Laurel Halo-DJ Kicks: Album Review

Laurel Halo’s DJ Kicks set twists and winds to its conclusions. Though at first glance feeling like one stroke of a giant paint brush, the work has certain fulcrums that keep the energy feeling fresh. Between the driving leads of Red Axe’s “5 Min,” and the raw textures of “Ana,” for instance, Halo pulls us through the pristine sheen of “Puro Rosaceaes,” the subtle cascade of “Cricoid Pressure,” and the oddball vocals of “Just Made Some Jazz Music.” Tunes like “Penny Rut” and “Canto” again calm things down before the pointed rhythms of “The Light Within You” creep through the hazy cloud of “Poliwhirl.” These type of back and forth twists make the set expertly cohesive and engaging without ever really breaking Halo’s minimalist leanings.

The middle of the work maybe begins to break into more extremeties to an extent—there’s not really a dip in energy between say “Lachowa” and “Violent Light”—but Halo’s liquid smolder somehow encompasses every bit of the thing, always feeling touched by her ears.

The set’s sound strikes much of the same modernism as much of Halo’s music. It’s the minimal sound of Berlin, but it also recalls jungle in it’s dark tones and unpredictable rhythms—not to mention Halo’s nods to Jazz and Contemporary Classical music, which are less obvious here, but still sitting in the background as heard on the string flourish of “Brian’s Having a Party.”. Overall the work is another welcome reflection of the world that Halo’s built, it’s perhaps not the crown jewel, but DJ sets are another key component to her vision—definitely worth listening in.

-Donovan Burtan


Ossia-Devil’s Dance: Album Review

Dan Davies definitely gets the underground epoch. His work as Ossia casts a hyper-large net through dub, punk, techno, you-name-it.  On Devil’s Dance there’s 14 minute songs that float along, highlighted by a spacey sax solo and a quasi-pop single in “Dub Hell” that could maybe end off a late night Laurel Halo DJ set. The album could’ve probably used a bit more focus, but like the intentionally low-pressure second half of the surprise Grouper/Liz Harris release as Nivhek, the work doesn’t always demand attention, rather electing to build a well-developed environment for the listener to live in for a little while.  Maybe let it soundtrack a late-night study session or something.

-Donovan Burtan


Looking Ahead: 1/18/2019

Sharon Van Etten-Remind Me Tomorrow

Sharon Van Etten got her start off her ridiculously delicate voice over her ridiculously delicate guitar on Because I Was in Love.  “Comeback Kid” isn’t necessarily a complete surprise considering songs like “Your Love is Killing Me” or “Serpents,” however, like much of her new album Remind Me Tomorrow, it comes across as a level-up on all fronts for the songwriting talent.

Out today!

Dawn-New Breed

Dawn Richard has been all over the map, from her Danity Kane/Bad Boy records days to her indie-cred solo material, including a Dirty Projectors feature and a slew of adventurous solo albums, Dawn has constantly avoided simple alt-r&B categorization.  New Breed is somewhat a meditation on Richard’s own unique position in the world drawing on boundless dance beats to vouch for her own weirdness and experimental textures to never leave the listener too comfortable.

Check it out on first listen.

Steve Gunn-The Unseen In Between

Gunn may be a little bit of a “you heard one, you heard em’ all” type of artists, but his slow burning stories of middle America always demand deep listening and The Unseen In Between sounds no different.

Buy it on bandcamp.

James Blake-Assume Form

James Blake’s tirade against being called a sad boy was ridiculous—his arty showpieces are much more primed and ready to be taken seriously as art than any woman or emo artist who’s ever suffered under the umbrella of “confessional” after all, but the man strikes accessible emotional tones with his spooky, unique sampling and nuanced vocal effects.

Give it a shot at 3am or something.

cupcakke-Ephorize: ALBUM REVIEW

“I thought I came but I peed on the dick”

There aren’t many who start a verse better than cupcakke.  Her most widely heard moment thus far was propelled by a hype-man yelling HUMP ME/FUCK ME and lines like “I want to eat your dick,” establishing her an icon of queer club life everywhere. Ephorize is an acceleration of this one-liner mastery and brash club readiness, also leaving a little bit of room to grow-up. 

Self Interview sees introspection at the surface level (“Why the fuck do I do the things that I do?”), but a song like Total adds nuance to her raunchy brand.  Sex in abundance is a radical act of self-care to some and confronted with a potential partner she poses the question: “Is it worth not being solo?”  Following the gruesomely specific Spoiled Milk T*****s (“Spread my ass cheeks out/While your dick is deep”), the song showcases the extremities of sexual youth.

