Sunday, 26 March 2017

Record Store Day 2017: Just Say No

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The tail end of last week saw the arrival of the time of year when record buying (on a general level) stops being a hobby and becomes a Deal Or No Deal- style slice of marketplace propaganda. Taking place on April 22nd this year, it seems fitting that the simple seduction of Record Store Day lands at a time where information is warped into post-truth fanaticism and previous indifference is largely becoming panic-stricken Twitter-based outcries. We live in an age where distribution and consumption has never been lapped up so submissively, whether that be with regards to migration, secular aspects of funding or, indeed, how much value there is in a picture disc.

As with most things purveying the corporate side of the music industry these days, it's easy to be cynical about Record Store Day. Until just a few days ago, I was excited about the prospect of a picture disc containing rare versions of Danny Brown's 'Ain't It Funny?' and previously unreleased Goat material. Of course, there's plenty of charm in the idea of a "grand unveiling" of unheard music at the base level of intrigue that all music obsessives will be familiar with. However, the idea that this is best addressed with a zoo-like shop-based work-out rather than a streaming through Bandcamp or a specialist website like Metal Injection, for example, is where the landslide begins.

Given the fact that vinyl sales reached their highest peak for 25 years in 2016, the prices now charged by places like Rough Trade East and Rise in Bristol are expected retail manoeuvres. There's not much doubt that many of the exclusives on offer this year will be pushed to more extortionate amounts than previously. Part of this is due to the accessibility of records in places like HMV and high street super market chains, whose pernicious stocking of major label big hitters is continuously turning record buying away from devout listeners and into an itunes-style cover-all decoy.

The wider point regarding this is that, sure, there's still an enormous sense of community and camaraderie to be found when visiting independent record stores on a daily basis. But when they're turned into price-driven exhibitions, there's not much of an incentive to avoid buying original pressings of many of these records for as little as £10 on Discogs. SPOILER ALERT: Picture discs sound woeful anyway. The whole point of Mayhem's Deathcrush EP is that it sounds like it was recorded in a biscuit tin; getting that big-room vibe off a decent sound-system and being able to hold and look at the sleeve will be a far more rewarding experience anyway.

None of the arguments here are about elitism, either. I believe anybody should be allowed to buy records- It's been said 100 times over the past few years, but the resurgence of vinyl as an art-form and passion is a very fine thing. Cynical accessibility and exclusive pressings limited to a few hundred copies are two sides of the same rotten coin in this respect. On the one hand, the attempt at forcing mass appeal to line the pockets of labels like Sony and Island via sales through Tesco and Sainsbury's is devaluing that very idea of music as a passion.

On the other hand, inaccessibility shuts out fans who are generally stimulated by furthering their collections, or people who are looking to start one based on, *ahem*, sound and vision rather than trendiness. Exclusivity isn't about building a sense of community anymore; it's another example of the music industry being stolen from the people it should target. Especially when it comes to something that's largely still as devotion-based as vinyl, none of these exclusives will be as marketable as is being suggested. Record collections are about personality and should never be based on a marketing man's wet dream.

The argument about record flippers veers in and out throughout the year, as it does with ticket touts. One piece of positive news to salvage amongst the nihilism is that, as pointed out in this excellent blog by Discogs user Diognes_The_Fox last year, the value of 2015's exclusives turned over online for a price that far exceeds what people would have paid for them initially had fallen back to either list price or, indeed, just below. Undoubtedly record flippers have an unusually callous perception of music fans, but when cash grabs are reflected in marketing and promotion as seemingly worthwhile for the listener then the ball has started rolling way earlier that someone selling Radiohead's Kid A for £100+.

The best way to diffuse these people and their games is to avoid events like this "holiday" altogether. By all mean buy copies of the records that are listed, but buy them somewhere honest, either an independent retailer online (Boomkat, Juno, or Bandcamp to name just a few of the most direct) or in an independent record store ANY day of the year. And as cool as splatter-coloured vinyl is, lots of records are pressed in dynamic and aesthetically interesting ways in their original versions; pick up a copy of Deafheaven's Sunbather and you'll most likely find it slammed on fluorescent pink and yellow wax. Of course everyone is entitled to buy on RSD- as highlighted earlier, collections should be deeply personal things. But there does come a point where one has to decide which you value more: A haul ending in a rarity that ultimately means nothing after purchase, or an activity based on love and intrigue that shouldn't be allowed to become another cog in the corporate mire.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Call Super- Fabric 92

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Artist: Call Super/ Various Artists
Album: Fabric 92
Record Label: fabric

Revered UK producer and DJ Joe Seaton brings his masterful, shape-morphing skills to bare on maybe the finest Fabric Series contribution yet

Given that fabric's two Mix CD series, respectively titled simply 'Fabric' and 'Fabric: Live', are arguably the most successful and popular specimens of their kind, the sense of joy and want to continue down the trajectory of pushing the most exciting and forward-thing DJ's and mixes on a worldwide scale has been resumed without any kind of reserve or lapse in quality since the club's re-opening. The fabric series' have been a prolific way for those not able to regularly enjoy the club's cultural prevalence and the coming-of-age empowerment indulged in by many of the producers and DJ's who have made contributions to experience all facets of the dance genre. It's probably not controversial to say that without them the widespread appeal of dance music, especially in the UK, wouldn't be half as prevalent. 

