Music Reviews

Silk Road Assassins: State Of Ruin

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Feb 08 2019
Artist: Silk Road Assassins
Title: State Of Ruin
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Planet Mu
A collaboration between three producers whose day jobs are in production music for films and games, “State Of Ruin” certainly has a soundtrack-style lean to it. From the opening gutpunches of “Overgrown” to the synth-atmospherics of “Split Matter”, it’s a very Planet Mu-appropriate work of intelligent instrumental electronica that you can certain picture accompanying visuals, cut scenes or gameplay (and a couple of choice spoken-word samples certainly reinforces this)- but it also works in its own right as a 43-minute listening album. The only real issue against it is the way that, like a lot of library music, none of the tracks top the four minute mark so they play as short ideas rather than longer or deeper experiments.

Tracks like “Shadow Realm”, featuring WWWINGS, bring the noise and the bullet-percussion and excel with a great dynamic and tension that commands your attention, whereas “Pulling The String”, nice though it is, does feel like a bit of unused incidental underscore. There’s something faintly Eastern-sounding about “Saint” that gives it a more notable flavour.

The naming of “Taste Of Metal (Instrumental)” is perhaps telling as it definitely comes across as an instrumental version of a track that would be completed by a grime-ish rap or an introspective vocal. “Bloom” gives off a similar vibe.

“Vessel” is a highlight for me, the arpeggiating synths and slow build, gentle drop arrangement forming a really nice bit of rich synthwave, with “Bowman” also notable for a similarly successful switch-up of pseudo-orchestral pacifist moments against punchier and spontaneous crisp percussion work.

Overall it lacks the distinctive character or twist that I might have normally expected from a Planet Mu release, but nevertheless it’s a strong piece of digital synth-electronica that keeps things nicely steady.

VV.AA.: This Is Frafra Power

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 25 2019
Artist: VV.AA.
Title: This Is Frafra Power
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Makkum Records
“This Is Frafra Power” a fascinating highlight thrown on a music scene many will be completely unaware of, but which will be well worth your time and money checking out if you like your electronica, hip-hop-light and complex African rhythms all melted up in one pot. Gathering together eight tracks from different artists, but all recorded in Francis Ayamnga’s studio in Northern Ghana, it’s a polished set of what we might coarsely label as “Afro-pop”, but with strong rap elements and deftly light electronic touches that give it more character than that label may suggest.

Despite an apparently small geographical scope and the self-imposed small pool to compile from, there’s a good deal of variety here. There’s a raw electro-grime edge to tracks like Matala Ligiri’s “Ragazeer” and more of a party vibe to Bororiga N Lobema’s “I Remember Yesterday” and the quite 80’s sounding “Awudu Messenger” by Seero. Some Western-ish pop styles are reconstructed and given unique flavours in tracks like Ndaana Eera Ymah’s “Linda Ayupuka” and the bold opener “Fausty Amoa Mabila” from Nosanayine.

For the sake of trying to compare it to known European music, at its most electronics-infused it does occasionally bring to mind Major Lazer (but without the subbass), old M.I.A. or Two Culture Clash, but pieces like Sugri’s “Sugri Hajia Zenabu” are more traditional-sounding group-vocal-driven affairs that feel less modernised.

The sound quality is generally good, but with some slightly lo-fi and compressed elements, particularly on some of the vocals, which leave a little unsure whether it’s a deliberate effect or a lo-fi consequence of overloaded microphones. The consistency of production between tracks, grown naturally from the single studio source, helps the compilation hang together as a proper listening album.

It’s a fascinating and quite leftfield collection of a region and modern musical culture I was completely unaware of, and for that reason alone you should check it out simply as an eye-opener. The fact it’s nicely produced and good authentic pop music is certainly a bonus of course.

New Tendencies: Batch0008

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jan 24 2019
Artist: New Tendencies
Title: Batch0008
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: SM-LL
After either investing in or expanding his Serge synthesizer system- which Googling tells me is neither small, nor cheap- Matt Nish-Lapidus will get some of his return back through “Batch0008” by turning his learning curve experiments in patch programming and modular tinkering into a half-hour-long digital and 12” release.