Sonically, she’s also at the top of her game, fitting nicely into the dance-hall influenced electronic iciness of current pop. Duck Duck Goose points towards Big Fish Theory, whereas queer anthem Crayons sounds right out of a hot Latin House mix.  Cupcakke may have difficulty fitting into the FCC regulations for radio play, but her music is wide-reaching—perfectly tuned to tell young folks everywhere that their desires are valid.



Four Tet-“New Energy”: ALBUM REVIEW

On the apply titled “New Energy,” esteemed prince of subdued UK dance Four Tet finds inspiration in his older material and later explorations.  The singles operate as such with pulsing, driving grooves and complementary melodies, yet the album blooms in a gradual manner, making the moments where the planets align truly pop.  It’s an album for fans true and casual, sure to suit the boiler room stage with a bit more dance-able material.

After an intro, “Two Thousand Seventeen” is the slow burn highlight of the work.  With the pillow of soupy base lines and the sparks of high vocals crafting the atmosphere, Tet’s huge bastion of a centerpiece looms.  Despite priding himself on his minimalist recording process, Tet manages to find a great deal of different textures throughout the album.  Here, the big melodic force evokes strings with its plucked timbres and oddly paced loops.

Foreboding melody marks the next string of tracks as melodies allude to oncoming action, before “Lush” and “Scientists” give it to you.  Light on its feet, “Lush” remains sensible, but it’s biting speed reaches for the rafters as a mixed bag of gentle melodies combine for a heavenly atmosphere.  “Scientists” is Four Tet’s songwriting at its finest.  The pillars of bass line bounce over the acoustic sounding high-hat.  Gradually more drums enter, before the track implodes with smoldering vocal combinations and a rogue trumpet solo.

“You Are Loved” is life affirming with its humanist, simmering synths, before “SW9 9SL” delivers the summary track.  With the mean straightforward beat setting in right away, this track doesn’t mess around.  Even the head room isn’t too lofty, focusing all energy on the rhythmic energy.  Momentum seems to completely shift around the midpoint as Tet builds a “bass drop” type of effect out in open space.  Melodies wander without a true rhythmic foundation, growing and boiling to a climax that immediately cuts back to the distilled groove that opened, except this time it’s adopted one of the signature warmly emotional bass melodies beneath it.  The overall spirit of the work is funneled into this track as the tried and true dance spills into ambience, then brings something back for the fans.


“Daughter” is another standout with a gorgeous combination of bright vocal loops and more warm synths, before “Planet” brings it home with a pummeling victory lap.  Perhaps some would classify the work as Four Tet doing Four Tet, however, his career path is evident in the music.  Even on tracks that burn with dance energy he seems to find a bit of “Morning/Evening’s” ambient meditation to underpin his ideas.  It’s a front to back experience that also features some of the guy’s best songwriting.  There’s not many on his level right now.

-Donovan Burtan


Miwon-Jigsawtooth: Album Review

After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities.  True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.

The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone.  Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.

The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project.  Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top.  This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.

“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work.  Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song.  “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.

“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness.  The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama.  “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.

Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work.  Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project.  If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.

There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.

-Donovan Burtan


Charli XCX-Number 1 Angel: Album Review

Again sporting production collaborations from the illustrious PC music crowd, Charli XCX presents a mixtape that pulls together sounds from freaky pop traditions and those dominating the Billboard charts.  The album seeks out massive bangers to some avail, but also feels a bit like a “darts in the dark” pop record—each punching song sounds like XCX slapping together something insanely catchy, that COULD make the radio, and tossing it in the air to see if anyone’s interested.  Also, the “Emotional” numbers are largely unsuccessful, sounding like another attempt to soundtrack “The Fault in Our Stars.” Cupcakke’s charisma is undeniable, MØ shows up for an especially fun number, but overall “Number 1 Angel” misses the mark.

The record’s highs are certainly high.  We open on twinkling ambience before pillars of metallic bass and riding high hook float in at a fun, un-abrasive clip: “I’m a dreamer, step step out the beamer.”  “3AM” follows suit with a collaboration that was meant to be.  MØ’s rasp and energy combine perfectly with Charli’s hyper-intensive bubblegum aesthetic for the blistering dance-floor banger of the night.  The quasi-dancehall vibe at the hook is absolutely infectious with both verses harping on the ever-relatable fuck-boy that you can’t let go of topic.  Even the attack-on-the-ears “oohs” between the hooks are suitable for screaming out in the car.  “Lipgloss” is also perfection.  Cupcakke’s down and dirty lyrics present the poetic equivalent of the PC music sonic nightmare/rave: “so I can open my legs bon appetite.”  The crackling synths usher in XCX’s equally naughty hook: “I keep it sticky like lip gloss,” making for a bold final album cut.

