Being in the midst of what's starting to resemble a novella size-wise taking stock of the state of music criticism in 2017, I can't help but obsess over the nature of criticism and what it means to critique today. And sure, I've been thinking a lot lately about why do I never write out-and-out negative reviews and keep to the general trend of showcasing what Robert Christgau would call B to A+ albums? Furthermore, does choosing as my subjects the records I own mean that I'm perpetuating criticism's current subservient role in relation to commerce? Am I simply helping consumers decide what to buy or not to buy (or to stream or not to stream?)
So yeah, I've been giving my own reviewing practices a big think alongside, well, everyone else's as reviews can feel under-researched, formulaic, and even templated at times (lest we forget the Yahoo boilerplate review of Rihanna's Anti from two years back). Keeping in line with the general re-evaluating fundamentals going on in my life, the four albums I've chosen to highlight all take accepted, well-worn formulas and turn them inside out in ways that range from subtle to setting new standards.
Let's get to it.
Shed - The Final Experiment
One of the issues with contemporary music criticism--one seen across the board but felt in these corners especially amongst the dance music press--is that the echo chamber of the internet can elevate so-called “consensus albums” to levels that leave subsequent follow-ups struggling to escape their predecessor's critical shadow. And I don't mean in a sophomore slump sense, though that can certainly play into. Berlin techno heavyweight Shed (née René Palowitz), who despite maintaining a healthy output of okay-to-stunning twelves under a barrage of aliases, has failed to return to the vaunted status of his first album Shedding the Past, a, well, watershed moment for the producer, earning him near unanimous accolade across the online music establishment. The album was a lengthy, meditative trip into an athmospheric, immersive, and functional sound whose influence can now be heard on every producer making deep, cavernous tracks seemingly custom-built for the Berghain set, or at least their idea of the famed venue. If the musical concept hauntology is an aesthetic eulogy for a past that never was, today we seem to be awash in a glut of music made for venues and scenes its producers only know of through various music sites’ glamorization of seemingly provincial sounds--be it Vancouver’s saltwater-kissed house or the still influential music coming out of dance music hubs like Detroit, Tblisi,and Berlin. Just don't call it FOMO-core. Please.
Shedding the Past not only brought its producer to wider attention but also confirmed Bergain’s in-house label Ostgut Ton’s ability to coax weighty full-lengths out of its stable of DJ/producers, the album following on the heels of the quietly-praised and enduring Serenity by Panorama Bar staples Prosumer & Murat Tepeli and preceding a glut of seminal debuts from the likes of Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock, and bringing Luke Slater’s venerable Planetary Assault System project back into the dance music public eye. And while like the above artists, Palowitz’s debut was preceded by a healthy back catalog of in-demand twelves, Shedding seemed to achieve new heights for a techno album at the start of the second golden age of music sites and the waning influence ofMP3 blogs, the praise seeming near-deafening to net-dwelling denizens like myself.
And as is often the issue with hype, Palowitz’s subsequent albums have reaped diminishing critical return, with singles released under Wax, WK7, Head High, and roughly a dozen other aliases often getting more considered critical acknowledgement. It’s important to draw a distinction between these singles and Palowitz’s album work as he seems truly committed to adhering to the conventions of both. His twelves are typically one-idea affairs that achieve remarkable heights due to his roots in Berlin’s famed Hard Wax axis of producers, with Basic Channel’s steely dub tracks helping to shape the city’s sound. Even at his most lavish, Palowitz’s twelve-inch production maintains an at-times myopic focus that benefit from its creator’s sensitivity to pacing and structure alongside his nuanced mix-downs.
With 2010’s The Traveller, which gave us the banger to the right and 2012’s The Killer, released on Modeselektor’s now-defunct 50 Weapons imprint, Palowitz began to truly test the LP format, diverging from Shedding’s six-to-eight minute grey-scale tracks. The Traveller survived the sophomore slump by going polychromatic and embracing beatless ambience, the melodies growing more pronounced, intricate, and radiant while many praised The Killer for its varied styles, plodding as they may have been. Personally speaking, my last engagement with the producer was through the Mega Trap double pack under his High Head moniker, one of several that saw him indulging in party-starting rave-ups whose straightforward, sampled breakbeats meshed perfectly with the never-ending rave revivalism that keeps kicking.
