Sunday, 28 February 2021

Missed Connections

You ever find a track or an album and find yourself thinking 'Man, had I found this X years / months / etc. ago I would have been really into this?" It's something I'd not really considered myself until recently but it has happened to me a few times now. When it does happen it makes me feel a little sad in a sense - if only I'd have found these tracks earlier, y''know? Still there's no time like the present is there, So I'm going to scroll through my archives and see what I can come up with that I remember this happening with.

Nina Tokhtaman Valetova - Entropy (2015)

Above & Beyond are one of those acts that gets recommended to me a lot but I've never really taken a deep dive on, I like bits and pieces of what I've heard and their remixes from time to time though. One thing I did see come up again and again on my semi-regular trips into the world of Trance was the one and so far only OceanLab album. Sirens Of The Sea has that distinct Anjunabeats style on the cover, with liberal use of Helvetica as so many other techy trancy covers did at the time - I've been aware of it but never really listened, put off a bit by the 'Vocal Trance' label which in my experience hasn't been great (though hypocritically I do have that love for the 90's stuff that probably falls under that label). Still, I really liked 'Satellite' around the time it came out, I figured I could at least see what the album had in store.

While tracks like 'Satellite' are in the spirit of Trance as I know it - there's quite a bit of variety in sound on here, though as mentioned above, I do only really swim around in the shallow end when it comes to the genre (no pun intended!). Tracks like On A Good Day take me right back to when I was really getting into Progressive House around Dadmau5's Random Album Title era. I still carry a bit of a torch for this sound, admittedly a bit tinged by nostalgia, but I can't help but smile a little bit when the drop approaches. It totally could have been one of those tracks that bled onto the radio in that time, it was in fact released as a single but in 2009, so it was well within that window. And this is really the track that spurred this post - I still like it for sure, though IMO the piano has dated a bit - but man, back then the younger Van Foxbat would be so into this.

TeddyLoid next - an artist that's been a bit of a mixed bag for me. See, the reason I went to check out TeddyLoid in the first place is because of the beautifully bombastic Fly Away, a track that in the spirit of this post takes me right back to the glory days of Blog House and that I would be lying if I didn't say I loved. So on the strength of that I looked up 'Loid's other stuff, and it's true that you find quite a few tracks in the same vein - but you also get some dubstep digressions in there as well, the kind you might expect of the mid 2010s era, the kind that's perhaps a tad obnoxious. I don't mean that as a knock to the tracks themselves - they are absolutely well made and (as is the point of this post!) would have been supremely up my alley around the time. That's also not to say there isn't the occasional track that I still kinda like despite all of that.

All You Ever Need combines my love of euphoric trance with these supremely powerful electro stabs that I can't deny still stir something in me. Lion Rebels too, while being one of the biggest offenders for the out and out robo-wub dubstep sound has it's moments to shine - that vocal break with TeddyLoid's now trademark autotune treatment (which again I am biased towards) sounds brilliant. The full track is this interesting clash of then contemporary dubstep, the dancehall stuff that Dubstep was incorporating around the time and topped with with Japanese vocals instead (at least until that break). The whole concoction is an an interesting mix even if it's not for you.

Apologies for the 40 second previews, the version of this album on streaming is the 'Reloaded' version which has a different mix on it. To make up for it I'm including the two I mentioned above.

Bringing it full circle with more dubstep, this time in the classic style. As the title of this compilation suggests, this is all hand-picked Skream tracks circa 2004-2006 which is a little before I got into dubstep proper but is still my favourite era of it's sound. I found these completely by happenstance when looking over discogs to see who had official bandcamps (because BC's search function sometimes bugs out a bit). There's not as much on there as I was expecting, not just from his main discography there was a time when Skream used to give out free EPs of bits and pieces every so often and Bandcamp is a pretty perfect platform for that. Though having said that, there were plenty of bootleg re/mixes on those free EPs so it might be a bit of a rights minefield.

