Music Reviews

Shy Layers: Midnight Markers

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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May 31 2018
Artist: Shy Layers
Title: Midnight Markers
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Beats In Space
Despite being described as “between darkness and light”, light is undoubtedly the victor on this jaunty, laidback and confident genre-defying album that could loosely fit under the umbrella of poppy electronica.

Tracks like “Gateway” are fully fledged pop songs, plucky percussive grooves running under sparky guitar twangs and a variety of boldly sampled instrumentation with a soulful, often heavily-vocoded vocal sitting politely on top. The influences are broad- 70’s funk, 80’s pop with a touch of soul, modern electronica, there are aspects of all of them in there. “Lover’s Code” even has a sound which would have to be described as funky synth sax stabs- but which aren’t nearly as bad as that description might imply.

Other tracks are a little sparser and more lightweight, but still bright and breezy, such as the Rhodes-esque keys-laden instrumental “Test Pattern”, or the radio-friendly open-air vibe of “No Road” on which the vocoding is so thick that the lead vocal becomes almost completely indecipherable and becomes a notes-only, lyricless instrument and letting the backing vocals come to the front in an unusual fashion.

It’s a relaxing and feel-good Friday afternoon sort of an album with a refreshing, almost naive optimism to it, and I hope it does well.
Artist: John Tilbury / Keith Rowe / Kjell Bjørgeengen
Title: Sissel
Format: CD + Download
Label: Sofa
Recorded live in 2016, “Sissel” is a sombre, single 48-minute live performance from the trio who seem to avoid describing the instrumentation they use- to my ears it’s almost exclusively piano and analogue electronics, with hints of found sounds and atmospherics. Soft and very sparse piano notes and simple repetitive chords play both with and against hard-edged raw electric sparking, gritty rumblings and percussive noises. Prolonged periods of emptiness or near-emptiness, particularly towards the end, give rise to phenomenally awkward silences.

Performed a few weeks after one of the artists suffered a great personal loss, there’s undoubtedly a sense of eulogy and space here, with sorrow worn firmly on the sleeve. To the retrospective listener this gives it a decidedly cathartic function. It’s a properly sobering listen, and not altogether enjoyable from an emotional point of view. But it’s remarkably calm, never angry, and that’s why it’s likely to find a place in other people’s hearts as well. But it’s not for the emotionally faint-hearted.
Artist: Ana Dall'ara-Majek
Title: Nano-Cosmos
Format: CD + Download
Label: Empreintes Digitales
Composed across a period of more than five years, “Nano-Cosmos” is a five-piece cycle of acousmatic pieces dedicated to insects, small arthropods and microorganisms. Fifty-three minutes of arhythmic granular clicks, glitches and sharp biology lab sounds running over long drones, tuned synthetic hums, irregular heartbeat sounds and electric growls, it certainly emphasises how alien the microscopic world is relative to what we would call familiar.

If you’re squeamish, don’t worry- despite being rooted in biology, sonically there’s quite a digital flavour to it, often sounding more sci-fi than organic, particularly in pieces like “Bacillus Chorus” or the expansive synth opening of “Pixel Springtail Promenade”. The biological aspect exhibits itself as much in the unpredictability as in the tones themselves.

“Pixel Springtail Promenade” is a notable highlight, a self-contained 15-minute work in many sections where the synthetic pads evolve into larger more orchestral sounds with a luxuriant quality that emphasises the dichotomy of the insect clicking noises- twisting into weirdness towards the end with a soundscape that to my ear sounds decidedly more like a frog chorus than insects.

Final piece “Xylocopa Ransbecka” is also an opus, accompanied by the hard-to-beat conceptual description: “features a carpenter bee and twenty doors, recorded in Belgium”. After a series of disorientating vignette-style sections, again more orchestral elements appear in the second half, building steadily to an almost conventional crescendo that then devolves into a digital equivalent where the insectoid clicking and glitching multiples exponentially until we approach white noise. It’s a fitting finale, both successful and strange.

Inspired by and sourced from a selection of very specific biological phenomena, this release really does seem to blur the lines between music and science- and the result is a nicely immersive bit of complex soundscaping that you really can get into.

Fauna: Infernum

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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May 26 2018
Artist: Fauna
Title: Infernum
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Ventil Records
“This is my second album and it was recorded under dangerous circumstances”- so begins Rana Farahani’s second full-length, which unfolds into something sonically much more relaxed and casual than the prelude may suggest. This is gentle synth work, mostly very calm, sometimes bordering on slow old-school trance (“Exit”), sometimes wandering more closely to full-on synthpop (“Death Fly”, “Went Home Got Lost”), sometimes more stripped-back and rumbly with glitch and post-dubstep influences but still in perky synthpop soundspace (“Drive-By”, “Holle”), sometimes going deeper into rumblier industrial techno structures (“Unbehagen”) but never really going ‘hard’.

The bitterness is in the lyrics, often sparse and spoken-word affairs infused with a fair amount of cynicism and resentment that plays cleverly against some of the quite optimistic synth sounds running underneath. Apart from the expletive in the chorus, “Lonely At The Top” is a bright, perky, fairly radio-friendly bit of electropop

It’s got a healthy blend of variety and consistency in a compact 34-minute, 10-track dark synthpop album that never really shines extremely bright, but still draws you in with some deceptive complexity and authentic emotion that’s not writ so large as to be discouraging. Interesting stuff.

Paul Handley: Midnight Zone

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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May 19 2018
Artist: Paul Handley
Title: Midnight Zone
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
Paul Handley’s digital-only self-released “Midnight Zone” is a compact 34-minute, 9-track set of instrumental synth and electronica with a bright, sci-fi, soundtracky (or maybe library music-esque) feel to it. Perky beeps and optimistic-sounding chord pads wash over soft drum machine patterns and steady synthbass, creating something with the melody heavily at the forefront.

At its best there are shades of Jean-Michel Jarre in the melodic work, or maybe some of Tangerine Dream’s poppier 80’s material. Highlights include the broad scope of “Lost Horizon” and the nice use of slightly Delerium-esque vocal pads and ahhhs on “A Brighter Day”.

At its worst it’s just a bit forgettable. These sounds have all been done rather a lot before and it can just wash over you and be a bit disengaging. Tracks like “Eclipsed” are a touch nothing-y. At times it sounds like the underscore for some teutonic electropop band who haven’t got around to laying their sinister vocals on yet.

The homemade flavour that’s apparently in the (in my opinion amateurish) artwork is audible as well, but less so- just some hints of ‘soft’ mastering which make some of the punchier tracks, such as the title track, not quite as zingy as they might have been. Thankfully that’s a minor criticism though, it’s still a good sound.

A release worth checking out on Bandcamp for people looking for a bit more instrumental and sci-fi synthwave in their life.

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