Ulrich Schnauss – A Long Way To Fall (2013)

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I feel like I’ve arrived late on the Schnauss scene. I have of course listened to the all important Strangely Isolated Place but it’s been some time since, and I never got round to listening to his most recent (2007) album Goodbye, but I have it on good faith that the two are sonically similar. Schnauss is, or at least was, a man firmly rooted in Dream Pop and Shoegaze; floaty, ethereal genres with downtempo beats and plenty of space to work in. I suppose in some respects the fact that I havent explored his discography too extensively is somewhat advantageous, since it means I’m not quite so surprised by the material being released here.

The first indication that all may not be well for long time fans begins with the opener “Her And Her Sea”; rolling, syncopated beats swirl and overlap while the synth does its work in the fore creating a sweet repetitive riff that keeps coming back and driving the track along to keep it from stagnating. But it’s subtle, almost buried by the myriad of bustling textures above, weaving in and out before dying rapidly to move into the chaser “Broken Homes”. There is a surprising amount of variety already beginning to creep in, with an almost Kettel-esque vibe to the sound here with its stripped back and sparse melodic fragments and peculiar foreign language samples, broken with the intermittent laser pulses of synths zipping through the downtempo electronica.

But “Like A Ghost In Your Life” erodes all the mild creepiness and downbeat vibes the previous tracks built up with its warm lines and generally jovial nature, the mixed and chaotic textures all coalescing to form mini choruses where they work together to establish a really enjoyable and head-nodding atmosphere. Hearing all these little elements come together to create a much more substantial and multi-faceted whole is really pleasing, although it could have been done with far fewer tones and been a little more enjoyable I think, I almost feel sensory overload coming on and we’re not even half way. The title track begins to carry on much of the established tones, forging a solid bassline with some distal and low-key synth; it’s an odd dynamic of compellingly driven vs. floaty and ethereal, and yet it somehow works. It lives up to its namesake well; the drop may well be a long way and there is an inherent fear in the looking, but it’s all in slow motion as a result. Buried vocals come in during the latter half to add to the acceptant vibe, barely discernible they are purely textural and actually a nice touch.

Finally we start to get to the mid-album, my favourite bit. Growling guitars break open “I Take Comfort In Your Ignorance” to set a good pace as the synth begins to warm up, the two playing off each other in a rising crescendo; the guitars stubbornly refusing to back down with brute force, the electronica creeping up with determination in their softer tones. I can see the partnership he recently had with Jonas Munk, aka Manual, strongly in this one, it’s very similar to the way he plays off shoegazing guitar with his downtempo glitch and electronic, eccept it’s gotten an upgrade here. The 2nd half is unbelievable; wet synths break a pause in the music and the guitars chase them down rapidly as the pace and ferocity cranks up several notches; sophisticated dance music this.

But my absolute favourite track is still to come, “A Forgotten Birthday”. This is more like the Schnauss we recognise, with laidback Dream Pop vibes mixed with this new rush of excitable electronic he’s experimenting with. What makes this one stand out exactly? Well, I’m not sure, it just feels so much more jubilant than the rest of the album, so much more carefree and happy. The shimmering synth riffs of the chorus are absolutely beautiful and even better is that Schnauss dishes its gorgeous optimism out for a whole 7 minutes, with guitar fiddles and bell rings padding it out and leaving you waiting for the next wave of swirling beats to align. The latter half continues with harder beats in “The Weight Of Darkening Skies” which at times sounds almost like a foray into Darkwave with its heady and bold synths but sadly the it starts to feel a little samey and repetitive as we move into “Borrowed Time”; while far from being terrible (indeed it’s probably one of the better tracks), I just can’t help but feel a little tired of the sound by now. It’s challenging to consume this album as a single entity due to its scope and relentlessness, but alone it’s rather good with its dry, coarse synths and uplifting accompanying melodies. It’s carefree and living without regrets in the present.

