Album Review: Phaeleh – ‘Tides’

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 Matt Preston is a classically trained musician from Bristol – that’s more than just a fun fact; these two autobiographical details are highly discernible in his work as Phaeleh. That he makes ambient/trip-hop records of course draws comparisons to Massive Attack and Portishead, but there are nods to the post-dubstep of Burial or Zomby and hints of Bonobo to be found as well. His second album Tides is a record that attempts to draw together many electronic influences under its urban ambience.

Mid-album highlight ‘Whistling in the Dark’ encapsulates the album’s central split between hope and fear. Lent a Portishead vibe thanks to guest vocalist Augustus Ghost, who brings the sort of beautiful melancholia that Laura Marling does so well, the gentle lulling melody skips over the faint sub-bass, representing an always linger sense of insecurity. Lyrically, it ranges from the down-right bleak (“Twilight, and the mud begins to crack, you cross your fingers twice behind your back / But your feet start to slip, you stumble and you trip, the sky breaks and the clouds are dripping black”) to an emergent love story (“Hold my hand against the night, show me all the demons left to fight / And I’ll patch up the hole in your heart, and carry on whistling in the dark”), invoking a calm, poetic beauty. The Portishead comparison carries.

Cinematic opener ‘Journey’ is far closer to Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, employing a liquid trip-hop beat over both chopped and unadulterated string samples to hit another gorgeous peak. Elsewhere, towards the album’s close, ‘Never Fade Away’ and ‘Tides’ are in much the same vein, if admittedly slightly less memorable.

By ‘Night Lights’ though, a sombre combination of textures and ticking chimes strung together with a reggae lilt, Tides has begun to show its weak underside. The beat is less interesting, the melody weaker, and while Cian Finn does nothing particularly wrong, the vocals are somewhat forgettable. Phaeleh’s biggest problem has begun to rear its ugly head – the vocalists. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ in particular is an affront to its George Harrison namesake, featuring the kind of high-pitch, technically demonstrative style that so often succeeds on the X-Factor, calling to mind bad 1990s chart house. It’s a break from the rest of the album’s aesthetic, and certainly a failed experiment.

Elsewhere, Preston sticks to ambient instrumentals, with the 7 minute closing coda of ‘Distraction’ a definite highlight. Occasionally it comes close to the classic IDM hazard of sounding too much like lift music, but on the whole it’s enjoyable and well-produced. Overall, I found Tides a somewhat unbalanced listen, with both genuine highs and a few frustrating lows. But hey, you’ve got a computer – you don’t have to listen to whole album in order. The best tracks are excellent, and you can always uncheck the rest.

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Album Review: Bass Drum of Death – ‘Bass Drum of Death’

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At first, John Barrett used to play his shows like a double-concentration version of the White Stripes. While Jack and Meg stripped their band down to the bare essentials of two people, a guitar and a drum kit, Barrett went one further – one man, sending out crashing bar chords whilst stomping out the beat through a bass drum. An album later, and Bass Drum of Death has conceded to play with a full live band, but continues to lay down everything on record himself, hopefully still in the insane, cartoonish one-man-band  fashion of gigs past.

That’s not the only change either. Whilst his 2008 debut GB City was mostly new-wave and punk orientated, the self-titled second album has its ambitious, increasingly technically complicated little fingers in far more pies. Generally, the record has a slightly heavier feel, which is partially the result of the newly present bass guitar and the fat, stoner-rock riffs that ooze out of it.

That said, the Wavves, Black Lips, and DZ Deathrays influences are still very much present – and Bass Drum of Death does a fine line in scuzzy surf punk. Opening track ‘I Wanna Be Forgotten’ surges out of the speakers with a wall of fuzz, sounding like the sort of stereotypical “I’m angry!” rock that James Franco’s character used to listen to on Freaks and Geeks. Just like FIDLAR’s debut earlier this year, Barrett uses the Beach Boys’ template to give the track a melodic lift by stringing faintly doo-wop “aaa-ow” backing vocals through the sludge. The driven, Misfits-influenced ‘Shattered Me’ will doubtless cause gallons of spilled beer live, as Barrett’s blurred vocals insist “No-one but me could leave these shattered dreams”. ‘Such A Bore’ owes a debt to early Nirvana, embodying all the core principles of punk that you can dance to – the hook beneath all the FX is as strong as ever, but only ever varies in tempo, repeating ad nauseam while Barrett ruminates on people’s tendency to stay the same and grow dull.

