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Paradox aka Alaska is one of the more slept on producers in drum and bass. The YouTube videos of his tracks languish with view counts in the hundreds, and he often produces under aliases, making it difficult to keep track of his work.

It’s unfortunate, considering the quality of his production. The sound is spacey and clean, yet the drums still crunch and there’s a soul to the music that is missing from many other super-technical drum and bass tunes. His latest offering is The Mesozoic Era, under the Alaska moniker, and it’s stunning.

My favourite track on this right now is Viola. Suitably nervous drum patterns, eerie, nightmarish synths, with a blanket of warmer sounds underneath tying it all together. I’m fiending for the next project – another collaboration with Swedish producer Seba.

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Following their collaboration on Damian Marley’s 2005 record Welcome to Jamrock, God’s Son and Bob’s Son (shouts to the Kid) recently released a full-length album, Distant Relatives.

Nas is one of the greatest rappers of all time. After dropping Illmatic in 1994, he embarked on a series of albums and career choices that at the time seemed questionable. Certainly many of the underground hip hop fans he won on his brilliant debut were confused, but in hindsight he has always stuck to his principles, his rhymes reflecting his personal beliefs, never dropping songs to chase fame or whatever the industry perceived as hot at the time.

On this album, Nas stays consistent with his body of work, his rhymes meshing almost perfectly with Damian Marley’s singing and chanting. The subject matter is largely similar to what you might hear on roots reggae tracks by artists like Sizzla, but where many Jamaican roots artists’ songs feel slapped together and scattergun in terms of topics, the music on this album is conceptually strong and obviously prepared with some forethought as to the overall effect.

Some may cringe or take a cynical view of the strong themes of righteousness on this album, or question the intentions of the performers, but there’s no denying it is consistent. To me, it feels right. While this kind of subject matter enjoyed brief popularity in the 1990s (Nas has touched on many of these ideas before), it’s way out of step with current trends in hip hop, and probably won’t earn either artist any new fans.

Unsurprisingly, there are weak tracks. The lowest point of the album, the attempted anthem “My Generation”, has a real cheesy “We Are The World” feeling about it, and features Lil’ Wayne trying valiantly to drop knowledge. Sadly, he merely proves he’s not in the same league as the emcees he’s trying to emulate here.

However, when the production and performers come together, it’s a real pleasure to listen to. Slow, bass-heavy head nodders “Patience,” “Leaders,” and “Friends,” really hit the spot,  “In His Own Words” is joyous, and the raucous “Nah Mean” brings a hardcore feeling to the record.

Overall, this is definitely worth a listen. I’m just glad an album like this can get made in today’s music industry, even if it does end up being misunderstood by the vast majority of the mainstream.

Erykah Badu has finally released part 2 in her New AmErykah series, following up 2008’s amazing Part 1.  I was under the impression this was going to be a two part concept, commentary on the state of the USA and the world, but it turns out that this disc is a much more straightforward piece of work, with subject matter reminiscent of Badu’s earlier recordings.  It feels like she lost her nerve at some point between the two albums, and decided to go with something a lot more accessible, which ends up feeling like a light breeze on a summer’s day compared with Part 1’s tornado.

The new album has been released into a storm of publicity, thanks to Badu stripping down in Dallas while filming the video for “Window Seat”.  I’d given up waiting for this some time last year, and the only reason I heard about it was because of the nudity in the video, so if it was simply a publicity stunt, it’s obviously worked.  She has come under significant criticism for filming the video, which has had the effect of beating up the story even more.

Given her track record I’m inclined to believe it was done in the name of artistic expression, and any publicity she was chasing was to open people’s minds to her idea, rather than sell records.  Badu herself said it best in an interview with the Dallas News: “The song “Window Seat” is about liberating yourself from layers and layers of skin or demons that are a hindrance to your growth or freedom, or evolution.”

Badu brings her usual blend of soulful singing and perceptive, witty lyrics, matched with smooth sonic backgrounds that ooze past the listener’s ears, making it an enjoyable album.  Sadly, for me there is nothing really arresting about any of the songs.  In fact, the only track that made me stand up and take notice was “Turn Me Away (Get Money)”, simply because the first strains of the Sylvia Striplin sample kicked in and I had terrifying visions of a Lil Kim and Erykah Badu collaboration.

Ultimately, New Amerykah Part 2 (Return of the Ankh) is an enjoyable album, which disappoints mainly because of its mind-blowing sibling Part 1.

