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.

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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: 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: 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.

Album Review: Phaeleh – ‘Tides’

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

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

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

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

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