Category Archives: Jazz

Digits: The Day You Fight Back

Digits - The Day You Fight Back EP Art

Digits: The Day You Fight Back EP - This past month newcomer Digits has played shows with both St. Vincent and Dan Deacon. Digits is a one-man electronic act, fronted by one and only Alt Altman, which admittedly sounds a bit like a fake name made to mimic a laptop keyboard. Nevertheless, Digits has broken into the melodic electronic scene (if one such exists) unapologetically, his breathy vocals whispering over the light synth and acoustic guitar riffs. Digits may best be described as a blend between ambient electronica and fellow Canadians Majical Cloudz-esque soul electronica.

Title track, ‘The Day You Fight Back’ begins in a pseudo-tropical melody fused with the tempo and feel of smooth jazz. Smooth may in fact be the best way to describe the music of Digits. Synths come in over the light airy acoustic riff and the beats of the drum machine.

The second track, ‘When You Look Inside,’ picks up the pace, with a more prominent drum machine beat and synths, the absence of that one acoustic guitar riff changing the sound of the song completely, from an ambient jazzy electronic piece to a strictly technology based serenade. Altman’s voice (unaltered and strictly un-autotuned) contrasts the heavy electronics of the music well, adding a soulful, human element to a genre that typically remains in the domain of robotic beats.

 

‘Stasis’ is the EP’s third track, which integrates Altman’s own acapellas in between the synths, creating incredible melodic dimension otherwise rather unheard of in electronic music. Digits will no doubt become an instant success, for their innovative use of electronic instruments next to the human instrument, that is, Altman’s voice. ‘Stasis’ specifically speaks to the desire to for stability in life, as Altman croons, ‘We’re all looking for some kind of stasis’.

The final track on the EP, ‘Brain Brain’ is my personal favorite. Its an anthem for all insomniacs, and Altman laments, “I just can’t keep my brain from working overtime”. This track returns to the pseudo-tropical sound of the first and title track, ‘The Day You Fight Back’. Dotted synths work around the airy vocals in a rain drop type dance, falling here and there.  As the song winds down, acoustic guitar comes in alongside an electric bass, adding layer upon melodic layer of intricately placed sounds that crescendo into the climax of the song before petering off again into silence.

If this high praise of Digits was not enough, the fact he released The Day You Fight Back as a free mp3 download on his website (which can be found here), may be! Look out for the name Alt Altman and Digits in the future, you are sure to see it…9.4/10

‘Brain Brain’

 

Squarepusher: Music For Robots

Vinyl size

Squarepusher: Music For Robots- Every time Squarepusher releases a new work I find myself in awe of the level of musical ingenuity that is in each track. Tom Jenkinson’s latest release under Warp Records is no exception. Music for Robots is an aptly named 5-track EP that pushes the boundaries of both music and technology. Get this: in 2013 a team of Japanese roboticists challenged with the task of creating a music-performing system that was beyond the capabilities of the most advanced musicians built the Z-Machines; a guitarist with 78 fingers, a drummer with 22 arms, and a keyboardist who triggers notes with lasers. Jenkinson was given the unique opportunity to write music to be performed by these three Z-machines, and he took it. Hell, who wouldn’t? It’s the stuff of science fiction. The result is this 24 minute long EP which addresses the kind of concept one might find in the subtext of an Isaac Asimov tale. In Warp Records’ press release, Jenkinson states that, “In this project the main question I’ve tried to answer is ‘can these robots play music that is emotionally engaging?’”

If you haven’t already seen the video for ‘Sad Robot Goes Funny’ I urge you to take the time to watch it and consider your humanity:

Crazy right? The kind of music you’ll hear coming from these artificial performers blurs the lines which delineate genres such as the avant-garde, fusion jazz, progressive rock, and contemporary electronic music (because they’re robots, get it?). The EP begins with ‘Remote Amber’, a short experimental work that plays with a variety of dissonant colors which ripple sporadically across the axes of time and pitch to create an anxious and ominous vibe. The piece works well as an opener, especially in precedence of ‘Sad Robot Goes Funny’, because it prepares the listener for the abstract traits inherent in many of the tunes while also reinforcing the prevalent notion of organized chaos.

Then, in ‘World Three’, we are introduced to a new landscape, one that retains the same emotional qualities of minimal composers such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass. In terms of composition, Jenkinson states to have drawn influence from piano composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti (you may recognize his freaky tunes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Conlon Nancarrow who was one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments, namely the player piano. The piece is exploratory in nature and plays out like a very bizarre scene following the movements of a character who is immersed in strange and unpredictable settings, experiencing moments of triumph, confusion, peace, and conflict throughout.

