The sheer weight of feeling behind a cause doesn’t prove that cause’s validity or importance- but it must surely be a massive indicator. It speaks volumes that JMY set out to do a benefit compilation raising funds for Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and received over 100 tracks from over 80 different contributors. That’s eleven and a half hours of music. And while the sheer scale of a compilation album doesn’t equate to its quality, I’d certainly call it value for money!
The quality is excellent. I can’t feasibly comment on every track, but to generalise massively, there’s plenty more reasons to buy this compilation than just the charity aspect.
The arrangement of tracks is such that listening to the first few tracks is quite misleading. This opening hour or so is a collection of works from the thoughtful and introspective side of electronica, but with lashings of acoustic elements, found sound and sound design and atmospheric work. There are huge doses of ambient, some drones, including Silber-ish guitar drones, some more cinematic pieces, and plenty of sombre moods and environmental pieces.
However this is not the full story, by any means, and after this point, a lot of musical diversity arrives. TV POW’s “Cadillac A” and Precise’s “It’s On Me” are on-point rap track (the former with a nice line in American culture samples), while Tina M Howell and Just Nick offer up a soul-meets-trip-hop affair in “Donna And Tina”. Gel Set’s “Headless Statue #3” is an intriguing bit of semi-retro synthpop with a nice hook to it. Extraordinary Popular Delusions’ “Contention” is a straight-up slab of avantgarde jazz, Jeb Bishop Trio’s “Fifth Gear” is a smooth cruising jazz (the latter a part of a jazz zone that the album enters around two-thirds of the way through), and Azita’s “Something That Happened” is a straight-laced reggae groove with dub elements- until the point where it isn’t (spoilers!).
The diversity plays out piece by piece, and throws up some assured surprises. But the compilation does keep returning to the electronic world periodically, making it its home turf and leading to some interesting contrasts- none more than the roll from Spanish-sounding guitar ballad into Zoot Houston’s sine-wave symphony “xrstlyedit.mp3”.
Many of the tracks have a political connection to the cause in hand, like the protest crowd sampling “BLM about the Permawave 2020” from GK Jupitter-Larsen which covers a self-contained distance from found sound through to a wall of distorted noise- and at the other end of the spectrum, Simon Joyner’s acoustic folk ballad “There Will Be A Time #2”. Few are more unsettling than the long drone, sirens and riot noises pulling against solo choral and ballad singing in Jesse Goin’s somewhat Jimmy Cauty-esque “Is There A Balm In Gilead”, while some take topical sounds but process them into more abstract soundscapes, like Fred Lonberg-Holm’s “Slow Riot” or the sinister but not gruesome “Smoldering Corpse Outside The Embassy” from Our Wrongs.
The compilation does return to its gentler more atmospheric and ambient roots at later points as well, with Doline Karst’s haunting “Incolae” and Pharmakustik’s “Freight” some of the finer examples, and some more interlude-like pieces like Mykel Boyd’s “60 Miles South of Chicago”. There are plenty of immersive soundscapes here as well, many of which top the ten minute mark on their own (and some nearer half an hour!). Some are on the unsettling side, like the dizzying “Untitled 200613” from J. Soliday, or Al Margolis’ “QueBec” with its utterly unexpected accordion halfway. The selection of alien environments on offer ranges from the straight-laced, like Kazuya Ishigami’s “Lemurian Memory”, and the dark and grunge, like Gabie Strong’s “Sous Les Pavés”, to more unusual offerings like Stephan Comford’s presumably lock-down inspired “A Finite Number Of Rooms”. Others like the excellent “Carrier v1.40” from remst8 + Drekka or Rugar Magnusson’s “Gull” are more accessible and warm drone works. Towards the end of the compilation there’s a greater prevalence for sparse, isolated solo tracks, like Jeff Kimmel’s extremely plaintive “Solo At ESS”, as well as some extended noisier abstract works like K2’s “Flat Horizon Is So Black”.
