Jon Hopkins – Singularity (2018). Having played this repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, I can say this is a much stronger album than Immunity (Hopkins’ album prior to this, which I belatedly got round to listening to earlier this year). Maybe I judged that album a little harshly and will return to it in a more favourable light having enjoyed Singularity so much. This is just so much better all round: everything about this album feels more confident and direct. As well as honing his style, it seems Hopkins has committed more fully to his musical vision.
Right from the off, opening track Singularity defines the atmosphere, gradually building a sense of dramatic tension over its six minute duration. As the tension increases, there is the feeling of slowly ascending to the peak of a rollercoaster, until the segue into Emerald Rush where everything plateaus and we’re given an opportunity to enjoy the view. The first two minutes of this track is like gently floating above the clouds looking at the stars, until the beat slams back in and we’re ratcheting skyward up the rollercoaster again.
It’s a really difficult trick for producers to pull off, when making this kind of panoramic big-picture music, to be able to follow an epic track and not have it feel like an anti-climax. And conversely, not get into an unsustainable arms race of trying to make each track more epic than the last and running out of hill to climb (like Wile E Coyote running off the edge of a cliff into thin air).
This is probably Hopkins’ biggest achievement with this album – that he does manage to make each track feel more epic than the last, through deft use of pacing, knowing when to dial back the tension and when to bring the beat back in hard, inducing that feeling of endlessly ascending to new levels. This is essentially what happens over the first four tracks before we finally reach the ultimate peak with Everything Connected; this then fades into the Feel First Life – a purely ambient track which if we’re still going with the rollercoaster analogy, feels like we’ve actually reached Heaven, with its celestial fanfare and layers of angelic choirs.
According to Hopkins, the penultimate track Luminous Beings was inspired by his experiences with Psilocybin and DMT, specifically a morning in the Joshua Tree National Park, where he watched the sunrise over the serene and beautiful desert landscape. I would strongly recommend listening to this short interview with Hopkins, where he talks about that experience and how it affects his artistic process, as well as breaking down each of the musical elements of Luminous Beings.
Singularity is an unashamedly epic album, but listening to epic music at mid-volume while concentrating on work is far from the best way to enjoy it. Unfortunately that is how I’ve been listening to a lot of music in lockdown. But hearing Hopkins talk about the creative process behind this track, and how his near mystical experience with Psilocybin influenced the mental state his music tries to recreate, made me appreciate it in a different light. Further aided by putting distractions aside, plugging in some decent headphones and cranking the volume up – my living room is not exactly Joshua Tree but it’ll do for now.
Green Velvet & Carl Craig – Unity (2015). I don’t know how I missed this one for so long: a collaboration between two of my favourite electronic artists and absolute legends of the scene – or as the intro track on Unity describes them, “Two Captains from two Worlds”. But anyway…too much music too little time.
As the intro continues in a booming robotic voice beloved of 70s sci-fi, “These captains have joined together to celebrate and make some new creations to tickle your brain…so turn up, tune in and jack.” So despite the cod cosmic grandeur of the intro, we’re under no illusion this is pure party music.
I don’t know how they divvied up production duties but first track proper, So What sounds more Green Velvet than Carl Craig, with its stripped-down marching beat and rough sounding electro synth. The voice doesn’t sound like Curtis Jones, but the lyrics are unmistakably his style. After decades skewering fashion, club culture and the music industry, he’s more relevant than ever railing against the shallowness of social media culture:
“You don’t like the way I look – so what!? You don’t wanna be my friend – so what?!! You don’t like my hair – so what?!!! You don’t like what I like – so what?!!! I’m not popular on social media – so what?!!! I don’t have any likes or followers – so what?!!!!” (the aspiring blogger in particular can relate).
Rosalie is also Green Velvet all over with its jackin’ beat, low-down dirty bassline and simple synth refrain: perfect for playing on extended loop during the zombie slot between 4am and sunrise. (When we are actually able to go to nightclubs again, blah blah blah).
