Category: Review

Jammin’ Inc – Mit Anlauf

Visit Jammin’ Inc. at their Homepage

In your ongoing quest to find a good modern reggae-ska-punk-rap-fusion musical act to enjoy, you and so many like you might foolishly waltz right past the Federal Republic of Germany, and in do yourself a grave disservice. You see, it turns out Germany has just what you’ve sought all this time.

Before proceeding further, if the energy and passion of my little monologue here seems to fail to reflect or empathize with the verve of Jammin’ Inc.’s music, then this could only be because I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to express myself when it comes to ska love. Its just never been a genre I’ve dabbled too heavily in. And I don’t filter my creative commons music. I simply download albums and let them play as background music. If one is so audacious as to intrude on my evening’s activities, then I’ll open one slow, lazy eye in its direction and, in a very low tone, double dare it to explain itself.

And Mit Anlauf didn’t just explain, it took control. These words don’t merely fail to capture the spirit or pacing of the album, but also my wild abandon the first five times I listened to it closely, upending bottles of whiskey into my mouth, screaming lyrics at passers-by from my window, hollering and throwing things in joy until my downstairs neighbors were calling, screaming, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

The first track of a first release, Da Roots is an autobiographical piece, structuring lyrically and musically an explanation of who you’re listening to and why. This segues into We Fear No Evil, where some of the R&B influences creep in to create an almost Supreme Beings of Leisure trip-hop vocal track layered on top of a strong Latin beat. This combination creates a deliciously hot and chill contrast. Each track moves in this direction, taking sounds traditional caddy-corner to one another and seamlessly combining them into a marvelously coherent and already fairly popular album.
Indeed, Jammin’ Inc. is a compelling argument for what is possible with free music licensing. With over 30,000 live audience members since the release of Mit Anlauf, the artists prove that quality music can be distributed for free, relying on their fan base and talent to generate a worthwhile response, especially if they are willing to devote time and energy to high profile live performances. I am reminded in a sense of The Red Elvises, who I am fairly convinced have made far more from live performances than they ever did from record sales.

The band is made up of something like fourteen people, at least as of their last Myspace update. Nine instrumental musicians back up five singers representing five different vocal styles. To me, the sound of the album seems to draw its clearest influences from 2 tone ska, but these other genres play heavily into creating a sound that sports one of the rare instances of fusion art that I’d actually applaud. People looking for traditional reggae or ska to pad out their collection might find room to complain, what with the strange mixture of regimented beats and punk abandon, but anyone looking for some progressive ska to sharpen the edges of their libraries could, I think, do no better, even were they to wade miserably through the jungles of commercial sound. And all you genre monkeys out there who just love good music, here you go. You’re done. Go enjoy!


 Visit Fauna at their Homepage

There is a sound out there, a musical form which I crave. The nature of this compositional style is one of ominous tranquility, a pleasantly ambient music that nevertheless promotes a dark undertonetone, not unhappy or evil, but carrying a subtle subtext of danger and energy, like a thunderstorm. The element is part noir, part cyberpunk, enjoying a healthy combination of major and minor chords and a sweet and sour mix of calm yet stressed emotional cues. The Supreme Beings of Leisure have this sound, although in a lounge/trip hop kind of way. Portishead came so close, but never quite pinpointed the noise. There was a group, The Infinite Posse, one of my very favorites (although I seem to be about the only person on earth who ever listened to them,) that was this sound, through and through.

Then one fine day, I put on a Los Angeles City station, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing at all. There it was! This lilting, coercive lushness, that sultry female vocalist. The band was called Fauna, and I was especially delighted to discover subsequently that one of their albums, Have U Ever Talked To Angels, was freely licensed under Creative Commons! It was two firsts, discovering a good Creative Commons artist through more maintstream avenues, and discovering one with a mix of releases both commercial and free (note, this second first has now become commonplace, but it was still novel at the time.)

The Fauna Project is staged from Kolomna, Russia. Its history is one of fickle collaboration and exploration, stretching out over a period of time closing slowly on two decades and what appears to have been a half dozen prior incarnations, but the music on their latest album reflects people who have had time to toy around with electronic sound for a few years.  The music reflects the experience. Though they claim to draw from many sources, the most recently listed influence of Future Sound of London seems to have had, to my ears, the most profound effect upon this album.

