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.

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

The xx – Coexist (2012)

Some three years after their critcally acclaimed self-titled debut, The xx decide the time is ripe to release a new album, Coexist.

I’m going to be blunt here; I fail to see the appeal this band have managed to garner and the hype surrounding their work. Their debut album was, in my opinion, extremely lack-lustre and I honestly don’t understand the attraction. There was nothing remarkable about it other than that it was a “different” and “edgy” production being brought to the mass-market. That’s it. Listening to xx was cool because it made people look like they had diversity in their music library while it had no immediately compelling features. I don’t know who their label or advertisers are but they did a fantastic job at promoting this underwhelming outfit.

The story, predictably, continues with their latest LP Coexist. In fact it arguably gets worse for The xx have, with their “trailblazing” and niche sound, shut themselves into a corner they cannot possibly hope to get themselves out of. Their sonic style was so distinct there was only one thing to do with the hole they had dug; dig deeper. I kind of feel for them in this regard actually; had they done away with their sound and mixed things up they would have been panned by fans, but inaction would also make it seem like they were stagnating, so they took the lesser of two evils.

Honestly, I seldom come across albums so devoid of anything interesting as Coexist. The entire affair only lasts a meagre 36 minutes but every spin feels like hours of torment, trapped in a bland and uninspiring wash of soulless, ambiguous lyrics and shallow electronic sequences. I feel like I could sit in an empty room in silence for the same length of time and come away feeling more productive. I will admit that there were a few moments where the guitars caught me  with some nice riffs and reverb and I thought “hmm, that’s pretty cool”, like on “Fiction” for instance, but those moments were rare and not consistent throughout a track. The light drumming (possible drum machine) and unimaginative, simplistic synth sequences were equally boring and predictable, adding almost nothing to the songs themselves. In some ways, just the vocals on their own acapella-style would have been a better avenue than the crappy, babby’s first synth they went with.

As you might already be aware, I’m not enjoying this album, at all. It feels so hollow and shallow, like there’s nothing of value or interest and everything is just a show for pandering to the masses. Every track is just filled with empty space sprinkled with a few half-assed lyrics, spoken with almost no conviction or passion whatsoever.

“I saw you again
It felt like we had never met
It’s like the sunset in your eyes
I never want to erase”

*groan*
Maybe it’s a bit cynical of me to say, but maybe they didnt mix up the sound simply because it’s a guaranteed formula for making money. People, god help them, actually did enjoy their last album, so why bother, right? It’s funny that, while so many people proferred their previous album, and this also, as incredible “alternative music” for the pop lovers, it’s nothing more than filtered pop music with a mask on. While it might not have the hooks or the beats, it has the same insignificant, emotionless monotony as the rest of them.

3.5/10

p.s, if you want something like The xx but with, you know, actual emotion and a modicum of thoughtfulness + gorgeous vocals, mmpsuf’s “Retina” LP is a great little Minimal/Art-Pop record.