Music Reviews

Helado Negro: This Is How You Smile

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Mar 05 2019
Artist: Helado Negro
Title: This Is How You Smile
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: RVNG Intl.
New York-based Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth album is predominantly Latin-textured melancholy acoustic pop, with elements of soul ballads and even lounge. Though introduced as being aimed at topics of politics and race, it’s got an introspective tone that makes it all feel like heartfelt and romantic love songs, even though the lyrics (some English, some Spanish) are sometimes fatigued world-weary assessments of the difficulties of life. If you don’t pay attention to this, you can mellow out to this, no problem.

While a lot of acoustic guitar music is now revered in production terms, as though adding any non-acoustic elements would be some kind of sacrilege, that mistake is not made here. The production touches are gentle, but beneficial- a few drum sounds here, a bit of synth bass there, nice use of delay on “Todo lo que me falta”, all small doses but effective. Little sonic skits like “Echo For Camperdown Curio” and “November 7” are where the most unusual stuff happens, little bursts of analogue synths and found sound and tape-style edits that belie a studio playfulness.

Highlights include “Seen My Aura”, a gently funky walking number that has pop crossover and radio potential. “Sabana De Luz” which is the closest we get to a party atmosphere, but we’re clearly still inside Lange’s head. If looking for one track that channels the full sound of the album, try “Fantas”, and not the overly intimate and slightly unrepresentative opener “Please Won’t Please”.

The title, while not overtly ironic, could certainly be misleading, and if you’re expecting a feel-good party album, think again. If however you’re in the mood for a rich and heartfelt bit of relaxing acoustic pop (I’ve resisted mentioning Seu Jorge until now), with just hints of lyrical edge and modern production, this may catch your ear.

Eric Maltz: Dream Journal

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Feb 22 2019
Artist: Eric Maltz
Title: Dream Journal
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Flower Myth
Eric Maltz’s latest 12” is made up of two tracks, both of which stretch leisurely instrumental jazzy synth-house grooves out to around 11 minutes each.

Although the title track ticks along at a very steady 120bpm, somehow it feels much slower, with its laidback bassline the key reason. Beginning with some cliché bongos, as it unfolds new elements arrive in slow procession, hihats filling it out somewhat, and three minutes in, a small, slightly Frankie Knuckles-ish piano riff arrives to tell us we’re on a long and very reliable little self-contained journey. Brighter synth chords around the 7 minute mark feel less like a breakdown and more like a shift into a different atmosphere, but it’s a false alarm, and before we know it we’re back to the original groove, which then spends the next three minutes gradually spacing out and meandering into dub echo on its way out.

B-side “Subliminal Virgo” has just slightly more vigour, rolling at 125bpm with a steady but soft kick groove and more emphasis on the twinkling synths arpeggios that dance around at the top. The overall structure’s very similar and they make a very pleasant pair.

While not necessarily as dreamy as you may be expecting, it’s a strangely soft and adorable pair of tracks that have a shade of throwback to the long indulgent house journeys of the 90’s, whilst still sounding fairly fresh.

Chasms: The Mirage

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Feb 21 2019
Artist: Chasms
Title: The Mirage
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Felte
“The Mirage” is an introspective bit of dubby dream pop that, despite clearly being fused with melancholy channeling problems and tragedies in Jess Labrador and Shannon Madden’s recent lives, comes out the other side as a charming and calming affair. Over light and confident electronic dub and synthpop beats and basslines run light echoing guitar melodies and soft, slow, feminine vocal tones.

The poppier moments include “Every Heaven In Between” which, save for a slightly more hollow and washed-out production quality (a deliberate one, rather than a criticism), might be reminiscent of early 90’s Electronic, or State Of Grace.

However for the most part it’s more wistful, slow affairs like “Gratuitously Cruel” which, despite its title, sonically doesn’t sound cruel at all. Adopting elements of electropop that are at times both modern, not that dissimilar to chart electropop ballad material, but also retro with shades of wave, there’s a steadiness and richness to them that justifies and easily fills each song’s generally six-to-seven-minutes-ish running time. The dubbier points, like opening track “Shadow” or the very endearing “Tears In The Morning Sun”, also have shades of the fusion of electronic and dub sometimes ploughed by The Orb and others, while “The Mirage” is a slightly more grimy and gothic affair which seems to have its sights set firmly backwards.

As expressions of grief go it’s rather measured and controlled, but the result is an accomplished three-quarters-of-an-hour sonic indulgence that will be appreciated by those who prefer their soul-searching and shoegazing to be a touch on the lighter side, but still very sincere.

