Album Reviews

Coming into 2014 (even though the album came out late 2013), it is becoming increasingly apparent that good, solid techno is becoming archaic. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the days of legends like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher are gone, and it seems that big room house is filling the void that they’ve left. On the forefront of the resistance lies Travis Stewart, who, under the moniker Machinedrum, is leading the charge with music as a weapon of art. Vapor City takes a look into the emotion that lies behind industry and machines, as symbolized by the black and white cover art depicting a rugged, industrial city. The footwork infused bass can be heard all throughout the album, with a clear schism between the first and second half of the LP. “Infinite Us” features wistful piano slurs matched up perfectly with the active bassline, one that gets increasingly more active as the song goes on, molding the theme of discovery. The vast emptiness of “Vizion” marks the second half of the album, the rhythmic white noise leading perfectly into “Rise N Fall”, personifying the album in one word: acceptance.


In his first LP since the exceptional Room(s), the sound of Machinedrum is beginning to sound fluent in itself, as the niche he is building for himself in the vast membrane of the techno landscape is becoming more defined with every release. The simplistic emotion behind the idyllic industrial city is brought into light, and with it, the brilliant ethos of Stewart is found.

Machinedrum’s ‘Vapor City’ is out now on Ninja Tune!


Last week, wide-brim hat donning Los Angeles icon Jennifer Lee aka Tokimonsta released her sophomore LP Half Shadows on pop-oriented label Ultra Music. Since debuting her debut album Midnight Menu in 2010, Lee has been a touchstone for beat music and when you press play on Half Shadows (streaming courtesy of Noisey), you’ll know you’re listening to Tokimonsta. The mix of fluid movement, dreamlike atmosphere and swaggedelic beat are unmistakable. Basically, the entire album is Tokimonsta reminding us why she rocks. While the opening track “The Center” is a bit safe, and there are a couple other instances of that restraint from really blowing minds throughout the album, there is a larger success here that renders the little disappointments irrelevant: Tokimonsta has succeeded in making songs.

From the delightfully weird “The Force” featuring Kool Keith to the lush, hypnotic “Green” featuring Andreya Triana, to the striking “Moon Rise” with Jesse Boykins,  Half Shadows separates itself from other contemporary electronic albums that utilize vocals through a number of means. Instead of burying vocals deep in the mix, making them nearly unintelligible as an aesthetic, or compensating for what is all too often a lack of substance within the lyrics by manipulating them as “textures” (sorry Flying Lotus), Lee makes them shine with a clear and pristine quality so they can add an important layer of meaning to the song far beyond their acoustic quality. “Clean Slate” features frequent collaborator Gavin Turek and is a song about starting all over again if there’s a chance. In this light, the chords become hopeful, the drums become patient, and the production is clean, clean, clean. Furthermore, the ‘track’ follows the composition of the ‘song’, not the other way around. The drums go double time in the second half because it makes sense with the change in the vocals. Normally, all of this would be fairly obvious but in the context of electronic music, which is so often grid-based and repetitive, it is refreshing and demands multiple listens to recognize how the song’s beat and arrangement evolve with its vocals.

Hit the jump to read the full review…

Stream: Tokimonsta – “The Force” Feat. Kool Keith

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There has been discussion of “the death of the music blog” and the fact that in the world of Tumblr we don’t need hipsters with English degrees writing flowery, insipid music commentary. After perusing the first few pages of Google results from the query “Leaving EP”, I see where these sentiments are coming from. People regurgitate the same quotes Skrillex gave to Rolling Stone, conclude that Skrillex is moving in a Burial-esque direction because he has cited the dude as an influence and maybe say something else about how they have secretly enjoyed his past output. Ummmm…

