Monday, 23 May 2016

Resurrection of an Analogue

Photo: Engadget
Klaus Schulze (in)famously entitled one of his 1980s tracks Death of an Analogue... whilst entirely switched to digital gear, for a while at least... before reversed the admittedly overdone hasty switch-over...

In recent years we have seen a series of analogue revivals, after a long analogue modelling era... Most big names, just to think of Korg and Roland, have released "true" analogue synths and/or revived classics.

Now Moog, as also presented at the recent Moogfest, have revived the legendary Minimoog Model D. Well, actually the first ever Minimoog model that has seen the light of day as far as the public is concerned (previous models were prototypes).

Whilst it retains the original circuitry, it has a few additions like dedicated LFO and, of course, MIDI.

Aside from the news of the most recent resurrection of a true classic, on the surface one may feel that the rapid and increasing analogue revival trend is somehow the opposite of an expected continuous innovation in the field of electronic instruments...

As someone commented on a MusicRadar article, it is the pinnacle of irony how some artists and producers rave about their love for the vintage analogue sound, whilst they compress the life out of the music material...

However, this clash of worlds is not new by any means. There will be nostalgic adventures in what represents the past for many, there will be excesses and mistaken philosophies in using the vintage classics or the brand new 'true' analogue beasts.

As long as the market does not drive the manufacturers to a point where they scale back investment in innovation, while chasing the trend-guaranteed quick buck with their resurrected classics, nor do we increasingly define (as annoyingly certain camps do) the most here-and-now sound as the one based on the use of retro gear, it's fine...

Let's not forget that there have also been hundreds, if not thousands, of man-years of effort invested into the digital modelling of the vintage classics, whether in the form of HW or SW products - so in that sense, perhaps with different affordability in some cases, the resurrection of the 'real' things seems to make more sense... and one hopes that the research & development efforts can then go into the new innovative gear rather...

Surely, some riding the trend hastily and opportunistically get close to the point of heralding the Death of a Digital in a (misconceived) world where just using the vintage classics is automatically chic... but once the initial overshoots of the system settle, even in the case of this new-by-revival movement, we shall get the real gems, as always...

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

2016 Moog Innovation Award goes to Gary Numan

Photo: LaRoache Brothers (Woolhouse Studios)
Moog Music has just named Gary Numan as the recipient of the 2016 Moog Innovation Award.

The British synth music pioneer, whose seminal debut albums in the late 1970s have set a novel tone within the emerging electronic music genre, has been a consistently unique voice in what has rapidly become a vast landscape of imaginative records.

His darker, yet instantly accessible and recognisable, influential sound was not the result of some superficial stylistical choice. For me, Numan has always been the Philip K. Dick of electronic music - a dark, to some perhaps on the surface 'cold' sounding electronica, yet actually deeply human and, above all, deeply concerned with the human condition. As in the case of Dick's seminal science fiction, in Numan's works we find complex meditations on the (increasingly) difficult relationship between humans and the technological environment they created around them.

It is a quite special achievement, as it is the the case of Dick's works, too, that Numan's meditations, some dating back almost four decades, are currently more relevant and poignant than ever.

It so happens, that Gary Numan has actually began his experimentations with an early Moog synth he found in a studio - and it triggered in him, as he described in recent interviews, too, an instant realisation of its potentials and creative possibilities.

"Replacing guitars with heavily effected synthesizers, Numan’s early work is almost single handedly responsible for introducing post-punk electronica into the popular consciousness, while propelling synth music beyond Prog Rock to inspire the wave of 80s synth pop that soon followed. His impact on the three generations of music since can’t be understated.", writes Moog Music, "Gary Numan is a manifestation of electronic culture’s progressive nature to explore the limits of traditional sound and develop new mechanisms for expression."

The Award will be presented on 22 May at this year's Moogfest.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Remembering Isao Tomita (1932-2016)

Isao Tomita, a Japanese synthesizer pioneer who achieved world fame with his over 20 studio albums, has died age 84.

He literally brought synths to Japan, and apart from his soundtrack work, his unique and even today unparalleled electronic re-imaginings of classical works made his name globally recognised.

Tomita was the first Japanese artist nominated for Grammy, actually four Grammys (for his 1974 Debussy-inspired album Snowflakes are Dancing).

One must say "re-imaginings"... His synth transcriptions of Debussy, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Bach, to pick just a very few, are light years away from what one traditionally understands as transcriptions.

One critic once said that Tomita's works were "too perfect" - even if unintentional, this was a perfect compliment. The synthesizer poems were musically perfect, following in every detail the original scores... However, where Tomita truly set himself apart from the other electronic artists who chose to re-work classics was his unparalleled way of projecting the works into a mesmerising astral sound world, perfectly capturing the original works' artistic intent and mood.

