Sunday, 11 December 2016

Peter Baumann's Machines of Desire

Perhaps not quite literally after decades of absence (as he has produced and collaborated on some albums in recent years), Peter Baumann returned with a solo album. For Tangerine Dream afficionados, it really was a several decades-long pause.

Machines of Desire (with a perhaps unintentional hint of a classic Ray Bradbury tale's title, The Machineries of Joy) is a surprising affair.

Above all, it is an honest album on which Baumann has kept to his individual voice, without drifting (or downright flying) into current mainstream electronica - as Chris Franke and Edgar Froese have done in recent (but quite numerous) years.

It is a Peter Baumann album - not a dancey Baumann-esque album, not a Tangerine Dream-esque trip down memory lane, not electronic nostalgia and not a nod to populist electronic genres.

Much darker than the few Peter Baumann solo albums' material, much more cohesive in mood and structure, it really has the melodic and dramatic developments that sound familiar from his early solo albums. In this sense, after quite some decades, he seems to keep a remarkably stable voice and style.

Also, while it has sonorities and particular synth patches matching exactly some sounds heard on the by now vintage Transharmonic Nights, it is a contemporary album.

Tangerine Dream fans will recognise (especially on the second track, Searching in Vain) the characteristic, almost trademark, sounds of the PPG Wave and the familiar sequencer patterns. In some ways, this track is the most direct reference to the TD years.

The rhythms and melodies have that catchy Baumann signature, deceptively simple motifs that stay in one's head for a long time, without being cheesy or too playful (as in some of his early solo material).

There are processed choirs, vocoders reminiscent of parts of the ultra-rare The Keep soundtrack (the third track will jog our memory), precise sequencer and drum machine parts.

His orchestrations are refreshing in the current electronic mass production. Fast rotary speaker-altered pianos (remember Rubycon and Phaedra?) with vintage vocoders and mellotrons sit very comfortably with dark, state-of-the-art synthesized textures and organic woodwinds.

It is experimenting more bravely than some of its predecessors (not that there were many Baumann albums to refer to in this sense) - some of the darker and atmospheric parts from Transharmonic Nights stage a return in terms of mood, for example the opening track (The Blue Dream) and Echoes in the Cave.

Ordinary Wonder is perhaps the most surprisingly Transharmonic Nights-sounding track. Its melody, its playfulness, and even the synth patches remind one of that 1979 little gem. The ominous development and tense sequencers are a splendid little treat almost in the very middle of the album.

Overall, while the album may not at all be a 'wonder' in the current landscape of electronic albums, it is not an ordinary one at all.

Going back to the earlier point, it is a neat LP-length sonic package... Don't expect to be rocked to your foundation by it, but while satisfying our nostalgia of the perhaps golden era of Tangerine Dream albums, it is bringing a still fresh and bravely experimental Peter Baumann into our living room. Or wherever one may be listening to Machines of Desire...

Frankly, one was not expecting this degree of integrity from an electronic musician staging a comeback - but there we have it, instead of embarking on a forced-sounding and, as in the case of some continuously active big names like Jarre, near-desperate riding of the waves of current mainstream electronica... we have a genuine through-and-through Peter Baumann album in 2016.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A third breath of Oxygene

The third installment of what has become by now the Oxygene trilogy was released on 2 December.

What made the first Oxygene enduring and extraordinary, even to ears coming across its fluid soundscapes 40 years later, was the fact that in many ways it placed itself outside the language of, albeit early, mainstream electronic music. It was eminently different with its other-wordly, yet accessible, soundscapes and fluid, bubbling, ever-changing structures.

Oxygene 2 was somewhat different, with synth-pop and dance music inflections. The third album cannot escape the compulsion of delving into utterly mainstream and utterly popular sub-genres of electronica.

Its opening is surprising, and surprisingly pleasing, with its scintillating sonic fragments and melodic elements that pop in and out of the sound stage.

The phased vintage string machine pads are present in various places in the album, vintage white noise sweeps and percussion elements, and even the instantly recognizable Elka Synthex (which made Rendez-Vous so magnificent sounding) makes an appearance a few times.

There is pleasing amount of experimentation, there are tracks that sound as if arpeggiators' patterns were chopped randomly to pieces and the melodic fragments bubble up unpredictably from the depth of closing and opening filters.

However, the predictable appearance of in-your-face electronic dance music tracks are quite jarring again. The lush soundscapes being suspended by trendy thumping of not only predictable, but terribly banal and already over-used, beat patterns is not exactly a positive effect. There is Jarre inventiveness at work, but the cliched drum patterns are just too... cliched to ignore.

