The seminal German outfit had arguably been following their own advice for much of their career: “I programme my home computer, Beam myself into the future”. On two rather prescient albums, they considered what effect technology and innovation would have on society, with conclusions that are relevant today.
Popular culture is overwhelmed with humourless, oversaturated electronic music that sounds like sucking a lemon, or perhaps eating bitter gourd. Extreme darkness can be combined with surprising good humour—a little like the tone in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men—and ugliness doesn’t have to sound sloppy. Continue reading Tuff nuts
Hayden Thorpe is Antony Hegarty but beneath him, in place of Nico Muhly’s strings or a tender piano figure, are only chilly synths and caustic, brutal drums.
When I was backpacking around Central America, my iPod started misbehaving and I ended up spending several long bus journeys listening to DJ Shadow‘s Endtroducing…. LP. A year later, on nighttime bus adventures in Nepal (better scenery, worse roads) and with a fully-functioning iPod, I found myself returning to this seminal album. Ever since, I’ve come to think of it as being ineluctably associated with exotic, far-flung places. All this, from a work of art pieced together in the most urban way possible, from hundreds of obscure, unloved vinyl records, and snippets of movie dialogue. Continue reading Two, many DJs
An old friend pointed me in the direction of Sam Shepherd a.k.a. Floating Points, who is a neuroscientist by day, and a groundbreaking musician during all other hours. Shepherd’s music streams and fizzes through 2-step, the gossamer-thin electronica of Four Tet, and the glitchiness of the Brainfeeder label; forces coalesce on the Shadows EP, which opens with the mesmerising “Myrtle Avenue“.
Like a supernova, the song expands into a burst of luminescence that briefly outshines the galaxy. Free-rolling Rhodes piano trills waft over a beat that recalls early Flying Lotus. The bass is intermittent, occasionally acquiring mass as if reacting with the Higgs boson. Four minutes in, we get disco-from-the-end-of-the-universe chords, pulsing from a creamy analogue synthesizer. Above it weaves a warbling, tremulous lead, far removed from hoi polloi. Near the close of an extended coda, the faint voice of some unidentifiable soul diva beams in; it’s there only momentarily, buzzing like a heavenly insect trapped in a faraway fridge.
Times crawls forward, but inside “Myrtle Avenue” you feel like you’ve lived through from the Big Bang to the birth and death of a civilisation.
“Myrtle Avenue” is taken from the Shadows EP by Floating Points, released on Eglo Records in November 2011.
I’ll write up a review of this, soonish, since no one else in the mainstream press seems to be bothered about Mr. Tobin anymore.
My love of Fabriclive.36 has got me into trouble before – apparently it’s not appropriate to like both Gang of Four and also Daniel Wang. This hasn’t put me off owning up to being unabashedly besotted with Hercules and Love Affair, a disco-revivalist collective who I tipped for wider fame back in 2007, when I first heard their debut single, “Classique #2”. It was b/w “Roar”, and I almost instantly recognised the vocal stylings of Antony Hegarty, which were woven into the fabric of the track. A year later, their self-titled debut hit the shelves and I think I was proved right. Shame that my other tip from that season (Syclops, if you’re interested) never came to much.
Anyway, I hear there’s a new H&LA album coming out in January, entitled Blue Songs, which is close enough for me to start raving on about them all over again. So gently close your bedroom door, put on your dancing shoes, and play the video above, which sees the troupe blaze through “Hercules Theme” in front of a staggeringly beautiful Chicago dusk.
Alongside the glamour and divahood, what attracted me to H&LA’s music was the unmissable waft of tragedy buried in it. Cleverly dressing songs up in Greek mythology is one way of alluding to “how horribly it [the disco scene that the music references] all ended”, to quote Alexis Petridis. Just as the image of Hercules wandering the island in search of his lost love proves upsetting for H&LA main man Andrew Butler, to me, their music is infused with a gentle yet irrevocable descent into sadness and miasma (in the ancient Greek sense of the word).
