Last Japan‘s technical abilities, derived from a music-filled childhood and “computer music” school, are undeniable, but his production output has always left this listener particularly cold. His Circadian Rhythms show on NTS and general DJ work is consistently excellent, but his original work, even collaborations with Trim, have too often come off as safe and carefully mediated through a nostalgic sheen. That’s not to say that his sound design and focus on structural perfection aren’t impressive though. The basis for success has always been there, but the London-bred artist has rarely shown the inventiveness necessary for widespread critical adoration. That being said, his latest collaboration-filled mixtape, Ride With Us, is one of the more visceral, genre-bending efforts to come about all year. The tape, meant as a “musical journey through the dark fringes of London city,” spans pirate radio culture, merging frigid squarewave grime, delightfully swung 2 step and a refined conception of sub-bass into an emotional melange of desperation, anonymity and paranoia. An impressive list of collaborators is highlighted by Trim, Prince Rapid, Mr. Mitch and a surprise vocal performance from Emma DD on “Eclipse”, the song that functions as the proverbial sun-coming-up moment on the tape. The mixtape ends with the Cliques-assisted “Alpha Logic”, a roiling jungle update that utilizes elastic aluminum percussion to maximum effect and one of the more intoxicating breakbeat-led tracks to come out in recent memory. Summer in Los Angeles is about as far from the proper context to listen to Ride With Us, but it’s clear that Last Japan has zeroed in on a cobalt blue aesthetic, as well as a sedulous tribute to the London underground. Stream Ride With Us below and head to Bandcamp to download the full tape.
My apologies on being AWOL from this URL for the past month and change, hopefully you’ll hear a thing or two about what I’ve been working on recently in the next few months.
Anyways, full disclosure, barring possibly my middle school obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, James Blake is the most influential musician to ever reach my eardrums. I keep coming back to his work. Thus, I was tickled pink to find that he released a single and b-side under the old Harmonimix moniker (he released these with rapper Trim, who I won’t focus on here, but still deserves a lot of recognition for his vocal contributions). If I may, I’m gonna take the opportunity to say a few things about JB, his new tune, and how he has changed the way I think about music.
Music these days seems to be splintering into a camp making tunes meant for big speakers and disorienting dancefloors and one making the tunes you wake up to, walk around to, and fall asleep to at night. Although this is far more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, it is difficult for a musician to place him or herself firmly in both of these camps.
Although he isn’t the only one to do so (cough cough Mount Kimbie, Disclosure, Probably Countless Unheard But Incredibly Talented Producers Toiling In The Depths Of Soundcloud), James Blake has created a characteristic sound that feels equally at home in your laptop speakers/headphones and the most absurd soundsystem at a festival headline stage. I’ve spent a lot of time dissecting the music he makes, so oblige me sharing a few of the observations I’ve made.
Confidence Boost (which you oughtta be listening to by now via the attached youtube video) opens with reverb-soaked drums that possess two important qualities: they are both ambiguous and engaging. The sound is amorphous, but nuanced, as bursts of condensed white noise that will continue permeate the song flit among the cloudy drums. Suddenly, Trim’s voice comes to your attention. “Look”.
James Blake is a student of pop music as well as an accomplished practitioner of sound design. This double degree manifests itself in how well his music translates to different contexts. I have spent days slaving over logic pro as well as enjoying music as a casual listener, and both of these sensibilities are appeased with the opening of “Confidence Boost”. All of a sudden, the soundscape is subjected to a sort of vaccuum. Only the clearest, most salient elements remain, and sitting directly in the center of the mix is a rather unprocessed human voice. Like much of Blake’s vocal work, Trim’s lyrics speak to a personal pain that has a universally applicable quality. JB keeps the voice a lucid center of the piece, but by adding pitch shifted wisps and subtle manipulations of timing, the lyricist becomes less any particular person and more a unorganized chorus of empathetic listeners. The third time around, the vocal has sunk into a cacophony of emotion and energy that gradually recedes, leaving the listener with one last clear “strike a pose”. A similar balancing act of vocal and feeling-soaked instrumental made me tear up while listening to the Wilhelm Scream live, and it works again.
As far as Blake’s work with the instrumental, if I told you everything I wanted to about how perfect I think the construction is, how finely tuned and polished each element is, how well all the elements complement each other, how the arrangement manages to be utterly left field and yet as familiar and listenable to the acclimated listener to any pop song, this article would move just way too far into tl;dr status. Instead I’ll tell you this. I don’t think I would even listen for qualities like this in music if it wasn’t for James Blake’s pop tunes drawing me into their complexities.
Thank you for reading this far, I’ll leave you with this. One time I smoked way too much DMT, thought I was developing rapid onset multiple personality disorder, and felt like the world was closing in around me. Then all of sudden, inexplicably, the opening chords to the Wilhelm Scream started playing in my mental stereo and the psychedelic purgatory quickly faded into a warm light blue color, and after about a minute of the song playing out in my imagination, I opened my eyes and everything was fine. Why this happened is beyond me but what i do know is this: I’ve listened to James Blake’s album enough that I could basically recited the Wilhelm Scream to myself, arrangement and all, while utterly incapacitated, and just the thought of that song was one of the most incredible musical moments I’ve ever had.