 
Klute – Fear of People (2000)
A kid I used to know left this record at my house one day with a bunch of other tunes in around 2000. I had never heard of Klute before, but the name of the album intrigued me, so I threw it on. Instantly I was drawn in by the crisp drums, the lush synths, and the unique sound that Klute always represents. Still pushing the envelope in 2009, I don’t think he has topped Fear of People: minimal yet diverse, beautiful yet with an undercurrent of menace.

Aesop Rock – Labor Days (2001)
Aesop Rock had showed glimpses of brilliance on Music for Earthworms, Appleseed and Float, but Labor Days was the first time the beats came together with concept for an entire full-length, causing swelling in the jeans of hipsters everywhere. “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day put the pieces back together my way” became my theme music for more than a year when this dropped. This is an album with very few weaknesses. Musings on the nature of life and work, truly beautiful portraits of life in New York, battle raps, and the whimsy of the stunning “No Regrets” come together on this album, expanding the artistic palette of hip hop without the accompanying self-consciousness that relegated crews like Anticon to side-show status.

Groundation – Hebron Gate (2002)
Around the middle of the decade I was thrashing reggae non-stop. Chantdown Babylon every Saturday afternoon, More Fire every month at Deep 11, loving everything from Sizzla to Jah Cure to Midnite Band. Groundation appealed to the real music lover in me: a 9-piece band fronted by one of the most distinctive voices in music, singing songs of freedom and spirituality with a blend of joy and righteous anger. More accessible than many of the Caribbean-based reggae artists, they provided the soundtrack to many a recovery session and lazy weekend afternoon. This gets the nod over other Groundation releases thanks to the guest appearance by Con Carlos and the Congos, the overriding theme of war, and the relaxed, floating brilliance of songs like “Babylon Rule Dem.”

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (2003)
When this was released many long term fans criticised this album, claiming the band’s creative development had stalled somewhere between Kid A and Amnesia, but I prefer it to both those albums. The haunting intro to “Sit Down, Stand Up,” Thom Yorke’s declaration that “something big is gonna happen” on “Go To Sleep,” and the beautiful “Where I End and You Begin” are all classic moments that elevate this record above Radiohead’s other work this decade.

MF Doom – Viktor Vaughn the Vaudeville Villain (2003)
Rap records with cartoon samples had been done before, but none quite on the level of this. When I first copped this album, I listened to it a few times then went interstate for a couple of weeks – by the time I returned I was desperate for another listen. Doom’s word play while telling actual coherent stories on this record is pure genius, with suitably sinister spooky beats setting off the tales of crime and mayhem. People talk about Slick Rick, Scarface, and Biggy as the best story-telling rhymers in the game, but to me none can touch Doom on this record.

Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
I didn’t want to include two releases by the same artist on this list, but I couldn’t resist – Doom really could do no wrong for a span of a year or more back around the middle of the decade. Madvillainy is an album full of songs that are great by themselves; together the sum is even greater than the parts. It’s a testament to Doom and Madlib that they can create an album with no theme, full of tracks that barely hold a consistent theme even within the individual track, yet as a whole this stands up as one of the best. The biggest strength of this record is the imagery it conjures up, Doom’s constant stream of quotables teaming with Madlib’s samples and occasional raps to paint vivid pictures that come to mind whenever I hear the words “Figaro,” “Fancy Clown” or “Meat Grinder.”

Kenny Larkin – The Narcissist (2004)
Detroit techno sure changed a lot since Cybotron’s “Clear.” Kenny Larkin took time out from his work as a comedian to throw together The Narcissist, a deep-listening album that highlights Larkin’s sense of humour as well as skill in constructing sophisticated, sensual sounds. Sparse and minimal yet lush and organic, for me the record peaks on “A Part of Me,” a track best listened to while staring confusedly into a mirror after a two day binge (may or may not have happened).

El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
Definitive Jux has had a hell of a decade. Founded just before 2000, the label has seen a string of critically acclaimed releases from artists like Cage, Cannibal Ox, RJD2 and Rob Sonic. The pinnacle came in 2007 when El-P dropped his fourth solo record, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. El took the futuristic throwback hip hop production he developed on Fantastic Damage and perfected it, combined with some of the most complex, thoughtful and original raps ever written. Every time I listen to this record, as the last strains of “Poisenville Kids” fade out, I’m left feeling empty, as though nothing I listen to next is going to come close.

