Electronic

Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

Forest Swords – Compassion

Forest Swords, aka England’s Matthew Barnes, is an experimental electronic and ambient composer who, on the back of his head-turning 2013 breakthrough Engravings, has entered the sphere of similarly styled and admired artists such as John TalabotDarkside and Jon Hopkins.  His newest album, Compassion, feels like the crumbling of civilizations on the edge of mythical apocalypse; not a bad aesthetic for the current day and age.  The songs feel ominous but filled with energy; not a calm before the storm, but rather a revelry.

Titles like “The Highest Flood” and “Panic” from the album’s opening third are apt descriptions of the sounds within, which are evocative of communal unease and paranoia.  The clipped, non-lyrical chanting vocals and clacking of wooden percussive instruments of the former feel ritualistic, while the tribal drumming and weaving synthetic oboe of the latter are intoxicating.  “Exalter” follows as the actual sacrificial ceremony, the sound of a prehistoric Central American civilization filtered through distorted electronic vocoders and drum machines.

The album takes a respite in its center third, as “Border Margin Barrier” and “Arms Out” move into more lulling, ambient territory.  “Sjurvival” is a brief comedown, taking a chapter from William Basinski’s book by incorporating the sad sounds of muffled, dusty brass instruments floating in reverb, before the huge strings and chants of the penultimate “Raw Language,” end the scene with a bang.  Closer “Knife Edge”, led by glitchy pianos banging out minor arpeggios feels like an epilogue, a credits roll moment following an intense psychological thriller.

Compassion is thematic and well-sequenced.  But while the songs consistently feel appropriately dramatic, the mood they create is fairly static, and few individual tracks standout (“Sjurvival” being a notable exception).  Forest Swords is clearly a talented composer and his soundscapes are dense, but the constant buzz of reverb, use of glitchy editing and intentionally choppy vocal production leave me desiring for some crystal clear, beautifully synthetic moments.  This album sets a mood and sticks to it, and the overall trajectory works, but there’s nothing in it that strikes me as particularly risky, novel or compelling.  I find the darker ambient trance of Talabot more gripping, and the detailed production textures of Visible Cloaks more interesting.  Some ambient and electronic fans will really dig this release, but for me it was at best fine and at worst repetitive.

Score: 6 / 13

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 13

Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13

Actress – AZD

Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound.  His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.

The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths.  Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat.  The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out.  “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on.  The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.

“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples.  The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise.  “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.

The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes.  The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass.  Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic.  “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth.  It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it.  The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.

I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me.  I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it.  The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise).  There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.

Score: 6/13

 

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens is a Welsh artist who has previously released electronic remixes and singles, as well as an EP, to positive critical reviews.  Her debut self-titled album is a ten-track album of minimalist electronic and techno music, often featuring her own vocals.

The album is a pleasant enough listen, and the tracks operate well both alone and within the context of the record.  The production is soft but very minimalist, similar to the cover artwork.  The synths don’t weave and flourish in color, but rather bounce around on a single greyscale note or two, with Owens vocals nearly always present but soft and airy, as if they’re dipping out of the way.  There is only one featured vocalist, Jenny Hval on “Anxi” (though her stylings fit naturally alongside Owens’).  But I find myself lacking any unique concept, arc or sonic identity to grasp onto.  The album flows like water, refreshing, but tasteless.

There are nice moments.  The bounce of “Anxi”, its strings and intermixing vocal harmonies, and melodic change of pace (although I’d hesitate to call it a chorus) make it the most exciting song here.  “CBM” pulses with a “Strobe“-like anxiousness, and sounds like it could be a great intro for an EDM banger but opts for a swift departure.  And the slow, trip-hop beat and buzzing effects surrounding Owens’ high pitched melody on the penultimate “Keep Walking” give the song a darker, eerier vibe than what precedes it.

But on a lot of these tracks, it sounds like there are few, if any, interesting ideas that warrant a full track devoted to what is typically a simple, unchanging drum beat, a bouncing bass, some wordless, reverb-washed vocals, and the occasional synth or string picking out a murky chord here and there.  Closer “8”, which is the ‘industrial’ track, is a 10-minute slog that never really progresses or makes for compelling and beautiful ambient music, either.  Ditto for the jangling, Purity Ring rattle of “Bird” or the second sequenced “Arthur”, which uses Owens’ “Oohhhs” as an instrument nestled within rivers of bass and drum machine, that make for pretty but underwritten and unexciting ambient music.  “Evolution” is the only song on here I really think is a mistake, as Owens whispers the message-less “Be the / see the / evolution / revolution” (yeah, you aren’t the first one to realize those words rhyme) ad-nauseum.

Although Kelly Lee Owens is far from offensive, its also pretty unimaginative and uninteresting.  This is no pop/minimalist techno hybrid, its just kind of there.  It’s fine.  I don’t really think anyone who fails to hear it is missing anything.

Score:  6/13

Arca – Arca

April 7th was a day marked on my proverbial calendar since the beginning of the year, because it was the release date for the new Father John Misty album.  I had long speculated that that 80 minute LP would be among the strongest records not just of 2017, but of the decade.  While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about it, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly the 100% slam dunk I was expecting.  However, another release from April 7th has taken me by complete surprise and is currently my pick for the high water mark this year in music.

