Category: It’s Album Time

It’s Album Time: Max Richter – Three Worlds

It’s Album Time: Max Richter – Three Worlds

Every now and then, there comes an artist who defines a generation in their chosen field. When it comes to modern classical music, many would assume that person to be Ludovico Einaudi. Yes, you’ve heard his music on every advert/TV show/movie going, but for me there is another worth considering – Max Richter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bona fide Einaudi superfan. It’s just that, as far as I’m concerned, Richter has pushed the sound in directions that sound new and fresh, and always excite me, whichever medium the music is applied to.

Maybe I should start with a brief introduction to the composer and his works, for those of you that are encountering him for the first time. With his debut album, and personal favourite, Memoryhouse, Richter announced himself as the future of the scene. Poetry, opera and electronica all collided with traditional classical, along with themes that challenged the listener – in particular the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict.

I first encountered the German-born Brit through the use of his music in the excellent 2010 BBC drama, Dive. Images of wind farms off the bleak North East coast seemed a perfect fit for excerpts from his 2004 masterpiece, The Blue Notebooks. After my first proper listen, it had changed the way I listened to and appreciated classical music, and it was rightly described by Pitchfork as “one of the most affecting and universal contemporary classical records in recent memory”.

Songs From Before, 24 Postcards In Full Colour and Infra further solidified his standing in neo-classical, along with his score for Oscar-nominated, Lebanese war animation, Waltz With Bashir. A re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons followed, before Richter wrote and released an eight and a half hour long composition entitled Sleep. Unsurprisingly, the album was designed to be listened to while sleeping, and was accompanied by several overnight concerts, complete with beds for the listener – unfortunately I missed out on tickets for his performance in London in May.

Most recently, Richter’s score for HBO’s The Leftovers has made up for the fact that at times the show is a confusing, albeit enjoyable, mess. It’s a tour de force that plays with your emotions, and strikes all the right notes alongside the show’s most triumphant moments.

Now, the composer is back with a three-part composition to accompany the new Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

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As the name suggests, Woolf Works is based on three of Virginia Woolf‘s landmark novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Woven around the themes from the books are inspirations taken from Woolf’s essays, letters and diaries. Given the multitude of influences from the subject’s life, it seems fitting that Richter brings a variety of sounds and methods to the table.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations, naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past”

Following an original voice recording of Woolf herself, “In The Garden” blends multiple orchestral sections in trademark Richter style, as we are introduced to the first of Woolf’s novels to be covered, Mrs Dalloway. The violin and cello float around the piano, and the piece reveals itself almost like one continuous flow, not stopping for a moment. “War Anthem” hits a more sombre note. Multi-layered strings evoke images of the First World War, and perfectly illustrate the post-war trauma suffered by one of the novel’s characters. The track is anguished, and yet somehow beautiful at the same time.

“Meeting Again” rounds off the first part of this triptych, seemingly continuing the same sound from the previous two compositions. The piano in particular recalls many of The Blue Notebooks’ finer moments, and truly sounds like vintage Richter.

The next ten tracks all tackle Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando. The composer introduces a more current sound, staccato strings accompanying atmospheric electronica throughout. “Modular Astronomy” gallops along at a steady pace, and is reminiscent of some of Hans Zimmer’s incredible score for Interstellar, as well as Richter’s recurring melody used throughout Memoryhouse. “Transformation” continues along the same epic path, only for “The Tyranny Of Symmetry” to change things up with a discordant and overbearing tone. Waves of synth swim around on “Persistance Of Images” as the electronic influence is ramped up, and “Genesis Of Poetry” continues in the same vein, sounding somewhat futuristic. Interspersed between these tracks are atmospheric interludes, that lend the second portion of the release a necessary structure and pace.

The third and final part of the collection opens with Gillian Anderson reciting the suicide note left by Woolf for her husband Leonard. The words are haunting, and the accompanying soundtrack of waves crashing against a shore are surely a nod to the writer’s choice of ending her life by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into a nearby river. By covering this last novel, The Waves, in one track of almost 22 minutes, Richter allows an elaborate exploration of only a few melodies, including the introduction of a vocal from British soprano Grace Davidson. It’s a rewarding, and fitting finale, and I can only imagine how moving the conclusion of the ballet must have been.

Max Richter’s compositions have been used time and again in film and television, most notably for Shutter Island, Prometheus, Arrival, and even an episode of Black Mirror last year. There’s a reason for this: his ability to stir the emotions, and heighten the senses, is second to none. Further evidence of this comes in the form of his multiple works for opera and ballet, having worked alongside choreographer Wayne McGregor several times.

