Album Review: SBTRKT – ‘Transitions’

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The man in the tribal mask has been keeping quiet. Three years on from Aaron Jerome’s excellent debut, and he has been entirely leaving us hanging. Fortunately though, SBTRKT is back with this little hors d’oeuvre, a timely amuse-oreille to tide us over until his next LP drops. A six track EP, Transitions is closer to Jerome’s earlier pre-Sampha and Jessie Ware work, a shimmering collection of atmospheric instrumentals and dense, complex productions that really allows SBTRKT to take centre stage and tantalise listeners with his sound’s latest developments.

On a purely titular level, it seems initially to be quite a defensive album. A transition, rather than a final product, track names including ‘Resolute’, ‘Stifle’ and ‘Hold The Line’ don’t conjure the most progressive connotations. There is however, no doubt that Transitions marks a significant step forward for SBTRKT, bringing a new lean, sparse element to his existing style. Certainly it’s less overtly commercial than SBTRKT, but it packs no less punch. There’s a certain restrained strength – a definite sense of power in reserve combined with metronomic, looping motifs – that calls to mind the xx’s debut.

Opener ‘Gamelana’ combines a cicadas beat with an uneasy, wet-trainer, metal-on-metal squeak as a constant, matte synth chimes out an innocuous, deceptively catchy riff. There’s an oscillating, uneven edge to it, slightly sinister and unstable – the vague whiff of a bad trip; electronic swings and roundabouts, fear and loathing in the playpark! Elsewhere, the synth arpeggios continue in a  fresher, more daytime-friendly fashion with ‘Resolute’, which brings a faint 8-bit vibe to a disco beat, and ‘Stifle’, a trilling, liquid slice of wake-up ambience laced with a choppy, clapping beat and slivers of wonky synth. Perhaps most different of all is the colossal ‘Highs + Lows’, which whacks slabs of shuddering bass over a spare change-jangling beat. Undisguised dancefloor fuel, it manages to be psychopathically dark whilst irresistibly danceable – forget feeling the bass in your chest, stand close to the stacks for this and your eyelids will vibrate.

Transitions may be styled as an EP, but it’s only being released in hard copy as three distinct 12”s. Digitally, the tracks sync up with an eye-watering, interactive website that calls to mind those “visual high” videos that were so utterly ineffective. Better still, the vinyl sleeves and inners interlink to create the same trippy Moiré effect: far out! It’s a cool package in an industry increasingly flooded with quirky formats and marketing tricks, but then, SBTRKT has always excelled at visual accompaniments.

All told, it’s a revealing glimpse into the machinations behind the mask – and there’s no doubt that SBTRKT is moving into gripping new territory. I’m fascinated to see what Transitions turns out to be a stepping stone towards – bring on the full length!

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Album Review: Tensnake – ‘Glow’

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Imagine an album that was the result of a night of passion between Random Access Memories and Settle, one whose heritage contained the 2010 hit ‘Coma Cat’ and oozed deep disco. Of course, Nile Rogers is it’s cool great-uncle, Jacques Lu Cont babysat it, and it looks up to Moderat, Lindstrom and Pharrell Williams just as much as Prince and Michael Jackson. A little spoilt, a good dancer, weighed down with high expectations after this drawn-out, hyperbolic comparison. Born the 10th March 2014 at Synthesiser General: Tensnake’s first LP, Glow.

Though it isn’t as quite as good (and certainly won’t make as much money) as Disclosure and Daft Punk’s 2013 giants, their DNA looms loud in the 80s funk guitars, UK Garage beats and the sheer dancefloor pop appeal strewn through the record. And like it’s chart-topping ancestors, Glow is infused with dance music’s past, paying homage to funk, house and disco as it ranges from pounding intensity to inane club-pop. It’s even got a meta-‘Giorgio by Moroder’ bit. Wisely, since he is neither French nor yet universally revered, Tensnake doesn’t try the philosophical robot angle, but mocks his work: the vocals insist “I’ve been listening for ten minutes already to this Tensnake shit. What the fuck are you guys talking about. I know, but whatever, I don’t need any twinkly, 80s, c’mon-lets-wear-a-tanktop-shit-fucking-rah-rah-rah-shit. I just want something hard, I just want big bass like, wah-wah-wah, like dubstep, like club step, like electro”.