The music has a definite downtempo, triphop feel behind it, but remains seductive throughout. The melodies are classically electronic, repetitive but in an enjoyable, relaxing way, great for lounging or mixing. It suffers a bit of an indie feel, and by indie I mean like indie films, not the indie/alternative movement in music. A lot of the beats are severely constrained, turning otherwise organic atmosphere into almost a marching tune, but again I can’t help but feel that some of this music might have been designed specifically to be mixed, which would forgive, even promote this decision (Sasha wants some Fauna LPs.) Regardless of this element, the instrumentation and actual composition are both smooth as silk, and deserve appreciation.

For me, though, Fauna’s highlight has to be their vocals. In the past couple of months of pursuing free music, I have come to appreciate vocalists like never before. The number of times otherwise acceptable music has been suddenly and horribly turned on its head by the appearance of cruel, unrelenting vocals was starting to get downright depressing, frankly. It is a trend that Fauna has reversed with gusto. The lead female vocalist especially is a delight to encounter, and rather like Portishead,  Supreme Beings of Leisure and Infinite Posse, her talent takes what is already enjoyable music and really pushes it over the edge to exceptional.

Alas, ferreting out who is who on their bio page, which could use a copy editor like I could use a backup liver, proved too big a job for me, but if you want to take a swing at it, then by all means. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some relaxing downtempo sound, or something new and fun to mix or remix with, then definitely check out Have U Ever Talked To Angels.

Visit The Tunguska Electronic Music Society at their homepage

103 years ago today, June 30th, 1908 at about 7:14 in the am, in the Russian province of  Krasnoyarsk Krai, a tremendous explosion occurred. The blast, which scientists estimate would have registered at about 5.0 on the rictor scale obliterated everything around it. Trees in an area over 800 square miles in size were flattened, The shock wave broke windows hundreds of miles away.

In 2007 a collective of electronic artists gathered together to create music reflecting on and intended to draw attention to the Tunguska Phenomenon on the centenary of its occurrence, releasing the Society’s first release, Tunguska Chillout Grooves Vol. 1. From those roots the collective has grown considerably, and now sports over 100 members and 24 complete albums.

The modern Society describes themselves in their own words as, “a free creative group of free persons who compose free music for free people.” Their focus is the act of artistic creation for creation’s sake, and have an open invitation for new members to join, provided they share these ideals. The focus is, per the name, electronic music, although the society emphasises an interest in alternative exploration. Their albums are thematic, but the sheer number of various contributing artists can still lend something of a grab bag feel to many of them. Overall the quality of their music is very good, but the differences in method and attitudes regarding post-production sometimes stand out.

Tunguska Chillout Grooves Vol. 7 is the latest in the original series of work, a pleasant collection of chillout and ambient. Some of it wanders dangerously into the realm of “space” music, but it does so well, and politely, and given their original mission statement, this is perhaps not altogether unreasonable. A loose silk weave of sound, the music is less directly inspiring than almost subconsciously uplifting. It’s finest qualities almost seem to happen offstage, relaxing you from the background of your attentions. The music, even the stuff with a beat over 120 bpm comes off extremely downtempo. It generates a wind down feel, encouraging listenerrs to sit back, put their feet up, pour a glass of wine and just let go for awhile.

The general musical theme and genre hold, but as an album with over 20 different contributing artists, the collective concept cannot be overshadowed. Listening to the album is a lot like reading a magazine, or a collection of short stories. The common genre and genuine interest of the participants is obvious, but each story still sets its own pace and meter, and so too do the songs on the album. The effect is not jarring; the collaboration succeeds at the abstract level, and the participants work with a common vision, but listening closely you’ll notice the changes from one song to the next; true uniformity of purpose is never entirely achieved.

While I selected a particular album to review, one that I felt respresent an exceptional period in their work, one of the real selling points of the Tunguska Electronic Music Society is the sheer amount of work they generate. Albums literally flood out of them, and they never lack for enthusiasm or quality. If you find music on Chillout Grooves Vol. 7 then it’s time you began the reluctant perpetration for mass download. With six more Chillout sets to go before you even touch their Jungle or Drum and Base collections, the TEMS is one of the rare instances where sheer quantity becomes a selling point.

