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definitions of album sales are nowadays desperate and gloriously inept attempts of moulding and bending eminently outdated music industry business models onto the new rapidly changing shapes of the digital world inhabited by its digital consumers.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

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Musical visions and communist dictatorship

An interesting insight into the way in which "Western" music, and certain genres in particular, were censored, access controlled and ultimately accessed by fans in one of the most infamous communist totalitarian regimes, that of Ceausescu in Romania, occurs in Lehel Vandor's memoir entitled Ears (reproduced with permission):

"Chapter X: Soul

Despite all of the official attempts to restrict the importing of
contemporary Western pop & rock albums, we could get them from the so-called
copying studios. These would have been chronic insomnia-causing
horror visions for any copyright lawyer in the Western world. We used to
go to these studios-cum-shops with a few cassettes in our pockets, and
ordered from a huge catalogue of recordings; then, a few days later, we
walked away with 60 or 90 minutes of music copied onto those cassettes.

That is how we got our hands on pop and rock albums for our weekend
school bashes or house parties; but, more importantly, that is how many of
us got hold of entire catalogues of jazz, progressive rock and
electronic/space music.

The owner of the copying shop on the Kossuth street, located very
close to my home, was extremely passionate about his music; he had
immense amounts of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. His wife used to sit at the
tiny counter of the tiny shop, and I could see bits of the larger recording
area behind her, with many blinking lights on the tape recorders.

I got hooked on “odd” music at an early age and I was a regular
customer at the copying shop. I was ordering a lot of electronic music and
progressive rock; the large, bearded shop owner was like a musical wizard
for me. After all, he could charm magnetic particles into a secret order, so
that they could bring to life glorious, and so hard to find, music in my room.

Usually, the process of discovering such music was tedious, but
extremely rewarding. I used to stay up late on Sunday evenings, so that I
could listen to Florian Pittis on the radio. He was one of the very few people
in the country who owned a huge collection of rock and jazz albums. I am
not sure, how he acquired it, how he managed to become the only person
who was allowed to have a radio show like that.

In his weekly hour-long program, he used to talk about some album,
and then played it in its entirety, ending the show just before midnight.
No wonder that many progressive rock and ambient music albums
were seriously augmented by one’s experience of hearing them on the radio,
in the dark, whilst one was floating right on the boundary between reality
and dreams... To this day, whenever I can, I listen to such records in the
dark – mostly due to those late Sunday evenings of musical wonder.

Whenever I heard something on the radio that I really liked, I used to
beg my parents for some pocket money. I used to put together enough to
buy a cassette and pay for the copying - then I ran to the bearded wizard
and his less magical-looking wife...

If I was lucky, he had the album in his catalogue. There were albums,
though that I only acquired many years later... Some were rare, so I had to
hunt for them via friends in other towns until I managed to obtain a thirdhand
cassette copy of the music, with not exactly awesome sound quality.

Quality did not matter so much after such a long quest… It was music that
used to hover above a gentle, wavy jungle of hissing and popping, the
results of vinyl-to-tape copying followed by many tape-to-tape copies...
Music - the breathing of statues”, as Rilke so wonderfully had put it.

Music – so mesmerising, that a kid could spend years trying to get his hands
on it. Years! An entire underground network of music fanatics existed back
then, and we used to help each other with tapes. The luckier ones possessed
LPs that had been produced in much more liberal communist countries like
Hungary and Yugoslavia.

One interesting side effect of all this was that we really only ever
acquired the music itself. In other words, we were often completely
disconnected from the visuals and the paraphernalia that used to accompany
the creators of, for example, progressive rock albums. While their
showmanship had risen to by now proverbial excesses, we only had their
music, without the hype and the decadent imagery. Therefore, I still firmly
believe that we had a unique chance to connect with the music, and not be
influenced by the persona or media image of a certain artist… This, in
today’s world, is inconceivable…

Another place of musical treasures was the so-called listening room of
the city library’s music archive. Latter contained tens of thousands of mostly
classical albums. As a magical coincidence, a bearded fan of electronic music
and progressive rock ran this department of the library.

