Thursday 14 May 2015

Review: Ben Zimmerman, The Baltika Years

This little electronica column review fell out of the latest Wire because someone else had already done a longer one. Thought I'd post it up here as it's quite a special release. Video below.

Ben Zimmerman
The Baltika Years
Software DL / 2×LP
With this archive release, Joel Ford and Dan Lopatin's Software have found something that reaches right into the core of the label's interest in the curiously soulful side of late-twentieth-century computer music. Between 1992 and 2002, Ben Zimmerman used a series of Tandy machines working with low-quality waveforms to make short sketches and suites sat everywhere between outright experimentation and vernacular tunefulness. What emerges is a meeting between Moondog and Daniel Johnson in the age of the floppy disk. Most intriguing is the timbre itself - FM synths imitating older instruments alongside samples tuned into sonically matchless keyboards, all coated in a thick oxide layer of digital lo-fi. These are wound up like music boxes and let go, spiralling forward into minimalist abstraction, character pieces or clubbier grooves (including breakbeats) as they eat through their slatted programming. Not only is the limited context intimately audible, but the varieties of mood and texture achieved within it are nothing short of inspiring.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

System Focus: If You've OD-ed On The Internet, This Music Will Save You (Soothing Sounds of East Asia) 
The latest System Focus concerns my attempts to soothe my worn-out brain after - as the elders know so well - it got fried by the internet, and how much of the salve concerned or came from East Asia (click here to read it). Featuring Haruomi Hosono, a few bits of vaporwave and future funk, Nujabes and some of his followers, Horse Head, Swimful Buterfly and Chinese hip hop, and a catch-up with MAGIC YUME and ZOOM LENS, and a little discussion of orientalism. Shout out to the label Home Normal, who while they are based in Japan (or were until recently) are basically an international label and didn't quite fit the piece, especially how long it was getting. Really good and relaxing stuff though.
They said the internet would melt my brain and I laughed and turned up the heat, threw in armfuls of hi-octane, hi-tech, hi-speed, hi-intensity music. I dissolved at the speed of sound, fragments free-falling, dispersing and disengaging like it was meant to happen. But then my hard drive got corrupted, and my gray matter got flooded with exclamation marks, misfires, and "file not found" notifications. The music went straight through me like massless particles, and I realized I'd forgotten stillness in the surge of desire and transcendence...
Paraiso by Haruomi Hosono
 What's interesting about Paraiso and Yellow Magic Orchestra is that they both play on the exotic associations Westerners have with Japan and other islands in the Pacific, whether it be quaint local color encountered on holiday or the electro-technological spectacular that is associated with the region. In doing this, Paraiso also drew on American lounge and exotica music rooted in the 1950s, rendering both sweet but ultimately insipid...
Keats has been branching out into hip hop and chillwave sounds, too, with some wonderfully crafted releases by Pyxis, Cahunastyle and Timid Soul, who deftly mixes sloppy-cosmic-funky beats with J-pop's cuteness sensibility via vocaloids.While eschewing the weirdness and conceptual edge of much vaporwave, future funk and its associates frequently maintain this link with Japanese sounds and their richer harmonies as well as text and imagery from the island, mixing them all with the faded retro-USA imagery that surrounds chillwave and old-hipster music...
 The Tokyo-based hip-hop producer Nujabes died in a traffic accident just over 5 years ago, at the age of 36. Since that time, he has (rather like J Dilla) quietly built up a considerable reputation, especially online, where dozens of tribute releases can be found (few them quite matching the skill and subtly of Nujabes himself). Beginning in the 1990s, Nujabes's signature sound was based in that era's soul and jazz beats, and typically uses piano, often flute or soprano saxophone too, with the rich chords often favoured in Japanese musical smoothness. His sound is the perfect and surprising union of coolness (and I mean that as an aesthetic with a long history and particular feel) and sentimentality...
Modal Soul by Nujabes
One of the greatest practitioners of drum-machine production with a more traditionally East-Asian sound is from Shanghai: Swimful Buterfly. Swimful has produced for US rappers Lil B and Main Attrakionz, and released a warmly euphoric debut album 馬路天使 (Street Angel) in 2013. Last year's follow-up, 归梦 (Return to a Dream), is even better, perfectly following that trajectory whereby a producer gets both more skilled at crafting beats and more original. It samples both Chinese and Japanese zither instruments and singing try "But Maybe". The track "Air Between Toes" even samples the song "Tsukematsukeru" from J-Pop's kawaii princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, transforming its torrent of soda-pop into a cooling stream of sweet mountain water...

归梦 (Return to a Dream) by Swimful Buterfly 
Aristophanes 貍貓 is a fantastically charismatic female rapper from Taipei, Taiwan, who prefers to spit ("sigh," "sidle" and "swoon" might be better words) over the sloppy style that has come to be known as glitch hop. Back on that Nujabes thing, Nanchang's Aosaki explores Chinese folk sounds and high-love piano riffs, while SoundIzImage is even more giant-hearted, especially on the album Fragrance. And if you want to go more sentimental still, there's Shirfine from Xiamen, or α·Pav, whose music mixes hip-hop, new age, and Chinese instruments and could be the soundtrack to an indie game that helps kids come to terms with the fact that everything dies.  
What about pop? Magic Yume and Zoom Lens (who I talked to here) are two of the best places for Japanese-inspired indie pop in the online underground, and they both have everything on a continuum from laid-back dreaminess to footwork and hyperactive chiptune, showing us that cute and upbeat doesn't have to be intense. At the calmer end, Magic Yume has Tokyo Princess (東京 姫) by Ikaros イカロス (as well as plenty of downtempo beats) and Zoom Lens has Yeule, Girlfriend by Philippines artist Ulzzang Pistol, the gorgeous Paradice by LLLL, and the Yumetatsu Glider EP by Japanese artist Yoshino Yoshikawa, who's affiliated with Tokyo's richly hyperactive Maltine label.