Besides these three tracks, there’s a small supply of fun, hard-hitting radio material and some overly gushing power ballads, both far too close to completely sterile music industry creations to be of any interest.  Particularly at the chorus, “Emotional” jumps into that soaring movie-soundtrack sound with simple bass and snare combinations that evoke a summer music festival collection of hand claps.  The lyrics are also as dull as it gets: “All over, deep under my skin/You got me so emotional/We had something that never happened/If only we had less control.”  “ILY2” fades in next, almost sounding like “Emotional’s” coda.  The verse is a bit more upbeat, but again we get a soaring chorus that’s just trying a bit too hard with luke warm lyrics: I don’t talk a lot so you should listen up.”

The album is also lacking in the typical PC music hardware, even on the best tracks.  Obviously, in listening to “Emotional,” one can imagine that if the metallic bass sound were replaced with an electric bass or something or other, it’d basically be a Kings of Leon number, but even the chipmunked vocals at the end of “Drugs” sound like a hail mary at the end of an otherwise straightforward studio pop creation.

Charli XCX remains a very inconsistent force in the pop industry.  She’s trying to uplift some experimental pop ideas into the mainstream, but a lot of times it sounds a bit too akin to the material she was making before running into SOPHIE.  In her later endeavors, I hope to see her either take all the risks or perhaps just own the normal pop label and make a bit more of a lyrica statement.

-Donovan Burtan


Astvaldur-At Least: Album Review

On his debut record At Least, Icelandic producer Astvaldur paints a grim industrial picture that never really reaches the level of violence that the anticipatory tones allude to.  Instead, the tunes play with the listener’s ear, holding a cloud of approaching danger over every musical decision.  Aesthetically, the work features constantly shifting sands that pass key musical themes and motives through different contexts and instrumentations.  To some degree this results in a bit of a mixed bag as it can a bit difficult to grasp the individual songs, however, the variety of sounds presented makes for striking textural explorations and an especially dynamic overall sonic portrait.

“Hark” kicks things off with an almost incomplete sounding rhythmic motive that obsessively repeats itself.  Following the anxious pulses that begin the track, the motive is first uttered in the high range by this icy keyboard sound, before getting transferred to a more mellow instrumental sound.  Tense machinery sounds surround the action constantly from metallic quarter notes to more pressing, arpeggiating synths.  This track perfectly exemplifies the anticipatory nature of many of the tracks on this album.  The whole thing feels like a build-up, making for an almost off-putting emotional affect as we’re never treated to a stagnant dance beat.

Following is “Rotary Credo” with a more acoustic-sounding opening provided by circulating violin samples.  Popping surface noise enters, serving a bit of a rhythmic function as tense countermelodies building up the anxious nature of the track.  Here, we get an example of Astvaldur’s skill of changing the context of a melody.  At the beginning of the track, the aesthetic is especially human-sounding, but by the end the song is more metallic and sterile.  Rather than building layers and layers in a traditional dance way, the track takes one set-up and puts it through a different lens.

“Flesh” is perhaps the most traditionally contrived song structure.  Opening with non-specific robotics, the track eventually dives into an almost hand-drum patterns with quick, subdued rhythmic sounds.  This becomes the foundation for the track as sweeping electric sounds develop over top serving a quasi-melodic role.  Still, there’s a bit of a detached mood to the track, but this would probably be the tune most worthy for the trance/dance setting.

The last major accomplishment of the record is probably the intriguing textures that Astvaldur is able to put together.  This is something that’s achieved over the course of the whole picture.  It’s not just that Astvaldur achieves a unique sound-space and works with it on each track, it’s moreso that he’s consistently able to offer new musical findings.  From the scratchy acoustics of the beginning of “Rotary Credo” to the swirling candy of “Mother” that gets bottomed out by pressing piano pulses and even the plucked electronics of “Punture”, At Least proves that Astvaldur’s bag of sounds is especially large and unique.

At seven tracks, the album is certainly a quick listen and the slight lack of standout singles makes it a bit forgettable.  In the future, it would probably be best for Astvaldur to focus his energy on structured pieces, but his ability to play with anticipation and conjure unique sonic spaces is clear and his work could offer a nice balance between dance-able and violent experimentation with a bit more focus on songwriting down the road.

-Donovan Burtan


Classic Album of the Week: Underworld-dubnobasswithmyheadman

My latest idea is to listen primarily to one classic record while walking to and from class all week and make a post about it on Saturdays.  First up is Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman.

Underworld’s 1994 record is a lengthy trance effort that bends elements of rock and minimal wave into a techno setting.  With Karl Hyde’s jaunting vocal efforts bouncing over massive grooves built up by instrumental and synthetic elements, the record hearkens back to the 80s, while pushing forward to the underground dance scene of the 90s.  The group also manages to use a great deal of different centerpieces when constructing their tune.  From “ME’s” vocal sample, to the pummeling drums of “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,” the band constantly challenges themselves to construct their wall of sound on a different foundation, making the 72 minute album pass by with ease.

-Donovan Burtan