I was about eleven years old when I discovered those dusty rooms,
which had a dozen or so desks; each desk was equipped with a turntable and
a pair of headphones. I used to spend hours and hours there, browsing
through the catalogue of small, alphabetically ordered cards, asking the staff
to bring the vinyl, and then giving it a spin. By the time I got to high school,
the bugs of electronic and prog-rock music had terminally infected me.

The opening of a listening room in an old building, which has been
hosting the huge library assembled by the late count Teleki, was pure joy for
us. On Sundays, the room was always empty in the morning; so, without
disturbing anyone, the administrator could play us one of his favourite tapes
or LPs on the huge speakers of the listening room. He used to enchant us,
musical pilgrims, with a sound quality that I could only dream about when I
listened to my portable cassette player.

Thus, many Sunday mornings became strange, but wonderful musical
journeys through space and time... Space, because the music always took me
to worlds, which I was inventing in my head as the sounds unfolded around
me. Time, because it was a wondrous transition from a walk through the old
corridors of the building, up on the loudly creaking wooden stairs, to the
futuristic electronic soundscapes that emanated from the speakers.

There, I had the opportunity to listen to some minor, but passionate
sonic experiments, too. The administrator took Jean-Michel Jarre’s
mesmerisingly fluid, otherworldly Oxygène LP, patched the turntable to four
bulky speakers via a quasi-quadraphonic setup. I could sit in the middle of
the room; he walked out, and left me there with sounds that turned my
mind and soul inside out in ways I could not imagine before. It was music
that sounded as if it had not been played by a person; instead, that music
was simply happening, it was floating in the air between the thick, old walls,
without human intervention, yet it was deeply human and vibrant.

That listening room was the space where I managed to travel to the
Himalayas, helped by Vangelis; to the thinking ocean on the planet Solaris,
helped by the Japanese magician of sounds, Isao Tomita… and to countless
hypnotic planetary landscapes, helped by Klaus Schulze and Jean-Michel
Jarre...


If I think back to the various “tribes” of kids in school and later high
school, to the groups of heavy metal, prog-rock, and electronic music fans,
it is clear to me now that we were not self-consciously choosing to consume
western pop tracks only as party music. I believe that it was something
subconscious: music that expressed something and works that had been
created based on elaborate concepts were vehicles that could take us away
from our often-nasty everyday reality.

We used to discuss without any inhibitions what we had been
imagining during our listening to such records. We used to get together, play
some record, turn off the lights and switch to some other reality - without
any chemical aids. Thus, without any snobbery, and via genuinely drug-free
escapism, by our late teens we built up a quite deep knowledge of rock, jazz,
classical music, and opera.

Nowadays, while I am clicking through some music mail order
website, I still cringe if I think back how I had spent many months,
sometimes even years, with the quest for some music that I had heard on
radio.

How could some sounds get one on the verge of a sweet obsession?
It is probably not an accident that we had chosen music, which was always
far removed from the world of everyday trivia. In my case, it was usually
space music or progressive rock, both highly addictive in their ability to
depict some fascinating and very different world.

I loved to be made to feel tiny by such music; however, that sense of
insignificance was not the nasty one, which the regime had wanted to create.
It was, well, some kind of cosmic insignificance, which made us, the
teenagers-turned-space-romantics, realise that none of the grand
propaganda speeches meant anything..."



Saturday, 1 April 2017

The passing of a visionary




Ikutaro Kakehashi has passed away at the age of 87.

One wonders what other opening sentences can be written... Yes, he was the founder of the absolute legend that is Roland Corporation, the inventor and maker of an astonishing number of instruments that not only shaped, but also created, entire musical genres. 

If one says TR-808 or TR-909, then one means the birth of hip-hop and Detroit techno. If one says Juno or JP-8000, well, not sure where to even begin to enumerate the impact of these keyboards. If one says Jupiter-8, then one is basically lost for words. 