The relatively shapeless “Signals” segues into the more structured “Not Insulated”, a solid exercise in low-bit-rate techno-light with a slowly shifting, almost simulation-steam-train like percussive crispness that gets more intriguing as the counter-rhythms start to shift and pull against each other towards the end. Halfway through “Steps” we meet a slightly edgier sawtoothed sound that initially feels like it may be building to something, but doesn’t. The nicely purist pulses and clicks of “Adapt” are rather refreshing.

An interesting exercise in fairly stripped back, analogue modular synthesizer routines, it does work well as a mini-album, but perhaps lacks the carefully crafted edge that would have lifted it above an exhibition of how nice this particular modular synthesizer sounds.

Styrofoam: We Can Never Go Home

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Dec 24 2018
Artist: Styrofoam (@)
Title: We Can Never Go Home
Format: CD + Download
Label: Sound In Silence Records (@)
Rated: *****
If you're deep into Euro-electronica, the name Styrofoam is likely known to you. Belgian sound producer Arne Van Petegem has worked with so many, including Valerie Trebeljahr (Lali Puna), Andrew Kenny (The American Analog Set), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service), Bent Van Looy (Das Pop), Markus Acher (The Notwist, Lali Puna), Miki Yoshimura (Munk) and Alias, just to name a few. 'We Can Never Go Home' is his 8th album under the name Styrofoam, with more EPs and singles, and his first full album in 8 years. Although his name is familiar to me, I can't say I've even heard his work before, so I guess I'm coming from an unbiased perspective, one way or another. The album is full of percolating synth sequencing in a myriad of shimmering, bubbling dimensions underpinned with legato basslines and slap-dashy but effective percussion, giving the impression that some of this has been well thought out, and some of it just throwing caution to the wind saying "what the hey..." So in a sense, it sounds partially like some pieces could be adapted as background for real commercials, while others have no commercial potential whatsoever. Regardless of some unconventiality, the format is largely standard with synth sequencing (arpeggiated, or otherwise) being the core, percussive elements nudging things along, a slow-moving bass bottom and synth melody or something more abstract (sometimes abrasive) on the top. I guess this is just what Styrofoam is, or does, but it would have been nice to hear something that didn't conform to the format at all. At times I was reminded of earlier Kraftwerk (you know, before they got into pop songs) but not exceptionally so. My one beef with the music is that a couple of tracks took way too long to end - a single note just sustained for what seemed like eons. Some of the song titles are as abstract as what you hear - "It Isn't Real So It Doesn't Count," "The Crook of Your Elbow," and "Did Your Mouth Buy You This Scar?" but it hardly matters as 'We Can Never Go Home' seems to be more of a complete work than a collection of (instrumental) songs. Perhaps most telling is the picture on the front of the album cover, a dead pool at some resort or civic center. It fully looks like summer in the background but no swimming fun here! So in a sense, this album has the sonic trappings of nostalgia, but none of the depth the first-hand experiences of it. In that sense, we never can go home. Handmade cardstock CD container, limited to 300 numbered copies.
Dec 22 2018
Artist: FYI Chris ft. DJ Morris
Title: Songs About People's Feelings
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Toy Tonics
I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that “Songs About People’s Feelings” isn’t about people’s feelings, other than the specific feeling of wanting to dance. This is deep house music built from steady kicks, clean low basses, short melodic and atmospheric patterns and the odd decorative snippet or sample. Short phrases like the words “it’s okay to escape” that repeat in “B Glaser” don’t really qualify as a deep psychological study of people’s feelings- but you can definitely dance to it.

DJ Morris appears on “Encounters”, which starts out as though it’s going to be a full-on spoken-word-narration house record, but then wanders into deeper territory, cutting up the conversation into short breakdown pieces and peppering light synth stabs around over a sweet kick sound.

“Flat Psych” is a simple one-groove affair with nice measured use of a vocal-ish melodic loop over rolling, fairly Belearic beats. Despite its name “Just Atmosphere” is one of the more complex pieces, with a jazzy organ sound getting twisted and glitched playfully over a marginally more industrial beat (and an ending that will trip up DJ’s not paying attention).

And with the name “FYI Chris feat DJ Morris”, in case there are any Brits who might for a moment have wondered if controversial DJ Chris Morris was involved- I’m pretty confident he’s not.

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