Skalpel – Transit

PlugAudio (PL02), 2014

Generally, I applaud when artists decide to release their own work. Going independent allows for more freedom, of course, while shouldering the burden of the entire process. The only reservations I have are about the material’s quality and direction; perhaps the artist was splintering away to such a large degree that any new music will sound nothing like the past works I enjoy.

With Skalpel, there were no such reservations. Once they left the pioneering label Ninja Tune, I figured Skalpel dropped off the map for good. Not so. Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo released their 2014 album Transit via their own label, PlugAudio, preceded by the Simple EP, which hinted at evolution rather than rebirth. Following the lauded albums Skalpel and Konfusion, two of the finest examples of future jazz to date, Transit reduces the sampling and increases the original production, resulting in arguably the duo’s best release.

As its name implies, Transit is a transition; a moving from one place to another. It can be seen as a departure, but with an uncertain destination. The album is cleverly named, for it is akin to a tour of places as they pass by, like a series of snapshots from a vacation. As with Skalpel’s previous work, you’ll still hear the same plucked bass strings, deft percussion, and looped vocal samples taken from dusty jazz recordings (vinyl-sourced static present and accounted for), but there’s more going on now. Programming touches such as synth sequences and glitch-studded percussion enhance the tracks rather than demanding attention; Skalpel is interested in creating a solid product rather than showing off technical skill, which the duo has tastefully displayed since their first release.

There’s a sun-drenched and distinctly European road-trip flavor in the music that gives Transit newfound appeal and vibrancy. It’s immediately apparent in the opening track, “Siesta,” with its combination of strummed harp-strings and plinking xylophone that create a laid-back, somehow coastal vibe. The horns and spliced vocal samples are present as well, but the feel is a far cry from the black-and-white dance kitsch of classic Skalpel tracks from the past (“1958”).

Skalpel doesn’t entirely abandon its roots, however. Tracks such as “Simple” and “Switch” fit comfortably with prior material, but one of the best things about Transit is how smooth the transition has been. “Snow” is calm and meditative, and the plucked guitar of “Saragossa” is playfully engaging. The vocal samples remain the focus in places, such as the lovely female croon of “Sea” and the soulful male loop of “Surround’; while this technique isn’t new for Skalpel, the effect certainly is. (And yes, in case you noticed, the names of eleven of the thirteen tracks begin with the letter “s.”)

Skalpel is still cool, hip, and slyly self-aware, but their idea of the self has expanded beyond the art-deco dancefloor to the outside world. While the added electronics may turn off some electro-jazz purists, Transit is an example of accomplished artists who have committed to expanding their sound while preserving their identity’s core. Skalpel can no longer be pegged as strictly electro-jazz. Transit announces there’s more to them than mere cut-and-paste panache.

Niteffect – Vanish

Kreislauf Records (Kreislauf 161), 2016

The unsung master of lurking trip-hop returns, with eyes now turned to the city’s lofty towers rather than downcast on its broken streets. Niteffect no longer snarls and slouches along back alleys in search of nefarious dealings, but has edged into the bright open air, blinking uncertainly as bits of its former shadowed shell trail behind it. Vanish marks Niteffect’s first step into unfamiliar surroundings, a freshly undertaken journey toward a destination far from its origins.

Niteffect’s reinvention is immediately evident in the bittersweet nostalgia of “Swt Mthr” – very likely a shortened “sweet mother”- drawn with personal intimacy via piano that speaks of tribute and loss in its evocative lines. Niteffect has announced its rebirth clearly and boldly. No longer does its sound bristle with the narrow-eyed suspicion and brash bravado of the city’s underbelly. It’s brighter, yes, but not naively so; it still regards the world through a lens roughened by asphalt and concrete, but now with hints of sunlight teasing at the edges.

Vestiges of the past (the sublimely murky Dark Glow) are still present, but their participation is muted. The backing keys of “Loop for Die” twist down into a grainy bed as the track ends, as if Niteffect is actively hesitant to indulge his past tendencies. While the track never escalates fully, a muffled xylophone-like sequence forms the foundation of “Hide and Seek,” along with a minimal and restrained drum track. Likewise, the skewed plucked bass and wavering sequences of “Devil May Care” sound like a prologue to something darkly streetwise, but the line is never crossed, imparting anticipation of action that doesn’t quite materialize. These remnants of rawness keep the warm analog sound of Vanish grounded with just enough grit; it’s honest in a way that similar IDM-based electronica struggles to emulate.