Although this is a political hot topic at the moment, there’s surprisingly little here that feels rushed or overly raw. It is curious to think that if the dates are correct, I’m reviewing tracks like Jeb Bishop’s dizzying “mISTAKES v170620” less than two weeks after they were finished, but it still doesn’t feel underbaked Some tracks feel like an opportunity to try something unique that might not fit into the rest of their work- while I’m not familiar with Mike Bullock’s work, his chaotic string and processing piece “Tread” feels like a good example of that scenario working well. There’s the odd short sketch, like Nick Hoffman’s one-minute guitar piece “Sufferir So Disposto”, but the calm maturity in tracks like Neil Jendon’s “Sulu Bleeding Heart” rather suggests that the current lockdown situation has given many musicians a bit more time to work on these tracks than they might’ve had otherwise...
Other miscellaneous highlight tracks include Jim Becker’s pulsing electronics and fragile melody of “Jajouk 2213”, and the bright but twisty electronic drone-fanfare of Boris Hauf’s captivating “Exspiro”. Pandabrand’s “Listen” is from the very quirkiest edge of pop, and the raw electronic techno of Danfan’s “Contratiempo” or Frank Rosaly’s “Fool” both leap out at you, as does the sharp one-minute guitar-techno “Grass Dance” from Kendraplex. For the introspective side, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson’s yoik-like multitracked vocal “Turning Down The Volume Inside Your Head” must be mentioned.
For eyebrow-raising weirdness, a number of special mentions should go to No Motive’s “Untitled”, Pavlos Vakalos and Nicolas Malevitsis’s bold stop-start sample-metal “Cry”, the energetic cut-up monkey vocalisations of Karen Constance and Blue Spectrum’s “Medication Bathing Wine”, the mental-health-concerning twisted vocalisations of Leif Elggren’s “Soya” or the noise wall of Crank Sturgeon’s “Standstill Until”. Ernst Karel’s “Cassette Field Recordings, Thailand 1993” tells an interesting but sparse story of forgotten television broadcasts, while Weasel Walter, Brandon Lopez and Michael Foster offer a track called “Current Events” which is a difficult wall of distortion, angst and percussive noise- which is very fair, because that’s what current events do feel like.
Eleven and a half hours is a marathon listen, for sure- but considering the minimum price is only $7, it’s insane value, and even if you can only relate to half the tracks on here, it’s still a fantastic find. Plus it’s a charity record for a solid cause too- leaving you with pretty much no reason left not to buy it.
Tijuana-based Benfika’s return on the Infinite Machine label with 19-minute EP “Ruinas” takes things in an unexpectedly calm direction, for the most part. For a label I’ve begun to associate with darker, heavier high-quality electronica, this is a breath of much calmer air. It’s described as being more spiritual- I might just describe it as being more settled.
Opening track “Exodexo” sets things up with gentle balearic pads and mood, and just a few shades of sharper electronic touches grumbling away underneath. “Pentimento” is a bright, synth-driven, oddly-signatured bit of musical virtuosity that, thanks in particular to its vocal sounds running alongside the melody pattern, dare I say it sounds a little MIke Oldfield-ish at times- but again, with enough occasional gutpunching subbass and dynamic effects to prevent electronica fans from feeling mis-sold.
“Mundo Schizo” is more upbeat and perky, taking the slightly synthwave melodies and giving them a firmer rhythm, but it’s shortlived- and “Rios de Azoth” is a curious under-two-minute melodic sketch of treated keyboard and effects that hint at a more experimental side.
Final piece “Ollin” is the longest and most ambitious, and feels like it’s melting together some of the best qualities of electronica with a smattering of soundtrack ambience and some synth interpretations of sounds that feel stereotypically South American jungle-ish, but not in a bad way. The way the melodic elements cascade apart at the end is a very pretty way to end too.
It isn’t what I expected, but to be honest, it’s far more interesting than that.
Immediately from the intro to opening track “Harmless” it’s clear that this will be an electro-techno EP with purpose and attitude. Steady drum machine, pulsing but hard-edged Vangelis-ish basslines arrive first- but there’s a twist, when the guitar and vocals arrive and it all takes a slight turn for the indie. The slightly Dave Gahan-ish vocals (but early, more clean-sounding Dave Gahan) are introspective and just a little nervous-sounding.
