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.

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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.

Album Review: Lescop – ‘Lescop’

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Whether it’s due to our weak linguistic skills or perhaps the sheer quantity (and undeniable quality) of our mother tongue’s musical output, the British don’t usually experiment much with non-English language bands. The rest of Europe cheerfully listens to anything with a good tune; be it in their native language, beautifully misheard English, or whatever else, they’ll give it a spin and an objective listen. Successful non-English acts have been relatively few and far between in the UK though, with Sigur Rós, that ‘Numa Numa’ song and Rammstein the exceptions rather than the rule. Maybe it’s a result of all those Eurovision embarrassments. Whatever the reason, it’s a tradition worth breaking for Lescop, a French singer/producer whose work echoes the cool restraint of the xx and the glossy, dark electro-pop of the Drive soundtrack.

Certainly, listening to his debut without understanding the lyrics will take something away from the experience. With fewer plosives than English as well as more unconscious connotations than a train speeding into a tunnel, French has an undeniably romantic association for English speakers – but Lescop isn’t just singing sweet nothings about pamplemousses or going to la piscine. Over his cold-wave disco, he tackles everything from love to punk to Jesse Owens. And thanks to that Thierry Henry advert, it all sounds fantastically sensuous and deep. On ‘Tokyo, La Nuit’, he deadpans “Tokyo, la nuit. Le doubte, la crainte, l’ennui. Tokyo tu vis, dans la mort, le sang, le bruit“ – meaning “Tokyo at night. Doubt, fear, ennui. Tokyo you live, in death, blood, noise” (no need for Google Translate; knew that French degree would come in handy eventually). Whilst it obviously sounds better with a Gallic lilt and a rhyme scheme, that’s a representative sample of both Lescop’s lyrical content and the entire album’s atmosphere – following the lead of the Cure and Joy Division, Lescop consistently achieves a beautiful melancholy, both musically and lyrically, but never forgets to keep his listeners dancing.

Undoubtedly this is serious music – you can dance, but Lescop also wants you to think. As with Daft Punk’s endless spiel about humans being robots and vice versa, he isn’t above pseudo-philosophy, stating “we want our pop to be bipolar; we fight against musical boredom, it’s a controlled chaos, a love story”. And while there’s little sign of the chaos, it’s certainly controlled. Almost invariably, the songs are propelled by metronomic bass pulses, before the chilling synths and Lescop’s assured vocals kick in. It’s cinematic and urgent, but without the lack of depth that could so easily be present. From the soaring, motorway-at-night tension of ‘La Nuit Américaine’ to the 80s noir of ‘Ljubljana’ and the creeping paranoia turned darkest disco of ‘Le Mal Mon Ange’, it’s an impressive debut all round. Though it never truly approaches the dark, opulent glory of Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’, Lescop has a thinner, more analogue sound – there’s more than a hint of Placebo-style dark alt.pop here. Had he actually soundtracked Drive, Gosling would have stopped and thought about all those people he was killing, and probably talked about his feelings a whole lot more.

Though the “I don’t like films with subtitles” crowd will doubtless make their excuses, Lescop remains an extremely easy album to get into, with the only downside being that the constant French can lull you into not giving each song your full attention. Turn out the lights, drag angstily on your Gauloise and dance your most serious dance – vive la vague de froide.

Album Review: ADULT. – ‘The Way Things Fall’

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With a grind of synths and a few involuntary twitches, Detroit’s biggest purveyors of techno paranoia and electro unease are back. After a six year hiatus, husband-and-wife duo ADULT. have returned with their fifth LP; and it’s their most conceptual yet.

Less confrontational than most of their earlier releases, The Way Things Fall marks a shift away from the industrial and towards the accessible, harking back to perhaps their most well-known release: the famously Soulwax-remixed ‘Hand To Phone’. Synth-manipulator Adam Lee Muller describes the record as “the closest we have come to writing traditional ‘pop’ songs… even though we know they’re totally mutants”; and he’s summed it up perfectly. Most of the album’s intros are strongly reminiscent of dark 80s synth-pop, with thin, echoing drumlines and synthesiser-led hooks, but ADULT.’s trademark taste for doom and dread is never far away as Nicola Kuperus’ foreboding, monotone vocals concern themselves, as ever, with only the darkest of themes. There’s no bass guitar to be found on the album, but that merely allows them to avoid the easy scares of make-you-jump horror in favour of pursuing the deeper, claustrophobic fear of an unsettling psychological thriller.

Singles ‘Idle (Second Thoughts)’ and ‘Tonight, We Fall’ are demonstrative of this new style, combining unnerving analogue techno with a pop-edge that calls to mind early Cure records. Thematically grim lyrics underline the anxiety, as Kuperus intones, “Shout if you want to, no-one really cares / Panic if you need to, you’ll still be standing there”. It’s like listening to the Eurythmics, from the bottom of a deep, dark k-hole.These  icy proclamations are what ultimately ties the album together, as Kuperus’ reflections on failed relationships and lost loves create a wider, more universal sense of fear, as the omnipresent undercurrent of paranoia hints at all-encompassing disaster.

