Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy New Year 2555: Thailand

The route back from Australia this year was broken by a brief stopover in Bangkok to try and add something a little different to the otherwise notoriously long flight. It wasn’t quite the proverbial “One night in Bangkok” as proposed by Murray Head back in the 80s, but not far from it perhaps.

The track is a strange one in many ways, with its processed spoken word, almost rap lyrics, its jinky chorus and firstly its Middle Eastern intro. But there are some intrigues behind the scenes, such as mentions of Yul Brynner who once played the King of Siam in The King and I.

As it goes, the real King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej or Rama IX is also Thailand’s King of Jazz, having recorded many compositions throughout his lifetime and played with the likes of Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.

The words and music of “One night in Bangkok” too were composed by none other than Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, recently departed from ABBA, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator and knight of the realm Sir Tim Rice. The track was originally part of the musical Chess, hence the references to the game in the video. The story of the musical is based around a bizarre love triangle set in the cold war era and inspired by Bobby Fischer amongst others (see also As though the shame would outlive him for more on this track…) As a further aside, ABBA have announced  the release of a new track this week, an archival recording left in the vaults from the sessions that produced their last album “The Visitors” from 1981. By this stage the creative and emotional burn out from touring and wife swapping had put tainted the bands usual pop swagger with more mournful strains and introspective words.

But back to Thailand… one of the main attractions of down town Bangkok away from the temples and reclining Buddhas is the tourist Mecca of the Khao San Road, essentially a busy street lined with bars, restaurants and hotels. At night the streets flood with food vendors while the sidewalks are perpetually cluttered with T-shirt sellers.

The most popular shirts are the singlet tops, great for avoiding the humid heat and also for showing off your body, an important part of the youthful hormone-charged scene it appears. The designs on offer range from the usual mock ups of famous brands, some well-done copies of more standard designer shirts featuring Banksy designs etc, to classic Asian beer commercials (Chang, Singha, Tiger etc) and even to the odd band shirt. However, the striking thing about Khao San and the T-shirt culture is not that exists, but that it is universal. It was as if every backpacker passing through town had the obligation to head straight to Khao San, buy a shirt and get into it straight away to say “I’m here. I belong. I have the knowledge”. The clonal nature of the culture on the street was staggering, more so since it absorbed people from many countries and languages and absorbed them instantly. My last night there I overheard a conversation from two Canadian guys in their early twenties. They were trying to pull two girls by asking them some travel advice, having mentioned they’d just got off the plane. Both of them already had on their Tiger beer singlets and were ready.

One shirt I did grab for myself was a Velvet Underground shirt featuring the classic banana design. I didn’t wear the shirt until I got back home out of some principle of resistance and almost the same day came across this report in the Guardian about how the group had launched legal action against the Andy Warhol Foundation for attempting to sell the rights to use the famous banana logo to Apple. The same week Megaupload went under as has been widely reported and the parallels are obvious: essentially free merchandise in an unregulated market place where none of the profits or benefits go to the artist. But the other side is, how much profit ever went to Lou Reed et al anyway back in the day? Is the new dawn really a return to corporate control and stockpiling profits in the hands of record company executives?

One of 2011s most prolific producers was BNJMN (aka Ben Thomas) who released two exceptional albums “Black Square” and “Plastic World”, on Rush Hour. The title track to the former features a sampled loop of “All tomorrows parties”

BNJM has also just released a new single on the Second Kiss label run by Little White Earbuds editor Steve Mizek that does not feature any music by the Velvet Underground, but offers instead a more direct house track with a less cerebral arrangement and sound design.

But down the Khao San road is also one other hangover from the backpacker scene of south east Asia: Goan trance and the trite music of Full Moon Parties.

