29/05/2020 – This week I have been mostly listening to

Andrea – Ritorno (2020). This is another record, along with Shred and Compro by Skee Mask and Engravings by Forest Swords, which is fast becoming one of my favourite electronic albums of the last 12 months (that I’ve listened to – those others weren’t released in the last 12 months).

I’m finding it hard to describe the style of this music, except to say: like Skee Mask. And I’ve struggled to describe the style of his music before…Breakbeat Techno, maybe. Basically, it ticks all the right boxes: stirring melodies painted in lush swathes of ambient sound, restrained on the beats side of things – there are no tracks that go full-on carve up, which makes this album an ideal mixture of chilled, cerebral and pulsing dancing music. 

In the same way as Skee Mask, Andrea is adept at creating a sense of space for his tracks to play out in – this can be achieved by muffled shuddering beats booming deep below, combined with wide-panning synth tones/bells/pads (whatever the stuff is that’s not beats). And again, like on Compro especially, there is a clear narrative arc over the course of the album, beginning with the largely ambient Attimo, peaking in the middle with the trio of tracks, Reinf (which rolls with a gangsta swagger propelled by robust gunshot breaks) to LG_Amb, (the breaks here are distorted and pulled inside out, secondary to the wistful melody reminiscent of mid 90s Mu-ziq or Aphex) and then Drumzzy, (starting out with Dubsteppy beat, which instead of then being dragged down by fuzzy bass womp is propelled upwards on fizzy bubbles into a dubstep/breakbeat/rave/industrial hybrid). 

I dunno if it should be considered techno or ‘post-rave’ or whatever but this exceptionally well produced electronic music that is a joy to listen to on good quality equipment and I’ve no doubt would be a joy to experience in a live setting. (Here’s hoping that day will come again).

Bibio – Ribbons (2019). Bibio’s 2011 album, Mind Bokeh, was a particular favourite of mine, combining crunchy glitched out electronics and pastorally psychedelic folk woven together in a Boards of Canada-esque hazy tapestry. It’s a rich and detailed album that keeps on giving, however it was always strongly associated in my mind with a particular period of time in my life – the year 2012 – which contained a great deal of upheaval and transition. So because of that association, I’ve not returned to Mind Bokeh as often I would. The nostalgia isn’t exactly unpleasant, it just dredges up more emotions than you might want to deal with when you just want to sit down and listen to some tunes.

I did try and get into Ambivalence Avenue – Bibio’s ‘breakout’ album of sorts, and the one that precedes Mind Bokeh, but it never really clicked with me – feeling always like a warm up for the latter. But a little while ago last year, I noticed that Bibio has been quietly and confidently ploughing his furrow and releasing album after well-received album, so it seemed time to give his latest a try. 

Ribbons is more overtly folky and less electronic than Mind Bokeh. On Mind Bokeh, it feels like the folk/pop elements emerge from out of the haze of electronic textures and tones, which form the ultimate base of the album. But on Ribbons, the electronics are jus that – something decorative tied on to the edges.

The album opens with Beret Girl, and a gentle plucked guitar melody, which sounds almost completely untreated. Next, on the Art of Living the guitar is back, joined by something that sounds like a cross between a toy organ and some kind of flute; the lyrics seem to be about taking wisdom from nature (‘to view the grass up close, feels deeper than the most’) and just when things couldn’t get any more bucolic we hear the sound of cow lowing and birds tweeting in the background. Luckily, I find Bibio’s music innately charming, otherwise this would all be much too twee and folky for my tastes. The album picks up its relaxed pace as percussion joins for the first time on track 3, Before, in which Bibio manages to divine the perfect Venn segment between hazy 70s psychedelia and laid back boom-bap hip hop.

The majority of the album leans heavily on the Bibio’s folkier influences, and the track titles indicate the pastoral subject matter: Ode to a Nuthatch, Watch the Flies, You couldn’t even hear the birds singing. However, Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers switches from the picked guitar, lute, fiddle (whatever else) and instead an ultra-slowed down glitchy beat (that sounds like a piece of velcro being fixed and then unpeeled in steady rhythm), underscores barely comprehensible lyrics and a simple synth pattern that slowly repeats as the track builds in emotional intensity (if not pace). It’s a strange interlude – dreamy in a different way to the rest of the album – which although it doesn’t jarr for me, could surprise listeners who came on board thinking this was purely a folk album.

