If my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?
On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.
It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.
Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.
Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”
You know, the last time we talked about Aphex Twin, I got awfully fixated on Slayer, and it kind of spiraled out of control. I’m all better now, though, I promise. From a musical perspective, the Richard D. James Album is all about strange juxtapositions. The big one is the contrast between the harsh rapidfire percussion and the soothing melodic lines underneath. To my understanding, this is a common technique today (at least by IDM standards), but in 1996? I wouldn’t really know. But this sound, portioned out into compact little tracks, makes for an interesting experience at the very least.
If I ignore the aforementioned beats, what strikes me about RDJ is how ‘organic’ many of the tracks sound. There are obvious synthesizer lines and pads, but also an orchestra’s worth of simulated symphonic instruments strewn throughout the album. Besides falling way outside my own expectations, this especially doesn’t stereotypically jive with the drills in the rhythm section. That’s enough to forcibly fixate me on the fractured aesthetic, and focusing on it makes for difficult writing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely necessary. If you cut out the entire rhythm section for whatever reason, you’d have an entirely different experience – not something that necessarily matches up well with the rest of RDJ’s pre-1996 (this) discography, but a very restrained recording. You’d also have fewer problems with ear pain if your sound system wasn’t properly set up with a consistent frequency response; this album is exceedingly trebly to the point I notice it even on my relatively tuned desktop, and that I even find it hard to handle on less precise EQs like that of my phone.
For the most part, the songwriting here is more conventional, although I have no idea what prompted Richard to write “Logan Rock Witch” (by far, the least appropriate track for a session of Hearts of Iron). It’s the usual IDM “new element/permutation every 4/8 bars” shtick; like other forms of pop songwriting, people use it because it’s easy and it works if you know what you’re doing. You could argue that the short songs work against this idea, but this is where the hyperactive rhythm section actually comes in handy, by blasting through as many patterns as possible and therefore creating useful, attention-grabbing variations in texture over time. A good deal of it seems to be in the interest of wacky sound effects, though. Ultimately, I think the songwriting here functions at least in a pop sense, but the aforementioned aesthetic juxtaposition does make it harder to accurately judge this.
Any flaws I perceive in RDJ don’t seem to stop me from listening to it, so that’s got to count for something. Maybe I should check back in a year or so and see how well this holds up?
Highlights: ” Peek 824545201″, “Carn Marth”, “Yellow Calx”
If I’d went in blind on this album (or deaf, because the music is more important than the cover art), I would’ve expected Charanjit Singh to explore archetypal ’70s disco music on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. Instead, it’s notorious for anticipating the aesthetics and techniques of electronic dance music producers several years later. Between mixing in some elements of Indian classical music, not making much of a commercial/critical impact on its initial release, and then being rediscovered to great fanfare in the current millennium, Ten Ragas was too interesting for me to pass up.
The “classical music” comparison is by far the most important of Ten Ragas‘ many flavors; while India is home to a great many musical traditions, the stereotypical ‘raga’ seems to be the most popular and well known. As far as I can tell, the tracks on this album literally are ragas set to a “disco beat” (more on THAT later), which means plenty of monophonic improvisation over lengthy drones. Structurally, this thing is rigid – every rag begins, proceeds, and ends in a similar if not identical fashion, and Singh generally demarcates this with very specific synth sounds. It does mean that these tracks are mostly interchangeable, even though by virtue of tonality they vary at least a little. I have to admit that I would’ve preferred more variety, but I’ve been known to have a bit of a bias in that regard.
