Monday, May 1, 2017

Past Greatness: April '17

Welcome to the fifth installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. The one pre-requisite I have for this series is that I must have first listened to the album relatively recently. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's albums find two Japanese opuses competing with a derelict edict of Dub Techno courtesy of the United Kingdom. 

Andy Stott | Luxury Problems | Listen
2012 | Dub Techno

With how much music goes in and out of my ears now-a-days it's rare to still have that memorable experience. And yet, a few weeks back, bored in bed but not yet tired, mindlessly perusing Apple Music recommendations, a cover that looked inexplicably like Death Grips' Ex-Military passed by my screen. Wearing some mighty fine, over-the-ear headphones, Andy Stott's 'Execution' began to pummel my ear drums. Bass used as a primary instrument? It was like nothing I had heard before. A style wholly original in today's crowded Electronic scene. Needless to say, that was a strange sound and feeling to fall asleep to. Passed Me By, and Stott's notable discography, immediately made its way into my library. Best of all? Judging off the genre labels and increased prominence, Stott has reinvented his deeply-rooted aesthetic numerous times in the six years since remerging with that wild and wicked bass fixation.

And yet, Luxury Problems' main temptation is that of the complete opposite; a weak, trembling falsetto. There was one missing element to that stifling cacophony of sound, and that was a human touch. Cold, calculated, dead inside, Stott's two introductory EP's failed to assimilate humanity into his robotic armies apocalyptic party. Luxury Problems, thanks to Alison Skidmore, Stott's childhood piano teacher, brings light into a world of darkness. Her voice is the first sound you hear, looping ad nauseam on 'Numb.' For a moment or two the thought of total revision on Stott's behalf feels palpable. And then, the pieces start to build. Another voice emerges, folded in half by Stott's fractional chopping, then a stiff mechanical thump, a wave from a pressurized siren, and an unnerving bass so bottomless that many speakers fail to capture it. Wildly different from his EP's, and yet the only thing that changed was adding Skidmore's angelic incoherence.

Like those EP's, many of the songs here abide by that formula, changing in tone and atmosphere, not structure. 'Lost & Found' travels to a foreign land, as Skidmore's vocals take on a middle eastern vibe, the addictive Drum N' Bass like crack to a music raver. On 'Lost & Found,' and a few other tracks here like 'Sleepless' and 'Luxury Problems,' Stott builds off the automated relapse he was known for, providing snippets of melody, distinction, and percussion inversion to spice up his harsh landscape. In other words, the bass isn't so monotonous, moving at an undulating pace unlike his typical militaristic one-two's. And yet, it's that symbolic pattern that provides the backbone to my favorite track; 'Hatch The Plan.' One of the most narcotic experiences I've heard, the mid-album stunner hypnotizing listeners with the repetitive percussion and Skidmore's near-audible phrases. It's the longest song here, nearing nine-minutes, and yet I wish for it to be endless.

That's not to say other favorites can't emerge from the bunch. Luxury Problems contains within it enough variety to satisfy even the staunchest of Dub Techno fans. The same couldn't be said for his EP's, but here each track lives through a different beating heart. Half of that is Skidmore's doing, the other Stott's own maturation as a producer. Just see to the last two tracks, 'Up The Box' and 'Leaving.' The former begins by lumbering like a train overloaded with coal, brake checks nowhere in sight, only to crash directly into a beat switch that would later echo Stott's shift into UK Bass. It's clearly the most distinct moment on Luxury Problems, as a synthetic drum solo carries 'Up The Box' for the final two minutes, powerful and frantic, like a robot trying desperately to detach itself from Stott's mechanical conga line. Then there's 'Leaving,' focused entirely on Skidmore's layered vocals, haunting in their execution, transitory in their fleetingness, like two mirrors facing each other leading to visions of oblivion. A few minimal pulsating synths occur to envelope Skidmore in this alien world, creating a phenomenal close for a phenomenal album. Luxury Problems is an Electronic record in its own category. 

Cornelius | Fantasma | Listen
1997 | Shibuya-kei

While I don't use the word eclectic all that much, a great deal of my favorite music can safely have that word applied to its description. And while some albums merely tease variety through the scope of their primary genre, there's a select few that are truly genre-less. And not because they sidestep any genre that's become the norm, but rather the melting pot of sounds and styles is so drastic that describing said album with one succinct phrase proves impossible. If words like eclectic didn't exist, that is. And that is Fantasma, quite arguably one of the most eclectic albums I've ever heard. Like many foreign musicians, Cornelius, unwittingly, exists through an aura of mystique in my eyes. My knowledge of him is limited, even down the music he creates. Therefore 1997's Fantasma exists in a self-contained bubble, kept tucked away from my sights, the context by which it was created as inexplicable as my knowledge of the late 90's Japanese music scene. In cases like these; Context is null, music is everything. And by golly, Fantasma's music is a marvel, sprawling with influence across the globe, journeying through sub-genres like a parentless child wandering the isles of a grocery store.