The TEMS, more than just making good and prolific music, is also another grand example of a concept whose core is in the Creative Commons message. Like other artists I’ve reviewed, there’s more to the TEMS than just a group of artists who decided to make some music. The collective, the concept, the scope of their work, all wouldn’t be possible in the form they’ve appeared without Creative Commons and the appreciation of free and fair use. Without it, over 100 fewer artists and 24 fewer albums of compelling electronica probably would never have a chance to grace your ears, for free or otherwise. The TEMS doesn’t merely represent more good music you can happen to download for free, it represents art that can only flourish in environments like those fostered by Creative Commons licensing.

Two Zombies Later

Two Zombies Later at the Comfort Stand

There’s nothing quite like your, “first time.” Sure, I’d dabbled in free music before, by which I mean I’d grabbed a free compilation CD[ of local indie bands lying in unwanted stacks at the record shop, only to use them as impromptu drink coasters within a week. But there was that turning point, the day a naïve young boy heard about a collection of free music that anyone could download and own. And so I downloaded and even printed out the cover and CD art for the bold new Creative Commons compilation, Two Zombies Later, and that boy…became a man. It was the album that would ignite my passion for the Creative Commons cause.

Two Zombies Later is a two CD set of over thirty songs from various artists which would tend to fall into the lounge, progressive and eclectica genres of music. A study in opposites, the various songs, taken alone, would seem to derive from entirely disparate sources. Philip Jackson’s ambient mix of traditional electronica and sampling in Nature Boy has virtually nothing in common with Otis Fodder’s smooth swinging jazz sound in Brilliant Pillows, at least at first listen. But collected together and blended in one of the finest mixes ever made, these strange sounds all turn out to have a root thematic element. They display a fundamental unified theory of musical construction, the atom that is also a solar system.

In theory, free compilations are an excellent way for artists to join forces and advertise together. Even artists disinclined to give out whole albums for free can use these to take easy advantage of the free music model. Compilation albums like the drink coasters I describe above, however, are too often collections of artists which are not only sub-par in quality but also entirely unrelated, their music all jarringly dissimilar. Two Zombies Later, by contrast, is a collection of established, quality artists drawn together by competent producers and mixers to create a compilation with a signature sound and theme, a true extended play album, not just a hodgepodge of b-sides.

Together the music can, in fact, seem strangely one note, as the overt differences mysteriously slip away to be replaced by the once subtle but now absolute similarities. The sound becomes singular, a singularity, a mass less pinpoint of genre-specific excellence which, I think, is what compilations are supposed to be about in the first place. So instead of just listening to a couple of randomly selected songs, you connect with a uniformed effort to explore a very precise aspect of the whole of musical potential; in this case, the playful world of progressive lounge/jazz exotica! And what a fun place it is to hang around! Frankly the whole album is like staring at a gallery of Josh Shag paintings.

Alas I cannot tell you that this album will fill the holes of your pop/indy megaband collection. If you really needed the Creative Commons version of Pink Floyd or Sting then you’re just going to have to keep looking. But I’ll also say that Two Zombies Later has something for everyone. If you like music, I mean as in if you actually consciously appreciate music in any meager manner beyond as a means of displaying your chosen social class to your chosen peers, then you’re going to be challenged and pleased by at least some of what you find there, and that is a promise I’ll stand behind

Chenard Walcker at the Comfort Stand

Most people trace the roots of the information age back to the first iterations, like the telegraph, telephone, or phonograph (but not the phonophone.) The savvy data mixer, though, knows that the age truly began with the first file casually copied from one digital floppy to another. From the moment society began digitizing everything, from ideas to pictures to music, the information became truly free, free to spread, to grow and, most importantly, to change. Now you could not only record music, but you could chop it, bend it, stretch it, dice it, turn it inside out into countless new iterations to astound and delight. Recording information was no longer just a means of preservation. It became itself an artistic medium.

Part of the importance of free information and fair use is to allow works of art to grow beyond themselves. As demonstrated by THRU-you in the atthecommons manifesto, in the correct hands fascinating, even culturally important new works, or even whole new genres, can be born. And probably no one understands this better than self described cut-and-paste artist Chenard Walcker.