With Woolf Works, he has again delivered an astounding piece of work, leaving this listener moved to tears on more than one occasion. I only wish I’d been able to experience these emotions in their intended setting, but due to some date-bungling I managed to miss the live streaming offered by my local Odeon – on the strength of these 66 minutes, that’s a mistake I won’t be making again!

HIGHLIGHTS: “War Anthem”, “Modular Astronomy”, “Transformation”.

It’s Album Time: Migos – Culture

It’s Album Time: Migos – Culture

If you haven’t yet heard of Migos (pronounced like amigos, without the a), where have you been? Following a decent debut album in 2015, the Atlanta trap trio have taken the last couple of years by storm. Whether it’s with hit single “Bad & Bougee”, an appearance in the excellent Atlanta created by and starring Donald Glover (what do you mean you haven’t seen it yet?), or the fact that they are credited by some with creating the dab, it’s been pretty hard to avoid them. With their sophomore album, “Culture”, they’ve really hit their stride.

Firstly, I feel obliged to point out that clearly the average trap album isn’t likely to include themes that I can relate to. I’m a thirty-something accountant, living on the Essex coast. But fear not, it doesn’t detract from the huge amount of enjoyment I take from listening to this one, and it won’t for you either.

Every album should start with an intro from Snapchat hero, DJ Khaled – I’d actually quite like it if he could just walk into rooms before me and scream my arrival. I’m also a huge fan of what appears to be a xylophone loop playing underneath the vocals, and from the off the tone is set for what proves to be an incredible first five tracks.

“T-Shirt” is easily my favourite song on the album. The sample fading in and out on the production works perfectly with the vocal, and I can’t ever remember loving a tune for essentially having two choruses. The swagger and bravado you would expect from a release of this type is evident from the very first verse as Takeoff, in his trademark stacatto style, proclaims:

Lotta niggas copy, name someone can stop me

It’s Offset though, with his auto-tuned singing style, that makes it for me. This one stayed on repeat the first time I heard it, and hasn’t stopped looping in my head since.

The high standard continues with the infectious “Call Casting” – you’ll be hearing that piano for days – before we launch straight into the track Donald Glover described as “the best song ever”. I won’t bore you by describing it, or giving my insight. The best thing you can do is listen to “Bad and Boujee”, right now.

“Get Right Witcha” completes the outstanding opening to the album, with a great asian-style flute sample, and an even better drum track. It’s just a shame the track fades out at the end, because I could listen to that instrumental for weeks.

At this point, the album takes a dip in quality. That’s not to say that it’s bad, or not worthy of your time, more that it’s hard to top what has come so far. It does feel a little like listening to the same song over and over, but there are still some highlights.

“Slippery” sees Gucci Mane guesting, but it’s still Takeoff, Quavo and Offset that shine as they brag about women and cars. On “Big On Big”, I find it hardest to relate to the lyrics. I’ve never owned a Benz – in fact I don’t own a car full stop – and certainly not a mansion with a four car garage. And yet there’s still something pleasing in hearing the trio boast about their well-deserved spoils.

Short but sweet and with a killer hook, “What The Price” opens with a guitar sample that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Prince’s finest tracks, and “Brown Paper Bag” goes straight in at the deep end as Offset hits a perfect flow. “Deadz” follows with a huge brass arrangement, and a slower tempo.

Before the album reaches its conclusion, there’s time for one more killer hook. “All Ass” is the closest Migos get to a love song, professing their adoration for strippers and booty, and it probably delivers my favourite chorus:

Yeah, beat the pot, beat the pot, beat the pot, oh
Bad bitches walkin’ out with bags at the store (bad)
Stripper girl shakin’, all ass on the pole (all ass ay, all ass ay)

Things get a little weird on “Kelly Price”, with tales of drug-fuelled lovemaking sessions, and making girls “sing” like the aforementioned grammy-nominated r&b singer. Unfortunately, it’s about two minutes too long for me.

“Out Yo Way” completes the release, and one lyric in particular sums up exactly how they should be feeling:

Everybody said that we would fall away
Nobody thought that we would go up
But we blew up, blew up, blew up

Migos really have delivered an outstanding piece of work. As I said, the first five tracks are truly incredible, and set a very high bar that the rest of the album only just fails to reach. It’s a real statement, and deserves all the praise it’s getting. More importantly, it lives up to all the pre-release hype.

HIGHLIGHTS: “T-Shirt”, “Bad and Boujee”, “Get Right Witcha”, “All Ass”.