Intermittently the strident 80s pop and the 2-step vibes come together in hugely fun disco flourishes, as on the pulsing ‘Good Enough To Keep’ or 2-step flavoured ‘See Right Through’, both of which sport excellent, diva-worthy deliveries from Fiora. This isn’t house for skanking or eye-rolling or gurning, but for all out, probably-will-be-embarrassed-later, committed boogieing. Other potential soundtracks for montages of silly discoing include the Michael Jackson-referencing, funk-laden ‘Selfish’ and irresistible slink ‘Love Sublime’ (feat. Nile Rogers! Of course!), which takes the minimal disco of ‘Inspector Norse’ and blends in a vocal line worthy of Kylie.

With all these references to juggle, you might be wondering whether Tensnake risks losing his own sound under those of his influences, but there are careful, contemporary clues scattered throughout and 2014 rises clearly through the callbacks and tipped hats. There’s a hint of trap in ’58 BPM’’s intro before it becomes a slow-burn 80s ballad, an EDM wobble amongst ‘No Colour’’s Discovery synths and hip-hop beat, that anchors Glow in the present. Occasionally, the cheese gets away from Niemerski, but on the whole, it’s fantastically produced, hip-friendly dance fun.

Forgive me one last link to R. A. M. and Settle…  This is yet another dance album that avoids the pitfalls of stringing together separately conceived singles. Just like the aforementioned, regardless of many collaborations and genre switches, Glow makes complete sense taken as a whole. From the stretching bass muscles and flexed synths of the uplifting warm-up ‘First Song’ through to the Hawtin-worthy repetitious build of ‘Last Song’, this is a real escalation in Tensnake’s sound. Dancing is awesome. It’s sexy, it’s fun – we can stand to do more dancing!

Album Review: Breton – ‘War Room Stories’

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Thanks to their current inverse status, in both popularity and innovation, it seems that more and more “indie” records have been picking up dance music’s mannerisms – while Breton’s sound in 2012 called to mind Tom Vek and few others, their relatively unchanged sound sets of a chain-reaction of indietronica associations this time around, from Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club to Foals’ Holy Fire and recent James Blake.

Resolutely electronic but retaining an “indie” sensibility, faintly industrial, melancholic; Other People’s Problems  was everything you’d ever hoped Kele Okerree’s solo exploits might be –  the tragic romance and earworm hooks of early Bloc Party transposed into a dance-centric setting. At the time, an awful lot was made of their being a “multimedia collective” from “South London” who “squatted” in an “abandoned bank” – a great press release has the power to drown a great record. That their current blurb includes the phrase “distinctly un-hipster” is telling in itself. Forget the myth-building and ignore that it was recorded in an old Soviet radio station; Breton have an aggression, a droning abrasiveness, that just about justifies their “being a dickhead’s cool” swagger. They make electronic music with indie overtones, not the other way around, and in so doing, still manage to stand out from the crowd.

The excellent ‘S4’ is closer to their early Blanket EP in its production’s ferocity, as off-kilter drums skitter across police-kicking-your-door-in bass, while the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra lend the band their effortless ambiance of class and Roman Rappak sings a hook straight off Silent Alarm. Similarly fierce is the Chemical Brother-infused, witch-house stomp ‘Got Well Soon’, which brings brain-scrubbing repetition and Breton’s trademark walls of bass together with the edgy, brooding indie of the Maccabees’ ‘No Kind Words’. The gloves are off and it’s genre-meltingly good.

