Sunday, 12 November 2017

On the musical range of some Stranger Things

Image: Legacy Recordings

After one watches the first and second seasons of the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, it could be a perhaps strange exercise to listen through the two volumes of tiny electronic pieces that constitute its soundtrack.

Perhaps strange, as the pieces are often ultra-short in length - and many could rightly say that in such cases, without the soundtrack's themes being assembled into a suite, it might be difficult to enjoy the music without the visuals that it underpins.

However, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's historically accurate score, made with many by-now-classic electronic instruments of the early and mid-80s, can be a surprisingly pleasing musical journey even after the myriad tiny pieces are disconnected from the TV series...

What is particularly remarkable in Dixon & Stein's set of little electronic gems is that their often surprisingly economical electronic arrangements and structure cover a huge range of moods and sub-genres of electronic music.

Yes, they could have gone for direct musical references, after all, early '80s Tangerine Dream, the soundtracks of John Carpenter (also hugely influenced by Tangerine Dream) and the soundtrack hits of films like Ghostbusters from same period are infusing the TV series' sound world.

Instead, with careful instrumentation and very organic work flow based on improvisations and hands-on controls instead of computer automation of certain stages, the two key figures of the Austin-based electronic outfit S U R V I V E strike a highly personal and recognizable tone.

Microscopic gems like Home or Symptoms (both from the 2nd season) demonstrate eloquently, that Dixon & Stein can create exquisite quasi-ambiental and hauntingly beautiful electronic melancholy with just a few tens of seconds of economic material.

The ominous main theme has become a synthesizer hit in its own right, receiving a big nod also from the electronic maestros of Tangerine Dream in the form of a splendid cover version. Tracks like Soldiers land us in the world of early-to-mid-80s Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Firestarter and The Keep.

Whilst Kyle & Dixon can coax out of their analogue keyboards and ample modular gear such typically '80s-sounding, intentionally back-referencing and catchy synthesizer tunes, they also produce musical moments of utter darkness and menacing glory - after all, among the myriad elements successfully combined in the TV series, science fiction and horror combine to great effect.

The Upside Down or Descent Into The Rift are such musical moments of menacing eeriness, but Kyle & Dixon can counterpoint such sonic journeys with at the same time nostalgic and wonderfully worry-free musical moments like Kids and Walkin' in Hawkins.

Tracks like She Wants Me to Find Her or One Blink For Yes are achieving the seemingly impossible on their own, without the images: despite their short length, they are structurally perfectly constructed, develop hauntingly beautiful minimalist themes and even after they fade, they leave behind emotional impacts usually only reserved to elaborately long pieces.

What Else Did You See or Eggo in The Snow are also tiny tracks that demonstrate an enormous dose of empathy for the characters, and manage to project via sound their inner states.

In many ways a  central notable feature of this soundtrack is what it could have been (i.e. what it successfully avoided) and what it is not.

Dixon & Stein could have gone for wall-to-wall electronica, they could have gone for catchy cuteness, or for an '80s synth pop feel - as many electronic soundtracks have done so, then and now during the '80s revival.

Instead, they avoid the stereotypical sonic treatments and manage to produce a long series of tiny electronic gems that go from high-octane action to thundering menace to subtle ambiences and delicate, almost fragile, musical constructs of astounding simplicity and emotional effectiveness at the same time.

While they had the not so simple task (technologically and otherwise) to recreate instantly recognisable and time-accurate sound worlds of the era that the action takes place in, they could have approached it via the easier route: creating a replica sound with noticeably superficial earworm-hunting - after all, that's what many in so-called synthwave genre do nowadays.

However, the result is highly imaginative, uses its historic accuracy and its specific references with great restraint, while the music actually stays fresh, emotionally involved, non-intrusive and effective.

There is talk of a third and possibly even fourth series, so while the script writers have their work cut out (to what new heights can they elevate the story set within its both time and location-wise very limited Universe), it will be an interesting puzzle also for the music...

