Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

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If you’re in the business of making eclectic, influence-crunching electronica that’s rooted in live instrumentation, being invited to tour with Bonobo is quite the seal of approval. It’s not hard to see how 22 year old Tom Leah caught the attention of his simian soundalike; there’s more than a passing resemblance in Werkha’s layered instrumentation and pattering beats, but like any decent opening act, Werkha packs more energy and dancefloor draw than the blissed out whirls of Black Sands or The Northern Borders. Elsewhere, another big name endorsement comes from Gilles Peterson, which is not overly surprising given Leah’s interests in jazz, Afrobeat and soul, amongst others.

Beacons kicks off with ‘Lapwing’, a jitter blend of jazz sax and soulful house that calls to mind the louche electro-swing of Parov Stelar’s work. If Jeeves & Wooster were on the dancefloor today, this would be entirely classy enough for their jazz-age cool.  Underpinning it all lurks a fuzzy, ambient bass, tying the track together with a delicate, crafted feel. (It also has an endearing video starring middle-aged yoga enthusiasts – bonus points).

 

‘Moving with the Nuisance’ is slightly less successful in its jazz reappropriation, as an electric guitar stirs over a dubby, distorted beat and T.E.E.D. style layers of micro percussion. The vocals are slightly too generic (“Put your hands up if you came to party”) and the jazz/house fusion a little too laboured.

The pace is soon ramped up again though, as the EP’s apex arrives with the excellent ‘Sidesteppin’’; a soulful house cut that is dominated by Bryony Jarman Pinto’s pure, unprocessed vocals. It’s a irresistibly crisp, silky track that builds into a solid groove, with a crunchy synth line and a beat that carries off the chorus’s claim – “I can feel my body rockin’ side to side!”.

From there, Beacons takes a slide down into the dark, with dubstep trumping jazz as the foremost influence on display. ‘Tempo Tempo’ brings a slinky, beat-driven open of clinking chimes and cymbals before succumbing to a dominant wonky synth pulse. Thankfully, this is on a different continent to aggressive brostep though; Leah commented recently, ““Since the bastardisation of the term dubstep, I have been keen to demonstrate that it doesn’t all have to sound like robots being sick” – mission accomplished. Smart, sexy and minimal, this is far more interesting than Skrilly and co.

One for those searching out unconventional grooves, Beacons is certainly an impressive calling card for Werkha. Skipping across genres carelessly, stitching his multiple interests, the EP heralds an undeniably original sound. There is a risk of lapsing into slightly bland, dinner party music – but if it’s good enough for Bonobo and Four Tet, that might no longer the criticism it once was. Next time around though, it would be nice to think you’d bother to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask what was playing.

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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?

Dance

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: 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: FLUME – ‘FLUME’

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Young Harley Streten, the 21 year old Sydneysider behind his nom-de-disque FLUME, is certainly not one to waste time. Having achieved virtual overnight success, as his Facebook page rocketed from obscurity to well over 115,000 likes in just over a year, the producer and DJ has also had opening slots for both the xx and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, and secured a place on mainstream radio playlists around the world with his cracking initial release, ‘Sleepless’. Very much making hay whilst the sun shines, he’s jumped at the chance and quickly put out his debut album, FLUME. Though it’s certainly the opportune moment commercially, there is of course the attendant amount of hype – the Aussies are excited about their young protégée and the risky, pressurising title “saviour of Australian electro” has been mentioned more than once.

It’s nothing if not ambitious. Streten covers a huge range of genres, flitting from house to chillwave to funk – although admittedly, FLUME’s core is rooted in downtempo electro and instrumental hip-hop. His warm, clean production sits well with the beat-driven electro as he impressively straddles the line between mainstream/commercial sounds and the more experimental edges. Alongside the variety of genres, further variation is introduced via a host of supporting artists, with Chet Faker, Jezzabell Doran, MC T-Shirt, Moon Holiday, and George Maple all contributing guest vocals. Thanks to this vocal variety, despite FLUME’s broad range of influences, it is his beats which form the album’s consistent backbone, allowing his signature sound to speak for itself.

