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

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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

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

Autechre – Anti

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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

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.