Monday, 5 February 2018

The haunting of the new

Korg Prologue

The title of a classic Ray Bradbury short story, borrowed here temporarily, describes something that happened at the start of this year, and it shows how increasingly limited number of designers can think in novel ways when it comes to, paradoxically perhaps, re-visiting legacy technology of yesteryear. One manufacturer has proven yet again that when putting the musician at the centre of the design thinking, the result can be again a step evolution with something that nobody ever created in a hardware instrument.

We have seen years of retro synth offerings that were inundating the insatiable current market without offering much that the state-of-the-art technology could add as extras to our (home or other) studios of today.

When there was some innovation, usually, with extremely few exceptions, big and small names alike have come forward with instruments that, at best, had small variations on a theme, or added something that then stopped well short of what it could have become.

As usual, the beginning of the year and the NAMM show was expected to parade, even if in the preliminary states of not quite market-ready teasers, the latest and greatest offerings from music instrument makers.

Perhaps NAMM 2018 was one of the most polarised so far, in terms of the samey, endless variations on previous and current themes vs. the truly innovative ideas in the field of electronic instruments. As the ancient saying goes, light shines brighter in darkness - and this year there was one and only one step evolution that made the absence of innovation in the other products all the more evident.

Once again, countless new analogue variations, new modules, new re-spins (this is no longer a contradiction in terms, in the retro wave...) of the past, recent past and even present.

Innovation does not mean adding some extra polyphony or extra oscillators, an age-old matrix sequencer or whatever long pre-existed component to an existing design. Whatever name may stand behind it, let it be Moog or Dave Smith Instruments or Novation, this is simply a re-iteration (as illustrious as it may be) of existing technology.

Among the manufacturers that in the past months did not just regurgitate old ideas or just put new spin on essentially the same previously marketed instruments, Waldorf did stand out with the flagship Quantum. However, even this is merely bringing hardware instruments in line with software plugins that existed for decades.

Still, finally, a granular synthesis engine integrated with something else inside a tangible instrument... but no step evolution here, nothing that many others have not thought of before in terms of sound generation.

Waldorf Quantum

Going back a little bit, in the slightly less immediate past, Roland has thought of hybrid analogue / digital instruments, and produced a while ago the JD-Xa. However, apart from its frustrating user interface, the most frustrating is the stopping in conceptual thinking half-way through. It is a horrendously limited instrument compared to what the marriage of digital and analogue engines could have been.

Roland JD-Xa

Yamaha has produced the Genos, that in their breathtaking audacity (and by definition shocking  incorrectness) they dared to call a workstation. For many decades, the Korg M1 has defined and back then basically create the category - and even on a superficial scan of the Genos specs, it fails fundamentally and spectacularly.... and it is, at best, a sample-based arranger keyboard on steroids.

Yamaha Genos

Long gone are the days when Roland and Yamaha have produced step evolutions and presented entirely new ideas in usable instruments. Apart from endless re-spins of their glorious past (distant past...), what we see is the same synthesis engines being re-spun endlessly, in the best of cases, with some tweaks and expansions...

Even the Yamaha Montage was merely a beefed-up re-spin of their FM and sample-based AWM2 dual engine synths, with a user interface innovation. The brutal fact is that since FM synthesis (in the era-defining Yamaha DX7) and variphase engines (in the innovative Roland V-Synth), these manufacturers have not produced anything other than gradual increments of pre-existing technologies. Nor have many others...

The only step evolution produced and presented in mature form, winning also the "best in show" award at NAMM 2018, was the Korg Prologue. The major step is not because of them releasing yet another analogue instrument, not even because it is a hybrid digital + analogue synth.

There was a lot of discussion on its modulation capabilities with one LFO... which, incidentally, was also the case of several era-defining analogue instruments of the past... Somehow we have not seen legendary Prophet 5 synths tossed in dustbins by annoyed owners because of their single LFO :)

What those discussions and the subjective debates missed entirely, was what we could witness for the first time ever in a hardware synth... Apart from a hybrid architecture that did not stop half-way through the quest of capitalising on its possibilities (as Roland did with the aforementioned JD-Xa), it introduces user-definable, user-programmable digital oscillators and digital effects (!) in the multi-engine.