And while the above might be considered over-contextualization, when The Final Experiment--which shares a track title from one of The Traveller's more playful cuts--was released this past March on another Modeselektor imprint, Monkeytown, the news and reviews painted it as a return to a single-minded focus not heard since his debut, with Palowitz doubling down on the heavenly breakbeats that had occasionally popped up on his previous albums. But this time, the album seemed to arrive dead on sight, failing to earn a review in Pitchfork and its clones while Resident Advisor lamenting what it considered to be uninspired monotony. Not having really given Palowitz’s work much mind in the recent years, the lack of press seemed to confirm my suspicions that here was a producer whose best days were behind him.
Thank jeebus, then, for brick-and-mortar record stores, especially those run by individuals who buy what they consider to be truly interesting. For when I saw this in the bin of my most-trusted of local record stores 2 Bridges and gave its owner a confused look, I was matched with the wordless facial expression that epically communicates “Heaters.” While I don’t distrust the reasoning of Will Lynch’s review in RA, it’s one written by a writer perhaps a bit too enthrall or familiar with his subject, dismissing the album’s overarching aesthetic due to the fact that he feels none of the album’s tracks reach the heights of Palowitz’s previous breakbeat-led experiments, going so far as to do a track-for-track comparison with some of the album’s arguable highlights and their more successful versions found on Shedding.
So let's step outside of the context of Palowitz's career for a minute and take the album on its own terms, which is perhaps the fastest route to enjoying it. While Shed has always been a project steeped in the history of techno, enveloping its countless variants into his meticulous constructions, one of the first things that grabbed this listener is that at a time when 90s-styled breakbeats seem to be fucking everywhere in dance music, Palowitz has managed built a parallel world in which the nimbleness of non-4x4 structures are paired with his own sound design to create a 'techno' album unlike few others in recent history, one that bears the fingerprints of its creators across every track. The Final Experiment is an album full entrenched in the now, at times overly reverential of the past but seeking to tweak time-tested formulas for the sake of growth.
A muted joy permeates the album, like having a day off of school during a thunderstorm or an MDMA high that's gone on for two hours too long and counting. Basically, this 8am music. The unassuming candle-lit atmosphere of beatless opener "Xtra" quickly fades into rear view as the neon-lit synths of "Razor Control" run wild over a stunted breakbeat that moves on all cylinders while never giving the sense of forward momentum; a reserved turn-up track if you will. Its buoyant yet static energy gives it the feeling of a machinic sculpture, always moving in place while "Outgoing Society" sees the producer going for a more dynamic and charging beat while retaining that timeless tension of a slow build. It's noteworthy that for the duration of the album's first quarter, Palowitz never goes for the easy move in terms of his drum programming, eschewing sampled loops for a dense and diverse sound palette all his own, the stoically curt drum rolls of "Society" landing right before the two and four as a hook-y organ loop that is almost naive in its simplicity gets maximized by choral like pads to create what feels like a sonic snow globe of sorts; shake and rattle it all you want, the foundations aren't going anywhere.
The residue of 90s UK IDM's quietly momentous melodies also permeate the album as B-side opener "Black Heart" sees Palowitz pushing down on the gas as crying crystalline synths and an 8-bit polyphonic bassline pave the way for the type of straight-forward and echoing low-slung beats that have become a hallmark of the current UK vanguard found in the likes of Ploy, Batu, and many others. But rather than pair the booming bass couplet with a woodblock-like approximation, the producer achieves a far more sublime effect through what sounds like a straw broom striking a half-on snare while keeping a lazy tempo, signaling to the listener that he's in no hurry here and they shouldn't be either. That said, when listened to as a whole, The Final Experiment can sometimes play like a series of elegant sketches, the listener getting the gist tuning in ever few minutes. Nonetheless, Palowitz utilizes a bit more than just smart mixing and effects to keep us coming back. The kinetic synth dance and optimistic organ loop of "Extreme SAT" pushes the drums to the back of the mix, only emerging quietly in the song's final passage, smartly setting the stage for album highlight "Flaf2." Featuring some of the more pronounced drum programming on the album, the galloping, bombastic drum rolls that enliven the beat in undercut by the heavy attack and instantaneous decay not unlike a drum kit draped in towels and the snare turned off. It's here that he starts approaching SAW zones of grounded transcendence, the central melody emerging like a harmonic yawn, its simplicity given a shining radiance through the latent microtonality and a hopeful topline that starts to feel almost desperate by the track's end, aching for a peak that never seems to come.
