Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp, 2014)

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For an artist that has been scarcely seen or heard from in the music world for the past 7 years, and not produced an album for 13 years under his main Aphex Twin alias, Richard James has set the Internet on fire with the surprising revelation of his hiatus breaking newest release Syro. Built out of a Frankenstein-ian collection of largely older material and more modern pieces of as-yet-unknown age, it’s an album that has certainly cleaved opinions of fans that have been clamouring for years for new material.

The opening duet of “minipops 67” and “XMAS_EVET10” have drawn criticism for both being tracks that have been circulating the Internet for years now, ever since their first live performances in 2007 and 2010 respectively; “where’s the new content?”, I hear the ingrates cry. Their modernity as compared to some of the other pieces in the album is clear though, with “minipops” focusing down on unusually Pop-centric sensibilities in its warped vocal lines and tinkling, Hip-Hop reminiscent piano sequences supplementing the playful, retro synth tickles that gently waft the track forwards. “XMAS_EVET10” meanwhile is a deliciously dark and twisting roadmap of Richard’s recent life and one of the finest displays of his emotional baggage that is referenced across the record, opening to squelching 303s and sad, detuned piano lines , desperately trying to climb out of its repressed hole in the pseudo-dance sequences of self-appeasing basslines at the 4 minute mark, before plateauing and outriding the recent instability in his life to settle into its habitual rhythms.

The emotional chaos of Richard’s life across this 13 year gulf can be found nearly everywhere on the album actually; “180db_” tries to suppress the memory of recent hardships as it blots the early album with its incongruous and aggressive pulses of distorted noise, staggering and buffeting in the middle of the dancefloor, the skittering lights the bobbing heads and hands and strobing light show burying reality for a brief moment. Later in the album the madly titled “s950tx16wasr10”, supposedly one of the tracks titled by his kids, alludes to the the difficulties and fear of raising children, a cathartic pinnacle of insane bpm Jungle beats brushing the edge of the unknown as it rises out of tempered, restrained instrumentation into a battlefield of experimental electronica. Precursor “PAPAT4″is another piece that raises the game as the album progresses, bringing out rapidfire Acid synth lines and insane breakbeats across the stuttering drum machine, whipping up flurries of anxiously excitable sound with incredible textural detail and nuance but of nauseating speed.

But it’s in a couple of really surprising tracks where I think the rawest content is; the title track “syro u47et8+e” opens to Richard’s wife muttering something in Russian, before slipstreaming into a sort of honeymooning, excitable barrage of funky electro grooves and 70s nostalgia, burdened with LFO bleeps and clipped croonings, troughing with guttural basslines before collapsing near the end in more minimalist, tired, but ultimately satisfied synth grooves that lean on the shimmering warbles of the bright backing drone. Similarly, “CIRCLONT6A” dances away its woes in Acid-cum-Chiptune beats that rise up out of a mire of squelchy 303s, climbing out of a drunken slide of, again, contesting LFO beeps and smeared synth walls with a big fat grin on its face.

But it’s truly the closer that puts the icing on the cake for me, probably because it’s the most surprising part of the entire record; the 5 minute Ambient tangent that unwinds on delicately repeating piano strokes and chirping birdsong of “aisatsana”, or Anastasia spelled backwards (the name of his second wife). It just feels like an oasis of calm and contentedness in a sea of increasingly rising worry and fear and unsureness, a bastion of love and reliability that puts an end to what was an escalating spiral of emotional disarray. It really is disarmingly beautiful, even if you don’t think it’s an appropriate closer.

I’ll be honest, even on the first listen I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this release, and that feeling has only grown with each passing listen. Sure, there’s a bunch of late-album Acid tunes that I don’t think are particularly strong and there’s still something to be desired in the production value department, but this works just incredibly well as a cohesive unit, spanning emotional multitudes (and literal time) with a surprising amount of variety, and ultimately finding a resolution in its end; this is an album that brings a little bit of late 90s Electronic charm into 2014 for the fans that have waited patiently for so long, and what a fantastic return to the music world it is.

Hanetration – Murmurist EP (2014)

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It’s not unusual these days to listen to music that expresses its tiredness of modernity and the certain rituals and habits we become locked into, day in and day out; it’s a fairly universal desire to not be constrained by the limitations of working hours and the daily grind, all of it feeling so meaningless and soul-destroying. Hanetration’s latest EP Murmurist is not the first to tackle this theme and certainly won’t be the last to do so, but his unusual take on IDM and Ambient sound design makes this release just a little different from the rest.

Opener “Morning” rises slowly as we come to, warped and distorted drone lines making minimal progress in these early and dim hours. They shift and swell over one another gently, slowly and surely dispelling the darkness that’s accumulated through the night as well as coming to terms with the prospect of the day ahead. There’s a definite melancholy expressed here, one that longs to stay in bed for a little longer and not have to get out for work, but the minimal beats that eventually emerge cement the reality of the situation and we have to soldier on. “Begin” is where the covers are finally kicked off and the foreground drone sequences are put to the wayside temporarily, with light glitch rhythms and tympanic miscellaneous electronica rolling round and round forming the repetitive heart of the piece. These habitual motions pause and dim briefly near the halfway mark, a slight divot or hiccup in the usual routine that disturbs us briefly but we return to the loop soon enough.