It’s Album Time: SOHN – Rennen

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SOHN – Rennen 

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In early January – and shortly before hearing this album for this first time – I binge-watched last year’s HBO drama Westworld. The parallels between the two were really rather striking; in the show there’s a constant hoping between a rural wild-west setting and a cold, sterile office set filled with glass walls but where you’re never sure if you’re seeing clearly. There’s a constant battle between our past and our future, and the show explores the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of humanity and artificial intelligence, with a constant exploration of consciousness and the decisions we make.

Sohn – aka Christopher Taylor – has somehow – accidentally – managed to incorporate many of those same themes in his second solo album. Writing and recording in rural California – after tiring of LA – you can hear a rugged, country-inflected soul in Rennen including the use of beer bottles and kitchen utensils for percussion parts, but it’s overlapped with cold, harsh synth parts throughout that bring to mind James Blake and Aero Flynn.

Rennen is, on the surface, a tremendously appealing alt pop record. It’s full of catchy melodies and accessible songs with some magnificent percussion and dazzling synths. Album opening Hard Liquor sets a relentless pace; sounding like a bastardised version of one of those Westworld saloon scenes, malfunctioning AI noises and all.

But it’s on the second track – Conrad – that the album begins to truly reveal itself. Because – away from the surface – this is an album in which the lyrics – often only in snippets and repetitions – speak of a bleak individual, not quite tortured but unsure if its him that’s the problem or if things are really as bad as he believes. Two of the verses in Conrad reveal a trepidation; a lyrical reinterpretation of George Santayana’s missive – often attributed to Churchill – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”:

I can feel it coming over the hillside

It’s a valley fire and it’s coming to burn us down

Like a rushing comet bound for the planet

And we’re dinosaurs living in denial

I can feel it coming, coming back to haunt me

It’s a glass that’s empty and we’re trying to fill it up

We’re lost civilians with the weight of millions

We’re pawns in war living in denial

Sohn – a former Vienna resident – has spoken of how the Austrian Presidential Election last year – in which a Far-Right candidate narrowly missed out on victory – affected the album’s material, along with the rise of Donald Trump. But far from being a brash protest record, Rennen sees Sohn exploring his own reactions, his own convictions and strengths, as much as encouraging others to rise up. As he sings on Primary:

But everybody knows it’s wrong
Everybody knows it’s wrong
And I can’t do this to the one I love
I hope I can go on
I hope I prove myself wrong

There’s a strong emphasis on self-doubt throughout Rennen; as if Sohn himself can’t currently gear himself up for battle, or even come to terms with the realisation that battle is once again required.

The theme of ‘going on’ constantly reoccurs on Rennen in two different ways. There’s a restless quality to the lyrics. The theme of travel and moving on continues to loop back into the songs; reflecting perhaps Sohn’s own recent travels from Vienna to Los Angeles. But there is another – more ominous – element to it as well; Falling and Harbour both deal with death-defying desires – ‘Hope I will never drown, I will never drown’ are the closing lyrics on the album – which seem to reflect how dark Sohn is finding the world in 2017. The supply of hope seems to have been cut off, and he’s searching for a way to keep his good instincts alive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the desire for hope – religious allegories and imagery weave their way into the lyrics. Perhaps most obviously on – title-track – Rennen ‘Oh Father, release me’, ‘My faith don’t mean a thing’ but also on Primary (‘Give me patience’ Sohn asks, with echoes of the Serenity Prayer). Penultimate track Still Waters also seems steeped in Christian tradition; there’s a pleading for a male figure to ‘silence the storm’; ‘Lend him the light to prevail’ only moves us closer to John 8: 12, with Jesus declaring ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

It is of great credit to Sohn that an album filled with such dark thoughts and despair can sound so good. It takes a very special hand to create 37 minutes of pop music this good; to present a shiny, catchy pop veneer and to have lurking under the surface a pool of anger, resentment, questions of identity and self-doubt. The best album of this nature in recent years was the absolutely magnificent Get To Heaven by Everything Everything, and while Rennen falls a little short of that standard, it’s still a hugely impressive piece of work.

Almost every review or story of this album has talked about it being ‘more political’ which is true, but is also to slightly miss one key element; Rennen is the story of one man’s search for hope, and how elusive it can be.

 

It’s Album Time: Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

It’s Album Time: Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Following a three year absence (with the exception of a collaboration with Wavves), Dylan Baldi and Cloud Nothings return with another healthy dose of lo-fi indie rock.