The ability to define whatever digital oscillator (also digital effects) with a software development kit (SDK) to be released in April, to have 16 of these user-definable units that operate seamlessly as any pre-defined oscillator in the Prologue synth, well, it is something we see for the first time in a full-fledged non-modular hybrid synth keyboard... and as the cliche goes, possibilities are really endless.

Korg Prologue versions

What it shows again, is that in a landscape dominated by the retro movement, somebody can come up with a brand new idea that instead of repeating the same old concepts, elevates them to entirely new heights.

It showed off the increasingly painful difference between thinking with purely marketing minds (let's re-spin a many decades old engine and violate even consecrated instrument category definitions with a huge price tag, one may guess what keyboard this applies to...) and with musician-oriented engineering minds.

Roland a while ago has introduced the plug-out concept, where essentially a software plugin could be loaded into their System-1 and System-8 keyboards. However, once again it fundamentally limited itself: the plug-outs are only done by the manufacturer, there is no open software development, and the plug-out slots are extremely limited anyway.

It was another example and another frustrating case when one gets close to an idea, completely misses the potential and with a very profit-oriented approach produces an almost-solution that does not have the musician and sound creator at its centre,  instead it firmly keeps the manufacturer's marketing thinking at its centre with an iron grip.

Even in this backward-looking market-driven world, Prologue, with the extremely few exceptions of some smaller manufacturers and some modular offerings, it shows there is hope. It happens to come from one of the big names, but it seems possible to come up with something new. As in the case of Kronos, the superlative workstation, this is again something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

However, it is also symptomatic how devoid of innovation the entire landscape has become, where a few, increasingly few, new ideas stand out.

As in Ray Bradbury's wonderful tale, the newly (re-)created embodiments of old technology can have, in this case, exciting and entirely novel spirits haunting it in the best possible sense.

It also shows that innovation can be propelled by a user- and musician-centric approach, even if it now demands quite a technological skillset in order to capitalise on the offered potentials.

Hopefully, this spellbinding haunting of the new will continue in some, let it be small or super-large, names in the industry.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Three years on... the Dream continues

Edgar Froese (Photo: commons / wikimedia)

Edgar Froese, the founder of the electronic legend, well, almost institution that was and is Tangerine Dream, passed away three years ago, on 20 Jan 2015.

As a prominent and eminent figure of what became known as the Berlin School, he has navigated through almost five decades of tumultuous musical, technological and social changes with his band.

As a figure of speech, we can probably say countless studio and live albums, a long list of illustrious soundtracks have been created, plus of course numerous solo albums.

A quintessential characteristic of his philosophy and that of the music of Tangerine Dream has been the fact that technology never took over and never became the ultimate goal. It always served a purpose as a mere creative tool, as revolutionary as it was in Edgar's and his band mates' hands.

Edgar would be very happy to see the band today and his legacy - and he may well be extremely happy at, as he put it, another cosmic address he moved on to in January 2015.

The 50th anniversary album, Quantum Gate, which was also reviewed here has been a great success.

The number of not just electronic but rock and other music magazines that have almost re-discovered Tangerine Dream was a joy to see.

The return to improvised live performances and the release of these lengthy pieces are a superb renaissance for the fans, who last heard such concert pieces several decades ago.

The current members of TD, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, have taken Edgar's overall musical and creative philosophy successfully into Edgar's posthumous period.

There is something remarkable happening, and Edgar would be, we can be sure, all too happy to witness this: unlike bands like Yes, who without a defining figure joining them live have really lost their way and leading to rather mechanical live album releases, Tangerine Dream is continuing with vast bursts of new creativity.

While the sound stayed instantly recognisable, it is a TD of the 21st century and with state-of-the-art, but musically functional as ever, technology.

On a personal note, I first came into contact with Edgar and TD's music as a teenager, beyond the Iron Curtain. I like to always point out for people who could access any music at any moment in any circumstances, that getting my hands on such music was a lengthy but rewarding adventure... and what escapism it was!

However, I would never have thought that more than three decades later I shall be treated to fresh and invigoratingly scintillating Tangerine Dream albums that have the unmistakable presence of Edgar's musical spirit still.

While remembering with sadness Edgar, there is joy in witnessing a quite unique phenomenon in the contemporary music scene.