Elsewhere though, Barrett has pushed the project on, and spilled across into a neighbouring genre. Once you’re in the garage, there’s only so much to entertain you. Stoner-rock was only ever a toke away. There’s more than a hint of the Black Keys on ‘Fine Lines’, as the guitar line chugs out beefed up blues worthy of Josh Homme. Combined with the fat bass and a slight sense of paranoia (the chorus, slightly plaintively, repeats “All my friends are gone”), it creates a classic stoner sound. Later, with a pinch of pyschedelia, Bass Drum of Death’s foray into stoner-rock ventures into audibly 1970s territory. ‘Faces of the Wind’ is driven by a booming bass and an echoing bass-drum, with a simple riff that calls to mind Black Sabbath – a very successful homage to stoner-rock’s roots and some impressive drumming; it’s no wonder he can’t do it with just his feet any more.

Just two years on from his debut record, Bass Drum of Death shows a definite creative expansion – and Barrett shows no sign of losing his way with a hook. Ranging across thrash and garage, surf-punk and classic rock, this isn’t an album that’s reinventing the wheel. But Bass Drum of Death is an interesting combination of influences, easily worn. Barrett knows he’s rehashing, but it’s fast, dirty and fun- so who cares. You’ll be too busy dancing and yelling to question the originality.

Festival Review – Sonar 2013

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Maybe it’s because most of what I already knew about Barcelona was based on a Tony Hawk’s level, but I was impressed by Sónar’s host city. Despite their crippled economy, staggeringly high unemployment, and increasingly fierce campaign for Catalonian independence (or perhaps because of it – Sónar apparently brings in around €52 million), Barcelona was evidently embracing Sónar’s 20th anniversary festivities.

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This year, Sónar by Day debuted its new location by Montjuïc magic fountains and the Palau Nacional (leaving both holidaying families and monged festival-goers confused by each other’s presence in the surrounding streets), with fewer queues and crowding than ever before.

Closing out Thursday’s music, Lindstrom and Todd Terje impressed with a live set of scorching, irresistible disco as the sun set. Of course ‘Inspector Norse’ brought the house down, but ‘Snooze 4 Love’ and ‘Lanzarote’ stood out too, and their rework of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ was an infectious, perfectly absurd, end to the day.

The best of Friday came from Elektro Guzzi and Diamond Version; the former creating devastating soulful techno from nothing more than the unlikely tools of a three-piece rock band, whilst the latter sent dark glitch and minimal loops throbbing through the crowd’s ears and chests.

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Chromatics, in one of the Day line-up’s most anticipated appearances, put on an absolute masterclass during their Saturday afternoon slot, with most of the crowd looking as though they’d dragged themselves to the show after mere minutes of sleep, determined to catch a band who were arguably slightly out of place amongst all the house and techno, let alone the glaring sunshine. Kill For Love songs dominated, alongside a delicious cover of ‘Running Up That Hill’. A sultry, majestic end to their European tour.

Finally, closing Sónar by Day, and following on from the Friday night’s EDM onslaught, came the gurgling trap of TNGHT. Hudson Mohawk and Lunice doled out the drops as they danced beneath a fairly conservative light show and an onslaught of bass. Earworm ‘Goooo’ was colossal, and closer ‘Higher Ground’ gave the soundsystem the most strenuous workout of the weekend.

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 Sónar By Night

Whilst Sónar’s daytime incarnation retains a classic festival vibe (sunshine, fake grass), Sónar by Night has a completely different atmosphere. More a rave than a festival, it takes place in a series of enormous aircraft hangers and the roofless, walled spaces that link them. There were massive empty spaces, which came to act as chill out zones, and, if you were feeling more recklessly fucked, there were dodgems.

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First then, the rather controversial presence of some of the U.S.’s biggest EDM acts. Though there had been some pre-emptive complaints regarding Skillex’s headlining slot, he had a decent crowd, and many people seemed to be willing to give him a chance to prove them wrong. From atop his giant spaceship, Skrilly jumped around and kissed his Barça shirt, before firing off some pretty impressive lasers and “dropping the bass”. The music didn’t stand up to the visuals. I went with an open-mind, but it was repetitive and dull, despite the aggression. Earlier, Baauer put in a fun, fast DJ set (though it was rather more commercial than Sónar aficionados would have liked), but it was Diplo’s Major Lazer who triumphed, battering down any resistance with a joyously energetic performance. With confetti canons, a Wayne Cohen hamster ball, and manically gyrating dancers on stage, most of the crowd were close to drowning in their own sweat as much of the second album and the rapturously greeted ‘Get Free’ boomed out – it was a long way from typical Sónar fare, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