Singles ‘Sleepless’ and ‘Holdin’ On’ both err on the side of synth heavy hip-hop and are effortlessly infectious, doubtless playing a big part in FLUME’s meteoric rise. Sandwiched between them is ‘Left Alone’, featuring Chet Faker, and a fluid, loud-quiet beat base which builds up into sheer euphoria. Enjoyable though the singles are, they feel just that; singles, rather than part of an LP. Elsewhere, the spacey progressive house of ‘Insane’, the excellent, shimmering bass-driven ‘Warm Thoughts’, or the liquid, de-tuned dubstep of ‘Ezra’ are far more interesting and show potential for future releases.

However, with fifteen tracks, FLUME is arguably overlong and certainly suffers from its tracklisting order. With its more commercial, Hudson Mohawke-esque singles all stacked at the beginning, it leaves a slight feeling of subsiding, or at least poor pacing, as the more ambient, immersive tracks are all ranged towards the end. It’s something of an idea overload; FLUME’s decision to try his hand at everything, whilst demonstrating his evident enthusiasm and frequent successes, comes at the price of the album’s coherency. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of potential here, and with more time and less pressure, FLUME could certainly produce better.

Album Review: Dobie – ‘We Will Not Harm You’

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Last summer, I went to Outlook, a bass festival in Croatia. At some point during the blur of the weekend, I picked up a “No bass, no fun” sticker, which managed to permeate into my heat-bass-booze addled mind and resonated with me deeply. I plastered it to myself; delighted to parade my new-found life philosophy before everyone I met (thankfully there wasn’t a tattoo parlour to hand). Though the sticker is long disintegrated, were it still in possession, Dobie’s debut full-length would force me to shred it. This is not fun bass. This is not even Marks & Spencer’s bass. This is relentless, filthy bass – the kind that throbs through your head when you’re horrifically hungover on a bus and you accidentally lean it against the shuddering, vibrating window. It’s not the whirring and wobbing of dial-up modem mainstream dubstep but rather the ominous, water-shakes-in-the-glass boom of a particularly rhythmic Tyrannosaurus Rex approaching.

Anthony Campbell, a.k.a. Dobie, has loomed large on the UK production scene since the late 80s, working with everyone from Soul II Soul and Massive Attack to London Posse and Björk. Since allied with bass label Big Dada, he last year released two appetite-whetting EPs, and has now returned with a full-length, as well as an accompanying exhibition of his skate/hip-hop based photography and an  essay on his music and life by cultural commentator Jason Jules. Topped off with album art from Turner prize winner, and friend, Chris Ofili, this is the measured, thought-out return from an evidently respected artist.

The first half of We Will Not Harm You is an uppercut in bass-form. Opening track, ‘The Beginning’, plunges straight in with jarring synths and pounding sub-bass intercut, like a B-grade sci-fi soundtrack, with cries of “We will not harm you!” – Dobie is in fact so keen to reassure his listeners that this later repeats in a track of its own, ‘Skit’. Next up, the slightly less intense ‘Blip 124’ brings throbbing house over a thundering undercurrent of four-to-the-floor, yep, you guessed it, shuddering bass. It only gets darker, with ‘Then I Woke Up’ kicking off with nightmarish squeals, ominous synths and the faint ringing of alarms before smacking the listener with a chuntering bass break before introducing Space Oddity-style ascending, washed out synths. Best of all is first single, ‘She Moans’, essentially a wall-of-bass topped with tropical, drum-n-bass percussion – the sound of dubstep being deconstructed.

Thankfully, as one’s ears, eyes, and jaw muscles need a break by this point, Dobie relents with ‘Somewhere Over There’, a bass-free airy interlude of dream-pop synths and soulful piano. Instrumental hip-hop tracks ‘Crunch Factor No. 5’ and ‘The Chant’ also allow the listener to catch their breath – definitely necessary breaks in the record but equally slightly below the standard of the rest of the record.  Like the soundtrack of a night, becoming ever-more intense before peaking, pausing, and eventually taking it down a notch, the end of the album is much less bass-centric, instead sliding into spacey electronica (though, naturally, there’s still some sub-bass in evidence). Closing track ‘She Wiggles When She Walks’ is particularly successful, combining disjointed breaks with light-handed synths and experimental bleeping; perfect 7am after-party music.

By its very nature, electronic music is often at its best when repetitive; but it’s a fine line to tread between satisfying and dull. We Will Not Harm You is well-crafted enough that the looping repetition is pleasing, with the dominant bass thwacking out grooves which just play on and on. 

7/10