Monday, 29 October 2012

Zircon - Antigravity (2007) Review

Zircon is the production alias of Andrew Aversa, a musician from the United States who has a decent and growing body of work in video game soundtracks, including the Special Edition of Monkey Island 2 and Soul Calibur V. Aversa cut his teeth on remixes on OCReMix, where his tracks are some of my favourites out of the entire community, "Dirt Devil", being one of his coolest. Antigravity is his third original artist album, self-released through the indie music distributor CDBaby in 2007. This LP focuses predominantly on the progressive and Big Beat styles of the breakbeat genre, oeuvres to which Zircon's sound and creativity seem ideally suited.


Some of Aversa's influences are fairly obvious as you listen to Antigravity - as a man with similar tastes I can't help but hear Hybrid, BT and Fatboy Slim having a big impact on his sound in these tracks. This is not to say that he copies any of these artists too closely though, as another common thread running through these songs are touches that are part of his own sound: the video game soundtrack aspect, and the densely layered soundstage of each song. What puts me in mind of early 90s gaming is Zircon's frequent use of bright and ear-catching lead synths, usually analogue or sometimes bitcrushed digital sounds, and his employment of these instruments for a strongly melodic approach to songwriting, which even today is something not hugely common in electronic dance music. As for the layering, Aversa mixes each track so beautfifully that the number of different parts - most tracks have multiple bass parts, several types of pad and there are acid arpgeggios in abundance - never manage to squash each other into oblivion, instead giving the whole album a very euphoric and catchy sound that's pretty loud but not tough on the ears.

This is particularly apparent in the album's opening two songs. The "Prelude" is exactly what its title suggests, an orchestral-style introduction devoid of heavy drums but sets the album up pretty well by focusing on harmony and melody rather than electronics - while obviously the album that follows is electronic this opener gives you a good idea of where the album's heart is. It then leads into a track so good that I can't help but think of it every time any ideas for writing breaks or trance enter my own head - Zircon's collaboration with his then fiance and now wife, Jillian Aversa, entitled "Breathing You In'. Seriously, listen to this right now:

Breakbeat that sounds like trance isn't completely unheard of but it is rare. If I had to give one argument as to why it's a good idea, I'd use that song. From it's Eastern-tinged atmospheric intro to it's epic vocal climax, and upwards from it's deep sub and reese bass to the shiny supersaws and arpeggio leads, this song is such a well crafted piece of music that it could sell the album on it's own (in fact I'm sure I bought the album after hearing a preview of it). The music is one thing, but it's Jillian Aversa's voice that takes it from good to great. At the risk of over-generalising, a lot of dance music vocalists, male and female, have relatively uninteresting or just weak voices, so perhaps it's a good thing that Jillian isn't one. With a classically trained background and plenty of power behind her range, Jillian can do what may can't and more than keep up with the synths for epicness on this song. The lyrics are simple but you barely notice when the voice is that good. If I really HAD to criticise this track it's only for the slight tendency it shares with the rest of the album to keep the drums lower in the mix, but this is an acceptable decision in my opinion as it helps keep the sound uncluttered and clear - your headphones will love it.

Some albums suffer from peaking too early and I think after "Breathing You In" ends, Antigravity does get hit by this. Slower funk-grooved "Throwdown" and quite upbeat Hybrid-with-extra-acid "Speed of Light" are actually very good but they have trouble following such a great song. "Standpipe Valve" hits with a harder edge and brings a bit more of a Big Beat sound in - still keeping the orchestral elements though - and this one is one of  my favourites due to it's quite old school construction but modern production values. It's a rave track but refined, would be one way of putting it - go nuts to it but luckily your ears will be as happy as your body. "Mindbender" and "Without Regret (Interlude)" put the emphasis back on atmosphere but still have a breakbeat groove to them, with "Mindbender" definitely reminding me of Hybrid's first album Wide Angle.

