Fluffhouse Music Reviews

...featuring 737 albums from 1965 to 2008. Leaning towards the progressive, electronic, ambient, alternative, post rock, and generally arty... but anything that's good is considered!

28 Jun, 2008 - Crisp dance-pop for the summer

New readers of this blog might have felt slightly alienated by previous posts talking about some rather arty, "experimental" genres of music. While I don't apologise for liking reasonably far-out stuff, for the sake of balance I should say that I do enjoy a lot of pop. Not to get all popular-beat-combo-m'lud on you, but a great tune well sung is a delight. So here are three outgoing dance-pop albums that have been getting a lot of play at the Fluffhouse recently. They're all a lovely refreshing listen for a cloudy British summer, either because they're crisp and icy (The Knife) or they're amiably warm (Apparat). OK, these bands are near the edge of the mainstream, and 2 out of 3 of them are on indie labels, but it's practically bubblegum by the standards of my listening. Certainly more summery than dark ambient.

I'm tentatively starting to include file-sharing links with posts here, so you can actually hear what I'm on about. Please use these ethically - if you like then buy, if not, delete! The links will disappear 7 days after each entry is posted.

Apparat - Walls (2007) Album cover
A genuinely sunny and uplifting electronic pop album. Right from the first track "Not a Number", its bubbling xylophone rhythm offset against slinky strings, German producer Sascha Ring marks himself out as having a bit more musical flair than your standard bleepy popster. Throughout, pretty instrumentals are lavished with melody and colour, peaking with "Fractales" (which I'm not sure why is split into two tracks - part II is essentially a beatless extended closing section to the first part). These are mixed with casual poppier numbers ("Hailin from the Edge" and "Holdon"), cowritten with their singer Raz Ohara, unexpectedly R&B-leaning but fitting in quite well. The soaring falsetto vocal of "Arcadia", strikingly like Thom Yorke, inspires comparison to a sunnier Radiohead. Though while Apparat's electronic pop is more accessible, there's still musical muscle here. A more individual album highlight is "Birds", whose delicious chorus "one single spark ignites - into new life" is countered by a silken string tune over skittering synths. Pervadingly upbeat, the album's only intrusion of angst comes in "Over and Over", whose vocal, echoed as through opposing mirrors, cleverly fits the song's introspective theme.

LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007) Album cover
The second full-length from James Murphy's LCD project has just the right balance of hooky tunes and edgy cleverness. It's good solid dance-pop, with dashes of glam-rock in the stomping chorus of "North American Scum" and jerky funk in "Us v Them", while the vocal harmonies of "Get Innocuous" undulate over the skittering groove like something from Talking Heads' "Remain in Light". Its lyrics, delivered with sardonic tone by Murphy, drip with the jaded dancefloor veteran. But most importantly the album boasts some plain strong beats and grooves, from the wistful "Someone Great" and the hypnotic, New Order-tinged "All My Friends" to the pure, icy repetition of the title track. The most welcome surprise is saved for the end, the piano confessional "New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down", which blurts out its urban confusion at the pace of David Bowie's "Five Years".

The Knife - Silent Shout (2006) Album cover
A creeping strangeness pervades this superficially extroverted dance-pop album by Swedish siblings Olof and Karin Dreijer. It might be singer Karin's piercing tone, distorted to sound electronic, the clashing harmonies she overdubs herself with, or the icy purity of their synth sequences. However they do it, it makes an refreshing change from the straightforward summery dance of Röyksopp (who Karin guested with on their second album) or Kraftwerk-style dour electronica. With plain good searing dance tracks like "Neverland", or sturdy 80s-style synth pop ("Marble House") it's uplifting stuff. Their affectations sometimes seem too deliberate, particularly the helium voice effects on "The Captain" and the "hoo hoo hoo" chorus of "One Hit". On the other hand the weirdness can be strikingly attractive, like the unearthly duet over the delicate steel-drum-like synth loop of "Na Na Na". Best of all is the breathless "Forest Families" - I'm a sucker for a refrain like "I just want your music tonight", especially offset against such dark, paranoid verses.

