Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chemical Brothers dive in "Further"

Been listening all weekend and at work today... the new Chemical Brothers album, "Further" (Astralwerks, 2010)

High quality album, in my opinion. There are a lot of classic Chems moments, familiar sounds and effects, esp. enjoyable if you liked Surrender. The continuous mix (well, pretty continuous through at least the first 6 tracks) and a generally positive vibe of exploration are welcome, esp. after the past few records have seemed like disjointed singles/collaborations.

Other reviews are saying how "Further" ebbs and flows both as a whole ( a piece to be appreciated in one listen), and over the course of each song. Indeed, though the record is only ~52 mins/8 tracks, there are a lot of layers and elements to enjoy.

"Escape Velocity" and "Horse Power" are the closest things to their big-beat hits, with the latter in line with a lot of the Electronic Battle weapon series, a bit cheeky with the horse neigh samples, but still a techno beast. The former really beats the heck out of that Who-esque arpeggio, and it's a great 12 minute ride, although towards the end i kind of wanted them o stop tweaking the knobs, we get it!

"Another World" is pretty and powerful as a 70's nostalic piece.
"Dissolve" recalls "Let Forever Be" with its wall of distorted guitar sound, as well as portions of some of the "Surrender"-era outtakes. Great percussion!

"Swoon" is much smoother in this LP version than the chopped single edit (side note: what percentage of single edits are very good? They either cram too much in so the result is a mess, or they cut out the best passages). It's a little bit "safe" in terms of the Chem's craft, as the bassline and squiggly sample and automated percussion are

"K+D+B" again recalls something from "Surrender", maybe passages from "Sunshine Underground" or the title track itself...
Album closer "Wonders of the Deep" for me approaches Sigur Ros or M83 terrain, with underwater depth charges and percollating blips giving way to twinkly guitar and big heartfelt choruses. A great emotional finale, though there is an extended twinkly fade out that sort of diminishes the effect.

Is it their best record? No, but it's very very good. Not since "Surrender" have they changed up their style this much. Certainly their best since "Come with Us".

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is it 1997 again?

I remember fondly the late 90's, when the "electronica" revolution was supposed to hit the US. There were some big-time salvos fired towards MTV, in the form of Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method. Lurking just under the surface of US radio airplay were a host of other bands that were at the forefront of the Euro dance charts and still highly regarded as masters of their craft - the likes of Underworld, Fluke, Orbital, Leftfield.

All of these i discovered too late. Sure, in 1997-98, i was pleased as punch to be playing my Chemical Brothers "Dig Your Own Hole" to anyone who drove with me, or putting Prodigy's "Mindfields" on the college poolhall jukebox. But i didn't really get in on the ground floor for any of these bands. Over the years, i have become obsessed with Underworld, plenty a fan of Fluke and Orbital, admirers of many other electronic dance bands, big and small. I've explored various genres from electro to breaks to ambient to trip-hop to jungle and back. But i never really got the here and now. Whatever that is.

So it's with a sense of warm nostalgia and affirmation that i welcome the releases of 2010. We're getting new albums from Underworld and the Chemical Brothers, both said to be returns to former form. Leftfield has reunited for a tour. Orbital have been toruing their greatest hits since last year, but have also released their first new material since 2004 (the excellent double A-side single "Don't Stop Me"/"the Gun is Good", which distills all the band were noted for and makes it fresher still).
Sure, most electronic dance music has a short shelf life, and there are so many lost to the false promises of "This is Techno - Dance Tracks 1998" compilations. It's just good to hear from a few old friends.

Monday, June 7, 2010

European Club Gig

I've arrived at the listening post for the famous "European Club Gig" 1996 by Underworld.
The actual venue for this amazing show remains somewhat cryptic...the only clue is Karl Hyde mentioning how great it is to be back in Germany.
But it doesn't really matter where the show was recorded - the excellent sonic quality of the recording and the epic performance itself are stand-alone virtues.

Clocking in at over 120 minutes, this is Underworld at their solo best, not a festival gig, but a fully developed live performance which showcases their best tracks at the time.

Beginning with the legendary "Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love" series, we hear 20 minutes of track not yet released on LP, but rarely played with such sophistication. This song has so many loops and hooks and live additions that it can be perfomed countless ways. But here is a harbinger of the definitive live document "Everything Everything", recorded some 2-3 years later.

The next succession is from the 1994 LP "dubnobasswithmyheadman", consisting of "Dark and Long", "rez" (ok,a 1993 single) and "Cowgirl"... as typical, the latter two tracks are seemlessly mixed, but what's wonderful about the European Club gig is that everything's mixed! The boys don't take a break until over 70 minutes in!

Sister tracks "Cherry Pie" and "Rowla" exhibit the band at their techno best, before the beat-poetry of "Confusion the Waitress" and jungle breaks of "Pearls Girl" kick in. An amazing 17+ minute version of "Born slippy" follows, and believe me, you're not bored for a second. Effortlessly segueing into megahit "Born Slippy.NUXX" as a finale, the whole show sounds polished, but still playful, with lots of rough vocal samples, quick record-spin blasts, and intro/outtro beat-heavy improvs for each track.

It may be of uncertain origin, but the European Club Gig stands as one of Underworld's finest live recordings, circulating the internet in various guises, but always in high fidelity. Minimal crowd noise means alll the more concentration on the music, never to disappoint.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Easy as (Cherry) Pie with a side of Rowla

If you're at all familiar with Underworld's "Second Toughest In the Infants" LP from 1996, you'll know the driving trancey track "Rowla"; If you are lucky enough to own the "Pearl's Girl" EP, you'll find a track called "Cherry Pie" that starts with the same 5-note pattern and sounds, but quickly turns into something entirely different; urgent quelches and atmospheric pads are layered udner a barrage of beats.

And in listening to the 1996 shows (most recently the Quartz , Glastonbury and Reading summer festivals) you'll often hear these two tracks mixed seamlessly and epically into a good 15-20 minutes of bliss/aggression, depending on how you hear the world.

As I've mentioned, the 1996 shows have a rather fixed setlist, in comparison to the experimental jams of 1994-95. It could be a consequence of festival audiences, where you play the more recognizeable tracks at the expense of some deep cuts. But each performance reinforces the impression that nothin within the song is static - Underorld stretch these tracks out with some lovely beat-heavy passages, include child-like vocal samples, and generally showcase why they have been described as an improvisational electronic band.

Case in point: "Rez/Cowgirl" from the Reading Festival. Yes, these two tracks are typically played side by side, and I'd venture that they are among the most commonly performed tracks in the UW canon, one or both making an almost-nightly appearance. They are always jubilantly performed (in more recent years, Karl Hyde has taken to singing "Celebrate! Celebrate!" during the synth breakdown). In 1996, though, the mixed track was a bit fresher, and at Reading it is a 16:44 monster that grows from the twinkling pattern of Rez and ends with Hyde and the band triumphant before a crowd wanting more.