The slow-fast heavenly-yet-menacing techno of F.U.S.E. comes to mind at the start of "Taken Effect" as patient, blossoming pads meet an early Aphex-esque bump, opposites coupling throughout as a ripping acid line at the center of the mix is evened out by angelic highs, placing us firmly in the album's less-sedate but equally weightless middle section. A nostalgia for 90s ambient techno carries through to "ER1761, " a mechanic springing noise acting as the track's pulse while two different bass kicks--a booming low and a counter-rhythm providing the propulsive swing as a dramatic, creepy-crawly synth line's booming quarter notes hypnotically dominate the track's middle section.
At seven minutes, the hazy, undulating pads that open "Turn 2 Turn" instantly call to mind an unholy cross-breeding between the tropical climate openings of "Pacific House" and Wax's "20002B" while the woodblock-heavy samba further pushes Palowitz's singular Balearic Berlin sound where there's nary a loon in sight. Yet, where one expect the mix to get more and more intricate, those two central chords and the lively and subtly morphing beat showcase the producer's trackier side, happy to fade into the background but boasting infinite details to pick apart. The album's highlight, "Call 32705!"is also its most conventional a relentless acidic noted pounded out alongside a banging breakbeat that quickly goes for the heart strings with a quixotically melancholic topline that sounds like a glockenspiel played through a piano. Indeed, as noted earlier, Palowitz's single output has been more successful than not due to his tendency to work from an idea he has in mind prior to sitting down to record, though his album material tends to sound like the product of a more organic process. But "Call 32705!" finds a middle ground between the two, breathtaking when taken on its own, but easily missed during a casual album listening session as the consistency of the album's tone could seem somewhat one-dimensional if it wasn't so well-executed. Each part is perfectly timed and placed, even on the shambling closer "System azac" where another four-note descending melody is rhythmically textured by a sound akin to snare hitting a speed bump before the album finally disappears into the ether in which it had been bathing for the past fifty minutes. The Final Experiment tends to raise more questions than it answers, as this album lacks the textural density of his previous efforts, a rich minimalism in comparison to the heavily-tracked previous efforts, its central melodies sounding proudly if not defiantly naive, as if any studio novice could stumble upon them. But it takes a measured and experienced hand to make such simple ideas demand repeat listens. And while none of the tracks might scream out to be mixed in peak-time sets, it's hard not to see an extended edit of "Call 32705!" absolutely devastating a dance floor under the rising sun. Shed has found his magic hour and captured its endless euphoria, revealing the confused sadness that lurks right beneath a self-medicated smile.
The nuanced language of dance music is one that take years upon years to learn, yet its cost of entry is relatively low, be it growing up in a city where beats run wild or rewiring one's neurons over the course of eight hours of dancing to what can feel like one track, displacing one's linear notion of how time unfolds. After all, one can mix a track from 1996 into one from 2016 these days with nobody being the wiser. Sure different periods crystalize into certain 'classic' sounds but when they're not being blindly mined by the less-inspired producers out there, they can remain a well of constant innovation for those tapped into their own wavelength, who are riding that wave wherever it might takes them. But the lazier rockists and poptimists out there just here the 'same old beat' and the nuance becomes pidgin to most casual listeners, establishing unfruitful animosities and uninformed opinions. Furthermore, as electronic music's roots in more readily accessible means of recording, technically "older" tracks seem to emerge from someone's dusty DAT collection on a weekly basis that often fail to stand out but when they do, they do so in such a manner as to deliver something of a shock to fans and critics alike, expanding their understanding of the genre's development. We've gone from the private press era to one of private hard drives.