Taking the edge of with ‘302 Watchtower’, War Room Stories also ventures into gentler territory, bringing a trip-hop kaleidoscope of wind chimes and squeaked bum notes to create an immersive stand-alone world within the album. Sliding into ‘Brothers’, things become a little sub-par Foals, with Rappak’s wails demonstrating why he usually sticks to staccato pronouncements, and though the spacious, confident instrumentation is only a stone’s throw from Holy Fire’s gorgeous ‘Prelude’, it feels a little derivative. Likewise, ‘Envy’ appears to be a pastiche of Breton’s past work – their trademark production accompanying the nonsensical, facile rhyme “You’re a tourist, there’s nothing wrong with that / But what you never could have noticed is how your bags were packed”.

At the other end of the spectrum is mid-album deep breath, ‘Closed Category’. A crisp, spoken sample oozes cool, left-hand piano replaces the usual relentless bass pulse and the guitar lines positively shimmer in their delicacy. Though it’s like nothing Breton have released before, it’s instantly recognisable; an unplugged version of their usual rhythmic gymnastics. What War Room Stories makes clear is that the way forward is further exploration and boundary pushing. Unsurprisingly, given both their sound and their ethos, Breton are not at their best when static, but rather forging ahead – cramming the bare bones of their sound into new and unsuspecting genres and influences.

Album Review: Bryce Hackford – ‘Fair’

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Twenty minute-long songs are principally associated with overblown, over-extended prog or with self-indulgent, solo-laden hair metal. Of course, it is also a format that is extremely well suited to the electronic genres’ repetitive beats. Without resorting to sprawling outros or overstretched bridges, Bryce Hackford’s debut album features two tracks that are longer than an episode of The Simpsons, using the extra time to sustain its looping grooves and carve out an immersive listening experience, as the tracks’ myriad layers slowly intensify and lull, complicate and simplify, often so subtly that you hardly notice until the change being wrought is complete.

Fair begins with ‘Another Fantasy’, a much-hyped blast of storming techno that builds to a slightly disorientating climax with an industrial jitter reminiscent of Mitstabishi’s ‘Printer Jam’. Thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect soundtrack to losing all your friends in darkened room full of strangers and lasers, it’s exactly what you would expect from a man who has spent recent years playing pounding Brooklyn warehouses. It is also, however, entirely incongruous alongside the rest of the record. Like an experimental jumping-off point, from here on in the tracks only get longer and increasingly ambient.

By second track ‘Heart To Beat’, the bpm has plummeted and the vocals are already dreamily slurred. An iambic pentameter as strong as Shakespeare’s forms the beat and everything else continues to stretch and compress – metallic claps, growling sub-bass and floating drones combine excellently. Here again, both the instrumental layers and the hazy vocals dip in and out allowing the song to range infinitesimally from the minimal to the complex. With ‘Slow Emotion’, things only become more horizontally chillaxed, as a gentle, slightly mystical intro twinkles over gorgeously warm bass and a slow 4/4 pulse; distinctively trippy.

Finally come the mammoth closers, with the last two tracks almost hitting 50 minutes runtime between them. At first listen, ‘Run On Cirrus’ sounds like the product of those apps that build pretty rippling jingles according to the pattern left by your fingertips on the screen. Soon, the lazy fuzz of a stationery lightsabre flickers in the background, then slashing and clashing – conjuring distracting mental images of sparring Jedis. ‘Modern Propeller Music’ builds looping electric guitar samples to create a warm, ponderous ambience, a meditative conclusion to a decidedly out-of-body album.

Ethereal and cosmic, Fair is perfect listening for lucid dreaming or dope-fuelled naps. Too inaccessible to win any ambient converts it may be, but certainly an unexpected pleasure for the initiated. And those brought here on the back of ‘Another Planet’, chasing more brain-wiping techno, will be thoroughly disappointed.

Album Review: Paul Haig – ‘Kube’

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Thirty years ago, he was the founder, songwriter and frontman of cult post-punks Josef K. Today, he’s releasing an album that veers from extra-terrestrial glitch to instrumental hip-hop and electroswing. Paul Haig has never been a conformist, so it’s unsurprising that he continues to stretch himself whilst his contemporaries dwell on former glories. Kube, his eleventh solo LP, amply showcases his extreme versatility, covering everything from plastic funk to minimal techno with the kind of unashamed chameleoning worthy of Bowie.