“Facilis descensus Averni”
Easy is the descent into hell, says Virgil, and Hercules and Love Affair is a lush and dancefloor-ready document of this descent. The album begins almost in torch-song mode, with Antony wailing “I cannot hold half a life / I cannot be half a wife” – a stark warning to those on the path of hedonism and debauchery. Following this prelude, the first half of the album has an overwhelming feeling of pleasure to it, from the refracted mantra of “You Belong”, to the decadent horns and clavinet in “Hercules Theme”. The bridging point is undoubtedly “Blind”, in which Antony reminds us once again of what will befall our protagonist, and, by implication, his history, over the top of strings, horns, and rattling electronics.
In his June 2008 interview with Heiko Hoffman, Andrew Butler recalled talking to the owner of “bizarre” clothes shop Smylon Nylon, who also made mixtapes containing Arthur Russell, Cerrone and Telex, among others. Butler quotes the owner, Chris Brick, as taking him aside and saying,
“Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!”
Hercules and Love Affair sees Butler bringing to fruition the task that Brick bestowed upon him.
From there on in, the music takes a queasier, more unsettling turn. To quote Petridis again, “Aids brought the disco era’s freewheeling hedonism to a terrible close”, and songs like “Easy” and “This Is My Love” bear testament to these latter days. The former track is an exercise in rawness, as an unnaturally low-pitched Antony intones a mournful lullaby amidst a collage of detuned synths and clattering percussion that sounds like tennis shoes squeaking off the court. This is closer to the territory of Hegarty’s day job of fronting Antony and the Johnsons, albeit with an electronic slant.
The album closes with the uncharacteristically goofy “True/False, Fake/Real”, but there’s truly no escaping the alluring tragedy that the rest of the record deals in. It’s like the history lesson you always wanted to hear.
“Drunk Girls” is a predictable LCD Soundsystem lead single. Witty and punky, it’s the natural successor to “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and “North American Scum”. It sounds like Bowie, in the sense that Blur’s “M.O.R” sounds like “Boys Keep Swinging”.
“All I Want” is what happens when you give James Murphy almost seven minutes to ape Bowie. Clattering in after five seconds of studio noise, and riding on an unending krautrock beat, “All I Want” is like the super-awesome sequel to “”Heroes”” that Bowie never wrote. Over victorious piano chords and a beautifully cocky lead guitar squall, Murphy comes over all Bono, intoning “I’ve never needed anyone for so long” in a pretty world-leading style. At this point, “All I Want” could be the second cousin of “Beautiful Day”.
Then, magically, the 70s art rock is overtaken by a terrifically squiggly synth melody which ascends in a manner initially euphoric, and then downright cosmic. Channelling the further-out reaches of electronic music through a beating heart of pop is a decision I initially treated with some scepticism, especially since the direction Murphy’s keyboard travels is a bit… self-indulgent, shall we say. To his credit, in amidst all the portamento-fuelled weirdness, the song never loses control and always remains just about in orbit. As he and his bandmates wail out “Take me ho-oooome!” and the piece decays into gorgeous vapours, you think, yes, he’s pulled it off.
“All I Want” is definitely the kind of epic art rock that nobody has dared tackle for at least 30 years. It manages to be simultaneously extremely louche (in a white chinos and deck shoes kind of way) and also super-slick – and one senses this is probably the smallest of compliments I’ll be handing Mr. Murphy by the time I’ve heard the rest of This Is Happening.
Massive Attack used to excel at taking really disparate, exciting sounds and weaving them into a tapestry of overwhelming despair, over which they spun woozy vocal melodies sung either by themselves (Daddy G, 3D) or by intriguingly chosen guest vocalists. On their finest work to date, Mezzanine, while never totally abandoning their early interest in reggae and soul, the (then) trio departed unexpectedly from laid-back, dinner party tempos, favouring an almost punishingly unhappy mood and tone. Electrical noise, squelchy bass synth and distant, distorted synths were the order of the day, along with that heavy metal guitar that cuts through “Angel”. Importantly, these crazily challenging sonics were forged onto equally sophisticated and dependable song structures – in particular, the climactic “Group Four” segued through several movements, never losing sight of its drive and mystery. Mezzanine was a knockout masterpiece; one of my undoubted albums of the decade.