Milo Smee has been shocking the dance ecosystem, however covertly, for over two decades now and much like Palowitz, his varied aesthetic has segued through a trio of influential aliases that started with his haywire hardware Kruton project, morphed into the disco-electro styles Binary Chaffinch, and took on a rougher and more rugged style with Bintus. It is the latter project that has been on the rise alongside the rought-around-the-edges box techno and electro featured on his own Power Vacuum, a label that unsurprisingly found favor with outsider house champion Ben UFO, catapulting Smee closer to the spotlight he's long circled but never entered. After all, his tenure spent as the drummer in death disco squad Chrome Hoof alongside a host of other groups has apparently given his beats a nuanced bombast that is both the glue keeping things together and the dynamite that can blow it all to smithereens. And for as varied and talented of a producer Smee clearly is, it's his Kruton material that has most resonated with me. After spending time with his catalog, it becomes clear that his is one of the few acts that can land an Autechre remix and one still not be sure if they are listening to the original or the remix.
I, Pathetikus collects ten tracks Smee recorded between 1996 and 2004, with lengthy list of electronic hardware and instruments dutifully listed on the record’s back cover along alongside a picture of the Euro mullet-bedecked producer seemingly mid-performance, a reel-to-reel visibly directly behind him as he remains focused on the knobs and faders in front of him. It’s hard to imagine many places where the music on display here would become a hit , yet one can’t help what influence this material might have had on artists like Beatrice Dillon and Actress who can inhabit any genre while making it wholly their own. And much like the latter’s still-incredible rewiring of Detroit house and techno on Hazyville, Smee’s work here hints at similar heights of genre deconstruction with the classic beats of electro refracted through his askew melodic and compositional sensibilities.
Kruton’s command of his machines comes shining through from the album’s start as the synchronous polyphonic keys and amorphous cadence that comprise the opening ‘riff’ of “Surfin’ Topaz” befuddles the listener for a few seconds before a beat of silence snaps the grid into place. That Smee was composing in a post-Aphex Twin world comes through in the track’s jittery melodies and impatient rhythm and compositional sense as the track seems to change shape every four or eight bars before the disparate parts ultimately unite in unholy co-habitation. Calling to a mind The Egyptian Lover’s seminal drum sequence from “And My Beat Goes Boom,” but tweaked ever so slightly with each bass kick triggering a harmonic resonance, “Copper Seizure” sees the producer giving the groove the time and space to breathe unlike on the claustrophobic freak-out of “Topaz.” One recurring facet of Pathetikus is Smee’s uncanny melodic sensibility that seems to reflect a deep love for library music and film composers in that he’s not going for self-contained dancefloor-ready earworms, but rather perfunctory phrases that feel like snippets of something larger. But let us not confuse reference with reverence.
As the sci-fi (with slap bass!) electro of “Copper” end the album’s A side and the illbient dub of “L’escargot Dynamique” kicks off the B, we find Smee perhaps drinking from Techno Animal’s well of tooth-y downtempo but in a style all his own as echoing industrial sound effects bounce off the track’s booming beat, a two-note bassline paired with the type of anxiously hyper and ultra-dramatic topline that wouldn’t be out of place in the middle section of an early Legowelt track. The slower pace feels a bit less dated on the patient robo funk that kicks off “Pleasure Industry” before a darting, crystalline synth run finds a melodic anchor in a single looped chord stab, percussive pads and drums adding a distinctively fun quality to the music while never really going anywhere in particular. The rhythmically dense but melodically unfocused middle line only adds to the sense of irresolution. Still, there is something frustratingly ineffable about this collection that gives it the patina of an insta-cult classic. It's kinda like a Surfing on Sine Waves for the electro-industrial set, delightfully aslant music that works well both in the back and foreground.