As Vanish nears its too-soon conclusion, NE seems to feel more comfortable with its new incarnation. “Nightfall” (rather than the expected “Nitefall”) is particularly effective, with a warbled loop shimmering among a delicately treated vocal sample. This is the epitome of the new Niteffect; tentative, but clever and assured, stepping into its new cityscape with wary confidence. The beat lurches more fully on “Lifecycle,” recalling the dirty glory of its past, but framed by flickering treatments that elevate the track into the clearing sky. The final track, “Hiatus,” is anchored by hushed organ chords, while the fluttering sparse percussion darts and flits amongst shimmering sequences. Niteffect is as sly as ever, but more refined, with a heightened awareness of the world beyond the streets.

Vanish feels transitory, but that may be due to its brevity. As few of its eight tracks break three minutes in length, it’s really a long EP rather than a proper album. One of the best features about past releases was generous length, allowing Niteffect ample room to experiment within its established parameters. Vanish hints at an unfettered direction for the project, but feels slightly unfinished, as if it’s an addenda to the body existing work rather than a full-fledged release. I, for one, hope that Vanish isn’t just a tantalizing side-path for Niteffect. Perhaps it’s a sign of its sparseness, but every time Vanish reaches its finish, I feel there’s still a chapter or two remaining. The real reason, however, is obvious: Vanish is so well-wrought and satisfying, I simply want more of it.

Haircuts for Men – You Can Trust Me

DMT Records (DMTREC096), 2016

There’s a fine line between repetition and maintaining a particular vibe. Variation based a theme runs the risk of reducing the desired effect when drawn out over time, much like a favorite meal loses something after repeated indulgences. For a recording artist, it must be a difficult concept to pin down: stay the course, and the music may be marked as unadventurous; stray too far, and the original meaning may be lost.

Then there is the rare occasion where it all comes together; as close to the ideal as one could hope for. You Can Trust Me may not feature the best work from Haircuts for Men, but it is the most centered. The project has a history of producing an alluring mix of groove-heavy beats and electronic jazz, sheathed in atmosphere that slides easily from luxuriant to quirky, sometimes within the same track. Smoothness is common among Haircuts for Men’s discography, but it often shares album space with manic free-form percussion, odd experimentation, or bursting sparks of energy (and sometimes all three). This unexpectedness is an important part of the project’s draw, but there are times when the potently created mood changes skin a bit too quickly.

This is not the case on You Can Trust Me, a perfectly paced and plotted five-track EP that focuses solely on laid-back slithering trip-hop percussion, fog-thick urban atmosphere, and minimal treated piano, all painted in shifting strokes of midnight neon. Each track fits comfortably and smartly, five fingers of the highest quality of perfectly padded glove; an instantly bonding second skin. From track to track, there are slight differences in tempo and effects, along with an array of incidental guitar and sampled sighs, but the mood never wavers, from the sly brooding warmth that blossoms from the opening moments until its delectable close. The final track, “明るい光と蒸気のフラッシュ”, is the EP’s smoky crown jewel. A gracefully spacious piano sequence, draped in hazy reverb, recalls the best work of Harold Budd and George Winston, while the slinky drums, mournful vocal samples, and electronic ambiance mesh organically into a nocturnal dirge of longing and hope. Haircuts for Men has an enviable number of near-perfect tracks sprinkled throughout its discography, and this one, rife with head-nodding heartache, is right at the top of the list.

With You Can Trust Me, Haircuts for Men is in perfect Harmony with itself. It is the ideal length – less would leave one slighted, while any more would be dangerously lingering – and has the most consistently realized identity of any Haircuts for Men release. The project has never before reached such a level of emotional depth, nor achieved such a singular balance between the energy of percussive-based jazz and the immersive and emotive nature of ambient. The keyboards are firmly delicate, the drumming buoyant without drowning, and the melodies drift at the perfect distance.

The hypnotic aura of the night city hides precious moments of clarity, where people and buildings and streets fall into place, becoming part of one another under a watchful skyline. Haircuts for Men has captured these elusive fragments here, in all their fleeting half-lit intimacy: a frozen moment of frame-grabbed crowds and rain-dampened gridlock; the mysterious patterns of darkened and brightly lit skyscraper windows; the face of a loved one streaked by light from the streets below. For all its qualities of concept and execution, for how effortlessly it skirts along the knife-edge between variation and atmosphere, and for how damn right it feels, You Can Trust Me is as near-perfect a slice of trip-hop down-tempo as you can ever expect to hear.