But then... he was also one of the two godfathers of MIDI, the standard for the way in which musical instruments and computers can digitally talk to each other. 

So much quasi-sensationalist and utterly tendentious (plus ill-informed) press has asked the question: is MIDI out of date, is MIDI limited...

MIDI was and still is an absolutely breathtaking future-proofed invention of a standard interface that outlasted countless others, and it is still going strong.

There was the invention of sound recording, which we take for granted now without realizing what it meant to be able to take music from the performer into the homes and hands of countless people who maybe never ever had the chance to see or hear that performer....

Then there was the birth of MIDI... 

How many of us can truly realize nowadays what it meant to be able, for the first time, to record an improvisation - not in sounds, but in actual  musical score terms of what was played, and then be able to change and layer on top of it, building up vast arrangements? 

How many nowadays truly realize what MIDI allowed suddenly, in unprecedented ways, in terms of capturing the details of a performance and then giving the musician the ability to edit all the musical information it captured, all the keyboard and controller events during playing?

Also, in terms of an interface, it is the genius of future-proofing. Since the decades of its inception, and the decades since it was turned into practical reality by the likes of Ikutaro Kakehashi, MIDI has managed to allow vastly different instrument of vastly different core technology to talk to each other seamlessly. 

The evolution of electronic instruments, studio gear and music software has been mind-boggling since MIDI was born, and it still allows all these immensely different gadgets to talk to each other in a standardized way.

A technical Grammy award given to him and Dave Smith is just the tip of the iceberg of significance and recognition... 

Entire musical genres would not have been possible without Kakehashi-san and his immeasurable contribution to musical instruments. 

Active to his very last years,he never stopped thinking about music, musical instruments, and musicians... "I Believe in Music" one of his book titles says... very, very few people can say that apparent cliche to be actually true and not only an expression, but also a living proof of one's life's body of work...

Rest in peace, Kakehashi-san...



Monday, 13 March 2017

Philip K. Dickian sound world

ARP 2600

As Behringer has recently announced plans to make affordable "clones" of legendary instruments like the Minimoog, ARP 2600 and the like... one might feel we are landing in the world of Philip K. Dick's seminal novel, Ubik.

In Ubik, reality regresses such that even the most advanced objects inexorably metamorphosize into earlier, vintage, versions of themselves.

Combine this with a superlatively postmodern situation, where not only the most technologically innovative manufacturers constantly obsess about their legacy and release endless variations of their legends of yesteryear, but... also other manufacturers start to see cheaper imitations of these retrospective gems as central to their product roadmap and their related marketing strategy.

Nobody denies that the Minimoog Model D, the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, the OSCar, and various other instrument creations were and are gems, era-defining legends, et cetera, et cetera.

Their sound is truly unique, and plugins, digital models and recreations can get close but never quite equal the personality of these vintage greats. It is akin to buying a superb hackbrett or theorbo from centuries ago, for their exquisite and unmistakable sonic personality.

Making affordable versions of them, even if not quite exactly identically sonically and quality-wise, is commendable - let's face it, even remakes of the originals are often vastly overpriced, contradicting the realities of their manufacturing costs that have plummeted. People can get their hands on these vintage greats, if they cannot bring themselves to dish out vast extras for the name or the "legend".

However.

The painful reality for the great fans of great vintage gear is that in recent years the only true innovation has occurred in the world of the (in many ways understandably despised by analogue purists) software plugins and virtual modeling gear.

This, in itself, shows a macro trend that should not be neglected for its symbolic significance and betrays a very deep problem in what was the most innovative musical field.

While there were huge leaps in the processing power and the mathematics that can create, modify, shape and bend sounds in never before thought to be possible ways, these leaps have been turned into musician-usable realities by mostly software engineers churning out plugins and standalone software synths.

We had Camel Alchemy and Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Monark and Reaktor, even the truly deep expansion packs for Ableton Live, unleashing and making practically usable the deepest and most abstract signal processing concepts (think granular synthesis or physical modeling of impossible in reality acoustic processes)...