But I digress, onto this compilation: These tracks are definitely not as refined as the ones actually released around the time (something that's only highlighted more if you go back and listen to Skream's deubt from '06 as I did after hearing this) but I think that's to be expected with the 'Unreleased' label and all - from an archival front it's nice to see tracks like this see the light of day as well. Over the three volumes it's really interesting to see Skream's sound develop and change with both experience and access to technology - while the later ones may be a little more slick in their production, I do still love me a dubplate that sounds like it was knocked out in someone's bedroom one weekend like this one.

And that'll wrap it up for this time. This was meant to be a little quickie, but since I had to jumble up the post with the Daft Punk announcement so I came back and added a bit to this one. It's been a fairly productive week, I've tried to focus a bit more on writing new stuff rather than restoring - which apart from me biting off a bit more than is comfortable with the Moby Retro Review has been surprisingly smooth sailing, I'll try and keep it up!

And as always, stay safe and enjoy the music.


Thursday, 25 February 2021

Retro Reviews: Moby - 18

It's been a long time since I've done one of these hasn't it? About 5 months by my count. This week is an album that I've been meaning to look at for a long time, I was originally going to be covering it's demographic-crossing older brother Play but I think it'd be much more interesting to focus on the follow up to that one - 18. However, there are still going to be tons of comparisons between the two as they are intrinsically linked - with the added benefit of nearly 20 years of hinsight this is going to be one of the more detailed Retro Reviews I've done (And I am now kicking myself for not calling this series Retro Perspectives instead).

It's an curious tale for sure, it's not technically Moby's 'difficult second album', but it might has well have been given the sheer number of people that were suddenly introduced to him via Play, combined with the label naturally wanting more of that sweet licensing money that it brought them in spades. The pressure must have been something else, though Moby says otherwise in interviews from the era, at least on the commercial front. I have a fair few gripes with Moby as a person, but I'm not going to let that influence this piece - I'm trying to keep it about the art and not the artist as it were. It's not somehting that's completely avoidable naturally, but I'm not going to air out all my grievances at once here. And with that, let's begin.

Well, what can you expect from 18? How do you follow up from Play - an album that was originally intended to be your last one, one that suddenly gained massive commercial success 9+ months after it's release? To sum it up slightly cynically: More of the same. It's a methodology I can sympathise with, having worked in the creative space it's very easy and appealing to stick to working with a specific style/format/medium that gains you the most praise from various sources. But with that comes the risk of stagnation. And that's a very real risk: Moby certainly wasn't the only one to be doing stuff in that vein, tracks like Blue Boy's Remember Me from '96 originally, predate Play and tread much the same ground, albeit in a more Big Beat style rather than Downtempo.

18 was Recorded between 2000 and 2002 - a fairly significant amount of time all things considered, (but still around the same time it took to record Play) and as was the case with so many albums at the time with a slight delay to alter some content in the wake of 9/11, an event that must have been particularly traumatic for Moby given his home studio was in Manhattan. Would a quicker release have helped a little bit? Maybe, but you'd run the risk of burning people out or having a slightly unfinished record if you chucked it out as soon as possible.

18 also marks a change in method when it comes to Moby's production, transitioning to software based production using ProTools - on the whole there are much less samples than on Play, but they aren't completely absent. There's plenty to be said about Moby's use of samples and his choice of them - these are typically R&B, Soul or even Gospel records. Some tracks from Play where pretty much entirely sample based, Run On for example was pretty much the entire original 'Run On for a Long Time' from Bill Landford and The Landfordairs, just with some additional noodling from Moby. I'm not going to touch too much on the ethical side of things here (and I've made my opinion known in the past anyway), but these samples definitely contribute a lot to that sound that defined Moby's work at the time - and it's always interesting to hear an Artist's influences in that way. Cutting back on them was a wise move both for Moby to start to further define his original works, and probably cut costs by not having to licence as many samples, but in doing so potentially alienates some of that popular audience that was attracted to Play in the first place.

