Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: Ben Zimmerman, The Baltika Years

This little electronica column review fell out of the latest Wire because someone else had already done a longer one. Thought I'd post it up here as it's quite a special release. Video below.

Ben Zimmerman
The Baltika Years
Software DL / 2×LP
With this archive release, Joel Ford and Dan Lopatin's Software have found something that reaches right into the core of the label's interest in the curiously soulful side of late-twentieth-century computer music. Between 1992 and 2002, Ben Zimmerman used a series of Tandy machines working with low-quality waveforms to make short sketches and suites sat everywhere between outright experimentation and vernacular tunefulness. What emerges is a meeting between Moondog and Daniel Johnson in the age of the floppy disk. Most intriguing is the timbre itself - FM synths imitating older instruments alongside samples tuned into sonically matchless keyboards, all coated in a thick oxide layer of digital lo-fi. These are wound up like music boxes and let go, spiralling forward into minimalist abstraction, character pieces or clubbier grooves (including breakbeats) as they eat through their slatted programming. Not only is the limited context intimately audible, but the varieties of mood and texture achieved within it are nothing short of inspiring.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

System Focus: If You've OD-ed On The Internet, This Music Will Save You (Soothing Sounds of East Asia) 
The latest System Focus concerns my attempts to soothe my worn-out brain after - as the elders know so well - it got fried by the internet, and how much of the salve concerned or came from East Asia (click here to read it). Featuring Haruomi Hosono, a few bits of vaporwave and future funk, Nujabes and some of his followers, Horse Head, Swimful Buterfly and Chinese hip hop, and a catch-up with MAGIC YUME and ZOOM LENS, and a little discussion of orientalism. Shout out to the label Home Normal, who while they are based in Japan (or were until recently) are basically an international label and didn't quite fit the piece, especially how long it was getting. Really good and relaxing stuff though.
They said the internet would melt my brain and I laughed and turned up the heat, threw in armfuls of hi-octane, hi-tech, hi-speed, hi-intensity music. I dissolved at the speed of sound, fragments free-falling, dispersing and disengaging like it was meant to happen. But then my hard drive got corrupted, and my gray matter got flooded with exclamation marks, misfires, and "file not found" notifications. The music went straight through me like massless particles, and I realized I'd forgotten stillness in the surge of desire and transcendence...
Paraiso by Haruomi Hosono
 What's interesting about Paraiso and Yellow Magic Orchestra is that they both play on the exotic associations Westerners have with Japan and other islands in the Pacific, whether it be quaint local color encountered on holiday or the electro-technological spectacular that is associated with the region. In doing this, Paraiso also drew on American lounge and exotica music rooted in the 1950s, rendering both sweet but ultimately insipid...
Keats has been branching out into hip hop and chillwave sounds, too, with some wonderfully crafted releases by Pyxis, Cahunastyle and Timid Soul, who deftly mixes sloppy-cosmic-funky beats with J-pop's cuteness sensibility via vocaloids.While eschewing the weirdness and conceptual edge of much vaporwave, future funk and its associates frequently maintain this link with Japanese sounds and their richer harmonies as well as text and imagery from the island, mixing them all with the faded retro-USA imagery that surrounds chillwave and old-hipster music...
 The Tokyo-based hip-hop producer Nujabes died in a traffic accident just over 5 years ago, at the age of 36. Since that time, he has (rather like J Dilla) quietly built up a considerable reputation, especially online, where dozens of tribute releases can be found (few them quite matching the skill and subtly of Nujabes himself). Beginning in the 1990s, Nujabes's signature sound was based in that era's soul and jazz beats, and typically uses piano, often flute or soprano saxophone too, with the rich chords often favoured in Japanese musical smoothness. His sound is the perfect and surprising union of coolness (and I mean that as an aesthetic with a long history and particular feel) and sentimentality...
Modal Soul by Nujabes
One of the greatest practitioners of drum-machine production with a more traditionally East-Asian sound is from Shanghai: Swimful Buterfly. Swimful has produced for US rappers Lil B and Main Attrakionz, and released a warmly euphoric debut album 馬路天使 (Street Angel) in 2013. Last year's follow-up, 归梦 (Return to a Dream), is even better, perfectly following that trajectory whereby a producer gets both more skilled at crafting beats and more original. It samples both Chinese and Japanese zither instruments and singing try "But Maybe". The track "Air Between Toes" even samples the song "Tsukematsukeru" from J-Pop's kawaii princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, transforming its torrent of soda-pop into a cooling stream of sweet mountain water...

