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

Aphex Twin – On

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Read about Aphex Twin and it all seems like a joke. He releases music under hundreds of aliases, puts his face in a track that has him with big breasts and in a bikini for a cover and releases an album of pure Ambient noise. Sometimes listening to him and enjoying the beauty of it feels like you’re being fooled, like there’s some kind of joke which you’re not clever enough to get so Richard serves you with accessible techno. If only you were intelligent enough, you’d realize Selected Ambient Works II was a parody, or that “Windowlicker” thing is meant to prove that Dance music is stupid.

Richard himself said he finds the tag IDM pretentious, though. So maybe he’s just really intelligent while also knowing how to have fun and enjoy pretty sounds. “On” is the definitive Aphex Twin track for that reason.

While “Windowlicker” is better, “On” is right in the middle. There is no joke here. The song consists of pretty electronic sounds over weird IDM drums that are steady enough to be danceable. Nothing about is extreme, not like the simplicity of Aphex’s debut or the emptiness of his second or the wackiness of his third.

It’s just a welcoming, warm track that defines Aphex’s approach better and makes it clear why he’s the dominating figure of IDM. In the end, he really is all about discovering and enjoying simple, pretty sounds. That puts him in contrast to Autechre and Boards of Canada, whose personalities weren’t so deceptive but more impenetrable. Autechre especially came off like two calculating geniuses so absorbed in their research of sound they forgot what’s the point of it all.

Whether “On” is one of IDM’s best tracks is a different manner. I’m too ignorant of the genre to say such a thing, but it is one of Electronic music’s best statements in how it welcomes the listener. Whatever you think of Electronic music, listen to this. It’ll give you a clearer image of the point of it all.

The EP also contains other tracks, and that’s a problem. “On” is so brilliant that the only way to include it in an album is to feature other tracks that sound like just dicking about. Aphex tries, but nothing close. It’s not like any other album by him can contain this song.

“73-Yips” comes close to being worthy. It’s a pounding, almost Industrial track that has no melody and just wants to grind the listener. If “On” is the chill out part, then “73-Yips” is a moshpit starter. The problem is it has no guts. Nearly all Aphex tracks are defined by how clear their idea is, how Richard knows exactly what kind of song he makes. “73-Yips” just doesn’t go hard enough. The sounds are loud and screeching, but it has none of the darkness of actual Industrial music. It actually feels more like a joke track, annoying the listener who enjoyed “On”‘s soft beauty.

The other two tracks are attempts at a darker Ambient, but he did it better in his first two albums. “D-Scape” is just “Tha” with slightly different sounds. “Tha” was pretty cool, but there was no need for a replica.

How come these 3 other tracks got so dull is beyond me. They’re interesting enough for one or two spins, since Richard is a talented and interesting enough producer. The safety net of IDM is that its nature means the worst track might contain interesting ideas. When your catalogue is so extensive though, average tracks quickly lose their point. Listen to “73-Yips’, and any time you need a loud Aphex track just bump whatever remix of “Ventolin” that comes up in the playlist.

Still, the EP does contain “On” and 3 b-sides Aphex Twin tracks which is never a bad thing. If only “On” had a more prominent place in his catalogue. He managed to be famous without it, but that song deserve more fame. How can anyone dislike such an innocent, welcoming song that only wants you to lay down on the beach, look at the sky and think happy thoughts? When IDM is pretty, it’s really pretty.

2.5 yips out of 5

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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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