Gyoza District – Gyoza District

Adhesive Sounds (AS119), 2017

The first release from Gyoza District doesn’t sound like a debut. On one hand, this isn’t surprising, because it’s a side project from veteran vaporwave producer Cvltvre, but the sound design is something new. While this self-titled album retains the Asian influence marking a good deal of vaporwave, Gyoza District has captured an elusive sense of concept and place while also providing a quality listening experience.

The atmosphere is the strongest feature of Gyoza District. The album can perhaps be best described as a laid-back combination of minimal IDM and lo-fi trip-hop, and remains consistent throughout its ten tracks. A strong rhythmic foundation forms the base, but it’s a fragile and skeletal thing, filling the role of outline for the music-box chime-work and analog-Asian melodies that give Gyoza District its unique dreamy urban feel. Adding to this are a series of vocal Asian-language samples that provide additional character. This is neither a dense city-sourced ambient experiment nor edgy street-wise Asian-gangster soundtrack, but an exercise in a relaxed and reflective vibe; urban yet never aggressive, fringed with melancholy yet consistently wistful.

Gyoza District isn’t a long album, but that’s not a mark against it. As its template is quite specific – the beats, instrumentation, and general structure of the ten brief tracks remain largely unchanged – it runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Fortunately, the tracks are cleverly planned, encouraging looped listens, and the creativity is allowed to flourish within the intentionally limited template. Despite the singular sound and sparse instrumentation, the music is smooth and stylish while retaining an elegantly understated edge. The title track is a leisurely meander accompanied by cricket-song and buried crowd noise, with a muffled twinging string as your guide; “Shibuya” plays off this template with a decidedly urban vibe, but without resorting to grit and grime, while “Yodo-Gawa” takes a quieter path along small-village fairways. Details coloring the world are noted by the listener, gauged against their backdrop, contemplated, and ultimately appreciated; Gyoza District, for all its minimalism, is headphone tourism at its most effective.

At the start, Gyoza District is purely electronic, its minimalism deliciously restrained. The miniature clockwork taiko-glitch of “Dimensions” is echoed by the hidden music-box chimes of “Yumeno Park,” the similarities perhaps made more admirable due to the reused musical elements; the tracks feel nothing alike. The album’s last few tracks move the strings into the foreground – “Setonakai” and “Rei” are particularly effective – while the electronics bubble peacefully underneath. The album closes with the surreal and beautiful “Lonely God,” the strings and synths working together in quiet harmony to produce a more amorphous and spiritual aesthetic.

Gyoza District is remarkably grounded, neither too airy nor too melancholy, and is wisely balanced thanks to Cvltvre’s veteran touch. It switches gears from a somewhat mechanical beginning to a more organic feel as the album progresses, all the while staying close to its foundation. The ambient samples add depth to the sparse but deft instrumentation, but the nebulous urban subtlety is never compromised. This was an album that settled into my consciousness easily and gradually, and once it did, it nestled comfortably, as if it had found a new home, and I welcomed it.

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adamned.age – Transit Berlin

Phonocake Records (phoke93), 2013

There’s something very satisfying about listening to a record that just sounds great. Not everything needs to be draped with meaning or possessed of an unusual high-level concept. While these types of music certainly have their place, every once in a while, there’s nothing quite like indulging yourself with some serious ear-candy.

Hanne Adam has just the ticket. Transit Berlin, her fifth album as adamned.age, is a ninety-minute collection of glitchy downtempo IDM full of slickly produced rhythms and urban cool that makes your speakers seem like a portal to the chic of city nightlife. The album is well-named, for it’s the perfect soundtrack to cruising through the neon-lit bustle of some downtown center, through the crowds and constant activity and stimuli. Cuts like “Sektorengrenze” epitomize the album’s theme: a beat plods forward among a series of busily bubbling glitch patterns, with distant stabs of melody punctuating the backdrop. Imagine yourself in L.A., Tokyo, London, or yes, Berlin, and you can’t help but have this track winding through your system.