After the interlude the tempo is bumped up, which is welcome after a set of similarly-cut and paced tracks, to the only drum and bass track, "Depth Charge", which is fast and frantic enough to almost sound like breakcore. What stops it from becoming that is the aforementioned theme of the album - it's attraction is melody and harmony, not glitches. Held together by phasey keyboard synths, gated trance pads and a pretty awesome sounding electric guitar chug, this is perhaps what BT would have created if he made drum and bass. It would make a great car chase track, and it's only downside is that the underlying beat sounds a bit lacking in low end thump once again. "Warhead" is the really BT-styled track, using big helpings of crash cymbals to smack you in the face while the reese, syncopated synth riffs and resonant acid arpeggios keep you entertained, before "Ladder to the Sky" calms it back down slightly but still keeps the groove going, with its focus on piano chords and airy synth pads above the very funky breakbeat.

"Nitronic" makes its case with some very tight breakbeats but some surprisingly old school instrument choices - the piano riff in the main body of the track and sax sample in the first breakdown are almost straight out of the 90s, as it the incredibly nostalgic synced-oscillator synth riff that comes in later on. That sound definitely has a video game vibe to it, and Zircon uses it for a killer fiff up and down the scale - as he has done with many melodic elements through the album - to give the song a real personality, beyond a well crafted arrangement of nice sound layers and elements that repeat. I love this part of the song and it's another proof that Zircon has joined the EDM musicians worthy of taking notice of by transcending the obvious and lazy ways to write dance tracks.

The pair that ends the album is as special as the beginning. After an album with some more relaxed parts but which was largely intense, Zircon has created in "The Art of Zen" a track which is still just as funky and breakbeat driven as the others but much deeper and blissed out than what precedes it. A straightforward 16th note arpgeggiated bassline, and punchy but not splashy breakbeats sit underneath a very rich synth pad soundscape and a warm and bright guzheng lead sound to give you a definite hands in the air moment, worthy of BT's best euphoric moments from his early albums but with more personality and a melody and progression that are immediately welcoming. After it's cooled you down slightly, the album closer and title track "Antigravity" slows the pace down again slightly into a very atmospheric track, with Jillian Aversa making a return. Once again it's a lyrically simple song but her vocals do exactly what is necessary to take this track, based around a large number of instruments but arranged in sections that follow on from each other very naturally, including ethnic percussion, piano, guitar and a full rock-style drumkit, and turn it into a New-age style cinematic journey.

If you don't feel satisfied by the time you get to the final piano key of "Antigravity" and the string fade out, then I don't know what will please you. If the album has faults, it is that the kick drums can feel too soft, and the breakbeat-dominated tracklist can sound a little samey after several tracks, although thankfully "Without Regret", "Depth Charge" and "The Art of Zen" manage to dispel most of this feeling after it rises. Despite these minor issues the quality of every track is undeniable in my eyes (or maybe that should be ears) because none of them feel like they're here to make up the numbers. There may be thirteen songs but the album's overall length is only 50 minutes, pretty conservative for an electronic dance album, and it doesn't outstay it's welcome at all. Radio-length tracks might be odd for a dance album but they all feel long enough - without time being wasted on DJ intros or indulgent glitch sections (like BT's These Hopeful Machines) Zircon keeps his points concise, and pretty much every track starts satisfying quickly.

After reading this review you should probably have guessed I'm going to strongly recommend this to you. If you like breaks, either Big Beat or Progressive, I would rate it as must listen, and if you don't normally listen to breaks but like trance or Progressive House then it's also worth a try as it might convert you. Fans of BT, Hybrid, Way Out West, and perhaps Sasha should be all over it.

The stand-out tracks (even amongst a very high overall standard) are "Breathing You In", "Standpipe Valve", "Nitronic" and "The Art of Zen".

As Zircon is independent and unsigned, why not support him by buying Antigravity from these links:

Zircon's BandCamp page - http://zirconstudios.bandcamp.com/album/antigravity
CDBaby - http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/zircon3
iTunes - http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/antigravity/id253822789
Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Antigravity/dp/B00129JXHY
Spotify - http://open.spotify.com/album/7y6vn4dfLigD7njrwCVoRu

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