While we had all these inundating our Macs and PCs, with unprecedented creative possibilities... the big names and not so big names were obsessing mostly about re-iterated retro legends they produced many years ago.

Let's face it, they have inherent limitations in sound palette and, no matter what yours truly or any analogue fan may wish to say, they represent a tiny, absolutely tiny, portion of the state-of-the-art sonic landscapes at our fingertips in the studio.

When the big names and smaller names were not embarking on time travel (backwards), they were, at most, adding more FM operators and bigger RAM and ROM to their machines, more disk or SSD space, more sound libraries and more pre-existing synth engines under the bonnet.

See Korg Kronos, Yamaha Montage, all hugely overpriced for what they are (as shown by price trends and frequency of occurrences on second-hand markets), but essentially have they added anything new to previous mighty synth workstations? They are more powerful, but the deja-vu feeling is of Dickian proportions.

In a synth enthusiast group recently someone asked, when and what can we expect as the "next big thing" in terms of sonic innovation.

Indeed. Musicians and technologically apt sound sculptors alike may not be able to predict what the next thing could be, they may have a number of suggestions in terms of what the gear could improve on to be more real musical instrument.

Also, if we then focus on the sonic possibilities, and forget the unfortunate and unmarketable cases like the (otherwise absolute genius) Neuron, then we do not have to get a mental hernia trying to fathom what next technical innovation could be.

We could just ask the big and not so big names, who absolutely have the know-how and capability for this, to provide many of the landmark and novel synthesis and processing methods we have in not often very spontaneously controllable plugins as, at least, parts of physical synths.

Even if they caught up with where plugins have managed to go in terms of sonic possibilities, that would already be evolution.

However, while we are NAMM after NAMM treated to more and more variants of retro(spective) gear variants, with superficial additions and numbers games (how many synth engines, how many gigs of sample space)... we can only dream.

The generation that can now easily afford the retro gear that shaped the sounds of their youths are buying in vast numbers the sometimes truly bland variations of retro gear, then flood eBay with them after few months of "fun".

The resulting electronic music is hopelessly backward looking, (mostly) hopelessly and relentlessly rooted in the past. There is nothing more tiring than looking at and listening to 1970s arpeggios and step sequencing dressed up in 21st century robes by the extra technological oomph that modern gear can create, but in a desperately and hopelessly retrospective manner.

It is deeply worrying, or it should be for those "innovators", that musicians who come from vastly different background (think of classical minimalists and piano visionaries like Olafur Arnalds or Niels Frahm) can use a vintage Juno vastly more imaginatively than the through-and-through electronic wizards of today. Painful, or at least it should be, as pain might wake one up.

All this, while the instruments we have, emphasis on instruments, can bridge seamlessly centuries and thousands of miles of musical tradition and project us into sound worlds that are in need of imagination.

It may hurt or even upset to state this absolute and for too many years too obvious fact, but unless there is a paradigm shift and we start to focus on the true capabilities of these astounding instruments, and make truly imaginative music that exploits the vast capabilities, nothing can really change.

Money is money, and laws of supply and demand states that while we are gobbling up echoes of our past, there is zero incentive for true innovation.

Now, since the aforementioned Behringer announcement, we are not even gobbling up echoes of our own past. We shall be making and buying others' past.

The time travel has come full circle, the loop has closed in most postmodern fashion.

This is truly Ubik, but in a way that the late and great Philip K. Dick has never imagined it to affect also our sonic reality.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Return to purity



The superlative multi-instrumentalist, who defined a whole era with his first album Tubular Bells, has returned.

Now this may sound bizarre, as Mike Oldfield has been quite active and very much "around" in recent years.

Disregard the cover design. Disregard the direct reference to Ommadawn, his third album more than four decades ago.

The new album is actually a return to an instrumental purity of utterly delicate nature, rather than just a revisiting of some older material. It is not a remix, it is not a re-take on the themes and motifs of that mid-seventies concept album.