Rest in peace, tremendous wizard of sounds, of time and space - and very glad to still have You with us in the continuing story of the phenomenon called Tangerine Dream!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Clone wars and compromises

Behringer's Moog Model D clone

Last year's (in)famous announcement by Behringer, that it sets out to clone the legendary MiniMoog Model D, has driven social and specialist media into overdrive.

Purists, retro enthusiasts, gear heads, and countless other categories of people involved in any way in electronic instruments and electronic music have vented pros/cons (sometimes on the rational side) and everything from joy to outrage (on the emotional side).

This was followed by a "fake news" hiccup, when Behringer website announced a whole range of legendary synth clones, promptly taken off the website and, according to Behringer, it was merely a technical hiccup rather than an intentional marketing stunt.

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... again.

Now that we are counting the days until NAMM 2018, which undoubtedly will have its fair (or again overblown) share of retro technology in new robes as the nostalgy market is driving this insatiably, Behringer makes another announcement.

While the Model D clone is yet to turn up in shops, but pre-orders are made, the company announces not just an Oberheim OB-Xa clone, but also its estimated timeline.

Behringer UB-Xa clone of Oberheim OB-Xa

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... yet again. The OB-Xa's characteristic sound was present on myriad albums of artists ranging from Mike Oldfield to Jean-Michel Jarre to Depeche Mode and Gary Numan, to name just a few.

The repeated furore could be grouped essentially around the following topics:
  • How dare they clone the legends, making considerably cheaper versions?
  • The clones will not sound "good enough" compared to the originals
  • The quality will be worse compared to the originals.
Well, while everything in life is a compromise, above main threads have one huge elephant in the room, as uncomfortable it may be.

The price point, objectively, to anyone in the electronics business who is not subjectively swayed by nostalgia, is not a scandalous one for Behringer, it is actually a scandalous one for the likes of Moog.

The production of Model D in today's world, even with using the retro components that were reportedly in short supply (if we believe the classic marketing stunt), is a fraction of what it was back then.

The price point, regardless of individual synth musicians' pocket sizes (and the snobbish threads that ensued due to this, discussing affordability and who would spend what on what), is an unrealistic one - the real central driver is the name, the legend and the emotional capital factored into it. Full stop.

The "good enough" sound is a perhaps eternal topic. Again, it comes down to motivations, priorities and... compromises.

Even if the clones approximate the originals, they are expected to be "better" than virtual analogue reincarnations of the originals. The elusive (and often subjective) difference may not matter in the final mix, and would not be (even in case of virtual analogue) detectable by vast numbers of people listening to the final mix on whatever sound equipment they have.

However, this just brings the traditional battle between virtual analogue and true analogue to another level, it is a battle between hearing the differences between true analogue original and clone.

The original and legendary Oberheim OB-Xa

Naturally, as with all such discussions, the central question remains whether the certain differences matter or not to the audience.

Famously, when Daft Punk recorded a track's narration with three different microphones belonging to three different eras talked about in the track, somebody asked: who will hear the difference? The sound engineer replied: Daft Punk will.

But then the big question is, if only the artist hears it, does it matter... and then we land in a stormy sea of heated debates that ultimately start regurgitating tenets of subjective vs. objective reality from age-old philosophy trends.

Regarding compromise, a certain difference then becomes also a matter of price difference vs. audible difference. This then becomes even more personal and tuned to the specifics of the music project. Therefore generalising takes on this lose all meaning, no matter how purists start sizzling in social media threads.

The quality point is also a self-defeating one. Sure, fundamentally it has to be "decent". Even at the price point of the clones, nobody wants it to fall apart within months or a few years. Considering how latest greatest offering from some of the biggest names is suffering of frankly outrageous quality issues nowadays, and there is a clear trend toward the negative, the picture is again a bit foggy.

A lot of anger was vented in threads about Behringer quality, endless sarcastic memes and posts circulated for months - but again the authors miss the central point.

Exactly as a hand-stitched leather seat in an Aston Martin does not alter the engine performance and "oomph" we feel driving it, in the same way the price-inflating claims of Moog about lovingly and individually hand-crafted parts do not alter the sound.

They may contribute to an overall feel of uniqueness and "made just for you" with a serial number we end up framing on the wall, but... the central logical phallacy in such takes is that the overall feel is not in any way related to the specific detail or difference in detail that is being argued.

