Category Archives: Electronic

Aphex Twin: Syro

Aphex Twin- Syro

For many of us, hearing that Aphex Twin was intent on releasing new material was as big as My Bloody Valentine’s release in 2013. For me it was definitely a bigger deal. Aphex Twin was always up there with names like Squarepusher and Venetians Snares in my list of mind-blowing electronic music influences, and I’m happy to say he’s still kept his place in my heart. His latest release, Syro, is nothing short of awesome. In all it feels like a curated selection of works recorded at different times and places throughout the past few years during which time there was drought of output. It is, in a sense, a way to make up for lost time and move on.

To those who are unfamiliar with the work of Richard D. James, this is not really the kind of music you’d try to dance to, but it does lean in that direction a little more than his previous work has, especially in the first half of the album with songs like ‘Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix]’ and ‘Produk 29 [101]’. Another thing these two songs share in common, and something very characteristic of James’ style, are the dark and eerie sensibilities of harmonic progression. The opening track, ‘Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix]’ is a great example of how he juxtaposes rhythm with melody; the song is danceable but at the same time it projects this creepy vibe via dissonant interactions between melodic lines.

And it gets creepier. ‘CIRCLONT14 [152.97][Shrymoming Mix]’ feels like something straight out of a horror film, most likely about alien abductions or a zombie virus, at least for the first minute before the percussion comes in and sets the fast pace. You’d probably hurt yourself if you tried dancing to this.

And then there’s songs like ‘CIRCLONT6A [141.98][Syrobonkus Mix]’ which stands apart from the scary vibe, with sawtooth synths and a barrage of bit-crushed instruments rushing past you. Glitchy all over. There’s this moment at 4:15 that is absolutely one of the coolest things I’ve heard, and it’s because of the newly introduced chords which are simply triumphant. This is one of the few tracks where the sense of harmony is pretty consonant throughout in so much as that it doesn’t make you feel uneasy or out of one’s element. The changes play out very much like a scene from a film, rapidly switching between cuts and moving the story forward each second. You have to pay attention or you’ll get lost before you’ve reached the end.

The album wraps up with its most outlying track, ‘Aisatsana [102]’, a solo piano with samples of birds chirping, but that brief description alone doesn’t do it justice. It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching and impacting, especially in comparison with the preceding songs.

In short, Syro is a versatile compilation that doesn’t necessarily push the limitations any further than Aphex Twin already has (which is pretty damn far) but reaffirms a master’s potential to create something incredible. It’s the kind of thing that could only be done by the microcentric genius himself, and the good news is that there’s more to come. Personally, I’m crossing my fingers for another collaboration with director Chris Cunningham sometime in the future.

10/10

Duologue: Memex EP

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Duologue / Memex

Prior to the release of their album Never Get Lost, Duologue released a four track EP entitled Memex. A compilation, which I had the pleasure of listening to this week. I was impressed to say the least, and even more moved by the visual accompaniment of the Memex music video. Simply put, an experience which conceives the sublime.  The titular track is, itself, a work of tasteful writing and impeccable production. Commencing with piano chords recorded through a high-end EQ, followed by ghostly multi-tracked vocals, and a slow drum beat, the track harbors and resonates melancholic emotions.  “Memex” provides wide-open spaces and subtle textures, shifting from majestic to haunting tones. Overall, the song is very opaque and wraps up in a heavy conclusion with distortion, crashing cymbals, and a chilling bass line.

Successor track “Operator” functions as a lost-love song. Able to retain the melancholic quality but, gravitating towards a subtly vivacious upbeat tempo, with chilled electronic drums and sweet vocal melodies that drive the track and engage the listener.  The compositional style of this track is generously dynamic and unpredictable, upon first listen. It’s exciting in a very laid back, lounging way. The pivotal climax occurs halfway through the song via a momentous chord change, triumphant in nature, and accented by vocal harmonies & soft synths. Eventually petering out, it builds up and returns to the electrical chorus once more; a very satisfying progression of musical narrative.