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17 Jun, 2008 - Dark Ambient

This might just be the least suitable musical genre that it's possible to focus on as the height of summer approaches, unless you really don't like the sun. But I don't mind being perverse. While the word "dark" is over-used by music writers (as well as by teenage goths describing the condition of their souls) it's a to-the-point adjective for a style of music that evokes unexplored, mysterious spaces. Dark ambient does have some crossover with industrial, with bands such as Archon Satani exploring traditionally goth preoccupations such as death, destruction and the ugly side of humanity. But the area of the genre I'm dipping into here is marginally more fluffy. As well as the traditional sci-fi connotations of outer space, other recurring themes include the deep sea, sleep and dreaming, and generally getting as far away as possible from mundane human experience. Technically it's about low frequencies, dissonant harmony, and avoiding melody and rhythm in favour of slowly shifting sound textures. So, not really for playing in an open-top car. For night, darkness, isolation, without any of that pesky mundane human experience to intrude.

See also a couple more recent related reviews: Edgar Froese - Aqua, Protogonos - Strange Geographie

Steve Roach - darkest before dawn (2002) Album cover
Steve Roach's work has been an interesting introduction for me to this highly purist form of ambient music, despite my mundane motivation for this purchase (it is extremely good value on pay-per-track download services!) It's one single piece stretched to the maximum length of a CD, 74 minutes of soft, dark noise. Its purely electronic sounds evoke the void of outer or inner space, with an eerie remoteness from any signs of life. On the surface there's not much going on, but it's difficult to isolate all the constituents of the sound. It's almost certainly just a few loops of gradually shifting notes, aligned to create a strange sort of harmony. But just as the imagination might conjure shapes from visual darkness, listening closely you might hear something subtly different at each point, and become alert to how external noises blend into the record's shades of black.

Steve Roach - the dream circle (1999) Album cover
Another pay-per-track bargain from Steve Roach, a piece of purist minimal ambient. It's seemingly designed to be faded in and out, or to encourage dozing off, during anywhere in its 74 minutes of soft synth swells slowly decaying and overlapping, peppered with tiny echoes, trickles and glitches. It's a fairly generic example of this type of "under-sea" ambient sound, and it's rather too clean a sea. The reliance on synthesised sounds gives it a clinically futuristic feel, with no real-instrument sounds in evidence, unlike the ambient works of, say, Brian Eno or Stars Of The Lid. I guess this style aims to get away from worldly humanity, towards the mysteries of unexplored spaces. Though if the theme is sleep and dreaming I would expect at least some human touch. Perhaps it's trying to delve into very deep sleep. One interesting effect is that you can almost imperceptibly detect it slowing down on occasion, as the breathing and heart rate might during sleep.

Robert Rich - Below Zero (1998) Album cover
Robert Rich is most famous for overnight concerts of ambient music for sleeping audiences, but "Below Zero", a compilation of material he released in the mid nineties, is the stuff of nightmares. These menacing, chilly pieces hold together well without sounding like a compilation. Dynamic ambient made from huge, rich synthesiser textures, it's by no means background music - these massive sounds are even more impressive for being focused on and wallowed in. There's a sense of high technology being used to the full, while its microtonal swarms recall "high art" reference points like the orchestral clusters of Ligeti. As well as pure sound colour it has a lot of dramatic gestures, massive swells and sweeps, so it avoids giving the impression of an expensive sound software demo. But since these moments don't tend to piece together into larger structures, its drama can be hard to engage with, at least at the pace lived by mortal humans. For instance, the tension created by the imposing opening of "Star Maker" dissolves into twenty minutes of otherworldly ruminating. Even so, it's not really about conventional drama, it's all about those luscious sounds and how they're transformed and manipulated. A couple of juicy moments to take home from your space travels include the marvellously evocative "A Flock Of Metal Creatures Fleeing The Onslaught Of Rust" and the massive choral effect that fills "Requiem".

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8 Jun, 2008 - Piano Magic

Visitors to my last.fm profile may be curious about the artist who are top of my "most played" chart. So this post may explain some of the appeal of Piano Magic, apart from their cute name. They started out in the mid-90s as a loose collective featuring Glen Johnson and assorted collaborators, and they don't (normally) do piano music. Instead their prolific work has mixed whimsical electronica, elegant dream-pop, lush shoegaze, atmosphere-backed poetry fragments, and even a couple of ventures into pure ambient (A Trick of the Sea, review) and film soundtracks (Son de Mar, review). Later they settled into a more-or-less constant band line-up, and their three most recent albums have been filled with straightforward though exquisitely-arranged songs. Their finest album, Low Birth Weight (review), mixed all their best qualities of wistful melody, colourful arranging and atmosphere-setting in fine proportion. Here are three other albums from various stages of their career which show their eclectic tastes in contrast. (See also Writers Without Homes, review).

