Vargo – Beauty

Vargo - Beauty (2004)

Vargo – Beauty (2004)

I don’t have a problem when an album tends to drift through a romantic note for the most part of it… Such albums are not my cup of tea, but this one had a little something going on, and certainly it is a major shock when said album comes from Germany. I always had a hard time trying to understand Vargo’s Beauty, simply because the last place you would expect an album with such characteristics would be Germany. Now, prejudice and bias aside, let me try to make it some justice, because I believe it deserves it.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little bit unfair here. It’s not like Germans don’t have a right to have an album charged with happy vibes and nice feelings, actually I’m still surprised at how good this album is, and the wide range of emotions it portrays. It worried me a little bit at the beginning the fact that 85% of the tracks (12 out of 14) are a mix of some sort, and it was not until some time later that I learned that Vargo had one successful hit (Get Back to Serenity), and then spend a couple of years assembling this compilation of songs that would of course include said track. That explains all of the bizarre mix titles, I guess…

The fact that this album is a compilation disrupts any kind of continuity you would expect in a normal studio album. One minute you are listening to some reggae /electronic influenced track, and the next you are busy with an ambient one. It isn’t as bad as it sounds though, is just that you might find yourself lacking that feeling of unity and cohesion that an album usually has. That being said, I don’t want you to believe that this album is a collage of completely unrelated songs, I just want you to expect a few subtle changes of pace through it.

Beauty never attempts to disguise its completely electronic nature. There are a few tweaks and some experimentation, thanks to the freedom a mix compilation gives you, but once you’ve heard the first couple of tracks you can be sure that the rest of the album won’t fall far away from that. Once you get past style conventions though, you will be greeted by some really warm and surprisingly refreshing moments, which is what caught me off guard at the beginning.

Maybe I’ve been exposed for far too long to the well-known electronic / chill out / ambient formula that it is a little bit difficult for me to accept the fact that there can be some really emotional moments buried under the formalities that the genre implies. Last time I experimented something like this was with a Worldwide Groove Corporation album, and even there I had some paradigms to break before fully embracing this approach to the genre. Once you overcome that, you stop thinking of albums such as Beauty as the same sound and formula recycled over and over again and you start to finally uncover the secrets that lies beneath.

My stint with Beauty wasn’t that long, probably less than a year since I got it, but it surely was more than enough to get myself used to it and feeling comfortable talking about it. Considering the fact that usually it takes me way, way longer than that before I can start thinking about talking about an album, I believe that it’s safe to say that we have some easy listening material in front of us. Not in a degrading way of course, just letting you know that whenever you want some chill out vibes with some nice female vocals on the side you can always pick this up and enjoy it right away. It won’t be a complicated and puzzling experience, that’s for sure, so you can just relax and enjoy it.

 

Advertisements

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway

Boards of Canada - Trans Canada Highway (2006)

Boards of Canada – Trans Canada Highway (2006)

I believe that my liking and attachment to Boards of Canada is a very well established fact around here, so bear with me. Trans Canada Highway has puzzled me for at least 5 years and I’m starting to suspect that I’m on my way to finally making some sense about it. Of course, that is a very subjective assertion but for me making that conclusion is reaching the point where after countless hours of listening and several altered mental states it has come to this.

The first thing that might turn a couple of warning lights on is the fact that this EP starts with one of the most easily recognizable songs from the previous full length album. Keep in mind that this was during a time when I was barely starting to know Boards of Canada, and as a newcomer to this massive, elusive, bizarre and abstract catalog was making little sense to me, let alone understand Trans Canada Highway in the right context.

I’m sure that those who have already listened and are familiar with The Campfire Headphase will have a much better time with this. This isn’t a requirement of course, and this EP can be fully enjoyed by itself, but since Dayvan Cowboy was first born as one of the highlights of The Campfire Headphase, you might want to check it out if you haven’t.

Truth is however, that Trans Canada Highway feels almost like what would happen if you ask the Sandison brothers to pick a particular song and fully expand and explore it. Dayvan Cowboy was absolutely brilliant when it first appeared in 2005 and for some reason they believed that it deserved a special treatment with its very own EP, and the end result is this enigmatic and somewhat short collection of songs (it’s an EP after all).