There are several vendors on the street blaring out and selling pirate CDs and mixes. It’s funny how this music almost does not exist outside of this context. Sure, you can find a few trance clubs around, a section of your local electronic music mag has a few reviews, but there is little critical acceptance or even promotional interviews outside the channels already designed for fans. One problem is that trance has always been lowest common denominator dance music almost since the beginning, catering to those more inclined to drugs than music. Its market place in such meat head environments as Full Moon Parties also doesn’t help and neither does its continual association with the God Ganesh, god of music and the arts, Thai dye shirts and all the other moronic psychedelic trappings. Trance it seems is also not the music that travels well with you through the ages, like The Doors. More than most music, it perhaps has a narrower window where it is ok to enjoy it (as judged by peer approval) and where it is physically possible to enjoy it in terms of party culture and those around you and whether they are worth spending time with or not.

What then ever happened to a genuine Cyber Punk movement that shops like Cyber Dog in London used to promote? Did the music not evolve enough to take more people with it? Personally I always appreciated some of the sounds and intentions of trance, but always found the chemical-flavoured production aesthetic too limiting and too ridiculous. The fashion too was incredible: authentically futuristic,  provocative and even erotic at times, but clearly too much for the modern day and age. One of its beauties though, was that it required a philosophical commitment almost, like Rockabilly guys and girls with their hair and tattoos, and was something not for everyone.

Years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Green Nuns of the Revolution playing live at the Melkweg in Amsterdam the night before New Year’s Eve. I was alone and there in the spirit of my housemate Eric who was a big fan. The crowd was insanely committed: one young guy dressed in full tin foil robot outfit, several others more the vinyl and plastic Cyber Dog style and even a few really old folk still dressed in the same rags they had in the 60s, beards almost down to the ground.

I met an American guy at a gig a year or so ago who told me of an alternative, darker and less-commercial strain of trance that he had been listening to that sounded intriguing, but alas, I couldn’t find anything on the internet. Is there any good trance left in the world, like this Voyager remix of System 7?

We spent one day outside the capital at the hideously touristic Floating Market and made a lightning visit to the bridge on the River Kwae where the infamous Death Railway seems anything but, now painted in bright rainbow colours as it shakes and rattles across the famous bridge. There was also time to stop at the infamous and appalling Tiger Temple, where it is possible to have your photo taken (at a price) with allegedly drugged and possibly illegally trafficked tigers, although the monks might tell you otherwise (click for news video ).

Perhaps better might have been a trip to see the famous Thai Elephant Orchestra?

Finally, Khao San should not be confused with Khe Sanh, the mythical Cold Chisel song originally released and censored from airplay in Australia 1978. The song details the life and restlessness of an Australian Vietnam veteran and features many controversial lyrics, including the lines “Their legs where open, but their minds were closed” which could equally relate to Thailand’s Patpong district as equally as to the Hong Kong girls of the song.

By a strange twist of fate Scottish-born front man Jimmy Barnes is actually married to a Thai woman and their family has a lovely restaurant called Amarin Thai on Rokeby Road in Perth. Jimmy has been spotted there occasionally when in town.

In anycase, Happy New Year and properous 2555 to all those in Thailand.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"The ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency"

For those who might have missed it, there is an interesting interview on the Guardian's music website  today with James/Leyland "The Caretaker" Kirby about his recent soundtrack to the Grant Gee's film Patience (after Sebald). The film is based on the book "The Rings of Saturn" by German writer WG Sebald, taking inspiration from a walk he made in Surrey, England in 1992 (Click for video).

The soundtrack was released two weeks ago on Kirby’s own History Always Favours The Winners label and features Kirby’s trademark ghostly and hazy reworkings of one of Sebald’s favourite composers, Austrian Franz Schubert. The original recordings used by Kirby to make the modern versions date to 1927.

One of the curious side stories to the interview is Kirby mentioning a night on the turps in Madrid with none other than Real Madrid and Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The day after Kirby actually played in Barcelona as part of a new series of more experimental electronic music shows. I spoke to him after the performance and he confirmed the story, without mentioning Casillas. He had slept only a few hours and woken up virtually minutes before the show. He was happy to report that he had indeed convinced two girls to share the journey with him, and his video producing colleague, back to Berlin by road in order to make a film. The visuals to the Barcelona show may or may not have been done by Richard Cruz who directed one short video to accompany Kirby’s music.

Cruz’s prankster-ish style of humour likely works well with Kirby’s personality given by this video.

Rebecca Black - Fun Fun Fun from Richard Cruz on Vimeo.

