20/03/2020 This week I have been mostly listening to

Bogdan Raczynski – Rave Till You Cry (2019). I’d pretty much given up hope on hearing anything more from Bogdan Raczynski (one time renegade Drill’n’bass maverick shock disc-jock extraordinaire) after reading some years ago that he had officially retired from releasing music. And to be fair this album is not new material, so I don’t suppose it signals a return from retirement. I used to be very fond of Bogdan’s music, especially Samurai Math Beats and Thinking of You. He’s that rare beast in the electronic music world of faceless ‘bedroom producers’ – someone who really wears their heart on their sleeve. His music ranges from painfully confessional (witness the track titles on Thinking of You), joyously playful to cathartically violent. His extremely lo-fi DIY aesthetic (he really does sound like a bedroom producer, in the tradition of garage rock bands) coupled with virtuoso skills at beat manipulation make for an idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable sound. And it seems that practically his whole discography was recently made available on Spotify. Not that streaming revenue from those 9,000 monthly listeners will do much to help his retirement fund. 

So having said all that you’d think I’d be bang up for a bit of new (i.e. previously unreleased) Bogdan in 2020. But for some reason, on my evening commute cycling home, this fell flat. I’m breaking one of my own principles to pass comment on an album I haven’t even listened to all the way through yet – though to be fair I recognised at least one of the tracks from a previous release. But as I said, he’s got such a distinctive style, I pretty much know how this album is gonna sound – just like the rest of his discography.

I don’t want this to sound like a negative appraisal, ‘cos I love Bogdan as a creative figure, and as his back catalogue just got much easier to access, I would heartily recommend anyone to go and listen to Thinking of You and Samurai Math Beats, especially. Maybe if I’m in the right mood, I’ll be up for Raving till I cry. In the meantime, it would be great to hear something completely new from Bogdan but I fear that isn’t likely.

Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans (2020). I first listened to this cycling to work on a bright crisp wintry morning, and now again, one week later. It’s another beautiful sunny day befitting this very pleasant music but the world seems to have turned upside down in the meantime and I won’t be heading into work any time soon. 

Like practically anyone who enjoys experimental electronic music that tends to the more melodic and emotional, I used to be very partial to a bit of Four Tet. But after the more dancefloor oriented There is Love in You, I stopped keeping track of his new releases. From what I hear he stuck to the more dancefloor-friendly formula for many albums since – as his stock has risen, from a residency at Plastic People (memorialised on There is love) to superstar DJ. 

Keiran Hebden, aka Four Tet

While I was busy exploring other musical avenues in the interim I probably made the quiet and unacknowledged judgement that Four Tet had gone off the boil, become a watered down version of himself. And seeing the (unkind) label ‘Dadtronica’ thrown about online gave a name for my prejudices. So listening to the first new Four Tet I’ve heard in ten years, I can say my judgement was not wholly justified. And whatever you take the connotations of ‘Dadtronica’ to be, Four Tet still has a distinctive sound.

It’s too early for me to say whether Sixteen Oceans has anything as visionary and riotously creative as Everything Ecstatic, or anything as lovelorn and melancholy as Pause. But it is damn pleasant. There is dancefloor punch: the swing of 2-step and bouncy techno. There are acoustic instruments (guitar, harpsichord, flute etc) and ambient interludes of field recordings (mainly birdsong) grounding the tracks into a larger musical dimension. That is my one complaint with Four Tet, and moreso his imitators – it’s all just too lovely and pleasant. Too early to tell, but I’ve plenty of time on my very clean hands, so we’ll see if Sixteen Oceans will become the feel good hit of the quarantine. 

X-Asp – Terra Firma (1996). It’s safe to say this is a lesser known find from the Rephlex back catalogue. I don’t know whether this being released on Rephlex means it’s received more or less exposure than it would’ve on another label. I’m sure it will keep being continually rediscovered by curious braindance explorers mining the Rephlex archives for years to come. I don’t know anything whatsoever about the act known as X-ASP, aside from two names on Discogs, but it looks like this album is pretty much all they released. Which is a shame as it’s an absolute gem. Proper analogue, electro-influenced braindance (circa µ-Ziq 93-94) in that perfect Venn segment between rave and chillout, physical and cerebral, pounding and emotional.

Stars of the Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline (2007). A double album of purely ambient music, composed entirely of drones, echo, reverb and very long sustained notes is a formidable prospect at the best of times. So I’ve only listened to this occasionally over the years. But more recently I have grown to love it more and more. Stars of the Lid are notable, among the admittedly limited selection of ambient artists I listen to, in that their music sounds like it is generated by the playing of actual instruments. There are recognisable strings, horns, and keys – albeit stretched out ad infinitum – which gives it a very human warmth.

Soporific, sombre, haunting, melancholy, relaxing – all words that could describe many of the pieces on ‘Refinement’ – and it is a perfect soundtrack if you’re trying sleep off some excesses, or just want something unintrusive while focusing on another task. But this isn’t just ‘wallpaper music’. The complete absence of any percussion, or even the attack of a new note being played, means that, as in meditation where the absence of thought makes you focus on the pure experience of being, you focus on the pure experience of sound. The notes and tones drift into one another, like very slow inhalations and exhalations. It is no longer music but the fundamental sound of the universe and your consciousness, which are one and the same. Far out man.  

Caterina Barbieri – Ecstatic Computation (2019). This album was a bit of a curveball for me, in that it falls on the more Classical/avant-garde end of the spectrum…which seems a bit rich given I was just talking about Stars of the Lid. Anyway, Caterina Barbieri is a Berlin-based Italian composer, making music for analogue synthesisers. More musically and technically literate writers than I have articulated the details elsewhere. Being in the classical/experimental mold, this could not be further from some of the retro 80s nostalgia fests that have been popular recently. If I had to describe the style with one label, I might say ‘urgent ambient’. Opener Fantas  comprises various movements, and is like the soundtrack to some apocalyptic cataclysm, or the last 10 minutes of a disaster movie, rising to crescendo then falling again only to end in an explosion of fizzing and dying sparks.

Ecstatic Computation is aptly titled. Although all the tones are synthesised, the melodies and the musicality of it sounds so human. I am not at all well versed in classical music but this seems to share the feature some classical pieces have, of sounding like a celebration of music itself. Each note is a dancer in a perfectly choreographed ballet. Pinnacles of You is like a joyful love song – I don’t know whether inspired by a human lover or Barbieri’s love of her synthesisers.

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