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Next, the abundance of disco influences. Breakbot’s live bass and electric guitar brought slinky Saturday Night Fever struts to the dancefloor, whilst Justice’s DJ set, though somewhat predictable, packed the punch of ‘We Are Your Friends’, a raft of hits from , and even the Ronettes and Diana Ross. Of course, the disco scene was ruled by the Pet Shop Boys who dominated the mainstage with the festival’s strongest visuals (sorry, Skrillex) and their high-camp power-pop. With suitably Spanish bull dancers and an array of costume changes (including an amazing disco-ball helmet for Lowe), their newer records were followed by an encore that boasted more hits than anyone else on the bill; ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Rent’, and ‘Always on My Mind’ have lost none of their irreverence and none of their hooks.

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Of course, opening proceedings amid widespread excitement, were Kraftwerk bringing the same show that a select few saw at the Tate Modern to a crowd of 10,000+. Everyone was childishly excited about the (much-photographed, suitably 80s) 3D glasses, but the robotic Düsseldorfers opened big with a goosebump-inducing ‘We Are The Robots’, and everyone remembered quite how phenomenal it was to be watching the genre’s godfathers, more than forty years into their career. A full length ‘Autobahn’ proved slightly inaccessible, but ‘Radioactivity’, ‘Tour de France’ and ‘Radioactivity’ were amongst other highlights, all paired with simplistic, iconic 3D images.

Despite the mutterings about EDM and the slightly poppier fare on offer, there remained a very strong “traditional Sónar” line-up of outstanding techno. Richie Hawtin’s ENTER provided hypnotic pulsing techno, with Hawtin showering the 6am crowd in black confetti and a surprise Skrillex appearance! 2ManyDJs’ mashup set, littered with huge hits from Kavinsky to MGMT, demonstrated incredible live mixing and allowed everyone to finally lose their shit to ‘Get Lucky’.

Inevitably though, the absolute best sets came from Sónar’s core sound – veteran European techno and house producers. Paul Kalkbrenner blended new tracks with classics and dropped a phenomenal set, laden with touchstone Berlin techno. As ‘Sky and Sand’ blasted out, everyone hugged anyone within reach – a perfect conclusion and amongst Sónar 2013’s best moments. Equally impressive was Laurent Garnier’s French house, which like Hawtin, enjoyed the euphoria of the closing, sunrise slot. ‘Jacques in the Box’ is always fantastic, and closing with Prodigy’s ‘Out Of Space’ was inspired. As Garnier had played the first ever Sónar, it was a neat full-circle.

Amongst the Guadí and the rollerbladers, the lost tourists and the omnipresent Catalonian flags, lurks an utterly incredible festival. Festivals are always about euphoria; but Sónar does it best.

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Album Review: Zomby – ‘With Love’

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Back for the first time since 2011, Zomby is far from finished with the eerie, introverted soundscapes that defined his acclaimed second album, Dedication. His new record, a sprawling, utterly absorbing double album, takes a slow-motion look at a range of core electronic genres and spreads their bass and beats over unrecognisably low tempos, creating a signature sound of pulsing, melodic, urban unease. It’s the feeling of walking round deserted streets at night; savouring your solitude and the beauty of your moonlit surroundings, but being constantly aware of the threats lurking just out of sight.

Sticking to his long-held ‘Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance’ philosophy, With Love is a far cry from the smooth transitions of many contemporary electronic album; there are no meandering, cross-fading codas to be found here. Bare, slightly jolting, cuts string the album’s 33 tracks, yet their collective unnerving beauty is unbreakable, with the album’s length only adding to its absorbing, whole-world-in-a-record effect.

Broadly, With Love’s two discs divide into Zomby’s moody take on industrial, jungle, and techno on Volume I, with instrumental hip-hop and sparse, hauntingly beautiful post-dubstep cuts dominating Volume II. Initially, the atmosphere slowly builds through disorientating Crystal Castles-style glitch, spacey dub beats and the tension-ratcheting, climbing-rollercoaster of ‘Horrid’ – and so, Zomby’s (distinctly dark) stage is set.

