Music Reviews

Wealth: Primer

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Mar 02 2017
Artist: Wealth
Title: Primer
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Ventil Records
“Primer” is a short collection of dark, twisted post-techno soundscaping. Muffled and broken rhythms underpin dark synthetic drones and cathedral-esque tones, with subtly de-tuned, thoroughly modern, stark digital synths squealing and procrastinating over the top. It’s a somewhat familiar sonic set-up, but done with measure and restraint and a good sense of space.

Tracks like “Floor”, with its simple 4-note bass pattern and live-tinged percussion, and closer “Lethe” with its slow and clean melancholy chords, are deceptively simple, with delicate arrangements that skirt around minimalism without ever really being it, an impressive tightrope-walking production act.

Longest track “Plate LXXVI (Diagram For Lilies)” is the most progressive self-contained piece, initially ‘the ballad’ of sorts, soporific electric piano loops gradually making way for a light industrial rhythm.

On the brief “Queen Of The Night”, guest santur player Stefan Fraunberger brings both organic and ethnic flavours and widens the scope of Wealth’s sound, an avenue I’d hope they’d continue to explore on future releases. The more playful stepping of “Snares” is also a highlight.

Wealth’s moody, insular un-techno is a relatively well-tried recipe now, but “Primer” has enough quality in its production to make Wealth one to watch in the future.

Group Zero: Structures And Light

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Feb 27 2017
Artist: Group Zero
Title: Structures And Light
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Touch Sensitive Records (@)
Distributor: Cargo Records
As the name either says or contradicts depending on how you look at it, Group Zero is a solo project from Cathal Cully, who spent four years gradually accumulating his own collection of experimental synthwave-ish works while on hiatus from the band Girls Names. While he’s the guitarist and vocalist here, you wouldn’t guess it from this bundle of purely synth instrumentals.

Tracks like “The Fantasist” are ominous-sounding throwbacks to that raw analogue 1980’s sound, with slow arpeggios that could be labelled weedy but which work in context. Melodic lead lines sound not too dissimilar from early OMD elements, but without the full pop sensibility underneath. The “Pummelling Repetition Inside” when its prominent simple bassline is what I’d imagine Chicken Lips sound like when they’re grumpy.

In Cully’s own words his home recording setup is “modest” and there’s a sense of that prevailing throughout the album. Sonically it’s got a fairly narrow spectrum, all staying quite firmly in warm and analogue-like territories, with only the crispness of the percussion really cutting through to any degree.

With the exception of “Pyramid Of Light”, each track is essentially a single groove, arguably a single idea. Layers and elements come and go over time, but there’s nothing as audacious as a basenote change or a B section here. So it’s appropriate that most of the tracks are only three or four minutes long, otherwise their lack of internal variation might begin to overstay its welcome. Cully clearly knows which patterns are the most hypnotic, allowing tracks like the highlight “I Dream Unwired” and the nicely suspense-stretched “Vernissage” more time to breathe.

“Pyramid Of Light” is a short ambient-drone interlude with distant guitar noodling on it, a brief suggestion of a different direction that Cully could have headed in if not lured into proto-techno sounds, which segues into “Love And The Present” with its anachronistic indie-pop twangy guitar that gives away Cully as a ‘live band’ performer rather than a studio native.

Twelve-minute-long, digital-only bonus track “Zero Symphony” is also slightly atypical- a gradually building and tense affair of arpeggios, riotous distorted guitar noises and suspense strings that sounds like it’s the longest, most epic intro to a electro-rock album you’ve ever heard. Snare drums arrive after ten minutes but the electro-rock never comes- instead it runs out of steam, a definite anticlimax.

There’s a definite “bedroom synth experimenter” flavour to this release but it’s certainly not without its merits. If thicker kickdrums and subbasses were added, you could label this a deep techno album, but as it is it could be described as a slightly self-indulgent home-listening affair, but well above average.

Astvaldur: At Least

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Feb 21 2017
Artist: Astvaldur
Title: At Least
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Oqko (@)
“At Least” is a seven-track, 26-minute instrumental mini-album that has feet in two camps. On the one hand (or foot if you want a persistent analogy), this is smart electronica, with complex trap rhythms and crisp percussive loops, but on the other hand/foot/whatever it’s also an experimental piece, featuring esoteric samples, cut-up orchestral noises, off-kilter bleeps and whirrs and some rich ambiences.

Astvaldur sounds (and is) Icelandic, and there are tonal qualities stereotypical of that country here- it’s expansive, it’s sounds cold, a lot of it is quite empty and it’s as crisp as snow.