As with Oxygene 2, the complete changes in mood and direction with much too ordinary dancey interludes manage to utterly ruin the otherwise cohesive flow of the album.

The changes in dynamics and effervescence is not a problem, even the first album had its gear shifts that were perfectly blended with the other tracks - but it would be great to hear any intriguing or innovative spins on mainstream electronica, instead the very tired deja-entendu patterns.

As someone remarked about the deplorable Theo & Thea album some years ago, it would be good to leave the forays into dance electronica to those who do it best - and with innovative ideas.

Otherwise, if we discount the jarring (and unfortunately jarringly banal) outings into EDM territory, Oxygene 3 is again quite a remarkable achievement with eminently state-of-the-art technology behind it.

It is quite endearing, that Jarre in 2016 can still stay fresh and full of ideas, and we tend to take for granted the not everyday feast of being able to keep up to speed with the exponential increase (and at extremely fast pace) of electronic sound producing software and hardware.

It sets an example to many electronic musicians who not only get stuck in their ways, but even start out with genre cliches and are are completely in the grips of the technology that they choose to use.

Imaginative, ever-changing, fluid and surprising in many places - Oxygen 3 delivers. If only we could somehow make abstraction of the intrusions of off-the-shelf EDM sonorities that pop up in a few places...

Saturday, 19 November 2016

40 years of Oxygene

Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene was released 40 years ago... and, something that very few synth concept albums succeded, it sounds futuristic even today.

Before the more recent adventures into more commercial electronic music that Jarre has taken fans onto, Oxygene stands out as a minimalist, yet intricate and delicate, electronic symphony.

After Oxygene 2, which introduced some recent mainstream elements into what set out to continue the concept, now comes Oxygene 3 - to be released on 2 December.

It is hard to predict exactly what we shall hear, but in Jarre's own words, "The idea was not to copy the first album, but rather keeping the dogma of embarking listeners on a journey from beginning to end with different chapters, all linked to each other."

Hopefully it will not sway too much into EDM-side of things, specifically trance music (perhaps the mainstream genre where Jarre's influence can be most felt). One might sound retro, but it would be splendid if Oxygene 3 integrates well with the previous two installments. It being released as a box set, which contains the first two albums, too, is perhaps a sign that it will not be radically different in its sonic journeys.

"I tried to keep this minimalist approach for Oxygene 3. Some moments are built around one or two elements, like in the first volume." , states Jarre. "What made the first Oxygene so different at the time, is probably the minimalist aspect, and the fact that there are almost no drums, and I wanted to keep this approach, creating the groove mainly with the sequences and the structure of the melodies only, through an architecture of sounds."

So there we have it... It certainly sounds as if it continues the tradition of the first two volumes (and the well-integrated improvised tracks on the In The Living Room version of the first).

After Electronica Vol 1 & 2, it will be very interesting to see this return to the 40-year-old concept and its unique sonic universe.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Vangelis: Rosetta - a review

The freshly released, signed copy of Vangelis's new studio album entitled Rosetta has just had its first couple of spins...

The concept album, as not long ago signaled on this blog, too, is dedicated to the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission - and it was triggered so-to-speak by a discussion between Vangelis and ESA astronaut René Kuipers in 2012.

Some of the tracks composed between 2012 and 2014 have been made available on the internet, so these gave fans a little insight into the mood of the planned album.

It does not disappoint at all... Whist it has all the elements of Vangelis's more recent orchestral style (e.g. the sonorities and characteristic arrangements we heard here and there in his Alexander soundtrack are present here, too), it does not commit the excesses of Mythodea...

The rich and emotional, characteristically electro-romantic, passages alternate with exquisitely delicate space music.

Listening to e.g. Sunlight or the opening track Origins, we hear the technologically and conceptually up-to-date version of the spacey Vangelis of the late 1970s, with all the characteristic sensitivity and delicate care for every corner of his sonic world.

Between the atmospheric space-ambient soundscapes and the massive quasi-orchestral tides, we have memorable melodic tracks like Rosetta or Elegy that remind one of the delicate and catchy motifs heard on albums like El Greco (either the soundtrack to the film or his quite different studio album of same title).

In some of the early tracks on this album one finds quite some dose of intricate and fast arpeggiator use, with rapidly changing patterns, which we have not heard for quite some years in Vangelis tracks.