Joe Seaton, aka Call Super (one of various aliases he releases music under), is a name that constantly drips from the tongue of anyone who has had more than a passing interest in club culture over the past five years or so. His often visionary productions and chameleon-esque approach to DJ'ing, honed especially by several incredible showcases with Berlin's Objekt over the years, have cemented themselves at the heart of the UK's beating late-night core. In many ways, he's the perfect candidate to succeed the reigns of the mix series from Nina Kraviz, whose Fabric 91 was one of the strangest but most technically adept chapters yet. 

In a statement released prior to Fabric 92, Seaton said: "The late hours seem strangely unrepresented within this series, and I thought I would start there instead of using this opportunity to add another peak time chapter to the collections". It's an almost impossibly smooth mix and as Seaton's words allude, it doesn't shy away from the most club-friendly elements of the dance sphere (Objekt's shape-shifting 'The Stitch-Up' and Call Super's own 'Acephale II' ensure that), but it's a selection that largely prioritises atmospheres and magnetic, sunken grooves and contains plenty of his penchant for dynamic shifts and disorientating turns. 

Although Seaton says that he wanted the mix to somewhat reflect how he plays in a club, the overriding sense of a non-live mix in his hands is an opportunity to draw in thinkers; people completely aware of the music's history, heritage and context and thus those seeking out dramatic paradigms or real emotion, and Fabric 92 has both in abundance. 

The soothing, barely there bubbling of Photek's 'T'Raenon' is balanced as a sleepy lull between the forthright, reflective groove of Two Full Minds' 'No Smoke' and Don't DJ's mind-warping 'Pornoire', which here is ever-so-slightly tweaked to slot in without a second's hesitation. Shortly after the "epic mix" of Carl Craig's 'A Wonderful Life' is transformed from being whisper-quiet into being totally sun-kissed and euphoric before melting gloriously into 'Acephale II', providing us with the mix's biggest moment of sheer, unadulterated ecstasy. 

The final 15 minutes or so feature this venture's most sumptuously reserved and textured gambit, which soars from the early acapella blues/soul of Walter Brown's rarity 'Keep On Walkin'' set flawlessly against the backdrop of Karen Gwyer's trance-inducing 'Hippie Fracca' and a brief, nightmarish flicker of Thomas Ankersmit & Valerio Tricola's drone demon 'Plague #7'. Yves Tumor's classic 'The Feeling When You Walk Away' manages to pack some sunset-drenched imagery into proceedings before the angry contemporary ragga of Speng Bond's 'Cutbacks' round things up with an inspired nod to the criminal justice bill and a government-lead mission to strike out at the poor & young.

Seaton said of the mix that he wanted it to be "primarily highly personal", and certainly Fabric 92 is the kind of mix that could only be achieved with an acute and unique, persistently evolving approach to DJ'ing. That Call Super has attempted unorthodox ideas and pushed different sounds and ideas out of their comfort zones to create fresh experiences and feelings should come as a surprise to no one familiar with his work, but it's particularly powerful in a context like the fabric mix series. Not only does it proudly carry on the tradition of bringing the more esoteric depths of dance music to the fore, but it's also the contribution to the series that has the most life-affirming sense of self and intrigue yet. 


Monday, 13 March 2017

Lessons In Hypnotism: Leif & Inga Mauer Reviewed

Inga Mauer. Image credit: Rene Passet Flickr 

Two of Techno's brightest names show off their mesmerising chops on two of 2017's most exciting dance releases thus far

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Artist: Leif
Album: July V/ Shoulders Back
Record Label: Tio Series

While it may run the risk of becoming "the cliched story" to cynical minds, one of dance music's proudest traditions is its record label culture. After years on the circuit as both a producer and DJ, it seems more like a natural step for the London-based Leif Knowles than it does for most. His esoteric deliveries and prolific output since the mid-noughties have certainly given him enough of a platform to launch something that celebrates those consistencies even further.

July V/ Shoulders Back is the debut release on his newly fashioned Tio Series imprint, and as expected it barrels through with all the character and nuance we've come to expect from him with a resolutely fresh twist. 'July V' grows from humble beginnings into a jarring, burbling series of jagged synth loops, growing into itself seamlessly and taking on fried, layered forms. It turns in a recognisably Leif-centric melodious heart around the mid-point before finding its feet in self-assured oddness again as it draws to a close.