I think most listeners who follow this blog are going to be more interested in the electronic side of Ten Ragas. Singh produced this album entirely with synthesizers and sequencers, most notably the Roland TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer. These went on to feature in an enormous armada of recordings, and are used here in an archetypical techno-trance fashion. Those who insist on minimalist, repetitive rhythms with an emphasis on evolving sounds will find much to love here. Singh’s emphasis, though, is on the aforementioned lengthy, improvised synthesizer melodies that drive a raga. These are very modal – they never diverges from the scale of choice, and to my understanding there are formal rules being followed here that I don’t know anything about. In the end, the instrumentation makes this sound very much like early house/techno music, especially the rhythm section. The organization, though, is dramatically different, and therein lies the uniqueness of Ten Ragas, and thus your stimulus to keep listening once the novelty wears off.
I don’t know how many musicians have followed in Singh’s steps by explicitly combining Indian classical with modern electronic dance music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the subcontinent’s exerted a more significant role on the many scenes’ evolution than would be initially obvious from your usual historiography. More importantly, I think Ten Ragas is well executed and musically interesting enough to remain interesting after nearly 35 years, but like many of the more minimalistic and ritual music in my collection, it remains situational listening.
Highlights: “Raga Bhairav”, “Raga Bhupali”, “Raga Malkauns”
More 1990s downtempo ambient IDM buzzword music on Invisible Blog! Compared to the more focused (but still varied) Dead Cities a few years later, Lifeforms is a sprawling compilation of every idea Future Sound of London had in the kitchen sink. It covers enough sonic ground to make describing it as a whole more difficult than it ought to be. Still, this double album is bound together by a few shared techniques, sound patches, and a coherent aesthetic that the retrofuturist types have been slobbering on for a few years now.
One thing I’ve noticed about Lifeforms (which is possibly sort of implied by the cover art) is how organic it sounds at times – it relies heavily on sampled instruments and sampled… samples whereas some of its in-genre competition is more accepting of its own electronic nature (or at least that’s what you’d believe from the more obviously synthetic instruments). Sometimes this borders on soundscapes, but in general FSOL relies heavily on recognizable consonant melodies to drive their songwriting. Possibly unfamiliar sounds and techniques aside, this makes for easy, non-threatening listening; something that you can usually leave on in the background and occasionally marvel at how gradually the tracks evolve into one another. Just keep an ear out for the more menacing second half.
While Lifeforms is “…a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures)” just like its predecessor, the overall arc of its two CDs is the opposite of Dead Cities. Here, the second half is more challenging than the first, most likely peaking with the ritual and outright creepy “Vertical Pig”. It should go without saying that I don’t get the same post-apocalyptic vibe, even in this album’s harshest and most intimidating moments. Much of this is due to the increased variety. On one hand, I’d expect more substyles from a double album just for the sake of not boring the listener. On the other, I think FSOL intended to explore and cover as much ground as possible on this album, even if it means that some of the ideas presented get limited attention at best.
In general, there’s at least one good lesson you can learn from the differences between Lifeforms and Dead Cities – you have to find a good balance between quantity and quality. Lifeforms understandably represents the former, and the extra variety makes for a more dynamic experience, but this comes at the expense of having more filler than Dead Cities. This might sound bad, but Lifeforms also has higher peaks of quality than that successor album, which might be a direct result of firing more shots at the listener. This is something critics are going to have to take into mind if they want to directly compare the albums like I just did.
Then again, my review of Dead Cities ended with me jokingly evading a proper rating of how good or bad it was, so I’m guessing it’d only be appropriate for me to do the same here.
Highlights: “Flak”, “Amongst Myselves”, “Vertical Pig”, “Vit”
Now this appraisal might become entirely irrelevant and useless if I ever get around to Confield, but at least compared to previous Autechre material, LP5 is “Expert Mode Unlocked” given tangible audible form. At least from an aural perspective it comes off even more abstract and artificial than before, although repeated listening has clued me in to just how much of the band’s previous techniques and arsenal remain. Now, I realize this is a snooty and even elitist way of describing how I’ve engaged with LP5, but bear with me – after all, I might end up reviewing one of Autechre’s earliest albums at some point, and I need an excuse to (most likely inaccurately) work in the phrase “filthy casual”.
