Sunday, 30 January 2011

Unexpected finds Part One: J-Pop trance remixes

Just a quickie here.  My never-ending quest for more vocal trance music continues unabated, and I recently ran across a source I hadn't thought about - Japanese pop remixes.  Now this is a risky, because pop remixes are an uncertain business even in Europe, and J-pop is an unknown quantity for me, having only been exposed to the highly Western sound of Utada Hikaru before.  With east Asian pop music I usually err on the side of expecting bubblegum, and probably squeaky voices.

So I stumbled upon two compilations of remixes in the trance style from the Japanese singer Ayumi Hamasaki.  I have no familiarity with the original material at all so these mixes have to stand alone, and they do that pretty well on the whole.  Hamasaki has quite a shrill voice, well above someone like Jes Brieden or Jan Johnston in pitch, probably closer to Elly Jackson of La Roux, the treble-heavy production of that band being able to give your ears a bit of an endurance test after a while with a voice like that.  Thankfully in the hands of the musicians responsible for the mixes on Cyber-trance presents Ayu-trance one and two this problem doesn't arise.

The albums are from the early 2000s and the names you can spot on them are very familiar to me: guys like Above and Beyond, Ferry Corsten and even less famous ones like Push contribute to this.  Remix work is the kind of thing that pays the bills for musicians like this who don't have the name-drop power or celebrity mates of Paul Oakenfold or DJ Tiesto, so I doubt that the fact that most of them (probably all of them) would never have heard of her fazed them much.  They're all living up to their usual standards on these albums, none diverging from what could be called their signature styles too much - Minimalistix in particular sticking with his usual piano riff heavy songwriting that allows you to spot him a mile away and Darren Tate producing another hands-in-the air pad fest just like his work as Orion and Jurgen Vries. Not that trance in general doesn't have a lot of that, but you can quickly pick up on someone repeating himself if you listen to as much as I do.

Note that the second compilation repeats many tracks from the first, but is also fully mixed, whereas the first in unmixed, and all tracks are kept short so nothing has to outstay its welcome with a protracted intro and outro a la early Tiesto.  Anyway, if you don't mind high-pitched female vocals that you can't understand, check these out, even if just to file under "guilty pleasure".  

Contributors to these that I am particularly fond of:
Svenson and Geilen
Above and Beyond
Darren Tate
System F
Armin van Buuren (possibly one of the safest hands in the business for quality trance, original and remixes)

Monday, 24 January 2011

Upcoming music in 2011

A few days ago, when reviewing Brian Transeau's most recent long player I ended the review with a slightly pessimistic note, wondering where his future will take him.  However never mind that, it's 2011 now and a new year is at hand.  As it's taken me until now to talk about 2010's output I don't intend to fall so far behind, as soon as some decent artists actually shove out something decent that is. So what is this self-indulgent weblog author looking forward to getting his teeth into this year, aside from further gratuitous use of the third person?

Ladytron will be releasing a new album in mid-2011, which should be worth a pop. Everything they've done before has interested me at least for a while, although they don't seem to have the knack of making a full album which can satisfy one for its full length.  Nevertheless they are a band whose sound has obviously had a lot of impact on modern pop and yet haven't fallen for most of the excesses of modern pop production so whatever they do it's going to be important to consider. Their recent song for the new FIFA game, "Ace of Hz", certainly keeps expectations above the horizon.

Our decade's most promising pop singer-songwriter with ridiculous diva pretensions, Lady Gaga, will also be following her one-and-a-half albums with a new one this year.  Now I like Lady Gaga, but so far she seems to be fitting into a lucrative but perhaps limiting singles-artist niche, making some very cool and obscenely catchy songs that no-one can get enough of, but her first album was stuffed with filler and feels like  far too much effort to listen to beyond the hits, with the follow up Fame Monster coming off far better for having fewer songs and even better, fewer fingers in the pie, with RedOne proving that he's probably her best musical collaborator with "Bad Romance" and "Alejandro".  So if more earworms with style are forthcoming, bring them on.  Maybe the whole CD might actually hold the attention better this time?