OK music journalists quit being a bunch of lazy fuckboys. If you spend some time actually listening to this EP, contextualizing it in a realm greater than in the scope of few quotes Sonny Moore threw at some press dude he probably didn’t know, there’s no way you can come to the “oh, look Skrillex is making English dubstep now” conclusion. Go ahead and disagree, but I see the Leaving EP as Skrillex grappling with the monster he has wrought and attempting to align the music he wants to create with the music his (obsessive, devoted) fans wants to hear. I know the masses of dirty-midrange-craving kids quite intimately and they are a scary, immovable force. Political-economic constraints on media output actually do exist outside of media studies classrooms and in this case, Sonny Moore is shackled by hundreds of thousands of kids who use his music to exorcise their angst and derive some enjoyment from the relatively miserable existence of the non-athletic kid in suburban America. I would wager my laptop that Skrillex would love to release a white label on Swamp 81 of hard-hitting, mind-fuck techno but I would make the same wager that a negligible portion of his fans would follow him over to the good side. Instead they would shift their affection over to one of his even more aggro clones (wow, yeah I hate those guys) and Sonny Moore would lose his influence over these kids that are probably a lot like him when he was growing up.

Hit the jump for the full review…

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Captain Murphy - Duality

Over the past week, you’ve probably heard that Captain Murphy is a character/aesthetic developed and executed by the one and only Steven Ellison, known by most as Flying Lotus. Since arriving over the summer with a spat of acerbic, pitch-shifted tracks, Murphy’s identity had been obsessed over, driving more than a few people over the proverbial edge. Now that we all know that Murphy = FlyLo and FlyLo = Murphy, which really isn’t that surprising anyways, the body of work, both visual and audio, released over the past few weeks can be discussed in a tempered fashion.

Duality cannot be viewed as solely an album or mixtape. It is an aesthetic, built out of Adult Swim cartoons, video games, long nights at Low End Theory and bong hits. The 17 track project, or continuous video if you prefer,is brilliantly produced, yet disjointed. As a collective audio/visual project, it is one of the most enveloping releases you’ll encounter all year. Captain Murphy is introduced as rapper, lover, cult leader and supervillain. On the production side of things, FlyLo brought in heavy-hitters Just Blaze, Madlib and TNGHT, as well as Brainfeeder compatriots Jeremiah Jae, Teebs and Samiyam. Earl Sweatshirt, Azizi Gibson and Jae again assist Murphy with delectable bars. It’s a star-studded affair that FlyLo conducts blissfully, verses and beats flowing together into one psychedilia-tinged river.

Flying Lotus’ rapping debut comes as a mixed bag of offhand movie and video game references (Final Fantasy anyone?), standard Rick Ross braggadocio and a surprising amount of juvenile rape and phallus talk. On “Mighty Morphin Foreskin,” the word “niggerdick” is uttered, forcing me to believe Tyler, The Creator influenced Duality in one way or another. Despite its relative shortcomings, Ellison’s heavily pitch-shifted introduction to rap is impressive in its breadth, introducing a fully fleshed-out super villain character. More than just your average megalomaniac, Ellison’s Murphy character is a tortured soul, trapped within his own insane, ritualistic and hedonistic mind.

FlyLo also throws in enough head-scratchers like “learn how to do the dougie with the devil in the moonlight” to keep even the most jaded rap fans invested. That being said, the pitch shifting is jarring at times, taking away from the sublimity of much of the production. Similarly, the constant dick and rape talk is unnecessary, and despite being part of the Captain Murphy character (I guess), is detrimental to the album as a whole.

I knew that there was something fishy when the original list of producers (which included Clams Casino at the time) involved in Duality was released. Could a brand new rapper really pull in such a star-studded list of beatsmiths? Would Madlib really work with some Adult Swim channeling chump? Probably not, but would all of the aforementioned producers jump at the chance to work with Flying Lotus? Absolutely. With FlyLo tying everything together with some skillfully executed cult leader skits and beat transitions, the tape reads like a DMT infused night at Low End Theory.

Heavy on psych-rock with a sprinkle of boom bap and plenty of bruising bass, the TNGHT (Hudson Mohawke and Lunice for those living under a rock) produced “Shake Weight” is the one sonic outlier on the tape. Just Blaze and Jae’s “The Ritual” and FlyLo’s “Between Friends” are the two highlights, seeing both producers at their most innovative. My one criticism of the production is of Blaze and Jae for not cutting off that brilliant guitar loop at the beginning of “The Ritual”. If you’re unimpressed by Ellison’s rappity rapping abilities, download the Duality instrumentals and note how cohesive it sounds. Then thank Ellison. Actually we should all thank Ellison.

