Friday, October 20, 2017

Review Round-Up

Welcome to this week's Review Round-Up. This time around we have five projects from an array of genres. Traveling from the bedroom to the dance floor, a deteriorating mind to a frozen wonderland, there's bound to be something you enjoy

Kelela | Take Me Apart
Alternative R&B | Listen

Does the hype surrounding Kelela's debut album spurn more from the mediocrity of her contemporaries, or the talents of the artist herself? At times, at least to me, its felt like both. On one end, you have a by-the-books seamstress crafting quality R&B cuts that borrow influence from the 90's as much as the future. On the other, a noticeable lack of up-and-coming R&B singers who can stand out from the crowd. Plus, her feature work strays more towards the tastemakers, like Danny Brown, Gorillaz, or Clams Casino, than one-and-done Trap or Pop artists trying to jump aboard the all-too bloated Alternative R&B trend. That's not to say Take Me Apart separates itself as successfully as I had hoped. The direction of the lyrical content and the similarity of the sleek sounds evidence of that. Let's just say, Kelela's got a long way to go before she catches FKA Twigs. It's been two years since the five-track M3LL155X, nearly three since LP1, and no I haven't forgotten just how progressive and daunting R&B's favorite enigma is.

Perhaps that's not Kelela's goal though. Perhaps I wrongly assumed her to be an innovative shapeshifter given the aforementioned visionary artists she's worked alongside. Her identity, it seems, is best expressed through Take Me Apart's title track, wherein Kelela submits herself to submissive desires, all whilst assuredly showing her strength in the process. One of many positive side effects of the feminist movement in R&B, that perceived weakness and subjection only role-play for women who understand their power under the sheets. And believe me, if labeling this by-the-books R&B wasn't indicative enough, Take Me Apart sure is sensual. Tracks like 'Frontline' or 'Blue Light' pound away, either by using steel drums or stern synths, all while Kelela's vocals offset the aggression with passion and lust, like a silken sheet draped over two lovers caught up in the moment. The weakest tracks here tend to be those that embrace the ensuing drama of an ineffectual relationship, like 'Onanon' or 'Truth Or Dare.'

A few spotty low points aside, Take Me Apart really does posses a fair deal of high-quality Alternative R&B. The production throughout is polished and refined, both in the traditionally sincere cuts like 'Waitin' or the UK Bass-bound bangers like lead single 'LMK.' There's also 'Enough,' which seems to intwine both halves, scaling back the in-your-face production with something as tactile as Ambient Pop, all whilst losing Kelela's voice in a machine of automated repetition. The major problem of Take Me Apart is that, while there's a lot of good tracks, there's none that step above and stand the test of time. There is one that could achieve that plateau, as it aspires to the fleetingness of relationships by using empty space, an extravagant structure, and a mesmerizing hook. That's closer 'Altadena,' likely my favorite track here. The impact of the finale may be exacerbated by the wear and tear of an exhausting project though, one that drains into 'Altadena' with a six-song streak of undemanding tracks, excluding 'Blue Light.' However, 'Altadena' ends Take Me Apart with style, bringing the warmth, comfort, and calmness of a late night cuddle session following a ravenous night. A successful finish to a successful project, but one that could've been even more had it not been tampered by cliches.


Caretaker | Everywhere At The End - Stage 3
Ambient | Listen

Is there such a thing as a concept going too far? There's a chance we find out in the spring of 2019 when Leyland Kirby's final opus as The Caretaker grinds to a deadly halt, after six deteriorating stages of a dementia-laden takeover. We're halfway through the project and, with Stage 3, it seems as if the musical element is the last thing on Kirby's mind. Whereas Stage 1 introduced the character in question, failing to differ much from his gleaming beacon An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Stage 2 reinvigorated the Ambient project by extending the looping mechanisms and drawing from relatively new influences. The identity of Stage 3 however, brings with it a fair deal of controversy, as the decomposition of memory has begun with repetition taking over.