Piano Magic - Popular Mechanics (1997) Album cover
The eclectic collective's debut is a curiosity shop of colourful and bizarre electronic miniatures. Just as Kraftwerk iconified modern technology, Piano Magic here evoke a steampunk world with all manner of marvellous contraptions. It moves at an itchy pace with a short attention-span, as if we get no more than a glimpse of each antique on the shelves, like the Aphex Twin-like kitchen-sink electronic splurge of "Metal Coffee", and the glittering waltz melody of "Revolving Moth Cage". The eerie mood competes with a sense of whimsical fun, with neither quite winning. Drifting amongst the electronics are a few brief dreamy female-voiced songs, including "Wintersport" which morphs strangely into a Tangerine Dream-like analogue synth race, and "Amongst Russian Lathes and Metal Curls" backed by a single stark low hum. The most wonderful example of this "art-house" song style (which they were to perfect on "Low Birth Weight") is "Wrong French", where Raechel Leigh recites wistful diary fragments in a deadpan-sweet tone over gently swirling keyboards.

Piano Magic - Artists' Rifles (2000) Album cover
Piano Magic's most minimalist full album is this elegiac set on the theme of the First World War and its dead and missing. A spare militaristic drum introduces a listenable though tasteful sequence of songs interspersed with instrumentals. An array of haunting melodies are sung by the delicately harmonised voices of Glen Johnson and Caroline Potter, while the instrumental textures are stripped down to thin gauzes of chiming, pinging guitars and the occasional solo cello or harpsichord. The sombre beat and bassline of "No Closure" set the scene - this song's lingering fadeout may be wordplay on the title but it works. The vocal effects are particularly beautiful on "A Return to the Sea" where Potter sings plaintively in stereo counterpoint with herself. It dips briefly into heavier territory on the shoegazy instrumental workout on "Password", before the album closes respectfully with the featherweight tribute of the title-track.

Piano Magic - Part-Monster (2007) Album cover
The third and latest album by the "conventional group" incarnation of Piano Magic is full of crisply-produced dream-pop, with more than a hint of 80's alternative (Cure / New Order) sound. Vocals are shared between the clear-toned Angele David-Guillou, who sings the soaring-chorused single "Incurable" and "Soldier Song", and Piano Magic mainstay Glen Johnson, whose whinier voice fronts some some genuinely good tunes including "Halfway Through" and "The Last Engineer". Simon Rivers also lends a deadpan tone to the Morrissey-style dirge "England's Always Better (As You're Pulling Away)", which pulls itself out of a damp puddle with an elegant brass arrangement. It's all arranged with admirable colour and precision - one particularly great moment is the driving twin-guitar instrumental "Great Escapes", which recalls another underappreciated band, The Church. Though the acoustic title song is a bit too much of a downer to finish on.

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3 Jun, 2008 - Warm Noise

Audiophiles often talk about "warmth" as a desirable quality of recordings. In the case of vinyl junkies, I think this is shortcut for "sounds like vinyl", reflecting nostalgia for how records used to sound in their formative years. While it shouldn't be conflated with audio fidelity, warmth can be a fine quality for electronic music-making to aim to, as well as recording. Here are three recent(ish) albums which are lovingly saturated with this quality of warm noise, all good evidence against the clinical, bleepy reputation of electronic music.

Tim Hecker - Harmony In Ultraviolet (2006) Album cover
The most recent album by Montreal musician Tim Hecker is one of those welcome but rare works that has me appreciating music from a completely new angle. One continuous piece, it's built from a dense mass of heavily effected shoegazer guitars, floaty synth clouds of thick fogs of manipulated noise, and delicate keyboard melodies. Going beyond multi-layered, its layers blend into a continuously-shifting geological mass, but experienced at a human pace. The construction clanks soon after the beginning bring you into a world where some huge and fantastic structure is being built, whirling you past each corner to absorb every detail. But it's not so much a sonic cathedral, but a living, dynamic organism, continuously breeding new strands of sound. Far from abstract brain music, it's also full of genuinely beautiful fragments of melody, and, of course, harmony and colour, from the Cocteau Twins-like "Chimeras", the intense heartbeat loop of "Dungeoneering" to the undersea ambience of the title suite. [ Note because of the continuous sequencing, this absolutely needs to be heard on CD, or via a media player with gapless playback! ]