One of Kirby’s signature tracks under his V/VM alias was a reinterpretation of Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” that has become canonised in music history, forming the basis of essays in the Wire and is a key track in Simon Reynold’s “Retromania” argument.

Kirby's version is heralded alongside Oneohtrix Point Never’s equally disturbing and emblematic remix under the Sunset Corp name, repeating the line “There’s nobody here…” until infinity.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dullsville: Future shock down under

Christmas time this year was spent back home with my family in Perth, Western Australia for the first time in three years. As usual a whirl-wind trip spent between city and countryside, with so many visits and people to see that it seemed almost like a business trip at times. But there is a strange side to seeing people so infrequently, appearing almost out of nowhere and taking two or three hours for a coffee and then disappearing again for another couple of years. I wonder how akin this experience is to making an album, staying locked away on a studio for a year or more and then emerging to face the media and the fans with 70 minutes plus of music?

But the once sparkling city of Dullsville, capital of Western Australia, the State of Excitement, has been quietly transforming itself while I was away.

The long talked about Northbridge Link Project to join the City CBD region, usually uninhabited after 5:30pm, with the neighbouring nightlife district Northbridge is finally underway. But it is downtown and elsewhere where most of the change is seen: several new sky scrapers, several of them residential, to bring the population into the city, a new State Theatre named after the city’s most famous son Heath Ledger and of course the new Perth Arena complex replacing the old Entertainment Centre 

This still doesn’t mean the shops are open after 5:30 as the following song laments, but there is change afoot

One of the lines of this song refers to curtains which was a ridiculous and confused excuse for many West Australians (or Sandgropers in the old days) to argue against change, or the introduction of daylight saving, a bizarrely contentious issue that had floated around for years. Apparently the extra hour of daylight every day would fade the curtains faster. However, one thing that struck me about being home was how few curtains there actually where in use! Every day I was woken up by the dawn, the harsh summer light pouring through the windows to the sound of birdsong.

All this is a long winded way to introduce two ideas. One is, that despite all the mutterings, there is no visible sign to an outsider of any crisis or global economic shut down in Australia, or at least Perth. Perhaps more interestingly is this issue of visions of the future and of forward planning. Perth’s main characteristic down the years has been to demolish and build a-new in place of conservation. One reason for this was that nothing was probably ever old enough to conserve. The city was founded in 1827 and was a slowly developing colony of convicts and free settlers until 1885 when gold was found at Halls Creek. Several more major finds in the next ten years, including Kalgoorlie in 1893 by Patrick “Paddy” Hannan meant genuine wild west style gold rushes  and a population explosion in time for the Federation of Australia in 1901.

So nothing was ever old enough to be worth saving, which is one reason why the downtown area, the historic centre, is largely devoid of history. But in its place what Perth gets is this fevered vision of the future, this endless imagining of how it will be. A case in point is the aforementioned Northbridge Link, envisaged for years and now a reality, whereas the proposed Perth Foreshore development looks very much the city of the future even if its future is still a dream.

A lack of future or vision of the future is the central thesis of Simon Reynolds' “Retromania” which I read while in Perth staring up at all the future falling neatly into place.

The premise of “Retromania” is that sometime around the late 60s many forms of art, including fashion, ceased to imagine the future and instead focused their attention on the past and what was perceived to be the authentic roots and feeling of the art form.

Music became pastiche and genuine new movements that broke away from existing forms were rare: the Beatles use of multi-track recording to make “Sgt Peppers”, the advent of synthesizers and later samplers and digital technology. Fashion became the same: instead of us now running around in silver space suits and other such things, we adorn largely the same clothes as previous decades, even invoking vintage styles as a form of authenticity. Reynolds even makes the bold and correct statement that English chavs are one of the few social groups to be really unbound by retromania and instead to where fashion and fabrics endemic to a particular time and place: now.