Arca is the artistic pseudonym of Venezuelan Alejandro Ghersi, who was educated in New York and is now based out of London.  After releasing a string of very well-received electronic releases over the past three years, united by their dark, unsettling production and red and black, fleshy, creepy aesthetic, as well as producing for Bjork, Kanye, FKA Twigs and even Frank Ocean, the twenty-six year-old has returned with his strongest LP to date, and one that sets itself apart from his discography by heavily featuring his own vocals, sung entirely in his native Spanish.

Arca is an immersive album, incredibly detailed and layered, made by one of the best and most inventive electronic producers in the game in his absolute prime.  The songs are very carefully arranged, abstract, surrealist soundscapes, but they never feel cluttered.  There aren’t a million synths holding out single notes.  Ghersi is careful to leave plenty of open space, especially on the record’s slower, more ambient tracks.  There is almost no percussion, no drum machine.  This is not a dance album in the slightest.  The songs are longing and romantic, and Spanish is the perfect language to encapsulate the torture and beauty present in the themes.  With almost no harmonies or vocal overdubs, Ghersi’s singular voice, covered in natural echo and reverb, sounds like it’s coming straight out of an ancient stone monastery or cathedral.

Kicking off with ‘Piel’, which features only some high pitched notes alongside Gerhi’s soft, surprisingly capable falsetto, he sings of wishing to shed his skin and awake a new person, a sentiment perhaps reflective of his struggle to come out as gay.  Deep bass envelops the vocals in the song’s final third, and we’re on to standout ‘Anoche’, which features a lyric sheet and vocal performance that feels like it could have come out of an 18th century Spanish opera.  “Anoche yo soñé Nuestra muerte simultánea / Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí [Last night I dreamt / Of our simultaneous death /Last night I cried / Out of happiness]” he sings as shuffling rhythms, compiled from unknowable instruments, mingle with delicate pianos.  The record then moves to ‘Saunter’, which hisses, crackles and squeals from all sides before Ghersi comes through with a stronger, more defiant vocal performance, reiterating a line from ‘Piel’: “Quítame la piel de ayer [Take my skin off from yesterday]”.

The record delves further into dark, explosive, industrial territory on ‘Urchin’, which sounds like a steam-punk-esque, underwater factory pumping out synth blast after blast.  Lonely pianos take back the reigns briefly before the song erupts in an epic climax.  ‘Urchin’ is also one of several purely instrumental tracks, which offer a chance for Ghersi to put certain impressive production tricks and instrumental effects front and center.  ‘Reverie’ (which comes with a rather artistic and unsettling music video), doesn’t let up on the gas, again delving into bombastic, devastating territory with each crackling fourth beat bigger and more expansive than the last.  ‘Castration’ is pummeling, offering tense anticipation in the form of zig-zagging synths before destroying the listener with a flurry of beats that arrive like jabs to the face.

The midpoint of the record is ‘Sin Rumbo’, which offers a breather of sorts.  The airy production, while still plenty terrifying, makes way for Ghersi’s incredible operatic skills, as he reaches higher and higher to sing still longingly about unrequited love: ‘Desde la distancia te añoraré / Camino sin rumbo [From a distance I will yearn for you / I walk aimlessly]”.  The follow-up, ‘Coraje’, continues in this vein, opting for sparse, celestial synths and vibraphone variants to accompany the record’s most bizarre and surreal vocal performance.

The eye of the hurricane of the record’s center is immediately displaced by the album’s most abrasive track, ‘Whip’, which very prominently features the ominous and frightening sound of whips cracking all over the sound spectrum.  The record falls onto a climax of sorts with ‘Desafío’, one of the most insisting and melodic tracks, and one with an honest to goodness verse-chorus structure.  Followup ‘Fugaces’ continues in this anthemic style, and is even uplifting in the face of the album’s continuing theme of pining for a lover from a past so distant it feels more like a dream, with Ghersi singing “Que desilusión / Que solo me quedan / Recuerdos fugaces / Tus ojos de luto [What a disappointment / That I only have / Fleeting memories / Your eyes of mourning“.  The penultimate ‘Miel’ is somber and pleading, the final chance Gerhi takes to speak to the object of his affections, before the record ends with the beautiful, glitchy ‘Child’, the musical soundtrack to walls of stained-glass shattering into a million pieces in slow motion.

If Arca was purely instrumental, it would still be a triumph.  The fact that Ghersi has such a wonderful voice, which so well accommodates his haunting, harrowing music, and sings in a language that does so well to express feelings of sadness, love and disillusionment, sets this record far apart from all his emotional ambient counterparts.  Add in the fact that the album is thematic and features two distinctive sides – the challenging and riveting front, the grandiose and atmospheric back – and you have the makings one of the year’s best albums and a new name to place at the top of the genre, if he wasn’t already there. This is one of the best producers in the game taking a compositional risk that pays off massive dividends while failing to compromise what garnered his acclaim in the first place.  My only gripe with the record is the feeling that the more engaging production work on the front side sets the bar so high that the slower, come-down back side is slightly less exciting.  That aside, Arca is excellent, and I very highly recommend it.

Score: 11 / 13