actually out of place – it’s a slow, sad rocker in an album full of ‘fuck you’ Punk songs and ‘I’m awesome’ Rap songs. By the time it arrives you’ve gotten so used to genre-hopping that it fits the mood.

The ultimate highlight must be “Darky”. It’s pretty long, but only because it aspires to be the best Nu Metal song ever. The rapping is surprisingly competent. The beat is funkier and the bars are busier. The chorus has pseudo-Deftones whispering and atmospherics and it ends with talking about dropping bombs and telling someone to fuck off. It’s a song you can’t comfortably slide into any genre. In general, the band is more comfortable and forward-thinking in their Rap songs. It’s bizarre they bragged about being Punk Rock when it’s the rap songs – “Ken 2012”, “Tired of Sleep” and “Serpent Boy” where they play with structures and elements. The band became incredibly stupid later, but still talented. You can’t reconcile their overall stupidity with such sophisticated songwriting.

(hed) pe is an experimental, angry, fun and catchy album. If this doesn’t convince you Nu Metal is worthwhile, then nothing will. Then again, why would someone who’s into loud balls out rock wouldn’t like this? It has Nu Metal’s fury without the whiny-ness and stupid lyrics. It has Rap’s macho bullshit attitude without boring Boom Bap. It’s experimental without resorting to tokenism, creating a sound that’s both diverse and consistent. Such albums can’t be debut. It’s supposed to take great skill and musical knowledge to produce such an album. From here it was all downhill, but at least (hed) pe dropped this before becoming insufferable douchebags.

4.5 fucks that were not given 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

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