And now for the motherload. If there was a point in the writing process where Jenkinson might have tried to really test the Z-Machines’ power, or perhaps tried to destroy them, it must have been while he was creating the fourth track, ‘Dissolver’, a 7-minute long journey into the soul of a machine. To say that this music has micro-centric compositional qualities would be a grave understatement. I’ve never heard anything like it, but I’d only suspect Squarepusher to create something of this caliber. The piece starts off simply with phasing guitar notes outlining the chord structure within the first minute. Complex rhythms come together like rain falling on sheet metal. At 1:40 we’re given our first semblance of meter by low register piano notes playing in 6/8. The piece builds even further with the introduction the percussion and finally takes off with the cymbals at around 2:30. From there the piece escalates to its highest potential via several key changes and a face-melting guitar solo that transcends all logic. At this point, halfway through the song, I just can’t comprehend what I’m even listening to, but I understand that underneath all of this apparent entropy there is a mathematical design to this madness. I imagine this is what Frank Zappa’s subconscious fantasies must have sounded like.

After the storm, or battle, or great quest–however you chose to imagine it– ‘Music For Robots’ wraps up nicely with a calm and uplifting track, ‘You Endless’, and as I sit listening to this slow-paced, pastoral piece, I consider the magnitude of this project and the creative precision involved in its coming to fruition. I am overwhelmed by it and its implications. Finally I think back to Jenkinson’s question and the answer, in this writer’s opinion, is a definite yes… 10/10

Dissolver

The Liberators: Power Struggle

The Liberators: Power Struggle – How does a band convey a righteous-come-revolutionary vibe using only instrumentals?  That mystery can only be solved by The Liberators. Part of the power in Power Struggle could be attributed to the fact that the band is made up of 10 members – an unwieldy number, but one that produces a wholly unique sound. The Liberators are based in Sydney, Australia and they came together to produce their eponymous debut album in 2011. Now, after touring throughout Australia and slowly making their way onto the international scene, they are releasing their second album, Power Struggle, to much anticipation.

Right off the bat, the new work is consistent with their style, which is inspired by 1970s Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk and soul. For people stateside, the funk music of the late ’60s/early ’70s is immediately recognizable in the first few songs – though ‘Soul Drive’ is the one in which they are most prominent. Still, there are elements to each song that Americans may not be able to place right away due to the influence of Latin, funk, and soul from native Australians with an Afrobeat twist.

Somehow, the band is able to epitomize the feeling of the ’60s and ’70s, when the world was challenging its beliefs, societal structures and politics. Songs like ‘Dark River’ and the title track ‘Power Struggle’ are horn-heavy smooth jazz pieces that evoke something completely opposite of placidity. This album is more intense and measured than The Liberators; it’s a sit-in rather than a march.

One of the most fun and exotic songs on the album is ‘Dos Caras’, which feels light-hearted and fun. The Arabian start yields to staccato horn blasts and quirky, stutter-step drumming as it progresses. One cool thing about the collection is that more than half of the album features songs that are on or near the five minute mark, which allows each song to evolve individually as the album evolves on a larger scale. The musicianship of each of the ten members is highlighted not through self-serving solos, but through the extremely cohesive whole that is presented.

Finally, in the last song on the album, Roxie Ray is back on vocals to change up the sound. She performed on the song ‘Let It Go’ from their first album and this time around it’s no different. Her distinctive and sultry vocals fit in perfectly with the band. There is a roughness to her voice that brings to mind legendary singers like Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin. Her addition helps to make ‘Water Somewhere’ one of the best on the album.

Jazz lovers will love this album and it’s good for anyone who cares about instrumental integrity because each member knows their instrument in and out. The collaboration of the artists and the cool influences make this band stand out…9.0/10

Cairo Uprising

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe- Producer Dev Hynes’ newest album Cupid Deluxe, recorded under the name Blood Orange, is truly a torrential downpour of  soulful introspection. Encompassing a similar mood throughout the entire album, it is consistent yet unpredictable. It’s a little bit of hip hop, a splash of funk and jazz, and a tidal wave of synth electronica all culminating into an album that makes you want to shake your hips and dance while crying into a pint of ice cream. It’s not surprising that a man who is defined as a songwriter, producer, author, singer, and composer, would also manage to put out an album this schizophrenically sincere. The album is characterized by electronica, follows classical composition, is a barrage of collaboration and yet it is so simple you don’t even realize it happened until it’s over.

Never heard of Hynes? Think again. He is the man behind artists such as Florence and the Machine and The Chemical Brothers. However, Cupid Deluxe sounds absolutely nothing like either of these bands. Being a producer, Hynes has collaborated with a variety of musicians and was successful in creating an album which is marked by many styles and yet transitions from track to track  with incredible fluidity and effortlessness. The first time I listened to the album from start to finish it felt like I had taken a breath and suddenly it was over. Written over a four-year period, it’s the kind of album that wreaks of blood, sweat, and tears—and talent.

