Author Archives: ymatto

Review: Collapse Under the Empire – Fragments of a Prayer

Fragments of a prayer

Collapse Under the Empire has a new album.  To cut straight to it, it is very similar to their previous albums, which I have liked.  This is a group that has a sound that is a well-considered fusing of post-rock, electronic, and symphonic elements into music that I cannot really describe any better than “beautiful”.  With each album, they seem to be honing and refining that fusion, downplaying elements that do not contribute effectively to the sound, and emphasizing those that do.  A few albums ago, it was a bit more post-rocky — a bit more fuzz and epic thrum and percussion bash. Now there is a bit more symphonic swell to it, and it all mixes together a little more seamlessly.  The result is correct, and it really does have moments of striking beauty.  It is uplifting music for the world-weary cynic.

So then.  Fragments of a Prayer is like a precious stone that has been cut and polished by highly skilled hands, and has remarkable swirls of color.  But if I lay out my true feelings here, I wonder what those hands might do with slightly rougher stuff — something with gnarled flaws and embedded chunks of material that cannot be blended perfectly.  I wonder if the resulting stone might not have even more beauty than this one, as much as I do like what we have here.  I admit that I, perhaps greedily, want a little bit more.  But for now, this is some very solid listening.

In The Cold:

Fragments of a Prayer is available directly (digitally, on discs of various type, however you do) on Collapse Under the Empire’s website.

 

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Review: Alexandre Navarro – Sketches

Sketches

I had to go and unpack my good headphones for this one.  The shipping crates are still piled here at To Eleven Far East, but I have certain responsibilities. So when the tele-screen hissed to life and Jayson dropped the news of an Alexandre Navarro release requiring my attention, I had to put down my tea and get a crowbar.

It was the right choice, because this is not an album for casual listening. I hesitate to make judgments about what an album “means”, and I am not going to do it here.  But I think  I understand how this album works — or at minimum how it worked for me — and the most important thing to say is that Sketches requires your attention.

The album is extremely minimal, but its sparse audio fragments have just enough texture and diversity that they suggest depth.     It is as if you were to find arranged on your doorstep one day the following:

  • A page from a worn paperback
  • An unused vacuum tube
  • Two green buttons from your friend’s coat

The meaning isn’t clear, but you know it  means something.  Now it’s very easy for this kind of thing to be arbitrary and ultimately shallow — like, well, a page from a paperback, a vacuum tube, and two green buttons because I just made that up.  But each track of Sketches assembles a handful of audio elements — synthesized, sampled, spatial, localized, drawn out, and punctuated — that somehow draw out mental connections and tease the mind. The repetition of the elements, and slow shifting of emphasis between them, provides the listener a space in which to study each sound carefully, as you might study each delicately chosen word of a haiku.  And like a good haiku, each track contains the distillation of a complex emotion or scene.

That’s right, we’re talking about musical haiku up in here.

But the effect did not work if I let my attention drift. Honestly this is an album where if I had just had a listen while doing something else, I would barely have noticed that it happened.  It was only because Alexandre has earned my respect that I went back and realized that nothing here is haphazard and each track has richness if I give it more direct access to my synapses.

Thus the good headphones.

I am not even going to post a sample track of this one because it will encourage you to have a quick listen wherever you happen to be.  No, what I want you to do is find some quiet time and then go listen, alert, while doing nothing else.  Get zen on this and be rewarded.

Sketches is available for listening and downloading on bandcamp.

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The Morality and Economics of Ephemera (or: Emily’s Pirate Booty)

Context: Emily White, a young intern at NPR’s All Songs Considered, blogged up a thing about how she loves music but does not buy any of it between streaming services and various acts of borrow-ripping and regular-type file sharing.  Then David Lowery of The Trichordist, which apparently represents “artists for an ethical internet”, wrote a rebuttal which is making the rounds a bit.  Both pieces make some statements worth considering, lying well outside the standard “record companies hate puppies!” / “file sharing is mugging artists at gunpoint!” internet back-and-forth.

 

Since high-value music and patronage of artists is a thing that I support here (and with my bux), I wanted to give The Trichordist a solid rejoinder as I think David’s essay is pretty off-base — but off-base in a new, interesting, and possibly suggestive way.  Read those other essays before continuing.

 

Basically I agree with David that corporations and government are not going to fix the problem with getting artists paid, but disagree strongly with most of the rest of the article.  That is not to say that I fall into the “Free Culture” camp that he sees as the enemy; I have a larger music library than Emily and I have paid for the vast majority of that, recently much of it in payments more or less directly to artists via Bandcamp.  I would love for most people to behave this way. But David constructs a number of strawmen that deny reality and miss the point.