The day speeds past in a blur of uneventful and meaningless activity in the 37 second interlude of “Fly”, separating the two halves of the EP with its hollow and brainless tapping; nothing of merit has happened in the hours that we fill between sleeps and this highlights that strongly. The painful “Wither” returns those melancholic, warbling drone lines from before, spinning out slowly and miserably as we feel our life-force slowly dribbling away and the distinct lack of energy and enthusiasm we have for continuing this mindless enterprise. It’s heavy and mournful and perhaps the most downtrodden track. Lastly, closer “Sundown” comes around entirely too quickly, another day melting away. It’s by far the most evocative and interesting piece for me, supplementing glowing drones with an almost tribal pseudo-melody, a thin and hesitant, jerky riff creeping out of the tired and mechanical ritual we resume before bedtime. There’s a deep tiredness and resignation here as the drones become overwhelming, thrumming in their rich crescendo as the bliss of sleep washes over us, ready to restart the cycle all over again.

I like this EP a lot; it feels a lot more consistent and relatable than his last effort on Timelapse as well as being rather more fully formed from a conceptual standpoint. Whilst there’s nothing especially unique in the theme that’s not really a valid criticism, especially when the music itself is rather unusual and so thoughtfully crafted. The interplay between the wishful, sad drones that yearn for something more and the mechanistic, deliberate rhythms of the daily routine is beautifully played out as the story of the EP unfolds, and since it’s free and only 20 minutes long I can’t think of a valid reason to not listen to this gorgeous little number.

Lusine – Arterial (EP, Ghostly International, 2014)

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In an unusual turn of events, Lusine’s Jeff McIlwain has released his first EP in 4 years, and better than that it’s the first EP since 2003’s Push that features non-album content, so it’s a relatively exciting time to be a Lusine fan like myself. Across his 15 years of producing various electronic musics, there’s always been an unquestionable sensation of knowing that you’re listening to a Lusine (or L’usine, or Lusine ICL) production, despite the subtle shifts in sonic style over the years. Every album seems to build on the experience and unique evolution of its predecessors, and despite being something of an intermediary, Arterial clearly demonstrates a progression in sound since his 2013 stunner The Waiting Room.

Much of the heartache and emotional insecurity that made itself plain on The Waiting Room has also seemingly been brought forward into the constructions here, feeding off the sensations of loss and absence, of being kept at a distance and left alone to question the nature of a relationship. Arterial to me really seems to highlight the nature of technology in the fabric of relationships and friendships, supplementing The Waiting Room’s tenuous and out-of-the-loop grey zone demarcating that technological void that is the airplane. Opener and title track “Arterial” represents the lifeblood of that digital connection, the seething mass of wires and circuit boards filled with an electrical blood that transmits our messages for us, connects us and keeps us together, a dark and urgent mass of shuffling synth lines and clarinet whoops amidst the muttered and unintelligable fragments of voice smeared into the digital abyss.

As infectious as the opener’s density is, my absolute favourite piece is followup “Eyes Give In”; self-confessed as being a piece about getting lost inside one’s own head whilst coming to terms with understanding the need for a certain distance, it broils with disorientation right from the disharmonious off, whirling in a mass of fragmented and chopped vocal lines caught in a meaty mush of pounding synth and rushing bass. “You’ll see me again”, it repeats endlessly, “I’m not falling away” she says; little reassurances replayed endlessly, not understanding. It’s astonishingly good, intimate yet groovy; I can’t stop listening. “Quiet Day”, on the other hand, seems to actually relish this downtime a little bit, subtracting out the melodic powerhouses of the previous tracks to be replaced with a heady, dark, bassy void filled with some of the same mysterious vocal content we heard out of “Another Tomorrow”, for example. The delicate and enigmatic vocals we hear out of Caitlin Sherman are again supplemented and repeated by Jeff himself, murmuring and strengthening those assurances as he sits in quiet and lonely contemplation, feeling the weight of the absence.

Closer “Forks” rounds out this short but tumultuous 20 minute affair with insatiable slow grooves, the pacing and tempo crushed as Jeff spins big, elongate beats out to even more ruinous  and chopped vocals. It’s a gritty and thick piece, the synth mean and dark and stifled with paralysing indecision as the vocal lines strobe and flicker through the mix, offshoots of thoughts and conversations, imaginings and what-ifs, dreams and what-could-have-beens. It’s perhaps the weakest of the tracks for me but it still has a powerful and deeply deliberate emotional current that’s wholly smothering.

I recognise that perhaps I’m a little biased, that maybe I have something of a soft-spot in my heart for Lusine and this particular brand of music, but he’s just so incredibly consistent in his output quality; everything is so beautifully produced, every little beat and texture a perfectly and deliberately placed entity, each piece an important part of the emotional story arc. I just love this bombastic and beat-laden facade that he summons up in each of his releases that smothers the insecurity and loneliness, making the best out of a bad situation. A must listen, truly.