Chungking Mansions – ShowView

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_92), 2015

Vaporwave can be a daunting thing to break into. The bands are usually anonymous, and the band names and album and track titles are often composed solely of Asian characters. Add the large and still developing subgenres that vary wildly in style and composition, along with the rapid stream of new releases, and keeping up is a demanding but potentially heavily rewarding proposition.

I’m a relatively recent vaporwave convert, so while I’m no expert, one of the first albums that got me hooked was ShowView by Chungking Mansions, and I still consider it to be quite a fitting starting point for those interested by this most curious of genres. It touches on several of vaporwave’s subgenres while still managing to maintain a cohesive feel – no small task, given the breadth of styles dwelling under the vaporwave umbrella. On ShowView, first and foremost, there’s the heavy modern Asian mood so integral to the vaporwave experience – Hong Kong in this case – from which the project draws inspiration and source material. You’ll get Asian jingles, with the vocals downpitched and melodies stretched into hazy melancholic bliss. You’ll hear jazzed-up horns and bass, urban-soaked trip-hop, and field recordings of airports, nightlife, city streets, malls, and commercials, all of it cut up, reversed, reverbed, and filtered. Vaporwave is often a celebration of consumer culture, but can also be deeply critical and cynical. Most of it skews towards an Asian urban setting, reflecting both the energy and the vapidness of the city center. Chungking Mansions has delved into all on its debut album ShowView, a remarkably assured and confident entry into the hard-to-nail-down vaporwave style.

ShowView displays a lot of these different yet related perspectives. In many ways, I see it as Vaporware 101; an introduction to the vast array of styles and sensibilities the genre dips into, as well as a hint as its conceptual potential. You’re likely to find entire vaporwave albums built on any one of the styles featured in any of the eighteen tracks on the album (it’s common for vaporwave tracks to be on the shorter side; only one here is over four minutes long). And yet, Chungking Mansions has made this mashed-up and fractured example of 21st-century Hong Kong lifestyle to be a highly listenable experience, providing a keenly conceived sonic portrait of the place it represents. Even though I continue to explore the neon-drenched depths of vaporwave on a daily basis, this is an album I keep returning to, because it’s such a finely focused yet varied example of what the genre aims to achieve.

It remains to be seen whether the retro-futuristic, internet-obsessed, cyber-punk realm of vaporwave is going to stick, or if it ends up morphing into something utterly unlike what it sounds like today. Even an album that sounds as cutting-edge as ShowView can sound basic when compared to some of the more recent abstract efforts that vaporwave continues to create. This album is a fitting portrait for the current high-speed quick-shifting generation, in spite of its constant and curious cultural backward glancing. On ShowView, Chungking Mansions has captured the immersive aesthetic of ambient, the energy of glitch and IDM, the chilled vibe of downtempo, the slyness of trip-hop, the immediate honesty of field recordings, and the playful quirk of Asian commerce into a single heady package. Its scope alone makes it a must-listen, but like vaporwave itself, there’s much more here than is readily apparent. ShowView may be somewhat baffling at first listen, but it quickly sinks its hooks into you, and you can’t help but explore it. If you find this album to be even the slightest bit intriguing, it’s just the tiniest glimpse into the hypnotic and mysterious urban maze that is the vaporwave universe.

Third Person Lurkin – The Nameless City

Dusted Wax Kingdom (DWK 066), 2010

Lovecraftian trip-hop.

What?

And yet, despite the bizarre contradiction that concept might suggest, here it is.  Marshall Artist manages to pull it off as Third Person Lurkin, combining the smoky beats and jazzy samples of trip-hop with atmospheric electronic ambiance, intended to convey the strange wonder from the lesser-known work of influential author H.P. Lovecraft.  The Nameless City is TPL’s second similarly themed LP, after The Strange Light District, and doesn’t focus on the formless horror of the Cthulhu Mythos, but takes the path of Lovecraft’s just-as-effective writings inspired by the entrancing and otherworldly poetry of Dunsany, among others.

