Trampique – Face To Face (Dark Clover, 2014)

Are you sure you’re ok? Do you want me to leave or something?

Alexandr Frolov of Volor Flex has had a difficult time of 2013 by the sounds of things; briefly putting aside his well known Volor Flex alias for the time being and producing his debut LP under Trampique (the title an allusion to his hometown), Face to Face is a downtempo, Future Garage chronicle of his year, month by month, and what a bleak affair it is. Evoking some of the same musical sensibilities as others in this vein like Clubroot and Burial, Frolov carves our journey through shuffling hi-hats, irregular rhythms and crooning synth drones. And forgive me but this album does call for a track by track breakdown, it’s just how the story unfolds.

“January” is stoic and quiet, burbling little muffled guitar pickings alongside its bleak expanses of reverb, the slow trudging and crunching through snow heard delicately rising out of the darkness. It’s a lonely and cold opening, and I want to say that things pick up but that’s not entirely true. “February”`s suppressed sub-bass lines are certainly more empowered in its initial sequences, a burst of energy at the start of the month, but it falls away to sparse, downtrodden piano tinklings and moaning winds as we’re left to contemplate alone. “March” welcomes the prospect of and imminent Spring in its shuffling beats and tolling electronica, pushing at a brisker pace in an attempt to breakaway from these Winter fugues.

Unfortunately Spring and Summer appear to be every bit as unrelenting; “April” gives us something of an insight into its darkness with its elongate drones and spoken word lines; “the reason I came back to town was for you”, they admit, “do you ever wonder if thing’s might have been different between us?”. For the first time the music really opens up to us and we get a slight insight into the melancholia being displayed. “May” rises out of the surf on its cruising idiosyncratic beats and shuffling rhythms; it’s grooving and driven but ultimately feels distracting and self-appeasing, that fun night out before the regret seeps in the following morning. And so it does in “June”, our female companion whispering out of the darkness with a faint air of concern. It synths flutter and roll before descending into a judgmental, crackling void of vague regret, of expectations not met.

Our microcosm continues to expand as “July” feels the need to clear its head, taking a night stroll through the still light evenings as it churns out the same idiosyncratic riff that underpins his life, but it’s slower and more tympanic, walking slowly and plodding along with its head bowed. “September” also has a similar feel to it in its later moments, albeit more sluggish and suppressed, buried under a drugged haze. “October”`s 2-step beats reignite some of “May”`s bombast and drive, although this time it’s entirely more headstrong and deliberate, advancing and empowering ourselves through its pulsating, flowing grooves. It’s reinforced in “November” with some more dubby moments supplementing the sparkly and lightweight electronica it’s paired with, fluttering arpeggios alongside the Burial reminiscent vocal fragments.

By the time “December” comes around we’re ready for the year to be over; conjoining some of the quiet minimalism of “April” and “January”, its empty xylophones tinkle like stars appearing in the enveloping night, its drones cool and resigned to their fate. “I have made a mistake”, she says, “you can’t take me”; a sad parting shot that, despite all we did and regardless of how proactive we were in the preceding months, our dreams become delicately crushed once more as she says no.

Frolov certainly shoehorns a great deal of time and emotional content into an album that’s only 30 minutes long, and that’s why I love this release; it’s short, bitesized and potent, not to mention deliciously introspective. It’s truly difficult to fault this record; I love this particular brand of Chillstep and Future Garage and I’ve been looking for something akin to this for quite a while; the fact that it tells such an intimate and varied story across its span is really just the icing on the cake for me. Check it out.

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Burial – Rival Dealer (2013, EP)

HDB069 insert

Where do I even start? It’s been some time since exploring Burial’s catalogue; Untrue has never been a favourite album of mine and I’ve been previously underwhelmed by some of his other EPs, but it would appear that something has finally clicked into place with his latest effort from the famous Hyperdub label in  Rival Dealer. Maybe it’s simply a matter of right place, right time, but Rival Dealer hits all the spots and more, and I just can’t get enough.