But enough Preamble - let's talk the actual music. 18 opens in quite a bold fashion compared to the sample heavy Honey from the last album, instead we have We Are All Made Of Stars: an all-original song that does away with the electronics almost entirely and swaps it out for an of-the-era rock sound. A late addition to the album, penned after 9/11 and chosen as the lead single from the album - it's an odd choice for certain. One that I'd argue is deliberate though, what better way toe expand your radio appeal in the early 00's than going with some fairly safe pop-rock? Intended to 'inspire hope', It may come across as a little trite now both lyrically and musically but it's not bad, but certainly alienating (no pun intended) to anyone looking for something similar to the last album.

It's not long before echoes of Play come back though - In This World could have easily been a B-Side from the last album. While there are less samples this time around, the ones that are there are excellently sourced. Based around the incredibly powerful vocal from 'Lord Don't Leave Me' by The Davis Sisters, it's the distilled essence of the sound of Moby from this era - backed with piano chords and lush (if a bit overwrought) strings. It is still very well produced no doubt and perhaps it's the nostalgia talking but I do still like it. There is however that undeniable commercial slant to the entire thing, tracks like this are totally advertising bait (and it was in fact used as such by Renault) - but whether the track itself sounds inherently commercial, or that is just the benefit of hindsight I'm not so sure.

The trend continues on the next track (and single), with the similarly titled In My Heart opening with dancing piano arpeggios that you will certainly have heard in some promotional video or in the background of a TV show at some point, garnished with the now expected gospel sample. Great Escape deviates from this quite substantially though - featuring dream pop duo Azure Ray on the vocal front, it's an almost ambient showcase of strings that's a bit underwhelming. The vocals are great but they're let down by the cliché string accompaniment. Though admittedly there may be some bias to that as I'm not a huge fan of strings like this anyway but I can't help feel it would be improved were it more akin to something like UNKLE's Chaos for example.

On the flipside, Signs Of Love is where I think Moby shines through, it's got more in common with some of my favourite underrated bits from Play like If Things Were Perfect. Rather than the moody melancholy of Perfect though, Signs has that more uplifting sound that opened the album, at least on the instrumentation - the lyrical content can be a bit bleak at times. Having said that, Moby's slightly treated vocals are a treat to listen to too, they're much more melodic than that example from Play. I think it's aged much more gracefully than some tracks here - while it's still very clearly a product of the early 2000's it sounds a fair bit fresher. Though maybe that's a virtue of this one not being completely overplayed as it wasn't a single.

One Of These Mornings also fits this bill, and is one of my favourite barring the big 6 singles. Once again Moby's choice in samples remains stellar - the vocal taken from from The Caravans 'Walk Around Heaven All Day' is incredibly powerful. There's not a real lot done to the sample in the grand scheme of things, but it is still more varied than some other examples from Moby's catalogue, rather than just repeating over and over a la Honey for example. For me, this is one of the standout tracks on the album, partially because it's not one that's been played out to death as a single. It still suffers a bit from those grandiose string swells in the second half but that could just be my personal bias at show again, the first half is absolutely lovely either way. Slightly off topic, but there's also a version Moby re-did with Patti LaBelle on the vocals for the 2006 Miami Vice movie - the instrumentation on that one is slightly updated for the era, much more sedate than the album version, which lets Patti's vocal take centre stage. I think I still prefer the album version, but it's interesting to hear an updated, 100% sample-less version nonetheless.

I was originally going to try and skip over as many tracks that were singles as possible, but so far I'm at 3/6 and I'm about to make it four. If tracks like In This World and the like were Moby fishing for those sweet advertising licences, then Extreme Ways is him angling to do the same for film soundtracks. Moby had been featured on plenty of film soundtracks before this already, as evidenced by the existence of the cheekily titled 'I Like To Score' compilation, But even then there is an undeniably intentional 'cinematic' sound to this one - I always thought the high tension screeching strings of the intro may have been influenced by Moby's work with the James Bond Theme from '97, though that mix is a more standard techno/breakbeat affair. It's another standout of the tracklist just because of how different it is by virtue of leaning on that more pop-rock sound again, though bits of the rest of 18's sound do peek through on the choruses.

