Autechre – Anti

anti
It’s an interesting and important record, but that’s where the fun stuff ends. Autechre already got a massive discography, too. So if you’re just here exploring Electronic Music and What It Means, read about the Criminal Justice Bill and maybe listen to “Flutter”. The Prodigy and Orbital also addressed this topic, and the worst thing about it was that the Prodigy’s song somehow didn’t launch Pop Will Eat Itself to national recognition.

Then again, many people describe Autechre’s later works as inaccessible and their early work as sublime. To me, the less traditional Autechre are, the more interesting and listenable they are. Their music contains no recognizable human emotions. I remember “Clipper” working especially well because I was tired of feeling like a human. I wanted something that sounded born of machinery, but not the machinery representing human flaws, like Front Line Assembly does. Autechre’s music, at their best, paint a world of only abstract shapes and no humans.

Of course they have no business doing Dance music. I have no idea what people are talking about when they mention that the first two tracks are club-friendly. “Lost” has echoing drums that sound more full of distress than fun. Dance music can be aggressive or anxious or angry, but it’s about release and immediacy. Autechre never actually create a groove. Their music is too detached and scared of human emotions for this. “Lost” doesn’t actually sound like a club track to me, but like the repetitive thoughts of a wallflower with a bad case of social anxiety. It acknowledges people dance, but if it’ll try it will just kill the fun.

The other two are glorified demo tracks of Confield. It sounds lazy now, but this was released around the worst era of Autechre, before they got weird. These beats are more dynamic and right when you think repetitions sets in, it changes. It’s a clever trick that may be able to fool the cops, but what else is there? The sounds themselves – what Autechre does best – aren’t interesting. “Flutter”‘s beat is more skitterish and complex, but in IDM tracks need a wider difference than this. You got a gigantic sound palette and can do anything, especially when you eschew repetition. Instead, it sounds like one gigantic track that occasionally changes the rhythm.

As a political statement, perhaps it works. Perhaps a musicologist was present when “Flutter” played at a party when the cops came and explained everything. Although if anyone actually plays Autechre at a party, what you need to send is an anthropologist. He’d probably be bored though, since the music on Anti is stereotypical IDM. It’s not danceable, it has some kind of creepy, detached atmosphere and it goes on for way long because it has a lot of ‘tiny details’. Normally, I love this stuff but why would I choose any of these tracks over “Pen Expers”? That one both sounds weird, has no consistent rhythm and is actually quite a banger.

Maybe the whole Criminal Justice Bill protest thing was just an excuse to release a bunch of demos.

1.5 illegal raves out of 5

Advertisements

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

massive110912
Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Fwn_large.jpg
This album doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debut was explosive. Arctic Monkeys didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they sounded like they were really into the Dance-Punk thing. The band sounded so energetic it’s like they couldn’t notice they forgot to write a song in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”.

Although the album opens with an explosive track that does sound stormy, the album doesn’t have the spark of the debut. Instead of honing their craft, they’re just going through the motions and kicking danceable Indie Rock. There’s talent and hooks, but the lack of spirit makes it hard to react to this strongly.

The main difference between this album and the debut is that this one has no concept. Whatever knew it was a Dance-Punk album and had lyrics that described that party environment with humor and wit. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a fun collection of songs that are great when they’re closer to their debut and weaker when they move further way. There’s also a fantastic ballad thrown in.

The band sounds lost on the more melodic/casual tracks like “If You Were There” or “Balaclava”. They were at their best when making sonic mayhem. On these tracks they’re turning it down but not replacing the noise with anything. There’s not much going in these tracks. On “Balaclava” Turner becomes annoying, speaking in a smug way rather than singing. Even “Flourscent Adolescent” doesn’t work. There is melodic beauty buried somewhere behind the vocals, but Turner refuses to commit to one style. He doesn’t decide whether to rap, sing or sing-rap like Astronautalis. The result is a Pop song without a melody.

Even the harder tracks feel like something is missing. The instrumental storm of “Brianstorm” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a party. It’s more artistic, trying to capture the song’s title rather than to start a mosh pit. It’s still effective though. Other tracks have some explosive hooks – “D Is for Dangerous”, “This House is a Circus” and “The Bad Thing” are all rocking. Something in the production does feel flat, nothing in these tracks compares to the mayhem of “Fake Tales” or “I Bet You Look Good”.

I can’t tell whether it’s the production or the band itself. The melodies work in the same way. There’s no change in focus. It’s still sharp, aggressive melodies with noise behind them. “D is for Dangerous” is their most danceable song, actually. Perhaps it’s the production, which is cleaner, more pleasant. It works in some tracks, but it makes these ones sound less party-ready.

