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Saturday, 16 April 2011

Reviews: Artificial Sun Project & The Scoobs

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Review: Artificial Sun Project - 62204 (ambient/ electronica/ IDM)
self released, 2011, DD album, 68m 8s, £name your price

‘Ambient’ is a term that has carried many meanings in music. As originally coined by Brian Eno it referred to an approach which placed intentional sound in the habitable environment without necessarily making it the focus of attention: this sense drew on a long established tradition, perhaps beginning with Eric Satie’s ‘furniture music’, or ‘phonic tiling’ as one 1917 composition was titled. As Eno put it ‘Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’ (Brian Eno, Ambient 1 - Music For Airports liner notes, 1978)
Well, the sounds marshalled under the banner of Artificial Sun Project are very difficult to ignore. I doubt whether the man behind this music would subscribe to such a creative agenda, but his work is certainly ambient in the sense that it creates an atmosphere, and in as much as he uses the word (as one tag among many) to describe his music, I think we can assume that one of the central intended sites of meaning is its mood. The recordings assembled here generate audio environments that we are invited to enter, in the manner of buildings or art installations.
Of course the term ‘ambient music’ is most widely understood as a kind of mellow, spacious dance music or electronica, a functional subset of intelligent dance music. IDM is more or less where 62204 is situated, generically and conceptually, although it is far from generic, and conceptually it is entirely its own creature.
I should say, before I set out to describe these sounds in detail, that they are crafted with a great deal of care and precision, and a remarkable degree of technical skill, which would suggest a professional background I know their author does not possess. The production is crystalline, the soundstage open and three dimensional, and the mix perfectly balanced. This is before I begin to even consider the sonic and compositional creativity on display.
Beats are at the core of many of these tunes, but, unusually for electronic music of this sort, they are animated by an organic melodicism, which informs basslines, upper register riffs, and in ‘Ultraviolet’, an idiomatically exact late sixties style guitar solo. Electric guitar is employed in a number of places throughout the album, along with a variety of acoustic sounds such as bells, most of which doubtless originate inside a sampler plugin. There is also a selection of (predominantly mellow) synthesizer sounds.
Layered with all of these elements are a variety of glitch and noise based sounds. Many of these are ostensibly quite harsh in their own right, but contextualised as they are within these open soundscapes, they are far from forbidding. To my ear they sound entirely natural in context, although they might take a bit of swallowing for someone whose tastes run less to the experimental end of the creative spectrum. However easy or difficult they might be to accept, it doesn’t really matter if the listener is able to hear them as music or not: they are a central and integral part of the compositions, and their inclusion is key to developing the environmental, enveloping character of the music.
The vertical and horizontal combination of these many elements is achieved with a compositional sophistication and maturity that avoids cheap shots or obvious hooks, while rarely, if ever, seeming confrontational or indigestible. All of this is complicated by the inclusion of a carefully selected series of verbal samples that determines and locates the musical meanings and creative concerns of the album. From a radio announcement of the nuking of Hiroshima, to a denouncement of the bombing of Cambodia, via Malcolm X’s famous declaration that ‘you can't be a negro in america and not have a criminal record’, they depict the crucial period of American history in which the illusions and hypocrisies of an age of deference to, and respect for, political power were questioned, exposed and overturned. From the end of WWII to the end of 60s a process took place, the end result of which was a widespread disillusion with establishment practices, that nevertheless continue to flourish, as few are willing to take the political risks inherent in abandoning them.
Artificial Sun Project does not evince any corresponding aversion to risk taking. As the lyrical content of songs must be held central to their musical meanings, so the verbal samples included in electronic tunes must be considered when we analyse the meanings of such music. It might be easier to ignore them, and treat the music as an abstract exercise in formal experiment, but these greater meanings structure every aspect of the album: the guitar solo referred to above, for example, follows directly on from the Malcolm X quote I mentioned. At the time that Malcolm X was recorded, a guitar solo of that nature, with its fuzzed out tone and long, developmental phrasing, was a deeply subversive musical utterance, and as such, this easily enjoyed melodic intervention must be read as a part of a wider picture.
This is music with something to say, something political, but something deeper than a bald, verbal announcement of a political position. Musical meanings are musical meanings: they may derive in part from words, but the experience of hearing is the key to understanding, and it is the great strength of music that it can direct us to understandings beyond the verbal structures of thought. This album creates a dark place, and challenges the listener to enter it: and dark as it is, those who rise to the challenge will find it a very rewarding place to be.

Review: The Scoobs - Is It Now? (world groove fusion)
self released SCOOBS001, 2009, CD album, 49m, £5

It’s only a few weeks since I reviewed a Scoobs gig, and what they do live is very similar to what’s on this recording. I get the impression that all or most of these tunes have been honed and developed through many years of live performance. Some recorded music is quite legitimately irreproducible live, and some live performances are impossible to capture in a meaningful way on a recording: not this. This is an album of The Scoobs’ excellent, feelgood, groove based songs, performed in the studio with a loose, relaxed feel that comes as close to sounding live as you could reasonably expect.
The grooves are mainly of a mid tempo funk/ soul type, or of a Caribbean slant (bearing in mind that Cuba and Jamaica are both in the Caribbean), although there are some West African vibes in the mix as well. The performances from every band member are relaxed, joyous and right in the pocket, with the whole ensemble operating as a single entity, and even when there’s a vocal, guitar lead or wind part at centre stage it never stands apart on its own. Everything The Scoobs play is directed to their songs, without egos or chops interfering, and every phrase plays its part in supporting the whole thrust of each recording.
There is no pretension in this music, and its ambitions are focussed precisely on making the happiest party groove possible: these musicians are playing well within their not inconsiderable abilities, which is why everything in the arrangements sits so well. There is nothing experimental about the sound, and little sense of boundaries being pushed, but the music is decidedly non-generic, and brings a pretty distinctive combination of stylistic elements together. Proof, if proof was needed, that a unique and creative musical statement does not have to derive from the frantic pursuit of originality or novelty: and in fact, proof is not needed. The Scoobs are in the business of not proving things: their relaxed, unpretentious and almost recreational approach to making music is down in large part to the fact that they don’t have anything to prove. This is not lean, hungry, bleeding edge music, and it’s all the easier to dance to for it.
Is It Now? serves as a compelling advertisement for The Scoobs’ live shows (although those are few and far between), but it’s equally a great stand alone article. If you’re knocking about the house doing stuff, out for a walk with your earbuds in, driving to work, or sat at the computer updating your StumbleFaceTwitSpaceBlog this album provides the perfect mood enhancement; but what it really is, is house party music. Do you remember when parties used to involve whole albums playing on the turntable and people dancing all the way through? These inviting, friendly beats are tailor made for those times, and there’s a few cuts on here (such as ‘The Message’)that will sit nicely in the right kind of DJ set as well. Get this album: you’ll like it.

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