It is impossible, due to human nature, to avoid such phallacies and their pitfalls when it comes to these topics. Especially when many look at their synths as things that define them as musicians instead of mere tools in their creative work.

However all purist thinking is by definition a deplorably self-limiting one. It is not a problem that one ends up limiting one's own choices (including the creative ones), but it is also human nature that the same psychology makes its possessor feel a desperate need to tell others to have the same self-limiting approaches to their creative processes and choices.

So instead, let's herald the superb OB-Xa reincarnation, if Behringer does produce it (frankly, credibility has taken a huge beating lately and some marketing or involuntary actions backfired).

As with the Model D clone, the UB-Xa (as it will be called) will naturally find its way into categories of sound designers and musicians' work places as Model D clone and virtual analogue imitations of true analogue originals have.

Everything is a compromise, and all synths are instruments - mere instruments in realising an imagined sound world.

How that instrument is used and whether it is "good enough" is down to, and only to, that creative musician.

As soon as the instrument becomes a tool for self-definition and therefore inevitably snobbery, it and its discussions are dead ends for the purists.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

On the musical range of some Stranger Things

Image: Legacy Recordings

After one watches the first and second seasons of the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, it could be a perhaps strange exercise to listen through the two volumes of tiny electronic pieces that constitute its soundtrack.

Perhaps strange, as the pieces are often ultra-short in length - and many could rightly say that in such cases, without the soundtrack's themes being assembled into a suite, it might be difficult to enjoy the music without the visuals that it underpins.

However, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's historically accurate score, made with many by-now-classic electronic instruments of the early and mid-80s, can be a surprisingly pleasing musical journey even after the myriad tiny pieces are disconnected from the TV series...

What is particularly remarkable in Dixon & Stein's set of little electronic gems is that their often surprisingly economical electronic arrangements and structure cover a huge range of moods and sub-genres of electronic music.

Yes, they could have gone for direct musical references, after all, early '80s Tangerine Dream, the soundtracks of John Carpenter (also hugely influenced by Tangerine Dream) and the soundtrack hits of films like Ghostbusters from same period are infusing the TV series' sound world.

Instead, with careful instrumentation and very organic work flow based on improvisations and hands-on controls instead of computer automation of certain stages, the two key figures of the Austin-based electronic outfit S U R V I V E strike a highly personal and recognizable tone.

Microscopic gems like Home or Symptoms (both from the 2nd season) demonstrate eloquently, that Dixon & Stein can create exquisite quasi-ambiental and hauntingly beautiful electronic melancholy with just a few tens of seconds of economic material.

The ominous main theme has become a synthesizer hit in its own right, receiving a big nod also from the electronic maestros of Tangerine Dream in the form of a splendid cover version. Tracks like Soldiers land us in the world of early-to-mid-80s Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Firestarter and The Keep.

Whilst Kyle & Dixon can coax out of their analogue keyboards and ample modular gear such typically '80s-sounding, intentionally back-referencing and catchy synthesizer tunes, they also produce musical moments of utter darkness and menacing glory - after all, among the myriad elements successfully combined in the TV series, science fiction and horror combine to great effect.

The Upside Down or Descent Into The Rift are such musical moments of menacing eeriness, but Kyle & Dixon can counterpoint such sonic journeys with at the same time nostalgic and wonderfully worry-free musical moments like Kids and Walkin' in Hawkins.

Tracks like She Wants Me to Find Her or One Blink For Yes are achieving the seemingly impossible on their own, without the images: despite their short length, they are structurally perfectly constructed, develop hauntingly beautiful minimalist themes and even after they fade, they leave behind emotional impacts usually only reserved to elaborately long pieces.

What Else Did You See or Eggo in The Snow are also tiny tracks that demonstrate an enormous dose of empathy for the characters, and manage to project via sound their inner states.

In many ways a  central notable feature of this soundtrack is what it could have been (i.e. what it successfully avoided) and what it is not.

Dixon & Stein could have gone for wall-to-wall electronica, they could have gone for catchy cuteness, or for an '80s synth pop feel - as many electronic soundtracks have done so, then and now during the '80s revival.

Instead, they avoid the stereotypical sonic treatments and manage to produce a long series of tiny electronic gems that go from high-octane action to thundering menace to subtle ambiences and delicate, almost fragile, musical constructs of astounding simplicity and emotional effectiveness at the same time.