Reynolds’ book is fascinating and incredibly analytical, reading almost like an assembly manual for modern day society, but he still left many questions unanswered. Why for instance would a music collector obsessed with staving off death by obtaining the perfect record collection, complete with all “archives” from his/her own past, resort to mindlessly downloading and collecting as much music from the present as possible without listening to it? This new music represents no part of the person’s historical continuum, but must somehow be collected all the same. One can also read into the plundering of the past a kind of subjective criticism. It appears almost everyone is doing it, but for some artists it is almost more acceptable than for others. Amy Winehouse made a career out of aping 50s classic rock tropes whereas a group like the Cramps comes across as somehow more authentic – and futuristic - despite doing nearly the same.

Reynolds does important work, however, introducing a broad audience to Finnish eccentric Erkki Kurenniemi

and ideas like “super hybridity”, a concept to describe the internet’s effect on dissolving time and space in conjunction with the modern worlds rapid turnover of ideas and styles: the flow from one thing to another follows no logic and no linear direction, much as Deleuze and Guattari predicted. California’s Gonja Sufi is constantly named as the most obvious exponent of this style.

Reynolds also talks about “nostalgia for the future” and the transition from “Future shock”, the famous book by Alvin Toffler published in 1970, and filmed with Orson Wells in 1972, to “Future fatigue”.

Reynolds quotes Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa from “The book of Disquiet”

“…a feeling worse than tedium but for which there is no other name. It’s a feeling of desolation I’m unable to pinpoint…. I don’t know who I am or what I am…”

Boredom and the future. Sounds like some place I know. But where did the future all go wrong?

On the music side of things, Australia was wracked by the near tragedy of Molly Meldrum’s accident while I was there. Meldrum is a household name in Australia and something of a bumbling icon for Generation Xers and slightly older people. Meldrum came to fame in the 70s as the somewhat accidental and clumsy host of the ABC TV show Countdown (recently slated for resurrection, a move that might deeply upset Simon Reynolds) and later moved on to commercial television, plugging inane albums on shows like Hey hey its Saturday. The 65 year old Meldrum recently suffered serious injuries and was in an induced coma after falling several metres putting up Christmas tree decorations.

I once met an Australian girl in a Barcelona bar in 2006, picking her up with the line “I just heard Molly Meldrum was dead”. The line worked, but turned out to be untrue. It was a wind up; a friend in Perth had sent me a text saying Meldrum had died. The joke was it came in the same week as the death of the crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and Peter “King of the Mountain” Brock who died on 8th September 2006 3km from the end of the race in the Targa West '06 rally at Gidgegannup, about 40 km from Perth. Brock was most well-known for his endurance race exploits, always on Holden and never in Ford, including taking the chequered flag nine times at Australia’s Bathurst 1000 race. The joke was how could Australia lose so many icons in one week?

There have also been some steady progress in Australia’s music profile recently, especially with regards to the more experimental side of things. Wire readers may have spotted a free download  of Wire-tapper sounding experimental sounds under the slightly-derivative umbrella label “New Weird Australia”. Brisbane also had a recent write up in the Wire while the Room 40 label has come up for consistent praise. Label owner Lawrence English also had his concept album “The Peregrine” on Experimedia widely hailed at year’s end.

Lawrence English - The Peregrine (album preview) by experimedia
A friend also turned me on to the Perth band Mental Powers who combine fragments of song with shaking percussive improvisation. A limited run of releases has seen light of day on the Badminton Bandit label.

Melbourne group HTRK had a productive 2011, releasing a handful of albums and singles shared across several labels including Australia’s own Misteltone and Ghostly International. Blurring dark ambient, industrial and dubstep, one of the groups most enigmatic tracks was “Blending” from the “Work (work work)” album.

Also from Melbourne, Berlin-based producer Tornado Wallace has also been earmarked as one to watch, releasing a couple of well received singles in 2011 including his third for Delusions of Grandeur and more recently the successful “Part 9” single on Instruments of Rapture, home to some of the 6th Borough Project’s early work.

Finally, hailing from the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Martyn Palmer has just released an ep called “Horizon Glow” under the Option Command moniker for Canada’s King Deluxe collective and label. Palmer’s sound mixes the multi coloured computer game tapestry woven by labels like Hyperdub with more traditional IDM structures.

Option Command - Polybell Strategy from King Deluxe on Vimeo.