“Traps” pushes the excitement forward. It is always thrilling when you reach the second chord in a 4/4 progression, hearing it for the first time because you know, you feel that it’s going to resolve to something very gratifying, and when it does hit that perfect place it lights you up from the inside out. This song is not as unpredictable as the last two, it has a little more pop, but this is too a great advantage. In a way, it gives the listener a moment to relax. There are still some really unexpected changes in mood that take place; changes that at first seem a little odd, but after a while realize themselves to be really neat. Once again, the percussion plays a strong role and is tastefully mixed.

The last song on Memex EP, “Bodylog” didn’t to it for me as much as the other three, even so, it’s a great track. The energy, however, seems almost contrived, trying to reach an intensity very early on, and then rebuilding from its ashes. A very dancey tune especially towards the end. It has some very interesting rhythmic moments, and it’s a decent way to wrap up the EP. After many listens through, I’m really pleased to have come across Duologue’s Memex EP Here is a group that understands music and emotion, and I hope to hear more from their new LP Never Get Lost.

9/10

Austra: Habitat

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Austra- Habitat

Summer is slowly on its way out and many of us are trying to make the most of it. While many of us in Chicago were busy at festivals and concerts, I had the opportunity to check out Austra’s latest release, Habitat. It begins immediately with the titular track, introducing several synths over a two-chord progression accompanied and driven by clean, mid-range female vocals, the only acoustic element in the piece. The vocals add a very ghostly and dark quality to the song’s mood which is made even more apparent after the first minute of introductory melodies, whereupon the pace is developed into a dance beat with metronomic kicks and snare hits predominantly on beats 2 and 4. Though it is very repetitive, the piece has many moments of musical statement where certain instruments will drop out and the vocals will take up more of the foreground space.

‘Doepfer’, a nearly five minute long instrumental track, has the drive and pace of a scene in a spy movie, and I don’t mean like a fight scene but more like a snooping-around-the-enemy-lair-and-gathering-intel moment. In order to complete their mission, our spy has to dodge the glaring cameras and avoid the various sentries which patrol the chrome plated halls of a maze-like facility. Though the tempo and pulse remain constant throughout, the mood and action shift organically to create contrasting moments of intensity. This is a really cool piece, rich in detail and yet minimal in nature.

As the title suggests, ‘Bass Drum Dance’ is very heavy in the low end. It takes a little while to get rolling, nearly a minute until the high-range instruments make their appearance. After two minutes the sense of time is being played with by many delaying instruments overlapping each other and generating a disorienting effect. The main melodic line, an arpeggio that seems to lazily glide into each note’s obvious rhythmic destination, is especially maddening. At 3:20, dissonant female vocals briefly feature themselves amid the swelling synth pad and booming sub-kicks. Talk about creepy.

And finally, Habitat wraps up with ‘Hulluu’, similar to the second track, this song is mainly a percussion-driven loop with deep bass kicks, and industrial midi-instruments. It has some cool moments, particularly when the whispering vocals come in at the middle and end of the song, beyond that, it’s not very imaginative, and that goes for the rest of the album. It’s not bad, but it’s not very gripping.

6.8/10

Atrey: Supernova EP

Atrey – Supernova EP

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Atrey – Supernova EP

I always appreciate an artist who doesn’t categorize themselves.  They just go with whatever works at the time or whatever hits that inspiration nerve or strikes them as interesting.  In synth and retrowave this makes you a bit of an outsider because a lot of people in the scene are scoring imaginary action movies, telling epic sci-fi adventures, or composing retro porn soundtracks.  So when I sat down with the Supernova EP, I was pleasantly surprised.  Atrey inhabits a very strange intersection of synth.  There are many things going on in such a short EP that it’s hard to pin down exactly what he’s trying to do, precisely.  This isn’t an indictment, because I tend to like artists who compose according to impulse and emotion as opposed to maintaining a theme.  There’s some glitch, some funk, some horror, and even some Daft Punk-ish vocoded vocals.  I would even hesitate to call him a retrowave artist, because that would limit his range and make you, dear reader, assume what his sound is like.

