Sapphire Slows — Allegoria

Sapphire Slows – Allegoria

 

Sapphire Slows - Allegoria

Sapphire Slows – Allegoria

The past couple of years has seen Sapphire Slows release promising material via the idiosyncratic Not Not Fun records. Allegoria marks the first full-length release by this Tokyo-based artist. Like most releases on the Not Not Fun roster, Allegoria (and indeed all of Sapphire Slows small oeuvre) hints and nods to existing genres and forms without being beholden to clichés or strict formalism. The influences are obvious and probably unsurprising to anyone following contemporary underground buzzwords and jargon: house, italo-disco, dream pop. But Sapphire Slows retains a distinctive voice, and engages and synthesizes (pun intended) these forms and aesthetics without being more trite repetition. You hear Sapphire Slows’ airy vocals and fuzzy four-to-the-floor and you know that it is her airy vocals and fuzzy four-to-the-floor. This is certainly dance music, but it doesn’t seem to be made for any specific club scene. It’s house, undoubtedly, but it would take a brave DJ to play one of these tracks on the dance floor. Not because they are lacking, but because they eschew the safe formalism of most club-oriented dance music. At the same time, Allegoria works as a bedroom album. Sapphire Slows has invested enough in texture and pure aesthetics to make it more than utilitarian dance music and worthy of personal appreciation. In this way, Allegoria seems most similar to the releases on Not Not Fun’s 100% Silk imprint, which straddles the line between club and bedroom music. Allegoria isn’t perfect, however. Despite making a unique statement as a whole, none of the tracks stand out in particular from the others. Sure there are great tracks, but you could pick any one to play and probably achieve the same effect. It’s not that every track has to be a departure, but Sapphire Slows seems to have her own formula and strictly sticks to it. She’s still fairly early in her career, this being a debut LP after all, so I would love to hear how she departs from this album and mixes up her sound. Overall a great start. You can pick up the LP from Not Not Fun now.

Olimpia Splendid – Nuttu Nurin

Olimpia Splendid Nuttu Nurin

Cover

Olimpia Splendid is an all-girl trio from Finland, whose name come from a brand of air conditioners as far as I can tell. According to an interview, the three have been playing together for 3 years, but Nuttu Nurin is their first official release, off of Fonal Records. The A-side “KL” is super solid. It feels at once familiar and original. It definitely has a lo-fi, DIY vibe, with fuzzy recording quality and cheesy drum machine percussion, but the complete package has a distinct flavor that sets it apart from the crowd. The vocals and guitar work seem to nod to noise and improv influence, and the song feels nice and loose. The tracks on the B-side are less interesting. They have all the same elements, but they just don’t come together as satisfactorily as “KL.” Seems like these girls would be better off with longer jams (B-side tracks clocking in at only 3 min as opposed to 6 on the A-side), and I would definitely be curious to listen to a full-length album by them. In the end, this shows a lot of promise. I hope to hear more. Nuttu Nurin is out now on Fonal.

 

Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

R Plus Seven

Futures past, or past’s future?

Six years ago, Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never emerged from the hypnogogic American underground, drenched in rich analogue synths and heavy concept albums, and he has remained one of the most distinct and smart electronic artists throughout all of his incredibly strong releases. R Plus Seven marks Lopatin’s debut on unarguably the largest label he has yet associated with, Warp Records, and it may very well be his best release to date. Oneohtrix Point Never releases have thus far dealt with memory, personal and cultural, and the way these intersect and conflict in the individual and in the cultural space. The longform synth drones and repetitive structures evoked a yearning nostalgia for an imagined past that never was, hammered home by audio-visual excursions, like the limited release DVD Memory Vague, which appropriated dreamlike and heavily-edited found footage from the 70s and 80s as a complement to the music. R Plus Seven retains much of Lopatin’s aesthetic material, analogue synthesis and musique concrète samples, but it feels contemporary and very much a product of our current culture. Lopatin captures the “information age” practice of rapid creation, (re-)appropriation, remixing and regurgitating that characterize Internet culture. Instead of the looking back found in his earlier releases, R Plus Seven drives relentlessly forward at a breakneck pace. Using simple and limited palate of starting material, over the course of the album these are used re-used and re-re-used again, but each time made strange and novel, being chopped, slowed, sped up and then quickly tossed aside for something new. What OPN fans might immediately recognize in this release is the rapidity with which elements are brought in, toyed with and then spat out for a new experiment. The tracks do not yearn for a forgotten past, but rather attempt (and beautifully fail) to hold on to the slippery present, the fads and memes of which are outmoded before they even begin. Instead of the long contemplation of early releases, R Plus Seven is delightfully disjointed, while retaining a core aesthetic that makes it all feel whole. The second track “Americans” serves as a thesis of sorts, establishing the sonic material that will be used through the entire album. “Zebra” is a favorite of mine vacillating between two themes that change in subtle ways each time making the sound at once strange and familiar, like looking at hastily photoshopped picture where the shadows contradict each other and the airbrushed skin gives the subject an uncanny valley glow. R Plus Seven feels like a mature, assured album, eschewing esoteric hypnogogia (great as that was) for clear commentary and engagement with contemporary culture. This is easily one of the best releases of the year, and easily one of Lopatin’s best offerings. Two thumbs up, five stars, 10/10.