Let's run through the checklist. 'The Micro Disneycal World Tour,' with its deranged bewilderment, sample-heavy chants, rambunctious structural shifts, and lyric-less embodiment of joy, perfectly encapsulates a western-themed Disney musical. 'New Music Machine' interrupts that jovial wonderland and, along with tracks like 'Free Fall' and 'Thank You For The Music,' relies heavily on a distorted perception of Indie Rock that finds traces of Indie Pop cycling in. 'Count Five Or Six' and 'Magoo Opening' prance about Plunderphonics at a fanatical pace, worshiping the cartoon escapades scattered throughout 90's children's television. 'Clash' borrows Pixies' Alternative Rock tempo-jousting, with bursts of energy followed by deep breaths of reflection. 'Star Fruits Surf Rider' wouldn't have been out of place on the infamous Katamari Damacy soundtrack. '2010' personifies IDM-creation like a child going through a sugar rush. 'Chapter 8 - Seashore And Horizon -,' my personal favorite, kitschifies Psychedelic Pop with a lovable melody that wouldn't have been too far removed from one of Ween's inside jokes. And 'God Only Knows' peruses the corners of Progressive Pop, testing every parameter of the soundscape in the process.

Whew. Welp, I just mentioned every single track besides the intro and outro. And you wanna know what? Let's do those too. 'Mic Check' is essentially Musique Concrete for the first minute before tuning into a frequency more similar to Breakbeat or Instrumental Hip-Hop. And the one-minute title track closing the album? Yeah, that's Gospel. I needn't speak of Fantasma anymore, the sheer diversity I just listed should be more than enough to convince you to listen. Eclectic. That's the word, and for good reason. Cornelius' masterstroke of limitless creation provides a reason to love music around every corner. A summer album through and through, Fantasma lives in a fantasy world where there are no problems, no regrets, no gloomy days holding you down. Bubbly, eccentric, and brimming with life, from Cornelius' first breathe to his exhausted last one, Fantasma never ceases to entertain.

Fishmans | Uchū Nippon Setagaya | Listen
1997 | Dream Pop

Growth in music is something to be admired. Those who remain stagnant, in my eyes, don't warrant the label artist at all. It's those who change, for better or worse, slowly or drastically, to achieve the current ideas rummaging around in their head that garner applause from me. Some cases are more obvious than others, like David Bowie genre-jumping, but whilst examining Fishmans' under-recognized discography I began to appreciate the subtitles of musicians improving a sound they hold dearly. It's hard to imagine an artist I'm familiar with whose achieved the same level of consistent progression as the three-piece outfit from Japan, improving incrementally with each go-around. You'd think that was expected, practice makes perfect after all, but with how many artists fall by the wayside or lose sight of that creative touch as their careers develop, Fishmans commitment to honing their skills is praiseworthy.

This, all coming from someone who, by and large, doesn't understand 99% of the words escaping Shinji Sato's mouth. And, to be frank, that was quite the hurdle to overcome whilst pouring hours into their work, a result I'm still on the fence with. However, that discography-wide development is palpable, if the distinct uptake in quality from their 1991 debut Chappie, Don't Cry to 1997's Uchū Nippon Setagaya wasn't obvious enough. With this review, I'll likely applaud the strides they took to rectify past failures as much as Uchū itself. From some rather comical Dub and Reggae to fully fleshed out Dream and Ambient Pop, Fishmans' trajectory not only showed three guys becoming more in-tune with their voice, but revealed just how closely certain genres can be to one another if structural and tonal shifts occur. Despite Chappie crumbling under its own meager weight, there are still traces of that style lingering in Uchū's foundation. It's how Fishmans' utilized it that made all the difference.

On any given day, Uchū and Long Season, the 35-minute experimental collage released the year before, can swap in and out for my favorite record of theirs. That's largely because they're vastly different. What one project succeeds in the other doesn't care about, and vice versa. Uchū, what would ultimately become Fishmans final record, represents the group's overall style beautifully. No time is wasted either as the record's two best tracks occur at the front, with 'Pokka Pokka' and 'Weather Report.' The former is pinnacle Fishmans, finding a radiant unison of sound, voice, and instrumentation as pieces fall in and out, replacing others without losing steam. The latter though is more odd, yet undeniably interesting. In some sense 'Weather Report' sounds like stripped Shoegaze, like My Bloody Valentine's 'Soon' without the wall of sound excess. If you're looking for the same trance-like state Long Season puts you in, but with a greater punch, look to 'Weather Report's' grand climax. It's hypnotizing.

And while a few songs in the middle lose me, namely 'Magic Love' for taking the Reggae influence far too seriously, and 'バックビートにのっかって' for lingering in obtuse tedium, the two closing songs bring back the mystique Uchū breathes. 'Walking In The Rhythm,' the album's longest song at 13-minutes, features a wonderfully varied and enchanting composition that takes the best of Sato's vocals and mares it with Long Season's ceaseless pitter patter of percussion and strings. As for 'Daydream,' influence from Fishmans' former works seem scarce. In fact, I can't even pinpoint the song to any one artist or genre easily. For some reason, tracks like 'Daydream,' and maybe 'In The Flight,' make me think of Radiohead had they been born in Japan. There's just something about the grip the group has on Rock and Pop despite being bred on organic compositions like strings, percussion, brass, vocals, and everything in between, that reminds me of the UK band. Despite it closing out their last album, 'Daydream' isn't the band's last official work. That goes to 'ゆらめき In The Air,' a 13-minute single which acts as the perfect sendoff to their lineage, and an excellent accompaniment to Uchū as a whole. In my eyes, one can't live without the other, best include it here to succinctly round off their vision.

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