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.


Some Things, by Lasgo

Lasgo are a dance band from Belgium, in 2002 a three-piece fronted by singer Evi Goffin. Very definitely and unashamedly a Euro band, the band's sound at this time nevertheless stood out from the crowd – nay, horde – of other Euro tripe due to Goffin's voice, lyrics that weren't atrocious or ripped off from an 80s song, and a unique Roland synth based trance orchestration which had enough edge to it that clubs were happy but didn't overwhelm the essential core of the songs – the vocals themselves. Now, no band would be labelled as Eurodance if their lyrics were going to set music on fire, it's usually a highly pejorative tag, but Lasgo were what I consider to be the apex of pop trance. Some Things is mostly built around short, radio-friendly but driving trance tracks which are carried along by the vocals, as if Sash! had cut his songs in half and got Kim Wilde (Evi's voice is a pretty good match for Wilde's) to sing on all of them. This means that the album is surprisingly gimmick free, and even though the necessary trance riffs are all here, there's more going on to keep you interested and prevent the songs from going stale quickly, a very common problem with cheesy Euro stuff. There is only one misstep and one cock-up, namely the two downtempo tracks “Searching” and “Cry” respectively. They both provide the album with some needed breathing room in it's considerable length but the first is uninspiring, and the second, sung by one of the songwriters Dave Vervoort, is just too sickly musically and lyrically, his voice being a little too nasal to stand up to Goffin's on this track. He redeems himself slightly on “Don't Belong To You”, a proper trance outing which is another entry in my too-small list of male-led trance songs. There are a few too many songs here, but most of them are good in their own right and fit together very well. The highlights are lead single “Something”, instrumental “Cloud Surfers”, and the best is second single “Alone”. This album is excellent, and ironically given that it might have come out just late enough to miss the wave of Eurotrance that was big around 2000, it has aged very well. It's not clever, but it's exactly what it's supposed to be – a crossover between trance and pop – and that's pretty rarely done with this level of consistency. Definitely check this out.

Bunkka, by Paul Oakenfold

Paul Oakenfold was the undisputed King of the DJs when I was getting into this stuff, back in 1999/2000, having already been around for over a decade, with many of his own tracks including the theme tune for Britain's version of Big Brother under his belt as well as production (for the Happy Mondays) and successful collaborations behind him. His sets were worth unprecedented amounts of cash for the time and he was cool in America before any other European DJ had even raised an eyebrow there. Yet Bunkka was actually his first full artist album, fans having to wait for years to get their hands on a full long player of his own material.

Unfortunately most of them were going to be very disappointed with this, and I, amongst them as quite a new fan, was in full agreement. Almost at the same time as Oakenfold had become well known in the United States, he had made the transition from cool trance DJ to unambitious and bland dance/pop producer, beating America's own Brian Transeau (BT) to the same stage a year in advance. Bunkka contains no trance whatsoever. Oakenfold had admitted that he was long past the older Goa sound that had really made his name in the mid-90s, but he had in the early 2000s still been most known for a full-on trance sound, and the complete departure from that here left a lot of confusion in the music press and in the minds of most listeners. Abandoning what he was really good at for attempting to produce a pop album, full of (mostly) half-decent collaborators, could never have satisfied fans even if it was a great album, and it is not. The big standouts from this set are: “Hold Your Hand” due to the presence of brilliant icelandic singer-songwriter Emiliana Torinni who almost never disappoints me; “Get Em Up”, Ice Cube's contribution which is a pretty good Hip-Hop/dance crossover; and “Hypnotised” with British singer Tiff Lacey, another one of the jobbing dance vocalists this weblog is so fond of, although this track admittedly is much better in its remixed forms and not the album version here. Some of the others - “Southern Sun”, “Time of Your Life”, “Motion”, are not half bad tracks but Oakenfold's music just seems so half-assed in many cases, as if he hasn't really put in the effort. One can hear echoes of his earlier work, but these songs do not recapture their atmosphere or energy, and perhaps they should have been contributed to their vocalists' albums also. “Starry Eyed Surprise” worked well for a commercial for Capital Radio, but it's a bit limp, while “Ready Steady Go” may have pace but it's got no content. At least Oakenfold had the sense to most of the rap provided by the So Solid Crew's Asher D safely in the bin.