Finally, in festival news, perhaps there are signs of a crisis after all as attendees at the Australian summer festivals seem to be decreasing – or perhaps refuse to show up for the bands on offer or are spread too thin amongst the multitude of festivals that have sprung up in recent years where there was once only the Big Day Out. This year the Perth leg of the festival will be stripped down from the multi-stage affair to a single main stage with only half the crowd of previous years expected. Yet the lineup too seems to hark back to a different day and age: Soundgarden, The Living End, Noel Gallagher, Röyskopp, Kasbian and My Chemical Romance amongst many more. Hardly a line-up to die for even if you are a stadium rock kind of fan. Southbound, held on the outskirts of summer holiday town Busselton, promised Fleet Foxes, Metronomy (Simon Reynold’s recommended band from the above video), Arctic Monkeys and Crystal Castles, but little else. The Summerdayze festival is where to head for for electronic needs, with still barely enough interesting names in Flying Lotus, Benga and Skream, Seth Troxler and perhaps Moby to offset the array of mediocrity that is Justice, Snoop Dogg, Scissor Sisters, Pendulum and Sasha.

The truth is, getting artists and particular bands and their gear to Australia is a difficult and expensive thing, but perhaps still there could be more risks taken with lineups and styles since the range at each festival is precariously narrow or too commercially appealing to be interesting. To finish with Reynolds again, he makes the point clearly in his book that the kids now days have unlimited access to musical knowledge and don’t have the limitation and stigma about jumping styles as once was the case 15 or 20 years ago. Maybe the time is right for change the approach? As Big Day Out organiser Ken Wes said in the West Australian paper recently "There's only so many times you want to go and stand in a paddock"

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The year in review in review: part 2

Best albums of 2011

Sometimes I wish this section was just called “Best releases of 2011”. Was Laurel Halo’s 6-track vinyl on Hippos in Tanks an album or a mini-album or a single? Same goes for Andy Stott’s two double packs. They have invariably turned up in both singles and albums lists, or neither. Spain’s GO mag! Even gave both Andy Stott releases the award for single of the year! And when will there be a legitimate prize for best album/single/label design?

The obvious place to start for albums is Nicolas Jaar and James Blake. The debut albums of both did exceptionally well across the board, but with very mixed feelings. Jaar was number 1 at RA, 12 at GO! Mag, 20 at Pitchfork, 92 at Boomkat, but didn’t even make the FACT top 50 list. James Blake was 14 on RA, 12 at FACT, 12 at Pitchfork, nowhere at Boomkat, but lauded as number 1 at GO! Mag. Jaar also had the dishonour of making Little White Earbuds list of most overrated releases.

It is hard to know which one is the more over-blown? Perhaps the award should go to Jaar who managed to weather the storm of criticism and finish higher up the polls. Blake in particular had a rough time, touted as the next big thing and then brought down so effortlessly when most saw through the hype of his album. Both are decent enough albums in terms of production, but really add so little to the canon of electronic music that one is best to enjoy them while the novelty lasts and move on. Blake at least has his stronger singles to fall back on.

There is a couple of questions here though. One is: When does excellent production, like in Blake and Jaar, succeed the need for new ideas, or in other words, when is style superior to substance? The second question is why are all the (apparently) best producers so young? To answer the second first, money is the obvious answers. Young producers can take more chances and can physically handle the gigs where the money is, something us old bones couldn’t manage easily. It surprises me still though, that there is no apparent (or recognised?) innovation by older producers. But maybe the sub text should be: what youth has in fever and verve, age has in measure and message. That is, when is style superior to substance? The answer is in youth. Production skills may wax with experience, but with that comes the baggage of consciousness and control. The failure of youth, and Blake and Jaar perhaps, is that they fool the ears, but leave little to build on (yet).