Now it’s time where you leave your friends and family behind and join the cult of Captain Murphy. It’s these sorts of events, and Duality really has been treated as an event, that make being a hip hop fan so damn fun. Scratch that. Make being a music fan so damn fun. If you can’t appreciate a dozen or so supremely talented individuals getting together to craft a distinctly weird tape with no chance of gaining radio play or profit, then you shouldn’t be reading this. We’re with the Captain, are you?

Back in 2008, a video popped up on youtube featuring a then unknown Lunice popping, locking and dropping (it) to a then relatively unknown Lazer Sword‘s “Gucci Sweatshirt”. The video became moderately popular at the time, making its way around various social circles and then fading into black like every other video from 2008 (except for this one). The song offered a sort of glitchy pre-amble to Lazer Sword’s later work, but is almost indistinguishable from Memory, the duo’s latest album. “Gucci Sweatshirt” was officially released in October of 2009 as the first release on Stones Throw employee Nate Nelson’s new imprint Innovative Leisure. Influenced by his time at Stones Throw and hardcore labels like SST and Dischord, Nelson set off to institute Innovative Leisure as a driving force in North American electronic music.

“Gucci Sweatshirt”‘s idiosyncratic mash of hip hop and off-kilter electro was a fitting start, launching Lazer Sword as a force to reckoned with. By the end of 2010, Innovative Leisure was firmly entrenched and had hosted releases from Mexicans With Guns, Hanni El Khatib, Nguzunguzu, Machinedrum and, strangely enough, Freddie Gibbs. In November of the same year, Lazer Sword released their debut self-titled LP through Innovative Leisure, pushing Low Limit and  Lando Kal into international stardom. The release also solidified Innovative Leisure as a bastion of the most dynamic forms of North American electronic music.

2011 was a relatively quiet year for Nelson’s label, but saw it expanding into new territories and laying out an impressively variegated roster. That was the year Innovative Leisure trotted out bluesy as fuck whiteboy Nick Waterhouse‘s “I Can Only Give You Everything”, arguably the label’s biggest release to date. The Huntington Beach-native brought a brand new dimension to Innovative Leisure, one grounded in Motown and Van Morrison, far from the club-oriented music the label had peddled to that point. Not that club-oriented music is bad of course, but Waterhouse’s signing distanced Innovative Leisure from the hundreds of internet labels out there and gave it a distinct home in Southern California.

Without getting it too much, the first 11 months of 2012 have been absolutely massive for Innovative Leisure, seeing the label break the ultra-hyped Rhye and release Nosaj Thing’s first originals since 2009’s Drift. In just three years, Nelson’s label has gone from relatively unknown club outlet to one of the West Coast’s most divergent, groundbreaking labels. As a sort of celebration (culmination?), the label enlisted Low Limit to compile tracks from Innovative Leisure artists and associates. The result is Ouroboros, a 10-track opus that is as good of an indicator of North American electronic music as any release you’ll hear all year.

If names like Clicks & Whistles, Braille, Anenon and Obey City get you wet (not to mention the aforementioned Low Limit and Machinedrum) then this compilation is for you. If you have no idea who any of the involved artists are or what they sound like, but want delve deeper into North American electronic music, this compilation is for you. If you’re at a party and don’t know what to play, but want people to think that you’re hip to the newest trends (because, you know, that’s all that matters), this compilation is for you. So yeah, give it a spin below and grab that hard wax from the Innovative Leisure website.

It would be easy to dismiss Joey Butler aka Kid Smpl as derivative of one song/album, but when that song/album is Burial’s “Night Bus” and Untrue, that dismissal quickly becomes moot. Over the past few years, Butler has traipsed between ambient sounds, borrowing equally from early dubstep and J Dilla-esque sample culture. He has released several EP’s and countless bootlegs and remixes, all touching on aspects of the night bus sound with varied success.