After (too) many years of bizarrely ultra-commercial and self-conscious dance electronica (true, infused with immediately recognisable Oldfield magic, but still...), the prog rock legend has put aside the multitudes of software plugins and drum machines and hyper-digital shake-your-booty sequenced nightclub material.

What we have on the two long instrumental tracks (as another kind of return, one of form and structure, from decades and decades ago) is the eminently guitar-oriented, ethnically inspired, never just showing off virtuoso Oldfield.

It really is a return to the sound world of his first albums, with a subtlety and instrumental dexterity that is remarkable for the artist who is no longer in his early twenties, to say the least.

What makes this album stand out in the over-digitised, over-produced, ultra-self-conscious and in-your-face musical world of the second decade of this very different century is how organic it is.

Yes, it is impeccably produced, it is a product of state-of-the-art studio technology - but this remains, as this should be, just a background element in what we are listening to.

This is Mike Oldfield we have not heard since the 1970s, but in the best possible sense.

The intricate guitar motifs, the folk influences, the catchy melodic snippets that combine and develop beyond what one may expect even with full knowledge of his musical output, the superlative care for details (while still keeping it sounding utterly natural and improvised even)... this is the most astonishing Oldfield we can imagine. If we are fans of his organic, spontaneous-sounding instrumental output, that is...

Return to Ommadawn surprises with its purity, a purity of sound, but also a purity of inspiration.

The simplicity, which is the most difficult thing in music, and the intimacy of the two tracks is something that many instrumentalists should really, truly, take as lessons of musicianship.





Thursday, 26 January 2017

In the aftermath of NAMM 2017



NAMM 2017 has finished recently, and although it is always far from just an electronic instrument show, it has further emphasized a very solid trend among big and small synth manufacturers alike.

If one questions the countless retro and retro-emulating gear being paraded again by the the big and small names, and the scarcity of truly innovative thoughts, well, this is merely a response to a demand.

Synthesizers are, fundamentally and by definition, unique instruments in their ability to create and shape old and new sounds. Also, they can bridge the sonic and temporal gap between many centuries' and many distant realms' musical tradition - they can produce an often-thought-to-be impossible sonic world that can be, at the same time, ancient and contemporary, even futuristic, in the right hands.

However, while they had been the vehicles and, no pun intended, instruments of sonic and musical innovation for decades, the present shows a different direction.

Unprecedented technological advances created an everyday and increasingly affordable reality in which, to quote a recent line from Klaus Schulze, one can only be limited by one's imagination and not the instrument's capabilities.

Is then electronic music of today marked by unprecedented sonic innovation? Are the newer and newer synth and studio gadgets forward looking innovations to facilitate this sonic progress?

Occasionally, and increasingly rarely, yes.

Occasionally, there are leaps in sound-making and sound-shaping ability - think of samplers, FM synthesis, granular synthesis, variphase processing, morphing filters...

Occasionally, even if underlying mathematics and technology are relying on pre-existing concepts, the instruments themselves represent leaps in how a musician can unleash his/her creative powers. Think of compact affordable modular synths, or the astounding music workstations like the M1 and its successors, or the vast sample libraries shaped further by complex processing plugins and/or sampler keyboards.

However, as the latest NAMM also demonstrated, a heavy trend is filling rooms with... recycled history.

Some are caught in a loop of releasing endless remakes and variations of their glorious classics from the past decades, others add more polyphony to previous classic models and/or architectures.

Certainly, there is a demographic element that creates insatiable demand for such retro gems being recycled endlessly. The blogger is part of that demographic, but hopefully not yet caught in this mental loop.

As it happened with motorcycles, there is an age group that once dreamed about those beasts, but now can afford them in much beefed-up versions. There are entire new genres established that are nostalgically re-creating past trends in electronic music, or in general, of music that was predominantly relying on electronic instruments.

Beyond this demographic phenomenon, there are new generation musicians who reach for the retro sounds and retro instruments' recreated or souped-up versions with an aim to add a certain special flavor to established mainstream electronic music sub-genres.