If the duo keep their approach heard so far in the first two seasons, and continue not to be whisked away by the very sound world they so carefully constructed, then one can be certain that '80s superficial electronic stereotypes will continue to be avoided successfully.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (in the background) - photo: Sound on Sound

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tangerine Dream - The Sessions I.

It may seem like an overstatement after fifty years of existence and a vast discography, but Tangerine Dream's new release, The Sessions I., represents a truly key moment.

The electronic legends released their first live album, Ricochet, in 1975.

Around the time when other legendary pioneers were using sequencers for intentionally static patterns (Kraftwerk), for abstract fluid textures (Klaus Schulze) or pulsating melodic motifs to punctuate floating soundscapes (Jean-Michel Jarre), Tangerine Dream were creating something eminently different.

Ricochet and subsequent live albums by the band have shown a unique approach to electronic live music.

TD were producing high-octane sequencer-based improvised materials, with sequencers having been actually played on stage - such that the mind-bending multiple patterns were jamming hand in hand with electric guitar solos and keyboard improvisations.

The reason why The Sessions I. album is a notable moment is that the band, after a few decades of live renditions of studio album tracks, have returned to that dazzling art of extra-long improvised live compositions. After a session recorded and released on the album Particles, this is an hour-long journey.

The two, around half an hour long and largely improvised, tracks by Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane were recorded during the Edgar Froese memorial concert held in 2017 in Budapest and during a later live performance in Hong Kong.

If one makes here some references to albums of the past, it must be emphasized: this is not because the new album is a self-imitating nostalgia trip trying to just resurrect some old sounds for the long-standing fans... The references are being made merely because they may, to some extent, be suggestive of the tone and mood of the soundscapes on this album.

The opening track Blue Arctic Danube is something we have not heard for some decades, and again Ricochet or Encore spring to mind. This, in itself, is quite something, but even more remarkable is the fact that the material sounds fresh and brings a unique sound even in the electronic music scene of 2017.

Fans can immediately and instantly conclude, this is absolutely characteristic Tangerine Dream - from the first ambient textures to the trademark intertwined sequencer patterns to the arrival of achingly beautiful and softly played mellotron sounds (or of its digital resurrection rather, the Memotron).

The 30-minute musical journey is phenomenal, and without any previous knowledge of TD discography, one can be taken on a dazzling trip across many inner states - from mellow meditation to highly energetic pulsating sonic roller coaster rides to cinematic vistas constructed from sounds.

It is light-years above the way in which even now many use electronics and sequencers on stage - and with the live improvisation bringing in the various building blocks in a, one can safely say, typical Tangerine Dream manner, the listener cannot avoid being drawn into the musical dialogue that happens between the band's current three members.

Gladiatorial Dragon is of a different tonal register and it, too, is of a highly satisfying duration of just under 30 minutes - and fans of the Poland live album may perk up immediately, when they hear what is unleashed in this track.

While it starts with deceptively soft choir-like harmonies, a typical sneaky appearance of metallic sequencer patterns tells us something big is about to happen.

Well, indeed, TD never lets fans down when they decide to tease with such build-up. We know something is coming, and, by god of electronica, it does arrive.

The ultra-high-energy improvisation unleashed by the trio lifts the roof, this is electronic rock without electric guitars - but instead of guitar pedals being put through their paces, here we have nonstop changing filters driven into whistling self-oscillations, envelopes tightening and loosening the grip on the onslaught of sequencer notes, ring modulations and who knows what else unleashed by humans on their state-of-the-art electronic gear.

Yes, while it sounds highly technical, this is again a superlative lesson in how to make eminently electronic music in eminently human and passionate manner, without sliding into merely abstract sonic explorations or safely staying in the realm of some crowd-pleasing rhythmic content.

Nothing stands still in either of the two long tracks, one can hear the humans on stage improvising with vast powers at their fingertips and playing with and against each others' musical parts, as a jazz-rock band would.