Along with the obvious increase in sound design, Adam has increased the beats and the mood. Past releases such as Whiteout (2009), planted the seeds of what would become the kaleidoscopic IDM of Transit Berlin; Adam has found and developed her signature sound here, moving past the experimentation of her earlier work. There are still beatless pieces of ambiance here – the muted reverb-soaked tones of “Im Hinterland” is a highlight – but she’s found her muse in the heart of Germany’s capital city.

And yet, there’s still room to improve. It’s tough to imagine adamned.age progressing any further along the lines of pure production values, as everything here has been pitched, modulated, and processed to a razor’s edge of clarity – I did mention this album sounds phenomenal, right? – but the album still struggles to escape the too-familiar trope of sounding artificial. Where artists like l’ombre and Integral have emerged from their IDM cocoons to take flight on the strength of the aesthetic and the personal, adamned.age doesn’t quite reach the same level with consistency. It’s here, on tracks such as the wonderfully meandering “Alexanderplatz” and the sly bass-driven title track, but it’s the lack of a reliable emotional connection that makes the album something of a chore to listen to actively from start to finish. Transit Berlin is marvelous as background music – perhaps a result of Adam’s involvement in multimedia production, film, and web design. It has a certain detachment in its mood, as if it is missing some series of accompanying images. The urban ballad “Stillsand in Bewegung,” with its mournful melody and sampled winsome saxophone, sounds like a facsimile of an emotive piece, rather than the piece itself. It’s the strongest example, perhaps, of why Transit Berlin remains disengaging in spite of its audio wizardry.

And yet, the album sounds so delectable, so finely tuned, with each piece of glitch like a flawless sparkling chip of ice and each beat a digital slice of perfected rhythm, that it’s almost forgivable. My ears are overwhelmed, but I can’t say the same for my brain. Transit Berlin is an album I want very much to like more than I do, and it is an album that sincerely tries its absolute best to slips the bonds of the synthetic. Adam is, obviously, a talented producer, capable of skipping her digital stones in hypnotic sparkling patterns across her virtual sea, but I still feel like it’s a place that’s only hers, and we’re all kept at arms’ length. I have faith, however, that she’ll learn to match her prodigious sound-design talents to the same level of emotional pull. When this happens, as I believe it will, adamned.age will enter rarified spaces.

Anhedonia – Destructive Forces

Aliens Production (AP 11), 2006

For those with familiarity, the comparisons are immediate and obvious:  Anhedonia sounds a lot like Gridlock.  The two projects share the same template of broken percussive patterns wrapped in synthetic ambiance.  Anhedonia, the creative outlet of Vojtech Smetana, is clearly influenced (as are many others) by Gridlock’s groundbreaking fusion of chaos and emotion, but Anhedonia does have differences that separate it enough to create its own identity.  In this way, Smetana keeps his music from becoming a mere clone, and instead, Anhedonia becomes an admiring follower, branching into territory that’s obviously inspired, but ultimately of Smetana’s own design.

Destructive Forces doesn’t match the visceral power and haunting profound emotion of Gridlock, but that’s not surprising; I’ve yet to hear an artist in a similar vein that does.  Anhedonia is no slouch in the songwriting and arrangement departments, however, and creates and maintains a rhythmic energy that moves through the music like a coiling cybernetic serpent.  The title track takes the Gridlock formula and fits it into a momentous near-EBM-style anthem, complete with sequenced rhythms, backing synths, and irresistible drum programming.  It’s Gridlock, refitted for the dancefloor, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Wells’ & Cadoo’s debut, The Synthetic Form.