Fanu – Daylightless (2007)
D&B was the genre I listened to most over the last 10 years, but trying to identify a full album that has the consistency and durability of some of the great 90’s releases is tough. The one I’ve settled on couldn’t be more different stylistically from those classics – where Adam F’s Colours and Goldie’s Timeless conjure up images of sun filled cafes and cruises along Beach Road, listening to Fanu’s Daylightless is more like walking through a city minutes after a volcanic eruption has buried the dwellings and citizens in tonnes of ash and molten rock.

I remember one Friday night at around 2am on the way to Mount Hotham, halfway up the mountain I popped this in the deck. Outside of the car was black, with ghostly white tree shapes looming suddenly from the dark and snow falling heavily. Daylightless was the perfect soundtrack. After about 30 seconds my mate turned to me with a grin and said “this music…you planned this didn’t you.” A resounding endorsement if ever I’ve heard one!

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War) (2008)
I always thought Badu had a soulful voice and demeanour, but I first started really taking notice of her lyrics after hearing her on “Liberation” off Outkast’s Aquemini album, where she rips on fame and life in the music industry. New Amerykah Part One takes things a step further, with deeply personal and political poetry unheard of from a mainstream female R&B / pop singer. The force of the lyrics is matched by the understated power of the backing music – a blend of funk, soul, hip hop and jazz that rewards repeated listens. This is not a mainstream album by any stretch of the imagination, yet somehow experienced relative commercial success.

Ever notice how the best music grows on you over a long period?

I’ve been listening to El-P’s album from last year, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, a bit lately and I gotta say, it’s up there with the best things I’ve heard in the last five years.  I bumped it when I first picked it up and thought it was nice, El’s beats are about as good as you can get if you like that sort of thing, and the lyrics are masterful.  Personally I’m a big fan of his rhyme schemes as well, although from speaking to other people it seems like you have to get past the fact that he’s kinda yelling most of the time (still, the people complaining about that are the same people that bump MOP so go figure).

Anyway, it might be a cliche, but this album really transcends hip hop, makes you think and gets your head nodding at the same time.

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Highlights:

  • Martin Martini and the Bone Palace Orchestra: worth the price of admission and single-handedly redeemed the festival in my eyes.  Awesome musical talent combined with complete insanity.
  • The Grand Vue Hotel: beautifully preserved old pub and hotel, with towering ceilings and one of the coolest courtyards I’ve seen.

Lowlights:

  • All the other acts I caught: All very professional, extremely well rehearsed and executed pretty much to perfection.  Shame their music was so freaking boring and cheesy.  Still, there were hundreds of drunk underage kids going off, so it looked like they were connecting with their core audience.  There were probably other good artists playing on the weekend, I must have just missed them.

Doing a bit of a tune catch-up at the moment: nice moody electronic radio mix from Marcus Intalex Soul:ution 11.

The photo’s from a very snowy Sunday afternoon at Mount Hotham here in Victoria.

Ernie and Bert were never my favourite Sesame Street characters, that honour was reserved for Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count (the former for his sunny disposition and the latter for his unshakeable devotion to supreme mathematics) but this mash-up of the two-of-the-questionable-sexuality rocking the MOP classic Ante Up is golden.

I was cruising in the hoopty on Saturday night, popped the tape I was listening to and heard some decent-sounding modern RnB on the radio. That thing is locked to PBS FM – the Melbourne community radio INSTITUTION that introduced me to basically every style of music that I love – but lately on Saturday evenings I thought they’d been catering to a more international music nerd market, with latin/reggaeton stuff stuff, which doesn’t particularly ring my bells. Some of the shows are definitely worth checking though – from the venerable Chantdown Babylon through to Soulgroove66.

Anyways, after a minute or two I heard a familiar voice – DJ C, a stalwart of the RnB scene from years ago. This dude used to play on PBS, and also play out at innumerable nights I’d be drinking and generally party-rocking at. Nice to hear him getting a gig in a line-up that the station seems to take pretty seriously. Digging around the net, I’m kinda disappointed to see dude hasn’t moved on much from the super-fake Melbourne RnB scene, but nevertheless much respect to a bloke who was a true pioneer back in the days.

Over the last few weeks, anyone I’ve had a conversation with for longer than five minutes has been subjected to me raving on about Fanu, a drum and bass producer from Finland. The guy is brilliant – his tunes are complex, evocative, dark, frantic and moody, without any of the cheese of dancefloor drum and bass or the ball-tearing hardness of the darker side of the spectrum. He’s been around for awhile now but it never clicked to me that all these sick tracks I’d heard all came from the one dude. If you like deep unconventional music and haven’t checked his stuff out before, I recommend copping some of his mixes from here. The all-Fanu mixes are nothing short of genius.