“I came up to the surface, released the air” seems like the most fitting of opening lines for a band that haven’t released a proper album for a while, and it heralds what feels like another reinvention, from a group that seem to define their sound differently every few years. This time around, there’s an air of early-2000 Deep Elm roster about them, in particular Last Days of April. “Up To The Surface” is a statement of caution, which seems fitting in post-Trump America.

This trepidation doesn’t last long though. “Things Are Right With You” is a blast of vintage Cloud Nothings. There’s a blend of grunge and indie rock, with guitars soaring around Baldi’s vocal, lifting the mood to one more hopeful. “Internal World” follows with a sound that the band themselves describe as akin to Yo La Tengo. The song catches the frontman in introspective mood as he admits “I’m not the one who’s always right”.

 

With a long instrumental intro, and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll piano, “Darkened Rings” brings a rockabilly sound, reminiscent of Hot Snakes at their “Audit In Progess” best (if you’ve never heard it, you really should!). Hot on the heels of this stomper, as we reach the mid-point of the album, comes undoubtedly the best track on the album, “Enter Entirely”. The song is longer, slower-paced, and feels like the band are once again breaking new ground for themselves. The lyrics again hint at a more grown-up and inward-looking approach from Baldi, as he proclaims “I thought I knew what I could be, and now I’m there”, before going on to lift the melody and mood with “we’re moving on but I still feel it, you’re a light in me now”. I dare you to not give in and scream along.

I read one review comparing “Modern Act” to The Cure, and although I can see where they’re coming from, I still hear more of the 90’s Britpop influence that I’ve always felt was present in previous Cloud Nothings releases. There’s a fine pace and tempo, with trademark percussion and high hats propelling the song forward, and another great singalong chorus. Completing a duo of energetic pieces, “Sight Unseen” opens with the strum of guitar that sets the rhythm throughout, occasionally broken up by delicate guitar picking. A piano loop enters, and the drums push the song on toward its conclusion. Again, it’s uplifting, and Baldi’s vocal is a perfect match. After your first few listens, this will be one of the tracks you’re always looking forward to.

The album draws to a close with a return to the band’s signature chaotic sound. “Strange Year” sees a cacophony of noise being unleashed, as Baldi roars and pushes his vocal chords to their limit. Exactly the kind of lo-fi fare we’ve come to expect from the Cleveland four piece. “Realize My Fate” provides a suitable end to what is overall a great listen. Opening with an almost tribal feel (I could imagine Jordan Belfort humming along and thumping his chest), the band build to a crescendo of drums, guitar and vocals, leaving you shell-shocked at the sheer variety of what you’ve just experienced in only 9 tracks and just under 38 minutes.

 

“Life Without Sound” is certainly a welcome return from one of my favourite rock bands. Short, sweet and back with a bang, it’s a real assertion from a band that have more than found their place and sound. Their usual mix of angst and hope, coupled with energy and anarchy, still leaves me excited to see just how far they can go, and there’s no doubt that with Dylan Baldi at the helm, they’re in great hands.

I’d strongly recommend you catch them live on their upcoming tour. If you’re at the London show, I’ll see you at the front – I’ll be the one with my arms in the air, screaming along to every chorus!

HIGHLIGHTS: “Things Are Right Without You”, “Enter Entirely”, “Sight Unseen”.

It’s Album Time: You Me At Six – Night People

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You Me At Six seem like nice lads. Having broken through in 2008 they’ve shifted away from their earlier Emo-laced sound into a sound that straddles rock, pop and pop punk. They interview well, have a loyal fan base and – with 2014’s Cavalier Youth, achieved a first number one album in the UK.

In a period when rock music in Britain has stagnated at the top – plenty of festivals that were previously rock’s purview have shifted towards dance and more credible pop acts, whilst nostalgic acts have often been preferred to up-and-coming acts – YMAS have successfully established themselves in the upper-middle tier of bands. Not quite main stage headliners, but top of the second stage or towards the end of the day on the main stage.

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Night People feels like YMAS’s pitch for promotion. Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, James Bay, Of Monsters and Men) it has the whiff of a band trying to sound grown-up. The title track opens the album and has a blues-infused guitar riff; an intended statement of intent with a sexy and seductive undercurrent, it ends up plodding along to its conclusion.

The album has plenty of smart guitar licks and radio-friendly influences. Brand New is the apple that hasn’t strayed too far from the Kings of Leon tree; Take on the World almost strays into Coldplay territory – euphoric lift in the middle and all – and Heavy Soul is cast from the Fall Out Boy mould.