We're at the mid-point in the tracklist now, and it takes a little bit of a turn. Jam For The Ladies evokes the more Hip Hop parts of previous albums, Honey for starters - and a great bit of wordplay on the title: with MC Lyte and Angie Stone on the vocals and an overall theme of empowerment the track is a Jam For the ladies and not a Jam for the ladies. But man is it ever retro sounding, and not in an early 2000's way - parts of Jam sound almost 90's in their execution (though I think that may have been the point). It's not a bad track by any means, but it does stick out on the album in terms of sound for better or worse.

But Jam also marks the end of any upbeat moments (barring a few exceptions) - from here on out the rest of the album is firmly in downtempo territory. We have another single next too - Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday). As is to be expected at this point Moby's sample choices remain on point, this time Sunday by Sylvia Robinson. The sample is a little bit more jarringly cut this time around - there's distinct stops as cuts from the original end, it's a problem that's not really avoidable and not a complaint, but other tracks on this album definitely sound smoother. Other than that, at the risk of sounding reductive this one is more of the same: Radio friendly electronica. The Piano on this one sounds a little stiff, distinctly digital (which to be fair, it probably was), but there are other flourishes I appreciate - flashes of acoustic guitar and lavishings of other lush synths over the top mitigate that a bit.

It's at this point the album hits a bit of a rocky patch for me. The title track 18 is a bit if a let down. There's nothing wrong with it and it's not bad really, but it is just yet another piano & strings piece in a sea of them, this time with no sample to inject some flavour into it. The intro is lovely - but it soon falls into the same trap of becoming needlessly grandiose again. And that's really my main complaint with 18 as a whole, there are no really bad bits of the album - just bits where it's just a bit bland, something that only gets more pronounced as we're very familiar with the formula at this point.

It rebounds nicely on Sleep Alone though; actually going against the tried and tested formula that I just talked about. This is by far the most Trip-Hop style track on the album, a change up in style that the album could have used more of scattered throughout. This is also one of the tracks that had some alterations done to it in the wake of 9/11. It's easy with hindsight to criticise the changes as being over-encompassing but I think the changes made here actually work better: "Pieces of fire touch your hair" being replaced with "Pieces of light" is an improvement for sure, I think the changed line sounds nicer and fits better with the overall moody melancholy of the track. Though having said that I'm surprised that the some lines like "City once full of people... is desolate" made it in unaltered.

At Least We Tried returns to that now staple format once again though, to the point where I mistakenly believed that the vocal on this one was sampled as well. Turns out it's not, and is original from Freedom Bremner. You can forgive me for thinking that though as it's about as repetitive as the sampled vocals, it wouldn't have hurt to have an extra verse or two there for variety.

Harbour is a slightly odd one again, apparently originally written by Moby in 1984, it again leans back on that pop-rock vibe. It's an interesting move for sure, as someone in the creative field it's not often you can go back to an older piece and not be struck by how much you've improved since then! The guitar backing here is a welcome addition, it sounds great and is a refreshing change of pace - especially those distant solos put in here and there. The string backing does return on the choruses but it's a little more sedate than previous tracks and I think actually compliments well with Sinead O'Connor's vocal here. I'm not so sure about they lyrical content in spots, but I can't deny that Sinead's treatment of them is brilliant.

We're entering the final stretch now: Look Back In shares a little bit more sound history with Play once again - the hazy beats of this one sounding a little like Down Slow. While fairly short, it's not long before it also falls victim to the curse of the strings on this album, and as a result it comes out sounding like one of the most corporate songs on here.

The Rafters, by contrast is an absolutely brilliant piece, right from the get-go we're hit with a distinctly different flavour of sample, setting up with a House style build up too (one time where an overly MIDI sounding Piano is actually a good thing!). When the full fat of the track kicks in its like night & day - as good of a sound that Moby's use of the R&B / Gospel has throughout the majority of this album, I think it would have been wise to embrace this sound a little bit more too: Gospel isn't always the slightly dreary melancholy that most of the past samples have been. The upbeat nature of this track is just so infectiously catchy that I can't believe that there isn't more of it to be had on the album, or that this wasn't one of the singles either - it would have played excellently into that 'inspiring hope' angle that Moby envisioned as well.

