Unsound at Luminato in the Hearn Generating Station

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Loooook! Rocks!

In art, industrial spaces in disrepair are not new. There’s nothing left to wring from either the glory-of-human-progress, man-vs-nature thread, and the globalization-made-this-rubble anti-capitalist critique is so played out, the concept itself ought to be in a museum. And yet, wandering among the enormous hulking I-beams in the decommissioned Hearn Generating Station in Toronto’s port lands, hired and lit up for Luminato by European music presenters Unsound, I felt roughly the same way I did wandering along the Cleveland Dam in Vancouver, or looking down from the CN Tower for the first time: damn, that’s really big, and people made that, not nature.

Loooook! Rocks! And lasers!

So much for theory. I wouldn’t necessarily give the act of putting abstract electronic music in a big empty building the Turner Prize, but that doesn’t make seeing Robert Henke’s Lumiere II in an awe-inspiring space any less worthwhile.

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Bringing in a performance involving lasers was an inspired choice for the venue; a little dry ice for the light to play off before hitting the screen heightened the anticipation, despite whatever comparisons to Cirque du Soleil it may also have invited. The music was, it has to be said, less inspired. Henke is certainly no slouch in the electronic production department, having written more software than most producers will ever use. But while techno and its offshoots don’t need much in the way of melody to move a crowd, the bar is higher in experimental/’listening’ music. Personally after living through the IDM thing, and having given far too many hours of my 20s to wilderness-years Autechre records, my feelings on extended metallic-sounding percussion workouts are about the same as a classic rock morning show host’s – indifferent, bordering on hostile. Still, I expected to like Henke’s performance anyways, and I’m surprised by how much I ultimately did. He’s an inventive programmer, and the interplay between the visuals and the beats was perfectly hypnotic. A series of fuzzy shapes flitting across the screen gave me a feeling of being on a merry go round, or looking at a rave siren revolving away, while rumbling bass prodded insistently at my insides like a nutritionist asking me how many carbs I eat in a day.

Lumière No 6 Excerpt II from Robert Henke on Vimeo.

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I’m really glad I didn’t give up on the piece after its first few minutes, either, because the middle section managed to grab me and pull me back in with – wait for it – melody. Sounding like a piano’s strings being plucked, the second act made the Hearn space feel even more like a haunted house, a place where ghosts mourn their passing by throwing huge, post-corporeal-form raves and screenings of Blade Runner. It totally lived up to the potential of the evening, and I was swooning.

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The side-room event, Ephemera, was more confusing, mostly in a good way. I’m not going to spoil it for anybody with too many details, but let’s just say that it takes place in a smaller, windowless space that purports to use smell (curated by “conceptual perfumer” Geza Schoen, whose business cards must be a hoot) as well as visuals by Marcel Weber a.k.a. MFO and sound by Tim Hecker. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic disorientation of the visuals, felt the music was below Hecker’s usual standards thanks to some fairly aimless noise-drone sections, and couldn’t discern the smell part at all. Worth the extra $10, but not for claustrophobes. Nuff said.

Throwing events like these are hard, finding the right act for the room is harder, and using the space properly is harder still. It wasn’t quite an unqualified success, but Unsound Toronto was really exciting in ways I didn’t anticipate, and I would love for it to be an annual thing. Hint hint: Bitchin Bajas. Make it happen.

Unsound Toronto continues June 20 with Morton Subonick, Ben Frost, Atom TM and more. Click here for details.

Albums: Teebs, SBTRKT, Ekoplekz and more

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Teebs
Estara
Brainfeeder

I’ve pretty much given up trying to find acts that are in the Flying Lotus vein – I thought there must be a whole untapped community of freaky beat wizards out on the coast, and as it turns out, there were maybe five. Listening to Teebs’ first album was kind of like listening to the crop of “next Amy Winehouse” candidates, in that I realized just how much I was setting myself up for disappointment comparing artists to FlyLo. Sure, the textures were pretty, but where was the boom-bap? If I wanted drippy background keyboard business with hushed vocals, I’d listen to Sigur Ros. Funnily enough, E S T A R A is basically even more Sigur Ros like than Ardour was, what with the acoustic guitars and the echoing percussion and the bells and the ethereal choirs (yawn, gag etc). But since I got myself a decent subwoofer, I realized that Teebs’ music relies to some extent on the tension between the beatific sounds in the treble and mids, versus the ruffneck business in the bass. There ain’t nuttin nice in the big fat kick drum driving “Hi Hat” or the Zepplinesque break powering “Shoouss Lullaby.” More than before, he finds ways of marrying the sublime and the sub-frequency-violence that add up to more than their parts. Recommended.

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SBTRKT
Transition.
Young Turks

I don’t entirely get why people go nuts for SBTRKT. Is it the mask? It can’t just be the music, which is interesting but hardly worth going all gasp-and-drool over. Most footwork producers churn out tracks with similar textures and programming skill, only unlike this guy they pump out dozens of them every three months. “Kyoto” is admittedly a triumph of layering thin textures on top of each other until you can hardly stand it. But when he gets closer to “trap”, I lose interest. Is this another thing we can blame on Drake? (YOLO?)