Warp Records Goodie Bag

Double Swag!

Swag!

I recently ordered Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven (review forthcoming) off of Warp Records‘ mail order and download service Bleep.com. Without going into too many details, through a mixture of computer and human (my own) error, they accidentally charged me an extra $200. Obviously, I contacted customer support. They quickly and easily refunded the erroneous charges, and they guy helping me alluded to a “special gift” that they would send by way of apology for the inconvenience. I was expecting a poster or something, maybe a few random stickers. What I got was, well frankly, fucking awesome! A few sweet stickers for Autechre‘s Exai, Mount Kimbie‘s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, Nightmares on Wax and of course Bleep. There was also the new remix album (2xCD!) Feast/Beast by one of my favorite Warp artists Clark, which I am very excited to check out. But the really exciting gift was Artificial Intelligence II on cassette. This is a compilation made by Warp all the way back in 1994. Classic Warp Records featuring Autechre, Polygon Window (old Richard D. James side project), The Higher Intelligence Agency, Richard H. Kirk (of Cabaret Voltaire fame), and more. Listening to this album really drives home how Warp has been at the forefront of electronic music for over two decades. The songs still hit as hard today as they must have back in the heady days of the ’90s. I know that most record labels probably don’t have the money to send out swag like this, but I thought that it was a really nice gesture. No need to tell you Internet denizens that piracy has been a huge problem for record labels, and the way to combat piracy is through things like this. Not necessarily free stuff (though it’s much appreciated), but really high quality customer service that makes music consumers feel good about spending their hard earned cash supporting great artists and labels. Hell, I was sold just on the speed and ease with which Bleep solved my (very expensive) problem. The Internet allows an unprecedented dialogue between artists, labels and consumers, and the players that are coming out on top in this age of rampant and easy piracy are the ones that are fostering fruitful relationships and creating loyal customers. Hey, I’ll just admit it: I pirate music, like, a lot. I’ve pirated albums put out by Warp. But now that they’ve shown that they really value me as a customer, I want to spend more money on Warp releases. Well, I’m out to rock out to this sweet tape.

Hatsune Kaidan Reprise

Hatsune Kaidan - Vacant World

Hatsune Kaidan – Vacant World

Just when I thought that I couldn’t get any more excited over vocaloid-free-improv collaborations from Japan, I got my hands on Vacant World, the new full-length album by Hatsune Kaidan (Hatsune Miku and Hijokaidan). My previous post goes over exactly who these two artists are, so read that if you want a little background. Vacant World is not a huge departure from the groundwork laid in the Hatsune Kaidan EP: Hatsune’s robo-singing and j-pop production is underlaid with Hijokaidan’s dead electronics and feedback. But these song choices are delicious. The covers are really the highlights of the album. There’s a rendition of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” aka the theme from the seminal anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, and certainly more surprisingly a cover of the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Road.” You read that right. I can’t make this shit up. It’s a cover of a John Denver song, by an entirely digital J-Pop vocaloid software program Hatsune Miku, remixed and added to by Japanoise luminaries Hijokaidan. John Denver, Hatsune Miku, Hijokaidan, there must be some prize for having all three of these artists in the same sentence. And this is what I love about these Hatsune Kaidan collaborations, especially this album: they are emblematic of our current digital age. If this album isn’t Post-Modern, I don’t know what is. It’s a pastiche of incredibly disparate musics that (from a 20th Century perspective) have no business being mashed together across time and space. Yet, in the 21st Century, the Miku-Kaidan-Denver connection doesn’t seem all that odd in the end. The nature of the Internet necessitates this kind of free-associative logic as user hop effortlessly from article to video to newsfeed to music stream. In the end, I’m more surprised there hasn’t been more digitally-synthesized-John-Denver-cover-noise-remixes beforehand. I have to admit, the music itself is not something that I could listen to everyday. J-Pop and Noise are both abrasive in their own ways. But knowing the provenance of Vacant World and the songs therein, I had a stupid grin from ear to ear as I listened to this album. This kind of playfulness and experimentation is exactly what I love in contemporary music. Can we see an Aaron Dilloway-Lady Gaga collabo next?