Elsewhere, The Way Things Fall maintains the nightmarish fever pitch, as the dark pulse of ‘Love Lies’ clashes with high, unnerving synths – and the rich, delirious vocals loop “Love lies, it’s no surprise, it’s your demise”. Finally, ‘We Will Rest’’s metronomic synths lead into alien glitches and a sinister nursery-rhyme melody, and Kuperus’ apocalyptic visions seemingly come to pass, as she deadpans “We will rest like sinking ships”, as the outro’s clanging ship’s bell signals the end of the world, and the album.

Despite its relative smooth polish, The Way Things Fall is consistently creepy; a gothic, glitch-ridden Kraftwerk, accompanied by the vocalisation of those haunting thoughts that come to you as you’re trying to fall asleep. Like horror films or ghost stories, the upside of ADULT.’s brand of dark paranoia is its visceral thrill; it’s as nasty as electro can get whilst maintaining a remnant of a reassuring pop edge.

Album Review: Letherette – ‘Letherette’

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With chopped, falsetto vocals, filthy funk bass, and many a formaggio guitar solo lurking, it’s not hard to see that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been a key inspiration to young pretenders Letherette – there’s even a photo of the Wolverhampton duo imitating their Parisian muses, DJing behind D.I.Y. masks, to be found online. So, for those of you who’ve been waiting since 2005, Andy Harber and Richard Roberts’ debut release will certainly tide you over until May.

Admittedly, the start of Letherette is dominated by just the sort of careening synth scales that so defined Discovery,with lead single ‘D&T’ a perfectly plausible Daft Punk album track, all housefunk and squealing falsetto samples. ‘Warstones’ – an instant, exuberant highlight – has been resurrected from an earlier EP and is still clearly channelling the robot-masked-ones. But, it’s so good that if you put it up online as a Random Access Memories leak, much of the internet would be lost in the ensuing exaltation. Whilst the inspiration is clear, Letherette add trickling, shimmering synths never yet heard on a DP release, as well as a pounding house beat that’s more reminiscent of His Majesty Andre than the discofunk of Bangalter and Homem-Christo, stamping their own mark on the sound.

Though the boys have evidently done their homework and made a few important discoveries regarding French electro, there’s more to them than mere copycat soundalikes. Another sky-rocketing success is the effect-laden, sub-aquatic bass of ‘The One’, which features borderline Timbaland ‘boom-click-boom’ percussion and warm, washing synths before diving into throbbing bass and driving, dubby house more akin to Justice’s ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ than anything Daft Punkian. Elsewhere opener ‘After Dawn’’s warm space synths and liquid, rumbling bass call to mind MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular.

Along with the aforementioned disco -house, prog is certainly a core influence on Letherette. The album’s very structure – slow, soaring intro, pulsing energy, ambient intermission, more disco exuberance, and a dreamy closing comedown – lends it an immersive, spacious mood. Mid-album interlude ‘Gas Stations and Restaurants’ drips echoing ambience and psychedelic vocals, building into the slow grooving ‘Cold Clam’, where a niggling loop and shimmering synths creating a more downbeat Massive Attack-styled sound – again, indicative of Letherette’s sonic breadth of vision. Final word ‘Say The Sun’ is an exercise in restrained euphoria, with calm synth loops laid over a proggy beat – an electronic equivalent of ‘Wish You Were Here’, wafting you back to reality.

Despite something of a slow start (the first few tracks are a little too “sub-par Daft Punk”, a little too derivative), Letherette builds into an expansive, absorbing album, spanning a huge variety of influences and threading them together impressively within a coherent framework. Like Messieurs Bangalter et Homem-Christo, it’s dance music that effortlessly transcends day and night, and is fluid enough to please aficionados of many genres. Though the Parisian goliaths return this summer, it seems unlikely that this Wolverhampton duo will be lost in their shadows.

Album Review: Mekon – ‘Piece of Work’

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Despite having spent the ‘80s and ‘90s pushing the boundaries of electronic music with Psychic TV and other projects, John Gosling shows no sign of letting up any time soon. Known these days as Mekon, his fourth album Piece of Work is a riotous explosion, ranging from ear-worm electro-pop to grinding industrial but always maintaining its freshness and fervour. United by a consistently industrial, urban sound, the album conjures euphoria and despair equally effectively.

Whilst most recent “dark” electronic records rely on ferocious bass and sub-bass to create their tension and portentous atmosphere, Piece of Work whips up its doom-laden vibe with the help of older, industrial tricks. First single ‘Bin Therrre’ is a case in point, with its relentless chop-change synths building into grinding, glitchy techno. Elsewhere the aptly named ‘Disco Bloodbath’ is as Patrick Bateman-channelling as you would expect, all Hitchcockian strings and hi-hat rolls, before it plunges into disconcerting, demanding techno, reminiscent of the Fake Blood’s more cinematic tracks.