Trans Canada Highway is not the same as The Campfire Headphase though, you never get the sensation that one is trying to emulate the other, and although they share the same initials (TCH) and also one of the brightest moments with the inclusion of Dayvan Cowboy, those similarities seem to hint about something is going on between those two. While The Campfire Headphase is described as an introspective experience, resembling the stretching of several hours into a few minutes in a way that only an acid trip does while falling asleep during a campfire, Trans Canada Highway and its more intense use of synthesizers provides a less organic-like experience, and focus on a very distinct direction.

The track titles are scattered like flashback memories from a road trip, but oddly interesting is the fact that once you get past the names, it starts to make sense, somehow your mind starts to fill in the blanks between the titles and what you are listening. Left Side Drive, Heard from Telegraph Lines or Under the Coke Sign become not just allusions to some random trip through a distant highway, they become your very own experience, one that you can reclaim as yours.

All of the above has left me thinking through the years about the amount of material that could erupt from other memorable Boards of Canada well-known tracks. But perhaps the most valuable conclusion we can make out of this is that it might appear that the duo has finally departed from the trademark sound and the structure (or lack thereof) that we’ve been listening through decades, and are moving forward to an exciting and increasingly complex new era.

Starting with The Campfire Headphase we are witnessing the beginning of a new Boards of Canada, one that seem to have evolved from the impetuous, reckless and somewhat basic in nature attitude we knew for years. Now it feels mature, self-contained and much, much richer not only sound-wise. Trans Canada Highway appears to be that confirmation, the glimpse of a door to a whole new level.

2006 seems very distant now, and while it was the last release to date by the Scottish duo, I don’t believe this will be the last time we will hear from them. In the mean time, there’s plenty of material to explore… you might just discover your new favorite place within some Boards of Canada album.

 

Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Fever Ray - Fever Ray (2009)

Fever Ray – Fever Ray (2009)

It is nearly impossible to describe Fever Ray in a single sentence. I’ve been puzzled about this album for a long time, and even now I’m not sure that I fully understand all about it. But bear with me, this is not your typical thick layered electronic album, what we have here is a gutsy Swedish lady doing something more primitive, almost basic in nature, spread through a journey that probably leaves more questions than answers.

It seems so distant from those collaborations with artists such as Röyksopp  or dEUS, or her own other project, The Knife. Fever Ray departs from the traditional electronic formula and attempts to give us a glimpse of an unknown world that previously existed only on Karin Dreijer Andersson’s mind. It is a cold, primitive and almost claustrophobic place to stay, but the funny thing is that even in an environment such as that there’s still beauty to be found.

I experienced this album’s steep learning curve first hand, because at least for me, it’s not an easy album to get into. It is radically different from the more traditional conventions we’ve been used to that it takes some time to let your mind get the hang of it. The only aspect that remains constant is the strangely beautiful voice that made us love Andersson in the first place, and Fever Ray is the right place to find her.

Looking back to those times when I tried unsuccessfully to make some sense of this album, I recon now that I failed many times because I was expecting to fully appreciate it with just repetitive listens, which never happened by the way. Some time later I thought about trying this again, but with a different attitude, this time trying to find textures, scenarios and looking for the complete adventure, and I’m certain that the results were complete different from the first time, I’m very pleased to say.

Sometimes I will get the feeling that I’m listening to something almost tribal in nature, something very basic that appeals to that primitive human being that is still somewhere inside of us, like I’m witnessing some sort of futuristic rendition of the rhythmic dancing ceremonies inside some cave in an apocalyptic future where humanity has again resorted to escape the civilization as we know it today. Don’t think for a second that this is the focus of this album though, it isn’t, those are just some random experiences I’ve come across while playing with this.

Some other times I found myself having what I can only describe as a sensation of loneliness. The album is very succinct and sometimes the feeling that you’re just listening a bare-bones, minimalist composition of the most surreal nature gets very strong to you. I’m sure some might even get a claustrophobic sensation during some passages, but I’m confident that the general tone of the album will compensate for those brief episodes.

I guess all I’m trying to say here is that maybe we’ve been fooled into thinking that there is just one right way to do electronic music. Fever Ray will be a challenge if you’re not used to Andersson’s eccentricity, but it has a reason to be, and it is because it is a different approach and she doesn’t cut corners while doing it.