If there was a live album in  the electronic music of the 21st century that can demonstrate to skeptics how the apparent contradiction between the nature of technology and the needs of highly organic live improvisations can be eliminated, then The Sessions I. is it.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Gary Numan's Savage - and a tale of music categorisation

Normally Gary Numan would need no introduction.

However, a recent clash between the rigid categories some operate with and the creativity that characterises the likes of Gary Numan perhaps warrants one - just to put in context a wider point to be made here...

It is a tale of how a label, which once described the most innovative and category-defying music, could be gradually so narrowed by some music industry machinery that it describes, at best, a single musical stereotype.

Normally we have had labels widen so much that they became all-inclusive. Thus they have lost all meaning due to the music industry's attempts of filling the new box with anything they could not fit into other rigid boxes.

Here, though, we have the remarkable opposite trend in its terminal stages.

As one of the most notable names in electronica, with a long list of names from Prince to Trent Reznor to Marilyn Manson quoting him as key influence, Gary Numan is to electronic music what Philip K. Dick is to the more philosophical section of science-fiction literature.

Although Numan is an artist who has had a key role in bringing electronic music into the mainstream pop culture, his dystopian visions, introspective lyrics coupled with his instantly recognisable sonic Universe elevated him way beyond electro-pop - ever since his Tubeway Army mega-hits up to his latest concept album.

Savage (Songs From A Broken World) is again a dystopian and mesmerisingly philosophical work, with musical elements that range from the familiar but characteristic Numan sonic palette to Middle-Eastern flavours.

A superb follow-up to Splinter, again with Ade Fenton in the producer's chair, we get thought-provoking meditations on our world and our existence, while the music takes us from electronic rock constructs to symphonic heights that linger in one's mind long after the record stopped playing.

However, being a distinctive voice nowadays can clash with the mechanical image certain music "specialists" have about the Universe.

Billboard, the well-known chart company, needs no introduction either.

Their definitions of album sales are nowadays desperate and gloriously inept attempts of moulding and bending eminently outdated music industry business models onto the new rapidly changing shapes of the digital world inhabited by its digital consumers.

As difficult as it may seem, Billboard recently managed to surpass themselves in their attempts to define this, to use a physics analogy, intricate quantum physics-governed world with rigid Newtonian models.

They have decided that Gary Numan's new album does not fit their dance/electronica category. As they expressed it, the album is basically "not electronic", instead it fits in the rock/alternative category.

The technical details happen to be such that around 95% of the album has been produced on and with electronic instruments, by one of the most recognisable electronic artists of the last four decades. As Gary Numan himself has rightly pointed out, it is the most electronic record since his album The Pleasure Principle (1979).

But the problem revealed by the Billboard absurdity is wider than any debate about one's list of one's studio gear.

The telling and worrying aspect is that key names in the music industry are grasping at labels that used to denote the most boundless, experimental or more mainstream, sonic world.

While they grasp at these labels, in an attempt to rigidly categorise the vastly varied palette used by electronic artists, they end up narrowing and narrowing the field of view.

Electronic, in their  rapidly shrinking understanding, basically can only mean dance - but even EDM, electronic dance music, is a ludicrously meaningless label nowadays as it has countless vastly different sub-genres and styles.

Unless an artist fits into this ultra-narrow box, even the likes of Billboard need to resort to a radical re-categorisation - Gary Numan and Depeche Mode are now "rock/alternative"... Listening to their recent two albums make this categorisation a superb absurd tragicomedy.

We have had categories like progressive rock widening, widening, until they lost all meaning as they just became a bucket for music industry luminaries to shove any out-of-the-box creation into.

The same happened to new age, starting out with a defined (albeit dubious) scope and intent, but ending up with artists like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis being categorised as such...

Remember alternative rock? The one where musicians ended up all looking and, rapidly, sounding the same and far from being alternative expressions of anything?

However, the recent Gary Numan episode is showing something very different.

Instead of desperately widening the meaning of a, hence increasingly rendered meaningless, category, they end up constricting a vast category to something that becomes an ultra-narrow one.