Walcker is a French musician who focuses on producing music through sampling, using new combinations of music snippets and found sounds to engineer strange new melodies. His songs, particularly those found on The Lotus Opus, tent to mix traditional lounge with eclectica, forming a haunting but mellow atmosphere. His music is comparable to the ambient explorations of more mainstream artists like Moby or Aphex Twin, both practiced cut-and-paste-ers in their own right. At the same time, Walcker lends what almost resembles a coherent but twisted sense of madness to his music, an askew viewpoint regarding art and reality that is dutifully reflected at his homepage. Not speaking the French language stymies me somewhat in reviewing the page, but what there is that I can access paints a picture of whimsical self contradiction in the medium of pop, and that serves as an excellent base description of the music, as well.

Walcker’s sound isn’t for everyone, but the practiced hand combines with bold explorations into the unknown that produce not merely songs of a unique nature, but of definite quality as well. Each track will keep the mind guessing, while laying down an overtone of classic grove that combines the modern scene with the hip era seamlessly. And for those looking for good examples of how free use and sampling help redefine and repurpose the potential of art, look no further, for The Lotus Opus shines like a beacon in the dark for such seekers.

Cool Aberrations

General Fuzz Homepage

Growing up in rural Arkansas left me with little exposure to quality progressive music. Early in life, my only three avenues for fashioning my musical identity were commercial radio, my parents’ dusty old LP collection, and the very real Beavis-and-Butthead style environment of young heavy metal hicks. So after getting my feat wet with some old Vivaldi, butting heads with Van Halen and abandoning the wasteland that was popular eighties rock, I was left to scour the fringes of musical culture, such as they were in the early eighties, for succor. The sad result of this was a long and fairly embarrassing relationship with New Age.

Its not that I regret my time spent zoning out to Jean Michelle Jarre. Ray Lynch was all kinds of fun when I was twelve, and arguably provided a few rungs in the ladder of modern pop and electronica. And you can actually get away with name dropping Tangerine Dream, everyone will nod and smile like you just told the story of your first clumsy, nervous expedition through “second base.” But while I may, at the peak (or pit,) of my new age exploration, have owned every Fresh Aire album ever produced, I keep those cassettes under lock and key, safe from the prying eyes of guests or potential romantic partners.

Gradually my tastes expanded, and even my lingering fondness for that new age sound translated into more exciting and socially acceptable realms like Brian Eno or Devo. And yet, a part of me always wondered, “Where could it have gone?” Had new age somehow kept pace with the stride set by alternative and indy music, what might we be hearing on our local college radio stations today?Some possible examples exist, bands like Low, Orbital, or The Postal Service especially, can be seen to have drawn a note or two from that ancient grab bag of bleeps and bloops.
General Fuzz marks, for me, the pinnacle of this exploration. The crystalline harmonics and complex yet precise orchestration that saturate Smooth Aberrations on once hearken clearly back to the innocent days of Mannheim Steamroller or Tangerine Dream, and yet so clearly brings their sound into the modern age. For me, General Fuzz took that next great step in both mood and arrangement, maturing New Age into a sound to be equivocally proud of.

I’ve always been fond of cool precision in music. When a song encourages you to sample and taste the fine staccatos and presto picking of every guitar string or synth hit, it invigorates the mind, like rolling the flavors of a good sushi roll around over your tongue. That is definitely part of the appeal of Cool Aberrations. Despite being individually produced electronica, you never get the sense that any instrument, or even any note, is simply placed to be mortar for the melody. Fuzz ushers this atmosphere along by including a variety of actual instrumental tracks throughout the album.
Fuzz himself labels the music as, “lush melodic instrumental electronica,” which I think is a fair assessment of the style. Though tranquil, it would be a mistake I think to refer to it as mellow or relaxed. Instead, it wanders somewhere closer to intelligent, almost inquisitive, encouraging the listener to wander into each track consciously, exploring every detail. As a result, it really is good for virtually any environment, from leisurely quiet afternoons to freeway driving. The music enjoys such an accessible detail to it that your conscious mind can’t help but attend it. Thus, while you might still throw a little Kitaro on in your private life, General Fuzz is someone that might actually end up on a party mix. At the very least, you wouldn’t turn red with embarrassment if it cued up while friends or important business clients happened to be about.