“10 Years” returns with a more retrospective and nostalgic sound but is most definitely overlong as the penultimate track and with so little variation that I can feel myself start to slip away quite rapidly now, my attention beginning to wane and my ears starting to ask for a respite. None of the tracks here are bad, far from it in many cases, but it is a very exhausting album in general and closer “A Ritual In Time And Death” does nothing to alleviate this. In fact, it strikes up a commanding melody right from the off and I know now it’s the time to give up. I can’t hack it anymore. This 7 minute finalé is excellent though, with fantastic IDM influences flowing throughout but I just can’t listen to that synth anymore.

When you’ve stuck to your guns and produced a similar sound across your albums, it is indeed a long way to fall when you decide to change tack entirely and approach music in a very different way. I think Schnauss has pulled it off well here, balancing the right notes of nostalgia with hopefulness and anxiety over his potential success or failure as he moves into this new musical field, but despite the good diversity there is always that annoying synth element underpinning everything that just gets tiresome and frankly irritating towards the end. Nonetheless, a pretty fine album all round.

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Ben Woods – This Digital Horizon (2013)

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Does anyone else find snow peculiar? It is a symbol of the deepest fugues of Winter, an natural reminder that you are in the coldest and darkest part of the year, and yet the effect it has upon its surroundings is counterintuitively transforming. Those dim, dismal early nights are replaced with ones illuminated strongly by the brilliant white dust that has magically fallen from the sky. The sad, deciduous trees suddenly have an inverted shadow as snow settles on their bare branches, evergreens seem more at home with their icing sugar dustings, cars sit motionless on drives buried under a white mattress and an innumerable number of other objects become completely altered in their appearance by this weather event. For many places in more northerly latitudes the snow is not a novelty, it just becomes part of life, and we here in the UK get scorned for our overenthusiasm for a few inches of snow over an entire Winter season and our complete inability to handle its presence. I kind of like it though, I like that it keeps its novelty every year and never gets less beautiful or fun or incapacitating for our transport system.

“From This View”, what an appropriately titled opener. What can I see right now? An ashen sky, a few light flakes drifting slowly down, the road all in a slurry and physics-defying columns of snow stacked up on the walls outside. And it’s all going on out there in the cold silently, isolated from me by a pane of glass, but inside I have a warm radiator and the soft wavering drones of Ben Woods; tiny, quiet music to watch the cold world go by to. It fades quickly, being replaced by “Until Our Eyes Adjust”, its reversed keyboard tones rising in gentle staccato ticks amidst a wash of Stars of the Lid-esque drones and strings, telling us to focus our eyes and ears on the sights and sounds emerging around us as this track climbs up into the light and establishes itself powerfully with a great crescendo of textures and a distal whistling. This would be the point where I went outside and began an exploratory walk in the snow, soaking up all the sights and sounds of this familiar yet altered city on a new day.

“High Above Everything” takes a quieter, more serene approach as it looks down with peace and tranquility, drinking in the view before rising to almost exultant levels towards its end where it segues effortlessly into the comparatively more abrasive “Distorted Images”, a track I like to imagine is more reminiscent of looking up at the sky while its raining or snowing. It’s a peculiar experience, just watching the flakes drift continuously and infinitely down towards the ground; a processed guitar churns noisily in the backfield to mimic the falling flakes as the soft drones anchor the flat grey sky. The sombre tones continue in part one of the title track, with those predictable drones counterbalanced with some beautiful tinkling piano making it a grand affair; filled with a rich array of almost orchestral instrumentation it feels every bit as vast as the implied horizon of its namesake. “A Solemn Return Journey” once more strives to replace the heavily used drones with piano, with slow, strong, deliberate keystrokes generating a downtrodden but  secretly pleased kind of sound. Despite our homeward journey there is still much beauty remaining, with the piercing and quavering sustained notes in the second part of the title track hanging strongly at the fore to create an air of confidence.