They can only fit inside it a tiny subset of just one stereotypical mainstream incarnation of what the musical genre really used to denote.

The wider and more imaginative that genre was once, the narrower its actual use as a label has become.

The darkest effect of this mental constriction, stemming from still not updated business models and patterns of thoughts that go with it, is that it started to feed back on itself.

The major names in the music industry, the likes of Billboard, have become eminently irrelevant in the greater scheme - but until their irrelevance is final, unfortunately they are still affecting musicians - and how they are judged by other elements of the rusting echo chambers that Billboard & Co operate in.

Artists producing imaginative electronica without dance loops and archetypal arrangements are placing themselves outside the one and only rigid, narrowed to a point of singularity, box tthat he mainstream music industry can think in.

One has to wonder what cataclysmic infliction changed the same music industry giants from celebrators and promoters of the most innovative and stylistically boundless music into dangerous automatons that can only imagine that music as something confined to their mental image of a dance floor...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Carbon Based Lifeforms...far from Derelicts

After a prolonged break (with the exception of some notable remastered versions of earlier albums), the categorisation-defying Swedish duo Carbon Based Lifeforms is back in full force.

Indeed, with their discography rooted in the more "ambient" side of the electronic music spectrum, but nevertheless often offering eminently head-bobbing-inducing tracks, too, one could wonder what the announced album Derelicts would sound like.

Instead of a departure into some stereotypical electronica, Derelicts is a 12-track album of quite some integrity and instantly recognisable as a CBL creation.

While Accede opens the album with that characteristic sound and patient development of hypnotically repetitive textures and sequences, CBL fans will be glad to encounter later on quite a variety of moods and tones...

Parts of Clouds or Nattvรคsen have references to, and echoes of, sound worlds first heard on World of Sleepers and Twentythree.

Equilibrium has that slow and rather irresistibly hypnotising rhythm one may have heard on the album Hydroponic Gardens.

The title track is really a stand-out piece, CBL at their most majestic and flowing at the same time, with deceptively simple, but anthemic, melodic progression lifting the track after its ambiental beginnings.

For a more abstract and eminently ambient sonic trip, Path of Least Resistance is a keeper - with a vast sonic landscape that reminds one of VLA and Twentythree.

One does not stop being amazed by the sense of melancholy mixed with majestic electronic soundscapes that CBL can infuse tracks with: ~42° is a perfect example of how the by now characteristic sonic elements are blended seamlessly by the electronic duo.

The structure of the album is also quite noteworthy, the soaring, uplifting tracks frame very nicely the quieter ambient works, plotting quite well a sonic journey through different states.

For example, 780 Days returns to the energetic opening sections of the album and lifts us out of the reverie, but there are no harsh edges and no sudden transitions - everything, as any CBL fan would rightly expect, flows very nicely.

Similarly, Rayleigh Scatterers and Dodecahedron provide melodic laid-back repose between more introspective tracks.

The mastering job done on the album is of a quality one would expect, the thunderous bass and percussion in tracks like 780 Days sit very well with the subtle and very refined ambient sonic elements.

This makes the album feel quite dreamy and light in places, even when the actual electronic sound palette is darker and more ominous.

CBL have found a very rare and specific register, like an elusive and mythical register on a mighty organ: Derelicts is, again, an eminently electronic album where technology does not take over, but from shaping subtle quasi-transparent constructs to processing sounds of thundering echoes of vast spaces, technology serves the artistic intent.

The result is, once again, a sonic world with a very personal touch and without the faintest sign of wanting to get lost in any commercial trend of electronica, whichever has been raging out there, outside the CBL sonic Universe, during the years that passed since the Refuge soundtrack album.

As the duo have reported in the recent past, the album would have been shorter but in its last creative stages suddenly a new track was born that simply had to be included on what has become a 12-track album in the end.

Overall, zero shortage of imagination again, and while keeping eminently characteristic CBL sound going through the entire album, there are no direct self-references - hence Derelicts feels thoroughly fresh.