Over the course of Destructive Forces, however, Anhedonia gradually moves away from Gridlock’s deep long shadow into its own territory.  A slow jagged beat is the center of “Malfunction”, while distant noise and clicks orbit melodic keyboards.  Smetana adds percussive elements as the track progresses, increasing the complexity without losing sight of the foundation.  Destructive Forces wears its Gibson-influenced template on its cybernetic sleeve, too; with tracks titled “Bad Sector” and “Chiba City Blues,” it’s easy for Gibson fans to imagine Case threading his virtual way through the geometry of the matrix with Anhedonia’s music as company and guide.  This is a sci-fi album, without apology; it’s Access to Arasaka, but with drive, focus, and direction.

The straining distorted drums of “Neurological Seizure” will put a grin on the face of any IDM fan, while the dramatic backdrop and scattered samples with appeal to those with post-industrial tastes.  The sparseness of “Stir Up the Dust,” which also appears in remixed form courtesy of Aliens Production founders Disharmony, switches into EBM glory thanks to a wonderfully old-school bass synth and pounding drums.  “Icecold” is one of the tracks whose foundation struggles to escape the pull of Gridlock’s ghost, but Smetana keeps the inertia high enough to divert the track from the chasm of copycat-ism.  “Chiba City Blues” is a grit-laden, neon-soaked, magnificently bristling synthetic creature that is one of the album’s more dramatic and effective highlights.  Things slow down and retract just enough on “Whitespace”, but not to the degree of letting Smetana’s honed sense of ambiance gain too strong a foothold.

Clearly, it’s nigh impossible to discuss Anhedonia without mentioning Gridlock.  The two projects share so many common elements, they’re almost related.  Like siblings, however, Anhedonia has followed the example set by its elder brother and managed to demonstrate respect and influence while finding and staying true to itself.  Gridlock’s place as an underground electronic innovator is well deserved, and while many clones exist, Anhedonia’s cyberhymn-laced debut is arguably the best of the bunch.

Flaque – Mindscapes

Wycombe Music (CDWYC 14), 2007

Even before I heard his debut album, Florian Ziller’s Flaque project had been on my radar for a while, thanks to a series of outstanding tracks on various compilations:  “Black Shadows in the Fog”, “Drifting Stones,” “Darkness is Falling,” and “Voices.”  With these tracks, Flaque showed a rare grasp of several styles, from ambient to glitch-studded IDM, and I always wondered if and when an album might appear.

I got my wish with the 2007 release of Mindscapes on Germany’s Wycombe Music label.  However, I didn’t discover it for a while, because Mindscapes was released as part of a triple-album set which was often cataloged as just one of the albums (CDWYC 13, an album by synthpop group Concise titled Revive).  I don’t believe Mindscapes has had a standalone physical release, but via digital, it’s not difficult to acquire….as long as one knows what one is looking for!

Perhaps I set my expectations too high, or perhaps Ziller is the type of artist who works best with a single track, for as solid as Mindscapes is, it still strikes me as disappointing.  With the creativity and technical skill displayed on his comp tracks – all done post-Mindscapes, mind you – I suppose I was hoping to be blown away by an entire album containing the same level of production.  Mindscapes does waver between straight ambiance, such as the playful “Flares”, the watery “Plankton,” and the soothing nightscape of “Stonehill”, and restrained glitchy IDM (“Northland”, “The Clouds and the Sun”), but it seems tentative, as if Ziller doesn’t feel fully confident to let himself go in the album format; perhaps he was trying too hard to make everything flowing and centralized.

Not that there aren’t some fantastic moments here.  In many ways, Flaque is like Gridlock’s little brother.  The distorted complex percussive patterns aren’t as bombastic, and the atmospheres aren’t as profound, but the formula is very similar to Cadoo and Mike Well’s influential flagship.  “Alive” begins with crowd samples and a minimal glitch sequence, before a lovely warm synth washes over; this is calming beauty, with a little bit of quiet chaos in the background to keep things from getting too floaty.  Flaque does tread very close to New Age in places, but the distorted drum programming keeps  Mindscapes from wandering too far into dreamland.