Hatsune Kaidan & BiSKaidan

Hatsune-Kaidan

Hatsune-Kaidan

These are a couple of collaborative releases to come of Japan featuring Japanoise heavyweights Hijokaidan. Both tap into particular and divergent currents of Japanese music and culture in surprising ways, and the results are delightfully strange. 初音階段 (that is “Hatsune Kaidan”) is a collaboration between Hijokaidan and Hatsune Miku, the vocaloid. That is to say that Miku is not a real person, but rather the blue-haired, anime-eyed, computer animated “face” for a japanese voice synthesis program (think autotune without anyone human having to sing the notes). Hatsune Miku may not be “real” in a physical sense, but her fans certainly are, and she has even charted in Japan. She has actual concerts with her dancing/”singing” image projected as a hologram, a la that wierd Tupac thing last year. Miku’s sound is typical J-Pop, but with an uncanny robo-timbre. That the noise/free improv giants (well, giants for noise) Hijokaidan collaborate with (umm) Ms. Miku brings together two of the strangest but also divergent strands of Japanese music: commercial and underground, pop and noise, human beings and digital. The result is as bizarre and beautiful as you might expect. The first two tracks of the EP tracks are typical Hatsune Miku, glossy digital production, poppy with her signature casio-meets-human-voice “singing,” but with Hijokaidans snarl and feedback laid underneath, like a monster creeping behind the smoke and mirrors of Miku’s hologram. The last two tracks are dominated more by Hijokaidan, and one could mistake them for any other of Hijokaidan’s work. I think, however, that these tracks are using the vocaloid software to the breaking point, seemingly processed into feedback-freakout through amps and electronics. The effect of the transition, from J-Pop-meets-noise to 16-min noise assault, is quite subversive. It’s like Hijokaidan, by breaking the vocaloid software and image down to their harsh style of noise, show the artifice of the Hatsune Miku phenomenon, and by extension the artifice of celebrity, in general. Miku is a distilled, pure form of celebrity, pure image, only persona, no pesky human being behind the anime mask. Hijokaidan smashes this image, her music, into harsh, squeally bits, and we are allowed to see Hatsune Miku as “she” really is, digital illusion. Much to my excitement, there is a full Hatsune Kaidan album coming out in Japan on September 18th.

BiS-Kaidan

BiS-Kaidan

With BiS階段 (that is, BiSKaidan), Hijokaidan and collaborators Brand-new Idol Society deconstruct another particularly Japanese form of celebrity: Idol Culture. Idols represent another kind of celebrity that seems distilled down to a pure essence, even compared to celebrity culture here in the States. Idols are young, attractive women that can be celebrities in an array of cultural products from music to movies to television to porn. What matters most is not the real person behind the idol, but the idealized idol persona and image. Idol bands will often switch out different people to play the same role within the band; the images and personae are more important than the real person.  I could go on about the different particulars of idol culture, but it suffices to say that they drive a huge part of the Japanese mainstream culture industry. An idol band is about as mainstream as you can get. Brand-new Idol Society, or BiS, are marketed as an “alternative” idol band, and their image is darker and somewhat more subversive than your average idol band. However, they still work very much within the idol industry; think of the early-2000s pop-punk bands for an analogous mix of “rebellious” image and corporate control. Collaborating with Hijokaidan, we get something again pleasantly strange. The album consists of songs from BiS’s catalogue now remixed with Hijokaidan’s backing. The result, like the first two tracks of Hatsune Kaidan, feel like a basic sum of the two components. Punk-/Rock-inflected J-Pop with an undertow of gritty harsh noise and feedback squeals. Unfortunately, there aren’t any extended noise tracks, like on Hatsune Kaidan, but there is still something infinitely satisfying about hearing Hijokaidan’s harshness juxtaposed with nice, female, Japanese vocals. Again, it feels like a specter is hanging just below the overly-produced corporatized surface. There is a video for the track 好き好き大好き(Suki Suki Daisuki, or I Like I Like I Love You), a cover of a 1985 Jun Togawa song. It features BiS in bloody Japanese schoolgirl uniforms, fake intestines hanging out, destroying a generic-looking music video set with their noisy cohorts playing along with them. The imagery, it seems and again much like the Hatsune Kaidan EP, subverts the underpinnings of Idol Culture. The school uniforms evoke the simultaneous infantilization and sexualization of the female idol image (most idols are marketed as being teenage, though they are typically several years older), and the blood and the destruction of the set evoke the violence inherent in Idol Culture, the violence against the individual in favor of an idealized female image.

The CDs are import only, so it’s difficult to find a way to listen to these, but they really are extraordinary, at least in their novelty. They are beautifully strange diversions for any Japanoise fan, and perhaps an entry point to underground Japanese music for the J-Pop crowd. Great stuff.

Blank Realm — Go Easy

Image

Blank Realm is one of those bands that, for whatever reason, I take for granted. Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, Blank Realm have been around for a while now, regularly releasing records since 2007, (mostly on Not Not Fun, though this release comes from Bedroom Suck). Their previous releases are what you would expect from their label affiliation, psychedelic, guitar and synth driven jams. They have always been there as a staple, but never really standing out. Their newest release Go Easy, however piqued my interest. The formula hasn’t changed much though their sound is more refined than some of their earlier, let’s euphemistically say more “experimental” work. However, in this album, Blank Realm strike a good balance between pop songwriting catchiness and psyche guitar-noodling. Most songs follow the same pattern of a rock-y pop tune (the band shines, but the songs are good enough to warrant better vocals) eventually sprawling out into long, guitar-driven jamming out from that base. It’s not revolutionary, but Blank Realm works the formula really well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In a way, Go Easy reminds me of Galaxie 500 in songwriting and attitude, particularly the late overdriven guitar in “Cleaning Up My Mess.” Though I would say Blank Realm’s sound in Go Easy is more contemporary psychedelic and less wall of fuzz. Overall, Go Easy is nothing radical, but it is an seriously enjoyable listen. What I’d call a pleasant surprise.