The title track opens this three piece EP with a 10 minute timespan and good god is it incredible. “I’m gonna love you more than anyone” is sung through the already empowered melody, a dark synth lead piece the likes of which I’ve never heard before. It sounds like tortured strings singing through a thick drum machine bassline, lo-fi fuzz and snippets of mechanical noise, a stuttering and staccato performance that evokes images of some film noir chase scene. The rushes of sound, the deeply processed vocals, even the somewhat imperfect nature of the mixing, are all perfect. Suddenly it melts away at around the halfway mark in a pulse of disturbed electronica and switches into its second phase, one where 4/4 beats are king and the beats become less slippery and coy and more abrasive and progressive. Even this falls away as we enter the closing minutes of the track and it’s perhaps the most beautiful so far. Ambience reigns supreme in this slow motion melancholic period of grace, delicate female vocals confessing that they’ve “been watching you” through the distortion, and that “this is who I am”. The whole piece is also about acceptance of the relinquishment of a relationship, the realisation that things can’t go on forever, especially in the final phase of sung vocals.

“Hiders” is an unusual piece but somehow manages to work everything together. Fans of Burial might very well not be a fan of this, significantly more Pop influenced, piece; there’s a peacefulness and even euphoria here in the glowing walls of running water and shimmering synth drone sequences, the light crackling of fire and the jangling of jewellery. It kicks up the pace in the latter half as it moves away from these slower movements into a more uptempo number with the drum machine setting the cheesy but satisfying rhythm. It’s happy, joyous, although it leads darkly into the final track “Come Down To Us” with tracts of murky noise and stuttering glitch.

The closer then is ushered in and presented as an inherently dark number is a complex leviathan of mixed sounds and emotion. Sometimes capitalising on the moody drones evoked in the title track it creates expansive vistas of hopeful sound, other times slipping into slinky sitars to give a slightly more off-kilter feel that, coupled with deep basslines, generates an inherently more creepy atmosphere. Vocals are a huge component of this piece, often times being used more as a textural fabric rather than as clearly defined voices, but they set the tone and message of this piece. “Don’t be afraid” is repeated frequently in an alarming voice; “this is the moment where you see who you are”, and an important speech by transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski at the very end all make this a track about embracing not only yourself but the opinions and views of other people, accepting that we cant please everyone but we can be happy within ourselves so long as we accept who we are. The final phase in particular is an evocative sequence of sultry percussion, beautiful vocal soars and expansive synths that overcome the hardships of our darker moments.

It’s so astonishingly well paced and well constructed it’s really difficult not to get sucked into this release. The vocals are repeated but are mixed up enough throughout to give a real sense of personal evolution and keep the pieces fresh, and their processing matches the tone of the tangentially evolving melodies perfectly. I think the themes of sexuality and personal acceptance are certainly an important facet of this release but for me it’s more the journey than the message; I simply cannot stop listening to it. The way he juxtaposes the paralysing dark sequences with those concerned voices against the joyous, light filled movements is simply beautiful to behold, and if you’re in any way a fan of Dubstep, Garage, Techno, Ambient or all of the above, I would highly recommend checking it out.

You can listen to all the tracks for free at Hyperdub’s Youtube Page

Raffertie – Sleep Of Reason (2013)

Ahh, it’s been a while since a genuinely surprising great album fell into my lap; introducing debut LP Sleep of Reason from British electronic musician Benjamin Stefanski, aka Raffertie.

sleepofreason

Last year, How To Dress Well came out with their sophomore release Total Loss, a somewhat disappointing followup to their debut Love Remains but one that highlighted well the rising popularity of Contemporary R&B. I always wanted that LP to have a little more meat to it, a little more mystery and intrigue carried over from the lo-fi on their debut but it didn’t pan out since they took a more refined and sharpened route; fortunately it feels like Raffertie read my mind and has produced the throbbing, Dubstep inspired enigma I always wanted.

“Undertow” opens us to this dark, ethereal atmosphere beautifully as it opens on growling glitch beats, slipping quickly into thick Dub beats and slow synth sirens as Ben begins singing in a clipped fashion, deeply buried under the growing plethora of beats. The 170 seconds pass by entirely too quickly as we get sucked under by the lush electronica into what has got to be a The xx inspired track in “Rain”. Slow percussive beats mirror the distal, heavily reverbed guitar and the ever elusive vocals. There’s also a very faint layer of record-surface glitch pattering in the backfield to what perhaps is the most intimate track of the album.