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Ten Years Of Phonica
Phonica

Record stores are your friends, people. The first time I hit up Phonica in London, I confessed to the guy behind the desk that I was having trouble finding fodder for this blog, and did he know any artists maybe I had missed? An armload of records later, I vowed to add the place to my must-visit list. This disc shows that I’m not alone, since presumably artists like Legowelt, I:Cube, Joe Claussell et al don’t just license their best tracks to comps by people they don’t like. The elusive Trevor Jackson (Playgroup) and Henrik Schwarz both contribute subtly simmering tracks, while Steve Moore’s remix of Iori and Juju & Jordash pitch their curve balls from way out in leftfield. But the real highlight is Raudive’s “Health” with its perfect balance of tribal and techy.

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Ekoplex
Unfidelity
Planet Mu

I’m an unabashed Nick Edwards fan, and not just because his Gutterbreakz blog was a crucial and singularly illuminating part of the music blog 1.0 revolution I covered in the early part of my career. Unfidelity is an uneasy listen, even if you’re merely focusing on the early-industrial-meets-sci-fi-soundtrack textures, all dystopian metallic percussion and dry mechanical drum machine brutalism. It’s hard to make that engaging for three minutes, never mind an album, but Edwards’ collection here is like watching a 70s techno thriller eg. Alien or The Andromeda Strain – you want to switch it off even as you’re admiring its aesthetics and claustrophobic mood, but every time you reach for the remote, the realization that you’ll have missed whatever lies around the corner makes you hesitate.

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The Analogue Cops
Heavy Hands
Restoration

I like minimal stuff – really minimal stuff. Drone? Sure. Tape loops? Where do I sign up? I also like some of Analogue Cops’ singles, at least to work into DJ sets. Things that are track-y are not necessarily dull. But this …is just dull. I appreciate the brute force of a good long drum loop and/or whooshy noise as much as the next person on epic quantities of drugs. But this… Nope. Just nope.

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Kassem Mosse
Workshop 19
Workshop

It’s rare, in my experience, to listen to 52 minutes of music and not have strong feelings about it one way or the other, but somehow Workshop 19 manages that underwhelming state of equilibrium. Some tracks are just clashing assemblages of interesting textures; others are neatly arranged sets of poorly chosen synth patches. I seriously wanted to say something more interesting than “I wish he hadn’t used that farty horn sound on track B2”, but I wish he hadn’t used that farty horn sound on track B2. MEH.

Why ambient music is more than background noise

I joked to my trainer the other day that he should bring in some new-age pan flute music for his stretching class, since we spend a lot of time sitting in uncomfortable positions trying to relax. I felt funny even as I was in the middle of saying it, because the truth is I’ve been listening to ambient stuff – without cringing, even a little – for a couple of years now, and loving it. And, frankly, not relaxing very much. Try these discs, which have very little in common, even, and see if you understand why I’m an evangelist, even if only for new age pan flute music.

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Jonas Reinhardt
Ganymede
Constellation Tatsu

It just isn’t fair. You’re allowed to be great at the kind of post-punk-funk that Reinhardt’s Mask Of The Maker disc almost single-handedly resurrected from premature death-by-trucker-hat. But you can’t also be great at the seething, intense ambient throbbing perfected on Ganymede. Usually, superior efforts in one thwart the possibility of greatness in the other; if you’re especially unlucky, splitting your energies between the two dilutes your overall talent. (It sounds convenient but having reviewed hundreds of promising mediocrities, this really does happen.) But Reinhardt is just that good. He can compose a white noise ballet that pirouettes along an undulating ribbon of brightness (“A Young Colossus”); he can summon a shadow of a melody from whose depths emerges a shard of dull crystal, refracting the light out in gently moving rays (“Lox Moon”). He can do it all and then some.
It’s sickening, it’s enraging and I demand to know who’s responsible, on behalf of all lazy, untalented people such as myself.

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Low Jack
Garifuna Variations
L.I.E.S.

I’m slightly wary of calling this ambient since there’s a strong rhythmic drive in pretty much all of it (see also: most other L.I.E.S. releases), but you’d be hard pressed to call these beats. They’re more like kalimba jams from another planet. Most of the textures are hollow and percussive, like metal pipes banging together – but shot through with reverb as though it was recorded down a long concrete corridor. I know, I know – where do I sign up, you ask? But there’s more musicality in these orderly noises than in a lot of comparably easy listening discs, even if the only dance that suits “Crickets Dance” is a junkie’s awkward shuffle. The slow yawwwwwrrrgghhh phaser effect in “Punta II” is a perfect example: basic, raw, arresting. And strangely pleasurable, though it’s hard to imagine why.