There are two tracks on Mindscapes that do hint at the dazzling heights set by Flaque’s later comp tracks.  “Acoma” is a sparkling wonder of mood, dancing keyboards, and muffled quietly crashing glitch, but for all its prowess, it never seems to fully take off.  “Deceive” opens in typical fashion for the album, but when female voices appear, courtesy of Katrin Segert of Concise, the track shifts effortlessly into synthpop territory.  I’m not a big synthpop fan, but this song is truly magnificent, soaring to aching heights as it progresses.  Segert’s husky, soulful delivery – instantly reminiscent of This Mortal Coil – is a perfect fit for Ziller’s emotive electronics, and the two bands must have known it, for they’ve gone on to collaborate widely since.  These two tracks alone make Mindscapes worth the price of admission.

I admit that I regret saying anything negative about this release.  Mindscapes is indeed enjoyable, and transporting in spots.  However, Flaque has since done his mood-and-glitch formula much better.  While the mood here is strong, it’s rather static.  Mindscapes sticks a little too close to blueprint; most of the chord changes are too similar, and no track besides “Deceive” really breaks out entirely.  I’m realize I’m musing over Mindscapes here, but since I’d heard the compilation tracks first, I can’t help but compare, despite being aware I’m viewing Flaque’s output in reverse.  From this perspective, only a project as promising as Flaque could make an album like Mindscapes seem disappointing.  It’s certainly good, and even great in parts, but Ziller’s best work is ahead of him.

Niteffect – Electric Waste

Kreislauf (101), 2011

Laid-back trip-hop grooves and glitch-ridden atmospherics are the order of the day on Electric Waste from Polish producer Niteffect.   The album slouches along with sly urban confidence, using slow-paced beats with minimal glitch patterns and distortion, along with mood-setting synthwork and melodic keys.  This is not an instrumental hip-hop album, however, for the electronics themselves leave no room for lyrics, and the listener is not left wishing or searching for additional content.

Niteffect has been at his game for a while – this is his fifth full album – and it’s immediately obvious.  “The hero is dead” opens the album with head-nodding grace; this guy knows how to drive a track.  Dramatic stabs are offset by delicate chime and xylophone, while the beat chugs alongside.  It’s easy to imagine a night-time cityscape, or a stroll through the concrete maze of any downtown city; Electric Waste has a strong and definite sense of identity.  “Vandykes” adds space and wobbles to the mood, and “sobersides” uses a high-pitched melody to introduce just enough tension to the beatwork.

There are sixteen tracks on Electric Waste, but none are over four minutes; Niteffect understands the value of not overstaying his welcome.  He allows each track to develop to the potential he designed, then he cuts it off – sometimes rather abruptly.  There are no drawn-out intros or outros here, and no filler:  each track has its own individual identity, yet each is part of the larger concept of the album.  “Swing swift” motors casually along through pulsing sequences that bring to mind a drive through the city’s heart, while the follower, “zonked out,” stumbles along across an uncertain bassline etched with stabbing glitch and through a haze of dirty urban ambience.  The stabbing drills of “waste my life” seem like a misstep, shifting into blooming keys and piano melody and back again, while an off-key bass sequence fires monotonously.  Not a bad track, just a little precarious.  Niteffect’s smoothness returns on “termination,” washing over with chord-changing deep drones with ambient keys, while the ever-present percussion funnels us through the streets and alleys.  Halfway through the track, an introspective piano melody emerges, giving the track a new face, and a welcome one; this is one of Electric Waste’s most accomplished tracks.

The latter section of Electric Waste take a turn for the bizarre.  The alarming techno stabs of “quick to anger” somehow retain the established atmosphere, as does “power strip”, despite its strange Speak-And-Spell vocal samples.  And “sweet sorrow” focuses on a female voice relating the chemical properties of sugar, while the drums and synths do their thing.  “Binary exponents” then closes the album with a return to Niteffect’s formula of decidedly trip-hop moods with downtempo percussion, until the whole  thing ends rather suddenly, like the whole affair just ran itself off a cliff.