Third Person Lurkin falls heavily into the cinematic type of trip-hop.  While some music in this style is clearly intended to be instrumental hip-hop – a rap album with the rap removed – Artist leans toward creating cinematic instrumentals using hard snares, off-kilter bass-drum rhythms and high-hats, and sounds of plucked string bass, piano, and horns.  He enfolds this urban core in a haze of synthetic ambient twiddles and passes, giving the music a surreal edge missing from most music in the genre.

“The Silver Key” is a prime example of how TPL’s shadowy brain works.  A slow beat and lazy bass line emerge, perfectly suited for the smooth deliveries of Rakim or Massive Attack, but here, the hip-hop core is surrounded by misty keys and reverbed electronic samples.  Before long, a mournful clarinet and flute materialize through the fog, giving the track a unique and dreamlike aura; fitting, considering the story for which it’s named.  These seemingly disparate elements are fused together with such care, they seem molded from the same source.

It’s an odd match, and one that might sound unwieldy on paper, but Marshall Artist has a keen sense of what he’s trying to accomplish, and doesn’t lay it on too thickly.  The Nameless City may be named for a story describing a place of ancient horror, but here, it’s a hidden fog-shrouded place, meant to be discovered and explored.  Tracks like “Mountain Top Temples” and “Eon Dead Hallways” contain just enough unease to make one wary, but there are no slobbering tentacled beasts here – just long-empty buildings tucked away in the far corners of the world….or in the dim places one roams when sleeping.

TPL’s use of samples – xylophone (check out the melody on “Liquid Lights”), string (love the bass of “Churning Vapors”), piano, the scattered vinyl crackles – give the album an aged feel, too; not ancient, mind you, but harking to the 1910s and 1920s.  It’s a perfect fit for a Lovecraft theme.  Even the beats have a classic and dusty sound to them; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were played live in many cases.

On the other hand, Artist is a clever composer in his own right.  Several tracks reduce the samples and increase the original electronics:  “Float Awkward” is a buzzing and bubbling piece of near-IDM beatwork that is the most menacing on the album (nothing terrorizing, but a bit more ominous), while “A Potent Nimbus” slouches easily along beneath a drifting downtempo-style female vocal sample.

The Nameless City is a different take on a common Lovecraft trope.  It’s nothing like the dark ambient tribal-drumming release by Maculatum with which it shares its title, but the two albums look at Lovecraft from two separate viewpoints, and distill the experience in equally effective ways.  Third Person Lurkin is a fine example of the more cinematic side of trip-hop, and a cohesive album like this is an odd, but finely planned and executed soundtrack to a dreamlike side of Lovecraft’s writing that often gets lost in the imposing and alien shadow of the Old Ones.

deeB – Evening Island

Offsuit Recordings (offsuit003), 2014

In a relaxed tropical place in the middle of the warm sea, somewhere between lounge, downtempo, and trip-hop, you’ll find deeB’s Evening Island.  Danny van den Hoek has released several EPs as deeB (most notably his debut, Daydream), but this time he’s moved beyond the mellow sun-drenched city streets he normally treads, switching them out for a comfortable, isolated beach chair propped in the shade of a nodding palm, before a glorious panoramic sunset with waves lapping coolly at one’s bare feet.  Though Evening Island clocks in at a scant twenty-five minutes in length, the production level and songwriting quality are high, and it loops wonderfully.  It’s one of those short-but-oh-so-sweet experiences that ends too quickly, and goes down smoothly and easily, and most importantly, stays with you.

After a beatless introduction, “Arrival 404,” that bears all the hallmarks of a landing plane, the first stop on deeB’s tour is “Nightswim,” a shimmering number with all of the project’s trademark irresistible charm, warmth, and lazy minimal beats and drifting wordless vocal samples.  What sets this track apart from past efforts are the sweetly lilting string and flute samples that appear near the track’s conclusion, elevating it beyond the already fine-tuned ambiance.  “Trouble in Paradise” is anything but, with strumming guitar chords accompanied by a perfectly pitched shuffling beat, wind chimes, and distant sparkles.  (I get the feeling the title is missing “No” at its beginning.)  A looping sample of dolphin-song is the core of “Thru Waves,” but this isn’t new age territory; it’s a view of the ocean from our sandy beach lounge-spot, while minimal keyboards, sampled horns, and that quiet beat keeping perfect time….not that time actually matters here in paradise.  The sing-song sample “I’ve got an island” that wanders through “About the Island” never fails to put a smile on my face – I do have an island, right here in my ears, among the buzzing insects, light bongos, plucking strings, and twinkling sequences.  “Coastal Service” sees us off with just a tinge of regret, but not to worry – we’ll be back, as soon as we’re able….or when we hit replay.