Thematically, regardless of specific genres and influences, Kube is dominated by the sounds of space, and above all, of aliens. On the excellent ‘Cool Pig’, incomprehensible robotic vocals unite a ringing piano intro, an old school hip-hop beat, and a rising synth chorus that has more than a touch of happy hardcore lurking in its DNA. All this, backed by the kind of sound effects that 1990s plastic spaceships used to emit. Ridiculous as it sounds, it works. Equally bizarre are the echoing, liquid beats of ‘Dialog’ – a chaotic soundscape with vocals that seem to sample Ian McKellen reading The Prisoner scripts from within a Martian sandstorm.

From what I’ve written so far, you might not think that Haig is a man who believes that less is more. The Martian beats are intense. But there’s another, completely different, side to Kube that’s less space-techno, more space-jazz! This is intergalactic music, still spacey, but with “world music” influences replacing the electronic beats. ‘Four Dark Traps’ brings tribal tom-toms and didgeridoos, while ‘It’s In’ is all waves of keys and jazz cymbals with little stabs of funk bass and intercuts of taking off planes. The unfamiliar end result is hypnotic, a weird marmite-and-cheese mixture that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Strangest of all is ‘All of the Time’, a weird combination of the album’s internal weird combinations. Lounge music, almost Richard Cheese-like vocals ooze over minimal glitch and a robotic choir. The whole ludicrous affair is topped off with some funky slap bass. It sounds like something that the Star Wars Cantina band would play.

To close, Haig offers us two lengthy instrumental pieces that once again manage to both contrast with, and yet entirely compliment, everything that has come before them. The slow, dubby ‘Torn’ is like a lunar take on ‘The Pills Can’t Help You Now’, while ‘Pack’ collects yawing, seasick synths and micro-percussion to forge interstellar trip-hop.

Find your Air Jordans, kick back, and trip out to these odd and utterly original space jams.

Album Review: Holy Ghost – ‘Dynamics’

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When indie-disco duo Holy Ghost released their debut LP in 2011, they were widely dismissed as late-comers to the party. James Murphy had just called time on LCD Soundsystem and the glory days of DFA’s dance-punk reign were over. Holy Ghost! was well-received, but it was clear that whatever their talents, they weren’t going to revive the scene alone.

Two years on, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel have sorted out their timing. Riding the highs and lows of the ever-churning oceans of nostalgia and influence trends is no mean feat, but what goes around tends to come back around – slick 80s disco influences are once again dominating. Murphy himself is back, an unmistakable presence on Arcade Fire’s new Reflektor output. The exposure that Drive brought Chromatics and College lingered long, bringing a synth-pop resurgence and then, thanks of some French guys in robot costumes, disco-influences were again everywhere in the summer of 2013. And if you liked all of those guys, you’ll probably like this.

Dynamics doesn’t pretend to be the result of a searing insight; Holy Ghost are happy to wear their influences on their sleeves (indeed, the album art is unashamedly 80s). They remain as good as they ever were with a hook, and there’s no denying that this is an album that’s fun and supremely danceable – well, what else would you expect from DFA? The excellently named ‘Dumb Disco Ideas’ serves as their manifesto, a sprawling 8 minute jam laden with Soulwax liquid bass and a cowbell bridge; regardless of contemporary trends, it’s a single that would make a statue tap its toes. Elsewhere, opener ‘Okay’ brings a synthpop riff worthy of early MGMT, though it’s employed in far more understated surroundings; the walking pace verse “I’m not falling over, but I’m not quite sober / I’m not gonna take this, when I get home” – like mouth-to-mouth and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ – is just the right tempo and entirely catchy enough to determinedly mutter to yourself as you concentrate on the tricky task of getting your key into the lock at 7am. If you still haven’t sorted it out, the relentless spinning waltzer of ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ will console you on the doorstep with its italo-house splurge, it might even help patch the LCD hole in your heart.