归梦 (Return to a Dream) by Swimful Buterfly 
Aristophanes 貍貓 is a fantastically charismatic female rapper from Taipei, Taiwan, who prefers to spit ("sigh," "sidle" and "swoon" might be better words) over the sloppy style that has come to be known as glitch hop. Back on that Nujabes thing, Nanchang's Aosaki explores Chinese folk sounds and high-love piano riffs, while SoundIzImage is even more giant-hearted, especially on the album Fragrance. And if you want to go more sentimental still, there's Shirfine from Xiamen, or α·Pav, whose music mixes hip-hop, new age, and Chinese instruments and could be the soundtrack to an indie game that helps kids come to terms with the fact that everything dies.  
What about pop? Magic Yume and Zoom Lens (who I talked to here) are two of the best places for Japanese-inspired indie pop in the online underground, and they both have everything on a continuum from laid-back dreaminess to footwork and hyperactive chiptune, showing us that cute and upbeat doesn't have to be intense. At the calmer end, Magic Yume has Tokyo Princess (東京 姫) by Ikaros イカロス (as well as plenty of downtempo beats) and Zoom Lens has Yeule, Girlfriend by Philippines artist Ulzzang Pistol, the gorgeous Paradice by LLLL, and the Yumetatsu Glider EP by Japanese artist Yoshino Yoshikawa, who's affiliated with Tokyo's richly hyperactive Maltine label.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

System Focus: What Health Goth Really Means

After a brief hiatus, System Focus is back, this time a look at Health Goth, its roots, some of the music surrounding it, and how it represents a turn towards particular aesthetics rather than scenes / genres (click here to read it). Nonetheless there's a geographical convergence in Portland (the piece's working title was 'Health Goth, Portland Hi-Tech and the Age of the Aesthetic.'). Featuring Magic Fades, Club Chemtrail, Karmelloz, C Plus Plus and the return of Vektroid.

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only "aesthetics." A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it's always been that way; it's just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it's not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad's rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it's a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behaviour rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net...
Magic Fades: Push Thru
As the Facebook group curators put it in an interview, "Health Goth is not a lifestyle, it's an exercise in aesthetics. Any publication trying to tell you that Health Goth is about working out has simply taken the two words at face value and opted for a less challenging, and extremely boring alternative." It seems to me that saying that Health Goth is gymming for goths is like saying that cyberpunk is Johnny Rotten doing spreadsheets on a Dell. Let's make something clear: in its original context of the Facebook group and the curators behind it, Health Goth is at a significant remove from music. Health Goth shouldn't be regarded as a musical genre, even if it was given its name by people operating in the online underground music community. What it is is an aesthetic, one that primarily concerns fashion...

The roots of hi-tech, and Health Goth in particular, go way back, but gained particular momentum around 2011. As the Facebook curators recognize, Health Goth is just as reflective of aesthetic trends that preceded it as it is constitutive of new ones. Surprisingly, none of the pieces I'd read on Health Goth mentioned the GHE20G0THIK club phenomenon pioneered by Venus X in NYC, which was a major force in associating pop and hip-hop with dark underground weirdness. Organized alongside Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver (who often performed), the parties provided an early context for Fade to Mind names like Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu, and were attended by a nascent Arca...