While they had the not so simple task (technologically and otherwise) to recreate instantly recognisable and time-accurate sound worlds of the era that the action takes place in, they could have approached it via the easier route: creating a replica sound with noticeably superficial earworm-hunting - after all, that's what many in so-called synthwave genre do nowadays.

However, the result is highly imaginative, uses its historic accuracy and its specific references with great restraint, while the music actually stays fresh, emotionally involved, non-intrusive and effective.

There is talk of a third and possibly even fourth series, so while the script writers have their work cut out (to what new heights can they elevate the story set within its both time and location-wise very limited Universe), it will be an interesting puzzle also for the music...

If the duo keep their approach heard so far in the first two seasons, and continue not to be whisked away by the very sound world they so carefully constructed, then one can be certain that '80s superficial electronic stereotypes will continue to be avoided successfully.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (in the background) - photo: Sound on Sound

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tangerine Dream - The Sessions I.

It may seem like an overstatement after fifty years of existence and a vast discography, but Tangerine Dream's new release, The Sessions I., represents a truly key moment.

The electronic legends released their first live album, Ricochet, in 1975.

Around the time when other legendary pioneers were using sequencers for intentionally static patterns (Kraftwerk), for abstract fluid textures (Klaus Schulze) or pulsating melodic motifs to punctuate floating soundscapes (Jean-Michel Jarre), Tangerine Dream were creating something eminently different.

Ricochet and subsequent live albums by the band have shown a unique approach to electronic live music.

TD were producing high-octane sequencer-based improvised materials, with sequencers having been actually played on stage - such that the mind-bending multiple patterns were jamming hand in hand with electric guitar solos and keyboard improvisations.

The reason why The Sessions I. album is a notable moment is that the band, after a few decades of live renditions of studio album tracks, have returned to that dazzling art of extra-long improvised live compositions. After a session recorded and released on the album Particles, this is an hour-long journey.

The two, around half an hour long and largely improvised, tracks by Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane were recorded during the Edgar Froese memorial concert held in 2017 in Budapest and during a later live performance in Hong Kong.

If one makes here some references to albums of the past, it must be emphasized: this is not because the new album is a self-imitating nostalgia trip trying to just resurrect some old sounds for the long-standing fans... The references are being made merely because they may, to some extent, be suggestive of the tone and mood of the soundscapes on this album.

The opening track Blue Arctic Danube is something we have not heard for some decades, and again Ricochet or Encore spring to mind. This, in itself, is quite something, but even more remarkable is the fact that the material sounds fresh and brings a unique sound even in the electronic music scene of 2017.

Fans can immediately and instantly conclude, this is absolutely characteristic Tangerine Dream - from the first ambient textures to the trademark intertwined sequencer patterns to the arrival of achingly beautiful and softly played mellotron sounds (or of its digital resurrection rather, the Memotron).

The 30-minute musical journey is phenomenal, and without any previous knowledge of TD discography, one can be taken on a dazzling trip across many inner states - from mellow meditation to highly energetic pulsating sonic roller coaster rides to cinematic vistas constructed from sounds.

It is light-years above the way in which even now many use electronics and sequencers on stage - and with the live improvisation bringing in the various building blocks in a, one can safely say, typical Tangerine Dream manner, the listener cannot avoid being drawn into the musical dialogue that happens between the band's current three members.

Gladiatorial Dragon is of a different tonal register and it, too, is of a highly satisfying duration of just under 30 minutes - and fans of the Poland live album may perk up immediately, when they hear what is unleashed in this track.

While it starts with deceptively soft choir-like harmonies, a typical sneaky appearance of metallic sequencer patterns tells us something big is about to happen.

Well, indeed, TD never lets fans down when they decide to tease with such build-up. We know something is coming, and, by god of electronica, it does arrive.

The ultra-high-energy improvisation unleashed by the trio lifts the roof, this is electronic rock without electric guitars - but instead of guitar pedals being put through their paces, here we have nonstop changing filters driven into whistling self-oscillations, envelopes tightening and loosening the grip on the onslaught of sequencer notes, ring modulations and who knows what else unleashed by humans on their state-of-the-art electronic gear.