And finally: I'm Not Worried At All. Actually another one of my favourites and I think a great album closer, though it does end a little abruptly. It's again another one of those tracks where it doesn't feel like much has been done to the sample other than cutting it up into bits, but I think in this case it works really well. And for as much as I've knocked the piano & strings formula in the latter half of this overview, I can't deny that it works really, really well here - could be that it's not quite as overpowering as on previous tracks. It's a beautiful piece, one that I think genuinely does capture that hopeful vibe Moby had in mind. Honourable mention to the source of the sample in 'He'll Roll Your Burdens Away' by The Banks Brothers and The Greater Harvest Back Home Choir for being a major source of that feeling.

It's worth noting that after 18 Moby's next album - 2005's Hotel, leans more toward the rock front again. Perhaps disappointing for fans, but just think how much the electronic landscape changed between those years, a re-run of something like Play or 18 would have sounded pretty dated by then. Truth be told I haven't kept up with many of his releases past this point so I can't really comment further! Closing thoughts - if you're a fan of Play, 18 is worth a listen for sure - it was always going to be difficult to follow up that album but I think 18 does a good job of it, though perhaps lacking that instant pop appeal of the previous album in places. It has its moments where it stumbles but it comes back around by the end. On the whole it is a fine album, but overexposure and time have made it perhaps a bit more generic than when it was new. It's probably for the best that Moby moved away from this style after this album though, I don't know if it'd stretch to another full length, which is fine as these two albums together provide more than enough to get stuck into as-is, doubly so if you pick up the respective B-Side albums for each of them as well.

Apologies for the length and if this feels a bit fragmented. It's easily the longest Retro Review I've done so far and I've done it in bits across multiple days, I've tried to proof-read before publishing but some errors may have slipped through. Still, this was a fun exercise, though the length may have put me off doing another for a while! But as always: Stay safe and enjoy the music.


Monday, 22 February 2021

Our Work Is (Never) Over

Where do I begin here? Well, it hurts a bit that's for sure. I'm probably really underselling it there: I owe Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo a hell of a lot, for if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have followed a link on a Daft Punk fansite years ago that led to this very page you are reading now. And that's just this blog - not to mention the thousands of hours I've gotten out of their discography both as Daft Punk and in their respective solo efforts.

I wish they'd have left it till 22/2/22 to keep it cyclical with their adoption of the robot personas on 9/9/99 actually! The re-use of the imagery from Electroma where Bangalter's persona is destroyed and Guy-Manuel continues to walk off into the sunset, while fitting, makes me feel like there's going to be a million and one conspiracies about the two splitting on uneven terms or something. Not that we'll probably know, the two were very secretive and who can blame them after all? Besides, the Robot personas were just so cool to boot.

I'm kind of jumping all over the place here so apologies, but I have a lot of feelings to work through. I appreciate each of their albums in it's own unique way, would I have liked another album from the two? Sure, but Random Access Memories is also a great bookend to their career, it was a real labour of love as evidenced by the inclusion of Giorgio Moroder and all the tales about little touches that the two would do, like choosing a certain microphone to record an individual element that only goes to show how true that is.

As varied as their discography, the various collaborations also make their output unique to boot, with no fewer than 3 films to their name in the forms of D.A.F.T, a full on original anime feature film in Interstella 5555 to the art house cinema of Electroma that is the source of this video. Discovery may be one of my favourite albums of all time for sure, but it being essentially one giant music video when twinned with Interstella takes it beyond just music - it's one of my favourite experiences of all time.

This is the fourth time I've seen one of my all time favourites disband. First with DJ Mehdi, gone before his time. Second with Broadcast, cut short by the untimely death of Trish Keenan. And third in The Knife, that one hit me something fierce as they too are responsible for one of my favourite albums of all time in Silent Shout. Does it get easier? Not really, but at least this way there's still the prospect of solo work from the two of them. If you've yet to check out Roulé or Crydamoure I highly recommend it - they are quite different from the output of their combined works, but there are some real golden tracks on both of them.