Fever Ray is a very interesting album, and the reason you should give it a chance is not just because it is something different, but because I believe that sometimes music is just like math, there are always several ways of getting you to the answer… However, I’m still not sure if Fever Ray is the answer, or just the question to something bigger?

 

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

I stumbled upon this album not by accident, because it has been listed as one of the main influences by several artists, and it was in my “must check out” list for a long time. I mean, I wasn’t in a hurry because the album is about to turn 20 years since its release, so another couple of months would not hurt anyone.

Even though I don’t like to start a new listening experience with preconceived ideas or with a biased mentality towards something in particular, due to the aging nature of the album I was honestly expecting something more crude, something that would pale in comparison to the standards we’ve become used to these days. But it wasn’t anything like I was fearing it would be. Yes, the sound feels a little bit dated, the quality isn’t exactly the best I would have hoped for even in a FLAC format, but hey, we are not here to criticize technical details as I’m sure the copy I got must be the responsible for that.

As the title implies, this is a selection of ambient works, and truth be told, this feels more like old school techno than ambient, but the elements are all there for you to explore, and there’s definitely something for everybody (as long as they are into the electronic genre of course). For the most part the album is dominated by beats and some vocal samples scattered very scarcely, it never reaches the point where it actually feels like the pace is toning down although it is still capable of deliver some interesting relaxing moments.

Something funny is that if you never listened to this until this day, once you start listening to it you have the impression that this is some very basic stuff, it isn’t anything like the complex and layered ambient / electronic works we have nowadays. It does have arguments to stand its point, and although it relies heavily on basic beat structures and loops with minimal sampling here and there, you can find yourself recognizing those very elements as the precursor of many modern-day masterpieces. Field recording and subtle nature recording scattered around some of the tracks reminded me of why Aphex Twin is listed as one of the main influences for many artists related to the IDM genre.

On the other hand, if you are not actually with a stick picking the songs to discover its inner workings, like a kid would do, you might end up just letting this sit on the background and it becomes just an ambient soundtrack… oh wait, is that how this is supposed to work in the first place? I might have just discovered by accident the true nature of this album.

Now, seriously, the best way to enjoy this album is doing just that. If you try too hard to focus on the details and find hidden stuff, I don’t think this is the best place for that. The songs are for the most part long loops featuring repetitive (although not tiring) compositions that work best when you’re not actually in a quest for finding mind-blowing details meant for those willing to invest countless hours listening to the same songs over and over.

This is a simple album, and simple in the sense that you will not find more by digging deeper. Everything is there for you to grab without having to understand obscure references and confusing mental states in order to get everything that is supposed to come with this. Also, as a side note, this album was included in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die series of books, so this is me doing you a favor and letting you know that after listening to this you will probably just have 1000 albums left to listen.

 

Röyksopp – The Understanding

Röyksopp - The Understanding (2005)

Röyksopp – The Understanding (2005)

Life is full of ironies, and in this case it happens to be The Understanding as the misunderstood album by iconic Norwegian band Röyksopp. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love everything the duo has released so far, and learning that this was considered a disappointment by most people who were expecting some sort of Melody A.M. Part 2 came as a shock to me.

I’ve always said that the only way to address any Röyksopp album is to detach yourself from any preconceived idea you might have based on what you’ve listened so far. No matter how awesome and incredible you might think their previous album was, if you are expecting the next album to be an extension of it, chances are you are going to be disappointed, and that’s exactly what I think happened to this album.

Melody A.M. was all about ambient and mellow electronic music at its best. A masterpiece, if you will. The Understanding, released 4 years later was on the other hand more about a blend of sophisticated electronic music with a glorious trip hop counterpart that raises this album to new and exciting heights.

Right from the beginning there’s a very noticeable difference between this and the prior. The whole album sounds a lot more elegantly presented, it constantly tries to push farther the boundaries set in the past, achieving a very interesting and more diversified listening experience. Whoever thought that the duo would stay in the comfort zone created by the previous album was obviously underestimating the imagination and hunger for new horizons they were looking for. Long story short, The Understanding is a completely different journey, and a very pleasant one.