Butler’s music relies on a sort of imprecise perfection, heavily reliant on a rich textural element, but without the static propulsion of most electronic music. Some of Butler’s past releases (like the Collapse EP) have attempted to walk the line between hip hop beat work and dubstep atmospherics, falling into a motionless gray area. Collapse is far from a bad release, but it lacks the intimacy implied in a night bus release.

Now aligned with Alex Ruder’s Hush Hush Records, Butler has released his best music to date in 2012. Skylight is both Smpl’s full-length debut and the clearest incarnation of his vision, a 13 song ride that ripples with closeted emotion. In our Purveyors feature on Hush Hush, Ruder described the night bus sound as “the type of music you wanna put on your headphones while riding alone on a bus at night.” The connection between Skylight and the urban environment cannot be understated.

The scattered R&B vocals throughout Skylight are the clearest human element of the album, but also its most disassociate.  Butler’s vocals exist below the surface and are completely unintelligible, giving them a slightly disorienting edge. On “Static”, the warmest track on the album, the vocals take on a singsong quality, driving the listener to fruitlessly crane his/her neck to hear. The paradox between intimacy and distance is palpable throughout the album

Neither emotionally endearing nor dissociative, Skylight’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Like the blurred urban landscape it is built out of, Skylight is a visceral juxtaposition between human closeness and emotional distance. Butler has crafted an album that is not only perfect to listen to on late night bus rides, but encapsulates the very essence of the nocturnal urban landscape.

Can we take a moment to appreciate how impressive it is that Kendrick Lamar managed to release a critically and commercially successful album on a major label? Actually, it’s more impressive than that. Kendrick Lamar released a critically and commercially successful album on Aftermath, a label that has failed to release an album from someone other than 50 Cent or Eminem since 2006. That fact cannot be understated. Over 240,000 people bought good kid m.A.A.d. city last week, a minor miracle in the contemporary hip hop landscape. Of course, first week sales numbers will be irrelevant with regards to how the album is viewed down the road, but Kendrick certainly won’t have any trouble eatin’.

There are two ways good kid m.A.A.d. city functionswithin the Kendrick Lamar canon. The first is as personal narrative, an introduction to 17 year old Kendrick and mid-2000’s Compton. A classical tale of conflict, told with the aim of answering just who Kendrick Lamar is. The second function of good kid is an extension of Section.80’s broad societal analysis, a pointed critique of institutional racism, gang culture and economic inequality. What makes good kid so much more engrossing and effective is that it handles both functions effortlessly, weaving a sincere narrative with teeth that will probably spawn doctoral dissertations down the road.

Good kid has been repeatedly compared to feature films, everything from Fargo to Boyz in the Hood, and all hyperbole aside, the album is distinctly cinematic. From the cover art to the last seconds of “Now Or Never”, we view 17 year old Kendrick through a camera lens, witnessing each scene unfurl in a frighteningly visceral manner. After a few listens, Kendrick’s mom’s minivan, Sherane, the homies and Rosecrans Ave are imprinted in your mind, home invasions and shenanigans-filled blunts filling your vision. Good kid’s narrative is filmic as well, split into chapters and climaxing in identity crisis. It’s no surprise that the sub-title for the album is a “Short Film By Kendrick Lamar”.

The closest stylistic hip hop comparison for good kid isn’t Illmatic or Reasonable Doubt, it’s Lupe’s The Cool. Good kid isn’t nearly as aloof or plodding as The Cool, but the narratives are surprisingly similar. Of course, good kid is far less self-loathing and is more of an outlet for hope than despair, but the “shining light in the hood” narrative is present throughout both. Anyways, good kid lays out Compton as land of temptation (the homies, Sherane) and violence, where friends are indivisible from enemies. Kendrick isn’t involved in gang life, but he robs houses, smokes blunts and freestyles with the homies. At one point, he is the subject of police brutality. At another, he is set up by Sherane and her brother and robbed. The story is told via a number of skits that, while occasionally obnoxious, lend impressively to the continuity of the narrative.