By contrast, 'Shoulders Back' has more of a rigid structure from the start. Drawing on a more classically banging persuasion, its mesmerising lead synth is simpler in nature but just as enticing. Coupled with a deep-cut analogue bass lick and a well-measured but propulsive beat, it proves itself just as intriguing as the weirder recesses of Knowles' work.


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Artist: Inga Mauer
Album: Schtum 012
Record Label: Schtum

The new 12" by mysterious Russian producer Inga Mauer steps into contact with record label culture from a different direction. As its title suggests, it's the 12th release on rising German label Schtum, who have kick-started the likes of Avalon Emerson and Leibniz into prominence in recent years, and who have a penchant for soliciting both a hard-nosed and forward-thinking approach to techno. Mauer uses the four tracks on Schtum 012 to explore different traditions within a club-friendly framework and takes them to nearly impossibly sunken, no-nonsense depths.

Opener 'Dno' has a gloriously smooth and strident stomp to accompany its fat and fuzzy two-note synth lead that's packed with the ecstacy of a Hamburg sweatbox at 2am. 'Silences' is cavernous and dark but comes loaded with the kind of infectious, subterranean repetition that the likes of both Randomer and Roman Flugel have secured in the past. There's a real tinge of euphoria in the sense of the "doom of our time" atmospherics exorcised on the pounding closer 'Dystopia' via deceptively simple but hyper-coloured melodies and effervescent vocal samples. Best of all though is the warped, hallucinogenic crawl of 'My Flights Without You', all swamp-mired wobs and an increasingly banging but reserved groove, all an eerie base for the swirling vocal cuts floating in the foreground.


Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Stormzy- Gang Signs & Prayer

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Artist: Stormzy
Album: Gang Signs & Prayer
Record Label: #Merky

Stormzy's debut LP extends both Grime's hardcore roots and contains a fresh-faced kind of humanity

The debut album from Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer, starts in the expected fashion. A dark, bubbling instrumental packed with menace and a hint of American trap propels him as his distinct, gun-shot flow brings to life Croydon industrial-estate fire. But then comes the assertion that "while you were fighting your girl, I was fighting my depression". It's subject matter that will rise again on the record's candid closer 'Lay Me Bare', but it's not completely uncharted territory for grime. Dizzee Rascal ended his seminal 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner with 'Do It!', a track that saw him confessing to suicidal urges that only guts were preventing him from obliging. 

But Gang Signs & Prayer is hardly a complete throwback triviality or a re-hashing of old ideas. Just like the best grime it comes loaded with gritty identity, but perhaps in a relatively untested manner it confronts and develops a recognisably human face for a genre so imbued with the cold, hard reality faced by vast swathes of London's misrepresented youth. 

There's plenty here that unashamedly harks back to grime's roots. 'Cold' is a searing banger that sees Stormzy wrap himself in the sort of gangsta mentality most honed by the likes of Giggs a decade previously. 'Bad Boys' is an eerie crawl through a desolate Lewisham warehouse at 3am, with a masterfully aggressive gambit from Ghetts and gems like "they think they're like Narcos, they're just some Netflix bad boys" adhering to the genre's perpetually dark but self-aware sense of humour. 

There are layers to be found in these heavier moments too. 'Mr. Skeng' addresses split personalities and a self-directed culture change in raucous fashion; one of many references to the connection that Stormzy will always have with his formative, gang-centric years as explored with more subtlety in the heartfelt pathos of '21 Gun Salute' and 'Don't Cry For Me'. 

The real moments of vulnerability that have lead many to herald Gang Signs & Prayer as a sea-change in personality come in the most lovelorn moments. 'Velvet/ Jenny Francis (Interlude)' is an overtly smooth, Drake-esque ode to the kind of love-life our protagonist can offer, while 'Cigarettes and Kush', featuring a beautiful gambit from Kehlani, uses narcotics as a metaphor for regret, misplaced entitlement and heart-broken longing. Unfortunately, despite its cosmic sonics 'Blinded By Your Grace pt. 2' lacks any real tact and proves beyond measure that there's almost no way to make the line "Let's hear it one time for the Lord" sound well-composed in rap verse. 

Gang Signs... isn't a fully recognised standard. It's occasionally inconsistent in its impact but it bristles with humanity and, perhaps most tellingly, approach-ability. It's certainly more adept than Skepta's Konnichiwa was last year at carving a (mostly) captivating personality, and it's also the first grime record for years that's left plenty of room for foreseeable growth. 


Key Tracks: 'Cold', 'First Things First', 'Cigarettes and Kush (ft. Kehlani)'
For Fans Of: Wiley, Kano 

Jesca Hoop- Memories Are Now

Artist: Jesca Hoop
Album: Memories Are Now
Record Label: Sub Pop

The California singer-songwriter's 7th full-length has noble intentions but is disappointingly lifeless. 

