Music Reviews

N-qia: Fantasica

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Dec 15 2017
Artist: N-qia
Title: Fantasica
Format: CD + Download
Label: Noble
I’ll be honest, perhaps embarrassingly Tokyo-based duo N-Qia were a new name to me, but as soon as I’d heard this, their third full-length album, I immediately Googled their previous two albums (“Popical” and the digital-only mini-album “Audio Illustrations”). It isn’t even necessarily my usual fayre, but there’s something about this particular blend of upbeat, lush, bright Japanese dream-pop that really strikes a chord.

Lots of organic sounds- pianos, some guitars and strings, clapping, and an airy, willowy vocal- are arranged in a gentle electronica space with chord pads and some subtle electronic ornamentation.

Every song runs very close to the 4-minute mark and if I were looking to criticise, I might say that there’s perhaps not quite enough variety between the 11 tracks, which do end up merging into one smooth sonic carpet. Notable tracks include “Time Leaper”, which brings an extra layer of Planet Mu-esque glitch to the rhythm programming without ever spoiling the flow, and final track “Neondrive” which skips effortlessly between soft J-pop, house and near-jazzy complex electronica patterns. The urgently-paced and nicely dynamic “Love Transmitter” is just crying out for some drum & bass remixes. The slightly rockier “Lost Kids” has hints of Lemon Jelly about it.

If asked to pick a weak spot, it would probably be “Lover’s Rock”, which feels a little uninspired and insipid compared to what precedes it.

It’s got a relaxed, feel-good and weirdly cleansing mood to it throughout, a real headspace-clearer. It’s one of those albums that will leave you thinking, “lovely”.

Gagarin: Corvid

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Nov 25 2017
Artist: Gagarin
Title: Corvid
Format: CD + Download
Label: Geo Records
Graham Dowdall, current member of Pere Ubu and with a collaboration list full of big names, offers up an instrumental electronica album that’s evolved out of five pieces that were responses to five hills in Surrey. Wild field recordings from these hills are an element- particularly on tracks like “Reynards” and the slightly Eno-esque “Winterfold”- but certainly not the focal point, which is mainly playful retro-sounding synthesizer work that feels very 1980’s in parts- long pads, soft drum programming, warm analogue melodic keys and a few bleeps and bloops for good measure.

After the lush unfolding opening of “Gibbet”, things take a sidestep to the weird side for “Thetan” with some improvised and oddly chorded synth squelches that are reminiscent of 70’s Radiophonic Workshop crew messing about with new synthesizers.

Tracks like “Alienist” and “Oromorphian” are more moderated affairs, subtle and spacious downtempo synth environments with occasional sub-bass dummmms and a ‘road movie through an alien desert’ sense of pace.

“Seekers After The Truth” stands out thanks to a central spoken word vocal sample, rapidly cut up and repeating as though stuttering on an old CD DJ deck, over a surprisingly hollow underscore. “Roadman” sounds like a bit of late 80’s proto-techno that’s fallen through a timewarp. Conversely the broader sound and extra emphasis on melody in “Autonomist” has just a shade of Jean-Michel Jarre about it.

It’s a strangely sweet piece of analogue synth work that manages to be very polished, yet it recalls the joy of discovery of prototype synth experimentation as well, making it oddly timeless.

Noisebrigade: Chasing Towers

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Nov 23 2017
Artist: Noisebrigade
Title: Chasing Towers
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
The on-off project Noisebrigade returns with a 5-track EP of instrumental synthwave that blends some decidedly retro synth sounds with some relatively complex programming and bright production.

After the electro-tinged synthpop of the title track, second track “Colliding Horizons” has shades of moombahton in the rhythm, underneath some very alien sliding synth work, while the surprisingly short “Exploding Stars” has a slightly more aggressive stepping attitude that seems to recall Cabaret Voltaire.

“Heirophant’s Nebula” reminds me of steady tension bed music from Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who, but definitely in a good way, and is perhaps the most retro-facing of the set, before “Uranus’ Rings” is more of a ballad, sounding though it’s in search of a soulful vocal (though with a title like “Uranus’ Rings” the lyric writer might be in for a bit of a challenge).

It’s a strong EP that finds a nice balance between looking backwards and offering something a little new. Without any vocals some listeners may find it doesn’t develop a unique selling point, but for people who can’t get enough of the synthwave revival that’s seemingly here to stay (for a few years at least), this should definitely be in their baskets.
Nov 16 2017
Artist: Roman Leykam | Frank Mark
Title: Experience Space
Format: CD
Label: Frank Mark Arts (@)
Rated: *****
The label by Frank Mark bravely keeps on walking on his stylistic path by a plenty of releases, the last of which mostly focused on Roman Leykam outputs, so that a collaboration of Roman with the owner of the label is somehow surprising. On "Experience Space", they keep on squeezing electric guitars, synth-generated guitars, fretless bass (very nice the one that Frank forged in "Telepathic"), a set of recognisable synths and midi (yes, you read it well, MIDI...and one of the most recurring MIDI instrument is a really obsolete trumpet) by an impressive set of setups and effects, but they reached a balance between more traditional declensions of ambient meditations, cosmic music, and synth artifacts. Many tracks keep on resembling something in between the demo songs or pre-sets of some workstation or synths (particularly some stuff I heard by Yamaha, Alesis, and Oberheim engineers) and those CDs that get attached to the exercise books of some more or less improvised new-age guru and such a matching is somehow inspired by the (more or less modified) vocal sample, included in some tracks, sounding like guidelines in tracks like "Indelible Memory" or "Tumult of the Senses". Other ones sound like dadaist games on electric or synth guitars or minimal wandering of a Pink Floyd or Ozric Tentacles fan after trying opium, but lovers of these sonorities will be undoubtedly delighted by the number of strategies they explore over the 65 minutes of the release. Very nice artwork (featuring many pictures of sculptured faces and masks).

Peter Zirbs: Firmament

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Oct 26 2017
Artist: Peter Zirbs
Title: Firmament
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Fabrique Records
“Firmament” is a compact EP of 3 tracks from the moodier side of piano-pop.

The instrumental title track sets slightly Glass-like repeating piano arpeggios with a steady basslines and triphop-ish beats. “Ritual Vitality” starts with the same structure but with far more pace and energy, with an slightly acid bassline that eventually unfolds into an unusual 12/8 sort of lightweight, glam rock/techno hybrid.

Tom Walkden’s vocal on “You Don’t Feel Like This” makes it the centerpiece of the EP, but while it’s a strong and sorrowful song, the musical arrangement falls into some slightly flat, pop ballad clichés.

The result is reminiscent of a late 1990’s era CD single- a main vocal track (a touch flat) and two interesting and slightly more experimental B-sides, all intended to draw your attention to an album (which in the case of Peter Zirbs I have no information about), but not a complete mini-work in its own right.

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