The album opens up with the track ‘Chamakay,’ featuring Caroline Polachek of Chairlift, a subtle yet impactful opening song. ‘Chamakay’ falls into the genre of new wave but  is tinged with tones of an 80’s love ballad. The arrangement is flawless and lovely comprised of the harmonious overlapping of Polachek and Hynes voices. The song strikes a sad, nostalgic note but maintains a steady beat distinguishing itself as more than a love ballad.

‘Not Good Enough’ is refreshingly honest with lyrics like “I never was in love/you know that you were never good enough.” It’s catchy and arranged as a pop melody but approaches the genre of a love song from a new angle. The song is effortless and has a seductive quality relative to the sounds of the band The XX. After listening to this song a few times I found myself singing the chorus everywhere, reflecting on all the times I felt I’d loved someone. My favorite quality of the whole album is that in every song the music is matched with the lyrics in a way which really hones in on one though or emotion. Unlike other music that is so sensitive, Hynes taps into the genius of jazz and electronica making it music that isn’t lonely. I would listen to this by myself on a train and play it at a party.

‘Uncle Ace’ sounds like Party Monster and the New York City night life in the late 80’s. It has a funky beat and jazz influences meanwhile the singing is extremely sassy and breathless at times. It’s the kind of song that makes me want to lazily shuffle my feet across a dance floor and sway back and forth.

‘High Street’ is my favorite track on the album. Featuring Hynes rapping, he tells the story of his life, hearing his songs on the radio for the first time, reflecting on how he go to where he is now, and what it was like getting there. The music is darker than the other songs and less relaxed. It has a ghastly tone including Hynes’ rap which hangs on the fringe of the beat with every verse. Minor chords of a piano alongside a synth fade out the song without any real sign of an ending.

‘Cupid Deluxe’ is extraordinary. The songwriting is deep and sensitive while the music is catchy and complex. It is a revival of jazz and funk compositions, twining old music stylings with new in an effortless way. This album certainly distinguishes Hynes from the pop genre he is most known for and has a quality that is certainly unique. I think this is an album that will slowly rise to the top and Hynes as it exemplifies Hynes individual style and capabilities in creating new genres. It’s just the beginning for this guy folks… 10/10

High Street

Jimi Tenor: EXOCOSMOS

Jimi Tenor: EXOCOSMOS – Jimi Tenor’s EXOCOSMOS is not the kind of music you listen to while you’re driving, nor while exercising at the gym, or mowing your lawn, or walking your dog. This is not the music you would listen to with your friends on board game night, or throwing back beers at a house party. This isn’t even the kind of music you’d listen to while you’re in your bed at night, headphones on and eyes closed (but I’d recommend trying that out for a trip). It might, however, be the kind of music you’d hear in an installation at the MoMA, or perhaps a classy yet horrifying film from the ’70s. I imagine that it could be the soundtrack to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s most awesome nightmares. We might have heard this music coming from Frank Zappa if he hadn’t died in 1992, or maybe from John Coltrane or Charles Mingus if either of them had befriended Edgard Varèse in the ’40s and employed some of his ideas of “organized sound”. And though it may be the kind of music you’ve never heard before or never care to listen to again, this is the kind of work that identifies the medium not just as a formula of patterns, gimmicks, and pleasing tunes, but as one of the most expressive forms of art.

There’s no short way to sum up EXOCOSMOS. For your average listener, yeah, this is some weird stuff, and there’s a lot going on. Here’s what most of the tracks have in common: loads of instruments from all across the board, an absence of lyrics, unpredictable forms, and an overall sense of bizarre madness. Personally, it tickles me in a crazy way. The album opens with ‘Tsukemono’, a short track with a trickling percussion intro, a haunting flute solo, and an array of traditional Chinese instruments, featuring the Kouvola Musiikkiopisto Choir. The song ends quietly, leaving you ill-prepared for the following track, ‘Big Entry’, which is aptly titled because it scares the shit out of you with all of its screaming horns, piercing strings, and delightful dissonance.

At this point we’re about three minutes in, and we’re finally met with something slightly comforting: a jazz combo setting. ‘Egyptian Waltz’ is a cool, almost sinister track that creeps like an old-time crook in a mystery film noir (also, it’s not a waltz). This happened to be one of my favorites, alongside ‘Accra Blues’, a similarly styled track whose recording quality reminded me of the works of Can.

The rest of this album is as indescribable and limitless as a Salvador Dali painting – there’s just no way to catch all those surreal bits, all those colors and the ineffable emotions which make it not only powerful, but overpowering. To conclude this review, I’m still very unsure of how to rate this album, because as abrasive as I find it to be, I am so moved by its eclectic and creative nature. While most songs you hear on the radio or Pandora (or whatever it is you use) fill the desires of our sensibilities, they easily fit the drone of contemporary style and are easy to ignore if one wishes; however, the music of EXOCOSMOS is irrefutably evocative to say the least. It will shock you, disturb you, intrigue you, sooth you, entertain you, pull you, and push you away… 8.5

Tuomio