It is a huge relief, that with the so-called "revolutions" (i.e. regurgitations of decades-old electronic music genres and style) like synthwave and such, some names keep looking forward instead of backward - and look at technology as a tool for creating new sonic visions (as contradictory as the term may sound).

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

25 years of United World Underground

It is a rare occasion when one can celebrate, instead of fleeting flickers of indie music promotions amongst the dominant music industry-driven ubiquitous communications, a 25-year-long consistent history of a huge underground music project.

Music & Elsewhere,  the "label for bands who put their music before the money and their souls before the world", has reached a major landmark this year - and its 25th Anniversary Collection of the United World Underground is scheduled for mid-October as a special release.

The movement, with tireless efforts and meticulous curating work by Mick Magic, has been connecting musicians from a huge variety of musical worlds. It is no surprise that the special collection features music ranging from space rock to alternative to experimental to post-punk.

Featuring 33 hours of music, a 64-page PDF booklet, bonus materials including two books, it covers music from 30 countries - the detailed contents can be seen on the special release pages. The release weekend will also have numerous give-aways, including 50 albums (and counting).

From Germany to Thailand, from England to South Africa, the collection covers independent artists from five continents, spanning 25 years of musical output.

The past and present of the United World Underground movement and the Music & Elsewhere label can be followed on its chronological webpage.

With the countdown under way, free music tasters have been posted every day and collected also on the free music page.

The countdown and the release weekend with special giveaways can be followed via the main portal.

In an increasingly "playing it safe" ultra-manufactured music industry-driven global scene, the new and often, in a good sense, disruptive vehicles of the internet era have ensured an unprecedented surge in creative output that refuses to limit itself to rigid labels.

In this novel context, which has broken all the old models and modus operandi of what one knew as the "music industry", UWU and the Music & Elsewhere label remains an international presence...

Friday, 29 September 2017

After half-century of Tangerine Dreams

Tangerine Dream, depending on who one talks to, is one of the, or is the, most defining names in electronic music and in what has become known as the Berlin school of electronica.

Today, the 29th September, we can celebrate 50 years of their existence - even if, alas, the founder and superlative pioneer Edgar Froese is no longer among us.

Tangerine Dream's discography is simply huge - and so is their musical range.

Instead of being boxed into specific sub-genres of electronica, they have produced extremely varied output in terms of era-defining studio albums, soundtracks for some true cinematic landmarks (think of Friedkin's Sorcerer or Bigelow's Near Dark), and series of live albums that often featured entirely new material (e.g. the spellbinding double LP Poland or the much later Logos).

It has always been unfair in general, and certainly unfair specifically to Tangerine Dream, to expect, with ardent but nostalgic fervor, the artists to produce the same style of material that marked their creative peaks some decades ago.

Tangerine Dream, as many high-mileage pioneers, have changed directions many times, sometimes questionably, sometimes mesmerizingly... often radically... but it has been a phenomenal journey from early psychedelia to unparalleled use of sequencers and trailblazing new technology to space ambient to electronic rock to soaring cinematic soundscapes and soundtracks.

Their most recent album, Quantum Gate, is part of that continued journey- its release being timed exactly on the 50th anniversary of the band's existence.

The band, which proved that eminently high-tech instruments can be used to expand what human imagination can work with and materialize into soundscapes without technology having taken over, even in its most recent line-up continues successfully Edgar's legacy.

Edgar Froese's mind and soul is present in each of the tracks - and it is admittedly a refreshing and perhaps to some a quite well above expectations sensation that the new album is absolutely quintessential Tangerine Dream.

While it sounds like a spellbinding quantum physics-inspired musical journey of uttermost technological prowess, it is also vintage Tangerine Dream and it is eminently human instead of what many other practitioners of electronic music ended up producing...

If we feel nostalgic about the peerless fluidity and seamless mind-bending sequencing of Love on a Real Train, then Proton Bonfire on the new album will satisfy us...

If we would like to revisit the spiraling heights of Ricochet or Rubycon, then Roll the Seven Twice or Granular Blankets will equally satisfy us.