But not everything on Dynamics is built straight on the foundations of Holy Ghost’s past releases. ‘It Must Be The Weather’ is the best of the different approaches, bringing spacious, paranoid pop that owes as much to Prince as it does Kavinsky and his ilk. The grim, addiction-detailing lyrics are an album-high too; “I call my guys and say ‘Have you got the news?’/He says ‘Yeah dude, the rumour’s true’/I fall back down the stairs into my favourite place” – suitably Less Than Zero. Equally dark is ‘Don’t Look Down’ – a skittish throb that updates the stalker’s tale within ‘Every Breath You Take’.

With Dynamics, Holy Ghost have struck a careful balance between revisiting their mid-00s origins and playing with new ideas within a similar arena. As they insist on ‘Okay’, “It isn’t over!”.

Album Review: Moby – ‘Innocents’

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From the first swell of warm, gliding synth, this is unmistakeably a Moby record. The spacious soundscapes and disjointed, house-lite percussion could have been lifted from his coffee-table hit Play – it seems we’re going to be partying like it’s 1999 again.

But, maybe in a bid to avoid the mass commercialism that rendered Play so overexposed despite its brilliance (though being the first album in history to have every single song licenced for commercial use didn’t help), Innocents is a less radio-friendly affair. On opener ‘Everything Rises’, the epic swell that previously would have led into an ad-friendly hook destined to launch a million products now simply pushes on, a gentle, looping tsunami of epic synthwaves over those familiar, jutting beats. Later, ‘Saints’ brings the album’s biggest drum-line, pure 90s house, and the synths take off in a hymnal ascent. The indecipherable vocals echo, and another classic Moby hit is born.

That said, much of it is unrecognisable. Anthemic joy dominates the middle of the album, with the Wayne Coyne featuring ‘The Perfect Life’. A bounding euphoria coupled with overblown choral backing and a George Michael-worthy guitar sashay: in isolation, I would never have guessed this was Moby. The lyrics are classic Coyne misdirection, providing that Morrissey/Marr double-whammy of a jubilant melody backed by dark words. Though the first verse deceives with twist-and-shout contentment, soon the content becomes clear: “Little Mikey steps everywhere / Knives in his pockets, bullets in his hair / He has nothing to live for, nothing left to say … Spoons and foil are all he needs, a bed and some china, a lighter and some speed – it will sing you to sleep and it will hit you awake”. Well, all that ecstatic elation had to come from somewhere I guess.

Less in-your-face exultation, but still strongly Flaming Lips-reminiscent is ‘Almost Home’, a woozy, enveloping ambience featuring indie-folker Damien Jurado. The tone is exactly Play, but the hooky drops are no longer present. Elongated and leisurely, it’s more suited to sighing than dancing. Elsewhere, Inyang Bassey guests on the prowling ‘Don’t Love Me’ – a creeping blues jam laden with chips of organ and guitar chirrups and wahs over a beastly beat that calls to mind the lighter side of Elephant.

There follows a plunge into melancholia. Mark Lanegan lends his deep, gravelly presence to ‘The Lonely Night’, a country-influenced lament layered over a generic “Moby” beat. It’s lyrically facile (“So tired wondering around and starting over / No garden grows here now, just a one-leaf cl-ooooh-ver”), but lowers the intensity in time for lengthy coda, ‘The Dogs’. Amidst the meditative pace and whining synths, Moby tells a tale where all his darkest high-vegan prophesies have become reality: “Hope lost to fear and nothing was clear when we lost it all / This is how we tried, this is where it died, this is how we cried, like the dogs left outside”.

So whilst the 90s flavour is strong and those distinctive synths and chord progressions have returned, this isn’t a simple rinse and repeat. There’s a huge range of styles on display, but Innocents remains a remarkably cohesive and creative record, thanks both to Moby’s instrumentation and to the album’s conceptual feel. Not just for dinner parties and Eminem disses after all.

 

Leeds Festival 2013 – Hip-hop and Dance Take Over!

