Friday 8 July 2022

Retro Reviews: µ-Ziq - Lunatic Harness

It's been a while since I sat down and did one of these long form Retro Reviews, and there's been one album staring me i nthe face all this time that I can't really figure out why I didn't do one of it already, though I think I might have done a quick overview of it way back when. Regardless, we're here now - taking a look at µ-Ziq's 4th LP, Lunatic Harness, which is especially topical because like Daft Punk's Homework it is also getting an expanded reissue this year.

I have always loved the cover art, it's very iconic and very well composed. I will admit that I have a weakness for Helvetica in all its forms, but the way it pops on that orange background is just lovely. It's a bit odd for this series for me to dive into the middle of things, normally we start with debuts or maybe even second albums, but fourth ones is a bit of an oddity. Widely considered some of Mike Paradinas' best work, this album is a great jumping in point if you're new, and home to some of my favourite 'IDM' jams for this era.

Yet Lunatic Harness is a record I have a complicated relationship with, for what seems like a very silly reason now I'm preparing to type it out. As many of you know, I typically shuffle my entire collection when listening day-to-day - For many years, the music player I was using didn't have the capability to remember where I left off, so would re-shuffle every time I started it up. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, where the problem comes in is how it would shuffle - it would always start alphabetically by artist, which means I have heard the opening bars of Brace Yourself Jason and others perhaps thousands of times. But if I power through the sections I've been overexposed to, the LP is just as good as ever.

Tastefully skirting the balance between your more intense IDM, the main memory that comes to mind for me when I think of Lunatic Harness is the strong melodic streak that it has - this does wonders to make the album more accessible but is also just a really great addition to the soundscape. The first 5 tracks all do a wonderful job of showing this off, as you might have heard on Brace Yourself Jason, but my favourite has always and will always be Hasty Boom Alert, which effortlessly dances between the madcap beats emblematic of this time in the history of IDM and these lovely, airy synths that make the whole thing feel a lot lighter. The little section after the break at 2:03 where they get to take the lead is just divine.

I try not to draw comparisons between Aphex Twin and µ-Ziq too often, but its inevitable that it will come up at some point, the two's sounds are of course quite similar and they have also collaborated in the past as well. It comes up now because I think that Mushroom Compost carries with it that same kind of playful messing around that appeared on Aphex's Richard D. James Album, more in the vein of Fingerbib than the slide whistles of Logan Rock Witch. That said, I wouldn't want to write this one off as 'just' one of those tunes though, the same melodic streak I mentioned just above in once again on full display and makes it an absolute joy to listen to.

Moving on to the title track - Lunatic Harness kicks off with a marked difference in sound, in which Mike Paradinas cuts & pastes and otherwise tweaks a sample from Fat Boys' Human Beat Box from 1984 for a full minute, my favourite part being the glitched out section around 53 seconds in. After that though, it's a return to the same light synth sound as before, though the sample crops up a couple more times throughout. It's an interesting spin for sure, but one that I could understand might turn some off. I know there's been plenty of times where I've hit skip because I didn't really feel the intro, which is a shame becuase at it's heart it's another good addition to the tracklist.

Speaking of changes in sound, there's an even more drastic one coming up next - all the light and melodic synths of before go out of the window with Approaching Menace. Befitting of its name, the intro alone gives away that this is going to a different beast that what came before. It comes a little out of left-field and there's not really anything else like it in terms of sound on the album - but this little bit of intensity nestled about halfway through the tracklist is certainly a highlight. Incredibly rough 'round the edges and with two feet firmly planted in the experimental breakbeat side of the IDM world - I could understand this being a bit of a sticking point for some folk who've fallen in love with the atmosphere of the other tracks, personally I still like it quite a bit because I think it absolutely nails the atmosphere set up by the title.

