Music Reviews

μ-Ziq: Challenge Me Foolish

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Apr 11 2018
Artist: μ-Ziq
Title: Challenge Me Foolish
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Planet Mu
I revisit µ-ZIQ’s 1999 album “Royal Astronomy” every once in a while. His most major label release (on Virgin) it has an elegant quality to it that stood it above its peers when electronica had just passed a commercial and creative peak and felt like it was beginning to wane, here was an electronica album with smoothness, depth and an organic quality.

So I was excited to find that “Challenge Me Foolish” is a collection of leftovers from that period of µ-ZIQ’s career- an extra bonus hour of unearthed unreleased material with the same blend of glitched-up post-bigbeat irreverence and sample frenzy mixed with jazzy synth instrumental parts.

And sure enough, sonically it has a lot in common with “Royal Astronomy”, and you can easily believe that tracks like “Inclement” would’ve been included on that album if there had simply been enough space. Pieces like “Perhaps” and the poppy, named-after-a-biscuit-company “Peek Freans” are quirky, quite Wagon Christ-like instrumental numbers with a bit of playful experimentation that maybe even seemed a little too daft for the finished work. “Ceiling” is a fantastically frantic bit of glitchy jungle that probably only got left off the album for being too hard.

Some tracks, like “Undone”, do feel a bit less polished by comparison, as though the decision that they hadn’t quite made the grade was made before the track was truly finished off- but there’s certainly nothing wrong with them, no rough edges, just maybe a lack of decorative tweaking that truly album-ready tracks often get. “Perfame”, with its baroque melody, has some surprisingly weak-sounding synth strings that have a slight feel of ‘unfinished demo’ about them, but they’re certainly not poor.

For anyone who enjoyed “Royal Astronomy” or any of that late 90’s blossom of interesting electronica that Planet Mu were right at the centre of, this is a bonus hour you’ll definitely enjoy.

LHISPR: Hypnotic

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Apr 05 2018
Artist: LHISPR
Title: Hypnotic
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
From the reliable Basserk label comes a pair of four-minute long synthwave tracks that will appeal to fans of Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, or either Tron soundtrack.

“Hypnotic” is an instrumental, rolling at around the 100bpm mark give or take and has a classic arrangement of synth arpeggiators, emotive pads, vocal ahhhs and an extremely Jarre-like, if a little sparse, hummable lead melody.

“Deja Vu” has a full female vocal with a slightly loose and plaintive, introspective feel, over a groove that feels a bit more modern and poppy. It’s perhaps lacking the strong hook that would really turn this into an earworm, but it’s a solid kind of synthpop-album-track kind of number.

This new collaboration between Lilian Hak, Ivo Schmetz and Peter Rutten may not be very imaginatively named, but it’s clearly a great combination and these two tracks show great promise for synthwave-based pop releases in the future (if there’s just one thing that needs work, maybe it’s the artist name?..). If there’s an album, sign me up.

Toby Tobias: Second Stimulus / Synchro Surfer

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Apr 04 2018
Artist: Toby Tobias
Title: Second Stimulus / Synchro Surfer
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: ESP Institute
“These songs may have you arrested for public nuisance”, says the label on this 12”, but don’t let that mislead you. My washing machine makes louder harsher grittier noises than this. It’s an odd mis-branding of what’s actually a very smooth and laidback pair of super-light electronica instrumentals laying up a slightly quirky selection of melodic sounds over neat, lightweight 808 breakbeat patterns and simple bassline patterns.

“Second Stimulus” keeps things interesting across its nine minute span by throwing in new sounds at intervals, including some almost-cheesy panpipe-like noises and a very familiar old drum loop. “Synchro Surfer” is a slightly deeper affair, with somewhat more off-kilter beat patterns and a slowly tweaking pad.

A touch acid house at the edges, with shades of 90’s trance (the good, Trance Europe Express-style trance), it’s an interesting mix-up of sounds. It’s neither revolutionary nor neighbour-disturbing but there’s enough detail in here and enough control over the progression to make this an engaging 12” to listen to.

The Third Eye Foundation: Wake The Dead

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Apr 03 2018
Artist: The Third Eye Foundation
Title: Wake The Dead
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Ici d'ailleurs
The press release for this 40-minute album mainly produced by Matt Elliott does it a serious disservice. Describing it as “throbbing, hypersensitive dubstep”, which is a massive oversimplification, and getting knotted up in hyperbole about concepts of human openness and environment, led to pretty low expectations of what “Wake The Dead” was going to sound like- which is a shame because it is, in fact, really very good indeed, almost bordering on brilliant.

It’s a thick fusion of organic, complex drum patterns, with pure sine subbasses from the world of drum & bass, with melancholic cello lines playing against raw hip-hoppy samples, scratches and glitches, lumped in with some dub production values. It’s got some of the atmospherics of dubstep but none of the clichés. If forced to try and sum it up in two words I’d plump for modern-day trip-hop (taking advantage of hyphens, otherwise that’s four words) but it really isn’t that simple.

What really steps this album up above some of its electronica peers is the presence of high-quality real drums (Raphaël Séguinier) and cello (Gaspar Claus), plus David Chalmin (on “additional keyboards and voices, drum machine, manipulations, effects”), all of which produces a breadth of tone and ideas that is often not found in truly one-man-project albums.

13-minute opener “Wake The Dead” gets off to a relatively low-key start but unfolds into a remarkable large-scape atmosphere with operatic female vocal tones by the end. This choral feel runs into the rather cinematic “Procession For Eric”, but things get a little bit less bombastic for “The Blasted Tower”.

The second half is a little bit rougher-edged, starting with the noisier layering of “Controlled Demolition”. There’s an angry brutality in “That’s Why” that leads it into being a weak point towards the end of the album, made up for somewhat by the sparser, dubbier tones of closer “Do The Crawl”.

A real positive surprise of an album, perhaps unfairly let down by its own branding, this is a real gem and a highlight of 2018 so far.

Moon Gangs: Earth Loop

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Mar 28 2018
Artist: Moon Gangs
Title: Earth Loop
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Village Green Recordings
Though pitched as the work of a classically trained pianist toying with analogue synths, “Earth Loop” is a fully fledged soundtrack-like instrumental electronica album that owes a lot to Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, and sounds like what TD could have sounded like in this century if their releases had had a bit more vigour and enthusiasm behind them. Bright analogue bleep patterns dance over bold, bright, super-keen synth and string-synth pads, while sparse dramatic percussive hits give everything a sense of importance and wonder.

“Second Run” has a slightly synthwave edge to it, like the opening overture to an 80’s sci-fi movie, but not in a kitsch way which is to its credit. “The Start” and “The End”, a deliberate musical book-ending, add hints of a male vocal sample that add a little extra nuance as well.

At points it could be accused of being a one-trick pony- every track feels a little like an attempt to synthesize the feeling of a bright new sunset, with tracks like “The Terminal” and “Tempel 1” not adding quite as much variety as they might. But with a running time of only 37 minutes, attention never gets over-stretched.

Overall it’s lovely synth-electronica with a hint of retro that leaves you with a genuinely warm feeling.

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