But the album feels hollow. Whilst it comes in at a pithy 35 minutes – to be applauded! – It’s 35 minutes of inauthenticity. You can hear the desperation to be liked, the need to stay relevant, and – most tellingly – the burning desire to finally make it to headliner status.

The biggest tells are the constant ‘woooaah’s’ littered throughout the album and the sing-a-long choruses that accompany the band, irrespective of the style that has preceded it. However much they start to swim in a new direction, the big catchy chorus is the sound of them wading back to the land of familiarity and comfort.

The disappointment is magnified by the glimpses of what might have been. Listen carefully and you can hear a band who sound like they want to make a more menacing and darker album; Can’t Hold Back [chorus aside] and Spell It Out both demonstrate signs of a band with interesting ideas – the latter is my favourite on the record – and it’d be great to hear them ditch the pop-friendliness for an album and fully commit to the dark side.

There are many reasons I wanted to like this album. I want more British rock bands to succeed; I want ‘new’ music to be centre-stage at festivals and – as mentioned they seem like good guys. But Night People isn’t so much a change in direction as a panic-attack at a crossroads.

These Night People sound less likely to prowl the streets or hit a rave at 3am than to go out for a nice Italian meal with a couple of glasses of wine before rushing home to catch Match of the Day.

 

It’s Album Time: Bonobo – Migration

It’s Album Time: Bonobo – Migration

British producer Simon Green, aka Bonobo, returned this month with the release of his sixth studio album, Migration. As you’ll soon hear, it’s a welcome comeback for his first release since 2013’s The North Borders.

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Opening with the title track, there’s an otherworldly feel, almost as though it could have been recorded in a secluded forest. There are hints of Mogwai in their more mellow moments, and following the first few listens it seems the perfect introduction to what will follow. “Break Apart” provides more of the same, adding Bon Iver style vocals from R&B duo Rhye, and building to a horn-fuelled finale.

Unfortunately the album isn’t without fault. I could personally take or leave the next track, “Outlier”. At almost 8 minutes long, I’m not convinced it adds anything to the album, and it comes across as a Four Tet knock off. It just sounds a little too familiar. “Grains” does its best to regain momentum with male and female chanting, giving off a spiritual and atmospheric aura – the beat that is finally introduced at the halfway point lends a more expansive and cinematic feel.

There then follows an interlude of sorts in “Second Sun”. It’s more modern classical than electronica, featuring piano and strings woven around each other, but is a welcome break from the usual bleepy synth. However, this feeling of relief is tempered as it is followed by the other damp squib on this release, “Surface”. Nicole Miglis, of the band Hundred Waters, provides a vocal which is hardly worth shouting about, and I can’t help but think that the instrumental alone would have been a more worthwhile contribution.

All is not lost though, as the album builds further to its summit. “Bambro Koyo Ganda” takes vocals from North African collective Innov Gnawa and adds a subtle bassline and sampled drum pattern. These beats made from everyday sounds are present throughout the release, and lend a semblance of uniqueness to each track. I say semblance, as it’s a tried and tested method, as used by many of Green’s contemporaries.

The triptych that follows forms, undoubtedly, the peak of the album. “Kerala” takes a Burial-style, broken, 2-step beat and adds harp samples. The soothing sounds draw you in, only for a vocal to introduce itself like a Destiny’s Child offcut. Everything blends perfectly, to provide one of the highlights of the album. Hot on its heels comes “Ontario”. Often used in electronica, the trusty sitar makes an appearance to add a global feel. It winds around piano chords and a melody is formed that occasionally lifts to the most glorious heights. Completing the hat-trick is “No Reason”. Already singled out by Mark in his A-List column on Sunday evening, the best vocal on the album (supplied by Nick Murphy, otherwise known as Chet Faker) is enveloped by a great drum track, and gentle staccato synths, perfectly straddling the line between melancholy and euphoria.

The album draws to a close with “7th Sevens” and “Figures”, both of which are very pleasing, but feel a little like electronica by numbers. Nonetheless, they provide a fitting conclusion to the album.

Not without its drawbacks, the release as a whole is a fine piece of work. Historically I’ve always favored albums that leave the best until last – Michael Jackson’s Bad always springs to mind with its closing gambit of “Dirty Diana”, “Smooth Criminal” and “Leave Me Alone” – so with each listen the first half of the album is growing on me, while the anticipation of what is yet to come builds.

As with any electronica, don’t expect to hear it in the clubs, but I could imagine it would be well-suited to a live performance, just as it is to soundtracking your daily commute, or your Sunday morning in bed with the papers. I’d recommend you give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

HIGHLIGHTS: “Kerala”, “Ontario”, “No Reason”.