But it’s not all gloom and dancey dancey doom. Mekon keeps the record carefully balanced, as well as interestingly varied, by including bursts of outright joy, ambience, and neo-classicism alongside the darker tracks. Over the smooth electro-pop groove of opener ‘When I Was Walt Whitman’, a lazily self-assured voice sighs, “When I was Walt Whitman, boy, you should have fucking seen me”, as the backing synths ascend higher and higher. It’s insidious, smug, and one hell of a start. No less euphoric is the Balearic ‘No Business I Know’, which swoons and shimmers like a minimal version of Jacques Lu Cont’s ‘Church’ with added big-beat, Orbital-esque propulsive drops. Best of all is the Cleo Torrez featuring ‘Kicks’; blasting drums and spacey pitch-bent synths form a rousing backing as Cleo gives an M.I.A.-like turn of epic, meaningless, cool. The first line, “So raise your sunglasses with authority off the bridge of your nose, stop making a killing”, spat in her distinctive, Maxi Jazz accented vocals, says it all.

A master of the collaborative approach, Mekon’s well chosen guest vocalists only enhance his carefully crafted instrumentals. Torrez’s other guest slot, on ‘Wasted Mind’, sees her producing Kim Deal worthy wails alternated with languid rap over sleazy new wave beats, whilst Marco Pirroni (of Adam and the Ants) and Schooly D’s  contribution to ‘Hardcore’ provides retro gangsta rap and punk funk in equal measure over the grimey looping synths. It’s Rita Brown who gets the last word though, spitting in filthy perfection, “We were Franciscan nuns, we had it off with scum” on the excellent ‘Ravageable’ – a new filthy-electro playmate for Soulwax’s ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ remix.

A thirty-five minute rollercoaster ride, Piece of Work will leave you raving and craving for more. Much like his old contemporaries Orbital and their Wonky, Mekon has managed the clever trick of staying true to his ‘90s big-beat roots, whilst simultaneously sounding vital and relevant. In the mercurial ever-changing world of electro, that’s no mean feat.

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: Proxy – ‘Music From The Eastblock Jungles’

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After making his name with ferocious Soviet electro tracks like ‘Raven’ and ‘Dance in Dark’, everything regarding one Evgeny Pozharnov went rather quiet. Whilst Pussy Riot have been taking all of the Russian music-based headlines, Pozharnov, a.k.a. Proxy has been cut off in Vladivostok, one of Russian easternmost cities, drawing together tracks both old and new for his debut album, Music From The Eastblock Jungles, presented in two parts.

Now, first up, let’s address the Russian thing. It’s hard to be objective once you already know the producer’s nationality, but there’s something about Proxy’s ominous, threatening soundscapes that seems inescapably Russian. Obviously that’s a ridiculous statement, but just as Oasis could never have come from Sussex, there’s no denying that you’d be hard put to make such menacing, dystopian music in Florida. From thunderous opener ‘Red Juke’ – a techno play on Darth Vader’s imperial march – to ambient closer ‘Nanomed’, there’s an unmistakably militaristic running through Music From The Eastblock Jungle, a darkness which invokes Russia’s dark history, its unforgiving climate, and all of the dystopian anti-communist prophecies which the West have ever cast.

The album’s other dominant influence comes from the antithesis of the terrifying Russia of 80s capitalist nightmares. It comes from Essex. As a small child, I was disproportionately terrified by the sight of Keith Flint, stomping around in a tunnel, shouting through the TV screen. Around the same time, Proxy must have seen the same video, and had a completely different reaction. Echoes of the Prodigy’s furious, synthpunk aggression can be found throughout Proxy’s work –particularly evident here on deep-bass romp ‘Raja Ganja’, lilting dub ‘In Time (Skit)’, and brooding rollercoaster ‘Shut Up!’.

The album’s two parts are clearly defined, allowing Proxy to thread together the various genres covered but still maintaining the record’s signature sound. Part I is broadly a dark take on traditional rave, with DnB, bass, and techno influences united by Proxy’s gritty, relentless production, whilst Part II becomes rather less bass-focused, but no less menacing, as thunders on through acid house, instrumental hip-hop and ambient influences. Though less bass means less tension, the tempo ramps up and intense, somewhat manic synths dominate instead, as on the jostling, aggressive ‘Indian Film’ (another pre-existing release) or the insinuating acid grooves of ‘Audio 15’.

And Proxy is evidently a man who believes reality to be just as dark as his music. In a pseudo-maniacal soundbite, presumably delivered as he towered over a captured superhero, cackling on a skyscraper’s roof, he dramatically states “You were never free from the inevitable. Perhaps now you will see”. It’s been well worth the wait, and this collection of hit releases, rarities and new tracks comes together to paint an alarmingly grim picture of Proxy’s Russia.