Karmelloz's Silicon Forest, named after the nickname for the Pacific Northwest's hi-tech industry, confirms him as one of hi-tech's best ambient artists, whose subtle work balances heavenly sweetness with the nausea of future shock, and always puts me in mind of giant vats in which amoral artificial biospheres are roused and stirred. C Plus Plus's Cearà is a rich take on a clubbier sound, catching the light of grime, vogue, house, pop and transatlantic styles as it spins eerily in a space of apparently infinite connections. Most notably perhaps, the Push Thru remix album sees the return of Vektroid, one of the key players in the development of vaporwave between 2010 and 2013 as New Dreams Ltd. and Prismcorp Virtual Enterprises. Vektroid is from Portland and the Pacific Northwest of the USA originally, and her remix of "Ecco" is palpably weighty, shifting through a range of cyborg textures in its eight minutes until it feels more like crawling through a digital wormhole or watching a short film demonstrating some horrifying artificial transformation than hearing the usual shuffling of riffs...

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

stuff I wrote and stuff I liked in 2014

Another pretty busy year for me, writing-about-music-wise. Below is a list of everything, if you're interested. Below that is a list of some releases I particularly enjoyed this year in alphabetical order. If something's not in there, it could well be because I haven't got round to listening yet (sorry). I didn't join in with any of the year-end stuff in print or online magazines this year, not because I disapprove - vaguely because I'm finding it difficult to claim I've listened to enough to make the call, and find it really difficult to compare online underground music with more traditionally distributed underground stuff within single assessments - not to mention the fact that great stuff is increasingly coming in chunks smaller and/or less official than the album. But mostly it was because I was really busy at the time all that stuff was due.

Stuff I wrote

Stuff I Liked

Click on the links to listen...

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Review: Arca, Xen (for Electronic Beats)

Did a review of Arca's brilliant Xen for Electronic Beats (click here to read). This sentence was cut:

Digital de Koonings jounce down oozing hallways dragging trains of femme paraphenalia, kawaii cenobites howl and squeal in holes, and sugared children restlessly pound plucked keyboards, enthralled in the boom of the tingling strings.

But others weren't (such as these):

Xen is a multiplicitous figure. Many tracks contain several life forms coiling around each other, each with its own sense of time and space, all crowded into the same fractious textures and struggling for expression and independence. New limbs and organs burst through the skin, feelers fly in every direction and prehensile tongues curl. Disasters of pleasure, showers of sex. The title track is an electrical injection, with strobes of percussion whipping up a club nimbus as stallions rear their heads and the wreckers come whirling and squeaking over the polished floor; at the center of it all a daughter’s dancing class on a tightrope.

But other tracks are solo portraits, often keyboard improvisations. “Sad Bitch” pliés forward tentative and lonely before exploding into pirouettes and dovetailing melodies. “Family Violence” is a forest of jabbing and pointed fingers. “Promise” shudders and teeters as if shaking off an ice age, and the piano sketch “Held Apart” waits at the windowsill with memories in its big eyes. The parameters of Ghersi’s self-exploration are readjusted with each track, causing constant surprise—dance beats, noise, song, cinematic strings and rave stabs all rotate the album in a space of unexpected dimensions.