“Concentration Mint” ratchets things back up by playing at the kind of cosmic electro coming out of Den Haag around when these tracks were recorded but with an IDM-like non-commitment to any type of melodic groove, the drums starting and stopping in line with the perplexing keys. Beginning with an off-kilter house groove, “Cheese / Lightning” soon snaps into the kind of loose, but steady jams underpinned by an ever-curious bassline and the type of stargazing melodies that seem to be saying “I Believe.” And while plenty an engaging idea gets tossed into this heady electro stew, the lack of any real melodic anchor outside of the bassline makes this feel like more of a sketch that should have remained in the sketchbook. Fortunately, the listener isn’t left treading water for long as the dubbed-out downbeat on “Reassuringly Depressing” brings in one of the album’s most memorable low ends, all granular crunch as Smee’s own sampled voice seems to be repeating the command to “dance.” And somewhere the Bojorans do.
“Prize Goblet” continues the back-half’s strengths through a hooky bassline, lively beat, and a frisky frolic that pivots between rhythmic chords and arpeggiations that serve more as question marks than as definitive statements of intent. At this point in the album, these eccentricities will likely suit a certain exploratory listener perfectly as someone wanting compositions that precede from a framing idea like Palowitz’s or follow some form of a narrative will likely have abandoned the album. But for those who feel like sticking around, Smee saves two of his most oddball concoctions for the faithful. The upbeat mutant synth-pop of “Seafarers Casket” is made all the more alien with the largely untreated organ madness segueing into a more streamlined section that soon goes haywire, the beat hitting double time while its halfbeat-led coda once again highlights the producer’s compositional dexterity. The changes never feel random and always contain some form of melodic or rhythmic through-line despite keeping the listener eternally on their toes, right through to the springy drum-led toms and kicks at the heart of “1&3/4 I.P.S." Here Smee indulges in his inner Bernie Worrell, letting rip a wild synth solo centered around a simple motif that keeps the whole thing grounded, serving as a perfect summation of I, Pathetikus. Here's an album of temporally disparate cuts recorded by an alias of a musician who was also exploring many of dance music's dankest via a slew of different aliases and groupings. It’s tough to imagine any label outside of Rephlex having deigned to release these track and yet, some twenty years later, our increasing familiarity with open-ended song structures and the equal heft given to sound itself, Smee’s melodies seeming more like excuses to push the boundaries of his hardware's and genres' parameters into new territory.
Yasuaki Shimizu - Music For Commercials
Over the years, I've realized I adore library music and often surreptitious subversions of “commercial music,” ranging from top 40 to the music of the KPM, Bruton, and Parry Music Library that sought to emulate popular musics from across the historical spectrum, early classical to modern soundtracks for commerce.
While an in-depth discussion of the intersection between capitalism and the avant-garde might be a bit excessive for our means today, it's important to recognize the different approach the Japanese have taken towards music as a soundtrack to commerce. From accclaimed art galleries and installations found in department stores to the heightened sensitivity that the country has to ambience and atmosphere, the scholar Paul Roquet explores just what “reading the air” means in his recent Ambient Media: Japanese Atmosphere of Self, as those in the country define funiku or atmosphere. In particular, he points to two periods of immense change as reasons behind surges in ambient media--the post-World War II popularization of “background music” for use in commercials and the boom in the 60s and 70s that the “musical furniture” of Erik Satie had on the country’s avant-garde.
Roquet provides an in-depth study of how the often-pacifying effects of ambient music as Brian Eno conceived it, as a style generating “calm, and a space to think,” essentially looking at the music’s environmental qualities as a neoliberal response to older conceptions of collective attunement. He draws on Foucault’s conception of ‘subjectivation’ to discuss how the popularization of environmental music has led to an ambient subjectivation of the self, reinforced by the neoliberal policies found in Foucault’s concepts of govermentality and biopolitics. The decades that came after the 1960s saw the rise of a new breed of self-disciplining across the globe found in self-help and flimsy new age literature, a direct sociopolitical effect of hypercapitalism. In Rouquet’s reading, ambient media does not simply shape social behavior or instill an “ambivalent calm,” but also provides a means for them to heal while also inciting feelings of ambiguity and anxiety. Looking at the ambient music of Haruomi Hosono, Tetsu Inoune, and Chihei Hatekeyama as one form of ambient subjectivation alongside the literature of Haruki Murakami and the Kurita Yuki, Roquet posits a fluidly dualistic model that provides individuals with the experience of “reflective drift” that offers the means to help people to feel like they are in control of themselves and surrounding environment. On the other hand, he also thoroughly investigates the negative effects of this pacifying aesthetic and the self-policing that background music (BGM) and background video (BGV) can instill.