Hunter Complex: Open Sea

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Feb 15 2019
Artist: Hunter Complex (@)
Title: Open Sea
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Death Waltz Originals (@)
Rated: *****
How I came by this artist/album: A number of small labels email me promo material/artist news blurbs, etc., many of which don't even apply to the Chain D.L.K. audience/music genres, and I find myself deleting a good chunk of them. This one email I got from Lars and Death Waltz though was kind of intriguing. "The Long awaited new LP, Open Sea by Dutch artist Hunter Complex will be released on January 23 2019 on Death Waltz Originals, sublabel of Mondo Records and Death Waltz Recording Company. The LP was mastered by James Plotkin; the stunning artwork was created by Eric Adrian Lee." Of course, there was more, talking about "supreme synth goodness" and "a mix of warm analog and bright digital synths at a layer of complexity that most records in this genre can't manage to achieve." Well, that was enough for me. I contacted Lars and asked him to send me a copy. He responded by saying one was already on the way, and lo and behold, it seemed to arrive instantly! I suppose getting the (limited) vinyl edition would have been asking too much, but the CDr sent had all the music of the album I needed for the review, so no complaints.

Prior to this I was unfamiliar with Lars Meijer and his Hunter Complex project, but I understand he's a pretty well-known figure in the Dutch electronica underground, so this comes with a good amount of cred. He's been releasing music since 1991, is a member of Living Ornaments and Psychon, and 'Open Sea' is the third album under his Hunter Complex moniker. He is also the co-owner of the Dutch label, Narrowminded. Sorry to say I haven't heard any of his previous releases, but it's what's spinning now that counts. My first reaction to 'Open Sea' is that it sounds like the kind of stuff my '80s synthpop band Chemistry Set was doing for fun and creativity between rehearsals for live performances. We had a bunch of synthesizers and dammit, we were gonna use 'em to make imaginary instrumental soundtracks to movies that never existed. (Hey, you never know when a real scoring opportunity might arise, although it never did.) Most of those tapes fell by the wayside and were lost to time and tide, but this album brought it all back home.

Being completely instrumental, 'Open Sea' is like a soundtrack to an 1980s B movie. Less like Blade Runner, Miami Vice and Terminator, more like Thief, Escape From New York, The Running Man, American Gigolo, or more obscure ones like Trancers or Xtro. 'Open Sea' is not indicative of any kind of horror score though; more bright and punchy rather than dark and gloomy. The synths employed sound like the lower end Roland, Jupiter and Juno, Oberheim, Yamaha DX7 and Korg Poly 61 rather than the higher end PPG Wave, Synclaviers and Fairlights, which is fine by me. Lots of layering on the pads, generous use of sequencers and arpeggiators, plus those drum machine sounds that so defined 1980s music.

My one misgiving about this is the lack of defined melody. It is possible that was intentional, not attaching a specific melody to these pieces in order to evoke an overall feeling. I think that puts this album dangerously close to Stock Music Library terrain (you know, the generic tunes that are often royalty-free used in low-budget radio commercials and self-produced documentaries) but it is way better done than most of the music I've heard in that category. Still, it seems as though much more could have been done with this without sacrificing its stylized sound, perhaps veering off in more playful directions instead of treading predictable pathways.(Many of the musical tropes employed on 'Open Sea' are those you've heard many times before.) The fact that the album is a limited released on vinyl makes it more appealing for a physical copy than if it were just in CD format. It is already sold out in Europe, and likely the only reason it hasn't sold out in the U.S. is lack of recognition and publicity with American audiences. Get your copy before it disappears.

Hvmble: Textures 1/4

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
Techno / Trance / Goa / Drum'n'Bass / Jungle / Tribal / Trip-Hop
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Feb 12 2019
Artist: Hvmble
Title: Textures 1/4
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Hvmble
The first in a four-part “Textures” series offers up two steady six-minute super-light and atmospheric house grooves where a super-polite combination of kick and soft bassline chug along nicely and it’s the high-end patterns and atmospherics where the interesting stuff is going on.

With shades of dubby production, “Moeraki” is both the busier and the lighter-sounding of the pair. Processed noise that sounds like a babbling brook fused with digital insects comes and goes in waves, as does a slightly more sawtooth-edged synth pattern that takes things in turns with a much more mellow and 90’s ambient house high line. It also has a surprisingly DJ-friendly fade outro, look out for that one.

“Plitvicer” has more of an earnest kick to it, focussing solely on the rhythm for almost two minutes before rolling out an assembly of soft bass notes, synth stabs and claps that got 80’s influence written through it like a stick of rock. This one fades too, but leaving the stabs behind in a way that makes cross-fading nice and smooth.

A steady if unremarkable pair of tracks with a smooth and feel-good simplicity to them.

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