Hit the jump for the full review…

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Hip hop music is inherently intertextual, arguably more so than any other genre. Regardless of whether you agree with that statement or not, it’s impossible not to note the (often hyper) referential nature of the genre. This is especially true in 2012, what with the effective end of regionalism and the all seeing/knowing powers of the internet. Nostalgia is a huge part of hip hop’s intertextual nature and is omnipresent in contemporary hip hop lyrics and production. Revivalism is the extreme of nostalgia and has become especially prevalent over the past few years. Andrew Noz touches on the issue here, discussing the worth of artists like Joey Bada$$ and Spaceghostpurp who directly nod to a bygone era, mid to late 90’s New York for Bada$$ and 90’s Memphis for the Purrp. Noz points to the fact that the aforementioned artists are using nostalgia as a blueprint (as opposed to a reference point), discrediting the lesser-known artists of the scene they are supposedly “reviving” and enclosing themselves within a pre-ordained sound.

I like Joey Bada$$ and Spaceghostpurrp. They’re talented MCs and are certainly ones to watch as they progress beyond their formative rap years. Noz does have a point though. Is Bada$$ going to turn out anything close to Lord Finesse or Pete Rock in his prime? Will Purrp ever touch Mystic Stylez? Probably not. So what’s the point? If they begin to use their respective nostalgias as a focal point then all power to them, but otherwise, they’ll become footnotes (at best) in the annals of rap history.

Which brings me to Tommy Kruise, Montreal resident and Three 6 Mafia enthusiast. Kruise has slowly inserted himself into the Montreal production elite over the past several months, getting play from the likes of Lunice and Jacques Greene and yesterday marked the release of his first official EP, titled Memphis Confidential Vol. 1. The 7-track instrumental tape is obviously directly inspired by Memphis, even more so than Purrp’s music. The fact that Kruise is based in a relative hip hop backwater makes the overt nature of the inspiration even more curious. From the mouth of Kruise himself:


The concept of a tribute tape isn’t new or anything, but it again begs the question: what’s the point?

Taking a step back for a moment, Memphis Confidential Vol. 1 is a fun, replay-worthy tape that approximates the DJ Paul/Juicy J sound to a T. Kruise obviously reveres the triple six and “Got Me Fucked Up” and “War Hammers” would fit perfectly in the Three 6 Mafia canon. The EP will be in my proverbial Coupe de Ville for quite some time and will probably make me revisit some Gangsta Boo and Playa Fly classics. All good things, and again, there’s something to be said for approximating a sound really, really well.

But would you rather listen to overt revivalism or the real thing? Some might not differentiate between the real thing and an approximation, but I see the contemporary version through a far more critical lens. Kruise would probably say that the EP is a sign of respect to Memphis legends, but is it really going to illuminate anything about the scene or make anyone dig for lesser-known MCs? I can’t answer that question, but I would guess no. Anyways, Memphis Confidential Vol. 1 is what it is, an impressive approximation of a classic sound that fits comfortably into an existing blueprint. Kruise clearly has the chops to make it as a hip hop producer and will probably be getting some beeper rings soon. Blueprint or focal point, I highly recommend this tape.

I’ve been patiently awaiting this album since I first saw Bhatia tweet that he’d covered Flying Lotus’s “Pickled” on his last release, the gorgeous EP Strata. What kind of future-jazz craziness might await on Yes It Will? On Tuesday, My questions were answered. I must admit upon a third listen this is very challenging music. It is certainly not background music as the opening track ironically suggests. This isn’t foreground music either. Like the best free jazz and bebop, This is music that forces you to reinterpret the dimensions in which you thought music existed. More than that though, this album is bursting with life.