Electric Waste is something of a curiosity.  It seems uneven and erratic, but on close listens, it really isn’t.  Some tracks – “the hero is dead”, “sobersides”, “termination” – work better than others, but Niteffect experiments enough to keep the album from becoming sluggish and formulaic while keeping the structure intact.  The short track times keep my finger off the skip button on repeat listens, as I try to figure out exactly why and how everything fits together as well as it does.  Niteffect’s unusual, unexpected, and downright odd cityscape is one I enjoy visiting….when the particular mood strikes, that is.

Polyspace – Tactual Sense

Funkwelten Records (FW 004), 2003

Collaborations are curious things.  How is it determined which person assumes the bulk of the responsibility, and does someone at all?  From novels to albums, the results are always interesting, especially when one or each of the separate contributors is already familiar.  You may pay additional attention to the work, attempting to suss out traces of the artist you know.  Sometimes, however, it is impossible, because the end result of the creative process is a true joint effort, each artist playing off and inspiring the other, and the collaboration becomes something that would have otherwise become impossible.

Ingo Lindmeier and Sebastian Ullman must have experienced this.  Working together, they produce under the name Polyspace, named as a combination of Lindmeier’s Polygon project, and Ullman’s For A Space.  To date, Polyspace has released just one album, Tactual Sense, on the independent German label Funkwelten in 2003, but it stands as a prime example of both artists combining their strengths in true collaborative fashion, while producing commendable music at the same time.

The music on Tactual Sense can be described as melodic IDM with an electro foundation.  The production is tight and focused, with For A Space’s clean synth lines and echoing sequences mixed with Polygon’s minimal piano chords and meandering slightly glitched percussive programming.  It’s a natural fit, sounding like an extension of each individual project, with neither Lindmeier nor Ullman overwhelming the other, each respecting the talents of his partner while not compromising the unified vision.

Tactual Sense treads very closely to ambient and New Age, with a sense of wonder hanging over the music rather than melancholic isolation or vast threatening interstellar chasms.  The album unfolds with relaxed grace, full of unhurried tempo and casually evolving keyboards.  The initially wobbling “Portable” creates space with breathy samples and scattered electronic noise, only to blossom into Lindmeier’s reverbed piano backed by Ullman’s dreamy synths.  A light beat kicks in, soon followed by the familiar wobble, and we are off on a journey into strangely lit solar systems and nebulae.

There’s a definite “space ambient” feel to Tactual Sense, despite it being a piano-and-beat album at its core.  Even when a sampled telephone breaks into “The Call,” it feels as if the incoming message has floated across immeasurable gulfs from beyond the stars….but it is a welcome communication rather than an menacing one.  A beeping electronic melody and sporadic drum-and-bass percussion anchor “Latenz,” while Ullman provides a window into the glorious night sky once again; the track feels like an interstellar Morse code sequence is being fired into the cosmos, hoping for a recipient light years away.

“Grown Out” is driven forward by delicately distorted drums and classic EBM sequencing, while an irresistible piano line and carefully placed synth washes keep the track from becoming too aggressive.   “Motif” is full of cloudy grace, with intertwining melodies held together by patterns of glitch and trembling percussion.  The Kraftwerkian “Model” (perhaps named in homage to the German legends?) is carried along by a classic electro bassline, while an off-key twinkling melody is offset by lightly broken clicks and gentle swipes.  The album closes with the dub-like hymn “Heaven,” finishing off the journey with a shimmering destination somewhere beyond the galaxies overhead.

It’s unfortunate that Polyspace has not released anything further.  Aside from two excellent exclusive tracks on a Funkwelten sampler (Funkwelten, The Label Compilation 01 – an outstanding compilation, by the way) that would have fit on Tactual Sense like a second skin, the project has fallen all but silent.  Perhaps it was viewed as a one-off experiment, yes, but Lindmeier and Ullman collaborated with such effortless elegance, one can only dream what else they might have done.  But for one album, the stars and planets fell into rare alignment.