Fennesz - Endless Summer (2001) Album cover
Electronics and guitar collagist Christian Fennesz here makes an album of warm noise to luxuriate in. "Endless Summer" rocks back and forth between densely-layered ear-itching glitch textures and ear-caressing samples of acoustic guitar, highly processed and smoothed-over. The best examples of this style are the title track with its lilting melodies draped with cinematic pads, and the indulgent "Happy Audio", a mishmash of ultra-quiet percussion, layered to a crescendo of bubbling distortion. As a whole it's sequenced to stupefy rather than shock, evoking perhaps a long summer seen through the woozy head of hay-fever. [Note this is the 2006 reissue with two bonus tracks]

Jan Jelinek - Tierbeobachtungen (2006) Album cover
My first taste of electronic musician Jan Jelinek is this, his most recent and least beat-oriented album. It's a soft but intricate example of the "warm noise" approach. The six colourful pieces here are based on a background of warm hiss and looped samples, often of acoustic instruments, with delicate little synth squeaks and twitters bubbling around the mix. "A Concert for Television" is perhaps the strongest of these, its glitchy samples looped at a gentle pace, like fabric being knitted from sound, over analogue sounds reminiscent of household appliances and traditional synth bleeps. One of the oddest-titled pieces of music in my library, "The Ballad Of Soap und: Die Gema nimmt Kontakt auf" is anchored by a loop in the unexpected form of a country-and-western ballad bassline, which finally dissolves into a mist of quiet synth scoops. A low-key but quite fascinating album.

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30 May, 2008 - Gapless Playback

I've just undergone an unreasonable amount of faff in order to get my music to play on my computer without gaps between consecutive tracks, in the way that the 1980s technology known as the Compact Disc is capable of. Listening to music which is designed as continuous but has little silences inserted between the tracks is like going to a concert and getting a clip round the ear every few minutes from the person in the seat behind you. Perhaps excessive coughing would be a less far-fetched analogy, but the point stands.

Most of the music at the Fluffhouse is played on the always-on server, which runs Linux. That's the first problem! The second problem is that my preferred file format is MP3. (At high variable bitrates MP3s are indistinguishable from CD to my cloth-ears when played through the same decentish speakers, the format is convenient and universally compatible, and MP3s are peddled by the best online music shops.)

The MP3 format isn't designed for playing successive tracks without gaps in between. It can do it, but only through hacky workarounds which have been implemented in recent encoders (e.g. the LAME encoder) and players. And because I run Linux, there's a dearth of decent media players. The only Linux audio player I've found with a really good interface is Amarok. This claims to implement gapless playback, but nope, not with my MP3 files, still those irritating little pauses between the tracks. Plus it has been known to crash.

So a web search led me to the wikipedia page for gapless playback, which pointed me at a "music server" called the Music Player Daemon. You install it, tell the server to start, tell it where your music collection is, and restart it again. Then you have to install a "client" which plays music using the server as a back-end. Then you have to explicitly tell the client to connect to the server (eh? why would you not want it to connect by default? WTF else is it for if not for playing music??). Then you've got to deal with one of those interfaces that requires at least twice as many necessary clicks to locate and play a song. Oh and it crashes sometimes.

What a lot of faff, but it worked. No more getting flicked in the earlobe every five minutes while listening to continuously-sequenced pieces such as Tim Hecker's "Harmony in Ultraviolet" (one of my favourite albums of the moment, review coming soon...)

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Past entries

(17 Sep, 2008 - 15 Apr, 2009)
(19 Jul, 2008 - 16 Sep, 2008)
(28 May, 2008)

other reviews recently added

The Dead Texan - The Dead Texan | Brian McBride - When the Detail Lost its Freedom | MONO & World's End Girlfriend - Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain | Tarentel - From Bone To Satellite | Yndi Halda - Enjoy Eternal Bliss | Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons | The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward | Thee Silver Mountain Reveries - The "Pretty Little Lightning Paw" EP | M83 - Digital Shades | Protogonos - Strange Geographie

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