Vast quagmires gorging on beloved trainers, a tsunami’s worth of rain, and the immortal cries of “Alan!” and “Buttscratcher!” – 2013 saw Leeds Festival celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in style.  While many of the weekend’s scenes were familiar to anyone who’d spent an August Bank Holiday at Bramham Park, beneath the familiar layer of sludge something had changed.

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With two new stages dedicated to dance and urban music and a hip-hop superstar headlining was the heyday of NME-indie drawing to a close, just like Kerrang-rock before it? Or, less dramatically, was this just a reflection of the new alternative scene – a festival that was branching out, abandoning the old punk-versus-disco tribal traditions and embracing artists of a high quality regardless of genre, as so many fans have already done?

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Leeds’ stylistic shift was most evidenced by the Friday night Disclosure/Nine Inch Nails clash. Though many (including Reznor) had questioned the justification of Biffy Clyro leapfrogging them to headline, Nails’ industrial rock crashed out to an astonishingly small crowd. It seemed that cult status or not, most punters wanted to cram in and watch Disclosure rattle through most of Settle.  With Ed McFarlane, Aluna “-George” Francis and Sam Smith as guests, the brothers whipped the packed tent into an utter frenzy – and the success of their dynamic house was the start of a much-repeated trend. Australians Parachute Youth delivered an excellent electro-house set early on Saturday, Charli XCX brought the house down with ‘I Love It’, and Friction’s drop-heavy DnB set delighted gurning people in all kinds of silly hats.

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Come Saturday, it was the turn of the big hitters. Rather depressingly Chase and Status’ DnB-lite drew a truly colossal crowd, as did Skrillex’s spaceship show and aggressive brostep. Major Lazer pulled out all the stops (Diplo’s zorb, an audience member tied up on-stage and aggressively twerked over by scantily clad Lazer ladies) to successfully create a dancehall rave within a “rock” festival – though Jillionaire’s shout outs to all the Jamaicans, all Dominicans, then rather desperately, to all the West Indians in the house fell tellingly flat. Diplo’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ remix may have caused chaos down the front, but you had to wonder what the veterans of ’92 would have made of it all.

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Hip-Hop

Facing a crowd that each year sports exponentially more snapbacks and a mainstream comeback not seen since the early noughties boom, it’s not surprising that this year’s Reading and Leeds had the best hip-hop line up in ages. One of the biggest breakout stars of 2013, Chance the Rapper’s short set to a small but dedicated crowd was the crowning glory of Leeds’ hip-hop. Chance looked slightly taken aback by his reception, but increasingly delighted by the rapturous reception. Radiating charisma, he raced through Acid Rap hits, bringing call and response support on ‘Juice’ and building up a crowd that finished eating out of his hand. A nod to fellow Chicagoan Kanye with ‘All Falls Down’ and too quickly it was over; the crowd left in no doubt that Chance will soon be a household name.

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Angel Haze stuck to rocknroll clichés, turning up late and encouraging a closing stage invasion – but sneaking in a funky Missy Elliott cover and finishing with a thundering ‘New York’. More flamboyant visually, Azelia Banks still played it slightly safe – sticking to her singles rather than airing Broke With Expensive Taste – though ‘212’ proved an earworm, echoing around the campsites for the rest of the weekend. On the 1Xtra stage, Austrian Left Boy performed the weekend’s most complexly choreographed set, but booing of his version of ‘Call Me Maybe’ proved that a certain level of anti-mainstream sentiment lingers at Leeds.

Ferocious, shuddering sub-bass heralded the start of Earlwolf’s set, something of a homecoming after Odd Future’s manic reception in 2012. With tracks from Doris and Wolf, Earl and Tyler stayed away from the singles, leaving a persevering crowd a little disappointed, though the puerile crowd interaction was well-received. Cutting their afternoon set 45 minutes short, it seemed as a joke at the crowd’s expense –Tyler in particular playing on their discomfort,  yelling “Give it up for black people!”. Later, opening to broad-accented chants of “ayy-sap”, A$AP Rocky’s set was an altogether easier affair, propelled to instant madness by a breakneck ‘Long Live A$AP’. Given extra bulk onstage thanks to support from the A$AP crew, Rocky evidently enjoyed himself, flashing golden grills as he grinned throughout and enthusing as the crowd sparked up en masse for ‘Purple Swag’, screaming every word back to him.