Perihelion is particularly interesting in this respect, with sequencer patterns and processed piano chords that will make Tangerine Dream fans perk up - especially as the chorused and rotary speaker-processed piano sound, with the bass sequencer pulses, is exactly what one can hear on Tangerine Dream classics like Rubycon. It is certainly a tribute to the space rock tracks of yesteryear, but it changes soon into a quiet meditation, then to resume its pulsating dynamism.

Elegy, after the tensions of Perihelion, is another gem of spacey meditation with delicate piano motifs - reminds one of the final tracks of El Greco (the studio album, not the soundtrack).

If the album started with a vast spacey overture, it ends with a floating, delicate piece, Return To The Void - the end of our sonic journey, until we press the play button again, of course... and it is very tempting to do so.

Yes, one can say that the album is a very digital affair, most of the sounds are eminently different from the former analog or analog-sounding patches - but with a typical warmth that always characterized Vangelis albums of even his most space-rock era.

It is a structurally and mood-wise impressively put together album, which resembles the sonic journeys that some of the Vangelis soundtrack albums take the listener on.

As Carl Walker from ESA mentioned about this album, when they played some of the tracks during Philae's landing: "When we put the images together with the music, we thought it was exactly how people would feel when they first saw the comet in close-up".

It is rather enchanting to hear Vangelis back in full force when it comes to visually inspiring, and originally visually inspired, concept albums.

Whilst his power to augment images with his music is well known and well appreciated, in this case, once again, Vangelis manages to create and augment imaginary visuals in the listener - even when the listener may not have ever seen any footage of the Rosetta mission...

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A welcome absence on Blade Runner 2 credits

Still from Blade Runner

Occasionally a cult classic film's soundtrack becomes a cult classic in its own right and lives on independently from the images.

One of the lasting examples is the soundtrack to Blade Runner, a film very loosely based on Philip K. Dick's classic novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Well, the great and seemingly incurable disease that affects the film industry nowadays, a disease that leads to the regurgitation of classics in order to make entirely unnecessary and inevitably flawed remakes, has entered a more acute phase.

Yes, The Magnificent Seven gets a more "ethnically diverse" remake, Ben Hur gets a... well, unclear why, but it gets a remake that is, as expected, an immediate flop with the critics and the public...

The more acute phase of this rather desperate illness is the making of sequels that attempt to "continue" the perfectly rounded script of some cult classic.

There was the Gone With The Wind sequel (a catastrophe of some proportions, from the novel that wanted to be a worthy sequel of the original classic to the film adaptation that promptly sunk into oblivion)... Now we have a Blade Runner sequel...

Decades after the passing of the unique visionary Ph. K. Dick, someone has the ambition to write a "continuation" to the story. And whilst Ridley Scott produces it, Denis Villeneuve directs it.

The postmodern absurdity has already begun, headlines trying to hype the film as something that  "will take care of the original's biggest mystery" - not realizing at all the very plain fact: the mentioned mystery is exactly what, in the director's cut edition, made Blade Runner into what it is.

That very mystery is what added to the film the philosophical depth of Dick's novel that was otherwise so entirely ignored in the film adaptation.

By saying that this "sequel" takes care of that mystery, the makers of Blade Runner 2 state very clearly just how pointless and devoid of any meaning the project is from its very inception.

However, one positive element in this entire disaster in the making is the confirmed absence of Vangelis.

We can place very solid bets on the quality and prompt sinking into oblivion of yet another desperate and absurd attempt to crack open and "expand" on the story that in both literary and cinematographic sense is as complete as it can possibly be. Credit to Villeneuve, he himself called it an "insane project".

At least the soundtrack shall have zero connection with the original, perhaps the only personal connection is that its composer, Johan Johannsson, considers Vangelis as one of his great influences.

Perhaps it is easy to be prejudiced, and hence it is a welcome the fact that Vangelis's unsurpassed score is not botched in any way by himself or someone else for the so-called sequel.

Anyone with aforementioned literary, philosophical or cinematographic expertise on the original can be understandably prejudiced - especially as one of the most intriguing aspects of the original is that the extremely few elements kept from Ph. K. Dick's novel actually work so splendidly in the film.

Nobody questions the award-winning Johannsson's musical abilities, especially considering his non-soundtrack work (albeit in a very familiar sounding minimalist vein that is frankly getting terribly boring and self-referencing in too many composers' output).

However, he has the not quite enviable job to score a remarkably futile film project, which will have all the hallmarks of current commercial trends of desperate blockbuster wannabe projects. What other reason would there be to make a sequel, if not this despair of milking old classics to death.

The fact that Blade Runner 2 (actual title not yet confirmed) will have this marked disconnect from the original's score is a fortunate development...