“Build Me Up” is exactly the track that made me think of How To Dress Well on my first play through; “build me up but don’t let me go” Ben repeats amongst the gigantic, crawling basslines, these thick slabs of compelling low-frequency beats just keep the track eternally tumbling through instrumental breaks and returns. It’s repetitive, sure, and there’s a heck of a Techno vibe here, especially in the cheeky synth riffs, but it’s gorgeous throughout. It also rolls perfectly into the chopped up “Gagging Order” with its piano strokes, noisy synths and skittering electronic breaks. Unbelievably we’re barely at the 1/3rd mark yet.

“Touching” starts slow and mournful on a bed of light drone, slowly welcoming more percussive elements of increasing tempo into the darkness; “And when we touch/ I can’t breathe” Benjamin repeats endlessly to the climbing euphoria. Texture after texture is silently introduced until suddenly we’re facing down a myriad of syncopated electronic beats and all our limbs are tapping to the mesmerising rhythms; we only notice at the half way mark as Raffertie grants us a brief moment of instrumental silence before we tumble back into the fray.

My personal favourite “Last Train Home” asserts itself with clipped percussive beats, slowly introducing some uncertain synth notes before morphing into some sexy bass grooves. As with every track, that powerful rhythm drives the piece inexorably forwards with unwavering loyalty and no evolution, pausing only briefly to keep things interesting. It’s so thick and vast, listening to this at any volume level other than the maximum tolerable just doesn’t do it justice, especially in those moments where Ben warps and twists his voice into a glitch smear. Again we see another odd but logical juxtaposition as we move into the “cooler”, briefer and less driven “Trust”; “If you do it again I’ll leave” he croons alongside the barely-there melody. It’s quiet, minimal and just as evocative as any of the bigger, bolder tracks.

But this reprieve doesn’t last long since the intoxicating “Principle Action” is on its way in; fragmented, up-pitched vocals and intermittent synth blats introduce the album somewhat creepily and unusually, parting suddenly as the bassline gets thrown down. It’s a track that I’ve seen criticised as not quite knowing what it wants to do, and that’s somewhat accurate; there’s a lot of wet synths flapping and giving it an oddly 90’s vibe and it terminates pretty abruptly as it runs out of steam but getting there is the fun part. I really love how it changes tack so rapidly, how it constructs its weirdly compelling tower of beats and manages to lay it on so thick for so long.

As we get into the final third of the record I can’t help but feel like things begin to taper off just a little bit; after a stellar and largely empowering 9 tracks “Known” wants to begin reining it in just a little bit as those xx guitars return to steal the show and seek to keep the level low for the afterparty, holding back the synths and the unusually restrained bass. “Window Out” is equally unsure as to how to approach itself, flipping back and forth between keeping the piano and the throbbing basslines at the fore whilst also introducing what sounds like church bells and the sound of running water. It’s still intelligently and carefully crafted but undeniably undecided.

“Black Rainbow”‘s growling guitar and ferocious percussive elements couple with the delicate pitter-patter of xylophonic electronica in the penultimate track and it’s a gorgeous sight to behold, merging the pain of separation with the bright hopefulness of future optimism; it’s both sad and cute (in its own, sort of painful kind of way). Lastly, “Back of the Line” takes us out on a surreal note, reminiscent of some sort of bastardised black choral group adapted for modern day electronic with its pitch shifted vocals and thin keyboard organ notes. It does have a certain eclecticism and panache that makes it bizarrely compelling though, it must be said, and it’s such a wonderfully high note to end the album on.

Sleep Of Reason is a big, ambitious album and by god does it deliver. There are times, I will concede, that it perhaps doesnt quite know what to do with itself and becomes trapped in a world desperate to break out of the monotony of the Dubstep dominated tunes but it more than makes up for itself with the sheer quality of production and consistently emotional content. There’s definitely some club-ready beats here but it’s also a perfectly excellent album to enjoy at home. First album in a while that’s really made me stop and stare. Killer.