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All of which left us with a 40-year-old white guy closing out the festival. Eminem last headlined in 2001, but aside from the sheer quantity of hits and variety of his back catalogue, there were no sign of fatigue; he remained as razor-sharp and energetic as he was over a decade ago. With material from his first (and best) three albums interspersed by more recent singles (‘Airplanes’, ‘Love The Way You Lie’), it was a set that constantly astonished, with a mesmerised crowd mimicking every rhyme –continually surprised as hit followed colossal hit; the man has simply too many to hold in mind. The best-selling artist of the 2000s had come out to play. Unintroduced and initially unnoticed by many, Dido’s appearance for ‘Stan’ seemed to make Eminem more comfortable than many recorded parts – but nothing could distract from the man of the hour. It came to a euphoric close – asking “Can I take you back to back to a time when I used to get fucked up?”, he brought out ‘My Name Is’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘Without Me’ – before ending on ‘Lose Yourself’. From laugh-out-loud to tear-jerker to vitriolic aggression, via tunes and rhymes that are seared into the consciousness of a generation – for the umpteenth time, he’s back.

 

So, Leeds was certainly sold on Marshall Mathers’ hip-hop. But will the trend continue beyond 2013? Of course, Reading and Leeds have always had a strong mainstream element with a big proportion of the crowds going more to get wrecked celebrating their GCSE and A-Level results than out of any affinity to a specific scene. There’s no real evidence that this year’s swing in style and sound will have any more staying power than when everyone was into nu-rave and Klaxons headlined – but that the line-up was so dominated by two entirely non-rock genres surely says something. Biffy Clyro, System of a Down, Green Day  – the big rock bands put on great shows, to great reception.

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 In a weird crossover, almost everyone who was into the dance and hip-hop acts went to see skate punk bands – with no discernible link beyond an affinity for snapback hats? FIDLAR, Skaters and Wavves all pulled in devoted crowds with fierce circle pits demonstrating the old popularity of energetic fury hasn’t disappeared with the riots. But with dubstep, house, and hip-hop creeping up the bill, one wonders if Reading and Leeds aren’t leaning towards becoming “young” festivals, offering a range of music and an anarchic intensity, rather than the cream of the rock acts. There’s still that preference for ferocity, regardless of genre.

Album Review: Hot Natured – ‘Different Side of the Sun’

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Neo-house, nu-house, nouvelle maison – whatever you want to call it, over the last few years this ultra-glossy, easily accessible take on Chicago’s greatest export has been growing a sizeable fanbase, garnering residencies, and creeping into the mainstream awareness. With a strong late 90s influence, a pop sensibility and the spatial breadth of minimal techno all set to a shiny four-four beat, it can be hypnotic, warm and summery – and Hot Natured are among those who do it best.

The collective, comprising Brit Jamie Jones, Italian Luca C, Chicagoan Lee Foss, and vocalist Ali Love, have been reaping the benefits of several huge “crossover” singles with slots at Glastonbury, Sónar and the Brixton Academy, as well as significant radio airtime and Ibiza residencies. With their Aztec patterned shirts, tans, and of course their widespread success, Hot Natured get a lot of hate – accusations of selling out, of hastening the demise of house, of over catering to the burgeoning American appetite for dance music have all been levelled. So which way will debut LP Different Sides of the Sun got to settle the debate?

The big singles that made the Hot Natured name are all present and correct. The Italo synths and minimal groove of ‘Reverse Skydiving’, the smooth poolside house of ‘Benediction’, and best of all the fantastic throwback Detroit pound of ‘Forward Motion’ have all made it onto their first album – and with such colossal singles already recorded, perhaps it’s no surprise. But we have long left the compact disc era, and big-hitting singles no longer guarantee an album’s success.