Tactual Sense lies somewhere between the yawning gulfs of dark ambient, the dream-state of New Age, the minimal lovely piano of Harold Budd, and the edginess of glitch, but ultimately, it can be best identified as the cohesive effort of two artists working together in pure harmony, creating the music they felt compelled to, without paying too much attention to convention or genre.  The result is, quite simply, a gem of an album.

NIMP – Development Concept for Formulation of NIMP

Parametric (0.16q), 2004

I’m not exactly sure what it is about French electronic music, but it always seems to carry a certain atmosphere, regardless of the time of release or genre.  If music is an attempt to create an idealized portrait of reality, then I can only imagine what a French-made electronic world might be like; completely strange would be a good place to start.  Not ominous, mind you; just odd.  In the meantime, all I’ll need to do to get a glimpse into the bizarre window of French culture is listen to NIMP’s Development Concept for Formulation of NIMP.

Not exactly a straightforward title, is it?  Fitting, as this is anything but a typical electronic album.  Even the packaging is unusual: a simple metal case with the CD inside, and a small sticker on the cover with track info and a silhouette of a rather bewildered-looking robot.  That’s it.  French label Parametric has a reputation for releasing excellent electronic music that’s decidedly off-center, and NIMP’s effort might be the furthest-off of the lot.

NIMP, the creative moniker of Guillame Eluerd, fuses IDM, glitch, and electro to produce a collection of minimal and quirky tunes that hang together in spite of the diversity on display.  “Open” starts things off with a straightforward 4/4 dancefloor beat sequence, but it’s not long before a bassline and chopped samples bring an air of nervous unease to the proceedings.  It’s like discovering there’s a mischievous child at your party:  keep an eye on that one; who knows what he might be up to.  As the track draws to a close, we get the sense that things are skewed in NIMP’s world in a delicious manner, and our strange journey is just beginning.

“Hopalong” is well-named, for it is grounded by a wobbling, stabbing, jumping synth melody, high-pitched beeps, and a simple glitch-laced beat.  “The Unexpected” slows things down, with atmospheric keys over clicks and knocks and another bleeping melody.  The meaning of “Contest,” a track full of playful music-box chimes, is not readily apparent, but that’s the way Eluerd appears to operate.  One of the album’s oddest and most memorable tracks is “Mm”, which uses a double “mm-mm” sample at various pitches as its core melody.  “Progress Report 1” is wonderfully ironic, because it is deliberately skeletal and unfinished.  When vocals break in during the second half of the darkly gleeful “Creeps” and proclaim “I’m truly sorry to hunt you down like this/I’m truly sorry if I give you the creeps,” it fits, because it doesn’t.

This is not to imply that Development Concept is just random weirdness.  For all its intentionally odd structure, the album is the work of a talented musician and composer who possesses a strong sense of rhythm and melody.  He could very probably record a straightforward album, and it would probably be quite good, but he can’t bring himself to submit to the normal.  “The Final Boy,” for example, is a droning ode with orchestral strings, horns, and flutes that would fit perfectly into a film score, but it’s not long before Eleurd has had enough mundanity.  The track ends with a series of synthetically generated sounds that gradually reveal themselves to be water, the thudding of oars, and the creaking of a boat.  Things take yet another abnormal turn as the waterborne journey segues smoothly into “La Balancoire Americaine”, where the not-quite-aquatic sounds form swaths and rhythms of the music (yes, music) of the album’s closer, while what sounds like a distorted ship’s horn cranks out a forlorn little melody.

French electro can require a certain mindset to fully appreciate.  In NIMP’s case, it can take a few tries before giving oneself over to Eluerd’s unique brand of peculiar electro-glitch-IDM.  Even when it clicks (if it does), it’s not always fitting for one’s mood.  When everything lines up, however, an album like this slips into your consciousness with ease.  It’s really too bad that NIMP (along with Parametric) seems to be done making music, because this kind of wide-eyed, open-minded experimentation is always welcome.  Those seeking something off-kilter but accomplished need look no further.