Vladislav Delay: Rakka (LP, Cosmo Rhythmatic, February 2020)

This is Sasu Ripatti’s first proper release since apparently quitting the music industry and getting rid of all his kit, so it’s not surprising that he’s come back different. I actually did some revision for this write-up: I went back and re-listened to the four previous Sasu Ripatti records I own, from the aliases Luomo, Uusitalo, and Vladislav Delay, to see whether I could find foreshadowing. Those other records mostly seem to exist somewhere on a line between deep house and dub techno, and range from the merely idiosyncratic to the downright deconstructionist, but the sound was always pretty crisp and the mood decidedly laid-back. This… this is neither of those things. There were hints on 2011’s Vantaa, and a proper taster on that album’s stand-out track Lauma. But that’s about all I could find.

Anyway. This is kind of dub techno by way of noise, industrial, and glitch. The beats are pummelling and half of the rhythmic elements are made more out of distortion and static than anything resembling a drum. Huge, slab-like chords pulsate and resonate epically. In some ways, it’s like a hardcore version of that Automatisme record from a couple of years ago. One track, Rakkine, has something that is just about recognizable as a ranting human voice that reminds me more of Whitehouse than anything else. With the exception of the mid-album interlude, Raakile, this is all pretty brutal, to be honest, and it’s pretty good fun, too.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

Charlotte de Witte: Vision EP (12″, Figure, February 2020)

I don’t buy a lot of 12″s or EPs. Partly, this is because I seem to really like the album as a format — I like the feeling of handing over control of my listening to an artist for an hour or so — but, to be honest, it’s mostly because I have enough trouble keeping track of the albums I’m interested in at any given point and there are just so many 12″s out there.

But I made an exception for this because I listened to it kind of by accident and it was just too damned satisfying to pass over. Also, it does feel like it’s a carefully sequenced record rather than just a collection of tracks, so (I rationalize to myself) what does it matter if it’s only 24 minutes?

I am, obviously, rubbish at genres. I can sometimes put a prefix in front of the word “techno”, like “acid” or “dub” or “first-generation Detroit” or or or. I don’t have a prefix for this. Essentially, this is what I think of when I just think of techno. It’s good and hard without being punishing, stripped back without being minimal, and dark without being bleak. Maybe I should call it proper techno?

The title track sets the tone from the get-go with what I suppose we’ll call a proper techno kick drum (I clocked it at 136 bpm), a really pleasing crunching sound hovering just off the beat, and a really subtle plinky-plonky you kind of have to strain to hear… then a kind of a honk introduces the snare… and it layers and layers… and the kick drops out for eight bars… and with a crash everything comes back together and the filters open out and that bit of my brain says there we go! And we’re off.

The second track, Out Of Balance, has more synth on it, although it’s thwacked about to within an inch of its life, and reminds me alternately of second-generation Detroit and a heavier version of Tamphex-era Aphex. On the flip side, the Kangding Ray remix of Unthoughtful is the most melodic track here, with a kind of gently euphoric synth line floating in around the two minute mark, and it’s pretty delightful, lifting things nicely without ever trying to take over. Things are closed out nicely with the original version of Unthoughtful, easily the most laid-back and moody number here.

So, yeah, I don’t intend to make a habit of buying EPs any time soon, and you can still pry the album format from my cold, dead hands… but for production like this I am very happy to make an exception.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Beatrice Dillon: Workaround (LP, PAN, February 2020)

First proper post of 2020. I know, right, what am I like? I actually don’t think I heard anything that came out in January that I liked enough to buy; I ordered this in February, it didn’t arrive until early March; and then… for a while there, blogging felt kind of weird, what with, you know. But, hey, life goes on, so here goes.

I’ll start with a confession. The first couple of times I heard this, I wasn’t wild about it. It was only because I kept running into rave reviews of it, everywhere from Resident Advisor to the Guardian, that I persisted. About listen number three, something clicked. And now I love it. Yay.

So, where are we? Everything is centred around the rhythm. Dillon’s drum machines spit out a kind of glitchy, sputtering, highly abstracted techno, with touches of two-step and dancehall and African genres, rattling along at a lively 150 bpm. There’s live percussion in there, too, including guest musicians on instruments from India (dholak, tabla), Egypt (darabukka), and Ireland (bodhrán). There are bits and bobs of melody, sometimes sparse and fragmented, sometimes more insistently loopy, always minimal. There are more conventional (relatively speaking) techno synth lines, scraps of neoclassical cello (from Lucy Railton), rumbles of jazzy double bass, and apparently everything from pedal steel to saxophone to the West African kora although I don’t claim to be able to pick those all out. Laurel Halo provides the album’s one vocal on the second track, although it’s kind of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing. There’s… there’s lot going on here.

