August 2013 for stowaways

Well it’s not even August yet, and already it’s time to prepare ourselves for what’s coming up. This month brings all sorts of exciting stuff, including:

  • Reviews of recent releases from VCMGDeath in Vegas and Kevin Pearce
  • Anniversaries of great oldies from KraftwerkBTDepeche Mode, and others, with a huge bunch of bonus oldies to follow in early September
  • Another exciting Playlist for stowaways, and all the usual live highlights, previews, charts, and everything else

One thing worth mentioning – you have now seen the last of the Friday freebies. When I started this blog just over a year ago, I was amazed to find that there was quite so much legal free stuff hanging out on the internet, just waiting to be downloaded. You didn’t agree though – of the 42 freebies I’ve shared with you, just a handful have ever been clicked on. That’s OK – as of this month I’ll be sharing a series of videos instead each month, starting in August with five oldies from out of the olden days!

Amorphous Androgynous – Tales of Ephidrina

To date, I’ve largely ignored the more ambient releases in my collection, preferring to review more energetic things (to be honest I suspect it’s easier to find the words to say if you can stay awake and alert during an album), but this also means I’ve largely ignored the career of one of my favourite artists of the 1990s, The Future Sound of London.

Tales of Ephidrina, released a depressing twenty years ago this week, was the first side-project for FSOL using the name Amorphous Androgynous. I suspect the reasons for using the alias lie in its sound – the more dance-laden flavour of their main project was, at this stage, entirely unlike the sound of this album.

The first track Liquid Insects is, as with many of FSOL’s better tracks, extremely appropriately named, opening with some wonderfully typical electronic squelches and buzzes. A tribal drum pattern kicks off, with more squelching and occasional panpipes. Although it bears no obvious resemblance to their debut album Accelerator (1991), there are parallels to draw with their more mature follow-up Lifeforms (1994).

There are only eight tracks on this album, and the second is Swab, and it’s reached, as with all the best FSOL tracks, by way of invisible segue. It’s a little unremarkable though, full of weird synth sounds and rattling tom toms.

This then leads into the finest moment on the album, Mountain Goat – so good that of all of the tracks on this release it was the only one to make it onto 2006’s best of album Teachings from the Electronic Brain. It opens with groaning synth sounds and a pleasant acoustic section, which gently weave their way through the five minutes or so of the track.

I’ll be honest, I don’t even know how you’re supposed to pronounce the title Tales of Ephidrina, but there’s definitely something very compelling about the electronic atmospheres which the first Amorphous Androgynous album provides. See this as an early, experimental blueprint for the likes of Lifeforms and Dead Cities (1996), and it does fit in rather nicely.

Track four is In Mind, even more abstract than its predecessors. The warping sounds and metallic drum pattern that serve as the backbone of the track are also pretty much all there is to it, apart from a lot of very ambient backing sounds, but it’s none the worse for all of that. After a while, a bit of merry piping turns up, accompanied by low bass swells, and it comes to an end.

The titles become odder still on the second side of the album, but first up is Ephidrina, continuing in the same vein with abstract warping electronics, but the chirpy hi-hats and acid bass make for a slightly livelier track. It’s still pretty laid back, but my instinct says it’s probably danceable if you don’t mind the tempo a bit lower than usual.

Auto Pimp turns up, after another seamless segue, and bleeps and bubbles its way rather sweetly through seven minutes. This is probably the second best track on the album, after Mountain Goat, full of lots of gentle burping and reverb effects. The penultimate track Fat Cat is less noteworthy or memorable, although as with most of the album it is still pleasant.

Then we’re onto the final track already, Pod Room, from long before the word “pod” acquired its current meaning (although with The Future Sound of London‘s gift for foresight they may have known this at the time). From the sound of it, they either sampled some whalesong as the basis for this track, or generated their own on their synthesisers. It’s not unlike early Moby, with a grimy industrial bassline and driving kick, and liberally covered in vinyl crackle. Gentle, sweet, and beautiful, it’s an entirely appropriate closer to a slightly immature but also entirely listenable album.

From here, it was onwards and upwards all the way – the next album Lifeforms, and even its singles, were entirely excellent. The pseudonym Amorphous Androgynous wouldn’t surface again until The Isness (2002), by when they had decided to use it for their more subcontinent-inspired sounds, but this first album served as an introduction to what would soon become the signature sound of The Future Sound of London: deep, electronic, atmospheric, and very, very good indeed.