And that’s it. Closer “The Path Home” leaves us on an unobtrusive note, its 8 minute duration barely feeling like any time at all, and the album is done. Perhaps it was not Woods’s original intention to have his work compared with the wintery weather I/we are experiencing but I feel that good music is cross-compatible and can transfer its meaning to a variety of scenarios and feelings, and this album seems to perfectly mirror how I’ve been feeling about the snow lately; its uniting influence, its thorough deposition and its capability to transform the grey cityscape into a mass of bright, unusual white. It’s an album that matches that sensation of waking up one morning to find a fresh coating of snow and that exciting initial jaunt out to see, taking us through the motions of this quiet and changed winter wonderland.

I apologise, I’ve had about an hour’s sleep.

Panthu du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – Elements of Light (2013)

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The well known Minimal Techno/Microhouse musician Pantha Du Prince meets a few new band members in this debut album Elements of Light.

I wont lie, I’ve never listened to his work before this release. I’ve had it suggested to me on a number of occasions and it does seem to be in a musical niche that I enjoy and frequent myself, but you know how it is; so many artists so little time, and I’ve just never worked my way to him. Maybe after I’ve finished digesting this album I’ll look into perhaps his more purebred work because this has certainly piqued my interest, despite probably being somewhat removed from this normal style.

The stunning “Wave” tinkles into view as we open the album, a surprising opener considering the music that is to follow, but a wonderful tangent nonetheless. No electronic is to be found here as magical xylophones and glockenspiels shimmer and glisten with perfect craft and precision, their shy tones reverberating in the air before being accompanied by darkening pulses of drone, like clouds on the horizon of a pristine sky. Absolutely love this track, and its time is soon up as it slips quickly into the next track.

“Particle” is where the album truly begins, kicking a deep sub-bass beat and getting that Microhouse vibe going while the Bell Laboratory side of this collaboration begin to work their magic, weaving bell tolls through the electronica. It’s an interesting relationship, one that ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes as the bells come to the fore and relegate the electronic to all but the deepest bass pulses, while at other times they retreat back and allow the repetitive beats take their share in the limelight. But there’s variety as the bells fade out around the 7 minute mark for a brief experimental excursion into minimalism before that bassline steps into overdrive and really gets the feet tapping and head nodding.

We move into the 2nd of the three 4 minute tracks with “Photon”. “Particle” segues seamlessly into the rather disharmonious instrumentation here; the mix is much less palatable as the bells dominate the fore with unusual keys that are not complimentary to the admittedly rather good House beats pounding below. It picks up towards the latter half though as the two begin to come together better as a unit, even if I dont quite imagine photons while listening to this. We are subsequently greeted by the longest track of the album, the 17 minute “Spectral Split”. It’s starts with the same delicacy as the opener, with beautiful drones and panoramic stretches of quiet contemplation, but this does not last long. Deep bass throbs begin to pulse, the bells begin to toll and slowly the music is introduced to the track, layer by layer. Glockenspiel tinklings balance the mid-field between the two overarching textural elements before becoming sucked into a mass of processing around the 6 minute mark when things finally begin to emerge.

The House influences are undeniable as for the first time on the album we have notable 303s in the foreground and they really give the music some cohesion as all the textural elements begin to fall in line to produce a really groovy beat with an oddly medieval vibe. It’s just a fantastically jovial and fun track throughout that, once it’s established a presence, never lets up and continues to surprise with new beat structures after little breathers. I admit that I was sceptical a track of this length could be made so compelling in this fusion but it is really good (I think the more electronic presence on this one in particular helps it somewhat).

And so our journey comes to an end with the brief finalé in “Quantum”, a closer that mirrors closely the opener and despite feeling somewhat out of place by and large is a nicely calming respite from the hectic and beat heavy album interior, riding on waves of curiously sparkly, manipulated tones and shining drone pulses, as small and delicate as the subatomic world of its namesake. It pulls the curtains on what is a rather curious album, one that does something I really enjoy in that it closes the gap between electronic genres with deep foundations like House and rather more classical instrumentation. Being an ambient man I would have loved to hear more of “Wave” and “Quantum”, but I would have been more than happy to listen to more of “Spectral Split”-esque tracks as well. As a result I just cant love it, it covers slightly too much ground being a tad indecisive along the way, but it is certainly not bad by any means. A fine start to 2013.