But... in many ways, we are witnessing a polarisation of electronic music.

Apart from the still purely academic ventures in the vein of IRCAM experiments, in the accessible electronic music there are extremely few names who truly make use of these instruments' unique capabilities.

The rest are using eminently unconventional instruments in extremely conventional manner - and when innovation is celebrated because it sounds exactly like a sequencer-laden track from 40+ years ago, then something is very warped in our perception.

To return to NAMM, one of the highlights was the Arturia Matrixbrute - and an otherwise superb demo showed the sequencer capabilities... heralded as a major sensation and as an innovative beast of an instrument, whilst the produced music sounded exactly like Tangerine Dream's Ricochet from 1975. Yes, it was 42 years ago.

The time warp could not be more complete nor more obvious.

Nobody can produce quantum leaps in musical instruments every year, but perceptions of what is innovation are being distorted by mere addition of more polyphony, more sampling disc space, more pre-existing synth engines crammed under a single bonnet, more step sequencer buttons now affordably bolted on top of some otherwise unremarkable analog engine.

While this perception distortion is occurring in the market, it is then also occurring in the music that is produced with these "innovative" instruments.

With notable exceptions, some popular trends in electronic music are re-tracing their steps or someone else's steps, and media heralds them as "new voices" while they are faithfully reproducing decades-old sounds (in widest sense).

There have been and there are some extremely popular electronic musicians in mainstream genres, who could blend the dance music of their era with gregorian choir passages... or high-octane EDM with sounds of the '50s, or with sounds of distant musical cultures.

However, while even media perception is warped by the retro "innovations", there is a danger that the most imaginative and boundless instruments are predominantly becoming mere tools to clear or smooth some beaten paths or widen them a little bit.

If our expectations of what sonic exploration is does not get out of the grip of retrospective loops, then we must not blame manufacturers for coming up with endlessly regurgitated history,

They are running a business and they are responding to demand that does not seem to decay any time soon.











Saturday, 14 January 2017

Retro progress


Korg ARP Odyssey FS (2017)

The new year began with some retro legends like the ARP Odyssey full-size version hitting the market, as a result of Korg's continued dedication to analogue revival.

However, the somewhat philosophical aspects of this growing retro revival are something notable... and undoubtedly controversial.

The surge in the use of analogue modeling instruments, and then true analogue (new, old or remakes of old) instruments and sonorities has been with us for some time. Even dominant mainstream electronic music trends, also some of the biggest names in some of the very "here and now" electronic music sub-genres (think of Daft Punk), have returned very self-consciously to the analogue sound world.

However, two aspects are of concern - one is related to the instruments themselves with their marketing strategies, and the other related to the new-old and old-new sound aesthetics in the creative thinking.

To begin with the creative aspects, a highly controversial question could be posed very easily while looking at recent decades of synthesizer use. What percentage of musicians create individual, hence new, sounds with the instruments that are, above all, for the synthesis of unlimited palettes of new sounds? How many spend time to sound original, instead of using vast number of presets from vast number of libraries that the vast number of incredibly powerful new instruments offer?

The number is infinitesimal.

One cannot help thinking (not just feeling) that, based on contradictions between what technological progress brought and how much originality is heard whilst using that technology, there is a regressive trend of some proportions.

There are some notable and successful attempts in sounding (or, in case of some of the synth music legends, still sounding) original and exploring ever more stunning new sonic worlds. As in the case of even legendary old-timers like Gary Numan, it means many months of painstaking attention given to the creation of a personal artistic and sonic world that serves the concepts behind their works.

The opposite and considerably more superficial trend is what happens in fashion, too. It may seem like a trivialized parallel, but it could not be more accurate analogy: classic denim trousers of certain tailoring are revived with some twists by a certain brand - and posters say: 'be individual'. With a, one may add, mass-produced piece of clothing that millions wear after the first days or weeks of novelty are over.

Cue the legendary synths of yesteryear, always at some price tag and always with some marketing to make the old legends seem and sound even more individual and personalized.