I picked up Roquet’s book around the same time I came across the reissue of twelfth entry of the venerable Belgian label Crammed Discs' Made to Measure series, a collection of recordings from musicians “made to measure” for performance, soundtracks, and much more, often showing a more experimental side of the artists. Yasuaki Shimizu first got his break as a successful saxophone player, eventually finding considerable success with his band Mariah--whose seventh and final 1983 album the Palto Flats label reissued to considerable acclaim in 2015. The label is set to return to the well of Shimizu with an upcoming reissue of his oddball jazz fusion-electronic-ambient album Kakashi--an album YouTube has been popularizing through its algorithm (1 million+ views!) just as it did with Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass, which arguably helped to explain its rapturous reception when reissued by Palto earlier this year.
And as fun and wonky as Kakashi is, I’m much more grateful for being hipped to his Music for Commercials compilation from 1988 that collected twenty-three of his two-minutes-or-less compositions for a number of reputable brands’ television ads recorded in the 70s and 80s alongside a nine-plus minute piece composed for a computer animation short. Before we discuss the music within this sedating-yet-engaging album, let’s read Shimizu’s brief liner notes to get a better sense of where the composer was coming from as it’s suggests an approach that is likely much different from that of commercial music composers in the western hemisphere.
TV commercials in the late 70s and 80s didn’t advertise the practical features of products; they were meant to build strategic corporate images. You might even say they took a musical approach in their visual expression, though perhaps that’s an overstatement. Being restricted to a time span of a minute or less made it ideal work for refining my intuitive powers. I made a conscious choice not to remix the tracks for this album: the final version of the original recordings appear here untouched, although I do remember working to link the individual tunes, and on the overall mood.
The above observations line up perfectly with listening to the album as while the sequencing does not group each brand together save for one exception (the borderline campiness of the Bridgestone material), one begins to pick out recurring motifs and the “strategic corporate images” that Shimizu was able to capture in a time span ranging from thirty seconds to two minutes. And from the bucolic minute-long composition of “Tachikawa,” one can’t help but wonder if the commercial music Americans grew up on even remotely came close to the level of musical dexterity and ingenuity on display here. The sole recording he made for the city of Tachikawa instantly communicates a multi-dimensional spatiality as synthetic maternal sighs are combined with bird chirps, a charming piano motif, and light percussion that instantly transports the listener to somewhere else entirely. Yet, one can't help but be cognizant that this is music meant to sell a product or experience--how this album has escaped being a Vaporwave classic is beyond me (or maybe it has, fuck if I know). The lushness continues on the nostalgic ballroom-indebted “Seiko 1” before switching gears entirely for a meditative, arpeggiated ambient piece that quickly builds and fades away, with sparse percussive accents adding texture to this decidedly weightless piece.
Part of what’s so remarkable about Music for Commercials is its ability to musically straddle traditionally “Japanese” harmonic modes and musical motifs with an increasingly globalized aesthetic landscape. It isn’t until fourth track “Sen-Nen 1” that a listener unfamiliar with the album might begin to suspect its national origins as acoustic MIDI drums and a decidedly Eastern string instrument and harmony create a humid, almost-tropical musical landscape with unmistakable Japanese inflections. And that brings us to one of the more compelling aspects of Music for Commercials as one starts to pick up on the overarching brand strategies of the corporations that commissioned Shimizu’s rather dense compositions for commercial purposes. There’s nary a jingle to be heard across the twenty-three commercial tracks here, but one does hear the increasing need to balance an unmistakable Japanese aesthetic while incorporating outside musical traditions, technologies, and techniques. By the time we get to “Seiko 3,” with its familiar arpeggiations supplemented by MIDI key stabs, one starts to understand Shimizu’s theory that these brands took a musical approach to their visual branding--though without the actual commercials to see what he was soundtracking, one can merely rely on their ears to pick up on the recurring themes and motifs central to a particular brand’s identity. “Seiko 4” features a more recognizable MIDI mallet sound hammering out its busy melody, smartly-placed claps adding to its forward momentum, while “Seiko 5” is perhaps the most dated composition of the five, all polyphonic MIDI stabs and ‘organic’ tribal drums.
