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: 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.

 

Album Review: Falty DL – ‘Hardcourage’

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A native New Yorker who’s long lingered on the London scene, producer FaltyDL has quite the enviable musical CV. Two LPs through Planet Mu, accompanying singles and EPs with Swamp 81 and All City Recordings amongst others; he’s opened for Radiohead, remixed everyone from the xx to Scuba, and as a result can boast B-side remixes from Mike Q, Gold Panda and Four Tet on his new album Hardcourage. With his genre-jumping list of collaborators, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the man himself, Drew Lustman, finds it hard to sonically pin himself down, culminating in a distinct sound which blends house, techno, and UK garage alongside myriad less distinct influences.

On his latest full-length, his first with London’s Ninja Tune, Lustman has edged away from his normal sound, an American spin on UKG, and has instead embraced the styles of minimal house and soul-referencing electronica. Hardcourage is a consistently upbeat, uplifting record, often openly displaying the high-flying passions of a man who’s fallen hard and fast – it comes as no surprise to hear that it was inspired by a new love and muse, a soundtrack to falling in love that Lustman didn’t originally intend to give a public release.

It is at its highest peaks of emotion, at its most vulnerably honest that Hardcourage is most affecting. With ‘Straight & Arrow’, Falty starts off in a fairly generic rave-house gear, but as the beat is layered with squelching synths and a jittering chopped and filtered vocal, it swerves into territory not dissimilar to Jamie xx’s reworking of Gil Scott-Heron as the sample flickers over the shuffling, ponderous house beat. On ‘She Sleeps’, Lustman is joined by Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane, whose beautifully silky descant soars over a gorgeous, post-coital utopia composed of thudding sub-bass and loose hi-hats; a clever combination of indietronica and smooth, minimal house. On perhaps the most conventionally “FaltyDL” sounding track on Hardcourage, ‘Kenny Rolls One Up’, the mood remains assured and content, with a sunny break-beat and warm, washing fuzz backing euphoric synth stabs and more trademark loose hi-hats.

At the risk of sounding inadvertently Fifty Shades Of Grey, the album’s chief charm is its tight-rope balance between airy sweetness and determined, insidious force. For alongside the shameless, loved up electronica lie a few darker tracks, like post-dubstep ‘Uncea’ and ‘Finally Some Shit/The Rain Stopped’ – an unusual mix of heavy bass, barely audible incomprehensible spoken samples, and pitter-patter percussion, which sounds as if it was created with all those satisfying, weird little instruments from primary school, graters and shakers alike. The outright, quasi-religious euphoria and the underlying determination come together on ‘Bells’, whose looping angelic synths crescendo into slinky sax and wheeling violins over a thudding, glitch-laden beat. It’s like Crystal Castles playing a Valentine’s Day set.

From its artwork to its influences, Hardcourage is an evidently retrospective album, revelling in its references to all kinds of forerunners. Thanks to Falty DL’s wide-ranging tastes though, the unusual combinations come together to make something uniquely his. A record for bedroom chilling that has more than enough clout to slot into dance floor sets, it’s a refreshingly vital take on the heavily worked over source material.