 

First, his whole concept of a corporate-backed free culture movement is nonsensical. Does he really think that it it were not for evil megacorps that digital music sharing would not have gotten out of hand? Blogger please. It was over as soon as 1) CDs containing perfect digital copies of music became available, 2) computers got CD readers, and 3) fast internet became broadly available.  Once those were in place, it was the end of the ironclad traditional music sales model and the rest has been details.  Remember that Napster was a classic garage startup, as has been basically every music sharing site/app ever.  Even if Google stopped serving ads and all the existing file sharing and streaming sites shut down, new ones would pop up and absolutely nothing of significance would change.  It is about demand, not supply.

 

No, the real issue is that people have an innate belief that tangible objects (and services) are the only things that have monetary value and music is no longer a tangible product.  Or turn that around and say that people prefer to only spend money on tangible objects because they are, by nature, not free to manufacture. That is the reality that the author is completely ignoring.  He talks about how people are willing to spend money for laptops and internet service (which they buy for reasons other than stealing music, despite what he seems to suggest), and wonders why they will not pay for music.  The answer is: because, unlike with a laptop or internet service, they ain’t have to.  It is not because of some corporate conspiracy, and not for any of the dumb reasons that he gets by asking college students, who are clearly just creating ethical padding for not having to their spend cash money.

 

So the author’s solutions boil down to: asking that people do the right thing — which I support completely, but is not gonna happen as things stand — and pressuring the content sharing and ad revenue companies to repent, which is ridiculously pointless.  Neither of these things comprise a realistic solution.

 

The truth is that music is our fascinating first entry into a world that we are going to be seeing a lot more of, and which has not fully formed.  It is a world of true intellectual (or I might say ephemeral) property. We have had laws about intellectual property for a long time, but it has always been kind of an in-joke.  We have not been directly stopping the copying of the intellectual property of music; we have been stopping the production of counterfeit sheet music, records, tapes, and CDs — tangible products, not intellectual ones.  It was a convenient simplification because musicians lumped a payment for their intellectual work in with an object that had innate value to people. We spent money on those music-carrying objects because they were singular, unduplicatable, and, critically, could not be had be means other than paying for them or denying someone else of them.

 

Speaking of which, let us talk about stealing for a moment.

 

Stealing an object carries innate negative moral weight for human beings.  And humans also have innate belief that the cost of something is, when things are fair, closely connected to the cost of producing it.  This is naive — and I think leads to the Walmart “it’s all the same shit anyway” low-quality mentality — but you cannot deny that it is the general gut instinct.  Humans are attuned by evolution to respect fairness, but it is a raw kind of instinct.  We only feel the moral tug strongly when public shame is in the balance, and we are only sensitized to bilateral fairness with transactions that are personal and/or tangible.  Any legally-defined form of “stealing” that ignores these instincts will not be naturally respected.

 

Music is the first type of intellectual property that we can now have at zero production cost, without directly denying anyone else, and without any loss of quality from the original.  That means that nothing about copying music feels like stealing and the value of the product remains undiminished; that makes it pretty irresistible.  Emily is probably right; her generation may not ever have any interest in paying for music because they have no legacy memory of a time when stealing music felt like actual stealing like us oldsters do.  And what happens as duplication costs and fidelity of copying other kinds of intellectual property fall to zero — become ephemeral?  This is a good thing overall, as products can now enrich the lives of humanity more easily and at lower cost, but how can we make the economics work for everybody?

 

Here is what I say.

 

I tend to think that the only solution is to find new ways of linking intellectual products to innate moral sensibilities. I hesitate to even call that a “solution” because it is not a corporate or government initiative, it is just something that I believe will happen.  People engage in “fair” music transactions when shame is in the balance.  Stealing music today denies payment to artists, but usually in an extremely abstracted, distant way which few have shame about (and a little ethical padding can make feel like fighting the good fight).  This means that the music business (and others that start to ephemeralize) will likely change drastically.  Nobody is going to feel guilty about denying an international superstar of $2, and the business case for those mega-artists is diminishing.  But if an artist has his/her own site, engages more directly with his fans (musically and socially), and sells directly to them, I think people are a lot more likely to do the right thing.  I can hope that when more people stop copying Katy Perry and start buying from those smaller artists, they will thrive.

 

So the large, hit-oriented recording industry is likely to die, and we should have no issue with that (as if we really had any choice at this point).  I think music and individual musicians will thrive all the more as a result when they begin to find sets of ears that they can connect with more personally without making use of obsolete record industry carpet marketing.  And I think this will be the way of many things in the decades to come:  the downscaling and democratization of creating, producing, and selling all kinds of things.  The innate moral and economic forces of ephemeral products will relentlessly route around anything more centralized, and the appeal of more personal products I believe is high. iTunes is a half-way solution, an attempt to use convenience, selection, and consistent quality to patch the gap between a traditional tangible product-based business model and the new ephemerality of the product.  There is nothing wrong with that, but there are still those moral and economic forces saying that it is not natural, and that is what Emily is pointing out.