When it comes to digging through the thousands of library music records in existence--music made by private companies that could be purchased and re-used in everything from corporate training videos to actual commercials--one needs to possess a supreme level of patience to pick out the timeless musical ideas rather than those hopelessly dated through lazy or identikit composition and gear. The fact that there isn’t a stinker across any of Shimizu’s commercial music calls to mind such cherrypicked library music comps as Tomorrow’s Achievements: Parry Music Library 1976-1986. But where the compositions on there or similar albums like Happy Machines: Standard Music Library 1970-2010 were made by a wide variety of composers and musicians, Shimizu’s one-person approach--something made increasingly possible over the ten years or so this music comes from--reveals his own aesthetic predilections while also showcasing his chameleonic ability to capture a brand’s spirit in that most intangible of mediums: music.
Yet, despite the wide variety of clients Shimizu recorded pieces for, his own wonky aesthetic also comes shining through in the often gaseous quality of the music itself, whether featuring his own smooth-as-silk saxophone on several of the five adventurous compositions he made for Bridgestone or the motorik-esque beat underpinning the yearning melody on “Shisheido.” Often mallet sounds from the xylophone family provide a rhythmic-melodic background for the searching piano of “Honda” or the twinkling keys found on “Suntory.” The voice even appears, like on the Wagnerian chorus on the anti-jingle of “Seibu” that closes the album. But before that last track quickly appears and vanishes, the listener is treated to Shimizu’s compositional style in the long-form piece on the nine-plus minutes of “Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu,” a computer animation short that almost plays like a megamix of the rest of the album. Seguing effortlessly from orchestral whimsy to an atmospheric synth solo and on to a Disney-indebted movement in the compositions first minute-and-a-half, “Ka-Cho” is a painfully smart addition to this collection that not just helps it achieve a more substantial length, but provides a context for the stylistic breadth and collage-like sensibility that pervades throughout the entire album. The piece takes numerous listens for it to even start to make sense, so many are the ideas and so quick are the changes. But it speaks to Shimizu’s unique ability to find art in artifice as well as the commerce-as-art mentality that can be found within Japanese society.
For music that is supposed to serve in function of both the product being advertised and a company’s over-arching brand continuity, Shimizu offers a provocative insight into just how different a mentality his country’s inhabitants have to both their consumer identities. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is another must-read (not to mention a quick one) that details the style evolution that occurred in twentieth-century that resulted in such international streetwear mega brands BAPE. The fact that A Bathing Ape’s brand identity allows it to both effortlessly blend in with an international style while also retaining its uniquely Japanese construction (even if it is just in the company’s logo) provides a interesting commercial parallel for the music composed by Shimizu. An album that is ‘all over the place’ by necessity of its origin also reflects a unifying and sophisticated compositional voice does so in a manner that can be overlooked on countless listens. For as intricate or singular as so many of the compositions are, they also contain a playful quality, a feeling of just catching a part of something bigger, not unlike Milo Smee’s melodic sensibility.
Inventing Masks - 2nd
The last entry in our album round-up is one that likely didn't pop up on your radar just like it failed to do so on mine. Again, it was seeing Inventing Masks' 2nd in a mark-down pile at 2 Bridges that led me to inquire and learn that it was the second release of a project by Giuseppe Ielasi of Italian experimental electronic duo Bellows' on the out-there hip-hop label Error Broadcast. Having been wowed earlier this year after scooping up Ielasi's bandmate Nicola Ratti's incredible symphony of bubbles Pressure Loss, I couldn't resist the description of this album as being something along the lines of 'phantom hip-hop.'