By the time the old-school hip-hop of ‘It’s Time’ rolls around, and an unusually subdued voice insists “It’s time to go fucking mental!”, it’s long been clear that Zomby is no longer interested in indulging in nostalgia or clichéd bass-drops, but is instead crafting something entirely new from recycled pieces of dance music’s history. As the end of the Volume I approaches, he ferociously underlines the point with the tribal drumnbass of ‘VI-XI’, which mashes an unsettling, squawking pulse to an insistent loop of someone yelling, “It’s this one, the original!”. Resembling a nightmarish hallucination set in a bustling market, it’s thoroughly overwhelming.

Volume II is a noticeably calmer affair. Second track ‘Digital Smoke’ has slow, threatening beats trickle over smears of sub-bass –the antithesis of TNGHT’s burbling, day-glo instrumental hip-hop, this is far more industrial and maintains an astonishing introversion. Skipping over what sounds like slowed down Balearic techno (‘Glass Ocean’) and full-on, pitch-shifting paranoia (‘How To Ascend’), the album’s only collaboration arrives in the form of ‘Pyrex Nights’, with producer Last Japan in tow. With buzzing percussion and a gorgeous melody, it could be a classical score but for the squelching, almost air-horning, bass.

The cherry on the already-very-impressive cake though are the stunning, post-dubstep instrumentals strung throughout With Love’s second side. Combining the layered complexity of Pantha du Prince with the melancholic beauty of James Blake’s first album, these delicate miniatures put With Love amongst the best releases of the year.  From the almost Oriental ‘Reflection in Black’, to the evocative sunny pianos tinged by looming-clouds bass of ‘Sunshine in November’, these brilliant interludes show just how effective Zomby’s dance retrospective collages can be.

At a time when many electronic albums sound more like mixed sets than collections of songs, this expansive double album is all the more impressive, with its 33 abruptly separated songs holding the listener captive within Zomby’s edgy world for well over an hour. Take the advice of many a teen goth’s t-shirt and join the dark side; it’s unnervingly beautiful.

Album Review: Mixhell – ‘Spaces’

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An ex-thrashmetal drummer, his DJ wife, Gui Boratto production, and contributions from Dillinger Escape Plan and LCD Soundsystem members amongst others – on paper, Mixhell look to have far too much going on. As every kid who’s ever mixed all their paints together can tell you, combining absolutely everything doesn’t tend to leave you with the glorious Technicolor you’d imagined. However, whilst it makes no sense, Mixhell’s debut is thoroughly enjoyable and excellently executed.

Sticking for the most part to tropical disco-techno, there’s a strong Nite Versions-era Soulwax influence throughout the album, both in the songs’ structures and in the driving, kinetic percussion. Boratto’s production is another key element, striving for a vibrant, live sound, which brings Spaces an undeniable immediacy, whilst also showcasing Iggor Cavalera’s explosive percussion. Cavalera, formerly of the influential 80s metal group Sepultura, is really at the centre of the record, with his furious rhythms often stealing the show, with beefy support from Max Blum’s Soulwaxian bass grooves.

The group’s South American heritage doesn’t go unnoticed, with many songs blending a sultry disco feel with more European techno influences. It’s as if sinister techno aliens land in the middle of Mardi Gras carnival, but decide against the invasion, and join the party instead. Excellent opener ‘Antigalactic’ builds from industrial space-techno into tropical sunburst synths and a solid groove, setting the atmosphere from the off. Other highlights include the more subdued techno of ‘Internal’, a close relative of the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Do It Again’, and lead single ‘The Way’, which could easily be a long-lost cut from Nite Versions.

The only real failure amongst Mixhell’s liberal genre-blending is ‘Exit Wound’, featuring Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato on vocals. It’s vaguely punky, and presumably some kind of nod to Iggor’s past, but the techno beat feels entirely out of place. Puciato’s screamed angst goes against everything else on Spaces, clashing horribly with the atmosphere created across the rest of the record.

At the other end of the spectrum, ‘The Edge’ provides party electro-clash reminiscent of the Gossip, but laced with Laima Leyton’s foreboding spoken vocals. Instrumental ‘White Ropes’ is a percussive highlight, with all the intensity of a live show harnessed and recorded in a kinetic showcase of Cavalera’s talents. You start to ask yourself why more electro acts don’t make use of live percussion, but quickly realise that there are very few drummers who could pull it off this well.

For those of you who like your disco slightly darker, there’s a lot to enjoy to here. Boratto’s production is impeccable, and there’s no doubt that Mixhell will be astonishing live in concert if they play to the standard that Spaces has captured. Drummers – definitely give it a listen.