Music Reviews

Bad Stream: Bad Stream

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Apr 12 2018
Artist: Bad Stream
Title: Bad Stream
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Antime
Though he describes his work as equal parts rock and electronica, Martin Steer’s debut album as Bad Stream is closer to the latter than the former. With expansive synthetic but cinematic atmospheres, dark Rob Dougan-esque vocals, dramatic breakbeat drumming patterns, the guitar work is just one element in a very richly textured album with an extremely high production value. This is the sound of a very accomplished producer- less surprising when you find out that Steer is or was a member of Frittenbude.

Some tracks are more driven, with pulsing patterns that underpin tracks like “Already Dark” and one of the rockiest tracks “Megafauna”, while others such as the opener “Transition” have a grumblier and less urgent tone to them. “Nervous Love” pushes that contrast within itself, playing a steady confident walking-techno beat in the ‘verses’ against angry relentless drum crashes and louder guitar work in the sort-of-chorus.

I’ve very enamoured with this album, which is certainly going to get repeat plays above and beyond the reviewing process, but if I was scrabbling to find criticisms, I might suggest that consistency is its downfall. Across 71 minutes there’s a lot of epic mood atmospherics that hit mostly one particular pitch, and for that kind of running time, you could possibly find the sheer epicness of it tiring and wish for a little bit more variation. That’s not to say there is none- the almost house-piano elements in “Black Weed” being a great example, the long spoken-word samples in “Transition II” a less distinctive one- but it does appear that Steer has stayed somewhat in his comfort zone at times, which is a shame as the production touches are so deft that you do wonder if he could have been more ambitious in his scope.

As well as having a definite appeal to fans of the accessible-rock-music-with-electronica that seems to come out of Germany in satisfying quantities, this release is an absolute most for fans of UNKLE that I’ve already mentioned, but also Hybrid, M83, Ulrich Schnauss and beyond.

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.

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