Rounding out with a couple more melodic entries with the Secret Stair parts. Part 1 shows off that melodic side to this album once again, that synth sound that was so prominent on tracks like Hasty Boom Alert is here again and I absolutely adore it. Around the 1:25 mark we again return to familiar territory with some breakbeat accompaniment, I think the way it fades into the mix can feel a little odd coming back to it - it sort of overpowers the melodics before they come back together in a kind of harmony. I've listened to it for so long that I'm just used to it by now though. Part 2 is similar, albeit a little more sedate. There's no breakbeat on the sequel (or at least, not the extent of part one), instead opting for more of that sort of Aphex-esque styling of the Richard D James Album era as mentioned before.

Unfortunately the wheels fall off a bit in the latter half of the album for me, I've always felt this way about it actually. I could never get on with a couple of the final few: Wannabe is a bit cacophonous, coming out like a hybrid of the Aphex Twin tracks I posted above and that one abstract jazz record Squarepusher did called Music Is Rotted One Note - by the midpoint we get a (presumably Paradinas') whispered vocal stating Wanna be your lover baby, I don't wanna be your friend, a line more suited to something from DMX Krew and not this darkness that is Wannabe. I can tolerate it for about as long as it takes to get to the midpoint but it loses me not long after. London takes things in a slightly more abstract orchestral direction, one that µ-Ziq would continue on the follow up album Royal Astronomy - twinned with a fairly generic 'IDM' bassy accompaniment come the two minute mark. It's not bad as it were, but it certainly isn't Hasty Boom Alert.

The other two final tracks I have a bit more of a warm reception to, Catkin And Teasel once again bringing that playful feeling back into the mix, twinned with some suitably ludicrous beat work that you've probably become accustomed to at this point. It's a fun listen for sure, but one that's easy to overdo very quickly, having played through the LP a couple of times in the writing of this I have found myself growing tired of the rising-and-falling motif that introduces the track - granted there are plenty of other elements to distract from it. Midwinter Log closes the album in much the same fashion, it's a tour de force of all the elements of the album thus far, even carrying with it some signposts to the sound µ-Ziq would adopt on the follow up. They're fine tracks, but I still do think the album's opening quarter is the strongest.

Worth noting that this 25th anniversary edition includes some bonus tracks and the Brace Yourself and My Little Beautiful EPs as well. I haven't had a chance to spin the bonus tracks yet but I can heartily recommend the EPs if you like the content of the main LP - I love the stylistic synchronicity between them and the main album as seen above, it really makes the releases feel part of a larger body of work with different 'flavours' as it were. Some of my favourites from the additional EPs to round things out: Summer Living which could easily slot into that strong first quarter on the main album and would have been a nice bridge into Approaching Menace (Curiously it's titled Summer Living 2 on this re-release).

Abmoit takes things in a surprisingly ambient turn for µ-Ziq, I think this one would have made for a great album closer, it's very pretty sounding, even when juxtaposed against a rough 'n steady beat later on - very much embodying the quote on the Bandcamp page of "atmospheres of ethereal colour and shimmering melody", true for a lot of the album but especially so here. The same goes for the Reprise of Brace Yourself, which IMO should have been the album closer, and not just because it's a spin off of the original track, though it would have made a nice bookend in that respect. Something about the reprise just feels much more climactic than Midwinter Log which would make sense as its the final track of the EP and all - but even then it still just kind of 'ends' abruptly.

And that'll about do it for this time, it's been a long time since I've done one of these so apologies for the length! I'm happy to see plenty of artists taking the chance to do more with their anniversary editions, be it including demos and remixes or accompanying EPs as above rather than just a plain reissue/remaster. As I stated before, if you're new to µ-Ziq this is a great jumping in point, its still my favourite but I think a large part of that is because it was my first proper listen to his work as well. A fantastic and relatively accessible entry in the world of 'IDM', Lunatic Harness is definitely worth a listen - be you new to the genre or just looking for some new additions to your library.

I'll be back around soon enough but until next time, as always, stay safe and enjoy the music.


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