Bunkka was a poor album in 2002. It's impact was almost zero, other than being one of the earliest examples of a sub-standard attempt at a pop-dance crossover LP made by a formerly cool dance act after becoming trendy and famous in the States. In the next few years the aforementioned BT would fall into this trap with his fourth album Emotional Technology, while Daft Punk would commit near artistic suicide with their third, Human After All and their fellow Frenchman David Guetta would go from pretty good house music maker to the co-writer of the Black Eyed Peas' “I Gotta Feeling”. A lot of things went wrong here, and it's probably better to pretend it never happened.

Airdrawndagger, by Sasha

Sasha is arguably one of the most influential DJ/producers of all time. While he undoubtedly had a lower profile than Oakenfold in the Goa years of the 90s and the more melodic trance and hard house dominated 1999-2001 period, Sasha had been going for just as long and had been continuing to innovate throughout that time, having heavily influenced house in the early 90s with his early work and remixes, trance in the later 90s (when he practically introduced BT to the sound) and then progressive house and breaks in 1999 and 2000, often collaborating with fellow DJ and producer John Digweed. The two had mixed one of the earliest and most significant mix albums in 1994, Renaissance: The Mix Collection, which was groundbreaking for the time and paved the way for the many subsequent DJ set albums from other club franchises and record labels. Sasha's 1999 Ep, The Xpander EP was part of the wave of progressive house which brought that genre into the mainstream of dance for a time, and it's four tracks, particularly “Xpander” itself, virtually define the genre for me. So Airdrawndagger, Sasha's second album properly but his first in eight years (an eternity in the electronic music world) was extremely highly anticipated, possibly more so than Oakenfold's.

Unlike Bunkka, it is unquestionably the sound of Sasha that you get on this album. But like Bunkka, it wasn't the sound that most people expected. The album's pace is restrained, never getting much faster than “Xpander” did, and no beat appears at all until the third track, creating a more relaxed atmosphere than the majority of dance albums. Because the album isn't throwing high-tempo beats at you near constantly, like Some Things, it makes one appreciate how well they fit into the general ambience when they finally kick in, and Sasha has clearly not just made ambient tracks for the hell of t – it's clear that the variety in the rhythmic patterns of these tracks are part of the inherent variation in his musical taste and not just boxes to be ticked. All of the tracks here fit together very nicely, with the transition between ambient, 4/4 and breaks not jarring at all, and the slower ones, like “Magnetic North” are not overshadowed by their more full-on brothers like “Boileroom” or “Golden Arm”. With all of these being instrumental and the album clearly intended to be a whole rather than a collection of tracks, it's hard to pick a highlight, although I think the last piece, “Wavy Gravy” jumps to the top of my list, because it's an extremely atmospheric chilled-out breaks track which caps off the album brilliantly. Yet I don't feel that a lot of these songs would stand on their own too well – they need to be in context to work, and therefore I recommend that you listen to it all, from start to finish, preferably on a sound system with enough volume to bring out all the synths and let the beats come to the fore when Sasha unleashes them.

The album got a mixed reception upon release, with many feeling that Sasha had, like Oakenfold, abandoned what he was great at, others feeling that this was a logical progression of his earlier music and would lead to greater things later on. I put myself firmly in the positive camp: I think it's a fantastic album and definitely fits in with the Xpander EP and his other tracks. A good friend of mine, normally into classical music, epic rock and indie who would not normally approach dance music with the same passion I do thought this album was incredibly strong and it opened his ears further to the rest of my collection. Sasha hasn't quite made a follow up properly yet, even nine years on, concentrating mostly on his DJ career, but whenever he does release something, the legacy of this album is such that his output demands attention. As it is not really highly imitative of any particular musical trend, and mostly reflects Sasha's (and his collaborators Charlie May and Tom Holkenborg) own style, it has aged incredibly well.

Out of this triplet I went home with from HMV nine years ago, Airdrawndagger is the one with the most intelligence behind it and probably the greater efforts, and is easily the best album I bought in 2002, hands down, leaving Bunkka look pathetic by comparison. Buy it, eat it up like a hearty roast dinner, and then enjoy Some Things for pudding.

2 comments:

  1. You should do something like this again, if you can recall similar purchases. It's always interesting to see releases compared and contrasted against others.

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    1. I agree, it's a good idea. This is the only case I can think of though where I bought three albums at once, that all came out at roughly the same time, and were new when I found them (less than a few months old).

      There's another set I bought together that are all from roughly the same period, but in that case they're all much older and so they already occupied "classic" status by then, so it's not quite the same contextually. I might do this for those anyway, because they're all worth discussing in their own right (and it stops me from ending up writing a really long review for each!)

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