Seven years on from their last effort (and it represented quite an effort to get through 100th Window), Massive Attack return as a duo, with Heligoland. Say it differently and you get “hell ego land”, possibly. Equally tenuous, sad to say, is the premise that the band have lost none of their touch, because this album is undoubtedly a disappointment. In place of the group’s formerly deft touch with textures and sonic themes, here, they seem to content to drop just one exciting sound per track, drag them out for longer than is necessary, and expect the rest to follow. It doesn’t – at its worst, Heligoland is criminally repetitive, with interesting ideas that go nowhere. “Psyche” sounds like a half-baked sketch of an instrumental backing, albeit with a notably pretty vocal performance from Martina Topley-Bird; not even a brief orchestral swell can save “Flat Of The Blade” from its interminable, ugly and atonal electronic whirrings.
On the album’s more successful tracks, Del Naja and Marshall venture further with their collection of synth presets and little chunks of melody, instead of riding along contentedly on repetitive grooves. “Girl I Love You”, for instance, is unafraid to suddenly pick up in pace, take on a gloriously filtered brass arrangement, or meld into a dissonant cloud of noise. Another highlight is “Paradise Circus”, which ebbs in on intricate bells, vibes and the softest of beats, before shifting direction, twice, replacing this arrangement with dubby bass, and then a surprisingly stirring orchestra. True, little of this progression includes a return to Daddy G-provided “blackness”, but with such thin pickings, we can hardly complain. You’re just left wishing the rest of the album was similarly risk-taking.
The other big problem affecting much of Heligoland lies in its vocals. In their earlier career, Massive Attack made careful and assiduous choices when inviting in guest singers. Shara Nelson on “Unfinished Sympathy” was an inspired move, as was the sprinkling on Liz Fraser on Mezzanine. On Heligoland, by contrast, the ageing big guns are slathered all over. You have to wait till track three to hear 3D and Daddy G for the first time; in total, they make just three vocal contributions to the whole record. That would be just about acceptable, if their replacements’ performances were particularly meaningful.
All too often, however, the individuals roped in sound either past-their-prime (does anyone really think about Hope Sandoval anymore? or Topley-Bird, for that matter?) or deeply uncaring – witness Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounding extremely disinterested on “Flat Of The Blade”. I can excuse Daddy G from being absent from 100th Window – he was on paternity leave at the time – but here, even though he has returned to the fold, his solitary vocal mark rests at a few dope-heavy lines on “Splitting The Atom”, unfortunately chained to a funhouse organ chord progression that is spun out over five minutes. Horace Andy‘s contributions are more stirring, but, in the absence of a serviceable tune, they frequently crumble into insignificance.
On the closing track, “Atlas Air”, you can tell Massive Attack are aiming for the kind of multi-section epic that was once christened “Group Four”. That they almost achieve such heights, but fall short, is an undesired shame. We all knew Massive Attack were outrageously talented producers: what we wanted was clear evidence that they were also gifted songwriters (Lord knows their outside production work has been despairingly infrequent). On Heligoland, their craft bears the undeniable mark of rustiness and laziness, to the extent that many tracks that seem superficially lovely (well of course they sound lush, given the knob-twiddling fingers involved) end up being enhanced considerably when played alongside their video treatments. What’s new on Heligoland? An unoriginal dependence on orchestral arrangements, and a surprising and crushingly saddening lack of invention and songwriting sparkle.
Pick ‘n’ mix: Girl I Love You, Paradise Circus, Saturday Comes Slow.
Jona Bechtolt is an intriguing proposition – part electronic artist, part PowerPoint-wielding humorist. His musical entity, YACHT, recently became a DFA-based duo, with the assistance of the dazzling Claire L. Evans, and their new album, See Mystery Lights, is a release that I am eagerly waiting (Amazon UK’s shipping estimate is three weeks; no joy on Spotify as yet). I’ve been tipping them for glory in much the same way as I did Hercules And Love Affair two years ago, having heard earlier incarnations of “Summer Song” floating around cyberspace.
In any case, that’s not why I’m writing all this. I listened to new single “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” this afternoon for the first time in a while, and ever since, its catchy and endearing vocal chant/hook has been ingrained in my head, bugging me constantly. I’m pretty certain it’s been borrowed/lifted from somewhere else, but I really can’t think where. My guess would be a Talking Heads song, but I could be wrong.
If anyone can solve this mystery, please provide your answer in comment-based form, and you will receive my profound thanks and gratefulness.
I need your help, Dearest Internet!