The superficial and increasingly omnipresent approach to individuality is a musician resorting to the limited edition old-new, new-old, sounds and instrumentation. Oh look, a rare lead line from a Model D revamped version! Ah those filters from the Odyssey! That chorus from the Polysix!

What is happening, and this is factual reality in current electronic music, is the non-functional 'vintage for the sake of vintage' artistic (?) approach. Kudos to those, who integrate the vintage legends into their already individual sonic universe. Again, easiest example is Daft Punk, but going back through the years, even veterans like Jean-Michel Jarre can still use the old in novel ways to this day.

The problem is when the instrument, electronic as it may be, is not an instrument any more. When it is not 'just', with all its specifics and personality, a source of sounds to realize a sound world as imagined by the musician.

When it becomes a goalinstead of being an instrument, then we have the large parts of the analogue revival on our hands... where analog legendary sounds are used without any overall artistic concept, just for their 'refreshing vintage individuality'.

The most bitter irony is when some talk of the analogue warmth these legendary instruments bring and then they use them in the coldest, impersonal and superficial manner.

One does not spend weeks or months shaping his/her sound world, in order to be individual - one resorts to the most recent revived legend and saturates his/her compositions with the vintage sounds (or their emulations). Tada. A new revolution in sound... purely by returning to the past - exactly as one pulls the vintage tailored denim off a shelf.

The marketing of these instruments unfortunately plays very much into this phenomenon, exactly as it did with the mentioned classic pieces of clothing.

The instruments themselves, especially when it comes to the revived legends like the Odyssey and MiniMoog Model D, show a predictable and questionable duality that support the more impersonal and less creative impulses in amateur and established musicians alike - kudos to the increasingly few exceptions.

While they are undoubtedly unique in terms of their characteristic sound, they are highly specialized (and therefore often limited) in their capabilities - as legendary and revolutionary they may have been in their heyday. Their production costs are infinitesimal compared to the originals.

However, their price tag can be hugely out of sync with their physical realities. One, naturally, pays for the name, pays for the legend - and to make the contradictions in the performance-price-manufacturing costs triangle less strident, the manufacturers resort to the emotional side of even hardened electronic musicians.

It is made as very limited edition. It is made by hand. It is, to quote, "aged" before it gets to our studios. It is released in different colors and sizes. Above all, we buy a legend. It is, as one of Ray Bradbury's classic stories says, the haunting of the new.

While manufacturers, even hugely respectable ones with long tradition of sustained innovation, are after the money by releasing different sizes and color versions of the same revived electronic legend, something is deeply wrong. Their interior essence has become less important than their exterior superficial properties.

The electronic and other musicians who use these resurrected oldies for something new, and fuse the newest with sometimes the oldest (think of Theremin revival), are in a tiny minority.

We are chasing something warmer and more human, while we feel drowned in a vastly complex digital world - this is quite acceptable and even predictable, but most of this drowning is our own making as we let the instruments take over rather than be instruments in our creative processes. In many technology areas the same trends and counter-trends occurred and are occurring, as a reaction to some perceived dehumanization.

It is just vastly and deeply ironic, that in some (often mainstream) cases the false perception of some dehumanization results in a mechanical and rather reflex-action reaching for the ultimate in perceived 'warmth' and 'humanity'.

The bad news is, as too many electronic music creations of recent years show, that the result of this mechanical chase for vintage warmth is the very opposite of what the chase was about.

We ended up with countless albums of mass-produced, soul-less and cold electronica that wants to be so desperately individual, like the mentioned denim, that ends up being indistinguishably bland - while reduces, deplorably, the vintage sonic legends, too to mere gimmicks.

As it happened in other areas and in other eras, hopefully this chase for the superficial humanity and warmth again suffers some normalization. Such overcompensation, aided by misguided marketing, has happened countless times - and hopefully this time, too, the revived or genuine vintage legends can occupy a more functional and personalized corner in our studios, in physical and metaphorical sense.

(Post also available on the Niume platform now).