Yes, while it sounds highly technical, this is again a superlative lesson in how to make eminently electronic music in eminently human and passionate manner, without sliding into merely abstract sonic explorations or safely staying in the realm of some crowd-pleasing rhythmic content.

Nothing stands still in either of the two long tracks, one can hear the humans on stage improvising with vast powers at their fingertips and playing with and against each others' musical parts, as a jazz-rock band would.

If there was a live album in  the electronic music of the 21st century that can demonstrate to skeptics how the apparent contradiction between the nature of technology and the needs of highly organic live improvisations can be eliminated, then The Sessions I. is it.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Gary Numan's Savage - and a tale of music categorisation

Normally Gary Numan would need no introduction.

However, a recent clash between the rigid categories some operate with and the creativity that characterises the likes of Gary Numan perhaps warrants one - just to put in context a wider point to be made here...

It is a tale of how a label, which once described the most innovative and category-defying music, could be gradually so narrowed by some music industry machinery that it describes, at best, a single musical stereotype.

Normally we have had labels widen so much that they became all-inclusive. Thus they have lost all meaning due to the music industry's attempts of filling the new box with anything they could not fit into other rigid boxes.

Here, though, we have the remarkable opposite trend in its terminal stages.

As one of the most notable names in electronica, with a long list of names from Prince to Trent Reznor to Marilyn Manson quoting him as key influence, Gary Numan is to electronic music what Philip K. Dick is to the more philosophical section of science-fiction literature.

Although Numan is an artist who has had a key role in bringing electronic music into the mainstream pop culture, his dystopian visions, introspective lyrics coupled with his instantly recognisable sonic Universe elevated him way beyond electro-pop - ever since his Tubeway Army mega-hits up to his latest concept album.

Savage (Songs From A Broken World) is again a dystopian and mesmerisingly philosophical work, with musical elements that range from the familiar but characteristic Numan sonic palette to Middle-Eastern flavours.

A superb follow-up to Splinter, again with Ade Fenton in the producer's chair, we get thought-provoking meditations on our world and our existence, while the music takes us from electronic rock constructs to symphonic heights that linger in one's mind long after the record stopped playing.

However, being a distinctive voice nowadays can clash with the mechanical image certain music "specialists" have about the Universe.

Billboard, the well-known chart company, needs no introduction either.

Their definitions of album sales are nowadays desperate and gloriously inept attempts of moulding and bending eminently outdated music industry business models onto the new rapidly changing shapes of the digital world inhabited by its digital consumers.

As difficult as it may seem, Billboard recently managed to surpass themselves in their attempts to define this, to use a physics analogy, intricate quantum physics-governed world with rigid Newtonian models.

They have decided that Gary Numan's new album does not fit their dance/electronica category. As they expressed it, the album is basically "not electronic", instead it fits in the rock/alternative category.

The technical details happen to be such that around 95% of the album has been produced on and with electronic instruments, by one of the most recognisable electronic artists of the last four decades. As Gary Numan himself has rightly pointed out, it is the most electronic record since his album The Pleasure Principle (1979).

But the problem revealed by the Billboard absurdity is wider than any debate about one's list of one's studio gear.

The telling and worrying aspect is that key names in the music industry are grasping at labels that used to denote the most boundless, experimental or more mainstream, sonic world.

While they grasp at these labels, in an attempt to rigidly categorise the vastly varied palette used by electronic artists, they end up narrowing and narrowing the field of view.

Electronic, in their  rapidly shrinking understanding, basically can only mean dance - but even EDM, electronic dance music, is a ludicrously meaningless label nowadays as it has countless vastly different sub-genres and styles.

Unless an artist fits into this ultra-narrow box, even the likes of Billboard need to resort to a radical re-categorisation - Gary Numan and Depeche Mode are now "rock/alternative"... Listening to their recent two albums make this categorisation a superb absurd tragicomedy.

We have had categories like progressive rock widening, widening, until they lost all meaning as they just became a bucket for music industry luminaries to shove any out-of-the-box creation into.

The same happened to new age, starting out with a defined (albeit dubious) scope and intent, but ending up with artists like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis being categorised as such...

Remember alternative rock? The one where musicians ended up all looking and, rapidly, sounding the same and far from being alternative expressions of anything?

However, the recent Gary Numan episode is showing something very different.

Instead of desperately widening the meaning of a, hence increasingly rendered meaningless, category, they end up constricting a vast category to something that becomes an ultra-narrow one.

