The Orb featuring Lee Scratch Perry: The Orbserver In The Star House (CD, Cooking Vinyl, August 2012)

I admire The Orb. I own a couple of seminal works. In practice, I don’t listen to them all that often. And I’m highly sceptical of their more recent efforts. I think they fell into the ambient sandtrap: the genre is inherently loosely structured, but there’s an elusive something which saves the good stuff from being incoherent and inconsequential… The Orb had it, and they lost it. I feel kind of the same way about Lee Scratch Perry. So, I listened to samples of this record more out of curiosity than expectation. And I was very pleasantly surprised. I think a big part of it is that, in his late seventies, he’s clearly having huge fun: he just rambles in a supremely relaxed fashion, he oozes charisma, and I can’t help feeling happy with him. The Orb’s ambient loops and squiggles are a great counterpoint, and make so much more sense with Perry’s vocals to play off and around. I guess the most immediately noteworthy tracks are Golden Clouds (which starts with a husky-voiced woman asking “So, Mr Perry, what were the skies like when you were young?”, and does feature a guest appearance from the famous Steve Reich loop, but is very much it’s own song) and Police & Thieves (which is rather closer to a cover version). But there’s just as much pleasure to be found in Perry advising “If you tirsty, drink some water”, and heading off from there. This is a disarmingly charming record, and it’s really great to hear two such talents bringing the best out of each other and producing work that stands proudly with their classics.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dub / Reggae.

Mika Vainio: Fe3O4 — Magnetite (CD, Touch, August 2012)

Mika Vainio treats us to another fine selection of sudden clunks, gut-wobbling buzzes, and long ominous silences. An obvious reference point would be his last album with Ilpo Väisänen as Pan Sonic. The comparison is interesting: this trades a little of Gravitoni‘s raw power for a little subtlety. You could almost say that this is the chamber music to Pan Sonic’s symphony. Certainly, the tracks here feel like self-contained experiments, or possibly even like variations of a theme (a sense heightened by the track titles: Magentotactic, Magnetosphere, Magnetosense, etc.). Of course, all things are relative, and this is still a fairly monstrous thing. Good work, noisy Finnish dude!

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Sigur Rós: Valtari (CD, EMI, May 2012)

Sigur Rós are one of those instantly recognizable bands. They invented a kind of melodic drone-pop which nobody has really even tried to imitate (I suppose the closest I’ve heard would be Amiina, who sometimes sound like a kind of instrumental version ― and, as Sigur Rós’s backing band, that’s not too much of a surprise). And they spent most of their career perfecting the form, getting subtly more melodic while losing none of their other-worldly beauty: 2005’s Takk… had an achingly fragile magic which tended to stop the most hardened indie fans in their tracks, and caused Oasis fans’ chins to wobble slightly (even when they’re actually singing about nosebleeds, apparently). Their next studio album was 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which I found a huge disappointment: it seemed to be self-indulgently kookie indie pop nonsense. The next four years saw only compilation and live releases… I like to think that they were having a careful think about what they’d done. I was hugely relieved, therefore, to hear Valtari: it is, to my ears, a proper SR record, more like Ágætis byrjun or () than anything they’ve done since. My first encounter with this was actually seeing the accompanying video project at a film festival: this opens with Ekki Múkk, which consists of a single shot of the sea, with the look of a light-damaged and fly-marked old photograph, while a boat sails slowly across the shot, several metres above the waves, inching slightly higher into the air as it goes… a perfect image for this music. It’s not going to be my favourite (which honour probably goes to 2007’s acoustic live album, Heim) but it’s just satisfying to hear them making the magic happen again.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Indie / Rock / Alternative.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (CD, Constellation, October 2012)

This record is immense. Let me try that again: this record is IMMENSE. The first track, Mladic, starts out in typical Godspeedy fashion: a crackling loop of vocal sample, a few bleeps and bloops, a distant-sounding folky melody over a buzzy drone, a clanking noise reminiscent of a passing freight train. Then, after a few minutes of this slow build, it kicks in, and before we’ve quite twigged what’s going on, we’re being pummelled by a massive wave of dirty guitars, howling strings, and heavy drumwork. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s more than a little bit metal — in a good way, an unashamed, authoritative, stomping-on-mere-mortals-who-get-in-its-way way, and just weird enough to keep it real. Oh, and it’s twenty minutes long. It leaves me feeling in need of a little lie down, really. Which is a bit unfair on the next track, Their Helicopters Sing, which is a fine piece of blarting dissonance, but doomed to be slightly underwhelming (and a mere slip of a thing at six-and-a-half minutes). Track 3, We Drift Like Worried Fire, is another twenty minute monster, almost as powerful as the opener (and it’s probably lucky that it’s a little more restrained, since listening to Mladic twice — and, in the interests of science, I have done this thing — is not good for my mechanism). It’s also more nuanced, with distinct movements, by turns urgent, sinister, euphoric. The final number, Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable, is another thickly textured six-and-a-half-minute drone job. It’s been fifteen years since their (proper release) debut, F♯A♯∞, and if they haven’t revolutionized their sound, why would they? They keep growing in scale, and here they are on absolutely imperious form. Plus, they keep making me grin.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Indie / Rock / Alternative.

Terrence Dixon: From The Far Future Pt. 2 (CD, Tresor, October 2012)

Given Terrence Dixon’s history, you could expect a little bit of old-skool here. In fact, what you get is a lot of little bits of various types of old-skool: from the poppier side of first-gen Detroit à la Metroplex (an old haunt of his) to dark pounding minimal à la Robert Hood to bloopy underwater techno à la Drexciya to atmospheric thumpers à la… I dunno, Jeff Mills half an hour into a six hour set, maybe. It’s both complex and accessible and I probably ought to like it more than I do. As it is, I think there are some great elements here, but when you put them all together the album is just a teeny bit underwhelming.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Techno / House.