Without getting petty about the final ranking, the only other real stand out in the RA list in terms of inclusions was John Maus’s “We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves”. The surprise here is that it is another partially overrated album that was not even reviewed on the site. This of course opens up questions about omitted albums, especially ones with high scores: Sandwell District’s “Feed Forward” (4.5/5), Lucy’s “Wordplay for working bees” (4.5/5), Perc’s “Wicker and steel” (4/5), Rustie’s “Glass swords” (4/5), Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s “Re:ECM” (4.5/5) and Surgeon’s “Breaking the frame” (4/5). Incidentally, DJ Qu’s “Gymnastics” also did not even get a review despite DJ Qu delivering one of RA’s best podcasts and receiving a lot of hype in the 2010 roundup (that was even sampled for release as a track on the album "What we've concluded so far").

Looking at the omitted list and the actual list the glaring absence of techno suddenly becomes apparent, with only Morphosis’s elegant masterpiece up there. Quite a surprise in a year in which techno produced some of the most innovative and talked about releases. Tommy Four Seven’s “Primate” may not have listed or scored highly, but is just one example of where techno was this year, trying new things and trying to escape itself. The Emptyset album and Perc’s “Wicker and steel” are other examples that make the same point: experimentalism and expert sound design sign-posting a new way of doing things. One can argue that Sandwell District didn’t make it in 2011 as for many the album slipped out in December as the 2010 list was being made. Perhaps as well the infamous low print run of the vinyl and instant Collectorscum price put many off. Regardless, Sandwell District where more of a phenomenon in 2011 rather than something to be pigeon holed by a single release. The collective went from impactful album, through live shows, flurries of singles and versions, to cryptic and frightening Wire articles to metamorphosing from their own sound into multiple branches of sound: Tropic of Cancer and Silent Servant, Regis staking a claim for the past as well as the present and future with Function seemingly holding up a lot of the live part of the group. The late release of the outstanding Rrose single is another case in point.

Lucy and Stroboscopic Artefacts also seemed to be ploughing ahead into uncharted territories and keeping everyone with them. Xhin’s “Sword” may have slightly underwhelmed in the same way as Tommy Four Seven´s album, perhaps a bit too dry and intellectual, but nonetheless the continuing Monad project and Lucy’s masterpiece “Word play…” deserved some more accolades than were seen at year’s end. Surgeon’s “Breaking the frame” should also get a mention for outstanding sound design, variation, the sense of mystery within and the sheer accessibility for an experimental album. Planetary Assault System’s “Messenger” and Conforce’s “Escapism” both probably arrived too late to make the lists this year, but Luke Slater’s second album for Ostgut Ton was a quiet surprise, not least the track “Bell Blocker” which almost instantly made it into a multitude of sets and podcasts.

Another album that probably would have made more lists had it arrived at a better moment was Motion Sickness of Time Travel’s “Seeping through the veil of unconsciousness”. Like “Feed Forward” it technically dropped at the end of 2010, but the Boomkat-sponsored vinyl edition made it one of the releases of 2011. The success of Rachel Evans is part of the massive impact made by female artists all round this year in the absence of any overbearing and/or smug editorials on the subject, suggesting a genuine acceptance of equality, rather than a need to give special attention to a supposed inferior sex or score political correct points. Standouts include Amanda Brown, Laurel Halo (also ignored by RA), Juliana Barwick, Julia Holter, Margaret Dygas (who's surprising album did surprisingly well in the Wire list) and Steffi. The latter’s “Yours and mine” was like Jaar and Blake, somewhat divisive, but personally I found it one of the most necessary albums of the year. So often I was coming back to it for its solace, simplicity, the hooks and the sugary production. One of the greatest shames was that the wonderful “Sadness” was not included on the original album.

As well as female artists, 2011 was also the year in which electronic albums really seemed to finally break the stigmata from the past that they didn’t fit the album format etc. Even some of the albums that were more like a collection of tracks than a concept, like Cosmin TRG’s “Simulat”, Pinch and Shackleton, Planetary Assault Systems, Steffi again, for example, seemed to be better than the past. But it was really some of the more out-there albums like Anstam’s “Dispel Dances”, BNJM’s two albums, Zomby’s “Dedication”, Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo, Falty DL, Kuedo, Leyland Kirby and Andy Stott that really broke the mould. Suddenly it seems easier to pull off an album of dance music.