California-born (and now Manchester, UK based) singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop's early life experiences certainly give her plenty of grounds for introspection. Raised in a Mormon household and spending her early 20's working on a rehabilitation programme for wayward teens would be formative for most. Memories Are Now, her 7th LP, tries to directly collate these experiences and reflect on lessons learned. For all that warmth though, the record feels unfortunately lifeless. 

The opening title track revolves around a skeletal groove and beautiful harmonies, but its distant percussive clang means it never gains much traction. Although similarly beat-less, the delicate loneliness of 'The Lost Sky' feels much more epic and longing but by the end its repetition renders it comparably dull. 'Animal Kingdom Chaotic' is better, a nicely off-kilter exploration of human arrogance and power. 'Songs Of Old' is unexpectedly stark and slightly chilling, while absolute highlight 'Cut Connection', with its fuzzy, calmly stomping update of her previously minimalist tendencies  is likely to be effecting to anyone familiar with instability or depression (opening lyric: "I'm living the dream and in the dream I'm buried alive"). 

'Pegasi', however, veers too close to Juno soundtrack-esque cutesiness, and although 'The Coming' sees her indulge in biting, Father John Misty-like anti-religious satire the sludgy, cavernous guitar chords are disappointingly void of atmosphere or energy. 

There are a handful of lovely poetic nuances on Memories Are Now, but more often than not neither the music or lyricism is pounding enough to hit as hard as it'd like to. Hoop's introspection is almost always noble if too understated. 


Key Tracks: 'Cut Connection', 'Animal Kingdom Chaotic'
For Fans Of: PJ Harvey, Laura Marling

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

El Mahdy Jr.- Die Before You Die

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Artist: El Mahdy Jr.
Album: Die Before Your Die
Record Label: Boonarm Nation

You can download Die Before You Die on a "name-your-price" basis from Boonarm Nation's Bandcamp page HERE.

In a world where the Middle East is perpetually purveyed as a crisis-battered, war-torn mess in mainstream Western media, it's important to stay culturally astute. Ignoring an insider's perspective is as dangerous and evasive as it is wrong-headed, and in the same respect the fact that the Middle East has been, for thousands of years, a hub of academic and artistic progression gets swamped by post-truth right-wing deviancy. 

Based in Portland, Oregon, Boonarm Nation have been trying to ensure that this destructive (and now unnervingly powerful) mindset doesn't gain any more traction, and Algerian producer El Mahdy Jr.'s Die Before You Die mixtape is one of the finest examples of their emblematic work. 
Released in late 2016 as a limited edition cassette with no track-list, the tape is two sides (each clocking in at just under the 20-minute mark) of genre-hopping but identity drenched excellence, comprising of hand-picked tunes as well the airing of tracks supposedly set to be released on Mahdy Jr.'s forthcoming new album. 

Side A begins on a mystical and jarring mix of a lonely flute against deep-set and dark ambience, immediately suggestive of that aforementioned grim portrayal of bombed cities and demagoguery that we often get fed. From here it rolls on into avant-garde electronica which pits itself against a sweeping spoken word sample which asserts that "the word of love has become common, but the reality of love is a hidden treasure". This feels particularly symptomatic of a time where not only the romantic attributes of love are twisted, but community spirit has become even more ambiguous.

The mood on 'Side A' is consistently dark and glitchy until the 9-minute mark when traditional Algerian folk music rears its head for the first time, projecting reflective but colourful and even slightly catchy presence into the proceedings. It's a beautifully swift change of tact. In the side's final 6 minutes we're directed back to off-kilter beat experimentation and a mesh of haunting vocal samples which climaxes in a wonderfully fluid transition from kaleidoscopic guitar-based hypnotism into weirdo heaviness as the side ends. 

'Side B' follows on from the previous side's fiercely anti-social rhythms and ventures into cavernous dubstep, rip-roaring progressive hip-hop and deeply spiritual, trance-inducing harmonising. It feels far less cult-like than it does an endorsement of cohesion and in that context it's positively life affirming. From here the tape takes on a more celebratory tone, adding glorious brass and '60s psych-esque keyboards to its arsenal at the mid-point before transforming into an ethereal, epic guitar gambit that was made to soundtrack long drives across the Atlas Mountains or Sahara-baked lowlands. "What space are we holding on this planet?" enquires a cosmic vocal cut, with resonance that is both deeply evocative of humanitarian crisis AND  a desire to find a new world. 

Die Before You Die is a wind-swept time capsule of the varying cultural moods, expressions and beauties that lie at the centre of the Middle East's artistic revolution. It's sometimes fierce, sometimes anxious and always sensitive; all characteristics that allow it to bubble with effective atmosphere, despite how discombobulating it can sometimes be.