Fortunately Jones, Foss, and Luca aren’t quite done yet. ‘Planet Us’ brings swathes of spaced out synths, bouncing bass, and Chic-influenced guitars. Laconic and horizontally chilled, it’s not so far from the spacier sections of Random Access Memories. New single ‘Isis’ brings a jittering harpsichord intro that resonates with scenes from that Skins episode when they went to Morocco and lilting guitars that scream an Ibizan influence. Though it suffers a little lyrically (“High like hieroglyphics”, “River called the Nile […] crocodile smile”), it combines a strong 90s nostalgia with Hot Natured’s trademark sultry fare. Slow but sexy ‘Detroit’ brings a lower BPM and less complex production, but expands into a deeply satisfying groove.

But it’s not all good news. Much of the album suffers, blurring together into an unmemorable body of slick but shallow house – uninspired beats and a middle of the road coast. With three guest spots, Anabel Englund’s vocals are another problem, comparing poorly with Love’s gliding soul melodies and sounding both over processed and all too bland. Different Sides of the Sun is in very real danger of playing it too safe.

Looking back to Jones’ Tracks from the Crypt or his ‘Hungry for the Power’ remix, Foss’s ‘Grinding’ or Infinity Ink’s ‘Infinity’, it’s clear that Hot Natured have far from stretched themselves. They have gone the way of many a supergroup before them; too much laurel-resting and too little innovation.

Album Review: Forest Swords – ‘Engravings’

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In an oft-cited XKCD comic strip, writer Randall Munroe demonstrated an easy way of making people of any age feel old; citing a generation-wide cultural touchstone (Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Finding Nemo) and asking if they realised how long ago it had come out. Punch line aside, it made a neat point about our inability to date cultural trends – some releases continue to seem fresh, current, and are consequently assumed recent, whilst others date quickly or fade in appeal, quickly appearing completely outmoded.

Toy Story 3 came out three years ago! As did still-loved records like The Suburbs, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Total Life Forever. The year of LCD’s last release, a year dominated by ‘Love The Way You Lie’ and when The Social Network premièred. 2010 was also when experimental dub began throb in the mainstream’s consciousness – the year of James Blake’s first EPs, Mount Kimbie’s Crooks and Lovers and another producer/composer, Forest Swords’ remarkable debut EP. If anything, the genre has expanded in the intervening years, as attested by the success of both Blake and Mount Kimbie’s 2013 releases. Engravings, Forest Swords’ debut LP and first release since the excellent Dagger Paths, conforms to the pattern – still bewitching, still utterly relevant.

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There are many more bedroom producers now than in 2010, and witch-house has become a central hipster genre. But Matthew Barnes, the hermetic Merseysider behind the moniker, still stands out, his distinctive deeply layered ambient trip-hop and haunting dub remaining instantly recognisable. There has been no sudden shift in sound, no Kanye or Foals jump forwards – in fact, having struggled with hearing problems and apparently considered giving up music altogether, Barnes seems to have merely concentrated the essence of his sound. Unsettling drones, complex post-punk guitars and always the rumbling threat of deep bass and pounding percussion combine with ambient recordings and hazy vocals to create the feeling of waking from a half-remembered, half-understood dream. Mixed outside under the Wirral’s threatening skies, Engravings has an undeniable visual quality to it, invoking a grim, elemental nature – a counterpart to Burial’s bleak urban scores.

Though inevitably the album is stronger listened to in whole, with the ebbs and flows of Forest Swords sonic kaleidoscope uninterrupted, there are a few standouts early on. The cinematic ‘Irby Tremors’ puts panpipes and a lazy, pseudo-xx guitar line over a colossal jungle beat to enormous effect, whilst ‘The Weight of Gold’ brings a trilling, very Occidental harpsichord into the mix, with droning synths and the odd reggae bounce keeping it fresh.

On paper, it sounds a mess – on record, the abstraction is absorbing and a refreshingly different listen. With references to house, dub, and instrumental rock all stitched together into a looping, building tapestry that manages to be both visually and emotionally evocative, this is certainly an album that will keep your interest long into the next fad.