So while there won't be any more 'Daft Punk' records for the time being, there's still more than enough to get stuck into if you go looking - beyond just the main albums there's a world of bootlegs, remixes, rarities and live sets to keep you going. They might not be around anymore but their music lives on, and music is forever.

I leave you now with one of my favourite bits of Daft Punk video - I was going to chuck the Encore from Alive 2007 here because that absolutely blew me away the first time I saw it (and it too, is an almost perfect retrospective of their discography both solo and together up until that point) but I suddenly had a memory trigger in my head as I was about to go looking, and I figured I'd mix it up since everyone's going to be talking about their robot personas today. So instead here is a then relatively unknown Daft Punk playing their first ever live show in the USA at Even Further in Wisconsin. I just love the raw energy of it, these rough as hell live versions of tracks from Homework, the squealing 303s, and the fact you can see Bangalter get so into it even in the first 30 seconds is just brilliantly infectious.

It's a stark contrast from their funkier output later on, but I personally love all sides of Daft Punk. Discovery is certainly the more accessible album, but Homework has its moments like Da Funk and Around The World that made a big splash on their release and almost heralded what Daft Punk would become. So, I thought I'd shine some light on it to close out on. This piece of video is a great piece of electronic music history and I'm so happy it's been preserved all these years later.

The two have certainly earned their place in the history of electronic music and their legacy will continue for years to come. As I said way back at the top, I wouldn't be here writing this had I not fallen into a Daft Punk Superfan™ phase all those years ago, so perhaps I owe them more than some. So play them out One More Time, and as always - stay safe and enjoy the music.


Friday, 19 February 2021

In The Meantime...

Natalia Goncharova - La Forêt [The Forest] (1913)

I thought I'd have the Retro Review done in due time, but it's turning out to be a bigger job than I thought. So in lieu of making you wait for however long it takes, I'm here to write another quick one to stem the tide. Been enjoying a lot of late 90's stuff as of late, keeping it vaguely Warp themed we have Björk's Homogenic. I say vaguely because this album has a bunch of production work done by Mark Bell of LFO as well as Guy Sigsworth and others. Together they make this album have a great hi-tech feel, not quite the same as the bleepy techno of the early 90's I've mentioned a lot recently, but of the same sphere. That's of course not even mentioning Björk's vocal work - which is as stunning as always. The big one from this album is obviously All Is Full Of Love (though I prefer the Single version to the one on the album), but I think my favourite might have to be Immature.

All this Warp talk as of late and I've not even mentioned perhaps the act most associated with them - the eternal Aphex Twin. Keeping it late 90's too with the Richard D. James Album and it, too, is an incredibly futuristic piece. I believe this is around the time Aphex was moving from analogue to pure digital production and the difference is pretty clear. The album before this (...I Care Because You Do) had an air of DIY to it, a lot of rough sounds and crunchy bits. In contrast the RDJ Album is smooth as all get out, even when the beats are being mangled. The unassumingly titled 4 is absolutely stunning for a track from 1996, and I believe it to be one of the best opening tracks of an album that I have heard so far.

And finally, Rei Harakami again. I've said in previous posts how I can't believe it took me so long to get into Harakami's works, especially considering they were always recommended to me. Now that I have though, I love them all a whole lot, to the point where I've had to stop myself from just making entire posts about bits and pieces of his works (not that I don't want to, but I thought I'd save them for a rainy day!). Unlike the last times I've brought Harakami up though, today we're keeping in theme and talking about his debut album from 1997 - Unrest.

The tracks I've shared in the past all show off Harakami's unique style of almost ambient electronic - and you can definitely hear signposts of where his sound would evolve even on this record, which still has that downtempo but not quite fully downtempo feel. Tracks like this are exactly why I love Harakami's work so much, from the opening it simply nails his brand of lusciously smooth electronic and it only gets better from there with smatterings of flourishes scattered throughout and that bouncy bass line make it a joy to listen to. His works are also quite easy to get hold of too, as they were re-issued around 2015 and are readily available digitally as you can see here. If you like what you hear here, I would dive right into one of his later album [Lust] for more of the same!

As always, stay safe and enjoy the music.