Xen artwork by Jesse Kanda

System Focus: Fandom Music Is As Underground As It Gets

Horizon's 'Confinis'
Possibly the most out-there System Focus yet, this one looks at recently-emerged fandoms and the way they practice their fandom through music-making online (click here to read). It looks at Pokémon, Adventure Time, Minecraft, Homestuck and My Little Pony. There's some really unusual stuff in this one..
One of the major drivers of underground music culture is sincerity. The underground seeks musicians for whom making music is an art and a passion, rather than a performance or a get-rich-quick scheme. You might have heard a lot about 'The New Sincerity' or 'post-irony,' ideas dating back to the 1980s which have been applied to music with a notable level of (usually positive) emotion and innocent frankness. But the search for sincerity goes back as far as its perceived opposites in, say, industrial capitalism go—back to the Romantics and beyond. That's not to say that all underground music culture is sincere. Irony and satire are arguably stronger than ever as the underground re-engages with hi-tech modernity, shunning the ubiquitous, twee, and now almost empty sincerities of the indie aesthetic. But to find music today made from pure positive passion alone, try an online DIY music almost completely outside the remit of the hip underground sites: the music of fandom...
Fandom music, especially by the most popular musicians, is very well made. It doesn't tend towards the minimalism and primitivism in some areas of the underground, where too much effort and ability—especially on non-vintage equipment—can get a bit uncool. (But even when it isn't well made in the traditional sense, it's interesting for its surprising results.) In the same vein, fandom music tends to be complex—it often uses the best and broadest tools available to contemporary musicians, and likes to draw on many different instruments, harmonies and forms in the course of a song or album, rather than just deploying a few riffs or loops. And if variety itself can be a characteristic, it's definitely a characteristic of fandom music, which manifests in any and all genres, some which don't even seem to be genres. One of the most tangible qualities of fandom music, however, is linked to its sincerity—it explores a level of emotional or sentimental expression that more cynical listeners would consider kitsch...

Lethe Wept on Fortissimo Hall
The tracks by Pengosolvent are quite unlike anything else—contemporary orchestral VGM squashed imaginatively into a jovial, frenetic and slightly disturbing blur. Try the crazy "Breaktime Over," the highly cute "Enamored Regard" (below), or the proper creepy ghost-type "Paved With Good Intentions" (belated happy Halloween)...

Intriguingly, Adventure Time is a recurring reference point for some fairly parental-advisory hip-hop—here, here, and here. Then there's Oddpauly, who raps about the attractions of the show on one of his tracks. Pauly also has a YouTube channel featuring a music video of his highlight track "Rain," and a video of him playing Minecraft while eating Fruit Rollups...
But with a game as rich as Minecraft, there's also music within it too, and this is where things get really interesting. The game has 'note blocks,' which can be directed to play a certain pitch and change timbre depending on what material they're on top of. There's also a form of electrical wiring that can activate the blocks remotely (using a switch) and in sequence, setting off the notes like a pack of dominoes. Thus by placing several note blocks in the right configuration and activating them through the wires, players can create music boxes that can play certain tunes, even polyphonically. Here's a tutorial on how it's done. To really get a polyphonic tune playing for its full length, players have to create vast structures several stories high and almost a kilometer in length, that witnesses can move around inside as the music plays. Then they upload the videos to YouTube. This is music and architecture as the very same thing...
The largest musical instruments in the virtual world
One of the most visually striking fandoms online is Homestuck, an epic webcomic about some teens who inadvertently bring about the end of the world, and then get involved with these bizarre troll-like beings that are perfect to dress up as. But don't take it from me—there's a fan song to introduce you to it all... The weirdly great-looking official Homestuck Bandcamp page compiles the soundtrack (made by fans) music and more, and it tends to subtly evade genre, skipping through all kinds of sound worlds, seemingly guided more by emotion (and whatever's going on with those trolls) than form. I've been oddly mesmerized by Erik "Jit" Scheele's One Year Older and the cosmically soppy Song of Skaia.
Artwork for 'Firefly Cloud' from Erik "Jit" Scheele's One Year Older
The fandom has a hefty contingent of Bandcamp customers whose pony avatars can be seen lining up on the pages of the most popular albums. But the music only rarely reflects the child-like aesthetic of the show, often bringing out the darker, more romantic connotations of characters and its stories. Alongside sometimes Friedrich-like digital paintings of the relevant ponies, pony musicians regularly put weighty, grand, maximalist and very technically accomplished music. There's punk rock, happy club sounds, ambient electronic, funky song-writing, hardcore, soft rock, epic orchestral, and metal. One of the most popular artists is Eurobeat Brony, who has three volumes of hyperactive 'Super Ponybeat.' Another is TAPS, who has an ear for glitchy vocal science deriving from samples of the show: ponies fractured and suspended in enormous spaces...
 Feather's In My Mind