If we want some mellotron flashbacks of Phaedra or the high-octane electronic rock of Force Majeure or Pergamon Live, then we have Tear Down the Grey Skies.

The album is unmistakably and instantly recognizably Tangerine Dream, and despite the absence of its founder and central intellectual luminary, the music is a superb continuation of its long history.

Perhaps it makes some ardent fans jump or resort to long-distance spells :) when reading this, but... one of the most remarkable aspects of this album is that it sounds more quintessentially Tangerine Dream than some of the past albums when several of the key figures of the band's history were still in the band...

Even if one picks out this one quality alone, huge respect to Thorsten Quaeschning, Hoshiko Yamane and Ulrich Schnauss for continuing Edgar's creative thinking and producing something original, but at the same time characteristic of several decades of TD output.

Whether future artistic choices will take the new line-up into very different directions, or this characteristic sound continues, well, it is certain that we shall find out - as there seems to be no mellowing of creativity in the Tangerine Dream music laboratory.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Schulze at 70

Klaus Schulze, one of the true godfathers of electronic music, has just turned seventy.

Anybody permanently affected, in the best possible sense, by his truly unique style of synth music output spanning fifty years, can only wish a very Happy Birthday to the  maestro and many more to come...

From the heroic early days of Tangerine Dream collaboration in the late '60s to the similarly heroic, and still landmark value, solo albums like Irrlicht and Cyborg, Klaus Schulze's musical journey has given us many changes in musical direction and style, many philosophical changes...

However, his style has remained instantly recognisable - and very few dared to maintain his courage of creating ever-evolving tracks that most often occupy the full length of the physical medium. Compositions of 70 minutes length are far from unusual in the world of Klaus Schulze...

Like with any artist of astonishingly long career, some philosophical changes in direction have been questionable. Some may recall how the "death" of analogue synths was announced in a resounding album title, then later to see a superb return to that technology... or how a certain period was marked by an abundance of samplers that, even in the artist's own admission, took him away from a truly personal voice.

Apart from such escapades, the relentless innovation and experimenting has been a hallmark of his vast discography. He started as drummer and perhaps, as in the case of the other sequencer wizard, Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream, helped him to have a quite different approach to sequencers...

His precise command of intricate, multi-layered, mind-bendingly ever-evolving sequences has led to what became one of the key ingredients of his compositions that made the latter stand out compared to the rather traditional and mechanical use of sequencers.

Even when blending into his music Eastern vocals, operatic voice, cello improvisations, or Lisa Gerrard's truly unparalleled vocal improvisations, there has always been one key feature of his music that even other heralded "ambient" or "space" music artists did not manage to achieve.

No matter how vast the soundscapes are in length and complexity, not only there is something always changing every few seconds, making it a truly mind-blowing experience on a closer listen, going behind the sometimes hypnotically repetitive passages... but... and it is a huge "but":  Klaus Schulze has established a type of electronic music that seems to happen on its own...

When listening to his varied output, one does not get the feeling that this is electronic music that is created and performed by someone, with the exception of his fiery Moog improvisations...

It is music that seems to emanate on its own, and fold and change every few seconds, without humans and instruments actively creating it. Think of the landmark that was Timewind... still as mind-blowing now as it was in 1975.

Not that this dehumanises his music - not at all, for that we need to look at the eminently different Kraftwerkian school where technology takes over and this in itself is central and intentional in its aesthetic.

Klaus Schulze's perhaps greatest achievement is that he created for half a century an eminently human, passionate, deep "space" music that makes us disconnect from the practicalities and thoughts related to the mechanics of how this music is created.

It just exists and evolves, taking us on vast journeys that any amateur, professional or long-time established star of "ambient", "space" etc. genre should still learn from - after many decades of listening to these genres, one can argue there really is no other person out there who comes close to creating the worlds that Klaus Schulze created and still creates.

Therefore... even more emphatically, many many happy birthdays Maestro!