You can find Tales of Ephidrina on iTunes and all other popular download sites.

Preview – AlunaGeorge

They were the Critics’ Choice at the Brit Awards this year, and very nearly the BBC’s Sound of 2013. They do a rather odd combination of R&B / electro crossover which is extremely difficult to describe. But that’s OK.

Their debut album Body Music comes out this week, and this is the current single You Know You Like It:

Chart for stowaways – 13 July 2013

We’ve got a new number one! And three… the Pet Shop Boys takeover begins!

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Vocal
  2. Blur – Girls and Boys
  3. Pet Shop Boys – Inside a Dream
  4. Marsheaux – So Far
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Axis
  6. Marsheaux – Inhale
  7. Maps – A.M.A.
  8. Crystal Castles – Affection
  9. Kevin Pearce – Last Blow Out
  10. Depeche Mode – Soothe My Soul

Depeche Mode – Paris Demos

In 1986, Depeche Mode would have been firmly on the way towards producing what would become Music for the Masses. Tucked away at somewhere called Studio Guillaume Tell in Paris, they recorded five demos which would ultimately somehow slip out under the name Paris Demos.

The first of the five is the instrumental Agent Orange, which would ultimately appear as the b-side to some versions of Strangelove and was also a bonus track on Music for the Masses. This version is gentler, and a little more dull, clearly in need of a little surgery somewhere down the line.

Next is a slightly different version of Behind the Wheel. The bass is more throbbing and raw, the drums a little more manic, but essentially you have all the ingredients of the final track, and it could be all but finished.

These are, on the whole, well developed demos. I Want You Now follows (I think we’re doing alphabetical order here by the look of things). It’s not by any means identical to the final version, but it’s entirely recognisable. The vocal samples are less polished, presumably in need of a little mastering, but they’re largely as used in the final version.

Sacred is a little longer than the final album version, but apart from that and a slightly more strident bass part (and also being from a particularly poor quality cassette dub) it is not unlike the completed mix.

Finally Strangelove turns up, sounding as though it’s played through a sock, and so it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s different, but to my ears it’s almost identical to the final version. And pretty good for all that.

Demos are always worth hearing if you get the chance, as they give you a totally different perspective of a track, helping you to understand a little more about what it actually means, or why particular sounds are chosen. Paris Demos is definitely no exception, and is well worth the listen.

Search for Paris Demos on Google.

The Presets – Pacifica

An artist that I’ve recently started paying a lot of attention to is Australian duo The Presets. It all started with a free download of recent single Ghosts, remixed by the interminably fun Señor Coconut. Struck by how excellent the song was, I tracked down the album, followed by its predecessor Apocalypso (2008) which we’ll cover another time.

Pacifica opens with the acid burblings of Youth in Trouble. As with many of the tracks on this album it’s a little lacking in melody, but it more than makes up for it with style. The same cannot, however, be said of the second track.

Ghosts is, however you look at it, a totally brilliant song. I’ve said here a few times that somehow you often seem to be able to tell just from the first few chords that this is going to be true, and honestly this is probably a post-rationalisation, but I’d have said it again for this track too. From the very first pads in the introduction you know it’s going to be excellent, and excellent it is indeed.

Promises follows, and is another moment of brilliance, with a bit of an 80s pop sound hiding in a none-too-subtle (ha!) way beneath the surface. But the bottom ultimately falls out of the album again a little bit. Push is good, although it’s a bit more of an experiment than a song, and has a lot in common with the first track. Fall is better again, probably the second best on the album actually, but you can’t help but feel slightly that it’s sandwiched in between a horde of stylish but ultimately dull neighbours.

This is, unfortunately, the theme for the rest of the album. Moments of greatness, such as the intro to It’s Cool and the middle section of Surrender are let down, just a little, by the rather more empty tracks such as A.O. and Fail Epic. Each of them has something going for it, but there’s nothing quite as mind-blowing at this end of the album as there was at the start. A.O. for instance has a wonderfully Antipodean lyric, but absolutely no melody whatsoever. Fast Seconds starts off promisingly, but turns out to be a little empty. Maybe some of these would work better live?

It’s also tempting to wonder whether the predecessor of Pacifica, 2008’s Apocalypso is actually a rather better and more complete offering, but of course that doesn’t have Ghosts on it, which more than makes up for any misgivings you might have about the rest of the album. Pacifica is still a strong album – it’s just let down somewhat by only having one track as good as Ghosts. Which is OK, but it’s a shame. Even so, I’d say The Presets are well worth watching further.