Not only are samples reused, in much the same way as their origin within Everywhere At The End Of Time, The Caretaker's characteristic titles also return. What's perhaps most interesting is their slight alterations, as if remembering the truth has become increasingly more difficult. Nearly every title is a reimagined version of past works, with 'Drifting Time Misplaced' ('Misplaced In Time' on Stage 2) and 'Aching Cavern Without Lucidity' ('Mental Caverns Without Sunshine' on An Empty Bliss) being just two examples. Paired with the music and you can see why The Caretaker decided upon this repurposed imagery. Many tracks, potentially all, use the noticeable samples that have commandeered his past works. Which, ironically, makes Stage 3 both the least and most impressive work thus far in terms of creativity. No new sounds are used, but the context in which they're interpreted has changed.

How I feel about this has yet to be decided. Of course, Everywhere At The End Of Time is meant to be appreciated as a start to finish process of mental rot (once it's completed), yet I worry for the ensuing stages if the third one already has this tremendous deal of repetition. Stage 5, let's say, would've been more apt, with Stage 6, if my expectations are accurate, descending into a total annihilation of memory turned arrant Ambient drone. Dementia, as far as I'm aware, doesn't benefit from relapse. It's a slow, cruel, painful descent. Continued repetition just won't work. Even as it stands now, Stage 3 may be the weakest effort thus far based purely on its musical merits. Conceptually, it's strong and steadfast, finding Kirby the artist uninhibited by risk. But Kirby the arranger, well, he's not really here. I can't help but feel as if Stage 3's nothing more than an elaborate remix album.


Daphni | Joli Mai
Tech House | Listen

Typically, for successful artists there comes a time, either before their peak or after, where the musical output pales in comparison to what they've achieved before or since. Rarely do the two intertwine, but with Dan Snaith they're as clearcut as they come. His Caribou persona, lush, engaging, and momentous, has received heaps of critical acclaim, whether it's for 2007's Andorra, 2010's Swim, or 2014's Our Love. And then there's Daphni, an exploration into the dance-floor grooves found fizzling underneath pieces in the aforementioned projects. However, if Joli Mai is any indication, Snaith's principles of artistry and expression go down the drain the minute he dons the DJ moniker full-time. Nearly every aspect of this LP is lacking in some way, with much of the production sounding cheap, unimaginative, and amateur.

The best example of this is the pitiful three-song stretch spanning 'Hey Drum,' 'Medellin,' and 'Joli Mai.' You needn't listen to the entire 17-minutes, just scan a few seconds of each, noticing the absurd similarities between the drums, and more importantly, how they're utilized. 'Medellin' and 'Joli Mai' in particular should have never been sandwiched together, whereas 'Hey Drum' looms above the rest as worst track thanks to some elementary vocal sampling that lasts far, far too long. A few tracks, like 'Xing Tian' and 'Vikram,' borrow influence from some foreign landscapes, but even their repetition bores as there's nothing rhythmically or melodically-appealing to attract to. Want a better imagination testing those waters? Try Clap! Clap!'s projects, either Tayi Bebba or this year's A Thousand Skies. While Joli Mai disappoints throughout, either from lackluster ideas or Techno-induced tedium, the finale, of course, rectifies that with a bright, shimmering, melodious party anthem in 'Life’s What You Make It.' It's pretty, and resembles the kaleidoscopic colors of the cover, something no other song can attest to.


Deradoorian | Eternal Recurrence
Ambient Pop | Listen

Now this is something I didn't expect from Angel Deradoorian. An artist previously confined to the parameters of Art Pop branching out into the cold, dark abyss of desolate Ambient Pop. On Eternal Recurrence, Deradoorian flexes her creative muscles, fearless of something new and potentially off-putting, by dropping the claustrophobic instrumentation of 2015's The Expanding Flower Planet. Long gone are the days of spastic synths and the forced vocal rollercoaster, as Deradoorian settles herself onto a slab of ice adrift in the arctic. Eternal Recurrence aims to be a transitory piece, lingering in the shadows of 'Ausar Temple[s]' and 'Mountainside[s],' shaking and swaying not from standard production choices, but from the harsh wind and uncontrollable waves. It's certainly one of 2017's most atmospheric projects, EP or not. Borrowing from the almost undefinable stature of Nico's Avant-Folk trilogy, Bjork's Vespertine, and Kate Bush's 50 Words For Snow, Eternal Recurrence stands against some lofty competition in the wake of a quiet and therapeutic exile.