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Kevin Drumm
Shut In
Experimedia

There are times when you feel like a record is made just for you, and that nobody else is going to dig it. (Funnily enough, I felt that way about Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, and The Sheepdogs’ Learn & Burn. So, I’ve been wrong, to put it mildly.) Maybe it means something more personal when it’s in a genre you’re far from expert in, and drone music is definitely that for me. Regardless, I was transported back to my pleather-covered, foam-stuffed couch in my undergrad dorm when I heard Kevin Drumm’s latest. For one thing, there were the organ-derived tones – the first track sounds more pipe-organ-y, while the second has a bit more grit, suggesting some kind of reed. Both put me in mind of John Cale’s Sun Blindness Music, which I discovered and tripped out to as a starry eyed (and relatively sober) college boy. Of course there’s nothing as harsh here as Cale’s busted old Vox, but the steadiness of the tones drags me back to those days. Then there’s the monkeying around in the high harmonics of the sound, which seems very Tony Conrad circa Four Violins – a crucial disc in my own development, and probably also the reason why most of what classical musicians call “minimalism” I find far too busy, and dull, and unimaginative. In short, I hate Philip Glass. Most of all, though, it reminds me of Eno’s Music For Airports in its totally innocuous, downright forgettable lack of harmonic movement, yet somehow it’s not at all relaxing or soothing. The second half is as tense as anything Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle have done on one chord, and yet there’s nothing that scans as aggressive, at least at a glance. Still, hang in through ten minutes of the second cut and tell me you don’t think someone’s head is going to explode, Scanners-style. Or maybe Mr. Kool-Aid is going to bust through the wall. Is it scary? I just don’t know anymore.

Beats Etc roundup: Four Tet, Ryan Hemsworth, CFCF, Compound Eye

Welcome to the second post of album roundup week, where I tackle more releases that I want to spill ink about. Beats Etc = electronic music for home listening, really, but that won’t fit in a headline.

Continue reading “Beats Etc roundup: Four Tet, Ryan Hemsworth, CFCF, Compound Eye”

Tuesday downloads: Austin Peralta and Siriusmo, separated at birth?

Austin Peralta (left); Siriusmo � they're not the same person, we think

Ah, jazz prodigies. They�re like some rarified tropical fish�often strikingly beautiful but not very good at adapting to changes in their native environment. LA pianist/composer Austin Peralta has been playing since age 5 and though he�s racked up collabs with the likes of Chick Corea and Ron Cater, he seems to have already stretched beyond jazz-police conservativism to embrace electronic sounds, which bodes well for Endless Planets, his album on FlyLo�s Brainfeeder label due out Feb 15. You don�t have to be a trainspotter to hear echoes of In A Silent Way in the disc�s brief final track (a collaboration with The Cinematic Orchestra and singer Heidi Vogel):

In my experience as a young student (certainly not any kind of wunderkind, for sure), the hardest part of growing up playing jazz was the feeling that you needed to love it to the exclusion of other music, and not worry about the fact that you were in effect turning your back on the pop culture that for most other kids was the whole world; too many former prodigies either end up making the most terrifyingly gauche fusion/jam band stuff, or just turning into bebop arch conservatives. It seems from what little of his music I�ve heard that Peralta manages to comfortably reconcile hip underground electronic sounds and jazz changes, and I�m dying to hear the record and find out whether I really need to be jealous or not.

On an unrelated musical note (but a similar haircut one � see above), I thought for some reason that Monkeytown (Modeselektor�s label) signing Siriusmo was putting out his record in early February. So after thinking I had missed my chance to preview it (Rule #2 of blogging: don�t take three weeks off after being embarrassed at having taken two weeks off), I was pleased to discover that it doesn�t drop until March 1 in North America, thus giving me a chance to yell BUY IT BUY IT BUY IT in all caps as a preview. If I had to describe Mosaik in, say, a police report filed by my irate, deafened neighbours, I guess I�d call it a tech-house album? But really it�s gloriously all over the place, with all the capital-F Fun you remember from early rave era and none of the cheap brain-battering tricks that four/four producers have binged on of late. There are more fist-in-the-air stuttering synth stabs on Mosaik than I care to remember, mostly because my copy is one big MP3 file that I never want to stop, pause or otherwise interrupt. I wish everything with a straight-ahead club beat was this giddily enjoyable. I also wish it was 1992 and someone had just given me something with a happy face on it, but enough about me.

[LINK]

At first the fact that I would rather listen to Tim Hecker�s beatless productions than anything with a kick drum had me believing my brain had begun the inevitable decades-long slide into mushy Phil Collins fandom. Then I remembered that I felt the same way about Harmony In Ultraviolet and An Imaginary Country as I do about Hecker�s upcoming tour de force, Ravedeath 1972, so maybe it�s just that the rest of my listening is catching up with what I�ve enjoyed all along. To be fair, Hecker�s latest is mostly harsher than the likes of the Cluster, Tangerine Dream, CFCF and Emeralds albums I�ve been sloooooshing around in lately; there�s no ambiguity in tracks like �The Piano Drop,” just sadness turning to menace and the occasional moment of pure aggro. You ask for miracles, I give you the grisly middle of �Hatred Of Music I.”

[LINK via Pitchfork]