For better or worse, there’s a great deal of musical substance on here that I’ve never even considered trying to incorporate into my own work. I guess that sort of makes this album an antithesis of self, just like the last album I wrote about. For one, the emphasis on ‘ambient’, slowly evolving soundscapes that I picked up on from Tri Repetae is still around; I’d go as far as claiming these are even more necessary since consonant phrases are on the decline here. Some of these tracks arguably have pop style hooks; I don’t think it’s the main intent, especially since the sort of modal, more conventionally structured songwriting I’ve heard on previous Autechre albums is hard to find here. Instead, Autechre seemingly relies more heavily on percussive rhythms this time around, and furthermore does some very strange things with tempo. I kind of want to make a song using the constant BPM change gimmick of “Fold4, Wrap5”, although incorporating such a thing into the sort of music I actually like to write could be … difficult.
If there’s one thing that Autechre definitely does well on LP5, it’s that they nail the ambiences. As I’ve said before, that’s definitely not easy to do, but at it’s best, LP5 has spawned some incredibly vivid mental images in my head. The architecture metaphors people like to throw in when talking about this band are at least apt, although sometimes the slow evolution and attention to transitions does something especially amazing, like briefly turning “Drane2” (arguably the hit single of this album) into the world’s most hellish call center about 2/3rds of its length in. It helps that that track in particular has one of the densest soundscapes; most of the tracks here are a bit sparser and take more time to sink in, but you can still get some sort of storytelling potential out of them.
To be honest, it didn’t take me as long to value LP5 as highly as I do now; it’s not perfect, and nor is my understanding of it, but the depths that remain are certainly worth plumbing.
Highlights: “777”, “Under Boac”, “Drane2”
Invisible Blog is staggeringly lax about the International Day of Slayer sometimes. Thusly do I present to you my thoughts on the opposite of Slayer.
My buddies would say I am under-Aphexed if they knew this was the only work by Richard D. James I’ve ever sat down and listened to. Admittedly I’ve heard strains of “Windowlicker” and some of his other more commercially successful singles drifting out of public places, but if that was what passed for street cred, I would be wearing much baggier pants. I don’t even have the deep knowledge of this album’s genre that helps me review metal albums. This was a problem when I was writing about Tri Repetae by Autechre, too, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped me from at least trying.
As the title might lead you to believe, this is less a coherent album than a compilation, and it tends towards the softer and gentler side of RDJ’s output. Selected Ambient Works also (and perhaps shockingly) tends towards repetition and emphasis on texture over song structure. I don’t know how many of these were actually written towards the “85” end, but I’m inclined to think that by virtue of such hypothetical tracks being included that it’s not too important. The sound on display here is relatively aesthetically consistent, with even the more abrasive tracks (like “Green Calx”, “Schottkey 7th Path”, etc.) still fitting in with their companions. Given the staggering variety of sounds electronic musicians sometimes throw into their recordings, this is probably an achievement of some sort.
Based on this, I’d suggest listening to this album as a whole whenever the time presents itself, even though the songs don’t fade into each other like they would on, for arbitrary example, a Magma album. There are some problems with this, the greatest of which is a significant quantity of relatively uninteresting ‘filler’ tracks, mostly towards the second half. It’s hard to determine what raises one track over another when the writing remains so consistent, though. Personally, I’d guess which specific instruments and sound patches I like plays a role in this, but if I have to go on in that vein, it pushes me way too far from the analytical mode I prefer for these writeups and reviews. That’s a serious problem!
While it’s probably due to the limits of my electronica knowledge, Selected Ambient Works is thusly notable for defying my attempts to analyze it beyond its surface. I find that based on my preferences, it could be cut down to about 2/3rds of its length without losing its choice tracks, and that portion makes for good listening. It’d still be longer than the EPs that surround it, but remember, you can’t always judge music by its length.
Highlights: “Tha”, “Heliosphan”, “Schottkey 7th Path”