Not quite sure when Hollywood and some related film factories (if we may use this word for a moment) will cure themselves of this illness, but for now it seems we have to get used to the desperately forced sequels and "continuations".

Kudos to Vangelis for, intentionally or unintentionally, not being part of this absurd cinematic exercise.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Back in full, but gentle, force

Photo: Wing Shya, 2015

Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the unquantifiable living giants of music, stated just over two years ago that he has to withdraw from his numerous projects due to a throat cancer diagnosis.

In a characteristically humble manner, he was even apologizing to his fans for taking the "unavoidable decision" without being able to state a time frame for his return.

Last year came the superb news, that Sakamoto-san is feeling great and looking forward to returning to work.

The grand Master of infinitely subtle, gentle, but all the more poignant harmonies was back in full force.

His latest project, soon to be released via Milan Records (but already freely streamable), shows that Sakamoto-san is still very much at the dizzying heights of his creative, and above all, expressive force.

His soundtrack for Nagasaki: Memories Of My Son is breathtakingly poignant and emotional in the unique Sakamoto way... It is not a vast orchestral drama, it is not a wall-to-wall sentimental journey.

Instead, the exquisitely delicate, fragile, minimalist patterns, the incredibly restrained subtle orchestrations make it into a maximally powerful emotional journey.

The 28 short tracks to be released on the album are a series of gems that work on their own, too, and take us from the ethereal piano minimalism of How Are You? to the powerfully economical orchestral chords of Human-Induced Tragedy

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" said Leonardo da Vinci once... and Ryuichi Sakamoto is, once again, at his most sophisticated in the perfectly distilled apparent simplicity of these tiny pieces.

How can one create such imagery and subtle beauty with a few woodwind notes in Raindrops... or such deep sense of despair without any over-dramatisation in Giving Up ?

Sakamoto-san is truly back, in full force, but a force of such gentleness and of such delicate beauty, that one has to hope this is just one of many more musical journeys he will take us in coming years. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Prog Godliness

Image by Deborah Anderson

It is much easier to compile a list of music legends whom Jon Anderson has not collaborated with... as the list of collaborations spans from Vangelis to Kitaro to Mike Oldfield.

Plus there is the minor aspect of him having been the genre-defining Yes vocalist for many decades, sporting also a rich solo discography...

His unique and instantly recognizable voice is often instrumental, in the sense that, in the many cases where Jon Anderson is just producing sounds without actually singing words in any language, his voice acts as a rich and versatile instrument.

Some of the resulting unique sonic textures can be witnessed not only on Yes, but also on numerous collaboration albums.

When he does sing even the most banal lyrics in English language, the resulting vocals are projecting the track to entirely other levels... Let's think of just Mike Oldfield's In High Places or Shine, which, without Anderson's vocals, would have remained some run-of-the-mill pop tracks instead of ear-catching compact little sonic journeys.

Well, as of 1 September 2016, Jon Anderson is officially a Prog God :)... The Progressive Music Awards 2016, held in London just under the Globe Theatre, awarded the title to a true legend.

As he is about to reunite with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman, let's hope much more prog godliness will delect his long-standing and new fans...

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The legend is back...

After a long hiatus, the unsurpassed synth legend that is Vangelis is back with a new studio album...

It is said to be released on 23 September, and it is a project inspired by, and dedicated to, ESA's Rosetta probe launched in 2004.

The tracks so far released on the internet show that the music, as many fans expressed on forums, thankfully is not a bombastic symphonic score in the vein of the rather controversial Mythodea.

Whilst Vangelis always excelled in orchestral and quasi-orchestral creations, one has to go back to the '70s and '80s to find real emotional punch and intricate musical ideas in the few albums he released in this vein... The more recent output, with the exception of the score for 1492 Conquest of Paradise and El Greco (the studio album, not the soundtrack), was marked by hugely overblown arrangements where the emotional impact and the musical inventiveness has suffered at the expense of wall-to-wall orchestrations.

The teaser tracks (so far a few short excerpts on Youtube) show that this is not a return to the vintage Albedo 0.39 and such space music albums from Vangelis. It sounds like a through-and-through contemporary affair, and the orchestral passages sound more like the epic and passionate sounds of El Greco.

Rosetta's Waltz also shows that, again unlike Mythodea, we shall be treated to incomparably more melodic content and passionate driving arrangements reminiscent of the Vangelis albums of yesteryear.

Let's see how the full album hangs together - alas, we have to wait a couple of months until then...

Deep Mind to the 12th power

Screengrab from Behringer teaser video No. 5

A slight detour into gearheads' territory, as such news don't come around very often.