Over the years I’ve noticed that this album suits your taste even when your listening habits are evolving. Five years ago I would come to this album whenever I was looking for catchy electronic tunes with some trip hop evoking moments on the side (Follow My Ruin or What Else Is There?), then two years ago I would be more into full electronic mode and would resort to tracks according to that (Sombre Detune, Only This Moment, Boys)… And lately I’ve been focusing on more mellow and minimalist experiences, and what a surprise, there’s also something for that in here (Someone Like Me, Dead To The World). And the funny thing is, you won’t notice that all those different moods are disguised as a whole album until much, much later, and it won’t happen to you until you get a firm grasp on every single track before you start to experiment on creating your own different listening paths by listening only a few selected tracks from this album. That’s what I call a replay value.

For those unwilling to spend that much time on an album, or those who can’t seem to find anything that special buried under the pretentious sound of The Understanding, there’s also instant gratification waiting for you (granted you like electronic music, that is). I would recommend the deluxe edition bonus disc, as it adds a few nice ambient / electronic tracks that are totally worth your time.

Outstanding tracks include What Else Is There?, with the always puzzling guest vocals by Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Knife, Fever Ray), it’s a track that will flip your world upside down. Trip hop and electronic music fuses here and beautifully complemented with Andersson’s vocals creates a strangely haunting and pleasant mysterious masterpiece. Kate Havnevik also has a brief guest performance in Only This Moment. I would give Follow My Ruin a place in the best tracks by this album, it is a very straightforward electronic / pop song, but it manages to slip into your subconscious and will remain there long enough. On the other hand, more downtempo oriented tracks include the whispering Someone Like Me, and the instrumental Boys (on the bonus disc).

Seven years later, I still believe that there’s some room for discoveries here. I know, there have been two more releases by Röyksopp after this that also demand my attention, but I can’t stop coming back to this from time to time, and there’s always something new that escaped me the time before. The Understanding is not an acquired taste, it is a blissful electronic journey that starts the moment you listen to it for the first time.

 

Trentemøller – Into The Great Wide Yonder

Trentemøller - Into The Great Wide Yonder (2010)

Trentemøller - Into The Great Wide Yonder (2010)

Mr. Anders Trentemøller blew us out of the water with his 2006 album, The Last Resort, and inevitably the first thing I did when I got the chance to listen to this was to compare it. Huge mistake on my part, I have to admit.

Into The Great Wide Yonder certainly has its share of moments that reminds us of what made The Last Resort such a great album, and even much more than that, a great experience. However, this album isn’t aimed at revisiting the places and emotions created with the first album, and that’s where I’m sure most people will fail to fully understand this for what it is and will consider this a somewhat inferior material.

I won’t pretend that I wasn’t one of them though, I truly believed that this was a disappointment from the very first time I listened to it. I was foolishly trying to understand it under the light of what I learned from The Last Resort, and that made it very difficult for me to actually open my mind to the different experience that lies beneath that huge cloud of whatever it is in the cover art.

Into The Great Wide Yonder isn’t a journey through cold and desolated scenery like the previous album, this actually doesn’t feel like an unified experience all the way through. Instead, we have as usual that almost cinematic approach on many of the tracks, that sensation that we are listening to something huge, it feels like we are being told an epic story only through instrumental means. That is something that has always made Trentemøller albums the kind of music that you can rely on when you need to feed your mind with some music-induced visual imagery. It never fails in that regard, trust me.

One of the biggest additions is the inclusion of guest vocals in many of the tracks. Some of them are welcome, some others just don’t add that much to the equation. I’m perfectly convinced that Trentemøller’s music is usually self-sufficient in terms of the necessary elements to achieve an enjoyable end product, and as such I believe that in most cases the vocal counterpart just creates a distraction. At this point I would like to stress the fact that my personal taste is usually leaning towards the ambient and downtempo instrumental genre, and that creates a bias against a vocal approach to an otherwise brilliant instrumental composer, but that’s just me.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a mistake to judge this album based on what the previous album did, however there’s one detail that I truly believe most of us were expecting: another glimpse of how awesome Trentemøller is when he is fully immersed in a minimalist setting. Miss You was definitely the peak of the previous album, and while a full album dedicated to recreate it would probably be counterproductive, including some of that magic would definitely be like seeing the gates of heaven being opened for a brief moment. There’s a serious lack of mellow/minimalist inspired tracks on this album, and while that’s not a flaw, it definitely was in everyone’s wishlist for this one.