So if you, like me, went through an awful new age phase in your musical growth, and are looking for some kind of refined progression to enjoy, then Cool Aberrations is definitely an album for you. Frankly, unless you simply require that your music be, “this brutal,” I’d say that this album is worth anyone’s time. And don’t stop there. While I feel that Cool Aberrations is the peak of General Fuzz’s craft, he has several other albums to enjoy, and they paint, I think, a clear and wonderful picture of his growth as a musician. That’s part of the joy and ease of free music via Creative Commons licensed albums, one well worth taking advantage of as regards General Fuzz’s excellent collection of works.

The Diablo Swing Orchestra

How we come to love or appreciate music can be a story in itself. A good example for me would be The Doors. I have to admit that I despised my first Doors album, Strange Days, which was a gift from my Dad when I was around eight years old. But since it was from my Dad I forced myself to listen to it repeatedly, trying to figure out what he saw in the band, and eventually fell in love with them. Eventually.

Other music catches you unawares, like those peopole who inexplicably draw your attention in a crowd. Riding the crowded subways home from work at night, the various faces and characters start to bleed together losing substance or flair until you start to forget they’re even there and then, suddenly, someone brushes by you and with only a moment’s glance at their face, you fall in love. The Diablo Swing Orchestra was one of these, crammed into a playlist full of music to review that I’d largely tuned out while I worked on other things. I was at the stove stir frying something or another when they cued up, and just a few bars into Balrog Boogie the music had grabbed me by the chin and forced me face-forward towards the stereo. By the end of the first track they had my full, undivided attention and by the end of the fifth I was standing atop the couch, makeshift sword flailing wildly, arms flexing with sympathetic rage. I felt not unlike I’d just slammed down a massive pot of black coffee after a week free of caffeine. I was seeing red with clarity!

Red really is The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s color. Even prior to seeing the album art, the name was already evoking the appropriate imagery. The Diablo Swing Orchestra brings you The Butcher’s Ballroom? Fallacy of intent aside, if you aren’t picking up on the red motif from that alone then you’re doing it wrong. The genre is avaunt-garde heavy metal, brilliantly and smoothly mixing distinct elements of big band, operatic vocals and more traditional jazz around a heavy metal core. At one point in a song, snarling electric chords might be grinding down at you on the wings of some aggressively trilling vocalist until you’re all but convinced that you’re charging over the sandy ridges of the desert planet Dune screaming the name of Mau’dib, then suddenly a jazzy little flute solo bursts out and you stop short, exclaiming, “Oh, hello, Pierre Rampal, what are you and this charming little corner of post-liberation Paris doing among the blood-soaked sands of Arakis?”

The Diablo Swing Orchestra will surprise you is the message you should take from this. Drop your preconceptions, especially the ones you may have about the metal genre and instead prepare for every stanza to be its own delightful little twist ending. There’s a lot going on here, but unlike most metal it isn’t going on in the melting pot style of blending five instruments together into an inaccessible paste but instead they diligently ferment a fine bottle of wine with every note and undercurrent hitting on cue, a bottle you have to drink twice just in case you missed something the first time!

A Swedish band, The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s homepage is a fun little exploration in itself. A simple flash ‘novella’ describes the certainly apocryphal history of the orchestra, stretching back to the 16th century and encompassing a Templar’s tale of popularity that earned the ire of the lords of the land, driving the musical act underground for centuries. The story lends a backdrop for the eccentricities in the music, the ambitious vocals of Daniel Håkansson and Annlouice Loegdlund and even, to a degree, the lyrical choices the band makes.

Ah yes, the lyrical choices, the pitch spread liberally across the fields of Elysium. Do I think highly of the lyrical quality of the music? Evidence already suggests that I do not. I will confess that I am not mired in the traditions of heavy and death metal, so this becomes a tricky point to critique. My understanding that these overly blatant, heavily Tolkien inspired notions, concepts that act as though they’ve never heard the word subtext before in their lives, are in fact the meat and milk of northern European metal, and if that’s the case then regular fans of the genre will be in their comfort zone. For me, I especially appreciated the songs written in languages I’m not fluent in. Still, with music as excellent as the D.S.O. writes, my instinct is not to reject the lyrics but instead to embrace them and try to learn to love them. With everything else constructed with such precision and talent, maybe…just maybe…it’s me and not them, and if I get to indulge in a mood that powerful, then I can howl along to any ridiculous tale they choose to weave around me!