In 2014, originally based on an interview in, rumours started about Behringer working on an analogue synth.

In 2015, there have been wonderings and wanderings on forums, whether the plans are still "on" or it's all been forgotten.

Well, mid-2016 it is all reality. Cue the to-be-released DeepMind12 analogue splendour...

Whopping 12 voices in an analogue synth, which seems also aided, even augmented according to first impressions (see 5th teaser video below), by digital effects.

So after many years of mixing desks and other audio gizmos of quite respectable caliber, now a whopping synth beast is in the making in their product portfolio.

It appears to have arpeggiator and undoubtedly some more digital control 'oomph', too - if they bolted onto it such a display and digital effects module... Step sequencing please? Pretty please? :)

It will be presented in October it seems, and judging from the videos, it is claimed to have a very "organic" feel when played.

So apart from gearhead enthusiasm, it is yet another "retro" synth beast and it will be interesting to see price point and features compared to e.g. Korg current offering.

The 5 teaser videos so far released by Behringer are below:






Monday, 25 July 2016

A new underground

WEATNU or "We Are The New Undergound" is a notable development in the rapidly diversifying independent and underground music scene. At its roots, it stands for the more avantgarde, less mainstream, electronic music - as difficult it is to sometimes draw a line between the two.

Emerging with its internet radio and social network presence, and its digital magazine, it has its roots in the avant-garde, and focuses on the art-form of the musician.

It is growing rapidly, as it is about helping the electronic artist through exposure., accepting diverse underground styles from Synthpop to EBM, DnB, IDM, Industrial, Leftfield and avant-garde, indie pop, dreamwave, shoegaze, Indierock, Ethereal, House, Deephouse, Synthwave, even mod music, tracker music, etc.

It is completely free to be part of, and in the landscape of ultra-commercial (and far from indie) music, it is an exciting development - just judging from the number of talents it acquired in its various forums over the past months, it is testament to the tireless work of Almark Thaolen, its founder and curator.

It has just released its first summer compilation CD, too, which alongside endeavours like the Ambient Online yearly compilation initiative curated in the US, give an insight into a rather non-mainstream electronic music scene.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Feeding digital vultures

After two busy summer months, finally returning with a topic that may be of some help to indie/unsigned musicians...

As the late Umberto Eco famously and astutely put it, the internet gives you everything - reliable material and crazy material. One would add, some crazy material is not only unreliable, but it actively seeks your money... for dubious services that contradict basic logic of (in this case) music industry and marketing.

In the case of budding musicians wishing to promote their creations, this far from positive take on the internet's wonders applies very much when it comes to the digital vultures that try to capitalize on musicians' aspirations.

The classic recipe is ubiquitous, unfortunately: myriad so-called "push promotion" websites, twitter accounts and the like try to make musicians believe that they shall make the musicians' creations known to N (N is usually a very eye-watering large number) individuals, organisations, forums etc.

No matter how much one wishes to promote one's beloved musical or other output, one has to ask the fundamental question before clicking on some payment button: even if it is true, what do the recipients of these so-called "promotional" services' messages, tweets etc. think? How do they act when they are bombarded indiscriminately by these myriad messages, all promoting myriad artists they never heard of?

It is a rhetoric question. Please, please, do not feed these vultures... If you find them on forums and blogs, mentioning how many "genuine" cases they made famous, most of those are made up usually or... they represent an infinitesimal proportion of artists that via other channels usually "landed" some sought-after objective for themselves.

Look at the case of licensing services, too - the fundamental rule is that if they promise you licensing deals, placements in adverts, films etc., they must not ask you upfront fees. Any, any, reputable and real agency will make their money by representing that artist - yes, yes, it sounds simple and very basic, but it is astonishing how many budding artists end up feeding these vultures.

Let's just name GoDIY Records here as it is something highly representative of the very professional-looking and -sounding carrot dangling outfits. Because I had the dubious honor of being contacted by them very recently, the email exchanges are highly representative and are a perfect summary of how these outfits' business model runs - and would share the classic steps in shutting their attempts down:

Step 1: Highly professional-looking email, with links to websites and social media profiles. Offering the Moon on a very pleasantly shaped stick, but, beware: setup fees and monthly fees.

Step 2: If the artist asks about these fees' justification, further emails, even very touchingly personal phone calls may follow (!). One feels utterly flattered by such attention. They waive the hefty setup fee, offering to only take monthly membership...

Step 3: If the artist asks: have they even listened to my music and can they describe how it fits their clients' needs?... The answer is usually vague: "we found your tracks on xy (e.g. ReverbNation and the like) sites", and "your sound" is perfect...