Undeniably cool, perfectly paced, and deftly balanced, Evening Island is exceptional conceptual downtempo.  DeeB is one of the best there is at creating easy beats that elevate as effectively as they transport, and this tropical gem of an EP sees van den Hoek at the peak of his craft.

Tony Mahoney – Product of a Dying Breed

Dusted Wax Kingdom (DWK089), 2011

It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Find some isolated samples from old jazz LPs, arrange them in proper time, add a modern hip-hop style beat, and voila:  you’ve just created trip-hop.  What sounds easy in theory, however, doesn’t always work so well in reality.  It’s a formula that works quite well, in my view, but like any genre, there are certain artists that display a keen creative edge that elevates their work into something that feels natural.

Tony Mahoney is one of these.  With his first release on Bulgarian netlabel Dusted Wax Kingdom, he shows not just a trained and selective ear and technical prowess, but an aesthetic sense that permeates every piece of his laid-back and shadowy instrumental hip-hop.  Product of a Dying Breed is moody, smoky, skulking trip-hop, infused with an irresistible fusion of unease and cool.  There’s no brash swing samples here, lengthy clarinet solos, or turntablist scratching, just eleven tracks of head-nodding late-night city-street slickness from start to finish.  And how slick it is.

After a markedly odd “Intro” with extended dialogue from (I assume) an old radio show featuring the sit-com witticisms of one Mr. Flywheel, Mahoney gives us a taste of his low-key take on the genre with “Delusion,” with an easy beat flanked by a looped bass sample, haunting keyboard chords, a delicate sequence of harp-strings, and a lonely horn, all draped in tastefully understated vinyl crackles.  It’s minimal but drenched in nocturnal atmosphere, with more than a touch of the ominous.  This latter element isn’t overbearing, mind you, but is a mood that Mahoney indulges in multiple times, such as on the string-laden and cinematic “The Last House” and the haunting urban echoes and muted piano of “Vultures.”

Product of a Dying Breed isn’t all lovely gloom, however.  “Love Is A Battlefield” isn’t a Pat Benatar cover, but a potent piece of soulful regret, led by mournfully plucked bass strings and reverbed guitar backed by quiet keyboards and a plodding beat.  The emotion is so velvety thick, you can taste the smoke curling in the air and feel the spreading warmth of the scotch in your belly.  “Broken Wingz” travels a similar path of loss via a plaintive piano and buried-yet-profound violin; this is where Mahoney shows his skill as an assembler, taking existing disparate elements and fusing them together into something completely new, and completely his.

Both “Candlelight” and “The Blues” use female vocal samples of wordless jazz crooning and horn ensembles, but Mahoney doesn’t allow either to break loose of the dusky fog he’s been so careful to cover his music in.  By the same measure, “Black Clouds” and “Streets Raised Me” keep the samples buried and the feel slick and measured; both tracks are closer to pure instrumental hip-hop; if you told me these tracks were used as background for straight rap, I’d buy it in a hot minute.  “Sex, Drugs, and Hip-Hop” is the most aggressive track on the album, with sampled rap couplets, repeated processed drones, and a churning horn loop.  It’s more than a bit bristly, and almost nudges the album off its established foundation, but Mahoney keeps a firm grasp on the reins with restrained drumwork and reluctance to let the energy grow too menacing.

There might be some who’d argue this style of music really isn’t composing, and I’d agree to a certain extent.  I’d counter, however, that most music is already a take on what’s been done before; this genre just goes about it in a more overt fashion.  For me, the key is how it all fits together.  Anyone can take a sample and add a beat; few do it on Mahoney’s level.  Product of a Dying Breed sounds organic, like it was made all by the same artist.  In fact, if I didn’t know it was a sample-heavy album, I’d consider Mahoney a supremely talented musician.  And yet, he is talented:  he can tell when pieces will work together, and he knows how to bring them together into a cohesive whole.  He applies the final connective touches with such deft ease, it’s often impossible to tell where the samples end and he begins.

A tribute to a bygone era enhanced by the present, submerged in low-lit streetwise ambiance, Product of a Dying Breed is indeed the product of calculated cleverness and finely tuned execution.  There’s a lot of similar albums on Dusted Wax and elsewhere, but this is easily one of the best the genre has to offer.