Out and out highlight of the album is the track Old Graffiti, with a shuffling beat, sun-drenched guitar and filtered vocals lifted straight from classic late 60’s psychedelia. I lack the knowledge of the original influences to properly identify them, but suffice to say it’s a perfect ‘homage’, which sounds more like what it’s trying to imitate than the original ever did – if that makes sense. Producers and musicians have obviously been replicating, imitating and pastiching previous styles for decades, but it seems lately there are a few producers (Lone being an example) who – thanks to enhanced modern production techniques, and pure musical skill – are not only able to evoke the original sound perfectly but make it a more vivid version of itself so the copy appears more lifelike than the original. Similar to the way the producers of the show Stranger Things evoke a world so iconic and nostalgic that it seems more like the 80s than the 80s ever did.

Gábor Lázár – Unfold (2018). Unfold is an album of sheer, brutally uncompromising dance music: eight tracks of lithe, writhing atonal machine music, which sounds like a robot experiencing some kind of epileptic fit, or maybe having a hallucinogenic experience. I gave this album a listen based on the recommendation of various best-of lists for 2018 – it seems Hungary’s Gábor Lázár caused quite a stir with this release and previous collaborations with noise maverick Russell Haswell. Added to that the implicit recommendation of non-other than Aphex Twin, who dropped some of Gabor’s live tracks in his sets in 2017.

Like so many producers now, Gábor Lázár sticks to a narrow range of sounds (it sounds like all the tracks were produced using the same production setup) and works within it. All of these tracks are fizzing with a kind of swaggering, languid energy (the tired but wired energy of a 6am raver) – everything sounds metallic, atonal and hyper-synthetic – all the elements slip and slide off one another, nothing has any purchase.

I’m finding Lázár’s music particularly striking in the way it has almost no emotional dimension whatsoever. This is no bad thing in itself – I like a lot of music that could be considerd ‘unemotional’ – it just means it would only be suited for particular listening circumstances. One of example of music that could be thought of as lacking emotion is if it doesn’t contain much in the way of melody. But in the case of, say industrial techno, or minimal house, the emotion doesn’t reside in the melody, but elsewhere: in the repetition, the building up to a climax (or lack thereof) the highs and lows of energy, which ultimately are engineered for the satisfaction and pleasure of the listener and are the conduits for the transmission of feeling (or expression or whatever) from a very human creator to human audience. 

Unfold is different to those ‘traditional’ forms of dance music however, and reminds me in a way of Confield – an album I always struggled with (though felt I should perservere with) as there just seems to be no emotional purchase to grab onto. A handful of the tracks on Confield, Bine for example, although it contains no emotion to speak of, is entertaining enough purely as a piece of sound – something to sit back and just listen to and absorb all the detail and barely contained chaos. Much like watching an avalanche roll down a mountain or a pile of molten plastic dissolve. But something like Cfern just doesn’t do anything for me – I can’t feel anything being transmitted from its creator. There’s no consistent rhythm to lock into, it’s not definitely not pleasant to listen to, but in its unpleasantness, I don’t even find it interesting. The best thing I can say, I suppose, is that it’s unsettling – so you can approach it from the same standpoint you would watching a particularly harrowing documentary. (Anyway it’s a landmark album by Autechre so I’m willing to give it more ear-time than I otherwise would). 

The music on Unfold seems to fall in an uncanny valley somewhere between the two. Unlike Confield it does have rhythm, swing and cadence: all those features your mind wants to lock into. But rather than a human creator, it feels like they’re being transmitted by a distinctly alien or robotic intelligence. You peer behind the towering bank of controls hoping to find the mad scientist pulling the levers, but the towering bank of controls is all there is – a machine programmed to produce an unsettling simulacrum of dance music.

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