“Hark” is a slightly odd intro piece, being neither just an intro nor a fully-fledged first track and hinting at a sound much more grime-like than the rest of the release. The next two tracks set the predominant format- a fairly frenetic but soft kick drum as the biscuity base, with a slightly plinky synth arpeggio bouncing above, and with the other sounds and soft synthetic textures more lazily ambling over the top.

“Flesh” is a highlight and a more tense affair, the glacial ambience replaced by slowly building tension, a very filmic concoction worthy of a cat-and-mouse chase in a spy thriller, with tinnitus-esque super-high notes for extra disquiet.

“Punture” [sic] is more stripped back, depending largely on looped bleeps that are akin to a music box panicking, while “Locked On” is a tension bed, ominous and technical. The brief “Mother” ends things in a playful way, with synths playing bright melodies with a sound like blown raspberries, though somehow it sounds more like an intro than a finale.

There is a breadth of different moods constructed from the same building blocks here, a strong musicality and the confidence to use emptiness as a key feature. While nothing about this release will blow you away, it’s a rich collection of ideas in a relatively small package.

Olivia Louvel: Data Regina

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Feb 14 2017
Artist: Olivia Louvel (@)
Title: Data Regina
Format: CD + Download
Label: Cat Werk Imprint (@)
This is a noble and fascinating concept album about the period of 16th century British history when both England and Scotland were ruled by women. Accompanied by an arts council-funded interactive website and with track titles referencing specific battles, it’s the most unusual history lesson you’ve ever sat through- and possibly the first one where it’s recommended to gaze out of the window.

But crucially it is not, as you might first think, an excuse to dig out the lute and the hurdy-gurdy and explore 16th century instrumentation- very much the opposite in fact. This is hyper-digital, cold soundscapes of slow voices, clicks and effects. Analogue oscillations and tight glitches roll over windy ambiences.

Vocal tracks like “My Crown” and “Love Or Rule” are the most accessible, and should appeal to fans of Christine & The Queens or Funkstörung, though much of the work is too languid and melancholy to make it truly accessible pop. The expressiveness of “Elizabeth Song” is close to what Björk would sound like with a screech-free British accent. Whilst listening to it a colleague of mine said it sounded like the dreamier side of Warpaint as well, I don’t wholly agree but I’ll include it as a second opinion.

“The Four Marys” is the closest that the vocal tracks get to the folk story tradition, an oral history of sorts, completely reimagined for deep electronica. It’s deeply unusual and attention-grabbing.

The instrumentals are named after battles, though again this could be called misleading as there’s no real conflict in them- they’re moods and tones, memories from old battlefields not sounds from current ones. There are a couple of exceptions, like “Pinkie 1547” with a highly processed soft percussive noise that might once have been cannonfire, and the severely out-of-place final rhythmic jolt of “Battlefront” (if you’re adding this to a sleep playlist, you’ll want to leave the final track off), but other than that, generally the whole work has a sleepy, drama-free feel to it.

The overall effect is rather lush. Though I won’t pretend to have truly picked up on a narrative (too much time gazing out of the window in my previous history lessons perhaps), nevertheless it’s a rich collection of atmospheric electronica with elements of deconstructed granular dreampop. It’s released on Louvel’s own label, Cat Werk Imprint.

If history lessons had sounded like this in school I would have paid a lot more attention.

W3C: State Of Absolute Alienation

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
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Feb 10 2017
Artist: W3C
Title: State Of Absolute Alienation
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Infinite Machine
“State Of Absolute Alienation” is an EP that sounds like it’s been designed with post-apocalyptic movie trailers or gaming in mind. Packed with gut-punchers, dramatic stabs, suspense-building synth arpeggios, sinister drawn-out bass tones and sub-bass throbs, this is strong-formula, cinematic instrumental EDM. Labels like dubstep or techno can fit it, though not snugly.

After “Ascension”, which is credited as an intro but which is really a creditable bit of super-dark trap in its own right, you get “Xenotrak”, which adopts a clipped guitar sound that is vaguely chiptune-ish, adding to the sense of gaming. As the name suggests, “Bot-o’-War” ups the mechanical rhythms, adding sharper metallic tones, while “Short Circuit” thickens and distorts the low-end glitching in exhilarating fashion. This is a fresh slice of attitude-laden electro-punk, somewhat insular in parts but an excellent way to block out the world. Final track “Invasion” pushes this even further, eschewing higher-end elements in favour of relentless throbbing.

Structurally it falls between two stools at times, trying to follow the structures of techno and a score at the same time leaves it a little bit of neither, but overall it’s an extremely thick, headlong dive into full-on, cutting-edge, big-screen electronica for dark tense imagery.

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