You can find Pacifica in all the normal places, including iTunes.

Preview – Fuck Buttons

Here – have a special bonus preview! This week is so overflowing with excellent and intriguing new releases that we’ve slotted in an extra one for you!

Fuck Buttons are particularly fascinating, making regular EPs of experimental grimy electronica for several years now. From their latest album Slow Focus, this is The Red Wing. Out this week:

Apollo 440 – Dude Descending a Staircase

Time for a little debate: double albums – good or bad?

What we’ll probably end up agreeing is that sometimes they’re great; other times not so much. And this one is an equally mixed bag – ten years ago this week saw the release of Apollo 440‘s fourth album Dude Descending a Staircase. A 95-minute collection of collaborations with a wide range of artists, including rappers and rock legends, it’s certainly got a lot going for it – perhaps it just lost its way somewhere?

Four albums in, Apollo 440 had seen their moment in the limelight a couple of years earlier with the huge hits Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub (1997), Lost in Space (1999), Stop the Rock (1999) and Charlie’s Angels (2000). Clearly looking for something new, they then spent three years locked away before Dude Descending a Staircase (2003) turned up. It’s completely different and unexpected, which is to be applauded – I think the trouble is, it just isn’t particularly good.

The first track is also the title track, a collaboration with hip hop group The Beatnuts, which has some of Apollo 440‘s signature production sounds and some brilliant lyrics, making it pretty good all round. As with what follows, it’s pretty good, but it isn’t particularly amazing unfortunately.

The second track is one of several pleasant but unremarkable moments, Hustler’s Groove,  and as with its companions Electronic Civil Disobedience and Time is Running Out, it’s OK, but just doesn’t have anything particular to grab you and make you remember it for more than a few minutes.

Disco Sucks is better, but still not quite as exceptional as anything on the three preceding albums. You can hear some of the energy and attitude which made the group famous, but somehow not quite all of it.

The artwork is worth a special mention – as with the album as a whole it’s completely unlike anything they had done before. Also as with the album, and also the lead single, it takes inspiration from a 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp called Nude Descending a Staircase, but instead of a psychedelic lady, it shows a cartoon cat. It’s certainly unusual.

A lot of tracks are certainly OK, and it might even be easier to like them on a more compact, better formed album. N’existe Pas and 1, 2, 3, 4 are both good tracks which fall into this category. As with roughly half of the tracks on the album, the former is actually credited to The Stealth Sonic Orchestra rather than Apollo 440, a distinction which they had never quite made to this degree. It’s difficult to know what happened here – is this album in fact a combination of what should have been two releases?

Escape to Beyond the Planet of the Super Ape originally appeared as the b-side to Charlie’s Angels 2000 three years previously, and it still had some of the energy that they seemed to have lost in the intervening period, putting it among the best of the tracks on the album. It’s an instrumental driven by dramatic pad / brass sounds, which almost sounds like a modern remix of something from the 1960s, and it’s also a lot better than any of its neighbours.

By the time the first disc closes with Children of the Future with its pleasant backing but entirely incomprehensible vocal, you could be wondering why you had actually bothered with this album in the first place, but fortunately the second disc is generally better. The opening track, Diamonds in the Sidewalk, a collaboration with, of all people, deceased author Jack Kerouac is an interesting novelty, but sadly nothing special, but after that things really kick off properly.

Something’s Got to Give is probably the best track on the album. It’s admittedly not too easy to say why, but the energy which surrounds it is considerably stronger than some of the other tracks we’ve heard up to now. The series which follow it – ChristianeExisteBulletproof Blues, and Suitcase ’88 are all strong too, showcasing a kind of progressive opera nightmare, piano and string driven reggae-pop, and harmonica and saxophone driven electro-blues, among other styles.

The final trio of tracks – Check Your EgoRope, Rapture and the Rising Sun, and Bad Chemistry are less exciting. In general, you can’t help but feel slightly that with a little selective editing (say, dropping roughly half of the album), this could have been a much better release. It’s all too easy to get a bit bored halfway through, and stop giving it your full attention.

It would be the best part of a decade before Apollo 440 would return with their near-return-to-form The Future’s What it Used to Be, and unfortunately Dude Descending a Staircase did little to cover that gap. It’s good – it just isn’t all that good.

You can find Dude Descending a Staircase here. You can also read my earlier review of their most recent album The Future’s What it Used to Be here.