Step 4: Artist ask them: how come they have not googled or looked in myriad other places where the music is reachable, why do they build a vague and sweeping opinion based on one or two tracks on an anyway dubious "artist promotion" website? Reaction: usually silence and communication ends.

Step 5 may follow sometimes: Ask them how do they differentiate themselves from other "services" that need upfront fees for the honor of being "represented" and are simply praying on budding artists? Result: usually silence and all communication ends. At least with the mentioned outfit, this, instead of a reply detailing their business model and "success stories", resulted in the (very much expected) silence.

Budding musicians, please, no matter how enticing some vultures sound, please, do ask the pertinent questions.

Corner them.

Use their own rhetoric and probe, probe, probe.

What have you got to lose?

A genuine service (never mind that it would never want money upfront) would be able to answer the basic, but surprisingly effective, probing questions.

You do not offend them. If they are in the business and if they are professional, they a) fully appreciate your objective queries, and their motivations, b) they are after your music and they do not just drop you because of some justified probing questions. If they do, it is already a sign that you should stay well away from them!

The internet has brought countless such digital vultures and, alas, judging by their number, they are making a living because indie/unsigned musicians are feeding them...

Friday, 10 June 2016

Of two poles


Vangelis, in one of his '80s interviews, stated quite aptly that a lot of development has gone into electronic instruments, but what he really lacked in synth producers' output was the effort put into making the instruments, well, really musical instruments for musicians...

A lot has changed since, and by not only going for the usual "endorsements" from keyboardists but also involving them in the creative process, synth makers have been releasing gear that could increasingly be seen as intuitive instruments. With the exponentially increasing complexity of the synth engines, this was obviously not an easy achievement...

Apart from this obvious evolution that we now take for granted whenever we approach a new synth beast, there has been an intriguing polarisation of the gear landscape.

One one extreme, we have what one may call the "total" syndrome (as in some toothpastes). Forgive the analogy for a tiny moment... and let us think of e.g. Korg's Kronos workstation. A mighty beast by any measure, and a major evolutionary step after the already unprecedented M3's achievements.

However, it is philosophically belonging to this "total" approach: let us cram as many as possible synth engines into it, integrate them nicely, make a revolutionary change of direction toward expandable/upgradeable software rather than focusing on mainly hardware updates.

Musicians in certain genres may never use the myriad Hammond organs, nor the myriad piano or physical modelling capabilities, hence ignoring some if not most of the packed-together synth engines.

Something like Kronos wants to do everything, albeit in an integrated way, but without major customisation possibilities in the sense that e.g. some musicians in certain genres may wish to only pay for some of the synth engines, whilst enjoying what the user interface and the operating system offers. As long as this "total" approach does not take one away from the focus on what musicians really need as users, then fine...

On the other extreme, we have the small, focused, sometimes tiny and bordering on the irresistibly cute, synths... Think of Roland's Boutique series, Korg's analogue (and analogue modelling) gear released in the past few months, or the interesting comeback of hardware sequencers and, generally speaking, the revival of the "oldies and goldies"... Even Minimoog Model D has seen a re-release few weeks ago...

Therefore, personally, it will be very interesting to see where the next evolutionary step comes from and just what the next strategic step will be. Also, personally, one hopes it will not be the direction of the, again forgive the closest analogy, "total" toothpastes with added endless series of comma-separated words that were not in the after-all-not-so-total previous products...

The risk is that workstation landscape will shift toward this latter nightmare-ish scenario that will take us backward, focusing away from what was becoming more and more instrument-like despite its inner complexities... One hopes that with the trend seen so far, the big names shifting the big workstations will not be seduced by such marketing race, i.e. cramming more and more into same or updated hardware.

If the success of "total" workstations will be seductive and make strategists take this latter path of bloating the beasts without really thinking of the musicians' needs, hence inevitably, as seen many times in the past, sacrificing usability, spontaneity and playability in favour of feature lists... then that would definitely be a huge step back.

As Klaus Schulze said few decades ago, when digital gear was seemingly taking over the world and there was seemingly no return, one does not want to stop for minutes, or, one may add, tens of minutes, for poking around menu systems in order to set something up. Hopefully neither "total" magnificent workstation beasts, nor the specialised little beasts will take that route again...

Monday, 23 May 2016

Resurrection of an Analogue

Photo: Engadget
Klaus Schulze (in)famously entitled one of his 1980s tracks Death of an Analogue... whilst entirely switched to digital gear, for a while at least... before reversed the admittedly overdone hasty switch-over...