Problem being, it's not entertaining. I'd pontificate "at all," but 'Mirrorman' corrects the tedium with a heavy dose of haunting beauty. Truth be told, two of those three inspirations I disliked as well, Nico withstanding based purely on her uncompromising nature and enthralling surrealism. Eternal Recurrence finds that balance between the others, Vespertine and 50 Words For Snow, in that it excels conceptually but fails to drag me in when there's better, more alluring treasures elsewhere. Why join Deradoorian adrift in the dark, sightless Arctic ocean when I hate cold weather to begin with? Sure, her vocals are mediative and prepossessing, as seen on the foreboding 'Return-Transcend,' but even she recognizes the dead of air, the nip of sea. The slight melody found on 'Nia In The Dark' or the wistful Jazz of 'Mountainside' can't make up for the ponderous sulk, a problem for my overzealous mind. For some unexplainable reason though, 'Mirrorman' scratches the itch Deradoorian set. The looming synths and chilling bass, along with Deradoorian's fantastical lyrics and elongated melody works all too well. In reality, Eternal Recurrence does as well. It's just not my cup of tea.


Leyland Kirby | We, So Tired
Ambient | Listen

You know, for the clairvoyance of We, So Tired Of All The Darkness In Our Lives' title, Leyland Kirby sure loves wallowing in it. Released as a fan-pleasing, name your price LP on Bandcamp, the collection of mightily strong and foreboding outtakes reads like anything but. The compositions all fall in line, unified under the pressures, anxieties, and fears of 2017. Releasing this any other year, given the events unfolding before our very eyes, wouldn't have been nearly as impactful. Unlike his distinctive titling on his lauded side project The Caretaker, which describe with an inconclusive haze the memories of fading individuals, We So Tired affirmably sinks the coffin that is modern society into the grave. Believe it or not, this is undoubtedly Kirby's darkest project. Whereas epics like An Empty Bliss Beyond This World foretold a single mind's demise through dying memories, We So Tired expands the platform to include us all. Optimistic titles like 'Positive Outcome' or 'Solid Mentality' are overwhelmed by the dread titles like 'Momentum Is Not On Our Side,' 'Drowning In The Quagmire,' and 'Bursts Of Anxiety' bring along.

However, while Kirby's titles almost always draw curious attention, it's the sonic distinction that's most pressing throughout We So Tired. Never before, to my knowledge, has Kirby inserted drums to his repertoire. The rarity actually heightens their usage, giving an instrument that's inconsequential elsewhere, new meaning through a new lens. They pound along, like slaves forced to work through the night. Tired, beaten, and marred. Sometimes they're combined with flighty strings, like 'Momentum Is Not On Our Side' or 'Back In The Game,' that give the slightest tinge of hope in this dreary world. Other times, like 'Rain Drenched' or 'Drowning In The Quagmire,' they fracture like palpitated heartbeats over cacophonous ambience that bears resemblance to downtempo Vaporwave artists 2 8 1 4. Then there's tracks like 'Solid Mentality' and 'Bursts Of Anxiety' where they're not included at all, as Kirby resorts to pure Ambient, the former crystalizing like a momentous video game soundtrack, the latter defying hope with a bleak and downtrodden drone.

The change of pace for Kirby is one that breathes new life into his talents, ones that have become noticeably one-dimensional. Echoing 20's vocals samples or not, the UK producer can still successfully conjure dark and ominous reverberations with whatever outlet he's given. The one glaring problem of We So Tired is its length, not a surprise given the 90+ minute duration. You'd think with that kind of time, ambition and scale would mount, but in reality these tracks do tend to follow a uniform pattern. One ends, the other begins anew. Broken apart, their intention still resonates. In other words, after the 90-minute endurance test, I'm not exiting We So Tired feeling exonerated or alive, but defeated and spent. Maybe that was Kirby's goal. Given how dark each pressing moment is here, leaving satisfied with a sense of hope optimism isn't something to expect.


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