2013 Mid-Year Album Roundup: Electronic/Ambient

Tue Jul 02 2013

Playing catch-up, part two: reviews of new albums by Beacon, Dying Machines, Jonas Reinhardt, Pharaohs, Umberto and Xander Harris. Beacon, The Ways We Separate

You could probably label this album “synthpop”, but with these wan vocals and sparse beats, there’s not an awful lot of “pop” going on.  That’s not to say the songs are unaffecting; “Between The Waves” is a pretty potent cocktail of desperation and flowing smoothness, and “Studio Audience Full” emits a patient sensual gloom somewhere between Portishead and Postal Service.  But the first couple of tracks make so little impact they come off a bit drab, as does the very deceptively-titled “Drive”.  This track as well as “Headlights” and “Anthem” seem to be going for the doomed romanticism of the xx, but they’re sorely lacking in tension; only “Overseer” really succeeds at evoking that sort of pained hopefulness.  Minimalism is great when done well (see: Dying Machines, Majical Cloudz), but too much of The Ways We Separate isn’t judicious; it’s merely unsubstantial.

Dying Machines, Nicht Sprechen + What I Have Not Forgotten

I don’t have much in the way of analysis for these two EPs.  I can say that I find Nicht Sprechen (technically a 2012 release) to be the more moving of the two, not by much; why, I’m not exactly sure.  This is very nebulous ambient music; there are no beats, and any discernible compositional elements are more patterns than melodies.  This is not feelgood music by any means, but it makes me feel SOOOOO good.  It’s mournful and incredibly warm all at once, like simultaneously being denied your dearest wish and being lovingly hugged by God because of it.  You know the feeling of being immensely grateful for a certain specific type of heartbreaking loss or lack because it reminds you that you’re alive and still incredibly blessed to be where you are?  The realization that being utterly happy and utterly sad would feel exactly the same?  That’s what this music is for me.

Jonas Reinhardt, Mask Of The Maker

There’s a lot of psychedelia going on in the modern realm of super-accessible EDM, and Jonas Reinhardt is marvelously adept at tossing in these exotic flourishes to keep otherwise fairly standard danceathons from getting stale.  Most of the Brooklyn group’s beats and synth patterns are pure retro cheese, but the tracks are always fun, and the keyboard solos are often quite impressive, switching deftly between motifs and not afraid to get weird.  Some of these tracks will only work on a dancefloor, but quite a few—“Jungle Jah”, “Brood And Talk Rot”, the exotic “Semazen Salem” and basically everything that follows—are ripe for almost any situation, really.  They’re solid, well-constructed tunes and not just jams; the title track with its loopy vocals and catchy live bass could almost be a radio single.  But every minute of Mask Of The Maker would sound amazing in some abandoned warehouse at 3 a.m., which is probably all that matters.

, Replicant Moods

I’m just not buying into this thing.  With all the interesting things going on in electronic music, the beats on Pharaohs’ self-titled debut full-length don’t sound so much vintage as recycled and boring.  I can appreciate the diversity of sounds and samples and the professionalism with which they’re strung together, but each time a new element comes in I get the urge to roll my eyes.  Even the half-spoken vocals on “Miraculous Feet”, although I dig the sentiment, sound so tired in every possible sense.  This record sounds like a school project, a collage of found beats and synth lines and ambient textures from discarded 90s techno and house records that never combine into an interesting groove or a cohesive theme.  “F & M Suite” and “Again” are the only tracks that grabbed me at all, and not because they were fresh; they just capture a modicum of wistful danceability that provokes nebulous nostalgia in me for parties I can’t specifically recall.  That’s certainly not enough to keep me coming back.

, Confrontations

Driven by Icee synths and beats from some creepy 90s softcore thriller (and/or Knight Rider), Confrontations reminds me of a freaky Sega Saturn RPG murder mystery, where suspension of disbelief can result in some genuine thrills.  Has anybody tapped Umberto for video game scores at all?  If not, somebody please get on that.  This album is a great illustration of a less-is-more aesthetic, where simple melodies like the steely theme from “Initial Revelation” or the Alan Parsons-esque, portentous synth layers in “Dead Silent Morning” need very little embellishment in order to inspire emotion and the urge to move one’s body.  In “Confrontation”, all it takes is a little volume increase and an artificial monastic chant lurking in the background to chill the bones, but it’s still a very danceable track that will hook you without fail.  Then “The Summoning” pops up, and it’s still got that eerie vibe, but all it takes is a few major chords strewn in and this piece is positively uplifting.  The album does begin and end with a bit of a whimper, but it’s totally immersive in the middle and overall a wonderful moody narrative that you dream up as you go along.

Xander Harris
, The New Dark Age Of Love

One thing you might notice in the opening couple minutes of “Night Fortress”, the first track on The New Dark Age Of Love, is that the synth and drum machine aren’t quite in synch rhythmically.  Then you have to ask yourself, ‘Did he do that on purpose, or could he not tell?’  I get that it’s all very gothically inclined, so maybe Xander Harris is trying to unnerve the listener?  But I know at least in the heyday of the 90s rave scene when half of my friends were trying their hands at spinning records, matching beats was the first prerequisite.  If you couldn’t do that, you gave up and danced awkwardly while your friends did it, comfortable with the knowledge that you weren’t meant to be a DJ.  And that was with actual records.  It’s hard, as you notice more and more misplaced artificial cymbal taps and synth patterns bouncing erratically around the beat (for the most glaring examples, listen to the last minute of “Red Sky Sprawl” or the middle of “Clear Expensive Skies”—yeezus.), to figure, in this digital age, how a guy could manage to BE so imprecise by accident; couldn’t a simple program synch that shit up for you, at least in the studio?  Ahem, in the “studio”?  Now, the substance of the music is at times pretty cool: The creepy Burial-esque beat and mechanical gizmos of “Vultures Of Tenderness” would work great for a Buffy stakeout scene (get it??), and “Bring Me Their Heads” is an insistent, dark derivation of some classic Jan Hammerisms.  There are some entertaining dialogue samples strewn throughout the album too, but there’s nothing musical that leaves a deep mark, and certainly no conceivable justification for the off-kilter rhythmic moments when all is said and done.  Despite being an enjoyable background of sound, I keep coming back to my initial reaction regarding Harris: the kid’s not cut out to be a DJ.

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