In recent years we have seen a series of analogue revivals, after a long analogue modelling era... Most big names, just to think of Korg and Roland, have released "true" analogue synths and/or revived classics.

Now Moog, as also presented at the recent Moogfest, have revived the legendary Minimoog Model D. Well, actually the first ever Minimoog model that has seen the light of day as far as the public is concerned (previous models were prototypes).

Whilst it retains the original circuitry, it has a few additions like dedicated LFO and, of course, MIDI.

Aside from the news of the most recent resurrection of a true classic, on the surface one may feel that the rapid and increasing analogue revival trend is somehow the opposite of an expected continuous innovation in the field of electronic instruments...

As someone commented on a MusicRadar article, it is the pinnacle of irony how some artists and producers rave about their love for the vintage analogue sound, whilst they compress the life out of the music material...

However, this clash of worlds is not new by any means. There will be nostalgic adventures in what represents the past for many, there will be excesses and mistaken philosophies in using the vintage classics or the brand new 'true' analogue beasts.

As long as the market does not drive the manufacturers to a point where they scale back investment in innovation, while chasing the trend-guaranteed quick buck with their resurrected classics, nor do we increasingly define (as annoyingly certain camps do) the most here-and-now sound as the one based on the use of retro gear, it's fine...

Let's not forget that there have also been hundreds, if not thousands, of man-years of effort invested into the digital modelling of the vintage classics, whether in the form of HW or SW products - so in that sense, perhaps with different affordability in some cases, the resurrection of the 'real' things seems to make more sense... and one hopes that the research & development efforts can then go into the new innovative gear rather...

Surely, some riding the trend hastily and opportunistically get close to the point of heralding the Death of a Digital in a (misconceived) world where just using the vintage classics is automatically chic... but once the initial overshoots of the system settle, even in the case of this new-by-revival movement, we shall get the real gems, as always...

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

2016 Moog Innovation Award goes to Gary Numan

Photo: LaRoache Brothers (Woolhouse Studios)
Moog Music has just named Gary Numan as the recipient of the 2016 Moog Innovation Award.

The British synth music pioneer, whose seminal debut albums in the late 1970s have set a novel tone within the emerging electronic music genre, has been a consistently unique voice in what has rapidly become a vast landscape of imaginative records.

His darker, yet instantly accessible and recognisable, influential sound was not the result of some superficial stylistical choice. For me, Numan has always been the Philip K. Dick of electronic music - a dark, to some perhaps on the surface 'cold' sounding electronica, yet actually deeply human and, above all, deeply concerned with the human condition. As in the case of Dick's seminal science fiction, in Numan's works we find complex meditations on the (increasingly) difficult relationship between humans and the technological environment they created around them.

It is a quite special achievement, as it is the the case of Dick's works, too, that Numan's meditations, some dating back almost four decades, are currently more relevant and poignant than ever.

It so happens, that Gary Numan has actually began his experimentations with an early Moog synth he found in a studio - and it triggered in him, as he described in recent interviews, too, an instant realisation of its potentials and creative possibilities.

"Replacing guitars with heavily effected synthesizers, Numan’s early work is almost single handedly responsible for introducing post-punk electronica into the popular consciousness, while propelling synth music beyond Prog Rock to inspire the wave of 80s synth pop that soon followed. His impact on the three generations of music since can’t be understated.", writes Moog Music, "Gary Numan is a manifestation of electronic culture’s progressive nature to explore the limits of traditional sound and develop new mechanisms for expression."

The Award will be presented on 22 May at this year's Moogfest.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Remembering Isao Tomita (1932-2016)

Isao Tomita, a Japanese synthesizer pioneer who achieved world fame with his over 20 studio albums, has died age 84.

He literally brought synths to Japan, and apart from his soundtrack work, his unique and even today unparalleled electronic re-imaginings of classical works made his name globally recognised.

Tomita was the first Japanese artist nominated for Grammy, actually four Grammys (for his 1974 Debussy-inspired album Snowflakes are Dancing).

One must say "re-imaginings"... His synth transcriptions of Debussy, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Bach, to pick just a very few, are light years away from what one traditionally understands as transcriptions.

One critic once said that Tomita's works were "too perfect" - even if unintentional, this was a perfect compliment. The synthesizer poems were musically perfect, following in every detail the original scores... However, where Tomita truly set himself apart from the other electronic artists who chose to re-work classics was his unparalleled way of projecting the works into a mesmerising astral sound world, perfectly capturing the original works' artistic intent and mood.