Listening to the album, however, is a much more disorienting and engaging experience than a simple beats excursion, perhaps owing to Ielasi's status as an esteemed experimental musician. An accomplished guitarist in his own right, one can't help but assume that the Weather Report-esque samples that make up each quasi-easy listening track are actually of Ielasi's own making, especially given the distraught guitar wail that is the cornerstone of the otherwise smooth operator "3'23."" Warm piano chords and a purposeful bassline help guide the soporific piece to its end, just in time for the Thrust outtake that is "3'11"" to kick into gear. An upbeat fusion funk number that features a dancing rhodes loop that provides the primary melodic thrust, Ielasi enhances it with an equally antsy drum line and a single guitar note serving as the punctuation mark at the of each phrase. As growing synth pads enter the mix in the last third, one truly gets the sense that Ielasi is making rather literal connections to hip-hop's longstanding reliance on jazz loops to create an interrogation of easy listening music, disruptions stalk the grounds or recur but it all feels ironed out into a harmonious simulacra.
Things get a bit less literal on "3'13"" which is a bizarre piece of sludge-y downtempo jazz-funk that manages to muddle the different instruments into one gloop-y blob, the downbeat and emphasis on the one being the main things keeping this piece moving forward. The A side ends with the rather moody "1'50"" that takes a lovelorn flute loop and gussies it up with some somber piano chords and Ielasi's echoing guitar--it's an odd piece for sure, but also serves as a fitting middle point in the album's trajectory. While the spirit of fusion hangs over the entirety of the album, it's brought to life via the staccato triggering of what sounds like an MPC, cuing up choice loops from Ielasi's solitary jam sessions, both paying homage to and subverting the jazzbo inclinations of hip-hop's boom-bap glory days.
A nervous and busy downbeat and contemplative Rhodes loop set the stage for the dream jazz of "3'19." Here we get a far hazier take on the Inventing Masks sound as pads swell up all around the track's central groove, eventually subsuming them in a wisp of smoke before we momentarily find ourselves back on familiar ground with the sumptuous lounge stylings that open "4'17."" As a quick pause of silence overtakes the mix, we're soon treated to the album's most singular number, a bass-heavy jazz-dub excursion centered around a steady 4x4 kick drum and slowly rippling synths that is a bit off-putting on a first listen, but begins to make total sense within the context of the album. This is especially the case as we enter album closer "3'54,"" a piece that takes all of the preceding thematic threads and expertly weaves them into the album's defining statement. Starting off with a preening guitar loop and downcast horns not unlike the melancholia of "1'50,"" a tasteful crash symbol takes up back into faux-Weather Report territory, the even downbeat shook by a disorienting echo effect that recalls the dubwise sensibilities of the preceding track before the beat disappears and a translucent curtain is place in front of the mix as it fades from view.
2nd is an album that suggests a surfeit of ideas have been meticulously reduced to a glistening glaze, each song heard as through a vaseline-coated filter. The well of jazz that had until recently been expunged from the vast majority of Top 40 and underground rap, replaced by a well-worn trap template, has recently been shook loose somewhat in large part due to Kendrick Lamar's sly synthesis of jazz and rap on To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled.unmastered. Ielasi's cognizance of the wider trends in rap production is ultimately a moot point due to the careful balancing act the album achieves, carving out a space and nestling in between beats and jazz fusion in a way that feels honorably derivative and curiously innovative. One could easily listen to the entirety of 2nd and not think of hip-hop once, so ubiquitous has looping become, even within live music. But the craft's specter looms large over 2nd and not in an onerous way. Rather Ielasi seems to be celebrating the control, the power one gains over a room of musicians through MPCs and DAWs while also reconfiguring the very parameters of a "beats" album. Regardless, he's succeeded in crafting an album that could slip into sets alongside the likes of Tortoise and Dilla, playful yet provocative, music that could but refuses to be mere furniture, imprinted instead with the ancillary voice of the producer themselves.