There are two odd successes here. “Only Ones Who Know” is a beautiful ballad. It’s different from “Riot Van”. That one still had the lyrics about wild life of the night. The musical backdrop was different but it stuck to the concept. “Only Ones Who Know” is truly tender, with Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s putting on an act. There are whole bands basing a career on making such songs. If only Adele or Coldplay knew that great ballads work because they don’t try to attract attention. That song never explodes and always remains quiet. If it did, it’d undo its beauty.

The ambitious “Do Me a Favour”. It’s the most ambitious track here, building towards a conclusion and letting every band member contribute. “505” also does the build-up thing, but it’s a familiar end-of-album ballad that’s too ordinary to get a reaction. “Do Me a Favour” sounds like a deliberate attempt to write a great break-up song and it’s a success. The drums create tension all the way it explodes with telling someone to fuck off.

At its heart, this is just an ordinary Indie Rock album. If it was released by any band it probably wouldn’t gain any hype. It’s pretty consistent, has some great songs for a playlist but that’s it. That said, it’s a terrible album to listen to for your first album by the band. Since all they do is just kick songs, it might leave you confused on what the big deal is. Actually, that’s all they ever did – just kick catchy Pop Rock with a charismatic singer. You don’t need more than that to become popular.

3 nightmares out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

whatever
It’s amazing what cultural differences can do. This was apparently a pretty big deal in the UK. It had something to do with how Pop music dominated the charts, or that it gave a voice to macho dudes who only want to pick up girls in the club (but liked guitars), or that they gained their success via word of mouth. I’m here, listening to it 9 years after it came out. I can tell it’s big, but not really why.

It sounds like it has a mission statement, but what it states is different than everything I heard. You can’t rely on historical context for too long. Eventually there will be a generation who never heard those Pop bands you knocked off the charts. They might even like them. They will care more whether the files they got from iTunes are worth doing air-guitar to or singing along to.

The album is a Dance-Rock album. It’s not about creativity or delivering a message or being weird. It tries to do the same thing Glam Metal, later Nickelback albums and Dance-Punk artists like !!! and Test Icicles do. It wants to throw a party with guitars.

The lyrics are more sophisticated than your average Glam Metal track. They swing from trying too hard to sharp. “Fake Tales” is fantastic. It’s a great attack on people who go on and on how cool other countries are. The irony is, in Israel you can switch “San Fransico” with “London”. This just shows how the message is more than just for the locals.

“You Probably Couldn’t See” is another bomb. Turner makes fun of the guys and how they all change their behavior with hopes of impressing a woman. It describes word-for-word every social situation I’ve seen where there was an attractive female there. Even the guys who claimed they’re not into it were influenced. It’s the best song the album.

While these songs give the impression that the band is a vehicle for Turner’s lyrics, it’s not. They’re just seasoning that makes these songs better, but what drives them are guitar riffs, hooks and hard drums.

Turner is a great vocalist. While he can come off as too smug (Especially on “Still Take You Home” where he’s your typical douchebag who has sex with girls he dislikes) he also easily captures an air of coolness. He sounds both smart and hedonistic, like a person who can have fun at a rock club and later make articulate arguments about the last book he read.

He never drowns out the band. In fact, they often threat to drown him. The playing is so energetic and full of life. “I Bet You Look Good” opens with what sound like Metalcore riffs. The band sounds like it’s dying to slam. On “When the Sun Goes Down” it sounds like Turner is trying to keep up.

What makes the band so good is that they know what they’re doing. This is party rock. It exists to be catchy, energetic, to slam and to sing along to. That’s why the moshpit-friendly sections in “I Bet You Look Good” don’t feel too out of place. It’s impressive how the album never runs out of steam. The last two tracks are slightly weaker, but almost everything before it sticks to the concept and never lets up.

There are a few cuts that try to tone down the noise. Only “Riot Van” succeeds, and it’s a surprising one. It only has Turner and some guitar strumming in the back, but it’s beautiful. It comes right in the middle, the right time for a small break. This is the tracks that they will draw inspiration from in their second breakthrough.

Ignore all the people who talk about what it was like when it first came out. This album still sounds great now. It’s a party rock album where the riffs are energetic, the hooks are catchy and everyone sounds like they’re really into it. It even has some cool lyrics that prevent it from sounding moronic but rarely too smug. It’s everything a party rock album should be.

3.5 fake tales of san francisco out of 5

Coldplay – X&Y

XY
This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

Viva_la_Vida.jpg
Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

George Orwell – Why I Write

why-i-write
George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5