Finally for the moment, it's that time of the century again.  This blog's favourite d'n'b-come-rock-come-electro-pop three piece, Kosheen, are back again for album number four, apparently called Independence.  I still keep returning to Damage as if discovering its brilliance for the first time so I'm getting a little excited by this one - I'd probably be more excited if it wasn't for the fact that once again it's taken nearly the length of an entire degree for it to turn up!  Previews are few at the moment, although very promising track "Belladonna" is up on their Soundcloud page along with a few other songs.  If this album turns out like "Belladonna", a pretty nifty synth-heavy shuffle track in which singer Sian Evans' vocals are just as apt as ever, and has a few softer bits like "Waste" with an occasional kick into high gear like "Sleep Tonight", the two guys' song with singer Suzie Ledge, then I'm going to be happy with this one.   Don't know when it's coming yet, though.

Want to try racing me to the finish, guys?  I'm due to get my PhD over with this summer, no pressure....

Monday, 17 January 2011

Chicane - Behind the Sun (2000) Review

As promised, I will be considering the work of Nick Bracegirdle aka Chicane, however as trying to review 4 albums over thirteen years might result in the kind of wall of text seen in the two previous entries, I'm going to break it up into small bits and concentrate on the broader points, not specifics, starting with the first CD that I acquired in my years of teenage musical gluttony.

Behind the Sun is Chicane's most successful album to date, probably because of the two accompanying singles and their impact on the UK singles chart. "Saltwater", a remake of Clannad's "Theme from Harry's Game" is a massive slice of Ibiza atmospherics married to Chicane's trance beats and minimal orchestration, and this 1999 club favourite reached a deserved top 10 position in the chart. "Don't Give Up", a similarly uncomplicated track with Chicane's characteristic ambiance supplemented by vocals from Bryan Adams, managed to get enough traction in the clubs to make an impact and became popular enough to actually reach number one, probably helped by Adams' popularity.  Both of these illustrate exactly how you can make a successful dance track without overdoing it in production, with quite straightforward ideas and no messy effects.

This sets the tone for the whole album actually - Chicane never tries anything too clever or too stupid on it, leaving the actual music to speak for itself, on the upbeat tracks and the downtempo ones.  Here Chicane's slower tracks are good enough not to be confined to elevators, with the backing tracks and melodic parts working together beautifully, and when vocals do appear there's nothing jarring you out of the reverie they will bring you into.  There's nothing really awful to mention on the album, and for consistency it's definitely Chicane's strongest album. Nothing gets on your nerves, no puddings are over-egged and nothing outstays it's welcome.  Therefore, it is also clearly his best album.  I will refrain from going into a ramble about it because its strengths speak for themselves, and it's so refreshingly uncomplicated that analysing it too much would make me sound even more up my own backside. Just give it a listen, especially the two aforementioned singles, and also the tracks "Halcyon", and "Overture". More analysis will be lavished on Chicane's later albums when comparisons to some of these will be made. Mostly negative...

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Sasha - Airdrawndagger, Paul Oakenfold - Bunkka, Lasgo - Some Things (2002) Reviews

Before getting onto another comparative review, I'm diverting myself by looking at three albums that I bought simultaneously back in 2002. These are all 'electronica' albums, and I suppose they do all broadly fit into the 'dance' uber-genre, but they are three very different animals. I consider them together here because I will comment not just on their overall quality but also how they fit into music in 2002 and how well they have aged.

Monday, 10 January 2011

BT - These Hopeful Machines (2010) Review

BT released This Binary Universe in 2006, for a long time making it available online for free as well as on CD. TBU is a very good set of tracks, and neatly showcases BT's ear for a nice sound or two. It sits very nicely in my ears while playing a relatively slow paced computer game - Morrowind, for example. Compared to 2003's Emotional Technology it was a very refreshing return to BT's atmospheric and relatively clinical style of music, albeit without the beats. This album has been described as elevator music by my mother, overhearing it played through laptop speakers (not a good choice for most subtle music) and that is probably the album's Achilles Heel - there is no change in pace, and BT shows none of his ability to get your blood pumping while the mood surrounds you on any of those songs. Therefore TBU doesn't redeem his reputation which took a bit of a hit after the release of Emotional Technology, an album so overproduced and sterile that even I didn't buy it (I'm not sure it was even properly released in the UK anyway). Still, I mentioned all this last time, so enough of that, let's talk about what the recently passed year brought from the man who ten years ago was the sole American making any impact on the British and European trance and prog. house scenes.

The "new" album is entitled These Hopeful Machines, and it's so long that it comes as a double album, which is a first for BT even with his history of not fearing long tracks (like "Remember" or "Content"). The danger you can get into with long albums, even single disc 74-minuters, is that you can spread your ideas far too thinly, and either bore the listener or leave them longing for the next track before you're finished with the current one. I think that unfortunately BT has fallen into this trap with this album.