I had the pleasure of seeing Bhatia and his band play “Try” and “Endogenous Oscillators” from this album live at Pianos NYC during his residency there and I was blown away by the freedom of “Endogenous Oscillators” (also my favorite track on the album) endlessly developing on itself and changing its own rules, behaving almost like the stream of consciousness of a very caffeinated and scatterbrained person. it enters a system of a couple of repeated polyrhythms and riffs, then leaves it behind, seemingly forgetting it, to move on to a more searching guitar solo. Then the guitar blends with saxophone and trumpets and they get tied into an arhythmic conversation, all the while the percussion and bass accenting and contextualizing every moment. After a perfectly disheveled drum solo, we revisit the two earlier themes, one building and fading into the other, and the song ends.

The affirmation and confidence of the album’s title can be heard in Bhatia’s braving of uncharted time signatures with a sense of purpose, repeated statements of unconventional harmony and disharmony as common in his guitar licks as in the full orchestra he employs at certain points. Needless to say that we are kept on earth by both the use of real instruments and the musical training of real instrumentalists. lots of them. Some moments call to mind Pat Metheny, Elvin Jones, the Coltranes, Herbie Hancock, and friends, but there are so many new inspirations Bhatia willingly absorbs into his music, as though it was Jazz becoming a snowball rolling down a hill of music, picking up math rock, minimalism, ambient music, electronic music, and contemporary classical music along the way, and hitting you in the face at the bottom of the hill.
You can almost hear someone saying, “This won’t work.” and Bhatia saying “Yes It Will.”

I got a sense that Bhatia’s music is impressionist music, aiming to not only convey emotion, but to process chaos of modern life by finding parallels and intersections between the Jazz medium which is a staple of such expression and the electronic medium which has potential as a modern day tool for this expression. If you like Herbie Hancock’s  Maiden Voyage, and you like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma, you’ll love this.

Be sure to check out the Sons of the Morning Remix EP as well.

Here’s a link to the album on Itunes, out on Rest Assured.

Here’s a video of the Live performance of “Try”.

Disclaimer: I’ve probably listened to the various radio/mix rips and live recordings of “Billboard” over one hundred times since Rustie debuted it in April. Just sayin’.

From the opening proclamation of “oh check this out”, S-Type makes his intentions clear for the Billboard EP. He will take no prisoners. He will push the volume into the red. He will not short you on bombast. His drums will crack. His synths will be crisp. And most importantly, he is the heir apparent to the LuckyMe throne. 25-year-old Bobby Perman has been releasing music since 2005, but it wasn’t until Rustie premiered “Billboard” back in April that people really started paying attention. And I mean really as in turn your head, let your jaw drop and stare.

What S-Type does with “Billboard” is truly remarkable in its conventionalism. The Glasgow-based producer uses a tried and true mold of huge Southern hip hop and essentially does it better than anyone else and the result is a song of the year candidate. Similar to what DJ Toomp did way back in ’06 with T.I.’s “What You Know”, Perman has gone bigger, badder and better than everyone else.

Amidst all of the hysteria over the melding of hip hop and dance music, “Billboard” manages to be immensely danceable without pandering to the “EDM”/Mixmag crowd. That means no dubstep-like buildups, a cool 99 BPM, and most importantly, no moombahton synth stabs! You thought it was impossible, but with a chord progression as infectious as “Billboard”, the world might as well have been turned upside down.

Perman could have easily churned out two or three more mediocre tracks within the same format as “Billboard” and had a success EP, but he admirably didn’t rest on his laurels The remaining five songs, while all similar to “Billboard” in their bombast, , mix the melodrama of radio R&B, smooth Egyptian Lover-esque electro and modern dance tropes. The result is something like Rustie’s seminal Glass Swords, although songs like “You Da Best” and “Walrus” lack the chaotic precision of the modern day classic.

In the end, Billboard is a collection of six huge hip hop instrumentals that are just aching to be rapped over. It’s no surprise that an A$AP Mob collaboration is in the works and I would expect the masses to follow. In the meantime, pump “Billboard” and “You Da Best” the next time you’re working out and/or getting hyped for just about anything. It’s clear that S-Type is going places and while he might not have the dexterity of a Hudson Mohawke (at this point), he knows how to craft a banger and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.