I was surprised when I found out that most of the album feels a lot more energetic and the general mood feels a lot more lively. It is not a non stop flat out run from start to finish though, it allows you some moments to let things calm down, and then things start going up again. It has a lot more variety than I expected to be honest.

A good album overall, for some reason it never feels like it is reaching grandeur heights though. It is a highly enjoyable electronic album, but not the kind of album that will leave a lasting impression.

Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children

Boards of Canada - Music Has The Right To Children (1998)

Boards of Canada - Music Has The Right To Children (1998)

I wasn’t aware that music had rights, and oddly enough, that it had the right to children. This 1998 release from Boards of Canada meant nothing for me for long years, but the past couple of weeks it’s been like an obsession, I’ve been able to keep my listening habits untouched for the most part, but at some point I know I will need to come back to this and get myself lost at this sea of haunting and disturbing memories, distant memories from my childhood that might or might not have been happened, it’s like remembering something through somebody else’s mind.

But just as I start to convince myself that there must be some kind of creepy stuff going in the background, the lights are turned on and the environment suddenly changes to a friendly and warm one. It goes from being a somewhat scary and anxious place to a beautiful, friendly and incredibly vivid one. And all of this happens while I keep telling myself that it is just music, that for some reason this album in particular has the odd ability to trigger all sorts of thoughts and evoke emotions I knew were reserved for other circumstances.

I’m not going to pretend that this took me by surprise though, I know what it feels like to get high to Boards of Canada albums like The Campfire Headphase or Boc Maxima, which are simply spectacular experiences to say the least, if you know what I mean… But this, I’m not sure my mind would be able to keep up, it is simply overwhelming.

Music Has The Right To Children follows the basic rules and structure we’ve been used to in subsequent releases by Boards of Canada. The heavy use of analog synthesizers rather than digital ones, and the intensive use of field recording is as always, a house trademark. I remember thinking about those elements as the culprits for what I used to describe as a cold sound. I couldn’t be more wrong though, it takes some time and the right state of mind to fully understand and appreciate what this kind of music has to offer. I will not fuel the debate about the IDM label this music has (IDM stands for Intelligent Dance Music, a somewhat vague and misleading label), for one simple reason: there’s no such thing as intelligent music (which would imply that there’s also non-intelligent music or that you must achieve some level of intelligence to be able to enjoy it).

Genre and labels aside though, this album blends a mixture of elements that makes you evoke the warm sound of early electronic and ambient music. The analog synthesizers for some reason sound like they fill a lot more space than the use of their digital counterpart, and the use of random bits and pieces of nature and kids tracks, along with a very intensive overlapping of different layers makes for extremely complex tracks. This however isn’t a pretentious experiment filled with whatever was at hand in order to create something that seems complex when there is really none of it, but is rather quite the opposite, you start feeling that everything is simple, and progressively you start to uncover layer after layer, each one more complex than the previous. That’s the point where your mind suddenly explodes in awe.

When I’m in experimentation mode, I like to let the album play from start to finish, it’s certainly the way it was intended in the first place, and the proof is that it just flows effortlessly through your mind, you just need to let go. Considering how complex every track can get, it amazes me that this manages to feel coherent and at the same time as abstract as your mind wants it to be. It’s a different experience every time. And for those times when I’m not feeling like taking the long journey, if I fancy some old school techno, songs like Telephasic Workshop with its powerful beats, or Sixtyten are very good at it. However I’ve found that the more pleasing and puzzling experiences are songs like Olson, Turquoise Hexagon Sun, Aquarius or the incredible Roygbiv. I wish Roygbiv would be a lot longer than its 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it’s the kind of track that you can keep on repeat for days at a time and you can’t seem to be getting enough of it, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

I’ve always wondered about the album title and the general theme the artwork seem to hint. I mean, this album isn’t obviously intended to be enjoyed by children, or is trying to make a statement about them, I’m suspecting it has a lot more to do with evoking memories from childhood, stimulate your subconscious in a way that make you feel the way you used to when you used to visit your favorite playground and stayed there for hours, memories that are so distant now, like some long forgotten dream.

One thing is for sure, this is not just music for your ears, Music Has The Right To Children is also a getaway vehicle for your mind. Use it wisely.