They can only fit inside it a tiny subset of just one stereotypical mainstream incarnation of what the musical genre really used to denote.

The wider and more imaginative that genre was once, the narrower its actual use as a label has become.

The darkest effect of this mental constriction, stemming from still not updated business models and patterns of thoughts that go with it, is that it started to feed back on itself.

The major names in the music industry, the likes of Billboard, have become eminently irrelevant in the greater scheme - but until their irrelevance is final, unfortunately they are still affecting musicians - and how they are judged by other elements of the rusting echo chambers that Billboard & Co operate in.

Artists producing imaginative electronica without dance loops and archetypal arrangements are placing themselves outside the one and only rigid, narrowed to a point of singularity, box tthat he mainstream music industry can think in.

One has to wonder what cataclysmic infliction changed the same music industry giants from celebrators and promoters of the most innovative and stylistically boundless music into dangerous automatons that can only imagine that music as something confined to their mental image of a dance floor...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Carbon Based Lifeforms...far from Derelicts

After a prolonged break (with the exception of some notable remastered versions of earlier albums), the categorisation-defying Swedish duo Carbon Based Lifeforms is back in full force.

Indeed, with their discography rooted in the more "ambient" side of the electronic music spectrum, but nevertheless often offering eminently head-bobbing-inducing tracks, too, one could wonder what the announced album Derelicts would sound like.

Instead of a departure into some stereotypical electronica, Derelicts is a 12-track album of quite some integrity and instantly recognisable as a CBL creation.

While Accede opens the album with that characteristic sound and patient development of hypnotically repetitive textures and sequences, CBL fans will be glad to encounter later on quite a variety of moods and tones...

Parts of Clouds or Nattvรคsen have references to, and echoes of, sound worlds first heard on World of Sleepers and Twentythree.

Equilibrium has that slow and rather irresistibly hypnotising rhythm one may have heard on the album Hydroponic Gardens.

The title track is really a stand-out piece, CBL at their most majestic and flowing at the same time, with deceptively simple, but anthemic, melodic progression lifting the track after its ambiental beginnings.

For a more abstract and eminently ambient sonic trip, Path of Least Resistance is a keeper - with a vast sonic landscape that reminds one of VLA and Twentythree.

One does not stop being amazed by the sense of melancholy mixed with majestic electronic soundscapes that CBL can infuse tracks with: ~42° is a perfect example of how the by now characteristic sonic elements are blended seamlessly by the electronic duo.

The structure of the album is also quite noteworthy, the soaring, uplifting tracks frame very nicely the quieter ambient works, plotting quite well a sonic journey through different states.

For example, 780 Days returns to the energetic opening sections of the album and lifts us out of the reverie, but there are no harsh edges and no sudden transitions - everything, as any CBL fan would rightly expect, flows very nicely.

Similarly, Rayleigh Scatterers and Dodecahedron provide melodic laid-back repose between more introspective tracks.

The mastering job done on the album is of a quality one would expect, the thunderous bass and percussion in tracks like 780 Days sit very well with the subtle and very refined ambient sonic elements.

This makes the album feel quite dreamy and light in places, even when the actual electronic sound palette is darker and more ominous.

CBL have found a very rare and specific register, like an elusive and mythical register on a mighty organ: Derelicts is, again, an eminently electronic album where technology does not take over, but from shaping subtle quasi-transparent constructs to processing sounds of thundering echoes of vast spaces, technology serves the artistic intent.

The result is, once again, a sonic world with a very personal touch and without the faintest sign of wanting to get lost in any commercial trend of electronica, whichever has been raging out there, outside the CBL sonic Universe, during the years that passed since the Refuge soundtrack album.

As the duo have reported in the recent past, the album would have been shorter but in its last creative stages suddenly a new track was born that simply had to be included on what has become a 12-track album in the end.

Overall, zero shortage of imagination again, and while keeping eminently characteristic CBL sound going through the entire album, there are no direct self-references - hence Derelicts feels thoroughly fresh.

It is a huge relief, that with the so-called "revolutions" (i.e. regurgitations of decades-old electronic music genres and style) like synthwave and such, some names keep looking forward instead of backward - and look at technology as a tool for creating new sonic visions (as contradictory as the term may sound).