Given all that, plus the fact that the 14 tracks clock in at an average of just about three minutes, there’s an obvious danger of the album sounding fiddly or episodic. Handily, Dillon’s production is top notch, and she crafts a highly distinctive style that allows each element to breathe while also coming together into a coherent whole. It kind of feels like one piece of music with pauses for breath. (I gather a key element of the sound comes from extensive use of gated reverb. Which I would have thought was an effect more associated with Phil Collins than bleeding-edge electronic artists. I need hardly say that this stuff is a very long way from ’80s AOR retro.) I guess it it took me a while to calibrate my brain to dial into what is a pretty singular register, but now that I’m there I only have to hear the first bar or two of the first track to snap me right back into it. And it is a happy light rich tripping crunchy satisfying thing. So, thanks for cluing me in, professional reviewing types who aren’t 6 weeks behind the curve!

I bought this from the artist’s bandcamp page.

My albums of 2019

Time for my albums of the year. It’s just about possible that this list will give a hint about what I needed to get from music in 2019: mostly calm, with a little bit of escapism.

As always, there are several records I’m gutted to have to exclude. This year, that includes releases by Croatian Amor, Merzbow & Vanity Productions, Nkisi, Rian Treanor, and Richard Skelton. Random observation: several of these would have been even harder to omit if the whole album had been as strong as its stronger moments, and several of the records that did make the cut had the advantage of simply being shorter. Maybe this was a year when less was more? Anyway, here are the lucky winners…

  • Fabio Orsi’s Sterminato Piano, two kosmische-adjacent sides which are just astonishingly good, “maximalist music made with a minimalist’s attention to detail”.
  • Maria W Horn’s Epistasis, four minimalist classical tracks with influences ranging from the tintinnabuli technique of Arvo Pärt to doom and black metal music from the early nineties, and “a thing of subtlety and beauty that combines seemingly simple elements to quietly spell-binding effect”.
  • Octo Octa’s Resonant Body, which is acidy housey breaksy rave, and a giddy head-rush of a record that provided the most delirious thrills of the year.
  • Shida Shahabi’s Shifts, intimate and evocative piano accompanied and a subtle touch of synth and electronics, “tender, with a quiet touch of sadness, but ultimately gently uplifting”.
  • William Basinski’s On Time Out Of Time, in which the master makes a forty-minute piece based around the LIGO gravitational waves signal — an appropriate subject given his remarkable ability to seemingly distil the essence of a moment in time and stretch it out to epic durations, and arguably his most serenely wonderful work to date.

Maria W Horn: Epistasis (LP, Hallow Ground, October 2019)

At last! I’ve been, ah, rinsing this since it came out digitally back in October, but I’ve been holding off on writing about it until I got hold of my vinyl copy, which took a while. It was worth it, since it has unusually helpful sleeve notes.

Anyway, this is a kind of magical record, one which makes fantastic things happen out of tiny moments. The first of these happens a little bit less than two minutes into the ten-minute opening track, Interlocked Cycles I, a piece for Disklavier (an electromechanical player piano) and synthesis. It’s been playing a simple, almost naive little piano line, with some only-just-there synth washes, and then this new synth noise wells up a little louder, and there’s an unexpected note in the melody, and… well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but it makes me catch my breath a little whenever I hear it, and I guess that’s the magic.

The rest of the A-side is taken up with the title track, which Horn describes as an eight-voice double string quartet: the quartets are each violin, viola, cello, and electric guitar, with Horn on viola, I think we can deduce from the notes. It’s a slightly eerie piece, full of strange resonances. Quoting from the sleeve again, it “utilizes evolving progressions in F minor, the idiom being inspired by the sound and harmonic structure of doom and black metal music from the early nineties”, which isn’t something I would have picked up on in a million years, but which makes a great deal of sense. (There’s a slight resemblance to Anna von Hausswolf here, at least in terms of the ideas going on here if not in terms of the actual sounds laid down.)

By this kind of logic it is, of course, a small step from early nineties doom and black metal to the tintinnabuli technique of Arvo Pärt, which is the cited inspiration for Konvektion, the first track on the B-side. This is the most minimal work on the record, consisting of long chords held on the organs and those feather-light synthesized notes again, with all the business going on in the harmonics and resonances. If that makes it sound dryly theoretical then I’m sorry, because it has a kind of hypnotic appeal.

The final track is Interlocked Cycles II, which is the slightly darker twin of the opening number.

Huh, I’ve gone on for ages about this record, and I still feel like I’ve only just scratched it’s surface. It’s a thing of subtlety and beauty that combines seemingly simple elements to quietly spell-binding effect.

I bought this from the label’s Bandcamp page.

A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (LP, Ninja Tune, November 2019)

I had an odd feeling of crossing-the-streams with this album. I listened to a bunch of Ninja Tune stuff in the mid-90s, mostly instrumental and alternative hiphop and breaks, but I think of that as a part of my musical past. So for the third album proper from Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, who could be said to exemplify a big chunk of where I’ve been musically for the current decade, to come out of Ninja… it was a bit like discovering that two people you know in completely different spheres are actually top chums.