It is perhaps a sacrilege to purists' ears to say that Tomita often augmented the original works' emotional effect.

Whilst sometimes he has taken more liberties with the materials, combining different sources into compositions on a certain theme (as he did on the Kosmos album for example), his faithful electronic re-imaginings of e.g. Debussy and Mussorgsky are to this day unsurpassed.

In a way that extremely few synth artists managed in the heroic '70s and '80s, Tomita demonstrated that electronic music can indeed be deeply human, emotional, thought-provoking and imagination-stimulating at the same time.

As a personal note... must say that as a teenager listening to electronic music as fantastic escapism from the realities of a totalitarian dictatorship, for me Tomita, too, was one of the synth artists I must remain forever grateful for the sonic journeys they took me on.

Isao Tomita kept working into his 80s, even before his passing he was working on Dr. Coppelius with premiere scheduled for November this year.

Tomita passed away of heart failure, surrounded by his family.

Photo: Michael Ochs / Getty Images

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Jean Michel Jarre - Electronica Vol. 2

The second installment of Jean-Michel Jarre's major collaborative project has freshly been released on 6 May, and it follows the volume entitled Time Machine.

Perhaps it is a sacrilege to start with a review of the second volume, but personally, not only it feels more cohesive than the first, but also, it brings back a certain majestic feel that he, and very few other, practitioners of electronic music have managed to infuse their compositions with. 

The list of collaborators is, once again, large and illustrious: from Gary Numan to Hans Zimmer to The Orb, there are many legendary names on the track listing.

The flow of this album, from its rather beautiful and economic opening theme right to its reprise heard in the final track, is perhaps much more heroic and even anthemic than the rather caleidoscope-like first volume. 

This is by no means an exhaustive track-by-track review, but one has to pick out a number of tracks to illustrate the span of the material on the album...

There are of course incursions into very strong, driving, and at the same time rather dark, rhythms, too. Exit, featuring Edward Snowden's poignant monologue, is a good example where the very fast-paced electronic background would serve as a perfect soundtrack to a high-octane video illustrating the octets of internet traffic circulating in the myriad network fibres...

However, when one would expect some typical electro-pop when looking at the collaborators listed on some tracks, the surprises keep coming.

Brick England (feat. The Pet Shop Boys) is, with all its lighter tone after the anthemic album intros, a perfect blend of softly melancholic vocal lines and more animated electronics, the tension between the two working superbly. 

Swipe To The Right (feat. Cyndi Lauper) is, again, by no means an '80s or '90s synth-pop tune... Surprisingly, it is rather darker and keeps the album's overall (in a good sense) heroic thrust. What perhaps surprised one the most was the sudden emergence, at the very end of the track, of phased vintage strings and electronic percussion patterns typical of Oxygene.

In the somewhat expected to be "heavier" and darker register, we are not let down... Here For You (feat. Gary Numan) is an instant classic, with Numan's soaring vocals and the almost ode-like electronic backing making yet another very memorable track that would have worked perfectly on any, at the same time dark and uplifting, Numan albums, too.

Why This, Why That and Why? (feat. Yello) takes us to the realms of existentialist meditation, along the lines of what one may have experienced emotionally when listening to Daft Punk's Touch (from Random Access Memories), Here, too, the text, the vocal quality and the electronic atmospherics underpinning the monologue work extremely well for a mood piece.

A purely, in a way ambiental, mood piece of soundscapes and voices, bringing hommage to the electronic instrument creators Leon Theremin and Bob Moog, is the Switch on Leon (feat. The Orb). These Creatures (feat. Julia Holter) starts with a sonic surprise, when for a few seconds of her vocals we may think we landed in Laurie Anderson's O Superman... but the track evolves rapidly into a blend of crystalline vocals by Julia and gentle electronics in the background

There is even a pinch of Hollywood greatness here... Electrees (feat. Hans Zimmer) is far from some  mere snippet of symphonic soundtrack, though. Admittedly a pleasant surprise is not only the structurally well-rounded short track that can take the listener through a number of emotional levels, but so is the absence of minimalist string patterns one may have expected. Instead, it is a lush piece with patterns actually coming from the very electronic-sounding sequencer voices, giving nice counterpoint to the very organic (incl. choral) lead lines.

The final two tracks return to "pure" Jarre, in the sense of them not listing collaborators or co-composers, and nicely round off the album material with a reprise of the opening theme, too. 

Overall, a very noteworthy outing that follows Electronica Vol. 1 - with the upcoming tours featuring material from these two albums, too, it will be interesting to see how the collaborative pieces are presented in concert settings (without the featured musicians).