Back to ambient though, the absence of “Re:ECM” from RA is also surprising, given the quality of its craftsmanship, but perhaps in the end it was too over whelming for many listeners, or that it is harder for ambient albums to leave a lasting impression on dance music websites. Biosphere’s “N-Plants” on Touch hardly incited interest either, a similar fate to Vladislav Delay’s excellent albumon Raster Noton or the great double CD collection curated by Bvdub and Andrew Thomas.

Finally, the last word goes to politics and lack thereof in electronic music at least. With the exception of Morphosis (again) and Atari Teenage Riot’s “Is this hyperreal?” the only album that really seemed like it had something to say politically was James Ferraro’s “Far Side Virtual”.

But the politics here is one of imitation and reflection, the classic cliché of art imitating life, where the hidden message is echoed in KAE’s vocals on the Morphosis track “Too far”. Ferraro’s pastiche and guarded critique of modern technology and capitalist overload was an endearing and enduring highlight of 2011. But one reason for the lack of politics in electronic music may be that the main epicentre’s of Berlin and Amsterdam are still largely unaffected by the crisis and political unrest. We are still yet to hear the translation of the London Riots into musical form and the same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Something for 2012 perhaps? On the other hand, there was a subtle shift over the year from Industrial techno (particularly Ancient Methods who seemed big at the end of 2010, but pretty quiet by the end of 2011) to more Post Punk-infused sounds (Sandwell District to Sandwell District; even Gui Boratto at Kompakt and more). Will we move a step further back along the time line to 1977 and inject a little violence and aggression into the music? After all the “retromania” of 2011, all the house and hardcore revivals, to now see the slow improvement in the stock of drum n bass and to recall the creeping tide of Jungle’s paranoia that infiltrated rave back in the 90s, electronic music’s own ’77, and think the same might be in store. 2012, the year of anger and action?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Best of the best of: The year in review in review

This was meant to be a rushed post before heading off on vacations in the middle of December, but due to some heavy work commitments and another bought of computer trouble it wasn’t possible. Also it seems to have blown out to be bigger than I had originally envisioned. Apologies and more regular updates coming.

As always, December means list times, the favoured format of music journalists. As always, it’s worth casting a critical eye over proceedings.
 Firstly, the caveat: what does “best of” really mean in terms of subtext? Of course all the lists begin with this phrase, but how should we interpret it? Most popular album? Most influential label? Most ground breaking track? Or is it just the editors favourite music of the year, for whatever reason (i.e. made out with someone when this track came on)? It would be nice at times to see a little more editorial boldness and transparency in this regard and, in a certain way, less democracy.

By this last statement I mean no using numbers to rank the albums, like it was an election or race, but also not to use a counting system of scores submitted by journalists, for example, to arbitrarily decide a winner based on highest score. In this sense, the RA polls in particular are a mess. One can read into them the arbitrary outcome of a voting contest by unequally chosen participants (i.e. more house fans than experimental music fans) that ends up seeming like a popularity contest. The result of the contest is undoubtedly “curated” (and rightly so) by the editors at some stage. The results then, are hard to relate to what actually happened in music or on the site this year in terms of real quality, real influence and tangible legacy. Compare for example the list of “best” tracks and the listed of charted tracks for differences.

The other extreme is a more fascist and arrogant approach, a normal consequence of journalists trying to protect their turf and keep their claim to the source cool. This may not necessarily be how it happens at Little White Earbuds, for example, but the final list of five labels smacks a bit of pretension and even a kind of social sabotage to a point. Do both M>O>S Recordings and Rush Hour need to be in such a small list for example? Was M>O>S really so good/influential/popular/ground breaking and does it add more than Rush Hour to your yearly message? Maybe, but maybe not.

In any case, here are a few comments on some of the lists and my own two cents worth. Best albums will follow in a few days time.

Part 1: Best labels of 2011.

We already mentioned M>O>S, which did release some great stuff albeit in small quantities (see below) and including one of the best releases, Morphosis’s album “What have we learned?” Their fellow countrymen at Rush Hour surely do deserve to be well up there again this year (last year they were number 1 on RA). They opened the year in full house revival mode with releases by Virgo and the Gene Hunt compilation collection, yet managed to finish the year by turning the table, laying down a template for future revivalism in their Amsterdam Allstars compilation plus a handful of great albums and even a sneaky Best Of. Full respect.