Party is the most banging track on the release, unsurprisingly, and has more of a Carl Craig linear kind of feel to it. The cheeky cowbell on the intro lets you know straight away you’re in for a pokey one and the bassline when it enters the mix at 1:30 is seriously funky. I don’t know if it’s a sample of Last night a DJ saved my life but it sure reminds me of it. Best moment has to be when the monotone voice that repeats ‘party all night’ switches to ‘…all day’ for the last drop – you can practically hear the sidelong wink. When you know, etc.
Murder of the Innocents is a spacey Carl Craig techno epic that could fit right at home among his best tracks from the 90s (IMHO). And in fact this whole release feels like a masterclass in the key foundations of electronic music: Detroit Techno and Chicago House, brought together in unity by two legends. I don’t know much about the roots of this project – maybe Curtis and Carl just decided they needed to remind the new generation how it’s done. Whatever the reason, the best advice I can give is to turn up, tune in…and jack.
The Knife – Silent Shout (2006). I always loved a couple of tracks off Silent Shout (Like a Pen, opener, Silent Shout and of course We Share our Mother’s Health especially the banging remix by Trentemoller). But for some reason, I could never get much further past them and listen to the rest of the album, until the last couple of years when everything finally clicked.
Silent Shout sounds every bit a product of its 2006 release-year, which was at the midst of the explosion in Scandinavian electronica and its trickle-down influence into pop music (Royksopp, Trentemoller, Robyn, etc). And this is essentially a pop album: twisted pop music, wrapped up in spectral icy production. Unfortunately I can’t take credit for the brilliant label ‘Haunted House’ which I’ve seen used elsewhere to describe it, but that sums up Silent Shout perfectly. Karin Dreijer’s voice, often pitchshifted and doubled over, is the ghost that haunts the album. When untreated with effects she sounds like some kind of Norse siren, at other instances pixie-like, and at others positively otherworldly.
This oddness doesn’t detract from the pop brilliance of the tracks, most of which are also robust enough to be dancefloor ready: the sprightly electro-house of Like a Pen, the Techno thump of Neverland and the riotous Elfin rave-up We Share our Mother’s Health.
Neil Young – Harvest (1972). I’ve made a resolution to educate myself in one ‘classic’ album each month, and Neil Young seemed as good a place to start as any. This was perhaps prompted by Thom Yorke’s appearance on Desert Island Discs, where he revealed that following his very first demo, recorded with Ed O’Brien, a music magazine compared his vocal performance to Neil Young. Thom and Ed turned down the record deal they were offered by Island on the back of the demo, electing to go to university first, but the future Radiohead frontman did decide to find out who Neil Young was and to cut a long story short, many years later found himself performing one of Young’s songs on the piano on which it was written.
Anyway, Harvest was not the record Thom chose for his desert island, but it seems to be Young’s most popular album and the one recommended for those not familiar with his work, which includes me, as well as the 18 year-old Thom Yorke.
It would be foolhardy to attempt to write any sort of ‘review’ for such a classic album. But I can say from my perspective, having practically zero familiarity with Neil Young, that I found Harvest…enjoyable. Especially given it is not the kind of thing I would normally listen to at all. Anything within a mile-wide radius of the label ‘Country’ would normally raise a red flag but heck…tastes mellow and broaden with age.
Hearing Young’s voice, it’s instantly clear where the Thom Yorke comparisons come from – they both have distinctive vocal styles, and Young’s is especially high-pitched and mournful. As a lifelong Eels fan, it’s also pleasing to hear a clear source of one of Mark Everett’s influences – not so much in the vocal style, but in the approach to songwriting and storytelling.
I’m not so keen on the tracks featuring the London Symphony Orchestra – I don’t think that style compliments Young’s voice anywhere near as well as the more intimate arrangements on much of the rest of the album. Standouts for me are Old Man, and Neil Young’s only US number one, Heart of Gold. Never mind the fact that apparently Bob Dylan was not keen on the latter.
Probably not an album I’ll return to often…I’ll stick to my Eels and Elliott Smith…but at least I’m now familiar with a piece of ‘rock and roll history’ (said in Bill Kurtis’ voice).