Thursday, August 5, 2010

53. From Here We Go Sublime

53. From Here We Go Sublime, The Field (Kompakt Germany, 2007)

The Field is Stockholm’s Axel Willner, whose instrumental pieces merge moody, ambient atmospherics with the sparse, rhythmic repetition of minimal techno and trance.  His pieces inhabit narrow ranges of tempo and modulation with a focus on cyclic grooves that do not always achieve resolution, sometimes simply fading out after a period of time.  Willner occasionally employs glitch techniques, rhythmically utilizing sonic aberrations that resemble equipment malfunctions; but, his compositions are primarily smooth, hypnotic exercises with a moderately high beat-per-minute ratio.  The mix of ambient soundscapes and upbeat dance-floor vibrations creates a dreamlike effect.  Key to Willner’s music is his use of extremely brief samples—sometimes under a second long—that he manipulates and loops, creating new melodies that frequently become foundations of the tracks.  He often samples other artists’ singing, perhaps only a single syllable or vocal sound.  One of the earliest Field tracks, Action (from his label’s ’05 Kompakt 6 compilation), is built on a sliver of the flute introduction to Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops.  While it is possible to hear the song as an original techno track and not recognize that it contains a sample, its use of a well-known sound lends it an extra subconscious resonance that can be haunting.  After his first recording, an ’05 remix of Norwegian electro singer Annie, Willner released his first 12” as the Field, Things Keep Falling Down, and the aforementioned Action.  Even before this, he had begun work on the tracks of his debut album; there would be another 12” and two more label samplers, however, before From Here We Go Sublime.

Over the Ice opens the LP with a minimal disco pulse that is not fleshed out until nearly its fifth minute.  A manipulation of a vocal sample provides the song’s melody; it is looped in such a manner that, until an undeniably electronic pitch shift occurs, it sounds like a woman singing wordlessly.  One may listen for years, as was true for this writer, before recognizing it as a syllable taken from a Kate Bush record.  A Paw in My Face begins with a similarly throbbing beat and a synth hi-hat cymbal before the percussion is emboldened and a feather-light guitar accent begins to repeat.  In one of only two explicit revelations here, Willner lets the guitar sample play out as the song fades, showing it to be from Lionel Richie’s ’83 hit Hello.  This is devoid of irony or humor, and the original loop provides one of Sublime’s most genuinely appealing hooks.  The samples do not overwhelm the songs; The Little Heart Beats So Fast, one of the album’s most playful arrangements, is propelled by an infinitesimal snatch of sound that sounds like a woman gasping “ahh,” but could easily just be synthesized percussion.  In Everday [sic], a vocal sample begins at 4:45 that runs at a slightly different tempo than the rhythm, creating an entrancing warp of sound as the song builds and the two parts go, almost imperceptibly, in and out of sync with one another.  The album’s most astonishing moment comes with the glitch-heavy, closing title track.  Composed almost entirely of a ghostly set of samples, it sputters and reverberates for over two minutes before Willner undoes the straps to reveal a reverb-laden passage from the Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic I Only Have Eyes for You.  While Kate Bush and even Lionel Richie are easily understandable touchstones for an Aughts-era indie musician, the revelation of this relatively ancient source material is an astonishing way to close the album.  After this debut LP, Willner remixed over a dozen other artists, and in ’09 issued a second album, Yesterday and Today, incorporating other musicians and full vocal tracks. Any of Willner’s works is worth attention, though Sublime remains his strongest to date and one of the finest techno albums of the decade.

Highlights: A Paw in My Face, Everday, Silent, The Little Heart Beats So Fast

Sublime bit: The Flamingos’ haunted doo-wop is mind-blowing in this context; but, the silvery guitar wisps of A Paw in My Face are truly sublime.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

54. Dark Days/Light Years

54. Dark Days/Light Years, Super Furry Animals (Rough Trade, 2009)

The eighth album by Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals, Hey Venus! (’07; see #65), was the psych-pop group’s first on the Rough Trade label.  Its streamlined blast of uptempo glam and the odd lovely ballad came at the new label’s behest, hoping for a return to the efficient vibe of the group’s ’90s work.*  The tour that followed the album’s release was another stripped-down affair, the band cutting back on the props and stage dressing that made previous jaunts quasi-theatrical affairs.  The willingness to tailor an LP to a record company’s desires might have been an ominous sign had the result not been one of the group’s most enjoyable records to date.  Following Hey Venus!, drummer Daf Ieuan released his first album with side project the Peth and frontman Gruff Rhys issued Stainless Style, a collaboration with producer/programmer Boom Bip, credited to Neon Neon and ostensibly a concept record about eccentric automotive engineer John DeLorean.  These solo detours, both on other labels, were evidence that Rough Trade would not strong-arm the band or its members into a specific vision.  When the Super Furries regrouped to record their ninth LP, the sessions would culminate in their most stretched-out, challenging vision yet.

At just over an hour, Dark Days/Light Years is practically twice as long as Hey Venus! and the longest SFA album to date; on vinyl, it is a double LP (though running at 45 RPM) whose garish artwork—a collaboration of the group’s two previous art designers, Keichi Tanaami and Pete Fowler—sprawls across both sides of its gatefold jacket and a two-sided 24x24 poster.  While its predecessor opened with a rollicking 43-second introductory theme, Dark Days slowly gurgles its way to the surface.  Opening cut Crazy Naked Girls begins with 51 seconds of muffled speech, the sounds of tuning up, and a false start before an overdriven drum beat kicks in, followed by a clipped, nearly falsetto Rhys vocal recalling Prince before abruptly changing at midpoint into an acid-rock blues jam that churns like an extended outro for the remainder of its six minutes.  Once through this virtual decoy the album returns to more conventional songwriting, soon making it clear that Dark Days is a groove-heavy affair. Several songs (most notably Moped Eyes and the nuttily titled The Very Best of Neil Diamond) are propelled by slinking arrangements worthy of the dance floor, even if the tempos remain at a low simmer.  The eight-minute Cardiff in the Sun is the album’s centerpiece, its Kosmische chillout groove giving way to blissful choruses consisting of its repeated title.  The album’s extended runtime means there is enough room for a handful of pop tunes, the best among them the pulsing jack-in-the-box rhythm of Inaugural Trams whose middle eight consists of a rap, in German, by Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand.  Against all odds, it is one of the album’s best moments.  Another key pop track finds guitarist Huw Bunford taking lead vocals, the hideously titled yet wonderfully catchy White Socks/Flip Flops.  The record ends as oddly as it began, though, with the ten-minute Pric, a throbbing rock groove that trails off at roughly six minutes for an extended ambient coda.  A daunting listen on first blush, the album contains all the hallmarks that make Super Furry Animals one of the most inventive and charming pop groups of their time.  While not as immediate as their previous works, Dark Days/Light Years sustains repeated plays better than most of the band’s catalog once its rhythmic secrets are unlocked.

*For just one account of the Rough Trade request, see this Gruff Rhys interview:

Highlights: Inaugural Trams, Inconvenience, The Very Best of Neil Diamond, Moped Eyes

Sublime bit: When Inaugural Trams slams back into its peppy groove after Nick McCarthy’s spoken guest vocal ends at 3:24.

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