It is perhaps a sacrilege to purists' ears to say that Tomita often augmented the original works' emotional effect.

Whilst sometimes he has taken more liberties with the materials, combining different sources into compositions on a certain theme (as he did on the Kosmos album for example), his faithful electronic re-imaginings of e.g. Debussy and Mussorgsky are to this day unsurpassed.

In a way that extremely few synth artists managed in the heroic '70s and '80s, Tomita demonstrated that electronic music can indeed be deeply human, emotional, thought-provoking and imagination-stimulating at the same time.

As a personal note... must say that as a teenager listening to electronic music as fantastic escapism from the realities of a totalitarian dictatorship, for me Tomita, too, was one of the synth artists I must remain forever grateful for the sonic journeys they took me on.

Isao Tomita kept working into his 80s, even before his passing he was working on Dr. Coppelius with premiere scheduled for November this year.

Tomita passed away of heart failure, surrounded by his family.

Photo: Michael Ochs / Getty Images

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Jean Michel Jarre - Electronica Vol. 2

The second installment of Jean-Michel Jarre's major collaborative project has freshly been released on 6 May, and it follows the volume entitled Time Machine.

Perhaps it is a sacrilege to start with a review of the second volume, but personally, not only it feels more cohesive than the first, but also, it brings back a certain majestic feel that he, and very few other, practitioners of electronic music have managed to infuse their compositions with. 

The list of collaborators is, once again, large and illustrious: from Gary Numan to Hans Zimmer to The Orb, there are many legendary names on the track listing.

The flow of this album, from its rather beautiful and economic opening theme right to its reprise heard in the final track, is perhaps much more heroic and even anthemic than the rather caleidoscope-like first volume. 

This is by no means an exhaustive track-by-track review, but one has to pick out a number of tracks to illustrate the span of the material on the album...

There are of course incursions into very strong, driving, and at the same time rather dark, rhythms, too. Exit, featuring Edward Snowden's poignant monologue, is a good example where the very fast-paced electronic background would serve as a perfect soundtrack to a high-octane video illustrating the octets of internet traffic circulating in the myriad network fibres...

However, when one would expect some typical electro-pop when looking at the collaborators listed on some tracks, the surprises keep coming.

Brick England (feat. The Pet Shop Boys) is, with all its lighter tone after the anthemic album intros, a perfect blend of softly melancholic vocal lines and more animated electronics, the tension between the two working superbly. 

Swipe To The Right (feat. Cyndi Lauper) is, again, by no means an '80s or '90s synth-pop tune... Surprisingly, it is rather darker and keeps the album's overall (in a good sense) heroic thrust. What perhaps surprised one the most was the sudden emergence, at the very end of the track, of phased vintage strings and electronic percussion patterns typical of Oxygene.

In the somewhat expected to be "heavier" and darker register, we are not let down... Here For You (feat. Gary Numan) is an instant classic, with Numan's soaring vocals and the almost ode-like electronic backing making yet another very memorable track that would have worked perfectly on any, at the same time dark and uplifting, Numan albums, too.

Why This, Why That and Why? (feat. Yello) takes us to the realms of existentialist meditation, along the lines of what one may have experienced emotionally when listening to Daft Punk's Touch (from Random Access Memories), Here, too, the text, the vocal quality and the electronic atmospherics underpinning the monologue work extremely well for a mood piece.

A purely, in a way ambiental, mood piece of soundscapes and voices, bringing hommage to the electronic instrument creators Leon Theremin and Bob Moog, is the Switch on Leon (feat. The Orb). These Creatures (feat. Julia Holter) starts with a sonic surprise, when for a few seconds of her vocals we may think we landed in Laurie Anderson's O Superman... but the track evolves rapidly into a blend of crystalline vocals by Julia and gentle electronics in the background

There is even a pinch of Hollywood greatness here... Electrees (feat. Hans Zimmer) is far from some  mere snippet of symphonic soundtrack, though. Admittedly a pleasant surprise is not only the structurally well-rounded short track that can take the listener through a number of emotional levels, but so is the absence of minimalist string patterns one may have expected. Instead, it is a lush piece with patterns actually coming from the very electronic-sounding sequencer voices, giving nice counterpoint to the very organic (incl. choral) lead lines.

The final two tracks return to "pure" Jarre, in the sense of them not listing collaborators or co-composers, and nicely round off the album material with a reprise of the opening theme, too. 

Overall, a very noteworthy outing that follows Electronica Vol. 1 - with the upcoming tours featuring material from these two albums, too, it will be interesting to see how the collaborative pieces are presented in concert settings (without the featured musicians).