The Supernova EP starts off with the titular track that builds with ominous synth and sparse, creepy harpsichord keys.  It jumps directly to a glitched melody and some satisfying dashes of slap bass before peaking with a killer guitar riff.  It’s a very accessible track, one suited for night driving.

Putting an absolute halt to the momentum, ‘So Far Away’ is a slow yet sparkling disco ballad that puts me in a romantic mood.  Very big snares and some wailing guitar make it a perfect track to shed some tears to, if you’re into that kind of thing.  Cranking up the momentum once more is ‘Vertigo’, a somewhat glitchy, French house influenced sci fi/horror trip down strangely empty streets.

By far the most charming, catchy and emotional song on this EP is ‘Naomi’.  It’s got a mid tempo, undulating beat with hints of cowbell and retro stabs underneath a cut up guitar riff.  It makes me nostalgic for loves past and I found myself hitting repeat and just kind of spacing out to it after I got tired of dancing.  If I had to recommend just one song, it’s this one.

Atrey is a versatile artist and this is just a hint of things to come.  He’s just released a single featuring retro goddess Dana Jean Phoenix so big things are definitely on his horizon.  A solid effort and I can’t wait to hear more.

8/10

Sferro & Tommy: Matters of the Heart

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Sferro & Tommy: Matters of the Heart

After what felt like long period of musical drought I had the opportunity of picking up the first collaboration of two familiar artists, Sferro & Tommy, whom I have fondly kept in my arsenal of readily available selections. The joining of these two forces seems very obvious; two synth wave musicians who have a particular taste for consonant harmony, chordal progressions, and rhythmic stylings. Their debut release, Matters of the Heart, is a concise four track EP with two original songs and complimentary remixes by Casette Club and Rex Ronan.

The first track, ‘Matters of the Heart’, begins without any sort of buildup, simply the first instrumental layer, then dives into the action with bass and electronic percussion shortly after, featuring vocals by Swedish singer and lyricist, Yota, whose voice perfectly compliments the cool and driving quality of the composition. This feature was by far the most exciting aspect of the EP which would have otherwise been a frankly predictable manifestation by two musicians operating within the same general realm of musical expression; it gives the song a stronger sense of movement, development, and synergy. Here I feel confident saying that I could tell who was more responsible for certain aspects of the song, like Tommy’s melodic solos and Sferro’s influence on the chord structuring.

Conversely, the second track renders each artist as indistinguishable from the other; this may be due to the fact that, with electronic music at least, it can be difficult to assign easily identifiable traits to musicians who’ve spent more time working at a computer instead of honing a particular live style which clearly defines itself. As a listener you have to start analyzing the inherent compositional choices such as the length of a repetition or the placement of forms and instruments. All this being said, it has always been my opinion that collaborations which generate an overall sound that is succinct and whole are of a high quality, however, it sometimes takes the fun out of discerning who is responsible for what in the production.

In other words, if you had told me that these original songs were done by only either Sferro or Tommy I may have taken your word for it; not only that, but you could have also fooled me with the third track, ‘Matters of the Heart (Cassette Club remix)’. To me, it feels less like a remix and more like a variation that takes the original song and slows it down dramatically to take on a new, more solemn tone. This is not to say these two songs, ‘Rapture’ and ‘Matters of the Heart (Cassette Club remix)’, are not enjoyable but that they are to be expected. On the other hand, the Rex Ronan remix of ‘Rapture’ is one of the strongest of the four tracks, taking the original song and completely re-imagining it to a new level of intensity that is befitting of a rave or a fast-paced arcade game. I certainly found it to be more exciting and engaging than the original.

To be blunt, I had mixed feelings about Matters of the Heart. It made me question myself a lot as an electronic musician in terms one’s signature identity, which is of course a good thing. It is nonetheless exciting to witness the collaboration of Sferro & Tommy and it brings me joy to hear them come together with other musicians as well. As agents of contemporary synth wave, these two are not to be missed…7/10

BY: Terrill Mast

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