Number one at RA was the lamentable Crosstown Rebels which forms a triumvirate of scorned or adored labels consisting also of Visionquest and Hot Creations. I must confess to being totally underwhelmed by this stuff and must single out the Art Department album as one of the most underwhelming albums I came across for a long time. But anyone who keeps an eye on the RA charts will know that this is what people are playing out. And anyone with an eye on the waning comments forums will see that there is also the word “elitist” sneaking into a lot of so-called discussion of music. One chap branded Oneohtrix Point Never’s new album elitist while others bring down critics of the Hot Creation’s sound as elitists as well. This apparent class war at the heart of music is important and always existed. Perhaps here the point is that love them or hate them, these labels have earned their place, not for quality or opening up new terrain (which they didn’t), but for impact: this is the music around us, more so than the rest, the working class sound as it were. I can understand why a knucklehead tech house DJ might label Oneohtrix Point Never’s music elitist, just another word for intelligent, but it hardly hurts at all, if not its scar wears like a compliment. Impact aside, labelling Crosstown Rebel’s as simple or generic is far more descriptive and enduring whether you are elitist or not.

Crosstown Rebels Exclusive Playlist for i-D Magazine by Crosstown Rebels

Returning to the rest of the list asks another question: how many releases do you need to make an impact? The answer is of course “it depends on the quality”. But ignoring this answer and going straight for the numbers there is a few curiosities.

I would have plumped for Workshop in my top 10 since every release felt like it was essential. But there were only three releases this year, even if it felt like more, one of which, Marvin Dash’s latest, has just come out.  Workshop wasn’t in any of the major lists anyway.

M>O>S Recordings had a release schedule of 7 singles and an album, impressive for a small label. Hamburg’s Smallville released only 5 singles and one album (the slightly over rated Moomin) and still made the RAs list. Out of context, on their own Roman Fluegel had four singles and an album, Boris Bunnik as Conforce released one album and three singles (including his new Hexagon ambient project), whereas Toni Lionni released 5 singles, to pick a few random artists that matched the same output as these labels.

Some of the bigger labels making the list did have bigger release schedules, such as Hotflush and Planet Mu (as always), coming in with 14 singles and 3 albums versus about 9 singles and a dozen albums, many of which ended up on the end of year lists. These two labels in question were thus responsible for quantity and quality, but also for breaking plenty of new ground. Sepalcure’s releases, Kuedo’s album and of course Machinedrum to name the big names. Even though being number one hardly matters, to be usurped then by the middle-of-the-road Crosstown Rebels, even if the later did release a ton of stuff, must hurt. One must also shed a tear for Swamp 81 who weighed in with 7 singles, 2 of them double, and made none of the lists despite good critical feedback and harbouring some of the bigger names.

50 Weapons and Nonplus also need a bit of love for their quality control and their design, but perhaps more importantly for smashing down genre walls and becoming havens of diverse and label-less music rather than heavily curated sounds. 50 Weapons released some astounding albums, whereas Nonplus went mostly for singles, with Instra:mental’s fantastic “Resolution 653” a highlight. The tactileness of Nonplus releases also makes them particularly attractive. Finally, a special mention to Stroboscopic Artefacts who also kept their balance with intense and challenging releases on all formats, including digital-only.

Blackest Ever Black didn’t make the lists, but in terms of influence it could be argued that they had the sound of the moment going into the New Year. Similarly, 100% Silk (FACT’s 3rd best label of the year and GO! Mag’s number one label alongside Not Not Fun) was single-mindedly ignored by RA, giving only a single review to the Pharoah’s “Uhh Uhh” in October, when it already seemed too late, alas. Much like James Blake, Amanda Brown’s eccentrically curated and restless label came in for some serious critical punishment no sooner had the accolades come in. Reading her yearly wrap up in The Wire one can detect more than a healthy dose of cynicism and weariness, but one gets the feeling that this won’t put her off too much. Full support!