Leftfield – Leftism

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The problem with approaching Electronic music is that it demands such a radically different style of listening. Everyone used to moan back in ’06 how uhn-tiss isn’t real music. It was stupid, but after checking Electronic music they had a point. How the music worked was so different in function and form that at first all you could think was ‘it’s just repetitive bullshit for mindless drones’.

There was rarely, if ever, a melodic hook or a catchy riff to hold on to. Nowadays we have the build-up-and-bass-drop structure, but all it does is borrow the verse-chorus-verse and remove the vocals. Tracks went on for 9 minutes, sounding both like they’re not changing and like they’re in a new place. Electronic music was confusing, and I wasn’t sure when I began my exploration what to look for. I knew there was an element of danceability to it, elements of progressive structure and elements of atmospherics. I just couldn’t make it gel together, couldn’t find the larger context to put it in.

Leftism is the go-to album for anyone who wants to get into actual Electronic music. Compared to other popular Electronic acts – whether it’s the Big Beat of Prodigy or the loud Brostep of Skrillex or the Pop style of Daft Punk – this is ‘real Electronica’. I don’t mean it in a snobbish way, since all the aforementioned artists are quite awesome. It’s that they won’t help you understand how Electronica works in general. They adapt other genres into Electronica so you can headbang to the Prodigy as if it were a Rock band with better drumbeats.

What Leftfield do here is combine a variety of genres into one cohesive whole without having a larger aim besides being danceable. Leftfield’s strength is that their music looks to the mainstream while not straying from how Electronica works. The problem with Orbital and Underworld is that they were too artistic, too weird for anyone who only listened to the Pop radio.

The most notable difference is that Leftfield’s drums hit harder. Underworld and Orbital never made something so dancefloor friendly like “Afro-Left” and “Release the Pressure”. These songs are more concerned with grooves, with how the drums feel to the ear. The layers upon layers of sound are there – what self-respecting Electronica act doesn’t have these? – but you’re not supposed to look for it.

Leftfield’s music is warmer and more inviting. The build-ups are ambient, but they’re easy ambient, a collection of happy, gentle sounds. “Release the Pressure” defines their modus operandi with the ambient intro and the hard drums that kick in. It shows their influence from other genres by adapting a quasi-Reggea bit and vocals. The usage of vocals in the ambient intro also helps to ease into the genre. By the time the drumless “Melt” appears, you’re used to it.

This warmth is the real key to Leftfield’s brilliance. It’s not music for raves where everyone is already on drugs or knows the music. The album wants everyone to join in. Many genres are here besides house – Downtempo on “Original”, Big Beat on “Inspection” and Drum’n’Bass on “Storm 3000” and the result is this kaleidoscope that fascinated by how beautiful music can be. There’s totality to this record. If someone told me this is their all-time favorite record, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a song here called “Song of Life” and I couldn’t think of a better title for a Leftfield song with how everything here brims with life-affirming energy. People have this weird aversion to Dance music, as if only music that’s depressed is serious and has ‘content’. Yet this album leaves me with a sense of wonder that no extremely technical guitar solo can achieve. They put “Melt” in the same album as “Open Up”, because you can both chill and marvel at the stars before (or after) you start a moshpit – because why not? They pile layers of sound in “Afro-Left” and let it change as it goes on, because a song can be both progressive and a banger. Every song has clear hooks, whether it’s the drums or the bass or just sounds that stick out. Electronica doesn’t have to be difficult. A listener doesn’t have to play the song over and over until he finds all the layers but can already hop in.

The highlight is actually “Space Shanty”, which wasn’t released as a single. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised by how well constructed it is, yet how hard it bangs. It’s also the definitive House track, since the elements of repetition and progression are prominent in it, feeding off each other without negating each other.. All of the loops that drive the song change a little as it goes on. The BPM remains the same, but the climax sounds nothing like the intro. At the same time, there’s a separation between loops that create a groove and loops that provide atmosphere. No House track summed the genre as well as that one.

If you haven’t started exploring Electronic music, you should. This is where you should start your journey. Some tracks show you the more experimental and artistic side of things. Others just want to make you dance. There are a few that do both and there’s, of course, “Space Shanty”. Best of all, this album sounds like a monument. Nothing about it hints it was just a collection of singles and some new tracks. If music’s purpose is to connect people, to make us happy and love our life a little then no one has a reason to avoid this.

4 inspections out of 5

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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

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