 

Emily should still feel kind of shitty for not buying more music; if she loves music, she should at least go find some small artists she likes and who want to like her back, and give them money.  It will feel good, and an increasing number of those artists today are delivering a connection between artist and listener beyond just some mp3s.  But we are not getting anywhere telling Emily that artists are being destroyed by sinister forces that she is supporting.  She just likes music in the dawning of the age of the ephemeral.

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Review: Squarepusher – Ufabulum

Ufabulum

Here is one of the big ones for electronic music for the year: a new album from one of the old Warp heavies, Squarepusher.  Heavily anticipated with a hint of fear, you never quite know what you’ll get from Tom Jenkinson — and if we, the fans, are honest with each other, he has had some stuff over the years that we do not play that much even though we sort of respect it.

Ufabulum is good. It is. But I have been fighting with myself over it a bit because I keep putting it on and then just realizing an hour later that it is over and I had not formed an opinion of it beyond “that was good”.

Another listen then, no screwing around. This time I realize that he has really centered up on this particular brand of electro sound, fusing his trademark snap’n'crack drums with the full loaf of acid and dashes of some serious 80s electro-soundtrack influences (have a listen to Lazerhawk if you want to take a bath in that).  A couple of the tracks start to stand out.

Another listen. Dang, I keep ending up working on other things while this is playing, but I am actually getting a lot done.  Oh wait now, you know what this album is? It is a dance music album, the kind of mentally stimulating but even-paced music that is good for a) dancing or b) providing digital caffeine for productivity.  Not mindless house, but his own style of goofball, fun-as-hell electronic gumbo.  Now this is making sense.

And that is my conclusion. Look at the album cover up there; it’s a shot of his new concert outfit with synchronized backdrop/helmet lightshow, which you can see some pretty decent clips of on YouTube. And if you have ever had the chance to see Squarepusher live, you know that he completely loves that business. I think he has found his true love, and that is moving the minds and feet of a crowd of people. Ufabulum is a full set of sharpened tools that he will be wrecking the place with for the coming years. Part of me still prefers him back when he was finding his sound and his tracks were wildly inconsistent and occasionally masterful, but who am I to argue?

Energy Wizard:

Ufabulum is available through your typical channels.

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Review: KiloWatts – Acceptitude

Acceptitude

It is all about that piano.  Not that KiloWatt’s Acceptitude is made up of tracks of quirky piano noodling like half of Aphex Twin’s Drukqs; it is still as electronic as his previous work and it is full of the lively, throbbing bass and percussion that seems to be a bit of his signature.  But the piano is a thing.

I want to call this album symphonic, but hang on, let me explain what I mean. Usually “symphonic” these days seems to mean that it feels like it should be the soundtrack to a movie. Acceptitude takes it back further, with the sonic development and richness — the experimentalism even — of the classical composers.  I can imagine Jamie Watts standing before an assembled orchestra of modern electronic sounds that he has recruited from dance and ambient genres, willing them into new patterns.  It is music that has its own development and logic that might inspire visuals, all Fantasia-like.  In fact, let me run with that for a bit.

The piano, small and urging, beckons you to follow down a dusk-lit path where it — and you — are overcome, digitized, and set adrift in a place of sonic characters that are oddly familiar, but here given much more life.  As you walk, the piano returns at your ankles from time to time to point the way as you nod your head to the rhythm of the shifting electronic landscape.  You finally arrive at an arching temple of suspended fragments where you are rushed inside and through a series of busy chambers that reveal the hidden machinery underlying all you have seen before.  And you notice that the piano is still at your feet as you enter the final, cavernous chamber of laser light where a dance of multi-dimensional precision and complexity is played out.  It rises and merges with the structure of the hall as it all becomes less substantial and the digital facade fades… leaving only the piano, which was behind everything all along.

See what this album has done to me? Made me go all silly with the words.  Okay look, it’s not going to redeem your soul, but it is a really good electronic music album.

It is hard for me to pick a track for sampling because one of the main joys of the album is in its variety of mood.  This is an album with a beginning, middle and end. But you really need to listen to the mammoth, ambitiously-named, 15 minute track The World In a Nutshell.  Listen to all of it.  If this does not affect you on some level, I have no more words for you:

Acceptitude is available for listening, purchase, and download on KiloWatt’s webpage. And I have not even mentioned the amazingly rich letterpressed packaging this piece comes with, if you go physical.  Value, folks, value.

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