Anyway, onto that actual record. If you’re into the whole modern-classical/ambient-drone thing, then it’s basically a big comforting hug. I mean, I guess that, if I wanted to be super-critical, I might say that this drifts a little bit into the second side — except that drifting is pretty much this music’s raison d’être, so maybe what I mean is that those little moments of magic that make it special as a smidgeon too far apart. When it comes down to it, I don’t think they’re ever likely to get me as excited as I was about their 2011 debut, which remains an absolute classic, but this is still pretty fine stuff.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

Shida Shahabi: Shifts (LP, 130701, November 2019)

I’ll admit that my first thought on hearing the opening track here, Futō, was that maybe it was overdoing the whole close-miked piano thing a wee bit, as the creak of the mechanism was so up front in the mix. But that was soon forgotten, displaced by my second and more lasting thought: this is blooming lovely.

Iranian–Swedish Shahabi’s intimate and evocative piano playing is accompanied by cello by Linnea Olsson, with a subtle touch of synth and electronics from Shahabi herself. I’d file this record under “modern classical with a touch of ambient/drone”, and while it may not stray far from the genre template, it easily stands out from the common herd for its melodies, which are unshowy but somehow worm into your subconscious in that way that makes you feel you’ve known them for years, and the superb playing. An all-to-brief 25 minutes, it is tender, with a quiet touch of sadness, but ultimately gently uplifting, this has been brightening up a cold and damp London winter enormously.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Octo Octa: Resonant Body (2LP, T4T LUV NRG, September 2019)

Aw, now, this is just deliriously good stuff. It’s acidy housey breaksy rave and, well, I’m not sure whether she was even born in ’92, but Maya Bouldry-Morrison knows her stuff. There’s all the right bloops and squelches, there’s Korg piano, there’s even a motherflipping hoover. Best of all, there are dangerously infectious vocal samples, cut up just the right amount. No, best of all is the production, which is absolutely note-perfect and just soooo damned pleasing. (Check out the way that Spin Girl, Let’s Activate! just goes ahead and slows everything down halfway through, and then brings it back up to speed. It’s utterly outrageous, but somehow here it makes total sense.)

I tried to list my highlights, and ended up with more that half of the tracks here. Move Your Body vies with the aforementioned Spin Girl, Let’s Activate! for the crown of absolute giddy banger. The breakbeat workout of Ecstatic Beat is impeccably rendered. Can You See Me? is perhaps the most straightforwardly delightful. And then there’s the ridiculous yet highly lovable album closers Power To The People, which somehow reminds me of Ricardo Villalobos’s remix of Señor Coconut’s Electrolatino, except way less minimal, obviously. Only one doesn’t quite “land” for me (the ambient My Body Is Powerful just seems a bit unnecessary). That’s a pretty impressive hit rate, especially given the range of material.

Actually, I’ve changed my mind: what’s best about this record is that, despite the obvious danger, this is very far from a cheap retro pastiche: this is a record with genuine depth and warmth. It’s a giddy head-rush in places, but it leaves me feeling satisfied, and you can’t say fairer than that.

I bought this from Rough Trade. They call it Techno.

François J. Bonnet & Stephen O’Malley: Cylene (2LP, Editions Mego, September 2019)

In which Stephen O’Malley out of Sunn O))) and François J. Bonnet of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris’s National Audiovisual Institute have a beard-off. And the beards win.

You probably expect this is going to be a weighty business, and it is, but at the same time there’s an ethereal quality to it. A lot of the time, it’s all guitar-drone in the bass and floaty resonance in the top end, but it’s not quite as simple as that. However you analyse it, there’s a lot of power in the tension between the elements, and it rewards deep listening. The fourth side of the vinyl is a 15-minute track called Des pas dans les cendres (footsteps in the ashes) and its first half is kind of like the essence of a wintry night in a draughty castle (I recommend having a comforting blanket on hand for this bit) but its second half is kind of like the echo of a musty chapel and it’s a rather serenely magical ending.

(Fun fact: I once saw Sunn O))) at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. There was a heavily robed and hooded figure crouched at the front of the stage going “ommm” for much of the gig, and a very authoritative-sounding rumour was flying around stating that this was Julian Cope (who was also playing the festival), and an equally authoritative-sounding rumour that the first first rumour was nonsense. It was good, anyway.)

(As far as I know, my only previous encounter with François Bonnet was under his Kassel Jaegar alias, collaborating with Stephan Mathieu and Akira Rabelais on 2016’s Zauberberg.)

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Merzbow & Vanity Productions: Coastal Erosion (LP, iDEAL, July 2019)

Ah, noise. Lovely, cleansing noise. Once in a while, I find this stuff does me the world of good. Merzbow (Japanese veteran Masima Akita) is on splendid form here, assuming you think that ear-shredding howls of electronics and squeals of tortured static are amenable to the appellation of “splendid”. Vanity Productions (Christian Stadsgaard, a Dane whose work is new to me) provides an effect counterpoint with washes of soothing ambient synth — a combination that works remarkably well, the two elements subtly enhancing each other. On the 18-minute A-side, called Erosion Japan, Merzbow is the dominant force, with Vanity Productions some way back in the mix but somehow insistently holding his own. On the 16-minute B-side, called — have you guessed it yet? — Erosion Denmark, the roles are somewhat reversed. Both are powerful works which, despite the theme implied by the title and the cover art, I find strangely calming. Even if my ears are still ringing a little bit.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.