Willets + Sakamoto: Ancient Future (CD, Ghostly International, July 2012)

I have a big soft spot of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s experimental collaborations, with Christian Fennesz and in particular with Alva Noto. Here, his stately, deliberate piano playing is accompanied by droning guitar and electronic manipulation from Christopher Willets. It doesn’t have the single-minded intensity of the Fennesz work, or the wonderful contrast of precision and fuzz of the Alva Noto. It is, however, an engaging piece of work — and surprisingly melodic in places, fragments of laid-back guitar picking emerging from the haze. Good lazy-day music.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Home Listening / Modern Classical / Ambient.

Hildur Guðnadóttir: Leyfðu Ljósinu (CD, Touch, May 2012)

Wow. Spell-binding. I know Guðnadóttir from Mount A, a fine collection of cello-centric drone-oriented modern classical pieces. This is on a whole other level. It is a live recording (with “no post-tampering”, according to a somewhat earnest sleeve note which is, in this case, entirely excused by the power of the music) with the composer on cello, vocals, and electronics. A 4-minute Prelude, with just the strings, establishes a sense of mood and place. The title track (which translates as Allow The Light) fills the remaining 35 minutes. It introduces a floating aethereal vocal which makes me catch my breath slightly every time I hear it. I don’t know if there are Icelandic words in there, or if it is just phonetic, but as these fragile elements are layered up they achieve a devotional intensity comparable to the likes of Henryk Górecki. Later, the vocals recede, and the cello playing becomes more urgent, its insistent repetition accompanied by a bassy rumbling. This is music that demands my attention, and leaves me feeling subtly renewed.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Home Listening / Modern Classical / Ambient.

Barker & Baumecker: Transsektoral (CD, Ostgut Ton, September 2012)

Quite a range of styles here. It starts out quite dubby, and there are some excursions into a kind of glitchy two-step. But the bulk of the album — and, for my money, the best of it — is just really good proper techno like they used to make: complex, sinuous rhythms, gentle plinky melodies. There’s a moment on the third track, Schlang Bang, where a chunk of the beat drops out for just a bar, and then kicks back in with the filters tweaked a little bit fuller… okay, we’ve heard this done a thousand times before, but it’s so subtly and expertly done and I can’t help but grin every time I hear it. It closes with the quietly anthemic Spur, which is like a more reserved (more German?) version of Gui Boratto. It’s maybe not ground-breaking, but it has a gloriously supple power, and I love it.

I bought this from Juno. They call it techno.

Ricardo Villalobos: Dependent And Happy (CD, Perlon, September 2012)

I formed a strange idea once that Ricardo Villalobos is turning into the György Ligeti of minimal house, creating music at once desperately fragile and thoroughly confident, rejecting the usual structures but ruthlessly committed to their own strangely alien rule-set. Then I got over myself. Still, I think it’s fair to say Herr Doktor V has, for a number of years, been setting a pretty unique course, way out in the deep ocean, with mainstream dance music a distant speck on the horizon. Of course, as far as I know, Ligeti never put his voice through a process which made him sound like a deranged Japanese woman and moaned “I’m moist” at his collaborator, as Villalobos did to Andrew Gillings on a particularly strange track on his all-original-material Fabric 36 mix. Gillings doesn’t appear to have been too traumatized by this experience, as he’s back here, along with a number of other collaborators — most significantly Max Loderbauer, co-mangler of the ECM back catalogue and Conrad Schnitzler’s Zug. We pretty much know what to expect: an intricate assemblage of unidentifiable noises, just barely staying in touch with a thin and twisted 4/4 shuffle, punctuated by abrupt clatters and parps of passing traffic, and occasionally accompanied by frankly peculiar processed vocals. Oh, and a chair solo, performed by a man who may or may not be an HR consultant, I’m not quite sure. But he has been honing his art, and the time away on the remix projects with Loderbauer seems to have done him some good: I think this is his best solo(-ish) material in years, possibly since 2006’s Salvador. Not that anything here is as obviously accessible as Dexter or, er, that Señor Coconut remix. But he seems to have found a way to take this ultra-abstracted sound and make it oddly catchy. What’s more, there is an emotional warmth here which has been missing from some of his late-noughties work. The more I listen to this, the more rewarding I find it.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Minimal/Tech House.

Lone: Galaxy Garden (CD, R&S, May 2012)

I think it’s fair to assume that Matt Cutler has at least one 808 State record somewhere in his collection. Also early Aphex Twin and Steve Reich, but most of all the 808 State — there’s one sound that crops up a few times that could almost be sampled from Pacific State. I’ve got to say, this record veers dangerously close to a slavish recreation of that dreamy second-summer-of-love sound, but I reckon he does just enough to keep it fresh. Most importantly, the beats have been toughened up for modern ears. (Whenever I go back and listen to, say, Ninety, I’m surprised by just how slow and baggy it sounds. This is probably the element which reminds me of the early Aphex, which I think has held up way better over the years — and I’m probably not just saying that because I’m a massive RDJ fanboy. But I digress.) It’s also just a little bit woozier. Overall, it’s got enough drive to keep me interested, and it’s drenched with a woozy warmth from the vintage synth sounds (and occasional floaty female vocals of a gloriously hippy-dippy nature)… if I dismiss that nagging doubt that I’m just indulging a retro streak, it’s a very pleasant listen.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Techno / House.