“Harmless” is something of a crossover track, to the extent that I’m surprised they haven’t thrown in a radio edit just in case, but the rest of the EP is more straightforward and purist instrumental electro-techno. Both “Recurrent” and “Dusty Knights” border on progressive house, with understated beats letting the pulsing basslines do all the work. A squelchier feel to the melody and some ‘ah-oh-ah-ah’ vocal notes in the latter make it the more interesting of the two.
“Recurrent” also gets an Alexander Robotnick remix, which keeps fairly close to the original in terms of tone, with a more compact structure, clappier house rhythm, and most importantly the addition of an acid 303 line which is a well-trodden but reliable route to electronic sonic happiness.
It’s my understanding that Cantor is Italian (though this might not be correct), in which case I can’t help but make a comparison between “Harmless” and fellow Italians Planet Funk who, after their initial pop records, but out consistently good indie-techno-pop releases that aren’t a world away from this. If you liked them, or you appreciate the work of New Order but wish they’d done slightly harder techno, then this is something you’ll appreciate.
Loophole is a four-track EP that sees Berlin-based pianist Roman Rofalski supposedly channel his love for 90’s underground techno into a piano work- though let’s say from the start that the results are not techno, either piano-techno or otherwise. It’s a fusion that’s been melded before- it draws a lot of comparison to some of Christian Prommer’s works- but while Prommer and other artists have composed fairly purist techno-inspired but traditional pieces, Rofalski instead has adopted a more editing-heavy and processing-heavy approach.
On “Alpha”, the chopping up of the improvised acoustic piano sounds has an abruptness and punchiness that gives it a lot of energy, and it really feels like it has been composed after it was performed. “Sea”, by contrast, is initially a more ambient work, setting sparse individual high notes over a drone and effects bed derived but long detached from the low note sounds, before a gradual and decidedly soundtrack-like tension build-up in the second half, where we’re joined rather unexpectedly by cut-up drum sounds that give everything a more avantgarde jazz feel.
“Nagging” has a tense, unsafe feel thanks to its high string-scratching tones, before final piece “Redemption” is the track that comes closest to the EP’s techno-inspired pitch, with a more rhythmic approach and a nicely constructed repeated pattern of low bass notes and sharp-cut percussion- ultimately it still feels more like modern jazz than techno, but it’s very accessible, with crossover audience potential.
At times, the glitchy cut-up processing is a little reminiscent of Brian Transeau, and if you like his more mature soundtrack work, this will appeal in a similar way. If this were the soundtrack to a short film- and it sounds like it ought to be- I’d watch it.
Spime.Im- as far as I can tell it’s pronounced as a collision between “space” and “time”, which then rhymes with “I’m”- are a four piece of Davide Tomat, Gabriele Ottino, Stefano Maccarelli and Marco Casolati. It seems Tomat and Ottino are mostly responsible for the music, though Maccarelli’s ‘creative coding’ certainly could have come into play sonically. I’d only encountered one of Tomat’s albums before- the utterly excellent “01-06 June”- so it was a name I was happy to see again.
Zero is a compact and frantic 4-track EP which just explodes with glitchy electronic energy. After the Aphex Twin-ish deliberate false leads and sudden rhythm jumps of “Zero19”, “Zero4” is three minutes of unadulterated mania- the artistic and electronica equivalent of happy hardcore. “Zero8” is somewhat more atmospheric, letting hollow-sounding tones run slightly longer but still with plenty of noise work flitting around on top, and “Zero9” equally pulls between breathing space and the border with insanity.
Apparently the Spime.Im project is as much about immersive audio-video experiences and 3D art as it is about the sonic result. The present day lockdown surely clips their wings somewhat at the moment, but concentrating on the sounds alone, it’s a packed and very likeable 16 minutes that feels like the equivalent of giving your ears an invigorating shower, complete with abrasive scrub. Parts of it ought to be painful but overall it’s very satisfying.